Category Archives: Art and religion

A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.

An Asian Mary

On a recent visit to the Asian Art Museum, I saw a beautiful mixed media sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The body of the sculpture was made of wood, the head and hands of ivory, a crown of stars of metal, and the hair of actual human hair.

When Westerners think of Asian religious art, they tend to think of Buddhas and Ganeshas and Guan Yins, forgetting that Christianity has had a presence in Asia for more than 1900 years. So of course there are Asian Christs and Asian Marys.

This Virgin Mary was made in the Philippines, to whence Christianity was brought by European Christians about five hundred years ago. The sculpture cannot be precisely dated, but was made sometime between 1650 and 1800.

Anyone familiar with European Christian art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will recognize the iconography of Mary standing on a crescent moon. But some of the details feel Asian. Mary’s facial features do not look stereotypically European, and according to the wall label next to the sculpture, “Early Spanish reports describe artists of Chinese descent as well as Filipino artists carving these images in the Philippines.” The treatment of the draped fabric feels non-European to me, especially Mary’s blue robe, which takes on a life of its own in a way that European Renaissance sculptures, based on classical models, never do; it feels more like the flowing, moving fabric found on some Chinese sculptures, or even on some Medieval European sculptures. I particularly like the use of human hair, a material that anchors Mary in the human realm, and keeps her from drifting into a realm of inaccessible transcendence.

In short, here is a deity that incorporates European iconography with Asian forms and sculptural traditions; she is a globalized deity who also links the human to the transcendent realms.

Pounding flowers

One of the best projects we did in Nature Camp last week was “Pounding Flowers,” a project from the book A Little Bit of Dirt: 55+ Science and Art Activities To Reconnect Children with Nature by Asia Citro (Woodinville, Wash.: Innovation Press, 2015), pp. 72-73. The idea is to collect several different flowers, arrange them on a piece of watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and pound the heck out of the flowers so that they release their juices which are then absorbed by the watercolor paper.

Our campers, who were ages 6-7, particularly enjoyed pounding the flowers with rubber mallets. So did we adults: the feel of the impact of the rubber mallet on a hard concrete floor was satisfying in itself, and the addition of the flowers sandwiched between towels and watercolor paper was even better.

(Photo courtesy of Ecojustice Camp; parents provided a media release for this child.)

But I was not entirely satisfied with this project myself. The paper towels did not work very well; they tended to shred under heavy pounding, and the flowers tended to shift under them. So tonight I tried something different. I collected some flowers; arranged them on a piece of watercolor paper on a smooth concrete surface; then instead of paper towels I laid another piece of watercolor paper over the arrangement, and pressed gently down.

This worked extremely well. It was even more satisfying to pound on, because the top piece of watercolor paper didn’t shred, and it didn’t shift much. When I was done, I got two pieces of pounding art, mirror images of one another. And, best of all, this process yielded more detail of the flowers: I got distinct outlines of the petals or pistils in some cases.

This was a very fun process art project to begin with, and by sandwiching the flowers between two pieces of watercolor paper it got even better.

Pysanky

Chris, with Carolyn’s help, had his annual pysanky workshop today. A pysanka (plural: pysanky) is an Easter egg decorated in the Ukranian style, using wax resists and multiple dye baths. Carol and I haven’t been able to go for a few years, and it was a pleasure to be able to make pysanky once again this year.

Agni

Agni, the ancient Vedic deity of fire, has always appealed to me. But until today, I’d only met Agni through poetry, like this hymn to Agni, the fifth hymn of the third book of the Rig Veda, as translated by Ralph Griffith:

Agni who shines against the Dawns is wakened;
the holy Singer who precedes the sages:
With far-spread luster, kindled by the pious,
the Priest has thrown both gates of darkness open.
Agni has waxed mighty by songs of praise,
to be adored with hymns of those who praise him.
Loving the varied shows of holy Order
at the first flush of dawn, he shines as envoy.
Midst mortal’s homes, Agni has been established,
fulfilling with the Law; Friend, germ of waters.
Loved and adored, the height he has ascended;
the Singer, object of our invocations.

Thus I was pleased to finally see a visual depiction of Agni at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon. He was part of a painting from the Ramayana, protecting Sita during her trial by fire, as imagined by a Balinese artist c. 1850-1900. Since this was a traveling exhibit, photography was not permitted, so I drew a quick sketch of Agni — leaving out Sita, Rama, the army of monkeys, the tongues of fire, and everything else in this detailed painting:

Agni, pencil on paper, 3-1/2x5 in.

Music for democracy

How do we get rid of the rancor and hatred that was stirred up by the recent presidential election, and rebuild democracy?

How about with music? Here are four examples, in chronological order:

1. Sing with Ocupella Nov. 30: Their announcement reads: “In response to the election results and ongoing turmoil, Ocupella and other singers are creating a public musical gathering for those who want to act in a positive and powerful way in response to the new era in our country. The long and noble tradition of song fueling social movements lives on, and will live on. We hope you will want to be part of it. Our next ‘Singing For Us All’ will be Wednesday evening, November 30, 4:45-6 PM at Ashby BART. ALL VOICES ARE WELCOME! Lyrics provided.”

2. Sing with Michèle Dec. 2: Michèle writes: “I’m hosting a special post-election #MeetupAmerica gathering this Friday, December 2, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Washington at Curtis, in Albany. The idea behind #MeetupAmerica is, ‘No matter how you feel about the election outcome, we can all agree that democracy works best when we don’t just post online but come together face-to-face… Don’t underestimate the power of community.’ Come with a list of your fears, hopes and present joys. We’ll share our lists and sing, at the very least, This Little Light of Mine. Children are absolutely welcome. We’ll start at 7 p.m. and end the structured part of the evening before 8 p.m. The sanctuary is ours until 8:30 p.m…..” Let Michele know if you’re going to attend; there’s contact info on her Web site.

3. Sing for Democracy Dec. 4: This is the group I’m helping to organize, and here’s our announcement:

Join us for a song circle Sunday, December 4, from 2 to 4 p.m. on the 1st Sunday of the month at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. We welcome all singers, as well as guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and any other instrument that goes well with singing.

Why we sing together:
— After the rancorous and divisive 2016 election, some of us felt a need for more music, and more community, in our lives
— We wanted to bring together several musical communities
— You can never have enough singing

What we sing:
We’re kinda making this up as we go along, but here’s what we have so far:
— We’ll have copies of the “Rise Up Singing” songbook
— You can bring your own songs to share — bring a dozen lyrics sheets or lead sheets, or teach simple songs by ear
— We’ll go around the circle, each in turn choosing a song to lead

4. Inauguration Eve concert Jan. 19: Bruce is arranging a concert the night before the presidential inauguration. He’s working on an interfaith gospel choir, a gay men’s chorus, and music from several different faith communities. I brought Bruce’s idea to Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice tonight (thanks to Kristi), and they’re going to see if they can add their support.

So this raises a question:

How are YOU using the arts to resist hatred and build democracy?

Process art: veggie printmaking

For summer Sunday school today, I wanted to do some process art. (In process art, you have fun with the process and don’t worry about the final product.) I decided to do veggie printmaking, using cut vegetables dipped in thick paint to make prints. One of the children today said it’s like stamping, except you use veggies instead of rubber stamps.

veggieart007

In the end, 14 children showed up, ranging in age from 3 to 13. It was a little challenging to keep the three preschoolers supplied with paint and veggies, although ultimately some of them stuck with it longer than the big kids. For paint, I bought a ten-pack of Crayola Washable Kid’s Paint. It’s thick enough to use for this project. The children liked some of the colors better than others. The dark blue and the light blue were especially vivid and fun to print with, and today we used up most of each of those 2 oz. bottles.

For veggies, I had a 5 lb. bag of potatoes, 3 apples, 4 carrots, 2 stalks of celery, and an eggplant. We used almost all the veggies today. I also had blunt-tipped serrated steak knives that the big kids could use to cut designs into the apples and potatoes. Some of the big kids tried elaborate designs like hearts and stars, but a third grader made the design I liked best: simple stripes:

veggieart006

The apples proved to be a lot of fun to print with. They were pretty juicy, so they diluted the paint. Some of the children loaded them up with paint, and then rubbed them around on the paper. Here’s a print where a child did just that:

veggieart004

Another fun thing to do was to use the serrated knife to cut a potato in half. This leaves a textured surface, which makes really interesting images:

veggieart005

Printmaking lasted about thirty minutes, and then we transitioned into a game of tag. Most of the prints were pretty forgettable, and most of the children did not bother to take their prints home. Of course, that was the point: the fun was in the process.

Isis

Isis is a well-known Egyptian goddess who needs little introduction. This beautiful little sculpture of Isis dates from a period when the Romans ruled Egypt; so Isis is wearing an Egyptian headdress, but she’s also wearing Roman clothing.

Isis, c. 100-200 BCE

Above: Isis with sistrum, from Roman Imperial period, c. 100 BCE to 200 CE; bronze. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 04.1713.

She is shaking a sistrum, an small percussion instrument that was used almost exclusively by women. Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, interprets the sistrum in terms of sexuality: “The sistrum was a kind of rattle — a wooden handle supporting bars of metal, each piercing small rings that clanged together when the instrument was vibrated. The sistrum itself represented human sexuality — round objects penetrated by a phallic rod holding them in place” (1). This interpretation could be accurate, but it could be overly influenced by Freud and Co., and therefore anachronistic.

The archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley offers another interpretation; she says the sistrum, which “was played only by women,” was “a rather large loop-shaped rattle with a long handle, often featuring the head of Hathor [another Egyptian goddess], which had initially represented the papyrus reeds of the Nile Delta where, mythology decreed, Hathor had been forced to hide with her young son. Eventually the sistrum lost all trace of its original meaning and instead started to serve as a religious symbol for life itself. It consequently become absorbed by other deities, and was particularly identified with the cult of Isis at the end of the Dynastic period.” (2) And this sculpture in fact does date from the end of the Dynastic period, the time when Isis had taken over the sistrum form Hathor.

Thus in this sculpture, we see the goddess Isis at the end of some three millennia of change and development. She is wearing the flowing robes of Rome rather than the simple sheath dress of Dynastic Egypt. She wears a headdress that identifies her as Isis, though it is not the older stepped headdress of Isis seen in sculptures from 500 years earlier (see, e.g., the sculpture of Isis below, from c. 685-525 BCE). And she has taken over the sistrum from Hathor and other goddesses.

Although their adherents may say otherwise, art and material culture does not show gods and goddesses as unchanging and fixed; instead, they grow and evolve over time.

Isis, Dynasty 26

Above: Isis mourning Osiris, from Dynasty 26, c. 685-525 BCE; wood. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 72.4172.

Notes:

(1) Kara Cooney, The Woman Who Would Be King (New York: Broadway Books, 2014), p. 39.
(2) Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 139.