June 2009


This past spring, there was an article in the news about an ancient goddess figurine  that was discovered in Europe. Scholars are claiming it as the oldest such figurine to have been discovered. The article reminded me of how, as a young artist, I would roll my eyes every time I saw someone re-creating the “Venus figurine” in their art. Yes, some of the originals are elegantly shaped while others are crudely formed. But why the obsession with this form? Why are people so drawn to it and insist on repeating or copying it? It has been a kind of artistic quest of mine to redefine or reinterpret this obsession with the goddess figurine and discover different forms in other cultures. This fascination with the female form may be ancient as well as global, but not entirely limited to “fetishes” as scholars like to label these figures. And so, while recently exploring the halls of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, I came across a case of conical-shaped jars with handles in a human form. Upon closer inspection, they appeared to have exaggerated breasts. According to the exhibit label, these Early Dynastic period (dates?) jars with human form handles have come to be known as “goddess handles”. A seemingly odd type of handle, but the shape works with the form. It’s interesting too, amongst archaeological finds, that anything with breasts on it is automatically labeled as “a goddess”, but then, aren’t ALL women goddesses…

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Tucked away on the Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago is the Oriental Institute (OI) – a real gem of a museum.  I recently ventured down there to look at their ancient pottery collection.  There also is a very interesting exhibit: “The Life of Meresamun”, which places into context or re-creates the life of this mummy who was a Temple singer in ancient Egypt.  But onto the pottery…

As a former archaeologist, I can say that it is rare for archaeologists to find the tools and workshops of ancient artists and crafts people.  After studying ancient pueblo pottery, it would be a dream to see the kiln site of an ancient pueblo potter. Or in Mongolia, the ancient workshops where the roof tiles of ancient temples were made. That is what made the ceramic exhibits and collections at the OI so fascinating to me – to see the ancient tools and remnants of the workshops of ancient Mesopotamian potters and artisans from 6500 B.C.

When piecing together the lives of ancient people, archaeologists have traditionally used ancient fragments of pottery to do so.  Maybe the surface decoration of a pot tells a story or contains a symbol that is key to understanding a culture.  Perhaps looking at the shape of a pot to determine how or what it was used for – a storage jar for grain or water, for example.  A black “firing cloud” on the exterior can be an indicator that a pot was used for cooking.  But there in the OI’s collection are pottery shaping tools, a potter’s wheel (the original banding wheel?), kiln furniture and remnants of a firing gone wrong more than 8,000 years ago!  Some of these objects are not very different from the potter’s tools of today. 

Aside from the usual ancient bowls and storage jars were other interesting ceramic items.  These included game sets, an animal shaped pull-toy, incantation bowls, as well as an interesting array of gods, goddesses and fetishes – as archaeologists like to label unexplained things. 

 As an artist, potter or someone who enjoys ceramics, you will appreciate the collections of the OI.  And as a ceramic artist, it will connect you to our ancient clay history.

For more information about the Oriental Institute, visit: www.oi.uchicago.edu 

Last week, I ventured down to Chicago’s Cultural Center hoping to hear a curator’s talk about a very cool exhibit on contemporary Chinese art.  Unfortunately, there was some misinformation, so I wandered over to one of the other galleries.  To my surprise, was a very interesting exhibition of surrealist style paintings by Chicago painter, Eleanor Spiess –Ferris. The added bonus was that she was giving a talk about her work just as I was wandering by.  I’ve often been fascinated by the surrealists and symbolists.  (One of my favorite surrealist painters is Dorothea Tanning, originally from Illinois, and who happened to be the wife of Max Ernst).

I also had the opportunity to meet her afterwards.  Eleanor’s paintings re-sparked my interest in surrealism.  Her haunting, imaginary landscapes and use of symbols and forms from Alchemy, create many layers of meanings.

Her work is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center at Michigan Ave. and Washington, until July 5th.   For more about Eleanor’s work, visit: www.eleanorspiess-ferris.com.

Also wander upstairs to the 4th floor to view the fascinating exhibition of contemporary Chinese Art – Big World: Recent Art From China, a collection of contemporary paintings and installations.

Check out these great articles on Etsy: 

Part 1 http://www.etsy.com/storque/reviews/ceramics-and-pottery-facts-and-fancies-part-1-3869/#comment-122545

Part 2 http://www.etsy.com/storque/reviews/ceramics-and-pottery-facts-and-fancies-part-2-3891/#comment-122550

From the Field Museum, Chicago

From the Field Museum, Chicago

Another piece which has inspired me is this beautiful porcelain sculpture from the Yuan Dynasty (approx. 1270 -1368).  A period when China was ruled by the Mongols and in particular, under the rule of Chingiss Khan’s grandson, Khublai.   I remember when I first saw this piece, sitting on a table in a curator’s office.  It is now on display on the second floor, opposite the Jade Hall, at the Field Museum in Chicago.  The museum labels it as a male version of Guanyin, but I believe it is a Bodhisatva.  It is a fine example of porcelain sculpture and a particularly fine example of work from the Yuan Dynasty.  This and some of the museum’s metal sculptures of the Buddhist goddess, Tara, also influenced me and some of the shapes I use in my handbuilt vessels. Of particular interest is the shape of the figure’s torso, which lends itself to a vessel form.  After all, the female body is a vessel of sorts.  What is also amazing, are the beautiful, intricate, handbuilt details of this piece.  Perhaps the Mongols weren’t quite the “savages” some historic writers wanted us to believe…

For information about the Field Museum visit: www.fieldmuseum.org