It’s been many years since I first came across the work of Nicholas Roerich. I can’t remember how I became acquainted with him… Perhaps while doing some research related to Tibet or Central Asia. But I remember, several years ago, visiting the townhouse on the upper west side of Manhattan that houses a museum dedicated to him. A fascinating Russian painter and philosopher who lived a great deal of his life in India and Asia. He wrote the “Pax Cultura”, an international treaty dedicated to the protection of cultural values and peace through higher culture. He was also nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, about the time of the Russian Revolution and prior to living in Asia, he spent some time in the U.S., including a short time in my home town of Chicago – at the invitation of Chicago’s Art Institute. He would have celebrated his 135th birthday this past week on October 9th, same day as my grandfather’s. And so it was a bit synchronistic for me to find out this summer that he had also lived in Ulaanbaatar for a year.

A famous Mongolian historian, Professor Bira, had discovered the decaying, Russian-style wooden house that Roerich and his family lived in from 1926-27. Professor Bira and a group of supporters saved the house from demolition, restored it and dedicated it as a museum and art gallery this past July. An art competition and exhibition for young Mongolian artists was also held there recently. Rumor is that the founders and supporters hope to develop an art center in Roerich’s memory on the site. For more information about the Roerich museum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, visit: http://www.roerichmongolia.org/.

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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…

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 

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

http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/exhibition/deft%20hands

Before checking out the newly installed Asian Arts hall at Chicago’s Art Institute, I wandered into a small temporary exhibit of Chinese and Korean ceramics from the collection of Dorothy Braude.  The exhibition is comprised of approximately 100 pieces ranging from the 7th thru 13th centuries.  A fine representation of that period’s stylistic and technological developments.  From Tang lead-glazed wares to marble wares, Northern and Southern celadons, beautiful robin’s egg Jun ware, and brown and black glazed wares (such as the oil spot glaze) of the Song.  One of my favorite pieces was an interesting little whistle in the shape of a head. 

The exhibition runs through January of 2010.

T'ang whistle in the shape of a face. (Art Institute Chicago)

T'ang whistle in the shape of a face. (Art Institute Chicago)

 As a young(er) ceramic artist and student of archaeology, I was drawn to the ceramics of South America.  Many of the colorful handmade pots tell stories about their respective cultures.  The Field Museum in Chicago currently has an exhibit on the Aztecs which has some incredible hand built ceramics.  It closes soon, but you can check it out on their website or the wonderful exhibit catalogue.

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