Category Archives: Discussion

Marking the Change

As we move into September the days are becoming noticeably shorter and our evening temps here in Vermont have already dipped into the 40’s, making for great sleeping weather.

Olive Oil

Olive Oil     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

I know that many bemoan the last days of August, perhaps more so than the end of any other season, but I am happy for the change. I find comfort, not just in the reminder of natural rhythms and cycles beyond my control, but also in welcoming the chance to get back to activities I enjoy without the guilt of feeling I ought to be outside taking advantage of summer’s fleeting sun and warmth.

Garden

It’s time to bring in the harvest in earnest and to start putting some of the bounty up for winter enjoyment. It’s been a great year in my garden for garlic, blueberries, carrots, beans, herbs, and greens. My tomatoes, on the other hand, are slow to ripen and have had a relatively weak showing — a result, I’m sure, of all the rain and relatively cool days we’ve had on our hill this year. I’ve come to accept the fluctuation between what does well from one year to the next, and look to that variation as an opportunity to explore new recipes and to evade any sense of being caught in a rut.

Bookended tools

Bookended     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

When summer arrives, I’m ready for a break from the kitchen and try to avoid too much time cooking. But when we begin to see signs that the transition to fall is taking hold, it feels good to pull out my pots for “putting food by” and to get back in the swing of creating with food. It doesn’t hurt that there are endless opportunities for happenstance still-lives along the way, making sketching just another gratifying perk of the job.

Balanced

Balanced     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

These drawings mark the beans that were blanched, the batches of pesto mixed up, the turkey broth simmered & flavored with fresh herbs, carrots, and garlic…and of course the resulting piles of dishes, before and after washing.

Years ago my mother gave me a copy of the book Putting Food By. It’s a keeper; a trusty resource that never goes out of date. This link is to the most recent edition.

Also, for a bit of meaty reading, artist Anne Sherwood Pundyk recently contributed an essay entitled The Beholder’s Share to the online magazine artcritical. Pundyk discusses the neuroscience of abstraction and figuration, drawing on personal and professional experience in conjunction with consideration of two books on recent scientific findings: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (2006) and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric R. Kandel (2016). Fascinating! …I found it particularly resonating bearing in mind my ongoing interest in straddling a line between the two (abstraction and figuration) through composition and values.

Finally, a bit of gratifying news and shameless self-promotion: my piece “It Isn’t That Simple” was picked-up and used by the Surface Design Association to illustrate their Friday Fibers Roundup blog last week.

Perennial Inspiration

I don’t remember exactly when it was I bought Sara Midda’s 1981 book In and Out of the Garden, but it must not have been too long after it came out. Years before I was able to have a garden of my own, that little book has graced my bookshelf in all our many homes, serving as an inspiration and a reminder of the universal beauty and solace to be found in the magic that results from adding seeds to soil.

Scissors Detail 1

Stitching in progress, detail      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram                                                                    The idea of including and concentrating on an area of tone-on-tone cropped up while working on the piece previous to this one.

The main draw for me is Midda’s tiny watercolor images, luminescent and charming. Paired with her hand-lettered text of quotes, historical facts, poetry, and recipes, I have always found a gentle delight in reading and rereading this book that underscores much of the way the world of horticulture captures the imaginations of those of us inclined to garden.

Scissors Detail 2

Detail      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram                                                                  The scissors remain more sketchily defined as a foil to the heavily stitched areas above and below them.

In 1990 she followed up with Sara Midda’s South of France – A Sketchbook, and in 2014 A Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory was released. I was quick to buy copies of each as soon as I learned it was out, happy to become re-immersed in Midda’s eye for the details that honor the essence of the unsung elements that surround us, things we tend to take for granted but which give such a strong sense of place and moment. All three books are meditations of a sort, quiet picture books with “more”. To some degree I am sure appreciation for her observations have had some lasting sway on my own choice of subjects.

Scissors Detail 3

Detail      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram                                                                  In the end, I think it’s the “conversation” between the diversity of pattern, evident in both the stitching and the stitched-resist pattern, that pulls the piece together, making it whole.

Despite looking, I haven’t had much luck learning more about Sara Midda. There is relatively little information about her on the web other than a few promotional articles and blog posts marking the release of each book. Disappointingly, she doesn’t seem to have ever had a website. So I was thrilled to discover that Danny Gregory* conducted a 40 minute video interview with her on his Sketchbook Club blog last week. How lovely it is to hear her talk about her process and the history of these books. Outwardly quiet and gentle, just like her art, it was one of those rare occasions when all elements seemed to add up.

Scissors Unframed

Divide and Conquer, unframed     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram                  Stitched-resist dye and embroidery on silk

Have you had a similar experience with a book that has had a lasting impact on you? Please fill us in…

*I credit Danny Gregory’s book Everyday Matters and his original blog of the same name as being the instigation behind spurring me to commit to drawing regularly. I have no doubt his welcoming and encouraging approach, pointing out the huge benefits to be gleaned from drawing, regardless of ability or experience, has been one of the main driving forces behind awakening or reinvigorating the desire to draw for thousands of people. If you aren’t familiar with him, check out his site.

Dog Days of Summer

I find Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast to be something of a mixed bag, but Episode #204 – “Who Gets To Decide Whether You Are A Legitimate Artist?” took my breath away.

Quinn1

©2017 Elizabeth Fram

I think we can all agree that rejection, criticism, and even intentional disregard come with the territory of what we do, but it doesn’t seem to stop us, does it?

Quinn 2

©2017 Elizabeth Fram

Whether you are at the height of your success or have never shared your work beyond your own eyes or ears, if you are someone who is called to make art of whatever discipline, take some time to listen to this episode.

Quinn 4

©2017 Elizabeth Fram

It will only underline that you are on the right path.

On a Different Note___________________________________________________________________________________________

Did you see Colossal this week?
As the saying goes, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. So it is with Laurel Roth Hope’s wonderful work that offers a touch of humor and beauty while “exploring environmental harm, extinction, and consumerism”. Check out her Biodiversity Reclamation Suits for Urban Pigeons and Peacocks on her website – beautifully constructed and so smart.

Pyrotechnic Analogies

With all the rain we’ve had this summer, my garden is especially lush.
And while, as I’ve written before, I love the quiet and visual restraint of a winter landscape, these months of vibrant color definitely serve to recharge my batteries to carry me through the more subdued seasons ahead. In February I’ll look back at pictures taken around my yard from June through October and they’ll seem almost impossibly luxuriant.

If given a choice, I am overwhelmingly partial to purple, particularly the shade that hovers over the line between blue and violet. I have a delphinium, planted several years ago, that fully came into its own this summer. I can’t get enough of the depth and layers of color within its blooms, even as it slowly fades. It is placed so that I can see it up close just as easily from inside the house as when outside. I’ve been watching it attentively and think its dramatic change from sprigs of branched buds to full-on sprays of exuberant blossoms has been equivalent to a fireworks display in slow motion.

Embroidery part one

© 2017 Elizabeth Fram, Dye and stitching on raw silk

I suspect being steeped in this beautiful blue had a subconscious influence on choice of dye color in my current textile piece. But also, the section I’ve been working on/stitching this week certainly seems to echo this idea of slow motion reward: a measured start building into a crescendo of stitched pattern.

Embroidery part 2

©2017 Elizabeth Fram, Dye and stitching on raw silk

Hopefully I can carry the spirit of that idea forward with the next steps I have planned.

Speaking of fireworks, I’ve had them on my mind since finishing The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale. It’s a fictional tale of 18th century London that is most interesting for its view into the workshop of a fireworks maker, paired with the harsh realities of the daily workings of life in that time and place. It’s the author’s debut and a quick, entertaining read if you’re looking to add one last title to your summer reading list.

And finally, I love the wisdom of this poster by Libby VanderPloeg. It appeared this week on Sara Barnes’ illustration blog, Brown Paper Bag. It should be my daily mantra. What are you working to get good at?

VanderPloeg poster

Libby VanderPloeg

Metaphorically Speaking

Last week a friend and I were talking about how making art is much like chess — a series of moves and counter moves in tandem.

Scissors 1

©2017 Elizabeth Fram     Beginning with an outline is pretty straightforward. The first major decision was to choose a variegated thread. The gentle change of color/value gives an initial suggestion of moving back and forth in space, in a way that solid-colored thread wouldn’t allow.

You may enter the process with an overall idea of the direction you’d like a piece to take and how you expect it to eventually end up but, unlike a recipe, the steps can’t be completely mapped out in advance or followed blindly.

Scissors 2

©2017 Elizabeth Fram    Stitched highlights and dark areas play together with the variation in value of the dye colors. It’s important to keep in mind how the two can work together rather than against each other. For instance, on the left handle, the dark inside area plays against the lighter area of dye just above it, while similarly the highlight of white in the corner of that same handle contrasts with the darker zone of dye above it.

Therefore it’s necessary to be open to surprises with flexibility, which is one of the key aspects of making that I’ve come to love most. Also, it’s the act of move, response, move, response, that lays open a sense of a living process as opposed to a mechanical progression.

Scissors 4

©2017 Elizabeth Fram    The shadow underneath really brings out the scissors’ definition, but also underscores the need to further define certain edges on the underside of the blades and in specific areas under the handles where the lightness of the variegated thread hindered the sharpness of the image.

There are plenty of challenges with each step, but the enjoyment of solving these inevitable hurdles becomes a strong allure within the process, seducing me back to begin the exchange again with every new work.

Scissors 5

©2017 Elizabeth Fram     The happy accident of the dye is that the darker areas on the upper edges enhance any suggestion that the scissors are underneath the shibori. However, I found when I stood back that the scissors seemed to be levitating above the surface they are sitting on. I changed the less dense areas of shadow  by resewing them in a deeper red, more in line with the nearby dye color. Interestingly, that seemed to bring the scissors back down onto their surface.

The satisfying sense of interaction that comes with facing unexpected results have proven to make for richer resolutions.

Scissors 6

Cut-Off (detail)   ©2017 Elizabeth Fram     Tiny tweaks at the end can make a huge difference. Adding a thin line of lighter value stitching on the top of the left handle, pulls it away from the background, lending a sense of substance.

Once corralled, I think it’s that intriguing dance between the known and the unknown that generates the nut of the satisfaction that comes with making art.

Scissors 7

Cut-Off   ©2017 Elizabeth Fram    This piece will be framed so that the outer edges of dye are cropped. But I wanted to show here the way it flows beyond the mokume-shibori.

Kéké Cribbs blog post Why We Need Art, for Tansey Contemporary gallery in Sante Fe,  is a great reminder of our shared humanity and the part that art plays, not only in shaping our culture, but in preserving it — in part by helping to get it back on track when in danger of running off the rails.

Peonies Unparalleled

When I was in my 20’s, I had the extreme good fortune of being invited by a distant relative to accompany her on a trip to the Far East. It was the mid-80’s and China had barely opened their doors to the West. Inspired by Chinese art history classes in college, I had developed a fascination with Chinese culture. And having the opportunity to fully immerse myself in that environment before westernization took hold, (as much as any American was allowed to immerse themselves at that time), was an incredible opportunity.

Peony

Paeonia “Coral Charm” – from my garden

Images of Beijing and Shanghai today portray metropolises of high-rises and neon hardly different from any of the world’s other great cities, but when I visited, China was truly a different world, caught in a different time. Most buildings then were no taller than 3-4 stories and the streets swarmed with bicycles rather than cars. There was a sense of space and intimacy despite the burgeoning population, qualities that the encroachment of concrete and highways tend to nullify. Everywhere you looked there was something beautiful to see, and it was not unusual to come across a sight (such as fishermen casting their nets) that was exactly as illustrated in a centuries-old painting. The importance and attention attached to aesthetic details enhanced even the most banal of structures, leaving a lasting impression. Flora and fauna were liberally depicted and our guides made a point of sharing their symbolism.

 

Chinese Peony Painting

 

I didn’t have much expendable income, so was careful in keeping my eyes open for something I could bring home to mark the experience. By far my favorite and most significant souvenir is a lovely painting of a peony and butterfly that has hung prominently in every home I’ve lived in since. The peony is the national flower of China, and in full bloom it symbolizes peace, making for a worthy remembrance.

Peony 2

©2017 Elizabeth Fram

Peonies are such glorious flowers and hold a special significance for me, a factor which I’m sure influenced my choice of Chinese souvenir. My mother had a peony bush with pale pink blooms that were lightly streaked with deeper pink stripes. It was one of the showiest and most exotic flowers in her Maine garden and we eagerly anticipated its annual display. Like a sacred object, she would bring a single blossom inside each year to grace the dinner table, floating it in a square silver dish that I don’t remember being used for any other purpose. I have an ancient childhood memory of sticking my nose into one of the flowers, deeply breathing in its scent with the naive expectation of being rewarded with the cool aroma of peppermint, as its coloring suggested.

Peony 3

©2017 Elizabeth Fram

In my current garden I have three varieties of peonies that bloom in succession and all strike me as just as extravagant and rewarding as my mother’s. It’s as much a treat today as I remember it was then to bring in one special bloom to set on the dinner table to treasure in its fleeting glory.

©2017 Elizabeth Fram

Yet another reward of keeping a sketchbook…the opportunity to tap into the richness of memories while standing firmly in the beauty of the present.

Have I recommended this before?
The Flower Recipe Book by Althea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo is an extraordinarily beautiful book – one that will sweep away anyone with the slightest interest in the forms and colors of flowers. I would even go so far as to recommend the digital version as  the backlighting of an iPad or similar device somehow adds to the impact of the gorgeous images.

See more inspiring and lush floral imagery on Instagram: @pottersarms and @tulipinadesign

Pike Place Peonies

Hard to resist these buckets of peonies at Pike Place Market in Seattle last month

 

Escaping the News

I need a break from current events…how about you? This week I’m sharing three artistic escape valves that caught my eye. Each offers a healthy measure of food for thought and moral fortification for moving forward since putting our heads in the sand isn’t an option. Hopefully one or two of them will interest you as well.

Townley Untitled 1979

Untitled 1979, ©Hugh Townley, Mahogany and maple relief, 26 x 15 inches

If you’re in Vermont between now and September 10, please consider a trip to Rochester to see the Hugh Townley exhibit at BigTown Gallery. It is a lovely collection of Townley’s sculptures, reliefs and prints, highlighting his strong sense of design with a healthy dose of play. You couldn’t ask for a better example of the power of art to lift one’s spirits in pure joy; it’s just the ticket for getting your head in a better place.

Dark Night 1992

Dark Night Tuba City 1992, ©Hugh Townley, Obeche relief, 26 x 16.5 inches

Townley’s painted works are bright and amusing, and his prints are strikingly engaging. Yet I was drawn to and favored the oiled wooden wall relief pieces. His manipulation of light, shadow and shape draws one into each imagined space, accentuating the natural grain of the wood while emphasizing each piece’s rhythmic layers of depth. The work is vaguely reminiscent of Louise Nevelson yet never loses its infectious sense of playfulness. I found myself smiling as I made my way through the gallery, and realized later that, in addition to being a bright spot on a dark and rainy afternoon, my visit was also a very welcome respite from the anxiety that has been hovering over my shoulder with each new revelation from Washington.

Townley Lost in Space

Lost in Space 1996, Hugh Townley, High-gloss painted wood color relief, 35 x 19 inches

To maintain the good mood, cap off your visit with a slice of homemade maple cream pie from the Rochester Cafe a couple of doors down from the gallery. There is much to be said for the art of a good baker!

Townley Untitled 1998

Untitled 1998, ©Hugh Townley, Mahogany relief, 23 x 18.5 inches

Fortuitously, the next day Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings article “Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News” showed up in my inbox. It is a lengthly, but oh-so-worthwhile read if, like me, you are feeling a bit overpowered by the unrelenting media onslaught. As the world continues to spin, I think many of us are wondering how our work can fit in and remain relevant; whether it can possibly stay abreast at a time when it seems an artistic perspective is more important than ever.  Which leads to the question: what exactly is an artist’s responsibility in such times?

Townley Fight Night

Fight Night 1996, ©Hugh Townley, High-gloss painted wood color relief, 31 x 24.75 inches

Popova’s article includes the following quote from Stevens which addresses that specific question:

Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that [the artist’s] function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.

For further reading on the subject, check out the links in my post from last January: Art as a Responsibility; Art as Superpower .

Townley Soaring

Soaring (Ups and Downs) 1992, ©Hugh Townley, Mahogany relief, 22 x 11.25 inches

And finally, consider giving a listen to Joseph Todorovitch’s interview on the Savvy Painter podcast to see how the act of buckling down and doing your work can be a remedy in itself. I found much to connect with in what Todorovitch says, but what struck me most was his articulation of an overarching truth I am coming to understand through stitching and drawing — the value of slowing down and being present. Ironically and counterintuitively, it is perhaps the best escape of all.

On a Different Note…                                                                                                                                  

I crossed another big project off my list this week. I invite you to take a swing through my newly updated website — it’s reorganized and simplified with new work added.

                                                                                                                                    

Reportage

There’s a lot to be said for keeping up the sketching habit while traveling. I love that drawing gives me an immediate sense of grounding in unfamiliar surroundings while allowing for more fully absorbing a new environment. Stopping to sketch is a wonderful opportunity to squeeze in a breather during a busy day of sight-seeing, and to pay closer attention to the common bits that define a particular locale. At the end of a full day of exploration, my husband and I have become very fond of finding a cafe or bar where we can sit with a drink and watch the world pass by while recapping our experiences. Pulling out my sketchbook has become a comfortable part of that favorite routine.

Waiting to Board

Waiting to Board, BTV     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

That said, this past week in Seattle there were eleven of us, so my best chance to draw was in the morning while everyone was relaxing over coffee as we pulled together our itinerary for the day ahead. Therefore, my drawings are mostly rooms around the house we rented and various breakfast-related still-life set ups. Even so, there is enjoyment in going through each drawing after getting home because, even if the subject itself isn’t that exciting, I am brought back to that moment so precisely: the conversation, the surrounding atmosphere, the overarching feeling of that point in time. It’s a wonderfully direct way to re-experience the moment; there is much to be said for the power of drawings in recording an event.

Cafe Flora

Cafe Flora     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

On the flight home I read this article by Lauren Tamaki who had been tasked by the NYTimes to sketch the Bill Cosby trial since photographs weren’t permitted. Her drawings and accompanying text bring a level of humanness to the proceedings, a quality that could potentially become lost in photographs. My point is not to discount the poignancy and recording power to be found in excellent photography, but rather to draw attention to the benefits contained in a drawing made with time and consideration and which, via the individuality of the artist’s marks and gestures, expresses an immediacy and presence in that particular moment. Details Tamaki captured by hand, such as the ornately carved courtroom door, the assistant district attorney’s hand gestures, or the body language of others in the courtroom, convey an emotional connection with the circumstances that might otherwise be overlooked.

Counter Shapes

Counter Shapes, Breakfast     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

Since becoming acquainted with Urban Sketchers, I am much more aware of reportage artists and the importance of their work. Using their skills to tell some of the harder stories that surround us, via means that are arguably more intimate than those of a movie camera or still photography, they have an opportunity to fully immerse us in that particular time and place.

Iris Chair

Iris Chair     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

I encourage you to explore a few such artist’s work:

Veronica Lawlor drew on the streets of Manhattan as 9/11 unfolded and in the weeks following. She compiled her sketches in the book September 11, 2001, Words and Pictures. This blog post from The Global Art Junkie drills home the power and authenticity of Lawlor’s drawings in marking that day.

I first learned of Richard Johnson’s work on Instagram. Citizen Sketcher Marc Taro Holmes interviewed Johnson about sketching the homeless in Washington, D.C., resulting in a very interesting discussion about the ethical responsibilities of such work.

Molly Crabapple is an award-winning artist who reports on injustice and rebellion around the world. Her work is spellbinding.

And let’s not forget Winslow Homer who was a reportage artist during the Civil War.

In circling back to the more mundane matter of keeping an account of traveling for pleasure, I know that bringing home spectacular images of newly discovered territory is commonplace when everyone has a smart phone capable of taking wonderful pictures. My husband’s photos are terrific and and I am so grateful for the fleeting moments he is able to catch in a heartbeat.

Knife & Spoon

Knife & Spoon     ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

Yet there is also a lot to be said for the depth of memories that are rooted in the slower process of drawing. For me, they have unmatchable value as souvenirs.

 

Art & Taxes

Good news coming from Washington seems a pretty elusive beast these days, especially where the arts are concerned. But I was pleased to read recently that our senator Patrick Leahy has taken advantage of the ongoing discussions surrounding tax reform to speak up for artists by introducing The Artist-Museum Partnership Act of 2017. This past March John Lewis (D-Ga.) introduced it in the House of Representatives as well.

2 bowls and a knife

2 Bowls and a Knife      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

It’s a little known fact that artists are only allowed to deduct the cost of materials when they donate their work, while collectors are entitled to deduct the work’s fair market value. How does that make sense? I figure the coffee cup pieces I’ve been making take the better part of 60 hours each to create, not counting the framing. But the materials that go into them run in the neighborhood of only $20, also not counting the frames. If more people were aware of this inequity, there might be greater understanding of why artists are so reluctant to offer their work to fundraising benefits and auctions.

Dog Lamp

Dog Lamp      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

This current bill would make it possible for artists to claim the true worth of their work when donating to museums, making for a win-win situation for those who are working at that level; artists can achieve agreeable compensation and museums will likely receive more work from important living artists to share with the public.

lemon-ginger

Lemon-Ginger      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

This is a wonderful first step, but I wish the bill would go further. What about the little guy? How many of us have been approached by non-profits with a request for a piece of work that they would like to use to raise funds? Most of us would love to donate, but it’s much more cost effective and advantageous to write a check. Unfortunately, many organizations have no concept of the financial ramifications on an individual artist whose situation is so unlike the other businesses they approach that can freely deduct the value of whatever service or product they pledge.

Wine & Soap

Wine & Soap      ©2017 Elizabeth Fram

Of course the sad fact is that, according to the recent press release about the legislation, “Leahy has introduced this bill in each Congress since 2000”, so we will have to wait and see whether it will finally go through. But, I am proud and grateful to live in Vermont where our senator continues to stand up for artists and the arts in general, recognizing and appreciating their value. Let’s all hope that his determination and the greater awareness he brings to the issue will one day lead to success.

Worth sharing: I found this project by art students from the National Taiwan University of the Arts speaking to the issue of water pollution quite compelling, well executed and particularly effective.

Serendipity

During my first months at college the world began to crack open.
Taking the obligatory introductory courses, each as different from the others as you might expect, I remember coming back to my room one afternoon and realizing that, despite their apparent disparity, threads of information were weaving together and overlapping such that a web of connection was beginning to form. Rather than merely providing separate pockets of information to be remembered for the inevitable test, a pathway was suddenly opening toward seeing the world as a unit composed of links and associations layered upon each other, offering a widened and enriched viewpoint reliant upon that interdependence. It was a seminal moment that has stayed with me.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow ©1967 Marc Chagall

Since then, it’s always a joy when unexpected associations appear between seemingly unrelated events/subjects, the discovery of which elevates the routine with a bit of the magical. Visiting Montreal this past weekend was one of those occasions when serendipity held the reins. Partway through the weekend I realized that the three major events we attended could not have been more interconnected, even though I wouldn’t have thought so at the onset.

VOLTA Cirque du Soleil              photo credit: Patrice Lamoureaux

First, Cirque du Soleil never, ever, disappoints. An example of sensory enrichment on overload, the troupe’s mastery of color, light, sound and daring physical feats is unsurpassed. At a time when I sometimes feel we are sadly in danger of building immunity to a state of wonder, due mainly to our media-driven saturation of deadly events and despicable behavior world-wide, it is utter pleasure to put aside any jaded perspectives for a couple of hours in order to experience the pure joy of human creativity. The current show, Volta, “is a story of transformation. It is about being true to oneself, fulfilling one’s true potential, and the power of the group to make that possible. It celebrates freedom as a movement”.

Dancer with Tambourine

Costume design for Daphnis and Chloe: Dancer with Tambourine ©1958 Marc Chagall

In hindsight it makes total sense that, in the midst of the surplus of color and visual excitement on view in Chagall: Colour and Music at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, I began to draw parallels with what I had seen under the big tent the night before. So much more than a chronological compilation of a lifetime’s work, the Chagall retrospective is also an extravaganza of color, light, sound (Chagall’s lifelong devotion to music was an integral part of his work), and daring physical feats — as seen in the trapeze artist below, or in the soaring lovers so often associated with his work.

The Blue Circus

The Blue Circus ©1950-52 Marc Chagall

Standing in a room devoted to paintings of the circus, the proverbial lightbulb went on as I realized that Chagall, who had escaped to the United States just in advance of World War II, created art that offered a source of respite and joy amid a world seemingly run amok. And similar to Cirque du Soleil, his work honors the principle Volta espouses: being wholly true to oneself. Reading the following quote on the wall of a gallery filled with Chagall’s circus collages and paintings made the connection with Cirque du Soleil all the more meaningful:

The Circus as a Metaphor for the World
Depictions of the circus, present in the imagery of Chagall’s earliest creations and an essential theme until the end of his life, arose from his vision of the world firmly rooted in Hasidism. This branch of Judaism conceives of the world as a game of divine will and apprehends God through overflowing joy, ecstasy, singing, dancing, music and acrobatics. For Hasidim, clownishness and humor are the incarnation of spiritual values that ensure the salvation of humanity. Traveling performers and musicians enlivened religious celebrations with their little shows in which biblical themes were intermingled with comic interludes, pantomimes and humorous plays accompanied by music.

Chagall stained glass

Marc Chagall

And while I was aware that Chagall had worked with stained glass toward the end of his life (read about the windows he created for the Art Institute of Chicago in this post), there was much I didn’t realize. He also designed tapestries and was a sculptor and a ceramicist. His love of opera ultimately pulled him from a deep depression and an inability to create after the sudden death of his first wife. His return to work involved designing extensive costumes and sets for multiple operatic and balletic productions, culminating in the creation of a nearly 2,600 square foot painting that now graces the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Immersed in his colorful world, which honored music as much as visual art, the fact that he had synesthesia makes perfect sense.

Fox Costume

Fox costume designed for the ballet Aleko, Marc Chagall

As a final nod to the power of imagination and creative spectacle, we were incredibly fortunate that our visit coincided with the weekend that the giant marionettes of Royal de Luxe (a street theater company based in Nantes, France) roamed the streets of Montreal as part of its 375th birthday celebration. Leaving the Chagall exhibition, we made it to the Place des Arts just in time to get a ‘ring-side’ seat for the arrival of the Deep Sea Diver. Despite his enormity (50 ft.?), he was spectacularly deft as he strode into the square with eyes that blinked and seemed to look right at you. The acrobatics of 20-30 handlers, swarming over him like Lilliputians, brought him to life, enabling his movements via pulleys and ropes. They did nothing to break the spell he cast on the crowd and I don’t think I’m being too dramatic to say we could all only gasp in awe to be in the presence of a living giant.

Deep Sea Diver

The Deep Sea Diver arrives at Place des Arts, Montreal

Deep Sea Diver

Deep Sea Diver by Royal de Luxe

The word circus derives from the Greek kirkos, meaning “circle” or “ring”. How appropriate that these three exhibitions formed an unexpected circle of connection between each other, looping back and forth in their collective presentations of color, light, sound, and daring physical feats. And how serendipitous to have experienced them all in a single weekend.

The exhibition Chagall: Color and Music runs through June 11, 2017

Cirque du Soleil Volta will be on view in Montreal through July 23