Marvelous puddles.

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I do get a deep pleasure from looking. I mean, I can look at a little puddle on a road in Yorkshire and just have the rain falling on it and think it’s marvelous. … I see the world as very beautiful.

David Hockney on looking, from an NPR piece: Artist David Hockney Says the Drive to Create Pictures is ‘Deep Within Us.’

Image via Art News

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Women & Art: We’ve got a long, long way to go.

louise_mamanHere’s a statistic that should make your blood boil: on average, only 5% of the pieces in permanent collections of museums around the globe were created by women. 95% of the art that has been purchased by museums—the very institutions that safeguard our culture—was created by men. While women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. 

We’re over half the residents of the planet earth, but when it comes to culture, we’re still woefully underrepresented, undervalued, and underpaid.

I’m researching a piece right now about gender inequality in the gallery world. While part of me is overjoyed to be doing this kind of work, to be writing about a subject that’s so important to me, there’s another part of me that is just angry. Filled with rage at the injustice of it all.

A recent study from Lehigh University found that “artistic careers are subject to the same social forces that drive gender wage gap in other fields. ‘Though one might expect that the flexible nature of many artistic careers—well as research indicating that artists tend to possess more liberal ideologies than other professionals—would result in greater gender pay equity, our research shows that the difference between the incomes of female and male artists are about the same as you’d find in other fields,’” explains study co-author Danielle Lindemann. Not only is there a significant pay gap for women working in the arts, but there is also a “fatherhood premium” and a “marriage premium” that applies to men only. While women’s pay takes a plunge when they have children, men’s paychecks get a nice little bump. Fortunately, in the arts, women don’t experience the same motherhood penalty (but men do still receive a fatherhood premium).

Does this piss you off? It should. Whether you’re male, female, or don’t ascribe to gender binaries, this should really make you mad. Because it means we still don’t value women’s work. As a society, we place a higher value on art produced by men. Their work goes for far more at auction. Male museum directors and curators make more money than their female counterparts. Male writers are paid more, and their books sell more copies. It’s true across the board.

For years, I’ve been seeking to address this in small, quiet ways. I buy books written by women. Much of the art that hangs in my house was painted or photographed by women. I buy albums by female artists, rather than just listening for free on Spotify. When I want to read a great new book by a talented female author, I buy it. I get Melville from the library, but I pay full price for Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Zadie Smith, Emily St. John Mandel, and Eleanor Catton.

I believe in voting with my dollars. I also try, in this small, tiny, personal corner of the internet, to highlight female artists as often as I can. While men make great work, too, they don’t need my help. Not when their work comprises 92% of lots for sale at New York evening auctions. Not when there are men like Georg Baselitz arguing that “women don’t paint very well” in well-respected places like The Guardian.

Baselitz says, “the market does not lie.” But money doesn’t equal talent. We should all know that by now.

I’ll end this rant before I get too wound up and decide to quit working as a female writer and start selling my eggs instead (they’re worth more than my words, apparently). But I want to say this: If this subject is something you care about, you need to start voting with your dollars. Spend money on women artists. Pay women writers. Support women in the arts, because we still need it.

Image: Maman by Louise Bourgeois. This piece, which sold for $25 million, was the only one to make the top 100 lots sold at auction in 2015. All 99 other top-selling pieces were by men.

Dream job: color librarian.

Harvard_Rare_ColorsI once read that the most expensive paint colors were also the most difficult to describe. We can all picture buttercup yellow, but can you imagine a sandy mixture of yellow with hints of pink and gray? Or that pretty, silvery green color that so often appears on spring things, like lambs ear or dusty miller? What are those colors called?

Of course, there are experts who know about the names, uses, and mixes of each strange new hue. Like the folks at Pantone, who have just discovered the Worst Color Ever, which the Australian government plans to use on cigarette packs to deter smokers. (If you ask me, a crappy brown box wont be nearly as effective at deterring smokers than pictures of cancer patients—which is what they do in Canada—but you do you, Australia!) harvard_pigment_museumAnother place you’ll find experts in color is at The Straus Center. This Harvard-affiliated color library is home to all sorts of rare and valuable colors, including mummy brown and dragon’s blood. Their samples are made from plants and minerals, chemical compounds and organic detritus. They run the gamut from startlingly bright to subtle and murky.

The pigments at Harvard are used primarily for scientific analysis (like one time, scientists at the Straus Center used chemical analysis to out a faux-Jackson Pollock painting as a forgery). However, in my head I like to pretend that “Color Librarian” is a job title I could hold—if I studied my colors enough, that is. Aside from sorting and categorizing colors, I would like to be hired to name colors. Hard acorn green, dog’s ear pink, maple syrup brown, dead tooth gray, distant mountain blue. I’d spend my days matching pigments with their ephemeral counterparts, the things we see but can’t extract color from, the impossible things that slip right through our eyes and into memory. Insomnia street-light yellow, strawberry top pink, dandelion fuzz white.

Things with wings and grief like fire.

At_Night_Achile_CasanovaI’ve been thinking a lot about bats lately, which is due in part to working at Islandport Press (I’m a contributing editor, one of my many part-time positions). Islandport is a small Maine publishing house that has produced many great books, including  a very charming board book written by my co-worker, Melissa Kim. This particular book, published in a partnership with the Maine Audubon Society, is about the daily life of a little brown bat. It is cute and funny and full of science and I really adore it.

But it doesn’t sell quite as well as other picture books—sweeter picture books, ones with earth-bound animals like cats and horses. And I’m not sure why. Is it because bats aren’t as cute? Because bats are scary and gross? Don’t kids want to read about the only mammal capable of true flight? Haven’t they heard of Stellaluna? I was a girl who loved bats—I can’t be the only one of my kind.

And now that I’m thinking about them, bats seem to be everywhere, including in my memory. Several years ago, I was visiting a friend in Austin following a horrible heartbreak. I was devastated—filled with a kind of grief and desperation that I hadn’t known before, the kind that climbs from your stomach to your heart and back again, trailing hot fingers of pain through my torso, up and down and up and down. Few things brought me joy, but the bat bridge did.

In Austin, there is a bridge that connects the two sides of the city. The walkway below the bridge smells earthy and strange from the guano, so much of it. Bats roost below, clinging to the bottom of the man-made cavern. Every night at twilight, bats stream out from under their hanging spaces. Hundreds, thousands of creatures, wings spread, chirping, devouring the night. bats_austinI was so taken by the bats that I went back the next evening, and again the next. The sight soothed me with its strangeness, its utter unfamiliarity. I felt better, watching those bats. Less lonely somehow.

Now, years later, I am married to the man who once broke my heart. I’m as far from Austin as one can be and still be in America. I wonder if I will ever see those bats again—if I will ever need them, like I once did, to heal an aching heart.

[Top image: At Night by Achille Casanova (1861-1948) medium unknown.]

Lessons from a past life.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.58.23 PMI was a druid in a past life. I wore a big cloak that covered my face, but not in a threatening, Sith lord-kinda way. Rather, it shielded me. My black hood was a protective, ceremonial garment. I held a flame, a candle or a lamp, a little shard of fire that I carried with me, leading the worshippers over a mossy green expanse of hillside, toward something, something that spoke to death without words or sound.

Or so I’ve heard.

Recently, I visited a spiritual healer for the very first time. I was waiting the pharmacist to refill my prescriptions at CVS. I had just added a new medication to my cocktail of brain-changing pills, and she told me that it was going to take longer than usual. So to kill time, I walked next door to the local crystal-and-tarot-card New Agey snake-oil-or-not purveyor. I browsed the bookshelves and snapped Instagram-ready pictures of the three-foot-tall “Amethyst Cathedral.” I picked up some incense, sage, and Palo Santo sticks. (My house smells like dogs. It’s fine, but you know, sometimes people come over and whatever.) In the back of the store, two women in long dresses sat in a pair of armchairs, facing each other and talking in that tone that I’ve always mentally called the “therapist voice.” A poster above the counter advertised “Spiritual Healing, Energy Readings, and Reiki.”

Reiki has always seemed like a pointless exercise for me. Like, touch me, or don’t, you know? So I chose the other lady. (I also asked them about their rates. The spiritual healer was willing to do a 15-minute session, and that’s how long my medication was going to take. The Reiki lady required a half-hour commitment, which just felt like a lot.)

She walked with me to a room in the back of the store, a little cupboard-like nook with two chairs, a small table, and a floor lamp that cast a soft, yellow glow onto the India-printed curtain that served as a door. (Say what you will about healers, psychics, mystics, and the like, but they know how to properly light a room.) We sat down, and she began her reading.

She talked for 15 minutes straight, so I think I got my money’s worth. And, you know, I don’t really believe everything she said. I don’t know whether Maeve, the Celtic queen whose name means “intoxicated woman” is really my spiritual guide and I doubt that there is an angelic presence around me that appears as a ball of “clear, blue light.” It would be wonderful if I had a guardian angel, but that ship has very clearly sailed. I don’t know if I will have children or not (she says I will have three, twins and a single child). I don’t know if I was anything other this current iteration of me, I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation. I don’t even know if I like the idea.

But also… I don’t not believe.

And honestly, it felt weirdly good to sit there with her. Really weirdly good. Her focus was so intense. It’s not often that we spend such an extended amount of time directing all our faculties toward another person. And she seemed to do this with her whole body, her entire self was pushed toward me in an unsettling way. She stared at the space around my body, examining the air. She sniffled occasionally, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to smell my secrets out. At one point, she reached across the table and held my hand. Hers were gentle, soft and dry, her grip felt like sinking my hand into a vat of flour, encompassing and forgiving. I know, logically, that I probably just paid someone to say nice things to me for 15 minutes, but I think that’s okay. I’ve spent money on far worse things. I left feeling satisfied, full and light, like I had just slurped down a plate of oysters. It was treat-yo’-self-behavior. A self-indulgent way to spend a portion of my workday.

But still. I don’t believe but I do hope. I hope she’s right. A world without even the possibility of magic isn’t one I want to live in.

Image: Painting by Martine Emdur 

I love Angela Deane’s joyful little ghosts.

ghost_joy_angela_deaneghost_joyGhost_Images_Angela_Deane_03My favorite images from Angela Deane‘s excellent series of ghost photographs (in which she takes vintage pictures and paints little white ghosts over all the people) have one thing in common: they all feature water. Perhaps that’s because swimming, for me, is such a joyful act, and these ghosts seem like oddly happy creatures, despite their featureless, faceless nature. Or maybe it’s because water has a strange, reality-bending property (as well as light-bending abilities) and ghosts inhabit that in-between place of real and not-real. Or maybe it’s because I’m craving summer and dying to shed some layers. Or maybe because it feels so irreverent, combining that spooky blankness with such standard images of All-American Summer Fun.

Or maybe who cares! Deane is a clever, funny artist with a great visual style and a wonderful collection of old photos to draw from (and upon!). See more here. 

Painted ladies by Jessica Harrison.

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I love tattoos. I know they’re not for everyone, but I like ink on skin. I like the strange burning tingle of the needle. I like the ritualistic aspect of the tattoo parlor. I like the way my skin responds, raised at first, textured as it heals, eventually relaxing into a smooth surface, newly pattered, altered.

Part of the reason I love tattoos is because they afford a certain amount of control. Our bodies are so frequently outside our control. They get sick. They betray us when we’re anxious or scared, running on adrenaline, heart jumping, head spinning. Have you ever fainted? There’s nothing quite like the sense of slow descent, the edges of vision turning black, the unwilling fall into unconsciousness.

But I can control my tattoos. They let me tell the story I want to tell. They also feel like an easy rebellion, a way of saying that my femininity is my own. Traditionally, women weren’t tattooed. Women were delicate flowers. Tattoos were for hard men, criminals, sailors. Now, I can be all three. A woman, a rogue, a wanderer. I can wear it on my skin and broadcast my not-a-freaking-lady status to the world.

1_tattoo_painted_porcelain_sculpture_jessica_harrison8copyI’ve been meaning to blog about Jessica Harrison‘s wild ceramics for a long time, but I couldn’t think of what to say about them, aside from I LOVE IT. She takes a familiar object—those little ceramic figurines—and turns them dark, modern. Some are gruesome, with melted faces and zombie-hands. Others are just tattooed. I love all her work, but I admit my favorite are the painted ladies. Their subversion is more subtle than the Kahlo-like dancer, who holds her bloody heart in her cold, porcelain hands. They’re beautiful, with their big skirts and delicate ink. They’re lovely ladies and bold scoundrels, and I think they’re just great. 

Two nice things: a poem by Colleen McElroy and the fantastical photography of Cig Harvey.

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Sometimes the Way It Rains Reminds Me of You
Colleen J. McElroy

these days I speak of myself in the past tense
writing about yesterday knowing tomorrow
is no more than mist crawling toward violet mountains
I think of days when this weather meant you
were not so far away   the light changing
so fast I believe I can see you turning a corner
the rain comes in smelling of pine and moss
a kind of brazen intrusion on the careful seeds of spring
I pay more attention to details these days
saving the most trivial until I sort them for trash
or recycle   a luxury I’ve come to know only recently
you have never been too far from my thoughts
despite the newborn birds and their erratic songs
the way they tilt their heads as if dowsing for the sun
the way they repeat their singular songs
over and over as if wishing for a different outcome

Read that poem aloud. It is so beautiful—both in the lyrical language and the subject matter (I would like my life to smell like rain and pine and moss, please and thank you). Then, go look at these stunning images by Maine photographer Cig Harvey. Although we live in the same state, and have contributed to the same publications, I’ve never worked with Harvey. So far, I’ve just admired her work from a distance. Her photographs are rich with surreal, subtle magic. I dig it.

Hair as straight as sticks, dreams as frail as bog cotton, and eyes as big as plates.

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On the internet, this series of photographs has gotten a lot of attention under the headlines “Old Finnish People with Things on Their Heads,” which, while funny, really obscures the purpose of these strange pictures. The series is actually called “Eyes as Big as Plates,” a rather beautiful name, if you ask me. Originally inspired by Scandinavian folklore, the series has grown to cover people living in New York, Japan, and Iceland. It’s the creative work of photographers Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen and while I do think it’s peculiar and humorous, I also think it’s a wonderful depiction of human dignity, just people being people in their natural environments. Sure, we don’t typically adorn ourselves with windswept sticks and stand atop a cliff… but why not? It’s not like I do anything better with my days.

I might just be in sleepy fiction mode, but each piece feels like a writing prompt to me.

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Ilisia, the goddess of nightmares and daydreams, wonders whether she should claim credit for her most beautiful creation, the nightmare that incubated in an Englishman’s head until it was ready to spring forth, fully formed on Ilisia’s gracious loom, from his tingling fingers. Oh how she loathed the need for a human conduit! “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks,” she whispers into the air, a fine mist of spit spraying from her cracked lips. “You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout, till you have drenched our teeples, drowned the cocks!” Her voice lowers to a rumble in her throat, barely audible, but the birds listen still: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

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Marvin lay down for a little rest in the wood behind his house. He thought he could find his way back easily—if not by sight, then by scent, for his wife Nona had been making Borscht when he left and the savory red smell lingered in the air. Sadly, when he awoke, he could smell no stew and see no house. All had aged, for faeries trick time and men who stray from the hearth are seldom mourned.

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“Who are you looking for?” the man asked. “Oh no, Lars is not here. I am Otso and I am a bear.” He took a piece of dried rabbit out of the pocket of his trousers and began to gnaw at it, making the most disgusting noises as he ground and gnashed his old man teeth. For a moment, his headdress slipped, and I’ll tell you this, my friends: He really did look just like Lars.

See more.

Butterfly names are surprisingly awesome.

Whistler_as_a_butterflyReal names of actual butterflies found in North America (many of which would also make pretty good assassin aliases):

  1. Sara Orangetip
  2. Ruddy Daggerwing
  3. Two-barred Flasher
  4. White Checkered Skipper
  5. California Dogface
  6. Theona Checkerspot
  7. Zebra Longwing

From now on, please call me Theona Checkerspot. Thanks!

(P.S. That image above? It’s a portrait of the artist James McNeill Whistler as a butterfly. I love Whistler, partially because he seems like kind of a jerk, but an “impish” and hilarious one, kind of like Oscar Wilde, another big believer in art for art’s sake.)