Agnus Dei

For Black Saturday – the most poignant painting I know: Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbaran. Completed in 1640.Agnus-Dei by Zurburan

Communion

Communion                     ©Victoria McCall

Communion                                                                                                    ©Victoria McCall

Some time ago I was commissioned by dear friends to create this painting, titled “Communion.” This evening in particular seems a good time to share this image as Christians around the world commemorate the Last Supper where Jesus commanded His disciples to remember Him through the taking of the bread and wine. I decided to add a little meditation on the painting with my post, and surprisingly found that as I wrote, what I wanted to say kept trying to emerge in verse. I was enjoying the process, so I went with it. Though I was very hesitant to post my novice poetic efforts here, I decided to go ahead, hoping that I will find some forgiveness for my literary deficiencies in deference to my message and intent.

 

Supper of Remembering

A trinity of thorny-stemmed roses bleed soft red petals on white linen.
The broken loaf awaits gouging fingers, open mouths, gnawing hunger.
Mercy’s meal – gnashed, swallowed, savored in faith, becomes our healing.
I remember You.
The sunlit wine sits still until jarred by thirsty lips into shimmering ripples
Pouring in, flowing down with holy rushing purpose – to wash, to free, to seal.
Distilled from brutal crush, forgiveness pools forever in that bottomless cup.
I remember You.
At table, You untangle tightly twisted hearts’ knots with tender Groom’s hands
And toss the dry, crumpled litter and empty shells of expired confessions
Into the Fire that leaves no ash, only green, budding hope and crystal vision.
I remember You.

 

©Victoria McCall 2014

 

Mystery

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From Continuum’s facebook page today, a poem from Billy Collins – a little reminder to leave room for the mystery in poetry (applies to all the arts!) and to proceed with exploring curiosity:

Here is a poem about reading poems, written by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate, in honor of his birthday, today.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Seven Shells in a Wooden Box   © Victoria McCall

Seven Shells in a Wooden Box © Victoria McCall

Seeing summers past - listening for summers yet to come.

Finalist!

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Three of my paintings were chosen as finalists in the Still Life/Floral category of The Artist’s Magazine 30th Annual Art Competition. The winners have been notified (I am not in that group) but I am honored to have been selected as a finalist from over 6000 entries. Finalists’ names will be listed in the December 2013 issue which will feature the the winning artists and their entries. Some artists from the finalist group will be chosen for showcase articles in the magazine and online throughout the year as well as for spots on their calendar. Grateful!

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The Artist’s Magazine

National Gallery of Art, DC 5/17/13

Got a break last week and enjoyed a half day at the National Gallery of Art in DC – saw three shows: Albrecht Durer, The Pre-Raphaelites and Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes…a bit rushed, but still an enriching visit!

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Albrecht Dürer   “Saint Eustace,” c. 1501   engraving

From the National Gallery of Art: “Saint Eustace,” the patron saint of firefighters and anyone facing adversity, is Dürer’s largest copperplate engraving by far. It tells the story of Placidus, a Roman military commander who, while out hunting, meets a stag holding a cross with the crucified Christ between its antlers. Deeply moved, the Roman converts to Christianity and takes the name Eustace (the Steadfast).

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From the National Gallery of Art: In “Ophelia” (1851–1852) John Everett Millais imagined a scene that is only described, never staged, in Shakespeare’s play: the drowning of Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover. Millais began the picture outdoors and worked for months on the background, painting it on the banks of a river. He returned to London with this canvas completed but for blank sections in the center awaiting the insertion of the figure. The model, Elizabeth Siddall, lay in a filled bathtub to help him paint a floating body realistically. The painting exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelite poetic, psychological, and descriptive approach to depicting history and nature.

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Durer sign

Swept Away

White Murex Shell in Sunlight - blog

White Murex Shell in Sunlight             ©Victoria McCall

On summer vacations, I used to spend hours, raft in tow, running into the ocean, leaping over shallow breaking waves, paddling out to wait for that perfect moment to ride the rolling, churning swells back to shore – only to turn around and do it all over again. It was an exhilarating, exhausting activity punctuated here and there by mere minutes of recuperation, lying flat and still on the beach, catching my breath, soothed by the hot sun and the constant breeze.

But the ocean is unpredictable. Occasionally that out-to-sea-back-to-shore rhythm can be jarringly interrupted by a sudden, strong undertow. The current drags you down into an underwater tumble of sand, shells and seaweed. It whisks you from your familiar shoreline landmarks, depositing you, sputtering and disoriented, somewhere foreign and unanticipated…perhaps close by or maybe far, far away.

Of course it’s naive to jump into the turbulence of the sea, or simply to live life, and not expect to have some undertows, some surprises. My most recent “surprise” was a significant increase in the needs of my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, who lives with us. Sadly, many people are all too familiar with this scenario which is so difficult for both patient and caregiver.

So what does all this have to do with art? While it is obvious that caring for an ailing parent rightfully takes top priority in heart and life, dealing with the interruption of work is an added challenge. There is a cost involved. In recent days, the sacrifice for me has been time for painting. (My presence here on this blog has been sporadic as well.) The exhilarating, exhausting forward motion of creating, just like my wave-riding, came to a halt.

When my painting time is disrupted, accompanied by uncertainty as to when I can resume, fear of losing focus and momentum looms. Primarily, I pray through. But it also helps me to remember something I read years ago in a little book titled Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland: “…art is all about starting again.” Just to annoy the fear, let me say that once more, a little louder: “…ART IS ALL ABOUT STARTING AGAIN!” As painful and as frustrating as it may be, and as much as I don’t want to accept it, forced stops-and-starts are part of the art life. And sometimes I even learn something useful in the process.

So when I am temporarily swept away and getting my bearings in strange new waters, I take solace in remembering that somewhere back on the beach, my “regular” art life, including scheduled painting time, is faithfully waiting right where I left it – next to my raft, by a neatly spread towel on the warm, soft sand. I’ll be back.

There Are No Words

Baby Bok Choy, Scallions and Shell blog

Baby Bok Choy, Scallions and Shell   ©Victoria McCall

Talking about my paintings is awkward. Much of the painting process is intuitive. It’s like a homing device – seeking out the location of that essential non-verbal thing I’m aiming to express or create – a paintable thing, not a sayable thing. The painting is not rooted in words. Words are applied after the fact. Of course techniques are explainable, but when it comes to subtle presences, whether aesthetic, spiritual or conceptual, it is obvious that artists create unspeakable things.

But the art itself speaks to us – it stirs us up and we strain to explain in our own language. After the fact of creating, words used to describe certain elements are often vague expressions which circle around the outside of the target, never quite hitting it – never quite naming the thing. Even professional art critics are outside the mystery, looking in. I have read both wonderfully insightful, revealing art commentary as well as contorted “art-speak” where the critic seems to be inventing reality. (The Rape of the Masters by Roger Kimball is an informative and entertaining resource on that topic.) But ultimately a painting can’t be said.

So do I even want to talk about my art? Well, I do and I don’t. It may actually be a useful exercise for me to attempt to name something of where I’ve been in my work to perhaps inform my way forward.  It can add a bit of conscious choice in the flow of creating rather than operating wholly on a subterranean intuitive plane. As long as it doesn’t foster distracting self-consciousness, that could be a good thing. In addition, I do sincerely appreciate those who are interested to hear some of what lies behind the creation of an image. After all,  sharing with others is one of the greatest rewards of creating. But anything I say will likely be just a fragment of something wispy.

As an example, in a previous blog post in reference to the painting pictured above, I said this:

“I was recently trying to articulate a particular intention in some of my paintings, when a culinary term popped into my head: reduction. According to a cooking website, reduction is “The result of reducing by boiling down sauces to increase consistency, richness & flavor.” It seemed a good way to describe my efforts where I wanted a certain intensity as in this little painting titled “Baby Bok Choy, Scallions and Shell.” Perhaps the surrounding darkness and the depth of color provide the heat to reduce my visual sauce.”

Did that really clarify anything? Inspire further thought? Maybe, maybe not.

In the end, the painting is doing the speaking and it is up to me to listen along with everyone else. We will continue to discuss, compare notes and conclude this or that. But all paintings – mine or anyone else’s – don’t care what we say. They are what they are. Pulsing outward like a heartbeat, they reveal themselves in all their nuance of glory, boldness, stupidity, timidity, triteness, beauty, ugliness, love, elegance, pain, intelligence, joy, arrogance, wisdom, hate, humility, complexity, simplicity and everything else – whether in limping failure or sublime perfection – without any help at all from words.

Sketchbook 4/18/13

Blackberry sketch

My sketch today (charcoal, ink, conte crayon and gouache on paper) is a simple study of a cluster of blackberries with stem and leaves.  This image conveys a summery, sunny feel hinting at outdoor walks and gathered things. But it can also be viewed a little more pensively as the cluster contains some lighter colored, sour, unripe fruit along with the dark, sweet, ripe berries – while off to one side a quiet little shell sits alone.

In keeping with that pensive tone (but with an entirely different thought), the following Emily Dickinson poem on the subject of blackberries seemed to be an interesting accompaniment to today’s sketch.

The Black Berry – wears a Thorn in his side -

The Black Berry – wears a Thorn in his side -
But no Man heard Him cry -
He offers His Berry, just the same
To Partridge – and to Boy -

He sometimes holds upon the Fence -
Or struggles to a Tree -
Or clasps a Rock, with both His Hands -
But not for Sympathy -

We – tell a Hurt – to cool it -
This Mourner – to the Sky
A little further reaches – instead -
Brave Black Berry -

Emily Dickinson

Of Peanuts and Gooseberries

Gooseberries in White Bowl

Gooseberries in White Bowl        ©2010 Victoria McCall         Oil on Wood Panel

“When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me.” – George Washington Carver

This quote from George Washington Carver, famed American scientist and botanist, illustrates a wonderful truth: there is great mystery, beauty and value even in the smallest of God’s creations. There was a time when I tackled grander themes in my painting, but I have been happy and challenged to take on the “smaller” subjects in my current work. Our lives are typically so full and flooded by various stimuli that I find it nurturing and calming to focus intently on the small and lovely – and to find, even there, the magnificent evidence of God’s hand.

The painting pictured here, Gooseberries in White Bowl, explores the glorious within the simple – and in addition, it’s “more nearly my size.”

Only A Few

Three Shells on Stone Table 3

Three Shells on Stone Table   ©2010 Victoria McCall    Oil on Wood Panel

One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.                                                                            -Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Our quest for simplicity, both external and internal, is ongoing. Within the complexity of schedules, task lists and general life clamor, there is an enduring yearning for the uncomplicated. Being selective is helpful when our senses become overwhelmed and numbed, when too much is before us or in us. Likewise, when creating or viewing art, what is excluded or included matters. In the painting Three Shells on Stone Table, my goal was to create a private, quiet space to take in the elegant beauty of three lone seashells in the light. The simple subject and the precise details draw us to the painting. The focused light magnetizes the image further, pulling us in.

Paradoxically, it takes effort to rest. As viewers of art, once we do what is necessary to shut the door on external noise, we may then encounter  internal clutter which also must be pushed aside for a time. Of course, as individuals, we bring our own associations and preferences to the viewing experience, but we benefit by looking and listening as neutrally as possible. C.S. Lewis wrote: “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Wise advice.

This painting invites you to stop for a moment and come in – to be nourished by the simplicity of the scene and the tranquil beauty of the shells.

 

 

The Taking of Christ

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Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ”

It is evening on Holy Thursday. Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ offers a powerful and beautiful meditation on the subject. The following commentary is from the National Gallery of Art website:

The painting represents Jesus Christ being captured in the Garden of Gethsemane by soldiers who were led to him by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot. Tempted by the promise of financial reward, Judas agreed to identify his master by kissing him: “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away safely” (Mark 14:44). Caravaggio focuses on the culminating moment of Judas’ betrayal, as he grasps Christ and delivers his treacherous kiss. Christ accepts his fate with humility, his hands clasped in a gesture of faith, while the soldiers move in to capture him. At the center of the composition, the first soldier’s cold shining armor contrasts with the vulnerability of the defenseless Christ. He offers no resistance, but gives in to his persecutors’ harsh and unjust treatment, his anguish conveyed by his furrowed brow and down-turned eyes. The image would have encouraged viewers to follow Christ’s example, to place forgiveness before revenge, and to engage in spiritual rather than physical combat. Caravaggio presents the scene as if it were a frozen moment, to which the over-crowded composition and violent gestures contribute dramatic impact. This is further intensified by the strong lighting, which focuses attention on the expressions of the foreground figures. The contrasting faces of Jesus and Judas, both placed against the blood-red drapery in the background, imbue the painting with great psychological depth. Likewise, the terrorized expression and gesture of the fleeing man, perhaps another of Christ’s disciples, convey the emotional intensity of the moment. The man carrying the lantern at the extreme right, who looks inquisitively over the soldiers’ heads, has been interpreted as a self-portrait.

link here: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/caravbr-2.htm

Michelangelo On Painting

Thinking about Michelangelo today. Thanks to Dominus Venustas blog for this post.

Michelangelo On Painting

Good painting is noble and devout in itself, for among the wise nothing tends more to elevate the soul or to raise it toward devotion than the difficulty of that perfection which approaches God and becomes one with Him. Good painting is but a copy of this perfection, a shadow of his pencil, a music, a melody, and only a very keen intelligence can feel the difficulty of it. That is why it is so rare and why so few people can attain to it or know how to produce it. Painting is the music of God, the inner reflection of his luminous perfection.

…the words of an artistic genius whose work is often described as divinely inspired. Eloquent and deeply felt.

via Dominus Venustas | Michelangelo On Painting Good painting is noble….

Sketchbook 3/22/13

sketch small fileToday’s sketch (charcoal, ink, conte crayon and gouache) is a horizontal study of flowers without vases. I’ve also included the solid shapes of plums, pears and a shell. I often exclude man-made items such as vases, bowls, etc. or deemphasize them, keeping the focus on the natural objects.

Model Feast

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As I plotted some new paintings last week, these are some of the fresh and beautiful things I had to choose from for my composition studies. Added bonus – some of these still life “models” were then served for dinner!

Art, Beauty and Florence Nightingale

flowers croppedWriting in 1898 about the effect of beauty, both in nature and art, on the well-being and healing of patients, Florence Nightingale observed:

 Colour and form means of recovery.

The effect in sickness of beautiful objects, of variety of objects, and especially of brilliancy of colour is hardly at all appreciated. Such cravings are usually called the “fancies” of patients. And often doubtless patients have “fancies,” as e.g. when they desire two contradictions. But much more often, their (so called) “fancies” are the most valuable indications of what is necessary for their recovery. And it would be well if nurses would watch these (so called) “fancies” closely. I have seen, in fevers (and felt, when I was a fever patient myself), the most acute suffering produced from the patient (in a hut) not being able to see out of window, and the knots in the wood being the only view. I shall never forget the rapture of fever patients over a bunch of bright-coloured flowers. I remember (in my own case) a nosegay of wild flowers being sent me, and from that moment recovery becoming more rapid.

This is no fancy.

 People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect. Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery. But it must be _slow_ variety, e.g., if you shew a patient ten or twelve engravings successively, ten-to-one that he does not become cold and faint, or feverish, or even sick; but hang one up opposite him, one on each successive day, or week, or month, and he will revel in the variety.   Florence Nightingale 1898 : Notes on Nursing What It Is, and What It Is Not

What a timeless and powerful reminder to drink in some beauty each day – it’s very, very good for us!

F. Nightingale quotes: http://nursingplanet.com

Radish Bunch Solo

Radish Bunch small file 0627Radish Bunch     ©2010 Victoria McCall

 This painting, titled Radish Bunch, was inspired by a scene which caught my eye while shopping. The radishes depicted here, along with many more, were lined up in multiple rows on a produce shelf, roots facing out, creating a large mass of vibrant red and white balls with swirling, reaching roots. The regimented order of the bunches along with the lyrical motion of the roots made the radishes look like a jubilant and explosive orchestra, sending out strains of twisting and turning music in every direction.

I purchased a bunch and placed it in a wooden box which I have used in several paintings. Shutting out all the light in the room except for that which came from one window, created a spotlight effect on the radishes, while the surrounding darkness further highlighted the motion of the bright roots. This small painting celebrates the exuberance of that little radish bunch in its own unfurled solo moment.

The War of the Woods

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I mentioned my love of solitude in an earlier post. Love is probably not the right word. That’s like saying I love to breathe air. It’s much more about need. If I do not have enough silent space, besides becoming a bit grumpy (to which my husband will attest), I cannot think, see or hear as clearly, and then there is no art. I have the following wonderful and lofty quote taped inside the cover of an old journal:

Retirement is the laboratory of the spirit; interior solitude and silence are its two wings. All great works are prepared in the desert, including the redemption of the world. The precursors, the followers, the Master himself, all obeyed or have to obey one in the same law. Prophets, apostles, preachers, martyrs, pioneers of knowledge, inspired artists in every art, ordinary men and the Man-God, all pay tribute to loneliness, to the life of silence, to the night.” A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.

It is a very grand statement and any personal participation I may have in its truth is very, very small – but important. Painting is like going alone into the woods. It is the leaving behind of all clutter, both internal and external, all duty and demands – a determined hike to a secluded, quiet destination that is conducive to intense focus, to hearing, to joyful or plodding or difficult work. Depending on the stage of the painting, interruptions can be knot-in-the-stomach painful. Being unexpectedly called out of “the woods” entirely can be so unpleasant as to require a little prayer and deep breathing before responding so as to avoid, shall we say, regrettable behavior.

Days often feel like a tug-of-war with “the woods” pulling on one end of the rope and the rowdy crowd of everything-else tugging fiercely on the other. Not including the serious life issues which emerge at times, there are still the growing to-do lists, doggie drama when the mailman arrives, and any number of annoying twists in the day, all clamoring for attention. But most interruptions come from my beloved fellow humans – those eternally important beings, fully deserving of my attention – and are not lightly dismissed. They are those whom I love, who inspire, support and teach me and for whom I am inexpressibly grateful. Without them, there would be no art.

Unending solitude is a barren and unnatural vision. Nevertheless, the war rages on…well, that robust game of tug-of-war anyway. In the end, the fair distribution of my time and attention is often achieved only by my secure grip pulling firmly and diligently on the always-outweighed “woods” end of the rope. It only seems right to cheer a little for the underdog team. Go woods!

Vegetable Tableau

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Radicchio and Squashes with Chard    ©2010 Victoria McCall

This painting is a study in contrasts of a variety of shapes, textures and colors. The actors in this table-top tableau are: the ivory-colored garlic cloves with papery outer layers, the smooth, dull-skinned acorn and spaghetti squashes, the larger green squash with its barnacle-like growths, the shiny and wrinkled chard leaves, the polished, reddish radicchio with flowing white lines, the long bright carrots and the quiet little turnip facing the light.

The eye is led around the lower rounded shapes, then the focus is sent upward in the fountain-like arch of the chard and back down in the pouring-out motion of the radicchio veins to the downward curve of the carrot tip curling over the edge of the table. The compact piling of the vegetables creates a cornucopia-type image of abundance while the surrounding darkness and dramatic lighting amplify the serenity of this interior arrangement.

Possibilities

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Question: Best days of elementary school? Answer: When I got my new school supplies, including a handful of dangerously pointed pencils and stacks of white, blue-lined notebook paper. And then came those delicious first marks written on the clean, crisp page – oh the possibilities!  (Thinking about it makes me want to assemble a notebook binder right now.)  With that level of excitement over writing materials, you can imagine my joy in later years, opening my painting and drawing supplies for art classes.

When I begin a new painting, I experience that anything-is-possible sensation again. I’m now painting primarily on smooth, beautiful wood panels. When starting a new work, I usually collect my ideas, notes, reference photos (shot by me in an earlier photo session) and then pull out some panels which I have either purchased from a supplier or had cut to specific sizes by a lumber yard. I spend lots of time thinking and staring. Mulling over intent and desire, I begin to further develop and refine my ideas and consider my compositions in relation to the various sizes of the panels.

Later there will be sanding, brushing the panels with coats of gesso, more sanding, drawing, and of course, the first layers of painting. By then, certain parameters have been chosen, the coordinates are locked in and I am well on my way. But for now, at the beginning, it is all about choosing the destination and plotting the journey. Truly, anything is possible and that is its own kind of bliss.

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