Art and Life

plum website Lu Zhi
Plum Blossoms, by Lu Zhi,  Public Domain

Increasingly, I see no distinction between art and life, although there is a sense of the word “art” that suggests fabrication.  As a writer, or someone who loves to write (sometimes it feels pompous to call myself a writer), I have found art to be simply another form of expression, one that flows naturally as a complement to my words.  This is a view that traditional Chinese artists embrace, particularly those artists known as literati.

In literati painting, inscriptions on the work are intrinsic to the art.  The literati derive their inspiration from nature, tradition and philosophy.  In literati painting, art is an expression of character.  Technical skill, or “artifice”, is less important than the genuine inspiration evident in the work.

Traditional Chinese art often features one of four themes known as the Four Noble Ones or, the Four Gentlemen.  These themes are the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum.  The essay below is adapted from my book, Four Masters of Yuan and Literati Art: Tradition in China from Mongol Rule to Modern Times.

The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art

 

Literati artists have an affinity for nature. In their response to nature they believe they are revealing essential qualities about their own character. The qualities they hope to cultivate in themselves, they believe, are innate to certain plants. Four of these, called The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art–the bamboo, chrysanthemum, plum and orchid–are said to embody different aspects of a noble character.  In fact, the plants are also called The Four Noble Ones.  Each of these plants has been featured across the centuries in exquisitely expressive art.

 

china bamboo elegant stone ni zan website public
Wood, Bamboo, and Elegant Stone, Ni Zan Public Domain

Wood, Bamboo and Elegant Stone, a painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Ni Zan (above), is part of a long tradition that reveres this plant.  Bamboo is seen as a natural embodiment of longevity, humility and endurance.

chrysanthemum website ong
Chrysanthemum, by Ong Schan Tchow, with an inscription by Lin Sen, President of the Republic of China.  Public Domain

Ong Schan Tchow, a twentieth-century painter, devoted a book to the study of chrysanthemums. This flower holds a special place in Chinese culture because the flower was first cultivated there. Chrysanthemums blossom in autumn, when winter is looming and other flowers are fading. It is the flower’s ability to flourish when others perish that makes it a metaphor for withstanding adversity.

Lu Zhi, an artist from the Ming Dynasty, was also a calligrapher and poet. His painting, Plum Blossoms, is featured at the top of this page. The plum tree blossoms in winter. This winter bloom, in harsh circumstances, represents to the Chinese the qualities of endurance and prosperity.

orchid 96 smaller
Orchid, by Hu Zhengyan, Public Domain

Another Ming Dynasty artist, Hu Zhengyan, was also a printer and calligrapher. He was a traditionalist who featured a variety of simple, natural themes in his painting. The image presented here is “Orchid”.  In the orchid many see qualities of humility and grace. The orchid blossoms in remote locations and often exudes its fragrance in solitude. The nobility of quiet repose is much admired in classic Chinese art and poetry.

 

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Art Literacy

art literacy excerpt2
Clementine Hunter

 

In November of 2016 I read about a symposium that addressed the challenge of educating immigrant children.  The symposium was held at the Roosevelt School District, in Roosevelt, New York.  Not long after this symposium was held, I read that research indicates children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from cultural enrichment.   These two bits of information were connected in my mind and from that connection grew the idea for Art Literacy

Art Literacy is a showcase for artistic expression, and an invitation to create art.  The picture at the top of the page, of Clementine Hunter, and the excerpt below this paragraph, are typical of material students will find in the book.   A total of forty-three feature images are presented.  At least one smaller image accompanies the feature image.   In the case of Clementine Hunter, there are two feature images and two companion images. 

A caption that describes Clementine Hunter’s personal history:

clementine Blurb

A smaller image that helps to introduce Clementine Hunter to students:

clothesline website
Clothesline, by Clementine Hunter.  The Picture is Credited to the Ethel Van Derlip Morrison Fund.

 

With every picture, there is an invitation to act.  Students are asked to write a response and to create a visual work of art.  They are reminded of art’s essential nature:  It is a genuine expression of an individual’s perspective and experience.   

The kinds of images featured in Art Literacy range from a Sami family (Lapland) posing in front of a traditional residence, to children playing along the seashore in Zanzibar.  Subjects covered include Stone Age cave art and NASA space missions.  

There are quotes from James Baldwin, and there is poetry from Rabindranath Tagore. 

The question is asked at the beginning of the book, What is art?  By the end of the book, students may be prepared to answer,  Art is a form of communication, a way for people to share their perceptions and insights.

A supplemental guide to Art Literacy has been created.  This consists of keyed sheets that offer background information on some of the covered topics.   The sheets can be copied and distributed to students who want them.

Collages introduce the five thematic sections: Animals in Art, Fantasy in Art, People in Art, Places in Art and Things in Art.  The collages are visual demonstrations of the book’s operating theme: Let imagination be the guide as experience and perception are explored.

A representative collage, from the section entitled Fantasy in Art, is shown below:

 

collage fantasy elsas pig2 website

Art Literacy is for sale on Amazon.  However, the long-term plan is to set up an apparatus through which the book and accompanying material can be distributed, at no cost, to students.  

 

art literacy front cover website

 

A. G. Moore    June, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr.

max-salt-marsh-cover-site
This thirty-page book will be sold at cost in the United States. 

 From the Introduction

I met Max when he already had achieved a certain notoriety. It was incongruous to me that the peaceful, soft-spoken man I beheld could be the cause of controversy. But it was exactly his peaceful nature that gave rise to offense.

Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. was Poet Laureate of Nassau Country, New York. This is the sort of honor that usually attracts little attention, outside the poetry community. But that’s not how things worked in Nassau County.

The County Legislature decided Max was not worthy to be Poet Laureate, because he had written a book about peace in a time of war.

Max’s nomination was rejected. This slight suggested that, not only did the bureaucrats know little about poetry, but they also had a poor understanding of poets.

The poetry community dismissed the dismissal. They crowned their laureate, who had earned his title through acclaim and accomplishment. Hence, Max, a quiet, slight figure with a steady gaze, became the center of controversy.

Max was my teacher. He led a group of Taproot writers. That’s what he called all of us, no matter our skill level: everyone was a poet and everyone was a writer. Over time, this proved true, to varying degrees, for those who persevered under his leadership.

Each voice in the group was given a moment in the spotlight, and each was respected. The only exceptions to this rule were when voices were raised in hatred or anger. Neither of these sentiments survived long in a group led by a man of peace.

Max held his sessions in the fall and spring. When time came to sign up for a session, I’d go down the first day I was allowed. His class was so popular that it might be oversubscribed and I’d be shut out. However, there was little danger of that. Though the door might be officially closed to late entrants, I can’t recall a time when Max turned someone away.

There was, for example, the day a distracted woman wandered into our room. None of us knew her. She was looking for another event and accidentally stumbled upon our class.

A chair was empty, so she sat down. She even joined in the discussion, as I recall. Max didn’t suggest that she was unwelcome, or in the wrong place. When she left, he didn’t chuckle derisively, as some might have been tempted to do. We took our lead from his behavior, as we always did.

That episode captured Max’s strength, and his character. He filled the room with grace, the grace of kindness and generosity. And he had the strength to enforce this environment, by example, and by instruction, when necessary.

I learned to write under Max’s tutelage. Before I entered his class, there was so much I didn’t know. He never let on, as I floundered in those early days. My confidence grew and his lessons took root. It is rare that I write a piece now, and Max’s hand is not on it.

There was a time when I had little patience for poetry. It seemed a self-indulgent art with little objective value. I still don’t write poetry, despite Max’s best efforts, but my ears, my eyes and my heart are open to it.

For the last few years I’ve been writing nonstop–books, blogs, reviews. There is a sense of time running out, but there’s more than that. Max helped me to find my voice and to develop the belief that I can do it, that my effort is valid.

Thank you, Max, for everything. You were an artist, a peacemaker and a teacher. You are missed.