Tag Archives: art

Grasshoppers and Ants: Diligence in the Year of the Ox

By Randy Jackson

After that major bummer of a year – 2020 – we now have the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Ox for 2021. Not wanting to cast aspersions on the Zodiac animal of last year (the Rat), I think it’s time we moved on. But not so fast: Just what are we supposed to be getting into in this Year of the Ox? The ox is supposed to represent the characteristic of diligence. That makes sense, I guess, from what I imagine of an ox-like character. But is diligence a good thing?

The origin of the word “diligence” was the Latin word diligere, which meant to “value highly” and “take delight in.” Over centuries the English meaning of the word morphed into “careful” and “hardworking.” The word diligence was held in high enough regard in western Europe that it become one of the heavenly virtues of Christianity, along with chastity, temperance, patience, humility, kindness and charity. The seven heavenly virtues were clarified as a balance to the seven deadly sins set out by Pope Gregory I in CE 590 – diligence counterbalanced the sin of “sloth.”

Diligence seems to be the one Christian virtue that isn’t passive. To be diligent implies overtly doing something rather than embodying any (or all) the other virtues in one’s actions. Diligence as a virtue cannot stand by itself as a “good thing” without the other virtues. Otherwise, being diligent while committing a crime would be virtuous. The ambivalence of diligence as a Christian virtue has provided fodder for stories and even paintings over the centuries.

There are a surprising number of fables and fairy tales that deal with diligence. “The Three Little Pigs” is an obvious one. As we know, the third little pig worked diligently on his house of bricks while the other two little pigs spent more time playing, singing, and dancing. We all know how that turns out. The third little pig saves the day, as his house is too strong for the wolf to blow down. The moral of the story: hard work (diligence) wins the day.

“The Ant and the Grasshopper” is another fable dealing with diligence. However, this fable has inspired different interpretations on how diligence can be viewed. Originally, the hard-working ant who saved up for the winter was seen as cruel and miserly when he refused the more whimsical grasshopper’s (usually depicted as a musician) request for food in the winter. The diligent ant was seen as lacking in Christian charity.

In the Victorian era, French artist Gustave Doré produced a painting titled “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The painting depicts a young woman musician with head bowed at the door of a house.

Two children from the house are looking up with sympathy at the young woman. There is a lack of pity shown by the lady of the house as portrayed by her knitting. This is a reference to the French tricoteuses – women who knitted and jeered as the guillotine lopped off the heads of the French aristocrats during the French Revolution.

“The Ant and the Grasshopper” poses two important philosophical questions: should hard work be valued over the enjoyment of life? And, what responsibility do the “haves” bear for the “have nots”? In the United States, Walt Disney’s original cartoon portrayal of ‘The Ant and Grasshopper” (1934) was a political statement against the New Deal as proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the cartoon the impertinent grasshopper sang the song “Oh the World Owes Me a Living,” expressing a sentiment that many Americans held at the time – they saw the New Deal as giving something to people who did nothing to deserve it.

In literature and film, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” fable has inspired a large number of stories exploring differences between the life of someone who is diligent and hardworking, and someone who mostly seeks the enjoyments of life. In Somerset Maugham’s story “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” there are two brothers, one diligent and hard-working, the other carefree yet likeable. In this story, the carefree brother lucks out in the end (much to the chagrin of the diligent brother) by marrying a rich widow (who then dies and leaves him a fortune). For those familiar with Maugham’s most famous work, On Human Bondage (thought to be largely autobiographical), the main character, Philip Carey, is grasshopper-like, living a bohemian lifestyle against the wishes of his strict and diligent guardian uncle.

John Updike’s short story “Brother Grasshopper,” which specifically references the original fable, contrasts the characters of two brothers-in-law. One is diligent, hard-working and socially awkward. The other is charming, carefree and extravagant, but struggles with money. In the end the diligent man comes to realize the carefree man had enriched his otherwise restricted life of diligence.

Another, and different, angle on the concept of diligence, ironically, is the Japanese concept of inemuri – referring to sleeping on the job. This cultural phenomenon is more nuanced than just having a nap at work. A better translation would be “sleeping while being present.” It refers to diligent hard-working employees that are so busy and working such long hours they need a little inemuri to keep going: inemuri is thus seen as an indicator of diligence. In the west we might refer to this as a “power nap,” but without any notion that diligence is involved.

As for diligence as a characteristic of the Year of the Ox, there is no ambivalence, it’s only a good thing. The Zodiac predictions are for a year of advancement and success in 2021. After 2020, we can all use some of that. Happy New Year.

Treasured Trash

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The year 2020 has indeed been trashy. Almost everyone’s plans have been trashed by COVID-19. The lockdown of restaurants for onsite dining was partially solved by converting to takeout service, but this led to a proliferation of boxes and bags, many of which cannot be recycled. Over the last decades, hills of trash have grown throughout the world – author Louis Alberto Urrea graphically describes the phenomenon in Mexico – and the situation has been aggravated this year by the COVID crisis and its accompanying lockdown of people in their homes, where they receive home delivery in bags.

Trash, for most of us, consists of items and materials we consider to have no value. In fact, we actually pay for tons of trash to be removed from our homes. Even if we are ardent proponents of recycling, we convert only a small amount into compost for our gardens, and the rest we carefully sort into bins for plastic, metal, paper, and glass. We rarely think about where those who are hired to remove the assorted bags actually haul them, and what happens next.

But for some people, our discards may have considerable value. Who has not noticed the omnipresent trash-pickers or dumpster-divers in urban areas around the world, including U.S. and Mexican cities. Some of them are hungry individuals who exist on a diet of food tossed away by markets and restaurants. For them, trashed, slightly-bruised or over-ripe fruit that would be rejected by regular shoppers is a great find. If they discover sandwiches or baked goods that were dumped for exceeding their expiration date, it is as if they have found gold.

But hungry individual trash pickers are only the tip of a whole underground trash industry. Many of the people you see diving into dumpsters or surveying city dumps are long-time professionals who earn subsistence wages by knowing where and to whom they can sell specific trashed items such bike parts, motorcycle parts, electrical components, clothes, and glass bottles, not to mention items that display a deposit-back label.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish impoverished trash-pickers from artists hunting for the perfect tossed item for their collages, found-art pieces, or installations. Some works of art worth tens of thousands of pesos are hard to distinguish from a trash pile – unless of course you happen to encounter the artwork in a gallery or museum. During a music and art weekend festival at a university, an acclaimed contemporary artist who will remain nameless had displayed his masterpieces around the campus. Early Monday morning after the festival, the janitorial staff hauled away the trash left after the Sunday night jazz concert, including the masterpieces that they assumed were piles of junk.

Do you think this was a mistake of the uneducated? The next time you head for one of the plethora of contemporary art galleries or museums in Mexico, for example Museo del Objeto in the Roma section of Mexico City, imagine how you would regard some of the displayed works of art if you found them abandoned on a city street.

Among those who collect and resell items from trash piles are those who reap relatively high amounts of money for items that are marketed as vintage, “retro,” or collectible. Flea markets in cities all over the world are outdoor environments for selling and buying treasured clothes, shoes, accessories, bric-a-brac, old kitchen and dining ware, used books, vinyl records, crafts, and artwork of dubious vintage. One person’s trash is another’s must-have item. While spending a winter in Buenos Aires, in one of the enormous Sunday flea markets I found a black shawl shot with gold and elaborated with long silky fringes; it turns a simple black dress into ageless elegance. Even now I can almost hear the sounds of a tango whenever I wrap this shawl around my shoulders. At that same flea market, friends visiting from Mexico filled bags with objects that were common in Argentina but exotic gifts for friends in Guanajuato.

Some stores also provide venues for shopping for other people’s throw-aways. While used clothing stores may be déclassé, vintage clothes stores are definitely sought after by young women seeking a certain look. The piles of old vinyl records and old comic books that filled closets and attics and used to be tossed when parents grew old can now be found in specialty stores. And some dishes and glasses that grandma discarded can be delivered to an antique store where they sell for a pretty penny.

One doesn’t need to visit flea markets to paw through mounds of other people’s castoffs to find the perfect whatever. The internet has created international online flea markets such as Craigslist and eBay, both operating in Mexico. The prices for stuff people want to offload can be minimal, but some are high when marketed by someone who is savvy and sells online for a commission.

A ballgown I wore once and would never have the occasion to wear again was sold on eBay by such a savvy entrepreneur, and even after she took her cut I received twice as much as I paid for the dress. Several neighbors who have more money than they can spend in their lifetime buy old cars for fortunes from people who rescue them from junk yards, and then they spend time or money to restore them to their previous shining glory.

Archeologists often spend large portions of their careers sifting through ancient garbage. Last March in the Yucatán, a cave containing more than 150 objects that hadn’t been unearthed for over 1000 years was discovered in the pre-Columbian Mayan city of Chichen Itza. By studying this veritable treasure of Mayan detritus, the archeologists hope to rewrite the whole history of these inhabitants.

We are fortunate enough to have truly creative people around the world reworking the essence of trash and demonstrating that “worthless” trash can be turned into treasured items. In New York City, two artists made a matching gown and tuxedo out of used masks and paraded around town all day displaying their “wear.” We were delighted, when visiting a bookstore in San Cristóbal in Chiapas, to receive our purchases in a beautiful yellow and white patterned bag – washable and practically indestructible – woven out of trashed plastic grocery bags. One kibbutz we visited in the Negev of Israel has no concept of trash – everything left over by kibbutz members, including human waste, is recycled and reused. If you are interested in pursuing this idea further, the website Pinterest.com has hundreds of creative recycling ideas submitted by people from around the globe.

Hopefully, we will emerge from this pandemic with the realization that we are reaping what we sow. By sowing mountains of refuse, we are literally trashing the world. But by creatively treasuring trash, we can save the globe.

The Muralists of Huatulco

By Julie Etra

Most of us are familiar with the most well-known Mexican muralists of the 1920s, and the associated political movements: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But here in Huatulco there are murals everywhere, on public and private spaces, for example the market Tres de Mayo as you drive into La Crucecita on Guamuchil. Those of us who frequent Xipol, a popular corner restaurant and bar on the zócalo in La Crucecita, or even just pass by, can’t help but notice the outstanding murals by Irving Cano depicting Mexican women of all ages. Another well-known excellent local artist, although not strictly a muralist since he also works in other media, is Hergon Hernandez Gonzalez, known as Heriberto.

Our good friends Doreen and Larry Woelfel commissioned local artists to paint the dome at their residence in Conejos with native birds common to the area, and what a wonderful job they did. I was lucky enough to contact one of the muralists, Marco Daniel Galguera Perez, known as Daniel, and learn a little bit about him and his subjects.

Daniel reminds me that “My artist name is ‘Xants,’ in reference to my village in the mother language of my people. I am from the community of [Santiago] Xanika in the Sierra Madre Sur de Oaxaca. I am 22 years old, and began my studies as an artist at age 15.

“I had a somewhat limited life in art as a younger person, for family reasons, as they did not appreciate that I was passionate about art. It was why I left home at that age, the teacher who mentored me was José Ángel Del Signó, he gave me direction in art. Then the Colectivo Tilcoatle opened, where I developed a bit artistically, and lived in Huatulco for three years. Before starting to live as an artist, I worked with a monitoring network of professionals monitoring medium and large mammals in the Sierra Madre Sur.

“At age 19 the doors opened for me to study at the university in Huatulco [UMAR], but where I only studied for 2-and-a-half years, since for economic reasons I could not continue, but there I worked on what is known as screen printing, plastic arts [in Spanish, the “plastic arts” can refer to all the visual arts], graphics. I specialized in el huecograbado [in which an image is engraved into the printing plate or cylinder], and began developing the skills of mural painting and handmade paper.

“I recently completed a mural at the Laguna Manialtepec [west of Puerto Escondido]). Now I’m traveling along the coast leaving large format paintings (murals) in public spaces. About a month ago I started murals documenting customs and social groups in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca.”

Those of us lucky enough to have a surface worthy of their work should consider supporting these local artists by commissioning a personal work of art.

Look to the Walls

By Kary Vannice

One of the things you’ll notice when traveling in Latin America is that you don’t have to look far to find out what’s on the minds of the people who live there. All you have to do is read the walls.

By definition, graffiti is “a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group.” But graffiti is more and more becoming understood as an expressive art form as well. And municipalities here in Mexico are using it to send messages of public health and safety, encouragement and acknowledgement during the current global pandemic.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has recently sponsored a movement of young artists to create larger-than-life murals to encourage its citizens to mask up and take precautions in an effort to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The Director of Culture and Traditions invited local street artists between the ages of 14 and 25 to participate in a city-wide muralist workshop. Various buildings and walls were designated in strategic areas throughout San Miguel to serve as their canvas for creating powerful PSAs for the people living near them or passing by.

The workshop featured two well-known and accomplished graffiti artists who designed the murals and then acted as mentors to younger artists who apprenticed under them, perfecting their technique while bringing the designs to life.

Luckily for San Miguel residents, the two have very different artistic styles, which makes the murals distinct and meaningful in their own unique ways. One artist, Juce, focused on honoring the many men and women who have contributed to the safety and well-being of all Mexicans, by featuring health care workers, supply-chain employees carrying boxes of safety equipment and even the general public wearing masks. He named the work “The triumph of society and work over a pandemic.”

The other artist, Persak, choose a more artistic approach, literally, designing three enormous murals of the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh and even Mexico’s own Frida Kahlo, all wearing masks.

San Miguel is not alone in leveraging street art as a public and popular way of encouraging Mexicans to participate in the effort to slow the coronavirus. Recently the news outlet El Universal featured Sergio Morales, known as Applezman, a Mexico City street artist who has also been spraying his visual messages along the city’s metro lines. One huge mural features Capitan America, Iron Man, Batman and Spiderman, all flanking a Mexican female nurse in scrubs and a mask. The tagline above it reads A Las Héroes de Verdad, Gracias (To the real heroes, thank you). It is significant in Spanish that the artist wrote “Las” Héroes and not “Los” Héroes. By using the feminine article (las) he is speaking about women, in this case nurses, as the true heroes of the pandemic here in Mexico.

When asked about the mural, Applezman said, “The image is of the nurse because they are the ones who are protecting us, not the National Guard or the Army; they will do so at their due time, but now, the honor is for these doctors and nurses, and everyone who is fighting.”

When questioned about how he hopes his art is affecting the people of Mexico City, he said, “Sometimes we think seeing is believing, but I only tell them to take care of themselves because sometimes those who don’t believe are the ones who fall. We know that everyone can get infected, ourselves, or our colleagues; that’s why I ask people to follow the rules. There are people who are against the system but that is not a reason to not take care of their own health and their families.”

An interesting message from a graffiti artist, someone many in our society would see as “against the system” himself.

It seems, in the time of coronavirus, factions who would have once stood against each other, municipalities and graffiti artists, have found a way to come together to send a message of hope, encouragement and gratitude. And at the same time made our bleak world more colorful and our outlook for the future a bit brighter.

An Artistic Pair

By Eva López García

Editor’s Note:
Mateo López and Chely García are a dynamic and artistic couple who live in Puerto Angel. They have two daughters, one of who is Eva López García (the author of this article). Mateo López is also the grandfather of my daughter Frances. I am a fan of their art work and if you have come to Café Juanita or my cooking school you will have seen some of their work on display. To see more of their paintings and what is available for purchase you can contact their daughter Eva: evartlines@gmail.com

Mateo López

Mateo López Rodríguez, the seventh son of twelve, was born in Puerto Angel, Oaxaca, on September 21, 1948. His mother was assisted by a Zapotec midwife who cut Mateo’s umbilical cord with a machete.

In the modern world, life developed, but in Puerto Angel there were still no colours for a child with artistic aspirations. He began his first mural at the age of fifteen on a wall of the old house that his father had built. With charcoal chalks from his mother’s fire pit, he drew a compass that his father had taught him so as never to lose his way.

Mateo, who has Mixtec and Kuna ancestors who had sailed the sea; this influenced his identity and his art. He began a life at sea as a diver and has never stopped swimming and exercising. For Mateo painting counts as spiritual and mental exercise. Throughout his life he has collected knowledge and experiences that he captures in his oil painting and writing poetry.

Throughout his career he has produced more than 500 art works. Many of them are in different countries; currently he is trying to collect photographs of the works that he does not possess.

Mateo López has four children. He tries, through art, to give a little of his heart to each of them, either by giving them his portrait or by showing them his lifestyle on the path of painting, as he says “I only had primary education. Only six years of schooling in the small school in the Puerto Angel of 1955, and after that I had the best school – life.”

His forms of expression are writing and painting; his style evinces the patience he imposes in pointillism and his lyrical artistic roots. Mateo describes his painting as the technique of inner awakening; knowing yourself is a full-body window to happiness and the realization of the spirit.

Chely García

Araceli García García (Chely) was born November 12, 1976, in San Pedro Pochutla, Oaxaca, a market town that served as a distribution center for mountain coffee beans that would be exported from Puerto Angel. She was the eleventh daugther of twelve children; her family comes from the Oaxaca Valley, which has traditions and customs rooted in the cultivation of the land and the harvest. She spent part of her childhood with her family on a coffee plantation in San Pedro el Alto, high in the mountains north of Pluma Hidalgo.

As a child, she had artistic aspirations for painting. Her work today embodies her experience in that beautiful mountain landscape; flowers and exotic fruits with bright colours, the work of harvesting coffee, the horses and all the energy that producing a cup of coffee entails, the expressive faces of women who were the first to awaken each day to prepare the comal, tortillas, salsa, egg and coffee to feed the men who left on the long day of harvest.

Chely now lives facing the sea. She has dedicated herself to observing it very closely and paints it as a magical and mysterious world. Her magical surreal style with bright colours always has the distinct feeling of Mexico as it is lived in Oaxaca, often showing landscapes of small towns. Her work depicts times of sowing, of traditions like Todos Santos, when cempasúchil (marigolds), Saint Teresa and archwood flowers are harvested to elaborate our altars. Women are Chely’s favorite subjects; she captures them with different expressions, according to their memories or feelings. Angels also figure prominently in her works, they are her dreams and longings.

Chely has been dedicated to painting for 25 years. Instilling in her family the patience and inspiration that comes with a painter’s lifestyle, she is a disciplined, flexible, loving and sensitive mother. Her motto is “I paint because I feel, I am sensitive, and sensitivity is not a weakness is a gift.”

A Shift Towards Realism: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

By Randy Jackson

Having a young son at a certain age when the Ninja Turtles were all the rage meant I knew the Ninja Turtles were named after four Italian Renaissance artists (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael). Raphael (he was the one with the red eye sash) was the biggest of this group of unlikely superheroes. He was a snapping turtle and the leader of these anthropomorphic crime fighting turtles living in the sewers of New York City.

Until recently, beyond the Ninja Turtle character, I was only vaguely aware of the Renaissance artist Raphael’s contribution to the world of art. That changed when I came across a photo of a certain painting, and not even a painting by Raphael himself, but rather a painting by one of a group of painters trying to resist Raphael’s influence in painting some 400 years after Raphael set brush to canvas.

Raphael – Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) – is widely considered to be the consummate high Renaissance painter. Following the traditions of Greek and Roman art in which artists sought to portray beauty in the ideal human form, Raphael painted humans with grace and dignity and with backgrounds of an idealized and ordered world. His influence endured for centuries and was particularly revered in the Victorian era in England.

By the mid-19th century, though, a group of young, highly talented artists resisted the historical style of painting practiced by Rafael and others. This group became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The particular painting that caught my roaming attention was one of the Brotherhood’s earlier works portraying sacred subjects in a stark and realistic way. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was titled Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). The Annunciation was the announcement by the Angel Gabriel that the Virgin Mary would bear the son of God in her womb.

Normally paintings of the Annunciation are portrayed as glorious events with a winged Angel Gabriel bathed in golden light towering over a pious Mary who is looking demure and apparently calmly accepting this dramatic world-changing event in which she would be a central figure.

In this painting, however, Mary is a scared, uncertain young girl, still in her sleeping clothes, pulling away against the wall of her tiny room while a draped but otherwise naked, all powerful angel tells her of her role as commanded by God.

This painting was like a gut punch to me, so it was of no surprise to learn of the powerful reaction against the painting in Victorian society of the time.

The painting was considered scandalous and morally shocking. The author Charles Dickens wrote scathing criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, calling them “odious, repulsive, and revolting.” Dickens articulated the concern that an artist’s search for beauty is inspired by an ideal and not found in the raw reproduction of reality.

In fact, this painting of the Annunciation was not the work that drew the most scorn and criticism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The full weight of condemnation fell upon them with their showing of a painting by John Everett Millais titled Christ in the House of His Parents.

In this painting, a thin timid looking Christ is being comforted after an apparent injury by an old, ordinary looking Mary. A bald, unremarkable Joseph works at his table, while John the Baptist, a half-naked street urchin, appears cowed and subdued with a bowl of baptismal water. This depiction of the sacred family of Jesus with details such as toenails that are broken and dirty shocked Victorian society. It was viewed by many as scandalously sacrilegious. Queen Victoria had this painting brought to her so she could see for herself what all the controversy was about. This left the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood nearly broken by the condemnation.

The challenge by the Brotherhood was to the Renaissance portrait of beauty as an ideal in art. This method of painting was represented by Raphael’s style and artists espoused it centuries. However, the Pre-Raphaelite kerfuffle was not just a reaction against a false ideal of beauty. It needs to be seen in the wider context of the time. Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (a 1969 BBC television series, followed by a history textbook) has a segment/chapter on “The Worship of Nature.” Clark argues that starting in the year 1725, Christianity as a source of creativity markedly declined, especially in England. Over the following hundred years people came to the notion that divinity is expressed in Nature. The artistic shift towards realism portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an expression of this shift away from the artistic notions of the ideal and towards nature as it actually is.

As radical as these early works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seemed to be at the time, they were also understood by some as an expression of the concurrent Naturalism Movement. One such person was the highly influential artist, philosopher, patron, and social thinker John Ruskin. Ruskin became a principal defender of the Pre-Raphaelites against their critics. He encouraged all artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Nature, according to Ruskin, should be reflected in art in a realistic way, not an idealized version. What’s more, Ruskin believed truth is reflected in realism.

Ruskin’s view and influence won the day and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood went on to achieve outstanding success in their lifetimes. They became significant contributors to the evolution of art in the western world. The Brotherhood quickly moved beyond the paintings of sacred subjects discussed here. The majority of their subsequent paintings portrayed the stark reality of many aspects of everyday life in the Victorian era; we should note that Charles Dickens, shocked as he might have been by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, addressed shocking Victorian social conditions throughout his novels.

Much more information is readily available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including:

A BBC Documentary on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkWONORqHZw

Artist Movements on the Art Story Website:
https://www.theartstory.org/movement/pre-raphaelites/artworks/

A BBC Drama series on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “Desperate Romantics”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAiv1_qZ2Cw