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Stella McLennan Roca (1879–1954), a painter known for her landscapes and her influence on the arts community in Arizona.

At Christmas, friends in Minnesota sent a letter that included this update: “Out of the blue in the spring, Mariana was contacted by Lonnie Dunbier, an art historian who was searching for information about Mariana’s grandmother, Stella Roca.

“Lonnie was preparing a series of lectures, to be given in Lincoln, Nebraska, about early Nebraska women artists. Stella [had] grown up in Nebraska City before attending the Chicago Art Institute and moving to Mexico, where she met and married Mariana’s grandfather, subsequently settling in Tucson, where she became a widely acclaimed landscape artist. Over a couple months in the spring, all of Stella’s landscapes that we have were photographed and quite a lot of historical information was exchanged, updated and edited, resulting in a comprehensive biography for use in her lectures.”

What a lovely experience! As a person who saves every letter ever written to her, I thought about what fun it would be if someone contacted me for information like that.

And I’m always interested in women artists, so I went to Wikipedia to learn more. I got a little sidetracked fixing typos in the entry, but I figured out that an offer Roca received through the Art Institute of Chicago to teach in Mexico was what led to her meeting her future husband.

I also read that her “work was known for light colored desert landscapes and glowing mountains” and that she served as president of the Tucson Fine Arts Association in 1932 and “was featured in the ‘Who’s Who in American Art.’ ” I search the internet for some of her work and was impressed. Delightful.

As for being sidetracked, do you know that anyone can edit Wikipedia? People will check up on you, of course, but it is ridiculously easy, and as a former editor, I simply had to fix a couple misspellings and a run-on sentence. If I was wrong to do that, Wikipedia experts will let me know.

Art: Stella McLennan Roca

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Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine by Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter whose reputation is second only to Caravaggio among 17th-century Italian artists.

Lately, I’ve been following a really cool twitter feed called Women’s Art, @womensart1. It’s astonishing how many women, known and unknown, have been creating beautiful works over the centuries. Paintings, embroidery, sculpture, photos, quilts — you name it. The pictures have been an absolute treat.

Speaking of women’s art, I just learned about Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter whose reputation is apparently second only to Caravaggio among 17th-century Italian artists.

Paul Jeromack reported at Art Newspaper that she recently scored a big price at auction. Too bad she doesn’t get to benefit.

“A previously unknown Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine,” writes Jeromack, “sold at Drouot in Paris on 19 December for an artist record of €2,360,600 [about $2.9 million]. …

“The work, which dates from the same period (1614-16) as another Saint Catherine picture by the artist held by the Uffizi, was discovered by auctioneer Christophe Joron-Derem and presented in his sale of European paintings. …

“Lionised as an icon of feminist empowerment and artistic accomplishment since the 1970s … Gentileschi was canny enough to exploit her singular fame as a female painter in the form of self-portraits in the guise of religious or allegorical figures (her most notable depiction by another artist is by her friend Simon Vouet, who portrayed her with her brushes and palette and a wonderfully commanding swagger).  …

“Despite the artist’s popularity, she is not represented in many important museums: neither of the National Galleries in London or Washington, DC, nor the Getty, nor the Louvre, which curiously did not pre-empt the sale under French patrimony laws. While the picture’s relatively modest size of 71 sq. cm would endear it to private collectors, one hopes a major museum would be astute enough to acquire it.” More here.

Don’t you love it when someone “discovers” a lost masterpiece? That’s what I dream of — finding a masterpiece at a garage sale. Or like the blogger Things I Find in the Garbage, finding something amazing dumped on the curb.

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Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library
A Stanley parakeet, one of 42 plates in Edward Lear’s
Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots.

Years ago, I read a biography of Edward Lear in which I learned that Lear had distinguished himself at a young age as an illustrator of nature — long before his playful limericks found an audience.

A new biography by Jenny Uglow brings more details to Lear’s story. And Cara Giaimo has a post about him at Atlas Obscura, where she reviews Peter Levi’s Lear biography.

“Edward Lear was a man unafraid of his own imagination,” writes Giaimo. “In his best-known nonsense poems and limericks, he wrote of things the world has never seen: green-headed Jumblies; toeless Pobbles; oceanic romances between birds and cats.

“But before he began bringing these impossibilities to life, Lear had a different focus: he drew parrots. When he was young, Lear was employed as an ornithological illustrator, and he spent years learning to draw birds, favoring live models in an era when most worked from taxidermy. Before he turned 20, he’d published Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, a critical success, and the first monograph produced in England to focus on a single family of birds.

“Lear was born in London in 1812. One of the youngest of a gaggle of kids. … He was raised mostly by his oldest sister, Ann. According to biographer Peter Levi, it was Ann who taught Lear to draw. …

“Early on in Lear’s childhood, his father went into debt, and his family fell on hard times. When he turned 15, he decided to put his talents to work professionally, and began taking commissions for everything from decorative fans to ‘morbid disease drawings for hospitals,’ as he later wrote a friend. In this way, he explained, he managed to make enough money ‘for bread and cheese.’

“But when he found the time to choose his own subjects, he often made his way to London’s Zoological Gardens. … While many artists of the time relied on taxidermied specimens—which, after all, were better at staying still—Lear preferred drawing live animals, and was known to occasionally enter their cages, so as to get a better look. …

“Lear’s models inspired at least one bit of verse. In December of 1830, he ended a letter to a friend with an account of a parrot-filled day that had left him rather peckish:

‘Now I go to my dinner,
‘For all day I’ve been a-
‘way at the West End,
‘Painting the best end
‘Of some vast Parrots
‘As red as new carrots,—
‘(They are at the museum,—
‘When you come you shall see ‘em,—)
‘I do the head and neck first;
‘—And ever since breakfast,
‘I’ve had one bun merely!
‘So — yours quite sincerely.

“As this poem suggests, the job was rather demanding. … Eventually, though, he boiled the process down to a science. First, Levi writes, ‘A young zookeeper would hold the bird while Lear measured it in various directions.’ Then Lear would make a few pencil drawings of the parrot, in different poses, doing his best to ignore the curious public (although sometimes he drew them, too). …

“By 1831, he and Ann had moved houses to be closer to the Zoo; the next year, he put out what would be his final batch of parrot lithographs, drew up a table of contents, and encouraged his subscribers to bind them into a complete book. He was 19 years old.

“Although he started out expecting to produce 14 sets of illustrations, depicting about 50 species, Lear ended up stopping just short. … He didn’t want to make the same mistakes as his father. ‘To pay colourer and printer monthly I am obstinately prepossessed,’ he explained, ‘[and] I had rather be at the bottom of the River Thames than be one week in debt.’ …

“Levi writes of Lear’s participation in [John] Gould’s Birds of Europe, ‘The queerer the animal the more it arrested him.’ ”

More here.

Lear-inspired plates that my family members have cherished for years.
012518-Edward-Lear-plates

 

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Art: Josie Merck
Mansion Beach, New Shoreham, Rhode Island

Oh, my poetry-loving readers, you are in for a treat! Praised by poets Lisa Starr and Naomi Shihab Nye and US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, among others, a book of paintings and poems that captures a powerful love of a place just became available. It’s Present on Block Island, by poet Nancy Greenaway and painter Josie Merck.

I have written about Nancy Greenaway in several posts, including the time she asked for feedback on her owl poem. Her collaborator Josie Merck is both a fine painter and an extraordinary benefactor of environmental causes. Her love of nature, especially in Rhode Island, is palpable in the art illustrating the collection.

I welcomed like an old friend Nancy’s owl poem, but the other poems were new to me. They cover a variety of themes, especially the joy that the beauty of nature can inspire. But there are also poems about friendships; a poem about a big-shot visitor who failed to engage school children; a moving contribution about a brush with death (the plane’s fuel line froze; “we all now know/ just how we’d handle/ a situation like that”); a funny one about being trapped in brambles near home and calling out for help before deciding to crawl on her belly to safety; and a very touching poem about island great Fred Benson, who lived to 101 and hoped that the afterlife would be something like Block Island.

I enjoyed Nancy’s many intriguing turns of phrase, too — like a new meaning for “weather underground” and the reference to ice cream as George Washington’s “revolutionary dessert.”

You can find the book at http://www.lulu.com. Or you can call the Island Bound Bookstore at 1 401 466 8878, as I did to buy my copy with a credit card. It arrived in the mail soon after.

From “Astonished,” by Nancy Greenaway

“Each morning that I wake
“to sun painting black sky blue
“and inhale ocean-chilled air,
“I am astonished.

“First glance out my window
“grants me cloud migrations
“over Great Salt Pond,
“sails on Long Island Sound.

“I drive to work with crows,
“gulls, hawks, terns, herons
“following overhead,
“pass waddling ducks, walkers,

“check ocean choppiness
“in scene-slots between dunes,
“wave to fellow drivers
“who wave to me in turn. …

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After Brian Bailey started to follow this blog, I took a look at his own WordPress blog. The first thing I saw was the watercolor below. I said, “Oh, wow.” Then I looked through his other drawings and watercolors and liked them just as much. So I want to share the Art of Brian site with you.

I’ve always loved watercolors, the gentle suggestiveness, the uncertainty of how the the paints will run. Although good work takes a lot of skill, there’s an element of the unexpected that to me is about the randomness of experience and the beauty of randomness.

Here are some thoughts from Brian on one of his recent paintings.

“When pulling together the shapes and lines that make up a composition it can be challenging to determine how much information is enough.  Some of my favorite drawings and paintings exhibit a very economical approach to line, saying just enough to let the viewer see what the artist sees.  In recent weeks, I’ve been doing many gesture drawings, as I’ve mentioned before, and I’m trying to let my paintings be, somewhat, more gestural.  I started my painting today outside with lots of light and finished it at home by bumping up the shadows and contrast.  I’m really trying to stop myself from overworking each painting.”

Brian also has an Etsy store. I am liking everything I see there.

Art: Brian Bailey
The Orange Van, Watercolor, 4″ x 4″, © 2015

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Another good lead from the voracious reader of magazines in my household.

This Smithsonian story shows how a relatively simple invention made it possible for the Impressionists to do much more painting outdoors, en plein air.

Perry Hurt writes, “The French Impressionists disdained laborious academic sketches and tastefully muted paintings in favor of stunning colors and textures that conveyed the immediacy of life pulsating around them. Yet the breakthroughs of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and others would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for an ingenious but little-known American portrait painter, John G. Rand.

“Like many artists, Rand, a Charleston native living in London in 1841, struggled to keep his oil paints from drying out before he could use them. At the time, the best paint storage was a pig’s bladder sealed with string; an artist would prick the bladder with a tack to get at the paint. But there was no way to completely plug the hole afterward. And bladders didn’t travel well, frequently bursting open.

“Rand’s brush with greatness came in the form of a revolutionary invention: the paint tube. Made from tin and sealed with a screw cap, Rand’s collapsible tube gave paint a long shelf life, didn’t leak and could be repeatedly opened and closed.

“The eminently portable paint tube was slow to be accepted by many French artists (it added considerably to the price of paint), but when it caught on it was exactly what the Impressionists needed to abet their escape from the confines of the studio, to take their inspiration directly from the world around them and commit it to canvas, particularly the effect of natural light.

“For the first time in history, it was practical to produce a finished oil painting on-site, whether in a garden, a café or in the countryside.” More.

Dear artist friends, I can picture what it would have been like for you traveling by train after an outing to some scenic spot before this invention. “Oh, Madame, I am so terribly sorry. I’m afraid my cobalt pig’s bladder burst!”

Photo: Chrysler Museum of Art
The tin tube, below, was more resilient than its predecessor (the pig bladder), enabling painters to leave their studios.

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For an artsy, literary treat, take a look at the Project Gutenberg version of painter Marsden Hartley‘s out-of-print book, Adventures in the Arts: Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville, and Poets, dedicated to Alfred Stieglitz.

Hard to resist an introduction like this:

“Sometimes I think myself one of the unique children among children. I never read a fairy story in my childhood. I always had the feeling as a child, that fairy stories were for grown-ups and were best understood by them, and for that reason I think it must have been that I postponed them. I found them, even at sixteen, too involved and mystifying to take them in with quite the simple gullibility that is necessary. But that was because I was left alone with the incredibly magical reality from morning until nightfall …

“I was constantly confronted with the magic of reality itself, wondering why one thing was built of exquisite curves and another of harmonic angles. It was not a scientific passion in me, it was merely my sensing of the world of visible beauty around me, pressing in on me with the vehemence of splendor, on every side. …

“It is because I love the idea of life better than anything else that I believe most of all in the magic of existence.”

(Thank you, Ellen Levy, for sending me the link.)

Art:  Marsden Hartley

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I have admired the New England artist James Aponovich for some time but had not seen his paintings up close until the Clark Gallery in Lincoln had a show of his recent work. Amazing!

I am probably not using accepted art history terms, but the paintings  make me think of Italy and the Renaissance and are breathtakingly luminous. He might feature, for example, a large, glorious amaryllis flower in an ornate urn on a wall high over a traditional, distant landscape. You just want to go there.

The work in the current show is the result of Aponovich making up his mind to create a painting a week for an entire year. He succeeds splendidly, often making everyday items like Chinese takeout feel exceptional. For my money, there is not a dud in the bunch. (Although my money can’t stretch to even the smallest of the 52 pictures.)

I am so grateful to galleries that make work like this free for anyone who walks in off the street to view. Museums, wonderful as they are, don’t often let you in free.

Read Aponovich’s blog about the 52 weeks. Cate McQuaid in the Globe captures the essence of the show. Check her out, too.

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Today I went to the last performance of Red, a drama about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko at the SpeakEasy Stage. It starred the inimitable Thomas Derrah with a young actor who was new to me, Karl Baker Olson.

It’s always interesting to read reviews of shows that touch different creative realms. For example, an opera critic who reviews Porgy and Bess might have a different take from a theater critic.

In the case of Red, theater critics were full of praise, but an art critic I read found the story thin.

Not being either kind of critic, at least not at the moment, I thought it moving, well acted, and well directed. The set by Cristina Todesco and featuring Rothko’s studio was amazing, dim, with the chapel-like quality Rothko found necessary for communing with a painting and seeing it vibrate.

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