Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mosaic altar 1

(Photograph: Brad Talbutt)

This year I submitted four mosaic "altar pieces" for consideration in the Boise Art Museum Triennial. I made the first cut — some 250 applicants down to 70. But I did not make the second cut, which was far more cruel ... 70 down to 25. But the top 70 artists each got a live studio visit from the BAM curator, something that inspired me to paint my studio walls (rosewood pink, to play up my love of iridescent glass) and hire the very talented artist and craftsman Andrew Traub to hang my pieces as though they were in a museum.
And he did. We chose to build little frames on the backs of the panels so the pieces float a bit off the walls. Not to get too religious about it, but such an arrangement makes sense for altar pieces.
I started thinking of the mosaics as altar pieces for a couple reasons. One, the iridescent glass I use. I find it impossible to not stare at it, which inevitably puts me into a somewhat dopey state that could just as easily be meditative and not quite of this world.
The other reason was more practical. Mosaic is still living down the idea some people have that it's "craft," you know, kind of like sock monkeys. I've never seen mosaic that way ... but then, I'm also a lover and doer of illustration, which has certain reputations of its own.
I thought combining panels into larger, multi-section arrangements would give them some gravitas.
Alas, whatever gravitas I summoned wasn't enough to get me into the show. I'll try again in three years.
This particular mosaic is one I think of as a "storm" altar. I made the big spiral section while I was listening to reports of the Hurricane Katrina disaster on NPR. I couldn't stop listening. I was thinking of turbulance and waves of energy, but also the colors, sometimes lurid, of New Orleans, a city I've visited more times (3) than would really make sense for a westerner like me. Twice, with two different boyfriends. Once on my own to do, of course, mosaic, and look at cemeteries. And smell fragrant flowers the likes of which do not grow west of the Mississippi. And realize how much I love New Orleans gardens, the ones that are overgrown and hidden from the street, but are right in the middle of town, none-the-less.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Masters of Display

Laurel calls Ghanaians the “masters of display.” Indeed. Even lumps of coal in tall gunny-sacks are lined up like little men along the road, with chunks of coal on the top of the bags, arranged like crowns. Big, rough brown yams look elegant when arranged in pyramids.
Ghanaians sell vermillion palm oil in gallon jugs. Even at the most modest road-side joints, the jugs are stacked into architectural forms.

Die Fledermaus on the Equator

Fruit bats congregate in the middle of the city and hang from the trees on a busy road in a neighborhood known as “Area 37.” They fly, even in the daylight, chirping and singing. When they light on a branch, they hang like big black teardrops. A remarkable thing to see is sunlight, shining through the thin skin of a bat’s wing.

The Business of Christianity

Real names of real businesses in Ghana:
- Humble Aluminum
- End Times Communications
- Praise God with Instruments (abbreviated Instrumpts’ on the sign)
- King of Kings Brake Center
- Why Can’t I Thank My Jesus Mini-Mart
- The Holy Innocents Auto Parts
- Thank Jesus Fashion Home

Then there was this one, Right Step Ventures, greeting us every day on our walk home with a gangster, and a baby making a phone call.

And one more, not Christian, but memorable: Mamalee’s Ultimate Night Snacks

The Small Boy System

Ghana, it seems, is without systems. Just because something is true one day, doesn’t seem to mean it will be true again. Ordering food in a restaurant, then getting a breakdown of the check can take an hour. And sometimes, in between ordering, eating, and asking for the check, the prices of the food change.
One system entirely intact, however, is something we came to call the “small boy system.”
Need something? A bag of sugar? A nail? A dish pan? To send a message to someone across town?
In Ghana a small boy is always nearby to make it happen.
A “small boy,” as a small boy himself told us, is any boy 14 years old or younger.
Here is a perfect example of the small boy network at its finest: I was walking in Nungua when I stepped crooked, twisted my ankle and snapped the strap on my sandal.
What to do? Impossible to walk without the strap and Aba House, where we were staying, was far away.
Miraculously, as we stood, looking at my broken shoe, pondering our options, a small boy appeared at my side, offering to help.
We had a quick negotiation and gave him a few bills.
He took my shoe and ran across the street with it, disappearing through a maze of traffic, goats and noise.
In minutes the small boy was back - my shoe repaired, and shined clean – left over change in his hand.
We gave him the change from the repair for his troubles. He appeared delighted, and ran away, back across the street.
The ease of that exchange would have been impossible in the United States.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Scalp confidence 1

Driving through southern Ghana, you will have time to study the roadside, because there will be cars, and vans and tro-tros (Ghanaian version of a taxi) all with engines running, all with exhaust streaming, all keeping you in one place for a long time. Many of the larger trucks will have Christian blessings painted across their backsides. But despite this goodness of spirit, you will be stuck, in the midst of too many cars on roads that are too skinny. And very often deadly.
Stay long in Ghana and you will learn that in some families, every other child has died in a car crash.
But never fear, because as it often does in this, the former colonial Gold Coast, the English language will delight you.
A billboard in the steamy air, a beautiful, smiling woman, advertising personal grooming products that promise "Scalp confidence."
And as you sit there with your caucasian head, waiting for the strand of cars to give way, and for every driver to move on to his home in Teshie, Nungua, or Accra, where a tv provides blue light in the wet air, and troupes of small boys, still in their pumpkin-colored school uniforms, scramble with a soccer ball in the dirt that's like powder, you will consider that scalp confidence is a good goal.
At least something good to start with. Having your head clean and solid and causing you no worries.
On another drive on another day, through a more rural place: a hand-lettered sign in chalk: "fresh cat meat and palm wine."
It may occur to you at this point that you are very far from home, where entrées run more towards "Bronco burgers," named for the local college football team, chef salads, and where "exotic" means adding malt syrup to your chocolate shake.

In the same little town on the way to Kumasi, where "Mr. Murphy's Artistic Hair Theatre" offers barbering and, one would guess, access to scalp confidence, brown, round-bellied goats run beside the road.
They resemble moving bagpipes with legs.

Old women walk along, selling rectangular loaves of bread. The words "love" and "hope," written in batter, are baked into the tops of the loaves.
In another neighborhood, a tall green cactus grows into the road. Someone has carved "love," and names, into its flesh.
In Ghana, you are blessed by commerce, by traffic jams, by bread, by cacti.

(All photographs, except for "love cactus," by Lillian Sizemore)