I have no idea where most of my art comes from. Images just seem to burst unbidden from my subconscious. If anything, when I set out to portray “something” it’s usually forced looking and a failure. At the moment, my studio walls are covered with four-foot high figures cut from brown wrapping paper. They are dancing with such abandon that I call them Maenads, drunken followers of the ancient Greek god, Dionysus. The closest thing I’ve seen to anything like them are Matisse’s giant cutouts on the frieze of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, but, if you’ll forgive my hubris, I think mine are more interesting.
The images are derived from small paper cutouts of figures I paste on cheap paper plates - my 21st century “Arte Povera” version of Greek kylixes or drinking cups. At night, before I go to sleep, I usually listen to (not watch) some fairly uninteresting talk shows and while my conscious mind is distracted, I cut 5” figures freehand out of black or tan paper. Then I stick them on a lampshade to get a better look. (Post #132) and the next day, I glue them down onto cheap paper plates, the 300 for $3.99 variety. I think of them as Ancient Greek in origin because of their fluted rims, a common border motif known as a ‘tongue’ pattern. I’ve always assumed that they came from my twenty years of teaching art history at the University of Connecticut – influenced by the incomparable Greek ceramics that survived millennia when much else was lost.
It recently dawned on me that my interest in the dancing figures goes much further back than my art history days – it goes back to my childhood, when my mother took me into downtown Manhattan once a week to study Interpretive Dance – the innovative techniques of Isadora Duncan. From the time I was five until about the age of 11, I took lessons from two disciples of Duncan’s style: Irma Duncan, one of Isadora’s adopted daughters (they were called the “Isadorables”), and Julia Levien, who also studied with Duncan. Barefoot, dressed in a chiffon toga my mother had made for me and with a wreath of flowers in my hair, I attempted to hop, skip and jump with the prescribed abandon of a true follower of Dionysus, the supposed basis for Duncan dance. My career ended when it became evident that while I had my heart in it, my body was just not up to the demands. I was relatively tall for my age and noticeably delicate (skinny), while the really good Duncan dancers were stocky and muscular. Nature, it seemed had other plans for me.
Since I had no “ear” for music, the only remaining option was to become an artist. So, here I am, decades (many, many) later, turning my failure as a Duncan dancer into another art form, filling my studio with cut-out figures who enjoy dancing to a gypsy fiddler – the best I can come up with since no one really knows what 5th century B.C. music actually sounded like.
At any rate, I never made the connection between my short-lived career as a Duncan dancer and the wrapping paper cutouts chasing each other around my studio wall until a few weeks ago when one of my beautiful granddaughters came for a visit. We spent the afternoon looking at old family photos and came across a couple that were taken of me at a performance when I was about ten or eleven years old. There are even shadows on the wall that look like my recent silhouettes - I’m the skinny one with the long hair on the right and in the group photo, I’m the second from the left in the middle row.