Some of my readers know that in addition to dealing in antiquities (on a much reduced scale in recent years), I am a professional artist; that is to say, I make a substantial part of my living making and selling my work. I am the studio technician for the ceramics program at my local community college and I work in a range of media, including ceramics, enamels, metal, glass and printmaking.
Shortly before the State of North Carolina, where I currently reside, issued its lockdown orders, resulting in the closure of my employers’ physical campus, I had just completed a couple of works that were not only inspired by the works of antiquity but also offered commentary on ongoing issues relating to the preservation of antiquities. I would like to introduce both of those pieces here.
Pausing at the Shrine of Hygeia
This mixed media (mainly ceramic) sculptural work was begun very near the end of 2019 and completed in February, 2020 — about the time the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread in the U.S. It was, and still is, intended to be one in a group of three works in a series; the other two are on hold for the immediate future.
The series deals with loss. Not the loss of jobs and income, the loss of direct contact with friends and loved ones or the loss of lives resulting from the pandemic. This work deals with the loss of so much of our ancient heritage – the architecture, art and artifacts destroyed over the past 20 years, and especially just the past 5 years from the date of this writing, over much of the Near East and what was once much of the Classical world. One might set a rough start date as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 and continue through to the destruction of Nineveh (my own Assyrian heritage) and Palmyra in 2015-16. This seemed so much more important when I began work on the piece — and it still is but can’t help but be overshadowed by Covid-19.
To the ancient Greeks, Hygeia (Salus to the Romans) was one of the daughters of the healing god Asklepios, along with her sisters, Panakeia (Panacea, meaning cure-all) and Iaso (meaning remedy). In the Classical world, and particularly in the Roman world, there was virtually no distinction to be made between what we call hygiene (the word comes from Hygeia) and good health. This is evidenced by the great profusion of spa complexes and both private and often vast public baths equipped with gymnasia for exercise, as well as complexes that grew up around thermal or mineral springs. The Roman obsession with bathing – an activity that could take all day and include a massage, getting one’s eyebrows plucked ( ! ) and a visit to the library – was part of a regimen that, if balanced, was thought to be an ideal of good health, which included cleanliness, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
The woman crouching in her bath shown here is not typical of how Hygeia was normally depicted. The goddess would be shown fully clothed, holding a snake. Snakes in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean were far less venomous and fewer in number than in the Americas or Australia, for example, and so were considered beneficial creatures in the Classical world. That association is still with us today, in the frequent depiction of a snake wrapped around pharmaceutical symbols. Here I’ve used my own variation on the famous bathing Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), first created by Praxitieles in the 4th Century BC. But rather than a pose in which she is caught off guard by the viewer, I’ve left her undisturbed to go about her business.
The bronze plate with foliate design is based on the so called grotesque style so popular in Florence in the early 1500s, which itself drew upon the exuberant architectural style of the Roman Severan Dynasty of the late 2nd and early 3rd Century AD.
A few notes on technique: The bathing figure is executed in underglaze as pure line drawing and enhanced with iron oxide washes. The bronze plate is roll milled to achieve the scrolling pattern and a light patina of variegated brown and green added. The bulk of the work is executed in white stoneware clay with diluted underglazes and acrylic paint on the heavy ceramic base.
In total the piece measures 14 inches in height, 4 inches maximum width and 3.25 inches in depth front to back.
This work is available for purchase and may be found in the Etsy shop I use for my own artwork (opens in a new window or tab): https://www.etsy.com/listing/791542379/pausing-at-the-shrine-of-hygeia-mixed?ref=shop_home_active_2&frs=1
Untitled Mixed Media Sculpture
I was inspired to create this piece by the ongoing conflict in Yemen, at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. In antiquity, Yemen was home to a series of remarkable civilizations, combining local traditions with many outside influences. One theme in the early art of this area was a style of sculpture that featured flat carved stones with faces in relief in a sort of minimalist style, sometimes with an inscription. Drawing upon this style, I sought to express my sense of grief at the ongoing conflict, in which regional and global powers have fueled the destruction, which includes the destruction of antiquities. I think this face sums up my feelings on the matter.
This piece measures 12.75 inches in height, 12 inches wide at the base and 5 inches in depth. Of this, the ceramic face measures 7 inches in height and 4.5 inches in width. It is composed of a base with two blocks of wood painted in acrylics with overcoats of encaustic (colored wax, applied hot), a curving mount of heavy gauge copper wire, and resting on this a ceramic (stoneware) slab featuring a human face. The face has been glaze fired with red and black iron oxide and a thin application of my own handmade glazes. The face rests on the copper wire by means of two loops on the reverse.
This work is also available for purchase in my Etsy shop (link opens in new window or tab): https://www.etsy.com/listing/803737969/mixed-media-sculpture-ceramic-wood-and?ref=shop_home_active_5&frs=1