(Second and final part of the “silhouette” post)

A recent article in the Harvard Magazine, November-December 2014, “Shadow Art,” presents the history of the silhouette art form.

Named after Etienne de Silhouette, “a penny-pinching minister of finances under Louis XV, whose tenure was brief because parsimony rarely has a big following… The phrase à la Silhouette came to mean doing things on the cheap.”

The “cheap” concept evolved to become conflated with the economical and growing art form of commissioning portraits cut as silhouettes in lieu of sitting for painted portraits. It became a popular “craze” from the last quarter of the 18th C to the middle of the 19th C. As photography gained popularity—which was another “new” intriguing art form—silhouette work started losing its popularity.

An exhibit “Silhouettes: from Craft to Art,” was mounted during the summer of 2014 at the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. The exhibit is reviewed in a blog post linked here, which includes beautiful images from the late 1700s which are held in the collection of the Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard university's Houghton Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

Here is the description from the Houghton Library blog post:

A draftsman sat behind a movable standing frame which held a sheet of glass and that leaned against the shoulder of the sitter. The draftsman drew the outline of the sitter’s profile on a piece of translucent, oiled paper placed on the frame. A stick of wood or iron attached to the middle of the frame supported the sheet of glass and could be moved by the draftsman.

A recent exhibit Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880 – 1910 during 2014 at the Columbus Museum of Art exhibited several examples of a variation of a form of silhouettes as “shadow theater art” designed for the cabaret, Le Chat Noir in Paris.

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia Collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.

The individual pieces conveyed silhouette-style scenes attached to a stick that would be raised above a screen (as in a puppet theater style) and narrated to convey the story via a “Shadow play.” Henri Rivière was the designer of the shadow theater scenes displayed in the exhibit.

I was profoundly moved at how the silhouettes in the shadow theater pieces dramatically presented a battle as a single cutout “scene.” It was almost a “hair-stand-on-end” moment to imagine the earthy aroma in the tavern, the boisterous crowd, talking and jostling, and then the passion of the French peasants, laborers, and countrymen captivated by the animated storytelling of the narrator. So much is left unsaid and left to the imagination in a shadow play –I presume in a curious way, like sitting on the edge of a seat listening to a radio program.

The shadow theater images in the exhibit (as shown in the image here) are another example of how powerful various art forms can be. Somehow the contrast of the black and white and the detail strangely conveys more emotion and the impending movement than many full-color paintings of the same scene might connote, or even a poorly executed movie with actual moving images of the scene.

For more information on silhouette art and on contemporary artists, see my previous blog post at artinthecenter.wordpress.com

Note: as discussed in the previous post, for Joy Yarbrough and the silhouettes she creates, she cuts them freehand while holding the paper and scissors in the air and looking at her subject. She does not use a traditional set-up as shown in this post.

I’m not going to get us bogged down in a discussion of negative and positive space or whether the artist is a “mark maker” or a “shape maker”—because among artists that can call for more than one bottle of wine to resolve.

But there are times when the shape is the vision. These artists are drawn to the silhouette. They are compelled to capture that edge and what is confined within it or excluded from it, at exactly a moment in time.

Cut out shapes

Cutting paper is something most of us have done from a very young age. I remember fondly the strings of cut-out people holding hands or the “snowflakes” cut from paper in elementary school.

The French artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) started the “cut-outs” part of his career later in life when his health prevented him from traditional painting. As someone driven to produce (which is a curse or gift of most great artists, I think), he sought an art form that suited his then-physical aptitudes and abilities. He took scissors to paper and created imaginative, colorful cutouts.

The themes were built on ones he was familiar with in other media (nudes, patterns, faces, natural or organic shapes, etc.) But the interpretations were vastly different because the cut outs initially caught the eye through the silhouette—the shape—of the piece of paper. His work is huge and diminutive. Some pieces interpreted into massive tapestries and into the embellishments for churches or giant walls of enormous dancing shapes.

An excellent blog post, “Matisse’s Cut-outs as Environments” discusses a major exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs which had been at the Tate and is now at the Museum of Modern Art through February, 8, 2015. CBS “Sunday Morning” recently aired a story on the exhibit.

Charles Kessler, a former art historian and critic and the blog post author, says, “Until fairly recently, this late work of Matisse’s… was wrongly belittled as the frivolous art of an old man. I’ve long believed, however, that Matisse’s innovations are similar to, and at least as radical as, what the Abstract Expressionists were doing at the time; and that Matisse’s cut-outs should be considered among the greatest work of the twentieth century. They certainly are among the most joyful art ever made.”

I agree. They are unique, experimental brilliant, joyful, and appear spontaneous. To clarify—the cutting of them appears spontaneous. When you see pieces in person, the speed at which things were cut is apparent through the rough edges, the clunky curves or uneven “zigzags.”

Large piece of contemporary art with stylized images of flowers and a line drawing of a face.

From the National Gallery, Matisse’s “Large composition with Masks.” Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alterations to the image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shifted/4662154402/in/photostream/

Yet, as the master he was, there was great precision and mulling over the exact way the pieces should be mounted or amassed to create the effect he was striving for in the ultimate composition. On some of the pieces, there are often many if not hundreds of pinholes indicating a repositioning of the piece as a part of embodying Matisse’s vision.

A collage of cut-out shapes in various colors and pasted on a white background.

A Matisse Cut-out. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alteration to the image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/minneapolisinstituteofarts/ -

In the blog post, Kessler continues, “Matisse described his new medium in a 1952 interview with André Verdet (Pretiges de Matisse): ‘… drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement linking line with color, contour with surface.’ Cut-outs are simultaneously drawing and painting.”

For most of us to really “see” the silhouette, the outside shape, is challenging. Things are always moving. The color of the world is distracting to “reading” the edge. We cannot separate the foreground from middle ground and background. So I am constantly astonished by the exacting and stunning work of a good friend of mine, Joy Yarbrough, who among other things, is a silhouette artist.

She describes how she sees her vision to work on a silhouette of a person, “I block out details and see the basic outline of the person’s profile…much like a person’s shadow. When I am cutting a silhouette of someone, I am trying to capture a bit of their personality, like how a shy child holds its head, or a proud lady.”

“My paper art is chiaroscuro …a study of light and dark contrasts. Technically my ‘drawing’ with scissors is creating a ‘contour’ drawing by cutting freehand a shape with scissors of black paper, and mounting it on white. Whether cutting a portrait of paper or cutting a delicate feather, the outline shape is the beginning of the silhouette.”

Black silhouette of large bird's nest atop telephone wires.

Cut-out silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough, http://www.joyceayarbrough.com

And, just so we are all clear here…. she doesn’t draw anything, and doesn’t use a traditional set-up we may have in mind of a strong light to cast a shadow. She “freehands” cuts by holding the paper and the scissors in the air while looking at her subject. She cuts the silhouette with very sharp surgical “iris” scissors and archival black silhouette paper.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Even with wiggly children, she cuts freehand. And, she has cut “en plein air,” which means outside in the atmosphere, the wind, mist, blazing sun, and deep shadow. With a smile she says, “I’ve cut en plein air unless the wind is really strong, and even in the rain (under a tent) but that isn’t ideal either!”

Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Papercutters around the world

Joy describes meeting other artists who use paper as an artistic medium, “Belonging to the Guild of American Papercutters, I have met artists from many countries. Americans are most familiar with German or Swiss Scherenschnitte, but many cultures do some form of paper cutting: Polish Wycinanki, Japanese Kiri-e, Spanish Papel Picado, Danish Papirsklip (the link is a YouTube video with a song in Danish about papercutting!), Chinese Jianzhi and the Jewish paper cuttings of Mishrahs and ketubot.

“Visiting China and Poland, I tried their techniques and tools firsthand, using scissors from China which can cut many layers of tissue thin paper, and cutting with sheep shears in Poland!”

Another contemporary American artist who uses silhouette is Kara Walker. Her graphic images boldly present her comment on social injustices.” (The link is from a 2007 exhibit at the Walker, Minneapolis, one of my favorite art centers.)

In her YouTube video, “Silhouettes and Pastels” Yarbrough demonstrates her technique and presents examples of her exquisite silhouettes. On her website, Joy Yarbrough Fine Art, she features a portfolio of her work. Her art has been exhibited throughout the US, including the Pittsburgh Center for Contemporary Craft, PA; St Louis Artist Guild, MO; Highfield Hall & Garden in Falmouth, MA; and the GAP National Museum in Somerset, PA; Worldwide, she has had her work exhibited in Germany and China and it is held in private collections all over the world.

(See LeftBankArtBlog.blogspot.com for more art posts. Also, read the intro to the exhibit on the respective museum landing pages for more about the exhibit. To contact Ms. Yarbrough about a commission, contact her via her website: joyceayarbrough.com)

I am dividing this blog on Silhouettes into two parts. The second will follow in a few days.

On the Theme of Art in Nature and the City

Driving through some of the more challenged parts of my community I observed the grass thriving in some of the blocks where abandoned homes had been taken down. How nice the grass looked as opposed to the decrepit burned out buildings! But then I wondered how much the city spends on mowing grass on these lots and how the grass we plant can be high maintenance.

Close-up photo of bright magenta-colored flower head of clover.

Close-up shot of the flower of red clover in Northern Ireland. © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Copyrighted but licensed for use.

I wondered, why doesn’t the city consider alternative cover vegetation that doesn’t take as much TLC? One that may offer a secondary benefit as well. Such as sweet clover.

Photo of field of white clover with bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds.

Field of clover near Upwey, Dorset, Great Britain. © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Bees love it. It doesn’t grow too high. It is hardy and adaptable. And, who knows, you may find a lucky four-leaf clover amongst the vegetation. (Or plant the variety that is four-leafed.)

Or the city could try a field of sunflowers?

A field of yellow sunflowers on a sunny day.

Sunflower Field, Ann Arbor Township, MI.
By Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’d use a dwarf variety so they are not as susceptible to wind and don’t create a visual impediment to traffic. Sunflowers are very comfortable in dry conditions as well as pretty crummy soil (think of Kansas—no offense, Kansas. Just sayin’).

A sun flower created as a piece of art out of strips of wool.

An example of a sunflower that was created by an artist in Minnesota as a hooked rug creation. For more on rug hooking, see my post on this blog.

Sunflowers are great for birds—or people—who feast on the seeds. And, there is no denying that a field of sunflowers is glorious.

Or a lovely ground cover like thyme or oregano.

Small garden pot of a young oregano plant.

A small pot of oregano grown from seed. It is easy to start and spreads on its own if hardy. “Megan” Flickr photo. “Wild zaatar oregano.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/tofuttibreak/4627017920/ © Copyright Megan, but licensed for non-commercial use with attribution.

Super-easy to plant, these both spread on their own and serve the same purpose as grass to eliminate a dirt plot in the city. Even if you don’t harvest the herb, it provides a great scent if you walk through it or pluck it.

A little variety in the cover crop on vacant lots would get us away from the high maintenance of grass and theoretically be an edible alternative, too. Plus the beautiful artistry in the diversity of plant life, the delicious exotic fragrances from herbs, or the stunning complexity (and mathematical precision) of flowers such as sunflowers, are in themselves significant reasons to consider more diversity to the plantings in the city lots. I’m not suggesting it’s as easy as suggesting an idea and an idea can be implemented. There are a million reasons to continue the status quo.  But, i was just wondering about “what ifs…” when I saw the vacant lots now filled with grass.

This is a watercolor painting I created

A snow-covered bird's nest tucked into the branch of a tree, with brightly colored ribbons woven into the nest.

A snow-covered bird’s nest with brightly colored ribbons woven into the nest. (C) Jane M. Mason, 2014.

a few years ago depicting a bird’s nest intertwined with holiday ribbons.

Oh my….the experiences I have had trying to get birds to make nests using the beautiful ribbons and strands of gorgeous wool, satin, and silk that I have intentionally selected for them. I thoughtfully draped these tantalizing textile appetizers on shrubs, in trees, across porch banisters, and near bird feeders in my yard.

I discovered that no bird ever had taken any of my elegant or brilliantly dyed strands of fabric. (As much as I could scientifically ascertain with in my yard…) Over the months I watched the strands get rained on, snowed on, and bleached from the sun. Unstarched and abandoned, they sadly sank farther into the core of the shrubs or blew off branches into the flotsam of spring rains.

Having some bird families who perennially made nests at a convenient eye-height in my yard I would studiously examine what they had chosen for their nests instead of my offerings. I found plastic six-pack straps, muddy paper, twine, sticks, mud, leaves, chunks of Styrofoam, and other “trash” in the nests…. it was mind-boggling to contemplate why these common, discarded remnants of modern life were preferable to intentional products of a weavers or textile artists.

In the final analysis, I had to accept it: whether considering functional art, or art for arts’ sake, it
really is in the eye of the beholder, eh?

So this “Winter Nest” watercolor painting with the brightly colored holiday ribbons is a wishful figment of my imagination.

Phones have the capability to take great photos. But, that doesn’t mean every photo snapped is great. As an artist, art teacher, and former professional photographer, I have gathered these questions to ask yourself before heading out on your next photo shoot for some great landscape shots:

1) What are you trying to communicate? Where do you want the viewer to focus? What’s the main point? That main point in your photograph is your FOCAL POINT. Sometimes it is a small specific area in a photo; sometimes it is the whole scene—such as a sunset. In the sunset photo, we all understand what the point is: awesome sky. In the bird picking up the fish on the beach, you can center the focal point, but generally it’s more appealing to scoot it a bit to one side or the other. In art, our sense of composition typically prefers an arrangement that is not “perfectly balanced.” Just as no human face is exactly the same on each side, we are comfortable with variations in symmetry and balance.

Brilliant yellow sunset, tree top horizon, dramtic clouds in sky

Timing and patience is essential to capturing scenes such as this.

Horizontal photo. Pelican grasping fish in large beak, FLorida beach with wet sand, shorebirds surround pelican

A pelican grabbing a fish on a beach in Florida. You want your viewer to be thinking about what the bird is grabbing.

Horizontal photo. Fall foliage, Holden Arboretum, Ohio. Orange, red, golden trees. Tall fountain sraying water in pond.

The focal point is the fountain at the Holden Arboretum, Fall 2014. The randomness of the background allows the fountain to be centered in the image. Note the circle of foliage creates almost a frame around the fountain, directing the viewer’s eye where you want it to be.

Horizontal photo. Two dogs chasing each other, running on beach, gray-colored sand, surf, and cloud-filled sky near Gloucestor, MA.

Dogs playing on a beach bring joy to any dog lover. Note these dogs also help suggest scale to the enormous gray vista near Gloucester, MA.

2) How do you want to say it? This is your POINT OF VIEW. People tend to shoot photos straight on at their own eye level. New technologies such as “Gopro” cameras on dogs, drones, skateboarders, etc., have helped the world see that an unusual point of view can be especially engaging. Don’t be afraid to tilt the camera. Lift above your head and shoot down. Lie on the floor and shoot toward the heavens.

Vertical photograph. Fall foliage, orange, yellow leaves, tree canopy, Cleveland Metroparks. 2014.

Looking up Into the tree canopy at Cleveland Metroparks. October 2014.

Feels warm and sunny just looking up into the palms.

Feels warm and sunny just looking up into the palms.

3) How will you help the viewer enter the scene? Two good techniques are SCALE and a PATHWAY. Scale can be indicated by including something human-made, such as a fence, or the drinking glasses in Siena, Italy. Or, an actual path into the photo allows the viewer to mentally step into the photo and walk the path. Your landscape reached out and grabs a viewer if he feels he can walk right into the scene.

Horizontal photo. Serene forst scene with dramatic tall trees and small bench. Cleveland Metropark.

The wooden bench tucked at the bottom of the tree in this summer scene at a Cleveland Metropark invites a visitor to pause and absorb the serenity.

Square photo. Bright summer day. Tuscan scene looking into hills outside Florence, Italy. Olive trees. Vineyards.

A bistro table in Siena, Italy, in view of the vineyards and olive orchards. The solitude and casualness of the scene is tempting for the viewer to jump in and sit at the table enjoying an espresso with some biscotti.

Horizontal photo. Bog and forest vegetation surrounds wooden boardwalk with a person in the distance walking on the path. Late afternoon sun creates deep shadows.

The boardwalk on the Wahkeena Nature Preserve, Fairfield County, OH. The boardwalk beckons the viewer to enter the scene.

4) What will make the image pop? A POP OF COLOR will catch the eye, and generally as the viewer continues to examine the photo, the pop of color pulls her eye back to the intense splash of color. It generates eye flow which tends to force the viewer to linger on the image. This is human nature. Our brain is trained to identify things which stand out against their backgrounds. A red male cardinal rustling in a tree. The movement of a deer in front of forest shrubbery.

Horizontal photo. Ancient metal gates partially open to bright pasture that leads to deep forest.

The beautiful teal color of the fence is an appealing counterpoint to the natural bright greens, whites, and dark shades of the vistas beyond. The colors are so striking in their juxtapositioning that it is difficult to pull ones eyes away. Plus the partial opening of the gate is an inviting pull to enter the forest outside the gate.

Horizontal photo. Old masonry wall forground. Glass vessels set on ledge. Vase with bright red poppies. Urns of summer flowers. Background two cypress trees and long view of Tuscan countryside with vineyards, olive orchards, ancient buildings.

A vase of a few brightly colored poppies create a striking pop of color against the dark Cypress trees. The drinking glasses and copper vessel give a sense of scale and a touch of impromptu casualness.

Vertical photo. Tight shot in shade of hillside. Lush vegetation such as hostas, landscape grasses. Unusual green colors.

The unexpected silver-green color of the grasses on this bank at the Holden Arboretum, Cleveland, OH not only create a visual interest, but the “weeping” effect of the foliage creates eye movement that flows diagonally through the image. The tree trunk crossing to the left creates a “cross current” to allow the eye to flow to the left and start entering the photo again. Even the scattering of the fall leaves across the bottom of the image presents a musicality to the image that continues to delight a viewer.

5) When should you use special FXs? I tend to prefer more natural images although many times for fun, to create or amplify an emotion, or simply to experiment, you may elect to add an effect. In the photo with the yellow finch, the bird had flown across my yard and landed on the external side of my window screen. I had time to grab my phone before it zipped away. But the screen was distracting. Using a standard filter on my Android, I created a vignette with a theme, and it minimized the distraction caused by the screen. On the winter landscape photo, the image was primarily two colors (blue and black) and seemed a bit flat. By using another standard filter on an Android, I created an emotional context for the image that seems to emphasize the stark, solitary frigidness of the scene.

Horizontal photo. View from inside of room to small yellow finch songbird attached to exterior of a window screen. Airmail dotted band applied to top of photo.

The generic filter on the Android created a post card or “air mail” effect on the little finch that landed on my window screen. the effect minimized the distraction of the screen between the viewer and the bird.

Horizontal photo. Exterior edges appear torn or roughed up. Intensity of color amplified through filter. Winter snow leading into forest scene. Intense blue, black and blue-gray snow.

The filter from the Android created an emotional tone to the winter photo.

Some of the images in this post, such as the one with the glasses on the ledge in Siena, have incorporated the answers to several of the questions. This strengthens them.

All these photos (except for the two included under “FXs”) are straight from a camera. None of the scenes was composed. Each one was shot in situ—exactly as it appeared. This isn’t required when you shoot your photographs. You are the artist and you can compose scenes and you can manipulate photos. But if you start with a strong image, life is easier. And, your photos will look like you know how to think like a photographer.

I walk through cemeteries for serenity and inspiration. Instead of finding them creepy, I find them clarifying.

An angel at a grave in Chicago.

An angel at a grave in Chicago.

The art on the headstones as well as the poetry or frankness of the eulogies intrigue me. In addition to the basic “who” and “when” on the headstone, the additional text or the art within the cemeteries conveys the funereal expectations of the dominant culture.

When I lived in the North End in Boston, I lived across from Copps Burying Ground Cemetery. Robert Newman was the sexton in the Old North Church, who hung the lanterns on April 18, 1775 to communicate “one if by land” and “two if by sea.”

He is one of the patriots buried in Copps Burying Ground.

HEadstone of Robert Newman, patriot buried in Copps Burying Ground, Boston.

Headstone of Robert Newman, patriot buried in Copps Burying Ground, Boston.

From season to season, on the top edge of his headstone people left coins, American flags, notes, and other mementoes. It was very moving.

Sometimes when I visited and there were no coins, I added a handful from my pocket so other visitors who came after me could experience the remarkable pondering about the practice that I experienced each time.

Also, in Copps Burying Ground is a headstone that has been re-purposed. The front marks the passage of a child. A six year old girl, as I recall. Yet, on the reverse of the headstone is cursive writing that apparently was associated with another grave.

A re-purposed headstone. The "current" information is on the opposite side.

A re-purposed headstone. The “current” information is on the opposite side.

At some time, the headstone had been unearthed, cut to a new smaller shape and carved on the opposite side.

Very thrifty of these Bostonians 150 years ago.

An additional photo of Copps Burying Ground, North End, Boston, MA.

An additional photo of Copps Burying Ground, North End, Boston, MA.

The tomb of President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding is a huge edifice. It signifies the contemporaneous popular opinion of a president who died in office. If it were built today, it most likely would be a less formidable shrine. Although, it is magnificent, so I’m glad it was about 90 years ago.

The tomb of President and Mrs. Harding in Marian, OH.

The tomb of President and Mrs. Harding in Marian, OH.


View of the columns and steps leading to Harding’s tomb.

In Paris, a photo of the tomb of Madame Marie Curie, as well as the tomb of Napoleon. In the image of Napoleon’s tomb, for scale, notice the people standing in the upper-center of the photo.


The tomb of Napoleon.

The tomb of Napoleon.

The stairway leading to Napoleon's tomb.

The stairway leading to Napoleon’s tomb.

The Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, had rows of headstones identifying the departed. Many from the late 1800s and forward had Slavic names. The ornate detail on some of the headstones was reminiscent to me of Ukrainian eggs.

Detail in granite at Bohemian National Cemetery.

Detail in granite at Bohemian National Cemetery.

The patterns carved into the stones convey the artistry of the crafts persons, and a point of view of the fleeting moment of life on earth.

Many headstones showed leaning or fallen crosses or trees.

A leaning cross symbolic of the sacrifices of Christ and the fleeting nature of life.

A leaning cross symbolic of the sacrifices of Christ and the fleeting nature of life.

Trees fallen during a storm at the Bohemian National Cemetery. (Summer 2012.) Also indicative of the fleeting nature of life--as well as the power of storms in the Midwest.

Trees fallen during a storm at the Bohemian National Cemetery. (Summer 2012.) Also indicative of the fleeting nature of life–as well as the power of storms in the Midwest.

Ironically, actual trees that had fallen in a recent storm in the cemetery replicated the symbolism and the drama of crosses on their sides as well as the frequent example of concrete molded to suggest the steadfastness of old noble trees, and presumably of the individual buried there.

Molded concrete popular in the Bohemian National Cemetery.

Molded concrete popular in the Bohemian National Cemetery.

There were many examples of exquisite detail in the carving. One is illustrated in a tile wall accentuating an urn at a dramatic headstone.

Elegance and beauty at a grave site

Elegance and beauty at a grave site

This decorative artistry is in contrast to the sleek, no-nonsense flat headstones at many contemporary cemeteries.

Or, as discovered in a tiny little cemetery outside a teeny little town in  Minnesota, illustrating the practical side of their Norwegian and Lutheran heritage: a brief expression of a cause of death in a headstone says, “Died from a live wire.”

Cemeteries provide a pastoral canvas to display art, to convey the aesthetics of a culture at a point in time, and ultimately to leave many questions unanswered.

Cemeteries can inspire reflection and renewal, and can connect us to culturally instructive, brilliant art and craftsmanship.

My sincere gratitude to all the friends and families of the departed (as well as the countrymen and governments) who chose to commemorate their loved ones and leaders through the sculpture, poetry, and permanence of these headstones, tombs, and cemeteries.

In a tech-savvy, texting-obsessive world, are thumbs and poking fingers at keyboards all we need to create a visual representation of our thoughts? I spend as much time as anyone on keyboards and on smart phones. But, allowing cursive writing to disappear is a shortsighted mistake.

As fallout of the No Child Left Behind law of 2001, and similar legislative standards, penmanship and cursive writing were not being tested. “Increasingly schools gear curricula to excel” at tests that grade the schools, ABC News summarized in an interview with Kathleen Wright of Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of education writing materials.

Since we teach to the test, it became easy to erase cursive out of the classroom with a big “PinkPearl” eraser. (Note the irony that the logo on the eraser is in cursive).

The iconic “PinkPearl” eraser. Identified with its cursive title and distinctive shape.

I taught English at the college level and have volunteered in elementary classrooms, and I “get” the struggle to fit everything into the academic day with all the (outrageous) administrative expectations we put on classroom teachers.

But, a comment to me while I was in the state archives of the Ohio Historical Society got me thinking about the entire topic. The comment was, “With kids not learning cursive, they have no idea what these historic documents say.” Cursive documents can appear like a pattern of undecipherable curls and loops, rather than representing words and thoughts.

My First Argument:

I remember how challenging it was for my younger son to learn the Roman alphabet. As a first-grader he brought me a sheet of his own hieroglyphics and told me he wanted to use his symbols for words and reading. He understood that characters stood for words, but he had a hard time with Roman characters. Eventually the fact that he thought differently paid off for him. Now as a filmmaker, he is able to process and solve problems either globally in a right-brained process, or with more literal linear left-brain thinking.

But his hieroglyphics posed questions for me. There was more to the significance of him bringing me his hieroglyphics than I could completely comprehend then or now.

I believe that in that example somewhere is one of the reasons why it is important to teach cursive. Maybe it is a “black swan” sort of concept. Understanding or being exposed to more sets of hieroglyphics introduces us to the notion that there are others alphabets out there: Roman is not the only alphabet. It introduces the possibility of protocols and systems that exist beyond your native 26-letter plan. To get the drift of the magnitude of this notion, Google “how many letters in the alphabet?”

But in the context of this discussion, what else is learned from reading, writing and specifically cursive writing? Having taught art to elementary kids for a dozen years, I know how fine motor skills for some youngsters is excruciating.

Some cursive text from a journal my grandfather carried in Italy as he traveled through Europe in 1900. He is discussing Renaissance art and the same paintings, sculpture and churches I visited more than 100 years later. Seeing the text in his own hand is very powerful. Can I absorb more of my grandfather’s personality by the energy and grace he conveys through his cursive handwriting?

Yet, the act of connecting the brain to the hand to physically create words taps into different parts of the brain than typing. Anyone with minimal typing skills can talk while typing. Yet, anyone who has spent time writing on a chalkboard while talking knows that it is more difficult. The process of connecting our hand with a tool and moving it physically to shape the letters is overruling our ability to simultaneously talk and think about different words than we are writing. Interestingly science concurs: Brain scans of students who were a “hands-on group” showed greater stimulation in the area of the brain associated with “language comprehension, motor-related processes and speech associated gestures,” than the group that had used a keyboard.

Anne Mangen associate professor at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre was quoted in the ABC story to say, “Handwriting seems, based on empirical evidence from neuroscience, to play a larger role in the visual recognition and learning of letters.”

I know, as an artist, I cannot be involved in serious painting and talking at the same time. Tapping into your right brain, which I theorize is done by using a tool in your hand and physically, muscularly creating a shape, (and not by typing) is an important physical connection to allow creative thinking to be nurtured.

There is sort of nirvana-like state  in creating art when you as the left-brain, analytical thinking person can disappear and there is an exquisite harmony of, I presume, the artistic right brain and the connection of your internal energy to the tool in your hand. You are not even aware that you are creating something. It is not conscious. It is intuitive and almost dreamlike. Time is suspended and the entire world consists of your subconscious and a connection between the tool that is making the marks. In my experience, at that point, my art is beyond my abilities—or truly beyond my conscious abilities. I have done a lot of typing and this has never happened at a keyboard.

For those who may be artistically inclined, the process of competently using a tool—crayon, pencil, pen, brush, or rasp, requires thousands of hours of eye and hand coordination. If we never put tools in hands—except for smart phones, screens and keyboards—will we lose our ability to create art?

Two Pretentious Pumpkins.

This painting is part of my “Maladjusted Vegetables” Series of paintings depicting “vegetables with an attitude.” There was a great deal of alliteration involved in the little stories I made up about each of the vegetables featured. But in the context of this post, I created this alphabet–or some would say, this font– to augment the whimsical quality of the paintings. The “whirliness” of the cursive added to the silliness of the mood of the painting.

My Second Argument:

An entirely different argument raised for me by this question of cursive was: is cursive another language and therefore a natural way to introduce bilingualism to our students?

The study of other languages, allows us to step outside our assumptions and try on someone else’s culture—learn what they value, their sense of humor, their sense of courtesy, their idioms and slang. Additionally, to learn that there exist hundreds of alphabets that have no relation to the Roman alphabet can be an eye opener. Cursive in itself—similar to the sheet of hieroglyphics my son brought me so many years ago—can be an entry point to expanding one’s thinking to understand that these protocols of sticks and curves, characters and icons, are representations of words and concepts.

For example, it has always fascinated me how kids make the jump from looking at a stylized drawing of an apple, let’s say. And we repeatedly say “apple” in the A-B-C book to the child. Then we show her an apple to eat. Somehow the concept of the iconic representation of the flat, two-dimensional picture in a book is translated within her mind to equate to a three-dimensional delicious sweet fruit. Perhaps the apple that is put in her hand is even sliced up and without its skin, so it has virtually no relation to the visual of the apple in the book. But because we as humans can grasp these abstract thoughts, even tiny toddlers can allow these two vastly different concepts to merge into one word and the three-dimensional reality of a wonderful fruit. I think exposure to different alphabets creates another portal to abstract thinking. Where would math and science be without abstract thinking—let alone art! How could the Internet even exist—as well as smartphones?


I don’t know what the long-term effects would be of eliminating cursive, and I’m not sure anyone does. But I recommend we continue to teach it. If not in schools then somewhere! I think it is valuable not only for hand-eye coordination and fine motor development but for the time it gives a child to let her mind wander and think creative thoughts. And for the grounding of the abstract concept that these different symbols represent the same words as the Roman alphabet. I’m an advocate for those who are attracted by it and find it faster, easier or more beautiful and for the ability to create a signature. But also to allow us to continue to decipher our founding documents, diaries and correspondence of our history.

What do you think about cursive?

For some great information on cursive and penmanship, and a wonderful video about the value of teachers and good writing, go to: http://www.zaner-bloser.com/about-us/history

Here’s a paragraph from the site about a developing “penman” in America: “In 1888, Charles Paxton Zaner founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio. The school’s curriculum included courses that prepared students for careers as penmen, who, at that time, wrote by hand most of the documents used by business and industry. The school also trained students to become teachers of penmanship, illustrators, engravers, and engrossers-specialists in the kind of ornamental writing used for diplomas and certificates.”


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