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Chewing with the Paper Chipmunk

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mrs. Delany, Part II

It was in the mid 1990s and we were getting ready for a trip to the UK. As I compiled a list of places I'd hoped to visit, I showed my husband a picture of one of Mary Delany's 18th C. "paper mosaics" (as she called them) in an old book. How nice, I said, if it turned out that I got to see one at the British Museum (which houses her work). He, a university researcher, told me to write to the B.M. and request to see the collection. I think I laughed. I had no academic affiliation. But I wrote anyway. They replied that I should call to arrange an appointment after I'd arrived, and to be sure to bring my passport to the Students' Room in the Department of Prints and Drawings when I got there.

I'd expected to spend a couple of hours looking at the Delanys. Given the context in which I'd only ever seen pictures of her work--old black and white crafts books and the like--I'd been under the impression that the paper mosaics were quaint little flower pictures--probably a curiosity, really.

Then I saw them in person. I was astonished by their intricacy and ingenuity. They had just the right kind of balance that collage work should have. They weren't pictures of flowers that happened to be done in cut paper, but, rather, the cut paper aspect was an integral part of their being. It provided a texture and blending of space and a sculptural element that another medium simply could not provide. How, I wondered, could these amazing, botanically accurate plant portraits in paper not be given more credit for their place in the history of collage?

But, then again, work in paper has traditionally never been taken all that seriously in the art world. It has been considered the stuff of commercial displays and folk crafts, unless, of course, it was taken up as a side venture by an established painter, รก la Picasso or Matisse. Then it's been innovative. If it was done by an 18th C. female amateur and the subject matter was flowers...

What was originally supposed to have been an hour or two in the Students' Room turned, instead, into days of complete immersion in the Mary Delany collection. It was hard to pull myself from these incredible bits of cutting and pasting history.

And, it should be noted, history is a key word here. For Mary Delany herself was an interesting person. She was an 18th Century aristocrat who knew the King and Queen and their family. She mingled in circles with Handel and Swift, among others. The letters she wrote have been collected and published and are famed to this day. Many of the paper mosaics have, I discovered, notations on the back that recorded events that occurred as she worked on each piece. These include such things as visits from members of the Royal Family. These dated to around when the American Revolution was happening. She began to make the paper mosaics when she was 72, and continued until her eyesight failed ten years later. She made nearly 1,000 of them.

Fashions change, in art and opinion, and these days I'm beginning to feel vindicated. Mrs. Delany's reputation in collage, and, indeed, the status of art made from paper in general, is rising. I've been enjoying the recently released--and rather lush--companion book/catalogue for Mrs. Delany and Her Circle, an exhibit that ended this month at the Yale Center for British Art. 

What a joy it is to read lavishly illustrated, serious essays about Mrs. Delany's place in paper art history. Among other things, it includes chapters devoted to the technical aspects of how the collages were made, as well as analyses of the papers and tools she used. It also includes top-notch reproductions of her work, not just of the collages, but of her drawings and of the embroidered court dress she made as well.

The dedication in Mrs. Delany and Her Circle is to Ruth Hayden, a descendent of Mary Delany's sister and the author of another recommended book, Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010


We had a 6.5 magnitude earthquake yesterday, centered to the south of us here in Humboldt County. Fortunately for us, we shook a lot and lost our electric for several hours, but there was no damage and nothing fell off the shelves here at home. People we know who are not that far to the south didn't get off quite so lucky.

The photo above was taken at the seaside in the town I live near, Trinidad, about a week ago. This general area is scenic, but seismically scary. A few major tectonic plates converge here. Eighteen years ago we had a series of three major earthquakes over two days. It was the only time I've ever seen an entire house (the one I was living in) wag vigorously back and forth. I wound up with a deep appreciation for the flexible wooden buildings we have here in California (nothing, miraculously, broke in spite of that motion).

Our most recent event made the national news. This coverage [update: since removed] from the San Jose paper includes a couple of YouTube videos. One of these is like a Humboldt County joke--it shows a bunch of people standing around in the woods like stunned deer, wondering if a redwood will fall on them. Sigh.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

Arachnid Visitors

This doesn't have anything to do with paper or art. But since I started this blog nearly a year ago mentioning the black widows in my studio, I thought I'd kick off the new year with another black widow in the studio story. Yesterday afternoon I reached behind my cutting table to grab a piece of cardboard. Suddenly, a you-know-what was scurrying toward my hand.

Mercifully, she then turned and ran like hell in the other direction. Still, one does not want to be holding a piece of cardboard with a startled black widow running around on it. I caught her and put her outside.  I imagine she's left some cousins and sisters and maybe an egg sack or two behind. They hide well.

So I was amused to run across this old story on the BBC today. They're so common around here. Apparently, they are quite a rare sensation when they show up in Wales.

700 eggs in the egg sack?

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