The most common question I hear is actually 2 questions, "Why do the people have no faces?" and "Why are they all black?"
I get these questions, one after the other, in so many different forms- it's fascinating how many ways this can be asked! Sometimes in utter confusion, sometimes as a bashful questions as a person is surprised that they haven't come up with a satisfactory answer on their own, sometimes it comes through as a whisper- an actual whisper- as if this may be a sensitive subject, and sometimes even in an accusatory tone. My favorite questions come from the kids. When they ask the question, I simply ask them what they think the answer is. Without fail they answer, almost exactly the same every single time: "It's not like you're looking at anyone specific, you're looking at everyone, you're looking at yourself". Yep.
There has been much study done by artists, colorists, and scientists on color theory and light. It all bears looking into and understanding as it explains the why and how color affects us, but I'm not going to get into that today. I'm going to tell you my story of the how and why I use color in this way.
For more than 10 years now I have been incorporating these "people" in my batiks. What started as a fun practice in "purposeful regression" became the platform for story telling in these pieces. The first practices were playing with rudimentary stick figure forms, using the negative space to an advantage in the medium. Keeping the spaces for the figures "open" during the whole dye-ing and waxing process, allowing each color to penetrate the cloth, blending all the colors together = black. I liked the idea of inclusiveness in the color black, just as much as I liked the inclusiveness of representational stick figure. It stuck.
As time and skill progressed another idea struck me. I work on these pieces for months at a time. I am a highly emotional individual and am fueled and motivated and inspired by subtle sensitivities. It is often times hard to pin down one particular emotive avenue to portray in my own art. Emotions are rarely singular, stories are not without emotional complexity. I traverse the emotional landscape of each piece through patterns and colors and composition. As the time would come to examine the emotion of the actual human subject in the piece, I wouldn't want to...who am I to pin down someone or something into one particular emotional moment? The emotional fluidity of a scene could continue to ebb and flow without me ever having to stop it.
And that is what, with each new piece, I am trying to work towards. Creating a scene that explores ideas and stories through the pattern and color and composition. The pieces are really just the beginning of the story, the first sentence or paragraph maybe. The people in the scenes are there to continue the story with the viewer. That faceless face reflects anyone who looks at it, pulls one in to participate in the story.
Truly, I didn't realize that this was the purpose for some time. I took the work out into the world, exhibited in galleries and shops, but the real fun was exhibiting at art fairs where I could see firsthand the response from people. The reaction from people spanned the whole emotional range from giddy to depressing. People come in, look around and exclaim that the pieces either "are" or "make them feel" ..... fill in the blank... every emotion has been covered. One piece will evoke polar opposite reactions from different people. These people are not seeing something that I put in the art, they are really seeing a reflection of themselves in it. There is sweetness, there is light, there is goofiness, there is sadness and bitterness and hurt and healing too. We carry it all, and often, as I have seen in my booth, we just need a place to put it. Sometimes my work allows some space for someone to put those emotions and name them.
As far as the blackness of the people, yes they are black. Not brown, not even African or Haitian or Caribbean. I haven't "traveled to exotic lands" and brought back native art. The people in the pieces are black. And this is where all that color theory comes into play... Very simply, I find the contrast of black and all other colors interesting. The faces offer a resting point for ones eyes and sharpen the rest of the colors in the process. If I think of the piece as a sentence or a story, the figures are the punctuation.
I won't deny people their questioning, though, of why I use black figures, I can only answer for my own simple reasons. It does make sense to connect the pieces with African art, as batik does have roots in Africa. And some of the pieces do hint at southern life, but those are from my own experiences, and my own personal nostalgia. I have often had people look around the booth, their eyes fall on me, the question of "who is the artist" asked and answered, followed by a look of surprise at the white girl in the corner. Batik has been around for centuries and is still an integral part of some cultures in Africa, Asia, and very much Indonesia, used as much for design as storytelling. Why it hasn't take root as strongly here, is another question entirely.
This reasoning and purpose in the work was not initially planned. There was not conscious forethought for the path the work has taken. It evolved and I'm constantly receiving new hints and information on the "why" of what I do. Seeing people's faces and reactions and communication with the pieces has been paramount to the continuation of the series. And hearing kids explain, without hesitation, to the adults the reason for the faceless figures is pretty darn magical.
The knowledge I am interested in is not something you buy and then can have and be comfortable with. The knowledge I am interested in keeps opening wider and wider making me smaller and more amazed until I see I cannot have it all - and then delight in that freedom"
Color can have both physical and psychological effect on the mind.
I began working on this series in October. The beginning was conceived as a commission for a lovely client who wanted "my next new piece" with the small caveat that she had missed out on the purchase of a piece that she couldn't quite shake..."Don't mess with mama bird". I had been wanting to push the boundaries and explore a bit more thoroughly the "Mama bird" and "Trying on Chicken" and "Mr. Henry" series which include a masked person. (The mask is something that I have yet to explore in verbal form...it is intense and will take me somewhere. Later.)
Once sketched out I realized very quickly that this composition needed exploring . So I set out to explore it through the effects of 2 primary colors and their unique energies. I wanted to create 2 pieces with similar composition yet distinctly different colors and work with the energy the colors create while using different patterns. I knew intuitively the feeling I was going for...but wanted to go about it in nearly opposing ways.
Understanding red to be a strong and intense color, I chose a larger, looser pattern so as not to bombard the senses with a frantic energy that can be attributed to red. I chose to work blue- a typically more calming color- into a piece in a smaller, tighter, more precise pattern.
What transpired was a deeper look into color theory, color therapy, sacred geometry, historical and cultural symbology, spirituality and meditation through patterns. What happened, was exactly what I had hoped for.
As "realize", "grow" and "outgrow" are now out of my hands, under glass and on their way to a city near you, I offer up the information I have that will hopefully convey in words what I attempted to convey in batik.
Color is a vibrational energy- natures scale of vibration is wide, it begins with sound, merges into thermal heat waves and these vibrations climb the vibratory scale as the temperature increases into the vibrations of the radiant heat waves in the infared which reach up the the visible red of the light spectrum. (Also why so many visual artists are inspired by music- the sound waves)
Each color has a distinct frequency or vibration due to it's wavelength- red is the longest and the first to emerge on the visible light spectrum with blue being significantly shorter. (Red hits you hard, quick, while blue rolls in subtly)
Sensations of color can be perceived according to vibration, not unlike the pitch of a note depends on the number of vibrations of the sounding body. Music and color carry some of the same information, delivered to the brain at different wavelengths. Artists and musicians have been exploring this correlation together for eons.
Since I worked mainly within these 2 primary colors, I will list some of the attributes that have been given to these 2 colors.
Blue: (royal, turquoise, and indigo)
Communication, gathering information, love, self respect, individual responsibility, calming , nurturing, inner peace, restful, openness, cooling relaxing, deep changes, insight, wisdom, unity, safety, clarity, clairvoyance, seeing, 3rd eye, clear perception inside and outside oneself, honesty, integrity, higher heart, desire.
Red: (red, crimson, scarlet)
Power, energy, life force, initiating, pushes through, fire, stimulating, ambition, change, survival, awakening, emerging, passion, danger, pioneering, physical/material side of life, outflowing and manifestation of principle, affection and human feeling, will.
As far as the patterns are concerned, I chose for the blue a precise pattern that has roots in sacred geometry and is based on mathematical properties and patterns. The Seed of Life. For the red piece, I wanted a corresponding pattern done in a looser manner to diffuse the energy of the red.
Working patterns into the fabric has been for some time, a meditative process for me. Patterns are similar to sutras and mantras in the Buddhist tradition- repeating a truth over and over until it is part of you, until it IS you. There are weeks in the studio when all I do for 6 hours a day straight is draw circles with wax. Patterns and symbols have been used in most all forms of written language (and sometimes AS the written language) to convey ideas, beliefs, and stories. Adinkra - used in West Africa- are symbols with hidden meaning, that represent concepts or aphorisms and are used extensively in pottery and fabrics. According to Anthony Appiah, they are the means in a pre-literate society for "supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief". Adinkras and symbols are being explored by physicists for their use in explaining string theory. Symbols and patterns are really all about non-verbal communication - which is my favorite kind. Working these symbols and patterns into the fabric essentially infuses the fabric with this meditation and information, the hot wax also heat setting the color into the fibers. There are also hidden hobo symbols in there...you'll have to be up close to see. (More on that in another post)
What ended up happening through the months of this process felt very profound. In many as of yet unnamed ways I was changed. Subtly and vividly.
My intent for this process was to create distinctly individual pieces that could simultaneously convey their own message through particular color and patterns while also working in harmony with one another to communicate a message together, as separate notes in a chord.
The hope was that when people approach these pieces, they will be drawn to one or another, depending on their own personal energy, and to see how the different colors affect the viewer. What I didn't expect, was how wildly effective they were for me in the creating of them. I can only hope that what I experienced in the process will be even slightly conveyed out in the world.