“The Cycle of Life”

Steve and I were with his sister, Maureen, returning home from dinner with Maureen and Steve’s three other sisters, Diane, Sharon, and Janet, PLUS his mother, RoseAnn (his four brothers were not there), when I spied two bicycle wheels in the recycling bin of his mother’s neighbor.  I expressed the temptation those wheels presented to me, for they were not only scrap metal, they were ROUND and full of art-potential.  Then I dismissed the idea of salvaging the wheels because we were already transporting a van-load of art and paraphernalia necessary for my booth exhibit at the Flint Art Fair, which had just ended.  “Someone will take them,” said Maureen, an observation that alternately comforted and disturbed me.

Next morning at 7:00, as Steve and I pulled away from his mother’s home in Grand Blanc, Michigan, to head back to our home in Staunton, Virginia, I noted that those bicycle wheels were indeed gone from the neighbor’s bin.  Feeling once again comforted and disturbed,  I commented to Steve that Maureen had been right.  Steve agreed that someone probably took them, and then we started talking about something else, or possibly about nothing else.

Two hours later, however, as we approached Toledo, we were definitely talking about whether or not we should have taken Highway 23 or stayed on 23 or I-75 or whether it mattered, and more urgently, where we might find a bathroom, and after that, coffee.  I didn’t want coffee myself, or even a bathroom, but Steve wanted both, and as it turned out, a classic McDonald’s breakfast, which he got for himself while I rearranged a few items in the van so they would not slide around every time Steve changed lanes.

It had been a little tense finding this McDonald’s because I really wanted to find a Starbuck’s, and failing that, to stop at the gas station across from the McDonald’s for the restroom and coffee so that we could take advantage of the cheapest gas price I had seen since leaving Virginia four days before.  (By the way, in my travels up and down the eastern seaboard, into the south, and even the upper midwest, the cheapest gas prices I have found anywhere have been at home in Staunton, Virginia, which is conveniently located at the intersection of I-81 North and South and I-64 East.  In Staunton, the cheapest gas is off I-81 exit 222 as you go toward town on Highway 250.  Past the Walmart on the left and the Martin’s grocery store on the right, you will find the Hess and then a Texaco-like station.  Usually gas is cheapest there.  If you have a Kroger card and can find the Kroger, it may be even 3 cents a gallon cheaper.)

But we didn’t get gas in Toledo.  Rather, Steve fulfilled his hidden agenda of hashbrowns and an Egg McMuffin or some food like that.  When he came back to the van (a black Honda Odyssey, just so you can visualize it) he and I went to the rear compartment for water.  When Steve opened the tailgate, I burst out laughing.  There were the bicycle wheels, which he had purloined the night before while taking out the trash.

“The Cycle of Life.” 25″ diameter mandala wallpiece. Mixed media assemblage of salvaged metal pieces woven with copper wire onto bicycle wheel, finished with polyurethane varnish. $795.00.  SOLD

“You little sneak!” I said.  Or something like that.

I will spare you the individual salvation stories of every piece of metal I incorporated into what I made of one of the bicycle wheels, the mandala “The Cycle of Life.”  It is a tapestry of materials found on streets, parking lots, and sidewalks I and my friends have walked, from Louisiana, to Virginia, to Michigan, and places in-between, and also farther away, everything from rusty washers to broken jewelry to springs, and wings, hearts, and crosses.  I also used about 250 feet of new 24 gauge copper wire to weave the whole thing together.  The thing I love about old run-over, stepped on, rained on, broken, rusting metal, is that it is a manmade material in the process of being reclaimed by nature.  I appreciate evidence of experience in people and in things.  “The Cycle of Life” dignifies and coalesces the beauty of what was once thrown away.

There is another personal significance to this piece.  Less than a week after Steve sneaked those bicycle wheels into the back of our van, he took my hand across the table at Staunton Grocery, which is not a grocery store, but a fine little restaurant in the Staunton historic district, and began a sentence with the words, “I was wondering . . .”  I thought he was going to finish that sentence with, “. . . if you’d like to go to the Split Banana for gelato” which would have been fine with me.  But instead he said “I was wondering if you would like to get married.”

Now this was a surprise and not a surprise because although I wasn’t expecting him to say those words at that moment, I had sensed that he was warming up to saying them, especially when we were taking down the booth at the Flint Art Fair and in front of his sister, Janet, who was helping us, he called me his ex-wife’s name.  I knew he’d been thinking of me in a husband-like way for awhile.  But still, I was expecting him to ask me for gelato right at that moment, so his question did open my eyes a little.  And then, although I had entertained fantasies of making him wait, say 24 hours, or 3 days, or a week for my answer, I could only say Yes! and right away.

Steve has asked that question before in his life; I’ve said Yes to that question before in my life.  And yet both of us, in our somewhat chastened, more experienced 50s, have not given up on the possibility of enjoying a loving living lasting harmony in marriage.  We have learned things in our lives, about what is important and what is not important, and we have had some rough edges rubbed off.  Nature–my own nature– is reclaiming me with serenity and felicity.

Here is a poem that suddenly comes to mind.  These words are lyrics to a song by Franz Schubert, from his song cycle “Die Schone Mullerin” (umlauts over the “o” and the “u”) “The Fair Maid and the Mill.”  The text of this poem, “The Miller and the Stream,” is by Wilhelm Muller (another umlaut over the “u”), translated by William Mann, and copyrighted by him in 1985.  I quote now as I often did to myself during the four years I lived alone following a divorce:

“And when love conquers pain,

a new star twinkles in the sky,

then three roses,

half red and half white, spring

on a sprig of thorn and never wither.

And the angels cut off their wings

and go down to earth every morning.”

These words encouraged me through some dark times, to not stop believing in the renewal of life, or of the seasons through which we pass in our lives.  For winter is essential to the spring that follows.  I can see that now.

–Deborah Norsworthy, 7 July 2011

“The Cycle of Life” (detail)

The Marriage of Sol and Luna

"The Marriage of Sol and Luna." 38" diameter mandala. Mosiac paper collage on board, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger affixed on back. $2,250.00. SOLD

The British sculptor, Henry Moore, stopped halfway through the first chapter of Erich Neumann’s book, The Archetypal World of Henry Moore (1959) because, as he later said, “I did not want to know about these things. . . .  I did not want such aspects of my work to become henceforth self-conscious.  I feel they should remain subconscious and the work should remain intuitive.”

I don’t know whether it was a sign of strength or weakness, but I was halfway through the creation of this large collage, The Marriage of Sol and Luna, before I realized what I was making might be symbolic of a lunar eclipse.  Days after that I learned a lunar eclipse was soon to occur, in a rare coincidence with the day of the winter solstice.  At that point I was within striking distance of finishing the work, which took me nearly a month of long days to complete.  Thus it was with conscious intention that I laid down the last of what seemed like a million (probably closer to 10,000) tiny collage pieces within one hour of the occurrence of the solstice, on December 21, 2010.

The dark lines which curve throughout the piece, dividing it into many smaller sections, are in fact a single line which I made at the outset, never picking up the pen until the line, through its labyrinthine twists, turns, and undulations, was finished.  I established the area of the inner white circle by tracing a 78 vinyl record.  The template for the larger white circle was an enormous quilting hoop that once belonged to the grandmother of my college roommate.

In his notes for the 1937 article, “The Sculptor Speaks,” Henry Moore wrote this:  “The subconscious plays a great part in art, that is to say that in conceiving & realising a work a great deal happens which cannot be logically explained–the mind jumps from one stage to another much further on without there being traceable steps shown between–preferences for one shape over another which cannot be explained–sudden solutions which cannot be followed step by step–in a word–inspiration.”

Part of the ongoing, and sometimes difficult task of the artist, is to cooperate with this process, rather than imposing one’s self in a way that occludes or subverts it.

–Deborah Norsworthy

“Mandala: Gran Cirque”

"Mandala:  Gran Cirque" by ameliamandala
“Mandala: Gran Cirque”, a photo by ameliamandala on Flickr.

Mandala, 44″ diameter, paper collage, created by Deborah Norsworthy for March 2010 exhibit “6 @ 549,” at Gallery 549, Lafayette, Louisiana. Now held in private collection.

Queen of the Heart

 

“Queen of the Heart.” 16″ diameter mandala wallpiece. Paper collage on assemblage of compact discs, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. $375.00

I sometimes fear that too much struggle in the creation of a work will violate its purity and integrity.  Time and experience have shown me, however, that each artwork has its own story and character, and that a piece born smoothly is not necessarily better than one over which I have worried.  Sometimes it takes me a long time to learn to like a work simply because it is so different from my expectation, unlike anything else I have made.  Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes “We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it.  That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us:  to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.

 In Queen of the Heart, the struggle for art and love unite.  I created the piece in 2009, near the end (of course I did not know that then!) of a four-year period of living alone without an intimate partner.  During that time I encountered many individuals who were cynical about the possibility of loving relationships; I myself sometimes struggled to keep my faith.  This mandala incorporates an earlier collage which I had to seriously refashion in order to create an aesthetic harmony in the piece.  It also incorporates texts that encouraged me to trust love, even in its winter; those include a stream of consciousness meditation on excerpts of 1 Corinthians 13, part of an e. e. cummings poem:  

love is the voice under all silences,/the hope which has no opposite in fear;/the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:/the truth more first than sun more last than star

and the important words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves, a book that has become like a bible to me.  Wisely she writes:  “Three things differentiate living from the soul versus living from ego only.  They are:  the ability to sense and learn new ways, the tenacity to ride a rough road, and the patience to learn deep love over time.”

Benedictus

 

“Benedictus.” 7″x9″ (approx.) mandala. Paper collage on vinyl record, set on collaged cedar, with text: “Wild grasses hold you in their arms; the trees sing over your sleep.” $75.00. SOLD

Benedictus  

Shortly after my partner, Steve O’Keefe, and I moved to Staunton, Virginia, in May, 2010, we discovered an abandoned cemetery behind a campus of old institutional brick buildings that once served as a state prison.  The graves, set in straight rows, are each marked with upright concrete slabs.  Over time the headstones have assumed various angles of repose, and are textured with moss and erosion.  Remarkably they carry no other distinguishing symbol–not a name, not a number.  

Although I would probably not have wished to associate with any of these souls in life, I nonetheless felt a “nagging compassion” for them in their oblivion.  Several years ago, in an exchange of e-mails with a friend, I wrote, “It is interesting and mysterious to me, even strange, that we seem to have duties to the dead, and that in performing them something in ourselves may be completed and put at rest.”

Recently I returned to the cemetery with my friend, Lisa Ayres, a Louisiana artist, and we photographed the site.  This small mandala, Benedictus, incorporates pieces of my photo of a section of the burial ground.  The artwork embodies my consideration of human beings anonymously buried, as was Mozart, and the constancy of nature, in particular the trees standing over the forgotten ones in their rest.  

Photo of headstones taken November, 2010, Staunton, Virginia.

 

 

What’s the Use?

 

“The One Tree.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $45.00.

My upbringing, along with a certain aspect of my nature, occasionally lead me to question why I do what I do, which is Make Art.  On the face of it, a wood block with bits of paper glued to it seems useless, even to me.  Certainly it would seem, although pretty, also pretty useless to the people who reared and educated me. Even now, some of the people who visit my booth at art shows must surely go away with that opinion when they pick up the block and discover that it does not even open; it is not a box.  Although a box is not a complex technology, it does have a purpose–to hold things, to organize.  If I were to make a box and make it large enough, it could hold an entire collection of useless things–even my collaged blocks–and that would make it useful, but with some futility to its usefulness.

And it’s not far, then, to the question, “If I make useless things, am I useful?”

I am going to abandon this line of questioning before I get mired in it because it is impractical in its practicality.  Art, which masquerades as a materiality, is much more than that.  So, frankly, are we humans, whether or not we are lovers or makers of art.  The question “What’s the use?”, so delightfully musically elaborated upon in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, is too small for who we are.  What we love is what we love, often for no good reason, or at least none that we

“Most This Amazing.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $35.00.

can articulate.  Furthermore, what cheers and encourages us in life–even makes it worth living–can often be proved by some scheme of logic to be gratuitous.  One could even say that life itself is gratuitous.  But we are here anyway, and that is what we must deal with–practically.  And here, also, is this collaged block.  

Perhaps the puzzled visitors to my art booth, upon discovering the block does not open, are not really asking “What’s the use?” but “How shall I relate to this thing?  How does it fit into my life.”

That is a personal question.  I can’t answer that for another person, any more than I can tell them what their favorite color should be, or with whom they should fall in love.  I like to see the art I make go home with people who have connected with it, even “fallen in love.”  Personally, that is why I buy art.  I can’t buy all the art I love, but I love the art I buy.

I cannot explain exactly how this works, but these apparently useless pieces I spend my days making do somehow, sometimes, in their abstractness and wordlessness, speak to people.  I am always surprised when somebody seems to “get it” because I’m not certain I always get it myself.  The thing I know is that I love to create and that there is nothing in the world I want to do more than what I am doing.  Somehow, sometimes, that message seems to be communicated in the art.

“The Quixotic Imagination.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $38.00.

 

The thing about handmade things, whether or not they have an apparent use, is that something of the spirit of their maker is invested in them, whether or not the maker or receiver are conscious of that being the case.  Every now and then I look around at the walls and surfaces of my home and realize that the many pieces of art I own are somehow challenging and comforting me, and also nurturing my own creative spirit.  Furthermore, they are giving me pleasure.

That is no small achievement for an inanimate object.

I am a great appreciator of the work of the British sculptor, Henry Moore, who died in 1986 at age 88.  In a 1964 article published in a French journal, Moore is quoted.  “I believe that art in itself is akin to religion,” he said.  “Art is, in fact, another expression of the belief that life is worth living.”  

 

“Rest at the Center.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $38.00.

If I may borrow a religious term, art is “sacramental.”  It does not just sit there, it speaks, it conjures connections, stirs our feelings and imaginations, surprises, delights, and moves us, and reminds us of how wonderful it can be to be a human being.  An artwork conveys something of its creator when that person is in his or her very best mind, which is the creative mind through which the artwork came to being.  Furthermore, it is emblematic of some sort of striving and triumph, the completion of a tiny heroic quest undertaken in order to create the artwork. A work of art presents us, then, with a living experience, perhaps stirring to life some beauty sleeping within us.  Now I am not saying that any of the art images I’ve posted here are necessarily doing that for you, but I am saying that there is art that can speak to you like a friend, and that is personal and valuable.  Maybe even, in the grand scheme of things, useful.

“La Balance.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $38.00.

Rondo, by D. M. Norsworthy

 

"Rondo." 16" diameter mandala wallpiece. Mixed media (paper and plant material) collage finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. $350.00.

 

It seems miraculous to me when I suddenly see something (or someone) common to me in a new way.  This happened to me last year when I was preparing one of my favorite dishes for my friend, Judith, who was coming to lunch.  What I saw suddenly differently was an inedible byproduct of my food production I was about to throw in the trash.  I saw its natural beauty, both sides.  It is now incorporated (or one like it) into the mandala pictured above, which I have given the musical title, “Rondo.”   A rondo, incidentally, is an instrumental musical composition in which the leading theme is repeated alternately with other themes.  And of course the Italian word rondo does somewhat suggest the notion of roundness. 

The regular concentricity of the “Rondo” mandala, combined with the slight variations in the materials, highlight for me how commodities manufactured from natural materials–here, various papers–may through time, use, and exposure, gradually return to nature.  Much of the paper in “Rondo” had a musical use.  One readily recognizes the sheet music embellishing the scalloped border.  Less obvious is the origin of the paper used in the dark outer ring–paper salvaged from disintegrating sheaths that once protected vinyl 78 records in an album.  The paper, worn soft, was extremely absorbent of the varnish I applied at the end; I did not anticipate how much it would darken, but I liked the effect it created.  I also incorporated paper from an old, unused photo album, from a copy of The Oresteia by Aeschylus I found in a dumpster (I already had the play), and from a discarded menu from the restaurant Chino Latino in Minneapolis.  

The almost-finished collage, however, seemed to call for something more at its center.  I studied it a long time, considering various possibilities–freshwater pearls? a piece of glass?  a flat rusty bottle cap from my collection?  

"Rondo." Detail.

 

In the detail of Rondo (left), one may see what I settled upon–a centerpiece that blends without getting lost, that stands out as unique without being ostentatious, that is sufficiently–but not slavishly– symmetrical, and that appears, above all, natural.  That’s because it is.

But what is it? you may wonder.  Or do you know?

What I saved as a byproduct of food preparation, and have been saving ever since, was what remained of the stem of a knob of garlic.  Not all stems look like this one.  Some are smooth.  I find the other side, where the cloves of garlic attach, equally beautiful.  

The recipe, for Roasted Garlic au Gratin, is good too–if you like garlic (and maybe even if you don’t).  My friend Judith, for whom I have made the recipe maybe 10 or 12 times (every time she comes to lunch) once responded to my query that perhaps she would like me to make something different, with a sad-sounding, “What? No garlic?”  Below is the recipe, which is VERY amenable to experimentation.  Creativity is not just for art and artists, but for all of us, and all of life.

*******************

Roasted Garlic au Gratin

Use a small (6″ to 8″ in diameter) ceramic or glass oven-proof dish.  Pour in white or red wine and a little olive oil, enough to cover the bottom of the dish.  

Lay down a layer or two of fresh, whole, peeled garlic cloves. (I’ve used cloves from 4 or 5 or more full knobs of garlic.  As you ready the garlic, be sure to appreciate the beauty of the stems, regardless if you save or discard them.)  Then pour on more wine, maybe some half-and-half, and a little more olive oil.  If you want.

Mix with that pecans or slivered almonds, or other nuts you like.  Or forget the nuts if you don’t like nuts.  Sprinkle that with fresh or dried basil and/or a pinch of some other herb (oregano, dill, rosemary, marjoram, etc.), and a little brown sugar.  Top that with as much parmesan cheese as suits you. If you want to sprinkle on anything more–parmesan, wine, brown sugar, basil–go ahead.  I’ve also put in golden raisins on occasion.  Once I put in figs.  A few times I’ve added diced fresh tomatoes.

Cover with foil or a lid and bake at 350 degrees for 45 or 50 minutes, even an hour. This isn’t rocket science; it isn’t even cake chemistry.  Use your judgment and sense of your own taste (i.e., do you like your cheese dark and crispy, or do you want the whole thing to be pale and juicy?)  When it’s done the garlic cloves should be soft enough to spread.  This dish goes very well with roasted garlic and onion jam.  Serve with bread, pita, or crackers, or whatever else suits you.