Beauty

Christmastime Beauty by Jeannine Cook

As a small child growing up in East Africa, on the Equator, Christmas caused me considerable perplexity because all the traditional Yule time images were of snow clad lands, twinkling lights, tall fir trees clad in decorations. None of that was believable really because the tropical world was brilliant, un-winterlike and generally very different. Churches were distant, friends as well, and the family was obliged to follow Nature's dictates and care for the farm and its needs, even on Christmas Day.

Nonetheless, I learned early of the great beauty that is generated and connected to Christmas, no matter where one is in the globe. Whether one is very religious or not makes no difference to the special feeling to Christmas, because of the beauty of music, art and every other form of creativity connected to the celebration of these days of festivity. When the only sources of patronage, and thus livelihood, were the Church or very rich people, artists and musicians were able to work, creating wondrous works that have endured down the centuries and enriched all our lives. Much of this heritage was also created in and for the remarkable churches, basilicas and cathedrals that we all cherish today. A remarkable synthesis that enriches the Western world even today... as one sees especially at Christmastime.

King's College Chapel, Back Court, Cambridge

King's College Chapel, Back Court, Cambridge

Think of the ethereal voices of the choristers singing in King's College Chapel in Cambridge (at right) for the Christmas Eve service. Or Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio which was first performed in St. Nicholas' Church in Leipzig in 1734. While the music fills our ears, often around us in these churches, the stained glass windows accompany in their glory and the statues in the chapels are graceful and evocative. Imagine listening to a Christmas concert as you are sitting in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris' Ile de la Cité , with these stained glass windows glowing above one's head,

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Even small pieces are powerful reminders of the beauty we all inherit, such as Lucca della Robbia's glazed terracotta Nativity Scene, created in 1460.

Nativity, Lucca della Robbia, glazed terracotta,1460, (Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington_)

Nativity, Lucca della Robbia, glazed terracotta,1460, (Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington_)

There are so many wondrous paintings that depict the Nativity, the Holy Family, the Virgin and Child and related subjects that everyone is spoiled for choice. It is fun to scroll through the troves of these images now so easily available on the Web, and suddenly, one chances on something totally unfamiliar and captivating.

Guercino  (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) , early 1630s, red chalk,   Madonna and Child with an escaped goldfinch (in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art).

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) , early 1630s, red chalk,  Madonna and Child with an escaped goldfinch(in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art).

One could go on and on celebrating Christmas with the extraordinary diversity of beauty previous generations have left us. Even in times of tawdry Christmas commercialism, it is easy to step away from it and lose oneself in wonderful creations. The Web makes this beauty even more accessible to everyone - what a Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas to everyone who reads these lines. May your lives be filled with beauty!

Another Kind of Beauty by Jeannine Cook

I have been thinking about all kinds of beauty recently because I have just finished the most delightful book, "Wesley the Owl". It is not about art. It is the story of a young biologist, Stacey O'Brien working at Caltech who adopts a four-day-old owlet, a barn owl, who cannot be released into the wild. The next nearly two decades of her life are totally entwined with his.

Not only is a wonderfully moving account of this highly intelligent, fascinating creature, but it is also very much a book written by an observant, thoughtful scientist. The beauty of this barn owl's appearance, the beauty of the relationship with Stacey and the elegance too of scientific rigour and observations - all these are other facets of beauty that delight the senses and enrich a reader of this book.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Somehow the magic of such creatures, as we learn more about their marvellous attributes, feeds into making art and celebrating life in different creative ventures. Perhaps it is all about being passionate about life in general. Certainly "Wesley the Owl" is one of those books that helps make life sparkle. Do yourself a favour and read it if you have not already done so.

Art and Beauty by Jeannine Cook

Beauty - in all the arts - is part and parcel of the creative endeavour, to some, but not to everyone. For ages, in the United States, it seemed that the concept of beauty had become almost effete, out of favour, something to be ignored, denied or ridiculed, in many circles. Then, of course, there has been a reaction, and the word "beauty" seems to have crept back into artistic vocabularies. Especially into vocabularies about the visual arts. Perhaps in our rather dismal, complicated times, we all need something to uplift and cheer us, something bigger and more noble than our mundane daily lives, something that gives pleasure to our senses.

It has always seemed to me that beauty is something almost magical, because so often, it catches one unawares, stops one in one's tracks, and blows the whole world wide open into wonderful new dimensions. It can be anything - a painting, a drawing, music, sculpture, a bird song, scenery, light falling onto something, cloud formations... But instinctively one knows that one is registering something special and uplifting - the day becomes better and often more serene, even for a moment. I am sure that there are wonderful analyses of the brain lighting up in its different parts as a person registers some form of beauty; ironically the more illustrations I see of brain functions, the more beautiful I find them to be as well!

As an artist, it is always demanding, humbling and fascinating to try and convey, on paper or canvas for instance. something which one has found to be beautiful. So seldom does one ever succeed in doing the subject justice. But an artist is impelled to try. Since I am also aware that every person who looks at the art one has produced is bringing to the equation his or her own life experience and therefore form of perception, the melding of my endeavours and that person's "eye"can help (or hinder!) in the rendering of beauty.

Ansel Adams was truly correct when he observed, "Art is both the taking and giving of beauty". It is an important dialogue to have, an exchange that can be priceless.

Ansel Adams with his Camera

Ansel Adams with his Camera

Jeffrey Pine, Ansel Adams photographer (Image courtesy of anseladams.com

Jeffrey Pine, Ansel Adams photographer (Image courtesy of anseladams.com

That Problematic Word, "Beauty" by Jeannine Cook

I was preparing an artist's statement for a submission for my art to be considered today, and found myself - again! - referring to the concept of nature's beauty being an inspiration and an aid to people finding serenity. I find it endlessly interesting to see how and why people talk of beauty, in any form.

Roger Scruton, in his 2009 book, "Beauty", writes: "The judgement of beauty is not merely a statement of preference. It demands an act of attention. Less important than the final verdict is the attempt to show what is right, fitting, worthwhile, attractive or expressive in the object; in other words, to identify the aspect of the thing that claims our attention." He inveighs against kitsch and the seemingly prevailing ethos that allows us often to live in denial of any sacrifices, any effort to cater to our higher nature, an attempt "to affirm that other kingdom in which moral and spiritual order prevails."

Sir Roger Scruton

Sir Roger Scruton

I think that most of the artists I personally know are indeed seeking, consciously or not, to show what is "right, fitting, worthwhile, attractive or expressive" in the subject matter they are depicting. The way they depict the material is almost secondary. Certainly I find myself captured by the beauty of nature as I experience it here in coastal Georgia or in parts of Europe that I know. Working plein air, I find that I round a corner and see something that stops me in my tracks, saying insistently, "Pay attention to me, I am important". Often, later, I realise I was drawn by a form of beauty, some elegant shape or intricacy, or an example of something noteworthy, such as the endurance of a tree against all odds. That subtle dialogue is unfathomable to me, but it surely exists. One knows instinctively that the beauty one is seeing is of value for its own sake, taking one into a realm that is almost deliciously childlike, where imagination and serendipity can reign. Once the technical considerations of how to tackle the painting or drawing are finished, I find I can stop thinking consciously and just do.

The other mysterious aspect of this dialogue is that later, other people frequently respond to the image I created. Somehow, if one is fortunate, one has tapped into something greater than oneself, into the realm of the beautiful, the worthwhile.

Creating art in beautiful places by Jeannine Cook

Sometimes the stars all align, the weather goods smile benignly and one finds oneself able to create art in a truly magical place. That was what I felt about being on Sapelo Island this weekend, when I finally got to return as SINERR Artist-in-Residence with Marjett Schille.

For two days of glorious weather, (the azure cloudless skies and gentle temperatures type of weather), we were free to go where we pleased and just devote ourselves to art. There is a marvellous transition: you get on a ferry and leave behind daily life. You only need to concentrate on choosing a site suitable for the next plein air painting or drawing. Considerations of light, time of day for that light, where the tide is (if you are working along the beach), what medium is suitable for the next project: those are the weighty matters to ponder! All against the backdrop of a most beautiful and ecologically diverse island that is protected and preserved.

Marjett and I tumbled out of bed early each morning and were hard at work by eight to catch the wonderful morning light raking the sand dunes or sculpting trees. We worked steadily until the picture got finished, or finished us for the moment. We both did about three pieces a day, with Marjett working larger scale than I did. As I had planned, I did mostly silverpoint drawings, which seemed to take an age to do compared to Marjett's swiftly executed watercolours. Later, we assessed what we had done and "titivated" anything that needed adding or correcting. Since we have worked together a lot, we both respect the other person's eye for critiques. For me, it is a wonderful opportunity, as I tend to work alone and don't often have another artist to assess what I am doing. It is always a perfect learning opportunity when one has that luxury. It is also fun to share ideas on what title to give the work done, for titles are an interesting and sometimes polemical subject.

Sapelo Island with Lighthouse,  Georgia

Sapelo Island with Lighthouse,  Georgia

Now we are back "on the hill" as the locals refer to the mainland – and the weekend remains glowing in my mind. The artwork needs to get scanned and catalogued, and life already begins to knock at the door again. Nonetheless, when one is lucky enough to be able to go off and create art in a truly beautiful and magical place, it is more than luck.

Definitions by Jeannine Cook

Here I am, defining myself for many a long year as an artist, and yet, yesterday, I was brought up short. I was reading a short article by Ruth Walker entitled Art, Artisans and artisanal grilled cheese in the January 24, 2010, edition of The Christian Science Monitor. In this article, Ms. Walker addresses the origins and meaning of the word "art". I realised that I felt totally ignorant about the whole subject. Abjectly ignorant!

I rushed off to my beloved Oxford English Dictionary to learn more. I knew that "art" came from the Latin "ars", a word that passed into French and then into early English, as did so many words. But the timing and nuances of meaning for "art" were fascinating. The first use of the word comes in 1225, when the word meant skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice. According to Ms. Walker, the original Latin concept embraced a skill of things being "joined" or "fitted together". By 1386, Chaucer was talking of art as a human skill or human workmanship, as opposed to nature, while earlier that century, art was already included in general learning taught in schools, as well as the skills required in applying the principles of a special science.

Only in 1600 did the word "art" start to refer to the application of skills to subjects of taste such as poetry, music, dancing, etc. J. Taylor is cited in the OED as saying that, "Spencer and Shakespeare in art did excell". However, the use of "art" to refer to "the application of skills to the arts of imitation and design, Painting, Engraving, Sculpture, Architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice and results: the skillful production of the beautiful in visible forms" only came into use after 1880.

From then on, art has mainly referred to the many aspects of the realm now referred to aesthetics, but it also now includes more negative aspects of studied actions, artful devices, trickery and cunning... hardly surprising!

What interested me, on digging further about the meaning of the word "art" as defined today, is how often that word "beautiful" creeps into the definition. In ReferenceDictionary.com, the first definition is, "the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful (my emphasis), appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." In the Free Online Dictionary, they started the definition by, "the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty (again, my emphasis), specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium". In the Brainy Quote, they talk of, "the application of skill to the production of the beautiful by imitation or design, or an occupation in which skill is so employed, as in painting or sculpture".

The other word which appears often in the definition of "Art" is nature. In Your Dictionary, the first meaning is, "human ability to make things; creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature (my emphasis)". In Answers, art is "a human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature."

Whilst the 20th century saw many reactions against the concepts of beauty and nature in the visual arts, in particular, I think it is instructive that art has for so, so long been defined as having skills and knowledge that derive from and celebrate the world around us. After all, it was Plato who said that "art is imitation".

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina.  (Image courtesy of the Capitoine Museums)

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina.  (Image courtesy of the Capitoine Museums)

Daily delights by Jeannine Cook

Since I have been involved with hanging an art exhibition for my upcoming open studio/wine-tasting event, my 15th Annual Art-Tasting, on December 5th, the business side of my brain has had to dominate in the past days.

Nonetheless, there are daily delights that feed the right brain and give me such joy as I busy myself in the studio. Looking out of the windows onto the salt water creek in front of the house, for instance, I caught sight of huge swirls of water along the edge of the creek. Curious, I grabbed the binoculars, so that I could see more clearly beyond the overhanging tree branches. Lo and behold, about fifteen white ibis were down on the bank, having the most wonderful, vigourous baths in the salt water. Once drenched, they flew up into the trees above. There, they shook out their feathers, poked and preened, stretched and fluffed. Such a production. The final stage in the grey early morning was a concerted flight up to the roof of our house, one wet ibis after another. It must have been the best source of heat around, in their estimation. In due course, looking up, I saw a V formation of pearly white-breasted ibis taking off from the roof - all dry and clean, ready for breakfast!

White Ibis in the Marshes

White Ibis in the Marshes

Other moments that give a wonderful moment of respite come from watching four brown pelicans glide in wondrous formation just above the water, seemingly effortless in their aerial ballet as they patrolled the creek for a likely meal of small fish.

Brown Pelicans (Image courtesy of Phil Lanoue Photography)

Brown Pelicans (Image courtesy of Phil Lanoue Photography)

Or glimpsing a gathering of wood storks sailing higher and higher above the marshes on a thermal, soaring so effortlessly on their wide-spread wings, the essence of elegance that always makes me think of Japanese brush paintings of storks. Some while ago, I did a big watercolour painting of the wood storks, for I find them so magical.

Soaring above Creighton, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Soaring above Creighton, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Autumn brings its own share of sounds on the water too. Suddenly, we can hear the wonderful growling call of mergansers as they bob in unison far down the creek, fishing and preening in a mass of vibrant black dots on the water. The best sounds, however, are those of the dolphins blowing as they surface to breath, before diving again to fish and play. These sounds are a daily delight that are an enormous privilege to hear.

Somehow, preparing an art exhibition gets done, between these delicious distractions!

The Pope and his invocation of "beauty" by Jeannine Cook

I am sure that a considerable number of members of the general art community around the world must have read with interest about the Pope's invitation to artists to a gathering at the Sistine Chapel this past 21st Nov. Whatever one's thoughts about such a invitation, the mere fact that one could sit, peacefully, and look at Michelangelo's ceiling in its brilliantly coloured restoration would make the invitation worth accepting, I suspect. About 250 artists of all disciplines did accept, apparently - from Placido Domingo to Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid.

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel

Since the Pope and the Vatican have quite a lot of fence-mending to do with the art world, in many ways, this was an interesting development. (Check out Edward Winkleman's comments too on the Pope's speech.) Whilst the Pope's announcement that the Vatican will participate in the 2011 Venice Biennale is a clear signal of involvement in the contemporary art scene, his speech seemed to dwell more on "beauty" and its potential pathway to the "transcendent". In some ways, his words resonate when he said, "In a world lacking in hope, with increasing signs of aggression and despair, there is an ever greater need for a return to spirituality in art."

Benedict XVI also said, "What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation - if not beauty?" Moreover, "the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful."

Wonderful words, hard to define really, let alone put into practice. Especially when the Pope also talked of "the beauty thrust on us is (too often) illusory and deceitful. It imprisons man within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy." Frankly, that is a passage that leaves me wondering who defines the Vatican's version of beauty. I don't know enough of present Vatican cultural politics. Does anyone else who is reading this ?

Nonetheless, I find it refreshing to see such a figure as the Pope talking of beauty and its central role in life, spiritually and culturally. Not so very long ago, particularly in the United States, the word, "beauty" was very much out of fashion in the art world. We are all impoverished when beauty, in its many, many forms and versions, is not part of our daily lives.