The first couple of weeks in FYE Introduction to Art History were packed full of studying artwork with a focus on art from pre-historic times up to the era of the Romanesque in Europe. When we weren’t in the classroom learning historical context and analyzing specific works of art, we took trips to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
On our first trip, Jessica Hunter-Larsen led us to a monumental painting. Our class was tasked with analyzing each aspect of the piece beginning with basic details and eventually finding a possible meaning of the Renaissance work, which featured Mary, Jesus, and Joseph seated in an almost tropical wilderness. Next, we visited the exhibit, “Everyday Extraordinary: From Rembrandt to Warhol.” Here, we all chose one work of art and were asked to spend ten minutes writing down our observations for a “slow looking” activity. For this exercise, we were challenged to look deeply, slowly, and intently, focusing on the details and objects represented in the piece to learn more about how they fit together as a whole. We then shared things we noticed after gazing at the art for the prescribed amount of time – which for me, was an etching by Rembrandt. Due to the small and hard to make out details, I spent much of the ten minutes examining the work up close. I discovered so many aspects of the print that I never would have seen had I looked at it for just a few seconds as I made my way through the exhibit. There were more people and animals in the print than I saw at first glance, hidden from initial view by the print’s small size and the intricately inked lines.
When next we returned to the Fine Arts Center, we were armed with a graphic organizer to guide our individual examinations of what types of elements comprised a visually arresting, cohesive exhibition. We took note of how the exhibit was structured, what types of art work were included, and how the wall text was utilized. We will use what we noticed to inform our own process of curating an exhibition. I chose to examine the Chihuly exhibition because it seemed outstanding to me as a whole. Aspects that fascinated me about the exhibit were the overwhelming emphasis on color and the variety of three-dimensional and two-dimensional pieces. After reading the wall text, I also learned about how some of the pieces were made and their backgrounds.
We have learned so much and have more to come. Now I have to dive into the Renaissance and make some decisions about our exhibit but keep your eye out for more blog entries from my classmates!
Suddenly fourth week is in full swing. It is amazing that we have only been weaving for less than a month! The works we have produced are ones to be proud of for sure. We have spent late nights avidly weaving many yards,
problem solving, and eating an unreasonable amount of freeze pops to arrive where we are today.
As the final projects emerged from the looms, the personal style of each weaver became delightfully clear. Curiosities were explored and challenges overcome in a spectacular show of wit and determination. The morning was spent adding finishing touches and hanging our pieces for our final critique. Today we are having a show in conjunction with the printing press and bookmaking class in Coburn Gallery!
We have our fabrics on display in creative ways to enhance the viewer’ experience, and show off the variety of techniques each student has employed. There are pieces that boast double or triple weave, silk painting, and even an invented weave structure! The show is not one to miss. It will be a satisfying bookend to a very fulfilling block.
This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was definitely a night to remember. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!
Throughout the whole block, we have been learning the many ways to dye various fiber materials. Fibers can be relatively picky about how they want to be dyed, and dyes take careful measuring and planning to come out the desired color. At first it all seemed overwhelmingly mysterious to me. All of the chemicals and temperatures sounded impossible to get right, and I pictured myself melting in a disastrous chemical hot water rainbow. As it turns out, dyes are a load of fun and have a great amount of exploring potential. While the measurements are important while learning, the rules can be bent for different effects and purposes as things become more familiar. The trick is bending the rules on purpose, and not out of carelessness. We have learned that hot water dyes are used on animal fibers, such as sheep’s wool, alpaca, and mohair, whereas cold-water acid dyes are used on plant fibers such as cotton, linen, and hemp. We even learned how to dye with indigo by a very talented local fiber artist who is also a CC alum.
Some students in the class have gotten very creative with dyeing. A funky pair jeans and a few shirts came out of the indigo dye bucket with interesting shibori patterning. Shibori is a type of “resist dying” (sort of like tie dye) we have been learning.
Experimentation with dying has also led to detailed batik pieces and beautiful skeins of yarn. As our final project looms, each of us is preparing to dye hundreds of yards of yarn to the desired colors for our projects. Some skeins will be individually painted, while some will be dunked or soaked for different color qualities.
The adventure into the mysterious basement of the Fine Arts center was an unforgettable one. Michael led us behind the scenes, into the basement where priceless art waits on its way in or out of the museum. We held our breaths as the grille of the massive elevator screeched into position, locking us in for the descent into the archives.
The tapestries were carefully rolled out before us one by one by a pair of very knowledgeable CC interns. Each rug held its own rich history, its own secrets, and its own important place in the Fine Art Center’s permanent collection. We oohed and aahed at each rug as its vibrant patterns rolled out in stark contrast to the one behind it.
Jeanne quizzed us playfully on techniques and technical details of the tapestries, bringing to our attention dyes and warp quality, finishing stitches and antiquated weaving practices. We soon found that the pieces being revealed to us were a special few of many special tapestries that stood at attention behind the doors of a temperature regulated vault along with thousands of other priceless artifacts.
Our brains full with new information, speculations, and images, we returned to our studio where our own miniature tapestries sat barely woven.
After a night of hard weaving, our approximately 8”x10” samples hung proudly on the wall of Coburn Gallery. It was no surprise that traces of the rugs we had admired the day before had emerged boldly in our weaving samples. The sturdy fabric that laboriously came into its existence on each of our looms is so satisfying to handle and look at, that it will be hard to resist taking on the ultimate challenge of making a large one for a final project.
After weeks of rehearsal and preparation, the class finished this music class about as fittingly as one can–with a gamelan and dance performance for the whole community. Surprisingly, despite the atmosphere of excitement behind the performance itself, I found the costume and make-up preparation to be one of the most memorable parts of the day. As someone with no experience in the performing arts, dressing up to the extent we did (seen to the right) was completely new territory for me. However, after being able to perform in costume, the appeal completely makes sense to me. On one level, one take-away from class was how performers would hang masks by their beds before shows to absorb their power. Covered in make-up, warrior garb, and later a demon mask, it’s easy to see why so much emphasis is put on costume’s transformative powers in Bali. For me, putting on all the layers of costume seemed to project responsibility away from me and onto the character. Thus, while it feels a little silly for Normal Mark to perform a baris dance in cargo shorts and a Nike T-shirt, a Warrior Mark outfitted with armor, weapons, and a mustache to boot couldn’t be more in his element. In a similar vein, an old college adage states that the best way to stay awake in class is to wear a suit to the classroom; in theory, it’s the sense of maturity and professionalism that’s so closely related to the suit that has the power to overcome the exhaustion that would otherwise de-rail one’s participation in class. It is this transformative power that I was able to feel when performing in front of the community, and made executing the dances feel so much more natural.
Overall, looking back on the block as a whole from playing music to exploring Balinese culture, one of the most valuable parts I found as a student that’s never done a semester abroad was how powerful of a teacher experience can be. Especially in a political climate where the sources behind facts are under such scrutiny, it was refreshing to learn about a subject with my own senses, rather than solely through a textbook. Though scholarly literature certainly did serve to ground the class, there’s something about the visceral reaction of seeing something for yourself that takes the textbook to a level that no textbook can. In short, it personalizes the process of learning, and makes it about people and senses rather than words in a book. Whether what I see ends up confirming or even nuancing what I learned beforehand, it’s an experience that I can’t recommend enough for CC students thinking about the abroad experience. It’s taught me not to simply be satisfied with the words of others, but to go and engage with the world and find out its workings for myself.
This week has been a whirlwind of learning. It is amazing to work our way through the many steps of creating fabric—something we are in contact with every day. Textiles are such an integral part of cultures all over the world and the craft of weaving is a specialized and versatile one. Somehow handling the yarn, the loom, and the books of hundreds of patterns holds a weight of an ancient and beloved art. Fabrics such as quilts are passed down as special heirloom items through generations. Epic stories of empires are recorded in fabric for us to see today in the form of tapestries. The more I learn each day, the more I am amazed at how vast and deep the world of fiber arts really is and the more sure I am that we have endless amounts to learn. In only one week we have already learned to thread a loom, weave a few twill variations, dye wool, and read patterns yet here we are at the tip of the iceberg!
The loom turns out to be a very complex mechanism. Any slight mishaps that might occur in setting up will become clear in the woven piece. Careful method becomes crucial in preventing utter madness.
With the yarn that each of us dyed to our desired color (or an accidental other color) we set up for our four different Twill samples. It was amazing to see the patterns emerge as we wove! The sounds of everyone weaving at once are very satisfying. The squeaking and clacking of the wood looms, the whooshing of the beater against fiber, and the occasional gasp of dismay make for an eclectic orchestra. When all of our samples were done, including our exploratory handloom pieces, we pinned them to the gallery wall and beheld our work as a class. What an enlightening week it has been.
Arguably the most difficult part of blogging about this trip (as I’m sure would be the case in any abroad experience) has been to capture the sea of subtlety that naturally comes when thrust into a world outside of your own. However, I feel that I would not be doing my religion major proud if I didn’t talk about the spiritual landscape of Bali. I knew coming in that it hosted a unique blend of Hinduism, but what ultimately struck me the most was its practice. I first felt its power in the offerings. Composed of little straw saucers filled with food, flowers, and often small amounts money; for what these humble offerings lacked in fanfare, they made up in sheer numbers. In fact, it was difficult to go anywhere without finding one on a doorstep, sidewalk, or street corner. Temples also had a similar prominence in Bali, as communities often hosted more communal temples as well as household shrines (seen above). Thus, while in the West it’s often easy to section off our Sacred and our secular, the world of spirit is infused into everyday life in Bali. All you have to do is walk around.
Another striking feature of Balinese religiosity was its emphasis on heritage, and how that would present itself in daily life. One one level, one need look no further than the prayers at our professor’s local temple; in the listing of prayers, one could always count on one including their ancestors. However, even beyond the setting of the temple, ancestry plays a major factor in the daily lives of the Balinese. It is believed that when a person dies and is cremated, their spirit arises from the fire and–with the help of the family and community–ultimately comes to reside in the family’s communal temple. These souls either will remain in the family’s life in spirit, or will reincarnate into a new person in the community. Such is the case for one of the little girls on the compound, who was found by the priest to be the reincarnation of our professor’s mother. In this way, one’s heritage isn’t only felt in services, but becomes a lived reality for individuals and their loved ones.
To continue our journey through Bali with a a trip to one of the holiest temples on the island–Tanah Lot. Located on an island twenty yards off the coast of the mainland, at first blush this quiet sea temple (seen below) has an unperturbed atmosphere deserving of its sacred status. However, look anywhere around this island and you’ll find that it’s surrounded by tourists, shops, and even an 18-hole golf course. So many of Bali’s holy sites fall into this trap, in which the cultural (and specifically religious) tourism that served as the original appeal for the island become a hub for a hoard of tourist-centered businesses hoping to capitalize on their allure. As this push to expand on the tourism market that already drives Bali’s economy continues, many Balinese people have voiced their discontent towards this degradation of both Bali’s physical and cultural landscape. Our class’s position is particularly precarious, because as we have learned about tourism’s effect on the Balinese people, so too are we participating in this tourist culture not only in our purchases, but also in our being outsiders looking into another culture. After talking to the class ironically during a lunch at a beachside resort, the consensus seems to be that best thing we can do as students is to constantly seek to educate ourselves about Bali while also realizing the limits of how much we can truly understand this new culture, especially in such a short time. It is this very humility that allows spaces like Tanah Lot to not be merely a plot of potential real estate, but a temple with a significance that can only be understood from the inside.