Monday, May 29, 2023

Facial Anomalies

One of the things they study at the Penn Center forNeuroasthetics where I am an artist in residence, is facial anomalies. These include the obvious, such as cleft palate but the spectrum continues into the more typical such as scars, or other so called “disfiguring” conditions that leave a face “distorted”.  All in quotes because the stakes are high.  Check these out.

 It is fair to say that we as humans assess each other’s and our own faces and if there is anything that deviates a little too far from what we expect, we notice.

Unfortunately, biases against facial anomalies do exist in society. People with facial anomalies may face prejudice, discrimination, or negative judgments based on their appearance. Yes—even by persons who claim they don’t. This bias can stem from societal beauty standards, cultural influences, lack of understanding, fear, or ignorance about these conditions.  This is what they study at PCfN. The good news is that the bias seems changeable.

Facial anomalies interest me personally for a few reasons.  One is from the POV of self-image.  How does it affect a person if they feel like a freak—even if they aren’t, say, in the case of body dysmorphia?  Second: a zillion times I have been asked about why I distort faces when I draw them.  What’s it all about????  I wish I knew.  All I can say is that it’s a very strong, irresistible compulsion.  Until they look like that, I am massively unsatisfied and will destroy or alter them until they do.  They are to me, extremely gorgeous.  To others, I can’t say.  But to me, they are right, and all other faces are not-right.

Another factor in this piece was relating facial anomalies to “glass anomalies”. What constitutes an assault on our assumptions about health, integrity and wholeness in glass and stained glass design itself?

One thing about being a stained glass artist is dealing with broken glass.  In fact, all glass is broken in that that’s how you get it to be the desired shape.  Intention matters, but only so much.  Basically, you break it into shape.  And of course, it breaks on its own sometimes. I have had many a call an email from someone really panicking because something has quote-unquote broken.  Not that it matters in the grand scheme of human affairs, but people are really biased against broken glass, as if there was something wrong with it!  But…not all breaks signify damaged goods and sometimes it just adds to the story and look of the piece in a positive way. However, usually its seen as disfiguring and a very bad thing indeed.  Suddenly its no longer perfect!! (as if it ever was!)


But of course, the breaks often add to the content in significant ways, actually improving it: Check out these cool historical examples: (AND THESE TOO!)

Take that, Rene Descartes!
Silence! Its golden.
Upside down peace sign on the pope, what could it mean?
Bisected cupid (a vast improvement)

Most breaks in a window do not cause any issue with the structure.  Virtually ALL stained glass windows have breaks in them and plenty of them if the window is old.  The only time I worry is if they are prominent enough that they interfere with the design.  Like if they are right through the face.......I think you see where I am going with this!

In this piece, I wanted to address my own preciousness with the people I draw. I wanted to challenge the notion that breakage=damage. I wanted to see if I could intentionally break the faces right where it would matter.  Although, what I found was that in many cases, I couldn’t go through with it.  For one thing, in order to up the ante, I made sure the painting was some of my very best.  Much harder to make myself intentionally break it! 

It is said that ugliness, dirt, weeds etc are things that are perceived as being “out of place”, things that might be perfectly acceptable...somewhere else, thank you very much..... Breaks in glass fall into this category.

All this reminds me of how our aesthetic sense works: we are on the lookout for certain things.  We tend to have a preference for the “normal du jour”, we really like beauty (which could be said to be normal du jour that’s exaggerated in such a way that we are turned on rather than off) and we are destabilized by things that are anomalous. To put it really bluntly, we tend to find them un-attractive aka UGLY.   

And yes, I am more than familiar with the fact that some DO see them as attractive. I am one of them and that’s why I wanted to make the piece—to create an opportunity to reconsider that what upsets the apple cart is actually an opportunity to expand our definition of the beautiful.


Technical deets:

My windows was painted with Reusche stencil black enamel mixed with the awkwardly named "red for flesh".  I paint on a sandblasted surface.  Each roundel has about 4-5 firings at 1225F.

Assembling with lead






Thursday, May 18, 2023

stained glass on endangered list

And this just in.....


I have a few thoughts, perhaps unsurprisingly.  My first is that this is a formalization of something and that has some very real, very upsetting consequences (to myself and my profession, anyway.  I am pretty sure it doesn't affect a lot of other people and that just makes it sadder...)  it also might have a good side.

The cons are more obvious.  I know that every time I mentioned in class that "painting is dead (or dying)" the students (especially the painting students, duh!) jumped down my throat.  Of course they did--its not like they had lost the urge to paint.  The impetus and inspiration to paint their hearts out was alive and well and I would imagine will be alive and well until we mutate into another species.  In other words, the need to create images, including immobile two dimensional images, is part of our genetic make up.  Whether these need to be in oil paint remains to be seen.  I kinda doubt it, but I always hated the smell of oil paint and how it ruined all my clothes!  Regardless, no one wants their medium to be publicly declared "irrelevant".

Back to the cons.  Declaring something deceased is troublesome if you find it viable and are passionate about practicing it. The article by the BSMGP (I am a member, fyi) cites the following consequences: Loss of skills, loss of practitioners, decline in education, lack of training and employment ops,  loss of materials (so true!!! I am having a harder and harder time sourcing things) and  loss of relevance.

UGH. This is very sad indeed.

The death of stained glass "quaintifies" it. I work in stained glass and I feel like half my battle is convincing people I don't make my pieces in historic costume in a reconstructed colonial village.  By the way, I don't think there was stained glass in colonial America, so there's that. We don't have an reconstructed medieval villages in the US as far as I know. ANYWAY,  stained glass, IMHO, has been dying for a long time.  So long that the corpse has stopped smelling.  In other words, I am in a good position to speak on the PROS of working in a deceased medium.

Pro #1: Stained glass is dead, long live stained glass!  Stained glass is not a person but a medium and a tradition.  It actually can't die. People still respond strongly to images created with radiant colored light. As far as I can tell, this is a biological response and will not change.  Similar to what I said above about the impetus and inspiration to paint, so to, is there an impetus to "craft" as well as reasons why there will always be an audience.  Can you say "empathy"?)

People will continue to appreciate stained glass when they see it.  Because of this, it would be most helpful if the pieces they are looking at don't suck. But, regardless, the power of radiant light is such a compelling effect that it almost doesn't matter.  This has been the strength and weakness of stained glass since forever and contributes to its ongoing death AND its ongoing life!

Something the BSMGP may not have noticed is that stained glass enjoyed a revival during Covid.  One of its superpowers as a medium is that is is very DIY.  This will help it survive. This will also ensure that there are many untutored practitioners.  Again, this is for better and worse.

Pro #2: I can't think of one.  Uh oh...

My final comments will be on the idea of "progress" in the arts.  We want to tie progress to technology, and for good reason. Technology definitely progresses!  But does art?  I think not.  As Picasso allegedly pointed out when visiting the caves of Altamira “In 15,000 years we have invented nothing!”

For this reason, I think its kind of hubris-y to assumed that the latest technology somehow represents a paradigm shift for art.  We are still tied to a biological imperative to understand the world via senses and image. Whether these images can wash and fold your laundry and do the cha-cha (think AI) is irrelevant--there is still "magic" and meaning to be found in images which sit there and do nothing but assert themselves as images, damitol!  The burden is on the beholder to find the enchantment, after all, you still have the brain of neolithic humans, so what's stopping you?

Long live stained glass!

Part of this post inspired by this book (which I have only read chapter one as of this writing)

Friday, May 12, 2023


"Swarm". 24" x 60"


 The piece is 24" x 60", it took four months (working about four or five days a week) to make if you don't include the study piece, which add a month or so to the time.  

"Swarm Study" 1st version 2022

Lotsa Swarms around lately...there's this and also there's this.  I guess I am cresting the wave of some zeitgeist here.

The inspirations are, well, multitudinous. First and foremost, I began a residency at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics last spring.  The lab is led by Anjan Chatterjee who wrote a fantastic book called "The Aesthetic Brain".  As an artist in residence, I attend weekly lab meetings and am making a series of project including a geodesic dome chapel--which I am beginning work on very soon.  During the lab meetings I tend to doodle a lot.  And I have been doodling FLIES.

Neuro doodle  (with guest doodle by Clifford Workman)
another neuro doodle

I had the notion to make a picture of inspiration itself, which of course is almost impossible to define.  The feeling, though, can be one of a burst or a gush of multiple ideas (I don't think "inspiration" would be "having an idea", for instance.  It might, however be "having a network of a zillion ideas happen almost simultaneously".). And I could do this by a literal representation of hundreds of variations on a theme. The theme being FLIES.

Why flies? Because they fly? 

Maybe that's not enough of an answer...!  I like to doodle things I can riff on. Things that contain similar elements, like, in the case of flies: wings, legs, antennae, eyes, etc that can be endlessly combined like the letters of an alphabet to create different forms.  And these "words" can be combined in a "syntax".  Does this make sense?  I have done endless variations on other things like birds and flowers. I thought flies would be interesting because I had always focused on insects wings as the main defining element, and somehow I noticed their eyes, tongues and bodies were much more interesting than I previously thought! And, of course, I have a long history of being interested in redeeming the ugly and disgusting--but on its own terms.  I don't want to over-prettify it. Just enough... This also fits in with some of what is studied at the neuroaesthetics lab.


So, I had AI generate a swarm of flies.....lolz!

Maybe its completely unremarkable, but the way the imagination can recombine elements into an infinity of new possibilities fascinates me.  Especially in the days when reference material is a simple as clicking on google images.  I don't want to get to judgy here, but it bothers me when artists, especially young artists with no real practice of plumbing their own imaginations rely on reference material, which they do not bother to transform very much.  I wanted to "prove" that on the fuel of imagination alone, one could "invent" hundreds of new flies.  And that to design a gushing plume of them would be a literal representation of "having an idea" least having an idea about flies!


Below are some additional images of the process.

What the separate layers of glass look like
All the red pieces.  This is glass engraving, enamel and silverstain

Original sketch
One thought I had and rejected
How I was trying to conceive of the color burst.

One more thing:  while I worked on this piece, I often thought of my dear friend Sharon Church (who passed away on Christmas). She and I spent many years teaching together and one subject we always returned to was "beauty". Since she used frogs as a motif in a few pieces, I thought of this as the tantalizing, delicious and yes, beautiful, desirous meal for one of her frogs.  RIP, dearest friend.