Friday, July 29, 2011

The Pen, Part II: Living Through a Revolution

In case you haven't heard, Tunisians got rid of their dictator, Z. Ben Ali, after demonstrations that lasted a month and ended on January 14, 2011 when he slipped out of the country--his mafiosi family had preceded him, taking with them millions and bleeding the country. Although the demonstrations remained peaceful, there was bloodshed because the police shot at protesters, killed over three hundred, and wounded thousands. The Tunisian revolution was a first in the Arab world, followed by a successful movement in Egypt that involved millions of demonstrators, and massive protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya.  In Tunisia, a major factor was unemployment with 180,000 of the 700,000 unemployed (total population 10 million) being university graduates. Unemployment in some areas, especially interior towns, is still around 80 percent. So here was a mass of people with nothing to lose. The spark: a young man couldn't find work in his town, so he started selling vegetables from a wheelbarrow. The police told him he couldn't do it, there was some kind of altercation (the details remain fuzzy), so he went to the local government building and set himself on fire, a human torch. Now if he had done this in Tunis, nobody would've noticed, but in the towns, everyone is related to everyone else, so the protest marches started immediately and soon all of Tunisia joined in. Taken by surprise, the West just watched, while the French offered to send law enforcement "aid" to the Tunisian police, creating an awkward diplomatic situation after the dictator fled.
       The toughest part has been accomplished--dislodging a dictator generally approved of by the West. Serious problems remain. There were organized looters that arrived in towns at night and burned certain structures, especially the police and national guard stations. These people were presidential guards and the ruling party militia who were paid to provoke chaos and create a vacuum in power and social order so that Tunisians would beg the dictator to come back. Hmmmfff. Fat chance. Tunisians are no longer afraid. After 23 years of fear, they are freed and proud. They organized by neighborhoods to stop the thugs. All things were quiet in my street thanks to a neighborhood watch organized by people who sometimes hadn’t talked to each other in years. There suddenly appeared feelings of solidarity and responsibility. I find this impressive and very positive, for Tunisians have been unable to organize into any kind of real civil society because government policies have promoted fear and division in order to rule.
        Unfortunately, the corrupt infrastructure that served Ben Ali will be difficult to change. The press still appears to have serious problems and seems to be playing to mob rule rather than to the formation of a democracy “by the people and for the people.” After the initial euphoria (suddenly the internet worked right, everyone was critisizing everything, bureaucratic paperwork became more restrained, etc.—it feels so good to stop hitting your head against the wall), the “transition” period has been prolonged until elections in October, making it hard to enforce policies. People are discouraged because changes have not come about fast enough. To make matters worse, the Libyan people's very violent struggle to depose their very violent dictator, Gadaffi, is putting pressure on a fragile Tunisian economy and destabilizing the entire region.  
On a positive note and returning to the idea of the power of the Pen: One of the things that helped the Revolution was technology. People communicated by written text that included image (photos, videos) through Facebook, Twitter, and other internet sites. Thanks to Al-Jazira TV, news coverage was excellent and information flowed and continues to be available. Satellite dishes are all over Tunisia, even in poor areas, so everyone was on the same page. 
I propose, then, that the power of the Pen has adapted to the times and that there is hope that notions of truth and reason will not be muffled. The positive/negative reflecting images of this art quilt--with only a change in language--show that no matter what language, freedom, knowledge, and truth are the same for everyone, they are universal. 
The pens are executed in French knots. The model for this piece was my daughter's favorite fountain pen that she used through secondary school and--more importantly--it persevered in her sweaty hand through the grueling baccalaureate exams. Many years ago she said "That's the quilt I want on my office wall someday." She forgot that she said it, but I didn't. This summer "The Pen" has finally found a home in my daughter's office at an American university.

And I am honored to be a witness to Tunisian courage and the monumental changes that Tunisia has undergone. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Pen, Part I

Living under a dictatorial regime has its drawbacks, one of the worst of which is the lack of freedom of expression. Tunisia and North Korea competed for the number one spot in the “Repression” rankings. Why buy a newspaper when the same nonsense spewed forth day in and day out? Information went through secondary channels, especially the téléphone arabe (gossip), which could be surprisingly accurate thanks to a persistent oral culture coexisting with a more easily controlled written culture. In oral traditions, the sources are important. Here's how it works (fill in the blanks):
         Tunisian 1: I heard that Ben Ali Baba & his 400 thieves went to__ and did__.
         Tunisian 2: Well, here's what I heard that Ben Ali Baba did, he ___. 
         Tunisian 1: What's your source?
         Tunisian 2: My source is___.
         Tunisian 1: Well, my source is better, it's___.
So whoever produces the best source, the source closest to the story, wins. It's a self-correcting mechanism that works amazingly well. By the way, the last dictator's name is Ben Ali.  I couldn't resist the "Ali Baba and his 40 thieves" reference. 
         Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV were all affected. Graduating lycée (high school) students--who are assigned their major and campus--listed journalism toward the end of their preferences, if not their last choice. They were to be pitied if assigned to journalism.  In the universities, the regime’s heavy-handed policies tainted intellectual circles as well. Knowledge was adulterated while history was erased and re-written. Everyone knew what had to be said to keep a job—or what could not be said. The arts of innuendo and self-censorship became second nature. And if you were not a member of the one ruling party, then your chances for promotion in your career became nil, unless you were self-employed.
And so, I began to wonder about the proverb referring to the pen and the sword. Would “Might is Right” win the day? However, being a rather straightforward and uncomplicated person (right is right and wrong is wrong), I continued to believe in Truth and channeled my indignation into an art quilt.
The Pen (April 1996, 36"x50", 90cmx1m24), machine pieced and quilted, hand embroidered. The idea for the image of the pen developed from some cards I had drawn. 
I had been playing with dots and spirals as a design element.

For those who know something about embroidery, the pen is made of hundreds of French knots, just French knots. I carried this project around with me for three years...and haven't done a French knot since.       (To be continued)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Beginning Mosaics

There may be a slump in the construction industry elsewhere in the world, however, in Tunisia, business is bustling. Everywhere you look, people are building or adding on. As homes usually have flat roofs, another story can always be added when the family grows or children marry and need a place to live (property costs are prohibitive in the Tunis region). During the Bourguiba era (1956-1987), families could obtain only one loan, which had to be paid off before one could seek another. Consequently, people built slowly as money came in. Since then, multiple house loans are available, but, sluggish construction practices persist so many neighborhoods appear to be under perpetual construction.
Tunisia has a long history and its tradition of tilework and mosaics reflects  influences from the Carthaginians, Romans, Andalusians, and Ottomans, among others.  Tiles are part of the environment, and near any construction site the mounds of shards accumulate. For a long time, memories of tossed bits and pieces nagged at me. Then ideas about mosaics took shape, especially as our house renovation came to an end with piles of refuse overwhelming my garden.
Besides 25-year-old crumbling flower pots that required attention, several new pots bought from a local merchant served as bases. And so I began--completely in the dark--with a small pot, a hammer, broken tiles, and a tube of strong glue.
My first pot without grouting. It looked promising to my unpracticed eyes.
With grouting--Ouch, it was better without! I use cement, in this case, white cement. The cement made the tiles fade away, wrong color.  I present this pot to demonstrate that you have to give yourself permission to be bad, really bad, when learning something new. I can also rationalize away any negative thoughts by saying it’s “just” a flower pot. Or "I'm just testing out this new technology." This works for any friendly perfectionists standing nearby as well. I love this white pot and use it still. It sits quietly in a corner of my patio.
2nd flower pot—getting better with the grouting cement, but rather uneven surfaces. These pots are heavy: cats knocked this one off of the scale twice and it only broke into three pieces the second time. Glue and cement came to the rescue and it was as good as new. 
This patio table falls under the category of repurposed: the table base is a radiator, the top is from outdoor stairs. The scale belonged to my father-in-law. Note the Rock Family: mother with baby and two children. After the incident with the cats, the plants got moved.
Usually I try to make every mosaic design different, but I did one series because I had thick floor tiles from our old bathroom in limited supply.
Also under the category of repurposing: an old computer desk frame, with a tossed wrought iron railing as top plus tiles, serves to hold pots. Succulents work best in this spot due to full sun exposure. I am thankful for any plant that can stay any shade of green during the month of August.
         Then I began to see the possibilities. And I had empty spaces in my patio wall, which is also a series of built-in planters. 
The Before: Old cans from paint and olive oil were recycled.

The After. The jury is out on whether paint residue in the old paint cans will affect the plants, so I use hardy succulents from the garden that grow in abundance. So far, so good. There's great satisfaction from recycling: glue and cement + used containers + broken and leftover tiles = a creative and useful project.

At first, making the mosaic flower pots was compelling because of my need for plant containers coupled with my thirst for learning something new and the desire to create. Now, I'm just hooked on the whole process and outcome. Fortunately, I have space for an unlimited number of pots. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Florence and THE Vase

It is true, my folks took my family on excursions to the beach and we would stop in Florence, Oregon—a nice town—however, I’m referring to THE original Florence in Italy. I’ve wanted to visit Italy for years and years. In fact, I could almost swim across to Sicily, or maybe take a rowboat. I even took Italian lessons and watched the RAI (TV), which is easily picked up in Tunisia. The problem was that when it came to exchanging Tunisian dinars for Italian Lira or later Euros, I found that little remained in my pocket. And for many years, Tunisia had tight restrictions on the amount of currency that could be taken out of the country. Considering prices in Italy, I could have visited for a day and a half or two.
          Then, I was invited to participate in a conference near Florence (in Montecatini) a year ago. Dream come true! Of course, I managed to work in several days of sightseeing in Florence and this is what marked me most: It is difficult to draw a line between Italian artists and artisans for they seem to converge and the result is a way of life that touches everybody. Everyday objects are bestowed with a magic that takes them beyond utilitarian. Take, for example, the humble door knocker.

Or the doors.

Then there are the floors.

Having done a good deal of house painting recently, I stand in awe of Italian house painters of old.

And, of course, there are the fountains.
Window shopping reaches new heights--just over the top!

I do not profess to know Italy well, so the idea that artistry—or the artistic—permeates Italian life (including Italian cuisine) is strictly my opinion. But I didn’t have one mediocre meal while I visited and I felt a sort of joy and appreciation when sitting down at a table or entering a cathedral or museum. It all blends together to create a pleasing whole. And don’t get me started on the gelato!
This brings me to THE vase. It sat in the window of a small antique store in the old part of Florence. It beckoned to me, but the shop was closed. I could only admire from a distance.
This is the object I carry in my mind. Lovely, elegant, sophisticated, luminous, graceful, colorful, tasteful, perfect craftsmanship, a work of art in a humble vase.
So, when I returned home and I decided that my garden would become one of my canvases, I began making mosaic flower pots, not only for utility’s sake or to provide visual delight, but to create and possess beautiful objects. And always, the memory of THE vase reminds me that artistic inspiration and fine craftsmanship enhance each other.