This project had an enormous personal impact on me when the Presbyterian Church U.S.A, inspired by the beauty and artwork of the St. John’s Bible, decided to commission artwork to illustrate the denomination’s new Book of Common Worship. I was lucky enough to be the artist to receive that commission, and it has been easily the most important project of my career.
The St. John’s Bible pages are huge. Far larger than I had pictured. They had a number of the painted pages, and (fascinating for me) they also had the collage mock ups that the artists did before beginning in on that actual vellum. The exhibition also included some Medieval French illuminated psalters.
Standing in that room with that long line of Biblical artwork made me feel enormously privileged to be a part of that line of artists through centuries who have interpreted and illustrated the Bible. The book I illustrated will never get the museum attention that the enormous St. John’s project has, but it is in use nationally and beyond for the next 25 or 30 years. I am deeply grateful to have been a part of it.
No photographs were allowed in the exhibition, which I was sad about. I would love to share the collages alongside the finished pages. It was a fascinating journey. But my partner kindly surprised me at the end with the Book of Psalms from the gift shop. I’m thrilled to have a small piece of it to bring home and to remember standing in that space that spanned time, belonging to a long line of artists who contributed to this ongoing work of retelling and interpreting the word. The Book of Common Worship was limited in colors, which suited my printmaking focus, so it has a very different feel. But here are a few photos of my illustrations alongside the St. John's Bible.
Only so many photos will load easily at once, so I saved some of my favorites from the Joslyn for a second post. I’ve looked at Gustave Dore’s engravings for years, but I had only seen one or two oil paintings by him. This landscape blew me away. I took a couple of closer up shots as well as the overall. I’m a sucker for a twilight/stars scene, and the teal stripe of water beguiled me, as did the texture in the sky. If I could have taken one piece home to live with daily, this would have been it, even though there were likely some objectively “finer” pieces there. I adore it.
I also fell for this urban landscape by John Sloan, one of the founders of the Ashcan school. I’m late learning about them, but every piece I see, I like it more. They painted urban landscapes in the early 20th century, and I’m definitely a city girl. I kept coming back to look at this one as well.
Finally this El Greco blew me away. He was a painter so ahead of his time. Like Van Gogh and Walter Anderson and Georgia O’Keefe, he saw the world around him in a distinctive, visionary style, and his paintings could be no one else’s. There are only a handful of painters who have completely created a new visual vocabulary. Most great painters, even the masters, build strongly on those coming before. A handful manage to not start from scratch but get somewhere so unique that it feels as if they did. El Greco is one of those. You would think his paintings are 20th century, and he was 400 years ahead of that. This one is about 1582. It’s more muted than some of his, since the subject is the understated and ascetic St. Francis, but it contains that blaze of sky in the background, and the brushwork is loose and assured and only what he needs with not a jot more added. One of the true greats.
I visited family over the weekend and also did something of a Midwest art museum tour. Back in college I had taken one summer sculpture class in Omaha and visited the Joslyn, but my memory of it was hazy at best. It was a total delight. A gorgeous variegated pink stone building housing a beautifully curated collection. We had just that morning seen a piece on Helen Frankenthaler on one of the Sunday morning shows. My art knowledge of mid 20th century and beyond, especially in abstract work, is pretty sketchy. I had seen her being mentioned various places and seen a piece or two, but beyond that knew nothing. This monumental piece gobsmacked me in person. It’s the only one I managed to do a sketch of, but I was so glad to have that time to sit with it. Later one of my honorary nieces, which is how I think of several different daughters of people dear to me, wanted to do a collage project. I had told her that I’m always drawn to collage, but I don’t feel I do it well. So we sat down together with my journal page from the museum and each constructed at least an homage to the Frankenthaler piece we had seen together. It was great fun to do, if nothing else.
Here are a couple of other pieces I loved at the Joslyn. I’ve always been a total sucker for Dutch still life paintings, and they had a lovely breakfast piece — well on the fancy end of that category. Pieter Claesz’s super simple ones are my very favorites, but I really enjoyed this one from 1630 by Jacob Fopsen van Es. I was also struck by a Madonna with Botticelli/Fra Lippo Lippi resonances by Lorenzo di Credi, c. 1490. The detail is exquisite. I’m going to flood this blog post with too many photos, so I’ll put up another couple of favorites in a post to follow. Too good not to share.
This past weekend was the Pink Palace Crafts Fair, a longtime fair in Memphis, and I was the demonstrator for printmaking. It’s special for me to be out there. I started going to the fair with my parents as a kid, I remember getting to choose my special Christmas present just as I got old enough to fall in love with the silver handmade jewelry, and now I get to be a part of it. I don’t generally do outdoor fairs, and I don’t own a 10x10 tent, nor do I want to, but this fair puts me safely inside an enormous tent (which was key this past weekend) and lets me sit out and see all my friends and neighbors passing through the show.
It’s fun to sit and carve in my lap and let people see the laborious process (though deeply satisfying) that goes into each carved print. I like talking to the kids who love art, the teens who have done a block or two in school art class, and adults of all stripes who make art or appreciate it. I even get a little work done! This past weekend I worked on five different blocks. I had one large one going already and did a bit more on it, though you hit a point where damage can happen to something intricate if you’re in and out of concentration all day. I started a new large block for most of Saturday, but again, I felt like I needed more concentration to finish that one out. So later in the weekend I jumped to a smaller block based on a recent gouache painting of cherries. That gouache and all its friends are still up in my still life show Daily Pleasures at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis through November 3rd. I’d been thinking for a while of trying this one in a print as well, and I grabbed a scrap piece of Lino and drew it out Sunday morning to give me something new to work on. Above are yesterday’s color tests. I’m hand rolling several colors at once and printing it all in one go, a simpler form of color work than carving an individual block for each separate color.
One last tiny block I did was a snail, based on a sketch I did out west this summer. I had my sketchbook out with me, as I always do, and happened across that sketch. I always need new note card designs, so I’ll get this one printed for the later fall shows.
Here is one of the larger blocks I was also working on. The other hasn’t progressed far enough to really show yet. I’ve only got a small percentage done, even though it took a while to get there. Both are continuing my series about water that is mostly oils, but I’m working on getting some prints to go with the larger paintings. This one still needs a bit of work in the water, where light meets dark, but it’s mostly done now.
It's Inktober on social media for artists, and I've been covered up in Pink Palace Crafts Fair preparations lately, but I'm also trying to do an ink sketch or two every day. I took advantage of the gorgeous weather lately and rode my bike out to Shelby Farms park on the Green Line the other day. It was glorious. One of these times I need to sketch the buffalo, but that day I just did the Clark Tower off across the fields. I love my milk crate that carries sketching equipment (and snacks) as I get to new places I couldn't easily get to under my own power before. I'm new to biking, being a seriously late bloomer, but I'm having a ball.
Today I rode out to Dixon. It's one of my favorite destinations, so I'd been wanting to find a route I feel good about taking. It was fun to get there on my bike, see the current exhibitions, do a few sketches, and ride home by way of Burke's bookstore. A happy day.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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