You Take the High Road

You Take the High Road

Low art is a term I was unfamiliar with until I read a post written by artist Breanna Rhodes via Heijeu Arts Central. She recounts in her article how her art professor told her she made low art. It just about crushed her. Had I been told the same thing as a junior in college studying studio art, that label would have crushed me, too.

Having a B.A. in Art History, it’s embarrassing not knowing high art versus low art. I am familiar with and fluent in most art movements from pre-Columbian to Pop.

As a visual artist, I can only claim a broad category of art called contemporary. (Someone did give me the title of post-modern ecological artist, and I thought, wow, would anyone understand that?) I often wonder what art movements and terms are at work today.

Professor G. James Daichendt defines low art as a concept that typically refers to pop culture and entertainment. Low art is used in a derogatory fashion because of its mass appeal.

High art and low art aren’t the best descriptors. High art generally references painting, sculpture, and music and the study of these disciplines. High art is made to carry a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. This explains all the esoteric analyzing of artworks written by art critics I read in college and found difficult to understand what “the hey” they were talking about.

Low art, by contrast, was to differentiate between classical methods of making art and textile art. The class of low art came about during the Arts and Crafts movement. We all probably know the movement’s champion as William Morris.

eight stacked and in two columns Brillo box sculpture by pop artist Andy Warhol
painting of an open Campbell’s Soup beef noodle can for 19 cents by Andy Warhol, 1962

Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) and Campbell’s Soup Can (1962)

Today, high art and low art lines are blurred. Although the masses easily digest low art, the quality and craftsmanship of low art are often superb. I think of stunningly designed quilts and the beautiful little ceramic bowls I collect from artists. Many considered low art pieces, such as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, are showcased in museums. Jeff Koons’ everyday larger-than-life balloon sculptures, each worth upwards of 58 million dollars, are, by definition, “low art.”

enormous blue reflective blue balloon dog sculpture by artist Jeff Koons on displayed in pop art museum exhibit

Jeff Koon’s colossal Blue Balloon Dog, 1994-2000

Young emerging artists grew up with the Internet, a conduit for the masses. It’s no wonder these artists reflect our times of connection by computer and technology in startling ways as Warhol reflected his times with his Campbell’s Soup cans paintings in the 1960s. We now have an array of digital and meme art taking up space in galleries alongside paintings.

large textile hanging tapestry of a bedroom with someone sitting on the bed with a laptop open showing another person on the screen by artist Erin M. Riley on display at the P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York City

Artist Erin M. Riley at the P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City, her work illustrates our intimate, everyday relationships with technology.

four paintings of feminist memes of crying little girls with captions by artist Christine Wang

Artist Christine Wang’s Feminist Memes.

While painting is considered high art, I think of oils in particular, followed by acrylic painting, basically anything on canvas owning that description. Watercolors and works on paper have often been seen as artist sketches and studies before creating the real deal on canvas. Doing watercolors was a casual plein-air pastime for the elite and eventually accessible to everyone. Looking at watercolors as art for the masses, I make low art.

Another art form that I have been studying for the past 2+ years is surface pattern design. By definition, this is low art, as its end goal is to decorate everyday objects, from textiles to wallpaper and gift wrap.

Perhaps the better terms might be classical and vernacular art instead of high and low art. Then again, high and low are easier to digest and will remain blurry at best.

Seven Starlings

Seven Starlings

On a cloudy late March afternoon, they landed on my deck’s railing, seven of them to be exact. (Yes, I counted). I had never seen anything so striking, so stunning, birds bejeweled, fitting for an Egyptian pharaoh’s throne.

What I had seen was the European Starling, introduced to America in 1890 when 60 birds were released into New York’s Central Park. A group of romantics wanted America to have every bird mentioned by Shakespeare exist in the country. Since then, starlings have become one of North America’s most disdained invasive bird species. Called the destroyer of bird feeders, a bane to agriculture, the noise they make, and all that “guano” is the short list of grievances against them. The starlings visiting my deck that afternoon were perfect guests and did not overstay their welcome. So much for a bad reputation.

sixty starlings were released in New York’s Central Park in 1890. They had no say in the matter. Now the most despised bird species in all of North America

Because of my reaction to seeing starlings for the first time up close, I wanted to incorporate them into my work but was not sure how to approach the subject. Digging a bit deeper into all things starlings, I came across “a story about Mozart’s starling.” Yes, that Mozart. Thanks to author Lyanda Lynn Haupt and her following the story all the way to Salzburg, she writes about Mozart and his muse in her book Mozart’s Starling.

On May 27, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart adopted a coy little starling he found in the market. To Mozart’s surprise, the starling sang to him the theme from his Piano Concerto Number 17 in G from the shop window. After paying a few kreuzers for it, Mozart brought the bird home.

On my Want-to-Read List!

Starlings are excellent mimics and quite vocal but they can also add their own adaptations and alternatives as Mozart discovered when he would play for the bird. He kept notes on the bird’s iterations while working on his compositions. Indeed, Mozart loved his starling, so much so, that there was a formal funeral held for the bird at its passing.

While conservationists, naturalists, and the average birder regard the starling as a bona fide pest, starlings give us murmurations, the most mesmerizing flight display known in birds. They form impossible complex shapes as thousands of starlings fly together in perfect harmony and unison. How can so many starlings fly together without crashing into one another? This is a question that has puzzled researchers until recently.

As it happened researchers in Italy worked out the math, which has to do with chaos theory and advanced mathematics (I’m thinking algorithms). They concluded that each starling is paying attention to only the seven starlings next to it and no more but as a movement, this scales rapidly through the flock.

It’s a bit like a metaphor for our lives. Each of us has some version of “seven starlings,” the closest people around us we tend to on a daily basis — our family, co-workers, and neighbors. It’s challenging to fit more people into this circle and give them our full attention.

Seven Starlings © Kristin Maija Peterson 2022
SEVEN STARLINGS © 2022 Kristin Maija Peterson. Archival Ink on Mulberry Paper. 30” high x 25.25” wide. Unframed. Est. $2000 USD.

I had a few large sheets of Mulberry paper stored away that I had been wanting to find a suitable subject using pen and ink. (Mulberry paper is notoriously delicate, like tissue. It does not take erasers well but takes well to archival ink pens). Starlings with their feather patterns would make an interesting subject now that I learned these things about them. (I do love birds, by the way). I drew the starlings first, seven of them, creating a pattern with each bird’s placement and orientation. Knowing the piece wasn’t finished, I set it aside until I could figure out what should come next.

Yeah, not dandelions. Actually, this is Meadow Hawkweed, a cousin. It grows near my mailbox and I think it is lovely.

I began to think about a botanical counterpart to the European Starling, an immigrant we disdain as much, the dandelion. The story of the dandelion’s arrival to North America is founded on immigration or you could say it’s one of the many effects of colonization has on a place. People brought the plant with them for both nutrition and medical purposes and during the 17th century, dandelions were heavily used for both food and to treat ailments.

More than that, the dandelion brought a familiarity to the early colonists’ new home, this strange new land so far from where they came. Since its introduction to North America, the dandelion has “colonized” the rest of the world. A good friend of mine told me about a conversation she had with a young Afghani woman who immigrated to Minnesota. She said they have the dandelion growing in her home country, too. Children take its characteristic seed puff ball, then blow, making a wish as the seeds float into the wind just as children do here in America.

I kept thinking about patterns found in nature, birds, flowers, leaves, and then, boom! I landed on William Morris or his art form, that is. Channeling the master artisan of wallpaper design and many other things that brings beauty into domestic life, I drew a winding curved branch around the starlings to represent their murmurations. From there, I worked on a pattern of dandelion flowers, their leaves, spent blooms, and flowers ready to bud open.

A little video overview of Seven Starlings.

Seven Starlings is by far the most conceptual piece I have made to date. I believe in the strength of a series (or a collection) of pieces that all work together and would like to do more like this piece. I have Mulberry paper ready to go and I know where to buy more. But I might have to wait until nature takes my breath away as she did that cloudy late March afternoon.

POST SCRIPT: Many of the species of plants and animals we have in North America have arrived through the process of colonization. No non-native bird, animal, or plant came to invade of their own volition. I keep this in mind. How can I pass judgment when they have committed no crime?

Mobile Home

Mobile Home

This is the latest in my Non-Human Architects series, that of a common yet, invasive Chinese but possibly a Japanese Mystery snail. As a common food source in Asian countries, the snail made its way to North America via California. With any living thing transported from another land, a few are bound to be let loose into the wild and the rest is history. The “mystery” part of their name is because females give birth to young, fully developed snails that suddenly and “mysteriously” appear.

MOBILE HOME © Kristin Maija Peterson 2020
Graphite pencil on 300 lb. Farbiano watercolor paper
29” high x 26” wide. Framed.

I have a hard time demonizing another creature because its numbers grow unchecked or transmit disease. Due to globalization, trade, and human misjudgment of the larger ecological picture, species end up in places they don’t belong at no fault of their own. Such is the fate of my small brown snail.

I began thinking about the research and findings regarding the emotional lives of animals written about lately. Even species deemed simple can display what we would call an emotional response. What if this small brown snail had an inner life of feeling and aesthetics? What if she wanted more than a plain brown utilitarian shell?

The man of many interests and endeavors William Morris wrote, “have nothing in your in your houses which you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.” Indeed, when people live in beautiful spaces, they are elevated and have more joy in their lives, especially when they are capable of designing and crafting these space through their own skill and artistry.

And so it was for my small brown snail. Inspired by William Morris’ botanical patterns, she adorned her mobile home.

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