By on July 23rd, 2020



detail from Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. Found on Public Domain Images; images courtesy the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Adults and children huddle around a brazier, or coal fire, to hear ghost stories.”






detail from Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. Found on Public Domain Images; images courtesy the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

“A man, perhaps the artist himself, has set down his calligraphy brush and reaches to extinguish a lamp. Once darkness falls, the demons will appear.”



To Signify: A Tincture of Pink



Night Parade of One-hundred Demons was created in 1890 by the great Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyōsai. He is considered a father of modern Manga. Wildly inventive, energy on a high boil, a Mad Magazine sensibility with rampant gift. The Public Domain Review featured this work recently and I was struck by one of the tropes. Although this artist’s palette can often be robust, in this series of horrors he employs almost nothing but pastels. Notably pink, with a few blood-red exceptions.



Why? We can’t ask him but can still make observations. Maybe he’d agree.



I think it’s to slyly invoke creepiness via contrast. Where you’d expect garish you get pastel. But a monk with his eyeballs hanging down his cheeks? Pastel? Instead of robust primaries or blue-note tertiaries?*



The hundred demons we’re promised come with all manner of talons, claws, indefinitive blobbiness. Huge, bitty, flying, running, bludgeoning. Japan is rich in demons. But Kawanabe presents them in dressing-Cinderella colors.



Before the demons come there’s  first a scene of a winter family huddled around a brazier waiting for ghost stories. A mild pink cloud hovers toward the ceiling. Next we see an artist stretching in strange elongated posture to extinguish the last lamp. The pink cloud now droops directly above him, close to the  page bottom. (Both images above. I regret that the subtle pink clouds appear some degrees less telling here.)



Only now does the demon parade begin its romp.



The parade is a book, bound on the right, in which the postures on one page lead naturally to those on the next.



As with much of Kyōsai’s very best work, the luridness doesn’t come from any single source so much as the accumulation of fine, sickly details—like the pink, almost pornographic tongue dangling from the horse-man’s mouth. First these details creep up on you, then they overpower you.

detail from Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. Found on Public Domain Images; images courtesy the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Skeleton soldiers, a horse with the head of a man, and other monsters advance in the growing darkness.”


In the sweet tones of candied almonds.



A work of visual art.


Compare words. Words exist expressly for humans to signify to each other. Anyone who has diagrammed a gnarly sentence appreciates how grammar rules — like baseball rules — bring structure, stave off ambiguity. Not so in the visual arts. Imagine if English, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Bantu and Norwegian were used in one communication. To start — whose grammar would you use?



In art you can even throw in the kitchen sink. No one gets to cry out “That’s not what’s in the dictionary!” Art’s meaning can never be pinned down in a words. Even Moby Dick — because it’s words plus art.




Little truths are like artworks. They’re opinions, ways of seeing, possible but not ironclad Truths. Here’s another way to think about pink.







* Primaries are the familiar red, yellow, blue; tertiaries are  red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet.



They remind me of garden wind-chimes tuned to the moody blue notes. (Blue notes are used in many blues songs, in jazz, and in conventional popular songs with a “blue” feeling, such as Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather”.) Wikipedia




By on July 3rd, 2020


Chinese characters for 书房 shufang, book room and 书斋 shuzhai, book studio




By on June 17th, 2020



Bach and Yma Sumac (061620 10)
Bach and Yma Sumac (061620 10)

Linguistic Lilt

One of the palpable pleasures of language is the rhythm and soundings of words. Poets once prided themselves on mastering it. The ancient art of rhetoric takes note of it. If I say bumpity-bump I communicate something to you. Potholes, klutzes. If lala land, palm trees softly sway. Swoosh, crack, bam, lullaby.



Language was spoken before it was written and its nuances of delivery must have been rehearsed in Homer’s time of epic reciters. Now most of our linguistic intake is read, keeping cadences inside our bony chambers. My ‘twas a dark and stormy won’t quite be yours. Unless you grew up in Southern California with Hoosier variants from your folks.



Our other verbal drenching comes with songs but songs come with music, notes alongside of words. That conditions how the language presents in your head. Very hard to detach the two. You see a sidewalk walker suddenly step to a beat and understand a favorite anthem is reverberating in their eardrums. The words tug hard at their emotions but what moves their feet, their waists, their hips is the musical form that the song artists provided.



In prose and poetry there’s no musical help — or hindrance. My favorite authors can invoke rhythm that you can read.




My favorite single sentence is Wallace Stevens’

The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.


[Of Mere Being, from The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play. Copyright © 1967, 1969, 1971 by Holly Stevens1967]



And in Saul Bellow’s novel Augie March there is this paragraph about the character Five prope’ties. I’ve copied it out and reread it numberless times. It actually has a pulse.


That would be Five Properties shambling through the cottage, Anna’s immense brother, long armed and humped, his head grown off the thick band of muscle as original as a bole on his back, hair tender and greenish brown, eyes completely green, clear, estimating, primitive, and sardonic, an Eskimo smile of primitive simplicity opening on Eskimo teeth buried in high gums, kidding, gleeful, and unfrank; a big-footed contender for wealth. He drove a dairy truck, one of those electric jobs where the driver stood up like a helmsman, the bottles and wood-and-wire cases clashing like mad. He took me around his route a few times and paid me half a buck for helping him hustle empties. When I tried to handle a full case he felt me up, ribs, thighs, and arms — this was something he loved to do — and said, “Not yet, you got to wait yet,” lugging it off himself and crashing it down beside the icebox. He was the life of the quiet little lard-smelly Polish groceries that were his stops, punching it out or grappling in fun with the owners, head to head, or swearing in Italian at the Italians, “Fungoo!” And measuring off a chunk of stiff arm at them. He gave himself an awful lot of delight. And he was very shrewd, his sister said. It wasn’t so long ago he’d done a small part in the ruin of empires, driving wagons of Russian and German corpses to burial on Polish farms; and now he had money in the bank, he had stock in the dairy, and he had picked up in the Yiddish theater the fat swagger of the suitor everyone hated: “Five prope’ties. Plente money.”



The pleasures of reading are many. How language aligns itself against the passage of time is just one of the delights.




By on September 2nd, 2019
A slice of a Wikipedia column of information is enough to read how unreliable that information is.

You can whack off a part of every paragraph and still make enough sense of these to understand how unreliable the explanations are.


A linguist might well ask (probably study) the minimum proportion of message that you must reveal in order to assess the value of it. Of course paragraphs of Shakespeare will return different values than a treatise on sore throats.


The lesson I draw here is that plenty of twaddle is freely fed, with a satisfying sense of authority (or mischief), into the internet. Look something up at your own peril.

By on June 20th, 2017

Trump Talk Bubble

We’ve all heard about the little man who wasn’t there but now we have the fatsy man who couldn’t mean.

What do you mean he couldn’t mean?

He would say ‘high’ and he’d mean ‘pink.’ He would mean ‘dog’ but he would say ‘star.’ When he kinda sorta saw a ‘bear cub’ in his color-changing thoughts he’d wrap his mouth around ‘cockadoodle.’ Because he didn’t mean anything he said. And he didn’t mean everything he said. And whatsoever his whim was, was. And if you wondered about it one whipstitch later he’d be miles ahead of you. ‘Creamy ranch.’

What do you mean he couldn’t mean?

I mean if he felt ‘yes’ it would be about something you’d think wide of the subject. And if he said ‘damed no!’ it would be about something you and he had yet to consider. Like plum pies. Like mud pies. Like gingham aprons.

Do you mean he couldn’t signify?

Yes but only if you understand that words were whatever came out of his mighty mouth, words were the blather stream, words were sounds going through him – his impulse, his blah, his vocal chords — which were Presidential vocal chords — his sounds which were like the sounds of frightened deer when gunshots rang out, were like the sound of industrial effluvia chuffing into the sky, were like the screeching of brakes when its too too late.

Do you mean he couldn’t give a damn whatever he might say aloud?

I mean he couldn’t even remember whatever he had said.

By on May 4th, 2017

Portraits of Ellis Island Immigrants from The Public Domain Review.


I’m enjoying the pleasures of writing  with pointed words — as if this administration was Saint Sebastian and my arrows would sink in.


Smart Person

He positioned himself behind the famed desk and signed with a broad black ‘You won’t forget ME’ felt pen whatever impressive document they handed him. Handpicked, they knew what he wanted. Thing is to delegate. He imagined himself that little boy on pajama flannels, straddling a rocketship like a bronco, lassoing  comets as they threatened his mom, his dad, his elementary school. Hero, saves ‘em all. He adds his own flatulence to power the rocket, because (snicker) who’ll ever know?

He’s a very smart person.

Without his money — and it’s a lot, believe me — has he ever had a friend? Someone who could trust him? Without his lots of money — and he’s a known -ionaire — but no peeking! — would his family stay around?  If he was just a schmuck?

But hey, he’s a very smart person.

Obama showed him how to be a man but he didn’t get it. He never looked relaxed or easy in his flesh or debonair like the Obamas kept doing.  They do it on purpose. Mean.  So what if his rear end’s a laughingstock? It looks Presidential, see? Presidential, because he’s the President. End of it.

He’s a very smart person.



Ellis Island immigrant, Public Domain Review.

Immigrants With Pets

Immigrants with pets. What could you do but desert them when facing a risky rubber boat across the Mediterranean? Leave them behind to scavenge and beg. Missing you while you miss them but don’t dare, your kids need you strong. The kids miss the pet, how can they not? But all the acts of dislocation pour salt water over memories writ in bleedy ink.  Or do you put the pet out of its misery-to-come? Do you? Or pay a distant cousin handy with a knife?  So many choices to  make as you leave behind your property deeds and mementos, your books, grandparents and lifetime friends.


I’d enjoy your thoughts and comments. 

By on December 30th, 2016
Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I need to write this. Now.

I’d heard of a prize-winning novel by a black man writing of black experience. A quick search turned up The Sellout by Paul Beatty.  The Man-Booker prize.  OK!

So I read it and loved it — at first.  The urgency of the prose, a burning wick of intensity. If you’ve read Robert Coover’s The Public Burning you’ll recognize that unsuppressable push of words.

But then The Sellout started maundering. The snappy jokes — not the characters, not the plot — became its reason. By the end I was annoyed. Annoyed.

So I Googled the same requirements.  This time the prize turns out to be the National Book Award.  Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. I’m blown away by the novel’s power. Its vision. Its truths.

Its worthwhileness.

If you ask me to compare the two books I’ll tell you it’s like comparing Moby Dick with Mad Magazine.

If you feel strong, read this book.  Perhaps use the January 20 Inauguration time-slot to remind you of why you’re not watching that ceremony.

By on July 5th, 2016

Diane Savona — her textile work wows me with its ingenuity, personal vision, its way of making more than you’d expect of little.  A thinker.

All images are from her website,

Diane Savona's, Structurally Unsound nearly-human textile art.

Diane Savona, Structurally Unsound. Textiles and everyday objects.

Highbrow textile art, Diane Savona

Overgrown Fossil by Diane Savona. Found/scavanged textiles, thread.

Highbrow textie art, Diane Savona

Diane Savona, found or salvaged textiles, thread

Highbrow textile art, Diane Savona

This Too Shall Pass by Diane Savona. Found textiles and bits of mechanical objects.

Diane Savona, Kiosk, textile art that includes text.

Diane Savona, Kiosk, textile art that includes text.

Some Savona quotes:

How do we learn history? Textbooks give us dates and leaders; students memorize facts for the test, but few people have a deep understanding of how our ancestors lived.

As a child I felt that lessons of wars and nations had little bearing on my family history. It was like studying weather patterns, gusting far above, knowing that my peasant grandparents had survived in thatched huts in Poland. What was their story? My art is created with that question in mind.

The objects I use are collected at my equivalent of archaeological digs: garage and estate sales. In my Passaic neighborhood, there are still large numbers of first and second generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. At these sales I hear the language and find the tools of my grandparents. There, I unearth items that were once commonly used in the domestic sphere – pincushions, darning eggs, crochet hooks – but are now almost extinct. I exhume forgotten embroidery and mending, and present them as petrified specimens.

My textile works are art and archaeology. They are the stories of past generations. By deconstructing past artifacts and preserving them in an archaeological presentation, I hope to change viewer perception of our textile heritage.


This Too Shall Pass
Ancient knowledge was preserved on clay tablets. As we progress from punched cards to zip drives, what information will be readable to future generations? Like rotary phones and typewriters (once cutting-edge communication) all equipment becomes obsolete.  By disassembling technological devices and sewing the parts tightly under vintage cloth, I am ‘fossilizing’ them – preserving their forms, not in the permanence of clay or stone, but in relatively fragile textiles.

This Too Shall Pass is a series of hundreds of 6” tiles, each mounted on industrial felt.

See plenty more of Savona’s work on her website


A note to my readers: This represents a radical rethink of my blog so I can spend less time formatting and more time making my own art. Hope you’ll enjoy seeing the increased number of artists appearing here.

By on February 9th, 2016
Avital Sheffer, ceramics

Avital Sheffer, Askos I 2013. via

Try to take in that over 7 billion minds are alive with you on Earth today. While you’re focused on your thing a Chinese fisherman focuses on his cormorant. He’s night fishing in a boat. Lanterns, reflections, birds — and fish.

Among those 7 billion Homo sapiens (noteworthy symbolic skills) are some who have a need to speak with visuals. Artists. How many hundreds of thousands alive today? Among them are the anointed few who are not playing copycat but see a patch of the unknown they must investigate. Vision, direction, grit. And they go exploring a path inside themselves.

Those of us who pay attention to the makers are usually opinionated about who is the real deal. Me too.

So here’s The Art of Tuesday, a new feature of this blog. Showcasing under-known makers of visual things who strike me as honest explorers.

On Tuesdays. Please enjoy.

Avital Sheffer, ceramic s

Avital Sheffer, Chalcos II.
earthenware clay dry-glazed and printed. via

Our inaugural artist works in clay: Avital Sheffer.  Her elegantly shaped vessels have a marked purity of line, with subtle nuance in their changing profiles. Her surfaces have delicate rhythmic decorations often incorporating Hebrew or other Middle Eastern script.

My work is informed by an investigation of my Middle Eastern and Jewish heritage and an ongoing engagement with the landscape, architecture, languages and wisdom of that part of the world, and that way of being in the world.

You look at Sheffer’s work and may wonder whether the shapes include ancient fertility goddesses [I always wonder, goddesses or fertile women? fertility itself?]. Some of the surface decoration is as tightly packed as pomegranate seeds — fruit favored as a stand-in for fecundity.  Some of the vessel tops make convincing phallic symbols, some vessels are cloven at the base. Pudenda? legs? Looking at her earlier work you see an anthropometric urge, and a theme of home and housing.  The words she selects for her surfaces must have rich meanings for her.

Though I use the word ceramics promiscuously Sheffer’s work is earthenware clay dry-glazed and printed. Earthy material not to be confused with gleaming porcelain.

A native Israeli, she’s now based in Australia.  Her background “encompasses textile design and fashion, town planning and building design, classical homeopathy and the establishment of an alternative community in Western Galilee, where traditional farming methods were practiced in collaboration with neighbouring Arab villages.”

This helps to explain the methods used in creating her pieces. Textile design is especially illuminating for me.

[She] employs hand-forming techniques along with a unique printing practice to which she brings her life experience in working with other mediums.

Avital Sheffer is a real explorer.  All quotes and images here are from her website

Avital Sheffer ceramics

Avital Sheffer, Miftan IV, 2010. via


By on June 28th, 2015
map, US legal gay marriage

This Map Shows How Gay Marriage Spread Across the US. via


My mother’s family was actively American.  Example: a few of us kept an Underground Railroad safe house for escaping slaves in the Civil War. I say a few because my then-teenaged great-grandmother helped her father hide escapees in the barn while her mother stayed in the house and refused. Heritage is tricky. This is a skimpy list, suffice it to say that red, white and blue ran in my veins.

I grew older, along came Vietnam, Watergate, and my criminalization for using a substance no worse than alcohol or cigarettes — both of these legal and subsidized by the nation of my birth.

(To clarify, never caught but well imprinted with the zeitgeist paranoia.)

For years the red-white-blue in my veins alternated with a murky low-chroma mix.  George W. wrote the book on murk.  But my mother was alive  long enough to see Obama win.  My gratitude for that happenstance beats strong to this day.


my great-grandmother

The alert and wry visage of my great-grandmother

Yesterday I caught up with Obama’s Charleston eulogy.  Although my mother was agnostic, her favorite song  was Amazing Grace.  President Obama’s eulogy was a speech for the ages, nuanced and blunt — it would have filled her, as it did me, with Yes. As recent days have done, a growing wave of  national open-heartedness pushes back against the haters.

Gay marriage rights.  Like most Americans I didn’t get there at first, but the more LGBT people came out, damn there they were. Funny, fickle, politically committed, shy and retiring, smart, dirt stupid — they were remarkably human like me.  Why should I get excited about which portions of skin they chose for intimacy?  That smeary veil fell from my eyes like like pond scum flushed with spring water.  I deeply love my friends and some of them are LGBT.  (Big hugs of glee to you, my a-little-bit-different friends.)

The New York Times has quickly posted these articles: As Left Wins Culture Battles, G.O.P. Gains Opportunity to Pivot for 2016 and Next Fight for Gay Rights: Bias in Jobs and Housing.  Is this news or is churning up readers?  Wait a decent interval, a respectful interval, and give human hearts space to celebrate.

Yet the NYT also carried this:

 "Gay is not enough anymore"

John Waters, “Gay is not enough anymore”. via New York Times.

John Waters, the film director and patron saint of the American marginal, warned graduates to heed the shift in a recent commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers,” he said, adding, “Gay is not enough anymore.”


If Waters were to talk about the Confederate flag he might likewise point out, “The Confederacy is not enough anymore.”  The Civil War is so yesterday.  This is the 21st century and Americans — yea, all global humanity — face huge challenges.  We need all brains on deck, we need to focus on Now.  “Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”

And the Charlestown terrorist attack has maybe opened a door to gun sense.  Oh please, my country, let the majority rule.  Most of us don’t need semi-automatic guns in our grocery stores.  Or carried around in children’s parks.  Or paraded through zoos full of animals with sense enough to play down their weapons until they face a threat.

And wonderfully, Pope Francis — that strong and big-hearted man — released his Climate Change Encyclical also in this month of June, 2015.  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.