Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Peripheral visions

Well, I've shared the New Book of Hours with my classmates and professor. Everyone's presentations went well, and the wine we drank helped, I'm sure.

I have more posted this morning on the project blog, but thanks to you all for your inspiration and support in my first MLA class!

For those of you wacky enough to want to read my whole final course megillah, er, paper, just click on the three little dashes below and voila -- more words await.

More pics tomorrow...

Peripheral Visions: My Experience Re-Imagining the Book of Hours

“The inside of this book was like a beautiful mirror, and there were only two pages.” So wrote Marguerite d’Oingt, medieval mystic and prioress, as she attempted to describe her indescribable vision of divine grace (Disse). In this paper, I too find myself attempting to describe the indescribable—what I learned and what I found as I made each of the prototype two-page book spreads for this final project, a re-imagining of the Book of Hours. Although mine was an altogether different experience than Marguerite d’Oingt’s shimmering divine vision, in its small way it has been as transformative. This paper will share aspects of that transformation, including the unexpected connections made between historic books of hours and my re-interpretative project, how my experiences through this project contributed to my understanding of time, and the problems the project posed.

“I think in general, problem-solving is greatly over-valued in our society. Problem creation is more interesting,” said contemporary artist Chuck Close in a Minnesota Public Radio interview (Kerr). In order to understand the problem creation that sparked this project, one needs to understand a bit about historic books of hours. “The Book of Hours was the most popular book of the late Middle Ages.” (Duffy 4) Duffy asserts there are almost 800 manuscript books of hours made for use in England alone, scattered in libraries all over the world (Duffy 3)—an impressive number, considering all those which may have been created and lost as well as the cost and time invested in their making (Duffy 22). Often lavishly illuminated and sumptuously bound, books of hours were the physical embodiment of a family’s position in the secular community much as they were intimate companions for a family’s spiritual practice. However, these were not “coffee table books;” books of hours were put to use, keeping the devout in time with their community through the structure of a prayerful Catholic day (Duffy 5-6) while simultaneously fostering a deep personal empathy towards Christ and the Virgin Mary that helped make devotion a transformative experience (Duffy 13-17).

My path to the Book of Hours was one that reflected community of a more contemporary sort, that of the virtual community I found over the past two years through my personal blog, Chatoyance (Witzel). In Marguerite d’Oingt’s time, community was a mostly local experience. Although the Church was a far-flung enterprise, the community with daily influence during the Middle Ages was most logically close at hand, comprised of local parishes, local guilds, local markets, and neighbors who interacted through physical presence. In my time, “local” is no longer congruent with locale. Communities of affinity and communities of mind no longer require physical presence for interaction, and my virtual community of arts-interested friends and acquaintances did not hesitate to share their input on my choice of a final class project (Witzel), overwhelmingly showing their preference for a re-envisioning of the Book of Hours. At that stage of the project, my knowledge of the Book of Hours was at best a vague recollection of slides seen in art history class conflated with illuminated manuscripts of other kinds. Despite my limited knowledge, I chose to use the traditional Book of Hours as a metaphorical armature for a creative exploration of individual spiritual practice, and decided to document the project on a separate blog (Witzel). I liked the potential tension and contrast between old and new technologies and ways of seeing the world; and I could not have been more wrong in assuming I would find more differences than connection between old and new.

One example of connection, revealed while doing research for the project, was the surprising way the Book of Hours’ intersection of the public and private mirrored my experience in the blogosphere. If one views the Western European popularity of the Book of Hours as the first mass expression of private/public duality in Western culture (Duffy 18-23, 67), and knows commissions of such books were often customized on pre-existing templates (Duffy 30-39), there is a clear connection between books of hours and the private/public duality of personal, template-driven blog sites. In another example, my initial view of the Book of Hours as a cultural time capsule for beautiful religious art changed the more I learned. Not just devotional tools, these books reflected the aspirational culture of medieval Western Europe; contained personal narratives via dedications, marginalia, and notes on family history; and embodied technologies and methods for making and dispersing images en masse. Medieval books of hours were centered on and for women’s spiritual growth (Duffy 6-9), another unexpected connection with the somewhat feminine tilt of our contemporary blogosphere (Synovate). My delight in these serendipitous findings helped energize me during the making of a few prototype pages for a new Book of Hours; the remainder of this paper will document and discuss the process of creating those pages, and some aspects of the process related to my understanding of time.

While a discussion of the perennial question “what is art?” is beyond the scope of this project, my experience of art is that of a meaning-making series of decisions where the outcome is unknown and the work itself teaches the creator. Many of the decisions involved in making the prototype pages were intuitive decisions, in some cases driven by unforeseen kinesthetic responses to the materials chosen and provided. Those decisions that were premeditated—the use of a grid for page layout, the choice of certain elements based on the interviewee’s information—were changed by the feedback loop of making the work. Another change that occurred while making the work was my perception of time. I found myself so absorbed in the making that time appeared to bend. What seemed like five minutes of collage and composition could have been two hours or two seconds. Making art disconnected me from time the more deeply I connected to the work, and this flow state brought to mind the potentially time-bending absorption in meditative prayer open to the medieval creators of the Book of Hours. (Carruthers 87)

My experience aligns with Matthew Fox’s notion that creative making is a form of meditation, and that the thing made teaches the maker. As Fox wrote in A Spirituality Named Compassion, “As a potter concentrating and communing with the clay...[these] acts of utter communion are communions based on activity and birthing. They are creativity as a meditation form...thus we learn from these images. They become our teachers. The pot not only praises the potter but teaches the potter.” (Fox 132-33) Paradoxically, in order to experience this out-of-time flow state, the kairos of making, we need structure and discipline over time. Activity intersects creative intent, becoming a grid within which time’s flow changes.

Because the liturgical hours of devotion were the metaphorical grid that divided the Book of Hours’ day, I chose to use a grid structure for page layout. I thought I was bringing something new to the Book of Hours by doing so, since my knowledge of the grid was based only on my familiarity with the Bauhaus use of the grid for book design. (Bartram 96) As I learned more about historic books of hours, I saw how mistaken I was; most examples I saw were designed with a grid as an intrinsic part of the page layout.

The grid is one way many visual elements can be organized into one element, making meaning across all elements coherent. “...medieval and ancient writers do not distinguish between what we call ‘verbal’ and ‘visual’ memory; that the letters used for writing were considered to be as visual as what we call ‘images’ today; and that as a result the page as a whole, the complete parchment with its lettering and all its decoration, was considered a cognitively valuable ‘picture.’” (Carruthers 122) Since the page as a whole unit was conceptually important to the medieval illuminator, the grid creates an armature for a unified whole. The grid metaphorically echoes the organizational harmony of heaven and divine creation.

The metaphoric grid tying historic books of hours to my project continued with the materials I chose. I sought out and read the history of techniques used by medieval illuminators (Alexander 35-51) as well as recipes for making my own gessoes and gold leaf adhesives (Whitley), but the reality of working with a course deadline drove me to more expedient media. Given the focus on the feminine in historic books of hours—many of which had been commissioned for women’s use and which featured the Hours of the Virgin as core liturgy (Duffy 7-11)—finding most of my material in the women-centric scrapbooking section of a chain art supply store was another serendipitous link between past and present. Old media and craft traditions, such as the use of gold leaf and the classical training underpinning my sketches, were combined with new—mass-produced papers and collage materials, blog posts, digital photography, and email. Cross-disciplinary learning is at the heart of Liberal Arts studies (About the AGLSP), and this “crossing boundaries” approach carried over into the project’s collage of new and old media.

Despite the variety of disciplines and media underpinning this project, at its core it is concerned with individual’s spiritual explorations over time. This work and the Book of Hours both seek to connect the maker, and hopefully the viewer/reader, to something like grace; in both, the personal transmission of spiritual intimacy through visual/verbal means is key to this connection. Regardless of all the connections made, a key difference between this work and the Book of Hours is the content; my emphasis on the personal narrative of an individuals’ relationship to the divine, as contrasted with hand-formed liturgical guides for an individual’s devotions. Unlike the Church-guided content of the Book of Hours, this project was informed by individual input and response, and that lead to some surprises in the process of creation.

One of those surprises involved my search for interviewees. Although physical materials for the project, from gold leaf to second-hand books, were locally sourced, the process of finding local interviewees was more challenging. I sought an interfaith mix of interviewees, and put out a call for participation through my blog site as well as through a local network of friends and colleagues. Although I did find one local participant, the two whose pages are currently in process are from the northeastern US and the US west coast. I attempted to find Muslims to join the process through campus interfaith organizations, but at this time, none have participated. Since personal stories are key to this project, I will need to find new ways of encouraging and obtaining interviewee participation if I wish to build on this beginning.

Another surprise was one of my blog-friends’ requests that I include atheists like him in the project; while I believe he has a strong faith in beauty and philosophy, I had no ready response for including those who do not have faith in a divinity. His request raised questions I have yet to answer as to whether there are implicit or explicit rules for inclusion, and whether some forms of Buddhism would pose similar challenges.

Although in retrospect I should not have been surprised, given the tension between artist and subject throughout the history of portraiture (Brilliant 26), a conceptual issue arose concerning the photo-reference I requested in order to sketch interviewees. I asked interviewees to provide casual snapshots for photo-reference, but what they sent were photos that put them in a particularly narrative light. The writer I interviewed sent an image of himself pen in hand, much of his face obscured by his thoughtful posture, looking intensely into an intermediate distance; the rabbinical student I interviewed sent beautifully posed and lit photos of herself wearing Jewish ritual clothing and accoutrements traditionally used by men. It was clear from the very pronounced storytelling content of those photos that my interviewees had a view of themselves they hoped I would share. I chose to follow Chuck Close’s example (Ayers) within the confines of the project, using their images strictly as data points. I was ambivalent about filtering their self-presentation for my own ends; while it seemed coherent with the editing of interviews needed to fit page layouts, the issue of whose narrative drives the image does bear more consideration for future project development.

People perceive a work of visual art based on the physical objects created, but I found “book as object” much less compelling than the way the process became the object, and this led to another surprise—the connection of my project to conceptual art’s focus on process. In “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Sol LeWitt states, “The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion.” (Alberro and Stimson 106-08) This tie to contemporary approaches in art was unintentional but very interesting, as the core—personal narratives about spiritual development, and the book page prototypes that derived from those narratives—became more peripheral to my process, and process and core became a whole. As the “marginalia” of process became more central, I found it a fascinating parallel to Duffy’s focus on the marginalia found in historic books of hours. (Duffy viii-xi)

How did this project inform, and help form, my understanding of time? Coomaraswamy’s triune definition of art as “imitation, expression and participation” (Coomaraswamy 62-63) implies a process that occurs over time, creation that loops backward and forward between maker and viewer over time. His definition is reflected in both the historic book of hours and in my experience making this project. While the time I spent re-imagining the Book of Hours may not have been as transcendent as Marguerite d’Oingt’s book-focused visions, the time was very transformative. Working on this project has been akin to looking out of the corner of one’s eye, catching a glimpse of what seemed peripheral and marginal, and discovering what had been peripheral was central after all.

Works Cited

About the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs. 2007. The Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs. 3 Dec. 2007 .
Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Cambridge MA: The MIT P, 2000.
Alexander, Jonathan James Graham. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven CT: Yale U P, 1994. 3 Dec. 2007 .
Ayers, Robert. Chuck Close. 7 Mar. 2006. 3 Dec. 2007 .
Bartram, Alan. Bauhaus, Modernism, and the Illustrated Book. New Haven CT: Yale U P, 2004.
Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London UK: Reaktion Books Limited, 1991. 3 Dec. 2007 .
Carruthers, Mary. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge United Kingdom: Cambridge U P, 1998. 2 Dec. 2007 .
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Door in the Sky: Coomaraswamy on Myth and Meaning. Princeton NJ: Princeton U P, 1997. 23 Nov. 2007 .
Disse, Dorothy. Other Women's Voices: Translations of Women's Writing Before 1700. 15 Nov. 2007. 23 Nov. 2007 .
Duffy, Eamon. Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers. New Haven: Yale U P, 2006.
Fox, Matthew. A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice. Rochester Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1999. 2 Dec. 2007 .
Kerr, Euan. Chuck Close Has Big Heads. 21 July 2005. 3 Dec. 2007 .
New Study Shows Americans' Blogging Behaviour. 30 Aug. 2007. Synovate. 23 Nov. 2007 .
Whitley, Kathleen. Basic Gilding Techniques for Illumination. 3 Dec. 2007 .
Witzel, Lori. A New Book of Hours. 23 Nov. 2007 .
Witzel, Lori. Chatoyance. 23 Nov. 2007 .


Rebecca Clayton said...

Wow! This is fascinating--thanks for posting it all. I hadn't been following your project blog, so I'll need to go through it carefully.

Anonymous said...

Who needs pictures, anyway? Art is just a bunch of neatly arranged trash.

Laura Frankstone said...

I'm with Rebecca. I've missed you, but knew you were engaged in something compelling and worthwhile. I can HEAR your synapses crackling and bucking!