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Monday, April 23, 2018

Why Paintings Become Famous

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, Jan Vermeer

It has always fascinated me to contemplate why some paintings down through the centuries have become so famous that even those who know only a little about art can instantly identify them, often even naming the artist. At the same time other works of art, by other artist, as well done and visually satisfying have remained virtually unknown. Why is Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (above) considered priceless while the painting below, Filling the Lamps, both having similar content, is totally unknown. The answer lies in the three major factors which determine a painting's monetary value--the lasting impact of the painting's style or content; a fascinating story or mystery attached to the painting; or the work's testament having to do with some tragedy, or hardship linking the artist to a particular work. There are other factors, of course, but those are the most common.
 
Filling the Lamps
Let's consider the artist first. Little is known of Jan Vermeer himself. Mostly he's admired for his masterful use of light and shadow. Vermeer did not leave many biographical traces and only about three dozen paintings by the artist survive today. In contrast, the artist who painted Filling the Lamps has never been recognized for any earthshattering effects as to style or technique, and his surviving works number in the hundreds. If you haven't already guessed by now, the artist was Jim Lane. Numerous theories abound as to whom Vermeer's sitter may have been. Some scholars maintain that it must be the artist’s daughter, Maria (the likely model for several other paintings currently attributed to Vermeer). On the other hand, there are those who believe the more salacious notion that she was Vermeer’s mistress. Regardless, it wasn’t until almost three centuries after Vermeer’s death that The Girl with a Pearl Earring was chosen for an exhibition poster at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1995. Following that, the painting quickly rose to celebrity status. To my knowledge, Filling the Lamps has never been displayed publically. Moreover, I couldn't even tell you who owns it much less recall the name of the model.
 
Mona Lisa, 1503-06, Leonardo Da Vinci
On the other hand (either one will do), there's little doubt as to the above model's identity. Her name was Lisa Gherardini, though we might rightfully question: "Who the hell was Lisa Gherardini?" Leonardo, it seems, made her famous, but neglected to write her biography. Mona Lisa is considered by many to be the most well-known painting in the world. While today. you would be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t immediately recognize that crooked smile, this wasn’t always the case. Leonardo painted her in Florence, around 1507 (actually he worked on it over a period of three or four years). His Mona Lisa did not win much praise, however, until the early 20th-century. While it was admired within small circles of art critics and historians, few others had much interest in the painting at that time. Then, in the summer of 1911, things changed drastically. The Mona Lisa vanished from the walls of the Louvre. What followed was a media explosion, complete with ”wanted” posters plastered all over Paris. Crowds formed at police headquarters, and before long, short films and songs were made about the vanished painting. Overnight, a somewhat obscure work of art became the world’s most famous painting. More than two long years passed before Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the Louvre, was arrested as he stupidly attempted to sell the painting to a director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Peruggia claimed that, as an Italian patriot, he believed Mona Lisa belonged in an Italian museum. Following months of speculation and media coverage, Mona Lisa finally returned to the Louvre, where she remains the most visited painting in the museum. (Tip: if you want an up-close look, rent a wheelchair.)
 
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Gustav Klimt
With a story that In many ways is quite similar, Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907, was one of six Klimt works confiscated by the Nazis from an Austrian home during World War II. After the war, the works became part of the Galerie Belvedere’s collection. The Austrian government claimed the paintings had been willed to the museum and displayed Bloch-Bauer’s portrait under the title The Lady in Gold. In 1998, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, began an eight-year legal battle to secure the painting of her aunt which had once hung in her childhood home. What many saw as a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous artists was actually an important part of Altmann’s past. After the violence and oppression that Altmann’s family experienced in Austria, she wanted the paintings in her new home in the United States. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the Austrian government finally returned the Klimt paintings to Altmann. This most famous legal battle in art history, eventually inspired a movie starring Helen Mirren in 2015. The court case helped catapult the painting (by whatever name) to international fame.
 
A Lady and a Gentleman in Black, 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn
If you're starting to notice a pattern here, read on. If you walk through the galleries of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you'll notice something rather peculiar. Thirteen empty frames hang on the walls. These frames serve as reminders of works of art that were stolen in 1990. During the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, museum security guards admitted two men who were disguised as police officers. Once inside, the men tied up the guards and proceeded to steal thirteen works with an collective value of $500-million. Despite a $5-million reward for information leading to the recovery of these paintings, the theft remains unsolved. Included in the heist were three paintings by Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and several sketches by Degas. Apart from the most famous, A Lady and Gentleman in Black (above) included Rembrandt’s only known seascape. Both, were cut from their frames. More than a quarter-century later, experts are still puzzled by the choice of works, as even more valuable pieces were left untouched. The media attention surrounding the theft brought unparalleled attention to the stolen works.
 
Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
And finally, two very dissimilar paintings by quite dissimilar artists, stand to break the mold.Neither have ever been stolen. The first, Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, is so well-known as to need little in the way of explanation. Like his tragic, foreshortened life itself, the painting has deeply haunting quality to be found in the work of few other artist before his time or since. Starry Night, painted in 1889 (less than a year before his suicide), is widely considered to be van Gogh's magnum opus. The piece was painted from memory and whimsically depicts the view from his room at the sanitarium where he resided in at the time.
 
The Goldfinch,  1654,
Carel Fabritius
Though the two paintings bear no physical resem-blance, the plight of The Goldfinch is, in many ways, no different from that of van Gogh as he neared the end of his life. It depicts a chained bird on its perch in front of a mundane background. The melancholic image of an animal tethered to this drab setting strikes a chord with many view-ers. When it was brought to the Frick Collection in New York in 2014, 200,000 people lined up to catch a glimpse of the famed bird. One part of the public’s fascination with this work may, like van Gogh, well be the artist’s own tragic ending. At the age of thirty-two, Carel Fabritius died in a careless explosion of gunpowder that destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft. Many of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion. The Goldfinch was painted in Fabritius’ final year and is one of about a dozen which survived. Another reason for the work’s rise to fame is Donna Tartt's 2014 Pul-itzer Prize-winning novel named for the painting. The intriguing novel, coupled with the fact that The Goldfinch is among the few remaining paint-ings by one of Rembrandt’s most promising students, suggests why this work continues to captivate viewers.






































 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Skunk Art

Puppy Le Pu, Roger Cruwys
The designation "wildlife art" is so deep and wide as to be far too ungainly to handle in a single posting. Fortunately wildlife art (mostly paintings) have proven to be among the most well-received of all the subjects I write about. I think that's because I've broken such art down by content areas--elephants, zebras, giraffes, tigers, etc. In most cases, the number of images I have to pick from are all but overwhelming. I expected the same challenge in selecting skunk art. Not so. For some reason, which is not all that hard to fathom, few artists are willing to take on such a stinkin' subject. To do so requires a daring sense of humor, as seen in the work of Montana artist, Roger Cruwys' Puppy Le Pu (above).
 
Spirit Skunk of the Cimarron by Foxbane d3got8u
(obviously not the artist's real name).
The skunk icon (not
sure what it means).
If creating skunk art is daring, far more so is buying it, which would explain why there is so little of such work to be found. Not only that, but so much of it is trite and equally inept, often depending up other elements in the (usual) landscape setting to "carry" the work, as seen above (if all else fails, add a sunset). Even albino skunks often get relegated to supporting roles. And, as with virtually all animal art, the handling of the subject by the artist breaks down into two categories--cutesy and realistic. With skunks, hard as it might be to think in terms of the obnoxious little stinkers being "cute," the vast majority of skunk art is just that.
 
The name "Flower" sent Bambi rolling on the forest floor in gales of laughter.
Baby skunks are born about the size
a mouse and are blind. Can you
anything worse than
encountering a blind skunk?
You can blame Walt Disney and his co-conspirator, Bambi, for that (above). Bambi's darling little friend "He can call me Flower if'n he likes, I don't mind," not only set the bar for skunk art but set it quite high. Warner Bros. and their Looney Tunes version, Pepe le Pew, despite the voice of Maurice Chevalier, never quite mea-sured up. On the realistic side, usually paintings of baby animals can be depended upon to engender the "ahhhhh, how sweet," reaction. As seen below, baby skunks are not so blessed.
 
Baby skunks are a perennial part of many forest predators' diet (despite the aftertaste). No mother skunk would ever leave her baby to rest alone like this.
If I were to ask you to describe a skunk, you'd probably say they're black with a white stripe down their back. Well, you'd be half right (some skunks have a ginger brownish tint to their fur). As for their most distinguishing feature, virtually all striped skunks have two white stripes down their back starting just behind the head and continuing through to the end of their tails. Essentially, you'd have to say that skunks are mostly black and white with a black stripe down their back. I found several examples where the artists got it wrong.

You think all skunks are basically the same? Think again.
Skunks fall into the same family as badgers and can be quite vicious (apart from their vicious odor) in protecting their young (especially
so if rabid).
A 1634 description of a skunk by a Jesuit priest contained these words:
[The skunk] is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. [They have] black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and [have] upon [their] back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail, making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto [the devil]. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal. Two have been killed in our court[yard], and several days afterward there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by Saint Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor."
 
Striped Skunk, Ray Harm.

Skunks are omnivorous, their diet quite seasonal, except in populated areas where their favorite dining spot is the back-alley dumpster. They seem not to mind the smell. Also, they seem to have a sweet tooth, being one of the primary predators of the honey bee. Like felines, the skunk is naturally curious, as depicted by the legendary wildlife artist, Ray Harm (above). Harm is often credited with "inventing" the limited edition print. His Striped Skunk is one of the rare examples of skunk art to be found in this media.
  
I know neither the artist nor the
title of this etching, but judging by
the style and the aging of the paper,
I would suggest it dates from the
late 19th-century (or before), which
would make it one of the oldest
examples of skunk art.



























"Skunked."












































 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Spring Art

Copyright, Jim Lane
Maple Flavored Landscape, Jim Lane
Last year, on the first day of each month, I made an effort to explore paintings having to do with that particular month. Naturally the mass of art associated with each month was just that--massive. When you include holidays and holiday landscapes, art having to do with historic events, and famous people associated with each month, not to mention the work of famous painters who chose to depict all of the above, the sheer number of works for some months became rather formidable. However, when you're dealing with only four seasons, one has to be a lot more selective. The typical and stereotypical images that might be selected on a monthly basis have to be brushed aside as the search for the more unique visions, styles, and to a lesser extent, technical prowess, must be brushed aside. That's what I've tried to do.
 
Springtime, 1886, Claude Monet. If you must have arboreal blossoms to symbolize and suggest spring, Monet is a good as it gets.
Imagine Spring, Sue Gardiner
When we think of spring the first image coming to mind are those of flowers--billions and billions of them--often seen in landscapes. What we don't often bring to mind are paintings such as my own Maple Flavored Landscape (top). Spring? There's not a flower in sight. The painting appears cold and drab. However, the last time I looked at the calendar, the month of March ends in the springtime (okay, just barely). The maple sap rises in early spring. It's not that I have anything against flowers, those of springtime or any other time of the year. I just tend to resent an artist's "safe" reliance upon them in place of a more searching and profound depiction of his or her thematic content. As a design motif, either of spring, or quite apart from it, flowers have their place in art, as seen in Imagine Spring by Sue Gardiner (left). But they should not be relegated to mere decor-ations or "eye candy." My tribute to blossoming trees comes from Claude Monet and his Springtime (above) painted early in the Impressionist era about 1866. Below, I've also included a van Gogh, his famous Blossoming Almond Tree, from 1890 (rendered very late in his Career.
 
Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890, Vincent van Gogh
Okay, now that we've got the pretty flowers and the famous painters out of the way, it's now time to look at those spring renditions which stand apart from the typical. Probably the first painter (or one of the first) to depict spring did so without much attention to floral arrays but with dancing, frolicking, scantily clad ladies (and one or two gents). Sandro Botticelli's now famous, La Primavera (below), dates from between 1470 and 1480, during the period we now call the "early" Renaissance. La Primavera, by the way, literally translates from Italian to English as "The Spring." (Some have translated it "Springtime.")
 
La Primavera, 1470-80, Sandro Botticelli. It's not one of my favorites but some like it.
Whether selecting paintings and illustrations by the month or by the season, one has to be careful not to be seduced by images, sometimes quite beautiful, of what I call "greeting card cute." I'm talking about any subject with four legs, especially the immature offspring of such creatures, or by the same token, their human equivalent. If it's "syrupy" sweet, almost inevitably the content gets in the way of the message. Kitty cats, puppy dogs, and toddlers are not what "spring" is about.


Spring, 1873,Giovanni Boldini
Spring Confetti, Sabi Klein
The Italian genre painter, Giovanni Boldini and his Spring (above), from 1873, Is a case in point. The setting depicts spring. The figures are merely decorations which attract the eye, thus (as in a play) stealing the show. If that's the case, then what's to keep an artist from attaching the word "spring" to the title of virtually any painting in depicting such sea-sonal art? To put it simply, not one thing, as seen in Sabi Klein's Spring Confetti (right). In fact, it's a ploy often used by artists in their combined search for a title and relevance. Once more, the colors and their relationship one to another sug-gest spring. It makes Liana Turnbull Bennett's Spring Creek (below), seem almost realistic. There's not a flower, a blossom, even a pedal in sight. Only the vivid colors and semi-abstract shapes suggest spring.

Spring Creek, Liana Turnbull Bennett

 
Perhaps the spring art genre most often ignored by serious painters in more recent decades is that having to do with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Notice, I did not say "Easter." God knows, there's a ton of springy pictures of merry little bunnies and the colored eggs they've begged, borrowed, or stolen from their barnyard friends. One such work which caught my eye was by Sir Lawrence, Alma-Tadema which he titled Spring-1894 (left). At first glance, it would appear to depict the crowd accom-panying Christ's trek from the court of Pilate, through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, to Golgotha. Here the title is most important, both in its reference to spring and to its being a scene from the modern era. Along the same line, my own resurrection scene, He Lives (below), while not referencing springtime directly, nonetheless reminds the viewer of the rebirth so crucial to any depiction of this transitional season.


Spring-1894, Sir Lawrence
Alma-Tadema
Copyright, Jim Lane
He Lives, 2000, Jim Lane































Springtime, 1873, Pierre
Auguste Cot. I could
think of lots of titles
for this one. How about
"Spring Swing?"





























































 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Vanessa Poutou

Voices 2016, Vanessa Poutou. At first glance it appears to be little more than a Jackson Pollock inspired splash of paint.
One thing quickly learned by artists wanting to sell their work and make a name for themselves is that they must stand apart from the crowd of other artists wishing to do the same. One of the best ways they may do so is to create works which are in some way eye-catching. Sometimes sheer size alone is the key. Distinctive color is another. I always tended to concentrate on unusual, viewpoint, content, humor, and a generous amount of detail, though for many artists, "expressive" works too. Some artists come by this realization through experience while others seem to have inborn instincts in this regard. I always hung such work at the front of my displays in the hope of garnering a "second look" by the passing art lover. In my own case, often such works were too big and/or too expensive to ring up much in the way of sales. One look at the Greek expressionist Vanessa Poutou's work reveals that she, too, has come to embrace this sales strategy. Virtually all of her paintings are crowd-stopping works--expressive, but not quite abstract figures.
 
Petit Ballet, Vanessa Poutou
Petit Ballet (above) is one of Poutou's best in the way of showstoppers. The two detail close-ups drive home her penchant for a sort of wildly beautiful expressionism seasoned with just enough objective realism to avoid the age-old, "my kid could do that." Voices 2016 veers toward expressive dance, or possibly (given the title), singing.
 
Vanessa is young, appears to be still in her thirties. Yet her mastery of her medium (oils), color, and dazzling self-expression is that of an experienced artist twice her age.
Vanessa Poutou was born in 1979, thus she is, indeed, still in her thirties, though barely so. She is one of several contemporary artists I've highlighted during the past year. Vanessa Poutou studied at Middlesex University of London where, in 2004, she gained a bachelors degree (with ho-nors) in graphic design. Her work focuses on the traditional descriptive depiction, but painted in a modern manner. Emphasis is given to facial expressions and body move-ments, which are reinforced by abstract twists, strong ges-tures and, often, surrealistic elements. Vanessa explores human emotional states such as loneliness, nostalgia, love, eroticism, and the need for freedom. All of Poutou's paint-ings are unique, hand painted originals (sorry, no prints) found in private collections all over Europe, the UK, Aus-tralia, and the US.
 
Young Werther,
Vanessa Poutou
The Breath, Vanessa Poutou
The Young Werther (above, left) was inspired by The Sorrows of Young Werther, an autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Poutou does not paint people as they are. I paint them as she feel them to be. She conducts a private investigation into their character and personality, exploring her subject to the very boundaries between life and death. Her models often reflect the transcendent act of crossing the border of souls living in the body as seen in her We Are All Drowned in the Aegean (below).

We Are All Drowned in the Aegean,
Vanessa, Poutou.
Drowning in oil on canvas.






























Touch the Sun,
Vanessa Poutou.
Life after death?













































 

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Billy Rose Fire

Fire and paintings do not mix.
(This is a reasonably accurate digital reconstruction. I did NOT run out and take a picture of my stupidity for old time's sake.)
About fifty years ago, when I was a sophomore art student at Ohio University, my wife and I lived in a 12 by 60-foot mobile home. One Sunday afternoon, we invited my parents over for a barbecue (my dad was big on barbecued chicken). I set up a brand new grill on the concrete pad just outside our "trailer" (or caravan as the British call them), and proceeded to light the charcoal "briquettes." That required a special lighter fluid just a little less flammable than gasoline and somewhat more so than lamp oil. In any case it was a rather time consuming, hit or miss operation. In this case it was both.

The left painting is now known only through this photo. The painting on the right I redid the following year.
A strong thunderstorm wind came up to speed ignition but the accompanying shower threatened to leave us with chicken tartar on the menu. We had a small metal storage building next to our magnificent abode so I decided to move the grill just inside the broad access door (dumb move on my part). What with the wind, in no time the contents of the building were on fire. The steel building was a total loss (above) and came within about a foot and the Chauncey (Ohio) Volunteer Fire Department of incinerating our mobile home as well. In the process I lost two Christmas paintings (above), which I'd stored in the building awaiting the appropriate season for display. Except for that we were quite lucky.
 
This present day reconstruction of Rose Hill appears somewhat smaller than Billy Rose's ostentations mansion, (tiny inset) but does suggest the architectural opulence that went up in smoke in just a few hours.

  In the early morning hours of April 2, 1956, the famous Broadway impresario, Billy Rose, was not so lucky. A fire at his Mount Kisco, New York (a northern suburb of NYC), destroyed not only his multi-million-dollar, 28-room, Georgian mansion (now referred to as Rose Hill) but his entire private art collection consisting of at least seven Salvador Dali masterpieces, as well as numerous others by classical artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Franz Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and others. Taken together, the art was probably worth more in dollars and cents that the sprawling mansion (which was far removed from a mobile home and had almost enough wings to take flight). No one was injured in the conflagration, though fighting the fire was something of a comedy of errors. The fire department had to be called from a neighbor's phone (a half-mile away) thus they were quite late in getting there, only to discover that the nearest major water supply was a lake over a mile away (to which a hose had to be run). By daybreak, it would seem to have been hardly worth the bother. (Life magazine took pictures of the bubble but no photos of the fire or the ruins seem to exist today).

Billy Rose's close friend, Salvador Dali (1944) posing with his series, "The Seven Lively (or Animated) Arts." All were lost in the fire. Dali later reproduced at least one of them from memory for Rose.
Not surprisingly, when the press interviewed Rose as to his loss, he was not inclined to talk about it: "Let's just say it all burned up. That’s all I want to say. I lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced with money.” Although some of the works by classical artists were probably worth more on the art market at the time, nearest and dearest to Billy's heart were the series of seven painting he had commissioned from his friend and sometimes collaborator, Salvador Dali, dealing with "The Seven Lively Arts"--opera, ballet, cinema, theater, radio, art of the concert (music), and Boogie-Woogie (dance). Four of them survive in black and white photographs. Missing below are The Art of Theater, The Art of Radio, and The Art of Ballet.


Typical of Dali from the late 1940s.
Dalí and Rose first met during preparations for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where the artist was commissioned to create a pavilion that he called “Dreams of Venus," while others described as a “surrealist funhouse.” The pale-pink facade, covered with weird protrusions and statuary, led into a space filled with naked women, bizarre tableaus, and a radical combination of references to the Renaissance, current pop culture, and the risqué. Rose helped Dali achieve his vision using his experience as a nightclub owner known in putting on raucous shows of his own, among many other profitable showbiz ventures.
As you can see in comparing this version of The Art of Boogie-Woogie with that just above, the recreation is only an approximation of the original.
Beginning with that collaboration, a long friendship was born. Dalí went on to supply the illustrations for Rose’s 1946 autobiography Wine, Women, and Words. But before that, Rose envisioned a theater extravaganza for which he enlisted the surrealist’s help. In December 1944, with World War II still raging, Rose bought the Ziegfeld Theater and transformed it from a movie house back into its original incarnation as a showcase for the arts of the stage. To christen the theater, he decided to put on a musical revue that would both introduce the space under his new management while being a Broadway spectacle the likes of which New York hadn’t seen since the before the war. His new play was titled The Seven Lively Arts, which told the story of a group of young people who come to New York to woo the arts.

The only known photo of the interior of Billy Rose's mansion.
In addition to the art of the stage, Rose decided that he wanted to wow his theater guests with art of the painted variety. He asked Dalí to create seven works of art to be displayed in the lobby of the theater that would depict the seven arts also referenced in the show: theater, popular music, opera, ballet, classical music, movies, and the radio. Life magazine, which photographed the paintings in the series for an art feature, reported that Dalí created the works while “locked in a cubbyhole high in Ziegfeld Theater.” The result were canvases that were classically Dalí, surrealist visions of the forms and effects of the arts in question. Of all those destroyed in the fire, only Dali's Seven Lively Arts: The Art of Boogie-Woogie was recreated by the artist (above).

One might argue that Billy Rose was even more famous for his collection of wives starting with Fanny Brice in 1929 until his death in 1966.
Billy Rose’s Seven Lively Arts would go on to have 183 performances, but its run at the Ziegfeld was outlasted by the Dalí paintings, which remained on display for 10 years. Two years before the devastating fire broke out, Rose moved the paintings to his mansion in Westchester. Their loss—and the loss of most (but not all) of his worldly possessions was devastating to Rose. Incidentally, I should note that Billy Rose collected wives (above) like some people collect art. None of his wives burned up in the fire.
Billy Rose, 1947, Salvador Dali





























































 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Mona Caron

Outgrowing, Mona Caron's urban weeds left unattended, though in this case grown for their medicinal qualities in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
There was a time when I was growing up during the 1950s and 60s when virtually every family in Stockport, Ohio, had a garden. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but the tradition extended back to pioneer days and the Victory Gardens of the war years. In any case, it was often my job to get out in the hot sun and "hoe the garden." Weeks were my enemy. They were an ugly invasion force which had to be carefully uprooted to die in the same bright sun that was also killing me. Yet the American mural artist Mona Caron would contend that weeds are beautiful. Indeed, hers are. Hers are also a painted warning as to what heights weeds might rise to if left to grow unattended. Hers vary from a fairly modest one or two stories in height to as much as fifteen stories high painted on the blank ends of high-rise office and apartment buildings (above).
 
 Collaboration with Liqen, Mona Caron, public art commissioned by the City of Vigo, Spain. 
Muralist Mona Caron has created a worldwide "Weeds" series, with colorful renderings of humble plants growing ever taller on buildings in cities such as Portland, São Paulo, Spain, Taiwan, and elsewhere. The San Francisco-based artist often partners with local and international, social, and environmental movements for climate justice, labor rights, and water rights. She selects plants, both native and invasive, that she finds in the cities where she paints. She combines the words "artist" and "activist" to form "artivist" in describing herself and her gigantic murals.
 
Taking Root, Mona Caron.
Hers is not an art for those
afraid of heights.
Taking Root (above), featuring the first tiny wildflower that made it back to the once barren piece of land it now stands upon, after its rehabilitation from industrial pol-lution. The roots contain narrative miniature paintings representing the land's history. Caron also integrates tiny details into the main visual elements of her murals, several of which contain intricate miniature details, invisible from afar. These typically narrate the local history to chronicle the social life of the mural’s immediate surroundings. Such images visualize future possibilities created in a process that incorporates ideas emerg-ing from spontaneous conversations with the artwork’s hosting communities while paint-ing. Caron regularly shares process videos and photos of completed works on Insta-gram. She also delves into the narratives behind several of her murals on her website.
 
 
Caron's Weeds series growing with time-lapse photography.

The Mission Blue Butterfly is the central image in Mona Caron's mural of Brisbane, California (below). This mural narrates the history of the small town within a display of the native flora of nearby San Bruno Mountain. The silhouette of San Bruno Mountain spans the whole background of the mural, while a number of native flowers (many of them butterfly host plants) are depicted in the foreground. The town of Brisbane is painted nestled within the large, protective shape of a Mission Blue Butterfly, a local endangered species.

The Mission Blue Butterfly, Mona Caron.
A series of smaller pictures within the mural depict moments in the history of Brisbane, in chronological order. These are painted monochromatically in sepia tones. The outside shape of these images changes gradually from a butterfly to a star. The star is the symbol of the town because of the oversize wooden pentagrams that homes in Brisbane traditionally display on their façâdes, so the butterfly changing to a star symbolizes the transformation of a natural setting into a man-made one. The star outline continues changing to that a book, which at the end transforms back to a butterfly. This represents hope in education and our younger generations, as modeled by the work of the local Brisbane Educational Support Team, who spearheaded this mural project.

Stream of Life, Mona Caron.A stream of water in the forest becomes a stream of people in the city. Both are the key to the vitality of their environments.
In addition to history, weeds, and butterflies, Mona Caron also paints current events in line with her activist tendencies. A prime example is her Bike Flower in Curitiba Brazil. The Mural was created for the 2014 World Bicycle Forum as they celebrating the blossoming of the city through its embrace of lighter-treading means of every-day transportation. In most of her murals that involve art for mass street actions, Caron worked in team with her longtime friend and comrade-in-art, the fellow artivist and puppetista, David Solnit.

Bike Flower, Mona Caron, Curitiba Brazil
Caron often joins Solnit in facilitating the collaborative creation of, portable images that are used to amplify the visual impact of rallies, while adding the experience of art making and the language of theater to the actions and struggles. The street art pieces are closely related to her other mural work, but are instigated by activist groups, or were made in support of a specific issue, during a moment of heightened public debate around it.

A Weed in Sao Paulo (Brazil), Mona Caron.













When asked why she paints weeds, Caron first lays claim to the pejorative term "weeds", owning it, as it describes not the plants' intrinsic value but their action. Whether invasive species or benign wildflowers, plants act as weeds when they appear clandestinely, autonomously, in surprising urban places. This is why she creates some of her murals as on-site animations: to let the paintings not just BE, but ACT like weeds. Although a large number of them are classified with the ominous-echoing term "invasive non-natives," all immigrant plants are native somewhere. If they are here, it's because the global environment has been disrupted. It's a consequence of globalization, which is part of the metaphor.

Manifestation Station, painted
utility box by Mona Caron.