21 October – Feast Day of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins

Today I learned that someone close to me was raped this week. 

I’m sorry. Let me repeat that, because simple language is such an inefficient carrier for news this tragic:

Today I learned that someone close to me was raped this week.

The details are dreadful and painful in the extreme. To say nothing of the psychological wounding the perpetrators (yes, there was more than one coward) inflicted, the physical pains will resonate through her battered body for months, at least.

Where does this deeply ugly thirst for violation derive? How is it possible that man, born of woman’s womb and nursing, can exact such terrible suffering from his virtual sister?

I find it incomprehensible, and an ineraseable blot of shame on my gender.

Back in the early Middle Ages, around the ninth century, the cult of Saint Ursula began to flourish. Storytellers generally agreed that she had sailed to Cologne, Germany, where she was killed.

Any number of explanations have been proffered to explain away the extravagant number – eleven thousand – of virgin martyrs who died in her company: Perhaps it was a misreading of roman numerals; or a misreading of Ursula’s youthful age (only eleven years old); maybe it was a misreading of Ursula’s true name (“Undecimillia”); etcetera.

All arise to explain away the supposed impossibility of eleven thousand women being martyred by men.

Tonight, though, I read that a woman is raped every six minutes in the United States alone. Every six minutes: that’s ten an hour; it’s 240 a day, every blessed day of the year.

Urusula’s martyred companions seem to me tonight almost too small a number, by a magnitude of eight. It’s terrible – shocking – terrifying – sickening – to realize; but even today, in our enlightened age, over 87,000 women are raped every year in the United States.

May we somehow eventually come to honor the suffering and agony of Ursula, her companions, and their several thousand sisters, by raising our sons to be men who will treat women with equality, love, and respect.

Published in: on 4 November 2008 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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25 September – Feast Day of Saints Eusubius, Peregrinus, Vincent, and Pontian

Little more is known of today’s second-century saints than the manner of their dying: “stretched on the rack, beaten with clubs, burned, then beaten to death with lead-tipped whips.”

An altogether damnable way to treat one’s fellow humans; yet one is pained to recognize the continuity of suffering that man imposes on his sisters and brothers.

The video at this blog post’s beginning records the seconds leading up to, and following, the extraordinary recent terrorist attack on Mexican soil (and honor) by fellow Mexicans –
the tossing of a grenade or two into the central plaza of Morelia, Michoacan, during the annual “Grito” cry for independence, this past September 15.

Annually, Mexicans gather in their town’s central square shortly before midnight, at which moment the cry of “Viva Mexico” resounds through the land and, most profoundly, through the people’s hearts.

This year, in Morelia, just after the cries for freedom, there sounded the thud of a fragment grenade, tossed into the crowds, and ridiculously murdering eight mostly young persons, and critically injuring dozens more of all ages.

We reel, fully off-balance, wounded in our hearts, grasping at any manner of understanding this most un-Mexican way of bringing death to one’s brethren.

Where, and who. are we?

The questions reverberate through our hearts and conversations; and answers are hard to come by.

What is most noticeable, however, throughout the video (which is not, i assure you, bloody or invasive), is the humanity, dignity, and respectful proportionality with which the victims comport themselves.

Shortly before the video’s end, one hears the National Anthem begin its pre-recorded broadcast: a reminder of how casually and naturally one responds to tragedy:

There is no break with protocol; society’s decorum is never broken or threatened.

Viva Mexico!

Published in: on 26 September 2008 at 12:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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15 September – Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows

detail of Santa Maria Road
detail of Santa Maria Road

Sometimes a story will arrive to fill a void. From the beginning of my time working on All the Saints it was my goal that it not be seen as “capital C” Catholic, but as “lower case c” catholic: that is, not institutionally religious, but drawing from and encompassing many cultures and experiences.

 

Still, because All the Saints clearly riffs on traditional Christian/Catholic imagery, I occasionally sensed a discomfort among Jewish friends, which gave me pause and occasioned a sense of personal artistic regret. I hoped for a way to illuminate our tortuous history together; a way to honor the ways in which the symbols I was using had caused so much pain.

 

I found the path on Santa Maria Road.

 

Santa Maria Road, as I wrote in my book, “arches north and eastward off Topanga Canyon Boulevard,” where it is defended by “Restricted Entry” signs; and, after passing through a shady glen of horse ranches, becomes “a dirt and dusty pathway into the southwestern reaches of the San Fernando Valley.”

 

When I stood, caked in Santa Maria’s dust, gazing into “this canyon of willow and sage,” I thought of one of several saints named Santa Maria: Saint Mary of Egypt, an early – and rare female – mystic hermit, who dwelled in the wilderness for forty years, her clothes worn away in decades-long penance, her body covered by her long tresses. It was easy to picture Mary of Egypt enraptured in this near-wilderness, and I couldn’t wait to return to my studio to portray her.

French miniature of Mary of Egypt
French miniature of Mary of Egypt

Unfortunately, a bit more research provided a historical source for the road’s name. Jesus Santa Maria, a Mexican settler from the 1870’s, endures on this sole Topanga Canyon road sign. Jesus lived in Topanga for decades, “hauling cords of manzanita into [Los Angeles] via the circuitous route of the period: north from his ranch to El Camino Real (now Ventura Boulevard); and from there, southeast into El Pueblo.”

 

Now my Road had a namesake; what it needed was an origin for Jesus’ last name. Wondering how someone acquired a last name like Santa Maria, I phoned one of my advisors on All the Saints, historian Stafford Poole, whose focus is on life in Colonial New Spain.

 

As fate (or the saints) would have it, Father Poole had recently researched this very theme – the naming practices of New Spain – with an emphasis on the Sephardic Diaspora. Indeed, he had just given a presentation on this very topic.

 

Father Poole informed me that nearly all Mexicans with last names such as Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, or Santa Maria are descended from the forced converts – conversos – from Judaism to Catholicism during Spain’s and Portugal’s periodic medieval pogroms. Forced to convert and take on uber-Catholic names, and still expelled from their home countries in 1492 by King Ferdinand (Yes, it wasn’t just Columbus who set sail that year), many became “Hidden Jews” who, over time, assimilated and adapted, integrated or reinvented themselves, into anti-Semitic societies in the New World.

 
 
I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, La Virgen de Dolores, one of the more empathic depictions of Santa Maria, for my painting; and I thought immediately of my friend Doris for my model – a dear friend of many years, whose face traces her life’s experiences.

 

 

As it happens, Doris, who is Jewish, has always joked that I should portray her as a saint; now I was about to invite her to let me do just that:

 

“Doris,” I began the phone call, “Remember how you always want me to portray you as a saint?”

 “I want to be the Virgin Mary!” she startled me.

“Well,” I considered, “That’s actually why I called – but first let me tell you the story and see if you still want to do it.”

 

After I related the history of Santa Maria Road, and after Doris and I had a good cry, she insisted that she had to do this; and we set a date for me to photograph her.

I think the resulting painting – her haunting visage as Our Lady of Sorrows, drifting above “this pilgrim’s dirt path, a Road affronted (as Jews have been for centuries) with “Restricted Entry” signs” – is perhaps my finest portrait. It certainly conveys the pain and endurance hinted at in its tale.

 

As we prepared my All the Saints exhibition for the Autry Museum, Doris confided that she was herself a hidden Jew: her parents elected to hide their heritage to facilitate assimilation into the Navy and a Wasp-only government society. Only in college did Doris discover – and embrace – her true inheritance. Her parents had erected “Restricted entry” signs on the branches of their family tree.

 

 

04 September – Feast Day of Santa Rosalia (la Santuzza)

Santa Rosalia Interceding on Behalf of Plague-Stricken Palermo, by Antony an Dyck
Santa Rosalia Interceding on Behalf of Plague-Stricken Palermo, painting by Anthony Van Dyck

There’s a special wonder to Rosalia’s legend. Even the faithful declare that she “died alone, in 1160, ending her strange and wonderful life unknown to the world“, and that “Nothing was heard from her again until 1624.”

From my story, in All the Saints of the City of the Angels,  for Santa Rosalia Drive, in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles:

In 1624 the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck traveled to Sicily at the invitation of the Spanish viceroy. While he painted portraits of the Genoese aristocracy, the Black Plague raged across the countryside.

 

At the same time a hunter lost on the mountains above Palermo saw the vision of a young woman who told him her name was Rosalía and that she had died in a nearby cave 464 years ago.

 

Rosalía’s remains were brought into Palermo, her hometown, and the plague ended; she was declared a saint and named patroness of the region; and Van Dyck was commissioned to paint her portrait.

~

Why should, how could, her bones lie undisturbed in a cave above Palermo – a town of over 130,000 – for four and a half centuries? And how did a Flemish court painter, working “from musty bones and fervent spirit” make of it all such art?

 

Published in: on 4 September 2008 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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1 September – Feast Day of Good Saint Giles

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

It’s a pity there are no streets named for Saint Giles in L.A.; he’s an attractive character. 

His chief visual attribute derives from the animal-lover’s legend that there was a hind who was his dear friend (yes, sorry, that was intentional), and who nourished him with her milk.

Giles was living the hermit’s life off in a cave, and the hind was his only visitor. One day a royal hunting party spied the hind and followed her to the mouth of the cave. They fired an arrow into the cave, but the arrow struck Giles’ hand rather than his hind, as he protected the latter with the former.

The iconic depiction of this event transposes us from the interior of the cave to just outside where, in a composition not unintentionally echoing the Nativity, the king kneels before Saint Giles as he shelters his hind.

The Medieval mind would find much there to contemplate, ambling from Giles’ cave to Bethlehem and back.

But another of Giles’ legend attracts, for it connects (at least in my rambling mind) to some of what I’ve experienced during the months that All the Saints has been on display at the Autry Museum, here in Los Angeles.

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

We designed an alcove in which two of my paintings are displayed as though they were in a small chapel; there is a shelf on the side wall with a pen and little cards that feature the All the Saints frame; visitors are invited to write on these and leave them on the community altar.

I didn’t really know what people would write – or if they actually would use them – but over two thousand cards have been written on and left among the battery-operated votive candles.

They speak to a wide range of concerns people harbor, from jobs and healthcare to the war in Iraq (sounds like the election, doesn’t it?); but they do so, almost every time, on a personal, intimate level that evokes a person’s real and troubled soul.

Some of the most charming are written in a child’s hand; many express grief over a lost pet – Giles would understand, I’m sure.

But I mentioned another legend about today’s saint: it is known as “The Mass of Saint Giles” and was depicted in Van Eyckian detail by the artist known as the Master of Saint Giles. Supposedly, Charlemagne had committed a sin of which he was so ashamed that he could not being himself to utter it in confession. An angel delievered a note describing the confessed sin to Saint Giles as he was conducting mass: the sin was forgiven.

While the legend may convey several important lessons – no sin is unforgiveable, even great people are capable of great error – it also underscores the benefit that can be derived from getting something troubling out of your head and onto a scrap of paper (Ah! the benefits of writing!) and setting it out there, anonymously perhaps.

On some level I like to think this community chapel installation in my exhibition addresses this need; and in so doing, it levels the playing field by showing how similar we all are in our hearts’ core.

Published in: on 2 September 2008 at 4:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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30 August – Feast Day of St. Fiacre, the Misogynist

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

The fall of 2000, when I began the rich journey through the soul of L.A. that would become All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I was researching – with an eye to portraying – the streets named for saints in and around Downtown Los Angeles.

It was in this way that I found myself one morning in the lobby of a drop-in shelter on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row; and it was at that moment that I noticed – how could I not? – the lovely young woman in the photo at left.

Jevona welcomed my request to photograph her, and as I did, she began telling me, unbidden, her life story. It proved a sad, difficult tale, with avaricious men attempting at every turn to take advantage of her. As she told me several times, “If I would sell my body, I wouldn’t be homeless.”

That fall I connected Jevona’s situation with the legend of Saint Agnes – Santa Ynez – whose street I needed to portray. One of the aspects of All the Saints’ first year of of which I am most proud is the positive effect my painting of Jevona as Santa Ynez had on this frail young woman – Ah, if only that could have lasted.

The troubled and troubling ways in which men have, and still, historically abused women is beyond lamentable, thus important to remark and to overcome.

Therefore I bring this relationship up today, for today – Saturday – is the feast day of a particularly unpleasant misogynistic saint (so-called), Fiacre, of Ireland. I recommend taking a few minutes to read his tale from Jacobus de Voragine’s great Golden Legend.

The gist of it is that he felt himself wronged  – “full sorry and wroth” – by one woman and then, after solitary reflection, decided to take revenge on all women.

As Jacobus tells “he made his prayer to our Lord that no woman should never enter into his church, without she be punished by some manner of sickness. ”

His awful prayer, it seems, was granted: one woman lost an eye; the foot of another “swelled by such manner that all the leg, knee, and thigh of it was grieved with sickness.”

Nor were these isolated instances: “many other miracles have been thereof showed.” It seems also a continuation of his demonization of women, that he is invoked against syphilis, venereal disease, and sterility.

As we struggle for gender equality and for honest and open relationships between women and men, let us recall today all the Santa Ynezes who have struggled – and struggle still – against all the Saint Fiacres.

28 August – Feast Day of St. Augustine, son of Santa Monica

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine, one of the chief theologians of the Church; writer and philosopher – and, in his youth, a rabble-rouser, carouser, and his mother’s great and constant sorrow.

a petition left in my gallery

a petition left in my gallery, Summer '08

His mother, Monica, was a widow who, like so many mothers among us, raised three kids – two daughters and a son – alone. Augustine showed great promise, yet got himself into trouble, distancing himself from his upbringing, ignoring his mother’s please to change.

His conversion to the writer and philosopher we know across the centures – the author of City of God and Confessions – was a cumulative act Augustine himself attributed to his mother’s unceasing love, concern, and faith in his ability to change. And it was because of her unyielding love, despite her son’s misdeeds, that Santa Monica was canonized as a saint.

In my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I connect the narrative arc of Augustine’s and Monica’s relationship to the troubled lives of mothers and sons who negotiate the dangers, attractions, unquiet, and pain of the street.

As I wrote:

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes, “In what abyss was I buried?  And you extended … toward me your merciful hand, to bring me out of that profound darkness…”

 

Here in the City of the Angels, where so many mothers weep for sons who are victims of violence or perpetrators of violence; where so many families are connected by prisons and hospitals, courtrooms and morgues; it is that merciful hand, like the optimistic long-suffering love of Santa Monica, that can help us out of the darkness, that can help us to heal.

another petition left in my gallery

another petition left in my gallery

 May we all be healed.

23 August – Feast Day of Santa Rosa de Lima

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Yesterday morning I went out into our garden, my mind preoccupied with the violence that haunts our home in Mexico.

Seated on the patio steps, I was drawn out of my funk by an unusual three-note trill emanating from somewhere beyond the bouganvillea.

I was searching for the source when suddenly it appeared – its form somewhat like a jay’s, but devoid of brilliance  – on a telephone wire: within brief seconds it was gone.

So suddenly had this songbird disappeared, I was still gazing in its direction when a monarch butterfly drizzled into view from stage right, below and before the bouganvillea.

Startlingly, the songbird reappeared, pouncing from out of view; plucked the butterfly with its tweezer-like beak; and set about enjoying breakfast on my studio roof.

A quick exploratory poke or two; and the narrative took another unexpected twist: the monarch arighted herself from the asphalt and ambled its uncertain way, slightly rougher around the edges.

The songbird watched for what seemed eternal seconds, and then took off; exit stage right.

Tonight as I write this, family, friends and villagers are marching for peace and justice through Creel, back home in the Sierra Tarahumara, an eternal week to the minute after thirteen of their neighbors were machine-gunned into near-oblivion by the janjaweed of the drug lords.

I choose to take yesterday’s butterfly, universal symbol of rebirth, as a sign that we the people will eventually prevail.

20 August – Feast Day of St. Oswin, Murdered Saint

Me Voy Pa el Pueblo, color pencil/paper, 1980s
Me Voy Pa el Pueblo, Going to the Village, color pencil/paper, 1980s

Sadly, apologetically, this posting is neither fiction nor legend:

Last Saturday evening the hounds of hell, brandishing AK47s and bearing the black ski mask mark of cowards, emerged from a trio of hulking SUVs in front of a group of regular, everyday muchachos standing in front of one of the few civic halls in nearby Creel, a small rustic tourist outpost in my beloved Sierra Tarahumara, and – I hesitate to write this -, without speaking, they calmly massacred twelve young men, one college professor and – how does one write this? – a fourteen month-old baby.

Driving away, taking the only road leading into and out of town, witnessed by many and identified (understandably) by none, they left victims so utterly destroyed by their ruthlessly outsized firepower that several teenagers were all but unrecognizable and indistinguishable.

I think we need Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the moment.

Thirty-four years ago the smiling universe dropped me, innocent and open-hearted, into the most beautiful  place i had yet to experience.

The small one-engine plane made a curving landing onto the dirt airstrip of Sisoguichi, in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico; and as we swooped to earth,  impassively studied by a single Tarahumara man in yellow floral blouse and cream-colored cowboy hat, hand resting on his chin, amid the flourishing greenery and cool-grey rock outcroppings, I knew that I had somehow come home.

The mission pilot was wrangling his little plane into its corrugated metal hangar as a broad-smiling nun came crossing the creek to receive me, her indefatigable sidekick, a Tarahumara orphan girl named Tati, bobbing at her side, hand in happy hand.

Madre Olivia and I somehow made ourselves mutually understood, despite being monolingual in separate languages; and I can still recall clearly – 34 years, 2 months, and 18 days later – the major events that followed on that first day.

Clearer still is my recollection of the moment the next morning – my 22nd birthday – when I spotted the tall, thin, apple-cheeked girl who immediately became my reason for remaining in la Sierra after my volunteer work was done – and who three years later became (as she remains) my wife, Mimi.

La Sierra’s endless and endlessly amazing skies; its Rembrandtian light penetrating adobe walls; its rich and communitarian cultures; its trusting and generous people; their melodic and laughter-filled languages -all bore into my heart’s core and erased any longing I harbored before arriving. Each assured me: you are from here now, you are of this place.

So it has remained, more than thirty years, that whenever we return to la Sierra to visit family, I feel an easing of nerves, an erasure of tension, when our car begins its ascent into those gorgeous green mountains bedecked with great grey rock. To this day I refer to la Sierra as “back home,” as assuredly and naturally as if I had been born there – because I truly felt, that first summer, that I was reborn there, both culturally and spiritually.

All of the art and writing I have created in the three decades since that summer has been nourished by my immersion in that world.

Which is why Monday night’s hope-crushing news, with its murder and its grief, weighs on my chest like one of la Sierra’s gargantuan grey rocks.

As unimaginable arms and inconceivable outside forces converge on this isolated countryside of great beauty and hard labor, the traditions and certainties of generations are sent spiraling out of orbit, and gravity loosens its grip. 

Folklore to the contrary, violence has been rare here and trust and courtesy the norm. My first summer in la Sierra Tarahumara, without exception, strangers received me into their homes, sat me at their kitchen table, and served me coffee and flour tortillas as a civilizing bond.

When violence erupted, it was individual and focused, and its narrative easy to follow.

What do we do now, when the janjaweed of the drug lords are unleashed unannounced, to slaughter a meek and humble people already battered by drought, poverty, and scant access to education and jobs?

Saint Oswin’s Feast Day is today, his tale – like the news back home – one of conflict, treachery, and wanton murder. 

As our family, friends, and neighbors, in Creel and beyond, pace uneasily, ashen-faced and heartbroken in their now-threatened homes, Venerable Bede’s description of Saint Oswin rings true for last weekend’s victims – and for the people there I’ve known, as well:

“most generous to all men and above all things humble… of graceful bearing, with pleasant manner and engaging address”

En Paz Descanzan.

 

Published in: on 20 August 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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18 August – Feast Day of Santa Elena (St. Helen), part ii

Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from "All the Saints of the City of the Angels"
Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from All the Saints

Saint Helen is a fascinating character to consider.

I’ve written about her twice in my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels: once in connection with Santa Cruz Street, in San Pedro Bay; and again, in connection with the curiously named San Teala Court, in Woodland Hills.
As I wrote in the San Teala piece, she
“was Constantine’s mother, a pious woman with a penchant for organizing, and an eye for buried treasure. In the fourth century she bustled about the Holy Land, uncovering relics which had lain unnoticed for three hundred years.  The cross where Christ died; the nails which had secured him; the notice which hung above his head; the crown of thorns that rung his brow – all these freely presented themselves to her, as if awaiting her arrival.”

 And she, via her legend, is responsbile for the naming of both Santa Cruz Street and the island to which its name is directed, out beyond the harbor’s horizon.

The tale goes that, after millennia of living in relative harmony, the Chumash peoples of Limuw, a large island near present-day Santa Barbara, were visited by Spanish explorers from the empire to the south.

Accompanying the soldiers who came ashore was a Franciscan priest; All were welcomed by the islanders, who took them to their chieftan’s village of Xaxas, set in a great forest.
After their warm reception, and an exchange of gifts, the visitors headed back to their canoes, and from there to their ship anchored offshore.
Overnight the priest, Juan Gonzalez Vizcaino, discovered he had forgotten his cross-topped walking staff (no mention is made of whether he had imbibed any welcoming inebriants during the welcoming ceremonies).
Despairing of seeing this treasure again – and admittedly harboring suspicions that the natives had gained the cross through clever means – , the Spaniards awakened at first light to the cheerful sight of the men of Xaxas guiding their great tomol towards the ship; and in the center of the tomol sat one of the Chumash, bearing the lost cross.
Like Saint Helen of old, some Limuw maiden had recovered the Friar’s lost cross.