With the release of the film “Straight Outta Compton” it seemed like a good time to revisit the painting “N.W.A. (Nuthatches With Attitude)” — progress shots, funny reference pictures, and thoughts on why some ideas win out over others can all be found by clicking right here.
Over the years I’ve visited the theme of love in my work oh… a whole heckuvalot. It takes all sorts of forms: forbidden love, unrequited pining, burning lust, chaste adoration, playful affection, and in several paintings it’s all about maternal tenderness. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m releasing a limited edition, signed & numbered print of my painting “More Than Words.”
Being an Addams Family geek I decided to place Morticia and little baby Wednesday in Morticia’s greenhouse, where she was often found snipping the roses off her thorn bushes and feeding meatballs to her carnivorous plant/pet Cleopatra (featured in the upper left). Succulents from my own garden appear in the foreground because my obsessions tend to creep into the paintings. (Hello red foldy fabric, again!)
The sale will go live on Monday, May 4th at 9am PT (note: that’s Pacific Time, not PM if you’re squinting at your phone), in my Big Cartel shop: click right here to preview and bookmark!
Ah forbidden love, when falling for the the wrong woman can get you buried alive and cursed for all eternity!
Dracula and Frankenstein were big hits for Universal studios in 1931, so they were eager to get another monster movie out there, and mummies were very much in people’s minds thanks to the recent discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb and the famous “Curse of the Pharoahs.” There weren’t actually any curses in King Tut’s tomb (one archeologist of the 30’s called the story “unadulterated clap trap”) but people really took to the idea anyway, especially after a few members of Howards Carter’s team died “mysteriously” after discovering the tomb. (This idea was actually popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who suggested “elementals” guarding the tomb were taking revenge.) Mummies were hot and thus we got —
In the 1932 film The Mummy directed by Karl Freund, archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple pays no attention to all the dire warnings guarding the tomb of Imhotep (despite the fact that these curses tend to make no distinction between thieves, grave robbers, and archeologists) and digs him right up. He also leaves the life-giving Scroll of Thoth just laying about for his idiot assistant to read aloud, raising Imhotep from the dead — and next thing you know there’s a mummy shambling about.
Of course in proper ancient Egyptian mummification, the brain was smashed with a long hook, drawn out through the nose, and thrown away. They didn’t believe it was worth preserving, so while all the other organs got beautiful canopic jars, the brain went into the trash. (Which does make one wonder how a mummy can walk around at all, much less come up with diabolical plots.) The heart was left in place because it was believed to be the center of intelligence and feeling. If you’re wondering why they bothered to pull any organs out at all, it’s because the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines rot very quickly, so they went into gorgeous little containers.
In The Mummy we get the ever fantastic Boris Karloff as Egyptian priest/mummy Imhotep, with terrific makeup by Jack Pierce, who also developed the completely iconic look for Karloff in Frankenstein. But why was Imhotep a mummy in the first place? Back in in the day, Imhotep loved the princess Ankh-es-en-amon soooooo much that he tried to resurrect her from the dead. Love makes you do the wacky! For this crime he was mummified while still alive, which actually looks pretty tame in the movie (people probably didn’t want to see Karloff’s brain being yanked out of his nose). Freshly resurrected after thousands of years, what does he want, revenge? A hot bath and a loofah? No, he wants love. Still.
At this point I need to digress and tell you about how I mummified a Barbie doll when I was a kid. Obviously I didn’t remove her organs, but I did wrap her up in gauze bandages, painted hieroglyphs all over them, and buried her in the back yard. This was necessary because I’d tried to clean ball point pen off of her face with nail polish remover (epic beautification FAIL), which removed all of her features and melted a good bit of her hair off as well, turning her into something a bit scary looking that needed to go away immediately. I was obsessed with ancient Egypt (I think the King Tut exhibit had just rolled through town) and mummifying Barbie seemed like the only logical option at the time. I like to imagine that decades later when someone was digging a flowerbed they thought, however briefly, that they’d discovered The World’s Tiniest Egyptian Mummy.
Right, so Imhotep spends the next ten years clearly applying a lot of moisturizer and turns up as Ardeth Bey. This is a great roll for Karloff because unlike the mute monster in Frankenstein, Ardeth can talk — and that voice! Those eyes! He’s completely hypnotic in every scene.
And what are we learning? Love never dies, it just gets kinda creepy and wrinkled. He posits himself as a local “expert” and helps Whemple’s son to find his beloved Ankh-es-en-amon’s tomb so they can dig her up and he can use to scroll to be reunited with his long lost love. Alas his resurrection doesn’t work — because what he needs isn’t her body, it’s her soul, currently residing in Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally Whemple junior’s GF). Believing she is the reincarnation of his lady love he realizes he must kill her so he can mummify and resurrect her. Sounds crazy but guess what? He’s not wrong, she is the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon! Unfortunatley, while Imhotep’s love survived thousands of years hers somehow did not and she calls on her past life memories, praying to the goddess Isis to save her. [Spoiler Alert!] Isis’ statue raises its arm and blasts the Scroll of Thoth to ashes, which is pretty much what happens to Imhotep too. For me this kinda raises the question — if she was filled with her past life memories, where was the memory of her love for Imhotep? Honestly this ending bums me out, it’s very similar to the ending of The Bride of Frankenstein when [Spoiler Alert!] the Bride, created to be a mate for the monster, can’t stand the sight of him. I guess I’m a hopeless romantic — I’m always rooting for the monster to get the girl in the end.
Because the Mummy didn’t bring himself back to life I see him in kind of the same category as Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the Bride — so he was the last creature to join my Monster Martyr series of paintings. Christian martyrs were often depicted holding the object of their martyrdom (aka the thing people used to put them to death), and the Mummy is holding the Sacred Scroll of Thoth. He is accompanied by a sacred ibis, which in Egypt was associated with the god of writing and scribes, Thoth. As in all the paintings in this series, the bird represents a messenger that can fly between the worlds of the living and the dead.
To celebrate my favorite time of year, Halloween, all of the Monster Martyr paintings are available right now as throw pillows — you can pick out your fave or collect the whole set!
Just go right here: http://www.redbubble.com/people/isabelsamaras
And lastly, I just love this theater display —
Hey remember that famous movie starring Bela Lugosi as the Werewolf? No? That’s because Bela the gypsy fortune teller isn’t onscreen very long before he wolfs out and chomps on Lon Chaney, turning him into The Werewolf of the 1941 movie “The Wolfman.”
This was one of the few Universal monster movies not based on a book, and writer Curt Siodmak invented quite a few of the things we now think of as werewolf canon — like silver bullets, the bite of the werewolf transferring the curse, and even the idea of the full moon bringing on the transformation. (He also penned the folk poem quoted in the movie: “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” It’s in every Universal werewolf movie that followed, tho’ they changed the last line to “the moon is full and bright.”) Missing entirely from the movie is the scripted scene were the Wolfman was supposed to wrestle a bear. (Yes, one of the lesser known inhabitants of Wales that.. um.. no one has ever seen there.) Apparently the bear had trouble finding his motivation that day (or maybe he thought a bear turning up in Wales was not believable) and chased leading lady Evelyn Ankers right off the set, which pretty much scrapped the scene.
The Wolfman, as played by Lon Chaney, was a perfect candidate for the Monster Martyr paintings I was working on — talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Larry Talbot (Chaney) had the extreme bad luck of rescuing a girl being attacked by a werewolf (transforming gypsy Bela Lugosi). Talbot was able to defeat and even kill the creature because of the nifty silver wolf’s head cane he’d just bought from a cute gal he was flirting with at the local antique shop (the aforementioned bear-bait, Ankers).
Chaney did a terrific job of conveying the torment of a man who realizes he’s become something else. His misery may have been informed a bit by the real life torture of his yak-fur make-up, which apparently took hours and hours to apply. (He also claims they used tiny flooring nails in his wolf paws, but he was known to exaggerate.) Later, he attacks his lady love and Talbot’s own father beats him to death with — you guessed it — his very own silver wolf-topped cane. (His dad then watches horrified as the creature he just killed transforms into his son — he had no idea. Need a hanky yet?)
If you missed the last couple posts about Monster Martyrs, you can catch up: Who Are The Real Monsters? and Of Brides & Breaking Wheels. The idea I was playing with is that it’s not the monsters who are truly monstrous — it’s the people. After all, we’re the ones who came up with things like this —
And this —
Aaaand this —
Larry Talbot/Chaney wasn’t a monster of his own making or choice — he wasn’t experimenting with powers beyond his understanding or pushing the boundaries of science or dabbling in witchcraft — he became afflicted with something he couldn’t control, and was put to death for it. In my painting “Song of the Owl”, the Wolfman is carrying the object of his martyrdom, the silver wolf’s head cane that killed him, and has as his companion an owl. Sacred to the Greek goddess Athena, the owl has long been associated with wisdom but because it’s nocturnal (plus that very unnatural head swiveling thing) it also has a long history of creeping people out and is considered a funereal bird and bad omen. (In the Holy Scriptures, Joel lists the owl among the “impure animals.” What bunk.) I absolutely adore owls (as evidenced right here) and in my painting the owl is a messenger bird, capable of traveling between the worlds of the living and the dead.
If you want to bring a little of this wolfie goodness into your home, you can snag yourself something plush and yummy right here: “Song of the Owl Throw Pillow” — promise he wont scratch up your furniture! Happy Howloween!
And finally, I leave you with this. I miss Lux. The Cramps’ Halloween shows at the Fillmore were so fantastic…
It’s possible that as a bit of a misfit kid I related a little too closely to the plight of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Watching Boris Karloff’s version of the creature being hunted, it seemed all too clear to me who the real monsters were. Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” and James Whale’s brilliant “Bride of Frankenstein” touched me on an almost cellular level, and I’ve been trying to change that story in my art for years, to create a happier outcome, a real future for those characters. It’s also been pointed out to me recently that these paintings track changes in my life —
The Frisky Years…
Developing Healthier Hobbies…
Building A Family…
And Having Fun With Your Mate…
So yeah, you don’t have to look too hard to see that this is a common theme in much of what I do — “fixing” things that I perceive as wrong, things that have rankled around inside me since I was a child. (Another example, my seemingly endless desire to see Catwoman and Batman together.)
In my painting series Monster Ballads, I was thinking a lot about “Monsters: They’re Just Like Us!” I painted things like Dracula relaxing on the beach moonbathing, monster friends celebrating a birth, and a series of martyr paintings because I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that so many of these creatures got a seriously bum rap. (Dracula did not appear in the martyr series because I felt that his path was a bit more self directed plus he seemed to wholly enjoy his state of being, as opposed to Frankenstein’s monster who got disinterred, hacked to bits, sewn up, and then pretty much reviled every moment of his waking life.)
As I mentioned in my last post (“Of Brides and Breaking Wheels”), paintings of martyrs often showed them with the thing that transformed them into a martyr (“a person killed because of their religious or other beliefs”), or sometimes there would simply be a visual clue. In the case of Saint Lucy, artists had a lot of options to choose from: she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel (but the guards couldn’t move her, even with a team of oxen), they heaped wood around her for a nice roaring fire (but she wouldn’t burn), and so they finally killed her with a sword. (Tell me again who the real monsters are?) One has to wonder, if one can do so without being utterly blasphemous, why so many of these saints seem to be under amazing and wonderful protection from all forms of harm right up until they suddenly aren’t. Around the 15th century a gruesome addition popped up in her story: torture by eye gouging, tho’ some stories say she did it to herself to deter particularly ardent suitors who admired her peepers. This story begat some of my favorite martyr images —
And this, one of my absolute favorite paintings of all time for sheer weirdness — the eyes being held like a little flower bud, while Lucy looks at them (with her again miraculously regrown peepers) with what is clearly an “Ew!” face.
When I painted Frankenstein’s monster as a martyr, I gave him a daisy, which was a shout out to this:
And he’s holding a tiny windmill in his hands, because (spoiler alert!), things do not go well at the windmill.
Each painting in this series has a messenger bird, who travels between the worlds of the living and the dead kind of like a supernatural carrier pigeon. In this piece it’s a raven, a bird which is usually not portrayed in a very flattering light in art, possibly because of the simple stigma of being black (aka “evil”), but being carrion eaters certainly didn’t help. Spotted casually pecking bits out of corpses got the idea into people’s heads that they were mediators between life and death. (In Swedish folklore they are the ghosts of murder victims.) Crows get painted with this tar brush too, you’ve all heard the term “a murder of crows” by now.
In my deep need to share the love of Halloween, this week if you want to bring a monster to your home (“Friend!”) you can, in three different sizes of throw pillows —
You can get these goodies right here!
And lastly, in honor of those who’ve lost their heads to love, science or an executioner’s blade:
In my intense need to share the joys of the High Holy Holiday of Halloween I’m going to be posting a few of my paintings as household goodies this week — starting with “Song of the Goldfinch” which you can snag as a pillow (available in three different sizes). If you can’t wait and wanna read the rest of this later, you can pick it up right here!
And as a tote bag, also in 3 sizes …
These are images of my painting “Song of the Goldfinch”, part of the Monster Ballads series, where I was thinking (as I often seem to do) about what it means to be a “monster”. In this series, the classic creatures were all depicted as martyrs — because if you think about it, The Bride of Frankenstein didn’t exactly ask to be dug up and reanimated. Her companion, the goldfinch, often appeared in Renaissance paintings as a symbol for the soul, resurrection, sacrifice and death. I see it as a messenger who can travel between two worlds.
In many historical painting of martyrs they are depicted holding the object of their martyrdom (aka “the thing used to kill them”). Saint Catherine of Alexandria was sentenced to be crushed to death by a spiked “breaking wheel”, so you often seen her with what looks like a big old wagon wheel at her side like she was Loretta Lynn’s great, great, great, grandma.
Awful as it must have been, it didn’t work (“at her touch this instrument of torture was miraculously destroyed”), so the Roman Emperor Maxentius, who was already pretty pissed because he’d offered to get Catherine out of this nasty jam by marrying her (an offer she declined, explaining she was already married to Jesus), decided to have her beheaded. Unfortunately her miraculous way with wheels didn’t seem to apply to blades, and this attempt on her life was entirely too successful. This is why you often also see Catherine with a sword, or sometimes both a sword and a wheel. I particularly like the smashed wheel in this one:
In my painting the Bride is holding the instrument of her death which, according the heartbreaking film “The Bride of Frankenstein” by James Whale, is fire. The fire that the monster set when his bride-to-be rejected him and he decided “We belong dead.” (This movie makes me cry every time, people. Every. Time. “Friend?” Cue the waterworks.)
If you want to bring any of this juicy goodness home, just bunny on over to this site right here. (Yes, simply click that link like your clacking your ruby slippers together and you’ll be magically whisked over.)
More goodies to come!
I call him LL Scrub Jay. He’s a Western Scrub Jay that hangs out in the necto-plum tree outside of my studio, and I feed him peanuts from time to time. He and his buddies turn up in my “bird a day” sketchbook (full disclosure, I don’t always have time to draw a bird a day, but I try).
I’m pretty sure the neighbors think I’m bonkers but when I do my pathetically bad scrub jay call he usually shows up for a few nuts, and this makes me feel like we have a “relationship”, which resulted in this painting:
Flash forward a bit to when I was asked to contribute a piece to the show “Boxes of Death 5”, in which artists are all given a 2′ high wooden coffin to paint/alter/play with. The blank casket arrived on my doorstep at about the same time that I read an article about how Western Scrub Jays have funerals. When one finds a dead comrade, they start up a loud screeching call — but not to warn other jays away, to gather them around. The assembled birds all perch near the dead bird’s body and screech together for as long as 30 minutes. (You can read more about this right here.) That’s when I decided I would create a funerary piece about LL.
In my paintings I’ve often toyed with the idea of an animal kingdom where the critters have dragged elements of human culture back into their world, and pondered what sort of things they might take a shine to and value. With the idea of “pouring one out” in remembrance of a fallen friend, I decided the background for the piece should be hand-painted labels from Olde English 40 oz bottles — as close to “gold leaf” as a bird might be able to scavenge.
Which started to come together something like this (with the help of my studio assistant, who feels there should be massive amounts of feline hair in everything I do).
What other sorts of embellishments might a bird have access to? Years ago when we were picnicking in Joshua Tree, we shared some scraps with a scrub jay, and once he’d had his fill he flew off to rustle around in a nearby bush. He returned to us and dropped a small shiny object in the middle of our picnic — it was a small brass 9mm shell casing. I can only imagine he thought it was a fair trade, that we would appreciate this piece of shiny human stuff. Or he was trying to give us a clue (like Lassie, “Bark! Bark!” “What Lassie, little Timmy is trapped in the well?”) to some nefarious crime, but we didn’t follow up on it. We were busy moving to San Francisco from New York. Remembering that bird holding the metal shell casing in his beak, I decided the coffin needed bottle caps, which I’d been saving for gawd-only-knows-what-project, and which I went to friend Phil Horton’s machine shop to drill.
“Boxes of Death 5”, with work by 50 artists, will be traveling for a series of four one-night-only openings — try to catch one if it’s in your neck o’ the woods!
PDX Antler Gallery -10/3
SF Gauntlet Gallery – 10/8
LA The Chun – 10/11
SEA Piranha Gallery – 10/17
“Boxes of Death is an art exhibition where 50 artists are each given their own coffin to do with what they want. The idea spawned from Kane Quaye, a famous coffin maker from Africa. His philosophy was that a coffin should not just be a pine box, but something that represents the person inside and their life. Each artist in the show uses the same coffin canvas format to create their own artistic statement surrounding the preconceived notions and ideas of the coffin shape. The people in the show have a chance to step out of their comfort zone and faced with the idea of death, react to it.
The result is a visually compelling installation contrasting repetition and individuality. Boxes of Death showcases artists from the farthest reaches of the continental US as well as some international artists and highlights an incredibly diverse range of creative backgrounds.
Sponsored by Rudy’s and Juxtapoz, co-curated by Roq La Rue, the 2014 Boxes of Death tour show has grown to include 50 artists and has evolved into a four stop tour. The artist roster includes world renowned painters, illustrators, graphic designers, motorcycle builders, tattoo artists, assemblage masters and print makers.”
You can find out more about the show right here: Boxes of Death 5