Beautiful Things, #1

I used to be so much more in touch with the art world, regularly searching out, talking about, and trying to make beautiful things. I miss it. I’m going to make a new blog category right now, for just that.

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One of my best friends, Fahan Sky McDonagh (work pictured above), has held fast to the artist’s adventure as I have forsaken it, and she posts about the most wondrous specimens. A glass artist and millennial hippie, many of her favored images are selected from the earth, fire, ocean, and sky.

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This video clip below is about Iceland, relocated to an art gallery.

Enjoy!

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Tragedy, True Romance, And Tiffany

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A Book Review of Til Death Do Us Part, by Stephanie Ayers

(Buy it here on Amazon. Buy it here on Kobo. See the author’s website.)

This action-packed, engrossing novella follows the journey of that most coveted and notorious emblems of everlasting love—the Tiffany diamond engagement ring. The ring was offered, refused, disposed of, scrounged, smuggled, re-gifted, stolen more than once, sold, bought, and finally accepted, as I flipped pages on the edge of my seat (or swiped through them on my Kindle). Unhappy with a current possessor of the treasure? Not to worry, because this story turns on a dime and there’s no time for disappointment. Ayers leads the reader down twists of fate, through catastrophic events, and even turns us into voyeurs of a raunchy scene between an unlikely prostitute and her overly kinky john, all at breakneck speed.

After the first couple changes of hand, I suspected fantastical coincidence, yet soon realized that Ayers was likely alluding to something larger. Call it the Hand of Fate, or God’s Will. Think, “There are no accidents.” Whatever your chosen metaphysical paradigm, most of us have felt at times that our little worlds are ruled by something more powerful than ourselves and sensed that, oddly, everything is somehow connected. The fate of the ring is inevitable from the beginning.

Who knows? Perhaps the details of our own life plot lines are more intertwined than we understand from our limited, individual viewpoints. Omniscient third-person narration helps us see the bigger picture, and Ayers displays a talent for rapidly embodying wildly different characters, slipping between varying frames of reference. I love when an author does this well, so that a reader understands a certain scenario through the eyes of one personality, then receives a completely different view from the mind of another. For example, the first few pages of “Til Death…” are sugary-sweet, life through the rose-colored glasses of a man deeply in love. He gushes over the girl of his dreams, remembers precious moments between the two of them, and plans to surprise her with a public proposal of marriage in a fairytale setting. Just when I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into, perspective shifts to the object of his affection—a woman who does not share in the fool’s fantasy. He may be a little crazy, in fact.

There are only a few smatterings of romantic sentiment throughout the rest of the story, even though the tale revolves around a Tiffany engagement ring. In fact, the title partnered with the ominous cover art (a diamond ring splattered with blood), would lead a prospective reader to believe Ayers’ tale is a sinister one. There is no lack of death or violence, however, we are actually returned to a place of intense love and undying commitment at the close of this dizzying romp.

Not that you will be forced to think too hard about deeper meanings in the this swift, highly entertaining read. The story flows quickly, but the author spends just the right amount of time on rich imagery and concrete description, so that you believe it all without missing a beat. Let Stephanie Ayers hijack your mind and enjoy the ride from the passenger seat. Just make sure you have an hour or two to read without interruption, because you won’t be able to put this book down until she weaves her tale through your brain and out the other side!

–Sarah Wathen

My Envious Alarm Clock

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A Book Review of When Everyone Shines But You, by Kelly Martin

(Buy it here on Amazon. See the author’s website.)

What an arresting title. When everyone shines but you. The bald honesty in that horrible statement, the humility inherent in shouting that to the world—that takes guts. Can’t we all admit to feeling that way at some point in our lives? Even if not out loud?

Part of Kelly Martin’s book is about exactly that, but it’s much more than owning your own despair or frustration. She tells us to embrace all of our worst feelings as actual gifts. I’m reminded of the Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi’s words in The Guest House about welcoming all your emotions,

“The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

I’ve always felt such revelations to be profound, but hard to follow or to remember, especially when I might be struggling with those dark thoughts. How exactly does one embrace rage, for example, when in the midst of a blood-boiling temper tantrum?

Martin tells us those nasty feelings are like alarms alerting us to change, and she uses colorful, memorable imagery when explaining how to deal with them as they come. Her vivid metaphors stuck in my mind like glue, seeping into my consciousness for days—often enough that they became a part of me. She writes about “the rapids of rage,” with jutting boulders on a turbulent course that finally tumbles over a waterfall to land safely on the other side. It’s perfect imagery for a person enraged. I imagine my feet stuck out in front of me, kicking away from the sharpest rocks, and the cold water of the rapids cooling my anger. Another of my favorite metaphors in the book is Martin’s comparison of our own life cycles with seasons of year. She describes a tree in the depths of winter, leafless and barren on the surface, but conserving and growing underneath, strengthening itself to blossom in the spring and ripen with fat fruit in the summer. She writes,

“If you are in a winter, you can rest more, go within, breathe into your feelings, experience your moments. If you are in a summer you can be more naturally active, achieving things…Your roots are steady and your growth and expansion is sustainable.”

The author’s choice to write in the second person was, at first, disconcerting. Especially since I was reading advice on how to better myself, my hackles were raised more than once in the first few pages. “As humans you often find it difficult to trust,” or “You may look outside and see yourself falling apart,” had me taking a defensive stance, ridiculously thinking, “Me? What about you, then?” Yet, her prescriptions tend to flow in a stream of consciousness style, and she comments in the introduction that, “In many ways this book was not written by me, but was written through me.” Divinely inspired? I was willing to suspend disbelief and go with the flow (which is exactly what Martin is encouraging). I was glad I did, because I found golden nuggets of wisdom, and fervent sincerity in this book.

I would recommend a reader take it slowly, however, as does Martin. The beauty in her language lies in its tendency to resurface, the eloquent pictures she creates blooming later for private reflection. One such gem that I’m not likely to soon forget: “As you begin the creative process it is essential that you carry your new expression as a woman carries a baby; carry it in your creative womb.”

–Sarah Wathen

A Safari Of A Song

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The first book I ever published was an illustrated edition of the erotic biblical poem, Song of Solomon. At the time, it seemed like such a random thing for me to do, especially because I don’t consider myself to be at all religious. In hindsight, however, I realize it was the perfect transition from artist to author for me.

First of all, I had become accustomed to telling stories with visual imagery and was all but tongue-tied when it came to expressing myself verbally. Leave it to art school! But, as I designed illustrations for the ancient love song, I was forced to make sense of difficult language, sift through centuries of history and criticism, and finally tease out my own understanding of the text.

Secondly, I felt compelled to complete the project. Honestly, I felt called to do it, as strange as that seemed. So, even though I had never published anything in my life and I often felt stymied by technological minutia, I just stuck it out.

And in the end, I learned that I could actually publish a book. I created LayerCake Productions through that experience. From there, the sky was the limit.

What follows is the Foreword for the short book. Forgive me–it’s rather dry and scholarly, even though Song of Solomon itself is pretty smokin’.  Faced with writing about sex and the bible, though, I guess I just felt safer to stay on the prudish side.

If you’re interested in checking out the eBook, you can find it on Amazon for $0.99 by clicking here. Each image will click through to Fine Art America, where you can purchase prints.

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FOREWORD

Song of Songs of Solomon, also known as simply Song of Songs in Jewish tradition, and Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles to Christians, is one of the shortest and most thrilling books of The Old Testament. Believed by many to have been written by Solomon himself around 900 BCE, this beautiful poem portrays the relationship between a woman and a man, from courtship to consummation. Mostly a dialogue between two lovers, “Beloved” is the female protagonist and “Lover,” the male, with commentary from a chorus, sometimes known as Daughters of Israel, referred to as “Friends” in this World English Bible translation.

Filled with surprisingly sensual and erotic language, the song has often been interpreted by many as a parable to the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, or Christ and the human soul, for Christians. This ancient text is one of the most overtly mystical books of the Kabbalah, having no parallel in the whole of Hebrew literature, and many Jewish scholars have interpreted the language to be metaphorically anthropomorphic. It has also been suggested that the song is a messianic text, the lover being interpreted as the Messiah. Historically, Christian mystagogues insisted the sexual language in the song was an allegory to the soul and Christ, believing it should be reserved for only the spiritually mature and that studying it may be harmful for the novice. More recently in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI referred to Song of Songs of Solomon in terms of its apparent literal meaning, stating that erotic love and self-donating love is shown therein as two halves of true love, both giving and receiving.

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The authorship and origin of Song of Songs of Solomon has been as widely researched and debated as has its content. The first clause of the title, “which is of Solomon,” can be construed to mean that the song was either written by Solomon, or for Solomon, and evidence for both meanings exists. Most scholars note that the poem shows similarities to various forms of Ancient Near Eastern love poetry, particularly certain Sumerian erotic passages of the period. Some even suggest that the song is not a single work, but rather a collection of folk love songs from northern Palestine, the references to royalty accounted for by a wedding custom called “The King’s Week,” kept up among the Syrian peasants to the present day.

Differing interpretations and mistranslations of the original Ancient Hebrew text have abounded for centuries, and have provided a fascinating framework for religious legends and romantic myths. One of the most famous and loved mistranslations from 2:1, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys,” helped form a major character in John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, “Rose of Sharon” (often called “Rosasharn”), who is depicted as fragile throughout the novel, because of her pregnancy. More recent studies have concluded that the original Ancient Hebrew phrase actually refers to the Sharon Plain on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and a flower that blooms there in late summer, not the flowering plant commonly referred to as the Rose of Sharon today.

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Another flower species mentioned in the above verse, Lily of the Valley, is a sweetly scented, yet highly poisonous, flowering plant. If ingested, even in small amounts, this deadly plant can induce abdominal pain, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate. Ironically, laboratory studies have shown the odor of the flower to attract mammal sperm in a dramatic manner, and even to imitate the role of progesterone in stimulating sperm to swim, a reaction known as the Lily of the Valley phenomenon. Even more interestingly, Christian legend also names this plant as “Our Lady’s Tears” or “Mary’s Tears,” in reference to the story that it sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus. The Lily of the Valley is used as a symbol of humility in religious paintings, as a sign foreshadowing Christ’s second coming and also as a reminder of the power of men to envision a better world. Scholars now believe that the original Ancient Hebrew text in Song of Songs of Solomon does not, in fact, refer to this flower; however, the mistranslation of the biblical phrase may have had influenced the development of the modern plant name. Certainly, scientific fact and religious legend are now woven together to encourage a captivating reading of the song!

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Whatever debates may rage over Song of Songs of Solomon, the beauty of the poetry and rapturous character of the dialogue is undeniable. A stunning change of pace within the larger biblical narrative, the luscious imagery drips with charisma and begs to be enjoyed on its own terms. However flawed or imprecise a translation from Ancient Hebrew to Modern English may be, I believe the spirit of the story survives, and as an artist, I allowed the poetry itself to speak to me and encourage visual form. Some passages all but scream for visual illustration, for example:

5:10 My beloved is white and ruddy.

The best among ten thousand.

5:11 His head is like the purest gold.

His hair is bushy, black as a raven.

5:12 His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks,

washed with milk, mounted like jewels.

5:13 His cheeks are like a bed of spices with towers of perfumes.

His lips are like lilies, dropping liquid myrrh.

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Also consider the plentitude of flora and fauna imagery, with their allusion to the glorious circle of life, which is of course the ultimate purpose of the act for which the urgent lovers yearn. Is it difficult to find divinity in a fragile, shivering newborn fawn, or blush at the inherent sexuality in the fleshiness of fat, juicy grapes and the flowing of milk and honey?

7:8 I said, “I will climb up into the palm tree.

I will take hold of its fruit.”

Let your breasts be like clusters of the vine

the smell of your breath like apples,

And, also:

4:5 Your two breasts are like two fawns

that are twins of a roe,

which feed among the lilies.

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The passion is obvious, the language as dripping and sweet as a lover’s words…and therein lies an illustrator’s hidden challenge—to avoid cartoonish pictures too like the effusive, flowery declarations from a cajoling, hopeful lover, giddy with lust, yet instead, uncover the authentic desire within our human hearts that make such language valid for all of us.

5:1 I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride.

I have gathered my myrrh with my spice;

I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey;

I have drunk my wine with my milk.

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I relied partially on my knowledge of historical religious imagery, practiced in artful visual representations of difficult language. For example, I found the perfect model for Beloved’s surely orgasmic expression, which I felt must have occurred during certain passages in the song, in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. No dime store pop-romance imagery, this work in marble, stucco and paint is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque period. The sculpture illustrates a moment where divinity intrudes on an earthly body, Saint Teresa’s most famous vision being of a seraph driving the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing a transcendent spiritual-bodily pain. Bernini is often said to have carved Saint Teresa’s heavenly expression after the moment one is overcome by orgasmic climax. Reciprocally, I borrowed that scandalous legend surrounding this famous work to clarify my own perception of Beloved’s face, and I hope to encourage further insight into to the complicated nature of our understanding of Song of Songs of Solomon, in drowning her in the duplicitous Lily of the Valley, in Illustration #6.

My notes here only hint at the vast literature available to aid in understanding Song of Songs of Solomon, and I encourage readers to form his or her own interpretation on both the text and my illustrations, and to seek further knowledge, through research and contemplation, into this fascinating work of literature. I have added but a taste of the broad analysis in existence, in an excerpt from Expositor’s Bible, following this illustrated edition of Song of Songs of Solomon. Special thanks goes to Project Gutenberg, for providing this public domain literature, The World English Bible version of Song of Songs of Solomon, and Expositor’s Bible, free of charge for all.  Please consider donating to Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org, for their important work in service to our cultural literary heritage.

Sarah Lange Wathen

Illustrator & Editor

Purchase my illustrated edition of Song of Songs of Solomon on Amazon, by clicking here.

A Change You Can’t Ignore

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A Book Review of Sea-Change by P.W. Fox

(Buy it here on Amazon. See the author’s website.)

This novella is an epic tale, with evil aristocrats, witchcraft, warring clans, sword fights, and even a red wedding, condensed within a quick two-hour read. You’re probably thinking that would be a classic case of information overload, like when you read a sci-fi novel so crammed with facts and history that you can’t get past the first chapter. I have to admit, after the first few paragraphs, I was wondering if I would be able to remember all the names and events thrown at me. To my delight, however, I was given just enough for my brain to hold onto, and for the plot to blossom within. Fox paces the story so that we may use our own imaginations to fill in the gaps—we don’t need to know the whole history of these warring clans in this fantastical place, only enough hints to cradle the protagonist in our minds.

And he gives our minds breaks. The basic premiss of the story is that a future duchess befalls a terrible treachery (most of her family is slain, and she is sold into slavery), and she must escape her new fate (which she does with the aid of powerful sorcery), and find a way to reap revenge (bring down the usurper to her father’s ducal seat). After a beginning packed with such action, though, Fox slows down to let a reader enjoy the world he has created. The sun rises and sets, our protagonist sleeps, eats and runs on a sandy beach, boats row to and fro with the tide, the cycle of the moon advances. The realism of life experience helps to imagine the “sea-change” that the protagonist must be feeling, which is the most intriguing aspect of the story.

The hook in this brief tale is not what is told, but what is inherently understood: sex, and all the intricacies involved with both the gender and the act. For, the sorcery that is preformed early on changes the main character, a woman named Selena, into a man (he decides to call himself Seldon). That’s the sea-change; Selena partly uses the sea water in her spell to change form. I sat up a little straighter in my seat, as soon as Fox began describing Selena as “he,” as in,

“Selena walked from the water up to the dry sand trying to get used to the way his changed body moved. Selena was now definitely male in appearance, and larger than he had been as a woman. He gathered up the remnants of his dress and tore off what remained of the skirt to use as a loincloth like he had seen the fisherman on Grendar wear.”

It’s such a simple, yet strangely alluring, idea and it works perfecting in a short story. Fox doesn’t need to describe anymore magic, because our minds are buzzing with what that would feel like. We’re all either one or the other (or somewhere in between, in rarer cases), so we know intimately the details of being our own sex and are obsessively curious about the opposite. All Fox needs to do is hint at Seldon feeling strange urges towards a girl he meets, and our imagination is piqued, our senses actively engaged.

I won’t ruin the ending by telling whether or not Seldon (almost naked throughout the story, stuffing knives into his loincloth, and later riding a horse bareback) is able to return to his female form, but the possibility that the spell was flubbed and could be permanent hangs overhead. Rest assured that the conclusion is immensely satisfying.

–Sarah Wathen