The Masters | Anguish and Gratitude: Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers with Heart

Vincent Van Gogh. “Three Sunflowers in a Vase.” Oil on Canvas. August, 1888, Arles. United States. Private Collection.

I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with all the sunflower goodness this week. Sadly, we’re just two more posts away from the end of “Sunflower Month.”

I am clearly intrigued by the approach of the masters to the sunflower. Many of them seem to have been as taken with its luminescent beauty as I am. I am in no way an artist like the masters featured all week, but sunflowers are certainly the most doodled flower in my journals, sketchbooks, and letters.

When I began this final week of “Sunflower Month,” I had intended to do only three posts, but I got a little carried away because there were more than three sunflower masters in my collection. My favorite, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch Post-Impressionist, was always on the list. Let’s consider the “sunflower tree” a bonus post, because this week of masters will not be complete without attention to his still life sunflower series—especially with the final masters post I have in mind. 😉

Vincent Van Gogh. “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.” Oil on Canvas. August 1888, Arles. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

From 1888-1889, van Gogh completed seven sunflower still life masterpieces in the studio he shared with Paul Gaugin in Arles, France. He had intended to fill the walls with their brilliance before Gaugin’s arrival. The two featured above are in my postcard collection, thanks to Debbie T, my Love Notes pal (Twelve Sunflowers), and Eepy on swap-bot (Three Sunflowers).

There are four others in the Sunflower Series that were completed in 1887 in Paris. One of them–Four Cut Sunflowers (below)– took my breath away the first time I saw it!

Vincent Van Gogh. Allotment with Sunflower, Paris, July 1887. Oil on Canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

In a letter to his sister Willemien, van Gogh writes:

[…] the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower.  (Letter 856)

Perhaps this tension explains why van Gogh’s “still life” sunflowers are anything but “still.” Each sunflower–in the vases or cut and wilting on a table–is full of personality, life, and movement. Each evokes an emotional response.

I read somewhere that van Gogh wanted to be remembered for his brilliant sunflowers (goal accomplished!) and that people honored his desire by wearing sunflowers to his funeral.

What a radiant sendoff!

Like the Heart

Let me seek You
in the darkness
of my silence

and find You
in the silence
of Your light.

which is
love shining
like the sun

flowing
like a river
and joying

like the heart

Meister Eckhart | Sweeney and Burrows

Fractals | Artistry, Magic, and Song

Frax-1

About five years ago, my friend, international poet and scholar, Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr., published a collection of poetry entitled Fractal Song. I have yet to speak with Ward about the title of the collection. I assumed it was connected to his interest (and degree) in mathematics. If you’ve been paying attention, you know my relationship with mathematics is an only-when-necessary one. For that reason, I gave the title and cover (which features a fractal) only cursory acknowledgment until I started playing around with my own fractal art.

The poems, which deal primarily with Black experience, possess cadences akin to traditional Black music forms–jazz and blues and maybe, even hip hop. At times, the words mimic the woeful whine of a saxophone, just grazing the deep ache of our longing. At other times, the poems hit the wry tone and rhythm of blues. Reality is matter-of-fact. We note it and we find ways to go on, laughing to keep from crying. Then, there is in some of the poems the flippant, unapologetic, unvarnished truth-telling, which makes hip hop so appealing.

Frax-4

The word fractal has its roots in the Latin fract-, “broken” from the verb “frangere,” which means to break. When I look closely at the fractals created from my photographs, I notice there is a slight break or opening that begins or disrupts (?) the pattern, so I’ve been thinking about the etymology of the word and how it impacts my reading of Ward’s poems.

There is much in Fractal Songs that opens and “breaks.” Traditional and experimental lines break. Time breaks as the poet traverses various historical and literary moments. And, certainly, there is his handling of much that is dark and broken in the African American (particularly) male experience.

Ward’s poems will not leave one feeling warm and fuzzy, as some expect when they encounter poetry. The poems in the collection are gritty and rugged. However, like fractals, there is artistry, beauty, and magic–even in the brokenness.


fractal song coverYour Voice
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

It’s a magic thing
Sun and rain and poetry
Flooding in my memory,
But all I can remember
Is how you got over
A deep river
With amazing grace
And cursed your blues
With natural rhythms.

Student Post 5: Autism Awareness

autism-2377410_1280

It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential. — Hans Asperger

Today’s post was written by the broadcast journalist of the group, Patricia of Patricia’s Corner. In the post she writes candidly about her experiences with Asperger’s Syndrome. She also invites us to look around and find others, like her, all around us. “They may seem different, but they’re the same.”

“Autism Awareness Month, or How I Learned to Cope and Accept My Asperger’s Syndrome.”

Patricia is, of course, in good company. Poet and artist, Morgan Harper Nichols, similarly shared about her recent autism diagnosis and how she’s learning to cope.

The Sistren: Their Words Filled Me

“The Sistren: Black Women Writers at the Inauguration of America’s First Sister President.” Photo: (c)
Susan J. Ross. 1988. Used by permission.

Can you name these women?

I cannot remember life without these sister-poets and writers. It seems their words have been with me all my life.

I was young–a preteen in most cases–when I was introduced to Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mari Evans, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara. I don’t remember how I came to meet them, other than through my thirst for books, which often led me to my mother’s or older siblings’ book collections.

I encountered others later–when I was in college and in graduate school. I even met some of them in person.

Their names and words became part of my literary vocabulary, reserved for sacred moments, quiet time. Me and my sister writers. Their words filled me and spoke to an experience akin to my own–of black women speaking, loving, empowering–alive and thriving in their own spaces.

Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’ —Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892


How many did you know? Top Row: Louise Meriwether, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Johnnetta Cole and Paula Giddings. Middle Row: Pearl Cleage, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Cade Bambara. Bottom Row: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Mari Evans

Many thanks to photographer Susan Ross [website] who gave me permission to share her photo on my blog. You can find also find her on Instagram and Twitter @photogriot.

“A Valentine”

A Valentine (1906)
Priscilla Jane Thompson

Out of the depths of a heart of love,
     Out of the birth-place of sighs,
Freighted with hope and freighted with fear,
     My all in a valentine, hies.
     Oh, frail little missive
            Of delicate texture,
     Speed thee, on thy journey,
            And give her a lecture! 

Fathom her heart, that seems to me, cold,
     Trouble her bosom, as mine,
Let it be mutual, this that I crave,
     Her ‘yes’ for a valentine.
     Oh, frail little missive,
            In coy Cupid’s keeping,
     Oh! speed back a message,
            To set my pulse leaping.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Focus on Black: Click the link and learn a bit about Priscilla Jane Thompson.

To Autumn, or, Little Girls with Apples

It dawned on me this morning as I opened an envelope from Fran B, one of my Love Notes pals, that we are nearly a month into the season, and I have not done any “odes to autumn” on the blog. Shocker, right?

I assure you, I have been soaking up the goodness of early autumn as much as I can–the milder temperatures, the gentle breezes, the random highlights [bright oranges, yellows, and reds] in the trees. Academic life during COVID-19 is a level of busy I have never, ever experienced, so it’s been a bit of a struggle getting to the blog, especially since I’m typically screen-weary to the point of tears–or madness.

The artwork featured on the card Fran sent is worth my risking my sanity.

“Cider Mill” (1880) by John George Brown. Oil on Canvas. Daniel J. Terra Collection.

Cider Mill by John George Brown (1831-1913) features five little girls feasting on scrumptious apples they’ve just picked outside a cider mill. It speaks volumes about girlhood, apples, and autumn. The art is part of the Daniel J. Terra Collection of the Terra Foundation for the Arts. [Click the links to learn more about the artist and the masterpiece].

This is a delightful piece of art, but it grabbed my heart because the intensity of and seriousness in the eyes of the little girl with the red bow remind me of my baby niece, Lu, whom you’ve seen on the blog before.

Don’t you think she would fit right in?

Oh, and there’s a bonus–the first stanza of John Keats’ “To Autumn” was beautifully imprinted on the back of the card! If you’ve been keeping up, you know that he’s my favorite British Romantic poet:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Oh, there was even more autumn goodness inside the envelope, but you’ll have to wait for that. 😉

Guest Post | “Tightrope” by Elle Arra

Photo by Elle Arra

Today’s guest post for our series on living Black in the United States was written by my friend, Elle Arra. I met Elle Arra through her poetry blog here on WordPress. She is an amazing poet and visual artist, and I was delighted to learn she lives right here in Northern Alabama. In fact, we know many of the same people! We have made plans to get together for tea when meeting and greeting are safe again.

In this post, Elle Arra combines poetry, photos, and reportage to share her experience of participating in a protest over the Alabama District Attorney’s refusal to release officers’ body camera footage in the police shooting of Dana Sherrod Fletcher last November.


Suspended above the day’s mundanity and slog,
an ever-present tightrope
black bodies traverse in tandem.
It’s like navigating an ocean built
almost entirely of undertow
while maintaining stride and heft of dreams.

We are not permitted our hysteria
not without it being labeled non sequitur rage.

We walk this tightrope
lilting between full bloom
and languish,
walk with bullets in our backs,
twine around our necks,
asphalt under our skin,
knees on our windpipes,
tree branches in our hair,
blood like rubies cascading,
splayed bone like smooth porcelain,
black skin – ribbons and ribbons,
afro confetti––

Photo by Elle Arra

Sunday, August 16, 2020. I walked the four corners of US 72 and Wall Triana [in Madison County, Alabama] where giant signs were hoisted in peaceful protest of the shooting of Dana Fletcher 10 months earlier. I took photos and spoke with his wife and mother who have had to wedge their grief and mourning between breathing and fighting for justice. I cannot imagine having to take moments meant for private sorrows to fight publicly for transparency—the human and decent thing being denied them.

Photo by Elle Arra

I watched Dana’s now fatherless daughter playing in the grass while her mother, grandmother, and a sizable group gave everything they had to this effort. I took it all in–the focus on their faces, the bullhorn call and response, and the raised signs calling for justice.

Photo by Elle Arra

It was extremely hot and humid that late morning/early afternoon, but the dedicated group spent three hours occupying the four corners of the intersection adjacent to the lot where Dana was killed. People from all walks of life honked as they drove by and elevated their fists through car windows in solidarity. Several vehicles pulled up and gifted cold, refreshing, electrolyte drinks to the protestors. There was beauty in the coming together despite the bitter reasons for the gathering; there was beauty in the union of people of all colors and lifestyles for one common goal.

Photo by Elle Arra

On October 27, 2019 Dana Fletcher was fatally shot by a Madison police officer in front of his wife and daughter. Nearly a year later, there still has been no transparency in this matter. According to Alabama law, body camera footage is privileged information, so the District Attorney refuses to release the footage or the alleged 911 call that precipitated Fletcher’s death. Stills from the incident have been released, but these stills do not reveal the whole story.

You can help. Please go to change.org and sign the petition to enact the Dana Fletcher bill making bodycam footage public record.

Photo by Elle Arra

We walk that tightrope,
what a beautiful gait.

––even our dying is a glorious walk home.

To learn more about Elle Arra and her work, please follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Photo by Elle Arra

[All images in this post captured by Elle Arra with Fujifilm X-E1 f/1.0 1/4000 50.00mm ISO200].

Guest Post | “Hear Me Roar” by Liv Grace

Today’s guest post for our series on living Black in the United States was written by up-and-coming performance phenom, Liv Grace. Liv Grace graduated from high school a couple of weeks ago, and she is already making her mark in this world. In this post, she shares a little about her music journey and her song and music video, “Hear Me Roar,” which she wrote in protest  of police brutality and racial injustice in the USA. Be sure to watch the video. 


Yoooooo! My name is Liv Grace, and amongst many other things I am a singer, songwriter, and producer. I’ve always been a lover of music and the arts. I’ve loved making music, writing, and editing films since the day I found out my Nintendo 3DS had a video camera. I started writing poetry and fictional stories around the fifth grade. I’ve been singing in choirs since I was really young. I’ve harmonized on praise teams all throughout middle and high school, and I’ve been “belting it out” in school musicals for the past five years.

What I love most about music is its ability to bring people together and make them feel something. A simple melody has the power to make us feel a plethora of emotions and a lyric can help us see the world through someone else’s eyes. I’ve always loved the feeling I get when I listen to music and I like being able to give that feeling to others.

I’ve always been composing harmonies. I remember watching a video of young Ariana Grande when I was in middle school singing into a microphone connected to a guitar looping pedal, layering harmonies and singing over it. I was mesmerized, and immediately I knew I had to try it. Unfortunately, my middle school allowance was not large enough to purchase a professional guitar looper and trying to convince my parents to purchase a $100 guitar looper for me—a twelve-year-old with no guitar—was surprisingly difficult. I decided to do the next best thing and downloaded a free beatbox looping app on my phone. I picked a random song from my iTunes playlists, listened to it on repeat and recreated the instrumental with only my voice on loop. My obsession with arranging and recreating harmonies ran wild from there. I found myself recreating Broadway cast albums and singing all of the parts. I’d post small clips of me harmonizing with myself and singing covers on Instagram.

In my junior year of high school, I decided it was time to start creating my own music. This was daunting, yet exciting. Ironically, around that same time my dad, brother, and I stumbled across a space connected to the Hirshhorn Museum called ARTLAB+. That space literally changed my life. In fact, the only reason I actually completed my very first song was because I needed it to apply and audition for one of their arts programs. I was accepted, but didn’t go in with high hopes. I showed up, I sang it, and they loved it! It was at that moment that I realized this thing I’d been doing as a therapeutic hobby was something I was actually good at! I’ve been writing melodies, producing instrumentals, and composing harmonies ever since.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

At the beginning of the shelter-in-place [to flatten the curve of COVID-19], there was a moment when nobody in the US knew what was going on or how to deal with it. My school extended our spring break while administrators and teachers worked on an action plan, so there was this huge chunk of time in which I was able to focus on things that made me happy. I’d started a music account on Instagram earlier in the year, but rarely posted on it due to lack of time. Now, I had what felt like all the time in the world!

Like many others, I began to use this surplus of time to focus on things that I genuinely enjoy and to learn new things. I finally had enough time to pour into one of my passions—music. I started actively posting on Instagram and from this the opportunity arose through ARTLAB+ to share my creative process as a teen artist in collaboration with the Nicholson Project, an artist residency program.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

A couple days into the process [and after I’d written a song on mental health for the project], the video of George Floyd’s murder took over all forms of media. It wasn’t the first time I’d watched my people carelessly shoved to the ground by law enforcement. Every time a video comes across my feed, my heart aches, but watching George groan in pain as he yelled for his mother was the last straw. I knew I needed to use my gift to speak out. I decided my mental health song could wait and began writing “Hear Me Roar.”

When it comes to creating, I overthink everything. I spend hours writing and rewriting, trying to find the right drum pad or the perfect harmonies to accent, but with “Hear Me Roar” everything just flowed so organically. The song just came to me. The chorus popped into my head as I was soaking in a bubble bath. The next day I sat and wrote two verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, and arranged backing vocals in one sitting.  The next day I produced the instrumental and just continued tweaking throughout the week until the song was finished. I let it breathe for a little bit, listened to it about a week later and called it a wrap.

The song was done, and I loved it.

A little after the song was finalized, I decided I wanted it to be released with a music video, so I grabbed my video camera and my dad’s mini projector and pushed my bed to the other side of my room. Over a couple days I filmed, directed, and produced the video.

“Hear Me Roar” is the song I needed to hear as we mourned the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black people who lost their lives to police brutality. I needed a song that would remind me no matter how hard anybody tries, they cannot silence my voice.

We often see the tragedies and the news and feel hopeless, like our voices don’t matter. But they do! Not only do they matter, our voices have the power to move mountains and make change in the world. My hope is that “Hear Me Roar” can remind people how powerful their roars are and that they should use them to speak out on issues that matter to them. Right now, we are in great need of change and if we use our individual and collective voices, we can make that happen!

“Hear Me Roar” is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Youtube Music, Deezer, and Napster! It is also available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play Store. You can find links to all of these stores here:

A percentage of the proceeds from “Hear Me Roar” will be donated to the ARTLAB+ program.  Individuals involved in the program devote their lives to uplifting and amplifying the voices of young artists of color and provide us with equipment, professional guidance, and a loving environment to express ourselves in our own creative and unique ways. I want to help the program give the opportunities they’ve given to me to other young Black artists.

You can find me and more of what I’m up to here:

We need your voice to create change, so keep roaring!

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

#GoodTrouble

John Lewis, after arrest in Mississippi, 1961. He served 37 days in Parchman Penitentiary for ‘disorderly conduct”–using a restroom reserved for whites.

When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble [and help redeem the soul of America].  –Congressman John Lewis (February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020).

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

There seems to be a lot of “hoopla” over the NFL’s decision to have the “Negro National Anthem” sung before every Week 1 game. This holiday weekend is a good to revisit the history of the anthem. Here’s a post I wrote 2.5 years ago about the song. Happy Weekend!

Pics and Posts

James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938. Poet, novelist, statesman, civil rights leader, lawyer. Artist, Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Pastel on artist board.

The song dubbed “The Black National Anthem” should need no introduction, but I learned last October–moments after I posted an article focused on the University of Florida’s playing the song at the arrival of white supremacists on campus–that many Americans are not familiar with the song. In fact, one (Euro-American) friend uncharacteristically responded by declaring UF’s actions “racist.”

[We’ll save discussion about how that action could not have been “racist” for another time].

My friend’s judgment was based on the title of the article. She had never heard the song.

That surprised me. I’m pretty sure I initially learned the song at the majority white elementary school I attended, so I assumed it was standard for elementary kids in the U.S. Not so, I guess.

So what is the “Black…

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