The Great White Rabbit by Roger Mendes. Image courtesy of the artist.
Hello, Art and Travel Lover,
Welcome to my April Newsletter and my favorite time of year—bunny season! My husband Roger and I are crazy about rabbits! We must have twenty or more scattered throughout our house at any given time—sculptures, teapots, drawings, plates, paintings, spoons, prints, bowels, and tapestries. Bunnies are everywhere. But at the moment, the image you see above has captured my imagination the most. He sits at the top of our stairwell and greets me each morning as I go down to my study to start my day. The work is one of Roger’s mixed-media prints, and I love it—The Great White Rabbit.
In Alice in Wonderland, it’s the white rabbit who sparks her curiosity and leads her on her magical journey. He activates Alice’s awakening and symbolizes her quest for knowledge. So, it seemed fitting to place a white rabbit at the start of my April newsletter to herald spring’s awakening and spark your curiosity to read on.
Here’s this month’s lineup:
1. BEYOND THE BOOK (elaborations on the art in my novel The Art of Traveling Strangers):
The Mind-bending, Mathematical Magic of M.C. Escher
2. ART UPDATES (interesting current events in the art world):
The Goddess Eostre, Easter, and Fabergé Eggs
3. GET THE KEYS. LET’S GO! (travel stories):
Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia
4. THE ART OF VISUAL LISTENING (art appreciation essay series):
Installment #6: “Visual Elements—An Introduction.”
5. ZOE'S WORLD (tidbits from my life as an author):
6. READERS RESPONSE (feedback from readers on earlier newsletters):
More on Niki de Saint Phalle!
BEYOND THE BOOK
Day and Night, 1938 by M.C. Escher, lithograph
THE MINDBENDING, MATHEMATICAL MAGIC of M.C. ESCHER
In chapter six of The Art of Traveling Strangers, Claire discovers that her mother has suddenly died, but instead of feeling intense sadness, she feels nothing. Even worse, she remembers nothing about her mother from childhood—a realization that sends her on a search for answers but leaves her empty-handed.
“After a few more failed reminiscences, we said our goodbyes. I hung up the phone and tortured my thumbnail, feeling like an M. C. Escher print—like one of his interlocking designs where each shape defines the next. But my Escher print had a few shapes missing, throwing the entire composition askew. Looking down again at the photo album, I wanted to cry.
What kind of daughter grows up not remembering her mother?”
The above passage from my novel only hints at the puzzle-like quality of Escher’s most famous imagery and how the work would fall apart if some pieces went missing. But here’s one of his prints that actually shows his puzzle pieces abandoning ship.
Reptiles, 1943, M.C. Escher, lithograph. Image Source.
Crazy, right? But appropriate for how disturbed Claire was at that point in my story. And what about Escher himself? Was he also unhinged? Hardly.
Self-portrait, 1929, M.C. Escher, lithograph. Image Source
Maurits Cornelis Escher was a Dutch graphic artist born at the end of the nineteenth century. He had no formal education in math but became known for his mathematically inspired artworks—especially his mind-bending prints that play with geometry, symmetry, perspective, and tessellation.
After completing his studies at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Holland, Escher moved to Italy for over ten years, where he focused on creating drawings and prints of Italian landscapes.
Citadel of Calvi Corsica, 1929, M.C. Escher, woodcut. Image Source
But his big “ah-ha” moment came in 1935 when he saw the fourteenth-century palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and became enthralled with the repeating tile patterns adorning the walls.
Alhambra tessellation, 14th century, Granada, Spain. Image Source
These patterns of flat shapes with no overlaps or gaps are referred to in art as tessellations, and they soon became the focus of many of Escher’s works.
Over time, Escher’s tessellations grew more and more elaborate as he created interlocking forms—usually of animals—in which each subject perfectly complemented the other, like puzzle pieces.
Sky and Water I by M.C. Escher, 1938. Image Source
Although his works were wildly popular in the 1960s—Mick Jaggar wanted to collaborate with him on a Rolling Stones album cover—he was snubbed by the art world for most of his life, written off as a mere illustrator of decorative designs. It wasn’t until he was seventy years old that he received a retrospective exhibition of his work. (He died at seventy-three.) Despite the reluctance of the art world to recognize him as a fine artist, his innovative, surrealistic imagery influenced op art, math, and popular culture.
And now, fifty years after his death, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is mounting a major exhibition of his work titled Virtual Realities: the Art of M.C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection. With more than four hundred objects on display, it’s set to be the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Escher’s works to date and will be on view through September 5th, 2022.
Click here for more information about M.C. Escher.
Empire Nephrite (Fabergé Egg), 1902. Private collection, New York City
THE GODDESS EOSTRE, EASTER,
and FABERGÉ EGGS
Since three art updates already exist in this newsletter (M.C. Escher's works on display in Houston, the Angkor Wat exhibit in Los Angeles, and the Niki de Saint Phalle show in La Jolla), I thought I'd do something a little different with this section this time—less of an art update and more of a timeless and timely art staple.
"How Fabergé Eggs Became a Symbol of Easter" by Nia Bowers is such fun article from Art & Object that I saw no need to alter it or add to it. Enjoy!
“Regardless of our religious beliefs, one cannot ignore the presence of the incredible—sometimes edible, egg—during the Easter holiday. But it's hard not to wonder who hatched the idea that a holiday about the Resurrection of Christ should revolve around an egg?
Johannes Gehrts, Ostara, a depiction of the goddess, Eostre,1884
In fact, many already appreciate that Easter is not as Biblical as it seems. The holiday many celebrate today originally came about as a Pagan festival. The name itself dates back to the 600s AD and references an English goddess by the name of Eostre. Known for her symbolic connection to spring and renewal, Eostre became synonymous with Easter. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The egg or even just the egg-shape found itself "ineggstricably" intertwined with the yearly Easter celebration. The object is, after all, a logical representation of new life and beginnings. But there is a lot of grey in the middle as to why this idea was retrofitted to align with the birth of Christianity—particularly the Resurrection.
While the holiday remains sacred for many today who celebrate the Resurrection, 'Easter' marked a significant date for nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Christians. And it was more than incubating the notion of a symbolic egg. It in fact led to the evolution of a historic work of art.”
Read more . . .
GET THE KEYS. LET’S GO!
Water Lily, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
ANGKOR: THE LOST EMPIRE OF CAMBODIA
It’s been a few years since I was in Cambodia, but my memories were recently rekindled when we went to see the exhibition Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The show is up through September 5th, 2022, and includes an iMax theater experience that gives an overview of the ancient empire of Angkor. Since the architectural sites cover such a vast territory, seeing 3-D aerial views on a seven-story screen really helped put the massive kingdom in perspective.
Please take a moment to watch this minute-and-a-half trailer for the iMAX movie accompanying the exhibit. If this doesn’t entice you to see the show, or Cambodia itself, nothing will!
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Kingdom which lasted from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. Boasting over one hundred temples and one million inhabitants, Angkor was once considered the most extensive metropolis in the world. But then, the empire collapsed. Although thirteen hundred carved inscriptions survive on the many temples, the Khmer people of Angkor left nothing explaining their kingdom’s demise.
Many experts have attempted to provide answers to the collapse of the Angkor Empire, and the iMAX movie offers the latest, most plausible theories, including one that strikes fear in a Californian’s heart—a prolonged drought.
The exhibit itself includes one hundred twenty original artifacts, with half of them on tour outside Cambodia for the first time.
Garuda, shown below, is a divine being in both Hindu and Buddhist religions. He’s the king of all birds and the messenger for the Hindu god Vishnu—the preserver and guardian of men. Here, Garuda rides a naga. Nagas are mythological beings that take the form of cobras with multiple heads. They live in the underworld but come back to bite those who are evil and to protect the gods. Notice the elaborately detailed surface of this sculpture from the exhibit and how triumphant Garuda looks!
Garuda Riding a Naga, c. 12th century, Angkor Empire, Cambodia
In this next work from the show, we see the primordial scene of creation with Vishnu, the preserver god, reclining in the middle of the cosmic ocean on the multi-headed naga Ananta-Sesha—symbol of eternity. A lotus flower rises from Vishnu’s navel. The flower supports Brahma—the creator god—who brings forth the material world. Other gods are in attendance, and Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi, sits at his feet. Again, the well-preserved details of this piece are beautifully rendered.
Primordal Scene of Creation, c. 12th century, Angkor Empire, Cambodia
If you are anywhere near Los Angeles over the next several months, I highly recommend you see this unique show. You can get tickets for the iMAX movie and the exhibit here.
If you’re still unsure, check out this excellent article about the show.
My Adventures in Siem Reap, Cambodia—a Taste
Roger and I traveled to Cambodia in 2016, but it seems like yesterday (especially since I’m not counting 2020 and 2021 as “real” years). Along with China and Bali, Cambodia tops my list as one of our most exotic trips.
We spent three days in and around Siem Reap, exploring the architectural wonders of the ancient Angkor Empire. But for this essay, I’ll offer only a taste, just enough to entice you to travel there yourself.
Our first exposure to Cambodia was the Siem Reap airport and its charming terminal boasting multiple gables with pointed finials symbolizing protective dragons.
Airport Terminal, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The terminal inside was clean, airy, and efficiently designed. Going through passport control was a breeze, and our driver, Tuna, was waiting for us outside. Lovely.
As we headed toward the town of Siem Reap, I soon realized that the airport was an oasis of orderly serenity. The highway was jammed with motorbikes, cars, trucks, busses, and tuk-tuks—all trying to one-up each other in the noisiest way possible.
Tuk-tuk away from the fray
When we got to downtown Siem Reap, the congestion and clamor intensified.
Downtown Siem Reap, Cambodia
The streets were now crowded with people, and the sidewalks overflowed with merchandise for sale.
We drove through the heart of the commotion and turned down a tiny alleyway to the entrance of our hotel, the Golden Banana, now called the Rambutan Resort.
Reception, Golden Banana Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The hotel—tucked away on this non-street—was delightfully authentic with an indoor/outdoor appeal.
Lobby, Golden Banana Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The friendly young man at the front desk walked us through the tiny open-air restaurant (with six tables, a small bar, and lazy ceiling fans).
Restaurant, Golden Banana Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The restaurant opens out to the pool that fills the center courtyard.
Courtyard Pool, Golden Banana Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Rounding the pool, we came to our accommodations—a spacious (if spartan) room with high ceilings, tile floors, and a stone soaking tub on our rooftop patio.
Roger sitting on the soaking tub on our rooftop patio, Golden Banana Hotel,
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The hotel was an interesting combination of luxury touches and rustic earthiness, which fit us to a tee.
The information in the hotel handbook included the basics: checking in and out procedures, mini-bar rules, and room service, but there was also a rather unusual topic for a hotel informational pamphlet—animals. To my mind, this topic captured the essence (and humor) of this quirky Casablanca-like resort perfectly. Here’s what it said:
“We try to control our area but there are many little animal friends around. We try to find a way of living with them. This does not include mosquitos…. The rest of the animals are lizards, geckos and frogs. They live here and we cannot and do not want to remove them…Many of these animals feed on mosquitos which is very useful. They sometimes make a loud noise at night. There are frogs, sometimes many frogs. Not in your room, but outside. And they make noise. In the rainy season there are bullfrogs and if you think we keep cows you are wrong. They are frogs making cow noises. We do not know who trained them to do so….”
At 5 am the next morning, we left the hotel to see Angkor Wat (Temple City) at sunrise. Out of all the ancient architectural sites in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is the crowning jewel.
It was built as a Hindu Temple during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) at the peak of the Khmer Kingdom’s power. Although originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, by the end of the twelfth century, it became a Buddhist temple.
Angkor Wat at Sunrise, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Our expert guide, Sim, picked us up at the hotel, and we drove the short distance to the temple in the dark along with a crowd of other people. After securing our temple passes, Sim deftly guided us away from the multitudes through a side entrance originally used for elephants. His flashlight lit up the uneven terrain, but that was all we could see. There were no other lights. He placed us in an open clearing across from a small pond with—what would become—an unobstructed view of the temple.
At first, I only saw trees silhouetted against a hazy charcoal sky. But as the sun rose higher, I realized those tall pineapple-shaped silhouettes were not trees at all but the temple towers designed to look like lotus flowers. Our first glimpse of the magnificent Angkor Wat emerged like an apparition from nature.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
While the rest of the early birds at Angkor Wat continued on to explore the temple, we walked the short distance to Angkor Thom (Great City) to experience a less crowded venue. Angkor Thom is one of the largest of all the old Khmer cities. It’s surrounded with a moat spanned by four causeways that lead to four monumental entrance gates. Each elaborately carved gate includes a massive head that faces in one of the four cardinal directions.
Roger and Me on the South Causeway leading to Angkor Thom, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
The causeway that crosses the moat to the south entrance is lined by sculpted figures playing tug-of-war with the cosmic snake Naga—a multi-headed cobra. Gods pull on one side of the raised road, while demons pull on the other to reenact the Hindu myth of “churning the sea of milk.”
By wrapping Naga around Mount Mandara and pulling back and forth on its giant body, the gods and demons churned the cosmic sea (or sea of milk) to produce the elixir of immortality. Once produced, though, the gods refused to share the potion with the demons, and the harmony between the two dissolved.
Multi-headed Naga being pulled by the Gods on the South Causeway of Angkor Thom, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Inside the Angkor Thom walls is the Bayon Temple, with massive faces carved into tall towers that look like mountains. Only 37 of the 49 original towers remain standing today.
We climbed the temple to see the tower faces up close. Climbing was a challenge—loose rocks; steep, uneven steps never designed to be climbed in the first place; and no handrails.
Face Towers of the Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
From Angkor Thom we went to Ta Prohm—a partially collapsed temple overgrown with both Sprung and Strangler trees. Sprung trees have massive roots that can completely dominate the temples, oozing over and through the stones like the arms of octopuses.
Ta Prohm invaded by Sprung tree roots, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Strangler tree roots are thinner than Sprung tree roots but do just as much damage. These roots lace along and through the giant stones as if sewing them together while at the same time splitting them apart. They create a web-like appearance or, in some cases, look like tangled spaghetti noodles.
The impact of these trees on the temples was devastating but also visually compelling. They transformed the abandoned stone structures into composite monsters—half alive, half dead.
Ta Prohm covered with Strangler tree roots, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Because of these invasive roots, the once static walls, doorways, and vaults now appear animated, leaning at impossible angles as if temporarily resting before collapsing completely.
Ta Prohm, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Our guide Sim explained the temple once was gilded and studded with pearls. It was hard to imagine. Its current state conjured less of its former splendor and more of a sense of ancient mystery. Every turn revealed remarkably stunning stone compositions.
It was all so accessible, touchable, climbable—ours to explore and experience. No fences, warning signs, gates, taped-off areas, nothing but the temple remnants and nature. It was also amazingly precarious. Could that stick really be holding up that corbeled vault?
Ta Prohm, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
After exploring a couple more sites, we had a lovely lunch at an air-conditioned roadside restaurant. Sim told us the Khmer Amok was a specialty, and we tried it with chicken. It was served in a coconut shell and was made with coconut milk and curry—delicious.
We ended the day back at Angkor Wat. The morning rush now over, we could explore the temple without the crowds. We so appreciated how Sim had structured our tour to keep us away from the masses.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
As we wandered the vast Angkor Wat complex, we were especially taken by the detailed wall carvings depicting stories from history and mythology.
In the scene below, a commander sheltered by parasols rides an elephant into battle. The greater the number of parasols, the more important the leader. Notice how many parasols this guy has.
Battle Scene, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
In this next image, King Suryavarman II is shown presiding at court. He has both a bevy of parasols and servants with fans.
King Suryavarman II at Court, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
By this point, we were exhausted and slightly amazed we were still standing after all the walking, climbing, and descending on steep, uneven rocks and ledges, parapets and precipices, terraces and tree roots. But it was all so worth it!
We continued exploring the Siem Reap Province for two more days, but as I said in the beginning, I’m giving you only a taste of what the area has to offer.
If you’d like to read more about traveling in Cambodia, check out the website called Zest & Curiosity. The author, Tijana, posted a very informative blog with lots of photos to illustrate her experiences. Besides visiting the Angkor sites, she also visited Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and included a striking photo of one of her meals—fried tarantula!
THE ART OF VISUAL LISTENING
Rabbit in a Glass by doodleguy
VISUAL ELEMENTS—AN INTRODUCTION
In this section of last month’s newsletter, I introduced the concepts of form (the visual elements in a work of art) and content (what those elements can tell us about an artwork’s meaning).
This month’s discussion is an introduction to how we go about translating the visual elements into meaningful messages.
“The great thing about visual communication is it has the potential to transcend both cultural and time barriers. It can do this because it doesn’t depend on arbitrary memorized symbols like written language does. Visual communication depends on the universal language of the observable world around us. The visual alphabet is fundamentally the same no matter where or when you live.”
Read more . . .
My book on the “New Fiction” Shelf in Barnes & Noble, Huntington Beach, CA!
Lately, friends have asked me, "How's your book selling?" And I'm embarrassed to say, "I don't know."
I realize that makes me sound incomprehensibly uninterested. Who wouldn't want to know that? But knowing that is not as easy as one would think.
You see, the publishing industry only releases sales ranks, not actual numbers, making hard data almost impossible to find.
There was a time when book sales were straightforward. Publishing companies printed books and sold them to bookstores. Bookstores then sold them to readers—or returned the ones they couldn't sell—and publishers tracked sales through physical inventory.
Today, the book market is entirely different. For one thing, eBooks and audiobooks don't have a physical inventory at all. And although I can request “Sales Reports” from my publisher, they only tell me how many physical books have left the warehouse, not how many have sold. I do get a quarterly Royalty Statement which should tell me something, but I haven’t gotten one yet, so I’m still in the dark.
Amazon tries to help out by showing book rankings on its “Author Central” site. I can see my rankings at any time. Great! But do you know how many books Amazon sells? Me neither. So what does an overall ranking of 100,000 (for example) really indicate? 100,000 out of how many?
Some estimates do exist that translate rankings to number of books sold, but they're just that—estimates. And how helpful are those estimates when the rankings readjust hourly and are different for each book format (hardcover, paperback, ebook)?
Ranking Chart for The Art of Traveling Strangers as of April 11, 2022
I could sign up for a private data source called BookScan, but that costs $2,500 a year! That’s nuts!
Here's what Harvard Library has to say about tracking book sales:
" Strange as it may seem, we know of no reliable, publicly-available way to get comprehensive statistics for book sales at this time. The only database with reasonably accurate information is Nielsen BookScan, which reports point-of-sale data, but even that claims to represent only 75% of all retail sales. BookScan is a comparatively recent (2005), very expensive subscription service, used primarily in the industry."
So, here's what I've decided to do. The next time someone asks me how my book is selling, I'll say, "great!" I mean, for all I know, maybe it is.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Seated Nana, 1965 (Niki de Saint Phalle/© Niki Charitable Art Foundation)
MORE ON NIKI de SAINT PHALLE!
Two readers—Kate (in Portland, Oregon) and Gail (in Pasadena, California)—directed me to this excellent Los Angeles Times review by Christopher Knight of the new Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. (MCASD).
Alicia (of Long Beach) had first alerted me to this show when it premiered at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, last September. I included it in my January newsletter and explained that the exhibit would be traveling to La Jolla later in 2022.
Well . . . it’s here!
Christopher Knight’s review (above) not only offers impressive insights into Saint Phalle’s works, but it also gives an overview of the expanded and renovated museum in which 40% of the works on permanent display are by women! Kudos to MCASD!
The new MCASD just opened to the public this month. The exhibit, Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s, will be up through July 17th of this year, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world!
Thanks for joining me.
Until next month, ~Zoe
Copyright (C) 2022 Zoe Disigny Author. All rights reserved.
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