Sunday, June 5, 2016
Yellow Crystal Star/ Yellow Electric Sun - Crystal Rabbit Moon of Cooperation, Day 7
"The Death of Cleopatra" by Edmonia Lewis,
1867, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Edmonia Lewis' birth date has been listed as July 4, 1844. She was born in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer. Her father was an Afro-Haitian, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. Lewis's mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman, while her father was a gentleman's servant. Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.
By the time Lewis reached the age of nine both of her parents had died. Her mother's two sisters then adopted both Lewis and her older brother Samuel, who was born in 1832. The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about the next four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. In 1852 Samuel left for California, leaving Lewis in the care of a Captain S. R. Mills, although he continuously sent back money for her board and education. Later, in 1856, Lewis was enrolled at New York Central College, McGrawville, which was a Baptist abolitionist school. During her summer term there in 1858, Lewis took classes in the Primary Department in order to prepare for courses she would later take in collegiate programs. In a later interview, Lewis claimed she remained at the school for three years but left when she was "declared to be wild".
In 1859, with help from her brother Samuel and abolitionists, Lewis was sent at the age of about 15 to Oberlin College, where she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis. At the time, Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institutions in the United States to admit women and people of differing ethnicities. Lewis's decision to attend Oberlin was one that would significantly change her life, as that is where she began her art studies. Lewis boarded with Reverend John Keep and his wife from 1859 until she left the college in 1863. Reverend Keep was white and a member of the board of trustees, but was also an avid abolitionist and spokesperson for coeducation. During the 1859-60 school year, Lewis enrolled in the Young Ladies' Preparatory Department, which was designed "to give Young Ladies facilities for the thorough mental discipline, and the special training which will qualify them for teaching and other duties of their sphere."
After college, Lewis moved to Boston in early 1864, where she began to pursue her career as a sculptor. The Keeps wrote a letter of introduction on Lewis' behalf to William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, and he was able to introduce her to already established sculptors in the area, as well as writers who then publicized Lewis in the abolitionist press. Finding an instructor, however, was not easy for Lewis. Three male sculptors refused to instruct her before she was introduced to the moderately successful sculptor Edward A. Brackett (1818–1908), who specialized in marble portrait busts. His clients were some of the most important abolitionists of the day including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and John Brown. To instruct her, he lent her fragments of sculptures to copy in clay, which he then critiqued. Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, for $8. Their relationship did not end amicably as was mentioned by Anne Whitney, fellow sculptor and friend of Lewis', in a letter she wrote to her sister in 1864. The reason for the split, however, was never mentioned. Lewis opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.
Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Her subjects in 1863 and 1864 included some of the most famous abolitionists of her day: John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. When she met Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, she was inspired to create a bust of his likeness, which impressed the Shaw family, who purchased her homage. Lewis then made plaster cast reproductions of the bust, of which she sold one hundred of at 15 dollars apiece. Anna Quincy Waterston, a poet, then wrote a poem about both Lewis and Shaw.
From 1864 to 1871, Lewis was written about or interviewed by Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Peabody, Anna Quincy Waterston, and Laura Curtis Bullard. These were all important women in Boston and New York abolitionist circles. Because of these women, articles about Lewis appeared in important abolitionist journals including Broken Fetter, the Christian Register, and the Independent, as well as many others. Lewis was perceptive to her reception in Boston. She was not opposed to the coverage she received in the abolitionist press, and she was not known to deny monetary aid, but she could not tolerate the false praise. She knew that some did not really appreciate her art, but saw her as an opportunity to express and show their support for human rights.
Early works that proved highly popular included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his work, particularly his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters, for which he drew from Ojibwe legend.
The success and popularity of these works in Boston allowed Lewis to bear the cost of a trip to Rome in 1866. On her 1865 passport is written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor". The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio. She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. She received professional support from both Charlotte Cushman, a Boston actress and a pivotal figure for expatriate sculptors in Rome, and Maria Weston Chapman, a dedicated worker for the anti-slavery cause.
Rome was where Lewis spent most of her adult career. Italy’s less stringent racial/color identification allowed increased opportunity to artists of color. She began sculpting in marble, working within the neoclassical manner, but focusing on naturalism within themes and images relating to black and American Indian people. The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work, in which she recreated the classical art style. For instance, she presented people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.
Lewis was unique in the way she approached sculpting abroad. She insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire native Italian sculptors to do it for her, which was the common practice. Male sculptors were largely skeptical of the talent of female sculptors, and often accused them of not doing their own work. Harriet Hosmer, a fellow sculptor and expatriate, also did this. Lewis also was known to make sculptures before receiving commissions for them, or sent un-requested works to Boston patrons requesting that they raise funds for materials and shipping.
Her work sold for large sums of money. In 1873 an article in the New Orleans Picayune stated: "Edmonia Lewis had snared two 50,000 dollar commissions." Her new-found popularity made her studio a tourist destination. Lewis had many major exhibitions during her rise to fame, including one in Chicago, Illinois, in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.
A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was "the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section" of the Exposition. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers. Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power. Her self-annihilation has been portrayed numerously in art as well as literature and cinema. In Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis added an innovative flair by portraying the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the Victorian approach of representing death. Although her white contemporaries were also sculpting Cleopatra and other comparable subject matter (such as Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia), Lewis was more prone to scrutiny than them on the premise of race and gender due to the fact that she, like Cleopatra, was black and female:
"The associations between Cleopatra and a black Africa were so profound that… any depiction of the ancient Egyptian queen had to contend with the issue of her race and the potential expectation of her blackness. Lewis’ white queen gained the aura of historical accuracy through primary research without sacrificing its symbolic links to abolitionism, black Africa, or black diaspora. But what is refused to facilitate was the racial objectification of the artist’s body. Lewis could not so readily become the subject of her own representation if her subject was corporeally white."
After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition where it remained unsold. The Sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of "Blind John" Condon who purchased it from a saloon on Clark street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named "Cleopatra". The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, where it remained until it was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero. While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well-meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused other damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a dentist in Forest Park, and member of the Forest Park Historical Society acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall.
Later, Marilyn Richardson, an independent curator and scholar of African-American art who was working on a biography of Lewis, went searching for The Death of Cleopatra. Richardson was directed to the Forest Park Historical Society and Dr. Orland by the Metropolitan Museum of Art who had earlier been contacted by the historical society regarding the sculpture. Richardson, after confirming the sculpture's location, contacted African-American bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley and the two gained the attention of NMAA's George Gurney. According to Gurney, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the sculpture was in a race track in Forest Park, Illinois, during World War II. Finally, the sculpture became under the purview of the Forest Park Historical Society, who donated it to Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994, Chicago based Andrezej Dajnowski in conjunction with the Smithsonian restored it to its near-original state after repairing the nose,sandles, hands, chin, and extensive "sugaring" at at cost of around $30,000.
A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece. She also contributed a bust of Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.
In the late 1880s, the neoclassism declined in popularity, as did the popularity of Lewis's artwork. She continued sculpting in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons.In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. By 1901 she had moved to London.The events of her later years are not known.*
I dedicate in order to beautify
I seal the store of elegance
With the crystal tone of cooperation
I am guided by the power of universal fire
I am a galactic activation portal
The first step to remember your star origins is to bring to consciousness the fact that we are on a planet spinning on its axis going around the Sun.*
*Star Traveler's 13 Moon Almanac of Synchronicity, Galactic Research Institute, Law of Time Press, Ashland, Oregon, 2015-2016.
The Sacred Tzolk'in
Anahata Chakra (Silio Plasma)