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An Odyssey for All Time

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and

turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy…

Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,

start from where you will — sing for our time too.

Three lines on a ruddy red-brown ground. Above, a

single magenta line, an arc, indicating the earth’s horizon. Straining

toward it from the paper’s lower margin, a pair of sandy-colored

lines,

parallel, but of vastly different character. One, a straight shaft

moving unerringly toward the horizon; the other, a convoluted,

back-and-forth

pencil stroke that seems destined never to reach its mark.

This is artist Barbara Osterman’s "Journey," an elegant,

concise

synthesis in watercolor and colored pencil of Homer’s timeless epic,

"The Odyssey." Osterman is one of 26 professional members

of the Princeton Artists Alliance who have immersed themselves in

the 2,700-year-old story and in its recent translation by Princeton

scholar Robert Fagles. The results are on view at the Gallery at

Bristol-Myers

Squibb in Lawrenceville through April 4. In a happy meeting

of Princeton’s town and gown, Robert Fagles will read from "The

Odyssey," both his modern English translation and some samples

of the original Greek, in the galleries on Tuesday, March 23, at 4:30

p.m.

Like Homer’s poem, curator Pamela V. Sherin has given this exhibition

a prologue of sorts: Charles McVicker’s vigorous portrait,

"Odysseus

in Ithaca," which depicts the weather-beaten hero safely returned

to the glow of home and hearth, hangs at the show’s entrance.

McVicker,

best known for his exacting and static interior and still-life

studies,

has executed this oil portrait with a maximum profusion of line and

texture, resulting in a vision so lifelike we sense the hero’s

presence.

In this departure from his customary style, McVicker is one of a

plethora

of PAA artists who have been nudged out of familiar habits into an

exploration of new terrain.

Sharing Odysseus’ story has clearly been an adventure for these

artists.

The very word "odyssey" long ago entered the English language

meaning, according to Webster, "a series of adventurous journeys

usually marked by many changes of fortune." The story of the

hero’s

perilous journey from the wars in Troy to the home he finds occupied

by a horde of rivals who are eating his flocks and plotting to kill

his son and heir was probably composed around 700 to 650 B.C. The

huge sales of Fagles’ new translation, published in 1996 by Viking,

is evidence of the story’s continuing spell.

"These poems weren’t meant as literature or words on a page to

be read, but as a song in the air," says Fagles. "Homer’s

work is a performance, even in part a musical event." Remarkably,

Fagles, immersed in Homer’s poetry for decades, has found that the

exhibition has given him a new vision of the familiar work.

"I found the whole range of inventiveness a kind of

revelation,"

says Fagles in a recent interview. "So many styles, so many

impressions,

so many media. And they all seem to have something to say about Homer.

"You may live intimately with the work," he continues,

"but

every time someone places his or her hands on it, this somehow changes

it for the next person. There’s always a new angle of vision, it

seems.

And this show offers new angles of vision aplenty."

Like the 26 artists immersed in Odysseus’ 500-page saga, Fagles says

the ancient poem has always struck him visually. "It was strongly

visual in that whenever I was translating a scene involving people,

action, and events — and they’re all very dramatic — and

always

as a writer I would try to visualize the scene. I would even put

people

on the stage and see them playing these roles in order to describe

it. This is the kind of work that involves all your senses at

once."

"August, authoritative, and inimitable" are words that have

been used to describe Homer’s language. Fagles’ challenge, as a

translator,

was to retain the bard’s vision of life that has come down to us in

forms that seem, to scholar Bernard Knox, "to have been molded

by gods rather than men."

"This was not the lingua franca of its own day," Fagles

explains.

"It was an artificial language — in a good sense — a

stylized

language designed to give it certain kinds of power, effectiveness,

and rhythmic intensity." Although Homer’s language embodies

archaic

touches, Fagles says there was a wonderful contemporaneity about it,

too. "It was a combination of strangeness and the known."

This confluence of the strange and the known is evident in these

artists’

imagery. Weather as a visceral and visual phenomenon is well known

to watercolorist Dorothy Wells Bissell. She responds to the story

of a storm, created by Poseidon to prevent Odysseus from ever reaching

Ithaca, with "The Wrath of Poseidon," a work in which she

introduces into a somewhat familiar landscape image, an angry brew

of sage green and indigo blue. This is an ancient Mediterranean storm

indeed, but one that yet smacks of the blackened skies of New Jersey.

Clem Fiori, a professional photographer known for his

pictorial chronicle of New Jersey’s vanishing farmlands, contributes

a mixed-media wall sculpture, built primarily of branches and split

limbs of Osage orange, that is four feet high and eight feet wide,

unlike anything he has made before. He titles it, "But Just as

Great Odysseus Thrashed Things Out," the first line of the passage

in the poem it describes, a great storm raised by the god Poseidon

to destroy Odysseus.

"I think many of us in the group were challenged by this project

to try to imagine beyond what we normally do," explains Fiori.

"Wood and trees have been a focal point for me since the 1970s.

Wood has been a metaphor for me. The grain has currents that resemble

water; like streams and rivers they represent a life flow or life

force, or even certain kind of rock as it forms over time. They also

resemble the flesh and muscle and tissue of the human body.

"The idea of using the wood to represent the stormy Aegean sea

— the image crystallized in my mind in quite short order. This

is a man’s journey in his life." In four corners of the sculpture

he places photographs from a set of self-portraits he had taken 16

years ago — not quite the 20 years it takes Odysseus to make the

journey from Troy to Ithaca, he says, "but close enough."

Contrasted with these youthful images are recent photographs of a

craggy Fiori double-exposed with the split grain of wood.

The sculpture incorporates a carpenter’s hand plane and a small

shuttle

which Penelope would have used to weave. The former, says Fiori, is

a tribute to Odysseus, the craftsman. "When Calypso gives him

trees from which to build a boat, there’s some lush description of

Odysseus trueing the boards and planks and constructing the good ship

that Poseidon then destroys." Odysseus also crafted the couple’s

bridal chamber around a living olive tree, the trunk of which he used

to form the bedpost that he inlaid with ivory, gold, and silver. There

is also a Paisley scarf to represent the scarf of immortality, a gift

from the goddess. "He uses it when he’s tossed into the sea, but

he must be obedient and relinquish it once he’s back on shore,"

explains Fiori. "When the gods were on his side, Odysseus was

pretty good at following directions."

Another work that effectively conjures the image of Odysseus at sea,

but with considerably less physical material, is Margaret Kennard

Johnson’s ineffable "Undaunted." This delicate mesh relief

print, inspired by the same passage of poetry chosen by Fiori,

contrasts

the vastness of the ocean against a tiny falling human figure lost

in a dark universe of water. Johnson, who read "The Odyssey"

for the first time for this project, said the experience has stretched

her artistically.

"Somehow I got by-passed totally," says Johnson. "I had

never read `The Odyssey’ in school, so I had to pull myself into

reading

it for the first time. But when I got into it, the rich resources

of visual images, and just the adventure of it — it was a

wonderful

experience. The translation is so poetic and so beautiful, I think

it helped us all along.

"In my case, and I think this is true of many of the other

artists,

it was a real challenge to use our own medium and style to express

something that seems important to express in `The Odyssey,’" she

continues. "I was struck by the ocean as being so formidable.

I wanted to express how the mystery and the apprehension of the

unknown

is something that happens to all of us. I wanted it to have meaning

for any struggle in a big powerful environment."

It would be hard to exaggerate the number or variety of physically

thrilling images that are contained within Homer’s epic poem. In

addition

to the amazing olive tree of Odysseus’ marriage bed there is a moment

when the tired and desperate wanderer comes upon something as lowly

as "a fine litter of dead leaves… enough to cover two men over,

even three," giving him the promise, albeit brief, of rest and

recuperation. Pat Martin has taken this quiet but potent image, to

which many New Jerseyan’s can surely relate, as the point of departure

for her powerful, textured abstract acrylic painting, "Asleep

in the Leaves." The hero is invisible amidst this dynamic vision

in browns and ocher, tinged with pinks, so inviting you may be tempted

to lie down and make a bed there yourself.

Some PAA artists have chosen to revisit what is for them familiar

territory — yet we’re glad they do. Watercolorist Joanne Augustine

is one such painter. She contributes a large work she titles

"Elysian

Fields," as described in the poem. Her unpeopled, pale green

delight,

replete with a profusion of blooming flowers, holds true to Homer’s

promise of "the world’s end… refreshing all mankind." Fiber

artist Joy Saville has produced a characteristically dazzling

composition

of pieced fabric, "Turbulent Rhythm," inspired by Homer’s

lines about the sailors’ oars which, "in rhythm churned the water

white with stroke on stroke." Here, too, we can almost feel the

chill of her splashy whites.

As one might anticipate, Penelope’s loom and this brave

woman’s project of weaving by day and unraveling her work by night

comes in for a good deal of attention. Lucy Graves McVicker’s collage,

"Penelope’s Tears," creates the sense of the loom in a

composition

of exquisite earth tones as a place where mud, water, fiber, and tears

merge amidst a few spare horizontal threads of hope.

Also inspired by the loom are Jane Eccles’ transfer prints on

handmade

paper. These have an archaic feel to them, even as they incorporate

up-to-the-moment photographs of hands and handcrafts. Eccles contrasts

a rational, Greek key pattern border against an interior dynamic

restlessness

of havoc wreaked on Odysseus by the gods.

In "While Weaving and Waiting," Lore Lindenfeld recreates

Penelope’s loom, gold warp threads collaged with figurative drawings

on tulle. Weaving itself is emulated by Susan Hockaday in the

construction

of her photographic work, "Penelope’s Great and Growing Web."

Hockaday sees the miracle of nature in the shimmer and reflection

of sun and shadow on clear water, masterfully fusing them with

submerged

marks and calligraphic strokes. These images become the warp and weft

of

her modern-day tapestry.

Among the representational solutions to the narrative challenge of

Homer’s story are two strong ink drawings by Harry Naar, depicting

complex actions and events including the dramatic "Escape from

the Cyclops." More mysterious is Tina Salvesen’s magnificent big

drawing, in charcoal and pastel, of rope and skin, rendered in pale

pastel yellows, browns, and flesh tones. This visual feast is inspired

by Odysseus’ god-given gift of winds for his journey contained in

"a sack, the skin of a full-grown ox… lashed so fast with a

burnished silver cord, not even a slight puff could slip past the

knot."

Photographer William Vandever boldly presents contemporary

counterparts

for images of both the tireless Odysseus and the seductive siren

Calypso.

Anita Benarde is one of a considerable number of PAA artists who

choose

hand-made paper as a vehicle for their interpretations of Homer’s

archaic text. Benarde does not represent the hero himself, but her

embedded image of an empty chair and a poet’s lyre ready to be plucked

resonate with this strong, enduring presence.

Working in the media of the third millennium, Madelaine Shellaby

contributes

two very different digital Iris prints, each a visual collage inspired

by a poetic passage. "Like a Palm Tree," comes from a passage

in which a woman is compared to "the young slip of a palm tree

springing into the light." Here wind, palms, and surf seem

tangible

in a composition that embodies dynamic movement with a vibrant tree

silhouette reigning over all.

More somber is the dark stasis of Shellaby’s "Heart’s-Ease,"

an image of an elegant classic amphora, an uprooted plant, and a

warrior’s

empty helmet, complementing the poem’s passage about a drug "to

make us all forget our pains."

Another unique entry is Jules Schaeffer’s monotype, "The

Wish,"

dark reflective images on transparent film, in mud and earth tones,

that reference the poem’s bloodiest passages, the desire of Odysseus

and his son to slaughter the false suitors, "to batter senseless,

heads lolling, knees unstrung."

Paternal love and murderous hatred, fear and courage, joy and despair,

heroic skill and dumb luck — they are all here in abundance. And

just as the PAA artists rejoice in the ways that this shared

enterprise

has stretched their personal vision and expression, this is an

exhibition

that promises to extend its visitors’ horizons, too.

— Nicole Plett

Homer’s Odyssey, Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb,

Route 206 and Province Line Road, 609-252-6275. In conjunction with

the Princeton Artists’ Alliance group theme show, Robert Fagles reads

from Homer’s epic poem, in his modern English translation, with

samples

of the original Greek. The 26-artist exhibit of works that interpret

passages from "The Odyssey" continues to April 4. Free.

Tuesday,

March 23, 4:30 p.m.

Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to

7 p.m.; weekends, 1 to 5 p.m.


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