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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
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
parallel, but of vastly different character. One, a straight shaft
moving unerringly toward the horizon; the other, a convoluted,
pencil stroke that seems destined never to reach its mark.
This is artist Barbara Osterman’s "Journey," an elegant,
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
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
Like Homer’s poem, curator Pamela V. Sherin has given this exhibition
a prologue of sorts: Charles McVicker’s vigorous portrait,
in Ithaca," which depicts the weather-beaten hero safely returned
to the glow of home and hearth, hangs at the show’s entrance.
best known for his exacting and static interior and still-life
has executed this oil portrait with a maximum profusion of line and
texture, resulting in a vision so lifelike we sense the hero’s
In this departure from his customary style, McVicker is one of a
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
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
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
says Fagles in a recent interview. "So many styles, so many
so many media. And they all seem to have something to say about Homer.
"You may live intimately with the work," he continues,
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
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
as a writer I would try to visualize the scene. I would even put
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
"August, authoritative, and inimitable" are words that have
been used to describe Homer’s language. Fagles’ challenge, as a
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
"It was an artificial language — in a good sense — a
language designed to give it certain kinds of power, effectiveness,
and rhythmic intensity." Although Homer’s language embodies
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
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
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,
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
"Somehow I got by-passed totally," says Johnson. "I had
never read `The Odyssey’ in school, so I had to pull myself into
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
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
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
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
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
Fields," as described in the poem. Her unpeopled, pale green
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
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
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
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
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
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
marks and calligraphic strokes. These images become the warp and weft
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
Photographer William Vandever boldly presents contemporary
for images of both the tireless Odysseus and the seductive siren
Anita Benarde is one of a considerable number of PAA artists who
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
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
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
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
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
has stretched their personal vision and expression, this is an
that promises to extend its visitors’ horizons, too.
— Nicole Plett
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
of the original Greek. The 26-artist exhibit of works that interpret
passages from "The Odyssey" continues to April 4. Free.
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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