When my sister saw this, she thought I had invented a “lizard alien” from my imagination. “But why is she a mammal?” (Nammu is breastfeeding her infant here.) To her, it was a logical flaw: reptiles are not mammals, even if they’re from outer space.
Well, I didn’t create Nammu or her child; I am simply trying to restore some life to them, through color; to breathe life into stone through paint, pencil and chalk. I exercised artistic license, changing the original artifact’s headpiece to that of another Sumerian goddess, Inanna, because I didn’t want to deal with people asking me if Nammu is a Smurf. (Aside: Here’s the thing about art: It’s whatever you want it to be. I don’t make photorealistic art because 1) that’s what cameras are for and 2) I paint what I feel or “see” in my mind’s eye. This tangent is brought to you by the critics (primarily social media ones) who seem to think that “good art” means “it looks like a photo.” I admire technical prowess and accuracy; please look elsewhere for that. Back to mama Nammu.)
You see, Nammu is an ancient goddess of Sumer–this painting is one in a series of paintings in which my intent is to show the beauty of life in the figures depicted in stone statuary. My first foray into this is less jarring, as the painting (below) uses color and contrast to elicit an emotional response to a cold-gray statue–but that statue is of a mythical figure who is more palatable, as she appears as a beautiful woman.
The Sumerians, like the Egyptians, Mayans, and countless other cultures, depicted bipedal, non-human-animal-headed deities in their art; they respected, loved, and reviled these people, who had humanlike emotions and who purportedly were flesh-and-blood creatures.
Were they? Honestly, I don’t know or care. What I care about is identifying the humanity–a term for the values and qualities we respect in human beings–in all creatures. Nammu may look like a lizard, but even in the thousands-of-years-old stone depiction, we can feel her maternal love.
Someone once told me that I look like a lizard–a reference to my acne-damaged skin. (Yes, that really happened–at the day job. See why I paint?) Although I’m an adult and the remark was juvenile, it hurt me deeply. Years later, I’m more mature and can take criticism better; in fact, I am planning a self-portrait as a lizard in order to fully own my reptilian identity. Also, a delightful young woman on Twittter, in response to one of these paintings, wrote that “my 9 yr old can paint better than that.” She has a talented child. Hatred is not welcome here.
What is your reaction to lizard people? Have I convinced you that there is humanity in them, or do you just see something…other, foreign and therefore frightening? Repulsive maybe? No matter. Nammu is full of maternal love. (Related: The Dogon people of Mali’s god Nommo.)
This is “The Sea,” a mythical figure created by her sculptor as one of three representatives of nature who attend the fountain at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. I used to walk by the fountain, and its guardians, twice a day, and I was one of many who stopped regularly to take pictures. The sculptures are beautifully classical; sculptor Daniel Chester French designed the sinewy figures to echo ancient Greek ideals. Their beauty and their movement already lend themselves to imparting emotional connection–but it always nagged at me that these people are cold and gray, dead, despite the movement that feels so alive.
I was compelled to paint “The Sea” as alive–with vibrant colors, but without betraying her nature as a stone figure. So rather than flesh tones, she is blue–in my mind’s eye, she is standing on her pedestal overlooking the sea (naturally). You’ve seen people reflecting and refracting the blue light that bounces off the water. Behind her is a red sky–at night or at morning, that’s for you to decide.
There is life in everything, even stone. I’m sure of it.
Someone once asked me what I was going to paint on the “blank” left side of this composition. It’s not blank; the orange field is there for reasons of colors and contrast–an intentional choice–but it’s also not ‘nothing’; the left side is a portrait of the sky, and she deserves her space, too. Can you think of anyone with more passionate and obvious emotions than the sky? I can’t.