19 August 2013

Meet the Musk Ox - DH in Alaska

Musk ox farm near Anchorage, Alaska.

My husband recently traveled to Alaska on business, so of course this eager textile junkie suggested he enable my addiction and investigate the purchase of some qiviut yarn.  Pronounced kiv-ee-ute, this luxury fiber is spun from the undercoat of  musk oxen. Well, DH got into the spirit of things and even went to a musk ox farm, where he met these survivors of Pleistocene megafauna. This is his report, straight from the horse's - um, ox's - mouth.

Seasonal farm visits are popular with tourists.

Both adult males and females have horns.

I look like a cow, but I'm more of a cousin of sheep and goats.  I like to butt heads at up to 35 mph, and always wear my helmet just in case.  I'm panting because it's freaking hot today at 65 degrees (Fahrenheit).  It would be a lot worse if those nice people had not combed out my undercoat in the spring.  Did you know that there are city slickers from places like Newton who will buy an ounce of my yarn for $95 (200 yards)?

Left: skein of qiviut. Right: Naturally shed hair.

I'm just one year old. It takes me four years to grow to full size.


I'm about 3 months old.  My species is only now being domesticated at the Musk Ox Farm project.  If I'm friendly toward people, I will be invited to reproduce when I grow up.

Musk ox were extinct in Alaska in the 1800s, possibly due to hunting.  My cousins from Greenland were re-introduced into the wild in the 1930s.  Our DNA has a common root about 10,000 years ago.

How I spend my day.

When I'm not doing one of the activities on the sign above, or pretending that I like people, I enjoy reading about my home, Musk Ox Farm, on my iPhone.


13 August 2013

Boston Modern Quilt Guild in Lowell

Comfort quilt made from blocks donated to the BMQG.
Click on any image to enlarge it.
Thursday, August 8, found me seated at a table with another volunteer, both of us gallery attendants at the Boston Modern Quilt Guild's three-day exhibit at the Appleton Mills Gallery, part of a housing complex full of artists and musicians. The invitational display was part of the Lowell Quilt Festival, and featured about fifty quilts.  Highlights of the show included quilts made by the guild from blocks sent in from all over the country as part of a comfort quilt drive for those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing in April.  I believe a BMQG member named Natalie spear-headed this effort, and she and the guild did a fabulous job.

Adaptive reuse of old factory into apartments.

The Appleton Mills complex is an example of the transformation of former industrial buildings into new mixed-use developments in Lowell's ongoing revitalization. The renovated shoe factory made a stunning backdrop for the quilts. 

Atrium, Appleton Mills Gallery.

On the Plus Side, Jane Fitzpatrick.

Jane's quilt above exemplifies many attributes of "modern" quilts - a color palette which generally includes white, off-white or gray, in combination with solid fabrics or geometric prints, and piecing which merges precision with a bit of "wonkiness," as the plus symbols in the quilt above are a bit askew within their squares.

Quilts on display.
PB Complete, pieced by Tina Guthmann, quilted by Krista Ellis.

Many modern quilt designs have roots in traditional approaches, such as the quilt above, pieced with hexagons, a popular shape for quilters since the 18th century. The quilt below, from a pattern by modern quilt icon Denyse Schmidt, is a riff on the double-wedding ring pattern, but, as the name implies, in modern times quilts are for everyone, married or not.  In this quilt the artist used DMC Perle cotton, a beefy thread, so that the quilt stitches are quite prominent against the white background fabric.

Right: Single Girl, Natalie Sabik. Left: Detail.

Mounting a show like this is quite a bit of effort, but viewing their work in a gallery setting gives the makers a communal "pat on the back," and renewed energy as they continue their artistic explorations.

09 August 2013

Samurai at Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Helmet and mask, detail.
On August 2 DH and I viewed the Samurai! exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This show, which closed August 4, featured over 150 objects from the collection of Dallas-based connoisseurs Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller. Holland Cotter reviewed the show for the New York Times.

Entrance to the show.

Helmet and armor, Matsudaira family.

Only the oldest pieces in the show, primarily helmet bowls,  actually saw combat.  From the 12th century until the Tokugawa shogunate began in the early 17th century, Japan was a militarized society, with warring clans endlessly engaged in attacking and counter-attacking each other.  The introduction of firearms in 1543  made warfare that much more brutal.  Most of the armor in the show was made after 1615, however, and, while based on historical styles, was used for ceremonial purposes and for families recalling their samurai lineage and status. 

After Ieyasu Tokugawa became the shogun, or military dictator, in 1603 and moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo), the samurai class eventually demobilized and became the governing bureaucracy. Bushido, or the way of the warrior, remained part of the culture.  Moreover, since making money was considered low-caste (merchants were at the bottom of Edo class system) former samurai reinforced their high status by becoming patrons of the arts and acolytes of refinements such as tea ceremony and calligraphy.  Samurai retained and donned their armor during special occasions.

Components of samurai kit.

The individual items needed to outfit a samurai are shown above in a rare complete set of armor and clothing from the Mori family. This set stayed intact as it was purchased by an English clergyman in the 20th century.  The set includes: silk trousers worn beneath the armor, abdomen and thigh protection, arm gauntlets, shoulder guards, shin guards, helmet, shoes and, at the right, a surcoat to wear over the armor, to keep everything dry. Another key item is the half-mask, seen to the right of the helmet, above. This protected the neck and lower face.

After the 1923 Tokyo earthquake many Japanese families had to sell heirlooms for ready cash.  It was also a time of increasing Western influence, which didn't sit well with many bureaucrats, whose ancestors had been samurai, or with reactionary nationalists such as novelist Yukio Mishima. The glorious samurai past was used, or misused, for propaganda purposes.  The exhibit doesn't really address issues of art and politics in this particular area of Japanese culture, or the path from "warrior thought" to aggresive nationalism.  To be fair, that would require another type of exhibit. Meanwhile, it was enough to contemplate so much beauty and drama, with the specter of violence at a very comfortable remove.
Samurai armor 101.

Weapons and armor had more than a simple utilitarian role.  Much has been written about early Japanese technology and skill in making the steel sword blades used by samurai, and the iron helmets and armor are also masterpieces of the metal workers art.  Surface decoration provides clan identification and, as soldiers everywhere are often superstitious, motifs encode talismanic properties, bringing good luck, or invoke protection from a deity such as the bodhisattva Fudo Myoo, the Immovable One.  Invoking a Buddhist deity may seem odd, but there was a long tradition of warrior culture in Buddhism -  somewhat like the church militant in the West - and the monks at the monastery of Mt. Hiei, for example, were famous fighters.

Unlike Western armor, Japanese armor is made of many overlapping, laced lacquered iron plates; this lamellar structure means that strong cords formed a critical part of the defensive carapace, and these cords were woven in a variety of colors.  The color identified the wearer and made him conspicuous to his followers and fellow warriors during a chaotic melee. The theory is that when firearms arrived, with the noise and smoke of the arquebusiers, easily-recognizable armor became even more important to avert friendly fire.

Folding screen, Battle of the Uji River, detail.

Much artwork was inspired by the martial past, including the folding screen above and below, created in the 18th century, and depicting warriors on horseback crossing a river during the Genpei war of 1180-1185.  At this time bows were the dominant weaponry, and archers stood up in their platform stirrups to aim and loose their arrows.

Folding screen, detail.

Highlight of the show, designed by Keith Crippen and his team, were full scale equestrian figures, in full gallop, displaying not only the samurai armor, but the equally elaborate and ornamented horse armor. Again, most of this armor was made after 1615, the beginning of the Edo period, so was used for pomp and pageantry during festivals and processions.  Dress to impress, indeed!

Mounted samurai.
Left: chest protection, detail. Right: stirrup, detail.

The surface design on all of the metalwork is exquisite.  The show specifically showcases the fantastic helmets, made in a seemingly infinite number of variations on the basic bowl-shaped theme.  The lacquered iron helmet below was made by Unkai Mitsahisa, about 1630. The cut-out in front features a stylized heart of Marishiten, goddess of archers. 

Helmet with flames and heart ornament.

Ridged helmet with large rivets, c. 1730.

The helmet above is made of iron, gold, silver, bronze, leather and shakudo, an beautiful bluish alloy of gold and copper. The panels depict dragonflies on rice plants.  The metal craftsman who made this helmet based the design on historical styles from the Kamakura era, 1185-1333.

The exhibit, co-curated by Nina Barbier-Mueller Tollett, daughter of the collectors, and Jessica Liu Beasley, did not address in any depth the appropriation of samurai culture by the West, but the cultural transfer is hard to miss, at least in Hollywood products, where a sort of mash-up of samurai and ninja imagery results in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and iconic villain garb.


In the image above, the top picture is, of course, Darth Vader's helmet, unmistakably inspired by helmets such as the one in the bottom of the image, the oldest item in the exhibit, a large-riveted helmet from the Kamakura period, 1185-1333.
Left: warrior dolls. Right: boy's armor.

Samurai items came at every scale. In the image above, a set of boy's armor sits on its storage box, a rare survivor. To the left are figurines which would have been displayed as part of Boys' Day celebrations.

Armor with feather sashimono.

The suit of armor above was made around 1600, using iron, lacquer, bear fur, horsehair, bamboo and washi paper. The three tall feather ornaments, painted to resemble hawk feathers, attach to a bracket on the wearer's back; banners or other insignias worn on the back are called sashimono.  According to the exhibit label, this was probably not worn in battle, but it would have made a striking, inspiring standard, like one of Napoleon's golden eagles.