P.S., a client of mine who likes to find orphaned paintings at thrift stores, purchased three oils on board locally, and puzzled over the signature, "Bruce Birkland." No gallery sale or auction result was found for this name, so I Googled and found a Bruce Birkland's address in Goleta. I sent a card in the mail asking if he had ever painted. He called recently, full of questions; we discussed his journey into art.
Not only is Bruce's story an interesting insight into the path of an artist in the Santa Barbara area, but my client was happy to know who painted these little plein air oils. Plein air is a style of painting that originated in the Impressionist period. French artists in the mid-19th century were overturning norms of painting, such as the actual work of painting, always previously done in a supervised studio, a style called Academic. Revolutionary French painters took studio gear with them and painted outdoors, "en plein air." Bruce was not aware his work followed this revered style of painting; the three paintings owned by P.S. were created more than 30 years ago, and Bruce said he actually did paint them in a studio at his mom's house in downtown Santa Barbara, where he still creates work.
The artist told me that he rarely paints straight realistic landscapes these days, noting his style has changed to be a blend of fantasy and surrealism. Today, I can see his love of color and naturalistic detail in P.S.'s canvases as well as his fantasy canvases. In the spirit of exotic mind travel, his favorite canvas is a fantasy piece entitled "Journey to Namaqualand," a place located between Namibia and South Africa along the West Coast, five hours north of Cape Town. The area is abundant with wildflower reserve parks, which bloom from a seemingly arid desert. In this work of art, Bruce pictures an elephant among the flowers, his huge ears represented as blue butterfly wings. From these three little older paintings, I see Bruce was a master at landscape. Today, he is inspired by his imaginings of landscapes. He told me, "I try to visually integrate the natural world with my emotional and mental reaction to it." Thus his journey into fantasy landscapes, leaving plein air behind.
I asked him how he discovered this unique talent of his, blending the real and the surreal. ALL artists stand upon former artist's shoulders. Bruce was influenced by a canvas of Belgian artist Rene Magritte called "Castle of the Pyrenees," which is an image of a small castle perched on a massive rock floating in the sky over a sea. Like so many good artists, Bruce has a visual memory that will not quit. So when he saw Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he latched onto the image of a gigantic spacecraft in the deserted Wyoming landscape. Another such arresting and enduring image for Bruce was the dreamlike palette of Maxfield Parrish. Bruce said, "I may be inspired by a certain pattern, a colorful life form, plants and flowers, an unusual combination of elements, which creates an internal vision upon which I become fixated." That's truly what inspiration and dedication mean.?
Not only has Bruce's artist heritage been important, but also his family heritage has influenced his work. His paternal grandfather, Tom Birkland, was a painter of Alaskan and western wildlife on canvas and in mural form. His cousins are designers in Camarillo. His maternal great-grandfather, Aurelio Castro, was a landscape painter — and Aurelio's children were painters as well. His maternal grandmother, Hotencia Cuellar, was a pianist and a prima ballerina, and her brother, Oscar, was a flamenco guitarist. Art is part of his DNA.
The idea of a blooming desert has influenced Bruce's other work of art, his garden here in Goleta, and, of course, our area is known for its hospitability for tropical plants such as tree ferns, palms and philodendrons, which he curates. A spirit of exoticism lives in his real-life landscape as well.
So, P.S., your works of art were created in the 1980s by a local and experienced artist, who continually ran out of crayons and paper as a child (his artistic parents understood) and who continued his training among the best teachers. Today, Bruce prefers not to be represented by a gallery but sells privately. The paintings owned now by P.S. are entitled "Mountain Aspens," "Desert Yellow Blossoms" and "Arizona Dry Gulch." The artist tells me they are worth about $3,000 for the group.
J.W. invited me to her beautiful Riviera Craftsman bungalow with an ocean view to show me a block of flat carved wood, a printing block for a relief fine art print. A relief print is created when an artist cuts away from the wood’s surface so that the carved OUT areas do not touch paint when pressing the block to paper. This is a woodcut. A wood engraving is much the same, but is carved on the denser end of a plank, capturing the harder to carve end grain for finer detail in a print.
The OTHER type of printmaking technique is intaglio; the artist etches lines with a burin tool into a surface such as a copper plate; the plate is inked and the surface area is wiped clean, so that the ink remains ONLY in the etched lines. The paper is then rolled with some force on top of this plate, absorbing only the ink that is left in the lines. This is an etching or an engraving.
Speaking about etchings, the hook-up phrase “Wanna come up and see my etchings?” has a fascinating history. This is a phrase that insinuates more than it actually says, a figure of speech called “litotes” in French. The English phrase originated with the French “Veux-tu monter voir mes estampes japonaises?” Much of 19th century art history is made fun of in this line. Think about Monet and his fascination with Japanese wood block prints. Owning this exotic art was considered a sign of a man’s good taste and refinement. The subtext also included the suggestion that the bachelor wants to show the lady a sub-genre of Japanese prints called “Shunga.” If you are not at work, do a search for those to see what this “litote” phrase, “Wanna see my etchings?” really suggests. Confusing, however, is that Japanese woodblocks are relief prints and etchings are intaglio prints. I digress: back to J.W.’s woodcut block, which is in fact a GREAT example of 20th century American woodcut technique.
Woodblock printing was invented in China in the 9th century and came to Europe in 15th century where the great Albrecht Dürer took it to heights. Once the surface of the block is inked with a roller, the paper is either pressed down by hand on to the block, or rolled in a printing press. One of the greatest of all American woodcut artists was Gustave Baumann, who developed the printing-press oil-paint based woodcut process throughout the first two quarters of the 20th century.
J.W.’s block verso has an inscription in graphite: “Superstition Mountain, Gustave Baumann.” Woodcut artists like Baumann began with a drawing, which is then reversed on to a “key block,” copying only the basic lines of the image, the most concrete outline of the work. This image is then transferred to other blocks, which are carved further to add other features of the design, called color blocks, because in some cases each color desired will have its own block. J.W. might have the “key” block, on which was carved the essential design anchor for Gustave Baumann’s “Superstition Mountain” of 1949. The main elements of the bush in the foreground and the line of the mountains against the sky background top, as an executed print is identical to the woodblock in J.W.’s possession.
What J.W. does not have are what might have completed Baumann’s finished print, one block carved for the yellow mid-ground, one block carved for the green cacti, and a block carved for the mountain color. This key block, if authentic would produce an image of roughly 8” x 8”; the original paper would have measured 11” x 9 7/8”, dated 1949, pencil signed, titled and numbered with Baumann’s “chop” mark of a hand in a heart shape.
This block may be an important find as Baumann printed only 125 strikes of this image. One of these prints in the edition of 125 would sell at auction for up to $6,000.
So what would Baumann’s key block be worth? Few key blocks have entered the marketplace, because to make sure an edition is finished, the artist generally destroys the blocks. To find out, with J.W.’s permission, I have contacted David Rago Auctions, most active with Baumann’s print sales. I suspect the block might be worth $3000-4000.
J.S. has a Rembrandt etching of a windmill, 8 inches by 6 inches. The print is signed in the plate (the artist etched his name into the copper before it was printed) and dated 1641.
Rembrandt etchings "pulled" when the artist was alive can be extremely valuable. If this print dated to the late 17th century, we'd be talking $70,000 to $100,000. In some cases, the copper plate, which the artist engraved, was still being used to print from in the 18th century; 82 such plates are known to exist today in museums and private hands. Rembrandt was known to have etched more than 300 plates in his lifetime.
Rembrandt was deeply in debt in the mid-17th century and may have sold some of his copper plates. His friend, Clement De Jonghe, got a hold of 70-plus plates before his death. In 1767, 70-some plates were auctioned off to a man who sold them to a French printmaker, Claude-Henri Watelet (1718-86), whose estate sold them to another French printmaker, Pierre-Francois Basan (1723-97). Basan and his son published limited editions through 1810, when Basan's widow sold them again, falling eventually into the hands of the Bernard family of printmakers, who printed off these plates, until purchased by another printer, Beaumont, who printed off the plates. So, you see a Rembrandt etching could be almost any age and originate from one of Rembrandt's plates, although some may have been altered by Watelet in the late 18th century.
This trend continued: Beaumont sold the plates to an American, who loaned them to the North Carolina Museum of Art, where they were kept until their sale in 1993. A dealer at that sale, Howard Berge, purchased eight plates and printed an edition called "Millennium Impressions" in early 2000.
There's an interesting Santa Barbara connection to this sale, but that's another story. Many famous museums purchased plates.
Suffice it to say, J.S.'s print could be almost any age, but not J.S.'s paper. Almost all prints made before 1800 are printed on laid paper, which is made by hand in a mold, where wires in a mesh support the paper pulp and give a distinctive watermark pattern to the paper. After the late 18th century, prints begin to be struck on wove paper, the paper we are most familiar with today, lacking those "laid" lines.
And the size of the image of the print matters too, because if J.S.'s print was pulled from a Rembrandt plate, the size will be exact to about one-quarter of an inch. This, in J.S.'s example, is true.
Finally, J.S., take out a magnifying glass. Check to see if the lines of the etching are crisp and detailed. Check to see if you see a dot matrix pattern, which would indicate a lithograph made "after" an etching, or a photomechanical (photographic) reproduction.
In my opinion, J.S.'s print is not "crisp" enough to be a "fresh" pull. J.S. can compare his work with the many photographs of images he will find in museum catalogs. And holding J.S.'s paper up to the light, we see no laid marks; if J.S.'s print is a 19th century restrike, it could still be worth big bucks, however, printed on wove paper. Here's the pay grade: authentic etchings from Rembrandts' plates 17th and 18th centuries, we're talking five to six figures; 19th to early 20th centuries, copies or reprints with photomechanical process on wove paper, two to three figures! Frankly, if J.S.'s image is actually just a print, that would mean that it is worth about as much as the paper it was printed on and can go as low as $25 at auction. From the photo J.S. sent, I would assume the image to be an etching, which would put it at low three figures. Remember, however, that almost everyone had a Rembrandt image in 1910-1940. Another value characteristic is the condition of the paper; in J.S.'s case, there is moderate acid burn from a poor mount (the poorest of all poor mounts is cardboard, which contains paper-destroying acid).
One encouraging feature of J.S.'s print is the "plate mark" or the indentation of the paper we would expect to see with an intaglio print. That indented rectangular impression around the outside of the print is good news. However, in the early 20th century, those impressed lines were "pushed" into paper to imitate a "real" intaglio print. My advice is to send a very good photo to Christie's London along with a photo of the paper held up to the light. Ask them for auction estimates.
P.C. from the 805 area asked me to appraiser her early 20th century ivory chess set for a few months now, and I put it off, P.C., because, well, the buying or selling of ivory is, in fact, no longer PC. The import, export and sale of ivory, even within state lines, has become regulated and monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; there’s a network of Federal statutory laws and Executive Branch orders, not to mention the scrutiny around ivory by those organizations that fight for conservation of elephants. All ivory is in some sense unsalable, yet some ivory is not from animals at all, as we shall see.
P.C., you should know that the kinds of ivory which for years has been called “true” ivory is defined as the teeth of animals, and most ivory is from the tusks of elephants, mammoths and mastodons. Those kinds of ivory are sourced from buried animals. Yet ancient ivory is so hard to distinguish that mastodon ivory is suspect too.
Bone is NOT ivory and you can tell bone because you can see the evidence of a blood vessel system, and ivory does not have this system. Ivory for millennia is prized because it carved in any direction, which makes it valued for its beauty on piano keys (a hot button issue, as concert halls are having a hard time getting performer’s prized pianos across state lines, as we'll learn). Ivory for millennia has been dyed as half of your set has been, and can be beautifully polished owing to its natural oils.
Other types of antique ivory are hippo, walrus, whale and hornbill birds, as well as non-animal ivory from the inner seed of the South American ivory palm. I can be fooled by synthetic ivory, which was invented as far back as 1865, termed celluloid or casein. The older the ivory-looking object is, the more care was taken to imitate “true” ivory’s graining.
P.C., if your chess set IS ivory there are ways to test for “true” ivory. You need to get your old cigarette lighter out and burn it, and if it does not mark up or emit a bad smell, it is likely ivory of some kind. Synthetic ivory will mark and smell. The same proof is derived with a hot needle, which will cause irreparable damage to non-ivory objects, so I would not try fire.
Nevertheless, P.C., your set is not worth anything on today’s market, because you cannot sell it if it looks anything like ivory. I have a dear client who has Asian Foo dogs of what appear to be ivory and although we have sent photos along to many auction houses, no one want to touch them with a 10-foot pole. Why?
Here are the rules for African ivory, promulgated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Handlers of antique instruments have contested these laws, because many antique instruments are precious to distinguished performers.
Since value is derived from past sales of similar objects, your set has no market value. Auction houses do not reputably report ANY sales of ivory items since 2014.
F.M. has two mixed media, diluted oil paintings, slightly surreal in nature, with themes related to the eternal feminine: fruit above a portrait of a female in one; birds and fish in water above a portrait of a female in the other. Both were collected in Israel 23 years ago.
F.M. wonders about the artist behind these pieces and if they are worth anything today. What follows is a story of a collector and an artist — and how life stories can intersect. I believe the story behind these pieces will be even more valuable to F.M. than the pieces themselves.
F.M.'s life's work for 40 years has been in the field of psychology. Upon retiring, he and his wife moved to Paris to study French culture. The artist whose work he owns, Lana Laor, has developed into one of the leaders of the Tzfat School of Art, based in the historic city of Safed in Israel. In her early days, she was strictly a two-dimensional artist. But today, Laor creates a sculptural line of Kabbalah jewelry as well as two-dimensional mixed media artworks depicting her beloved city of Safed.
From an artistic family, Laor's mother, who corresponded with F.M. upon the purchase of these works 23 years ago, was a founding member of the Tzfat Artist's Colony Association, which has grown to be world-famous and a center for spirituality.
As a young artist, Laor moved to Paris to study French art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Her mentor was Professor Ernst Fuchs and she traveled to Vienna to study with him before establishing her own gallery in Tzfat in 1996, about the time F.M. acquired her work.
Laor was devoted to Dr. Fuchs, who had founded the School of Fantastic Realism in 1946 at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Fuchs (1930-2015) was a polymath, having studied printmaking, sculpting, architecture, stage design, music, poetry and voice. He also maintained studios in Paris, Israel and the U.S. The mystical works of Meister Eckhart and medieval painting were major influences, along with Fuch's study of Carl Jung's psychology and alchemy.
Fuch's students were taught a technique derived from the Northern European painters of the late Middle Ages, Grunewald and van Eyck, called "mischtechnik." This required a base of egg tempera glazed with oil and mixed with resin to create a desired mystical luminism. With his students, he founded the School of Fantastic Realism.
Fuchs was a noted muralist and was behind three altar paintings on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary for the Rosenkranzkirche in Vienna. A dream came to him in the early 1960s, leading to his major book, The Hidden Prime of Styles. In 1972, Fuchs purchased a derelict mansion designed and once owned by Otto Wagner; this is now the Ernst Fuchs Museum. In 2004, he was given the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, 1st Class, for his work contributing to the world of art and psychology.
Thus, F.M.'s artist, a Fuchs student, today paints and sculpts themes of Jewish mysticism based on the Kabbalah in a place known as the "City of Kabbalah," Safed, one of Judaism's Four Holy Cities. Today, this city on a mountaintop is known for its study center built for many people of many religions. Scholars have come to Safed's Citadel, built in 1240 AD, called the "Metzuda," to study learned thought for millennia, as well as Jews who came to escape the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century and later wars and persecution. The Jews that came to Safed in the Middle Ages became some of the world's great Kabbalah scholars; Safed was one of the crucibles of Kabbalah from the 11th century. The Tzfat cemetery is the site of famous rabbinic scholars.
Laor's gallery is not far from the Ari Mikvah, a men's ritual bath with legendary powers, as well as the International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah. Not only is Safed a great artistic center, but the center is a rabbinically approved center for the study of Jewish mysticism.
Thus as F.M.'s career deepened, working in the discipline of psychology, so did the career of his artist in much the same direction, a search for self. The name Tzfat is derived from two Hebrew verbs meaning to "look for" or "to anticipate." So apropos, to "anticipate." Not a surprise to me, but perhaps a surprise to F.M.
Dr Elizabeth Stewart Speaks with The Cosmopolitan Club Of Santa Barbara about how to downsize and declutter your home. Includes the top ten items your kids and the market don't want.
M.K. has a Madonna and child painting, 25 inches by 33 inches, picked up at an estate sale in Santa Barbara 30 years ago. We see the luminous faces of the Virgin and child, beneath which we detect some script: "S. Maria von guien, Katy."
I began a quest to determine the origins and date of this unsigned rare beauty. Stylistically, I think the painting is late 15th to early 16th century. I rarely see paintings this old leaning against a client's wall. Don't judge age by the colors — most colors have been significantly over-painted. Judge the style of painting by the faces and technique of the molding of the faces; the faces seem to look at the viewer as if they have real dimension. This is a technique of painting picked up in early 16th century Northern Europe from the influence of the Italian painters of the Italian Renaissance.
When the style of the Italian Renaissance trickled up to Northern Europe, the result was a unique, realistic style of painting, with simple iconography, called the International Style, Late Gothic, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. We see a trace of Byzantine iconographic painting, so beloved of the early Italian artists. Yet the realism and the tenderness of the glances between mother and child reflect a Northern European style, not Byzantine at all.
A stylistic analysis of a work of art does not necessarily tell us the date or place of creation, however. That's why there are so many paintings sold at auction as "School of Northern European, late Gothic Master," for example.
Note the lettering at the bottom of the painting: "von guien." "Von" is German for "of." So this Saint Mary was "of" a place called guien. Through much searching in various languages, I discovered that "guien" is a diminutive of the place name "Guyenne" or "Guienne," which is, in turn, derived from the region name Aquitania, the historical province of medieval France, once called Aquitaine, then Gascony, and now Bordeaux.
If you remember your Shakespeare, Eleanor of Aquitaine wed Henry II, delivering this region into the hands of England in the 13th century. This region did not return to France until 1453. Thus perhaps we can speculate that M.K.'s painting was painted for a church in late medieval Guienne to celebrate the region's return to the French crown in the mid- to late 15th century, or to commemorate that return later in the 16th century. Speculation is often dangerous, but let's make a few assumptions; real scholarship needs to include an analysis of the canvas, the paint: forensic analysis.
Imagination can confuse the matter but is often a jumping off point in old paintings. Notice the next word: "Katy." Katy is indeed a town in Poland. In the 16th century, the House of Habsburg (Austria) acquired a region called "Galicia" in Austrian-dominated Poland. (Don't confuse this Galicia with what you already know as Galicia, on the Iberian Peninsula. BOTH were controlled in the late medieval era by the Habsburg crown.)
Political change leads to the displacement of peoples. The painting has connections with France, and the Iberian Peninsula, with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Habsburg Empire, and the Galicia of what is now Portugal. The connection is embodied in two Habsburg kings: one, Philip II, and his uncle, Ferdinand, who parted company in the late 16th century. Ferdinand became the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Hungary (Poland) and Bohemia. Philip, his nephew, inherited the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Aragon and Castile, and the Iberian kingdom of Galicia. Under Habsburg rule, the king enforced the state Catholic religion, leading to The Inquisition in 1478; 300,000 people were killed, and many migrated throughout Northern Europe.
History can be a handmaiden to stylistic analysis of a painting, and research can be your best friend. Thus, we see that a region in late medieval France (Guienne) might have given the name to a special Madonna (St. Maria of Guien) who ended up on the walls of a church in Habsburg-controlled Eastern Europe (Galicia).
Now how did it get to Santa Barbara? Poland was partitioned repeatedly, but most remarkably and forcibly in the late 18th through 19th centuries. Political unrest often causes many great works of art to leave the country of origin.
The value is unknown, but I can tell you that the owner would consider selling.
D & P from Solvang writes me that a family member was a 1970’s Central Coast antiques dealer: she found this lamp in Santa Barbara. D & P suspect it is from the Studio of Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Woman Extraordinaire, Elizabeth Eaton Burton, a “Mission Style” trailblazer in the early 1900’s. The Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s Anne and Michael Towbes Museum Store will sell you a copy of the Museum’s 2011 publication about the life of Elizabeth Eaton Burton: My Santa Barbara Scrapbook: A Portrait of the Artist Elizabeth Eaton Burton, authored by local historian Hattie Beresford, and the Museum’s Director of Research, Michael Redmon.
This book, I find, is given as ‘reference literature’ underneath the listings of Burton’s objects which are sold at auction, Nationwide; perhaps because the book draws upon her artistry from both the collections of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and private collectors. The book, a glimpse into the Bohemian life of Burton in our once Bohemian town, also includes Burton’s later work in Japanese inspired watercolors and wood-block prints, as well as images of her work in lighting, with shell and metal, hand wrought electrified lamps and sconces, from Burton’s early Santa Barbara studio.
D & P write that although they have researched Burton’s lighting creations in metal and abalone shell, they have not discovered one like theirs, which has an arched arm terminating in an open-mouthed dragon/griffin, supporting a fixture draped with 6-shell petals. They see a very small stamp: “Studio,” on the base, and the telltale Burton signature mark of metal bands on the arm.
The Auction sale of December 2011 at Sotheby’s featured a similar piece of Burton lighting, a patinated copper sconce with Abalone shell fixture, circa 1902, which sold for $7,500. Now, a published auction sale references both Provenance and Literature about pieces; sales of Burton’s objects more often than not referenced Beresford and Redmon’s book. So, also, did a sale at Toomey-Treadway Auctions of a Burton lamp of June 2014. This particular Burton lamp, a copper lily pad base with a long stem terminating in a lotus shaped abalone shell shade, estimated to sell at $6-8,000, but sold for $18,300.
One of the bibles of the art world for research, Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975, ed. Peter Hastings Falke, 1999, states that Burton was born in Paris in 1869. Darrel Karl, author of "The Asian Autumn of Mrs. Burton", posted on the blog Eastern Impressions: Western Printmakers and the Orient, writes Burton had a colorful girlhood, the daughter of two artists from prominent East Coast families, who met at art school at the Sorbonne. Burton, before she was of age, traveled from Paris to Versailles, Nice, Brittany, Italy, Switzerland and India. Her childhood pal was the younger sister of John Singer Sargent, whose family lifestyle paralleled the Burton’s. In fact, Burton is said to have painted in watercolor “after” Sargent as a young girl. She boarded at school, first in England and then Germany, but, owing to her mother’s poor health, Burton’s father moved the family to Santa Barbara.
Elizabeth in 1886 met Santa Barbara developer William (Billy) Waples Burton at a dance, and both felt the influence of the style of the late 19th century, Asian Exoticism, Japonisme or Orientalism. There’s an old photo of Billy Burton dressed in a kimono in the forefront of the Arlington Theatre in 1887 for a “Mikado” party. Santa Barbara of the late 19th century partook of a decidedly Spanish Influence, but, less publicized, Santa Barbara of the late 19th century felt an Asian Influence as well, with, of course, a Santa Barbara Chinatown; notable families studied Asian Arts & Crafts, and were especially affected by Japanese aesthetics in woodblocks, architecture and furniture designs.
Burton’s father, Charles Eaton, set up a Santa Barbara “Arts & Crafts” studio; his daughter was his pupil and opened her own studio in 1896. The daughter was remarkable: receiving patents for a leathercraft process used on furniture, and developing those “shell lamps” from either Philippine window shell or abalone. Vogue of 1901 wrote of her shows in California and New York; she traveled to St. Louis in 1904 to show at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. Gustav Stickley wrote about her leather screens in his magazine The Craftsman. In 1909, she won the Gold Medal at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Mrs. Burton, says Who Was Who in American Art, also had a Los Angeles studio address by 1909. This remarkable Santa Barbara artist’s lamp belonging to D & P is worth $15,000 if authenticated to Burton.
E.S.J. has collected a 20th century Haitian Vodou flag, measuring 28 inches square. The center of this dazzling object is a pink heart interspersed with blue/green leaves; the completely graphic design is picked out in sequins and glass beads, hand sewn on satin.
This flag would have been an object of devotion to a Vodou practitioner to help the devotee touch the world of the "loa," a powerful member of the spirit world. E.S.J.'s particular flag represents a particular loa, Erzulie Dantor.
Unlike European devotional art, this flag does not carry a figural representation of a saint, but its glory lies in capturing the essence of a saint. The loa Erzulie is the penultimate feminine deity: She is represented as a huge pink heart that carries things inside; her colors are blue, green and shades of red. Yet E.S.J.'s flag contains dark, foreboding colors along the edges of the heart: deep, shocking pink and "renegade" green, the borders shot through with explosive crossed lines.
The spirits represented in these Vodou flags are never one-dimensional. E.S.J.'s flag represents a big-hearted female spirit, but that spirit is also known to be aggressive, overbearing, jealous and willful. In addition, she is also the saint of romance, fine things, and the caring heart. Bold red is her color for a good reason, and her moniker is "Red Eyes." If you mess with her children, watch out — she is patron saint against domestic violence. She also rules creativity, and is the patroness of New Orleans. Now you see why she is graphically portrayed as a throbbing pink heart on E.S.J.'s flag.
If you are a practitioner, your home altar will bear a flag of your special loa. In this case, Erzulie's sparkles are meant to hypnotize, and this glitter must have been seen as quite rare when the first of these flags made their entrance in the 19th century (few, if any, of the first flags exist now due to the climate). Catching the light, I am reminded of stained glass in an old church, and indeed Christian iconography has a place with these flags (Erzulie is often pictured in female form as the black Madonna), but then, many religions are at play around these flags.
Here's the reason: When the Spanish colonized Hispaniola, the native population (the Taino) suffered greatly. Then, West African peoples were shipped in the thousands to slave upon sugar cane, cotton and coffee. Every effort of slave spirituality was crushed, so spirituality went underground and became formidable. A blend of African religions, Catholicism and local spirits, a unique spiritual tradition emerged as Vodou.
Our own Saint Barbara, the third century martyr, is a well-known loa in Afro-Caribbean traditions and there are flags for her as well. In fact, I was taken aback when I visited a Santeria Babalu in Cuba last year for a blessing for my son and found on his personal altar a much-handled 3-foot plaster sculpture of Saint Barbara, as if she had been lifted from my back garden on Pedregosa.
Saint Barbara as a loa is protective, passionate and zealous; her Vodou name is Mambo Lemiye, a warrior woman. She is sculpted with her identifying massive sword and chalice. These are emblems of her dominion over fire and water.
Fascinating, therefore, that the first report of the Thomas Fire was heard on her feast day, Dec. 4 (2017). Vodou devotees would not have seen this as coincidental, as Saint Barbara (as Mambo Lemiye) protects against fire and water as a neutralizing force. Her flag often shows her striding fearlessly right at the edge of the sea, between two worlds, water and fire.
These Vodou flags hang, as E.S.J. has witnessed, over altars filled with saints' sculptures, bones, teeth, flowers, herbs, rosaries, Shivas and Buddhas.
E.S.J. might have found Saint Patrick sculptured with a snake as a flag, or a flag with the Virgin represented as the eternal feminine, Erzulie, as a heart, as he has found upon a visit to Haiti.
This flag might have been displayed over an altar, worn as a drape or paraded in a procession.
Always honored as a protection, as an art form, this flag might seem out of context on E.S.J.'s white Spanish Colonial wall here in Santa Barbara. However, there is a definite connection between the tradition of the Vodou flag and our town of Santa Barbara: Think of that feast day, Dec. 4, if you don't believe me.
The value of this 1970s Erzulie flag? About $500 to $600.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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