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Moghuls & Miniatures: Does Size Matter?

This entry comes second, but really serves as an introduction to my interest in small format art around the world, so it is a little bit longer.

As a high school student, my schedule permitted me to take a sculpture class at the nearby community college. To my surprise, I discovered we would be working with live models. After my initial shock at seeing naked people in the classroom, I was forced to wonder about the arbitrary division that made me an adult in one context, and a powerless child in the other!

I soon learned of another arbitrary division, one that I continue to question: size. My sculpted nudes were all sized to fit within the grasp of two hands. The instructor repeatedly commented on my "small work." Finally, he diagnosed me as "inhibited" before the class! It's embarrassing to be singled out and judged when you are a high school student among adults. I didn't know how to respond. I wish he had asked me for my rationale. Articulating what made me "work small" would have been so enlightening and helped me develop as an artist. I felt there was a difference between walking around a sculpture, and being able to see all sides at once, being able to intimately examine the form with one's hands, not just observe it with one sense--the eyes. Besides, everyone's work was smaller than the actual model; how was "too small" determined? How and why did it diminish value? Apparently, size mattered, but not in any way that had been articulated. I'm sad to say that I have only one piece left from that class, a "large" work that I completed in order to satisfy him, and that won a ribbon. I eventually tossed all the others.

Years later, I discovered that many cultures celebrate small format art. One of my earliest introductions was a display of Moghul miniatures, also often referred to as Persian miniatures, which were the source of Moghul inspiration. The miniatures have informed my work in three areas: story, space, and succinctness. Most were created around a story or poem, there are versions that fill the space and those that are conspicuous for their amount of "emptiness," but none have any "extra."



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It's difficult to pick up one of my pieces that does not have a story behind it. Just as the Persian miniatures are icons that have the power to include the viewer in a long ago experience or emotion, mine are also connected to real events. I didn't think this was possible; I thought they would simply be perceived as motifs. But, I have been surprised at the number of people who react viscerally to the designs, and how evocative they are of others' personal experiences. The spirit and story of the artist goes into their work. How would you convert one of your own vivid experiences into a color? A symbol?

Persian miniatures also teach about space. It's amazing to me that some entirely fill the field, while others are spare and uniquely balanced--large fields of color fill the "empty" space. The latter remind me of the most modern stage sets: open geometric spaces infused with hues of varying values that whisper or shout a background truth to frame the action in a small, concentrated portion of the stage.







There is a natural anxiety about emptiness that involves a certain perception of incompleteness (like "too small!"), but it can be very powerful.




Sometimes, you need everything to tell the story. What is amazing about the Persian miniatures is that even when the entire space is filled with people and objects, there is no "extra." Frames--around the paintings and within them--keep things concise. See the "bead" in this miniature? Try drawing a circle around a bead’s holes, or a square frame on each side of a square bead.








www.joanmiller.com Porcelain BeadThere can be a lot of pattern, but it is used to separate elements, so they’re not lost in the crowd. The paintings are succinct: everything contributes to the story--no "fluff." The "story" on Joan Miller's bead is clear. Every character belongs there. As in the miniatures, minor design elements become a patterned background, a container for the story.




Two great empires thought small was magnificent. What did I learn from them? Small art is intimate--not for the inhibited, visually powerful when it is concise, and ultimately, precious.

5 comments:

  1. What an absolutely wonderful post, bravo! I too feel that small works of art are intimate and to be treasured even more so than their larger counterparts. I once had a teacher, also while I was in high-school (although no naked people older than me, ouch-even worse!), tell me I could not sculpt and I never did again. I was also told I could not paint and many years later I learned I could. Maybe I will try to sculpt, the thought excites me! Thank you for this heartfelt post.

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  2. I am a miniaturist through and through. I collected gravel (tiny agates and jasper pieces) when I was a kid. I have always loved tiny things.

    I think that the genre of miniatures is greatly overlooked by the art world in general. Not only antique miniature art but current miniature art as well. There is a segment of the world that does greatly appreciate it. They value miniatures for the work of art they truly are, however, many do not and try to insist that everything needs to be Ginormus if it is to be considered worthy artwork.

    I too had a similar experience when I took my only 4 china painting lessons. I brought my 'biggest' plates to paint to start on. They were about 3 inches across. She kept telling me I should try to paint larger and I should learn to paint larger. I am not easily intimidated and flatly told her that I did not want to paint larger in fact I wanted to paint on tiny plates about the size of a quarter and that these were HUGE plates. After 4 sessions she discontinued the whole class, I never knew why but presumably it wasn't to do with that difficult student that insisted on painting things she could hardly see. I have gone on to get the highest artist recognition from the International Guild of Miniature artisans, Fellow. I highly encourage anyone to be bold and to counter the naysayers. There is beauty and worth to all sorts of art. While I do not particularly appreciate some types of art I do not feel I have the right to berate the artist or to tell them it is unworthy. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Do what you like and celebrate it.

    Miniatures Rule. Great post.

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  3. Wonderful post Vika!!! I find myself falling into tiny details and almost holding my breathe at times as I work because I get SO into it…

    When Chloe and I are in the studio together (she is only 3.5 years old) I at first had to force myself not to correct her in how she wanted to work and make art. I wanted her to keep a brush for each underglaze - she wanted to use the same brush and mix them. I then gave her the underglaze in the lid and said - have at it! Her creativity is so much more important than a less than perfect underglaze.

    After that quick reality snap about actually backing off (after making sure she was "safe" with the materials) & watching her to see where her imagination took her - I found that I eased up with my art.

    Now she and I work side by side, often, quiet as can be - concentrating and sharing smiles…

    I personally adore working small and have a hard time with larger pieces. I find more success with small objects and habits of working in miniature.

    Marsha H. Your work is amazing! I still have one of your bears with movable parts saved for Chloe. When she is a bit older I will let her have it (she has the dropsies too often with some things).

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  4. Wonderful post Victoria. Excellent content and your writing style has such a great flow. Love the topic. I see the story in your work and have such admiration for your inspirations. I am so pleased that you have articulated the significance of miniature since that is at the core of so much bead making.

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  5. Thank you all so much for the feedback...the conversation, and for giving me the opportunity to write. Yes, WBA & Marsha H, as I write & reflect, I'm surprised at how many times, how many ways, I was told my work wasn't real; it's a wonder I kept on. (Writing also made me note a profound silence: how little & infrequently it was reflected back to me that I was indeed an artist, and what kind...something else to think about.) WBA: drawing falls there for me--I do it well but there's residual from being told I couldn't...I get that. Marsha H: we have a "big" problem in this culture ;)...it's so good to have the internet & be able to step around that limitation and properly context our work, and our lives. I will be writing more about "small." Marsha N...so exciting to realize we're able to give our children a different experience, early. I like your daughter's style...I often work that way (I call it dirty palette and it has yielded some of my best colors!). Thank you Mary, for the opportunity. It does me real good to examine these things & also know that they are so meaningful to others...appreciate this group & thankful for the chance to give back.

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