TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Fiber Artist's New Year's Resolutions...

OK ... So, it's that time of the year when we look back, assess the progress made, get filled with guilt over everything that didn't get done, then look to the next year and make some promises... resolutions.... goals..... hopes.... dreams...

I actually do have some resolutions related to my art and work. I'm not numbering them because they are all things I want to get done, so here goes:

  • Finish at least one UFO (UnFinished Object). Every fiber artist has stacks of them. I have a large tin box, filled with unfinished quilts. Ugh. So, one will be pulled out and finished. I promise!
  • No new supplies! No fabric, no trim, no buttons, no nothing until I seriously make a dent in what I have. How is YOUR stash? Taking over your house? "Someday I will do something with it...." has arrived. That someday is 2009! OK, so I can replenish something that I need and that I'm out of, like Tiger Tail.... (just ran out)
  • Make two new quilts. I already have an idea for my parent's 5oth anniversary and for my dear friend, Tom. (This is a test to see if he really is reading this blog...) Tom is also going to be 50, so that will be my quilt theme this year.
  • Learn how to knit. ???? I'm still debating about this. I would like to have that skill, but am afraid it might open a whole new stash need and maybe it's not a good idea...
  • Start a new blog.................. groan, oh my!!! Yes, it's a bit nuts, but I think it's a good concept and will be easier than this one. (Many of my posts here take 3-5 hours!) It will be a reference for cultural crafts.

Well, that's enough to keep me occupied for several months. The trick to resolutions is to set goals that are achievable. Then, when the end of the year comes, you can look back and feel good about yourself. There are lots of other things I would like to do, but how realistic are they?

How about you? Any resolutions for this upcoming year? Click on "people with something to say" and leave your goals and dreams! May they all come true!

Happy 2009!!!


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hanukkah, A Festival of Lights in Fiber

Sieberdesigns Hanukkah Wall Hanging on Etsy

"Hanukkah (Hebrew: חנוכה‎, IPA: ['χanuka], alt. Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar."

So begins Wikipedia's explanation of Hanukkah, a complex story of revolt, miracles, and celebration, layered in history and Jewish tradition. The holiday's most recognized symbol, the Menorah, represents the Festival of Lights.

Traditional Menorah

"The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a shamash (Hebrew: "guard" or "servant") is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others." (Wikipedia)

The Hanukkah story is complex to non-Jews, reflecting a people's history of struggle and liberation. Leonard Nimoy does a wonderful job of making the story come to life through his narration, "Chanukah in Story and Song". NPR runs the program yearly and each time, the delightful program seems fresh to me:

"Narrated by Leonard Nimoy and sung by the acclaimed vocal sextet The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, Chanukah in Story and Song is a unique holiday program created especially for public radio listeners. This delightfully engaging program presents 25 eclectic selections, from the Ladino songs of the Spanish Jews and Yiddish melodies of Eastern Europe to modern Israeli tunes and the ensemble's original version of "I Have a Little Dreydle." The ensemble performs a cappella as well as with instrumental accompaniment. The narration, written by Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, sheds new light on the holiday's customs and rituals."

I thought it would be fun to find some Hanukkah quilts for this post, but found that there were not many via a Google search. I did find an interesting site, JudaiQuilt, which explores Jewish textiles. The site owner, Cathy Perlmutter, states:

"Both the process and the product of quilting dovetails beautifully with Jewish ritual and history. As in most cultures, Judaism involves an abundance of beautiful and thought-provoking textiles, whether for daily use, holidays, or lifecycle milestones. Learning about the history and meaning of these textiles has been one of the most fascinating and fun parts of my journey."

The site welcomes submissions from Jewish fiber artists around the world, including the Hanukkah quilt below made by Sue Fineberg:

Hanukkah Quilt by Sue Fineberg

I also found another site, Kol Haverim, which stumped me a bit. A community of humanistic Jews, they seek to explore identity without being religious, yet many of their celebrations are rooted in religious tradition. I understand the desire to connect with ones roots, but it seems to me that some things cannot be sliced away from their point of origin and still remain meaningful. In any case, they use this beautiful quilt as their icon:

I took a look on Etsy and found lots of beautiful clay and metal menorahs plus a couple of Hanukkah-themed fiber items:

Hanukkah Menorah Afghan by crochetbunny

Felted Chanuka Tapestry by Nushkie

If you know of any other sources, please leave them as a comment so that we have some more references for the future.

I must end this post with my two favorite political comics, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, as they sing about Hanukkah and Christmas. Enjoy!


Thursday, December 25, 2008

For Love of All, A Christmas Wish

Rise to meet the challenge of Love and work towards Peace...

Best wishes to all!

-Rachel and Mohammed


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Me dejas que te toque el Wiwichu? ... A Funny Christmas Song in Spanish

This is an audio file in Spanish. If you don't speak it, you might guess at the innuendos just by the tone of the voice. A chuckler...


Friday, December 19, 2008

5 Really Last Minute Gift Ideas for Ethical Shoppers by Tex Dworkin

You’re a socially conscious shopper, there are just a handful of days left till Christmas, and like many people, you’ve still got some names left on your shopping list. If your gift recipients live farther than a stone’s throw away, getting packages mailed out in time for the holidays is no longer an option, unless you want to pay exorbitant expedited shipping costs. So what’s a socially conscious procrastinator to do? I went on an online adventure to find out, and discovered some great last minute gift ideas that don’t require checking your values at the door.

Idea #1: Give the Gift of Choice.
If you’re unsure what to give someone, instant Online Gift Certificates are a great last minute gift idea. To stay true to your values, target Online Stores offering Fair Trade products. Fair Trade is an economic model where producers work in healthy, safe conditions, are paid fairly, and employ environmentally sustainable practices. Make sure that the store you choose sends gift certificates automatically, so they arrive via email just moments after you order them. That way, when you order a gift certificate ON Christmas day, it will arrive ON Christmas day. For those who prefer to have something physical to give your gift recipients, many sites have a nice gift certificate graphic you can print out. In lieu of that, just paste the logo and gift certificate details onto an eco-friendly card. You’ll find plenty of Online Stores offering Fair Trade products listed on the Fair Trade Federation website. Choose “Online Shopping” in their “Find Products” drop down menu.

Idea #2: Invest IN Others FOR Others.
or those who are not familiar, Kiva is all about loans that change lives. On their website, individuals can invest in a specific entrepreneur in the developing world, empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty. Kiva has figured out how to get everyday folks to invest in the hopes and dreams of others with less opportunities and resources at their disposal. You don’t have to be rich to be a Kiva investor, and while one US dollar may not seem like much to you and I, it sure does go a long way in some other parts of the world. For last minute shoppers, Kiva offers gift certificates so you can invest in someone’s name.
Idea #3: Open up a Can of Worms.
What do a crocodile, school supplies and a can of worms have in common? Well, they are just three of the many ‘symbolic’ gifts you can purchase from Oxfam America Unwrapped. Here’s how it works: You purchase an item from their website, the card goes to your gift recipient, and the gift goes to those who need it. In case you’re wondering, when you buy gifts here, an email is sent to your gift recipients automatically, making this a solid last minute gift solution. Their offerings include treated mosquito nets and school uniforms, bicycles and veterinarian field kits, and that’s a mere sampling of what they offer. Just remember, the items you select represent a contribution toward Oxfam America's many programs and not an actual physical item. http://www.oxfamamericaunwrapped.com/home.php

Idea #4: You Can Never Have Too Many Trees!
There are an impressive amount of organizations offering to plant a tree in someone’s name for you, and that number seems to be growing (no pun intended!) I look at this as a great stand-by gift when you can’t think of anything else to give, you’re down to your last hours before gift giving time, and you’ve got internet nearby. To save you the 3 minutes it will take you to Google your way to tree planting organizations, here are some I found: http://www.treegreetings.com/: This website offers “the e-card that plants a tree.” The card plays music (and the website talks to you) but I must warn you; the music is a little new-agey, but hey, to each their own. They make up for it with a catchy order page: “It’s easy as 1,2 Tree.”
http://www.treesftf.org/: This organization claims to have planted 50 million trees around the world and counting! They offer customized tree planting certificates, but since they have a 7-10 day lead time for online orders, last minute gift givers should print out info from their website to craft it into a presentable gift.
http://www.friendsoftrees.org/: Friends of Trees will plant a native tree or an entire grove in honor of your gift recipient and send them a card to mark the occasion. They promise to process online orders within three working days, so if you’ve missed the deadline for holiday delivery they have a nice graphic online you can print out and use until the real certificate shows up. For the truly motivated, they also invite the public to take part in the action by joining in the actual planting.

Idea #5: Charity Clarity.
First, the gift idea: donate to a charity in someone’s name. Not the most novel idea, but hey, what do you expect? It’s late and we’re desperate holiday shoppers! If you go this route, there are some things you can do to boost the thoughtfulness. First, find a charity that really speaks to the values and interests of your gift recipient. Take my Mom, for instance. She loves her dog Zorro, a cute little mutt she got from a local shelter. So donating to the shelter where she adopted her dog from would definitely win me some points. Though I haven’t checked yet (I’m a procrastinator too) I’ll bet I could make a simple phone call to the shelter, give them my credit card #, and donate over the phone. Then I’ll reach for my trusty pile of recycled paper and sketch out a makeshift card to represent the gift. The bottom line is, if you’re going to donate to charity in someone’s name, put a little thought into it and you’ll come out smelling like roses!

Idea #5.5: Better Late Than Never.
If you’re not buying what I’m selling and the ideas above don’t appeal to you, then go online, buy whatever socially conscious gift your heart desires, and print its picture out onto some pretty recycled paper with a note that says “coming soon.”

Written by: Tex Dworkin

Note from Rachel: I also like Heifer International as a organization to support. They work in the United States and around the world helping people towards sustainability through programs where animal husbandry allow communities to build up resources. They have a nice gift section where one can purchase a symbolic gift, like the goose in this photo for $20. It is symbolic because the money goes where it is most needed at the time, but the recipient receives a nice e-mail notice showing the donation as a goose, beehive, flock of ducks, etc.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Ethnic Nativities & Identity plus The Hyde Family

Zulu Beaded Doll Nativity
This set contains Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a manger,
made by Zulu women in a co-op in Kwa Zulu, Zululand in eastern South Africa.

Ethnic nativities offer an excellent opportunity to take a look at multiculturalism and the search for identity. Christianity's roots spring from the Bible, a text that historically and culturally belonged to the people of Israel. But, the New Testament, through Christ, made the Word available to all and in the last 2000 years, Christianity has indeed spread around the globe. Much of the initial work was done through missionaries, first through the Roman Catholic Church's participation in conquering the New World and in its alliance with traders in Africa and the Orient, then through Protestant missionaries who felt called to take the Word of God to the most remote regions of the world. The Industrial Revolution and consequent developments in communication (print, radio, television, and the internet) made it even easier for Christianity to achieve access into other cultures. (The reverse is also true as other religions and belief systems have made an impact on traditionally Christian turf.) Without addressing the pros and cons of this reality (ie. the cost in terms of lives lost, wars fought, or pros such as clinics and schools built in the name of Christ), the Nativity scene is recognized throughout the world, even where Christianity is not practiced.

The scene was created by an organization called GuguCrafters,
comprised of four Zimbabwean refugees living in Cape Town, South Africa.

A basic Nativity consists of the Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The baby in the manger with two figures on either side is such a familiar icon that just the shapes are enough to inform the viewer about the narrative. For example, the soda images above without the baby might be angels or choir members. Their praying hands indicate some kind of piety, but having the baby in the box with it eliminates any confusion that this is anything but a Nativity scene. This set doesn't have any ethnic tags to it. Obviously, it is recycled, but soda pop crafts are also very popular in Vietnam and increasing in other countries, including here in the United States.

An ethnic tag means that the piece is easily recognized by its technique as originating from a specific country or people. Anyone familiar with that culture will recognize the craft because it is produced in abundant quantities. Similar pieces made by different artisans can be found in the markets of that country or in specialty stores and catalogs. Here are some examples:

Peruvian Retablo Nativity
This Nativity is a retablo (diorama) scene.
Retablos are shrinelike boxes with religious scenes inside,
an art form unique to Peru.
They have evolved from the portable altars
which the Spanish conquistadores brought with them in the 16th century.

India- Textile Stamps Nativity
This Nativity is made from hand-carved wood pieces in India.
Bread Dough Nativity (Masapan), Equador
Each piece of this Nativity scene was painstakingly hand-molded from bread dough and baked until very hard by descendants of one of the original families in Ecuador who began the tradition of giving these masapan gifts to neighbors approximately 150 years ago. This technique originated in Calderón, which is a pueblo just outside of Quito in the Andes Mountains.

Arpillera Nativity from Peru

This Nativity hanging from Peru is called an arpillera, which in Spanish means burlap or sackcloth. Talented women use fabrics of many colors and textures to make this scene. They individually designed and hand-stitched every little detail.

The Peace Corps, NGO's, church groups and tourism all had an impact on how traditional handicrafts in different countries increasingly looked to the Western market (USA, Canada and Europe) for support. The fair trade movement increasingly became better at standardizing the crafts with quality control guidelines, understanding market trends and using the internet and trade shows as outlets. Christmas is a huge niche as both ornaments and nativity scenes have an audience of collectors. So, the Jewish family morphed and became represented by the cultural tags of the artisan. Jesus was not only a Jew, but also a Zulu, a Navajo, a Mexican, and an Inuit.

Elaborate Cloth and Fur Nativity $250
This Nativity set is handcrafted in Mongolia by Tsegtsmaa.
She made by hand all of the figures and animals, even using a lathe to make the wood bodies.

Part of this does come from marketing, but erasing the Baby Jesus's cultural roots also reflects a level of self-imaging where cultural bridges can be made through a story. Missionaries found early on that in order to explain the concept of Jesus they first had to try to understand the culture they were trying to impact. How do you explain "your sins will be washed away and be pure as snow" to someone who has never seen winter? Try explaining a father giving his son as a sacrifice to cannibals... Anthropoligists, linguists and Victorian travelers had a hard enough time exchanging basic information on family structures, meaning of words, and dietary practices without having to make a whole religious philosophy understood. In time, sometimes through force, sometimes through genuine interest, certain symbols have become recognized in all of the continents and at least, in all major urban areas around the world. These symbols have become a part of the larger marketplace with or without the meanings attached to them. Or, religions have synchretized into something new. Christianity was largely shaped by European theologians until the mid 1800's. American puritanism and expansionism redefined many ideas. Then, as Latin America and Africa became Christianized, they incorporated local beliefs into the larger whole. Even in the United States, Jesus was liberated from his roots by becoming African, a leader of inspiration in the Black Power movement.

Black Jesus Blesses the Children
20th Century Joe Cauchi (1918-1986 American)
Oil on Canvas

The carving below shows the Holy Family as Chinese:

This item comes from the only Christian woodcarving workshop in China, located in China's Zhejiang province, an area famous for all types of wood carving.

What does all of this mean? Is it necessarily good or bad? The manger scene is one that almost anybody can relate to: it's a happy picture. One which appeals to the basic desire of all people to see a happy mother, father and child together. Any family in any culture can find inspiration in that portrait. But, for Christians, the birth of Christ has no meaning without his subsequent death and resurrection. That's where it gets complicated. The cross is another symbol which is heavily marketed and sold, but I don't think it has as much appeal as the nativity.

Made by Yekosofati Buwembo, a disabled father in Kampala, Uganda.

Does it matter whether people understand the context of the Nativity? I'm not sure it really matters whether the baby is seen as Jewish or not. More importantly, the baby is a symbol of peace. There are two ways to get people to believe in something they can't see: through fear or through love. Christians who dig beneath the veneer of superficiality and try to live a Christlike life do it either because they are afraid of Hell or because they are attracted to God's love. The Baby Jesus is the easiest portal of entry to show the love path. And, if he looks African, Guatemalan, or Swedish, then it's even easier.

This hand-crafted Nativity set is made by a women's group in Kathmandu that seeks to help poor rural women in Nepal. The body of these dolls is made of recycled wooden products mixed with wax and dressed with corn husks.

Things can go the opposite way, too. A culture may disown something that was once theirs because others have made it distasteful to them. I'll never forget a Christmas week, back 20 years ago when I worked at Chicago Uptown Ministry. Every night for one week before Christmas, we would set up tables decked out in white linen, candles and nice plates. Each night a different church would sponsor a supper for the poor or lonely in the neighborhood. We had around 40 or 50 people a night. The church would bring all the food, prepared and ready to serve, and provide live Christmas music. We also had a little play re-enacting the manger scene for a little after dinner entertainment. We would invite different guests to read the roles in the play. I picked a tiny elderly couple out the guests and asked them if they would like to be Mary and Joseph. The woman, shocked, said, "Oh, my! No, we couldn't!!!" I asked them why and they said, "Well, because we're Jewish." Huh? That stopped me dead. I looked at them and said, "But, then... it's perfect! Mary and Joseph were Jewish, too!" I can't remember if they played the parts or not, but it turned out that the little old man used to be a crooner in the local clubs. He sang for us, song after song, Sinatra and many other oldies, still in great form. And, there, I found the spirit of Christmas. That, in all our differences and lack of understanding we can enjoy the gift of the other.

We can look at who we are, where we come from, and try to understand the impact of our cultures, beliefs, and practices on other people. But, in the end, as a Christian, I constantly remember two things: Jesus welcomed the little children and said that theirs was the kingdom of God. To me, that means that we don't have to understand deeply. We just have to have a pure heart. And, secondly, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians that "Now we see through a glass darkly and then face to face." None of us knows what's really out there. Don't stress out about whether Jesus was white or black or red or yellow or a zebra. Just receive the gift of the Nativity as a gift of love.

The Hyde Family

When I was thinking about this post, I knew that I would need Nativities representing different cultures. I was both pleased and astounded to find World Nativity, a project started by the Hyde Family. Here is their mission statement:

"We are the Hyde Family.

We wanted to do a little good in the world. While contemplating what we could do as a family project to teach our children about charity and serving others, we had a very inspired thought. We started buying Nativity scenes from artisans in poor or developing countries as a means of helping the artisans generate income in a way that preserved their dignity. We thought we might buy a few Nativities, but now we have many.

Along the way, we started buying extra Nativities from artisans we found via great miracles. We sold the extras to our interested friends. We thought it would be a small project, but the response has been so high that we have sold 1,600 Nativities from 50 artisans since 2005. Profits are given 100 percent to charitable causes and micro-credit projects in Third World countries that benefit the poorest people on the planet."

Isn't that absolutely awesome? All of the nativities on this post are from their site. Click on the photos of the nativities for full descriptions of the piece. The ones with prices were available for sale while the ones without were from their personal collection. I found their narratives and vision culturally sensitive, beautifully written and am thrilled to have them as a resource. If you like cultural Nativities, you know where to go!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Björk, The Canvas of a Modern Viking

Björk, a blank canvas, mutates as needed.

Last night I just happened to catch the movie "Dancer in the Dark" on cable. I missed the beginning, had never heard of it or of it's star, the famous Björk. Shows how in tune I am with what's going on in the world...

The story is about an immigrant woman who loves music and theater and is losing her sight. Set in 1946 Washington State, Selma (Björk), struggles with poverty and saves her pennies for a surgery which can save her son from the same fate she faces. A friend steals her money, she kills him and ends up convicted for murder. Tears flowed down my face at the end, when she is hung, one more testament to me, against the death penalty.

"Dancer in the Dark" and Björk both captured me with the sadness, gentleness and rhythm of the story, the music and the filming. I suppose it can be described as a musical as the plot takes periodic breaks for Björk's voice and accompanying choreography, wonderful rhythms of stomping and industrial noise. Here is a clip:

The movie is already eight years old, so it's old news to most out there. But, I liked it and after it finished, I wanted to find out more about Björk.

Ha! She's Icelandic! My Gislason roots got all warm and fuzzy. I watched a bunch of her songs on YouTube and read a bit about her. I ended up with mixed feelings about her work. Many of her videos had special effects that didn't do much for me. The photo below is shows a still from one of them where these wormy, inky blobs travel around her face, out of her eyes, into her nose, around and around.... The black ink from the aliens on X-Files were more convincing....

Many of the videos also had animation and techno stuff that didn't appeal to me at all. Maybe it's a generation gap. But, what drew me to her in the movie, that face that lit up, transforming plainness into beauty and sensuality, was replaced instead with images that spoke to me of self-annihilation and futility. I kept reading until I finally understood that Björk is the embodiment of the modern Viking. She destroys preconceptions, replacing them with potential transformations into the new.

Politically active, Björk speaks loudly for the environment, Tibetan independence and other social justice issues. Once the Vikings settled in Iceland, they quickly became one of the most democratic societies of their time. The harsh land could not support the population unless they worked under strict guidelines of cooperation. Months of cold darkness encouraged the development of crafts, literature and music. Icelanders also resisted Christianity for a long time, until they were finally forced to hide their runes and hide their pagan ways.

I don't know what Björk believes, but I now see her a nymph or a blank canvas that reflects both nature and humanity. Her Slavic features allow her to take on the guileless simplicity of innocence, of childhood, of the elf or imp. Or, she morphs into the vamp, the seductress, the praying mantis who will eat its mate. Björk's music seems to call to the soul, while her body becomes a canvas, one element within a larger picture of transformational art. She says on her website that she photographs herself so that a visual tone can help the viewer understand her music.

The photos in this post are all from Björk's website and give a small sampling of her many persona:

What an inspiration for fiber artists and costume designers! Each photo achieves a mood and message through the textures, colors and ornamentation by the costume. I ended my research feeling deep respect for this woman and look forward to her future evolutions.

I did find one video that I liked that seemed to represent Björk, Iceland and all this creative energy moving purposefully over a volcanic land. In "Who Is It?" Björk becomes an ornament, a timely performance for this Christmas season!


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paducah Chess Club

Remember the good old days when people used to sit around
in public places and play chess?

Brush up on your chess strategy with Chess Notes

Well, it's happening again here in Paducah!

English's Antiques at 212 Broadway in Paducah offers its space and antique tables for chess, every Saturday from 1-4PM.

Bring your own chess board and brush up on skills and techniques with other players.

Kids are welcome, too!

Sounds like fun!

Helpful Chess Links:

English's Antiques specializes in beautiful authentic antiques from England. It also sublets space to vendors, including Rayela Art and Afghan Tribal Arts. If you are in Paducah, be sure to stop by and visit. You will find hand-worked wood work, gorgeous textiles, watercolors and other treasures.

Sponsored by:

English's Antiques 212 Broadway


Rayela Art

(This blog!)


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Three Iranians Bow Down to a Baby Jew...

Felted Nativity by Beneath the Rowan Tree

A highly unlikely scenario these days, don't you think? But, apparently, it did happen a couple of thousand years ago. Christmas is coming and with it, the same stories and images we hear and see over and over again every year. Sometimes it's good to revisit them, poke them a little, and maybe expand the images we carry in our heads.

We think of the three wise men as vaguely coming from the East with flowing robes and large turbans. The Biblical text is found in Matthew:

The Visit of the Magi

Matthew 2 (NIV)

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 In Bethlehem in Judea, they replied, for this is what the prophet has written:

6'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him. 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I was raised as a PK (Pastor's Kid), so I've heard, sung, enacted and seen the story a gazillion times. You know, the pat version that has gotten engrained into our popular culture these last two thousand years. Sermons often do try to address the origin of these three men, what their gifts mean, downplaying the role of magi and making them into kings. Magic and astrology are NOT embraced by Christianity and here it is, smack in the heart of the biggest story in the Bible. So, of course, there is more to it, right?

I went to Wikipedia first to revisit background information. They sure do a good job of providing comprehensive data on almost any subject under the sun! Without getting too deeply into it, here are a few points that caught my eye:
  • "Magos" actually refers to a cast of Zoroastrian priests, probably Persian, which is modern day Iran.
  • We know them by three names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. But, there are many variations, including a belief by Chinese Christians that one of them came from China. The three faces that now seem so familiar to us were popularized in the 12th Century and formalized by the 15th. They represent the three stages of life: young, middle aged and old, as well as the three known worlds at the time: Europe, Africa and the Orient.
  • The first known artistic images of the three wise men (3rd Century) show a much different picture than what we are familiar with today:

One of the earliest known depictions from
a third century sarcophagus.
Similar attire continued for a few more centuries:

Byzantine art usually shows the Magi in Persian dress (breeches, capes, and Phrygian caps). Mosaic, ca. 600.Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy - restored.
  • Finally, the symbolism behind the gifts: "Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been advanced; while gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure. They generally break down into two groups:
    That they are all ordinary gifts for a king — myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
    That they are prophetic — gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priestship, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering." Wikipedia

Let me sidetrack here. I ran into that Byzantine mosaic several times. It's in the public domain so everybody is using it, I guess. The most interesting version was on this site called The Irish Origins of Civilization, a long, very long rant about how all as we know it started in good old Ireland. I have a tender place in my heart for the Green Emerald... Coming from Icelandic descent, there's a drop or two of blood from that part of the world running in my veins... (Danish men bopped Irish women on the head and carted them off to Iceland, right?) Anyway, if you are bored and looking for something very long to read that plays with the origin of all things, check it out. Here is a snippet:

"The term Israelite has its etymological origins in the term Iesa, the Druidic Christ. A high initiate of the Cult of Iesa was known as an "Iesa-ite" or, as it has come down to us, an "Israelite." The Israelites were worshippers of the sun, stars, and zodiac.

The Three Wise Men (referring to the mosaic above) - the Magi who followed the bright star (the sun) to the birthplace of Jesus (Iesa). This artist clearly shows the three travelers as Caucasian. The number 3 is used in the bible as a symbol representing the Druids and their gnosis. The three gifts they bore are all symbols of the sun. The gifts identify the magi as members of the Solar Cult.

They were the stellar priesthood of Ireland, and closely associated with the Chaldean and Egyptian magi. We find them obliquely referred to in the New Testament "Nativity" story. Apparently, three of their number followed the sun (the bright star in heaven) and visited the birthplace of Jesus, the king of light. It appears that the authors of the bible wished to incorporate information about the Druids early on in the story of Jesus. The references to the "three kings" and "three shepherds" are cryptic references to them, or to members of their worldwide colleges. The bible, however, does not elaborate on the visiting magi or explain why and how they came to a remote inn when Jesus was being born there."

Huh? Sorry, but there's not enough Irish in me to swallow all of this without a really, really big spoonful of sugar... I wondered if the Zoroastrians laid claim to the three men from the East. Sure enough, I found that Farsinet embraced the story, although with a slightly different twist on symbolism:

"While oftentimes conflicting lore muddles the story of the Magi, those bearing gifts for the Christ child are Caspar of Tarsus, Melchior of Persian and Balthasar of Saba. Weary from desert travel, the Magi humbly offer their gifts. Caspar is young, European and offers gold. Gold finances the Holy Family's coming flight to Egypt and also symbolizes Christ's immortality and purity. For his generosity, Caspar receives the gifts of charity and spiritual wealth. Melchior is middle-aged, Persian and offers myrrh. Myrrh is a fragrant gum, which the ancient Israelites believed to strengthen children. This symbol of Christ's mortality was blended with wine and offered to him on the cross, and also mixed with aloes to wrap his body for the tomb. Melchior receives the gifts of humility and truth. Balthasar is elderly, Ethiopian and offers frankincense. Frankincense is a resin used in incense for worship and also symbolizes prayer and sacrifice. Balthasar receives the gift of Faith. And Christ, humbling himself to become man, offers us the greatest gift of all, the light that forever burns in the darkness. "

This version uses similar references to origin as the medieval sources. It also goes on to talk about Marco Polo's reference to a visit he made to where the three wisemen were buried:

"In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior."

Wikipedia confirms this and also mentions that the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral still contains the bones of the three kings.

All very interesting. A Turkotek discussion on Zoroastrian clothing caught my eyes as I travelled the Google road. Turkotek is a wonderful resource for any textile enthusiast, especially concerning Central Asia. Expert members share their knowledge over different textiles that they find. In this discussion, they examine a pair of brightly colored bridal trousers, beaded and embroidered.

Apparently, women by the 19th Century wore these bright colors, while men unadorned costumes, much more subdued than the women. The mosaic suggests richer garb for the men of Jesus' time, but perhaps styles can change quite a bit in several hundred years...

This was about all the time I was willing to give to expanding my thoughts on the three wise men. Perhaps it is a big mind boggling to think of Iranians giving a baby Jew any kind of obeisance today. But, let us remember two things. In the first place, there was strife in the air two thousand years ago, too. After the wise men left, Herod had all babies under two killed as he was afraid the infant Jew would threaten his throne. Secondly, that whole region of the world shares much more in common than they do in difference. I believe that despite the blood shed of recent history, the people want peace. They are cousins and with good leadership (their own!), they can once again find not only tolerance, but prosperity and good will. At least that is my hope. And, I believe that is the gift the wise men saw in that little baby, the King of Peace.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Shop NOVICA! Christmas Ornaments from Around the World

NOVICA, one of my favorite online shops, advertises itself as "in association with National Geographic". Their website doesn't really explain how they are associated, except that if you look at it, the layout, products and tone reflects something National Geographic would endorse.

NOVICA's mission is also pretty generic. It starts with, "We want to give artists and artisans around the world a global platform to express their true artistic talents and to spur their creativity. And, we want to provide you with access to unique, hard-to-find items at great values that only the Internet infrastructure can allow..." Although it is a member of Co-op America, NOVICA does not seem to ally itself with the fair trade movement in a specific way. Despite all of this, NOVICA's model is about as fair as you can get. I used to buy wholesale from them when I had my brick and mortar store and now Fiber Focus is an affiliate, supporting the concept through ads they potentially generate a commission.

The movie clip at the top of this post is a good illustration of the impact NOVICA has had on the lives of the many artists and artisans it works with around the world. Every item on its website tells the story of the person who made it. Many started out as individuals and went on to grow their businesses into collectives. For this post, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the ornaments made from some of their suppliers around the world. This is a small sampling and I only picked fiber ones. There are also lovely pieces made from wood, clay and glass.


Beaded ornaments, 'Burgundy Heart' (set of 5)

Beaded ornaments, 'Burgundy Heart'

(set of 5)

Velvet hearts in a deep wine color speak of a timeless love. Covered with glittering zardozi embroidery, beadwork and diminutive flowers, the hand-crafted ornaments are luxurious. Parvez A. Warsi crafts the beautiful set of five to showcase traditional Indian arts. Warsi includes a drawstring pouch; its colors may vary.

Ornaments, 'Glittering Joy' (set of 6)

Ornaments, 'Glittering Joy' (set of 6)

Affan welcomes the holiday season with a glittering set of ornaments that includes a star, a tree, a heart, a boot, a butterfly and a fleur-de-lis. The organza ornaments are sewn by hand and feature India's legendary zardozi embroidery shaping festive motifs. Zardozi art first came to light during the reign of emperor Akbar in the Middle Ages, and it is characterized by the artistic use of laid stitch with golden thread known as zari.

Beaded ornaments, 'Golden Partridge' (set of 6)

Beaded ornaments, 'Golden Partridge'

(set of 6)

Glittering zardozi embroidery and fine beadwork distinguish a set of ornaments by Parvez A. Warsi. He crafts a set of six colorful partridges that twirl on golden strings.

Beaded ornaments, 'Christmas Spirit' (set of 4)

Beaded ornaments, 'Christmas Spirit'

(set of 4)

Sparkling beads highlight the fascinating allure of the zardozi embroidery that embellishes these four Christmas ornaments. Zardozi is renowned for its intricate patterns, once embroidered with fine threads of gold or silver. Nowadays it is executed with fine silk threads and is known as zari. This set features four different designs and will adorn with distinctive charm. Please note color shades and/or motifs may vary slightly since these products are entirely hand-crafted.


Natural fiber ornaments, 'Angels' (set of 4)

Natural fiber ornaments, 'Angels'

(set of 4)

Wearing wide-brimmed hats, four Balinese angels showcase nature's gifts. Woven by hand, they are crafted of bamboo, screw pine, water hyacinth and agel grass. Palm leaf and tamanu, the fruit of the beauty leaf tree, adorn this set of ornaments by Dwi Astuti and Kusbudiyanto. Because each is individually crafted of natural fibers, colors and motifs may vary slightly.

Natural fiber ornaments, 'Pink Java Angels' (set of 4)

Natural fiber ornaments,

'Pink Java Angels' (set of 4)

Four Javanese angels celebrate nature's gifts dressed in bright green costumes. Woven by hand, they are crafted of bamboo, screw pine, water hyacinth and agel grass. Palm leaf and tamanu, the fruit of the beauty leaf tree, adorn this set of ornaments by Dwi Astuti and Kusbudiyanto. Coconut shell buttons complete their elegant attires. Because each is individually crafted of natural fibers, colors and motifs may vary slightly.


Gourd ornaments, 'Jungle Greetings' (set of 6)

Gourd ornaments, 'Jungle Greetings'

(set of 6)

The natural, organic artistry that comes from the Peruvian jungles becomes an original set of ornaments with the art of Rocio Davila Rojas. They are carved by hand from tutuma gourds featuring balsa wood and cotton trim. The natural gourds may vary slightly in shape and size.

Cotton ornaments, 'Peach Christmas Balloons' (set of 3)

Cotton ornaments, 'Peach Christmas Balloons' (set of 3)

Enjoying the view from the sky, celebrants shout Christmas greetings to those below. Margarita and Martha fashion a trio of novel and beautiful Christmas ornaments. The colorful peach hot air balloons feature straw baskets that carry tiny travelers in Andean dress. Because each ornament is individually crafted, colors may vary slightly.

Ornaments, 'Festive Huancavelica Couple' (pair)


'Festive Huancavelica Couple'


Mercedes Benavides celebrates the festive traditions of the Huancavelica region with an endearing pair of tree ornaments. Dressed in traditional costumes, they are expertly crafted by hand. The cholito (young man) and cholita (young woman) smile the radiant smile of the festive season.

Applique ornaments, 'Joyous Bells' (set of 6)

Applique ornaments, 'Joyous Bells' (set of 6)

Festive bells bring the Christmas spirit to the Andes in this charming set by Maria Ramos Sanchez. Children welcome the holiday season as they stroll along with their llamas across the Andean highland. Each scene is eloquently detailed in arpillera, where fabric cutouts are sewn into a wondrous collage over a cotton background. The bells feature a wool border ending in a loop, for hanging. Please note, Ramos uses different fabrics for the arpillera compositions, which can result in a slight difference in color.


Cotton ornaments, 'Christmas Stockings' (set of 12)

Cotton ornaments,

'Christmas Stockings' (set of 12)

Embroidered by artisans from Thai Tribal Crafts, twelve bright stockings await Christmas Eve. The handmade ornaments are representative of the textile traditions of the Hmong people, who long ago immigrated to northern Thailand.

Cotton ornaments, 'Tribal Stars' (set of 12)

Cotton ornaments, 'Tribal Stars'

(set of 12)

Embroidered by artisans from Thai Tribal Crafts, stars and flowers appear in precise symmetry on twelve handmade ornaments. The work is representative of the textile traditions of the Hmong people, who long ago immigrated to northern Thailand.

Lots of people collect ornaments. And, how meaningful it can be to attach a person's story to something that is collectible! I haven't wrapped my gifts traditionally in years. Why spend all that money on wrapping paper and bows and ribbons that will end up in the garbage? Instead, I like to use newspaper or some other recycled paper or a scarf or fabric or anything else that can be used and top it off with a handmade ornament. Sure, some of these ornaments are going to be more expensive than the ones made by sweatshops (although most are really quite affordable!), so make the ornament your gift along with a loaf of banana bread or something tasty.

Whatever you decide to do in this lean year, do take a tour of NOVICA's wonderful catalog. You can enter through any of the above ornaments (you are not committing to buy if you click on the button...) and travel by type of item or country. Have fun!



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