Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ahmed Ibrahim, Mosaic Artist, Tells His Story




When I was a little child and my friends were enjoying playing outside, I found that I preferred to stay indoors with my colors, pencils and paper. I wanted to imagine and create images as beautiful as that of the real world around me.

My mosaic journey started with a visit to the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Egypt when I was nine years old. I was really fascinated by the way the little tiny pieces of stone (tesserae) came together to create beautiful pieces of art. From there, my obsession with mosaics began and I would soon learn that mosaic was much more than that.




I was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, the most populous city in Egypt. Growing up, I was surrounded by a rich and diverse culture, which shaped my artistic personality. I was raised in a middle-class family in Cairo. My dad passed away when I was only ten years old. This had a huge impact on my life since my mother had to raise my two sisters and I by herself. I soon learned how strong and wonderful a single mother could be.

My mother has been a great inspiration for how strong and independent a person could be. She was, and still is, my first and lasting supporter of my decision to enroll in art school to be a full-time mosaic artist.

After I joined the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, I had learned that mosaic is much more than just fitting tiny, little pieces together. We studied sculpture, painting, color composition, color theory, and much more. I think mosaic is the kind of art form that requires an understanding of sculpture and painting to be able to express thoughts thoroughly. Mosaic artists need to understand sculpture so they can understand the three dimensional form and all of its aspects such as using appropriate materials while considering the weight in order to choose the correct support. Meanwhile, painting is a primary tool in my mosaic work since most of my design process starts with a sketch which is then turned into a painting and then brought to life as a mosaic.




After I graduated college, I was nominated to be a part of Dr. Sabry Mansour’s Mosaic Team. We worked side-by-side under Dr. Mansour as a lead artist to create and install four large-scale mosaic murals. These murals were for the El Ahram Canadian University and the festival building at the Helwan University Campus. I was fortunate to grow as a professional working on this team under such a well-known Middle Eastern artist.




Finding the love of my life changed my life majorly in many ways. Most importantly, however, I moved across the world so I could be with her. This was when I decided to move to the United States in 2010. I was agreeing to the unknown future and my only power was Love. I moved to a different country and different culture, which turned out to be such a wonderful and rich inspiration to me as an artist.




In 2011, I was honored to become a part of the Chicago Mosaic School’s staff as a Teaching Artist.  This was the first time in my career that I shifted the focus from my practice as an artist to helping growing artists refine their skill and expression in the mosaic art form. I found that I learned so much from my students and harnessed their excitement and transferred it into inspiration to continue to create and build mosaics. Additionally, my work with the Chicago Mosaic School allowed me to meet and work with several international visiting artists. The most impactful experience that I have had working with there would have to be the artwork that I created working under the renowned artist, Verdiano Marzi, in one of his annual visits to the school. It was in this workshop that I truly learned to appreciate the beauty and meaning of every single tesserae that goes into my work.




2012 I was lucky to be offered the opportunity to work at the Hyde Park Art Center on the Southside of Chicago. This innovative art center serves the purpose of reaching a broad and diverse student base. It was there that I was lucky to find students that brought, and still bring, a wider perspective to the class and the art form based on their diverse experiences in life. They continuously inspire me to push boundaries and stretch the limits of the Mosaic art form.




Towards the end of 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I am typically not an optimistic person, and I am quick to find everything that is wrong with a situation. However, miraculously, in this frightening period of the unknown, I was able to see the silver lining in that this experience taught me to appreciate all things and experiences while looking for the positive. It was as though the cancer treatments were a treatment for the negativity inside me, reducing the cancer of negativity and pessimism. This time of my life has had the most profound impact on my artwork. Prior to the diagnosis, I focused on despair and hopelessness in my artwork. However, as I went through treatments and became stronger, I found a new optimism in my life’s outlook. Today I am in remission and continue to hold an optimistic outlook to life. With that, I hope my artwork inspires hope and optimism for the future.




This is Week 19 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Ahmed’s story today. To connect with him and see more of his work, please visit the following links:




Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Cornell Kinderknecht, Musician, Tells His Story





“I Need to Know”

One of my favorite quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

Those two sentences have been very profound to me. I think it might be too dramatic to say they are “life changing.” But, that quote has brought me great comfort and has definitely changed how I perceive events that happen in my life. Looking at it … we as humans are often grasping for something that is just out of our reach, seeking something that without, we feel lesser or that we’re missing out, or setting ourselves up to feel that our goals and aspirations are too difficult to cope with.




Many of us are waiting for something big to come along that will change our lives -- “if only this” or “if only that” -- that giant miracle. If I could lose 10 pounds, then I’ll look good enough to go to the gym and work out. If I could have the house that my neighbors down the street have, then I could be happy.

But, if we can take a moment and look what we have right now in this moment, we may see the true miracle. I have this very complex body with all its systems and intricate parts. And it just works. Even when I mistreat it, it works. I can breathe. I’m alive. What a miracle. When I go outside, there are trees, the sun, the birds and animals, cars, buildings, the air that I breathe, all just there. I didn’t have to do anything. No “if only this or that.” What a miracle. That I have eyes that can see, that I can look and see each of your eyes, and in your eyes, I can immediately recognize your joy, your pain, your happiness, your love, your friendship -- what a miracle, right now, right here … I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to wait. It’s all right here, now. I am nourished. I am filled. I am alive.

Besides changing my outlook on life’s happenings, trying to be aware in the present moment has also changed my approach to music.




Music has always been a part of my life. I can’t see it as a separate entity from myself. There was always music in our house as I was growing up. There was always the making of music in the house too. There were always musical instruments around that we could make sounds with. I always knew that music was integral to life.

Without going through a biography or resume here, I’d like to offer some milestones that I can remember and consider to be monumental in this story of music and mindfulness.

At around 4 years of age as my oldest sister was playing a song she created on the piano, I walked up and demanded that she let me know how to make music because, “I need to know.” She told me that she couldn’t tell me that and that I’d have to learn that on my own. Our compromise was that I could sit on her lap and put my hands on top of hers while she played. Maybe she intended that to be a single music lesson, but I know I spent many hours bugging her and sitting on her lap while she played piano for the next year or so after that. I don’t ever remember her complaining though. At that time, that was enough for me in my “need to know” quest. I was filled.




Around age 8, my youngest older sister taught me the notes and fingerings on her “flute-o-phone” that she had learned in school a few years earlier and she showed me how to read music. Some time shortly after that, our mother showed me where to put my fingers on the saxophone. What? Flute-o-phone and saxophone have very similar fingering patterns. My “need to know” appetite was whetted again and I filled myself with music in every way that I could for the next years, eventually being old enough to be part of the school band program.

The summer between 8th grade and high school was probably the time for the biggest breakthrough in music for me. I was the last of my siblings living at home and our mom and dad both worked during the day. I had the house to myself. Each day, I’d get up, have a bowl of cereal, watch “The Price is Right” and a “Chico and the Man” rerun, and then spend the next several hours at the piano playing and discovering. That was when I got good at practicing, reading, reproducing melodies that I heard on the radio or TV, being able to easily transpose songs from one key to another, and just developing musical skills. You know, I just realized as I was writing this paragraph, at this point, I was around the age that my oldest sister was when I told her, “I need to know.” I will never have her exquisite natural musical intuition, but I think at that point, I was finally starting to “know.” The next years were spent filling my life with everything I could musically -- taking part in every singing or playing ensemble offered, music competitions, jamming with friends, playing in bands. I was hungry.

After finishing a degree in computer science, I stayed in college and completed an applied music degree in woodwind performance. It was then that my “need to know” quest became rounded out with nuance and sensitivity, deeper knowledge and practical musicianship. It was a great time during which I had the freedom to fill my days with music. Upon graduating, I pursued my other passion, and worked as a software engineer for the next many years. Music took a backseat for a while.

Over time, the musical itch grew strong again and I desired to figure a way to live a more musical life. I managed to connect with some musical friends that I knew from the past and met up with some new folks. Musical interaction became a regular thing for me again. It was different now though. Instead of a “need to know” aspiration, it became a very creative time and an opportunity for me to step out of the box a bit and put myself out there. I was encouraged by a few friends to share my own songs with the world and to create my own concerts and music classes.




So, finally this story is coming around to where it started several paragraphs ago. Opportunity arrived that I could make music be my “work.” I hadn’t intended it to happen this way, but I left my previous job and filled my calendar with concerts, festivals and workshops. Around this same time, I came across the Thich Nhat Hanh quote that I started this story with. I started to incorporate mindfulness and awareness practice in my life and was surprised to see my relationship with music change shape. I started feeling that music was not so much something that I had a hunger for but instead was something that was integral to me and was a trait that was just a part of me that I could nurture. It was less of a “need to know” and more of a “doing.” Music is something that I offer to this world. It is a sort of smile that I can offer to others -- a welcoming embrace that might make someone feel a little bit better. It does not need to be perfect. It just needs to be expressed.

Concerts no longer need to be a show of all the notes I can play or all the instruments the audience will hear. Now, the stage is a place for me to offer a moment of connection, entertainment or happiness to someone. Maybe they’ll have a laugh at the silly stories I tell. Maybe they’ll release a few tears when a song brings back some memories for them. I don’t need to be the best player they’ve ever heard. People just want to make connections with each other and have a moment to let go of all the mental baggage they carry around. What a miracle that we can share music, a smile and friendship. What a miracle that we all have our unique stories that make up all of who we are and can share that uniqueness with each other in a way that can give just a moment of peace.

 
Photo Credit: Noni Hodgkins

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still “need to know” and I practice a lot and try new things out and like to show off a little now and then. It’s just that I hope I’m gaining an understanding how the power of our own presence and sharing of our experiences with others can benefit someone, or ourselves, in ways that we don’t always anticipate. We just do it because that’s what we do as humans.

Here’s what I often say in my mind at the beginning of a concert to bring my awareness to the present moment, “May my breath be pure. May the music be of benefit to someone who hears it.”


Photo Credit: Noni Hodgkins

This is Week 18 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Cornell’s story today. To connect with him, hear more and/or purchase his music, please visit the following links:

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Marcos Smyth, Ephemeral Sculptor, Tells His Story




After many years of working with welded metals, creating sculptures, I returned to working with wood and mixed media. Driftwood that I collected on walks along the Potomac River shores held a fascination that spoke to me. These forms suggested relationships to each other that inspired me to assemble them into abstract structures.

As negative spaces emerged in these structures, I incorporated other materials to enhance the form and add structural strength. Copper sheet has been a favorite material for the negative spaces. This became a very satisfying alternative to welded sculpture as my current studio was not fireproof.





Some of the wood I found on the Potomac, near my home in Fairfax County, Virginia, was too large and cumbersome to transport easily. I was also running out of room in my yard, so I started assembling structures on site by the river. It was gratifying to work with the materials where I found them, and to relate the sculptures to the surrounding environment. The Zen experience of meditation and “mindfulness,” allowed me to respond to the materials, the site, and harmonize with Nature.

These works were temporary and meant to eventually fall apart and be reabsorbed into the environment from which the materials came.  I made a point not using hardware to minimize the impact on the site. This also precluded the need for storage, rendering the works ephemeral in nature and saved only through photographs and documentation.





A few years ago, an article in the Washington Post, about an artist building a “shipwreck” out of driftwood, caught my attention. Robin Croft was also sculpting ephemeral works in natural settings not too far from where I lived. He was approachable and very receptive to collaborating. Working together made it possible to work faster and bigger, thus supporting each other’s vision. We shared concern for migrants who were being victimized by smugglers and by countries where they were not welcome. (A link to the Washington Post story is at the end of this blog post).


Drowning Refugee, Smyth & Croft, Potomac River

One of our projects was a group of figures walking through the water, at high tide, as if reaching the shore. They could also be seen as marching on Washington, D.C., up river in the near distance. Our most recent project responded to the thousands of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach a better life. We created a figure’s arm and head rising up from the water at high tide signaling for help.

Our collaborative work starts by sharing ideas and agreeing on a theme and site for our project. A sketch will often elaborate on the general structure. When our site is on the Potomac River, the tides are an important consideration since there is a three to four foot affect on water level. Most works on this site are built at low tide so that it stands in water during high tide. 





Collecting driftwood up and down the shore is our first job. Any wood we can carry and use is piled at our site.  Heavy logs “planted” in the gravel anchor the structure. By tying smaller driftwood with sisal cord and weaving additional materials to the anchor, we build a structure that hopefully will survive the rise and fall of the river for a while. Our river site is visible from the George Washington Parkway between Alexandria and Mount Vernon in Virginia. 

We are planning on a new project this summer in a young grove of trees near the water. It will be one of Robin’s “ghost ships.” This site is not visible from the Parkway. We plan on giving the coordinates for those interested in GPS hunts. We’ve had some articles written about our work, so we may get some coverage again.




This summer, I will be installing a welding studio in my backyard, where I can again safely work with metals without burning my house down. Though I will continue to collaborate with Robin and work with wood, I look forward to being able to use the full range of my skills on other works. I am developing some ideas that will combine wood and welded steel, which may be a possible evolution of my forms.




This is Week 17 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Marcos' story today. To connect with Marcos and see more of his work, please visit the following links:

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Washington Post Article