NOTE: Below is an essay (written at the very last minute!) by my step-daughter for an Art class - which, she wants me to tell you, explains why some of the paragraphs towards the end are "boring" - but her mother and I found them ALL pretty amazing! Enjoy
Art and Human Needs
11 November 2015
When I think of the past, I think of tradition. Traditions are in a sense, the past reincarnated. Commitment to traditions and other family ties can remain constant even through change, pain or loss. There is a certain healing power in being surrounded by those you love and participating in familiar activities as a whole. Traditions not only facilitate the reunion of loved ones, but also the commemoration of those who have passed away. By continuing traditions started by family members in the past, we can be comforted by familiarity while simultaneously paying tribute those who can no longer participate. Physical works of art such as monuments or mausoleums also help fulfill our natural human need to remain connected to those we love both near and far. Both tradition and art are necessary and effective forms of expression that aid in the process of commemoration and acceptance of loss.
With the holiday season soon approaching, the decorating of our family Christmas tree is a specific tradition that comes to mind. This is a ritual many people observe, that mixes both art and spirit to create a unique experience. For my family, this tradition begins with finding a tree. It seems each year we take home the most “Charlie Brown-esque” of the lot. We laugh as we turn it every which way in an attempt to expose its fullest branches. Whatever eccentric Christmas themed playlist my step-dad has created that year is always the soundtrack. I am usually the first to disagree with our choice of tree, however after it is finally in its stand I do take a step back and appreciate its unique beauty. The bright colors glowing in the dimmed light of our family room, is quite a sight to see if you make sure to squint your eyes just right (“squinty eyes” being another tradition that always takes place upon that first igniting flick of the switch).
Once we have collectively admired the lights through squinty eyes, my step-dad retrieves from the attic what somehow seems to be way more boxes of ornaments than we had the year before. As they pile up we wonder where they all came from and, more importantly, how we will fit them all on our scrawny Charlie Brown tree. Regardless, we begin to pull ornaments out of their boxes, unwrap their protective newspaper layers, and place them on the tree. It seems my step-dad naturally gravitates toward the top branches, while my mom and I gravitate toward middle branches. With the birth of my younger brother, who is now 6, even the very bottom of our tree manages to become riddled with our eclectic Christmas ornaments and the answers to our aforementioned wonders begin to unfold. Even as time changes the size of our family and the number of ornaments we possess, we still make the tradition work. Tradition trumps change, and the ability to realize and appreciate that fact, as well as watch it unfold is a gift in itself.
As we miraculously manage to find a place for each piece of our excessively large ornament collection it is an unspoken yet unavoidable part of the tradition to discuss the history and origin of every ornament we pick up. We have naturally given each piece sentimental value, as each has been consistently present in the tradition. After participating in this tradition with my family every year, I have concluded from my experiences that Christmas ornaments of any kind are tiny works of art that we purchase or create to be included in a sacred family tradition. We place value on the artwork or even the artist if it happens to be someone close to us.
One work of art featured on our tree each year is especially close to my heart. The piece is a large ceramic bulb with a simple gold ribbon tied around the top for hanging. A soft, but bright emerald green envelops the entire sphere serving as a backdrop for the focal point of the piece. Occupying most of the front surface area is a 3-Dimensional image of a hearty, and highly detailed Santa Clause face. His beard is snow white and carved in a way that gives it a texture similar to braids or curls. Only a small portion of a cheery, bright red mouth is visible through its density. Chubby cheeks, painted a subtle rosy pink protrude above his full beard. A crimson red Santa hat sits atop more billowy, stark white hair. Most notably, two small almond shaped eyes are accented with dainty black lashes that help draw attention to their deep blue centers. The bright colors offer a drastic contrast to the pure white of the beard, which makes the image stand out. Santa’s facial expression is joyful and friendly, just as he is most commonly depicted. He even seems to be making squinty eyes (a tree decorating necessity, as previously mentioned). Volume is only evident where the 3D shapes of Santa’s face and features are raised from the original spherical shape, giving the illusion that Santa is peeking his head out from inside the ornament. The lack of chiaroscuro gives the work a simple, clean look. Overall, the style of the piece is very classic, because of its clean lines and use of traditional Christmas colors. The piece is essentially the epitome of a typical Christmas ornament. Contextually speaking, it is clear from the generic materials and design that this piece is not the work of a professional artist, although it is still neatly and accurately done. The artist of this particular Christmas ornament was in fact my grandma, Kathleen Cribbins. During a ceramics class with her friends in 1975, she crafted this heavy ceramic bulb featuring this cherubic Santa Clause because of her love for Christmas. I imagine that between chatter and laughter with girlfriends, she carefully created what I consider to be the most beautiful ornament featured on my Christmas tree to this day. Its bright colors and simple, yet bold image have always stuck out to me. I often admired it as a child and fondly remember seeing it prominently displayed on my grandparents Christmas tree every year when I was young. Forty years have gone by since my grandma created this work of art, and began the tradition of hanging it on her own tree with her daughter. Today, 4 years have gone by since the passing of my grandma. With her passing, the ornament made its way into the possession of my mom, who now carries out so many family traditions in place of her mom, including of course decorating our Christmas tree. For me, this simple Santa Clause ornament that was once held and cared for by my grandma, now holds so much of her spirit. Each year when we finally stumble upon her creation during our tree decorating tradition, it is as if we have the privilege of opening one last Christmas gift from her.
In dealing with loss, commemoration is a natural human need. The loss of a loved one is not easy to accept or endure. Humans are comforted by the idea that those who have passed can somehow still live on. To facilitate this, we project significance onto worldly possessions, like pieces of artwork that we can connect to our loved ones, as a means of physically experiencing and enjoying our memories of them through these possessions. Throughout history many cultures have decorated tombs, named grave stones, built and visited shrines, and erected monuments, all for the sake of remembering and honoring their pasts. These are all examples of both art and tradition being utilized as means of commemoration.
Each year, in accordance with tradition, my mom and I choose a spot that catches our eye and display my grandma’s artwork proudly. In doing so, we transform our tree into a sort of monument commemorating the spirit of my grandma. Her hand crafted Christmas ornament will always be one of my favorite works of art, as it serves as a constant reminder that she is with us not only in our family traditions, but in our memories always.