The Story of Two Storytellers

The framing device for my next art project is a trip taken by two travelers, one a storyteller by nature, who is not normally a person of action, and one a person of action, who learns how to tell stories.

My way of better understanding these two characters and their story together is to do portraits of them, full-front with a few props and simple backgrounds. I seem to need a time consuming element of repetitive work while I’m conjuring—so I’m doing paper cuts.

revising Jean

Cutting image

While cutting characters with a blade, I invariably change the drawing. Figures sometimes become more angular or jagged or intense, they look meaner or crazier or more tired or distraught. I may decide to add weapons. What starts out as something like a children’s book illustration gets a little nastier.





Here (below) are two versions of Legoe Matoe, the Devil’s Dressmaker, from Hell Hole Swamp (a real place in the Lowcountry of South Carolina). She starts out sort of cute and gets creepier (this is indeed part of her story)

Legoe 1

Legoe reverse


Here are versions of the other character, Janglin Jean. Unlike Legoe who progresses straight from cute to creepy, Jean just looks different in each case. Obviously I can’t decide if she looks like the Tin Man (woman) crossed with a skeleton, or Cher with plastic surgery and bioengineered parts. Actually, I’m leaning toward the latter, as this would fit her story (she’s done many things in her life and is feeling worn out and in need of a “lift”).


Mean Jean

Face Lift Jean


After finishing these exploratory paper cuts, I want to develop a strategy for reproducing sequences of images. I am thinking about cutting out black and white figures and arranging them on colored backgrounds. The paper cut helped me visualize how this might work.


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I recently read a biography of Diane Arbus and read this great review of an exhibit of her early photos by Holland Cotter:

Looking at her odd and challenging pictures reminds me that artists translate visual imagery and memories of people and places into symbols (refracted, fractured) and signs (reflections), often making choices along some continuum between the two. There is no such thing as the unvarnished view. All of us have strategies of seeing and portraying that suit us.

I go for fractured and refracted; I don’t do reflective very well. This tendency extends to my sense of place. I recently revisited a childhood summer home and recognized with fresh eyes that my black and white drawings are littered with symbolic bits and pieces from that environment. The story involving those drawings (“The Obidian Interval”) has nothing to do with that place or my family, but they are in there, as individual characters, imaginary geography, and even the overall style of my drawings.

I’m recording a few examples to help me preapare for a second graphic novel (of sorts). I’m hoping for stylistic continuity (one reason for this exercise) and some of the characters will repeat. This will be the story of a Trek across country. It’s a mash up of The Wizard of Oz (always), Thelma and Louise (loosely), and Rocky and Bulwinkle’s fractured fairytales. It fills the gap between “The Obidian Interval” and “The Grand Houkathunk” (which I introduced in an earlier post).

Around 2000 I did rubbings of interior hardware  in my family’s summer home, a shingle style house built in the 1880s,  and some time later produced an artist’s book titled: The House in my Head.”

door knob


Lillian Trettin_House in My Head_Art

The House in My Head 2002


Below are views from the house (on an island in the Great Lakes) that I will always remember. They influence the way I interpret experience and determine everything from imaginary geography to a vaguely eastern style originally derived more from Victorian “orientalism” than any true awareness of traditional Asian culture.

View from the front porch

island geog

View from the kitchen

My cover for “The Obidian Interval” is a compilation of odds and ends from my father’s second floor junk room, interior hardware, and home artifacts.

Dad's closet


Chester impBook cover.jpg The strange little girl on the right may be me in the dark corner of the house near the back steps under the phone, a place  that for some reason made me afraid (I have never figured that one out).

Hanging on the wall in the dining room, there’s a picture of a horse drawn cab on a road with a grave marker or a commemorative sculpture or a letter box or a Station of the Cross—I have never figured out what it is supposed to be, but I can only see a scary face there. I used to look at it during family meals, probably while waiting for my father to serve the plates and my mother to pick up her fork. This faces shows up in my drawings.

mystery face

face 2

I’ve drawn many dancing rubbery bodies because of the prancing figure on this lamp and occasionally a rubbery landscape (also conditioned by looking out wavy glass in old windows).

old lamp

These bits and pieces symbolize or refract or incorporate family history, but the artist need not justify or explain, and sometimes can’t.

Now, there’s more to come, just as soon as I make it all up (out of more bits and pieces). There will even be a little history (fractured) of bootlegging. Probably because I remember the dusty top row of exotic cocktail glasses from a bygone era in the pantry of the summer home, things that my family would never have considered using.


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The Pebble

pebbles 2

This short essay is the best piece I’ve read on philosophy of art in some time.  Rivka Glachen’s contribution bears reading more than once, and I reproduce it below in full.

Is the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ the prerogative of the socially privileged?

Comment by Rivka Galchen

Because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time.

Of late, in part to lower my blood pressure after reading the news, I turn for bedtime reading to “The Collected Poems” of Zbigniew Herbert. The book often falls open to a poem titled “Pebble” that begins like this:

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning. . . .

its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity

The lines read almost like a piece of philosophy, or a fragment of a mathematical proof. Though the poet was born in Lwow, Poland, in 1924, there is very little directly visible in this poem — or in a majority of Herbert’s poems — of the Nazi or subsequent Communist rule under which he lived, or of his odd jobs, ill health, loves, meals.

“Art for art’s sake” might be a term used for something that appears simply to look inward, at its own process and material, rather than outward; it might be something in which an interest in form seems to have eclipsed interest in the larger world, or in social justice, or in content of any kind.

Since art categorizable as “art for art’s sake” is usually produced tangentially to hopes of making money, of reaching a large audience or of being immediately useful, it tends to be the darling of the many-degreed. And because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time — usually the wealthy, occasionally the poor. But there is a way in which art for art’s sake is the art most open to all comers, and the most (potentially) ethical.

The latter half of “Pebble” shifts perspective and sentiment:

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

— Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

The remorse the poet feels holding the pebble first reads as counterintuitive; here the cold pebble is noble while the heat from the poet’s hand — human warmth! — is described as “false warmth.” After six stanzas of looking at the pebble, the pebble then looks at us “with a calm and very clear eye.” The pebble isn’t tamed, as an animal (including a human) might be, by what we give it.

Herbert believed the arts had a moral responsibility. How does that play out in “Pebble,” a poem that doesn’t solicit our empathy for any group of people or situation? “Pebble” feels less about pebbles than about a way of thinking. It reads more as a meditation on or model of seeing, than about what is seen. In that way, like the laws of gravity or the ratio of a circumference to a radius, it is at once specific and abstract.

A pebble can be an irritation in a shoe or something whose smoothness we might remember is the result of wave after wave after wave. While it seems morally valuable to work to increase our empathy — a much praised aspect of (some) art — that which most easily animates our sentiments will almost never be what most merits them. Art for art’s sake avoids false warmth; it is untamed, but orderly.

Art that directs our feelings about contemporary events, even when well intentioned, quickly reads as dated, corrupted, almost always wrong. Herbert offers us none of the comfort of assurances or clarities; his model is the model of not being absorbed by another model, instead working to improve vision itself. These days I find Herbert’s poems, more than any emotionally pitched images and phrases, models of ethical thinking.


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Summer Gloom

I have never understood why some people fight off doom and gloom by embracing all things bright and beautiful while others go even darker as a way to work it out.

I, of course, am one of the latter. This summer I’ve been on the sidelines of others’ hard times (ranging from parasites to seizures). Plus it was hellishly hot for a couple of weeks with the kind of humidity that makes you want to strangle somebody.

So—I turned my attention to Edgar Allan Poe and began to work with lots of red and black. Nearing the low point, I produced this lovely portrait of “Berenice.”

Lillian Trettin_Berenice_art


This story (1835) concerns a narrator’s fascination with his female cousin, Berenice, once lovely but now fallen ill. Finally she dies shrieking in the night, the narrator only dimly aware. He wakes next morning to find in his possession a tool of extraction and a box containing her bloody teeth. Things do not end well for Poe’s women, and the narrator is often suspect.

The teeth necklace is not my original idea (nor does it appear in the story).  I found images online by someone who makes  jewelry using wisdom teeth.

Poe wrote the story of Berenice on a bet that he could not take an unpleasant topic and treat it seriously and engagingly as a piece of fiction. You might well wonder whether he succeeded.

He described his effect as “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful coloured into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical” Maybe in poor taste, he acknowledged (to which many editors agreed) but “invariably sought after with avidity” (too true, then and now).

I next decided on lurid wall paper as a back drop for The Man Who Was used Up and blood red brews and cocktails for Masque of the Red Death.

Morella (who rises from the grave as her own daughter) and another version of the Gold Bug have new back drops with the dull metallic glow of a forgotten monument or an old grave marker.

I also made a bunch of Poesque cut outs to scatter around a wall in the gallery space for a library show in the fall.  For whatever reason, this was all very satisfying and made me a nicer person, kept me from biting anyone.

Lillian Trettin_Poe Wallpaper_art

Poe Wallpaper


Lillian Trettin_Dark Edge_art

The Dark Edge

Coming in Charleston SC, October 2016

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Out of the box

Cut paper artwork is much more interesting if you can get up close to it. Boxing it in with glass is seldom the best solution. Paper cuts made of heavy stock can stand upright as sculptures, but some of my current work made of Tyvek is too flimsy to stand on its own. The advantage of Tyvek over paper is that it is very durable. As long as the piece hangs well (without too many cutout areas), there’s no reason it needs to be under glass.

I’m now experimenting with scrolls. Here (below) is a recent one, along with close up details of Tyvek stained with India ink and Tyvek sprayed with a metallic acrylic paint. Scrolls of Tyvek can be rolled and stored or shipped without harming the artwork since Tyvek, unlike paper, has no grain and resists wrinkling.

Lillian Trettin_Kiln Queen

The Kiln Queen


The pair of Brew paper cuts, exhibited last March in Alexandria Virginia, now hang in the 2016 Spoleto juried art exhibit at the Waterfront City Gallery in Charleston (May- June). Because the City Gallery has lots of natural lighting, this shot (below) demonstrates the typical problem of glare when light from a nearby window hits a work under glass.

Lillian Trettin_Malevolent and Benevolent Brew

Malevolent and Benevolent Brew

The picture also shows one of my favorite works in the exhibit, a white glove painstakingly unstitched and repurposed into an organic fiber form by Camela Guevara.   Another favorite is this pair of sculptures made out of silverware by Matt Wilson. I love the subtle surprise of the serrated knife reimagined as the soft downy under feathers of a bird.


Speaking of surprises, here’s a gallery overview of my favorite exhibit of the 2016 Spoleto Festival, tucked away in a warehouse: “The Talking Cure” by Melissa Sterns. You can read about it and see more pictures at

The story for each of these sculptures is available to hear by accessing a QR code located next to the artwork using  a smart phone or ipad.

Talking Cure

The Talking Cure

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Coloring community

2016 was the year of my first coloring calendar, “A Year Illuminated.” This was so much fun that I suspect I’ll do another one next year. I’ve finished coloring my own copy , and the experience was humbling.  Even though the 12 designs are my work, I wasn’t always sure how I wanted to color them. I invited a few other people to share their versions with me and here’s a digital exhibit of some of them.  It is so much fun to see the same design translated into different color combinations.


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January (above)

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February (above)

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March (above)

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April (above)

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August (above)

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October (above)

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December (above)

I can’t wait to see more versions of the other months.

And some of mine are now available as cards and cups on Red Bubble.

I hope you enjoyed this slide exhibit of work by my niece Hillary, my friend Mary, and me!


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The Witching Hour

Here’s the URL for my latest exhibit:

Here’s a PDF of a review that a friendly viewer posted on her blog: Lillian Trettin_art_Witches Wild Things review

(please hit the “back” button after viewing PDF)

And here’s how it came about: in April, my husband Carl helped me load 25 pieces of artwork into the car, after first consolidating them in Jonas Ridge, North Carolina, and helping with repairs needed after the first transport from South Carolina to North Carolina.

Carl drove “us” (me and my art) to Abingdon, Virginia, and helped me curate a show at the William King Museum of Art. This entailed getting all 25 pieces into the exhibit space, arranging them, sleeping on it, arranging them again, hanging them and then hanging around for the reception and chit chat on opening night.

5. hanging pix


7. exhibit reception


8. me in exhibit


A month later, we are getting ready to go do the reverse procedure. To sweeten the pot, Carl has first staged a weekend climbing event in Jonas Ridge, North Carolina, for a group of 10 guys and one gal, ranging in age from twelve to sixty.

This exhibit was a wonderful opportunity for any “emerging artist” (that’s what you’re called if you are a newbie), but also a lot of work and not a direct source of revenue. I have one more show of my own work this Fall in Charleston, then I plan to do a disappearing act and participate only occasionally in exhibits and events that others plan.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to follow exhibits and events at the Hickory Art Museum and the William King Museum of Art,two regional art museums I’m proud to have been associated with in 2015 and 2016.  Both are worth a visit at any time. And in Abingdon, be sure to try fresh roasted coffee  at  Zazzy, a business that supports the arts.  Here’s Eric Drummond Smith hanging a show at Zazzy at the same time that I was in town.

Eric Drummond Smith_artwork

Eric Drummond Smith hanging artwork

Eric Drummond Smith_art work

art by Eric Drummond Smith

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