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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Last winter, my family made a hastily arranged trip to Rochester, Minnesota for reasons not to do with Art.  However, I always try to visit local art galleries and museums and was pleased to learn about this artist who had a show at the Rochester Art Center:

Jose Dominguez

JD_1 copy

My son took a series of cell phone pictures. This information appears at the RAC website:


In Ilumíname, Dominguez creates characters and scenarios influenced by childhood recollections of playing Lotería, a bingo-like traditional Mexican card game. The cards used in Lotería depict an outlandish collection of consequential characters from nature, mythology, and everyday objects. In this body of work, Dominguez begins to explore similarities between Lotería and other mystical cards, like the Tarot, and their ability to conjure and calculate fortune and misfortune. His drawings and paintings on found objects, like cardboard boxes and manila folders, effortlessly and authentically reveal the artist’s struggles with identity and faith.

José Dominguez lives and works in Winona, MN. His artistic practice spans drawing, typography, audio mixes, graphic stories and digital movies.

What an exciting talent!

JD_2 copyJD_3 copyJD_4 copyJD_5 copyJD_6 copyJD_7 copy

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I don’t toot my horn too often, but I need to record this one so I can recall it on days when I feel like everything’s going wrong.

I was awarded the Curator’s Award at the March Melee Art Bash at Del Ray Artisans, Alexandria VA.  I couldn’t be there for the opening reception on March but Sara Trettin sent me these nice pictures:

Lillian Trettin - Malevolent Brew - artwork

Lillian Trettin - March Melee art exhibitLillian Trettin - art exhibit

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Spring Melee

A melee is a brawl, and this fits typical March weather as well as my most recent papercuts.

Last month I joined the Del Ray Artisans, an artists’ co-op in Alexandria Virginia.  This makes some sense if you know that I go visit my son Dylan and his wife Sara there about twice a year. To be able to exhibit, you must be juried into a show and also agree to work 12 hours a year for the organization. I had two pieces of art accepted for a show for this month. Dylan kindly agreed to deliver the artwork that I’d mailed to him earlier in the week.  I will miss the opening, but  I’ll go up at the end of the month to do yard work at the building, work in the gallery, and help take the exhibit down (working off some of my required hours). I am very excited about this opportunity and hope to make regular trips up twice a year.


Here’s a link to the Del Ray Artisans, in case you are interested in their operation.

And here’s the artists’ call for the exhibit I’ll be in, “March Melee,” followed by my two submissions, which I designed specifically for this theme.

March Melee – An Art Bash is an opportunity to submit your best and brashest art — big or small. This over the top art show is all about excess, don’t be shy. Strut your stuff exuberantly. Melee implies a brawl and malarkey means nonsense, so let those terms be your guide. Be bold, aggressive, silly, wacky, wild, frivolous, funky, startling, bizarre, over the top and around the bend. Remember the prophetic words of Roald Dahl, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest [wo]men.”

Lillian Trettin_Malevolent Brew

Malevolent Brew


Lillian Trettin_Benevolent Brew

Benevolent Brew


Lillian Trettin_ Malevolent and Benevolent Brew

Malevolent and Benevolent Brew (framed)

th          Here’s how I came up with Malevolent and Benevolent Brew.

I love my Nespresso coffee machine.   Drinking espresso instead of brewed coffee helped me beat a bad case of acid reflux, triggered by years of drinking coffee in bed (espresso has less caffeine and less acid than brewed coffee). I love knowing that I can still drink two cups in the morning. That, in a nut shell, is why I think of coffee as both malevolent and benevolent.

Both my sons also have Nespresso machines, and we’ve been known to discuss the fine points of how the spout works, how to clean it, etc. This artwork results from my interest in how the innards of that glossy, streamlined machine really work; also from having to pay attention to how MY innards work so that I don’t burn out my pipes again. Add to that a cultural mash up of Japanese demon masks and steampunk Victoriana, and here you have my cut-paper coffee machine. I think of this pair in red and black and gold as “exuberant,” which is how a great espresso makes me feel.


 Here’s my last Tyvek papercut for an Edgar Allan Poe exhibit scheduled for next Fall. This one is of Prince Prospero in the story  “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe. In my version, the prince is either a Body Hacker, or a Cyborg. In the 1830s, defying death meant partying inside and hoping cholera would stay put outside. Today, defying death means replacing parts of our bodies and hoping we discover a medical fountain of youth.

Lillian Trettin_Masque of the Red Death (drawing)

Masque of the Red Death (drawing)


You can see from the original drawing traced onto Tyvek (above) that I had to make lots of alterations. Anywhere you see black marks means I changed the image at that point while cutting with an exacto knife. Only when I reversed the original piece of white Tyvek could I see what it really looked like.

Lillian Trettin_Masque of the Red Death (reverse)

Masque of the Red Death (reverse)

Lillian Trettin_Masque of the Red Death

Masque of the Red Death (black)

The final version in black Tyvek, shown here under glass and over a sheet of India ink-dyed Tyvek,  was the second layer I cut at the same time as the white sheet. One of these two will end up appropriately red.

That’s it for EA Poe, and I promise more cheerful, if no less exuberant, projects to come.

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Knit & Crochet Love Bomb

Here are my pictures of the February  14 Love Bomb at St. Julian Devine Community Center in Charleston.  It was cold but clear, and a good time was had by all. My square is the orange one in the 4th photo–it was thick and made a good “anchor” on a windy day.


Knit bombed chimney stack


chimney stacks




knit & crochet building sail


knit bombed trees




Girls in pink




project video director




Even the cops danced

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Community Art Dos

Here’s a little follow-through on my plan to get involved in community art projects this month.

I participated in a life drawing class, something I haven’t done in over 40 years. Not too much has changed, except instead of being an unemployed artist, the model was a professional who handed out his business card. Here are several sketches of Frank in conte crayon on newsprint. The last one does not look as much like the actual Frank but is my favorite — a caricature I can definitely use in another project.


The “love bomb” at St. Julian Devine Community Center in Charleston is coming along nicely. Here’s a shot of a group of us sewing and crocheting large colorful blocks together. These will be hung from one of the towers in back of the center, a rehabilitated industrial building. The party is on Valentine’s Day, and I will definitely be there to take pictures and celebrate, as will many participants from all walks of life.



The reception at the tiny book show was lots of fun. Here’s a picture of some of the books that night; mine is the open one with black things creeping out.



I have started volunteering with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This is intensive one-on-one work, helping someone with extremely limited sight become a creative maker. The adult class consisted of a half dozen men and women of limited means who’ve suffered vision loss due to untreated diabetes.

One of my projected projects for the month seems impractical in hindsight: making something out of plastic stuff for the “accessibility” exhibit in Florida (the plastic pieces are too hard to glue). Art museums like the Harns in Gainesville FL devise tours specifically for the blind. Raising awareness is another thing artists can do. Here‘s an article on “social practice art” that introduces a young artist who creates tours of art exhibits for blind-folded sighted folks to raise awareness of what it’s like to be blind or nearly so.

Next up is my coffee-art paper cut titled “Malevolent Benevolent Brew.”  It’s been lots of fun to work on and as soon as I go buy some red and gold paint, it will be ready to show.

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