The origin of haloes

Thursday December 22, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Imagine a 15th-century night. With a lamp or a candle, walk into an unlit room. Hold up the light. In the solid darkness, on the walls, faces glow -- looking down at a child, or looking up in prayer.

Maybe this is why medieval crafters inlaid altars with gold. So at the midnight mass on Christmas eve, people could see the saints.

Great Barrington artist Anne Fredericks has re-invented this centuries-old art: water gilding, the craft of treating wood with gold leaf and burnishing it to a high gloss.

"For centuries we lived in low light at night," she said.

Anything that could catch light, and throw light, was highly prized.

"Places where they would just have a lantern, and you have a serving dish or a writing box with gold on it -- it would shimmer," she said. "There was a sense of wonder about this light thrown off -- some people believed the gold had a light in it -- a vibrating light."

"It fascinates me how we're attracted to light. We need some dim light, some darkness, to appreciate it."

All of her work tells stories, she said -- not from the Christian gospels, but from the fresh water ponds and meadows near her house and from her childhood.

Across from her fireplace, golden stars gleam in a dark square around a mirror. She calls this work "Sagitta" for the constellation, the arrow, and the flowering plant with arrow-like leaves that blooms here when Sagitta rises in the night sky. As fresh-water ponds grow scarcer, so does the Sagitta flower, she said. This piece is not about looking in the mirror, for her, but about steeping through it, like Alice in the looking glass, into the kind of place where people bathe on a summer night in a pond, with minnows and dragonflies, and snails on the banks.

"Everything has a story about what we're potentially losing," she said.

She likes the feel of working with natural materials, she said -- a base of wood, a gesso of marble dust and hide glue, a surface of clay, tempera paint, and the gold. And all of her work tells a stories.

The stories keep her involved with each piece through the painstaking months of putting it together, she said.

She takes weeks to prepare the wood surface with gesso and a water-based glue and to coat it with delicate films of gold.

A fragment of gold leaf clings to the skin like cloth. Rub it and it vanishes, with only a glimmer of a smudge on a fingertip.

"It takes enormous patience," she said.

What has drawn her to learn the craft, through trial and error, and to spend six to eight months on a single piece?

"It's about the light," she said, "about the beautiful sheen."

She has always loved sunlight and brightness in artwork

"My mother could make anything with a needle," she said. "She made vestments with gold thread."

A very little gold thread could transform the cloth. Later, Fredericks discovered the gilded panels of Boutet-Monveil's book on Joan of Arc, the gloss of laquerwork and the sunlit paintings of Joaquín Sorolla.

She wanted to work with gold. Very few people practice water gilding anywhere in the world. So, with a degree in art history and with stubborn patience, she set out to teach herself.

"I thought, I can master a craft, and there will be an artfulness about it," she said.

Some parts of the world value highly this craft, and the time and care in any craft.

In Kyoto, Japan, a year ago she was taken to meet a gilder who creates kimonos for the royal family. He works in his grandfather's workshop, using tools his grandfather used and made. She watched him work. He wasted nothing, she said -- gathering up the tailings, fragments of gold, and pulverizing them to shake over laquer.

"He is very highly regarded," she said. "People come from all over the world to work with him."

America does not have this kind of tradition, she said. In America, artists have often separated art from craft and held the idea of a work higher than the skill in shaping it. But after half a century of expressionists and minimalists, she believes American artists are coming around again to value patience and hands-on skill.

"We are looking for some integrity," she said. "I think there's room for beauty in art."

After two world wars, she explained, people thought beauty was dead -- but no one can live in that darkness for too long.

"Artists are supposed to make sense of their culture," she said. "Some beauty would be good for all of us right now."

How to work gold

Choose a wood that will react well with the gold, and gesso it with eight layers of marble dust and hide glue. Both take care: It is possible, said Great Barrington artist Anne Fredericks, to spend four weeks preparing the surface and then find that the gold will not stick.

She draws on the gesso, she said, bringing out a peacock's delicate head etched with a ceramic tool. Then she puts down a surface of clay -- often red or blue -- covering the white gesso and the sketch.

She paints the prepared wood with a solution of rabbit-skin glue and water. This is the "water-gilding" -- and done right it will bind the gold with the gesso, so that it will last for centuries.

The preparation has taken months -- and now comes the hard part. The gold she works with is soft and friable.

Gold leaf comes in palm-sized books, between leaves of tissue-like paper. She gets hers from English or German crafters who roll it flat by hand. These craftspeople are dyding out, she said.

She lifts each sheet from the page with a knife, setting it on a flat surface to cut and shape it. Then, with a tip -- a fine brush the width of the leaf -- she will transfer the leaf to the gessoed wood, flattening it with a gentle breath.

Itanian gilders, she said, often rub the tip against their wrist or forehead and use the natural oil in the skin as an adhesive.

Once the wood has an even layer of gold, she burnishes it with an agate "burin," a wooden tool with a stone head like a curved brush. She explained as she rubbed a burin against her wool sweater to warm it, so the gold would not tear: Water gilding strengthens the gold so it will shine. Oil gilding -- which is far more common -- makes the gold easier to work with but much weaker. The gilding will fade and wear after a few decades and will never burnish as hers will.

Finally, she colors her gilded surfaces with egg tempera paints These do not flow like oils -- and a brush-stroke in the wrong direction will roll the paint straight off. She applies the paint in tiny strokes, in many layers. She may also abraid the gold to add texture and color from the clay beneath it.


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