Happy Bright Week!
We’re currently in the Octave of Easter, the first week of the church’s most festal season of the year. It may be that your church celebrates only one day of Easter (last Sunday). But those that follow the liturgical calendar extend the celebration for fifty days, all the way to Pentecost Sunday! The stores have already moved on, rushing us ahead to Mother’s Day, but counterculturally, we linger at the Resurrection, dwelling with its mystery and joy over a longer span.
Last summer I visited the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan for the first time. One of the pieces that has stayed in my mind is Egg Sketches by contemporary small metals artist Autumn Brown. It’s an installation of thirteen mixed-media egg vignettes—bursting, melting, sprouting, stretching—arranged on a shelf and wall. The artist said these sketches were inspired by the work of Peter Carl Fabergé, whose egg-shaped objets d’art, commissioned annually as Easter gifts for the Russian empress between 1885 and 1916, contained surprises inside, and Hieronymus Bosch, who used the egg in some, shall we say, abnormal ways.
I immediately thought of the Resurrection when I saw it.
(See better photo, via ArtPrize, at bottom of post. The elements are arranged in a slightly different way.)
The egg as a symbol of fertility and rebirth predates Christianity, having been used in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia (the Near East), and Crete. For the early Christians, it had obvious crossover appeal: the extrusion of a living creature from a shell, after its vital principle has lain dormant or seemingly extinct, became a picture of the incubation of Christ in the tomb and his subsequent “hatching,” his being risen to new life. Traditions of egg dyeing, eating, and game playing emerged in Christian communities in connection to Easter, an extension of religious celebration. As you hard-boil eggs, paint them, display them in baskets, crack them together with friends, and snack on them, you are, the church taught, reinforcing the precious gospel truth that Christ has cracked open the shell of death that encased him—and us—making eternal life possible.
The first of Brown’s egg sketches that attracted me was the tomb-like one on the right. Its cracks lined with silver, it is reminiscent of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold, silver, or platinum. The front of this egg has a large aperture, which reveals a glass-encased pill. The egg sits atop a pile of stones—or is it the broken ceramic shell pieces?
Several constituent pieces of Brown’s Egg Sketches make use of cross-forms. One egg is pierced all around by them. But a hole provides a way out, from darkness into light.
Another egg is formed in outline only—a metal frame, arcing underneath a kneeling human figure who holds what appears to be a broken network of crosses (resembling telephone poles). The wire that once presumably held them together is snapped in multiple places, twisting every which way, as the crosses come tumbling down. The posture of the figure recalls Christ in Gethsemane, pleading with God to let the impending suffering pass him by. Life and death play together in this sketch, two elements of one story.
Three other eggs from the work also allude subtly to the Crucifixion. One is the wholly metal egg, encircled by rays, that hangs on the wall. The curve of the egg’s front face is formed by the crossing of bands in the shape of a Latin cross.
Another is the “Halo Sketch” (artist’s words), in which a round steel framework, elevated on a steel, ladder-like stand, secures an actual eggshell, cracked at the base to reveal two bronze crosses inside.
And lastly, the egg that forms the centerpiece of the composition recalls, to me, Christ’s death, his limbs stretched out on a cross. Notice that the egg is hooked in five places—one for each of Christ’s wounds (feet, hands, and side). It’s agonizing to look at, but the very presence of the egg where Christ’s body would be suggests that this is part of a prenatal process. Eggs, after all, connote life.
Other eggs in the composition are shown melting, growing noodly appendages, or as sunbursts. Vacancy and surprise are key elements.
Brown received her BFA in metalsmithing from the University of Georgia in 2006, and an MFA in metal design from East Carolina University in 2010. In addition to running Blue Onion Jewelry and maintaining a studio art practice, she teaches at Western Michigan University’s Gwen Frostic School of Art and, during the summer, at Interlochen Center for the Arts.
Brown is interested in cross-pollinating traditional metalsmithing processes with ceramic materials to create nontraditional adornments and art objects. Metals and ceramics are so structurally different—metal is rigid, ceramic is fragile—that marrying the two involves a great degree of experimentation. Brown loves the possibilities this opens up, and says the juxtaposition of physical properties has become a way for her to explore the relationship between humans and the industrial world.
To view more of Brown’s work, visit http://autumnlbrown.com.