JAWBONES in history, Frans Hals

This 1636 Frans Hals painting depicts a man holding a cow jawbone.  It is meant to illustrate the moment Samson has just killed one thousand Philistines with nothing more than an animal's jawbone.  (Judges 15:9)

painting by Frans Hals,

Below, the model was Hals' friend Pieter Verdonck. We know it was Verdonck from the poem that accompanied a later etching by another artist. A translation reads:

 "This is Verdonck, the bold guest whose jawbone attacks everyone

By not distinguishing between high or low born, he landed in the work house".

jan van de velde



 Perhaps he was less than thrilled with Hal's image, because changes were made to this painting.  The jawbone was erased and a wine glass  was placed in Verdonck's right hand and his unkempt hair was covered with a velvet beret.

JAWBONES in history, Cain and Abel

Cain's famous Biblical murder of his brother Abel.  It took place in a field and Cain grabbed whatever was readily available for the deed.  In some stories it is a club, a rock or a jawbone.

The killing of Abel, detail from the Grabower Altarpiece, 1379-83 (tempera on panel), Master Bertram of Minden (c.1345-c.1415) / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

Lucas Van Leyden (1494-1553),1524, engraving, 117 x 25 mm,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, New York 

WALT WHITMAN, SONG OF MYSELF, 52 (published in 1867)


The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable.

I sound my barbaric yarp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of the day holds back for me.

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lazy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean.

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

The Vigor of Poetry

Poetry creates emotion and intellectual thought by means of the fewest words possible.  It is a game that few succeed.  I believe it exceeds painting in its ability to communicate.  But I will still paint.  Here's one from NPR the other day, I cannot get out of my head.


by Eliza Griswold

What are we now but voices
who promise each other a life
neither one can deliver
not for lack of wanting
but wanting won’t make it so.
We cling to a vine
at the cliff’s edge.
There are tigers above
and below. Let us love
one another and let go.

“Tigers” by Eliza Griswold from Wideawake Field. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

The Power of Painting

I was in the Cowan Gallery, where I work as curator talking to visitors as they viewed part of this fabulous collection.  One such painting in this collection is (pictured) Rab & the Girls, by Winslow Homer, o/c, 1875.  I saw a small group pausing in front and scurried over to tell them more about it.  I had my say, and one man started interpreting it differently.  His insight was a little far fetched, I was thinking-  I have seen this painting daily for 20 years and during that time I have looked at it the same and interpreted it to others the same.

The small group was still there as we continued to interpret.  I turned to the woman to my right and she was crying.  It's so beautiful, she said as she backed away.  Never have I thought this work is beautiful, it was early in Homer's painting career, before he went to Gloucester and Cullercoats... Anyway, the other woman in the group said, We like how intimate the women are as they look at the four leaf clover.  Are there any prints for sale?

The rest of he story is that these women were sisters who had just met each other that morning.  They were in their forties and had found one another on the internet.  Their interpretation of the painting matched their extraordinary day and allowed me to see this painting with new eyes.

What are the meanings of your shapes?

Are the shapes secret?

I am undecided about this question.  Over the years, people always ask me what the symbols in my drawings represent.  They want it spelled out and easy.  No way.

Some of the symbols have a definite personal meaning.  For example, sometimes I put the arrowhead shape in the key.  Years ago,I found a large arrowhead in the bed of the Harpeth River.  It must have been 3" in height and in perfect condition.  I gave it to my Dad, he oiled it up and carried it in his suitcoat pocket.  He discovered it was like 4000 years old.  Eventually, it broke in his pocket and he felt so sad.  The broken arrowhead prophesied things to come.  As art often imitates life, I soon found my father was broken too.  But my art is not just about the personal.      

Some shapes are visual and their creation are  more akin to automatic writing. They just fit well together.  Many are instructional; runic symbols, letters,numbers; sand dollars and french curves symbolize perfection; tornados are chaos. Sticks and triangles are vulnerable, because of the way they interact with surrounding shapes. Sometimes the sticks have auras, as in the photograph, or as in the drawing below, where I compared "perfection" and a lowly masking  tape roll.  Mostly I hope my intentions are secret. I prefer to keep them close to the vest.

Once, I was with my sisters and we went to a bank to see some of my work there.  They saw a drawing representing the three of us (Sisters), and immediately began an assault to know which shape represented which one of them.

 Finally I gave in- Sharon was a stick, Sandie was a triangle and I was a sand dollar.

What's up with the jawbone?

I must begin my first blog with the jawbone.  I do love it.

When I worked on the farm, we would bury calves that had died in the hedgerow of a field near the barn.  One day I was wandering in the woods just beside the farm and I stumbled upon a burial site where a calf's bones had emerged with the frost.  The bones were so beautiful in their contrast with the surrounding environment, but then I saw the jawbone.  I was immediately taken by its uniqueness, so different from the other bones I saw there.   And I have been fond of that shape for decades since.

I love the curve of the jawbone and the indentations and hooks.  The bone has a smooth flatness whose edges undulate in a pleasing manner. The calf jawbone appears in many of my drawings as the central character.