Thursday, March 24, 2011

EX-VOTOS

I don’t think that my good friend, Lisa Graley, a professor of Humanities at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, will mind if I publish her ideas about a fascinating subject she teaches in a Humanities class called “Magic Realism.” Lisa, a writer and poet, has a highly creative mind and recently asked her students in this class to create ex-votos, an art form represented in symbols, paintings, and texts which act as votive offerings to saints or divinities from persons who are grateful for miracles that have occurred in their lives. Ex-votos often take the form of a painting that expresses faith and healing – they’re personalized thanks for healing or restoring of health; e.g., some famous ex-votos have been displayed in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde in Marseille, France and include paintings, plaques, model boats, war medals, and other objects.

Lisa says that her students meditated on a time “when they had been ‘saved’ from a tragedy or recovered from sickness (or made a B in algebra!) and created ex-voto paintings in gratitude for the ‘miracles.’” They also included on their paintings a “banderole,” which explained the problem they experienced and how they were saved. She says she gave her students a lot of latitude to do these creations. “One of them, for instance, was just thankful to St. Cecilia for ‘the blues that mend the breaking heart.’ He painted St. Cecilia and then a guitar player under her.” Students sometimes created images after the art of persons like Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican artist.

Poet laureate Darrell Bourque brought in several ex-votos from his collection that represented the offerings made by people who had been saved from floods and various poxes, as well as from alcoholism. Another English professor, Marcia Gaudet, brought in one that represents a man who was saved from a bad fall from his tractor. “Most of those brought in were from a Mexican tradition; hence the relationship with Kahlo,” Lisa explained. She also added that since these paintings were done in primitive style, no one was intimidated about doing the art work .

The assignment was so intriguing that Lisa created one herself. A devoted Protestant, she thanked God (not a saint) for delivery from a tailspin in her car that occurred because she had taken her eyes from the road to glance at a descending spider in the car. She went off the road, came back on the highway, slammed on the brakes, and the car spun and spun, then ended up facing the opposite direction in the other lane. Lisa’s ex-voto was a painting of the spider coming down in the car and the car spinning around in the road. She wrote an explanation of the near-tragedy, creating her ex-voto on the back of a piece of paneling, priming it well.

Her long e-mail about the students’ ex-votos inspired me to meditate about a miracle that occurred in my own life and to think of how I would render an ex-voto. The most immediate miracle that took place in my life was the one concerning the birth of my great-grandson, Alexander Charles Romero. I thought about the day I arrived in Covington for his birth and my daughter, Stephanie, who was already at the hospital, telephoned me approximately thirty minutes before his delivery. She told me that the baby was in distress and his mother, Kristin, would have to deliver by caesarean. Stephanie’s words to me were: “pray, Mama.” When I hung up, I felt pangs of absolute terror, which were followed by the notion that Stephanie had said the words needed for the situation – “praying” was called for. So I repeated the 23rd Psalm over and over, and within moments I experienced a feeling of peace. My terror dissipated in an intuitive “knowing” that Alexander would be fine. By the time I arrived at the hospital and peered through the glass window of the nursery, “Alexander the Great,” (as I call him) had entered this world and was snoozing peacefully. He remains a peaceful baby, fussing only when hungry or when he has eaten too much as he has a voracious appetite.

I have an idea for the ex-voto which I’ll try to draw on this blog – a shepherd’s crook with a photo of Alexander and me snuggling, accompanied by the message: “The Lord Is Our Shepherd.” It’s a pretty primitive rendering, but the emotions attached to this “miracle” are extremely powerful. And Lisa did give permission for people to create primitive drawings by presenting the Mexican renderings.

If you search for ex-votos on the Internet, you’ll find some wonderful images and paintings, and if you’re as taken with the idea of ex-votos, as I was, you may want to create your own. I plan to superimpose my drawing/photo on wood when I can take time away from the novel entitled Redemption that I’m presently writing.

And thanks, Lisa, for telling us about your intriguing exercise. I can see why you were selected to be an outstanding teacher of the humanities at ULL last year.
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