Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

Isn’t it great that he took up painting, hired tutors and practiced!  It’s an activity that can lead to self-reflection and insights into all sorts of things, like other people’s lives, how we conceptualize …cultural assumptions, uncertainties…

These paintings by Bush are not presented as a documentation of what he has learned so far, as evidence of effort.  They are presented to us as finished work, as art worth looking at. When something is presented as art it’s ipso facto interesting and important to think about.

Let’s do a thought experiment:   would my neighbor George have a chance of having his paintings shown in a gallery or published in a book?  He has been painting diligently since he retired ten years ago. His portraits are indistinguishable from Bush’s.

Whether or not George, my neighbor, can get his paintings shown depends on what we know about George.  What’s George’s story? Is he blind or paralyzed or recovering from a stroke?  Is he autistic or dyslexic or epileptic?  Was his father a Greek immigrant or an African genocide survivor or a Russian spy or a US president?  In our present social climate and art world hype these questions weave the scrim through which we see images.

Try another thought experiment:  you buy a portrait at a yard sale that’s just awful but it looks like oil paint and it’s the right size.  You plan to use it as a waterproof mat in your mud room at the side door to your garden.  As you take it out of the frame you see the signature “John Wilkes Booth.”  You know he was an actor. Couldn’t he also have been trying to paint?  It’s a terrible painting but you think you’d better have it authenticated because this could be worth something.  Inept as it is, the name will override the awfulness.

A 2014 review in the Guardian agrees with me:   [George W Bush’s] portrait of Putin actually looks like something you would find in one of America’s trash-rich Salvation Army stores and buy to laugh at. It’s got a classic amateur clumsiness and oddity to it. Bush has attempted to render shadow and shape in stylish blocks of fawn and woodchip and cookies ‘n cream, but they don’t sit right and the whole head looks mildly crazed. Perhaps this mad look is what is meant by revealing Putin’s “soul”, but it seems inept rather than insightful.


No, wait.  The Salvation Army stores used to stack their “art” in bins so that you could page through them.  I had a student a few years ago who used to go there to buy awful paintings because she needed stretched canvas to re-use—much cheaper than buying canvas in art supply stores.

I went to my local Salvation Army store last week to see if they had anything as awful as the portraits by Bush, walked straight to the back and found all pictures neatly displayed.  Somebody stood there facing the display, entranced by a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper.  It looked as if it had been painted on a slab of wood.  I couldn’t get close because after about a minute the Entranced One unhooked it to take it to check-out.

The original is a fresco covering one wall of the dining room in a monastery in Milan, Italy.  Leonardo labored over the perspective to create the illusion that the Last Supper is taking place in that very monastery refectory so that the monks would be edified by saintly company.

Along with much of High Renaissance art, this painting has been adapted in countless Kitsch mockeries.  Here are some:


Sorry about that tangent.  I didn’t mean to associate Bush with the Renaissance in any way, only wanted to clarify the reference to the Salvation Army.

Back to Bush.   A more recent Guardian article, from 2017, refracts the whole portrait project in the context of Bush’s presidency, stating:    In his new book Portraits of Courage, the subjects of the former president’s paintings are the very men torn to shreds, quite literally, by his own policy.


Painting can be therapeutic. If Mr.Bush engages in painting to heal his guilt, let him.

If “idiocy has its charms” (quoting that article here), please, Mr. Bush, show us how you worked through that stage of charming idiocy and then finally developed insights for us to contemplate.

We hope you heal, Mr. Bush.

There is, of course, plenty of commentary on Bush’s paintings, for example:


Next, let’s take a closer look at how Mr. Bush does not see eyes.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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To get this shot the photographer had to have been sitting or kneeling on the floor at the edge of the coffee table with the flower arrangement.  Seeing this photo in the newspaper (NYTimes) may have been shocking to some people who may have thought it simply was the only shot they could get from that event in the Oval Office.  I don’t think so.  I think it was the BEST shot.  I think it was chosen among many because this view is artful and expressive.

To appreciate this photo with the out-of-focus flowers in the foreground, let’s remind ourselves of the standard Oval Office photo. (I have blurred out the faces to make it easier to concentrate on overall composition and the gestures of these four characters.)

Symmetry rules!  Look at the placements of the paintings and the sculptures.  Why are these important? Because symmetry conveys the feeling of rationality, stability and order.  That’s what we want in our government.  Even the placement of the four people is symmetrical in the photographer’s frame.  Wonderful.

Then why is this picture comical?  Because the rationality of the geometry in the picture is contradicted by the absurdity of the non-communication taking place here.  The woman is articulating a point to which the man on the couch respectfully listens. These two are completely disconnected from the two figures in the background.   In the chair at the left someone has arranged a department store dummy. In the chair on the right, two pectoral fins are flapping while a long ventral stripe defines this noisy benthic entity.

The drama in this photo, therefore, consists in the contrast between the rigorous geometry of the stage set and the disorder created by the characters on the stage.

Now back to the first picture, the one with the out-of-focus flowers.

There is no symmetry, not even Jefferson’s portrait is in the middle.  No symmetry = no stasis = movement.  Movement here doesn’t mean somebody jumping, it means excitement in the mind.

We don’t even get a sense of the three-dimensional space of this room.  The photo looks like a collage. Your eye moves through this restless collage: flowers, man, portrait, lampshade.  The focus is on Biden, partly because you recognize him as the president, but also because the lines of the portrait’s frame behind him converge on his head, like an arrow.  Notice how the lines of the Jefferson frame direct your attention at the president’s head.  But that masked presidential face occupies a very small part of the photo surface.  What actually dominates the composition?  The flower arrangement in the foreground! About a fourth of the whole photo!  And it’s out of focus!!

Why is this important?  Because we’re looking not at the documentation of an event but rather at a juxtaposition—yes, a collage–of elements that invite interpretation. Your mind races to see connections:   Biden-Jefferson,  flowers-environment, decisions-environment, past-future,  known-unknown,  et al.

So, this photo is a work of art.


AP Photo/Evan Vucci

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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A man is walking in front of a pile of discarded clothing three times his height.

Online you can now snatch up a Remy Rag Chair for $6,800. A bit steep, you say.  But maybe it’s the least you can do for the planet.

The above image is from last month’s Atlantic about discarded clothing: “Ultra-fast Fashion Is Eating the World.”

Here are some points made by this article:

  • There’s a fashion company that offers fresh styles twice a week, driving competitors that are “slower” out of business.
  • The fashion industry stays competitive by producing cheaper, less durable clothing made from synthetic fibers.
  • Americans believe that clothes should be cheap, abundant and new.
  • Americans buy a piece of clothing every five days, on average.
  • It’s estimated that the fashion industry generates 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The United Nations says it accounts for 20 percent of global wastewater.
  • The human toll of fast fashion is inestimable since prices are kept low through labor by systematically exploited workers.

And what role does social media play in all this?  No surprise here:  the more we use social media, the more time and money we spend shopping on line.

One teenager who used to buy tons of clothes and promote them (paid by the clothing line) on social media matured into a pre-med student who now makes stylish clothes out of what she already has.  Re-purposing!  She says: “Secondhand clothing and thrifting is so hot right now.”

That’s good news.  Now if we could just figure out how to make the Rag Chair in the garage, with some friends helping. Maybe Rag Chair parties could become hot.

What if every small town and neighborhood had its own environmental artist?

Environmental art started in the ‘60’s.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Is this a joke?

Looks like something you could sit on if you had to.  But wait, is that a bunch of old rags?

Tejo Remy is a Dutch designer.  His 1991 Rag Chair “is created from layered clothing and discarded rags. The reused textiles are collected and shaped with black metal straps to form a large, bulky and eccentric lounge chair. The concept behind the chair is to provide a unique piece of furniture, while at the same time providing a collection of memories that can be flipped through and treasured.”* Every chair is different, of course, and can be custom made for you from your old clothes.

He also designs chests of drawers, called “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories,” which are composed of random drawers bundled together by metal straps.

As you look at these, both the chair and the drawers, do you get the feeling that what might be operating here is irony?

In the case of the chair, if you really treasured your old clothes and the memories they associate to, you would preserve them in a more, shall we say, loving way.  You might re-tailor a jacket or a skirt for whimsical evening wear, to go to the theater, say.  You could engage a quilter to go wild with her imagination or donate your stuff to a painter friend for incorporation in a mixed medium piece.  Such re-purposing comes with a dose of irony, sure, but it would be irony cultivated out of a sense of history, melancholy and affirmation.

The bundled up drawers are even more ironic than the Rag Chair because they come with a didactic name attached:  ‘You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories.”  You’re saying I’m trying to lay down my memories?  But I can’t?!  You’re saying, memories are all a jumble and they will never fall into place in an orderly pattern that makes sense. Might as well face it and live with the randomness that is called your memories.

If your past—personal, social, historical—makes sense and was orderly, then you will have a place for everything and everything in its place. You will be offended by Remy’s pile of mismatched drawers. You will restore and treasure an antique breakfront or china cabinet. Like this, perhaps.


Both the Rag Chair and “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories” are in museum collections and valued in the thousands.  These designs are freighted with, yes, irony, which means you are being challenged to think and interpret.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has a Remy Rag Chair.  Next time I go there I’ll hover around the Rag Chair waiting to hear someone say to a spouse, Oh, honey we’ve got to have one of these, perfect for the TV room, looks cheap and the kids wouldn’t have to be careful.  That won’t happen.  People will continue to look confused and challenged by modernism.

Next, we’ll look at our contemporary need for re-purposing.

In the meantime, allow yourself to be fooled by something today, this April First.

*Quoted from Chair—500 Designs that Matter. Phaidon.

Tejo Remy, b. 1960


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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         Cézanne, Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, c. 1876

Last year’s  October 8 issue of the London Review of Books published a long  (just under 9,000 words) article by the art historian T.J. Clark, who has taught at British universities as well as at the University of California, L.A.

I am reproducing one of the seven pages to give you an idea of the tone of this piece. (Click image for readable enlargement)  For those of you who can’t get enough of this kind of hand-waving erudition, here’s the whole article:


I do recommend reading it in its entirety if you are interested in how various scholars have dated some paintings, how Pissaro and Cézanne worked together and how blind Clark is to what’s happening in these paintings. 

He is only interested in that pre-modern obsession with the “quality of light:” Cézanne has pinned down a particular kind of light here—sometimes I feel in the painting even a specific time of day, an early evening transparency answering back to Le Champ  de choux’s thickening and diffusion.

Cézanne is the grand-daddy of modern painting. You’re being absurd and blind if you claim that he and his progeny in modernism—Picasso, Braque, Matisse et al– were interested in “pinning down a particular kind of light.”

So I submitted a letter to the LRB and got a reply saying they were considering printing it.  But they didn’t.  Clark’s long piece did not get the attention of any printed letter at all.

Here, then, is the letter I submitted:

If you want to rhapsodize about light in a painting then you can persuade yourself that the quality of light in Jas de Bouffan is what it’s all about.  But look again and notice how Cézanne fools you.

If he were interested in painting a landscape, he would give us perspective with distant objects hazy and more faded than close up objects. Instead, the green stripes of the field are uniformly green, from close to far up on the hill. Don’t just say, ah landscape, look more critically. Start by admitting that the reflection in the basin is laughable.  The reflection of the house on the hill cannot occur at the edge of the basin.  The reflection of the windows does not relate to the windows on the actual house.  Where’s the chimney in the reflection?  Where’s the sloping shed roof?  The little tree in front of that little shed?  For that matter, those large blocks close to the water’s edge would have to reflect in the basin.

I don’t know what T.J.Clark means by “Modernity is loss of world.”  No world is lost in Cézanne, any more than a world is lost when a magician banters your ears full as he does the rope trick while manipulating your expectations.  Jas de Bouffan is a landscape– what else could it be?– but it’s also a banter of colors in a rectangle that manipulates your expectations.  You accept what’s happening in the basin because you’re sentimental about reflections in water.

He places that slender gray tree exactly in the middle. On the top it’s exactly in the middle, then it curves a little.  The reflection is made with the same gray so that the canvas is divided in half, from top to bottom, by this even gray brush stroke.  This gray brush stroke intersects the horizontal  ruler-straight line of the basin’s edge.  Notice how your eye keeps coming back to this intersection, which functions like cross hairs to focus your attention.  Nice.  Your brain likes this clarity in the context of all this hand waiving.  He situates these cross-hairs in the lower part of the canvas, which is where we expect the foreground to be. Voila! I give you a foreground and therefore the upper section must be farther away and you, dear viewer, are happy that this landscape has depth.

Using the same technique, Cézanne persuades us of a foreground in Maison et arbre. (See below)  The “precipitous road and front lawn to the left,” which looks so awkward, serves the same function as the cross hairs of tree-and-basin-edge in Jas de Bouffan. This crude geometry is also in the lower part of the landscape and is also clearly delineated.  Your attention can’t help but land on and linger in that lower left corner.  Location and delineation tell you, this is the foreground.  The green and orange fields to the right of the house are not fading into the distance—as you’d expect—but still they read as distant because the lower left corner of the road and the lawn shouts “foreground.”  Again, you accept this banter of flat rectangles and triangles. You want to believe that this is a landscape with foreground, middle-ground  and  background.  So that’s what you see.

Picasso and Braque called Cézanne their father not because of any atmospherics of light but because the canvases he filled with brushstrokes captivated attention in this new way.

When Cézanne in his 20’s lived in Paris he submitted paintings to the Salon, knowing full well he would be rejected. He did this over and over.  It’s fair to assume that rejection strengthened his resolve to find some new way of relating to a canvas.

Later in Aix, when he sat on the grass and watched Pissaro painting, let’s imagine him muttering in his curmudgeonly way,  “Merde, time of day and light effects…blabla…there must be more to painting than this.”

Cézanne, Maison et arbre, 1874

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






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Orazio Gentileschi was born near Florence in 1563.  From 1626 on he lived in England and worked for the Stuart king Charles I, who on the occasion of the birth of his son in 1630 commissioned Gentileschi to paint “The Finding of Moses” as a gift to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.

As moderns we are accustomed to seeing all art—musical, literary, pictorial—as invention. We know that the artist constructs his work. He plans out his composition.  It’s always been done that way.

Let’s take apart this invention, this construction called “The Finding of Moses.” 

What a lovely English landscape we have here in the background, with meadows leading to a river–the Nile/Thames–and a verdant hill on the other bank.  The women are gathered in front of a stand of tall trees, in full summer foliage, possibly maples or elms.  Not a palm or papyrus reed in sight.  Gentileschi had never been to Egypt and neither had Henrietta Maria, so all’s well with the English shrubbery here.

The pharaoh’s daughter, in gold-yellow, is eight heads tall. We know that our ancestors, including royals, were shorter than we are now. No matter, tall looks commanding and besides, a tall figure will display more fabric, which allows the painter to create a more colorful painting.

The figure on the left is Moses’s mom, a slave and also six heads tall. Gentileschi wants her tall because that way the he aligns the tops of the heads in a horizontal line. Thinking ahead, we now notice that on the right the bodies are also aligned in a straight vertical line. He clusters the figures together into a compact geometry, which makes the composition cohesive and easy to read.

Now what about all these arms?!  The two women pointing over yonder to the Nile/Thames clarify where the baby was found. Compositionally these two arms lead the viewer into the center of the drama.  Three more arms converge on the center of attention, the baby in a basket. And what long arms they are. Gentileschi gets away with this anatomical distortion because the bodies are kneeling.  If the two women in the font were to stand up, their hands would dangle at their knees.  No matter. Composition rules.  Composition directs the viewer’s attention. That’s what counts.

The baby is contentedly lying high on bedding piled up in the basket.  So high, that it would have tipped over while floating in water.  No matter.  You’re a painter; therefore you invent what needs to be invented to make the picture work.  The picture works if it FEELS right to the client and the occasion.

The baby is naked.  And it’s a boy!  The ancient Egyptian princess, dressed in 17th century English royal garb, is pointing to his genitals.  Queen Henrietta Maria must have been pleased to project a parallel into this painting between Moses and her own newborn son. Gentileschi knew his craft, technically and politically.

Perhaps an ambassador described the charms of this painting to Philip IV, king of Spain, who might have expressed a desire to have a painting by Orazio Gentileschi. The king was known to appreciate art, visiting the studio of his court painter Velazques to sit quietly in his own regal chair just to watch Velazquez paint.  Gentileschi, ever the diplomat, then painted a copy of “The Finding of Moses” for Philip IV and engaged his son to personally deliver it to the king in Spain.

Notice that he changed the overall composition.  He makes two alterations to change the composition from a rectangle to a quarter of a pie. The two arms pointing to the Nile are gone and the woman at the far right who is kneeling while holding the basket is now heavily draped and conspicuously plump compared to the other women in the group.  She is plump because she has to support the curve of the composition.

This painting hangs in the great central gallery at the Prado.  Eight women in a painting!  You can see from a long distance away that this has to be a Gentileschi.

His daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, will be next.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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You can study larger versions of these photos along with some illuminating text at


How about that Leonard Cohen quote!

You should be reaching for your cameral now. No, silly, not to take a selfie.  Stop mugging.

Go deeper.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.








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Last week when I read the NY times article about the discovery of the 45,000 year old cave drawings I was reminded of the Zhou Brothers.

Let us now consider

  • Cave paintings
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • The Zhou Brothers
  • corporate suits in the Chicago Loop

It’s interesting to speculate about the species of mammal depicted in this cave 45,000 years ago, but it’s the hand that captivates us, isn’t it.  It’s unimaginably far in the past and yet here it is, so immediate.

We’ve been fascinated by cave drawings since 1940, when eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and his friends roamed through the woods in the Dordogne region in France, noticed a hole in the ground and crawled in. They discovered  a cave that came to be called the Lascaux Cave and turned out to have hundreds of drawings made about 17,000 years ago.


By the late 1940’s Abstract Expressionism was in full swing in New York.  In my readings I have never come across any artist working between 1940 and 1965 who claimed kinship with these ancestors that laid their hands on the rock wall, filled their cheeks with paint and blew.  But the kinship is there, literally, in the sense that we are all descended from those ancients who left their hand prints on cave walls.  To claim aesthetic kinship, however, would take a heavy hand on the Ouija board. Our Western aesthetic comes, not from cave paintings, but from the ancient Greeks, 500-400 BC.

Modernism is a rejection of these classical ideals.  In the 1940’s, as Harold Rosenberg said, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Abstract Expressionism is characterized by gesture, brushstroke and action.

These are passages from DeKooning paintings to illustrate gesture, brushstroke and action:


Introducing the Zhou Brothers.  The two Zhou brothers, born 1952 and 1957, emigrated from China to Chicago in 1986 and quickly became rich and famous.   They work as a doubles team in attacking a canvas.  A small painting can be a mere 4 x 4 feet.  But large is what they are known for, like this:

I have not seen this particular painting, but I have seen one of their large paintings in the lobby of a Chicago sky scraper.  How large?  Large, sky-scraper-lobby-large.

The corporate finance guy who forked out the money for that large Zhou Brothers painting must have peered deeply into the corporate CEO’s soul, if you’ll allow that word in this context.  Art buying at that scale is a gamble.  My theory is that two mythologies converged in the CEO’s soul:  the all-American sentimentality for things antique and that all-American can-do individualism. That would be, respectively, Neanderthal cave painting and Abstract Expressionism. The Zhou Brothers figured this out, just like that.

Next time I’m in Chicago I will find that Zhou Brothers painting and linger in the lobby to interview the people who walk through there every day.  Just one question, excuse me, sir,  what do you see in this painting, what jumps out at you, what do like best here, has your view of this painting changed over the years, what style of painting would you call this, what does it remind you of… sir?   Sir?


This video shows the Zhou Brothers at the White House where their painting referencing American presidents is given to a Chinese official.  In talking about the painting, they present themselves as manufacturers and calculating salesmen.  The dimensions of the painting are 68 x 86.  This is important, they tell us, because these are lucky numbers in Chinese culture. Also 86 is the country code!  The red line in the painting symbolizes “spirit and the hope for the future of the US.”

Really?  You’re painting in the 21st century, seducing us with this whiff of Abstract Expressionism and all the while you’re stuck in the symbolism of color, the kitsch belief in lucky numbers and the business of flattering politicians?

About cave paintings:




Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil  (1877 – 1961)

Lewis-Williams, David.  The Mind in the Cave, 2002

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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We have this painting at the National Gallery in Washington.

You may not believe this was painted in 1612. Surrounded by its Italian Renaissance neighbors, it stands out.  It is stunning.

What makes this image so distinct?

-the woman is fully clothed

-her clothing is not opulent

-she is not presenting herself

-she is turning her back to us

-she is absorbed in her music

-she has an interior life

-she is not a symbol or a saint

-this is not an illustration of Christian or Greek mythology

-this is a person

-there is no message, no moral, no lesson


Not only that, the composition is asymmetrical.  How did he get away with this?  In 1612!  In Rom!

The image engages us the way modern art engages us.

-the painter places the human figure off center

-half of the painting is a void, with the table cloth minimally suggested

-the foreshortened violin on the table points at us, as if to address us: hey you, you’re part of this.


When you walk through a museum you can spot a Gentileschi from a long distance.  He painted women unlike any of his contemporaries did.


Except his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was his student.


Orazio Gentileschi, 1563 Tuscany – 1639 London

Lute Player, 56-1/2 x 50-3/4, Natl Gal of Art, Washington DC, 1612-15


Find more of his paintings at:



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






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How long had she been perched on that thin branch?  When I saw her, I pulled up a chair and watched her sway in the wind for seventeen minutes.  During all that time she faced in one direction and vocalized almost constantly.   No other crow came near.  The wind picked up and she finally took off.

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. Their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without. Birds live squarely in the present.  —Jonathan Franzen

While being fascinated by her for those seventeen minutes I realized how ignorant I was about crows.  I had read that they have a vocabulary of dozens of calls; that they socialize in groups; warn each other of approaching predators; gather in the place where a crow had died; visit mom’s tree after moving away; make tools and solve puzzles.  Still, I felt ignorant because I couldn’t interpret her call or any of the calls my neighborhood crows make.

As my brain was wallowing in ignorance, I reminded myself that most human brains are happy to fill in that gap of ignorance with myths, superstitions and symbols, all of it Kitsch.

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell said, there’s nothing human beings want more than to be something else.

Some of our myths shows humans with wings—being bird-like.  Voila, Angels, Cupid, Psyche–the epitome of Kitsch!

Why is it worth thinking about this?

Our ancestors slipped into this escape from ignorance into saccharine superstitions and symbols.  Look around you.  We’re still drowning in Kitsch.

As an artist you need to keep your Kitsch-detector turned way up.  When you’re working on a painting, a sculpture, a composition or a short story you have to scan your work repeatedly with that trusty Kitsch-detector.  Revise!  Revise!  It’s work. That’s why a work of art can take so long.

What I’m suggesting with this bird-in-a-tree-story is that you can keep the Kitsch-detector hooked on your belt at all times, even when you’re pacing through your quarantine house and casually looking out the window.

I didn’t want to anthropomorphize the crow when I started to write this post, but “it” seemed inappropriate for such an intelligent being.  Why did I choose “she” instead of “he?”  I like to think it was an arbitrary choice, but maybe I had a Kitsch moment and emotionally identified with “her.”


Stanley Cavell, 1926-2018


For the full essay by Jonathan Franzen:



For crows and myths:











All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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