Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jesus from the Side, on the Side of a Fence

I have an affinity for California; I lived there for years and return for visits often. In fact, I was out in the Bay Area a few days ago. I ate lots of Asian pears and burritos in the Mission. At times, however, the state and its residents strike me as parodies of themselves, fitting that New Age, Burning Man, let’s forget about everything and just bliss out with some yoga attitude. Of course, these are generalizations, and most Californians do not fit this mold (though the ones who do seem to inform how the rest of the world views the Golden State).

So I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read about this latest Jesus image sighting in Lodi, California. According to this News10 report, while meditating in her sister’s backyard in the far reaches of the Bay Area, Emily West spotted Jesus in profile on the fence. No one has ever noticed the face on this two-year-old fence before now. As a breast cancer survivor, West considers this knot of wood an auspicious sign that the days ahead will be good ones. I sure hope that is true for West. It doesn’t matter if it is yoga, training for a marathon or praying in a church or mosque, anything that bolsters the spirit of a cancer survivor is worthwhile, and valid.

And from a Madonna of the Toast perspective, this image is unique as most visual manifestations of Jesus resemble Him from the front, but here in profile the wood’s coloring reveals His hair and angular beard. This Jesus strikes me as a youthful one, like Ted Neeley, the actor from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Or maybe I'm just a sucker for one of the film's catchier tunes, "What's the Buzz?" Let's sing it together:

What's the buzz
Tell me what's a-happening
What's the buzz
Tell me what's a-happening

I'll keep telling you what's a-happening when religious and secular icons appear in unexpected places, but it's up to you to make sense of it . . .

Monday, August 20, 2007

15 Minutes of Fame is Not Worth $50,000

LaDell Alexander’s 23-pound river rock naturally colored in a way that resembles the face of Elvis did not attract a single bid on eBay. According to this Rocky Mountain News article about the failed sale, Alexander attributes it to the glut of Elvis memorabilia available on eBay these days because of the recent 30th anniversary of the King’s death. Maybe that’s it, or maybe it has something to do with the asking price: $50,000! Alexander and her husband later lowered the price to $20,000 but that didn’t help. The Alexanders came up with the substantial sum through sound reasoning, based on the intricacies of the collectibles market. Said Alexander, “They paid $28,000 for that cheese sandwich (which carried an image of the Virgin Mary), and I thought 'Hey, this was a big rock.’” In hindsight, however, LaDell and her husband enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame, and feel lucky to have even gotten that much attention for their Elvis rock. Andy Warhol would be proud.

And speaking of fifteen minutes of fame, here are a couple more recent visual manifestations of religious icons.

In Manchester, Connecticut, Malynda and Eric Smith credit their daughter for having spotted God on a kitchen cabinet. The kid needs to brush up on her iconography, but I guess that’s what parents are for, because Malynda took a look and saw Jesus, God’s son. According to this report, the family has only lived in this home for about a year, and this is the first time anyone has noticed the recognizable form. Unlike others who encounter such objects, the Smiths will not be trying to sell the cabinet as they consider such action bad luck.

And from the east coast to California’s southern climes, National City to be exact, we have Our Lady of Guadalupe on this turtle-shell necklace. The Union Tribune reported that 73-year-old Jackie Seiler spotted the form after trying to sell the necklace. She didn’t get that sale, but later that day she made a $1,000 sale, an all-time high for her store. Since the discovery of this form of faith, sales have been on the rise. Seiler plans to consult her local priest. He or she may suggest that Seiler gets her eyes checked, as this one is a real stretch.

Of course, no one has ever said that fame is fair.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Value of Worth

I went to eBay to learn the status of the Elvis rock pulled out of a Colorado river not too long ago. Supposedly, the rock was going to be auctioned off on August 10, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the King’s death. Believe it or not, I have never bought or sold anything on eBay, so I admit my rookie status, but I couldn’t find the Elvis rock. Since I was in the virtual auction house’s neighborhood, however, I decided to have a look around.

For you die-hard readers, you’ll remember my post about Deb Serio’s Jesus stain on her garage floor. Turns out someone bought the slab of concrete for $1,525.69, and now the item has been reposted. According to the auction page: “This auction is a partnership between the buyer (islandoffthecoast) and Deb Serio (nattysmom).” Together, the two of them form jesuspartners and they have started the bidding at $1,500, and you don’t even have to pay for the concrete to but cut out of the floor!

Of course, this is not the only opportunity on eBay to buy a seemingly mundane object made into something holy or distinct by a form that resembles Christ or Mary. Check out Jesus in this 400 million-year-old fossil, or here He is again in this burl wood a la Shroud of Turin, according to the seller. (Looks more like a Dr. Seuss character to me, but I looked at dirt on a watermelon and thought of William Blake. What do I know?) When you look at all of these auctions, however, none of them have any bids, including the new garage-floor stain.

Seems to me that value is not so much appraised by the accuracy of the visual manifestation or the source of the item, but rather how lathered up the press gets over it. The major selling point with the concrete slab is how many media hits the image received, and how many radio interviews Serio did (“over 17”). These other items, as far as I know, have never received any press coverage, and so they wallow away in obscurity. Nothing lost, but certainly nothing gained.

I imagine that will be the case with this eggplant. Preparing a Sunday supper of fried eggplant, Felicia Teske of Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, spotted the word “God” in this nightshade’s seeds. According to this WPVI report, Teske and her husband are contemplating selling the object, though I doubt the eggplant will keep for long enough to attract more press, unless it possesses some divine power of preservation like Diana Duyser’s Virgin Mary grilled cheese, which has not rotted after over a decade.

Lasting power, that’s the name of the game in this world, I suppose. Many of the events I blog about here don’t have much of it, they surface one day, get emailed around a bit and are then forgotten. But the media should not be the only determining factor. The same as it is the individual that first makes the discovery, happens to see the wood grain in the right light, it is the individual who can use these objects as points of entry into greater cultural issues. That’s what was so fun about writing Madonna of the Toast. I was able to track stories that, in certain cases, span decades, and that alone makes these happenings worthwhile, no matter what you do or don’t see.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Of William Blake, Moses and a Watermelon

Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.

from The Everlasting Gospel by William Blake

See the dirt encrusted on the rind of this watermelon bought at the Farmer’s Market in Asheville, North Carolina? Martha Heath-Vehorn thinks it’s Moses, because she “knew it couldn't be Jesus,” according to this Times News article.

I’ve been to Asheville, several times, a few visits lasting weeks at a time. One of my old and most favorite partners in crime runs a letterpress studio there, Blue Barnhouse. Asheville is a small mountain town where the most exciting happenings take place in the woods and tree-dense rolling mountains, so it’s no surprise that this kind of news item would get some attention, but then again, even in huge cities like Dallas these stories get play in the media.

Thing is, this woman is discerning enough to look at her $3 watermelon, see a face, not see Jesus, and default to Moses, of all Biblical figures. I don’t see a smile here, in fact I see something more chthonic, which is appropriate I suppose for a fruit grown from seed. Thinking of it as a face, it strikes me as angry, but then again, that’s the intrigue of such visual manifestations, no two people can ever see the same thing in the same way. And of course the same rule can be applied to the notion of meaning, too. William Blake demonstrates this with a deft rhyme scheme in his poem “The Everlasting Gospel.”

Heath-Vehorn knows that the dirt will fall off or dissolve eventually, but in the meantime she is open to suggestions. I think she should read Blake and study his amazing prints. His demonic and strained faces echo, for me at least, in this dirt Moses, but his words also speak to the essence of how varied interpretation can be, which is the crux of Madonna of the Toast.

Jesus was sitting in Moses’ chair.
They brought the trembling woman there.
Moses commands she be ston’d to death.
What was the sound of Jesus’ breath?
He laid His hand on Moses’ law;
The ancient Heavens, in silent awe,
Writ with curses from pole to pole,
All away began to roll.
The Earth trembling and naked lay
In secret bed of mortal clay;

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Of a Flag and Belief

Not too long ago, I blogged about a Jesus stick that had washed up along the California shoreline. The woman who found it interpreted it as an auspicious omen for her husband’s safe return from Iraq. This was the first instance in my reporting these appearances, much to my surprise, that the war had been mentioned.

Now, while today’s post is not about the war in Iraq, it is very much about war and patriotism, as least if you listen to the story painter John Gromosiak and police officer Gene Czaplinski share. The above painting, painted by Gromosiak, depicts a photograph of the Japanese attack on Wheeler Field at Pearl Harbor. Gromosiak sold it recently to Czaplinski via eBay. Here is where the interesting part of the story begins.

Upon receipt of the print, according to WISH-TV in Indianapolis, Indiana, Czaplinski took some photographs with his digital camera and loaded them onto his computer at work. Upon doing so, he noticed the red and white stripes of the American flag in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. The stripes are just barely visible, and both men insist that their appearance is a result of happenstance, not Photoshop doctoring; in the words of the reporter describing Czaplinski, “He is not a computer whiz, in fact he is a police officer.”

As with all of these stories, your mileage may vary, but ultimately it comes down to the power of association that inspires people to spot these visual manifestations. I’d say it is a safe bet to assume that both Gromosiak and Czaplinski consider themselves patriots, but they are quick to point out that they have no real explanation for the flag’s appearance, other than it just showed up, or “Only God knows.”

It is from the same human source of faith or belief that these visions are borne. While one person’s religious faith may result in seeing the Virgin Mary or Jesus in a tree, another person’s national faith, their patriotism, may result in spotting the American flag unexpectedly.

I wonder what convictions cause people to spot Elvis on a rock or Lenin on a shower curtain. I get into it a bit in Madonna of the Toast. Perhaps in the marketplace of icons, all belief exists on the same level as the icons have been converted into commodities, all of which must answer to the economy.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? I’m always game to hear them!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Soon it Will be a Jesus Forest

Reported by the Ventura County Star on August 2, this is another Jesus tree. Irma Lopez was watering her front yard when she noticed that the coloring on this wood resembled Jesus, from the torso up. Upon wetting the wood, the shape really popped for Lopez, who soon showed her daughter and neighbor.

All parties involved consider the discovery a blessing. Lopez has lived on this property for 40 years. Her mother, who died a couple of years ago, often tended the garden and Lopez associates the shape with the memory of her mother. Lopez’s daughter gave birth recently to a healthy boy and for her the tree is very auspicious.

If you live in the area, the article gives the address, so I assume anyone that wants to take a look is invited.

It’s funny, for all the Jesus and Virgin Mary trees that I’ve blogged about here, I didn’t include a single one in Madonna of the Toast. I guess with all the potato chips, cows, carrots and shower curtains, a tree nubbed with an iconic face comes off as pedestrian. Oh the world we live in . . .

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Sign From Above, On the Floor

Credit for the title of this post goes to WSET 13 in Virginia, which reported this Jesus face on July 30. Found in Forest, Virginia, on a concrete garage floor, high school teacher Deb Serio is now auctioning the face on eBay.

In her words:

This image of Jesus appeared on our garage floor here in Forest, VA. I took a picture of it and showed it to several people, including all of my high school students, and they agree – it is an image of Him. I have lived with this image for about a year. I have decided to sell this portion of the concrete floor. The price of the auction MUST cover the excavation of the floor or the auction is considered CANCELED. It can be cut out, but I am not sure how to do it so I have to call in a professional. This image became known to us after we moved a 5 gallon can of driveway sealant. It does not change, cry, or manifest itself in any other way. It is an uncanny icon of Christ.

What I like most about this description is the disclaimer that the image does not “change, cry, or manifest in any other way.” Serio is certainly being straightforward about what the winner of the auction receives, aside from a bill from some contractor for excavating a concrete slab with a stain that looks like Jesus.

I find it amazing that someone would have to be explicit about one of these religious manifestations being nothing more than the semblance of a face. But, like Diana Duyser, whose $28,000 eBay windfall inspired Serio to sell the face (that auction also changed how eBay behaves), these events and their disclaimers prove how entrenched these phenomena are in our cultural fabric. Converted into bizarre commodities, replete with the legalese of liability, these objects are commonplace. Just look at how frequently I blog about them. Or, get yourself a copy of Madonna of the Toast. It’s cheaper than buying this Jesus face, which as of this afternoon, has attracted a high bid of $157.50.

It will be interesting to find out what item fetches more, this face or the Elvis rock, which will be up for grabs on August 10.