Downward Spiral

The Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute asked members of River City Art Association and Wabash Valley Art Guild to submit artwork for an exhibit in March inspired by the 2014 Wabash Valley Big Read book selection “The Magnificent Ambersons” by Indiana author Booth Tarkington.

Downward Spiral is my submission as a member of River City Art Association.

Downward Spiral by Sheila K. Ter Meer

The words “downward spiraling fortunes” on the back cover of “The Magnificent Ambersons” inspired me to create digitally altered images and present them in my interpretation of an art form used by early Renaissance painters.

A polyptych generally refers to a painting (usually panel painting) divided into sections, or panels, that collectively tell a story. Polyptychs typically display one “central” or “main” panel that is usually the largest of the attachments, while the other panels are called “side” panels, or “wings.” Sometimes, the panels can be varied in arrangement to show different “views” in the piece. Heptaptych is the terminology for seven parts or panels integrated into a particular piece of work.

The five main panels in “Downward Spiral” are my photographs arranged in the semblance of a child’s pinwheel, prominently featuring George Amberson Minafer at the center of attention. The four vanes of the pinwheel represent the lives of the Amberson and Morgan families revolving around the spoiled, selfish Georgie. The clock and gear background panels – symbolizing time and progress – complete the heptaptych.

I used a computer version of another child’s toy, a kaleidoscope filter in a photo editing program, to create the spiraling effect of little Georgie’s thoughts in a tizzy and the lives affected by his deplorable words and deeds.

About halfway through the book, George overreacts to gossip about his mother and the rumor of her marrying Eugene Morgan. His “nightmarish” behavior sends the lives of everyone around him spiraling out of control.

Jealousy and the idea of not being the center of his mother’s attention, love and affection, and Little Georgie’s unwillingness to change with the times –  along with his refusal to take a profession and make an honest living –  tarnishes his relationship with Eugene Morgan and the love of his life, Lucy Morgan.

The inaction of Major Amberson – set in his ways, living in the past – and failed investments by George’s father, Wilbur, his Aunt Fanny and Uncle George also lead to a series of unfortunate events.

I decided on sepia tone to paint a town turned a dingy brown from the soot of coal-fired chimneys and pollution from the too close for comfort proximity of factories.

I chose a frame representative of the late-1800s, early-1900s with tarnished silver and gold trim to symbolize the family’s diminishing wealth; the mansion and Amberson holdings, falling in a state of disrepair; and in George’s mind’s eye, his father’s tarnished memory and his mother’s tarnished reputation.

By the last chapter, the title “Downward Spiral” became obvious. By definition, the term describes a depressive state where the person (Georgie) experiencing the downward spiral is getting more and more depressed (when he finally questions his actions after his mother’s death), perhaps due to causes unknown (to George anyway).  It is called a downward spiral because there is no stopping it, and things get worse (the family loses its money, home) until the person crashes figuratively and literally (George finally gets his come-upance and is later hit by a car), and maybe finds his way back to happiness.


Further explanation of content in the seven panels

Collectively the panels represent the past, present and future of the Amberson family affected by the rise of the industrial age and the fall of the American aristocracy.

The clocks in the background panel represent the rapid change of the times – the hands on the upswing, advancing, no stopping, and no turning back. The time is a few minutes before 6 o’clock, during High Tea, which is almost over, figuratively and literally, for the Amberson family.

The gears in the next background panel represent progress, the swift turning wheels of industry and commerce.

Coincidentally, a pinwheel originally was a mechanism in a clock. The four vanes, or panels, in the pinwheel purposely lead the eye in a counterclockwise motion symbolizing George’s resistance to innovation and forward thinking of those around him.

George, always at the center of attention, remains motionless, living in the present, oblivious to the consequences of his inaction – his unwillingness to embrace change and plan for the future. In the bat of a Lucy Morgan eye, George’s station in life seems to change and he is thrown into a tizzy – his thoughts and subsequently his actions spin out of control.

In the first panel I used an old family photo to create Isabel Amberson, daughter of Major Amberson, and later wife to Wilbur Minafer and mother to George Amberson Minafer. The dark brick house with a turret and expansive stone porch represents the Amberson Mansion. The book references the main road in town as National Avenue. This early-1900s home is on the Old National Road in Clay County where National Avenue runs straight through the heart of downtown Brazil – and by no coincidence runs straight through the middle of downtown Indianapolis, the city Booth Tarkington used as the setting for his story.

The second panel shows factories surrounding and consuming the houses on Amberson Boulevard representing the effects of rapid industrialization on Midland as it spreads and darkens into a big city. Here I added photos I took of a home and a factory in Terre Haute.

The third panel represents the Amberson patriarchy (again, an old family photo) and the downward spiraling fortunes affected by socio-economic change in the Midwest: the Major, who falls on hard financial times and is forced to sell off land surrounding the mansion to support the Amberson lifestyle; and Uncle George, who is wiped out by yet another “get rich quick” investment.

The horseless carriage (a photo I took of a friend’s Model T) speeding along the paved roads to and from the factories in the fourth panel represents Eugene Morgan (and likely, Henry Ford) and everything for which he stands and everything George despises: progress – especially the innovative ideas leading to Eugene’s success; and change – the unexpected turn of the tables and new definition of social status and respectability.