Mirror images 

Who’s the fairest of them all?

Mirrors can be hazardous. First of all, there’s vanity—one of the seven deadly sins enumerated in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas, who arrived at the current Catholic heptad by merging pride and vainglory from a list of eight set down by an Egyptian monk a thousand years earlier. Breaking a mirror supposedly invites seven years of bad luck—unless the breaker rinses the pieces under running water before throwing them away.

Mirrors can be deadly in other ways. Nowadays they’re manufactured by applying a thin coat of reflective silver or aluminum to a sheet of glass in a vacuum, but in the past they were sometimes made with a layer of mercury sandwiched between two panes. An anonymous poet wrote this cautionary tale: “Little Willie from his mirror licked the mercury right off/Thinking in his childish error it would cure his whooping cough/At the funeral his mother smartly said to Mrs. Brown:/“Twas a chilly day for Willie when the mercury went down!”

Mirrors have carried deep psychological significance since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Perseus used the reflection of a polished shield to slay the Gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone. Narcissus rebuffed the love of the nymph Echo, who caused him to fall in love with his reflection in a pool and eventually change into a flower—hence the term narcissism, a neurotic obsession with one’s own person enabled by mirrors real or imaginary. Echo, according to some versions of the myth, pined away for Narcissus until only her voice remained. Reflections, echoes and shadows—all extensions of ourselves, but with their own personalities—figure prominently in the fables and folklore of most cultures.

It’s often said that mirrors don’t lie—in the movie Memento, a character muses that we all need mirrors to remind us who we really are. But mirrors can distort and deceive—sometimes just for fun, like in a circus funhouse. Glass, a liquid, also responds to the tug of gravity over time, which is why large lenses and mirrors don’t stay optically true for long, and huge telescopes have lots of smaller mirrored components instead of one big one.

The mirror as a portal or conduit to the supernatural is also a common theme in horror movies and literature. In Stephen King’s 1969 short story “The Reaper’s Image,” an old mirror supposedly portends the death or disappearance of people who see a hooded figure standing behind them in the reflection. The mirror in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still terrifies adults as well as children. Teenage girls scare themselves at slumber parties by daring each other to stand in front of the mirror in a candlelit bathroom summoning images of “Bloody Mary” or “Hell Mary.”

But mirrors in art can also make for treacherously broad metaphors, so it’s kind of a relief that the mirror show currently on display at the Missoula Artists’ Shop cooperative sticks mostly to decorative applications. Glen and Amity Parks’ mirrors set in ceramic recall in miniature the elaborately carved wooden frames produced by Grinling Gibbons and other 17th-century craftsmen who created their large pieces to complement decorative ensembles.

Thanks to Gibbons and his contemporaries, it became a custom for fine European homes to incorporate decorative mirrors into interior design, generally over the hearth, where they came to be called overmantels. Purely for its size, the piece in the show most reminiscent of an overmantel is Joseph Thompson’s round mirror set in a carved and lathe-turned wooden frame, which is nearly as big as all the other pieces put together. Other creations hint—at least slightly—at Arts and Crafts and other trends in frame design that emerged after it became possible to mass-produce mirrors in the 1800s. Katie Patten’s mirror features inset squares of stained glass—“kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright” design, says Kirsten Renander, one of about seven co-op members who contributed pieces to the show. Renander’s mirror is a drunken trapezoid framed in Art Nouveau glass.

Open from May through Dec. 24, the Artists’ Shop displays the art and fine crafts of its roughly 16 members, plus the work of several other artists who sell pieces through the shop on a consignment basis. Members collaborate on ideas for an annual group show in December.

“We’re pretty literal,” says Renander of the mirror show’s decorative, rather than conceptual, slant. “The theme this year was mirrors.”

“I think it’s pretty much the only good idea we came up with,” she adds frankly.

Most of the mirrored creations are decorative, but a few are literally off the traditional wall. Pat Cross Chamberlin’s contribution is a handmade book, its cover set with a small round mirror, circumscribed by the vain Queen’s famous incantation from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall...”

The most winsome contribution would have to be potter Steve Thorstenson’s fountain: a plump pink ceramic figure with a monk’s tonsure of painted white hair, lounging in a ceramic basin and spitting a steady stream of water at its reflection in a small rectangular mirror. It’s the only piece in the show in which the mirror reflects something besides the viewer.

The mirrors are for sale and affordably priced. And pretty damn good-looking, too, if I do say so myself.

The Missoula Artists’ Shop is located at 306 N. Higgins. Call 542-3379 for more information.

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