Themistocles’ Fighting Birds: Allison Semele Blair’s “Wooden Walls/Second Ships”

Today I had coffee with a Graduate student in the Department of Classics at Ohio State, where I teach, and not for the first time I found myself confronted with an impressive, articulate and engaged Classicist, with a novel and timely research project, who nonetheless was seriously contemplating leaving the discipline and working outside of academia. During this conversation our discussion turned to Allison Semele Blair, a former Graduate student in our program and currently an MFA student at the University of West Virginia. At a similar stage in her trajectory in our program to the student I was speaking to today, Allison was contemplating an ambitious dissertation on the connection between ancient historiography and visual narratives, stretching from the history of illustration in editions of Classical authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus, but also how historiographical narratives of ancient texts inform contemporary graphic novels, such as Joe Sacco’s Palestine. Yet, at the same time as Allison was working out her thesis topic, she was also taking printmaking classes in the Department of Art and this experience ultimately made up her mind to leave our program and pursue her studies as an artist.

I have been following Allison’s work from a distance and I was intrigued by a recent series of cyanotypes that she has made under the collective title Wooden Walls/Second Ships. In what seems to be a sequence of 14 works, Allison depicts a cluster of branches or shrubs that then become occupied by first one bird then two. Finally a pair of hands enter the scene to disturb the birds and then to partially destroy the plants. (Here I illustrate this post with only a small sample of the first section – you can see the whole series on her website here).

Knowing that Allison was still very much engaged with her Classical training and specifically her interest in Greek and Roman historiographical narratives, I realized that her work must be in some way informed by a key episode in Herodotus. In Book 7 of his Histories, Herodotus describes the crucial moment in the Persian Wars when after Thermopylae, Xerxes was set on Athens in what would be the decisive battle of Salamis. Fearing for their city and, as Herodotus puts it ‘the whole of Greece’, the Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi. After a series of misinterpretations, Themistocles makes the winning interpretation that an confusing reference to certain ‘wooden walls’ was in fact a reference to the Athenian fleet and given this, they should trust in their ships at the sea-battle with the Persians and expect divine sanction for their victory.

In Wooden Walls/Second Ships this epic narrative of human and divine decisive action is mapped onto a minor woodland scene. Even while still a Classics Graduate student and in her first forays in printmaking, Allison had worked on how the minor figures of birds could be used to represent and engage more expansive events. An early series of prints about Catullus’ poems mourning his lover’s sparrow is one that stands out, as does her monumental installation Specter of a Common Songbird in Hopkins Hall, which she states was ‘inspired by the memorializing poems of Greek and Latin literature, which like the birds, are small, beautiful things that have been overlooked and forgotten.’)

Allison’s series reminded me of a bird-tale about Themistocles preserved in the Various History (Ποικίλη Ἱστορία) of Claudius Aelianus (Aelian), written in the early 3rd Century CE. Aelian describes how during the Persian Wars, perhaps before the battle of Salamis itself, Themistocles saw two cocks fighting. He told his fellow Athenians that they should learn from these two birds because ‘they undertake this danger, neither for country, nor for their gods, nor for the monuments of their ancestors. They fight neither for fame, liberty or for their children. Instead they battle to prove that they cannot be beaten nor that they are willing to yield.’ I would never have connected this minor tale on the origin of the cock-fight to Themistocles’ interpretation of the Delphic Oracle before Salamis had it not been for Allison Semele Blair’s work that continues to engage with her work as a Classicist as she blazes a trail as an artist.

As I write this post, Facebook tells me that Allison and her partner and fellow artist Michael McDevitt have just announced their engagement – a hearty Minus Plato congratulations to you both!

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