The Muses of Mount Helicon

"But what is my business round tree or rock? Come now, from the Muses let us begin, who with their singing delight the great mind of Zeus the father in Olympus, as they tell of what is and what shall be and what was aforetime, voices in unison."

— Hesiod, Theogony

According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the Muses were produced by the union of Zeus (god of the sky and ruler of Olympian gods) and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory and the inventress of language) for the purpose of distracting beings from the trials and tribulations of the day. They celebrate the arts, literature and science and they inspire creation.

While watching TV, on a freezing morning in December of 2016, head cluttered with bad news of the day, I was drawn outside of my house and into the woods by numerous very strange white objects on the ground. My first thought was that trash had blown into the woods. Reaching for them I discovered, to my surprise, that these objects were very fragile ice formations that broke into fragments upon my touch.

Knowing they were ephemeral (freezes don't last here), I immediately retrieved my camera and photographed. About two weeks later this happened again, and by this time I knew the dead stalks that were centered in this magical ice formation were called Frostweed (Verbesina virginica). The discovery of these temporary ice formations was not only unexpected, but inconceivable. So my source of inspiration, these magical frozen Muses, became my distraction from the current political climate.

The process used in these images is very hands-on. These photographs are digitally printed on inkjet vellum and the central image is backed with silver leaf. The paper is then sealed with acrylic varnish. Metal leaf incorporated into the photographic print is an homage to the beginnings of photography, when nearly all early photographic processes utilized metal salts.

Symbolically, The Muses of Mount Helicon are a distraction from distressing current events. They distract, then incite creative activities and appreciation of the natural world much like the muses of ancient Greece inspired Hesiod's poetry and artists throughout the ages.


O daughters of Thunderbolt & Language Memory
Your wooded wonders saturated periphery—

News obliterate

En plein aire, caméra nature morte—maelstrom
Landscape of heath health—Polyhymnia belief

Hear our plea

Montage photo silver leaf
Moss stone grave site double steps

In Tennessee

Erato, Giotto, polluted Clio—deep state
Mount Helicon, Terpsichore dithyrambic

Urania freight

Thalia darling, Crystal Method, Calliope
Frost weed muses, bunny badger deer

Hesiod surreal tree

Euterpe laurel wreath pillow talk—cardinal fawn
Melpomene cactus death mask, longhorn chaos

Eden cabin trait

O Henry David journal thunderstorm
Paint your mullein Walden Holler Creek

Birds—talk to me

Built newness—discovered time
Natural pigment process, UV black & white

Forty-watt caliphate

Rooster coffee everywhere morning bedroom sound
Direction Zephyr to syzygy, same time absurdity—shutter

Photo apogee

Barbra Riley was born in Brooklyn and raised in White Plains, New York. She studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and California State University–Sacramento, where she received her BA and MA in Painting and Photography. In the 1970s, Riley maintained her own studio in New York City where she designed, photographed, and collaborated with printers and bookbinders on commercial projects while continuing to produce and exhibit her own water-media paintings, hand-colored photographs, and works on paper.

As a Professor at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi for over three decades, Riley taught classes in photography, book arts, and water-media. She developed the analogue and digital curriculum in photography for the Art Department, curated exhibitions for the Weil and Islander Galleries, and conducted workshops in historical photographic processes. Riley's work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in numerous public and private collections throughout the country.

Tom Murphy's poem "Invocation" and essay appeared in the catalog for The Woods Journal/The Muses of Mount Helicon.