A Shade of Blue

Blue is one of those mystical colors which has long inspired artists and cultures around the world. Pablo Piccasso’s Periodo Azul lasted for three years, from 1901 to 1904, whereby he painted the world in monochromatic melancholy. Many artists before Picasso, and after, had their own blue periods, too. Toni Morrison wrote of the racist devastation of blue in her first novel in 1970, The Bluest Eye. A year later, Joni Mitchell’s titular album launched a thousand singer-songwriters. Bob Dylan sang four years later about being “tangled up in blue.” And Poet Lynn Powell captured the many mysteries of blue in her poem, “Kind of Blue”: “But way on down in the moonless / octave before midnight, honey, / way down where you can’t tell cerulean from teal.”

Except for this week, the world rejoiced in the discovery of robin’s-egg-blue flecks found in the tartar build-up of a 12th-century medieval German woman. The ultramarine pigment, powdered for Cleopatra’s trademark eyeshadow and once as valuable as gold, as sacred as Mary’s robes, appeared in the woman’s teeth. The international team of researchers’ who discovered what was on the nun’s teeth hypothesized the woman most likely used her mouth to bring a paintbrush to a point, most likely for religious texts that used the expensive pigment, or prepared the ink for herself or someone else. Global news outlets reported the not-entirely-surprising idea that illuminated texts were made, most likely, by more women than previously thought. The reason? Many of the illuminated manuscripts women made went unsigned.

Of course, all of us who have written about the German nun’s blue teeth have referenced Virginia Woolf’s truism from A Room of One’s Own: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” To gain a larger sense of how anonymity has been both lock and key for women writers, Stacey D’Erasmo’s skullbendingly good essay, “My Year of Writing Anonymously,” gives a long look at how not having a byline allows some of us to not feel the restrictions of our personal histories and identities.

For many women, the discovery in Dalheim, Germany confirms that just because earlier historical records do not always know our impact, that perhaps science will catch up enough to show how widespread women were in a myriad of cultural institutions. As Liz Blood, a writer and Tulsa Artist Fellow shared over email: “Not only were women doing work they haven’t previously been credited for (duh), but I just really loved the idea of a woman bent over her work, wetting the paintbrush with her mouth and ingesting the blue pigment that way. Something about that picture was very visceral to me. I connect to it as a writer who also bends over her work with concentration on detail and who absentmindedly fiddles with things as I’m trying to make something beautiful.”

Blood’s reaction was a common one. I called my mom on the way home after work, intent on telling the woman who routinely took me and my younger sister to the small-town weekly newspaper she and my grandmother ran in the 1980s and 1990s outside of Kansas City, Missouri about the nun. My first job at age 10 was rolling my family’s newspapers, the newsprint turning the palms of my hands a smudgy black. As I thought of the nun’s possible connection to book production, I felt a surge of pride, a confirmation that perhaps I was not the only one wearing ink on her body as a testament to the invisible work so many women have performed, continue to perform, around the world.