Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Growing up we had one camera in our family, a Kodak Brownie Starmite, a blue and white piece of molded plastic with a silver disk for the flash bulb. Whenever there was a social occasion the camera would be dug out of the closet, a few pictures would be taken, and the camera put away. It could be MONTHS before the roll of 24 snapshots would be ready to be removed and developed, and a returned envelope of prints was like a mini time capsule of events full of surprise images – some flawed, some sad, some goofy, some tragic – but all of them undeniably historical for the memories they rekindled and the stories they told.

Eventually newer cameras and easier-to-load film formats emerged and suddenly we had multiple cameras in the house. I don’t remember whether we got the Polaroid Instamatic or the Kodak 110 Pocket Instamatic, or where the X-15 Instamatic fell in among these, but with cartridge loading and instant imagery came the idea that photos could be both easier to take and provide more instant gratification. The film cameras still needed to be taken in for developing but the cartridges were easy and guaranteed fewer lost and fogged rolls. But the Polaroid, that was a game changer.

Now when you took a picture you could peel off the backing paper to expose the chemical to the air for development (before you simply shook it until the image emerged) and if for some reason it didn’t look right, someone blinked or the lighting was bad, you could “correct” the memory on the spot. Instead of reliving a moment from the past we now gathered around and shared a moment from a few moments earlier. It was a sweet novelty but the cost of instant film was prohibitive enough that it, too, would only be trotted out to perform on special occasions. For really important moments both a film camera and the Polaroid would be pressed into service, just to make sure the event was well-preserved.

Jump ahead. Jump beyond the camcorder revolution, beyond the point-and-shoots, beyond early digital cameras of 2 megapixel, 4 megapixel, 10 megapixel, into the lap of the smartphone with its built-in digital camera. it’s an old story now, even now, that we have these cameras with us all the time and we can take a picture or video at a moment’s notice. We no longer wait for the special occasion, we capture every moment no matter how small. We review it instantly and decide whether to keep it store in memory or dump it to the digital netherworld. We no longer capture representations of moments for the future we capture the now, send it out to the world in the now, and move one to the next.

We no longer look at photos as moments in a memory, we remember the moments we recorded. The document has replaced the memory.

But a funny thing happened. For her fifteenth birthday J wanted to go out for a “tradition” of taking her elementary school friends out to ice cream. I brought a camera, my little Canon Powershot digital, and dashed off some candids while the kids ate and goofed around outside afterward. Then at home I hooked up the camera to the computer and realized that since I got my new laptop at the beginning of the year I hadn’t bothered setting up any of my photo uploading, editing, or sharing apps. And because the old computer was wonky and out-of-sorts I hadn’t dared load any pictures for some time. Almost ten months in fact, and it was as if I had just developed a roll of film from the old Brownie camera.

There was a combined birthday back in September that included a pig roast, a bouncy house for kids (and some grandparents), first-day-of-school pictures of the girls, a Thanksgiving trip to Chicago, Christmas with the in-laws and extended family, and finally this birthday trip. Other events during that time had been captured via the phone, given various processing and treatments and posted via social media or sent instantly via wi-fi networks to recipients. The photos in the camera, taken as a whole, were like an envelope of mystery snaps fresh from the drugstore. Having not seen some of them since they were taken, I was suddenly awash in memories and stories. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps, but also absence makes the memory grow stronger.

While uploading these “lost” photos I came across a handful that I decided I wanted to have printed. Such a quaint old notion, to actually make prints of photos that I can always access via a phone or a computer, but with an entirely different message. To record a moment is to say “this happened” but to move beyond that, beyond adding the photo to social media or texting them to friends and family, to print a photo says “this is important, this moment in time, and it deserves more than a digital flit.”

I wonder sometimes, will this younger generation be satisfied to live in a world without these physically printed totems?  Has the 20th century’s reign of photographic memory-keeping come to an end in favor of the instant-constant documentation of daily life?

And does it make me a nostalgic old man for even caring?

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Because I’m writing. Or rather, I’m rearranging.

Not editing, mind you, and they’re not even my own words. And to top it all off I’m not even getting paid for it.

To the right there you’ll notice a little badge for a thing called the Pulitzer Remix. For the entire month of April, National Poetry Month, the Pulitzer Remix project will post a new poem daily from 82 poets who have “found” poems within each of the 82 books that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

I know the collective noun for poems is (mundanely) an anthology, and that the collective noun for poets can be an attic, mezzanine, cellar, anteroom, a scansion, break, stanza, break, deign, mope, peppering, ego, havoc, madness, rejection, and so on, but this… the Pulitzer Remix seems to require a new collective.

An extraction, perhaps?

Found poems are exactly what they sound like, poems found within some other context. Shopping lists, stacks of book titles, a note found on the ground can all hold poetic nuance, but also in larger bodies of text like books or magazine articles words and phrases can be culled to create new and previously (by their original author’s) unimagined meaning. It’s within the realm of this last context that the Pulitzer Remix operates. Each poet has one novel as their Urtext from which they can apply any number of rules and choices in which to create new poetry. The challenge is to ferret out the new and unexpected from the old, not entirely unlike musical sampling where a beat or a motif creates a new framework for new music, bringing the old to new ears.

While it sounds new (and perhaps sacrilegious) to maim and mangle the carefully chosen works of literature the concept isn’t far from what artist Tristan Tzara once described as a recipe for creating a Dadaist poem nearly a century ago.

Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

The poem will be like you. Because no one else would have made the same conscious choices, or could have produced the same exact results, not without a great deal of trial and effort. The found poem, like the Dadaist poem, exists as the hard truth within the joke that goes “I have all the great works of literature in this one single book!” wherein the teller brandishes a dictionary. Perhaps that is the ultimate challenge for the found poet, to create a new work from the dictionary that uses as many words contained in the dictionary without repeating a single one.

And so, in a few short weeks I, along with an extraction of 81 other poets, will begin a massive excursion into the rearrangement of American literature. I will post snippets and links throughout April.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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I am someone for whom the internet was invented. My friends have told me so. It has to do with my generally insatiable curiosity and the ability to ferret out the bits of life’s ephemera, the stuff that amuses and illuminates and unifies our lives. I am a scholar in the loosest sense of the word but no less so than one with a formal doctorate. Of course, internet surfing – or “research” as it is sometimes derisively called in our house – has turned us all into masters of the ephemeral, but it also has become a giant time-suck as well. Such is the double-edged sword of knowledge.

On one of my ventures into the wilds of the internet I came upon a tumblr blog that did a daily upload of the scans made from the journals of artist Keith Haring. I could try to summarize Haring’s life, style, and his impact on the art world, but that’s what the internet is for, and others have already done that. I subscribed to Haring’s journal feed because the archive handling his journals were uploading pages chronologically from Haring was a teen and I was curious to see if there was a moment when you could see an artist emerge. I wanted to know because I have a back-burnered project to write about a teen artist coming into their own and I was hoping to limn some sense of what it looked like from within.

There was a lot of earnest trying-to-be-an-artist type entries, and while I recognized the truth in this from my own life – those early days when everything is so deep and so full of meaning, as if you were the first to have these thoughts – what I wanted was the moment when the trying became simply being. This, I knew, was what I wanted to capture, the narrative moments that rang true without all the sturm und drang attached. Sometimes capturing the truth means editing out the whole truth. Then this past week the beginnings of a new journal were posted and I felt like I’d found the emotional core of what I was looking for.


Haring had written this on the inside front cover, and it encapsulates not only the inculcation of a life deliberately set on understanding the process of creating, but it so underscores the experience of the reader and the writer and the event. Haring isn’t likely the first to articulate this idea but his youthful phrasing was what I was looking for, and his use of a box as a metaphor was exactly what I’d hoped to find. He elaborates on the first page of the journal proper


We experience “art” as a result of many factors outside of the actual “art” itself.

Are all of the factors part of the “art experience” itself?

Three years after Haring had written these words I was coming to a very similar understanding though through a different lens. I had encountered Koestler’s theory of bisociation at the same time that I discovered the Dadaist art movement and suddenly it was as if the creative world started making a whole lot more sense. But I didn’t keep a journal (foolish me) and it was stumbling onto Haring’s that helped me understand what I had been wrestling with in this shelved project.

But beyond my personal searching Haring underscores what makes books a distinct storytelling medium that has survived, and thrive, despite the development of television, movies, and other narrative distractions. Other media control the speed at which the story is told but the book allows for an individual, personal, and perfectly tailored experience. Naturally time can be controlled within all storytelling – it can be condensed, expanded, telescoped, and otherwise manipulated – the the experience of that time, that’s the ability to look inside the “box” and decide when it’s time to move along. When you look at a painting or a photo and are amassing the thousand or so words the picture paints you are composing the page that places that experience, that moment, in a box of memory. Likewise, reading a book allows the reader to take in the information at their own speed before defining the memory box in which it is kept.

So while casually looking for an attempt to capture the feel of a young artist making sense of the creative process I managed to find some comfort that working in the written word isn’t the pointless exercise it can sometimes feel like. Especially when the idea of finding an audience is still in a distant “someday,” a box full of time for another day.

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I’m on assignment.  Sort of.  A friend who is a professor has asked me for the second year in a row to contribute to a blog based on one of her course subjects, Los Angeles.  I grew up there, and though I haven’t lived in the city or spent any significant time there in the last (mumble mumble) years or so, I still have some pretty vivid memories.

When I was initially asked to contribute to last year’s blog I wrestled with some mixed emotions.  On the one hand, having not lived in a city that changes as radically within a given ten-year period I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute.  On the other hand, at what point does one’s history become an invalid point of departure for reportage?  Distance is a physical thing, but memory is as close as the memory is strong.  Why shouldn’t I be able to talk about the city of my formative years?

My current assignment involves the memories of streets.  I have a few I’m sorting through in my mind to determine which will speak the loudest to me.  At the same time those old doubts come creeping in. Do I have anything relevent to say?  Are my memories of streets that have long since seen cosmetic surgery even really the same streets?

It was while perusing a book on screenwriting this past weekend that I stumbled on a quote by Willa Cather.

I became an artist when I stopped admiring and started remembering.

Setting aside that I’ve never like Cather’s books, or that I find her use of the word “artist” pretentious and a bit insecure on her part, I found this quote to be remarkably well-timed for discovery.  In the beginning we learn by studying those who inspire us. In 8th grade I wrote an unbelievably ridiculous story based on people I knew in the style of Kurt Vonnegut.  Since then I’ve studied, and aped, films and radio plays and painters and photographers I admired.  While I find some of the work done in homage to be relatively successful, it wasn’t until I learned how to mine my memories that I understood these various arts and crafts better.

What “works” in my writing are those moments that tap into the rich vein of what I remember.  About childhood, about cities, about creating, about everything.  I can see the clear, clean architectural lines of a building but cannot capture it until I can tap into my memories of wonder at first seeing such things.  Standing in front of an abstract painting may mean nothing at first, but then comes a memory of color or pattern, where describing it becomes an attempt to locate the hidden vocabularies of experience.

Why do certain colors and scents move us?  What makes a particular time of day feel brighter or melancholy?  Everyone admires an exquisite sunset; it’s how you remember it that renders the memory valuable.  We attach emotions to these things we admire and experience, and rendering these feelings transforms the work.

So I’ve stopped questioning whether or not there’s validity to my memories of the streets of Los Angeles. The only question now is to settle on which ones are the most evocative.  We can tussle over whether or not it’s art later.

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Sometimes I think my desire to write tabloid headlines is a missed calling.  Or is ti even a calling at all?

So over at Children’s Illustration they stumbled onto a post over at BoingBoing, which discovered this little tidbit on a site called You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice, which I am now passing along to you, in case you missed it.

So I wonder how many goth kids who dig Emily realize that she’s perhaps tapped into some subconscious part of their childhood reading?

The thing is, artists and all creative people will borrow or appropriate influences.  Classically trained artists actually learn to copy the masters to better understand their methods and processes.  Once they have mastered the masters they then strike out on their own, usually in a style derivative of their influences which serves as a sort of journeyman-ship. Mastering that and breaking free, they become their own masters.

But rarely do imitations make or deserve more attention then their influences.  And the Emily brand is not small potatoes.  In the end, I wonder if I could do what Rob Reger did, if I could live with copying something so plainly obvious, and make a ton of money off of it, and be content knowing that I made my name off someone else’s words and images.

I think not.  Which I guess is why I’m stll poor and Reger is probably lauging all the way to the bank.

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I see teens and hipster kids wearing the various Hargreaves characters all the time.  You know, the Mr. Men and Little Miss booklets that showcased a variety of moods and behaviors?  No?  Go here for a refresher, then continue.

Okay, so it’s no secret that I wanted to be an animator when I grew up.  Grow up.  When I was eleven I announced that’s what I would be.  I wasn’t going to let a little thing like a lack of drawing talent get in the way.  I share the same birthday as some famous animator dude, so why couldn’t that just sort of, you know, rub off?

That I didn’t become an animator, and how I didn’t, is a much longer story for another time.  But I love keeping tabs on animators and visit about as many animator’s blogs as I do kidlit writer’s blogs.  I can’t help it.  It’s just never going to go away.  One of those bloggers is Nate Wragg.  I love this thing he has for yeti.  His style speaks to my love of mid-century modern, the 1950s visual style of Disney’s Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom.  One day (when I win the lottery or a MacArthur Foundation grant) I will buy some of his work.

Right now, though, he’s done a brilliant thing and created, for fun, Roger Hargreaves-type characters to match the current American political race.  If someone were to make a t-shirt with these two side by side I think I could afford that.  Do, go check it out.

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Do I keep revising the pages I have so far… or do I begin from scratch (again!) hoping to pin down the elusive “voice” of the main character?

The crossroads is the place where young blues musicians would meet Old Scratch and hammer out a deal for fame and fortune, or just the ability to play like it’s nobody’s business.  The modern idea of “devil music” comes out of this myth, but it makes me wonder what the equivalent is for writers.   Is there someplace one goes to trade, say, a blazingly brilliant first novel and the ability to crank out masterpieces in exchange for something, perhaps something a little more benign than a short life and a long memory?

Oh, not that I’m willing to take the shortcut, mind you.  I’m just thinking aloud.

It’s odd, music has this whole thing I once learned as “the death and resurrection show.”  It’s where a vibrant, talented, promising musician has one of these mystical hero journeys and comes out the other side an icon.  Jimi and Elvis and Lennon and Kurdt are all cats who were one thing one day, went through the netherworld, came out the other side transformed.  Look at Dylan.  One self-made version of himself one day, totally different following the motorcycle accident.  Sure, the Beatles were all dropping acid and whatnot, but come Sgt. Pepper Paul is still writing about a meter maid and wondering what he’ll be like in 2008 when he’s 60-something while John, he’s got Lucy in his skies and he’s doing benefit’s for a Mr. Kite and he’s not far from declaring himself a Walrus.  Something happened to John, man, and he came out the other side of it different.

Artists are the same way, painting studies of nudes and doing formal portraits in blue and rose and then BAM! they’re cubists.  Andy Warhol is doodling cats and working in advertising and WHOMP! it’s Marilyn and Mao in neon.  It’s like there’s a dam in there, somewhere, and something comes along and busts the thing wide open and all of a sudden it’s a raging torrent coming out.  Is it a battle between the id and the ego, between learning and unlearning?   What’s the trigger, where’s the key?

And how does that happen with writers.  Is there a moment where they’re writing sturdy, workman-like prose one day and then the come to something that turns them inside out and start writing like a demon possessed?  Is it the nature of publishing that we don’t see the process because we only see the ‘after’ and never the ‘before’ picture of their work?

Or is it all myth, the legend of the transaction at the crossroads a way of telling a story that hides the hours of toil and sweat, that makes it seem so effortless in hindsight.  No one wants to hear that its all hard work, they’d rather think some magician offered up an elixir in exchange for a little worldly soul.

I’m toiling, folks, I’m sweating this thing.  It needs a voice and I haven’t found it.  I keep thinking it’s right around the corner, just up the road a patch.  If anyone has a map I’d be most obliged

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