Posts Tagged ‘letters’

Thinking Outside The Lines…

October 7, 2016

AlphaAngel-Sketch2.jpgAlphabetAngelRGB2.jpg

A few months ago, I began following posts (and occasionally commenting) at a Facebook forum called ‘Forgotten Art Supplies’. I became intrigued because while much of my work now relies on digital tooIs, I had used many of the required traditional tools mentioned there for drawing and preparing my illustrations for reproduction during my career as an illustrator and designer.

Last week, however, I was about to respond to a post by Donald Simpson, a well-known cartoonist but decided that his plaintive concern was worth a more substantive response.

This is what he said: “What I find disturbing is the trend toward coloring books and coloring stations — they are everywhere in the college campus {where} I teach, but no drawing classes! Sad.”

Based on my own history and observations, I have to agree with Mr. Simpson to a point; but this scenario may not be as dark as it seems.

As a young child, my parents noticed my passion and ability to draw and casually encouraged me to continue doing so. However, when birthdays and other occasions rolled around, coloring books and boxes of Crayolas were always among the gifts I received. I never had trouble coloring within the lines, but soon became bored with confining my abilities to them; until I reached the age of seven and began to receive coloring books that provided thin paper between each spread. These allowed me to trace the images and perhaps add my own arbitrary enhancements. I sometimes tore out these sheets and traced illustrations from my favorite picture books like the classic Grimm tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, beautifully illustrated in 1954 by Sheilah Beckett:

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This experience enhanced my enjoyment of the masterful works of others and though such features were an improvement in coloring books, I eventually lost interest when I realized my preference was for inventing and coloring images that I had created, an understanding that led me to become an illustrator.

Given the many comments I’ve heard over the years from those who bemoan a lack of artistic skills (‘I can’t even draw a straight line…’), I am not surprised that the need for adult coloring books has been recognized. A dazzling array of these have become ubiquitous in gift shops, the few remaining bookstores, even supermarkets and big box stores, not to mention everywhere online. Says a lot about the power of marketing, social media and profitability for publishers and creators. Here’s more on that from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-adults-are-buying-coloring-books-for-themselves

Nevertheless, I don’t have a problem with coloring books per se or the profits they generate. Some of them are beautifully drawn and intricate such as those featuring Buddhist mandalas, optical illusions,  plants and animals or one with a Pittsburgh theme done by my friend and former CMU student, illustrator Rick Antolic. While they provide a therapeutic outlet and/or a much needed esthetic experience for many, they may also heighten appreciation for the talent and skills needed to create them.

Cover artImage result for adult coloring booksImage result for adult coloring booksPittsburgh: A Coloring Book

But like Mr. Simpson, I feel that the proliferation of adult coloring books underscores the need for more basic drawing skills to be offered in schools from K through college.

Though the ‘arts’ receive a modicum of funding from federal and private sources, those monies are more often directed at acquiring audio visual materials, computers and assorted electronic devices to be used for creative purposes. Tablets, 3-D printers and areas set aside for making things are a hot trend in schools right now. All of the above are fine. Still, passively watching videos often just fills classroom time unless follow-up interactive discussions or related project assignments that encourage personal exploration and experimentation are included. On that note, learning to master digital devices and the apps that empower them requires much more than navigating a mouse or keyboard.

Without learning to develop and challenge manual drawing skills to enhance their understanding and appreciation of the work  of masters through history, it is my opinion that students are inhibited from acquiring the inspiration necessary to express concepts, let alone create viable content so that art can continue to fulfill its purpose; to shed light on the time in which it is made and introduce new ideas for cultural understanding and growth.

Yet, how often do we hear of classes solely devoted to teaching young students classical academic drawing, painting, or sculptural skills? At the university level, catalogues from these institutions may typically offer art classes, even BA/MFA degrees, but many would-be artists can easily be discouraged by the implied emphasis on more hard core studies in math, science and technology that strongly suggest following careers in these fields rather than in the liberal arts. Having taught illustration in a university environment, I learned how difficult it would be to overcome this prejudice, yet happily a handful of my profoundly talented students prevailed and became quite successful illustrators.

In retrospect and with some irony, I understand that perhaps coloring books were created to teach and aid the development of manual skills in children but they do so with the risk of making their users dependent upon the visual structures and cues of others rather than encouraging them to mine their own imaginations.

All of the above said, I believe that by underestimating the importance of our desire and ability to make art, our society has discouraged development of a gift through which we can define and express our humanity.

Tangentially, I would imagine this idea as the raison d’être that motivates the prolific art of grafitti and the public intolerance of it.

What has happened in the course of time is that other forms of communication have largely conquered our need to express ourselves visually. The line that once flowed freely from our young hands to form images has been, according to French artist & filmmaker Jean Cocteau, ‘untied and re-tied in a different fashion’ to enable multilingual universal communication with words.

And therein lies the subtle promise of the current assortment of coloring books for their users. For those who may have forgotten how to reverse that process and unlock their flexible line, they can inspire us once again to tell meaningful stories without words.

On The Shoulders of Giants…

May 5, 2016

Imagination, though we all possess it, is usually perceived as the defining quality and exclusive territory of creative individuals, particularly when we marvel at the art, music, literature, science and philosophy it inspires. But the analyst Carl Jung may have been onto something with his theories of our ‘collective unconscious’ which he claimed is the vast, virtual repository of all human thought, endeavor and possibility. In that light, imagination may be the ‘tool’ within all of us for unlocking virtual doors into this realm; enabling us to discover more about who we are and what we are capable of but also to teach us humility as we begin to comprehend all that came before us.

This engraving by the French writer and astronomer Nicholas Flammarion for his 1888 book, L’Atmosphère : Météorologie Populaire seems an apt illustration of the above comments:

A recent TED talk* on the theme of originality validated my instinctive understanding that originality is less about magic than it is about the speed and extent to which we are able to access and use our imaginations productively. With dedicated observation, listening and the use of our senses, aided by technology, we discover that the majority of human accomplishments are the results of ‘sampling’. They are based in sum or in part on the works of others.

Both the 12th century philosopher Bernard of Chartres and 17th century polymath Isaac Newton understood the concept of building on previous discoveries or ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ in order to uncover their own truths. Accordingly, relatively little of what we have produced can be called ‘original’ by the strictest definition of the word.

So even though I always feel slightly uncomfortable creating a piece of art knowing that other versions of it already exist in different forms elsewhere, I usually persist in finishing the piece simply because I wish to contribute to that body of work in my own way. The theme might not be unique, but perhaps my rendering of it might be.

These thoughts are now driving my current drawing project, an alphabetical bestiary. Yes, bestiaries have been around for hundreds of years as have alphabet books; so this idea is far from original. Examples below are from the Aberdeen Bestiary(1200AD), the Tudor Bestiary (1520AD), ‘Adam Naming The Animals‘ from the Northumberland Bestiary(1250-1260AD), Jungle-Jangle by Peter Newell(1909)and from the 1968 Bestiario Moderno by Domenico Gnoli.

Phoenix-AberdeenBestiary.jpg"Jungle Jangle" - Lion - Peter Newell, New York: Harper, 1909.: Detail from 'Rinocerante al XV piano,' pen & ink drawing by Domenico Gnoli, 1968.

Yet the myriad artistic and imaginative combinations of letterforms and animals (both real and imagined)** continue to fascinate us. Could the mystery of our own animal natures combined with our gifts of speech, writing and comprehension be the reason? Maybe it’s a mystery best left unsolved giving us all the more reason to enjoy new additions to the rich body of works that ask the same question but answer it in their own ways.

Here are two pages from my own imaginary menagerie that I hope you will enjoy. To date, I have completed 11 of 26 letters so your comments, questions and suggestions for other letters are welcome!

FarthingaleOnAFerretRGB.jpgGryphonWithAGrimoire.jpg*http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/321797073/what-is-original

 

Can Art Be Lost In Translation?

January 7, 2016

MarriageOfArts+LettersMy previous post, The Magic Of Ideas, addressed the frequently asked question,‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This week, I offer my response to another one: ‘What did you mean to say with this image?’. This question is less direct because its silent subtext is asking, ‘can you please translate this picture for me?’ as though it were a foreign language. And in a sense, it is.

Art and spoken languages are similar in that both are composed of symbols with which we express ourselves. But there is one major difference. Spoken languages have been standardized for global communication while the language and vocabulary of art remain fluid and singular to each artist as in the distinctive works of Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch or Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Upon close scrutiny, we might notice that certain elements appear and reappear throughout their larger body of works. Yet, beyond reams of third party analyses of these artists’ technical skills and cultural influences, who knows what they were really trying to say?

Some great artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Sandro Botticelli may have embedded obscure symbols and codes within their images, signaling their true intent to the cognoscenti of their times but leaving no written clues for future generations. An interesting article by Mark Hudson in the January 7th edition of The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/11449077/10-paintings-with-hidden-meanings.html) sheds some light on this idea.

Occasionally, someone comments that my work is always recognizable, yet they rarely give a specific reason for why that is so. In truth, I’m equally mystified.

I do know that a sort of visual language made of certain symbols and images runs through my work. These can be seen as ‘words’ in a dynamic visual dictionary with which I can construct ‘sentences that tell a story’. When I develop new ‘words’, this resource ‘grows’ as needed. To effectively use it, however, there is a two-part question I must answer upon beginning each new project: ‘what do I want to say here and how can I best do so’? The answer to this inner question is not a goal in itself; it is the opening gambit of an inner dialogue that guides my creative process and the narrative that will accompany the completed work.

Writing narratives to accompany my work was provoked early in my career by a mid-20th century anomaly, particularly among Abstract Expressionists. Their use of the word, ‘Untitled’  to name a work of art both intrigued and offended me, raising several questions. Were they simply inarticulate, unable to come up with a statement or title? Or were they convinced that their brand of creativity defied title or definition? If so, would they answer that ‘art just is and we create it because we can? Would they offer the hackneyed argument that writing is unnecessary because true art should speak for itself ?

Occasionally, when verbiage from gallerists and art critics includes only vague comments by the artists, these artists risk being misunderstood. Maybe they simply don’t care. Maybe they prefer to maintain their own mystique by foisting responsibility for interpreting their work upon others. Still, I am dismayed that relatively few bother to write about their work or what inspires them to create it.

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That said, Lee Krasner, who made the ‘Untitled’ work above, did leave us some quotes but these were mostly comments about the time in which she worked and not specific to any one work. As viewers, we may truly enjoy a work’s ambiguity. But if we accept responsibility for interpreting it and the artist provides no language that allows his or her work to ‘speak’, we are denied a starting point, thwarting our natural curiosity and rendering that work easily dismissed.

I am reminded of our fascination with both the art and  writing of such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dali. In their journals and personal letters, we like to look for backstories behind their works but I think we mostly want to know what made these geniuses tick. So at the very least, I think that viewers deserve more information than just ‘untitled’; even if the intent of a work is only expressed with a relevant moniker or encapsulated in a couple of sentences.

The need to incorporate writing into my creative process helps me understand what I have made, who I was when I made it and how it fits into my larger body of work. Also, by ‘translating’ my ‘image story’ with notes that later become a more detailed statement, I recognize that as we all learn differently, so do we see differently and can sometimes appreciate art more through its descriptive text.  This practice actually grew from requests for more information about my images from those who attended my exhibits. Consequently, I began posting narratives beside each work and in an exhibition’s catalog.

But I really write about my work because it feels incomplete otherwise. I believe that words and images should not be mutually exclusive and that metaphorically, art and writing are like two faces of the same coin. This idea was inspired by the multi-talented French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1962 when he wrote : “I relax from writing by working with my hands, by painting or drawing; I relax from painting by writing…as if drawing were anything other than handwriting {untied and} re-tied differently.” Each face of that coin brings different parts of my brain into play and I, like Cocteau, enjoy the challenge of engaging them both for mutual benefit.

Accordingly, I’ve chosen my 1985 drawing  ‘The Marriage of Art and Letters’ with its allegorical figures of Art and Writing to illustrate this post.

I can’t know whether my work and texts will survive me but I hope that my small contribution to the social and cultural history of future generations will be available in some form. Perhaps only this blog, preserved through some new technology, will allow my art to be ‘found’ in translation.

And that’s good enough for now.