Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art. - Pablo Picasso

So my recent editorial panel on the open-carry/2nd Amendment activists that actually wound up running in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner last week garnered a letter to the editor, which in turn prompted commentary in the ensuing thread. Over thirty comments, but only two specifically addressed the content of the panel in question; the rest were predictably sidelined by gun-control issues, paranoid conspiracy theorists on governmental confiscation, folks for arming teachers, the well-regulated militia mantra, the evil "libruls" and socialists, open admiration of the Middle Eastern gun culture (no doubt envious of the brandishing automatic weapons mob behavior); plus lots of ranting about defending freedoms (not a peep from most of 'em while the previous administration stripped so much away) and of course, our constitutional rights, but as usual, nothing about the responsibilities. One could argue those meddlesome cartoonists bear some blame what with always poking the hornet's nest with their dull pencils.
There are some laughable assumptions and classic projections, and, par for the course, horrible English (yeah, I should talk). But I guess as long as you're armed you don't really need to bother with spelling and grammar. Not sure if I need to run out and get a handgun now or instead of ammo just pick up some new Sharpies instead...
March 26, 2009
To the editor:
Mr. Smith’s political cartoon on March 21 was unclear as to its message, or perhaps my mind wasn’t “tricky” enough to get it. My attempt to contact him through the editor was unfruitful. I hope our wires merely got crossed; cowardice is unseemly in a political cartoonist.
The pen is indeed mightier than the sword; but its power lies in its ability to motivate, not in direct action. Without the complimentary ability to take up arms, the people are powerless against tyranny and the wisdom of the pen is easily silenced.
I encourage you to join with those who are standing up for the Bill of Rights, who protect your First Amendment as well as the Second, or at least enter boldly into the public debate and I will use my First Amendment right to pray you will not be used by the present tyranny to further erode the rights which allow you to ask “tricky questions.”
I think I eh, dodged a bullet in not responding to the forwarded message via an editor who sent me the author's phone number last week. I strongly suspected a set-up, even with it coming from, according to the editor, someone who "collects cartoons and just didn't get it." The letter to the editor lead me to believe that my instinct was correct and plus I'm not about to try and explain every cartoon I draw to anyone who doesn't get them. Besides being a tad bit busy, you know, posting on my stupid blog, it'd mean I was pretty lousy at my job if I have to explain every subtle nuance. While it's partially the job of the artists to communicate the concepts behind their pieces, the other half of the equation rests with the viewer (incidentally one of the motivations, responsibilities and hopeful results behind teaching art btw). Aside from being articulate and well-written, it's insulting and also skirts pretty close to using thinly-veiled threats. It's a good thing I regularly impugn my own manhood, plus I kinda like the sound of "unseeming coward." Seriously though, I don't respond very well to condescending passive/aggressive tactics myself, and short of publishing this brief response here on my own blog, decline to enter the fray:
"When I first read this editorial, I didn't see the image of the cartoon that was cited. Now that it is in the headline (maybe it was there all along and it just didn't appear that first day when I read the piece), it occurs to me that open carry of alcohol while driving is already a crime and what the other character is doing is not "Open Carry" of a firearm, it is "Brandishing a Firearm" (and that too is illegal in most jurisdictions).
The cartoon, while funny, is inaccurate and openly biased toward the cartoonists' point of view. Should I be surprised that a talented cartoonist is opposed to private gun ownership? Probably not..."
"I dont usually get too concerned about political cartoons.They
are meant to be humor and its in the eye of the viewer if itmakes
the grade or not. Im more concerned about what really happening in
the political arena rather than some cartoonists view of it."
Can't really argue with that perspective, though with regards to the preceeding comment, I'd be curious to know exactly where I ever said anything about my personal views on the ownership of guns...
However I'm rather fond of this gesture of solidarity sent via correspondence with another fellow cartoonist:
"What was the deal with the whiner from the DNM? That bitch. Doesn't he know that a editorial cartoonist's job is to get someone's goat? Read my lips: IT'S A FUCKING OPINION PIECE IN EASY TO UNDERSTAND PICTURES YOU FUCKING MORON. Send that to him. Or send him this to ponder...
"The political cartoon is a weapon of attack, of scorn and ridicule and satire; it is least effective when it tries to pat some politician on the back. It is usually as welcome as a bee sting and is always controversial in some quarters." Long, the political cartoon: journalism's strongest weapon, the Quill, 56, 57 (november 1962) <>"
Succinctly put my friend...
Heaven help me should some of these folks stumble across the upcoming issue of the Ester Republic, which will run a couple of the even more divisive panels discussed earlier.

Now there's something else to ponder over with putting art directly into the public sphere; together with the advent of technology and computers, how the relationships between creator & observer have become changed and continue to evolve. Unless the works are safely ensconced behind the walls of a museum or gallery (i.e. effectively shut out of view from the majority of the public), pieces displayed in both print and web media are not only more easily accessible themselves but also expose the artist in way never experienced before. Short of attending a formal "1st Friday" opening at an exhibition, creator of visual art rarely interact with an audience; one critical distinction compared to say the preforming arts or musicians. The dynamics of the internet make it possible to directly engage artists, along with presenting a unique opportunity for they themselves to respond and react to feedback. This begs the question as to whether or not the artist particularly cares to take the relationship to a new level, in fact, seems like many prefer the old way of doing business. There's something to be said for both approaches, and there's certainly more than enough to go around for everybody. A lot of this goes back to that functional definition of art: if it's visual art it should be seen. How much and by how many is really another question entirely.

Also, on top of a slew of freelance gigs and the recurrent monthly ones, several community non-profits have recently hit me up for donations. As evidenced by my own involvement with particular, personal causes, I'm not a completely uncharitable bastard; still can't help but feel a wee bit annoyed at the instinctual reflex folks have to tap artists for donations when, as a demographic, we're probably the least likely to be able to afford to give our shit away. Far better instead to go after the people who collect art to begin with, as they seem to have the money anyways. I myself spearheaded a benefit auction once, and sucker-punched a lot of my fellow artists for contributions; felt kinda insidious coming out of left field as the last person they'd expect that sort of stuff from. Even though it went swimmingly - thanks entirely to the efforts of others who knew what they were doing and who took over - the logistics were daunting and don't think I'll try another venture like that again. Much saner to throw any efforts behind someone else that's more qualified to run events on that scale (putting on shows is overwhelming enough). Probably the source of my resentment simply stems from displaced guilt, since I always feel like a heel declining such queries. I'll get over it soon enough, probably right around the next volunteer gig.
All that said I'm still mailing off a signed laser print requested for a fan's birthday, at yeah, no charge - so as explained in an earlier posting, there's a tenuous balance there somewhere between good citizenship versus paying the damn bills.

Lastly, a quickie done in the spirit of support for a popular blogger up here in Alaska, the Mudflats, whose pseudonymous creator was just outed by a State Representative. While I personally have little tolerance or respect for the vast majority of anonymous commentary that takes place on-line, and am firmly in the camp of standing behind what you say (obviously, or I wouldn't put my name on any of my cartoons), this was apparently a cheap, vindictive attempt at intimidation and petty revenge by someone abusing the powers of his public office - potentially illegal if not at the least highly unethical behavior. Though I really shouldn't have expected more, it just means the honeymoon's over; now there's twice as much work for editorial cartoonists since the Democrats have officially rejoined the ranks of sleazeball politicians. Even if we don't make shit for money at least we'll never be out of a job...

“My play was a complete success. The audience was a failure.” – Ashleigh Brilliant

Field-Trippin' - Museum of the North (Safari)

“Realize that a drawing is not a copy. It is a construction in very different materials.
A drawing is an invention.“
- Robert Henri

Today we met in a classroom that I reserved for us at the UAF Museum of the North; since the exhibition areas don't open until 9am, we can spend the first hour of class practicing and doing sketching warm-ups on the bag of plush animals I hauled along + a "model" - a stuffed & mounted Ruffed Grouse specimen the staff brought out (next class we get an owl). I did a quick & dirty demo of one of my beavers; going over the basics of getting down as much visual information as fast as possible - enough to work up the rough into a finished pen & ink piece later on. 

Granted, our "volunteer" isn't going anywhere, as opposed to live models out in the field, but this is the traditional method of familiarizing oneself with the subject matter through research before attempting a live model. And I've always taken this approach to field-sketching; the finishing stages happen while I'm sitting somewhere else after the fact, usually a cafe or a bar. This impresses the hell out of any casual bystander that thinks I'm just making it all up (which I normally am with the cartoons) and isn't clued in to the elaborate secret code I use in pencil first.

Here’s the two handouts for both the upcoming assignment and a checklist of sorts (“Safari”) while we are out on our next few field-trips:
Assignment #4: Critter Spot Illustrations
Due in class Thursday April 9th

Draw two finished spot illustrations of animals/objects
based on reference sketches from field trips – not from photo
(you will also be showing original sketches w/finished work).

Pen & Ink on Bristol board – large as possible, just the subject all by itself,
or use composition & crop with a border (try both approaches)

• Lightly pencil your image out first, stop every so often to review - make secondary copies for experimentation on.
• Spend time on making your marks – it will show.
• You must use a variety of marks & textures to show volume through a full range of values by using stippling, hatching, crosshatching, and spot blacks if & where appropriate.
• Remember line weight and contour.
• Let ink dry before erasing – keep it clean! Put name on it.
SAFARI: “Fur, Feather, Fin & Fabric”

In sketchbook: After lightly sketching the basic forms in pencil, use ink to render a full range of values by experimenting with different textures; explore how different pens make different marks. Pay attention – these are reference sketches that you will have to depend upon later as source material for other illustrations.
Since you only have enough time to record as much visual information as you can during the field trips – note as much as possible and then move on. So finish inking afterwards – but remember to indicate crucial details (like stroke direction & shading). Bag as much of the following as possible:
Moose(s) • Bear (black & polar) • Caribou • Walrus • Seal • couple Artifacts • couple ducks/birds • couple fish • wolverine/beaver/otter • skull • pelt

I also reviewed the work-in-progress of their thumbnailed roughs for the vignette pages; mainly checking the editing of their text along with panel arrangements. About half the class had those done plus the completed one-page piece from the Bear Gallery last week. So spent some time doling out the firm admonishments and dire warnings. Though there were a few notable examples from fellow students that I used to flog the rest of 'em along, and a couple absolute stand-outs that gave me hope and filled me with a sense of vindication. It's the little things that help carry you through a morning when one's brain is about as overcast, dull and grey as the Fairbanks sky (five hours of sleep'll do that). Then I did the art-drill-instructor bit; constantly walking around and around poking, prodding, cajoling and every so often being caught pleasantly off guard by someone not only actually doing the work but excelling at it.

Based on the class' overall progress (or lack thereof) I'm thinking of canceling the last field-trip this semester, where I usually take us down to Fish & Game + Creamer's Field for one final shot at drawing from mounts. At this point I think it'll be a better usage of everyone's time to instead have a "catch-up" day to just stay in the department studio and work on reworks etc. It's a tough call to make in many of my classes; maintaining the balance between in-class/out-of-class workloads - there's so much to do and I want it all done, and done well. Trying to drive it home that there's a significant nuber of hours one simply has to invest on one's own time; it just can't all get done during class.

Plus there's the bonus benefit of accidentally learning things while we are out & about; I like seeing students intrigued by the resources that are out there. Watching them make discoveries for by example reading the supplemental material accompanying dioramas, and maybe even following up on something introduced to them just increases the odds that this will translate into/be reflected in their pieces. There's a theory that real interest in the subject matter will make for a better drawing - it can't hurt if the assignments have some connection or relevance to a student's personal life.

Guess I should be glad that I'm not teaching in a bigger city with more museums and galleries around, as we'd never get back to the classroom.

“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.” - Tom Stoppard

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More on Image + Text

As a follow-up, here's that completed demo done in-class at the Bear Gallery of the one-page vignette: culled from at least eight different sources + a few of the "6 Word Stories" (including an extra line that somehow materialized during the process). I touched it up as a grayscale in Photoshop; adding just a bit of value, nothing fancy, minor cleanup here & there, but pretty much just as it appeared on Bristol. The sampled images have been remixed and heavily edited so as to be completely divorced from their source material; zoomed-in, cropped, flipped, combined or otherwise altered . Plus there's the factor that the appropriations in this drawing are "substantially reworked" enough to constitute a "transformative" work versus a "derivative" work.
Transformative use
"... does not 'supersede' or duplicate the objective of the original, but uses it as raw material in a novel way to create new information, new aesthetics and new insights. Such use, whether successful or not artistically, is transformative."
Simply put, a drawing of something put into the context of a distinctly different medium - in this case the vignette - begins to assume an entirely different meaning. Now the meaning behind this piece in particular, as I've already mentioned, is an largely a demonstration of a class exercise, one that I hope spurs some independent exploration for their own pages. It shows how unexpected surprises arises when you let go of tightly scripted narratives and self-conscious creativity; it's just a fun little refresher that circles back in turn to loosen up my own works.
I actually dug the ambiguity of both some of the individual pictures and also the dis/congruity when juxtaposed against the words; entirely new directions can be taken with a seemingly benign image of say a teapot for example, a single cup, and the words "... and nobody showed." Awww...

Brings up a musing over an article and series of local presentations about the recent collaborative works in the book “Double Moon: Constructions and Conversations” between artist Margo Klass and writer Frank Soos.
In the interview about the interplay between their two spheres of creativity, Klass said:
“We wanted the idea of words and images together...” and “...visual language would be a doorway to where verbal language was going to be explored...” and “The idea is to come up with one’s own meaning, to interpret it individually, and that’s what has happened...”

Sounds rather familiar to those of us in sequential art, and brings up a rather amusing and ironic perspective from someone who's had a foot in both worlds for many years now. On one hand this is exciting to read about, hear of and see the "fine arts" world embracing this new medium and taking advantage of the creative possibilities.
On the other hand, this is exactly the type of work that has been being produced by comic artists for quite some time - first in America, then Europeans and most recently the Japanese have all successively elevated it into an artform. Stuff like this pokes my jaded cynicism over what looks like yet another example of snooty elitism within the territorial pissings of the art world; fortunately the phenomenal ascendancy of "graphic novels" in contemporary pop culture has firmly established the legitimacy of this medium in both literary and visual arts. So hey, that's cool; it's all good, the more folks that draw from the well (pardon the pun) the better. In fact, I dug up some preliminary sketches (shown here) done years back when Klass' work (juxtaposed with text from a poem by Arlitia Jones) just so happened to be in the Bear gallery during another field trip, and my class incorporated her pieces into that semester's vignettes. I got a chance to show them to the artist herself, as I really enjoyed her show, and she seemed very receptive and graciously pleased at the results of the class assignment and the student's interpretation of her work.

Mini-rant aside, I've already mulled over the relationship between image + text on an earlier posting, and what the role congruity/discongruity has with single-panel cartoons and how humor can arise from the perceived contrast between the writing and the drawing. This observation can extended even further when one considers the simple physical fact that all the works displayed in a gallery are essentially on this continuum (and yes, this does mean I have a tendency to look at everything as a cartoon). Extra depth in meaning can be gotten from the deliberate titling, or captioning, these works - unless the creator bails out and defaults to the generally worthless "Untitled." Even conscious obfuscation with cryptic, nonsensical or pointless words provides a final gesture from the artist; often it is the last best chance to manipulate the viewer towards a specific, intended interpretation or reaction to the piece, like a signpost if you will.

Then there's all the additional conceptual interplay when captions and text boxes are introduced within a panel and 1st or 3rd person narration is used in combination with the symbolic language of comics like balloons and such. The possibilities and power of using this rich and visually complex medium continue to fascinate me on many levels; "what's going on?" and "how does this work" are the hallmarks of creative curiosity that keeps rewarding investigations and repeated viewings. Every once in a while I remember to just simply enjoy it for what it's worth too, and stop pole-vaulting over moose turds..

As a related side-note, I just finished re-reading the original "Watchmen" graphic novel (by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins) after watching the movie for a second time in the theater. After getting over my initial resentments (akin to when Peter Jackson pissed all over my childhood with his version of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" movies) and grudgingly conceding that the two mediums are vastly different species only distantly related (at best), it brings up the sharp distinction how comics operate as opposed to the spoon-fed special effects of modern cinema. Case in point being how the arrangement and size of the very panels in the comic shape the pacing of the story far more effectively than the sledgehammer approach of director Zack Snyder in his adaptation. The movie has to be judged on its own merits and aside from the original source, and in my humble opinion, in the case of adaptations taken from pure text, rarely rises to the same level of aesthetic enjoyment that anyone with half an imagination can come up with on their own. Again, the Watchmen movie relied in most instances and almost shot-by-shot copying of the comic scenes, but made some baffling choices as to when, where and why to deviate from the book. Yeah, I have to admit I'm a purist; personally it's the difference between eroticism and pornography, and so 99% of the time I prefer the books to the movies.

So back to the dynamic relationship between pictures & words; a sophisticated language using its own secret codes begins to evolve, and these visual and written elements interplay with and influence the actions or subject matter depicted. Scott McCloud explores this complexity at length in his latest volume "Making Comics" - he's the world's leading theoretician in these matters, and the two samples here illustrate exactly what I'm encouraging the students in my class to experiment with in their critique pieces. My demo posted above shows how with the "Six Word Story" vignette, to varying degrees almost all of these relationships are present, especially #5/Interdependent and #6/Parallel. What geeky fun - this is the sort of stuff that intrigues me to no end.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Field Trippin' - Bear Gallery

“I am among the few who continue to draw after childhood is ended, continuing and perfecting childhood drawing – without the traditional interruption of academic training.” - Saul Steinberg

Today the art posse rode over to the cultural epicenter of our town; the Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts located in Pioneer Park (or, if you've been a resident for long enough; "Alaskaland"). This is the home-base for the Fairbanks Arts Association:

"Incorporated in 1966, the Fairbanks Arts Association is the oldest community arts council in the state and the official arts organization for both the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the City of Fairbanks.
FAA is a provider of service, information and technical support to local artists, arts organizations and their audiences. When we can't help, we find a person or organization that can. Hundreds of dedicated volunteers serve on the committees and help to steer the course of quality programming in Performing, Literary, Visual, Cinema and Educational arts.
Fairbanks Arts Association remains steadfast in its commitment to encourage and advocate arts awareness and development in Interior Alaska; to coordinate with and assist in the promotional development of other arts organizations; to encourage and develop educational programs designed to strengthen and improve the overall climate for the arts; to stimulate and facilitate professional and amateur performances and exhibits; to inform the community of arts activities; to enhance quality and promote balance in the arts."
I use this particular field-trip to introduce the F.A.A. and stress the importance of supporting and volunteering for this and other non-profits that are involved in the arts no matter what community you live in. I also discuss the selection process for getting a show of your own, or submitting pieces to the handful of juried exhibits that are hosted by this gallery each year.And as it happens, the same exhibit I co-curated last month is still on display; "Up With Art."
Then we have an in-class exercise where each student is to do a one-page vignette using a handout list of "Six Word Stories" as a starting point + incorporating imagery inspired by the works in the current show.This is not to say "copying" them per say, more of a jumping-off-point/point of departure. Remixing to the extent the originating piece is no longer possible to recognize is the preferred route, but there is room for incorporating specific pieces as long as due credit is given - included here are a couple examples of pages I've done that recast artworks by some particular favorite local artists into a narrative, this is arguably a completely different medium and form of expression that everyone I've assimilated has been either pleasantly surprised if not delighted and flattered to find their pieces incorporated into one of my vignettes. These and other fine points on the topic of appropriation are presented and discussed (much along the same vein as our previous talk on copyrights). The list of captions is wonderfully cryptic, and ambiguous enough to encompass virtually any possible accompanying illustration. Here's a short example:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn” - Ernest Hemminway
Well, my work here is done.
I wish I hadn’t been caught.
The world ended, but I survived.
Where have I seen this before?
Like this never happened to you.
Hold my beer and watch this.
The beginning, the middle, the end.
Here’s my story, now it’s done.
It will never be the same.
This story’s just six words long.
There’s so much left to say.

There isn't a better show all year to see a veritable wealth of inspiration on display; wide-ranging subject matters and completely random imagery is all ripe for the picking. I challenge everyone to see just how far they can push their own interpretations, and see to what effect juxtaposing them against the text can have. This is actually when a few students start to clench their death-grip on logic by insisting these pieces "make sense." It's a hard leap of artistic faith to make for many folks, and it takes some coaxing and encouragement to just do it anyways, even if it doesn't make any sense personally, at least at first.
To this end I placate them by doing a quick demo using some arbitrarily sampled poem from the gallery bookstore, or in today's case, several of the "6 Word Stories" woven together (I'll scan in & polish the demo off and post it over the weekend). I show how to go about editing the selected verbage; pacing the piece out using beats, different sized panels, dialogue box placement etc. plus penciling and inking. So this is essentially a warm-up; these one-page vignettes can even be ultimate used as a bridge into each respective student's 3-page critique piece, incorporated, expanded upon or otherwise reworked. The familiar routine of rough sketches evolving into more definitive lines with pencil on a sheet of Bristol is walked through - and I leave it at that point, strongly suggesting that they use this page over the weekend as a jump-start on inking in a third of their critique piece. At the very least it will serve as a nice experiment before tackling the larger work due for their critique. Also this is "white trash style" - non-archival materials (Sharpies + ballpoint pens) which will go a long way towards getting into the process of creating these particular works.

This was a pretty sizable amount of material to dump on the class on Tuesday: actually an overwhelming avalanche at this point of the semester. But I take great pains to explain there will be methodical steps taken over several weeks of developing these pieces, with multiple checkpoints along the way. In fact, the next assignment (which was also unloaded on them during Tuesday's class), which is the focus of next week's two field trips, are designed to be precursors that can also be incorporated into the 3-page piece, along with much, if not most of the material already harvested over the course of this semester. In essence, they already possess the raw imagery to complete this task - it's just a matter of putting all the pieces into place, along with using pen & ink. The weekend's homework is to finish today's practice page, plus rough out in their sketchbooks the three pages of the critique vignette - panel boxes + text only, not worrying about the images quite yet. The completed pencils aren't due for a couple weeks, but it is prudent to start priming their creative engines as soon as possible, especially with a project of this scope and complexity.

And finally, it's also part of my over-arcing master plan to bail out as much as possible on the drawing room and art department and campus in general. Taking what we've learned in class and hitting the creative road is what it's all about now; going places and seeing things to draw inspiration from (as opposed to doing the same while in trance on the couch or at the cafe), and incorporating these experiences and observations into our works.

“I think I feel a little differently than other people do. For some reason I've never felt grown up. “ - William Steig

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pen & Ink

“My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can. Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.” - Keith Haring

“Teach to your strengths” they say, and guess that’d be one reason why there’s an inordinate percentage of student work’s in this department devoted to pen and ink. Couching it in the terminology and context of illustration and comics (editorial panels, cartoons, comic books, graphic novels) is a rather devious method of introducing a new medium. Not unlike hiding the dog’s pill in a treat, though my cats know all about the backup forced horking technique. Basically today was a good three hours of material stuffed into the two and a half allotted me, and as usual I get carried away during the presentation and lose track of time. Oh well, still seven weeks left.
CRITIQUE #4:“IMAGE & TEXT” Vignette - DUE TUESDAY April 14th
Minimum of three pages inked on Bristol.
*selected text due in sketchbook Tuesday March 26th
*page pencils/layout roughs due Thursday April 9th

Take text from either a favorite poem, lyrics from a song you like, excerpts from a particularly meaningful story or book, or something personal you have written yourself: You will edit and rearrange the words into phrases that will help pace the piece out.
•Juxtapose these selections, editing if & where appropriate, against IMAGES culled primarily from your sketchbooks. Use primarily reference material based on our field trips and assignments – incorporate ideas inspired by or incorporating these images as jumping-off points-of-departure.
•Take all these elements and assemble a narrative: construct a series of images with text. These may or may not directly relate to each other, it may be seemingly random and abstract, or be a literal interpretation (think jazz).
•Pay extra attention to legibility – letter, don’t write, and leave plenty of “visual breathing room” inside caption boxes or around words, and between panel gutters. Keep it clean.
•You may wind up with the words telling the story, or maybe the pictures will, or both will together – or each telling two completely different stories with a possible third one becoming apparent when all read/viewed together. Maybe it will only make sense to you.
•Remember each individual panel is an illustration unto itself – all the same rules apply as with the spot illustration assignment – just this time there are many other factors to consider such as how each panel relates to each other (narrative flow) and how the whole page looks in its entirety.
(Sample layouts for pages showing the placement of text/caption boxes + panel arrangements)
At first glance, all this can look like an overwhelming task, but broken down and taken in stages, which I walk everyone through, it really isn’t that much to pull off, and many students take to this challenge with surprising enthusiasm. And in one hand it IS a bit of work; each and every single panel is a drawing unto itself, along with the overall page design, and details such as the legibility of the lettering, plus incorporating the illusion of the passage of time – but hopefully they’ll be having so much fun they won’t really notice how much work actually goes into one of these projects. To some degree I temper the anxiety by showing one of my own back-burner projects; a full-scale 56-page graphic novel that I bring in only a fraction of the amount of materials and background work for. That alone puts the 3-page vignette in quite a different light, as in; c’mon …this is nothing folks.

Over the weekend their homework was to transcribe some text, approximately a page’s worth, into their sketchbooks; either a passage from a story or novel, lyrics from a favorite song, a poem, or ideally, something they themselves have written (if taken from another source, that author must be credited). This verbage will form the base of their vignettes; and on Thursday’s field trip to the gallery, I will demonstrate how to do a one-page piece based on inspirations from works currently on display. That will also serve as a lesson in editing the text; pacing the words to achieve a rhythm and flow that will work in conjunction with the panel borders – lots of factors to consider long before any actual images are drawn.

As a side-note here, the forthcoming assignment (also handed out today, well in advance of next week’s field trips to the UAF museum) is directly tied into this as a sort of precursor or warm-up stage. This portion of the semester is also specifically geared towards more illustrative works that can easily be reproduced and incorporated into secondary usage (ex; logos/fliers/tshirts/cards/web spots etc.). As a sort of stepping-stone this is an additional and handy check on potential problems using the new materials, plus it’s easier to tackle this critique afterwards, rather than plunging right into a three-page piece. Most of the best pieces I routinely see from these classes, along with the majority of works in the drawing division in the student art show, will originate from this particular spot-illustration assignment, and it makes for a good confidence builder as well (more details over next week's postings).

*Show & tell lecture: This underhanded, low-key approach starts with a bit of a nostalgic overview of some favorites from childhood classics by Ernest Shepherd, Garth Williams and Maurice Sendak. The undeniable impact these simple and charming drawings have had on successive generations of young readers worldwide (despite the onslaught of cheap, shallow crap they are inundated with these days) is phenomenal and under appreciated. Examining selected pages and panels when they are blown up on the big screen makes for a fascinating chance to deconstruct how there guys constructed their illustrations with such deceptively simple skill and considerable attention to detail.
And there are some historical heavyweights : J.N. "Ding" Darling (personal hero), Winsor McCay, Burne Hogarth and Frank Frazetta. Also contemporaries like Barry Winsor-Smith, Frank Miller, Bernie Wrightson, Joe Sacco, and Robert Crumb are among the masters whose work I review.
Also I put students at ease with samples that from Jules Fieffer, Shel Silverstein, William Steig, Charles Shulz, Hank Ketcham, and some other artists whose personal style is very loose and comparatively non-intimidating.
Editorial cartoons make an appearance; I never pass up an opportunity to pitch this particular artform, as I think some of the strongest work being done is in this field (as in Pat Oliphant for example). Minicomics or ‘zines are another enormously popular application of pen & ink: making lines that can easily be photomechanicaly reproduced i.e. copies on a Xerox, and distributed amongst family & friends – this is what most of my own holiday offerings comprise every year.

*Portfolio review + samples: over the years I’ve accumulated quite the baggage as far as examples of pen and ink works. I show scripts, pencils and inks, some from professional pages along with works by previous students, and big sack of books from my collection at home. This is always an interesting experiment also; a little art-bait spread out to see just who in the class actually take it upon themselves to investigate on their own what I brought in. Those that rise to the occasion are usually the more successful students, the ratio is approximately a quarter at the most.

*Demo panel: this is when I flip through my current sketchbook to find a doodle that I work up right in front of them. Also doubles as another refresher on the sketching aspect; how to lightly and deftly (heh) block in areas first with graphite, in effect mapping out the drawing beforehand. This all starts to sound awful familiar, and it’s a theme I repeat many, many times in this class; here they get to see it in action, again, and applied to a finished piece (that will hopefully appear in print over the next few weeks). After a few specific pointers on making marks, they can alternate between observation and completing their own in-class exercises experimenting with materials and techniques, hatching, crosshatching, stippling etc. The class is given sheets of cardstock, which has template strips and circles copied onto them, for seeing how different effects and ranges of value can be achieved through a variety of methods - line weight, density of marks etc. This class is also the one over the course of the semester that I actually have a sizable handout for everyone; it contains all the ingredients for completing a successful drawing with swatches of sample textures of every conceivable sort, a primer on inking techniques and still more samples from Barry Windsor-Smith (just to set the bar as high as possible).

Holden: Sorry about him, he's, uh, he's dealing with being an inker.
Alyssa: Oh... you trace.
- Chasing Amy

Monday, March 23, 2009

“Well Hung”

"If art was defined simply by the ability to draw, then my inkjet printer would be a greater artist than Michelangelo." - Curtis Verdun

Scrambled around town yesterday trying to cobble together two submissions for an upcoming invitational at the Museum of the North: put into action the white-trash theory of exhibitionism. I always push my students to enter their works from our class into the semesterly show, and the usual prerequisites are that the works have to have been created within the last year, not displayed in the gallery before, and be “ready to hang.” So mindful of the budgetary constraints most college students have (not much different than my own), I try to make it as painless and easy as possible to prepare their pieces for submission.

“Ready to hang” is the key phrase here; it could be dental floss & duct-tape, long is it holds up, does the job and looks decent, who really cares (or really knows if it’s hidden from view). I am adamantly against teaching beginning students how to matte and frame their pieces; it’s at best an exercise in futility, as its perhaps one of the most frustrating undertakings associated with art. I agree that if one wants to seriously pursue art then you definitely need to acquire this skill; but if the reality is that 90% of this particular class at this level is not going to, then I’d rather have 'em pursue other options that aren’t anywhere near as much of a pain in the ass (ostensibly I'm trying to get them into art not turn them off of it). Last major show I did, I did all the framing myself; about $12000 in supplies and several days of screwing things up on a steep learning curve resulted in a fairly decent looking exhibit. On such a scale it becomes a personal investment of time & money anyways, but for a one-time student show, or gifts for friends & family, I say there’s a better way, much saner and cheaper. One of the many insidious, built-in rackets with the whole artsy-fartsy deal is how damn much everything costs, and it gets to be a frustrating, even prohibitive entry-level barrier to many an aspiring talent.

Best method is of course to just hire a professional to do it, but this too is costly and also takes time, which, kinda like the situation I found myself in yesterday, isn’t an option when you try to throw stuff together at the last minute (and not have it look like it was). Most shops need a couple weeks lead-time to order the materials and fit it into their schedule. I will utilize the services of the Artworks; a local gallery/frameshop just down the hill from the university – they have trained professionals that always make far better calls on ideas for quality presentations than I could ever come up with, I have them do the few random pieces over the year I need for specific shows. The additional cost is then effectively passed on to the purchaser and accounts for the inflated price you often see at most galleries (also the 40-60% cut they themselves take).
It’s always vastly cheaper to order the supplies on-line yourself, but again, living in Alaska will cost you in the end almost just as much, particularly if faster shipping is needed. So the only other option is to assemble the elements and DIY from what resources are available in town. I recommend just taking the piece in question (or ideally, a laser-print of it instead) physically over to either Michael’s or even Fred Meyer’s and see what el-cheapo frames they have in stock right there. Scanning your images and resizing the prints to industry standards (such as 8.5x11/8x10/11x14/11/17”) is super convenient, and one can either slip it unmated ala poster style or splurge on precut mattes. Simple is best; just black frames, white mattes (nothing to detract from or compete with the image), anywhere from $10 - $25. This is a low-stress, economical route that gets you an adequate presentation, heady to hang. It works especially well with illustrations, and makes for dandy gifts after the show comes down as well.For these two pieces I first bought the frame kits, pre-cut mattes, pre-cut glass, foam-core backing and wire (about $70 total), and took all this stuff along with a USB jump-drive (sometimes I just burn a session onto a CD or email it directly instead) containing Photoshop PDF files of the art to the local independently owned copy shop for quick & dirty digital prints.

If I’da had more time, another option is GiclĂ©e prints (archival inks on archival paper), which there are a couple places around town that do – or if I ever resurrect my Epson printer, one can do at home. This is another pricing factor to consider which would add to the total ticket, but for now, just for display the Xerox’ll do fine. Actually over the past ten years it is really incredible what they can achieve now with those digital printers; the colors are awesome, and if getting your work out, it can’t be beat for mass production (short of offset lithography), Allowing for a few days in case the equipment needs to be fixed is crucial, as many a time I’ve been on deadline and the machine’s are down. The costs run about a buck-fifty for a tabloid color print on cardstock – and the ink is of a nature that it achieves virtually the same result as a glossy paper.
Anyways, a few minor tweaks were needed to reduce the image area to fit, then trim & assemble = one hour. Bonus in that in a clean environment like that I don’t have to deal with the inevitable issue of dog/cat/Jamie hairs mysteriously appearing after I’ve finished, like I always discover after working in my cabin.Back in February the museum’s Exhibition and Design Director sent me an email query looking to se if I maybe had something relating to the special exhibit’s theme;
“RENEW: Fairbanks Cityscapes (April ) The exhibit is about the changing urban and green landscape of Fairbanks. With the changing needs of people, technology, the environment, global warming, we have had to recycle, reuse, and renew the built environment around us.”
As it just so happens, I had a panel dealing with just that topic (wouldn’t ya know). Plus I sent a half-dozen other preview thumbnail JPGs, some of which are from a current series I’m working on titled “Urban Animals,” which I actually thought was, of all the submissions, most directly related to the subject, but was a bit too obtuse and perhaps even post-apocalyptic in retrospect (not much in the way of humans left with my vision). I include here one sample scan – there’s about a dozen total in the pipe; based on a series of reference photos took one dreary afternoon walking around downtown Fairbanks and documenting the soul-crushing architectural coma of a community. The timing of the shoot was perfect as the streets were almost deserted, and that helped solidify my concept for the series. Several works have already been on display the past year; it’s amusing to see some folks tie themselves into knots trying to “get it’” as there deviate from my normal cartoons, yeah, rather subtle. I rarely use any photo-reference like this, along with being an obvious exercise in linear perspective it’s also a refresher in value, as each panel takes about twelve hours to shade in with graphite (after scanning in the original pen & ink drawing). That’s after I do a value study on the computer too, shown here in the “Loading Zone.”But, besides all that, really what’s cool is that for the first time I’ll be showing in a rather exclusive setting; the Museum of the North is pretty much the top-tier as far as exhibition gigs go in Fairbanks, and it’s a spiffy, ironic feather in my cap given how much I pooh-pooh the “scene” - the barbarians have definitely breached the gates. I take all my classes up there on regular field trips for two days every semester though; far as I know I’m one of the few teachers in the department that utilizes it as a place to not only look at the stuff on the wall, but also as a resource to literally draw from, with tons of material everywhere just begging to be taken advantage of.

Tons of prepping for tomorrow’s big day in class; lots of stuff too haul in for a show & tell, demo materials, samples, portfolios etc. Fortunately this is the first time I’ve ever taught where I actually have use of an office as a staging area; one of the reasons I get miffed over slackers is they have no freakin’ idea of the logistics behind teaching “off the cuff” as it were, and how much goes into setting up classes. The simple nicety of a shared office has been a luxury this semester, now all we need is an expresso machine and a couch!

But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: "It's clever, but is it Art?" - Rudyard Kipling

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Post #50: Halfway there…

“I love criticism just so long as it is unqualified praise.” - Noel Coward

In retrospect, I should counter-balance the previous evening’s post with a positive note: I used to get suckered in by the “well if it makes a difference/if I can just reach one person” maxim, and would dutifully slog through all sorts of responsible activities in the hopes that my talks or teachings might connect meaningfully with someone, anyone in the audience/class. Well that got old after a few years, and I wound up going the opposite extreme of “nobody cares/what difference does it make” etc. which is a lousy attitude, unless you like playing the part of a bitter, misunderstood & unappreciated artist. Then, as typical for a high-wire act, after oscillating wildly between those two extremes, a tenuous balance is achieved; now it’s sort of an amalgamation, tempered with enough experience to maintain a much saner and healthier outlook. The number one reason for this is the undeniable, firsthand evidence that has steadily accumulated that, yeah, what I’m doing is working, and knowing why, and how, and even for who it has made a difference, is the difference between hopeless frustration and feeling validated, valued and productive.

Case in point; when a student who was flat-out failing achieves an incredible turnaround and demonstrates a stunning breakthrough in ability, even going so far as to actually redo every single assignment and critique to date – and not only that but taking all of the advice and specific suggestions for improvements and applying them and getting unequivocal results. Man I can’t say it enough; this is what it’s all about, these “small” victories literally make it all worthwhile, and the satisfaction creates enough energy and momentum to reinvest in the next person, and the next, and the next… and in myself.

Of course, this sort of dedication and feat of accomplishment in turn does tend to reflect badly on the couple folks who happen to be in the same boat, but refuse to invest the time and effort to change their situation. But I don’t have to really worry about that; there’s just enough warm fuzzies to muffle any such inconsistencies to my fragile, harmonious outlook. That’s probably why I think I’m really one of the funniest people around; at least my cats back me up on it. Maybe these sporadic victories are precious & rare enough that they assume disproportionate influence, or, I’ll jump at any excuse to maintain the illusion (oops, there’s the cynicism creeping in again). And it sure as hell ain’t like there’s any financial incentive for either one (spoken as both a lowly adjunct & cartoonist), but even then getting thrown a bone every once in a while helps a little too. What it all comes down to is whatever you need to just get by I guess.
But seriously, it’s happened to me enough now that even just the memory can carry me through the dark, depressing periods; can’t count how many times the casual, off-the-cuff comment made in passing from friends, family & fans just makes my damn day. I suppose there is a direct correlation between the observations made above re: teaching and the equally rewarding/disappointing realities in creating art. Both have their share of setbacks, frustrations and uncertainties, and both can sometimes just be a real pain in the ass, and drive you crazy enough to seriously contemplate giving up.

“You've no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself – and how little I deserve it.” - W. S. Gilbert

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Critique

“ You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't.” - Marcellus Wallace

Had to get in extra early to catch up on grading this morning; remove stuff from the hallway showcases and refresh with work from the last assignment, plus try to assimilate the reworks and late turn-ins, which is a logistical juggle.

Today’s critique was a little different than all the ones so far this semester, in my endless quest at trying different approaches in coaxing interaction out of the class ; I had the students each put their individual pieces up one at a time, and passed out sheets of scrap paper for everyone to first write down their comments after a few minutes of observation and analysis. I wrote on the blackboard a list of criteria to refer to as a guide/reminder/trigger of key points to consider: presentation (how the piece looks ie clean, ripped, use of page etc.); medium (graphite or charcoal, how successful was the choice and how well was it used etc.); composition (how the fore/mid/back ground elements were arranged and the panel border used for achieving pictorial depth); line (line weight and especially use of contour lines to describe the volume of the shapes in space); and value (in addition to line, how was use of shading and tones used - full range of values and smooth transitions between areas of darks and lights etc.). This list of prompts was helpful in laying out a groundwork to build from; even if by now, in theory, this should be a familiar routine it's still a useful laundry list for looking at and thinking about other works of art as well as their own.

Then someone was chosen to kick off discussion, and in addition I randomly picked a couple extra students to contribute some aspects that might have been initially overlooked or were worth pointing out again. This system of forcibly extricating comments from the silent minority and letting the dependably vocal people chime in every so often is a good balance - plus probably the fact that I happen to have the grade book out to record pluses or minuses that will determine the percentage of their final grade (5%) on classroom participation serves as a subtle hint.

I think alternating the approach on critiques is a healthy way to shake things up a tad; different processes are used when trying to articulate reactions in writing, sometimes it can help to stimulate a new perspective. It flexes different muscles (sometimes painfully atrophied) when a visual artist is forced to use words and language to describe art. Though for perhaps just as many people it might present a difficult speed-bump in their usual way of looking at/thinking of/talking about artwork, especially their own. Too often it's strictly an internal dialogue, rarely interspersed with occasional outside input from a friends or casual observers. Really this is one of the most important meta-lessons in the entire course; lapsing into introspective tunnel-vision runs the risk of devolving into solipsism - the value of an informed opinion can be worth considering. That said, I personally fall into a habit of not particularly caring too much who says what about most of my work, and have to take criticisms from friends & family with more than the usual grain of salt sometimes; some of most honest feedback I ever get is from fellow patrons at the neighborhood bar.
So one of the hardest things I did while taking graduate classes in comics was learning how to translate my instinctual visualization into words (mainly for script-writing). Being forced to convey the same information I'm so used to just doing with a simple and quick drawing for, to instead writing descriptive passages of the same, was a real mind-bender and quite frustrating at times. But eventually it became much easier and turned out to be a pretty cool alternative to the "normal" way of doing things. So I think applying this to critiques in the classroom setting was also an interesting possibility to consider, at least for one of the five scheduled over the semester.
Not to mention the obvious ratcheting up of stress in stepping out solo into the glare of the spotlight: now it's all you baby - no place to hide, warts and all. Not having the benefit of contrasting & comparing with all the other pieces means all the focus is instead directed at the one work up on the wall. Hopefully this experience smacked more than a few upside their artistic heads, and maybe just the potential of embarrassment will serve to shame a couple into taking their drawings more seriously. I'm not into publicly shaming people as a teaching method, but this is an art class, and the ultimate goal is to have their works shown and seen by others. So it follows one of the other important meta-lessons is to get over the hangups about putting yourself out there for the world to see. Granted these are drawings of plants and there isn't much in the way of deep, dark personal secrets exposed, but at the core, class critiques can cause some consternation.

And after the comparative high note of the last assignment, this critique fell far short of my expectations. Quite frankly it was a real downer to see some complete halfassed examples, still a few people just absolutely not getting it - like what part of following simple directions do you not get people? I mean, this is the half-way point of the semester and there is no excuse for thinking you can get away with crappy excuses that look like it was done while driving on the way to class. As one could probably guess, my benevolent patience sputtered dry, and I kept a few after class to lay it out bluntly what exactly is at stake. A couple even bailed out before I could corner them for the dreaded "final notice lecture" - probably just as well, and probably no great loss either. Sounds a bit harsh, but there is always a point when diminishing returns peter out to the point of no return, and as a teacher it's time to cut the dead weight free, just let it go, and console yourself you did what you could, no more spoon-feeding the baby. Still, it gets so disappointing, and at times downright baffling, as to just what in the hell is wrong with some people - but I suppose the day I get tired of bashing my head against the wall will be the day my heart goes out on the whole teaching gig. These are college students, and one would think it's not asking too much for just a wee bit of work ethic in stepping up to the plate as it were.

One example right off the bat was a student asking if they could turn in their piece tomorrow - well sure, but seeing as how I don't have an office, and won't be back on campus until next week, doesn't really matter what you do with it. That's the reason there's a deadline, see? And out of fairness to the majority who cared enough to get their work done on time, you lose! Next up, there's those who never tried to contact me through email, or another fellow student, to catch up after missing classes - clueless, and I have zero sympathy. There was a round of warnings a couple weeks ago that most folks have used up their "get out of jail free cards" as far as their attendance (and I'm one of the more generous faculty members in that regard), and one more absence = failure. Well, sure enough, shit happens, and sorry, it isn't my responsibility - that's that, bla bla bla. At times I feel like that teacher in the Peanuts TV specials; just some abstract, droning mouthpiece.
But you know it’s a bad sign when I start to get openly caustic, as when another student tried to turn in some late pieces while I was busy with someone else, and I told them to just put the work in my drawer; “which one is it?” – “the one that says bad motherfucker on it!” (which now it actually does). Sheesh.

Actually, I found out from a few other teachers later on that I guess for some mysterious reason this year’s “Post-Spring-Break Syndrome’ is affecting other classes too, so I’m not going crazy or alone in this. And definitely waiting at least 24-hours before posting my rant tempered the bitchyness and I chilled out about the whole thing (yeah, this was heavily redacted). Chalk up another lesson; just because I happen to really like what I do and love to draw doesn’t necessarily translate into infectious enthusiasm when casting pearls etc. One of the many facts you have to resign yourself too in both art and teaching – it calls for a certain level of resilience, and maybe a touch of self-delusion, to soldier on sometimes.

To be sure there were a handful of salvageable moments; given that this particular piece contained no linear perspective, and no content either - just a straight-up academic exercise, so many of the students got to explore some other artistic options in hopes of maybe discovering a workable method that’s comfortable and can focus on their strengths rather than weaknesses. Maybe this was one of those two steps forward/one step back days, and a weekend with no homework will be enough for a reboot. And next week we move into my personal favorite, pen & ink, where we’ll experiment with different subject matter and a new medium; which again, some will love and take to immediately, and still others will intensely hate. That’s art, no wait, that’s life

As a warm-up before the critique, I had passed out a copy of some comments cribbed from a recent posting on Boing-Boing: there is usually a thread every week or so on the evils of copyright that will provoke a debate between both sides of the issue. Usually it centers on the topic of file-sharing or music, but it has direct relevance to posting images on the web if you are a visual artist. The majority of students in this class are all familiar and to varying degrees accustomed to downloading free music – this is an opportunity to put their own work into the context of this cultural shift of expecting stuff for free and the perceived value of art. Personally I’m on the fence with my experience in this hot topic; most of the proponents of abolishing copyrights don’t have a vested interest or personal understanding in compensating creators, and the comparative few who are successful isn’t enough to base a business model on at this point. That said, I obviously am an absolute fan of self-promotion using the series of tubes to market one’s work, and believe maintaining a strong presence on the internet is crucial to artists (but not critical). There’s a balance that’ll eventually satisfy all parties, but in the meantime it fosters some intense debate on rights & responsibilities. Here’s a sample of the comments used as tinder:
“but what if that thing she's copying is my livelihood?”

There's a lot of assumptions built into this question. The most basic is that art should provide someone with a livelihood. There are a lot of things that people feel compelled to do that are productive and life-affirming that no one pays them to do (sleep, eat, go on vacation, have sex, have children, pray, etc.). Artistic production is not something easily distinguishable from other activities. Maybe I sing in the shower; I certainly don't expect to be paid for that.

There's also the assumption that copying equals lost sales. This is not necessarily true and is often false. Many artists have built careers around getting as many copies out there as possible and parlaying that into commissions and concerts.

As a society we have decided that new art and new information is valuable to our culture as a whole and so we want to encourage its production. Copyright is an attempt to do this, and to the extent that it succeeds (that is, encourages a variety of quality work) it's a good set of laws and to the extent that it fails (discourages the production of new work) it's a bad set of laws. Beyond these concerns, Copyright is a drain on society in creating a legal situation that necessitates a whole class of lawyers as well as criminalizing the behavior of almost everyone. Even if you aren't downloading pirated movies you are probably violating copyright every day in ways you are not aware of because the rights granted holders are so broadly defined.

… copying is not theft in that it does not deprive anyone of any real property. Perhaps it is objectionable for other reasons, but to call it theft is equivocating.

"Intellectual property" is a bogus idea because it doesn't meet the criteria of "property" at all; and in fact the Copyright Clause is completely separate from common law property.

You should be paid for your writing, not for copies of what you have written. People want new TV shows, you can get hired to write them. But what's been written is easily and infinitely shareable; that's not the part that has value. You (as a knowledge worker) are the part that's valuable (and scarce).

“And honestly, if an artist doesn't want you to use their work, you have no right to bully them into giving up their work for your personal enjoyment.”

They're not "giving up" anything. You cannot possess an idea or set of information. It isn't "yours" to control.

All logical and economic arguments aside, I believe this is the fundamental emotional error. People have attachment to the works they create. They just feel like it's theirs to control who and how it gets used.

Perhaps this is a twist on the endowment effect.

But the reality remains, it's not that everyone is "entitled" to use "your" work; but that you're not "entitled" to dictate how it's used once you've published it. The genie's out of the bottle and there's nothing you can do about it, ala the Streisand effect.

Copyright infringement is de rigueur on the Internet.
After class I went downtown for some meetings: this fall the Alaska State Writing Consortium is hosting the “Alaska State Literacy Conference,” a series of professional development workshops for educators, and over a thousand teachers from will attend it from all across the state of Alaska right here in Fairbanks. I was asked to submit a session proposal, which is exciting. Since I’m already scheduled to give a workshop on “teaching comics in the classroom” at a related function for the ASWC and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District - “Writer's Workout Workshops” that will be happening here next month, I figure it’ll be a good “training run” to see how much in demand and how popular of a topic it is. My guess is it’s pretty hot right now, and so I’m really looking forward to turning on other teachers to this genre that has a lot of potential.

Speaking of which, I got to take the executive director of the Literacy Council down to meet the owner of the Comic Shop before our board meeting. We shored up plans to have the Comic Shop sponsor a “Comic Book Day” at the Literacy Council, scheduled now for the weekend after the annual “Free Comics Day” on Saturday May 2nd. They’ll be donating bunches of comics + all the leftovers from their promotional event, and in conjunction with that, myself and (hopefully) about a dozen other local cartoonists will volunteer to be on-site doing demos. I’ll come up with a set of activities that involve both drawing and writing for all the kids to do, plus they’ll get to just hang out and see some real live artists doing their thing, and score some free comics to boot. Not going to anticipate that big of turnout this first time, but if it proves to be popular enough it’ll maybe grow into an annual gig, which would be so cool to help out any way possible in engaging more young people to get into reading.

For example, while checking out the shop, the director picked up a couple copies of a graphic novel I showed him a couple months back; “The Arrival” by Australian artist Shaun Tan. This one title is probably my absolute favorite to have come out in the past several years, as it excels at both storytelling with a powerful and moving depiction of what the immigrant experience is like, coupled with stunningly beautiful and evocative illustrations. We both figured it would make an essential addition to use in our English As Second Language/Adult Lit tutor training programs.

Finally, my girlfriend and I got to check out opening festivities for this weekend’s Festival of Native Arts, which showcases dance groups from all the different regional Native groups and lots of vendors who have all kinds of amazing and beautiful handcrafts and artwork for sale. This is probably my personal favorite of the cultural highlights in Fairbanks, as it’s a chance to experience some traditions outside my own from people I stand to learn a lot from in many ways. In particular I really dug the presence of some contemporary work in the form of carvings and even tshirts with cool graphic designs – the consensus was that this year there was some above-average quality work on display and more of it than in previous Festivals. So the epicenter is at UAF this weekend, and I’ll be going back to see some friends dance with their family, and hopefully also pick up a couple prints.

“And now, little man, I give the watch to you.” - Captain Koons

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tuesday Post-script/Alaska Design Forum

Last evening, the Alaska Design Forum, a lecture series that travels from Juneau/Anchorage/Fairbanks and showcases some of the most interesting and accomplished contemporary professionals working in their respective fields (“… a non-profit organization of architects, artists, and designers formed to broaden the range of discussion of the design of the built environment”), presented Barry Bergdoll, MOMA curator and “architectural historian.”

The talks are hosted at the Blue Loon, a local establishment which is a great place to catch movies over dinner while enjoying a beer. I only manage to catch a couple of these gigs each season, but whenever I do it’s always been well worth it. There’s always a sizable crowd present for these events, as being marooned in a cultural wasteland the opportunities to have folks of this caliber come visit is rare, and the artistic fresh meat is enough to keep many of us going. Plus the audience is comprised of a “who’s who” of the local art scene, and I get a chance to catch up with some folks that I normally never cross paths with, save at First Friday art openings.

Bergdoll was an absolute treat to listen to; I often forget the power of a good speaker who is obviously extremely educated and enthused about their field of expertise. Also he was very articulate and in full command of the descriptive terminology necessary to talk about art theory. Usually such language might come across as slightly confusing or even a tad bit academic to the uninitiated, but one of his key motivations is to bridge the divide between not only professionals and the public, and the academic and curating worlds, but he also tasks himself with reaching out to a wider audience and fostering collaborative projects between groups that normally don’t associate with each other. So in that respect, this was an enormously successful presentation that appealed to many in the audience, regardless of their education, occupation or chosen medium.
This is why it is important to keep the juices flowing as an artist and remain open to possibilities that might not at first glance have any bearing on what normally interests you. Constantly exposing yourself to and exploring things that you don’t understand, appreciate, or even like, or are maybe outside your comfort zone, are quite often surprisingly rewarding and unexpected sources of new ideas.
Case in point was an exhibit I dropped in on while back East visiting family; I always make a point of checking out the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo, New York.
That particular year it was hosting a big exhibit on “Op Art,” which, had I known about in advance, I in all likelihood I would have given the show a pass, as I had zero interest in that genre. Fortunately, despite my most ignorant intentions, I accidentally walked smack into what was one of the top five art shows I’d ever seen; I was blown away at the flood of inspiration that kept me busy furiously scribbling away in my sketchbook for several hours. That is, until some asshole security guard threatened to seize my pencil (after several hours of touring the galleries) and kick me out, as I guess it’s against the rules to openly brandish writing utensils in the presence of expensive collections these days. Idiots. Anyways, this is a perfect example of one’s own biases preventing you from actually learning something new and broadening the ol’ horizons.

So with that pivotal reminder I was really pleased to not only learn a lot about architecture in general, but how advanced technology, particularly “digital fabrication” and “mass customization,” is producing some amazingly powerful possibilities.

One cynically amusing comment and observation made by Bergdoll that stuck with me was how ironic a challenge it is in overcoming the “psychological hurdles” to the concept of pre-fabricated housing, when pretty much everything from the cars we drive, the clothes we wear and, I’d add to some extent, the very food we eat is already factory produced. When taken into context with the eye-opening advancements being made with the use of computerized systems, it becomes obvious that there is indeed a major “paradigm shift” occurring in the field, one which could very well prove to be monumental in its application to current dilemmas facing us culturally, socially and environmentally. The housing crisis extends far beyond the political and economic aspect that is occupying the news today – the real-world ramifications that our species is inflicting on the planet along with ecological disasters facing many countries and regions is one that needs serious attention. And it was uplifting to hear from this presenter how much of a valuable role artists can play in finding practical, functional, morally sound and aesthetically appealing solutions.

Bergdoll also asked some provocative, rhetorical questions, and there were a few interesting comments from the audience afterwards. Though I’ll have to admit it probably wasn’t the classiest confession of mine when, after several black-cherry wheat ales, I told him about his speech called up memories of the notorious “Unibomber.” During Ted Kaczynski’s trial, his one –room Montana cabin was actually uprooted and then carefully trucked over a thousand miles (one of the more surreal images in the entire sequence of events) to be used as evidence at his trial for how insane someone would have to be to live in such a place, especially without running water or electricity (which pretty much describes thousands of Alaskan residents) It was then stored at a warehouse awaiting destruction, to be finally put on display at an exhibition, and endlessly reproduced in other artworks. As a symbol, it’s interesting to see just how deep the class issue is when used for categorizing and stereotyping people based on their shelters, and goes a long way to understanding the resistance of Uniquely Individual & Independent Americans in adopting the concept of mass customization.

And I don’t know how conscious of a decision it was, but the closing image Bergdoll used of a screen capture from the Simpsons illustrated the synthesis of popular culture and “fine arts” - the juxtaposition of that picture as a backdrop to the discussion was a perfect metaphor.