Sunday, January 13, 2013

Tools of the Trade + Materials Test Postscript

“You can’t work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ wrench.” – Steve Martin

     Recently I had been helping out a friend who does construction build a 42’ x 20’ structure, and have been learning many interesting aspects of a trade that, along with car mechanics, I’m pretty clueless about. Especially when it comes to the staggering amount of tools. This is comparable to anyone walking up to the shelf of drawing implements in my studio and being confronted with a bewildering array of pencils, pens, nibs and miscellaneous artsy-fartsy. Each one has a specific usage to fulfills its respective specific task, but for all practical purposes, to an outsider, it’s a complete mystery as to what the differences are between them. The same goes for me when looking at any assortment of wood, wrenches and whatnot: short of using them to bang on something (“If you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”) like a frustrated monkey, I haven’t the faintest idea what to use.
     But like any skill, regardless of its complexity - ie mechanics, construction, cooking etc. - and/or cultivated mystique (like Fine Art™), it’s mostly a matter of discipline and practice to develop a working understanding with the requisite tools. Knowing one’s way around either an engine, a manly toolbox, a kitchen or studio is the basic foundation for any beginner, which a period of apprenticeship – the primary motivation behind classroom demonstrations – can help to introduce and familiarize aspiring crafters with whatever specialized training is required. After that the intuitive aspect of art takes over, and creativity is increasingly added to the mix. And hopefully you get to also pick up some handy Tricks of the Trade and invaluable insights on process along the way too.

Case in point.

     Like, for example, I learned that people that work outside in Alaska in winter are basically nuts. Or if they aren’t, conditions will eventually drive them nuts …not unlike living through some winters. And why, yes, there sure as hell IS a big difference between ten degrees above zero and ten below. And even if it’s a comparatively balmy zero, a minus forty-four wind-chill will put a real damper on activity, no matter how many layers you have on. And as with every new experience, it’s a ripe environment for comedic material, so the sketchbook was constantly on hand. Bonus tip: listening to the score to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is always a perfect soundtrack to get you psyched up for any Alaskan winter outing.

(Actually my pens don't have quite so much blood on them)

     Shuffled in-between all this was a series of visits to the dentist. Back in the summer while out on a hike in Hatcher Pass, a conspicuous and alarmingly-sized chunk of molar fell out while tackling a challenging route some challenging granola. Not having any financial resources or insurance at the time, like most folks in the 47%, you just have to suck it up and suffer. But after working outside in subzero conditions + taking a break with some hot homemade soup = a brief lesson followed in thermodynamic principles as applied to my mouth = seek immediate professional help.
     Not having a whole lot to do over the hours of ensuing treatment except drool blood and stare at ceiling tiles, I mulled over how the same exact same criteria applies equally well to the dental arts as they do to construction. Sure they both cost a lot, and it’s only a matter of scale and finesse that separates the two occupations (one hopes).


     Bonus lesson: after eight shots of Novocain for a cleaning, followed (too closely) in a few hours by two extractions that required another six shots of some other local anesthetics, I’m thoroughly convinced that contemporary pop music is equally effective at numbing the soul. Laying helpless in a chair and being forced to listen to Magic 101 while getting teeth yanked out was a final piece of the puzzle in turning into a cantankerous, toothless bastard (“Get off my lawn tongue”). And I thought I was doing fabulous in an Olympic judging kinda way with my scores for the periodontal disease probe test, but turns out higher numbers weren’t a good thing. As in my gums have pockets not unlike a gerbil’s cheek stuffed with food for later. Bonus in having a dentist with a sense of humor that was a perfect shade of black: “well, the good news is you won’t need that root canal.” I’m not entirely sold on the effectiveness of not just simply saying that something is “gonna hurt for only a few seconds” but actually counting them down – though it does lends proof that the timespace continuum can be warped with enough painkiller.

Fuzzy filter effect courtesy of Vicodin®

     And all of this leads – as does virtually every seemingly inconsequential detail – right back to the studio  kitchen. As has been pointed out in previous posts, the analogy of the cheesecake is really all that ever needs to be said about the importance of using tools. Exhibit "A" for this season was Thanksgiving’s Butternut squash cheesecake with a gingersnap crust, and the traditional cheese pie.

Update: "Let It Bleed II" (Materials Test Postscript)
Almost a couple years ago I underwent some issues with my India inks feathering out, and after experimenting with a series of different Bristol papers in conjunction with a few brands of inks, reached the conclusion that - contrary to many reports - the problem didn't lie with Strathmore. Fast-forward to now, when I just had a rude reawakening in the studio after opening a brand-new bottle of Higgins Black Magic: promptly blew my lines out. Switching back to Winsor & Newton immediately rectified the situation.
One possible symptom may have been the funky smell coming from the Higgins: it absolutely reeked of some solvent, perhaps a thinner or binding agent gone bad.

As a side-note, we've been rediscovering the sad truth behind purchasing art supplies in Alaska: even with substantial discounts with sales + coupons, the local chain sores (Michael's and Joann's) still can't compete, even with exorbitant shipping rates, with ordering on-line through dealers like Dick Blick and Daniel Smith. Unfortunately there just aren't any options for supporting local independent businesses, save for the annual road-trip and convenient excuse to patronize Blaine's Art in Anchorage.


  1. I love my carport, use it everyday.

  2. I love my teeth, also use them everyday.
    And it is one spiffy carport!