Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Murals of Clarion Alley 2012

The Mission district in San Francisco is a mixed neighborhood; there's a 99 cent store, the Women's Building, an upscale vegan Mexican restaurant, a Salvation Army, a beautiful natural history and plant store, corner produce markets, 826 Valencia (literacy programs and Pirate Store), local residents just trying to go about their lives, and people out on the street mumbling, selling ragtag oil paintings, and waiting in line to buy pies at Bi-Rite Market. Tucked between the worlds of Mission and Valencia streets is Clarion Alley, home of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, a volunteer collective, which was established in 1992. I visited for the first time recently, hoping to find a mural still intact by Margaret Kilgallen or Barry McGee, and although they were not there, I found other murals, instead. I have read that Barry McGee is in residence right now at the Berkeley Art Museum.

The alley is luminous, but not glamorous. On rare sunny days, it is open to the blue sky and the light makes all the edges clear and the colors glow. But it is an alley. It smells of piss and trash. The mixture of styles, cultures, and aesthetics energizes the alley: it is a celebration of life lived.

The day a friend and I were there, a resident was standing outside talking on his phone, a young man was folded onto a curb, writing, a few tourists (like us) strode through, and one vanload of people forced us to one side so it could squeeze by. I was surprised more people were not there, but it was Gay Pride Day and based on the large and mostly costumed crowd we had seen on BART, I suspect that they were at the parade and party on Market Street, downtown.

Here are some of the murals that caught my eye. I was only able to identify one of the mural artists through Megan Wilson's website (co-director of CAMP from 2001-2004, and still a co-organizer). If you know of any others, please let us know! You can identify distinctive buildings where the painting has changed since she posted her photographs. For a deeper appreciation of the murals, you can sign up for a tour. Another friend highly recommends the Precita Eyes tour; you can take the 16th Street Mural Tour on certain Saturdays from April to October for $12, and it includes a history of murals that puts the local work in a broader context.

Daniel Doherty, 2006


(if you click the above picture to enlarge, you can see a view
down the alley, located inside the figure's silhouette)

(yes, that bougainvillea is real)

on the Valencia side


Mission Street
(at the lower right of center you can see the pink triangle flag on the hill, placed there for Pride Day)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Altered Text and Jacob's Ladders

Between the car I parked in Vallejo, CA on one June Sunday, and the Pirate Festival I was going to attend in order to see a former student, now a professional mermaid, I noticed sections of a book in the street. The book had no cover and looked like it might have been run over. Arrrr, I thought. While I try not to bring more stuff into the studio, I promised myself that if the book was there when I returned, I would pick it up. Guess what?

I had no plan for the pages. It looked like a book about capturing gangsters, an old one, since the words "radiophone" and "Cadillac" were prominent. As I prepared for a studio class the following Tuesday featuring a Jacob's ladder, I suddenly knew that I would use the pages to cover the boards. (A six-panel Jacob's ladder is found on pages 142-145 in Making Handmade Books.)

Altered text was on my mind: the previous week I had taught my last session of "Writing and the Creative Process" at JFK University and we had looked at erasure texts, collaged texts,  found texts, and Annie Dillard's book Mornings Like This: Found Poems. Students each brought in a page of photocopied text, one for each classmate. We had plenty of raw material. Some possibilities for handling the alterations:
  • Look over one page. Use only the words found on that page and create a new text with a fresh subject.
  • Cut out words from any number of the pages. Rearrange them to form new sentences, thoughts, and poems.
  • Use one page. Excise the words you don't want, leaving the words in order that you do want, similar to Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. More about the book here.
  • Use one page. Glue paper on top of unwanted lines, or use a pen to block out the words. Lisa Kokin once used shredded money for this in her books.
  • Use one page and create a resist. Apply low-tack artist's tape over the words you want to keep. Paint or color over the entire page, then peel off the tape. (You could also run it through the ink-jet printer as I did here.)
  • Use one page as a base. Cut out words from another page and start to add the words to the first page, changing the text. 

For my Jacob's ladder book I tried to use as many of these techniques as I could. The cover had to have holes on it, I decided, to resemble bullet holes. I had fun working with the unfamiliar subject matter. Off I went…

In April, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts sent me a discarded book cover. As part of their fundraising auction each artist is to alter/create a piece out of it and send it back. The cover has been sitting forlornly in my studio with a sign on it that says "July 16." It's from a book about the revolutionary war general Lafayette, who turns out to be a cool dude, an early abolitionist. Turns out, he needed to be a Jacob's ladder, too (although he had to be a smaller one). I printed out a few pages from his Wikipedia entry, cut out a bunch of words, and wrote a new piece. You never know where the inspiration will come from. Just keep swimming.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Little Free Library

A block from my house, in a direction I rarely walk, an object on the lawn surprised me.

It's a neighborhood library.
The pink paper tells how it works.
You can bring a book and take a book.
The best line: "Give books. Leave notes in them."

Two years ago, in Wisconsin, Todd Bol built a little library to look like a little red schoolhouse to honor the memory of his mother, a librarian. After his neighbors admired it (and patted and hugged it) he wondered if other people might like to have their own. Bol contacted his friend Rick Brooks at the University of Wisconsin, and together they created this project promoting community, literacy, and the love of reading. You can read the complete story here.

Their goal is to promote the installation of 2,510 libraries, which would be more libraries than Andrew Carnegie endowed. Want to become a "steward?" Want one on your lawn? Create your own design, download plans from their website, or purchase one at LittleFreeLibrary.orgIt takes approximately 4-6 weeks to receive a little shed. If you would like to dedicate your library to someone you can purchase a custom sign for $60. Sheds cost $250-400. You can order: a kit; a shed made from two cranberry crates; a shed made from recycled material; a cabin or shed made by Amish carpenters; and even a "little red British phone booth," if you desire ($600 for that one). 

According to the article, prison inmates are learning woodworking in Prairie du Chien, WI as part of vocational training and they are building libraries; little sheds are being built in New Orleans from materials leftover from Hurricane Katrina. You can see a map of Little Free Library locations and pictures on the website as well as reading the blog. In addition to those in the United States, there are little libraries in the Congo, Ghana, Haiti, England, Germany, Italy, and Canada. Some people dedicate them: in Oakland, CA, the Cody family built one in memory of Pat & Fred Cody of Cody's Books; one in Sonoma, CA was built to honor Maurice Sendak. (We definitely need one in memory of Ray Bradbury.) 

You can see many of the little libraries when you click on their icons on the map. I discovered that there was a second library within walking distance of my house, albeit up Marin Avenue, the steepest street in Berkeley. This library had a Moleskine log book and a pen for you to write who you are and what you are taking. Several pages were filled with names of good books and glowing comments.

The printed book can coexist with electronic communication, each serving a unique function, yet interdependent. This is another fascinating example of how the internet can be essential to a maker's good cause: to promote international community through reading.  One man's personal project and memorial to his mother is an inspiration for many.

Will a Little Free Book Art Library be next?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Artist See, Artist Do

Just do it. Put in your 10,000 hours, writes Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. "By doing things, things get done," said Ray Bradbury in a 1988 interview. (He wrote 1,000 words a day.) In order to excel, you must keep exploring. That exploration happens through doing and by analyzing. You have to practice your desired craft by putting in those hours and you have to practice seeing every day.

I had a disagreement with a friend about doing versus seeing. He pointed out that there are plenty of people who want to be writers, who have lots of ideas, but who either don't write or are not good at it. He felt that those people should be writing, not wandering around looking for inspiration. Practice seeing? I had to explain. Staring at one's sketchbook will not produce art. Drawing objects found around the house might be good practice, but may not be inspiring enough to keep the pencil in your hand for long. You have to feel a connection to your object, or be able to conjure up a connection in order to make inspired art. I think it is easier to make those connections when life isn't still, but when you see life in action.

Maybe I've got the words wrong. Seeing may not inspire you but noticing will. I recently gave my writing students the option to sit in a café and not just write, but notice what people are doing: how they are gesturing, eating, holding their water glasses, and how they arrange their napkins. My professor Robert (Bob) Glück had suggested this to me a few months ago and I was flabbergasted at the gap between what I thought I knew about people and what they actually did. My students returned to class with vivid, descriptive writing, and they added heartfelt and meaningful stories to their observations. Bob called this "plein air" writing, akin to plein air painting. Artists are told that they must paint from nature in order to see nuance and details. Painting from photographs often yields a flat picture. I don't even want to know what painting from online photos produces.

Artists (and I mean all creative artists) need incubation time. You go into your studios, or clear off your kitchen table and make work, practice technique, and explore materials. You can practice a binding over and over until you can't see it anymore or you've poked too many holes in your fingers. Then it's time to take a walk, to let the information settle, and to shake loose a new idea. Maybe you see a father directing his young son how to wash a car. Or a man walking his three dogs who keeps saying, "Come along, girls." The three dogs could trigger an idea for three books leashed together. You have no way of knowing when or from where those creative sparks will emerge, but I have found that they are more likely to reveal themselves outside the workplace.

Moderation. Balance. You've heard those words before. You do have to find a balance  between intake and output, but you also have to engage and work hard. Once you make dozens, maybe hundreds of one binding, you'll be good at it. Keep bringing your observations of public life into your private workspace, then make pieces to relate and release back out to the streets.

Solid color and handcolored cranes by the maker at Crane Log

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Responding to the Personal and the Painful

Annie Dillard writes, "Must everything whole be nibbled?" Through her observations in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she shows us that we are lucky anytime we are unscathed by life; out in the field, leaves are "half-eaten, rusted, blighted, blistered, mined, snipped, smutted, pitted, puffed, sawed, bored, and rucked." Butterflies may have bird-bites in their wings. Spiders may have seven or six or five legs. Wholeness is actually rare. 

Suppose a friend or student gives you a piece to read that is based on a painful experience, most likely a kind of loss. Your first response is probably, I'm not going to touch this. It is too sensitive a topic. It's not mine to say. I don't want to make her upset. Probably a good instinct. You might be tactful and say, "It must have been hard to write," or "I can see that you were upset by the event." But what if you are the teacher and the student is expecting comments that are more committal than these? What if he truly wants to write a moving account and wants your help writing it?

The situation is tricky because no one wants to create a conflict or open a wound.
The emotions are probably at the surface, raw.

You might ask the student to try a few exercises to help gain perspective on the work: 
  • Write the story again in third person (if it was in first).
  • Write the story from a fictional character's point of view.
  • Change the gender of the narrator from male to female or vice versa.
  • Change the location of the story.
  • Place the story in a different time period.
Another common issue is that the person writes about a loved one, how much s/he loved him, how much s/he misses her and does not include any details. Strings of adjectives about feelings don't really impart feelings. The reader needs to get to know the loved one and feel the loss; otherwise, the story is insulated from the world. How to explain this? How to connect to the universal sense of loss?

You might ask the student to:
  • Write a scene where you are interacting with the loved one. What does she do? What are her gestures? What does she say? How does she interact with you, specifically? Give concrete details, specific anecdotes. Write in detail about a moment with her.
  • Write about what you did after you lost him. Not about the loss itself. How do you live your life? How does the loss color your decisions? What do you do differently or the same because of it?
  • Write a scene about the loved one's life that doesn't include you. As if you were listening in, watching through a peephole. Write about an intimate moment from a distance.
You might see a story where the narrator is speaking about someone and includes throwaway lines that are more like grenades: "and he beat her" or "she lost three children, my mother was the fourth." Wait a minute! The student needs to decide if these are important to the story at that particular moment. Whose story is this? Is this the writer's story or the story of the loved one? If the story is more about the writer, then perhaps those little bombs should be saved for future work.

You might ask the student to:
  • Start with one or more of those explosive lines and build the story around them.
  • Take the role of the loved one and write from his perspective. Let it be fiction, but with the emotional truth contained in it.
When the topics are personal and painful, it is hard to reassure a person that she is not her writing. She may need more exercises in order to take that step back and see the story from a distance. It is also possible that the event happened too recently and more time is what she needs.

If you find yourself in a traumatic situation, you might write something immediately for yourself, to capture your emotions and/or to release them. You might try revisiting the writing a few years later and decide if you want to keep it for yourself, or if you want it to share it with a wider audience. Consider sharing it. We all experience loss. We acquire dents and feel comforted knowing we have company.

At the end of Chapter 13, Annie Dillard writes:
That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise…the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden…I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ray Bradbury: Summer Noons & October Midnights

My first introduction to the work of Ray Bradbury occurred in school, I believe; we read his 1950 short story "The Veldt" (which is found in the collection The Illustrated Man). I remember absolutely nothing of the circumstances of why we read it, what class, or when, but I do remember that I was fascinated and am still haunted by Bradbury's creation of a nursery where the walls changed scenes with the children's thoughts. The story begins, "George, I wish you'd look at the nursery." We realize at the end that this seemingly innocent sentence is truly ominous. His work is infused with curiosity, particularly with moral and intellectual questions that are as relevant today as they were forty years ago, such as what happens when we rely too much on technology and forget to think for ourselves. 

He died last week, on June 5, 2012 at the age of 91. His death was a reminder that his work has always been an inspiration to me, particularly his numerous short stories. Although he has been classified mostly as a science fiction writer, if you read Bradbury's 1990 nonfiction book Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity you will understand that he writes more about humanity than gadgetry. Although sometimes set on another planet or in a different era, he writes about memory, love, fear, and relationships between people. This satisfying book is in part how he became a writer, part advice and suggestions, and all joyful enthusiasm for writing and reading. The preface is simply this, "How to climb the tree of life, throw rocks at yourself, and get down again without breaking your bones or your spirit." He relates his successes and failures, how he kept writing even when he faced obstacles like narrow-minded critics. He shows how his stories are based on childhood events and nightmares growing up in Waukegan, Illinois. He loved words, their sounds, and their poetic qualities. He was a passionate library supporter and a reader of Dickens, Lovecraft, Shakespeare, Poe, and the Bible, among others. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson was a catalyst for The Martian Chronicles. After reading these essays, your spirit will be rejuvenated. His joy is catching.
…Does creativity like loud or soft voices? The loud, the passionate voice seems to please the most. The voice upraised in conflict, the comparison of opposites. Sit at your typewriter, pick characters of various sorts, let them fly together in a great clang. In no time at all, your secret self is roused. We all like decision, declaration: anyone loudly for, anyone loudly against. This is not to say the quiet story is excluded. One can be as excited and passionate about a quiet story as any.…At the exact moment when truth erupts, the subconscious changes from wastebasket file to angel writing in a book of gold.
(Ray Bradbury; Zen in the Art of Writing, 46-47) 

When he was in his early twenties and exploring his own voice as a writer he, "…circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me" (Bantam Books Edition, 1992, p. 15). Through his explorations and by writing 1,000 words a day, he found a voice that continues to resonate and to delight and to touch our minds and our hearts.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Success = Self-Confidence + Humility

I've been thinking about words of wisdom that might help teachers and learners: platitudes some call them. A platitude sounds like an animal with a large bill on a high hill, but really, dashboard dictionary tells me it is a "remark or statement, especially with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful." Well, let's look again.

One is a prescription for being, existing in the world. Keep two notes, one in each pocket. On the first, write, The world was created for me. On the second write, I am but dust and ashes. On the proverbial one hand, self-confidence; on the other, humility. The words matter. Not arrogance and entitlement versus self-doubt and self-hatred, but self-confidence and humility.  "The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each." 

Another set of statements concerns your work and actions: your expectations and reality. One: You are better than you think you are. Two: You are worse than you think you are. This website suggests that you think you are better at a task early in the learning process and believe you are worse once you understand more about it. Remember how you knew so much ten years ago…or rather, thought you did?

The two sets of sayings make sense from a pedagogical pedestal. In order to proceed with learning (or teaching that first class), you have to plunge right in. It's not always fun and it's not always comfortable. But if you think you are better at the task than you are, you are likely to keep going, right? It feels better that way. Denial works!

Of course, this early denial applies to daily artmaking and writing as well. How will you improve? You have editors, possibly external and certainly internal. You have to know when to turn off the internal editor, and when to turn it on again. If you are too self-aware of every stroke, you'll stop swimming and drown. But if you don't stop to examine what you are doing and perfect your strokes, you probably won't win any races. Start by assuming the race is with yourself. After you do the work, then you can judge.

How do you refine your editor? Writers should read, artists should view. Know what is going on in your field, both in the past and right now. Note what moves you, what is strong about a work, what bugs you, and what strikes you as weak. Ira Glass says, in an nice typographically treated excerpt from a longer video, that we actually have good taste before we are able to make good work. We acquire that taste from accepting and rejecting qualities in the world around us. Then we have to keep practicing to bring our skills up to the level of our taste.

Which brings me back to the phrase, "…used too often to be interesting or thoughtful." Perhaps a platitude is a saying used too often, but maybe it is still worth thinking about. The words matter.

I am but dust and ashes / The world was created for me

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Butterfly, Cactus Flowers & Fleeting Beauty

The spring in 2008 that I found Swallowtail caterpillars on my parsley I went into the garden daily. A chrysalis eventually became transparent, and I invited a young family over to watch; we got outside just in time to see the butterfly emerge. Neither I nor the little girl in our company had ever seen this before. But the little girl was not as excited as I was.  There was no way I could convince her that this beautiful moment was not a daily event. The family left. I stayed with the butterfly while its wings dried and until it took off and flew away.

May 17, 2012, I discovered a woman up the hill taking pictures of cactus flowers. I had walked by the cactus almost daily for years and had never seen the cluster of riotous pink petals before. When I commented, she said a man a few doors down had told her they only bloom for a couple days and when the sun comes out they close up. True or not, I didn't want to miss the occasion, and I joined her in the photo session. (It was true. They were closed when I visited again, five days later.)

Staying still. Watching carefully. Revisiting familiar places. Inspiration is abundant and waiting.

Those Who Wait Can Walk Through Walls, 2008

Book photo by Sibila Savage