Monday, December 31, 2012

Call for Submissions: Star 82 Review

For the new year, I'm starting a magazine. Star 82 Review is a new online and on-demand art and lit quarterly publication that is coming soon! Please pass the word and consider submitting your work for possible inclusion in issue 1.1.

The goal here is to try a new angle. Sure, there are tons of online magazines and well-established print ones, but not like this one. I'm looking for heart, humor, a little edge or irony, and the artist's/writer's delight in the strangeness of everyday life. The goal is for the work to be accessible to everyone and to be available in print for those who prefer to read a paper copy. 

I'm looking for short pieces that are highly polished and that make the familiar strange and the strange, familiar. These include original flash/microfiction, erasure texts, poetry, word and picture combinations (including comics and collage), and creative postage-stamp images.

For detailed information about the categories and to send your work through our secure online submissions manager, please visit the star 82 review website

Looking forward to seeing your work in 2013!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Found Exhibits at the Berkeley Art Museum

As much as I love the exhibits at the Berkeley Art Museum, I am also fond of the galleries on down time. The excitement before a show, the relief after—whatever it is—I like that, too. What really impresses me is how tidy it looks: even the dust is arranged well. I almost wonder where the labels are.

The young woman at the desk apologizes, even after I show her my membership card. "Only three galleries are open today: galleries 2,3, and 6." Really, that's great! 

Wall text is nice as a ghostly palimpsest.

Packing up the Barry McGee exhibit.

And now…

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Instructions: A Book Structure from Australia

Val Forbes brought me a new binding, a gift for me when she came to my open studio, and I'd like to share it with you. She saw it at a crafts fair in Australia, then found it in the book Live & Learn: Real Life Journals: Designing & Using Handmade Books by Gwen Diehn under the name Flat-Style Australian Reverse Piano Hinge binding (which is just one syllable short of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious). It is true that it employs the mechanism of a piano hinge. It is true that the hinge is inside, and therefore reversed. And yes, it lies nice and flat. Once other people know what it is, I am hoping we can call it Australian Piano Hinge, or at least use that as a friendly nickname. But never mind the name. Let's make the book.

Top: two of my models
Bottom: model by Val Forbes
Tools: pencil; metal ruler; art knife and cutting mat; bone folder; PVA and scrap of board for gluing

Materials: lightweight to medium weight paper for accordion (colored charcoal paper is good), 9" x 3" (23 cm x 7.5 cm), grained short; Six pieces of medium weight paper or three pieces of heavyweight paper, 9" x 5" (23 cm x 13 cm), grained short for the signatures; One piece of heavyweight paper or card (to cut into three strips), 3" x 5" [7.62 cm x 12.7 cm] trimmed to three 1" x 5" [2.54 cm x 12.7 cm] strips

For the signatures, I'm using heavyweight paper that I painted on one side (nicer if painted on both!), and a piece of yellow Canson Mi-Tientes for the accordion. See Painted Paper: Techniques & Projects for Handmade Books & Cards for painting techniques with acrylic inks. 
Start by folding the accordion into eight panels.

Fold long strip in half, widthwise.

Fold ends in to center fold.

Fold ends back out to new folds.

Flip over.

Bring folded edges to center and press down.

Open to accordion, ends pointing up like a W.

Fold your pages in half. If they are lighter weight,  
and you are using six,
you can nest them into signatures.
After they are in signatures
you may wish to trim them evenly.

Open one signature and center the accordion 
on the inner fold.
Using the accordion as a guide, 
mark on the fold of the signature at each end.

With the knife against the metal ruler,
cut a slit from mark to mark
on that inner fold.
Repeat for all signatures.
Tip: Use the first signature for a template.
and instead of marking every signature,
use a pushpin or awl to make a hole at each end,
then cut the slits by connecting the holes. 

Once the slits are cut, you can slide the first
mountain fold into one of the slits.
(please excuse blur of excitement)

Continue with the remaining mountain folds and signatures.

Now take the piece of card and cut strips that will fit
inside the mountain folds that show inside.
In this case, my strips were 1" each (2.54 cm)

Slide one strip into the tube made by the mountain fold.

Continue with all strips and mountain folds.

Use a piece of scrap board and apply PVA 
to one end of the accordion
that shows on the outside of the book.

Press down and wipe away any glue immediately.
Repeat the previous steps for the other end.

Press down with a bone folder to firm up the folds.

This model has three signatures.
For a thicker book, use an accordion that is
twice the length.
Fold in half, then fold each half into eight panels
as shown, above, and use six signatures.

  1. Use six signatures with 6-18 pages, total.
  2. Attach a different style cover, such as open spine (p. 206, Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms or other covers, pages 203-220).
  3. Sew the outer accordion flaps instead of gluing them down.
  4. Cut slits in the front and back cover and weave the ends of the accordion into the covers.
  5. Make a flag book by using cards and putting the slits 1/4" [64 mm] from the left edges of the cards instead of through the center of signatures.
  6. Make several books and create a handmade box for them!
Warm Wishes for the New Year!
Thank You for reading!

Dimension corrections to materials list: 7/18/16

Monday, December 17, 2012

Questions for Your Next Book Art Project

The night after I wrote the long post "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" I dreamed a much shorter way to begin: using question words can kickstart a book art project.

Who. Who is the book about? Who is the audience? 

What. What is the subject? What do you want to show? What do you want to say?

Where. Locate the setting. Use the book structure itself as the place.

When. When does it occur? One hundred years ago? Now? The "now" that happens each time someone views the book? A minute from now? Projecting into the distant future?

Why. Why does this material have to be a book? Why is it important to you?

Which. Be specific, not generic. If you mention a rock, which rock? If you draw a flower, draw a specific flower.

How. How will you reveal the contents? Is the pacing fast? Slow? Are the story, information or images hidden in pockets or behind doors? Presented cumulatively? Shown sequentially? How do you want the reader to feel?

Perhaps it is a shorter way to think about books, but it is still a long process. Start answering and sketching and moving materials around, then allow incubation time!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

W.G. Sebald: Inter-Genre Writer

I find it interesting that people interpret life through the lens of their job, or their surroundings, or the time period in which they live. I've worked with book structures for a few decades and I'm only now aware that I look at the structures of stories in the same way I study book structures: how do they work? When I started reading The Emigrants, by Winfried Georg Maximilian "Max" Sebald (1944-2001), I knew his experiences colored his prose without knowing anything about him, and I was fascinated by his structures. W. G. Sebald wrote several books that were labeled as novels, but the name "novel," isn't quite broad enough. He actually addressed emotional truths of post-war Germany, dove into facts, spun memories and family tales together with notes on travel and combined all with imagination. The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse and published by New Directions in 1996 is a wonderful example of Sebald's writing gift.

The Emigrants contains four stories that interweave; but you feel this more as an uncanny sensation rather than a clear picture of how they are related. The stories are titled after the main characters, (all but one is Jewish or partly Jewish, and the one that isn't is gay): Dr. Henry Selwyn (based on a man he met); Paul Bereyter (modeled after his teacher); Ambros Adelwarth (about his uncle, a valet); and Max Ferber (an artist). Memory is the most important subject for him. It is no wonder that a butterfly catcher appears in his work, a reference to Nabokov, for whom memories were also important, particularly in Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory. In "Dr. Henry Selwyn," Nabokov is represented as a photograph of a man with a butterfly net (who may or may not actually be Nabokov) (16); in "Paul Bereyter," a young woman "…had been reading Nabokov's autobiography" which causes Paul to strike up a conversation with her (43); Ambros Adelwarth hallucinates "…a man of about sixty…carrying a large white gauze butterfly net…" (104); and he is mentioned in "Max Ferber" as one of Max's paintings, "Man with a Butterfly Net" (174) and as a Russian boy of "…about ten who had been chasing butterflies and had lagged so far behind that they had to wait for him" (213). That is just one example of a theme that runs through all four stories. Others are suicide, trains, mountains, gardens, and, of course, emigrants (Nabokov was also an emigrant).

Sebald explored the collective memory of a country through his own belated discovery. He was born in 1944, too young to have any memory of the horrors of the Shoah. As he grew older, Germany's part in the genocide was revealed to him gradually: the German people remained mostly silent. In each of the four stories that comprise The Emigrants, the narrator gradually learns about a character (based on a real person) who was affected by the war. Since he did not experience the pain directly, Sebald had his narrator learn from those who did, just as he learned. The construction of having the narrator meet with a character and having that character tell the story of a third character is fascinating. The boundaries among all of the characters break down as each speaks in the first person and without quotation marks. Sometimes you have to reread the paragraph to see where one starts and the other begins. The reader gains an entry point to the interior thoughts and feelings of all of the characters. Ultimately, you come away embodying everyone, and incorporating all of their memories into your own, just as a writer does when s/he is writing.

Using factual material in fiction is not new: historical fiction is based on this. In fact, I have been noticing it as I read Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel, which takes on Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII. The characters come alive based on recorded facts, but Mantel created their inner lives both from research and her imagination. Is it engaging and interesting? Yes. Does it help us understand the time period? Yes. Is it accurate? Unlikely. Does it feel accurate? Yes. Welcome to excellent fiction. Sebald gives us the feeling of accuracy in his engaging work of fiction as well.

I was interested in how he was able to blend various genres in the manner of historical fiction which produced compelling and comprehensible stories, as well as the way he scattered seemingly random images throughout. Sebald incorporated black and white photographs in his books, which became a kind of signature for him, and was made much of in reviews. This is amusing from a book art standpoint; certainly you can include images in a book! I needed to examine what they added, and what the book gained by their addition.

The photos are sometimes used as illustrations, but most tend to highlight certain emotional truths. In one example, he described a specific garden, and then he included a photo of a desolate garden. I found hilarious the image of a family at a dining table about which the narrator says, "I do not know who the other people on the sofa are, except for the little girl wearing glasses" (71). The narrator seems to know who the little girl is, but he does not tell the reader. It may very well be Sebald's own family photo—and if it were Sebald's memoir, we would want to know—but here the ambiguity is acceptable, particularly since this is billed as fiction. In well-written fiction we tend to believe the world of the page: this becomes our reality. In the last interview with him, he said, "I've always been interested in photographs, collecting them not systematically but randomly. They get lost, then turn up again." It may be a stretch, but I can see this relaxed attitude in how the dreamlike stories meander, change narrators, then circle back to find themselves again.

The last story, "Max Ferber," I think sums up the book. Ferber is an artist who cannot seem to finish a painting:
Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges in places resembling the flow of lava.…I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust. (161)
Near the end, Ferber has given the narrator the task of editing the memoirs of Ferber's mother, which the narrator writes and crosses out, tormented that he cannot  possibly recreate them properly (230). Ferber's story captures the frustration of  creation and destruction and recreation, which also seems to be a metaphor for Sebald's attempts at understanding Germany and the generation before him. Sebald thickly paints the portraits of several characters and then seemingly scratches them out with the next story, leaving a palimpsest of swirling shadows and a haunting amount of dust.

After reading The Emigrants I sat down and wrote seven pages that included anecdotes from my life, research, and made-up dialogue. I haven't looked at it since I wrote it a few weeks ago, but I was grateful to Sebald for inspiring me to play with the form.

For reviews and more info:
The Boston Review excellent review by Lisa Cohen
New York Times 2001 review by Margo Jefferson
The New Yorker 2011 article: "Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald" by Mark O'Connell
New York Times Books 1997 excellent review "When Memory Speaks" by Larry Wolff (detailed article about Sebald and Nabokov)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

If you have ever been to an author's reading or an artist's talk, you may have heard—or perhaps asked—the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" Sometimes we have an impulse to make a book, know what materials or structure we want to use, but don't have a clear picture of the content. I like to think that the answers will come, but only after asking the questions. What kinds of questions?

Pick a subject, any subject. Tree? Love? Childhood friend? Give specific examples to the following questions. Make lists. Brainstorm with yourself, with others. Write down whatever comes into your mind; keep the door open, and don't edit yet. Draw diagrams and word webs and thought balloons. Write on sticky notes. Write in different colors. Whatever entices you to generate material. Write your subject here ________________.
  1. What does it do? How does it move in the world? How does it interact with others?
  2. What are its characteristics, both physical and metaphysical? What is it made of?
  3. How do you interact with it? Daily? Rarely? With your mind? heart? eyes? stomach?
  4. What are your feelings about it? What draws you to it?
  5. Think of a specific incident, perhaps from your childhood, that includes this. What makes you feel connected to it or repelled by it?
  6. What is its importance in your life? What happens if it is absent?
  7. What happens when there are many of them? Do they cause anything to happen? What do they do that is different from when they are single? Do your feelings about it change?
  8. Who uses it?
  9. What did it look like before this? (Seed? Raw material? Glint in an eye?)
  10. How does it change, evolve, or grow with age? (Wrinkled, bare, soft, rust, moss, etc.)
  11. What sounds does it make?
  12. What does it taste like? 
  13. What is its texture?
  14. What else is happening in your life right now? How does it relate (or not) to the subject? What happens when you put the two experiences side by side?
  15. What would it look like as a postcard or as the subject of a letter you were writing?
  16. What would it look like as a scene in a play? Imagine the book as a stage.
  17. Who else might talk about it? Who might gossip about it?
  18. Does it follow, use, or embody a process? What is the process? Imagine the book as a film.
Once you choose a subject, you can use the questions to investigate it further, narrow down what you feel compelled to show, and connect it to something more conceptually interesting. Maybe the answer to one of the questions will lead you to your idea.

You can start working with your idea from various angles, such as with materials or structure, as mentioned here. But from purely a content standpoint, what else might you do with that idea? How will you narrow it down even further, distill it into something you want to show or say?

If it is an abstraction, such as love, memory, or frustration, it may need some symbols or stories in order to be explained or felt. What are the actions that each of these abstract examples produce? 
  • Love might also embody the action of protecting someone or something. What might be protected? Does the protector succeed? How does the protectee feel about this? From what might it or he or she be protected? What is outside? Weather? Another person? Shelter might be the form of a box with love as something warm inside.
  • Memory might incorporate an argument about the thing remembered, which might involve two or more family members, friends, or strangers. It might be fog or blurriness. It could be shown in photographs or letters, perhaps altered.
  • Frustration might be the cause of something being destroyed. What is it? How large or important is the thing destroyed? What is the method of destruction? Is it slow or fast? Does it affect others? You might show it with shredded paper, a smashed corner, or multiple hooks that need to be undone to open the book.
Protection, arguments, and destruction might be easier to visualize than love, memory and frustration. Keep asking, "and then what happens" so you might tease apart the idea and find a natural sequence. Consider what is at stake: Who gains? Who loses? What is lost or gained?

You can then layer the idea with research. Dive deep into the definition or essence of one thing, examining all of its nuances. One exercise is mentioned in this post about Cubist Stories. Look up the actual definition of your subject in a dictionary. How is the word used in the dictionary example sentences? There may be a story in the making already there. Do more research. Find interesting facts, things that aren't obvious. You can also use lists to create a cumulative effect such as all the chocolate you gave as gifts and your relationships to the people to whom you gave it, or a catalogue of your shoes that includes where you got them, why, and times when you wear them now.

You can talk about one thing, but use it as a symbol or sign of something else. Thinking about one activity, but overlaying the emotions on something else. One exercise that seems to work is Person/Place/Action. You put yourself in new situation, perhaps in a fictional character's clothing or house, but use feelings and descriptions of things that you know. It gives you some distance so you can be clear, specific, and able to find the story.

You can extract one idea from another. The Bear Trap story exercise looks at an object and has you list the characteristics of the object, then use those qualities and apply them to a new story. What are the characteristics of a bear trap? It surprises you. It hurts. It holds on too tight and too long. It traps you. It takes a prisoner. It is set on purpose. You can't move forward. Can you see a story without a trap or a bear, but that has one or all of the characteristics described? A relationship, a job, or a meeting with a stranger, perhaps?

Where do you get an idea? You don't have to make it up out of your head. Look around. What in the world grabs you? Grab it back. It's a challenge, but now you need to spend time with it. Maybe several hours. Interview your subject. Listen to what it says.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Jay DeFeo, Artist and Teacher: A Personal View

When I was eighteen, I was accepted to UC Berkeley as an art major, and I enrolled in my first required art class there: Form in Drawing. We had no Google then, we had only a description in a catalogue; my class would be taught by a visiting professor: J. DeFeo. I was clueless, impatient with requirements, I had no idea who she was or any desire to find out. All I knew, from my youthful vantage point, was that she had lipstick on her teeth.

Honestly, I don't remember much about the class. She smoked, I believe. Should we write "Jay" or "J"? we asked. She said either one was fine, but she signed her comments "J." On the last day, she finally agreed to show us her work but seemed wary of doing so. As the slides cycled through I saw why she was wary: I didn't get it. Eventually, I dropped out of Cal, finished a BFA at California College of Arts and Crafts, and didn't think about J very much. I found out later that she went on to teach at Mills.

But when the retrospective exhibition of her work came to SFMOMA in 2012, I knew I had to see it: the work of my first college art teacher, someone whose art had been known by everyone, it seemed, but me. I was curious what the pieces looked like up close, how I would see them now, either as an artist or teacher or both. What had I missed? On a rainy December Sunday, I finally understood. I've always felt that slides are ridiculous, but in J's case, they were absolutely useless. She's best known for her monumental painting, The Rose (1958-1966), that weighs close to 2300 pounds/approximately 1000 kg. The works are powerful for their scale, their presence, their texture. She had a sensitivity to her materials, whether she used the oil paint she loved or photographs, acrylics, metal, or plaster. Her rendering is exquisite, her use of gray scale from very dark blacks to pristine whites is gorgeous. She had precise technical skills which she coupled with her explorations into collage and photography. Her subjects were meaningfully gleaned from her travels, from her home, from the tools she used: pieces of her camera tripod, compasses, crosses from Italy, kneaded erasers, a wing from a bird she tried to save, all represented in mostly large-scale works. She could have taught me some amazing things, if only I had listened.

When I got home, I dug out three drawings I had done in her class thirty-two years ago. I had saved the ones she critiqued, as well as the single sheet of onion skin paper on which she wrote my final grade and final comments.

J's comments on the banana drawing, below.
More precision in rendering.
(words are a little un-
necessary—a little "corny"

Comments on the back of a cup drawing, below:
Needs far more intensity in
change from light to dark
—also should be precise

Comments on my scarf, below (it's larger, 18" x 24").
This is excellent—
a little more attention
to precision of contour—
subtlety in shadow areas

My final grade.

Alisa—this is an excellent presentation—I appreciate your efforts to experience it all—There are stronger pieces conceptually—I hope you will gradually start focussing on the ideas that are more important to you as you gain in experience. —separating "educational excercises" from more personal ideas. However, the exercises will add strength to your work in general. Also, there are technical skills that will improve with practice. If you continue to give as much time & energy—I have high hopes for you—

Good luck!


Her comments sound very similar to things I now tell my own students. I believe you can make art about anything, as long as you feel some kind of personal connection to it. At eighteen, I was vaguely disconnected from my work, although I wore (and still have) the scarf. She clearly felt connected to her subjects, curious, investigative. Part of the wall text said that she always wanted to stay true to the subjects, to their realness, and not be seduced by the materials into making false portraits.

Jay DeFeo died in 1989 of lung cancer at age 60. This exhibit remains in San Francisco until February 2013. It moves to The Whitney on February 28, until June 2. A catalogue of her work is available, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, but it is best to see it in person if you can. Although I missed something when I was in her class, I feel that I've just learned something from her work. Something, perhaps, I can recapture in my own work, now.

The sun was out on our way back from the museum. We stopped for lunch a block away on Mission Street at a warm café called The Grove. High ceilings, lots of wood, tiny lights, and found signs and objects made it a comfortable and perfect venue to keep thinking about art. I was surprised to see a friendly former student of mine; I hadn't had contact with him since he was in my class three years earlier and I didn't know he worked there. He told me he displays the books he made in my class in his apartment and offered us a cookie or more coffee, which we declined. I was just happy knowing that he remembered the class fondly. Maybe next time.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Arthur Dove Collages: Life Out Loud

As I set foot in each new museum, I find myself sailing backwards in time without meaning to. A (first) visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just unmoored me again. Aside from it being the location of one of my favorite childhood books, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (and really cool), it contains two collages I had never seen by Arthur Dove (1880-1946). Dove, an early twentieth century artist, is often referred to as the first American abstract painter. I think he disagreed with the wording. In a 1929 catalogue essay he wrote that, "There is no such thing as abstraction. It is extraction, gravitation toward a certain direction…" (1967, 20). His collages are made up of materials extracted from his environment: the sea and land, the natural landscapes he loved. The objects reflect the content and sometimes are seen as intentional jokes. Definite subjects are present and you can feel the pull towards these "certain direction[s]."

From 1924-27 Dove created twenty-five collages in addition to the oil paintings for which he is most known. They were the focus of a Spring 1967 show Arthur Dove: The Years of Collage at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a catalogue essay by Dorothy Rylander Johnson. During the time he created the collages he was living on a small sailboat. Canvas then, for Dove, was both the stuff of his art and of his life. The collages are playful, the textures and objects are used sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically. The catalogue, typical of the 1960s, was printed in black and white, and unfortunately it is nearly impossible to guess at the textures and colors of the collages. Excerpts from Dove's letters and poems are included, the latter are unremarkable overall, but they do contain stand-out lines such as, "My wish is…not to revolutionize nor reform but to enjoy life out loud…" (20, in a statement for a 1916 catalogue). The two collages I saw embody that spirit.

In the 1924 Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry, Dove incorporated a folding ruler, a piece of a hymn, a flag, and pieces of weathered wood, likely from the area where he and Dusenberry lived on their boats. As an explanation of the materials, Dove wrote, "His father was a minister. He and his brother were architects…When tight he always sang 'Shall We Gather At The River" (14). The fragment of the hymn is funny since it refers to a pious father and to an irreverent drunken condition simultaneously. Johnson, the essayist, described the materials wonderfully as a "personality inventory." The materials would have had personal meaning both to the maker and to the subject of the work. I love the image of taking an inventory of someone's personality and creating it in tangible form.

In Hand Sewing Machine (1927), Dove used the materials literally and made the common seem beautiful. The sewing machine was painted on aluminum and scratched in certain areas to show the metal; the cloth being sewn is linen and does contain some stitching; resin and graphite were also used; all were encased in a handmade frame. According to the 1967 catalogue, Dove nailed canvas to homemade stretcher bars when he was nine, and later stretched his own canvasses, and built his own frames. The wall text at the Met says that this machine "would already have been considered old-fashioned by the 1920s. However, Dove and his wife owned one and used it in their daily lives." They used an object from the past to create something seen in the future, an action we all do daily, perhaps without realizing it. In a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, (7) Dove wrote, "The future seems to be gone through by a spiral spring from the past. The tension in the spring is the important thing." I interpret that to mean that he was interested in showing how two things rub up against each other and conflict, or how they show an evolution.

Dove combined and arranged symbols in new and striking compositions, and, to his mind, always representational of something: extracting art from life and trying to show change. Using objects as symbols can be tricky in all art forms, including fiction and in books that use found materials; the symbols can come across as obvious (keys, for example, standing for locking or unlocking of knowledge or emotions), and it seems he avoided clichés. I think that in Dove's case, the work holds up even if we don't always know what the symbols stand for. In a poem called, "A Way to Look at Things," Dove wrote, "Works of nature are abstract./They do not lean on other things for meaning/…That the mountainside looks like a face is accidental." Meaning is not inherent, we are the ones who give our life meaning by making connections and by repeating actions. Making art is a ritual, as is looking at it. I came into the gallery to find new meaning and came away learning something new from the old, surprised to find "life out loud."

As a last thought, I leave you with a line from Dove's same poem. In it you can feel, perhaps, a compass indicating Dove's direction, a moving forward, and the natural world that is larger than us, "We have not yet made shoes that fit like sand."