Sunday, February 26, 2017

If It Doesn't Hurt You're Doing it Wrong/Right

Sometimes making art is painful. It takes a while to understand that it's not always fun. In biographies of most writers you will read that they have to force themselves to do the work, that to get to the exhilarating part, they have to have a routine. Stephen King wrote about this in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, we find that Shirley Jackson did, too. You may create a routine, but what do you do with it? Susan Sontag describes the process (of writing, but it applies to all art making), as "a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall" (Darnton 225). While you are focused on your project, you are also opening yourself up. You are taking a risk and with this risk, you are vulnerable. And being vulnerable can hurt.

It's a dance with yourself. You begin. "This is great!" you say to yourself. You look at it again, "This is terrible!" You keep going. "This is great!" and then again, "This is terrible!" Push and pull, loves me/ loves me not, happy face/sad face. You hope, after pushing it as far as it needs to go, you will land on "This is great!" Sometimes you push too far. Then you start over. In John Darnton's collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times, Richard Ford hints at that back and forth of creative work, "writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating. And occasionally it can produce results" (68). Creative work is exciting and fun, but it is also a commitment, and that commitment comes with various conflicting emotions.

The United States Marine Corps uses the phrase, "Pain is weakness leaving the body." It sounds both funny and horrible, but only by pushing through that pain do you actually learn. I think the pain we are talking about here is the pain of self-discipline. A form of self-discipline is part of the creative process. How much or how little we want to use it is up to us. Weakness is giving up without trying. Weakness is saying "I can't" too early. 
Robert Frost's well-quoted line from his poem, "A Servant to Servants" (line 56) "the best way out is always through," echoes the self-discipline aspect, and is applicable when making any kind of art. 

Walter Mosley recognizes a different version of the creative process in Writers on Writing, "Nothing we create is art at first." He talks about how writing a novel is like "gathering smoke…You have to brush [your ideas], reshape them, breathe into them and gather more" (Darnton 163-164). Mosley doesn't focus on the pushing through, but on the stretching and reaching out, sometimes a little further than what is within your grasp. You might find yourself a little off balance, vulnerable, as you reach. The discipline is in the continued focus as you reshape, edit, revise, reconfigure.

The flip side can also be true: if it doesn't hurt you're doing it right. This is more likely to happen after you've put in the time, put in the practice, like Malcolm Gladwell's proverbial "10,000 hours" in Outliers: The Story of Success. In my favorite children's book by Remy Charlip, Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia, there is a story about a man going to an artist, asking and paying for a painting of a fish, but not receiving it. It seems the artist is procrastinating. When the patron finally goes to the artist's studio, the artist quickly paints the fish. The patron, now even angrier, demands an explanation for the delay. The artist opens a door and "thousands of paintings of fish fell out." By the end of the story, the artist is able to do it right, and it doesn't hurt to paint the fish anymore. The gesture, the motion, is already in the artist's body after years of training it. That's what makes it feel and look easy. The practice has been absorbed and incorporated.

If you are pushing yourself, it is going to feel uncomfortable. Determination and self-discipline can strengthen you. But only if you want them to! No one is making you do this but you! Maureen Howard compares this process to a marriage, that this is "not about first love…It's about passion and endurance, a combination of desire and grunt work often at odds with each other" (Darnton 99). 
Ask yourself: what do you want to gain? 

After you have been working on your project, gone through the pain, been vulnerable, become ecstatic, and perhaps even satisfied, how do you know if the work is finished? Here are some questions that you might ask yourself. You can find a pdf for your personal use here.

The longest project I've ever worked on, the one most painful, and the most satisfying, has come to a close. We took risks. We were vulnerable. We worked hard. After two-and-a-half years of negotiations, CCA administration and the CCA Non-ranked faculty union came to an agreement around 11pm last Thursday evening. Adjunct professors and lecturers at our school are finally going to be able to ratify a union contract that provides us decent raises and protections, joining the nationwide movement toward recognizing and compensating teachers fairly as skilled, educated, and committed workers. Through this process I've met dozens of my colleagues who are talented and wonderful people, people I would not have met otherwise as we only previously passed each other in the faculty parking lot. We've built a community as well: a gift indeed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Outside the Box: Door or Trap?

By chance, out of the flurry of news and information, a phrase that delighted me, by artist Grace Hwang: "Which of these leads to a door and which of these leads to a trap?" Underneath, a list of words. As a young student, I was the person who saw an assignment as a trap, and I worked hard to subvert it. I resisted, not understanding that an assignment can be a door to a new way of looking at something. I wish one of my teachers had asked me that question back then. I started this semester using the phrase in my classroom, and I refer to it as needed. I also applied it to my new practice of writing inside the box.

I've written about assignments previously in this post from 2011. Because I tended to balk at assignments, I'm reluctant to give them. The ones I do give are fairly open; this is for them, not for me. They should be able to spend time and focus on something that is meaningful to them, not what I think should be meaningful. Occasionally, this is too open-ended. They want closer boundaries. For some people, constraints are freeing, because choices take energy. Choosing from five things instead of one hundred can be liberating. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes that he works better with constraints and better with the door closed. Not everyone does.

These posters were taped on walls and benches throughout CCA Oakland campus last fall. Is the box a door or trap? You can see the resistance. The accepted challenge. And how some students accepted and claimed it for themselves.

Door or trap? It's a good question, applicable to life in general.
Thanks, Grace!
You can buy her flip book Movement Scores for a place, for a body with the question mentioned and thought-provoking quotes inside here.
Grace Hwang's work will be included in the next issue of Star 82 Review, Issue 5.1,
due mid-March, 2017.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Inside the Box: A Creative Practice

Every now and then I set up a challenge for myself to draw every day in a datebook (like in this 2013 post) or to write the story of the day for a month, or some such thing, and I almost always fail. I like the anticipation of the challenge; so much potential! But I seem to create more when I'm not watching myself do it. Kind of like dieting. Not always sustainable. Even the limited forward motion can lead to other successes, though and as a way to work out new habits. The key is in the actual practice itself.

The only successful practice challenge I gave myself was a during a college summer when my friends were away, and I decided to typewrite a full sheet of paper every day with whatever came into my head. No pauses, no editing. I did this for a month, and the result was thirty sheets of a so-called manuscript I believe I titled, Burn this Book, which is no longer an original title, if it ever was. I haven't looked at it since I typed it. I'm tempted now to see if there is anything in it I can use, but I tend to prefer looking forward rather than to the past for inspiration. Rather, I am compelled to keep going, as if my muse were a few lengths ahead of me on a moving sidewalk. Hey, wait up!

What is my practice now, today? After six months of new opportunities, I'm back to my familiar semester of teaching one Bookworks class, and completely out of a creative rhythm. The only challenge I've sustained over time has been my magazine (the latest issue: Star 82 Review 4.4), maybe this blog, and a (mostly) daily walk.

Recently, I was inspired by two practices. As I noted in a recent blog post, Amos Paul Kennedy, when asked what he's going to make, draws a rectangle and says, "I'm going to put ink there." This suggests a commitment so deep it's like asking what someone is going to eat. It almost doesn't matter because you know it will be food. It's just what he does every day. Built in.

The second inspiration is the current practice of my colleague Hugh Behm-Steinberg. Every day he is writing a poem. For a year. He does this every decade. He showed me his screen, how he creates a document with wide margins side to side and head to tail. "I fill up the box," he said. "I type until it's full."

Since I prefer doing my creative practice on the physical page, pen to paper, I wondered what a box-based practice would look like for me. Postcard size seemed about right. So I drew around a four-by-six-inch postcard in my journal. Then I took a breath and began to write. I filled up the box, trying not to think too hard. Just let it flow, I told myself.

Something interesting happened as I got closer to the bottom border: my ideas crystalized. I could see the end, the wrap up, conclusion, the point of the piece. Like when you are swimming, enjoying the water, the buoyancy, maybe getting tired, but knowing you are getting closer to the edge of the pool. You are prepared to get out, but also a little disoriented, not sure exactly at which side of the pool you will end up.

It could work with visual art: fill the box. Or make a postcard every day.

I am not deluding myself into thinking I will be able to continue this practice for a year. I know myself better than that. I tend to create in sprinter's spurts, which is possibly the reason I make small books and write short works. But I like the exercise for now, and I'm curious how long it will interest me, writing inside the box.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Writing, Teaching, and Organizing

Union organizing and negotiating have similar goals to writing and teaching. In writing we ask: who is the character and what do they want? We look at how challenges bring out the character's true nature. What does the character do when angry? How does the character behave when flustered? Do they have a habitual tic when worried or afraid? Every challenge to the character opens up a new possibility for depth and understanding.

As I have watched members of two bargaining teams and how our SEIU lead negotiator operated, I also became aware of each individual's character: what happened when they were pushed; what they did when they were holding back; how the language they used represented a philosophy. In essence, to read them.

In working with our members, I learned how to phrase something to appeal to someone else's sensibility and viewpoint, to be inclusive, to question status quo, and offer hope. By empathizing with and understanding both sides, by listening and by compromising, you may eventually achieve a collective, unified goal.

Our SEIU lead organizer used to be an adjunct professor. It makes sense that a good organizer and advocate would also be a good teacher. The best teachers can figure out where a person is, what is important to them, what they believe in, and help them find the right path for them, to make their vision even stronger. As a guide. 

Some books I've found helpful in understanding organizing, negotiating, teaching and writing and today's world in general.

Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals by Saul Alinsky (1971). Start from where the world is. Learn how to move people and make change.

The Haggler's Handbook: One Hour to Negotiating Power by Leonard Koren and Peter Goodman (1991, 1992). Know what are the most important things to you and when you are willing to fight. Recognize the style of the other side.

Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below by Vanessa Tait (2005, 2016). A movement with a compelling vision can become a force for social, economic, and political transformation.

Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin compiled by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr (2015). "As long as the oppressed tell their true story it will carry the edge of protest" (23). Amiri Baraka.

The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling (2012). "Use your own language. Only use ideas you believe in" (43). And do it in a positive way. How the two political parties use the same terms and mean different things.

If you are curious about my journey, please see my guest post on union organizer and friend Jessica Lawless's blog

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Chinese New Year Haiku Cards from Katherine Ng

I believe I first met Katherine Ng through the Pacific Center for the Book Arts. She had won a purchase award from the organization in the 1990s for her book Banana Yellow (which I'm including in an exhibition at the SF Center for the Book in April). At the time, I did not know who she was. On a trip to Los Angeles, where I knew she lived, I contacted her to see if we could meet. We've been friends ever since. In 2003, she started sending out letterpress printed new year's cards on chipboard, and quickly turned to writing an animal haiku for each Chinese new year starting in 2005. She's now come full circle, having printed a card for each of the twelve animals. The haiku previously featured one animal chasing the other out, but this last rooster card appears to be her crowning and crowing finale: alliteration for the rooster.

Since learning that Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. only prints on chipboard, and now that I've gathered all the chipboard cards that Katherine Ng has sent me, I'm changing my mind about chipboard. Even Katherine didn't think it was going to last, and playfully always included this stamp on the backs.

Here is the whole set.

Happy New Year of the Rooster!

Katherine Ng, Banana Yellow, 1992

Monday, February 6, 2017

Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. Workshop at CCA

When I arrived at the workshop, students were already sitting in a semi-circle around Amos. They would be printing a poster for TAP (Trans Assistance Project), and TAP had sent him an email with some ideas about the message. Amos discussed the philosophies behind each of the suggestions and had some of his own thoughts. He felt we share more than we have differences. "You have two arms, I have two arms," he said to one student. "We have our humanity in common."

Wood type was spread out across the tables, Amos began picking out letters for the word "JUSTICE," and the maestro began. He spoke his thoughts as he moved from letter to letter, and I realized we were fortunate to be watching his process.

He arranged the type on a piece of the chipboard, then transferred it to the press. He said he had wooden boards in his shop that were the sizes of the paper he prints on so he can compose right on the wood. It was all hands on; no drawings, sketches, or notes. He locked up the form on the press bed, explaining every step. Can you print on an angle? You can, he said, "You can also open a Coke can with a banana."

One of the posters would be printed in red, then smaller type would be printed in transparent with a little black that you wouldn't see at first, but then would see up close. Grad student Carolina suggested "Just Justice," which he liked very much.

He pointed out that the letter U was added to the alphabet later, so he was interested in using a V in its place, like it was used historically.

Students were assigned tasks. Once the press was inked with red, he asked those who had printed before to work with those who hadn't. A group cranked a batch of chipboard in red. Another group was to set 48 point type in metal. Another to set the URL of the organization. He set up the transparent white on the other Vandercook SP-15 and showed students how to hand ink type with a brayer and print on the sign press. Amos was the conductor of an amazing human symphony.

His intuitive way of working was more like the process of a painter: a little of this; larger over here; more color on this part. It's very satisfying to have all the presses inked up as available tools. It's a very physical process. Students began asking if there were other times they could come in and print.

I have never before seen the shop so energized and active. 

This was where I left things at 12:30pm. RISE UP WITH TAP | JUSTICE JUSTICE JUST JUSTICE | JOIN THE FIGHT FOR HUMANITY. The shop activity would go on until late afternoon. 

Thank You, Amos, for inspiring our students and for inspiring me!

See his website at Kennedy Prints.

Addendum 2/8/17: I was able to see more of the finished prints before they were delivered to the organization.

*answer: take a class or sign up for advisory units with a professor. CCA Students, see studio access policy.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Letterpress Printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. at CCA

I found out about a week ago that Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. would not only be in town from Detroit, but would be giving a Sunday workshop in the letterpress studio at CCA, the room in which I teach. In my classes, I've incorporated online links to him, the film about his life, Proceed and Be Bold, and his letterpress poster work for many years. I knew he was a character, someone who liked to challenge and prod, provoked discussions, and that he had a sense of humor. He had curated an exhibit about racism in 2009 at the Center for Book Arts in New York, and there is a great video of him walking through it and giving commentary. He was also scheduled to give a talk at our SF campus, which I would not be able to attend. But he was invited into Emily McVarish's Intro to Letterpress course this morning to be the guest artist. Emily graciously agreed to let me and my students observe. His friend and former student, and current instructor at CCA as well, Brian McMullen, came with him.

Introducing himself as "not an artist" (because he thinks it is an elitist term), Amos said he was "stuff maker" (a term he learned from Brian). "Ink on paper" is what he does. A stack of posters overflowed from his suitcase, proving his love of printing. He believes in printing every day, even if that means he just rolls a brayer over the page. It keeps the work flowing and generates ideas, a version of what I've always said, "keep your hands moving." Someone asked him once if keeps a sketchbook or if he plans his prints. He said he drew a rectangle and pointed to the center: "I'm going to put ink there."

Amos told us that he can't explain his work. He believes in a division of labor; he makes stuff and leaves the interpretation and analysis to the art historians and critics. "They will see more in my work than me. I just print and have fun." When asked, he calls his work, "oversized greeting cards."

"My niche is layering. I can do this because I have a lot of free time." He takes 2000 to 2500 sheets of paper, usually chipboard, and just starts printing. "I like to do backgrounds and have them relate to the text." He "jumbles them" as he prints so that no two posters have the same colors. Each takes about two weeks to do. "You need about twenty years before you've learned to do it," he told the students. "I'm 66. Don't get discouraged. Give yourself twenty years. Then if that doesn't do it, do another twenty. Then another twenty." Then there was something about then you'd be dead anyway but at least you would have had fun.

"Failure is a learned trait, otherwise you would never learn to walk or talk. No one says to a baby just learning to walk, 'you fell down, you just stay there.' Failure is learned. That's probably why you don't sing anymore. Someone told you you couldn't."

"Art should not be just for the wealthy." He sells his posters for $20 each at craft fairs and hates when people ask for a discount. (A friend said "he should have said, 'that is a discount. They should be $50.'") He likes the idea of being affordable: "I tell people I'm a gateway drug to buying art." He doesn't mind selling through stores now, doesn't mind that they take a 50% cut, in fact it makes it easier: he delivers a box of prints or postcards; the mail carrier delivers the check. Pricing is low so that he and his friends can afford it. Everyone should be able to have something nice on their walls. His materials are inexpensive, and sometimes he discovers new sources of paper. Like these maps. Apparently, elected officials are often pictured on state maps; every four years the face changes and the maps are obsolete.

Amos believes in the power of print, the power of plastering walls with the same message. You can't get away from it, you can't delete what you see. It's right there, confronting you.

"The printed word is more aggressive than the internet. 
Don't piss off a man who buys his ink in a 50 gallon drum."

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In the Shadows

It's hard to get one's bearings as the landscape changes daily. I'm trying to look for and provide a tiny measure of sustenance, if possible, for myself and others who are in despair. Perhaps some strength for the fights now and ahead. On my walks I used to take pictures of this deer statue (whose name, I overheard, was George) because it was decorated for every holiday and special event. This is what George looked like last week.

I'm compiling the spring issue for Star 82 Review, my online and print magazine and looking for some nourishment for the soul there as well. And wrangling/curating a show that will be at the San Francisco Center for the Book in April, called Books of Course, which are selections (books, objects, assignments) from the teaching collections of several of my colleagues. 

A friend said she felt that every day feels like a year. That's kind of where I am right now, too. We visited the Berkeley Art Museum and I saw this. Finding Buddha in the shadows.