Thursday, April 20, 2017

Poem in Your Pocket Day 2017

When April circles back again, I'm always happy to promote National Poetry Month.

On April 1 the librarians in Albany had a little box that said "free brownies with nuts," in which said box had some Brown Es and little metal nuts from the hardware store. For Poetry Month, they have an awesome display.

Known to me as "erasure text" the librarians here (and possibly the Poet Laureate of our little one-square-mile city of Albany) are calling them "blackout poems." I absolutely applaud the activity for the general public, but have a little trouble with one more black Sharpie erasure poem, which, as editor, I frequently see as submissions to Star 82 Review. If you want to go beyond the basics, you can do more interesting things with layers and create deeper meaning when you add imagery or color to an erasure poem. (Previous blog post here.)

But wait, there's more! Check out the "book spine poems." These are terrific activities to get people to engage with books, texts, poetry, writing, and creativity and to make them smile.

Poem in Your Pocket Day in the United States this year is April 27. I've been listing links to some short poems on the Star 82 Review Facebook page. Print one out and carry it around! Read to a friend! Read to someone at the bus stop / train station / grocery store! Write your own! Or, do as this neighbor did: create a PoeTree.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Introverts and Extraverts as Artists

I recently read the well-written and highly interesting biography of Hermann Rorschach called The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls. (A nice article that gives a good summary is here.) First, the book stood out because it was written as a story rather than a necklace of facts. Second, Rorschach was a painter as well as a doctor, someone who merged science and art. Third, he was an introvert, someone who enjoyed socializing and people, but needed down time, quiet time to think and recharge. 

Psychiatry and the concepts of introversion and extraversion (also written extroversion) were developing during Rorschach's time, which was also the time of Freud and Jung. In 1922, Rorschach noted that "'Again and again we run into the fact that introverts cannot understand how extraverts think and behave, and vice versa. And they don't even realize that they are dealing with a different type of person'" (154). Knowing how introverts and extraverts think and behave are important to teachers and educational institutions as well. And it should be noted that a person is rarely all one or the other, but a mix that varies proportionally, person to person. Rorschach wrote that the relationship between one's introversion and extraversion does not change, but it can shift over one's life (127).

While I wish I could blame the political climate in the U.S. for the push toward social interaction and political action, I think our society has been extraverted and outward- looking for a while. The art school where I teach used to focus on solitary work: becoming a gallery artist. Having one's work exhibited in prestigious places and around the world, not just locally, was considered the ultimate goal. The often-introverted gallery artist of yesteryear worked primarily alone, but had to socialize as part of the business: schmooze at gallery openings and interact with the public. This model has its own drawbacks (the hustle, for example) but it can be acceptable to introverts, as it balances inward facing and outward facing work. (Of course, there are extraverted gallery artists as well.)

While the ideal of "gallery artist" still seems to be true in art school today, there is an added component; collaboration, installation, and community outreach are even more highly valued. This totally outward facing art may also be part of the "deskilling" that I've mentioned before in this post: artists as facilitators or curators rather than as highly skilled makers. With the emphasis placed on outreach, those who are extraverts have the advantage. Social practice is valuable, but it cannot be the only goal for everyone. If the only value is placed on collaboration and partnering with other institutions (such as grade schools, adult care facilities, mental health organizations, etc.) then the introvert is left alone on the island of his/her/their own making. And there I stress not just the word "alone" but also "making."

Extraverts thrive on being with people and continued stimulation out in the world; it is how they work best and are happiest. Introverts like social interaction on a more limited scale and thrive on quiet alone time. It isn't just a matter of preference; they need more thinking time to recharge and survive. Making art for an introvert happens in this solitary time. It is much more difficult for an introvert to make things in a group situation. Collaborating in real time can be anxiety producing. The introverted artist can make change in his/her/their own way (see this post). For an art institution to push community based art does not acknowledge different ways of working, which is something absolutely fundamental to teaching. You must meet students where they are and guide them toward becoming a better them, not a better extension of an institution. This means acknowledging that all artists are different and can have an impact in their own ways.

In her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain shows just when extraverts became the ideal in the U.S.. After the 1920s and the rise of Dale Carnegie, self-help books began focussing on qualities that were quite different from previous aspirations. Instead of qualities that you had real control over, that were primarily moral issues, advertising emphasized how you would be more popular, more attractive, have more friends if you used, say, a particular kind of soap. A study by cultural historian Warren Susman found that words such as: duty, work, honor, manners, and integrity came up more frequently prior to 1920 and these words came up after: magnetic, fascinating, attractive, forceful, energetic (23). Action was traded for surface  treatments. Self-improvement turned from working on inner qualities to perfecting outer ones. Susman noted we had shifted our attention from the "culture of character" to  the "culture of personality."

So, while there has been a trend for a hundred years towards pushing people to be extraverts, it seems strange to do so in an art school. When the focus is outward toward the public, and by stressing community projects and collaboration, private art school will actually be pushing the introverted artists aside, ignoring them. It is possible that art education may still remain alive in public institutions, where funding comes from multiple sources and enrollment remains possible due to the lower costs to students (at least currently). But with deskilling and community practice more and more the norm, the introverted artist may end up feeling anxious and alone. In her book, Cain includes a quote from Anaïs Nin (264) from In Favor of the Sensitive Man, and Other Essays (1976): "Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again."

Lost: Center. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Books of Course: Teaching Exhibit at SFCB

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area between now and June 11, 2017 come on by the San Francisco Center for the Book to see an exhibition of books, objects, and assignments from our teaching collections. Who are we? Macy Chadwick, Julie Chen, Betsy Davids, Alisa Golden, Michael Henninger, Charles Hobson, Nance O'Banion, Karen Sjoholm, and Kathleen Walkup. We've taught many places including California College of the Arts, San Francisco Art Institute, Academy of Art University, Cal State East Bay, and Mills College.
Presenting different teaching approaches through their selections, these educators shed light on their philosophies as well as their passions. Individual collections are reflected in different themes, for example: as a historical timeline; top ten student favorites; and books with an emphasis on language and culture. Over forty artists' works are included, each with a unique vision, and including a wide variety of processes and materials. From a book with intentionally bad printing to a book made to resemble a purse, each work serves as a gem to contemplate, with the hope that you, too, will be inspired to make books, of course.
The opening reception was April 5.

On Friday, April 21, several of the teachers will be at the Center to talk about their selections and let you handle the works. The tops of the cases will come off! The following are actually installation shots. (I installed the show, with Chad Johnson's help [Thank you, Chad!!], and copyedited the catalogue. The group voted me Curator, but I was more accurately Chief Wrangler and Organizer.) If you are around, I'll be there Thursday, April 13 from about 12:15 - 2:30pm talking to my CCA Bookworks class, and you are welcome to join us.

Can't get there? There's a catalogue, designed by Christopher Jordan and Tom Ingalls of Ingalls Design, which will eventually be for sale here. Meanwhile, you can call SFCB and order one over the phone.

Addendum: Catalogues available online now! Here is the direct link.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Intention, Audience & Cat Cafes

The audience for Cat Town (Oakland) and KitTea Cat Cafe (San Francisco) on the surface may seem the same –  people who want to get a little something to eat and hang out with some cats – but the intention of each turns out to be quite different.

Cat Town is a non-profit, whose mission is cat adoptions. All the cats are available to good homes. The goal of having the public pay to play with the cats is to socialize them (the cats, not the people). The rules there are simple: don't pick up the cats, and don't disturb them while they are sleeping. Cats sleep quite a bit, so it is likely they will be sleeping at least part of the hour you are there. The intention of Cat Town is to promote homes for rescued cats: the focus is on the welfare of the cats. You can get a beverage and a pastry at RAWR Coffee Bar and take it into the Cat Zone with you. The atmosphere is informal and living-room comfortable.

And they feature art from local artists. I found an illustration by a former student.

KitTea Cat Cafe is customer-focused. While they do have one or two cats available for adoption, people go to play with the eleven resident rescue cats who are friendly hosts and hostesses to the new guests who visit them. The rules here are: shoes off, and don't pick up a sleeping cat.

At some point, Steve comes out to patrol the room. He's a fluffy black cat, only ten months old, but he's the alpha male and likes to sit at the front window, warily eyeing pedestrians and occasionally hissing at passing dogs.

Your reservation fee also nets you a cup of bottomless green tea, one of four choices, served in a ceramic cup on a small wooden tray. The café also features loaded waffles, panini, salads, and more tea. You can eat while you are with the cats, but it is best to eat in the cafe at the window bar after your time is up with the cats so you get another thirty minutes or more of extra cat-watching time.

This is the place to go with a special friend, or for an occasion, or if you need a spa day. Mother-daughter pairs, small family groups, gal-pals, couples, and tourists were there when we visited. And one older man. While browsing the gift shop area we overheard a woman come in who was "meeting a friend" and then saw a young man appear, saying it was good to meet her: an internet date, perhaps? A perfect meeting place.

Two cat cafés. Two different intentions. Two slightly different audiences. Some questions to think about are: Who is it for? What does it do? What does it communicate? How does it make you feel? Do you want to revisit it? Do you need to own it? 

These are actually questions to ask about your art and writing. Does your work have the potential to connect with others? Is it a closed system or an open one? Who is your intended audience? What is your intention? By examining these two cat cafés, we can see how one intention, idea, or concept can actually be taken in different directions, depending on the focus. We might more closely consider the fate of rescue cats, the idea of having the means to pamper oneself, the thought of donating to a cause. We can also notice how the emotional landing point is similar: a feeling of calmness, say, and happy serenity, but arrived at through different doors. There are many ways to make work to lead to a similar feeling. What else do you want the reader/viewer to think about as they journey through your art?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Artists Don't Ask Permission & Never Apologize for Your Art

There's much talk abuzzing in the art world about a certain painting at the Whitney Biennial this year,  which brings up the questions of who has a "right" to use certain images and when is it okay to censor a work of art. Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, wrote a thoughtful article that I felt covered the issue very well. Another good opinion article in Hyperallergic by Coco Fusco is here.

First, we have to ask: what is art for? There are no right answers, but I tend to think art is a place for exploration: a way to examine what interests, moves or bothers us; a method for empathy and trying on other ways of looking at life; a way to serve up food for thought; a way to reach out emotionally; a way to connect with others. Looking back through that list I see the words "a way" repeated and wonder if that is what art is: a path towards something new, or a path of return.

When you set out on a path, you don't generally ask permission, unless you are very young and need to ask your guardian to go outside and play, or if you are older and want to borrow their car. In those cases, someone else is responsible: your guardian for your well-being or as owner of property that does not belong to you. But your art belongs to you. Your artistic vision belongs to you. And you are the guardian of it. In her article Roberta Smith wrote the line "But artists don't ask permission." Part of the artist's job is revealing a line of inquiry, spurring new questions – an opening – not a shutting down.

I'm disturbed these days, sometimes even distraught, on how much shutting down is happening. And I hope artists will remember to keep the doors open.

Art is a place for freedom. And artists are free to explore whatever they choose, for whatever reason. We must feel free to exchange opinions and be aware, but not afraid, that we may disagree. We don't make art by consensus. And we do not have to apologize for our art. But we must listen to the responses and be open to discussion. We must retain our freedom to create.