Bicycle Dream

Bicycle Dream

This is one from a series of about 50 “Gocco” silkscreen prints I made in the late 1990s (and one of the few that remain in my collection).

The original was a film photo taken by my dear old friend Ben Ostiguy (swimmer4buzzardsbay on Instagram). It’s a picture of yours truly on my bicycle, crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River between Hadley and Northampton, Massachusetts, circa 1991 when much of the Norwottuck Rail Trail had yet to be paved. Ben and I were out gathering photographic imagery for a painting class we were both taking at UMass, and we scouted out the nascent trail off-road style.

I first used the image to illustrate a haiku poem in a chapbook titled “Little Deaths” that I’d written, bound, and self-published in 1995:

When in a painting
you see a beckoning road,
then down it you go!

A few years later I happened to salvage a trove of genuine WWII-era aeronautical maps of Europe that the folks at the W. E. B. Du Bois Library at UMass had been planning to throw out. I used the maps as substrates for a handful of collages and paintings. But none of those projects were as successful as this print run, which supplied me with greeting cards for years.

I suppose I ought to scan the last two or three I have left, and make some giclée prints. There’s nothing quite like an original, though. The way the ink layers interact with each other and with the paper is hard to reproduce via modern printing processes.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

All apologies to the late George Herbert for appropriating his title. But it’s an apt approach to weathering the crazy and noisy political zeitgeist of 2017. Of course it’s important to stay concerned, informed, and involved. But it’s also important to practice fierce self-care, to stop to smell the roses, and to remove oneself from the fray frequently, in order to recharge the batteries.

These photos I’ve taken remind and reassure me that the world is still a beautiful and incredible place.

In Praise of Cranberry Wake

I love this short film Cranberry Wake by Alex Horner. It is such a perfect marriage of storytelling, history, sport, music, and abstraction, told with an exquisite attention to detail. Every frame of this film is a perfectly-composed painting.

The film starts out seeming to be a mini documentary on how cranberries are grown and harvested. But then the wakeskaters show up, and the film takes on a whole new dimension. “What’s a wakeskater?” you might ask. Watch the film and find out!

I’m particularly moved by how well the music harmonizes with the visuals. Steve Horner’s Light on Blue and Tycho’s Daydream are perfectly ethereal selections that complement the dreamy, slowed-down action shots. I would love to learn how to obtain rights to use another artist’s music in my own short films. Until then, I’ll continue to make my own music for films.

In Praise of Mr. Chickadee

A great resource for do-it-yourselfers (or those who would like to be)

Have you ever wondered how people made things in the olden days before we had power tools, die casting, injection moulding, 3D printing, sheet metal stamping, or robot welding? Well wonder no more, because Mr. Chickadee will show you.

I’ve fallen in love with—and subscribed to—his YouTube channel, which features episodes on how to make all manner of things from split stones, forged metal strap hinges, door latches, and masonry heaters, to entire systems like a timber frame workshop built entirely by hand. There’s also a blog that features some thoughtful writing and photographs, but there’s something magical and mesmerizing about watching the process unfold before your eyes in the movie format. His carpentry skills are exquisite.

Sometimes content on YouTube can be hit-or-miss, but this channel’s production values really shine, and mirror the fine craftsmanship of the work being documented. The films are beautifully composed and shot, and expertly edited. Presumably this is the work of Mrs. Chickadee, who makes appearances in several of the episodes (when she does, the camera seems to be tripod-mounted, versus hand-held). Playful cameo appearances by their pets add an endearing touch.

One of the most notable features of these movies is the lack of background music or verbal narration. All you get are the stoic sounds of the work being done, set against a meditative backdrop of natural sounds like rain, crickets, birds, etc. At first this can be a little disorienting if you have no idea what is being done and are looking for answers in familiar written or verbal form. But if you are able, be patient, learn to trust your eyes and to absorb the information visually. Mr. Chickadee will not let you down. Onward to self-reliance!

Making Homemade Almond Milk

A short film about making almond milk at home.

Homemade almond milk is delicious and nutritious. It doesn’t contain all the unnatural chemicals and preservatives that commercial boxed almond milk does. It’s easy to make, so I thought I would make a little movie to document the process. You soak a cup of raw almonds in water overnight, rinse them, then purée them in a blender for a few minutes with a pinch of sea salt and a dash of vanilla. Then you strain the mixture through a nut milk bag into a container. Store it in the refrigerator and use it as you would milk. That’s really all there is to it.

The reason I use raw unpasteurized almonds is that they are alive and full of healthful natural enzymes. You could sprout these almonds and grow trees from them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires almond producers in the U.S. to pasteurize or steam their almonds, so I buy almonds that are imported from Spain. (Incongruously, the FDA allows food producers to poison the American food stream with obesity-causing high-fructose corn syrup and all manner of artificial preservatives, growth hormones, and pharmaceuticals, so I question that agency’s authority where it comes to natural foods and food safety.)

It is my sense that live organic almonds obtained from a reputable source (a small grower that takes care in its farming practices… or a TREE) are a safe bet. I haven’t had any problems with them so far. If you are in doubt, consult your doctor, or simply use pasteurized raw almonds.

Almond skins contain an enzyme-inhibiting substance that keep the almond from prematurely sprouting. This same substance makes it hard for some people to digest almonds. Fortunately, you can soak the almonds overnight and rinse them to neutralize and remove that substance.

Back in the Rink

I’ve come out of retirement. I’m playing hockey again, and loving it.

In an earlier post, I announced my retirement from the hockey league I’d been playing in for several years. Well, that didn’t last very long. No sooner had my equipment dried than I’d developed a hankering to skate again. I’ll stop short of saying that hockey is an addiction. But I will say that I had sorely underestimated its importance in my life.

Previously I had adopted the view that I was getting older, my body was becoming more frail, and I needed to protect myself from physical harm. While this may be true, it’s even more important that I work hard to counteract the perils of a sedentary desk job, and exercise intensely so that my heart stays strong. Playing hockey does this. I would argue that hockey also teaches virtues that can be applied in life outside the rink: balance, patience, sacrifice, teamwork, humility, effort, effort, and more effort.

The key for me has been to find an independent group less rough and competitive than the league I had been playing in previously. Thankfully, I have found such a group.

We all dress together, and teams are formed anew every time we skate. There is greater variety, and more camaraderie than competitiveness. The level of play is as high as I’ve ever known, but the stakes are lower. We don’t keep score, and there are no penalties or referees. We’re simply a bunch of adults who are out to have fun, and prove nothing.

All-Season Rope Swing

Of all the crazy things that kids from Massachusetts do, this is one of my favorites.

When you hear the words “rope swing,” you may think of a hot summer day. Maybe you envision lolling at your local swimming hole, swinging from a shade tree and plunging into the cool water below. But what if it’s that time of year when the days are short, it’s freezing outside, and your favorite pond is covered with a thick layer of ice? Watch as a young skater from Easthampton, Massachusetts demonstrates that a rope swing can be enjoyed in the wintertime too. I tried this swing a few times myself, and it was a blast.

I had captured the raw footage in 2010, but until recently it had sat on my hard drive taking up space and gathering digital dust, as so many other movie clips do. I want to make more movies, but sitting down to teach myself the filmmaking craft requires a level of commitment that until recently I hadn’t made. It’s further complicated by one of my new resolutions: to be more mindful about the amount of time I spend in front of glowing screens. But facility with the filmmaking medium seems like an important attribute for a visually-oriented communicator to develop, so I’m biting the bullet and sacrificing a few more hours to the cause.

Sure, this film may be a little crude: the stylized cloud shapes in the title sequence are cheesy ready-mades from the Final Cut library. The funky Duality typeface (by one of my favorite type designers, Ray Larabie) pairs well with the clouds, but probably isn’t the best fit for the overall subject matter. The choice of music doesn’t particularly support the narrative, either, but I wrote and recorded it, so at least my intellectual property karma is clean.

Who knows, maybe if I allow myself to play more freely and unselfconsciously, and embrace a few inconsistencies, I will grow artistically, and will develop an authorial voice and a stronger narrative vision. The important thing is that I keep doing the work, sharing the work, and learning to use the tools. Meaning can emerge.

I am trying to get over being such a perfectionist that I never publish anything. Hopefully the more I do this, the more comfortable I will become with letting my awkward learning process show. Thank you for indulging me. Your encouragement is appreciated. I hope you enjoy this sketch.

A Tree for All Seasons

A fond farewell to my old friend, the oak tree.

This is the last photograph I will ever publish of this old oak tree, and the lovely meadow over which it presides. I’m not bored with the subject; who could ever tire of looking at clouds like these? No, the reason I will never photograph this place again is that it is slated to become a Walmart store.

I was devastated when I learned the news. I have come to revere this old tree as one would an elderly person sitting on a park bench, seemingly marginalized and passed over by a fast-paced world, but exuding a quiet confidence that tells a thousand stories.

This is not an indictment of Walmart. Despite criticisms that one could (and many do) levy against the giant, Walmart is a business. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do; exactly what we the people tell it to do. Nor is it an indictment of the host city. Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would benefit (at least in the short term) from the jobs and the tax revenue. This is more of an indictment of a modern society that values convenience over open space and natural beauty. And in this sense, it is an indictment of myself. I have shopped at Walmart before, and at some point I probably will yet again. Every dollar I spend is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in. In my own small way, I will have helped to kill this tree.

I generally prefer to support independent local retailers over “big box” stores. Sure, the service at a small business might take longer and cost a little bit more, and the selection of products may be limited. But the overall quality of the shopping experience feels more human, as does the sense of shared connection with our community and respect for our environment. But is it enough to support our local retailers? Or do we need to more closely examine the impact of satisfying all our commercial desires? At some point way back in the Twentieth Century, Walmart started out as the quintessential local retailer with one store: Sam Walton’s Five and Dime. And now, scaled up by orders of magnitude, look what “shopping local” hath wrought.

I am under no illusion that I’ll be able to stop the relentless forward march of the bulldozer. Our modern, convenience-addicted society demands more goods, lower prices, and stores that are closer to us. Never mind that we already have everything we need: the Holyoke Mall, a CVS pharmacy, a Kmart, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Petco, a Barnes & Noble, and a Stop & Shop grocery store are all located within a mile of this soon-to-be Walmart. Competition is the name of the game here. My hope is that Walmart and its developer will see a little bit of the same magic that I see in my friend the oak tree, and will find a way to spare it. Can you imagine parking lots peppered with old-growth shade trees? I can.

To be perfectly honest, my photos of this meadow are somewhat fictional. What you don’t see—what I prefer to exclude with my camera’s lens—is the yucky stuff: the “no trespassing” sign at the field’s border, the impenetrable brush, and the doubtless thousands of mosquitoes and ticks that it harbors. The surrounding neighborhoods are nothing special either: some modest ranch houses on small lots; a few downtrodden apartment complexes; a handful of businesses; a fire station. And hidden beyond the precipice at the far end of the field is yet another shopping center. The whole place is sort of an oxymoron: a busy road in the middle of a pseudo-industrial limbo that used to be farmland.

But I find such oxymorons intriguing, and I have learned to train my camera on them at every opportunity, building a repertoire of images of a fleeting world I’d love to hang on to.

When the world exasperates me (as it often does), I like to invoke the wisdom of others to guide and inspire me. There is one thought in particular that has been resonating with me lately, in all sorts of situations:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

What, then, will be the new model that I build? Will I relocate next to a cemetery, an ocean, or even further out into the sticks where no one would possibly want to plop a big box store? Will I simply acquiesce, accepting thoughtless commercial expansion as an unavoidable by-product of a cancerous capitalism? Or will I intensify my efforts to photograph the dwindling natural beauty that I find in unlikely places, creating an illusionary cut-and-pasted paradise that represents “the way we could have been”? I’m liking this latter approach.

It is with much gratitude and great respect that I have had the privilege of photographing this particular meadow over the years. Now I will move on and find another willing subject. Farewell, my friend the tree. I will see you in the cosmos.

Remembering Hillman Curtis

A tribute to Hillman Curtis, one of the world’s great creative minds who died of cancer in 2012

Hillman Curtis had been one of my personal heroes since the early 2000s. I had discovered one of his short films featuring the music of what would become one of my favorite bands, Mogwai. I promptly went out and bought his 2002 book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, and it became one of the handful of books that shaped my own creative aspirations over the years.

One of the things that made Hillman such a compelling influence for me is that his career trajectory foreshadowed and in some ways mirrored my own. He had been a student, a creative writer, a musician in a rock band, a graphic designer, a web designer, and ultimately a filmmaker.

What’s the Story?

In his book (MTIV stands for Making the Invisible Visible), one of the things Hillman taught is that success in creative projects usually depends on how clearly we understand and present the central theme of whatever story we are telling (whether it be our own or that of our clients). In his eponymous video, he characterizes his own theme as “Reinvention.”

I would add that it wasn’t reinvention merely for the sake of change. That would have been easy enough to justify: we live in a society mesmerized by “all that is shiny and new.” What struck me about Hillman’s serial self-reinvention was that there was a deep level of continuity to it. Every evolution built upon the successes of the previous incarnation.

Studying creative writing led to writing songs; which in turn led to his going on the road with a band. His band needed posters to advertise its shows, so Hillman stepped up and taught himself that craft. And with computer skills under his belt, it made perfect sense to move his creativity online when the whole Web thing happened. Motion graphics on the Web became a big deal (and a lucrative business opportunity), and Hillman evolved to become a master of Adobe’s (née Macromedia) Flash technology. When Flash became the go-to platform for delivering video over the Web, the path became clear once again, and Hillman had an opportunity to circle back to his writing and filmmaking roots.

On this, the anniversary of his passing, I’m taking a few moments to appreciate his gifts and his influence upon my creative life.

A few related links

Figure Drawing

A few figure studies, and some thoughts on the odd practice of drawing the nude human figure

For thousands of years and maybe more, artists have drawn, painted, and sculpted the nude human figure. In theory, working from the live nude model is a serious practice that aims to teach artists to see, to understand human anatomy, to appreciate and empathize with humanity in its totality, and to render the forms that we see. But let’s face it: it’s an odd practice.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with nakedness. The human body is beautiful. Nakedness is natural. It’s how we come into this world, and it’s how we spend some of our finest private moments. But we live in a culture where being clothed is the norm, and where the human body is often sexualized and politicized. Most of us have some degree of self-consciousness about our bodies. Consequently, for those of us who’ve had a relatively conventional Western upbringing (whatever that means), experiencing public nakedness evokes some emotional and intellectual dissonance.

The first time one ever joins a room full of other art students to gaze upon a live figure model (naked person), it’s kind of awkward. I can’t even imagine how models must feel about being objectified for our benefit. However, most of the models I’ve met seem singularly unconcerned about their nudity. In fact, they seem uncannily comfortable in their own skin, and interested in the art that is being made. Kudos to them for being so brave and seemingly unselfconscious (though perhaps this is an incorrect assumption).

In the meantime, we get over our discomfort, continue with the practice, and go on to gain a better understanding of human anatomy. We learn how to draw what we see, and we begin the arduous process of figuring out how representation of the human form fits into our work. The more one practices figure drawing, the less awkward it feels.

Contour Studies

Contour studies

Gesture Studies

Gesture studies

More gesture studies

Drawings I’ve made at a drawing class I occasionally attend at Amherst College

Other kinds of drawing

Human figures are not the only subjects worthy of our artistic study. I have also enjoyed drawing still life compositions, landscapes, old manual typewriters, crumpled-up paper bags, crushed Cheerwine soda cans, neckties, abstractions, and a few other delights.

1954 Chevrolet Truck

1954 Chevrolet truck

Some Onions

Some onions

Historical Portraits at Rao’s Café

Portraits I painted of Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost

In the mid-1990s, I painted and installed three portraits—Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Emily Dickinson—in the outdoor seating area at Rao’s Café in Amherst, MA. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) In 2010, I added Robert Frost to the lineup. Each of these people was associated in some way with Massachusetts.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), colloquially known as the Belle of Amherst, was a poet known for her reclusiveness. I once lived in a house directly across the street from where she had lived. I was inspired by her mystique, and by the fact that the magnitude of her work wasn’t discovered and published until after her death.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du BoisW.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was an author, peace- and civil rights activist, and educator from Great Barrington, MA. He attended Harvard, where he became the first African American to earn a doctorate. Among other accomplishments, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Paul Revere

Paul ReverePaul Revere (1734–1818) was a silversmith and patriot from Boston, Massachusetts. He famously rode his horse from Boston out to Lexington and Concord to alert his fellow American militiamen that the British forces were invading, prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord. When I visit Boston, I enjoy walking around in the North End, where his house has been preserved.

Robert Frost

Robert FrostRobert Frost (1874–1963) was a poet and educator from San Francisco, California. When he was eleven, he and his family moved to Massachusetts. Eventually he ended up teaching English at Amherst College, where I lived for many years. Of the four historical heroes, Robert Frost was from a more “modern” era, so I decided to give his portrait a more colorful treatment than the others.

As an aside, when I was in fourth grade, I memorized and recited his poem, The Road Not Taken.