Of Switchel and Shrub

Let’s talk about beverages. Water is life. It’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s a little plain and boring. Commercial soda is full of high-fructose corn syrup and who knows what other poisonous chemicals and preservatives. Coffee is sumptuous, but I don’t want to be constantly wired. Something like a cocktail might be nice, but I don’t drink alcohol. Fruit juices are tasty, but I’m trying to limit the amount of sugar I consume. What is a seeker of taste to do?

I’m on a quest to create modern versions of old-world tonic beverages—switchel, shrub, amuse bouche, tonic. My guiding principle is to use natural, minimally-processed, and healthful ingredients.

Water
Cold water is nice, but…

Start with the basics

I’ve been juicing a lot of lemons lately. The vitamin C they contain is beneficial, and they taste so good.

Fresh Lemons
Fresh lemons

I’m also a big fan of these three roots: ginger, onions, and garlic. Turmeric (not pictured) is nice, too.

Back to My Roots
Getting back to my roots

Put it all together

Here is some gingerade I made by boiling some chopped fresh ginger in water, then straining it through a coffee filter and sweetening it lightly with honey. It’s refreshing either hot or cold. Sometimes I’ll make a brew using various combinations of the aforementioned roots.

Fresh Gingerade
Fresh gingerade

Every week I juice about six or seven lemons, add the juice to a glass jar, top it off with apple cider vinegar, shake it up, and put it in the refrigerator. Both of these liquids are surprisingly sweet on their own, so no extra sweetener is required. I start my day by downing a few sips right from the jar. Occasionally I’ll cut it with a little bit of water or plain seltzer.

Vinegar and Lemon
Apple cider vinegar and fresh lemon juice

Commercial alternatives

My initial inspiration for this flavor-quest came from the discovery of a few products I liked, that I found at my local greengrocer. Fire Cider is not for the weak of stomach. It’s hot! It contains the juices of peppers, lemons, garlic, onions, and other spices in a base of apple cider vinegar. It’s also not cheap, so I figured it would be more economical to make something comparable on my own.

Fire Cider
Fire Cider

Switchel—which contains apple cider vinegar and ginger—is a tasty treat. But there’s a fair amount of sugar added, so I don’t indulge in this very often.

Cide Road Blueberry Switchel
Cide Road organic switchel

And then there’s coffee

This doesn’t need much elaboration. It’s a daily staple, but the older I get, the more I find that I want just one really good cup in the morning, before moving on to tea and other drinks throughout the day. Neither my stomach nor my nerves can handle office-grade swill any more. I buy green coffee beans (seeds of the coffee cherry, technically) and roast them myself at home.

Of all the variables in coffee making (freshness of roast, bean origin, preparation technique, darkness of roast), I’ve found freshness of roast to be the most important in terms of the flavor and “aliveness” of the coffee.

Personally I like to mix half Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans and half Columbian beans. I roast them just shy of the oily stage. Pretty dark, but still “dry.”

How about you? What are your favorite homemade beverages?

2016 Odds & Ends

Vimeo—one of the services where I host my videos—offers a recurring workshop they call the Weekend Challenge. The 2016 Memory Bank episode challenges filmmakers to create a short film (under 3 minutes) out of their orphaned video clips from the year.

Until I learned about this assignment, I hadn’t given much thought to how many videos I’d recorded incidentally over the course of the year, nor whether they would fit together into a coherent narrative. I was surprised to discover that yes, they did. I hadn’t done very much work in this “video montage” style, so it was a new and interesting challenge.

I’d also never begun a movie project with the music. Previously, I had only added music to films after making the video part, like adding spices or a garnish to a meal. But using that approach has often resulted in movies where the music seemed like a poor fit or an afterthought.

This time around, I approached the project as a music video. (I was a big fan of MTV back in the early 1980s.) I started by writing and recording the music using Apple’s GarageBand software, overdubbing piano, synthesizer, and drum loops.

Then I imported the song into the Final Cut Pro video editing software, and added video clips to the song’s rhythmic timeline (versus the other way around). I liked this approach—it shifted my way of thinking and got me out of a couple of ruts I had slipped into.

I’m not exactly sure of the overarching theme among the clips. In 2016 I traveled more than usual. I had surgery. I got sick a couple of times. I had a good year at work and some pretty great times with family and friends. I got outdoors and did some hiking and bicycling. I played hockey. I grew some amazing garlic. I made sprouts. I learned to roast my own coffee. I took a bunch of photos and movies. I made four paintings. I published. I tried to improve. I learned some new technological skills. All the while a relentless and dissonant political battle raged in the background. My team lost, twice.

Perhaps the theme is one of continuing to be kind, creative, resilient, graceful, and happy despite the challenging nature of the times. Or maybe the lesson is simply to focus on the good stuff in life, because there really is so much of it to be enjoyed and shared. Hopefully this short film captures some of the happy highlights.

Sunflower Tote Bags

A few years ago I set about to make a series of hand-painted canvas tote bags. I ordered a couple dozen plain canvas bags online. I drew up a simple, happy, graphic image that seemed like it would be easy to reproduce. I cut out a paper stencil so that I could transfer the drawing consistently from bag to bag. I cleared all the flat surfaces in my studio. Then I got busy making the acrylic paintings.

My original intention had been to put these on Etsy, sell a bunch of them, and fund my next art project. But they languished in my Etsy shop, and I never sold a single one. I ended up giving most of the bags away to friends and family members, and of course I’ve kept a couple for my own use. I may have one or two left; if you want one, please get in touch.

The photo gallery below shows the process I devised to make the paintings. Instead of painting each bag’s image from start to finish, I used the mass-production approach: I performed each step on all of the bags before proceeding to the next step. So for example, first I painted a rectangle of white primer (gesso) onto each of the bags and let it dry. Then I stenciled my sketch onto each of the bags. Then I painted the blue sky onto each of the bags. And so on. The later detail steps were a bit more improvisational, so there are minor differences among the paintings that hopefully add some character.

Nightfall over Providence

Recently we made a quick overnight trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to help Rebecca’s daughter settle into her dorm at college. The view from our hotel (Omni Providence) was pretty nice, so I got to try something I’ve been wanting to do: make a time-lapse movie of day turning into night in an urban environment.

I suppose I could have used my iPhone’s time-lapse mode and called it a day (into night—ha), but the quality of the iPhone’s photos suffers in low-light conditions. So I got my “good camera” ready, and embarked upon a little project.

Check out the short video above to see the result of my experiment.

Some notes on the equipment I used and how I set things up:

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II micro four-thirds format (great camera, awful name—I propose Zephyr)
  • Lens: Panasonic Lumix/Leica 25mm f/1.4 (equivalent to a 50mm focal length in “full-frame” camera terms)
  • Tripod: GorillaPod Original
  • Fortunately, the window of our 12th floor room was able to be opened about four inches, so I didn’t have to shoot through dirty windows or contend with room reflections in the glass.
  • I spent a good 15 minutes obsessing about whether to use a wider-angle lens, to capture a bigger view of the city. We could see Waterplace Park and a portion of the river from our room, and had it been a WaterFire night, that might have influenced my decision toward the “more-is-more” direction. But Rebecca, bless her, helped confirm my hunch that what this particular scene needed was a tighter crop of a specific subject: the domed Rhode Island State House at the other end of the street.
  • I settled on the 25 mm lens, set the camera on the tripod, aimed it through the open window, and composed the shot through the viewfinder.
  • I used the brightest f-stop available (f/1.4) and set the camera to aperture priority mode, so that the shutter speed would vary and the “after dark” shots would be adequately exposed.
  • I manually focused on the State House so that the camera wouldn’t waste any battery energy automatically refocusing for every shot. Also, auto-focus doesn’t always focus on the right thing—especially when the scene is dark—so I figured I’d take control of that aspect.
  • I set the camera to take medium-resolution shots. Again, I was concerned about battery life, and shooting RAW or high-resolution JPGs would have drained the camera’s battery too quickly.
  • Sunset was going to be at 7:17 p.m. I figured that if I started around 6:00 and ended around 8:00, I would capture the transition from light to dark nicely.
  • As far as the frequency of the shots, I started obsessing with the math, calculating how many shots I’d end up with if I set the camera to take a photo every 5, 10, or 15 seconds, and what the frame rate of the final video would need to be, to create smooth animation. I ultimately decided on one shot every 15 seconds, figuring that I could sort out the timing considerations later, in software. The camera has a programmable time-lapse mode, so I set it up, crossed my fingers, and pressed the shutter button.
  • We left to get some dinner, praying we would not come back to find that a flight of pigeons had taken up residence in our room. (They hadn’t.)
  • I’m glad I chose the 15-second interval, because as it happened, the battery died and the camera stopped taking pictures before I manually intervened. Fortunately, just enough shots (514) were captured.
  • Back at home on the computer, I imported the photos and used Apple’s QuickTime Pro 7 software to convert the image sequence into a movie. I tried one at 60 frames per second (FPS), one at 30 FPS, and one at 24 FPS, to see which one worked best. Ultimately I kept the 24 FPS one.
  • I brought that file into Final Cut Pro X software, cropped the composition to the 16:9 proportion of HD video, and rotated it a half of a degree to correct a slight listing feeling. Also, I shortened the movie somewhat at the beginning, as it felt like it was dwelling too heavily on the “day” side of the transition.
  • I exported the movie to Vimeo, and embedded it into this page.
  • The biggest lesson for me was the consideration of battery life. Olympus sells an add-on battery pack for my camera that combines two batteries, but it adds bulk and weight, and part of the reason I chose this camera in the first place was its compact form. If I plan to do longer time-lapse projects in the future, I might consider investing in it. But then again, I might simply switch to a 20- or 30-second interval, and make sure I start with a freshly-charged battery every time.

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.

My Photographic Process

Some tips and tricks for making better photographs.

Here’s a photo I posted on Facebook (by way of Instagram):

Haviland Pond

Lots of friends “liked” it and a few commented. One comment in particular stuck in my mind:

How do you capture light as you do? No, don’t answer. I’m content believing you have some magic.

The magic, if there be any, consists in the miracle of consciousness and attentiveness. I approach a composition as a little meditation, full of gratitude and reverence for the moment, and I am rarely let down. I love that other people enjoy my work and think I have a special talent, but I believe that making beautiful pictures and movies is a learnable skill. Anyone with the will—and access to a few essentials—can cultivate a style all their own and a powerful body of work. In this spirit, I share some of the techniques and approaches that work for me.

Choose your subject matter

Mount Norwottuck, as seen from Mount Pollux

The subject matter I’m most interested in is the light. Indeed, it is the fundamental ingredient in photography. I like the way sunlight plays on natural environments, and in some cases the human-made structures that occupy them. I especially love the quality of light and shadow that the sun makes in the early morning and late afternoon. I rarely use a flash. I love dramatic clouds.

I live in a bucolic area, so I have access to a lot of natural beauty. You may live in a city or a desert or somewhere else, and that is fine. The sun doesn’t discriminate. Figure out a subject that resonates with you, and continue to photograph it at different times, in different seasons, and from different angles. Back in art school I heard this referred to as “thematic development.” Eventually your oeuvre will emerge.

I don’t often publish photos of people. Partly this is out of respect—I don’t particularly like for people to publish photos of me unless I’ve approved them. I do take a lot of portraits for my private collection. Mostly, it’s that I’m more interested in studying and photographing landscapes, which predated humans, and will probably outlive us.

If your situation is such that getting out into the wild isn’t practical, you could make an interesting series of photos of nothing but things lying around your basement or kitchen, or of origami sculptures you’ve made. Or clouds. Play around, and be creative.

Scout a good location

Pond in the woods

Once again, this relates to attentiveness. In the course of my daily travels I encounter dozens of spots that I look forward to photographing. Sometimes I’ll leave early or stay late, and allow myself a little extra time to explore. Other times, I’ll make a mental note to return to a particular spot at a different time. Obviously, if you’re scouting a particular scene and you see a double rainbow, a thick bank of fog, a moose, or a tree about to fall, drop whatever you are doing and take that picture now.

Oftentimes I see a scene and mull it over in my mind a while before I actually get out on foot (or bicycle) to capture it. How is the subject situated? Cows on a hillside might make a nice picture, but will they be back-lit later in the afternoon (i.e., with golden highlights across their backs)? If so, that might make for a better composition, so I’ll plan to come back later, or on another day. Similarly, a perfect mountain photo might be made even more perfect if taken on a day when the sky is filled with clouds.

Study interesting compositions

Barn interior

Photography can be a lot like juggling. There are so many things to think about and keep in balance in a single moment. It’s a little overwhelming at first. But keep practicing and it will become second nature. Think about exposure (the overall amount of light in a scene), contrast (the relationship between the light and the dark), saturation (the intensity of color), focus, texture, conceptual juxtaposition (e.g., natural vs. human-made), and compositional balance. This last one is subjective, but there are some rules of thumb that can help.

Mt. Tom. Rule of Thirds illustration.

One such rule is the so-called “Rule of thirds.” It’s one of those esoteric principles like the Fibonacci sequence (on which the golden rectangle is patterned) that occurs in nature, and resonates with us on a subconscious level. The idea is that you divide your picture plane (whether it be a rectangle or a square) into imaginary vertical and horizontal thirds. The four resulting points where the dividing lines intersect are where the most compositional excitement occurs. It’s a rule that can be broken, of course, but it does provide an anchor for locking in on a great composition. Sometimes I will move forward or backwards until some combination of elements in the viewfinder align with these points and lines.

If a composition has a horizon line, I usually try to keep it as horizontal as possible. If the angle is off by a little, an app might help to fix the photo after it’s taken.

Know your equipment

Icicles

Most of the time I use an iPhone 6 Plus, and a combination of a few apps. I have a “real” camera (an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II—crazy naming scheme) that I use when I want to control depth of field, experiment with different lenses, zoom in on subjects, or make a long night-time exposure. But the advantages of the iPhone camera are obvious: I can take a picture, do a little editing, and post it on the web without going through the rigamarole of getting to a computer, connecting cables, managing files, etc. The computer workflow is great for a certain kind of work, but it’s not my main workflow for everyday posting. The adage “the best camera is the one you have with you” is so true. Fortunately, the iPhone camera is a pretty good camera to “happen to have with me” most of the time.

If you don’t have a great camera, fear not. A lot can be done with whatever you’ve got. Even a homemade pinhole camera can make some amazing photos.

Edit

This might sound strange, but I usually take anywhere from three to around a dozen shots for every one that I publish. I like to try different angles and exposures until one seems “just right.” Needless to say, I turn off the feature in apps like Dropbox and Flickr that offer to upload all of the photos I take.

forestdale

My secret weapon is the Pro HDR X app. It takes two exposures in succession—one metered on the highlights and the other on the shadows—and overlays them. The catch is that to use this app successfully you have to stand shock-still for a second while the app takes the two exposures. With this app, I have no qualms about taking pictures looking directly into the sun.

I also like to use the Aviary app for general post-processing, like cropping, straightening the horizon, sharpening, blurring, color-balancing, etc.

I initially capture images in full color, but sometimes a composition will benefit from being converted to black and white. My favorite tool for doing this is the Vint B&W app. Of all the apps I’ve tried, this one offers the best tonal sensitivity. Its photos most closely approximate the look of real black and white film photos taken through an amber or red glass filter.

I’m not a big fan of using retro “filters” on most of my shots, but I make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Often the Pro HDR app will deliver exactly the look I want, right out of that app. If you happen to use a less-capable camera, then a filter might enhance your shots. Follow your gut.

Publish the work

Ludlow as seen from the bridge to Indian Orchard

Right now I like Instagram. At first I had mixed feelings about being limited to the square format, but I’ve grown to like it. The square is a great canvas in its own right, but it works particularly well on today’s mobile web, where you’re never sure how people will be viewing your photos (phone, tablet, or computer).

Often I mirror my Instagram pictures to Facebook, where they receive more feedback than they do on Instagram itself. Sure, Facebook can sometimes be a sea of unedited thought, sensationalism, commercialism, and privacy violation. But it’s possible for the cream to rise to the top and become a signal among the noise. A thoughtfully illustrated post by a real person with purity of intention will easily hold its own against a typical click-bait article. If I manage to add a bright spot to someone’s day with one of my pictures, then I will have succeeded. For some reason I’m not compelled to post every day or even every week. There needs to be some digestion time—I just post whenever it feels right.

Flickr is another service I use, but only half-heartedly these days. Back when I first joined (2007) the interface was a lot more functional and less cumbersome. But as of this writing, both the iPhone app and the desktop website feel a little heavy-handed in their emphasis of the slick user interface at the expense of easy access to the photos and community features. That slickness quickly falls apart as soon as you try to use your browser’s back button, or scroll to the bottom of a page. As Jeremy Keith succinctly put it, “Infinite scroll. A footer. Choose one.

But Instagram has a flow that feels light, simple, and unfettered, so that platform is where I’m publishing most of my photos now.

Video is another matter. All the aforementioned services—Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr—compress and degrade video quality to an extreme degree (if I can even get video to load on Flickr). Vimeo, on the other hand, does web video right. YouTube offers pretty good encoding quality, but there is little control over what shows up after your video plays. I’ll write more about video in the future.

I could of course post all of my photos here on my own website. But it wouldn’t be as much fun without the social features and the attentive audiences offered by one of the social networks.

Above all, enjoy the process of taking pictures and sharing them. Thanks for reading.

Bringing It All Back Home

In September of 2012 I moved out of the One Cottage Street art studio space that I had rented since 2004.

Big changes are afoot in my creative life: it is both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. In September of 2012 I moved out of the One Cottage Street art studio space that I had rented for eight years—since 2004. I’ve set up a new workspace in my apartment, and little by little I’m getting adjusted to it. A few different factors motivated my decision:

  1. I’m trying to save money for an eventual house (with an on-site studio or barn).
  2. I want to be closer (both proximally and metaphorically) to my work.
  3. It will be nice to have all of my tools under the same roof. No more running to the studio during a snowstorm to get my drill/driver for a home project, and vice versa.
  4. In the near-term, I’m interested in exploring the influence that a darker, cozier, cave of a space will have upon my work. I’m also a little intimidated by this, but I reckon that bravely facing this challenge will improve the artist, if not the art. I’ve worked in basements before. This is a step up, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I require a ton of quiet and solitude in order to focus my creative energy and recharge my emotional battery. In earlier phases of my life when such solitude was not easy to come by, having a remote studio apart from my living space was critical to my creative well-being. But now my apartment provides all of the solitude—and almost all of the space—that I need.

Over the years, I had produced satisfying bodies of work in my old One Cottage Street space. Not long after I’d set up shop there, I made a series of paintings entitled Place To Bee (envisioning a day in the life of a bee) that I exhibited at Northampton’s Woodstar Café (circa 2004). Eventually all of the paintings from that series found their way into private collections. Later, I made three big paintings for Northampton’s Bueno Y Sano restaurant. I made several more paintings that I installed in the Bueno Y Sano restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. And I produced a number of paintings that are now on semi-permanent display at Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Turning over a new leaf

No doubt about it, my day job has demanded a lot of my energy over the past dozen years. While I love the profession, and the connections and opportunities that the Web facilitates, web design is a different window onto the world than the one made of paint. While I have tried to keep up a regular painting practice, there have been phases when my interest has flagged, and I wasn’t making adequate time to go to the studio. During those times, the studio was a costly storage space (and hockey equipment drying room). I needed to scale back; to downsize; to reevaluate my priorities. And I needed to get rid of a lot of the junk that I had accumulated over the years—junk that was literally getting in my way, and figuratively weighing me down.

I’ve spent the summer preparing the way: getting rid of nonessentials, cataloging (and in some cases, destroying) old work, photographing, sketching out the new space, and moving stuff. Now the work is right here, and there are no obstacles—apart from the mental ones—to keep me from engaging with it. I have just the right amount of equipment, and enough paint and supplies to last a couple of years. I’m no longer hoarding wood scraps for the bases of sculptures I’ll never make.

I will grieve the loss of the my old One Cottage Street space, and will always remember it fondly. But I’m also excited about my new “lean and mean” home studio space and the new era it represents. I look forward to sharing the work that comes forth from this arrangement. It will be different. But I am thrilled about it. Stay tuned.

The Making of a Painting

A time-lapse movie documenting a year’s work

In the summer of 2010 I started to work on a large painting commissioned by the owner of Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) Several of my earlier paintings had already been on display at the café, so I knew that this new one needed to fit stylistically and thematically. I settled on the subject of a carnival at twilight, inspired by the traveling carnival that visits the Amherst Town Common every spring. The format is the largest stand-alone painting I’ve ever made: 5 feet by 8 feet (I’ve painted murals directly onto larger walls).

Never before had I so deliberately documented my process of making a painting, so I thought it would be an interesting side project to set up a video camera in my studio, film the process from start to finish, and put together a time-lapse movie showing how the painting developed. What you see here is about fourteen months’ worth of intermittent work (nights, weekends, and holidays) condensed into a two minute video. This is whittled down from tons of original footage. Highlights of the movie include a fair amount of non-painting “prep work” (a.k.a, “getting into character”), a significant composition change (around 00:53) in order to situate the painting on the Amherst Common, and the fact that I wear nutty outfits while I work. Most notably, I showed my sartorial support of the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972. I’d like to think I helped with that!

Update: as of November 2016, this painting moved to Bueno y Sano in Northampton, Massachusetts. Check it out, when you’re in the mood for a great burrito.

Update: on February 20th, 2017, I replaced the previously-silent video with one featuring original music composed and recorded by yours truly. I hope you enjoy the movie with its new soundtrack.

The finished painting: Carnival

Carnival painting by Trace Meek

Celebrating a Decade Online

My website—tracemeek.com—has been online since February 7, 2001.

Big Boy figurine

While reviewing and organizing some old digital files and accounts recently, I was both startled and overjoyed when I stumbled across a reminder that this website—tracemeek.com—had been online for over a decade. Since February 7, 2001, to be exact.

And then a twinge of sadness crept over me. Ten years seemed like an auspicious anniversary to have let slip by with such little fanfare. Where have I been? What have I been doing? How did I get this far? So I thought I would make amends by writing a little about this site’s history, and by recommitting to its future development. This also serves as the inaugural long-form essay in my second decade online, and coincides with the launch of a brand new website.

My formative years on the Web

Back in the late 1990s when I first went online, I was a recent college graduate and artist working in an art-related manufacturing industry. I saw the Web as an opportunity to promote my art work to a wider audience than I had previously known. Being a do-it-yourselfer, I set about learning how to build my own online art portfolio.

I quickly outgrew iTools (Apple’s WYSIWYG webpage creation tool at the time), yet the prospect of hand coding a site using a text editor (SimpleText) was still a little daunting. A coworker with friends in the web design industry told me that she had heard good things about Macromedia (now Adobe) Dreamweaver. So I bought the software and built my first real site by trial and error, reading everything I could about web design along the way, and loving every minute of it.

By today’s standards the code under the hood of my first site was disastrous, but I was online, Baby, and there was no looking back.

Rumblings of change

At some point along the way I began to see another opportunity emerge: a potential new career path. “If I can build a website for myself,” I thought, “I can build websites for other people, and make a better living doing something I enjoy.” The barriers to entry seemed relatively low: I wouldn’t need to go to the equivalent of law school or medical school in order to build a legitimate web design practice. I discovered websites like A List Apart (ALA) that published free (and priceless) articles that helped me to learn the art, the science, and the trade of web design. ALA was founded by Jeffrey Zeldman, a pioneer of publishing on the web and the preeminent champion of Web Standards.

In and of itself, this course of self study probably would have sufficed, but in order to gain more in-depth technical knowledge, build professional credibility, and academically affirm what I was already learning on my own, I entered and completed a Master CIW Designer professional certification program at STCC, worked an internship, scored a couple of freelance gigs, landed my first real design job, then the rest was history.

Consequently, at some point during the early aughts my site entered its adolescence (or was it extended childhood?) with an awkward multiple identity: fine art portfolio, aspiring mural painting business, and web design business, all lumped together under the label of Creative Services. My accountant assured me that it made sense on paper, but I struggled for several years with the breadth of the endeavor. While such diverse Creative Services may be an apt metaphor for my oeuvre—the spirit of my life’s work—it did not make for the most cogent business model, and ultimately proved to be unsustainable. So I contented myself with my role as an in-house web designer, which it turns out is not a bad place to be.

To blog or not to blog? That was the question.

Later I blogged in fits and starts (briefly in 2003, and again from 2007-2009), but ultimately scrapped those projects while I still had some water left in the proverbial well. Both my personal and professional life were in flux, so I choose a handful of priorities to receive the lion’s share of my attention. I needed to put writing on the back burner for a while, but I pledged to resume the practice when it fit more comfortably into my life. I wasn’t finding my public Voice then, and that was OK. It was the right battle, but at the wrong time.

Nor did I fully comprehended the scale of the Web—the fact that I wouldn’t be writing for just myself, friends, family, and business associates, but potentially for a worldwide audience. The responsibility of having such a global voice was intimidating. Would my small town musings seem petty on this big important world stage? How would I forge a connection? How would I keep trolls and stalkers at bay? How would I avoid being perceived as one? Already I’d had mixed success in attempting to befriend my heroes online. I had only experienced real-world rejection up to that point; would I be able to handle a whole new flood of potential rejection on a worldwide scale?

And then there were the technical considerations of blogging. At the time, I had not yet experienced the joys (and the heartaches) of wrangling with content management systems (CMSs), so I wasn’t quite ready to redevelop my site using one of these platforms. Needless to say, manually managing a growing body of content became laborious.

So I poured my energy into other creative pursuits. All the while I’ve been engaged in the Web and its people. But I’ve been listening, reading, commenting, and storing up energy more than I have been speaking up. It is possible that this may eventually change. Exposing our ideas to the judgment of others is a risk that we take living in this world. For all its ills, social media has given us a gift: the permission to express ourselves extemporaneously on the web.

Happy (social) medium?

Oh sure, I use the microblogging and third party sharing platforms—the Twitters, the Flickrs, the Facebooks, and what have you. These are hardly a substitute for one’s own personal/professional website, but with their built-in communities and their occasionally well-designed tools, they do enable one to develop a form of “web presence” without having to build a website from scratch.

On Twitter, I often feel like I’m hollering (or whispering) into the Abyss (à la the movie Garden State) rather than personally connecting. Still, it seems meaningful enough to be worthwhile. Like little mental calisthenics or musical scales, I can develop my voice without the more intense responsibility of gestating ideas into more fully-fledged essays. That’s not to say that there haven’t been golden moments on Twitter. I’ve been moved by certain tweets (1, 2, 3, 4). And there have been more than a few tweets that have helped me to solve a work problem or to better understand an issue relevant to my career, government, or society.

On Facebook it’s more personal. I put a lot more thought into the work that I share there, and the way I interact. On Facebook, people feel more familiar. But I still measure my words.

Long before I tiptoed into sharing via these relatively new sharing services, I contributed photos to the Mirror Project (1999-2005), a photographic community curated by the inimitable Heather Champ. And I lurked around the fringes of Fray—a magazine of true stories and original art edited by Derek Powazek. There, I interloped and read, but did not contribute; I dreamt of a day when I would be so bold as to comfortably and confidently express myself in this brave new medium. Little did I know that self-expression would rarely be comfortable.

But for all the wonders that these online communities have wrought, I have been longing for something more. A property of my own. A place to be. Preferably with a wraparound screened-in porch, crickets, and stars at night. Near a pond to skate on in the winter. Hopefully this will be it. Or an integral part of it.

And then there is mortality

One of the aspects of life that starts to hit home the longer you live is that more and more people you know and love die. Some leave by way of tragic accident, well before their rightful time. Others succumb to disease. Still others simply live to a ripe old age and follow the rules of DNA to their peaceful repose. As profound and sad as the loss of these significant individuals is, it is no more nor any less than an inevitable part of life—the life that we are all a part of and will ultimately manifest in our own way, in our own time.

So part of the impetus here may be to leave a bit of a legacy. If I can share something that teaches or enlightens someone (including myself) or brings a smile or a laugh or a tear, then I will have succeeded, and the building of this site will have been worth the effort. Otherwise, I’ll just have all of these ideas swimming around in my head—not doing anyone any good—until that great day of reckoning.

But to keep things in perspective, this website will be impermanent as well. At some point the delivery formats may change, the servers may crash, I will stop breathing and will consequently stop paying my web hosting bill, and this site will shut down. And that will be OK. Then again, it is possible that at some point there will be a sort of a massive free archiving system (Google?) that will prolong the inevitable erasure for a hundred or a thousand years. More likely, this will all go the way of Yahoo! Geocities and the eight-track tape. Sometimes, in spite of our noblest efforts, things stop working and we just have to let go.

But I am not ready to let go just yet

Bringing this full-circle, my intention with this website re-dedication is simple. Be myself. Welcome you. Hopefully entertain. Get some of these ideas out of my head and onto the digital paper. My inner idealistic 20-something still wants to save the world through his art, but a more seasoned me has begun to accept that more modest goals may illuminate more sustainable paths. And I’ve grown to feel that simplicity and happiness are noble goals in and of themselves. I will end this essay with one of my favorite quotes, which is a nice touchstone for any endeavor, but particularly for the creative efforts that I publish to this website:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

—Gil Bailie