Thursday, August 29, 2013

Books: Being True to Oneself as an Artist

I was going to write about my plans for sabbatical this week, but then I was bouncing around the internet and happened to discover this lovely cartoon homage (the artist's website is Zen Pencils but I found the cartoon on Slate) based on a Bill Watterson graduation speech at Kenyon College (I totally visited Kenyon in high school because Bill Watterson went there--but then we crashed the car and I ended up at a small college in Iowa instead of Ohio.)

Finding the Zen Pencils cartoon is serendipitous; I've actually been thinking about Bill Watterson lately. Earlier this summer I read two books that, in my mind, at least, are natural partners with Watterson's book, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and Art Speigelman's MetaMaus both reminded me of Watterson's book.

All three books offer fascinating views of artists doing their thing, their way, against the protests, concerns or confusion of critics and friends. And all three artists succeeded in doing their thing brilliantly because they ignored the outside voices and followed the direction of their own inner artist's voice.

I am only artificially familiar with Steve Martin's stand-up comedy, since my experience of his work has always been via Saturday Night Live reruns and movies. I'm also less familiar with the performing arts medium of comedy than I am with the visual arts medium of comics.  I chose to download Born Standing Up more or less at random. However, I found much more direct connection to the world of a working artist in this book than in Martin's An Object of Beauty, which is actually a novel set in and about the art world.

I was expecting a silly, funny book of jokes, I guess, but Born Standing Up surprised me by focusing seriously (and not-so-seriously) on the development of the author's own artistic voice as a comedian. In the autobiographical book, which begins before Martin commences his professional comedy work and continues until he steps away from stand-up, Martin illustrates the process of conceiving of, developing and sustaining an artist vision. He shows and discusses the fear, hard work, confusion, mistakes, successes and frustrations that are part of the process. I was continually making connections between my own experience as an artist and that of the author, though our media and content choices are vastly divergent. It's a funny book and I recommend it in general, but I highly recommend it for my artist friends and students who might see a connection to their own lives and expression.

I make the connection between Born Standing Up and the Zen Pencils / Watterson quote cartoon because I see both as addressing the fundamental question of how and why we might choose to live a life of art, or expression, or whatever, rather than follow the easier route of a more proscribed life and work that is acceptable and expected beforehand.

MetaMaus is subtitled A Look Inside A Modern Classic, Maus, so obviously one would expect some familiarity with the original. I'm not sure how old I was when I first read Maus, but I was old enough to have a general familiarity with the holocaust. Either because of my age or the age of the book when I read it (the first volume was published in 1986, the second in 1991) I wasn't particularly tuned in to the fact that a comic book featuring mice might have been a controversial medium in which to tell "A Survivor's Story." I do, however, remember being amazed at how the story was told. I remember being impressed with both the use of the comic's text and imagery as a medium, but also with the multi-layered storytelling.

Reading MetaMaus all these years later I was interested to learn how controversial some of his choices were. In MetaMaus, Spiegelman explains his visual and conceptual choices he made in building Maus clearly as artistic decisions that were central to the format, flow and content of the work. I'm not sure if these choices were entirely conscious at the time, but its clear that the Speigelman of MetaMaus has taken time to consider and reflect on his art and his intent.

MetaMaus, like Born Standing Up, is a book about being an artist, making hard choices, sticking to your idea even when its hard, even when years have gone by, even when the world has changed and even when other people don't "get it." Spiegelman's is a more subdued (though still beautiful and visually intriguing) book than Martin's, but the message for an artist reader is the same, the struggle and the necessity of doing things differently than the expectation is what makes art worthwhile.

All the time I was reading these two books, I kept thinking about the first book I remember reading that really talked to me about what it meant to be a professional artist. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is full of reprints of wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, but what I really enjoyed reading and rereading was the commentary by the author. Watterson, in the book, discusses his visual choices, inspiration and intent in creating the comic strips. He also discusses some of the changing specifications of cartoons in newspapers and syndication (back before we had any conceptions of cartoons on the internet) and goes into his decision to cease writing the Calvin and Hobbes weekly comic strip.

I must have read this book (and reread it) when I was 15 or 16, roughly the same time I was realizing that I could conceivably "do art" for a living. I remember the discovery that I could be an artist, roughly around sophomore year, as revelatory--since I was surrounded by teachers and had started to assume that I had to be a teacher (yeah, yeah, I know I still ended up as a teacher, but I split time as an artist, too). Watterson's commentary helped me get an early insider's view of what it might mean to be an artist and what it might mean to stick to one's own vision when being pushed, very hard, to change or compromise the way in which that art was made.

I don't mean to get too sentimental here, but The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is a beautiful book and it was meaningful to me. The others are simply well done, interesting books about being true to one's self and expressing something new and different. I recommend all you artists (and everyone else) go read one or more of these books. Also, if you haven't read Maus yet, get on that.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Eye Candy: Yellowstone

Last week I replaced my studio time with a trip to Yellowstone. I will resist sharing all 300 photos, but the place was so pretty I need to share some. If you've been to Yellowstone, sorry if I confuse the names of things. If you haven't I hope this post isn't too dull. 

Mammoth Hot Springs
I especially liked the sorts of structures and formations that are formed at Mammoth Hot Springs. This was our first stop on our trip around the park. I think it was the most beautiful and visually interesting single spot we visited.
Minerva Terrace (possibly)

neat shapes

neat curves juxtaposed with stalactites

or this might be Minerva Terrace

neat texture

spines? I'd like to read about why the different shapes happen
bright chartreuse
we thought we'd read about this guy falling in eventually

terrace levels

I'm pretty sure our next stop was Norris. The heat of the sun and the hot springs makes one a little less focused than one might be. We walked on a lot of boardwalks and saw a lot of hot springs.

check out that hot dry shadeless expanse (crossed by a boardwalk)
perfect setting for an apocalypse movie

green and orange

I like the yellow hole with the spiny burnt trees guarding it

Lamar Valley
On our way out of the park we saw lots of Bison. One guy was sitting right next to the road chewing his cud and soaking up the attention of the Yellowstone paparazzi.

publicity buffalo

Yellowstone Lake
The next day we drove through one of the wildfires and stopped at Yellowstone Lake. The pelicans were performing synchronized movements in a huddle. I assume they were either fishing or performing a type of water ballet. Later when I asked the Ranger why they bobbed into the water together like this, she said they don't. Apparently I photographed animatronic pelicans.

animatronic pelicans preparing for a dive


jazz wings

did I mention the fire?

Old Faithful
We ended up at Old Faithful earlier than expected because of the fire. We asked if there were any cancellations and lucked into a cabin for the night (instead of camping in the Tetons). The best part of staying at Old Faithful was the walk on the boardwalks behind the eponymous geyser at sunset. These were my favorite thermal features, but possibly that's because we had plenty of time, no crowds and it wasn't hot.

we got to see this guy erupt 3 times during our stay

the boardwalk at sunset: highly recommended

burping, bubbling, chugging, wheezing holes everywhere

Castle Geyser, my favorite (though I didn't get up to watch it erupt between 4 and 6am)
this guy filled just to the edge with boiling water then settled without seeming to overflow

boiling at the edge

orange bacterial "lily pads"

don't you love those soft organic shapes at the edges

Castle Geyser as the sun sets

this splashy guy jumped and popped and sprayed us on an off for 15 minutes while we waited

blue, orange, green, yellow, red, pink

full moon

playing with tree reflection in the water

En Route to Madison
Our last day in Yellowstone we stopped a few times on our way from Old Faithful to West Yellowstone, though I'm not sure exactly where. We saw some beautiful thermal features and the colors were especially impressive. Unfortunately the entire the population of Montana, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming were lined up on the boardwalk that day. Several of them, I believe, attempted to push me into the water. I saw a kid drop her glasses off the boardwalk and another drop her hat. Later we counted at least 6 hats and a jacket at the edge of a large, deep spring. I wonder if the rangers have a special tool for removing them. At Kids' Castle in Yakima staff uses a long stick wrapped with backwards duct-tape to retrieve balloons from the ceiling. I imagine a similar tool could retrieve hats.

seriously, the colors!

a river; not a hot spring

Yellowstone Under Canvas
On our last night we camped outside the park in what my husband called a "tent city." I found the cot and set of sleeping bags quite cosy and enjoyed a wonderful night's sleep. I would highly recommend it. However my husband ended up sleeping in the car, so he might not. If you go, don't drive through the electric fence gate like it says (it will scratch your car). Instead get out and open the gate by holding the tennis balls, don't worry, they didn't electrocute us.

really quite peaceful and pretty, and you can watch the fish in the river while you drink your hot cocoa for breakfast