Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Fiesta of Giovanni's Tender Buttons, Revisited


In January 2015, I taught a class in Paris which took as its source texts the writings of the American expatriate writers of the early to mid-twentieth century. In chronological order, they were:

Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, In Our Time, & A Moveable Feast (written and published towards the end of his life, but the events take place in the 1920s).
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babylon Revisited
James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room
David Sedaris, various essays about his Parisian experiences.

In preparing for the class, I read Stein and Baldwin for the first time, though of the two, I have to say I am only ashamed that I left it so long to get acquainted with Baldwin's writing. My experience of reading and talking about Stein is as someone who recognizes her as an important literary landmark for her experiments with language, but who leaves me cold in terms of an emotional response. In class, by the way, I am completely professional and leave my personal opinion of the quality of her writing out of it. Also, not all of Stein is as mystifying and dull as Tender Buttons. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is written in a fairly straightforward way, and is full of great anecdotes about the great people she knew, mixed with, supported, and of course lived with in Paris from 1905 onwards.

Baldwin, though, wrote a superb book in Giovanni's Room. Though it centres on a homosexual affair in a seedy underworld, certain of the cadences in the writing remind me of Henry James, of all people, in the way that the voice seems to circle around on its own reactions and thoughts even as the narrator is recounting dramatic events in the middle of a scene:




The Sun Also Rises has been one of my favourite books since I first read it in my teens. I only started to read more of his work just a few years ago,filling in a blank spot in my reading life that I can't explain why I let stand for so long. It was a great experience to spend time in Paris walking in Hemingway's footsteps and visiting the streets and haunts that he depicts in A Moveable Feast. In the class, going deep into his description of the cafe on the Place des Contrescarpes led to a lots of good writing from the students:


The main theme of the class was to sit with these young American writers and ask them to consider their own selves, and their own writing, both as they responded to Paris as a beautiful city but also a foreign one, and how this related to their self and writing back home in the USA. For in doing that, they tread on the pathways of those great expatriate writers, who needed to leave their home country in order to discover what made them American.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Blogging about Teaching Blogging

This is the photo that I always project before the class.
Nine days ago I taught two classes about the mechanics and craft of blogging to twelve adults at the Interlochen College of Creative Arts. The first class, which I've taught several times before, was a day long session exploring the ins and outs of creating a blog, playing with the layout and template, establishing a preliminary design, using Google's Blogger app. The second class was a new one called Crafting Great Content, in which I took my years of blogging and put them together with the creative writing and process classes that I have taught at Columbia College and elsewhere. I hope the result was satisfying to the participants. I think that the combination of direct advice and the sort of generative, in-class writing that I've learned to use at Columbia led them to explore some new ways of writing in a blog. I will be very interested in getting feedback from their evaluations, so that I can tweak the class format if necessary.

One person wrote a hilarious anecdote that she said she's been telling for years, and decided for the first time to write about during the class. She sent me a link to her blog, and here is a link to the blog post that resulted from the in-class writing: Be careful when you tell that story.

Here is another good use of the short blog post, ending with a question, by someone else who took the class: Winter won't break me.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Short movie from Interlochen

While teaching a monoprint class for adults at Interlochen a few days ago, I wandered around the studio room taking short videos on my S5 of participants as they worked. Then I used a feature of the camera and cloud photo storage app in the latest version of Android to knock out this little movie. Total time from filming until playing it back on YouTube: 15 minutes.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Printing like a painter at Interlochen

Today was my third day of teaching in the adult summer classes at Interlochen, and the first day of my monoprinting class. It's the second or third time I've taught this class here, and as usual it doesn't take long for the beauty and simplicity of monoprinting to take hold of the participants and lead to some very fine results.


We started the day with a talk about the history of monoprint, illustrated by projecting images from my laptop. Then we got into contact monoprints, which this class liked so much that it took us up to 2 pm until we changed techniques.

For the rest of the session, I helped the students make prints by painting with the inks using brushes on the monoprint plates, with thick and thin ink, then taking prints from the plate with dry paper and damp paper, using hand pressure and using the printing press. Everyone got at least one fine looking print out of the day:





It's hard work, printmaking. Not like working in a factory, of course, but still, you spend a lot of time on your feet, you're using your arms and shoulders to roll a printing press, so that everyone is pretty tired by about 4.30 pm. Come to think of it, yes, it's EXACTLY like working in a quarry or a coal mine, and damn anyone who says otherwise.

And when you clock off at the end of a shift, you get a lovely frame-able print out of it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

John Ruskin in the Movies


John Ruskin wrote the book Praeterita, from which I took the title for this blog when I started it at the end of 2009. Ruskin was one of the pre-eminent writers in England in the second half of the nineteenth century, equivalent to ... well, it's hard to think of an equivalent in today's culture. It would have to be someone of extreme erudition and massive, uncompromising intellectuality, such as one only finds perhaps in the narrow world of academia now. It would also have to be equally someone who was as famous as, say, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. Those worlds diverged some time in the last century, so it's inconceivable that such a person could exist nowadays who combined fame and elitism to that extent. But you have to imagine that sort of combination to get a feeling of how Ruskin was regarded in his time.

And how times have changed. He is so little read now, that it's almost comical to imagine him being even a minor subject of a movie. And yet, when I watched Mike Leigh's film Mr Turner, which is mainly precoccupied with the English painter JMW Turner, there is Ruskin in a few scenes, in a priceless cameo performance by Joshua McGuire. McGuire plays Ruskin as a pushy fop who relishes the sound of his own voice, with a childish desire to impress that makes him seem like the eternally precocious child, always desperate to impress a roomful of adults even after he himself has grown up. A writer in the The Guardian newspaper takes umbrage with this portrayal, but I found it very amusing. There's no reason to believe that Timothy Spall as Turner was any more accurate in portraying the great painter. I thought it was at least remarkable that John Ruskin got into any film at all, given the almost wilfully exclusionary tone of his writing sometimes, as he goes about explaining the great masterworks of European architecture for the edification of the emerging English middle classes while at the same time complaining that they will never understand their true majesty no matter how hard he tries.

What's my point here?

Film is film. Words are words. Film can include words, but the succession of images in time is what gives them meaning. Ruskin's words are still in print and can be found by those that can find a use for them. The portrayal of Ruskin in this recent movie is a caricature, but I'm all for it if it causes people to pick up one of his books and rediscover his delightful combination of discernment and snobbery.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When you discover someone you've known for 7 years is friends with Brad Pitt

You know that moment when you've been acquainted with someone for a long time, and they suddenly reveal that they're friends with one of the most famous people on the planet?

It just happened to me.


Since 2007, I've worked for a few days' a week in the offices of a magazine published by a major charitable organization. This organization is of sufficient size that its central headquarters in Chicago has a staff of about 100, including an IT department and website manager. The desk that I use when I am in the office is close to the office of a chap called Fred, who is the web guru for the organization--a full time job, believe you me. He's a very warm and friendly man, and we always say "Good morning" to each other and chat occasionally at the office functions I'm invited to.

A few weeks ago, I overheard Fred talking to another person about a screenplay he had written. Fred is actually so modest that it was the other person doing most of the talking and eliciting the following amazing information: Fred had written a screenplay about a veteran of the recent US wars, submitted it to an online competition, the screenplay leaped out of the pile and got produced, Brad Pitt got involved as one of the producers, and it is being shown as an HBO special event on May 29th!

Ok, so maybe Fred and Brad are not actually friends, as such, in any meaningful sense of the word. But, all the same: Bloody Hell! If this had happened to me, I doubt I would have kept as quiet about it as our man Fred. But that's a sign of what a decent and modest chap he is.

The movie is called Nightingale, and its star is David Oyewolo, who was in the recent and acclaimed movie Selma. If you have HBO, you should watch this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pictures from a recent class

My wife Patty and I recently taught another class at the Shake Rag Alley center for the arts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The class was called The Artful Journal, and we spent a couple of days with the participants, making artist's books, writing, drawing outside in the beautiful gardens that surround the old buildings. Here are some examples of the work that was created:




Truth be told, everyone who was there was so talented that it was difficult to think of how to teach them anything new. But I think it's always good for one's creative process to be somewhere away from one's normal routine, and to make things together in a spirit of community, even if some of the things one does are maybe more familiar than others. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

US states that I've visited, with rankings



I saw something in the news recently, can't remember what, that got me thinking about how many states I've visited in the United States since I moved here in 2002. My rule has always been to define "visit" as "spending at least one night." So driving through a state on the way to somewhere else doesn't count, though that would increase the number a little. I was lucky enough to be married to a person who did travel writing for a long time, so I got to 20 states in fewer than five years. Anyway, here is the complete list, together with some opinions about each state:

Alabama: nice beaches on the Gulf shore, nice seafood, dodgy people.

Arizona: The Good: Grand Canyon and Route 66 from east to west, Petrified Forest, the Indian monuments, Tucson at the southern end is incredible; The Bad: the hellhole that is Phoenix.

California: most visited state for me, from San Diego all the way up to Healdsburg, many of the national parks, then the deserts. Only positive experiences of California. I mean, come on, it has San Francisco, for god's sake.

Colorado: saw a good Barcelona-Real Madrid game in a bar in Denver. The art museum was quite good, too.

Connecticut: Patty did a reading there, we stayed with one of her cousins. There were chickens living in a specially-constructed coop on their property. Not sure if that's typical of Connecticut as a whole.

Florida: in the abstract, Florida is a politically nasty place full of insane people. But I've been there many times now, from the top all the way down to Key West, and always enjoyed my visits. But it does seem that you only have to lightly scratch the surface to reveal the insanity.

Georgia: Savannah was good, so was the shoreline. Had to drive there to and from Atlanta, making me realise the state is much bigger than I thought it was.

Illinois: I live in Chicago, but Patty and I owned a house in northwest Illinois for 10 years, which deserves its own separate blog post. Had an exhibition in Springfield which was good, stayed at a guesthouse there which was terrible. We toured southern Illinois for a travel article once, and were gobsmacked that people in Chicago could inhabit the same state as these knuckle dragging yokels. Thank God for Chicago, one of the best of all US cities.

Indiana: good art museum in Indianapolis, but generally a terrible place with terrible people.

Iowa: went to Iowa City once, that was fun. Also, the house we owned was just a few miles from the Mississippi River, hence Iowa, and we would go just over the state line quite often to a funky little pizza place in Sabula (which is in fact a small island in a lagoon on the Iowa side of the border).

Kentucky: been there three or four times, always for travel articles. The mountains in the east are nice, but the state as a whole, with its crappy food, dry counties, suspicious-of-outsiders people, is at the top of my list of places I hope I never go to again.

Louisiana: New Orleans, 2002, before Katrina. Good place.

Maine: One of Patty's brothers lives there, she taught at a writer's conference there many times, we drove from Chicago to northern Maine a few times. Gorgeous state.

Maryland: Baltimore Art Museum. The seafood at the port restaurants.

Masachussetts: been to Boston three times, also drove across the western part of the state once in summer. Boston is a terrific place.

Michigan: Interlochen and the western port towns, Good. Politics, again, Bad.

Minnesota: went to Minneapolis once. It was very cold.

Nevada: only drove in and out of Las Vegas. Been to some of the desert areas on either side. You can see why the military uses it for target practice.

New Jersey: technically I stayed here because we were in a Newark hotel room for three nights, but every morning we could descend to a railway platform below the hotel and spend the days in Manhattan, returning straight to our hotel room at night. So I haven't actually seen any of New Jersey yet.

New Mexico: love it, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, Taos, and the greener parts of the north. We seriously considered buying a vacation cabin on the plateau outside Taos back in 2002.

New York: been to Manhattan many times, of course, but also stayed in the central and northern parts of upstate, too. Seems to be a similar Chicago-southern Illinois contrast at times.

North Carolina: went to Raleigh-Durham for a travel article. Great food. Also the place where the local CVB person, at dinner with us, referred to black people as "African-Americans or whatever these people are calling themselves these days."

Ohio: mostly stayed at motels during long journeys on the way to somewhere else. Spent some time in Cinncinatti, though, and it was quite pleasant.

Pennsylvania: those nutty Amish!

Rhode Island: overall not a bad place to visit, but my experience will forever be tarnished by the fact that it was there that I damaged my back, in 2009, and injury that still bothers me to this day.

South Dakota: the Badlands, Mount Rushmore Rapid City, Indian language spoken on the local public radio station, beautiful sort of brassy gleaming light on the prairie grasses at dusk.

Tennessee: nice food, nice towns, but filled with annoying southerners.

Texas: see remarks on other southern states.

Utah: wow, what a landscape. Mormons, though.

Vermont: the state where I met the love of my life. Beautiful in the north, progressively less so as you go downstate towards Brattleboro, which is an armpit of a town. I spent weeks walking around the hills of northern Vermont during a two month artist's residency in 2000, giving me some indelible memories.

Virginia: see Tennessee.

Washington State: all I remember is the rain in Seattle, and a nice ferry trip to that island in the sound that everyone talks about.

Wisconsin: what happened to Wisconsin? Nice towns, Door County up in the north is sweet, generally very nice people. Then they lurch to the right wing and elect Scott Walker. Twice.

Total: 33 states. Places I'd still like to go: Montana. Wyoming. Idaho. Oregon. Hawaii. Maybe Charleston, South Carolina. Maybe Alaska, though I'm generally not into the whole "wild nature" thing.

Places I probably won't visit because they sound too boring: Delaware. North Dakota. Nebraska.

Places I intend to avoid at all costs: Arkansas. Mississippi. Oklahoma. Missouri. West Virginia. Kansas.

And did I say I hate Kentucky? I did. But I'll say it again anyway: I hate Kentucky!

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