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 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 knew. 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!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Visit to an Artist's Studio: Trevor Lillistone


I visited ceramic artist Trevor Lillistone's studio in Bath Spa, UK, last November. It's in a building made from the butter-coloured stone that you see all over this beautiful city, and you get to Trevor's studio by crossing cobbled courtyards and winding along corridors past other artists' studios.

He's been making ceramics for about twenty years, and only devoted himself to it full time relatively recently. He makes tableware and decorative ware in fired stoneware, with glazes that are classically smooth or deliciously improvised. They are all lovely to look at, but the ones I respond to most are the anagma ware pieces, which have that crackle-glaze texture in colours such as orange and blue.



During our visit, he talked about the people who had influenced him, like Lucy Rie, and the length of time it takes to get things right, and how he now holds classes in his studio.


I took a five week class in hand building with stoneware about four years ago, from which I learned two things: working with clay is difficult to master, but could get addictive very quickly; and ceramic artists have the great satisfaction of making something real and tangible. I'm sure an artist like Trevor Lillistone has his bad moments and his frustrations, but looking around his studio, they seemed like they might be few and far between.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Josh Garber Goes Out on a Limb

"in their clothes", branches, shrink wrap, tape, 12' x 18' x 14', 2015
Oak Park, famous as the home of the young Ernest Hemingway and the slightly less young Frank Lloyd Wright, is a separate township about ten miles due west of downtown Chicago, though it merges almost seamlessly with the city in a way that makes you feel you’re visiting a leafy Chicago neighborhood. Speaking of leafy, Josh Garber’s installation at Terrain, Oak Park, consists of tree branches and limbs connected by shrink wrap and tape that clamber up off the ground and claw spikily at the air, denuded of foliage but seemingly revivified into a new stage of growth.

Titled “in their clothes,” the sculpture is 12 feet x 18 feet x 14 feet, and is placed like all of the exhibitions at Terrain on the streetside lawn between two houses, opposite a local school and open to all weather which on the day I visited was warm, but not enough to melt the piles of surrounding snow. The whiteness of the snow provided a blank backdrop that accidentally emphasized the outlines of the piece, and focused the eye on the way the shapes struggled to achieve an airborne lightness. The artist spoke about hunting for trees on railway embankments and in the streets around his studio, of how he wanted to avoid the obvious interpretation of “nature strangled by plastic refuse,” and how he was more inspired by the Japanese practice of repairing damaged trees by binding them with plastic cord ties, like a sling for a person’s damaged arm. 
Is the piece also, as Garber put it, a precursor of a time when there will be creatures, humans possibly, that are a combination of organic and artificial material like plastics? That statement seemed as opaque as the title of the piece (whose clothes, exactly?). Looked at from the streetside, the piece starts to look like an animal, its long neck rearing up into the sky. Interpretations are fluid and open with most works of art, of course, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have been reminded of some words by Robert Frost, from a poem called  The Sound of Trees:
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Etching with old copper plates

Since I merged two studios into one last year, I've gradually been going through crates of etched steel and copper plates that I've amassed over the years, unwrapping them from their protective layers, cleaning the rust-proof gel off them, and seeing if any of them can be reused. (When I first started to learn intaglio processes in the 90s, large sized copper plates could be had for about $10 each. Now they cost more than $50, because of the rapacious demand of the smartphone industry.)

The plate in the photo above is 12" x 14". I covered it with an acrylic resist called Z*Acryl, and drew the image with a drypoint needle. As I was drawing, I noticed that the line wasn't clean and straight, but slightly fuzzy. When I etched the plate in a tray of ferric chloride, I could tell that the lines were not going to be narrow and thin, which holds the ink in a more uniform way. My first proof of the plate after I'd cleaned off the resist, inked it, and printed it, looked like this:

Those white spots you can see, that seem to sit on top of the drawing, are caused by the etched lines being a little wider than they should, so that the ink spreads under the pressure of the press and fails to register a true, uniformly black impression. Thanks to many years of experience, I was able to make several adjustments and try again. I inked the plate, wiped it less than the first time, increased the pressure of the press, and padded the plate with lots more paper on top so that it would withstand the extra pressure. The next print looked like this:

Not bad. But the way the plate etched can be traced back to the acrylic resist (a problem that I've documented several times in the past). If I use the same resist again, I'll probably shorten the etching time, and add drypoint to beef up the drawing later.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Weekend of Good Art

From last Thursday through yesterday, Sunday, I had a weekend that was filled with lots of good art, and a feeling of advancing significantly with my own work. The fact that the clocks went forward in the USA and that the temperatures rose after a horrible February helped, too.

First was the A+D gallery, for a group show called Scaped that included an artist whose work I know, and whom I am acquainted with personally: Neha Vedpathak. I met her via the Paul Klein art advisory seminars, and her stunning work is in good company in this show organized by curator MK Meador. Neha is an artist who is clearly going somewhere big, so make note of her name now.



Next, on Saturday, I had a great studio visit with curator Teresa Silva, who is writing a catalogue essay for my upcoming show at Corner. It's not just that she's a great person to talk to: she says things that reflect your work back to you in a way that makes you subtly improve it. 

On Sunday, I met someone who can assemble little motors that will make the models you see in the following photo move in a diorama I'm creating for my Corner show:


Then later that same afternoon, Patty and I finally made it to an opening at Terrain, an outdoor project space that the phenomenal Sabina Ott has been operating from her home in Oak Park for nearly four years. The piece on display was by another friend and studio mate, Josh Garber:


I'm not saying much in detail about this piece or the A+D gallery show, as I am working on reviews for each one for Hyperallergic (the world's greatest online art magazine). Suffice to say it was a good way to end the weekend on a high note of brilliant creative energy.

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