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.

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