Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sculptural Diversity at Mel Schettl's

Daughter Number Three drove to Mel Schettl's Freight Sales
at Butte des Morts (Hill of the Dead), near Oshgosh, Wisconsin. She sent out a web post with the photos here, of some of the wild things available at Mel's. You'll find this description at RoadsideAmerica.com:

Mel Schettl opened his home improvement business here in 1973. The property that surrounds the building is littered with hundreds of larger-than-life statues: a moose, a bull, a bulldog; King Kong, Bugs Bunny; dinosaurs, mythological creatures; and weird metal sculptures like a robot stegosaurus and a shark on wheels.

"It's something that's just kinda grown," says Mel. "We don't build the stuff. We consign with different artists to build it for us -- fiberglass, steel, glass -- over 200 sculptures so far. Anything to get attention, I guess."

Visitors recommend stopping by at night to better appreciate the creepiness of the place. Says Mel: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Mel's is an "out-of-mall experience," where you can purchase everything from that large metal dino to close-out kitchen cabinets, a giant fiberglass statue of Michael Jordan, cherry pickers, trailers, military practice bombs – sort of an a(ctual)-bay for random acts of imagination, in two locations. There are Cowboy Days and flea markets, too: it's a genuine amusement park, without the entrance fee. The branding is a little quirky: does the name – Mel Schettl Sales, or Mel Schettl Freight Service – really communicate what the heck this is? Hell, it's Mel!

Which came first, Mel Schettl (from a shtetl?), or kitschy Wisconsin? Is this the origin of those sculptural oddities you see along Interstate 90 around the Wisconsin Dells: the giant moose, the jumbo carp, the gargantuan chunks of fiberglass cheese? And where do people go to learn how to make this stuff? There's a Mel's Flickr stream, too.

I find it interesting that Mel doesn't just buy stuff: he actually commissions and consigns those sculptures, for sale or rent: here's an outlet, perhaps, for out-of-work set designers. He calls his business a "fiberglass petting zoo" but specifies that it's actually a home improvement center. Not a minimalist, Mel, or immaculate gallery owner. If you are in the market for kitchen fixtures, a trip to Mel's would be so much more interesting than Menards. Thanks for the Americana off-road tour to this hill of ghosts and phantasmagoria, DN3!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Freeman Dyson: Portrait of the Scientist as Civil Heretic

Yesterday's theme of the neighbor as Other, whether as foreigner or as the abject and rejected part of oneself – that which is prohibited and put out of view – is pervasive. It is something we encounter every day in our lives, so many times that we think almost nothing of it. It is all over the daily news (if we get the news and don't self-select it out): the suburban riots in France in 2005, issues of immigration, the war in Gaza over a contested strip of land. How do we appease the Other, give it space, draw the boundaries of prohibition?

The other Other theme in Frankenstein is that of the despised creation: the work of science or art that we feel compelled to make, despite unforeseen consequences that make us later regret dedication to it. The scientist Freeman Dyson, in an interview for the 1980 documentary "The Day After Trinity," referred to this when talking about nuclear weapons: “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands. To release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles, I would say, this what you might call ‘technical arrogance’ that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”

There was a fascinating profile of Dyson, "The Civil Heretic," in yesterday's New York Times Sunday magazine, written by contributing writer Nicholas Dawidoff. The print version included an image unavailable on the web, of drawings and writings made by Dyson as a child. Dyson's over-the-fence neighbor at Princeton used to be Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.

Looking at the NYT site now, I see that this was yesterday's most e-mailed article, asking the question: "How did Freeman Dyson, the world-renowned scientist and public intellectual, wind up opposing those who care most about global warming?" (Here is a link to an earlier piece on Dyson and carbon-eating trees, over at Boing Boing.) It had a broader reach than news about a vast spy system looting computers in 103 countries, a piece about the rapid growth of Facebook, or an essay about managing the queue at Netflix. It was more popular (understandably so) than a piece about the worst phone company in the world, Verizon, where I am an unhappy customer. (I can't wait to get out of Verizon prison: but that is another story.) There was a piece about Skype, too, as well as one about forging a link to the farmer who grows your food.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mary Shelley Meets The Happy Sunshine Family

The video by Ruby and Arielle of the The Happy Sunshine Family echoes Mary Shelley's story of the monster, who just wants to "be with his family."

Midway into this remarkable tale, the monster meets his creator, his twin, Victor Frankenstein. They are on the sublime summit of Montanvert, at the edge of a tremendous, ever-moving glacier, where the abhorred creation begs to tell his story: "Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale: when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you judge that I deserve."

Shelley's monster tells his story to his "father-creator," revealing his anguish, anxiety, and self-loathing. (The same self-loathing Victor describes throughout the book when despairing over his compulsion to create the monster in the first place.) He also reveals his poignant desire to be accepted, protected, and loved.

In the middle, most interesting section of Frankenstein, Shelley lays bare the interior life of the monster. He fully describes what it is like to be oppressed, excommunicated, judged on the basis of his appearance, and instantly, physically abhorred by human society.

Despite his own fear and revulsion on seeing his own image, he hides in a hovel attached to the cottage of several humans: a blind, kind father, and brother and sister Felix and Agatha. The monster painstakingly pieces together their story, feeling misery on their behalf. He comes to love them, calls them his Protectors, and embarks on a regime of dedicated self-improvement in hopes of becoming more fully assimilated and human.

First, he must teach himself to speak their language, listening through a chink in the hovel wall as Felix reads to his Arabian love, Safie, from Volney's Ruin of Empires. (There is a fascinating subplot involving the perils of marriage across European and Turkish cultural prohibitions.) Then he teaches himself to read from a parcel of remarkably relevant books found along the road – Milton's Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther. He enjoys the happiest hours of his life while engaged in self-study hidden on the just other side of the living room inhabited by the unsuspecting family. He sometimes leaves them gifts of food or performs helpful tasks, clearing their pathway of snow or supplying them with fuel from the forest.

The monster hopes to eventually reveal himself to his Protectors and win their trust and affection. He is able to do so, finally, in an interview with the blind father, but when the others come home they respond with instanteous horror. Felix strikes him "with supernatural force," and so the monster quits the cottage, despairing of ever winning a welcome entry to the home of his neighbors. When they abandon the cottage, in fear, he burns it down.

Ruby and Arielle have captured the frame of this (yes, disturbing) story in their video. The Playmobil® characters wear perpetually serene Happy Sunshine smiles – even the rejected twin, who "triumphs" in the end by initiating the self-destruction of his family. It's an arresting tale, and no moral is imposed. It taps into an archetypal theme: that of loving (or fearing) your neighbor as both yourself and Other. The twin in the basement is the Return of the Repressed.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Frankenstein and The Happy Sunshine Family

Daughter Number Three recently posted a YouTube video made by her daughter Ruby and her daughter's friend Arielle, called "The Happy Sunshine Family." I've included it here: it's a family romance complete with "wicked" twin locked in a cage, like poor Harry Potter under the stairs at the Dursleys, or the many dogs – wicked or not – who periodically go back to the cage in their owner's homes.

This fascinating, morbid trope goes all the way back to fairy tales, and then to one of the world's most notorious anti-heroes, Frankenstein, patron saint of the misunderstood and encaged/enraged Other.

I read Frankenstein, the novel, for the first time a couple of years ago, and as a result became obsessed with everything having to do with Mary Shelley. This kind of took me by surprise, as I don't consider myself a fan of the horror genre. What intrigued me was the notion of Frankenstein as outsider who wants to become a member of the "happy sunshine family" but who is unequivacably unwelcome to them. Watch the video, and we'll pick up on the comparisons tomorrow. Here is the frontispiece to the original edition of the book.

We were bored, so...... we created a somewhat disturbing movie using playmobiles. Yep.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Hour Tomorrow March 28th

Tomorrow, March 28th, 2009, is Earth Hour, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. Started in Sydney in 2007, last year's Earth Hour drew participation from 400 cities; this year there are seven times more municipalities signed on. Earth Hour begins at 8:30 pm, local time. The idea is to turn out all lights deemed non-essential...and to unplug the computer, too.

It's the night of the State High School Basketball Championship here in Indiana, with our own Bloomington High School South – so we won't be entirely in the dark: we'll turn out all the lights and sit in front of the tv basketball hearth. (And Jack and Sav will be there in person, at Conseco Fieldhouse: I wonder how much energy it takes to light that?)

It's the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. You can learn more about that, and its after effects, at the World Wildlife Fund website, a good place to look for environmental news and information.

Later: just home from a reception for Bill Brown, the new chief sustainability director at Indiana University. The party also honored student interns in sustainability projects, one of whom mentioned Earth Hour, with a large light switch poster publicizing it. But it's time now to power down...and to flip all switches off for a few delicious, dark, dream-filled night hours, like the ones alluded to in the cascading flowers above.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Archive Fever: Mysterious Erasure at Amphibious Andromeda

Yesterday I mentioned one of my favorite websites, Amphibious Andromeda from photographer Ricardo Bloch. For 589 consecutive days Bloch published a new photo each day from his studio in Paris, accompanied by an image sliver (an enigmatic associative footnote), followed by a short sound clip. Ingenious for its sound/image combinations, and for letting those media speak for themselves, I find this site remarkably beautiful and intelligent in its conception and daily execution.

On Wednesday March 4th Bloch discontinued posting daily new releases, with this message:

AA will remain online as a nearly unmanageable archive of fun and thoughtful image/sound combinations, but it won't any longer contain a new releases section. On the other hand, the images made for Amphibious Andromeda will be collected, in strict chronological order, in a series of inexpensive limited-edition books. AmphibiousAndromedaBook1 will be available in mid-April.

To help finance the publication of the books, all of the photographs in Amphibious Andromeda can now be purchased as 40x50 cm signed photographic prints, for a reasonable price.
Send me an email if you want further information. http://ricardobloch.com / aa (at) ricardobloch (dot) com

At the top of the page is a continuously ticking widget or gadget that reads "I've been alive/22806 Days 19 hrs 33 min 4 sec" (that's what it says as I am writing just now). So AA has a heartbeat, that of its creator. And despite the adjustment my life requires to no longer have a new daily AA fix ("one day at a time"), I am so grateful that it's still there and the clock is still ticking. I've been going back to explore it from the beginning.

But then something alarming happened, beyond the control of the blogger, under the auspices of Blogger behind the curtain somewhere:

A few days after I decided to stop Amphibious Andromeda, a most serendipitous technical mishap happened and all of the sounds disappeared. Bizarre! I am now methodically replacing them one by one, front to back. So please bear with me.

Bloch's choice of the word serendipitous for this trés bizarre random calamity made me run to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, exploring the definition again:

Adj. 1. serendipitous - lucky in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries
lucky - having or bringing good fortune; "my lucky day"; "a lucky man"

Word History: We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that "this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...."

I first learned of the mysterious sound erasures on AA when reading Eric Prenowitz's translation of Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, a book in which Derrida anticipates the effects and pervasive impact of electronic media (especially what he calls "E-mail") in transforming the private and public space of humanity. (Ironically, and outrageously, Derrida's own archive was subject to a feverish lawsuit with the University of California Irvine; an account written by Thomas Bartlett, for the Chronicle of Higher Education, draws on details of Derrida's illness and death, demonstrating his thesis about the erasure of privacy.)

Because Archive Fever is reproduced and translated from a lecture in London on June 5, 1994, during an international colloquium entitled "Memory: The Question of Archives," it only anticipates our brave new world of web logging, facebook, and twitter. Derrida would have had a great deal to say about all of that, as well as the spontaneous erasure of the sound clips at Amphibious Andromeda. I keep trying to imagine just what he would say, as I try to imagine the human being now patiently reconstructing the full effects of his sound archive...where, serendipitously, the widget is still ticking.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

25 Random Things: F-Words

Another of my 25 random things, as I work through the alphabet, a second post for the letter "f". (God bless the alphabet(s), by the way!) A few important f-words:

Fresh and free-range: I like my ideas and enthusiasms much like my food – fresh and free-range. I've never been able to constrain my wide-ranging interests, try as I have at times to delimit them. Hence this website, where I roam among them, drawing connections and following their lead. Thanks for indulging me, dear Ideal Readers!

Feminist: Yes, without a doubt. Beyond the waves of 1st, 2nd or post-feminist demarcations, I know that my life has been improved immensely by the efforts of our feminist forebears, women who brought us the vote, choice, more job security, and the freedom to speak out on domestic, personal, and political issues. The best men are unapologetic feminists, too. The wonderful free-range tree of life here ("Woman with Fan") is by feminist artist Susan Bee.

Fragrance: The people who I think deserve at least one shot at Keith Olbermann's "Worst People in the World" award are those who add synthetic fragrance to everything under the sun, including body care and household cleaning products. I'll be ranting about this again, as time goes by. Essential oils, good. Fragrance, deadly.

Far-flung family and friends: a fascinating trope. I'm very connected to my free-range far-flung family and friends, even though we often lack sufficient face time.

Frankenstein: No f-word list is complete without him, patron saint of the Other.

facebook: And finally, I guess I really ought to add facebook, as I'm a relatively new facebook afficionado. I resisted for a long time, and then capitulated when my friend Lisa assured me that "Facebook is all about fun and jack-assery." Whew, who knew? Just don't fling me any Lil' Green Patches – even I know they won't really save the world.

France: Ah, and France. Home of my favorite philosophes, Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. For a magnificent glimpse of daily life in Paris, visit the web log of photographer Ricardo Bloch, Amphibious Andromeda.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Santa Fe New Music Presents "The Language of Birds"

Rehearsals are in high gear for the Santa Fe youth opera The Language of Birds, written by my brother, composer John Kennedy, artistic director of Santa Fe New Music.

This two-act opera premiered in 2004 with the Sarasota Opera in Florida; it was showcased at the 2004 “Opera America” convention.

The Santa Fe production features a cast of some 70 young people from pre-kindergarten to age 19, working with a production and artistic team of international quality, and supported musically by a professional chamber orchestra. The cast is culturally, economically, and developmentally diverse, representing 17 schools and some homeschooled youth from seven New Mexico cities and towns, within four counties.

There are three performances this March 27 and 28 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe. I so wish I was there! I'm grateful that my parents, Joyce and Wally, are going to see the show. Jasmine and Jade, my nieces, are among the cast members: that's Jasmine, above, with the gold headband, in the blue sweater; and Jade in turquoise. Their mom, Rozella Kennedy, is general manager of Santa Fe New Music.

The team effort, discipline, excitement, and validation offered to young people by an experience like this one are so valuable, with many potential ripple effects for their futures. The fact that their voices are taken seriously, that they work across a range of ages, and that they anticipate the ephemeral thrill of real theater is something they won't soon forget. It helps them integrate and coordinate many skills, from song and dance to memorization, presentation, set design and production values. And it's so much better than just watching endless reruns of High School Musical, in its various incarnations! Here, the kids are up off the couch and in their own opera. How often do they have an opportunity like that?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bird Takes Wing, with Bungie Cords and Parasail

Our wonderful Bird, also known as Savannah, is home from nearly a week in Florida, where she had a chance to parasail (also known as paracending: a beautiful word.) She describes the experience as incredibly peaceful and quiet. Side-by-side with her friend Mary, they flew over the ocean at 800 feet, watching dolphins leap below.

I have always loved the view of the earth from the sky, and have never had a fear of flying, even though I was once in a jet to Boston when one of the engines caught on fire, requiring an emergency landing. The cabin of the plane was utterly silent as we circled to land; even the baby in the seat across the aisle watched her mother without issuing a sound. Beyond my window, looking utterly surreal, the flames were shooting out behind us. But we had our own Captain Sully, someone who brought us down without a hitch. I prayed. I wasn't above it all; I was involved in fervent, silent begging.

On less dramatic flights, I enjoy the quiet camaraderie in the cabin, and the view of the world below – grids, roads, houses, rivers, mountains, and city lights – and the quiet blue calm above the clouds. My favorite memory is of the trip I once made from Newark to Ireland, en route to living there for a year. As luck would have it, I received an upgrade, and was given a first class seat in Aer Lingus, a little bronze plaque on the wall explaining that Pope John Paul II had occupied that chair during his flight to Ireland in 1979. He celebrated mass before 1.5 million people in Phoenix Park; nearly one in three people on the island assembled there that day. (It's one of the largest urban parks in the world, more than twice the size of Central Park in New York City.)

Sitting next to me was an Irish rock musician. We chatted quietly off and on throughout the night flight, a bit of Black Bushmill stoking our talk. I looked out the window with stars in my eyes, anticipating my precious time in the Emerald Isle, and feeling blessed.

But that was then, and this is now: a not-great Pope (that's an understatement) and a daughter taking wing, with bungie cords, a zest for life, and soaring friendships.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sequestered Newspaper Racks

Here is an image of out-of-use newspaper racks, in a storage yard in San Francisco, on Friday March 13th, 2009. It's an AP photo by Noah Berger, one in a series of pictures from the current recession, over at the Big Picture; an editor's note specifies that the unused boxes were removed due to city rules, not because of economic pressures.

Still, it's an image that no doubt made the mix because of the precarious state of the newspaper business. This has been a topic of discussion in many places, including one of my favorite blogs, Daughter Number Three, where the topic is called "newspaper diaspora."

Here is an interesting piece by Walter Issacson, from the Thursday, February 5, 2009, issue of Time magazine: Issacson tracks the ups and downs of various web trends, pointing out that "the bulk of the ad dollars [on the web] has ended up flowing to groups that did not actually create much content but instead piggybacked on it: search engines, portals and some aggregators." He advocates a new, less cumbersome system of micro-payments, directing more income to content providers. It is an interesting suggestion, in an article that may get you searching deeper, clicking over to the 50 best websites of 2008, the 50 best inventions of 2008, Apple's 10 best business moves, and pictures from the recession of 1958. (Just yesterday, by the way, the editor of Time stepped down: magazines are in trouble, too.)

But first, the art: this image drew me in because of both its formal and conceptual properties: the color and configuration of multiple, nearly identical shapes; the topic it suggests (the death of newspaper). Objects often appear more abstract when clustered (like buckets hanging from a tree); it's a color field with its own formal beauty. Who invented the newspaper rack as an object, anyway? (Like a plastic or metal tv screen on every street corner.) What are those city rules pertaining to them? And whatever happened to the newspaper boy?

Museums are important because ideas reside there, on every flat surface, in each installation. What happens to newspaper racks if they are piled in a room in a contemporary museum? I imagine that they would spark thoughts ranging from city rules to the state of print journalism to the economies of art. What would it take for an artist to claim and redistribute these racks? What happens to their value if they become sculpture? Or if an artist like Walter Lab, who sees the potential for beauty in trash, flattens and turns them into a painting?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Harry Belafonte and Odetta as Henry and Liza

Harry Belafonte performed "There's a Hole in the Bucket" with Odetta (Odetta Holmes) on May 2, 1960 in Carnegie Hall. This version appeared on his album, Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, where he also sang with The Chad Mitchell Trio and Miriam Makeba.

There are a couple of YouTube Videos of this song performed by Belafonte and Odetta. Not impressive for their visual content, they nonetheless capture the vocal moment when these two wonderful performers played Henry and Liza. What strikes me is how clear and simple and evocative the music is: just two voices and guitar, with all the annoyance and irony of an "infinite loop" between an exasperated woman and a man reluctant to "fix it" on his own.

The photo of Belafonte here is from the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C with Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston, back when Heston had causes other than the NRA.

Sadly, Odetta died on December 2nd, 2008, before she could perform (as she had hoped) at Obama's inauguration. In 1961, she sang "I'm on My Way" before Martin Luther King's famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Obama asked her to sing that song at his inauguration 46 years later: it would have been an amazing "rhyme in time." (I do love Odetta's hats in these two pictures.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bucket Tree

This really is a random thing, something served up by the web. It started as a search having to do with maple syrup (it's that time of year), with just two words: bucket tree. I found a few images that were arresting, from the old tin bucket to to the tree that is "beyond the pail." (There are a number of photos in the flickr stream of that tree, but I didn't see a geographical location for it.)

There is even a Bucket Tree Lodge, in Tawa New Zealand, with a huge tree trimmed to the effect. I wonder what trees think when they turn into sculptures?

And I remember swimming in Fountain Lake in Albert Lea Minnesota, as a child , singing the infinite loop song: "There's a hole in the Bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole...Well, then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, well then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, fix it!"

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Personal Service Trumps Customer Service

I recently clicked onto Etsy and found a pair of earrings I liked, from Laura at Urban Eden Designs. On Etsy you can always contact the seller and learn a bit more about their wares, or ask for customization.

Laura's profile reveals that she's an art school graduate who sometimes makes music or writes, and who also creates really nice small batch body care products (loaded with olive oil, shea butter, and no added fragrance, hurrah), upcycled kimono silk eye pillows, and other artisan goods for sale on-line and at her local farmers' market.

I ordered a couple of pairs of earrings and the package arrived yesterday, complete with a note thanking me for choosing these from among the so many options available in our super-abundant world.

Laura's earrings come mounted on little handpainted cards, which I will keep for their charm factor. They lured me in because of the rolled up words and images out of which they are made, from pages in magazines.

This made me think about how every single experience I've had on Etsy has been a happy one, involving personal service and attention to detail. I'm not a terribly high maintenance customer in any context, but there is an extra dimension to this form of commerce that makes it so much more satisfying than just snagging (for example) assembly-line earrings from a big box store.

After taking a look at elenabella, Laura sent me this message:

"You have gotten me to thinking about funding for the arts, and how it creates jobs. My husband builds harpsichords for a living. His main customers are professional musicians--who don't have venues without funding--and universities, whose endowments have all shrunk dramatically. So you just motivated me to write a letter explaining what arts funding does for us."

Personal service trumps even the best customer service. It's a little less anonymous, and reveals more about the underpinnings of our economy and our lives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society

In honor of (yesterday's) St. Patrick's Day, I want to lift a jar to Declan Kiberd, Irish literary scholar extraordinaire. Kiberd is the author of definitive books on Irish literature, including Synge and the Irish Language, Men and Feminism, Inventing Ireland, Irish Classics and The Irish Writer and the World. (He's also annotated and written the introduction to the Modern Classics edition of James Joyce's Ulysses.) He has all the drama, pathos, contestatory intrigues, and language-in-several-languages of nearly every Irish writer in his head, and can recite text and verse from hundreds of sources, in the grand Celtic story-telling tradition. He's a meticulous, respectful critic, able to locate writers in their historical moment and its aftermath. Beyond that (as it says on the Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society facebook page) he's an "all-round solid man." (I know he would get a chuckle out of that – if he read facebook!)

I first met Declan in the summer of 1984, when I attended the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. I arrived there after a 6-week International Semiotic and Structural Studies Institute Summer School in Toronto (that's another story), listening to lectures by thinkers as diverse as Howard Gardner, Paul Ricouer, Fred Jameson, and Jacques Derrida. Suddenly I was in Sligo, staying at a modest b&b near the sea (the only guest of an elderly couple), sitting alone at an opening lecture on the topic of "Anglo-Irish Attitudes" (later to become an influential Field Day pamphlet). Declan Kiberd was on stage, speaking at a podium with such passion and fervor that he simply released his notes to the floor when finished with a page – they floated down around him, to be gathered up at the end to the sound of resounding applause.

I looked to my left to say something in amazement to the small red-haired woman who happened to sit beside me; she giggled and said "Oh yes, he's my brother, he can get very worked up on the topic! He's mad, quite mad!" We stole Declan away afterwards for a quiet fish and chips lunch, where I learned that his 2nd daughter, Amy, had just recently been born in Dublin; he was missing his wife Beth, daughter Lucy, and the baby. He warned me to "Pace yourself!" during the Yeats Summer School, which does, indeed, become very intense. (Imagine a seminar with poetry critic Helen Vendler, followed by drinks at a crowded pub, and then céilidh dancing and ballad singing, with Seamus Heaney in company, at the St. Columbanus Club into the wee hours: it was amazing good craic!)

We became friends and there is much more to say, except that it's been far too long since I've seen the Kiberds. The entire Kiberd family is remarkable, and when I taught in Ireland in 1987, Declan's parents, sister Marguerite, and brother Damien were the anchors of my experience. (Declan, Beth and the girls were in Santa Barbara that year, alas, importing Irish literature to the land of sports cars and surf boards.)

No email for Declan Kiberd, something I do find appropriate, for some reason. I can see his distinctive handwriting in green ink on long yellow ledger papers, swiftly preparing book after book. With love and admiration in the aftermath of St. Patrick's Day, I want to join all of the others in the Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society (electronic and no) whose lives and minds have been touched by the brilliance, kindness, humor, and passionate generosity of this exceptional man. Here's a shout!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gus Foster Panoramic Photography

A couple of years ago I was able to tour the studio of photographer Gus Foster, thanks to my friend Nor, who gathered together a group of artists and friends in Taos, New Mexico, where Gus lives. Yesterday's panorama view of Freiburg im Breisgau reminded me of that rich experience.

Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, Foster was curator of prints and drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before moving to Los Angeles (1972), and then Taos (1976), to work full time on his own images. Now he is a world leader and innovator in panoramic print photography, inventing cameras and darkroom equipment that allow him to make limited edition prints remarkable for their size, scale, and technical virtuosity. While the web gives you a sense of the geographical range of his work, it doesn't do justice to the images. Made from 5"x 25" negatives, they are as large as 36" x 144", mounted on a 100% rag paper substrate; even the process of mounting images that large requires extraordinary effort, equipment, and skill.

But what seems almost surreal about Foster's artwork is the effort that goes into getting those images into his specially-designed (not-at-all lightweight) camera in the first place. To photograph the highest mountain peaks in the United States he spent many years learning survival skills: tracking, map and compass navigation, swiftwater rescue technique, rope work, wilderness medicine, and "all the common sense 'do and don't' skills that often make that critical difference in the outdoors." He raised his own dogs to help him make the trips, and formed relationships with other mountaineers. Once in a while he'd climb to the top of a mountain and weather conditions wouldn't allow his camera to function, so he had to deal with dramatic disappointments of that kind, too.

Foster also made two "X Marks the Spot" walking tours, trekking across the United States to create a visual pun on the phrase "cross country." He walked from Mexico to Canada from May-September 2004, and then from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico from July to December 2005. There is a made-into-sculpture collection of coins and bills picked up along the road in his studio.

Foster probably knows the physical landscape of the Rocky Mountains as was well as anyone. He's also photographed fields of wheat, cranberry bogs, woods filled with aspen, the Rio Grande, and mountain peaks in other parts of the world. One of the panoramic images I found most interesting is a recent one of himself in a car on a highway with a truck bearing down, an old buggy, a motorcycle, even a walker along the side of the road (if I remember this right) – a visual history of real-time road travel caught in one still image, complete with a rare self-portrait of the photographer as he catches that fleeting 360+º moment in time.

What became clear to me during the studio tour is that Foster is a conceptual artist as much as anything else: he plays with very subtle and sophisticated notions of capturing time and space. Panoramic photography shows the movement of a camera in a full circle over time, so that the left and right edges of the image meet and overlap slightly, on a flat plane, after a time lapse.

Foster has an image of the Vietnam War Memorial, which is also designed as a physical panorama with overlapping edges in time: the entrance at either end of the tapered wall happens at a midpoint date in the war; to make the full circle you need to loop around. You walk to the deep center angle of the wall to find the point where the beginning and the end of the conflict meet.

Here is an image of Point Sublime in the Grand Canyon, Foster's Year 2009 Poster/Calendar; it makes a great gift.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Web at its DIY Best: Make a Booklet with a Pocket

Every time I feel the need for easy breezy inspiration, I go over to Jessica Jones's website, How About Orange. I am never disappointed. Despite an irrepressible penchant for language, interest in inquisitive cultural criticism, and devotion to complex, psychologically edgy writers (those I would call the Shakers), I take my ease with the Makers: the patient, clever craftspeople of the world. Brilliant visual thinkers who get lost – and found – in the flow of construction and design.

It was a study of Jessica's website that first made me want to launch my own blog, where I imagined I would offer tutorials for various artful projects. It hasn't turned out that way – I am easily diverted and driven down more cerebral or abstract avenues of pursuit, by the Shakers. Nonetheless, I feel that Makers offer examples of the interweb at its best: they are generous, inspirational, and they know how to teach. Maybe elenabella can be a bridge between these two blog spheres. (Jessica has a cool Monday Giveaway at her site today: purchase a pack of her new birthday cards and get a free set of postcards, available through her Etsy shop.)

Last Friday, Jones posted instructions for making a booklet with a pocket. She scoured the web for good ideas, finding this one at Curbly
, another good DIY site. She revised the project template slightly, and offers it here, a nice freebie. Both Curbly and How About Orange link to Peter Baumgartner's Atelier Für Papierdesign in Freiburg im Breisgau, Deutschland, where there are many more projects, as well as videos about bookbinding. You can even sign up to take classes there, in beautiful Freiburg, where Andreas went to University, and where beloved Tante Ursi lives.

Baumgartner's silent zen-like tutorial
about making the booklet is very calming and nice – take a look! He has others as well, for a magic briefcase, bookbinding, Japanese bookbinding...the possibilities are endless. You could even make a booklet containing this cool panorama of Freiburg, with the famous medieval Freiburg Münster at the center. Or one featuring Jessica's postcards. (She has an exquisite instinct for color, doesn't she?) Enjoy! Such pursuits are very peaceful and pleasing.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chinese Laundry

This image (from Time) struck me as ripe for translation into an abstract color field painting, or a complex drawing in a picture book or graphic novel. It shows laundry hanging outside a student dormitory at a college in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. I am trying to imagine such a scene here in Bloomington, where we also have large, high-rise student dorms.

This reminds me of how much I have always liked the look of laundry hanging on a line: from the sheets my grandmothers used to put up in their backyards (which we would use as tents and cloth alleys for games); to the clothes out the back of brick row houses in Dublin, where I lived in the Coombe one year; to folding drying racks set up in Germany or Holland, in the garden. Spring is coming: time to think about initiating a system to hang clothes out to air!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lucid, Luminous Joan Baez

I'm just home from hearing Joan Baez, 20 feet away, at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater here in Bloomington, Indiana. Her voice, still extraordinary, has filled my mind and spirit, and when she was singing there were times when I felt she was capturing the hearts of the audience in the fullness of her notes – those hearts were just pulled out of our bodies into the air to rise up somewhere and be released into the Big Universe. Uni-verse.

The photo here of Joan playing the guitar was taken by Ron Baker; I found it at his site, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There are some nice pictures there of lots of great performers: Gillian Welch, Eliza Gilkyson, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, The Be Good Tanyas...take a look!

Lucid, luminous, human, serious, gracious, witty, Joan Baez. As she performed, I was astonished by the fact that somewhere inside me, long ago, many of those songs were installed, right down to specific inflections. There they were again.

She talked about her mother: "Joan, did I take my ginko bilboa today?" "I don't remember, Mom." She did a wicked imitation of Bob Dylan in "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and then said "Mellencamp? Are you really going to go on tour with that guy? Seriously, come talk to me after the show." (And of course we all laughed). Our own local rock star, John Mellencamp, was in the audience of about 640, with at least one of his handsome teen-aged sons, Hud and/or Speck, lending the occasion an additional thrill.

Baez has a wonderful website, and if you follow this link you'll find out how she and her band celebrated Obama's victory on election night.

At the end of the night she led us all in "Amazing Grace..That Saved a Soul Like Me." She has a brilliant way of subtly leading an audience in song, conducting a choir of voices, and we didn't sound too bad. ("Beautiful," she said.) And after the instruments were packed up in the bus (parked throughout, at the front of the theater), she came out the front doors with her dazzling smile, and shook hands with everyone waiting to say hello. Magnificent, magical Joan Baez.