Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Ollie an Art Museum

Notes on Trends in Contemporary Design

Yes, thank you, skateboarders.  You gave us snowboards (not my thing, really, but I love how they look, shredding Mountain High), you gave us more kinds of Vans than would fill, well, a van, and you gave us the magazines that gave us about one zillion typeface and layout options.

First, a screenshot from the Nevada Museum of Art's website.  Note about two thirds of the way over, middle right, the Art and Environment logo.  Ah yes, the inverted letters.  I love this --- kicky and fun, the kind of thing that reads well but lets us think about Australia and base jumping and zero gravity.  The inverted "A" becomes a toppled Eiffel Tower or narrow canyon spanned by a bridge.  It makes you pause, just a microsecond, and think about life differently.  It's like those world maps that put New Zealand and Australia on the top half of the globe.  Fun stuff!

As a design choice, to invert a letter or two nearly may be a trend.  Here is a postcard that came in the mail, talking about something called the "2012 Center Awards" in Santa Fe.  Note the "r" in "Center."

As I say, this is nearly a trend: once you start looking for it, you can find it in a variety of places.  Here is another screenshot, this time for the website for the "Impossible" project, a small start-up group trying to resuscitate Polaroid film.  (Polaroid itself is bankrupt, but a Dutch factory still makes small batches of film.  Alas, the cost is higher now, but it's great stuff.  See my sample shot, below.)  Here is a screenshot from their website: note the "spelling" of the main logo, top left.

Pretty soon I suppose even Microsoft Word will let one do this, right on the title page of a term paper.  Until then, in order to get effects like this one must use an Adobe product, "InDesign," via which most books and magazines now are laid out.  Bold, bright, and striking: we see the changes in design everywhere.  Here's a page from a current biology textbook, Life: The Science of Biology (9th edition), by Sadava, Hillis, Heller, and Berenbaum.  As a guess, I would say this was originally done in Adobe Illustrator, then laid out for printing in InDesign.  Welcome to design's brave new world.

As content, this no doubt is serious stuff, but for me, aesthetically, the image itself, well, it's just plain charming --- it reminds me of the display window of a boutique cupcake shop.  It's not just a textbook, it's a preview for the next Pixar movie.

The clarity of the best current designs, combined with their risk and spunk, makes me feel about twenty years younger.  How about this gal, below, all scorpion snack and lavender lip gloss?  (Note to self: make sure my lipstick always matches my bra straps.)  This is a lovely WOW moment.  Next pay day, I hope the publisher gives whoever art directed this shot a fifty buck bonus.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  With saturated printing and striking, white-background designs being so easy to achieve, the grunge side of the equation factors in too.  You will see faux Polaroids, harshly lit and off kilter, in loads of fashion magazines.  In my case, I like to use the black and white film for my Polaroid camera that is made by "Impossible" (see above), but I like to go for an even more dated look, trying in this case for a 19th century feel.  This is a recent shot of a sculpture in my backyard that my wife calls Hoodhenge.  Black border is the film holder; originally, Polaroids only came with white borders, but the Dutch folks at Impossible like to mix it up a bit.

Is this photograph high Art?  No, maybe not.  For me, I just like the shot as a way to explore tonal ranges.  With Polaroid you never know what will happen.  The tallest of these stones is just a touch past eight feet high; the best time to shoot them is during a snow storm, but since we have not had one of those this week, next best is to use the time machine option of wonky film stock.

Of course as fun as these art museum websites and alternative weeklies are, I am an advocate always of going to the source.  Not the movie Lion King, but the play Hamlet; not Clueless, but the Jane Austin original; not Trader Joe's, but beef tongue tacos right from the vendor on the streets of Guadalajara.  Following that spirit then, it's time for me to put away my issues of Art in America and Eye magazine, and go right to the headwaters of design.  What will be in my mailbox next week?  What can I expect to be the next new thing?  Let me turn the pages and find out . . . Thrasher magazine, here I come.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving, 1945

Pilgrims, Zoo Animals, and the Connections of Family

Thanksgiving means thinking about family, and, for many of us, family exists as two, parallel things:  (a) the people themselves and (b) our memories of those people.  And our memories are tied to pictures, more often than not.  After all, when a forest fire threatens the house, people grabs the pets and the photo albums, and not always in that order.  Going through boxes from my late parents I have to say that it is a miracle, how Kodachrome has lasted.  Kodachrome film is a kind of Tardis, for our Dr. Who fans: a phone box that takes us to another time, another planet.  In my parents' slide files, I have found a photograph of my father, seated on the right, eating Thanksgiving with his own father (head of the table, the pastor C.W. Hood), a photo taken in 1945, just after my dad has just survived five years of service in World War Two.

This was a family so poor that at times they ate squirrels and 'possums.  Looks here like a grand spread, as was normal for so many American families in this year, the year that America celebrated the first Thanksgiving after the end of a war that had killed 60 million people, world-wide.  At this time period my aunt was a school teacher (and de facto missonary) to the Pueblo Indians; I see she has brought home an artifact balanced on a shelf left of the door.  Through the door, what does the kitchen look like?  In a painting from the Chicago Institute of Art, we have that answer too --- this same scene, but from the other perspective.
These days it's hard to get back to the core root of what holidays such as Thanksgiving meant in earlier times.  For the people at the Antelope Valley Mall, getting ready for midnight openings for Black Friday, Thanksgiving is a chance to change the receipt tape in the registers and re-tag the sale merchandise.  For Mountain High, it will mean the first big day of skiing of the season.  According to this poster at a casino in Reno, Thanksgiving is just some days off of work in order to go gambling.

Given that the first European settlers in North America were, on average, Puritans, I think they would be upset to see their iconography used to market vice.  But then, we have, most of us, been raised on false notions of the "true" history of Thanksgiving.  Was it this, as the painting shows?

Well, probably not --- the white linens would have been especially unlikely.  Healthier than most arriving Pilgrims, better fed, filled with their own viable cosmology and a reasonable amount of religious tolerance, the Native Americans of the 1620s were unimpressed by the blundering colonists.  Here in fact is what they probably thought. 

To the Native Americans, in 1621, the Europeans “were shorter than normal, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty.  The pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces.  They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed like utterly basic tasks.”        —Charles Mann, from the book titled 1491 (published in 2006)

Even the idea that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the trick of using dead fish to fertilize their corn may not have come down to us exactly correctly; there is some evidence that the individual Native American who taught that to the Europeans had himself learned it from other Europeans.  (There is also evidence that there were no worms native in American soil, and that they arrived in the root balls of introduced saplings.  O what changes we brought to this country, we white folk.)  Here is the picture I was taught was true when I was in grade school.

The first Thanksgiving?  This looks like an ad for Ikea, or maybe Halloween at a gay bar.  In actuality, houses were smaller, with low, smoky ceilings.  (The first "houses" were brush piles appropriated from Native Americans killed off by disease.  "Plimoth" was originally an abandoned Indian village site.)  The whites should be shown lousy with vermin, pockmarked from smallpox, and, to be really authentic, nearly skeletal with starvation.

That was then, this is now: God's will or just bad luck, but the whites won, the Indians lost, and off we go on down the yellow brick road.  Thanksgiving today?  We have blue corn tortilla chips and ocelot cubs.

For the record, this page is from the magazine for the San Diego Zoo --- a place I support fully.  They can add in all the margays and pumas they want and I'll still renew my membership, no matter how discordant the images.  Of course, like an ocelot, turkeys in the wild had a lot going for them, despite the top-heavy dullards they have been bred to be now.  Ben Franklin was right to want them to be a national symbol: in the wild they are swift, wary, and smart.  (There also are other species elsewhere, such as the lovely ocelated turkey of Belize.)  We call them turkeys, by the way, since the Pilgrims thought that was where they came from: the Spanish had brought turkeys from the New World to the Old, and so that was a type of critter the Brits already thought they knew about, and what they knew what that the turkey (the bird) came from the Levant, specifically Turkey (the place).  What a pleasant surprise it must have been to them to find turkeys here, too, trotting around wild.

My favorite turkey does not come from Trader Joe's or Marie Callenders, but from my daughter, Amber, and dates from 1994, when she was helped in kindergarten to make that most traditional of centerpieces, the pine cone turkey.

Thanksgiving?  Indeed so.  If we think of what the word can mean, and return to the core sense of giving thanks, our own lives will almost certainly be fuller.   Most of us are blessed many times over, and this is a good time to remember that.

In that spirit, this blog closes with some stanzas from a poem by Anne Porter titled "A List of Praises."  This is the opening and closing section only, with the skipped bits shown by bracketed ellipsis points.  The full text can be found on the website for the Academy of American Poets.

Here is the poem:

Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,
Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches,
Mad with the joy of the Sabbath, 
Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun,
Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes, 
A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry 
living wild on the Streets through generations of children.
[ . . . ]
Give praise with the rasp and sizzle of crickets, katydids and cicadas, 
Give praise with hum of bees, 
Give praise with the little peepers who live near water.
[ . . . ] 
Give praise with water, 
With storms of rain and thunder 
And the small rains that sparkle as they dry,
And the faint floating ocean roar 
That fills the seaside villages, 
And the clear brooks that travel down the mountains 

And with this poem, a leaf on the vast flood,
And with the angels in that other country.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Do Trees Turn Red in Fall?

Color Comes to AVC

It's that time of year when "Fall" (the season) also means "fall" (what the leaves are starting to do).

AVC looks especially nice right now.

It also is looking good in Arizona, as my brother confirms with a picture from near Flagstaff.  Here's what it looks like now in Northern Arizona.  This photo was taken by Fred Hood, whose wild cat website is http://www.felidfoto.com.  No ocelots or tigers in this picture, just a lovely autumn scene.

What causes trees to change color?  If you recently got an A in botany, go ahead and skip this: nothing here is original research or in any way deviant from the usual story.  But if you're not sure, here's the basic idea.

Fact A.  In North America, on average, we have sunny summers and cold winters.  Just like wearing flip flops and shorts on the 4th of July, trees that want to specialize in summer need appropriate leaves.  But our beach gear is not so good during a winter snow storm, especially in a habitat like interior Maine's.  So trees can either be like the pines, with year-round needles that don't soak up sunlight so well but which can endure a blizzard, or they can be like a sycamore, with a parasol instead of a knitting needle for a leaf shape.  An ice storm could weigh the tree down with too much heavy snow and ice in the off season, breaking branches or bringing down the whole tree, plus of course there's the year's accumulation of insect damage and parasites.  It makes sense just to get rid of the entire leaf, spend the winter with bare branches, and grow a fresh one when it's warm and sunny again.

(We'll ignore for the moment the tricky part about why manzanita has red bark instead of red leaves.)

Fact B.  On campus, we have both types of trees, the evergreen pines and the deciduous broad-leafed types.  Therefore by mid-winter, some trees will be bare, and some will still have leaves, which among other things, is a good thing for our campus owls.  With the right perspective, one can usually see both tree types in the same view.  (The dark shadow below is a pine outside the Learning Center, as one looks out towards the F entrance of Parking Lot 10.)

Fact C.  The red part of the color has been there all along.  Now I turn to David Sibley, the famous nature artist.  In his book on the trees of North America, here's what he says.

"The brilliant colors of the autumn forest are among the most striking and most viewed spectacles of nature.  Nearly all boradleaf trees develop some amount of yellow or red color before they drop their leaves in the fall.  Yellow pigments are already present in the leaves, masked by green chlorophyll, and are simply revealed when the tree begins to withdraw resources from the leaf and the chlorophyll breaks down."

Red, Sibley says, is synthesized by the trees just before the leaves drop.

He goes on to note that by "combining just a few pigments --- green, brown, yellow, and red --- trees produce the entire range of fall colors."

One can plant for this, in local backyards.  If you want a taste of New England, a book called Trees of the California Landscape (Charles Hatch, UC Press) lists ornamentals one can plant, itemized by color.  It has over one hundred species in its review, and in fact, one could alternate, with a red tree and then an orange one and then a yellow one.  Sibley again: "Each species or genus often shows a particular patten of color.  Aspens are famous for their dramatic show of golden-yellow color. [ . . . ] Sweetgums are distinctive for having scattered purple, red, yellow, and green leaves all simultaneously on a single tree, even on the same branch."  (Some people may know this plant by another common name, liquid amber.  It is also called red gum.)

Maples are especially famous for their brilliant colors.  When growing wiild in the woodlands of the eastern USA, why don't they all turn the same color, and at the same time?  It turns out that it may be a sexual difference.  We all know that a male lion has a mane (at least in the African types), while females do not.  It may be the same in maples --- not manes, but variations in color and timing.  This possibility is explored in a post by David Sibley on his blog, which one should see for the full (and illustrated) discussion.

And that just (ahem) "leaves" us with this final thought.  Does it even matter why?  Do we need to know the answer in a technical sense?  Maybe the great Creator in the sky just likes variety, and too, has a soft spot in His / Her heart for beauty.  Whatever the cause, we have just concluded a week that was brim-up with beauty galore.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Great Book Giveaway

Simple Ways to Help Encourage Reading

AVC instructor Santi Tafarella has a lot of books.  They are in his house, in his garage, in his office.  Since our tastes overlap, I would guess he owns 5,000 books.  (I base that on a count I once made of my own collection.)

The thing is, with so many books, a few are bound to be duplicates --- or else titles that even after 20 years, we just never have gotten around to.

He has had a great idea.  Give the books away for free, by filling up mobile carts and leaving them in hallways around campus.

These have been absurdly successful.  He has helped give away 500 books so far, and indeed, has been so successful that we have had to slow down --- not for lack of interest, but because the carts empty faster than we can collect donations to refill them.

That is why I found myself following up.  Here are some of the Trader Joe's bags in the back of my truck, as I worked my way through my own bookshelves.

Students have been enthusiastic.  Full carts, once put out around campus, are emptied in an hour or two.  Here is a video clip about what they say:


Professor Tafarella also would like to have a campus "read-in," which would be a day when all over campus, at the same time, people who love reading --- staff and faculty and students --- will go outside and just read for an hour, silently, publicly, unashamedly. 

I am all for this, and look forward to the details.  Great job, Santi!

If you want to bring some bags of books yourself to him, so he can keep refilling the carts, here is his office extension.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How to Live to be 100

The Experts Remind Us How to Live Forever

According to the recent issue of National Geographic, babies born now in key countries, including the US, can expect to live to be 100.

At the same time, USA Today says that to be happy is easy.

Most sources agree that longevity ties to simple things.  Genes are one; living in a healthy country with good medicine and proper sanitation is another.  Where you were born is out of your control, as is, to some extent, whether you grew up in Sweden or Zimbabwe.  Some things though anybody can do.  Being married (or in the case of my gay friends, being in a committed, stable relationship) helps.  Friends help. Pets help.

Diet helps.  Anybody remember the ill-fated experiment of the sealed dome in Arizona, "Biosphere"?  They almost starved to death.  This a group of idealistic "earth astronauts" were going to live inside a sealed ecosystem and show us how space colonies would work.

In the end, they could not grow enough food to survive (more algae soup anybody?), and like prisoners of war and other deprived people, reported having nonstop food fantasies.  I remember one problem: no wind.  Without the wind blowing back and forth while a sapling grew, a tree's wood has no stresses, and no stresses (as with a body in a hospital bed over time) made the dome's trees weak, atrophied, spindly.  They would have traded three baskets of dwarf mangoes, I bet, for one jar of good, old-fashioned, oil-and-sugar enhanced Skippy.

(Breakfast of Champions, that one is.)  Yet ironically, while they were shedding weight and gaining daydreams about Thanksgiving dinners, they may have been on the path to the hundred-year mark.  Some doctors argue that in the industrialized countries we all eat way too much, and can (and should) survive on a near-starvation level diet.  In this view, we should look (and have the endurance of) Kenyan runners (or African school kids, who walk up to 20 miles a day).

I don't think anybody denies that exercise, to whatever greater or lesser degree, is another factor in feeling good and living longer.  I would like to spin in circles on my hands like these kids in the AVC Black Box, but am still working on it.

The mind's health is another aspect of this. One study in Sweden found that people who engage in cultural activities (visiting art galleries, for example) were happier and healthier than those who did not.  I assume they had appropriate control groups (you have to be healthy enough to leave the house, for example, before you can go to the museum for the day) and will take their findings at face value.  I know that among the faculty, following a sports team is NOT going to make you happy.  By definition, the odds are against you: your team will, sooner or later, lose.  We have on staff people who are devoted to a wide range of teams, from the Kings in ice hockey to the Boston Red Sox to Manchester United in footie, and all I know is, sooner or later, they all lose, usually at some key point, such as the playoffs.  True fans follow their teams even in slumps, I know that, but that seems to me a tedious exercise in misplaced loyalty.  I tried to follow the Lakers for a while, but in the end, the egos and salaries and blown chances just irritated me. 

In contrast here's a place that has never, ever let me down: the Walt Disney Concert Hall.  Closer than the beach, cheaper than drugs, it is a sure bet way to feel good about the world.

On Sunday night my wife and I went to see a 1919 silent movie at the Walt Disney Hall, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, accompanied by live organ.  The movie was good, the architecture was good, the playing was spectacularly good, and the people around us were clearly happy and thoughtful.  Somebody said he saw Tim Burton in the front row; others had on spectacularly good costumes, from "House, MD" to "Phantom of the Opera."  I have never NOT had a great performance experience there.

Here's what NOT to do.  Too many of us check our email hourly, half-hourly, even when we get out of the shower or have come back to the desk after just getting up to get a drink of water.  Some things do NOT help happiness --- so try, for example, turning your email off, your phone off, your twitter feed and your television off.  Get that crap out of your life and life will be better.

We have alcohol clinics and drug de-tox programs.  How long until we need those kinds of places for our cell phone addictions?  Turn it off and go for a walk.

After all, where's the one place you can't get reception?  What is the guaranteed absolute "zero service bars" place on this earth?  I promise you, you will NOT get any cell phone reception in the grave.

As the bumper stickers say, let's all live long enough to be a problem for our grandchildren.  First one of the AVC Blog readers to reach 100 gets two jars of Skippy and a free pass for a break dancing class.  See you there!