Monday, September 17, 2012

Senza titolo.

Why did I do it?
Why did I run
those people off the road,
into a corn field
in my dream?

Friday, September 14, 2012


Just about every morning I take our three dogs to the woods behind the local YMCA. There's a loop trail just over a mile long, skirting the edges of swamps and creeks, and the last quarter mile of the walk offers a couple of lovely pauses at the edge of Brickyard Pond for the dogs to drink or wade into the water, or to pester the swans and geese swimming near the shore. Animals lose all inhibition when they're on the trails, careening like mad, playing ridiculous games, and pretending it's their first time on the path—charging ahead to sniff for clues about what action went down in the woods over night.

Yesterday I was up especially early, having had little sleep due to nodding off shortly after an exhausting day at work (I was out by 7:30 pm: isn't that pathetic?). I woke with a fierce headache at about 2:30 in the morning, couldn't get back to sleep and then—after a great pre-dawn run to clear my head—I decided to venture out with the dogs by about 6:15 for our walk. The light was still pretty dim so visibility was limited, but we navigated the path without trouble. Halfway through the walk I noticed something in the brush off the trail about 15 feet ahead. Crumpled and slightly obscured by brush and leaves, the only visual cues the object offered was a palette of bright colors: magenta, yellow, blue, white, black and brown—doled out in measured proportions on the surface. In an instantaneous flash of unconscious recognition, my mind's voice whispered the words, "Dora the Explorer." I continued on my walk, the dogs well ahead, peeing, sniffing, rough-housing, munching grass. I immediately moved to other things—the sticks someone had thoughtfully laid on the mucky path to form a dry carpet, the dogs running ahead, my laundry list of things to accomplish before noon.

But my mind suddenly returned to Dora, defaced beyond explicit recognition on the side of a path in the woods. At first this passing awareness seemed insignificant, primarily because Dora means absolutely nothing to me. My own kids—now in their early twenties—mercifully left behind annoying children's programming with "Rug Rats," rescuing me from a complete mental breakdown after years of shrill adult voices impersonating toddlers on TV. But I was suddenly compelled to return to the trash (it turned out to be an errant balloon) for a closer look and to take a picture. I needed to know that I was right. I wanted to confirm that—in a scant fraction of a second, in dim light, 15 feet away and obscured by vegetation—I recognized a handful of distinct visual properties which had previously only entered my awareness peripherally, unconsciously and unimpressively. I'd never seen the show—ever. I'd only caught snatches of its heroine on web banners, lunch boxes and backpacks in Target. But the relentless and ingenious consistency with which "Dora the Explorer" had been sustained in the visual vocabulary of my world enabled instant recognition. And this is a collective vocabulary, shared by anyone who has been exposed to her rusty skin, her black bobbed hair, and her girly color of choice, magenta. If Dora the Explorer was the first thing to come to mind for a 50 year-old man, following a pack of dogs in the woods, imagine the mechanics of a child's mind, languidly drowning in a swamp of pattern recognition—the colors, shapes and proportions of popular culture swimming just below the surface.

This is the way the mind works in its apprehension of visual culture. It sorts the cascade of stimuli according to reiterative formal patterns and keeps them at the ready, just below the surface. While psychologists and pop culture critics may find this relentless establishment of patterns corruptive, I suppose there's nothing wrong with it as long as we're able to elevate our awareness of the phenomenon once in a while, to not let it get the better of us. It can even be a little fun to look for clever exploitation of established visual vocabulary (noticing that all cream cheese packaging bears a resemblance to the famed Philadelphia brand, for example). But keen awareness and excitement in testing the boundaries of recognition seems most important to those whose work centers on visual language, and not just those of us involved in the sort of imbedded branding like that produced by designers of strictly limiting style guides (i.e.: the systematic standards of visual properties associated with a brand). The ability to weave in and out of that awareness as we construct visual messages is, I think, vital to the perceptual dialogue we establish with those who encounter our work. It's a means of establishing and expounding on relationships, both syntactic and semantic. It's a way of guiding understanding. It's how we share unspoken recognition, stirring the language of form deeply imbedded in collective unconscious. To anyone whose work centers on visual culture, such experiences can be a fascinating adventure.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Be yourself.

I start my first class today after an all-too-brief summer. Most of June was consumed by the ICON7 conference we hosted at RISD, the alumni show we'd pulled together, and the ensuing post-event business. Before I knew it I was gearing up for another busy year. For about 20 years, I've tried to free myself up just before the start of school as a way to recharge and tap inspiration before giving it all I've got in class for 13 weeks.

In an effort to claim that vital sense of authority and calm, I spent last weekend in Manhattan. In addition to some great museums, theater, food and music—we did our customary run in the park on Sunday morning. This is always such a delight, because, unlike any other city I know, New York is so teeming with runners that the critical mass really energizes me. We entered the park in the southwest corner and trotted clockwise along the outer paths and roads, passing thousands of ambulatory souls—runners, cyclists, walkers, strollers—all traveling in the opposite direction.

Clearly, we were doing it wrong. While our unspoken recognition of this amused me, John later told me that we'd garnered plenty of dirty looks. I didn't notice that (and anyone who knows me will know that I am always on the lookout for disapproval) but I did feel alternately rebellious and sheepish that we were disrupting the flow of so many people's highly prized enjoyment of the outdoors in such a busy town. We were never physically in the way, no one seemed alarmed or inconvenienced by our mistake, but there must have been a sort of psychic frustration that we brought to such a galvanized, consensual group act that it was bound to be annoying. One enormous wave of collective energy was traveling counter clockwise, its bits and pieces all silently agreeing to move in one direction, at about the same speed, breathing rhythmically like a big locomotive, its energy concentrated several yards in the distance. And here we were, screwing it up, their accordance denied by a pair of guys who didn't know the rules. We didn't do this on purpose. It's just that by the time we'd concluded that we were definitely going the wrong direction, it was too late. I'm a full-circle kind of guy and doing an out and back run on a looping course seemed more wrong than traveling in the opposite direction of the throng.

At the end of the run we passed a family of tourists who may as well have stepped out of a cartoon. It was easy to see that they were visitors, but the most noticeable among them was a girl of about eleven. She was blond, with braids and thick-lensed glasses. She seemed too big to be carrying a doll, whose head and arms drooped limply over her left elbow while the legs hung loose at her waist. While her family squinted in the morning sun, their tired faces pivoting from sidewalk to rooftops, to horse drawn carriage to hot dog stand, the little girl seemed completely oblivious to her surroundings, in another place entirely. More than anything, I noticed her shirt. Her shirt was the juice. The words, "Be Yourself" consumed just about every inch of its surface, spelled out in rhinestones and glitter. She was smiling beatifically, her head tilting a bit, side-to-side. She appeared to be enjoying a little song or a snatch of imaginary dialogue.

I'm a terrible cynic. My immediate reaction was to scoff internally. "Silly, naive little girl with braids and a stupid t-shirt." But within seconds that cynicism softened. I was more taken by her apparent contentment, the weird bliss that seemed to carry her along, trailing behind her family. I felt pretty good about her confidence in wearing that pithy shirt. I wanted to tell her that I liked her message—all of it.

*   *   * 

I know what you're thinking. This sounds like it's going to wind up with an inevitable correlation between my own counter-clockwisedness and the mandate to "be myself," issued forth in glittery grandeur on an 11-year-old's T-shirt in Central Park. While that comparison may be convenient and even a little touching, I'm more interested in expressing my hope for my sophomore students, whom I'll meet today in class. This will be their foray into illustration. The product of loving homes, they will most certainly have been told to "be themselves" at some point in life. In their first year at RISD they'll have been coached to "find their voices." Illustration, both the field of study and the profession, will challenge them to do just that: to be original—to be themselves—but to do so by way of a common visual language. They'll need to be true to personal instinct while cognizant of shared knowledge and experience, to utter new truths which are founded in age-old vocabulary of complex cultural signs.  They'll have to enjoy the process or risk intense unhappiness, and the only way to do this is to attain a sense of self-fulfillment and authorship, not only in the acting of making, but in service to messages which are sometimes the product of others' imagination and cognition. The field will ask them to say things in a new way, but with a ring of familiarity that allows a reader to wholly own the content they are absorbing, to feel a sense of marvelous discovery shared with the illustrator. My message to them today: the best illustration exposes truths we didn't know we knew, and when we can manage that much we'll have attained some semblance of originality. The illustrator must be himself, but that self is a messenger with singular voice which reaches the consciousness of others. No mean feat.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Navigating the Cave

I've never been a very political person. I've always felt too under informed to express opinions with openness and unwavering conviction,  but that's changed in recent years and I am sure I drive my facebook friends crazy with my political blather. 

American life transformed dramatically for me in the Bush years and I grew more committed to understanding the fascinating and depressing landscape of American politics. The Bush era was a definite wakeup call in terms of national security, the economy, our inflated sense of importance and might in the world and blatantly discriminatory public policy, both domestically and internationally. I lived in Rome for two years, watching from afar as the economy slid like so much mud down the side of a great mountain, my eyes opened to the pathetic perception of the United States around the world and the mammoth delusions we harbor as a nation. 

From 2000-2008, we were led on a self-destructive, blinding path deeper into the cave, and when Barack Obama took office we were lost in the belly of it, demoralized by two grueling wars, thousands dead, and the worst economic crisis since the depression. And yet as a nation—despite all that happened, despite the loss of trillions on a trumped-up war, despite the fact that we went from a deficit in the GHW Bush era to a surplus in the Clinton Presidency and back to a deficit under George W—at least half of us remain in complete denial of the very grim reality facing this country and the enormous challenge facing our current President. The America we thought we had isn't coming back, let's face it. It never existed in the first place. 

But we still believe in magic. We even pride ourselves on that belief. Many of us are convinced that the staggering unemployment and recession that resulted from the economic crash in 2008 should have been something from which we miraculously bounce back—even in the face of open, deliberate, strategic opposition in Congress to any initiative put forth by the administration and our Democratic representation. Let's face it. The men and women of Washington have failed us and the Republicans in Congress in particular have made it very clear that the goal is to destroy our President. Representation seems non-existent.

But there have been bright moments, at least for me, a few glimmers of hope. Some significant changes have pushed through and if we truly try to understand them, the more rational among us will ultimately be grateful, rather than fearful and resentful. Fairer access to health care and an attempt to limit the bloodletting by big insurance companies, equal treatment under the law regarding marriage for 4 million US citizens, the right to serve in the military without fear of persecution and loss of vocational security.  These have been vital steps in the right direction—meaningful messages of positive change and accomplishment.  And yet many people—for reasons which completely elude me, which run counter to my every moral tenet and sense of hope—oppose this progress. These are measures that take nothing from their own quality of life, do no harm to the safety and security of the majority, and merely bestow the same privileges on their fellow citizens who just want to be treated equally under the law. What's not to like?

This was an important year for gay and lesbian Americans. Most people have absolutely no idea how much it means to know that the President of the United States says that he's got your back after a lifetime of marginalization (both intrinsically and extrinsically-imposed). Growing up gay in America has been a rough road for millions of people. The heteronormative (Blogger doesn't even recognize that word, by the way) traditions encountered by generations of gay Americans is finally eroding just enough to allow those millions to sense a scant bit of inclusion, the door is slightly open, the concern for personal safety and fear of rejection and even harm slowly dissipating, even if we remain marginalized.

I don't know what will happen if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win this election. I do believe that they're 100% determined to roll back the progress for which I have been so grateful, and they may accomplish this by relying on the stupidity, lazy desperation and blind faith of those Americans who believe the world is less than 10,000 years old and that Barack Obama "hates America."  It's so easy to fool the people of this country. It takes very little—a few inflammatory sound bites, a handful of lies which pervade the beliefs of the careless, despite proof to the contrary.  So many of us are loathe to face the reality that we won't get out of this mess without some sacrifice and galvanized hard work, that our President has (as someone aptly put it) "led with a compass, not a speedometer." The most dangerous people in this nation are those who think that continuing to pamper the rich will somehow do the magic, will be a better way. We tried the "better way." It led us into the cave.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Journey Begins.

Despite my reticence in recent months, I have been working on things—dividing my time between illustration work with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Department Head duties at RISD and preparing for teaching this Spring. Shamefully, I've allowed things to lapse here and I need to get on the stick.

It takes, sometimes, one potent coincidence to make me want to talk. It happened this morning. 

Next week I am beginning a new class,  Illustrating Dante's Comedy, with the brilliant Mark Sherman from RISD's English Department. It's a stab at interdisciplinary teaching and learning and while our shared goal is as partners in the pursuit of deeper understanding of a great poem I suspect I have much more to gain from Mark than he does from me, given his prolonged and dutiful study of Dante and the Comedy. It's all very exciting and I'm eager to learn and teach in tandem. I've been studying the Hollander edition of the poem and have been poring over visual materials dating as far back as 1481 in Brown's Hay Library. What a privilege.

In an earnest effort to school myself on such a daunting literary masterpiece, I pulled up my chair in front of the fire this morning to finish up some introductory reading of Boccaccio's Life of Dante. I had a headache. The dogs snored at my feet, a bunch of brown in the glow of flames (shades of l'inferno?). It was getting good, every bit of it. As I read about Dante's exile from Florence and his restless wandering through Italy, I came upon a passage about the time he spent in Ravenna, and was reminded of my own experience there. 

Back in fall 2007 I was beginning a gig as Chief Critic for RISD's European Honors Program in Rome. I had the great fortune of taking in much of Italy, benefitting from collaboration with a wonderful Italian named Ezio Genovesi, whose authority on things Italian blessed my every experience there. Our first tour with students began in Ravenna, at St. Apollinaire in Classe, and its magnificent mosaic altar affected me deeply. My thoughts wandered from Boccaccio's narrative as I replayed a conversation with Ezio about the illusion of an enormous, omnipotent eye, which (when viewed from a particular angle) seemed to stare me down from the transfiguration mosaic over the altar. The effect was very powerful and I was moved by it. 

More reading about Dante's exile and the thoughts about Ravenna faded. Coffee called. I left my chair for the kitchen, where I poured a cup, book in hand, headache rapping behind my right eye. When I returned to the fire, I was awed to notice a pattern of wrinkles in the back of the chair where I'd been sitting. Something about the weight and curve of my spine—about the way the white velvet buckled under the wool of my sweater, about the way the newly installed ceiling spot cast shadows of the hillocks—had formed the same eye-shaped motif from the church in Ravenna. 

Why do we experience these things? I'm not such a great believer in signs, but I do think recognition of coincidence and perceptual patterns is a gift some of us cultivate in the name of art. As I begin the spring semester, studying an ancient poem whose perfection is found in its rich metaphorical imagery, its nimble terza rima structure, and its profound narrative of personal transformation, I'm content to say that I'm accompanied by the eye of Dante, as both master and advocate. The journey begins.