Sunday, April 28, 2013

Praise, Criticism and Humility.

"When praise comes, don’t let yourself be swept away by it. If you do, you will as surely be swept away by the criticism that life inevitably brings."

-Eknath Easwaran

*   *   *

Sometimes it's easy to mistake self-deprecation for humility. I've gotten a little better at accepting compliments graciously in recent years, but I can easily trace absurdly poignant evidence of self-deprecation back to childhood, to the near pathological auto-under-valuing that was interwoven through daily life. A memory from age 7 or so has stuck with me for quite a while. I had a boyhood friend named Eddie and in the summers we spent countless hours digging, playing games and building forts in the woods which separated our backyards. One day, deeply immersed in an excavation straight through the center of the earth to China with little more than a couple of garden trowels, I heard his mother calling out to us in her gracious Virginia lilt, 

"Eddddddddie, it's lunchtime! Robert, would you like a sandwich too?"

Struck dumb with vague embarrassment, I replied with great discomfort and characteristic crypticism, "I don't care." 

What the hell kind of answer is that? I'm sure it puzzled or maybe even irritated her, but if it did she was too kind to let me notice. She was a really nice lady. We liked each other.

I can't fully explain why questions like that of Eddie's mom made me so uncomfortable but I struggled to accept the goodwill of others for my entire childhood and well into adulthood. I suppose it had something to do with a misplaced aversion to making myself in any way burdensome. This inability to accept gifts from others—whether in the form of kind words or something of material value—is a character flaw, something I've had to come to terms with in recent years. And while it may seem that this sort of chin-to-chest self-deprecation is active evidence of humility, I've come to realize it's not. I've learned that undervaluing oneself is the exquisite complement to boastfulness and bluster, classic enemies of humility. A closer look reveals that it's egocentric behavior masquerading as humbleness, a self-perception that one's every action has some consequential effect on others; that accepting a sandwich would in some way might ruin someone's day; a perception that you are important enough to have a disproportionate impact on everyone and everything around you.

*   *   *

It seems the older we get, the bigger our egos grow. As the expression goes, "the bigger they come, the harder they fall." Validation and praise mean everything to us and yet our worlds crumble the moment we experience rejection or marginalization. Enormous egos fight for central validation in creative circles, each with an insatiable desire for praise, and yet the most inadvertent slight sends us cursing bitterly in the shadows. We have to maintain perspective, to remain humble through darkness and light, praise and criticism. 

I endured a truly rough patch in my teaching a few years ago. Leading students outside the scope of my expertise in a special, two year, interdisciplinary appointment in Italy, I failed to reach all of my students, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried very hard. While not everyone was unhappy with my efforts (I tend to pay a bit more attention to criticism than praise), the acerbic barbs of a handful of students wounded me deeply for two years. I wasn't used to this brand of assessment, and I truly thought my career as a teacher was coming to a close. When I returned to my regular teaching duties back home, once again within the cozy realm of my personal competency, I expected everything to normalize, but I was quickly reminded of an unpleasant reality about teaching in our program: I had quite literally disappeared, and when I returned I felt like an absolute nobody. I was the new guy all over again, and it took me three full years to rebuild the confidence of an entirely new crop of students and my former reputation as a competent teacher. What a struggle that was, and there seemed to me no way to resolve it other than to ride it out or quit. I damn near did the latter, interviewing for and being offered jobs elsewhere, which would have had me doing things far from the world of studio education.

These days, my students amaze and inspire me, and I'm especially moved by their sensitivity when the occasional stressed out 19-year-old comes to see me in my office, soon in tears as they close the door for privacy. Crumbling under the workload, these beautiful people reveal themselves as completely human in their fragility,  shedding their classroom-wrought, strong, balanced, perfectly poised personae. In the presence of their peers they appear to accept praise and criticism with equally objective measure, seemingly unaffected on an emotional level by all the chatter about their work. Extraordinary accolades do not seem to puff them up, just as devastating criticism doesn't cut them down. Maybe I'm fooled by some resilient veneer, but they always seem to remain humble—asserting in their behavior that they're neither better nor worse, neither more or less deserving of respect than anyone else. They present as exceedingly gracious and level-headed beacons of hope in a world in which most adults bristle at criticism and stew savagely over minor professional slights one day and rattle off news of accomplishments on Facebook the next. 

Eknath Eswaran's quote at the top of this entry elegantly summarizes the most sound philosophy we can follow. We need to keep our egos in check not only when it comes to our accomplishments, but our failures as well. Personally, while things are good again (and I don't think I have ever enjoyed teaching as much as I have the past two years) I lately try a bit harder to catch myself before grandstanding when good things happen and I've tried even harder to give myself a break when I don't get it right. I'm still not very good at accepting either praise or criticism with measured objectivity, but I try to do so in an effort to exercise some of the humility I so admire in my students. I'm still grossly egocentric. More than anything I hope my students can remain humble—aware of their merits and flaws, but equally unfettered by either. Unfettered, that is, unless they truly need to close themselves in my office and cry.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sketchbook: One Day University.

We spent the day listening to some really stimulating lectures by Professors from Columbia, Yale, Brown and Rutgers University. I'm so glad I went. 

I've said before that sketching while listening to discussion intensifies my focus on what's being said, and helps me make sense of information. Below are spreads from each of the talks.

Louis Masur from Rutgers talked about Lincoln as "evolutionary" rather than "revolutionary," and chronicled the transformation of his thinking about slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.

My favorite talk of the day was delivered by the brilliant Tamar Szabó Gendler from Yale. She offered a cogent yet brief discussion entitled "How to Think Like a Philosopher." Excellent and very helpful to me as I continue to frame my thinking on Truth Beauty and Goodness in studio discourse.
In the middle of all of it, I took a break to reflect on some thoughts about the role of philosophy in critical discourse, the subject of my talk at the ATINER conference in Greece the first week of June.

Tina Rivers from Columbia discussed four paintings which exemplify particular roles of the art. Good talk about some great contributions to painting.

Finally, John Stein from Brown discussed learning, memory and the brain—a fascinating explanation of various times of memory, the physiological processes which trigger them and ways to keep neurogenesis active.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

From terror to fear to myth.

I wrote this on 15 April, after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. 

Yesterday we hosted what has become a springtime tradition at the house. In April, as every austere and stoic soul in New England is hanging by the thinnest of threads, cursing the bitter north wind and praying for just a hint of earthly delight, we invite friends over for an exchange of green things. People bring hopeful plants to share with one another and the idea is to offer a sense of renewed optimism after the grayness of winter, instilling a faint vision of metaphorical rebirth by planting saplings, seeds or bulbs, even if doing so is weeks away. Spring and then summer in New England are unparalleled—absolutely perfect—so the wretched winters here are bearable with a couple of reminders that the chill will soon go into hiding.

A couple of friends didn't make the party because they were running the Boston Marathon today. I envied them, mostly because they're about my age and are still giving it a go, while I've put aside those grand aspirations in recent years, always with the hope that I'll be running in top form again any day now (cue laugh track). One of these friends contacted me to say that he needed the rest, having scored a number at the last minute. He's run the race since he was a teenager growing up in Brockton, far eclipsing my own Boston experiences, which number two races in unseasonable and viscious heat—both pretty humbling experiences after qualifying and convincing myself that I'd do just as well on that infamously tricky Boston course.

Today was horrific and for those of us who got the news remotely, it came upon us in nauseating waves, an all-too-familiar recognition, something sadly familiar and infuriating. John and I had just finished a five mile run on a hilly loop when we received simultaneous text messages asking if we were OK and begging assurance that we were nowhere near the race course. Back home, throughout the afternoon I checked confusing headlines and studied the same gory and chaotic photos online, turning over in my imagination the origins of something so vile, the filthy, small minds who devised the destruction.

The last stretch of the Boston Marathon, whether you finish strong or part of the zombie parade, is designed to be jubilant and for race qualifiers it's especially rewarding. If you're not running for charity or as a bandit, qualifying for Boston can be pretty challenging after months of obsessive training, earning an acceptable time in a previous marathon, and (more and more) a bit of fortunate timing when registration opens. Nevertheless, no matter how folks get there, with such an arduous process of self-discovery behind them, crossing the finish line concludes a journey much longer than 26.2 miles for many people. Reaching the end is a transformative moment, teeming with significance. So what more insidious, hateful way to upend that joy than to install ferocious bombs yards from the finish line—blowing the legs off spectators, mostly the families and friends of runners? As we listened to the confusing pieces of news and began to make sense of the event, I was immediately taken back to that beautiful, horrible day in 2001 when my kids (then all very young) came home one-by-one from school. With each, I tried to explain to them how a small group of perverse minds conspired with unfathomable loathing to crash four planes with the intention of killing 3000 people and forever scarring the lives of hundreds of millions more.

In all of this insanity I had a moment of clarity today. It came out of the blue, inexplicably. In the past several years I have seen many students with extraordinary gifts, complex minds and critical, creative perspectives invest a great deal of their talent in the rapidly expanding field of character design. In all honesty, the editorial illustrator in me finds this trend disheartening. In one portfolio after another young illustrators submit to the conventions of burgeoning industry, work which includes inventories of characters in costume and not much more. These are descriptive, objective studies, not images with individual perspective, circumstance or meaning beyond archetypal representation, and they feel empty—void of content or message—no matter how well they're drawn or painted, no matter how subtle the color palette. While I respect these endeavors, as I do any classification of applied illustration, these studies represent a significant disappointment after seeing such promise in these students in previous semesters. All along I've assumed that the students are merely pandering to a trending market. More than anything I hope for a more opinionated, vocal direction among our students, a return to the editorial voice which is more about chutzpa than costumes. 

Today I realized the origins of this fascination with heroic, mythic and fantastic characters in our nation's psyche and further indulged by students of art and design. In the same way that the Great Depression was the impetus for escapist cinema in the 1930s, terrorism has bred a desperate creative investment in superheroes, fairies and mythic dichotomies of good and evil. Today's young artist has known evil in ways my own generation never imagined. 

After a few years of frustration and (I'll admit it) a growing intolerance for escapist motives in young illustrators, today's realization is saddening.  A sympathetic, tragic chord has instead been struck. This generation of wonderfully creative people was raised in a culture of insidious fear, where no real life heroes can guarantee their safety, where economic collapse is at the whim of blustery, rogue financial institutions, and where bombs blow up people at one of the most celebrated, democratic sporting events in the world, turning the personal triumphs of hundreds of people into a nightmare, all over again. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Day of Nutritional Disasters.

Yesterday, I attended a morning meeting about fundraising for a huge project, and I made the foolish assumption that I shouldn't bother eating breakfast since the Development folks, whom most of us assume are rolling in dough and exceedingly sensitive to refined tastes, would have some healthy things to eat. Usually, our morning meetings at school include granola, unsweetened yogurt, maybe a scone and some fruit, along with coffee, juice and water. When I got there, however, I saw tidily laid out on the table, next to a regiment of promotional brochures and a big honking box of Dunkin' Donuts coffee, an assortment of gooey pastries—eclairs and the like—all small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but plentiful enough to help a man pack on about 25 pounds in the space of an hour. They were arranged like weapons in the armory of a medieval king: lethal little cream puffs and candy colored cakes concealing malignant motives.

Thus began my two day descent into the nutritional underworld. I stuffed about 9 or 10 of these shitty little things in my mouth before I noticed I was the only one eating. A little paper plate overflowed with crimped tissue linings over the course of an hour. Truth be told, one or two of these things may have been consumed by my colleagues, but my sweet tooth took control and I soon found myself bloated and irritable. Much worse, I wanted more. Much more.

No problem. My 11:00 o'clock meeting with a student turned out to be a surprise party for my assistant and me staged by an extremely affectionate and thoughtful group of our seniors who'd set up the appointment as a ploy to get me into the office for the party. While it was an impossibly touching gesture, I once again faced near criminal indictment in my consumption of Doritos, Oreos, Starburst candies and donuts. Every thank you was punctuated by the pop of another cookie or chip into my gluttonous pie hole.

Near death, I was sent reeling in a cloud of depression and lethargy. I swore off eating for the rest of the day, but no sooner had I made this promise than I was in yet another meeting. This was dinner fare, and it was full of creamy sauces, heavy breads and desserts. Oh, there was the half-heartedly prepared lettuce salad, given the gratuitous corner of my plate, but the die was cast early in the day and nothing was going to stop me. And more than 24 hours later, the momentum staged by the gastronomical engine of eclairs so early in the morning is still humming. I've somehow had an absolutely insatiable craving for potato chips all day. Something tells me there's an insidious plot afoot by the the USFDA, Frito-Lay and Little Debbie, because I've seen this pattern before: get me started and I can't stop if the fare is sweet, fatty or salty. It's the weirdest thing, and it's pretty depressing, literally. My blood sugar plummets, I get gloomy and pissed off, and a glimpse in the mirror instantly reveals the grotesque effects.

I don't know where I'm getting with this, other than serving up a public tirade of the ruinous effect this crap has had on the past two days. I'm not lying when I say I can totally see how excess Twinkie consumption drove an enraged Dan White to shoot up San Francisco City Hall way back in 1978. The Hostess-Snoball-Straight-to-Hell effect precipitated by that first bite is devastating for me. I can't run, I feel like shit, and I remain unmotivated throughout the day, slogging through work. It has little to do with my bulging belly bulk (although that's tragic, admittedly); it's more about the way some foods make me feel: like a five-foot-ten silicone implant with a gyroscope whirring inside, perched on stilts and flailing machetes.

In about 15 minutes I leave to have photographic portraits taken for a school-sponsored project intended to inspire, cheer and fortify diversity our community. Last night's dinner meeting presented an opportunity to write some material to orient the photographer before our session, so that he'd have a better sense of who I am. God help the poor man. He's soon to find out.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Architecture of Pictorial Narrative

Diptych With Scenes of the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment: 1275-1325.

Many months ago I was introduced to a sensitively wrought object from the RISD Museum’s collection, a carved, ivory dyptich which seamlessly intertwines the lives of Christ and the Blessed Mother from the Annunciation to the Last Judgment, calling out key phases in the history of their sacred relationship. The dyptich is small, only about 10 x 9 inches when open, and yet some potent storytelling unfolds within the close quarters of the carving, and every inch of space is put to elegant use. The flow of pictorial narrative is fluid but unusual to our 21st century sensibilities, beginning in the lower left with the Annunciation and the birth of Christ, followed by the heraldic arrival of the three kings in the lower right. The top two registers are dedicated to Christ’s Crucifixion and the Blessed Mother’s celestial coronation, paired with the Last Judgment of Christ, who reigns omnipotent as the wee spirits of earth climb from sarcophagi beneath his feet. What a story, and it’s told with exquisite eloquence and economy in the space of 90 square inches.

This was an object of prayerful reflection for the person who owned it. The panels were carved sometime around 1300 and its craftsmanship signifies the importance of object to both maker and owner. But such impressive technical mastery underscores something even more culturally fascinating—the indispensible role of visual narrative as a vehicle for the stories that matter to us. I bring to this encounter the perspective of an illustrator, dedicated to the distillation of message and meaning in elaborately encoded constellations of visual signs. It’s no surprise, then, that I would be particularly struck by its maker’s mastery of narrative form.

There are striking structural likenesses between medieval art and things like contemporary comics, which continue to evolve in sophisticated ways. Check out Chris Ware’s most recent accomplishment, Building Stories, in which the architecture of page and picture become one, and the reading experience is as immersive as a 300-page novel. While the subject matter differs significantly in this comparison, the formal and temporal aspects of the reading experiences are equally sensitive to the architecture of pictorial narrative, transcending boundaries of space and time. In the dyptich’s lower left panel, for example, we actively decipher the story of the Annunciation and the birth of Christ almost simultaneously, accompanied by shepherds and their flocks embedded in the hills beyond.

Consider for a moment the enormous creative challenge faced by the maker of this object: wordlessly tell the life story of Jesus Christ and his Mother—from Madonna and Child to grieving mother and martyred son to King and Queen of Heaven—and make sure the person reading this story can carry it in his satchel on travels to strange lands. Make sure he can study it while resting beneath a tree, hold it reflectively in his hands as he dims the candle at night, carry its significance in his heart and dreams. A lifetime unfolds in this diminutive, sacred object, and we continue to learn from its eloquence.