This new story about conservator Mary Schafer’s discovery of parts of a grasshopper stuck in one of Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings is one of those amusing trifles that, at once, is publicity for an event, and a glimpse into the past of a great artist’s process. It’s also a reminder that life is messy and the things we do are all jumbled together with everyone else’s things.
I mean, it could be used for the frothing kind of inspiration that abounds in motivational circles: IF SOMETHING GETS IN YOUR WAY, PAINT OVER IT! But it’s really just that Vincent wasn’t so precious about his work that he cared if a little dust or a bug got stuck in a painting now and then. In a way, it puts us all on notice that art is more than the materials we make it out of.
I was already thinking about the struggle of activism and making, that is, the time sucking angst of the former and the willingness to distract ourselves from the latter. I read an article this morning (on Twitter, of which I’ve got an alarm on my phone to remind me to get off it, so, yes, there are probably myriad posts to come fretting over my surprisingly intense social media addiction) about Pennsylvania Trump supporters who were touting his goals and promises as reasons to vote for him last year. Currently, however, it isn’t the lack of accomplishment or abandoned promises that has lost their support. To the contrary, his hardcore fans (and voters) don’t care about those things. They believe he represents them and their values, and so it doesn’t matter what has changed or been altered in policy or goal.
Regardless of my personal depression over such revelations, the connection between that and my attempt to overcome my own barriers to creation is that passion is an important tool in making things for the world. It drives us toward something. I’m not a fan of positive thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided comes to mind. It’s okay, no, it’s important to feel your feelings, to own them, no matter what they are.
But in the case of creation, a fire for getting something made because we believe in what we are for might trump (hah?) the anger over what we’re against. Distilled: a fervent stand for something beats a stance against something because there’s a reason out there, and meaning to be found in heading for it. We’re stirred by what we don’t like, there’s no doubt. But without things to like, without things to be for, it’s shouting into the void, empty and impotent.
I’ve been thinking about the promise of being human. We spend a lot of time (too much, I’ve no doubt—I admit, even) discussing and fretting over the drawbacks: not enough time, easy distraction, the capacity for self-destruction, these come to mind.
But as long as we are alive, as long as we’re conscious, we have the capability of self-renewal. We can start over. No matter how badly we fail, or how long we’ve indulged our addictions and destructive habits, we can begin again. It’s kind of nice, as a feature, the flip side of distraction. We don’t have to wait for some biological process to begin or end, we just decide to do it, consciously, because we want to try again. We have this stuff inside us that we think we can make into something real, and it’s not satisfying to leave it unmade.
I’m starting to think about it like meditation. When you learn to meditate, usually you count breaths to learn how to focus. One. Two. Three. Four. One. I wonder what we should have for dinner? Oh, damn. One. Two…
So it is, perhaps, with the creative or productive things we say we want to do. We don’t chastise ourselves for letting monkey mind distract us from the breath count, because it’s good to be kind to ourselves. Also, it’s wasted effort, because that’s just what a monkey mind does. Why scold the sea for getting you wet?
I’ll suggest (to you and to me, both) we set aside the flails and the beating-up-on our fidgety, distracted selves and just notice we dropped something. And, then, pick up the thing we need to do again. That’s equally as human, it seems.
I learned a lot from Seth Godin’s blogging advice and his blog, come to that. And so I’m going to start up. Again.
We get letters. Or, I used to get them, when I did a comic book. Most of them were full of thanks and praise, liking the book, saying who their favorite character was, impressed by the progress from issue-to-issue. A couple of times they thought it was crap.
I don’t believe in working by inspiration. That is, to turn a sneering negative into a t-shirt positive, I believe you should just work, and inspiration will follow. Inspiration Is Work’s Bitch, to be internet about it. This isn’t my idea. I saw it in action all the times I went back to school, in my most productive colleagues. It’s a central pillar in Art & Fear, part of an art canon I refer to often and venerate. But I’m also lazy. I’m pathologically prone to long bouts of self-doubt, sullen depressions, existential apathy, hesitation, scorn for yesterday’s trays of half-baked and now stale ideas, disgust with my own abilities—it’s here that self-defeating habits really become starkly obvious, because how the hell can I avoid further disparagement of my lack of deftness and facility if not to practice more, but, then, that’s a cudgel with which to beat myself into torpor again so it is entirely apropos—and, hey, plain old giving up. So it’s weird to keep starting up every time. The trick I’d like to conjure is to start quicker and more often, until the previous bouts of inertia are the rarity and I’m making as the habit.
But that’s just more internal cheerleading via navel-gazing. That’s not what I’m posting about.
Yesterday, I was going through a stack of old comics I’d placed on a lower shelf in the bedroom bookcase when moving into the new apartment, because they couldn’t stay in my hand and the shelf was empty. They were close to the bed, and I had noticed them peripherally now and then, a few fat, brightly colored spines stuffed into a row of bagged-and-boarded slim issues. THB. Paul Pope.
I started thumbing through them. Paul was a colleague and a hero of mine (still is the latter 1) when I was publishing Greymatter, the comics series I did in the early 90s with my cousin. We did our first signing with Paul and a few other up-and-comers, and even then his work was stunningly different. He was confidence personified, a lean, scruffy rock star minus the adoring fan base, which had to come later. Or not, he didn’t seem to care. So cool. Had I more training, or wisdom, or maybe asked more questions, I might have understood what he was trying to do a bit better. He brought a fine artist’s sensibility and daring to the medium, and he always remembered how to relate to the giants of the past. I was mostly following what I could see in the comics I read, particularly Cerebus. It’s fine. I did what I was able to do.
But so 2 we would get these letters. Most of the time it was nice to know someone out there was buying my work and liking it. It was harder than anything I’ve ever done to keep making that comic book, spending nearly every hour we were awake of every day of every week of every month at respective drawing tables, hunched and making black marks on white illustration board. Appreciation kept me going, at least for a few years. Every so often, a review would appear, usually disparaging. A few times, hate mail. Hate e-mail, specifically. Maybe people who disliked the work didn’t go to the trouble of sending physical letters.3 Usually, I tried to ignore it. It still hurts to have someone, even a random anonymous someone, shit on the thing you worked on so long and carefully—I mean literally full of care. Art school has hardened me to criticism, but not enough.
Around issue 3 or 4, I got an email. It said, in part, “You guys need to get off Dave Sim’s lame jock and look at what people like Lapham and Paul Pope are doing.” And that hurt. But it hurt more because I thought it was a valid point. Sure, it was phrased in an assaholic way, but I agreed with them. I really did lean on Cerebus for most of my technique, if not as much for storytelling. And then I despaired. And then I went back to work, because I had to finish an already late issue, and wanted to get away from painful taunting. I never forgot it, though. I tried to find a style of my own, and as I went along, I got better and more different, but I never felt it was different enough. Me enough. Seven issues and over a year later, we were tired of being broke, of living on five bucks a day, and we quit. My cousin was in a new relationship and had bowed out a few months earlier to move down to L.A. I was in one, too, and overwhelmed trying to do everything by myself, and the work still wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.
I didn’t have an epiphanic moment that turned the series around, sales-wise, and propelled us to the heights of industry success. But. It was useful to get such a harsh metaphorical slap in the face. I did things differently, in a conscious way. The trick was, as always, to not let one obsession take over. Hate mail isn’t so bad, sometimes. If you’re going to read the praise, there are jewels to accept that show things you’re doing right. But the nuggets thumping you in the head from haters sometimes have a little gem, too.
It was unimaginably giddying to have someone I thought was the cool kid like me and my work. One of the most flattering things in my comics career was being included in a small circle of recipients who received a massive photocopied set of Alex Toth model sheets and sketches, which Paul, as a vocal fan, had been asked if he wanted, and he said he’d put a word in for me to get the same. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. If I’m wrong, apologies to Scott Allie, who sent it when he was working at Dark Horse. This one: ↩︎
It’s been way too obvious in my writing that I’m reading Infinite Jest. If you’re a fan of DFW—and that’s only too clear for adopting this kind of impromptu, roaming footnoting and unpunctuated conjunction strings, not to mention pretentiously initialing his full name but maybe not because saying his *full* name every time makes the former an apt, even humbly affectionate reference—it’s dangerous to assume you can appropriate these cool quirks. Because one is never as smart as DFW and with, I mean, reasons for doing it. ↩︎
A few times, fans sent packages, and oh, what joy lay within. Someone made little painted clay busts of the main characters, another sent a mixtape of Curve tracks, many sent their own books or minicomics. Amazon can only dream of the emotional impact of unexpected boxes and padded envelopes appearing, sent by people who Want to Give You Something. ↩︎
In chronological order. I was going to sort them by type or category, but this is kind of interesting, and waaay easier. It’s also probably too long, though it’s a fraction of my history. If I do this again, more brutal editing might be a thing. If you want some kind of insight into my outrageously scattered searching, it might be here. But who knows?
I’ve been listening to Shearwater’s monumental, epic (and is there any other way to describe any other Shearwater release?) album Jet Plane and Oxbow. It’s an album fraught with distress and fretting about the U.S. and its place in the world. Perhaps more accurately, it’s focused on Americans and our perennial desire to turn inward. The recent election and desire among a large segment of our population to repudiate and reverse course from eight years of (in the eyes of some in the center and on the right, at least) leftward tack is throwing the lyrics of most of the songs into sharp relief against the backdrop of an unabashed move to metaphorically wall up more than our southern border.
It occurs to me that I’ve been misusing my blog, here. I’ve been treating it as some special, or precious, stone upon which to write only the most essential of commandments. That’s probably arrogant. I’m given to flights of fanciful indulgence in social media, which tend to pass before the eyes of friends and followers (usually they’re one and the same) like dandelion seeds. Swoosh. Here and gone in a blink. Blogs are much more interesting to me when they offer glimpses into the minds of their minders. Kottke.org is a lost pastime that I’d much rather try to emulate than any artist’s portfolio page.
But back to the inspiration for this post, my plan was to write my ephemera here, and let other platforms be themselves, in turn. If there’s a long form native to the interwebs, is it not the blog? Long-form journalism had its beginnings in traditional print, as did the essay and even serial photographic reporting. My personal dismay at what I view as an authoritarian turn to the country of my birth led me to sustained bursts of anger, which are often fed by the ability to share outrage and the borrowed outrage of others with one-click speed. But it isn’t very good at exploring or rumination. Outrage is fleeting, and all the quicker when it drops into a swift-running stream of endless blobs of other insistent voices. Some of those are so loud they carry millions of us along with them to amplify the discrete thought of an idle moment between bouts of simply being famous.
There is a deep sincerity to Jonathan Meiburg’s brooding, heartfelt disconsolation. It mirrors what I’ve been feeling for a couple of years, now. I’m simultaneously tired of my country and in love with its land, people, and promise. I despair at its failings and cling to its hope. I’ve been planning to go abroad to grad school, and that may be the best thing for putting all this anxiety in perspective. What if I need to get away from my country to return to it? If I don’t want to, was it mine? Do I belong somewhere else, if anywhere?
Ah, but here’s a link. And here’s hoping I remember to write my ephemera here more.
This is a bit late, as reviews of exhibitions go, but maybe since the show runs through December 3rd, it’s no big. The show is not huge, but has grown since it opened, due to Kiel Johnson installing another piece in collaboration with Orange Coast College students.
I’m already well familiar with Johnson’s work, and most of the pieces in this show aren’t totally new. Alejandre’s, though, I’d not encountered before. His half is mainly figurative, mostly close portraits done as if etched, on muslin or canvas. One section of small works is on an inner wall, but the majority, in black & white, stretch wide, tall, and imposing. They feel suffused with symbols of family and Latin culture. I felt a sense of awe, maybe even reverence, while I walked the perimeter. Most of the portraits also seemed straight out of the heart of Americana, perhaps like stills from a documentary. I thought of Mark Twain. I thought of Ken Burns. At the same time, the drawings seem endemic to the Southwest, rather than the so-called “heartland,” and to Los Angeles, specifically. These are familiar feelings, if not familiar imagery.
“Put ’em Up” is one of several portraits of male figures that meld heroic scale with a contemporary subject.
Put ’em Up
Is the boy a relative? A friend’s kid? He’s confident, assured. Cute, even. But is this a comment on our culture of violence? The obsession with guns in America, absorbed from childhood? Does this carefully rendered portrait talk about masculinity and its fragility in men, or perhaps the loss of innocence at a young age, something we as humans still struggle to quantify and evaluate? Maybe. There’s a lot to understand and consider in much of Alejandre’s work, and it directly aligns with contemporary Angeleno culture. Apologies for such a stale idiom. This is, though, what excites me when I encounter new art: the questions.
A Tale of Two Birds
Alejandre included a masterful woodcut, already inked, with the drawings and prints. “A Tale of Two Birds” extends the theme of restrained or intimated violence, its central figure seated among or on a multitude of upthrusting rifle barrels of various calibers. The open-jawed and empty skull is a literal death’s head upon a shirted, but pantless, sinewy body, recalling the long tradition of conflating guns and sexual symbolism. And, again, if we’re just talking raw surface imagery, Death holds two cocks, if twelve-year-old me hadn’t driven the provocative interpretation all the way home. On the other hand, I realize now, it’s also evocative of a multitude of belligerent, drunken arrestees on the news and the show Cops who somehow managed to keep only their shirts on. But there’s so much more to wonder about in this piece. The futility of violence. Humanity’s brutal manipulation by unseen or unthinking forces to keep battering itself. The half-remembered symbols of the fighting cock, the partial nude, of death itself. All this under the ominous crosses of telephone poles and their entangling wires, simultaneously symbols of the holy future of technology and the stark oppression of the city.
A Tale of Two Birds (detail)
I’m intentionally avoiding researching the pieces and others’ interpretations so I can start to build up some thought capital of my own. Because, really, who cares about my review (or, maybe, exposition) of a show if I just repackage someone else’s?
So, Kiel Johnson. No points for guessing that he’s one of my favorite artists.
Trophy Case and Banjo
I’ll try really hard not to use the term “whimsical,” because it’s trite and tired, but there’s an element of fun in Johnson’s work that’s sometimes difficult to pin down. The drawings are not careless, exactly, or even carefree, but they maintain a confident looseness that is more akin to sketch than the typical museum piece. They’re fun. And yet, Johnson is evidently and tirelessly industrious and thorough in his work. He is meticulous in his depictions, his deft linework describing curves and volume and weight and accuracy. I don’t have to study them, I’m instantly familiar with every drawing. I recognize the forms and the language he chooses. “Trophy Case” and “Cactus Patch” are part of an ongoing tradition of “everything drawings,” depictions of as many iterations of a concept as can be squeezed onto a page.
Cactus Patch (detail)
And it’s always fascinating to see his sculptures exhibited with his drawings, because the former can emanate a darkness usually absent from his drawings. More so for the pieces included in this show—other works trade places, with hints of menace in drawing and goofball fun in sculpture. I can’t tell if it’s the physicality of three dimensions that gives me this sense, or the more carefully finished forms, but I get a similar feeling from looking at World War I relics or old, abandoned houses. This is a good thing, mind, a sense of presence from these cardboard objects is always unexpected before I see them in person.
Something that struck me while I was at the show was that these sculptures of everyday/real world objects recall the aesthetics of a cargo cult. They reverently copy the details of useful things, but without a sense of what makes them work. These are things plucked from reality, but made special by their recreation. They aren’t copies, they’re homages, made from whatever is to hand, and that tends to imbue them with spirit and meaning.
Johnson’s work fascinates and delights me, in part because of its casual precision, but also because of its never-ending prolificity. His art exemplifies his relentless work ethic, and there seems to always be something big in the making, as if he can hardly contain the flood of bubbling concepts long enough to synthesize them into existence before the next project takes over. Nothing is cavalier, of course. It’s all done with loving care, but not too much: time is ever ticking on. I suppose that could be a value judgment, but I really don’t want to deify that approach. It’s just an aspect I enjoy and admire.
More people should see this. Since I was there opening day, Johnson has installed a new piece, a full-size “crashed” airplane, smack in the middle of the space. He collaborated with OCC students on the plane, everyone working together to create all the various parts and artifacts.
Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson runs through Dec. 3rd, 2016 at the Main Gallery of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College.
or, How I Came to Write a Pseudo-Proto White Paper
As my job in retail is my primary financial support, I’ve been thinking about the issue of customer service for a few years as I observe people in their activities while in my store. It’s easy to devolve into an adversarial mindset. After several years with many of the same cow-orkers (I’ve been a longtime admirer of Cory Doctorow’s favored re-spelling) and even several of the same managers, camaraderie and affection are a natural outgrowth. Customers can be difficult. That’s not to say that most, or even many, are “problem” patrons, but, if only due to a familiar setting, employees can tend to view their workplace as, well, theirs. Up to a third of our lives (sometimes more) is spent there. Customers can become invaders, encroachers, intruders. Overcoming the adversarial tendency and anticipating the difficult customer is a prime goal of customer service. This is all hyperbole to better outline the issue.
I’m not interested in pursuing a career in customer relations, so I wanted to be succinct. How could I quickly translate my simple, surface observations into an easily-digestible package? In these situations, where my ambition is bigger than any underlying motivation, acronyms have proved eminently useful.
The following is not a true white paper, it’s far too succinct and sourceless. It has only my personal observations to back it up. But, hey, just for the record, here it is.
3E CUSTOMER SERVICE A Method for Simple On-Site Problem Solving
by Marcus Harwell
The basic level of customer service is the patron’s impression of their visit. Customers, as a group, regularly and continually have questions and problems which need to be solved. Successful resolution of those queries (and a positive experience) can often be achieved in a brief interaction. In order to maximize customer satisfaction and experience, an employee using the following method may improve results when it is followed as a first and ongoing procedure. Even when the problem is unsolvable, a customer may still leave the store with a positive experience due to the crew’s direct responses. In a very simplified way, this fundamental level can be addressed with a simple, sequential system, namely the three Es:
Awareness and Involvement
This is the first level of interaction with any patron. Being directly involved with the customer asking a question is key to quickly solving problems. Actively listening to a customer’s problem involves both listening and showing understanding. Engaging allows customers to identify with crew and reduces anxiety. So:
Be aware of the customers around you
Be ready to actively listen to customers when they ask a question
Personal body language should reflect these attitudes
Identification With the Customer
One of the quickest ways to create a negative customer experience is to appear unconcerned. Taking on the question or problem as one’s own is a way of connecting with the customer. The Walt Disney Company, for example, conceptualizes their customers as guests for this reason: it allows them to more easily identify with them. Additionally, empathy can create urgency and resolve in the crew. The customer should never feel belittled or burdensome for their question. Their problem is important in the moment. So:
Accept the problem as your own
Strive to solve the question because of its importance, rather than to get the customer out of the way
3. Enthusiasm Positive Response and Assertion
Eagerness to resolve an issue can promote and sustain favorable customer relations. Regardless of outcome, affirming that a problem is solvable, or that one can answer a question, can keep customers on the crew’s side. The reason enthusiasm functions best as the final step is that if the customer is engaged and connected, even a response in the negative can result in an overall gratifying experience. This effect can carry forward to expectations of similar experiences in the future. So:
Affirmatively respond that a question is answerable
Assure customers you will do what you can to answer their question or solve their problem
“I’m not sure, but I’ll find out for you” is a valid, positive response, regardless of a disappointing answer
The importance of this sequence lies in the end result. Even in cases of negative or “No” answers, if the first two principles are followed, the customer is still engaged and empathized with, and therefore more likely to leave their encounter with a positive experience and a feeling that the establishment values their business.
This formula should by no means be seen as the be-all, end-all of customer service. Difficult or hostile patrons require trained management intervention. It’s merely a simplified starting point to quickly get employees involved, and from which to expand to more subtle and complicated issues.
In celebration of getting this mess working again, here’s a video from fall 2014. Kiel Johnson, who taught this advanced drawing class, makes an appearance at about 15 seconds. I know I mention Kiel a lot, but he’s been an inspiration in more ways than one (especially productivity), and I think his ideas about bringing others into art making are important and fresh, so I’ll probably keep doing it. I started recording most of my painting and drawing (at least the large drawings) in his class, and c0ntinue to do so today.