Jumbled Thoughts on Shearwater, Current States, and Neglecting the Site

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.


Looking at “Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson”

Abel Alejandre, large portrait and smaller work

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.

portrait of a small boy aiming a finger gun at viewers

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.

woodcut with skull-headed figure holding two roosters

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.

close up of woodcut showing deep cuts and the precision on telephone poles

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.

large drawing of dozens of trophies beside a cardboard banjo on a wall

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.

detail of cactuses, graphite & watercolor

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.

cardboard banjo replica on a wall


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.

detail of neck and headstock of Banjo

Banjo (detail)

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.

Toward a Proper Portfolio

While I figure out how to put together a portfolio page (or maybe just the shop), I’m posting a small gallery of older stuff. Here’s hoping I get new things finished to add to another post, soon as!


A Simplified Customer Service Methodology

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.

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:

  • Engagement
  • Empathy
  • Enthusiasm


1. Engagement 

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


2. Empathy 

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.

Time Lapse Drawing

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.

The soundtrack is in tribute to the late Doug Fieger and his co-writer, Berton Averre, who rips out a typically searing solo. I do not own the music copyright, Capitol Records does. It’s the opener from Get the Knack. Buy here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/let-me-out/id716268020?i=716268612