Monday, January 02, 2017

History Lessons or Why One Hides in Books

What do you do as a year ends, having endured weeks of intense emotion - with seemingly more ahead?  How to make sense of it, can you make sense of it?  What can you compare it to - can you compare it to anything?

Reflecting back, way back, and re-reading  Solnit, my go-to person for reading and thinking about culture and history and spirit.
“On November 5, 1968 Richard Nixon was elected President,

That year Women’s Strike for Peace was founded when a hundred thousand women in a hundred communities across the country staged a simultaneous one-day strike, launching an antinuclear peace movement that also prefigured the women’s movement soon to be born. That year, Cesar Chavez was considering leaving his community organizer job to try to unionize California’s farm workers, and the science writer Rachel Carson was finishing Silent Spring, her landmark denunciation of pesticides published in 1962. Just as the civil rights movement achieved not only specific gains but a change in the imagination of race and justice, so Carson’s book was instrumental not only in getting DDT banned in the United States—which reversed the die-offs of many species of bird—but also in popularizing a worldview in which nature was made up not of inert objects but of interactive, interconnected systems, a worldview that would come to be

.... This is the way the world changes, as Dickens understood when he opened his most political novel with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It usually is.

.....globalization has the same yin and yang that everything else has - and it is good to keep aware of this.  Corporate globalization not such a good thing....but globalization that allows us to study and learn and communicate is incredible.

What gets called “the sixties” left a mixed legacy and a lot of divides. But it opened everything to question, and what seems most fundamental and most pervasive about all the ensuing changes is a loss of faith in authority: the authority of government, of patriarchy, of progress, of capitalism, of violence, of whiteness. The answers—the alternatives—haven’t always been clear or easy, but the questions and the questioning are nevertheless significant. What’s most important here is to feel the profundity of the changes, to feel how far we have come […]”

Taking the time to be mindful -- of time.  Here we are again.

For me, Solnit is one of those writers who is a touchstone.  One of a handful.  Not only is she a great writer, she constructs ideas in a way I LOVE to think — pulling in disparate thoughts and pieces of information and history - both personal and not - weaving them together in magically seamless paragraphs.

I wonder if she does this for all of her readers?  It must happen for some - for a good portion of her readers.  She knows the importance of books and reading - having written:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

My Dad used to stop at the Detroit Public Library on his way home from meetings at the Engineering Society or teaching at the University of Detroit —  those were two reasons he went downtown when I was little.  He brought me books from the library and I remember laying on the couch in the family room, reading.  One night I read something to my mother and she asked me if I had memorized it, or heard someone else reading it - I just kept reading and she went to get my dad - that was high praise.   I knew that I had pleased them. The Christmas after that there was an entire set of Golden Encyclopedias underneath the tree.  The ones you could buy at the grocery store - a volume a week.  I think I already had the first two volumes, but my parents must have sprung for the entire set.  Heaven.  I devoured books, I hid inside of them.  My father did as well.

One of the things my parents would fight about was the amount of money my Dad spent on books.  Lots of IMAGE books and as his illness consumed him -  a decent man - a devout Catholic, he became more of a religious fanatic.  He loved jazz and geeky things of the late 50’s, early 60’s -  having a record player under the dashboard of your car or wiring speakers to be able to have the records you played in the basement heard throughout the house.  Cool minimalist furniture that I think my mother hated, and that his five kids destroyed with use.  Jackie Gleason and Yogi Bear cartoons.  Computers and all things digital would have blown his mind.

Time passed, more kids, more fights, mental health issues that often occupied and propelled anything else that was happening in the family.

I hid in books.  Devoured them.

The Winne the Pooh series (the ones with the E.H. Shepard illustrations) were were read to us as kids  over and over again, sitting on the couch around my mother.  I have those worn copies now and read them to the children in my life.  I would read anything about horses that I could get my hands on, the series, Misty of Chincoteague  I loved.  I read every Little House book, and the entire Nancy Drew series, begging for those instead of toys.  I remember going through a Native American phase, a civil war phase, lots of sappy schmaltzy lives of the Saints - then I got to the point where I would just pour through the library shelves for anything BIG,  The books with the most pages caught me immediately.  I would fall into those, coming up for air when they were over - looking around and feeling confused - like you do sometimes when you first wake up.

When I was in in middle school my dad brought home a list some priest had given him on a retreat:   all the books a well educated person (read: white Catholic male, better yet a Jesuit) should read.  He made sure all of them were on our bookshelves.  I read them all.  American classics like Theodore Dresser’s Sister Carrie, Steinboack’s The Grapes of Wrath - which astounded me.

To be continued.....

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Chaos and Mess

Last week in a writing workshop David said, "Chaos and mess means thinking is going on."  I wrote it down.  Having heard it before in various permutations, "let's get messy"  or "mess signifies you are really digging in," it is often said to students and about students - and should be encouraged pedagogically.  Out of the chaos and mess - great things can come.

But it is also the story of my life as I look around the places I work.

Piles of books.  A given.  In any room that is inhabited for any length of time.  From the kitchen to the basement to the bedroom.  For all of the time spent with a device in hand or a screen nearby, it is the physical book that I lust after.  Yes lust.

cravedesirecovetwant, wish for, long for, yearn for, dream of, hanker for, hanker after, hunger for, thirst for, ache for...

Maybe someday someone will say:  She lusted after books.  Reading them and making them.

There is a place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that, in my mind, is the optimal spot for looking at the moon and stars.  The stars are bright and endless, every constellation flung across the sky - the ones I can name and the others (many more) that I can't.  I sit in the dark in the middle of the night sipping bourbon and looking up.  The only sound in mid-summer being the clinking of ice.  No one around for miles.

They look chaotic and messy as well, unless you really can read them - which I can't.  But let's go with the idea of that for a moment.  Chaotic and messy - thinking going on - right?

There are a lot of references to these particular stars in the books in process of late.  

Solve vincula reis,
profer lumen caecis
mala nostra pelle,
bona cuncta posce.*

TETHERED 2015  (mixed media, v.edition of 6)

Tethered is one of those books.  It is a story of longing, motherhood, of travel, of moon and star watching.  It takes place over the course of 21 years.  In the colophon I write, "A solstice moon with a pacifier moving across the night sky..."   It is, I see now, also a story about how quickly time passes in spite of the constancy of some things.  Chaos and mess among them.

*Break the sinners' fetters,
  make our blindness day,
  Chase all evils from us,
  for all blessings pray.
Ave Maris Stella
Hail Star of the Ocean

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

These days....

The news is so sad and outrageous these days.  My heart breaks.  At these times, when the bleakness of rhetoric and hatred seems impossibly overwhelming, I want to lift up the love I have been blessed with.

Sitting in the backyard tonight as the dusk turns to dark.  This is the time of day when the birds are noisy and the sounds of the neighborhood as it settles in for the night are particular to this midwestern city on the shore of a Great Lake in the summer.  The call of a child, the shutting of a backdoor, the smell of a fire pit, the rustle of the trees.

Looking around this small green space and reflecting on earlier in the day.  A seemingly spontaneous brunch this morning ….originally we planned a small gathering to celebrate grand daughter Muriel’s 2nd birthday.   MiNei and I had talked brunch so she could be here without having to rush off to work.  Joe would be home for the weekend - bonus.  Elijah of course.  MiNei’s mom - Helen, or Tutu to the kids.  She brought them both ukuleles.  Then it turned out that Annie and Audrey would be here - and Teresa came over…Luke is staying with Johnny for a week - so he was here.  Elijah brought a friend - Rohan.  Granny came. We were now nearing 20.   John baked a cherry and apple pie.  Tuna salad, meatballs and fruit.  Lot’s of coffee.  Flowers from the garden - the last of the yellow iris, daisies, peonies - and a couple big striped hosta leaves.

See how easily these familial names are written, the simplicity of a vase of flowers and pie, the casual planning - always able to be flexed to accommodate change?  Could this be your family, just by changing the names and tweaking the menu, the flowers, the place?

And this just speaks to those of us who were physically there.  It doesn’t include everyone else who joined us - either through the objects around us, or the conversations that raised them up, their pictures (readily shared) on our cellphones, or the children they live on in.   

Only a home that has been lived for a long time in can conjure up all the children who have run through its rooms and yard, or yelled about a toy, or wanted a ride in a wagon. Those things still happen, but now it is other children - the children (or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of some of that first group).

The fathers who raised these children…the ones who originally roofed the house and built the studio.  They live on as well.  Luke moves certain ways and Annie and I turn to each other and say “TODD.”  We are all draped in chairs underneath the shade of an apple tree that was planted ten years ago when John R passed and a “weed-tree” that John L brought back from Le-Cache.  The cycle of planting continues as John F digs up plants to take to his yard.  Otis joyously runs bases around the yard in the midst of all of us.  Four generations right there.

And those flowers?  The peonies remind me of my grandmother Marie’s backyard…planted all along the back fence.  The yellow Iris are from that same yard.  Dug up in Royal Oak, planted on 44th street at the house of blue steps.  Dug up again and brought to Bay View.  How many times they have been split and shared - I can't remember.  Same with the hosta from my Mom.  And the daisies?  How many times have I heard my mother in law sing, “I’ll give you a daisy a day dear…” this woman who now struggles to remember each of our names.

....We chase the melodies that seem to find us until they're finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us that nothing here is promised. Not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
we live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.

Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

from Lin-Manuel Miranda's acceptance speech at the 2016 Tony Awards.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hope and Action

For a long time, I've thought that the purpose of activism and art, or at least of mine, is to make a world in which people are producers of meaning, not consumers, and writing this book I now see how this is connected to the politics of hope and to those revolutionary days that are the days of the creation of the world.  Decentralization and direct democracy could, in one definition, be this politic in which people are producers, possessed of power and vision, in an unfinished world.  

Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

If there is anything that gives me hope it is teaching.  I've been thinking about what a gift it is these days.  Coming back into the classroom after a year away it is even more evident.  This term I am teaching a section of the courses called RPM's (or Research, Practice and Methods).

(From the course description) In these courses students investigate strategies for effective communication.  Each section emphasizes process and creative problem solving - appropriately using subject matter and a variety of media as a means of examining conceptual goals.  Students engage in critical inquiry and conduct in-depth research to promote the development of their own studio practice within a historical, cultural, and personal context. 

Students in the course recently turned in a project (a small book in an edition of ten, with a dos-a-dos binding) based on the writing and concerns of Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco.  The work was gritty and tough and the research was, in general, spot on.  It's not an easy class.  They are challenged each week with a new binding, a new writer, a new topic.  The turn around time is fast.  They have to work quickly without over-thinking decisions.  Practicing this is an important part of the course - again, not easy.

I have long been a fan of the writing of James Elkins.  His books, such as Why Art Cannot Be Taught and Art Critiques:  A Guide  are interesting, if only for the questions they raise.  They don't always come to definitive conclusions - but in their defense, how could they?  The topics are huge and the fact that he tackles them at all garners huge kudos from me.  I bring them up here because they have helped me formulate my own thinking about critiques - which is going to bring me back to the RPM students I'm working with in a minute....

In Art Critiques: A Guide, Elkins writes: art critique is an entirely different sort of experience. Art classes maybe the only time in your life that people really focus on your work, and try to say all the things it might mean.  Meaning, interpretation, evaluation.  Ambiguity, complexity, difficulty.  Intensity, confusion, exhaustion.  Inspiration, doubt, revision.  These are the things that happen in critiques.
In your first semester of a dive into college, to study art and design - what you learn about critiques and how they are practiced has a great effect on the way you look at work - your own and others. More about the content of that critique in another post.

On the other end of the spectrum a group of seniors - working to craft a professional digital presence. What social media tools are best used, how to write strong content - how to pull it all together.  Over the summer - I sent out a survey asking former students and colleagues to talk to me about how they did this.  Many of them generously offered to speak to this group - and I try each week to invite one - in person or via Skype.

Full circle this past Monday for me. A student asked the speaker, "How do you annihilate your competition?"  He had a goofy smile on his face - but there was a part of him that was serious.
Our guest didn't miss a beat.  She said, "I don't, I try to become friends with them and ask them to teach me everything they know."

Now that, for me, is hope in the dark.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

details from the Chagall stained glass window - Chicago Art Institute

Miss Eva is wearing earrings shaped like old time Christmas tree bulbs.
and they   blink    blink    blink
as she walks to the altar and receives the plate of hosts
The body of Christ, she says.
Blink    blink    blink.
The body of Christ. 
Miss Eva works in home health care.
She is the nurse you would want sitting next to your bed as you lay dying.
"Now let me fix your pillow" 
Blink    blink. 
The body of Christ.
Do you need a clean sheet baby?  It's okay if it's dirty. 
Let me do that for you. 
The body of Christ.
Miss Eva is a light in the darkness, a beacon, a reason.

Miss Eva with those earrings
standing around the altar with the other ministers
(ministers of the cup / ministers of the host)
watching her I laugh out loud with pure joy.
Funny, slightly scandalous, those blinking bulbs.
It did scandalize some of the ladies in the choir
and certainly Miss Augusta.
The more I thought about it, the more profound it was
when you look at HER
at the totality of her
of what she does 
run the food bank
nursing the dying,
singing, ministering to us all
her kindness to children 
those damn little lights should blink forever. 
She is blinking
she is a living heartbeat of love and service. 
Blink    blink   blink
blink    beat    beat
blink    beat    blink


Miss Eva reminds me that everyone I meet has something to offer - as I am so often quick to forget it.

Janelle always told me I could sing and I would never believe her.  Here I was thirty years later, singing in a gospel choir - an alto no less - and feeling happy and proud of being able to do that (no doubt in part to the remarkable support of the community that had taken me in).

A couple of things they did for me.  They helped me learn to like my voice, to love the way making music is able to take me outside of myself.  They reminded me of a world outside of academia, outside of "Art" (with a capital A).  I have done a lot of writing about this experience but never put any of it out in the world.  

Last week Laura told me that Miss Eva had passed away last year - and so I think it is time to honor her with the writing that I started years back.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Scrambled Eggs Benedict

Yesterday afternoon looking at Facebook, I came across a post by Nate Pyper (this is a link to his tumbler account - but he is plugged in to many social and professional media sites).  On Trend List he is described as a "Midwest native with a big heart for thought-provoking, responsible design" and to my mind that fits.  I was fortunate enough to work with him when he was at MIAD, and still keep up with what he is doing - primarily because he does good things, ASKS QUESTIONS and keeps an open mind.

Which brings me back to the original topic.  Pyper was asking about the ordeal surrounding the Niki Johnson piece, "Eggs Benedict."  If you don't know who Nikki Johnson is, look here.  If you are unfamiliar with the "ordeal," look here.

Part of Pyper's post read:
And someone please help me understand – I guess I just don't understand Catholicism–why is this an attack on religion? Why isn't this just a critique of a very powerful, fallible man who said something incredibly stupid? Why is Catholicism so fragile that to call out the flaws of one individual is to declare war on an entire institution?
And so - to Pyper's question.

However people are taking the work Nate - I don’t see it as an attack on Catholicism, if by that you mean the basic teachings of Catholicism, the ever- evolving result of a narrative about a man who came into the world (as John Dominic Crossman writes) as a first century Mediterranean Jewish peasant....and radicalized everything that came after him through his basic teachings - love one another.

However, a critique of the mandates of the organized INSTITUTION that is the Church is always in order - and that is how I see choose to see the conflict surrounding this particular piece  Remember that the institution of the church has been struggling with the idea of all things sexual since before the Council of Trent (1545)

"Eggs Benedict"  is a great example of the idea that meaning in any human experience is simultaneously rooted in the past and present - and will be part of the future.  We evolve, we grow, we change, we make mistakes, we move forward.  Johnson's work has taken a poke at how polarizing issues of sexuality and sexual ethics continue to be for Catholics.  This becomes evident looking at the history of questions and convictions about human sexuality.

The Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome E. Listecki wrote a blog post taking up the critique.  Talking about "radical individualism" he connects the piece to three contributing factors:  1) the loss of objective truth; 2) the loss of natural law; and 3) the loss of the sense of the sacred.

He writes:
An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a church, whose charitable outreach through its missionaries and ministers has eased the pain of those who suffer throughout the world, must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who themselves have been insulted. 
And one of the comment on his post, illustrates the problem perfectly
Always follow your religion. Catholics know our faith does not change to fit our life style..Our life style should follow our faith. The picture is Offensive and unacceptable in today's society. Controversial is not the appropriate term.

I respectfully disagree with both of them.  There can be critique without insult.  The mere fact of the making and exhibiting of  "Eggs Benedict" does not demean the charitable outreach of anyone or of any believer - it merely speaks to the complications that everyone on the planet carries within them.  It opens the doors to discussion, it points out flawed thinking.

The idea that "Catholics know our faith does not change to fit our lifestyle" is also mistaken.  Even a cursory examination of the history of the church (which is all I can claim) shows us that it is always evolving.

Margaret Farley gives a succinct overview of some of this history:
Alphonsus Liguori in the eighteenth century gave impetus to a manualist tradition (the development and proliferation of moral manuals designed primarily, like the Penitentials, to assist confessors) that attempted to integrate the Pauline purpose of marriage (marriage as a remedy for lust) with the procreative purpose. Nineteenth-century moral manuals focused on “sins of impurity,” choices of any sexual pleasure, in mind or in action, apart from procreative marital intercourse. The twentieth century witnessed the rise of Catholic theological interest in personalism and the tendency on the part of the Protestant churches to accept birth control.

In 1968 Pope Paul VI insisted that contraception is immoral.  Rather than settling the issue for Roman Catholics, however, this occasioned intense conflict. A world-wide majority of moral theologians disagreed with the papal teaching, even though a distinction between nonprocreative and anti procreative behavior mediated the dispute for some. Since then many of the specific moral rules governing sexuality in the Catholic tradition have come under serious question. Official teachings have come under serious question. Official teachings have sustained past injunctions, though some modifications have been made in order to accommodate pastoral responses to divorce and remarriage, homosexual orientation (but not sexual activity), and individual conscience decisions regarding contraception. Among moral theologians there is serious debate (and by the 1990s, marked pluralism) regarding issues of premarital sex, homosexual acts, remarriage after divorce, infertility therapies, gender roles, and clerical celibacy.

Farley, Margaret (2008-02-15). Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Kindle Locations 813-816). Continuum US. Kindle Edition.

The Vatican has denounced Farley for attempting to present a theological rationale for same-sex relationships, but I would throw my lot in with Farley any day.  As Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale, Farley has written about marriage, divorce, AIDS and sex with a clarity and moral wisdom that is sadly lacking in the hierarchy of the church.

In this, Joe Pabst was right on the money when he said:
"Why did I buy it?" Pabst has said. "I did not buy it because I thought it was beautiful. I bought it because I thought it was provocative and I thought it was important. ... This piece has work to do. It has to make people think and have discussions." (citation)

It can also be a call to action - and to that end  - here is the information for the 2015 AIDS WALK, which will be Saturday, October 3.


Sunday, July 05, 2015

Research. Practice. Methods.

I had the gift of spending  two weeks traveling around Lake Michigan in June. Stops included the HASTAC Conference, seeing family and friends, searching for lupines and doing research for the upcoming residency and the coming academic year.

I've never minded traveling alone and I certainly love driving.

This coming Fall I will be teaching a course with people who are just beginning the journey through the labyrinth that is college. I know that on oh-so-many levels they are going to have experiences that will stretch them in ways they can't begin to imagine yet. I look forward to the day in a few years....which will feel like tomorrow ... when they walk across the stage, having earned the diploma that signifies their accomplishments. (Notice my assumption that they all will do well, be engaged, and graduate).

Traveling around Lake Michigan. Yes - I consider driving around the lake RESEARCH.  There are all kinds of research - and people can become entrenched in what kinds they feel is more valuable than others.  All kinds of research can be valuable.   The trick is not to get mired in one form over others.  If you only read physical books - or looked the physical archives of historical societies or libraries - you would miss a ton of discussion and access that you can only get online.  If you only look online - you are missing the joy of holding a written letter, or a beautifully bound book (or the one next to it on the shelf that you weren't even thinking about).  And if you only read and explore archives and libraries - whether in the physical or the online world - you are missing conversations, great cups of coffee and pieces of pie and fields of flowers and apiaries, the smells of lakes and woods, and the bustling experiences of walking through a city - large or small.

Thinking about research this way - opening yourself up to everything as fodder for your practice - can be overwhelming.  Filtering all of this "stuff" is a large part of my PRACTICE and sometimes it's like riding a bike....something I learned at one point and now will be able to do without really thinking about it at all.  It doesn't mean that there aren't times when I need to turn a laser beam onto a particular idea or solving a particular problem.  Mostly, I trust that it will work itself out one way or another - because I have the skills to make that happen.

 cast concrete piece from TELLINGS, Math Monohan     (MFA Exhibit, 2015, University of Michigan)

For me, working in book arts is appealing for this reason. The considerations of object, page, double-page, type, paper (or not), media and presentation - these must all be seamless to really work.  This appeals to me.  It is a place I feel comfortable.  I have about seven different "projects" going at the moment - and when I get stuck in one I just turn to the knot of the first time to work itself out. Over years, one develops METHODS for making this happen that work for them.  Mine include a lot of writing about the ideas before I begin, a lot of sitting with an idea, and some false starts.

Wrapping up a sabbatical year begs for reflection - expect a fair amount of that coming up.

Thursday, July 02, 2015


Currently have the honor of spending some time at the Trout Lake Limnology Station as artist in residence.  The station is an active place - doing year round limnology research with undergrads, grads and doctoral students.  Housed in a little cabin on the edge of the "village," I work all day and have no obligations of any kind other than that.

Last night I was invited to attend the weekly Seminar held every Wednesday - I knew that there were other people at the Station - as there are cars in front of all the cabins and occasionally I see a young person walking to and fro.  But I was surprised when the room filled up with about 40 people!  Where did they all come from?  It's so quiet here - I generally assume no one is about.  Even at night, the call of the loons across the lake is the only noise I hear.  Last night I meant to go out and see the full moon - but fell asleep to those lovely loon calls.
The seminar yesterday was about a project called FLAME and another about freshwater mussel ecology with a walk to a mussel shoal near the station to see mussels in the field.  The FLAME project reminded me of something I had listened to while driving up here on  RADIOLAB.  The June 18th podcast is called EYE ON THE SKY.   The description of the program: 
Ross McNutt has a superpower — he can zoom in on everyday life, then rewind and fast-forward to solve crimes in a shutter-flash. But should he?  In 2004, when casualties in Iraq were rising due to roadside bombs, Ross McNutt and his team came up with an idea. With a small plane and a 44 mega-pixel camera, they figured out how to watch an entire city all at once, all day long. Whenever a bomb detonated, they could zoom onto that spot and then, because this eye in the sky had been there all along, they could scroll back in time and see - literally see - who planted it. After the war, Ross McNutt retired from the airforce, and brought this technology back home with him. Manoush Zomorodi and Alex Goldmark from the podcast “Note to Self” give us the low-down on Ross’s unique brand of persistent surveillance, from Juarez, Mexico to Dayton, Ohio. Then, once we realize what we can do, we wonder whether we should.

What does this have to do with FLAME?  I can't remember the acronym - but the gist of the research is a way to look at an entire lake and see the changes in temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide.  How this is much more effective than doing a reading here or there --- or inserting a buoy in the middle of a lake and expecting that to give you an overall picture.  (Remember this is my take away with no real understanding of the science behind it).  The research Luke explained (sorry Luke I didn't get your last name, I'll insert it later....) reminded me of EYE ON THE SKY.  Lake surveillance - not with cameras, but with this little gizmo (how is that for a scientific name) that clamps to the end of your boat and uptakes water on a second by second basis as you zip back and forth across the lake.  This, in turn, gives you an overall picture of what is happening on the lake at any given time.

Our ability to capture time and move back and forth through it is amazing to me.  Boggles the mind.  Another thing for a solitary artist to muse about alone in a cabin in the woods.

Oh, what is a TROUTER?  That is the name given to those of us staying at the station by Tim Kratz, Station Director.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

the examined life of the class of 2015...

What does it mean to live an examined life?

I can hardly believe that I am going to quote philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas - if only because my father used to quite him to me constantly and it drove me crazy.  But - pertaining to this idea of the examined life, Aquinas said

He (or she) ranks very low among fools who say "yes" or "no" without first making distinctions...since often opinion, rushing ahead, inclines to the wrong side and then passion blinds intellect.  Far worse than the quest of a person who casts off from the shore and then fishes for the truth without the art..."

This speaks both to what it means to live an examined life - and to the passionate belief I have - based both on study and experience:  that a life without civic engagement is a life cut off - without the ability to truly see the world or to truly know the world - an unexamined life.

It would be impossible to teach in a college and graduate a student who knew ALL of the ins and out of what it means to be any one thing - including a citizen of the world.  Someone who understood all aspects of history - the history of women, of persons of color, of science.  Someone who appreciated all the intricacies of how economics works, who could go into any cultural situation and appreciate all the particulars and politics they found there.  That is impossible, as it is a life-long endeavor that never ends.

But - to introduce that idea - a citizen of the world - and encourage the idea of what that might mean to grow into such a person - well I fully believe that is possible.

You know the phrase 'she lives in a bubble' or my favorite 'he's living in his own private Idaho?' Staying in our bubbles - or our comfort zones - does not allow us to recognize what is fundamentally the same between ourselves and others.  We all aspire to justice, we are all born full of goodness and promise (no one has ever held a newborn and not seen this), and we all inhabit the same home - earth.

To be a citizen of the world, we don't need to give up the ideas that are most important to us.  Think of yourself as surrounded by a series of concentric circles:  first, that bubble you are in, next your family (however you define them), then your neighbors, your fellow citizens.  Add the other circles that engulf you - perhaps they are linguistic, professional, gender related.  Beyond all of those circles is the biggest one - humanity as a whole.  We are all a part of the circle.

People from diverse backgrounds sometimes have difficulty recognizing one another as fellow citizens - and often this happens because actions and motives require, and do not often get, the patience necessary to interpreting them.  You are communicators, that is what artists and designers do - so particularly today when the world is so polarized - you bring special skills to bear in helping us to see issues in a new light, solve them in a new way.

Stepping into situations that you are different from what you are used to is important.  We all  need to be sensitive and empathic interpreters of what we encounter in circumstances that are familiar to us.

You chose to attend an institution that understands that civic engagement is an important component of providing you with an education - one that will make your art and design work stronger in ways that you may not appreciate yet.  Today as you receive your diplomas I am thinking of you all with heartfelt good wishes and abiding affection.  Keep in touch.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The piece from a recent Portandia called SHOCKING ART SUPPLIES makes me laugh every time I watch it. The cameo by Shepard Farey is perfect. It's not that a majority of the art students that I have worked with are like that - in fact most are not - but those who fit the bill - they REALLY fit the bill. In ways that are both slightly annoying and endearing simultaneously.

The reality is that there are as many stereotypes for people who teach art as there are for people who study it. Both born from the same places of wanting to be identified? Or born from a sense of the other's frustration with how to deal with the other?

I remember years ago being at a CAA (College Art Association) annual meeting - either in NYC or DC - and suddenly realizing that I was the only person wearing something colorful in a sea of black and grey and sometimes muted shades of purple. (I wasn't looking for a job or interviewing. I was there to speak on a panel and didn't feel like I had anything to prove.)

Uniforms. We all have them.  Some we put on ourselves and others are put on us.

My find for the day is from Kelly O'Brien's blog (which I highly recommend).  It is about the British artist Rena Gardiner.  It is wonderful to discover people like Rena, whose work is like a breath of fresh air. 

If you want a feast for the eyes - just google Rena Gardiner images and enjoy.  I am getting the book coming out immediately.

Friday, April 24, 2015


It’s profoundly tempting to dismiss as cant any word current with Davos, the N.B.A. and the motherhood guilt complex. Mindful fracking: Could that be next? Putting a neuroscience halo around a byword for both uppers (“productivity”) and downers (“relaxation”) — to ensure a more compliant work force and a more prosperous C-suite — also seems twisted. No one word, however shiny, however intriguingly Eastern, however bolstered by science, can ever fix the human condition. And that’s what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced. Of that shift in meaning — in the Westernization of sati — we should be especially mindful.

That quote was from an article in a recent New York Times - talking rather disdainfully about the meaning of mindfulness in the West.  And though it has a ring of truth to it, it is somewhat dismissive of how some might actually find solace in mindfulness - in a practice of mindfulness that includes facing the most mind numbing suffering.  Suffering that is implicit in the human condition - yes - but a suffering that, when personal, is often dealt with alone in the middle of the night or with a cup of coffee and a blank stare at a kitchen table in the middle of the afternoon.  One that you are thinking about so hard and get so lost in that suddenly you look up and the coffee is cold and the sun is almost set.

Monday, February 02, 2015

hurtling back and forth

someone should wash the windows in this studio....but this is kind of beautiful

Having one of those moments, weeks rather.

It's not that things are not working, they are working splendidly. Perhaps it is that there are just so many things.  Working. Splendidly.  I'm re-reading a small text that sits in my study and begs me to pick it up and engage with it over and over again.  On Beauty and Being Just  by Elaine Scarry is a debate - a mix of personal and philosophical insight that is at once engagingly poetic and perplexing.

This is a text that one picks up and dwells on again and again.  I don't really want to review or reflect on it here -  at this moment it's serving as a jumping off point for this current state of mind.
Scarry writes, "...beautiful things have a forward momentum, the way they incite the desire to bring new things into the world: infants, drawings, dances, laws, philosophic dialogues, theological tracts.  But we soon find ourselves also turning backward, for the beautiful faces and songs that lift us forward onto new ground keep calling out to us as well, inciting us to rediscover and recover them in whatever new thing gets made....hurtling us forward and back, requiring us to break new ground, but obliging us also to bridge back not only to the ground we just left but to still earlier, even ancient ground...."
Hurtling originates in the 13c from hurtlen, or hurten - to strike.  Think of moving or being caused to move at a massive speed, wildly, uncontrolled.  My studio and my study are not large - but they are packed with images, books, materials and projects that make me feel that I am ping-ponging back and forth with the beauty of them, the necessity (self-inflicted) of addressing each of them, and the new directions they propel me towards.

This is not a bad thing.  Just a tad overwhelming.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

the end of the book.... (again)

More from This is not the end of the book; by Umberto Eco and Jean Claude Carriere.  I am still thinking about it and re-reading parts of it.  Background:  It was recently translated from the French and I picked it up when I was in London - in the bookshop at the British Library. (Oh - such a place!) The book is full of the enthusiasm of these two great thinkers...for all things - but especially all things bookish. Yes they can sound "pontificatey"  but I think they've earned it.

This idea of "the end of the book" has been going on for a few decades now.  My MFA thesis exhibit was (coughs) in 1987 and titled "Books in Space."  It was my reflecting on the "new" idea that books were disappearing, as well as how we navigate "different kinds" of space (ex. family space, academic space, community space).  I was beginning to explore calling into question (among other things) the nature of just what it was that constituted a book, or reading for that well as what was happening to books.  The idea of "books in space" came from the initial thinking and research - my outreach to astronauts - asking them what books they would take into space.  The only one who answered me was Sally Ride, who said she would take "The Tao of Pooh."
“But what is a book? And what will change if we read onscreen rather than by turning the pages of a physical object? What will we gain, and more importantly, what will we lose? Old-fashioned habits, perhaps. A certain sense of the sacred that has surrounded the book in a civilisation that has made it our holy of holies. A peculiar intimacy between the author and reader, which the context of hypertextuality is bound to damage. A sense of existing in a self-contained world that the book and, along with it, certain ways of reading used to represent.” ― Jean-Philippe de TonnacThis Is Not the End of the Book

Anyone involved in book arts - making, teaching or critiquing - is very aware what is meant by "reading."  And it has little to do with words on a page.  It goes back to that question I was thinking about in 1987 - how DO we navigate different kinds of space?  How do we read form, materiality, the way text is place on a page?  It is so much more than content - it is more akin to what Barthes wrote about in The Pleasure of the Text;
Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface:  I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. Which has nothing to do with the deep laceration the text of bliss inflicts upon language itself, and not upon the simple simple temporality of its reading. 
When someone hands me an artists' book for the first time - it is like beginning a journey.  The way it is built - the way it smells and the sound of the pages when I turn them.  Are there surprises?  I love surprises.  I feel this way about reading any new book -- always have.  Ahhh I'm starting to ramble now -- next post will try for more clarity.

Read this rock - Black River Harbor, Lake Superior

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Gratitude and Sabbaticals

Picture it.  This morning driving to the library - a regular occurrence if uninterrupted internet is needed - I was looking up at the sky at an eagle soaring overhead and nearly smushed a wild turkey meandering across the road.  This image, my friends, is a profound life truth -although I am at a loss yet to put it into language.

But it seems an apt story for the first "official" day of my sabbatical year - even though I have been enjoying the concept since May.
Sabbatical or a sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a "ceasing") is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible Leviticus 25 for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year. In the strict sense, therefore, a sabbatical lasts a year.  (Wikipedia)
The idea of rest - other than a rest from the grinding down that a 15 week semester entails - is not really the focus of my sabbatical.  Nor should it be.  The idea is the bliss of uninterrupted work.

Paul Cronin begins his book, Werner Herzog:  A Guide for the Perplexed (conversations with Paul Cronin) with a quote from William Faulkner:
"An artist is a creature driven by demons.  He doesn't know why they choose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why."
The process Herzog describes is a familiar one, in terms of often being assaulted by ideas.
The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. 
I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others is the one coming at me with the most vehemence. I have, over the years, developed methods to deal with the invaders as quickly and efficiently as possible, though the burglars never stop coming. You invite a handful of friends for dinner, but the door bursts open and a hundred people are pushing in. You might manage to get rid of them, but from around the corner another fifty appear almost immediately... Finishing a film is like having a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s relief, not necessarily happiness. But you relish dealing with these “burglars.” I am glad to be rid of them after making a film or writing a book. The ideas are uninvited guests, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome. 
It seems to me that I often use teaching as a way to push my ideas "out the door."  This is not always the best thing to do - and I have plenty of colleagues who manage to maintain their studio practice AND teach.  But that has always been difficult for me.  I love teaching - and students are always the most interesting people - I also love the institution I teach at, MIAD. This is my 20th year there.  (I guess I'm staying.)  So for me, a sabbatical year is a way to let all of those "uninvited guests" in from the journals and books and sketches they have been inhabiting, and deal with them.

At the present I'm sequestered on the edge of the Hiawatha National Forest very near to Les Cheneaux Islands.  Surrounded by fields of Queen Anne's Lace and fir trees I am working and working and reading and thinking and working.  It is incredibly wonderful.

Friday, July 25, 2014


Wordle: Who's Your Favorite Teacher

I recently completed MOOC on Coursera  through Duke University that was spearheaded by Cathy Davidson called "The Future of (Mostly) Higher Education."  Reflecting back on the experience  - I am conflicted about MOOC's as a learning platform - like everything else they have pros and cons.  They are messy and often difficult to wade through - especially if you have a few thousand course-mates from all walks of life, education backgrounds and different skill sets with the language the course is being given in.  This is also what makes them incredibly interesting!!

The future of higher ed is wide open  - technology offering new ways of establishing connections and delivering information.  Although face to face learning and guiding students through feedback may still be in many minds (including mine) the most effective way of delivering educational content - it may very well be a luxury in the future for some.  As we continue to defund public education and the cost of obtaining a private education continue to rise - it is difficult to see clearly where this leads us - but it does not seem to bode well.

I recommend HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology and Collaboratory) to anyone
who is interested in these topics.  Educator, parent or citizen - there are a myriad of things there to ponder and be informed about.  This is THE place (in my opinion) where the dialogue is taking place about learning and technology - where ideas are being shared and debated.  If you are an educator, this is not the time (as you likely know by now unless you have been teaching under a rock) to run from re-tooling your skill set and deciding which of the new technologies work best for you and your students.  There are so many options -- and they change and morph so quickly -- that it is great to have a place to turn to to educate yourself about them and discuss their use with others.

The Wordle visualization at the top of this post was created with the first 15 hours of answers to "Who's Your Favorite Teacher and Why" which was one of the forum prompts for the aforementioned course.  There were HUNDREDS of responses, and comments on those responses  -- and comments on those comments. They were written and spoken.  The responses were thoughtful and for the most part heartfelt.  Encouragement, compassion, ability to maintain interest, facilitating learning, challenging, guiding, fairness were words used over and over again.  Certainly as I thought of my own response - those were the things that I thought of.

It has been a great gift throughout my life to have known and studied with many exceptional teachers - both formally and informally.  Still, I knew immediately who I would write about when I read the question.  Barbara Cervenka was my first art teacher in high school.  So much of the foundation of how I think, my studio practice and my outlook on the world have been shaped by knowing and working with her. Not only is she an exceptional artist.  She is an exceptional human being.  Below is an image from her series of galaxy paintings.  She writes;
"[these paintings..] are based on photographs brought by the Hubble Space Telescope.  We are the first generation to see these images, to be able to look back so far in time and space.  The universe revealed to us is beautiful - light storms exploding billions of years ago, millions of galaxies, the birth of stars.  These star maps show us nearly unbelievable depths of time and space, yet they coexist with the minute daily miracles of earth - the opening of flowers, the symmetry of plants, the perfect geometry of skeleton and shell, the fragile monuments hand-built on earth.  In the dark mirrors of these paintings we too are reflected.  I painted these pieces as a meditation, a contemporary form of "illumination" and a celebration of the light that has come to us these days as a gift" 

                                                          Starfield 11-Omega Centauri -2011 / watercolor on arches 24 x 36"

Most recently she has mounted a nationally touring exhibit, Bandits and Heroes / Poets and Saints, through her work with an organization that she founded with her friend and colleague, Mame Jackson:  ConVida.  The exhibit began in Detroit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and is currently in Chicago at the DuSable Museum of African American History until August 17 of this year.  If you are in the Chicago area --- you should take a look.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


New book in the mail today, ART MADE FROM BOOKS, with a preface by Brian Dettmer and an introduction by Alyson Kuhn.  I haven't really had time to look at it thoroughly, but it reminds me of a question that I have debated with Max Yela on occasion.  Are altered books one hit wonders?  Or are they - as the title of this book seems to imply,  not really book art, but rather art made from books.  It is a fine distinction and perhaps not one that many people would care about.  But for Max, who (thankfully) grows and maintains a large collection of book art and for me - who teaches and considers these questions (see what book artists think about?) it is an interesting idea and worth some consideration.

 Brian Dettmer

Do It Yourself
Altered Set of handyman books
9" x 31-1/2" x 4-1/2"

In a Spring 2007 article in BONEFOLDER, Jen Thomas writes about the art of Melissa Jay Craig saying. "...she studied under Ray Martin and Joan Flasch, both of whom encouraged
Craig to explore the creative potential within the book form. Soon her pieces evolved from traditional book structures into stylized book objects. She took these book objects a step further and created an installation titled Library. Without a universally accepted critical definition of book arts, Craig was
free to let her ideas materialize without the limitations that painting had previously presented.
Though Craig felt free to experiment with the book form, not all those working within the field of book arts recognized her work as artist’s books. The critic Clive Philpot once derided Craig’s work during his lecture at an artists’ book event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Craig says, “I had some of my altered books there and he referred to them directly, saying, ‘These are NOT books. They are fetishistic objects.’ Knowing his particular bias, I felt honored to be included in his condemnation. I do make objects. Books are objects. What makes them fetishistic is their inherent resonance, the ability to communicate on a visceral, nonverbal level. So, like the issue of beauty, I can embrace that description; fetishistic objects carry an implicit communicative power. They can be read.”

Pulp Fiction, Melissa Jay Craig

Yes, they can be read.  But there is reading and then there is reading.

( be continued)