20 Minute Layers

The three most important things I took away from my Photoshop classes at PNCA:

1. Blending modes (found in the layers palette) may follow some set of arcane parameters, but you don't need to bother knowing anything about them so long as you're building your image in a reactive manner— that is, you're not aiming for a specific outcome but are embracing chaos as integral to your design.

2. You need fodder. Alot of it. 

And you can't rely on the low-res offerings of a Google image search to provide said fodder for you (for both practical, and ethical, reasons). The fodder you need should contain high-res images of all manner of subjects, textures, and colors. Even more importantly, rich fodder really needs an array of hand-made paint textures, tea stains, ink splotches, and scratched negatives that have been scanned into the computer.

Now, as I've been both photographer and painter for years, compiling such a library of source material was simple. After a few hours of scanning I had enough potential layers to last me a decade. Perhaps even more exciting was the realization that the aesthetic quality of this fodder was of little importance. Mediocre images of rocks and lichen could be blurry, poorly composed and underexposed; it wouldn't matter one bit when these images were applied as a blended adjustment layer to another image. 

3. Know thyself. Infinite possibilities can lead to endless tasks, so without a solid sense of your aesthetic leanings you could end up working on one image for months.

If I'm working toward a deadline I'll start a project with a vague sense of what I'd like to convey and some imagery that might work together toward that end. 

However, if I've just got a few minutes that I want to put toward playing with an image, I'll simply start layering textures and tones at various levels of opacity until I see a direction emerge. This is more an exercise in intuition than Photoshop technique, and while not all of the images are destined for any life beyond the hard drive, they are a good way to jump start the right side of the brain.

The photograph below was the starting point for the image above. I played around with it for about twenty minutes before moving on to other things. Other things like typing this. 

I don't believe this image is finished yet. The left eye seems oppressively heavy, and there's not enough visual noise to disguise the string. But a starting point has been established and the direction found. All I need now is another twenty minutes.


The Thread of Truth

The week I went to Wordstock I also took my students to the World Forestry Center to see the Wolf to Woof exhibit. Being a responsible teacher, I previewed the entire exhibit the weekend prior to the field trip. Being a dutiful artist, I brought along my camera. Without a tripod I was only able to obtain a handful of photos, and of that handful only a very few were of any visual interest. They are currently available for scrutiny at Flickr.

I must confess that I love photographing museum displays— the subjects don't move, and with the right depth of field an entire dioramic fiction can become reality. Depending on my mood I might gravitate toward photographing those displays that can be easily mistaken for some scene outside the climate controlled exhibition hall, or I might feel more inclined toward those displays that fail utterly at their illusion. Those failures, once committed to the still image, become beguiling sources of wonder, as the viewer's inclination (despite the proliferation of Photoshop) continues to lean towards accepting photographic images as expressions of truth.

Now that I think about it, whether founded or not, museums also have the aura of truth wrapped about them. Our visits to them are meant to provide a curated experience endorsed by the diplomas and dissertations of experts. More than any other cultural institution we expect nothing short of complete veracity from a museum, for without the assurance of truth, they become nothing more than mausoleums we must pay to enter: tax-dollar vampires that preserve the past from the ravages of fire, time, and context.

I suppose the thread of implied truth could be construed as a tenuous connection between photography and museums, but it is the thread I unwind when I visit an exhibition, and it is the thread that I follow back out into the daylight when I start feeling oppressed by the hushed white walls and gleaming vitrines that fill my viewfinder.


Open Studio Event

Cleaning up the studio tends to be both distracting and profoundly futile. There are few reasons to undertake such a Sisyphean task and yet, it is currently part of my Thanksgiving "to do" list.

And I do it for you.

I do it because I want you to visit me on Friday, December 5th* during the Troy Laundry Building's Annual Open Studio event (see discretely placed advert above). 

It is not my intention to sell you anything, nor do I plan on coercing you to visit any of the other studios where my fellow co-op artists may try to sell you something. It is just an opportunity to share ideas and libations in honor of the creative impulse. 

Apart from a couple drawings that were part of my show in Seattle earlier this year I'll have some works in progress on display along with a few pieces of juvenilia. I may even do a demo or two if folks are interested. So mark your calendars and bring your friends— it would be wonderful to have cleaned for a reason.

*Please note that I will not be taking part in the open studio day on Saturday as stated in the flyer posted above. An English high tea calls me on to rural Washington that day so my studio must remain locked. 



For those of you following this escapade I present my rejection letter from New American Paintings

I would have posted it sooner but my weeping and gnashing of teeth hindered the ability to type.


The Last Word

Well, the last word from Wordstock 08 anyway. . . I wouldn't dream of throwing in the blogging towel now that my readership has doubled to six people. 

The exceedingly gregarious Turiya Autry of good sista bad sista led a workshop entitled Sensing Writing that was to be my last of the day. Most of my senses were bordering on numb by the time I sat down in that final class, but Turiya's exuberance shook the room free of its tryptophan haze (turkey sandwiches at lunch do not lead to wakeful students in the afternoon) and we set to work.

First off— write a sentence that relies on as many of the senses as possible. To which I wrote:
The sky was still a polluted grey, but crisper now, and full of crackling brown leaves brought down by the season.
That toxic Inland Empire* never fails to provide grist for the ol' mill. A number of us offered up our sentences to the squeaky dry erase board and then a few minutes were devoted to organizing them into a poetic mash-up of free form verse. The process was unequivocally more inspiring than the output. Nevertheless, the poetics of disparity were successfully conveyed.

Onward then to a setting rich with sense words:
I wasn't tall enough to look inside the pot on the stove but I liked to stand near it and listen to the low rumble of the boiling stock.

"You'll burn your nose on that eye if you get any closer." Mama would warn, with her back to the stove. The smell of onions engulfed us but my eyes were too dry to respond, warmed as they were by the glowing orange electric coil that heated the mid-day meal.
Thankfully, we Wordstockains were never asked to have any concrete ideas about the plots of our prompts, so it was very easy to just pick an object or topic from the ether and start writing. As the majority of my classes that day were devoted to helping the reluctant adolescent writer put some collection of words on blank paper it seemed fitting that the vast majority of our activities were geared towards the beginnings of writing— the assumption being that once the imagination is in motion it will remain in motion, at least until an alternate force affects it.

*My God, the Inland Empire has a Wikipedia entry. A very long Wiki entry at that. It reveals a startling paucity of the word "wasteland" but seems forthcoming about pollution, San Bernardino's startling crime rate, our cultural achievements, and "a trend toward lower educational attainment." 

When people ask me where I'm from now I just say Monmouth.



I interrupt these self-indulgent posts about my slap-dash writing at Wordstock 08 to bring you a cloying post about the new member of our household. In writing this entry about my pet I fully realize that there is no turning back from blogging about one's dog/cat/hamster/etc. and that in taking this path I open the door to both ridicule and a profound mediocrity. I wish I could be apologetic, but she's just so darn cute!

Tilou is a term of endearment that the French commonly use for their children. It is derived from "petit loup" which translates into "little wolf." The French also refer to their kids as small cabbages and fleas, which may explain something about why French children inevitably grow up to be so very French. As there is a tradition of christening our pet with a vaguely elitist foreign name we felt that Tilou was a tres super choice for this little biter. 

We adopted Tilou from the Oregon Humane Society. The description posted about her on their website stated that she was a good lap cat who liked to snuggle under the covers and was prone to some "playful" biting. Due to her penchant for latching down on human flesh it was recommended that she be placed in a home without children. Apparently, adults are more used to being bitten and don't react as negatively as a child might to the sight of their own blood. Not that Tilou bites that hard— more often than not she just wants to hold your hand gently with her teeth. I think it's a Siamese way of saying, "I love you."

Tilou is a Lynx Point Siamese, or a mix of Tabby and Siamese. She has a primarily Tabby face and front legs with two adorable white tennis socks on her front paws. Her mix of coloring gives her a vaguely toasted look and it is hard to say which breed's traits seem more dominant. 

She is not as vocal as one would expect of a Siamese, but this may partially be a result of having been first purchased by an elderly woman. Tilou uses quite a bit of body language to express her needs for food (as opposed to meowing) so I suspect that her first owner was hard of hearing and Tilou had to adapt if she wished to get any attention. Since moving in with us she has found her voice a bit more, but she still prefers to leap atop human bodies until they reward her with platefuls of wet food.

The decision to adopt a cat came very quickly, but my wife and I had both been feeling exceedingly lonely since losing Pneu, and one day we simply decided we needed another presence in the house again. Like Pneu, Tilou has an abundance of personality, so she'll fit right in to our eclectic household. 

Thanks for sitting through a pet post. For those keeping score I used the words: darn, cute, snuggle, playful, love, and adorable. Next time I'll try to work in a "loveums" or two.


Wordstock 08: The Blank Page III

The first word I took from among the scraps of paper in her hand read: illness. I tried not to read too much into this. This was a topic I could write about.
You question your sanity. 
Am I doing this to myself? Do I punish my own body? Is my life an exercise in loathing so subtle even I cannot find the root of my discontent? I'm improbably writing my own conclusion with the misfired synapses and imbalanced chemistry of a flawed mind. 

Perhaps sanity was never mine to question.

Now, not all illnesses are like this. Some are just periodic interruptions of the seasons that we understand to be the result of outside influences— germs, or children, or a profound lack of sleep.

I'm to change words with the person next to me. She holds a scrap of paper that reads: hallways. Three more minutes is granted to formulate a connection between the first word and the second.
But the most unfortunate sickness is the undiagnosable: those ailments that occur, and reoccur, with such frequency that they define the shape of your life. These illnesses erect walls on either side of you, blotting out awareness of anything else until you walk a hallway of horrific fixation. A hallway where every step is in service of the proliferation of greater discomfort and self doubt.
And like that the class is over. The room has grown oppressively stuffy and the orderly rows of convention center chairs have lost their regimented appearance. Ms. Ergenbright offers us a quotation from Emily Dickinson and we leave the room a-buzz. 


Wordstock 08: The Blank Page II

Erin Ergenbright handed out an image trimmed from some anonymous magazine and asked us to come up with the name and occupation for the person pictured. Then we were to include this information within a narrative that explained why this individual was kicked out of their family. The morose young adolescent toying with two small plastic animals in front of a brick wall inspired this incipient text:
Esmeralda May Eddy preferred Esme— in this way she used two out of three given names with nominal effort. She had been labeled a dreamer by exasperated caregivers and school teachers, but she preferred to think of herself as an adolescent spiritualist on a mission to reconnect the Santa Lucia Preparatory School with the soul of the natural world.
The next task was to write about the character we'd created from the point of view (that's POV, for those who like acronyms) of a family member. A different lens exposes a different picture, so I chose precocious Esme's exasperated mother and her recollection of the day her daughter left for Santa Lucia:
Esmeralda had plastered her Samsonite with hundreds of sheets of origami paper within twelve hourse of it being enlisted to hold her clothes for Santa Lucia. Naturally, I made no mention of it, as words only vindicated her recalcitrance and I had no desire for her to leave with any sense of self-satisfaction. 

We had reached a verbal impasse on far more than luggage, and it was with two years of heavy regret that I stood by and watched Charles lug the gaily colored case into the trunk. Esmeralda bowed her head with great exaggeration as she got in the back seat of the car: perhaps imagining the rough hand of the law pushing her into a squad car or, more likely, the unyielding palm of God himself sentencing her to four years of the most prestigious preparatory education in New England.
And then my six minutes was up. 

The fact that I ended up with a cliched and overly melodramatic family drama wasn't particularly bothersome; rather it was the fact that I'd become completely wrapped up in my trite fiction that gave me a moment's pause. I almost felt resentment when Ms. Ergenbright stopped our pencils in order to have a few minutes of sharing. When would I find time to outline my sub plots of guilty maternity, obsessive horticulture, and contemporary animism?

One last exercise remains for The Blank Page. Next up, I will respond to two disparate words in a weak homage to Susan Sontag.


Wordstock 08: The Blank Page I

Image courtesy Mary K. Baird at morgueFile

I spent Friday attending an all day teacher education event hosted by the Community of Writers in conjunction with Portland's annual Wordstock festival. All four of the classes that I chose to participate in offered insights about how best to engage reluctant creative writers in the classroom. There is a good reason that continuing education workshops like this are often referred to as intensives; it tends to take a day or two to recover from the information overload. In looking back I realize that I was asked to produce a tremendous amount of writing in relatively short periods of time over the course of the day. 

While I don't claim to be any great shakes as a writer, I thought it might be interesting to post the results of these quick responses to prompts with a bit of contextual information.

* * * * *

The workshop entitled The Blank Page presented a wide variety of prompts and exercises that could be used to move students beyond their fear of an empty white paper. It was skillfully managed by Erin Ergenbright, who provided ample enthusiasm and a respectable amount of collegiate-worthy quotes from literary luminaries past.

When asked to write a quick response to the prompt "Now I know. . ." I produced the following:
Now I know there is no pickle bush. I'd always puzzled over the lack of discussion about them in my elementary school studies of farming and food. They certainly weren't in the Central Valley that we drove through every summer on our way to Grandma and Grandpa's house in Sacramento. Dad had never planted a pickle bush in his desiccated raised garden bed out back. Visits to the nursery offered no clues.

I decided that pickles, and the bushes that birthed them, were an exotic crop imported to America as a means of moistening the mealy cardboard of cafeteria hamburgers.
That was as far as time constraints allowed. I never even got to the revelation of pickles being a common vegetable that was simply pickled. Imagine my surprise at age 22 when this mind-blowing fact was presented to me. Oh, the sheltered upbringing of a suburban child. . .

Our next task was to respond to something visual. Join me again soon for the tale of Esmeralda May Eddy; told in two parts, with strong Emo overtones.


The Privilege of the Nimble Mind

The American Revolution dwarfs all other concerns now. In a few weeks I must teach the events, ideals, and people that shaped the first true democracy of our world. While enthusiastic, there is much I don't know, cannot fathom, and will undoubtedly miss this first time through the topic. 

* * * * *

I'm often struck by how little I've retained from my early education, and how only now as I endeavor to teach a topic, do I truly internalize information. Age has provided me context and a better sense of time. Now that I'm older I can recognize motives and effects. As I stand before my class I sometimes wonder if they too will lose what I've worked so hard to share with them, just as I did years ago. 

Perhaps, ultimately, it doesn't matter. Children must only grow up to enjoy learning— what is learned is of far less consequence. No amount of fact, no collection of historical dates, no application of theorems will assist an adult who has had their imagination deadened and their sense of self-worth consumed by apathy. 

Liberty is the privilege of the nimble mind and receptive heart. 

* * * * *

I've been enthralled with a book from 1976 entitled Liberty Book. It is the work of an illustrator of immeasurable talent named Leonard Everett Fisher. Within his introduction Fisher quotes John Adams:
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children the right to study painting, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
Adams understood that the proliferation of the arts was the final stage of an educated and peaceful republic. The Athens of Pericles provided not only a respite from warfare, but a flowering of ideas and creativity that continues to shape the culture of the Western World. It was the promise of peace, a true and lasting peace that nurtured aesthetic and philosophical inquiry, which guided our forefathers into war with the British. 

I wonder now about how we honor their dream, and whether or not we are capable of the bravery required to offer our children a world of beautiful reason.