Saturday, June 12, 2010

Danny Gregory's An Illustrated Life

I've been making and selling hand-bound notebooks and sketchbooks for the past year or so. This was instigated by two factors: 1. my aversion to filling books with my own pictures and writing (an issue I'm working on!) and 2. my great fascination with artists' sketchbooks. This interest was cemented while visiting the Morgan Library in mid-town Manhattan. Among so many great exhibits was a room of 19th century landscape oils by a painter I can no longer recall. In vitrines throughout the room the curator had displayed the artist's sketchbooks, complete with his travel painting set and portable easel. The books were filled with rougher versions of the completed paintings on the wall - kernels of ideas, the freer, originating departure points for the more deliberate work done on canvas. I loved them for their uninhibited creativity and for the way they communicated spontaneity, the hands and heart working without too much interference from the mind. When I sell my books at art and craft sales, I inevitably talk to many people about sketchbooks. They tell me how and when they use them and what qualities they like them to have. Many people express inhibitions and anxiety about drawing or writing in a "nice" book (they doubt their abilities can live up to a beautiful object), as well as a profound fear of a blank page. I'm often surprised by their concerns because, while fearful of many things myself, a new book has never seemed to be anything but full of potential. Once, at a sale, I told a customer about the difficulty I have convincing people that they deserve to work in a well-made book with high-quality paper and she suggested it might help me to display books by Danny Gregory. Gregory taught himself to draw several years ago as a way to contemplate his life. He's written several books insisting that anyone can do this and, more important, that their days would be enhanced if they observed them closely and rendered the people and places around them. This idea is fully explored in his book EVERYDAY MATTERS, which counsels people on drawing in a matter of fact of way on a regular basis. The result becomes a visual diary of their lives, completed with commitment and focus but not too much forethought. Of significance to me, however, is his book AN ILLUSTRATED LIFE which compiles pages and statements from artists Gregory selected, all of whom use sketchbooks routinely. It's wonderful because all of the work represented differs widely, but much of what's expressed about sketchbooks is consistent. All of the artists are at different stages of their careers, but they're professionals and so are in the habit of being creative. Still, they express fear of each book's first, blank page and of making mistakes and drawing poorly. Almost all of them have devised ways to overcome this concern. Apart from this, they unanimously vouch for the usefulness of sketchbooks and the special qualities books possess over computer work or mere blank pages. They like books because their design necessarily unites all of the drawings they contain, even if their content is disparate. Because books move from front to back, filling them relates to progress, continuity, and chronology. Since books have covers, they allow for privacy, which means that the artists don't feel pressure to complete their best work. They can experiment, or express something personal, because few will see and therefore judge the result. More of often than not, the book's contributors claim using sketchbooks enhances their other work, the looseness of their daily, casual entries leading to ideas and approaches they might not have arrived at otherwise. Most moving were many artists claims that their sketchbooks, almost always at hand while at home or traveling, amounted to proof of existence. The act of discerning and interpreting the world around them via their own perspectives and visual styles meant they were living and perceiving at a specific moment in time. They could return to their books for proof of who they were and where they'd been. The sensations and feelings those experiences summoned were coursing through their drawings and still accessible in the here and now. I feel renewed motivation to make sketchbooks, based largely on Gregory's book. The participating artists specify dimensions and papers that attract them to certain books and all of this information will help me to design new shapes and sizes over the summer.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Singin' in the Rain

I've watched Singin' in the Rain many times but it's always fresh when I go back to it. It chronicles the introduction of sound to films, and stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a silent film actor poised to make the transition to speaking roles. He and screen partner Lina Lamont (the very funny Jean Hagen) have a successful string of films behind them and their supposed romance makes them stock tabloid-fodder. In actual fact, Lockwood can't stand Lamont but goes along with the ruse since it stokes his career and therefore his vanity. Appearing together at the debut of their new silent picture, Don tells a doting reporter how he came to be in the movies. While he says he studied all of the theatrical classics, and rose through the ranks of the finest concert halls, the visuals in flashback discredit his narration. Instead, he and partner Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) are shown hoofing for change in pool halls and playing slapstick to booing audiences on the vaudeville circuit. Don's life on film began out of desperation - he took any job thrown at him. His manipulation of the truth typifies the film industry's long-standing insecurity about being seen as less than high art.
    After the premiere, Don's harassed by voracious fans and escapes by jumping into a car driven by the very "normal" Cathy Selden (plucky Debbie Reynolds). She's unimpressed by his presence, so Don immediately warms to her disinterest (she's a challenge!). During the pivotal musical number in which Don and Cathy profess their love to one another, he suggests that movies are an act of seduction. They wander into an unoccupied lot and Don shows how the right lighting and backdrop - in this case, a sunset - create a mood and place in which the actors can perform. The ingredients are suggestive rather than explicit, foregrounding the dance and the song. It works for Cathy. From this point on, their romance directly parallels Don's artistic coming of age, and the maturation of movies themselves (evidenced by the development of musicals).
    Early on, Lina Lamont emerges as the film's antagonist because she's a total drag and lacks authenticity. The problems begin when the studio head decides to make the latest Lockwood and Lamont picture into a talkie though its principal actress has a dreadful speaking voice. This, coupled with the fact that recording technologies are still crude, makes the final film laughable. During a late-night commiseration and brainstorming session (featuring the totally awesome song "Good Morning"), Don, Cathy, and Cosmo decide the film can be saved if it's retooled as a musical. Cathy (who surpassed her initial averageness by proving she could sing well) will supply Lina's voice against her knowledge.
    The next day, Don and Cosmo pitch the idea and the studio head levels only one concern against the concept - how will it end? On the spot, Don envisions an elaborate song and dance number which plays out as he narrates. It's comparable to the flashback of his life shown earlier but this time it's much closer to his actual story. For Don, it completes a project that has redeemed him as a performer. This film finally, properly showcases skills he was previously too bombastic to employ. Falling in love has made him confident so his work is more honest, inspired and sure-footed as a result. For Gene Kelly, who staged and choreographed the dance numbers with director Stanley Donen, it's an artistic tour de force - one of the best dance sequences ever filmed.
    In the number, Don appears as a young, inexperienced dancer who arrives in New York from small town America. He knocks on agents' doors - all impressionistically painted in cartoon-like strokes - to find opportunities. He's overwhelmed by the city's callousness, made flesh in the form of Cyd Charisse, one of the most beautiful creatures ever to have lived. Their introductory dance is almost impossibly great. It's set in a smoke-filled nightclub filled with bright colours, though dominated by an alarming, "proceed with caution" red, which Charisse is set against in shining emerald green. The choreography moves her around in sharp angles, accentuating her stature, toughness, and exceedingly long limbs. He's won over by her sex appeal and believes he's in love with her, despite her apparent involvement with an intimidating gangster. Another dance follows, but this time they're paired in a more dream-like setting that directly borrows from Don and Cathy's earlier scene - the few, basic ingredients of sunset, wind and gentler coloured lights. It's art imitating life, as it were, with Don newly able to create his own material by abandoning posturing for genuine feeling. Charisse has been softened considerably, her appearance and comportment filtered through the male character's heady, innocent love for her. She's dressed in white with an incredibly long, diaphanous scarf that's almost magically held aloft throughout. The way it floats on air makes literal the sequence's buoyant sentiment. The dance is notable for its grace and extreme simplicity. Over the course of the film, Don's realized that stylized acting, dominating sets and ornate costumes are fallbacks in the absence of emotional truth.
    Musicals are most often criticized for the unrealistic way in which characters break from the story to sing and dance (first of all, is that such a bad thing?). To my mind, this only happens when a film is poorly written and constructed. The musical numbers in Singin in the Rain always elucidate the film's events and move the story forward. The final sequence is a perfect conclusion because it condenses and summarizes all of the movie's themes. The dancer's been rejected by agents and had his heart broken by a gangster's moll, but these experiences strengthen him and serve as reminders of what he came to the city to do - dance for an audience. "Gotta dance!" The sequence ends with the introduction of yet another young, dancing innocent, newly arrived in the city to make it big. And all of this unspools as Cathy finally gets her due as a singing powerhouse. The continual promise of undiscovered, dedicated performers finally finding their crowd is exactly why movies excite us. Movies about making movies - or more simply put, art about making art - is elemental storytelling: It's about finding your way, which is always, rightly born of confidence, honesty and love.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

New Furniture

When Sean and I moved to Milford we had virtually no furniture. Before going to Oakland from Toronto - the brief pit stop we made before firmly deciding to live in Prince Edward County - we gave most of it away. Once settled, neither of us wanted to rush into buying furniture and wind up having a house filled with items we'd purchased from the same place at the same time. We agreed we wanted pieces with character that were selected with care when we knew we really needed and could afford them. Up until now, we've been living without a dresser. Our clothes were stored in plastic containers and suitcases we hauled out when faced with the unnecessarily onerous task of dressing ourselves. But no more! Yesterday, we went to MacCool's Re-use, a fantastic second-hand store that sells lots of mid-century, Danish furniture, beautifully worn late 19th century Canadiana, and gorgeous decorative objects, including a great selection of West German pottery. Cindy and Colm MacCool operate the store out of a 150-year-old barn on their property and they share a great aesthetic. I'd been there last year - looking for a dresser - and found a perfect, art deco specimen made of unfinished wood (a lovely blonde colour). I didn't buy it, but I should have. After the shop closed for the winter, I lived with that specific kind of regret you feel when you pass on something that was meant for you. So when I walked into MacCool's yesterday, I was surprised to see my dresser standing there, though in the meantine it had been painted a pristine white. We didn't hesitate. Colm delivered it this morning and it was incredibly satisfying to fill it with our clothes. I propped a marbled print I bought from artist Robert Wu on top of it and put some ubiquitous daffodils in the vase I purchased along with the dresser. I made the decision to buy it easily - I didn't want to regret having resisted its charms too. (

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Renee French

I was recently alerted to the fact that the talented and exceedingly original artist Renee French has a blog. I've uploaded one of her recent images here. I first learned about her work in 1997 when a friend had copies of Grit Bath, published in 1994 by Fantagraphics. I've tried to amass all of her published work - she's among the few comic book authors who inspires such fascination in me. I was beyond excited when I found her children's book The Soap Lady (inspired by an exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia) in a store in Amsterdam in 2001. Definitely visit her blog. It's worth encountering her drawings directly since their aura almost defies description.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Letterpress Workshop

This past weekend, I had the great privilege of taking Margaret Lock's letterpress workshop. I've done some letterpress printing before, but not for awhile since I don't have access to a press. I was anxious to try again and to learn more, mostly to see if my interest is still keen. Turns out, it certainly is! Margaret is a gifted printer and painter based in Kingston who operates Lock's Press with her husband Fred. I'd encountered her work at the OCAD Book Arts Fair many years ago, as well as at the Wayzgoose held annually in Grimsby, Ontario (I'm going to have a table of my own at this year's version at the end of April). Margaret also organized the William Rueter exhibit and lecture that I attended last winter at Queen's University. The class involved printing a piece of poetry or prose of our own selection. I chose a passage from Virginia Woolf's book Flush, an imagined biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's beloved spaniel. To the left, I've included images of two versions that I printed: I used 18 point Baskerville lead type, apart from the first letter which is 30 point Centaur, and produced the pages on a Vandercook SP 15 proofing press. Margaret gave us a wide variety of papers to print on so that we'd encounter the different results achieved when textures, colours, and weights vary. We discussed the nature of paper at length (grain direction, the meaning of the term "acid-free"), typography, and the organization of the text on the page in order to best represent the words and ideas. Margaret encouraged us to incorporate other design flourishes like decorating the page using watercolour paints. I'm timid when it comes to painting, so my additions were nominal. However, I welcomed the freedom Margaret insists exists when it comes to going back to a print and altering it using other techniques. My passage was just shy of 200 words and it took me hours to set the type. It was helpful to have chosen prose because, typically, it's justified to the left and right (unlike poetry), so required me to do a lot of extra work with spacing. I absolutely loved setting the type in the composing stick. It's so labour-intensive, that it really forces you to consider the words - their meanings and usefulness, principally. As an avid reader and sometime writer, it was fascinating to see how laying out each word makes you question its purpose. Ideally, every word should NEED to be there. This quality is entirely absent from computer-generated language because the ease of typing means redundancies and indulgences (ie. editing!) don't matter quite so much. We proofed our pages - checking for typos and design flaws we should change - then enjoyed printing for what seemed like a brief time in comparison to the effort of preparation. Margaret also talked about depth of impression, noting that a deep impression is favoured currently, since it indicates that a print was handmade. In the past, a subtle impression was preferred to obscure the presence of human hands. On the other side of the Industrial Revolution, we now crave interacting with art and objects created without the aid of machinery. Margaret prefers the traditional approach of printing with a light touch, an aesthetic I share since a hammered page seems to me to be too coarse. I don't know when I'll next get to do some letterpress printing again. It's always been my dream to produce books in this manner, especially on a press of my own.