Monday, December 31, 2012

Twelve Thirty-One Twelve

So here it is, 8:30ish on the last day of 2012. Outside in the rainy Manoa night families are lighting off their firecrackers, generating noise and smoke that will gradually intensify until the culminating celebration at midnight. I had been promising myself to post something here before the end of the year, and since it is indeed the eleventh hour I'm going to honor that promise.

I hadn't really intended to let four and a half months go by without posting anything here, but the trend that I indicated in my last post in August has only continued. The time that I used to spend writing for this blog has now been largely pre-empted by the time that I spend curating my art blog on tumblr.

I kept Throughlines going for six years and wound up with 490 posts and 9 followers. I've been at it on tumblr for less than a year and as of today I've got more than 6000 posts and 100 followers. Granted, posting at Tumblr is mostly a matter of a couple of clicks to reblog what someone else has chosen, so the stats about the number of posts aren't really comparable. But there is certainly a social aspect to tumblr that is interesting. I've found my way to 80 other blogs which also post art of the kind that I find interesting. I've vastly broadened my sense of what's out there in terms of art, and clarified what my own tastes and standards are. (I've taken a particular interest in still life painting, and have archive several hundred examples on the blog. Also collage.) Along the way, I've gotten a ton of ideas to support my own explorations in art, which during the course of 2012 have included drawing, painting, printmaking, and collage. If there were one major change in my life in 2012, one thing that made my life different this year than last, I'd say it was falling down into that particular rabbit hole. It's been an education, for sure. And a ton of fun.

Given that there is only so much time in a day or a week, the fact that I'm putting more time into art has had an impact on both my reading and my writing. I've been reading less, and writing little. Less, of course, is a relative thing. I'm still literate. The list of books I read completely this year—there are at least as many I dipped into and for one reason or another did not complete—includes the following (the ones with asterisks are ones that have impacted or stuck with me especially strongly):

LeCarre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Toibin, The Empty Family
Purpura, Rough Likeness
*Harbach, The Art of Fielding
*Stephenson, Reamde
Greenblatt, The Swerve
Lehrer, How We Decide and Imagine
*Mantel, Bringing Up the Bodies
*Hessler, Oracle Bones
*de la Pava, A Naked Singularity
Child, A Wanted Man
Ford, Canada
Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Rachman, The Imperfectionists
Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Eagleman, Incognito
Majors, Love's Winning Plays
*Knausgaard, My Struggle
Heller, The Dog Stars
*Espedal, Against Art (twice)
*Chabon, Telegraph Avenue
Shank, Teaching Minds
Zhao, World Class Learners (Dr. Zhao spent three days at my school this fall.)
Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable
*Erdrich, The Round House

Right now I'm in the middle of Kingsolver's Flight Behavior and Eng's Garden of Evening Mists, and have another six or eight books piled up waiting for me.

So that's this year. Casting a wider net, I could list the books of a lifetime rather than a year. Jason sent me a book for Christmas called My Ideal Bookshelf. It features more than 100 "leading cultural figures" listing the books that have had the greatest impact on them. Each entry includes a drawing of the books on a shelf. I was taken with the notion and decided to put together my own bookshelf, but in the interests of getting done with it in a reasonable amount of time I photographed my nominations instead of drawing the book spines myself.

These are all books which have had a major impact on my life in one way or another. The titles, moving from left to right:

William Stafford, Allegiances
Andre Dubus, Adultery & Other Choices
John McPhee, Pieces of the Frame
Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching
Wilhelm/James (trs.) The I Ching
Bernard MacLaverty, Cal
Robert Finch, Common Ground
Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
Richard Kluger, The Sheriff of Nottingham
Michael Lewis, Moneyball
Dorothy Dunnet, Niccolo Rising
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
David Shields, Reality Hunger
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
John  McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are
David Bayles and Tex Orland, Art and Fear
Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell,
John Gardner, The Sunlight Dialogues
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Willam Golding, The Lord of the Flies
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Thoma Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time

There's a story associated with each of these books. In some cases, several stories. I'm going to try to pick them off one at a time as the new year gets rolling, maybe try to do a post here about each. In the meantime, just wanted to check in and say I'm still standing. Happy New Year, one and all.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Warp 'n Woof

Well, hello there. It's been a while. I've been traveling some, and I've been posting a ton, but not to this blog. I've fallen under the spell of another sort of blog experience, over at my other blog on Tumblr. It's not a new blog, but I've been using it in a new way. For a long time I was just using it as a place to stash links to videos that I liked or thought I might want to return to. But then that changed in a big way.

There were two bits of technology that brought the change on. One was that through my school I was given access to an iPad, which was nice, but it mostly sat on my desk under a pile of other stuff because there wasn't much I could do with it that was that different from what I could do more easily on my laptop. Then I found what turned out for me to be the killer iPad app, which turned out to be Flipboard. Flipboard allows you to aggregate pretty much everything that you do on the internet into one easy-to-use digital magazine format. So instead of going from site to site or program to program, I can access Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, Google reader, Tumblr, Flickr, The New Yorker, the NY Times, basically anything that has a feed, all in one place. What's even better is that I can share back (to Facebook or Twitter or my own blog or even email) whatever I'm looking at simply by tapping one of the icons at the bottom of each page.

So that was cool. Then when I was using the "Explore Tumblr" feature on my dashboard I came across the remarkable Beverley Shiller, who as far as I can tell seems to spend pretty much every waking hour trolling the internet for artwork that sets her on fire. I found that her taste in art was very much like my own, so I signed up to follow her blog, which meant that every day on my tumblr feed in Flipboard I was getting five or ten really good pictures which I could reblog to my own tumblr page just by tapping the reblog button.

Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal for you. But it was a game changer for me. Because her blog led me to other blogs, and I could follow them as well—I'm up to about 20 now—and pretty soon I was getting really maybe thirty or forty examples of really cool artwork delivered to my iPad for my consideration every single day. From which, using Flipboard to reroute whatever I like to Tumblr, I have been able to more or less become the curator of my own private museum of modern art, with only the pictures that I like in it.

But wait, there's more. It took me a while to figure it out,  but it turns out that tumblr also gives you an archive view (button on the top right of the page) that aggregates thumbnails of all of your posts in one page you can just scroll through if you're looking for one particular work. Like this, only much much much longer, since I now have more than a thousand pictures in my archive.

And eventually I also figure out that you can also tag those posts any way you like and call them up that way. I've gotten dozens of pictures from artists I liked all along but didn't have any way to look at, and I've learned about dozens of others I never heard of before who, although they may never become household names, are doing wonderful work in nooks and crannies I would never have known about. My tastes in art are offbeat. I like a lot of stuff that most people would shake their head at, if they bothered to look at it at all. But I find it really encouraging to know that all across the world there are people who are producing work that speaks to me, and that I now have a way to get to it.

I've been hearing tech people like Will Richardson talking about how universal access to digital media in some sense turns all of us—adults and students alike—into curators, and about the implications of that for our notions about school and our teaching practices. I didn't get it at first. Now I think I do.

So that's how I spent my summer vacation. And, oh yeah, I was in China for two weeks. About which perhaps more some day.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


I've been working for several months on a series of black-and-white semi-abstract drawings. Each is about 8' x 10". This weekend I added two more to the ten I already had completed. When I got done with them I added them to iPhoto and happened to notice that there was an export function that allows me to put together a Quicktime video of the slide show with music. (The music is Ozzie Kotani playing "Moanalua," from his CD To Honor a Queen, on which he plays lovely slack-key versions of songs written by Queen Lili'uokalani.) Here's the video:

Working on these drawings has become a kind of meditation practice for me. I do not normally plan them out in advance, but work them out in the making, one move leading to another.   I'm not sure how they are going to turn out until they are done. But it's turned out to be a satisfying way to work. There are a couple of operational "rules" that I've imposed upon myself, one being the overall format and another being the  high-contrast black/white aspect, no half tones or shading or crosshatching. Each one winds up taking between five and ten hours to complete.

(Having posted this, I notice there's a glitch with the video: the first picture shows up only briefly and then there are ten seconds of black screen at the end. But you get the idea.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Make Good Art

Here's writer Neil Gaiman's graduation address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012. (Thanks and a tip of the hat to Ronk.)

Two excerpts:

The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that's not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we've sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right.

The things I've done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work, or more likely be the kinds of embarrassing failures people would gather together and talk about until the end of time. They always had that in common: looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes. While I was doing them, I had no idea.

I still don't. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?

We're in a transitional world right now, if you're in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing. I've talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.

Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we're supposed to's of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.

So make up your own rules.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A is for Autonomy

There was an article in the New York Times some weeks ago about a new book called Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the assignment, which basically is a compilation of 89 favorite lessons as delivered (or remembered) by various artists and art teachers. It looked like an interesting resource, so I ordered a copy, and quite some time later (the publisher was caught off guard by the publicity and fell behind on getting the orders out) it arrived. Since it's basically a miscellany, I've been reading it in bits, as I find the time. The other day I got to an entry by Justin Lieberman, who, in the middle of a longer piece, had this to say:

In my former post at an art school, I found that my students generally scoffed at assignments. They considered themselves artists rather than students and expected them to meet them on their own terms, which I was happy to do. After all, I prefer a critical conversation in which there is a measure of reciprocity. But in my current job I often find myself working with econ and poli-sci majors who see nothing wrong with telling me they are taking their class in order to raise their GPA. These students often complain to me that I am not giving them clear enough guidelines in my assignments. To this I often respond with a mock belligerence: "I am not your father! Do what you want!" This of course makes it nearly impossible for them to "do what they want," so long as they see me as any kind of authority. Of course, I am extremely uncomfortable with any kind of authority conferred upon me from outside, and this is my way of introducing the reciprocity. I must assume the role of authority in this situation, and I assume this role by rejecting it and handing it back to these poor souls drowning in obedience. Now it is their turn to "assume the role" — that of an artist and independent thinker. I admit that it is a bit of a crash course, but I feel it is necessary in order to prevent myself from becoming a "cult leader"-type professor with a pack of slavering clones at my heels.
He goes on to tell some entertaining stories about specific encounters with students. But I thought this brief passage raises a raft core questions about teaching and learning, about authority and obedience, about the nature of art (and independent thought) and the sociology of school.

This morning I had a brief meeting with a colleague who told a story about a project he had asked his students to attempt that involved them doing some explorations with materials that neither they nor he had used before. He asked them to try things out, share notes with one another about what seemed to work and what didn't, and build on one anothers' successes to build progressively more complex and interesting constructions. It went great; the students were all playing around and having fun and building stuff. Then he made what he thinks was a mistake: he announced to them that since the end of the term was coming up, they were going to have to choose and submit one of their works to be counted toward the final grade, and do a reflection paper explaining what they had done and what they had learned. Immediately the tenor of the class changed. The kids started worrying about time, they started rushing, they started complaining, the fun went out of it, and it became less about the exploration and the learning than about doing what they needed to do to get a grade. I'm not sure it was in fact a mistake, it was just a shift in emphasis that resulted in a shift in perception on the part of the students. After being put into a zone that felt different from what they were used to, they reverted, once the issue of grades was raised, to the kind of "schooly" behavior that schools have inculcated so successfully that it becomes the default, where we go when we hit the reset button.

Lieberman's passage, and my colleague's story, both point to an archetypal dilemma for teachers. It's true that students at times need direction, need instruction, need a structured framework for exploration and feedback along the way. But it's also true that they need openness, they need space, they need room to play around and try things out and fail. Ideally, there would be an approximate balance between those two kinds of learning. But my experience, first as a student myself, later as a teacher, and most recently as an administrator, is that the proportion of work that students undertake, during the course of their K-12 education, that is done in response to explicit direction from the teacher, (as opposed to collaborative investigation or exploration) is somewhere north of 90%. In our legitimate concern to provide scaffolding and support and to make sure that the directions are clear and everyone can succeed, we overstructure every minute of class time and explain exactly what students need to do to get a good grade. It's what we do, with all good intentions. And the teachers who do it best and loudest are adored by the students and lionized by the parents. I've worked with more than one of these paragons, who build a devoted following by telling students what they most want to hear: Just do what I tell you to do the way I tell you to do it, and you'll succeed. No muss, no fuss, no uncertainties, no ambiguities. There is a way, and I know what it is. Do it my way and you'll get perfect 800s on the SAT, 4.0 GPA, admission to the college our your choice. And for most (or if not most, enough) of their students, the promises come true; and the pedestal the teacher stands on gets broader and taller and ever more gilded.

But it's certainly no great wonder then that the students turn out, in Lieberman's words, to be "drowning in obedience." And it's my guess that even teachers who would prefer, like Lieberman (who is, let us not forget, teaching college students), prefer to defer (or avoid entirely) stepping into the role of arbiter or authority figure ultimately wind up there, usually about a week before grades are due.

In my forty+ years as an educator, I've known perhaps half a dozen teachers who have refused, on principle, to go there. Of that handful, there are are maybe two or three who succeeded in creating the kind of learning environment that not only made the students feel good but also resulted in impressive, consistent high-quality work. (And of those two, one of them was not teaching in school at all, but teaching an ungraded adult-education course populated by students who have chosen to be there.) It's not that it can't be done. But there are a lot of factors mitigating against it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


The picture I posted yesterday wound up taking me 6-8 hours to complete. A lot of that time was spent fairly laboriously and painstakingly inking in forms by hand, using .05 and .08 Pigma Micron pens. This morning I fired up my iPad, opened the ArtRage app, filled in the rectangle by using just my finger to draw a quick closed figure with a single line, and then used the paint bucket icon to drop color into the resulting shape. Saved that picture, went in and changed the color scheme and re-saved. Total time on task, about two minutes. The results:

Although I've played around on the iPad a little, I've been resistant to the idea of digital artwork, which has generally felt slick and impersonal to me. But now I find myself going, "Hmmm." 

What would really make this interesting would be if I could find some kind of transparent or semitransparent paper to print on so that I'd be able to incorporate forms of this kind into regular analog collages. I've been looking for that for a while and haven't been able to find anything that doesn't jam the printer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


This weekend I went back into to the large (for me: basically 7'x9') format black and white series of drawings I've been working on. This was the seventh of what I am projecting in my head, for no very good reason, I guess, to be a series of ten. Following an idea I had stumbled on in one of my doodling sessions in my regular notebook I use to take notes at meetings at work, after drawing in the frame I started with some large ribbon-like arcs, and then drew circles at the intersections. As it took shape I was seeing it as potentially turning into a kind of fecund landscape, something akin to what Archibald Macleish says a poem should be: "palpable and mute, as a globed fruit." I drew in the more willowy forms on the right for contrast with the heavier tree-like forms on the left:

I liked that, but it did not yet feel like it would fit comfortably into the other six drawings, which have a kind of density of form and are basically darker. I decided to suggest a landform on the lower left with wavy horizontal lines. I liked the look of that, but it made the whole thing feel unbalanced, so I decided to start working in details over the whole thing. A that point I didn't know where it was going. But my basic method of late has been to simply go from one move to the next, trusting to the process, and hoping something surprising shows up.

I worked on drawing in more circles of various sizes across the upper half of the piece. Then I started drawing perimeter lines about an eighth of an inch inside each of the white shapes of negative space. That created about 27 or so smaller territories. I wound up drawing a second interior perimeter line in each one, with the idea that I'd do something in each area. I wound up doing the whole section in the bottom right by working in progressively smaller forms within the larger chunks. But I knew I didn't want to do use the same method for the entire piece; I wanted some variety. I took another idea from my doodles and drew in the circular wave forms in the block in the middle on the far left, and the one up to the right of that, and then the one way over on the other side of the large semicircular arc that goes across the whole picture. Then it was mostly trying to respond to all those small detailed forms with some simpler, darker forms, including the circles inside the circles.

I wound up, some hours later, with this rather odd piece. It still has the feel of a landscape to it, but day has become night, the mountain has started looking more like a lake, and what I began thinking of as fruit have taken on a vibratory quality that makes me think of Van Gogh's Starry Night, which is how I wound up with its vaguely allusive hip-hop title. 

One of the things that interests me in all of the artwork I'm drawn to is the generative relationship between representation and abstraction. This isn't in fact a landscape. It's black ink on white paper, an assemblage of forms or shapes. But it has landscape-y qualities which emerged pretty early on and which remain even though they've been softened by the addition of all that scrollwork. It's not "saying" anything, but it does have a voice of its own, and part of what makes that voice unique is the way the various elements in the composition echo or talk back to one another.  This isn't my favorite piece in the series; there are tensions or discontinuities that feel unresolved. I was worried for a while, while I was working on it, about how it was going to turn out. But now that it's done, I'm at peace with it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Genius of Childhood

So here's a video of a news spot featuring five-year-old art prodigy from Australia named Aelita Andre. (For those of you who want to see more, she has, inevitably, her own web site.)

The video raises a host of questions, and I'd like to unpack some of them.

First of all, it has to be asked, is it for real, or is it an attempt on the part of her parents to make a bunch of money by exploiting their precocious child's inclination to play with art materials? I don't know the answer to that question. Her father has made some pretty slick videos of Aelita at work in order to establish her artistic credentials, but we have no way of knowing what instructions she is being given off camera, what choices are being suggested to her, or what the time frame of the art experience is. Is she just copying what she's seen her dad do? Or does she just have some kind of intutive sense of what to do on her own? We don't know. We see her at work, or at play, which amounts to the same thing, maybe, in a messy room with what has to be thousands of dollars of art materials laid out for her to use: primed canvasses, paints, brushes, spray bottles, and various odds and ends that she incorporates into her paintings. Someone is getting those materials ready for her. Some is cleaning up afterward. Someone is feeding here her lines. ("Welcome to my space. Hurrah!")  Could it be a scam? Sure? Is it likely a scam? Perhaps, or perhaps to some degree.

But let's run with it. Suppose this what Aelita does, something she has a talent for and and a desire to do, and her parents are just doing what good parents do: feeding the fire. New questions:

• Is it art?

She's got a way of working, the inclination to work, and, judging from the paintings on display, a pretty impressive sense of what looks good. So sure, I've got no problem with classifying it as art. In fact, my own tastes in art of late have been running toward exactly the kind of play-oriented, nonobjective art that Aelita seems to be doing. (If any of you would like to see examples of work of this nature, I've been posting a ton of it lately on my tumblr blog, which for a long time was an archive for videos I liked, but has turned into an archive of art, due mostly to the influence of Beverly Shiller, whose blog Datura consists of dozens of new images that she culls from the web every day. I find I like her taste, and frequently cull from her blog to feed my own.) Watching Aelita "at work" in the film reminded me of many other artists I have watched in action, making what are essentially spur-of-the-moment decisions about gesture and color, about what goes next to what, about how the composition is going to unfold.

• But what about background knowledge and skills? Doesn't an artist have to learn stuff first?

One of the commentators in the film notes that Aelita's work seems to resemble that of conceptual artists, and then asks what is conceptual art if it is not based on concepts, of which five-year-old Aelita presumably does not have a superabundance? My own feeling is that concepts are overrated, and that frontloading concepts before engaging in work is largely a waste of time.  (To take one example from my own experience, the summer before I began teaching I took nine credits of graduate school coursework in education, of which I remember not a syllable. But once school began in September and I had kids in front of me, everything that was discussed in class was of interest, and I knew which material was of immediate use, what was not, what questions to ask, and how to go about applying the answers.) If you think that this is an implicit indictment of most of what has been going on in schools for a very long time, you're correct. We run our schools on the assumption that students have to learn a bunch of stuff — pick a list, anybody's list — before they get to actually do anything "in the real world." That's a highly debatable assumption, and one which twelve-year-old Adora Svitak seized on in her justifiably famous TED talk. If you haven't seen it, now might be a good time to do so:

At one point, Adora has this to say:

As history points out, regimes become oppressive when they're fearful about keeping control. And although adults may not be quite at the level of totalitarian regimes,kids have no, or very little say in making the rules, when really the attitude should be reciprocal, meaning that the adult population should learn and take into account the wishes of the younger population.Now, what's even worse than restriction is that adults often underestimate kids abilities. We love challenges, but when expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them.

I think she's right. I think that in schools we regularly underestimate what kids are capable of doing and insist that they go through the motions of proving themselves by "mastering" an arbitrary set of preselected competencies which we believe will serve them well in a future we cannot even begin to predict. Those competencies rely heavily on hierarchical, rationalistic models of learning, which perhaps used to make complete sense. It still makes some kind of sense, but maybe as not as much as it once did. Much of what I have been reading on brain research and what it tells us about how our minds work, from Dan Ariely and Jonah Lehrer and David Eagleman, among others, has been making the case that although we like to think of ourselves as conscious, rational, deliberate creatures, more than 90% of what goes on in our brains — and that shapes the decisions we think we are making rationally — is hidden from us and is based on non-verbal, non-rational, and often inexplicable neurobiological processes. I think that one of the valuable and liberating functions of art as a discipline is that it provides us with the opportunity to turn off or at least put aside the rational, hierarchical thought processes we most often employ and tune in instead to those mental functions that are underused despite the fact that they are much more powerful: processes like impulse and intuition and holistic attention. All of which are prominently on display in the videos of Aelita at work.

• Finally, coming at this whole enterprise from another angle, I'd ask, "What does the structure and tonality of this news report say about the conventions of storytelling in broadcast journalism?"

The second half of the interview is almost comically inept. Tempted as I am to fire up the blowtorch, I'm going to content myself to one question posed by the interviewer, and poor, befuddled John Turan's inane response. They're talking about Picasso's assertion that "Unlike in music, there are no prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood." The interviewer asks "Why can you not achieve at that young age, you just need to practice over years, if not decades..." That's an assertion that deserves some serious discussion. Instead, what we get from Turan is "Well, you definitely need to practice, but I think it's all in your mind."

Say what?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Words (Which Ones?)

I've been re-reading a book of poems, or rather a book-length poem in numbered segments, by Mark Strand entitled Dark Harbor. The book of poems takes its original inspiration from the work of artist William Bailey, who with great patience and precision put together a body of work that consisted largely of paintings of domestic vessels in various configurations, as in the cover illustration above ("Dark Harbor III").

In an NEH Summer Seminar on poetry that I took many years ago now, Helen Vendler said that it was important, in order to come to a full understanding of any particular poem, to read all of the others by that poet as well, because, as she said, "Each poem proves the other, and the whole."
That's certainly true with Bailey's paintings: seeing them all increases your appreciation of each: they inform and enrich one another. The similarity in format and style of the paintings — their common subject matter; their full-on, frontal, dead-level viewpoint; and their technical precision —serve to highlight the subtle differences, the way a particular vessel might dominate in one painting and take a subservient role in another, how its height or breadth or color or shape, and its placement in context, gives it a personality, a voice, a presence.

Mirroring Bailey, Mark Strand borrows and redeploys in a verbal context this idea of repetition. The book consists of 45 Roman-numbered segments, each consisting of one page of 6-8 three-line stanzas. (There are a few outliers - shorter or longer poems, one- or two-line stanzas —which gain emphasis by the breaking of the pattern.) There is also a core imagistic vocabulary drawn from nature, certain words  recurring over and over again in various configurations: dark, moon, night, clouds, summer, wind, rain, sun, stars, mist, sky.

Here, for example, is segment XI:

A long time has passed, and yet it seems
Like yesterday, in the midmost moment, of summer,
When we felt the disappearance of sorrow,

And saw beyond the rough stone walls
The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent
Of the southern desert, rise in a prodigal

Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday
When we stood by the iron gate in the center
Of town while the pollen-filled breath

Of the wind drew the shadow of the clouds
Around us so that we could feel the force
Of our freedom while still the captives of dark.

And later when the rain fell and flooded the streets
And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind
Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain

Our happiness then, the particular way our voices
Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,
Its violence, its terrible omens of the end?

This segment, like most of the others in the book, could be read and understood on its own, out of context, and it would work well enough. But it gains resonance by its placement in the series, as do the various individual images as they recur and recombine.

I can't read this book without thinking of another poem by another poet, David Wagoner, which addresses this notion of repetition and core imagery:

The Words

Wind, bird, and tree,
Water, grass, and light:
In half of what I write
Roughly or smoothly
Year by impatient year
The same six words recur.

I have as many floors
As meadows or rivers,
As much still air as wind
And as many cats in mind
As nests in the branches
To put an end to these.

Instead, I take what is:
The light beats on the stones,
And wind over water shines
Like long grass through the trees,
As I set loose, like birds
In a landscape, the old words.

Just out of curiosity, I took the text of the book of poems I spent many years working on and pasted it into Wordle. My six words? Night. Water. Sky. Wind. Sun. Back.

If you were to choose six words that you think you keep coming back to, or that you would choose to keep at the core, what would they be?

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Next Sequence

I've been working on a sequence of abstract pen-and-ink drawings in a small (3"x6") notebook I picked up in Seattle last year. There are 20 sets of facing pages in the notebook, and my plan is to have one drawing on each page. I've completed nine of the drawings so far. These are essentially preliminary explorations that I will draw upon as I continue to work on the larger and more elaborated series of drawings like this one (there are currently six in that series.) I used Graphic Converter, which I've come to rely on for all sorts of picture-editing tasks, to create and export the slide show. First time I've tried that function.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Zero. Zilch. Zippo.

(This is the final, last, terminal post in the series of 26 I began on April 3. Each post has centered on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts have all had to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease
One mans's temper might rise, while another man's temper might freeze
In the day of confession, we cannot mock the soul
When there's too much of nothing, no one has control... (Dylan)

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. (Wallace Stevens)

Here goes nothing... (American idiom)

Nothing is what we start with. Silence. The empty page. The empty canvas. The day in front of us. It is the emptiness into which we insert ourselves: we make a noise,  we try a word, we make a mark, we rise. Nothing is the necessary precondition, the ground out of which something becomes manifest. It doesn't matter whether the moment of emptiness is primordial or earned,  arrived at only after the completion everything else one has had it in mind to do. What matters is that we find ourselves in a position to begin again. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

By way of closing off this series of posts, I'd like to offer one of my favorite poems, by Grace Butcher, which appears in the Best American Poetry 2000, edited by Rita Dove. It tells a story, a fable of sorts, about a crow who, like me at this moment, like all the rest of us all the time, is at the end of something, and at the beginning of something. What I like most about this poem is the way it builds to the last four lines, where something altogether remarkable and well, inspiring happens.

Crow is Walking

Crow is walking
to see things at ground level,
the landscape as new under his feet
as the air is old under his wings.

He leaves the dead rabbit waiting—
it's a given; it'll always be there—
and walks on down the dirt road,

admires the pebbles,
how they sparkle in the sun;

checks out his reflection
in a puddle full of sky
which reminds him
of where he's supposed to be,

but he's beginning to like
the way the muscles move in his legs
and the way his wings feel so comfortable
folded back and resting.

He thinks he might be beautiful,
the sun lighting his back
with purple and green.

Faint voices from somewhere far ahead
roll like dust down the road towards him.
He hurries a little.

His tongue moves in his mouth;
legends of language move in his mind.

His beak opens.
He tries a word.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


(This is the penultimate post in a series of 26. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)



Fork in the road; a decision to be made.
Seedling. Sapling. Calisthenic.
Dowsing rod. Handlebar. Plumbing joint.
Funnel. With "A," a teenager. With "the,"
a place for swimming or squash. With 2K,
the millennium. Affirmative (opposed to N).
Core interrogative; existential lament.


Yacht. Yahoo. Yam. Yankee. Yardstick.
Yarn (thread or tale). Yawl. Yawn. Year.
Yearn. Yell and yellow. Yes. Yesterday.
Yielding (Yin), but Yang as well. Yoga.
Yoke. Yolk. Yoni. Young, youth, yoyo,
yuck. Yuppies in yurts. And the one
I would never actually leave out: you.


Why yellow? Why not blue or green?
Why this instead of that? Why now?
Why is that art? Why do you hesitate?
Why not give it a try? Why do you act
this way? Why would I want to do that?
Why have I lived this long? Would you care
for some peppers? Well sure, Why not?

Process Reflection:

Okay, for those of you who have been following this blog for a while, all three of you, you know that this is the kind of dance that I often like to do. Give a child a box, and watch it become a cave, a train, a general store. It's not about the box, it's about the fun you can have inside of it. This whole series of posts, and this post in particular, have been boxes of a sort, and I'm the kid who gets to climb inside and start playing.

Each stanza above is the documentary record of a certain set of fairly transparent mental moves. The first is a pure brainstorming around the letter itself. The second is the result of some time spent scanning the Y entry in the AHED, with a very) little joke thrown in there at the end. The third section is the one that was the hardest and took the longest, given the virtually infinite number of "why" questions that might have been asked. I kept substituting and changing and rearranging the list. At one point I had it completely reformatted as a dialogue, and then wiped that out and went back to the seven-line stanza. (Originally I had eight lines in the first, and seven lines in the second. As I started the third, my first thought was to make it the same length as the first two, but when I saw they were in fact different lengths I cut one line from the first. Why? My tendency, in writing poetry, as in art, is to watch for patterns to emerge and then work into them. At least until it seems strategically useful to break the pattern.

The Mark Rothko painting shows that process at work as well. There are several explicit and implicit points of connection between the poem and the painting, arising in part from the fact that I had selected the painting before I even started writing the poem, and there it was, sitting there, exerting its silent authority over everything that happened under its aegis.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The X Factor

(Twenty-four down and two to do in a series of posts I've undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Inside of words, x most often shows up as part of the prefix ex-, meaning "out," or "outside" or "away from," or, with a hyphen ("ex-"), former.

But by itself x comes into its own as a multipurpose symbol, serving by turns as a landmark, ("X marks the spot"), as a indicator of a choice ("[x]"), as teacherly feedback that an answer on a test is incorrect, as an indicator of generic content in consumer goods ("Brand X") and adult content in movies ("X-rated), and, in the world of algebra and the world at large, as an all-purpose signifier for the unknown.

All of which is by way of warming up, putting some words in a row, saying what can be said for certain in order to be able to find one's way to uncertainties, to ambiguities, to questions. To wit:

  • What's one thing you don't know that you'd like to know?
  • What's one thing you'd like to change about your life as it is? (X = what's missing.)
  • What's the X factor in your life right now, the thing that introduces the largest element of uncertainty into whatever plans you are currently making?
  • How do you feel about uncertainty in general? Does it make you uncomfortable? Cause you anxiety? Exhilarate you?
  • What particular uncertainty do you think most about? What is your plan for resolving that uncertainty?
  • Do you prefer to build your life around predictable routines, or do you go out of your way to introduce novelty into your days? Or both?
  • What happens in your head when you encounter something you do not understand? Does that put you off, or draw you in?
  • What do you do when you don't know what to do?
  • What are you an ex- of? Ex-musician? Ex-student? Ex-athlete? Ex-wife? How did you get that way? How do you feel about it now?
  • What is it that you are now that you look forward to being an ex-of?
  • What do you talk about when you talk about love?

So there's a preliminary list. Not what I had anticipated I would write about, but hey, whatevahs. The list has the feel of the kind of thing that I, an ex-teacher (although, truth to tell, I still wend my way into the classroom as circumstances permit, "ex-teacher" being a descriptor that makes me existentially uneasy) might have done by way of setting up a classroom discussion and/or an assignment.

So here's a thought. A game, Gentle Reader, if you're game. Pick one of those questions. Take out your journal, if you are old (fashioned) enough to even have such a thing. Or just take a piece of scrap paper. Or fire up your computer. Write for seven minutes*, using the question you've chosen as a jumping off point. (If you don't like any of these questions, make up a different one of your own having something to do with the idea of the unknown, and your relationship with it.) If you're feeling feisty when you get done, post what you've written as a comment on this post.

* Seven minutes is a carefully chosen number, arrived at as an ideal after many years of experimentation with larger and smaller numbers. Enough to whet the whistle, but not enough to drown in. Short enough not to feel intimidating, long enough to force you to get beyond the first thought, the first sentence, find your way into something you might not have been expecting.

Disclaimer: The title of this post has nothing to do with the television show which apparently goes by the same title. Being essentially an ex-television watcher, I was in fact unaware of the existence of said show until I googled "X Factor" tonight to see if there might be an interesting graphic I could cadge. No such luck. But damn, there are a lot of pictures from that show up there.


(This is the twenty-third in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Tragic Song

All still when summer is over
stand shocks in the field.
nothing left to whisper,
not even good-bye, to the wind.

After summer was over
we knew winter would come:
we knew silence would wait,
tall, patient, calm.

And that cold this winter gray wolves
deep in the North would cry
how summer that whispered all of us
at last whispers away.

- William Stafford.

W is rife with possibilities. Just the sound of W, "whuh," puts us in the interrogative mode; at least in English, it signals the emergence of a question: whuh? whah? what? when? where? why? whence? Whether brings us to weather and thus to wind, to winter, to Stafford's ominous wolves. If it were the only syllable one were able to utter, it might betoken a mortal thirst, a plea for water. W might also serve to introduce us to wariness, to wakefulness, to watchfulness, all elements the search for such wisdom as we might aspire to in this world. And topographically, W is the last truly fertile ground in the alphabetic odyssey now winding to a close. It's close to the end. Winter is coming.

But what I wanted to write about, briefly, was Work. Because work is the means by which we create wealth of whatever kind. There is much of value that is given to use by virtue of the fact that we have been born. But having been born — and raised, with luck and the blessing, by the work of those who care for us — there comes a point at which both who we know ourselves to be and how we are known to others is defined by the nature and quality of the work that we choose to do.

One of the most interesting books I've read in the last year is Art and Fear by Bayles and Orland. When they talk about work they are making specific reference to artwork, but what they have to say is true with regard to virtually any kind of work. Here they talk explicitly about the connection between work and identity, and how the work you do comes to define in significant ways both who you are and who you might one day become:

What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work. There is no other such book, and it is yours alone. It functions this way for no one else. Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how they got there. Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace. (Kindle Location 419)

Later in the same book, they develop the idea that success in one's work arises from the cultivation of those habits of mind and practice that allow the work to continue:

The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns. Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods, so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear at the surface. And in truly happy moments those artistic gestures move beyond simple procedure, and acquire an inherent aesthetic all their own. They are your artistic hearth and home, the working-places-to-be that link form and feeling. They become — like the dark colors and asymmetrical lilt of the Mazurka — inseparable from the life of their maker. They are canons. They allow confidence and concentration. They allow not knowing. They allow the automatic and unarticulated to remain so. Once you have found the work you are meant to do, the particulars of any single piece don’t matter all that much. (Kindle Location 607)

There are three questions attributed to Henry James which he believed could be used to evaluate work (Again, he was talking about artwork, but the questions are relevant in any case): What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he succeed? And was it worth doing?

The first two questions are easy enough to figure out. But it seems to me that the third question is the interesting one. How do we go about assessing the worth or value of a particular work or kind of work? What criteria are we comfortable with? What quality indicators make sense to us? Answers, as they say, may vary. But for what it's worth, I'd like to toss out a couple I think ought to be on any list we might try to develop:

1) Does the work represent an immediate or potential improvement in the lives of human beings? Does it offer immediate or potential pleasure, insight, relief, aid, or sustenance to others?

2) Does the work represent an immediate or potential improvement in the quality of the environment in which we live? Does it serve to make our world healthier or stronger, more functional or more beautiful?

3) After all is said and done, at that moment when silence is waiting and summer is whispering away, is the world in which we have lived safer and better resourced than the world that was waiting for us when we arrived here?

I first encountered the Stafford poem above when I was in high school. I was working part time as a clerk in a not-very-busy bookstore and I had a lot of time to comb the shelves. "Tragic Song" is to the best of my memory the first poem, and Stafford the first poet, that I discovered entirely on my own, without the benign intervention of instructors. It struck me then, and it strikes me now, as an extraordinarily simple and true and artful piece of work, celebrating as it does the dark beauty of the world and the certain limits on our experience of it. I love in particular the image of the shocks in the field, the visible residue of the harvest now completed, the work now over, the world lying in wait. Winter is coming.

Image Credit: Weedpicker's Journal

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Vision and Voices

(This is the twenty-second in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Voice One: I've been in several meetings already this week, and god knows how many over the last few years — that have hardly gotten underway before someone asks for clarification of what we're really trying to do, given the limited amount of time that we have to do it in. Inevitably, questions of that kind drive us back to starting parts: to mission, to vision. Sometimes it can be frustrating to know you're going to have to go back to square one again, but it's often a helpful move to try to clarify the extent to which we share a common vision and purpose so that we can make better decisions about process.

Voice Two: Okay, I understand what you're saying. But I don't understand why you're saying it. Why start a post like this with a bunch of what you yourself have described to your students as BUGS: Big Unsupported Generalities? I mean, look at all those generalizing words: several, someone, sometimes, often. Even the word "vision" itself is vague. What reason would anyone have to read any of this? It's just words. It doesn't engage the imagination. Where are the pictures?

Voice One: You have to start someplace. Gimme a break. If I hadn't started by saying that, YOU wouldn't even exist, hypothetical spur-of-the-moment rhetorical invention that you are. This dialogue may not as yet be visionary in the sense you mean, but it arises from a vision of a sort.

Voice Two: What are you talking about?

Voice One: I'm talking — WE are talking — about vision, and the role that vision plays in collaboration. And the immediate problem that you have so astutely — if perhaps not intentionally — hit upon is that the word "vision" itself means something more than the sensory apparatus by which one perceives pictures. It means, in a more general and abstracted sense, your core beliefs about what you are trying to attain, and often about the means by which you hope to attain them. For example...

Voice Two: Ah. An example! Now we're getting somewhere...

Voice One: For example, one of my core beliefs about writing is that too clear a vision of where you want to wind up is actually counterproductive. There may be some truth to the old saying that if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. But there's also an argument to be made for the vision of no vision.

Voice Two: Oh, man, here we go...

Voice One: No, seriously. It's the whole thing about how it's not the destination, it's the journey. E.L. Doctorow has a quote I like about that. He says, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Voice Two: The point being?

Voice One: The point being that you don't have to know where you're going. You don't have to have a clear vision of your destination. It's enough to know what the next few minutes are going to be like. If you're willing to set yourself into motion, eventually you'll find yourself in a place you may not have envisioned but which may be better than where you had thought you had wanted to go.

Voice Two: Sounds inefficient. And dicey. You could waste a lot of time that way.

Voice One: True enough. It's a risk you take. It might not be helpful in every situation. Say you're sitting in a room — to satisfy your craving for specificity we'll say it's a windowless conference room in the back of a library with eight of your colleagues sitting around a table at 3:30 in the afternoon trying to decide on the theme for this year's Sustainability Fair and get the wording for the flyer hammered out before 4:00—

Voice Two: There ya go...

Voice One: ...then it's unlikely that an open-ended, meandering, exploratory conversation will produce a satisfactory result.

Voice Two: Not in half an hour it won't.

Voice One: But some kind of Design Thinking exercise where we all brainstormed as many ideas as we could on Post-its for five minutes and then clustered them on the white board might lead us to come up with something that was fresher and more interesting than what we would have arrived at if we just went with the things that are already part of our initial shared vision.

Voice Two: So what you're saying is that there are two kinds of vision: the vision you already have and the vision you arrive at by acting as if you didn't actually have one to start with.

Voice One: Well, I hadn't thought of it that way before. But yes, that works.

Process Reflection:

I started out writing tonight with the thought I would write about Vanishing Points. I typed that into the subject line and found a graphic I was going to use but it was copyrighted and I just sat for a while and the phrase "The Vision Thing" came into my head. So I typed that into the subject line and wrote the first paragraph more or less as you see it and didn't like it much. That's when the thought occurred to me to frame my writerly dilemma as a dialogue. That reminded me of a course I taught one year called "Vision and Voice" and so I changed the subject again to "Vision and Voices," and the rest of it pretty much wrote itself. I stopped at a spot that felt like a natural resting place. But I could have continued in this vein indefinitely, and would have enjoyed doing so. But not if I want to get any sleep tonight.

I would not put this post forward as an example of profound or even particularly well-reasoned writing. But I think it does serve to illustrate the point being discussed in a way that satisfies me, and it's a good example of the effectiveness of dialogue as a rhetorical form. It's fun to write and it's easy to read. Over the years I have often asked students to use a dialogue framework of this kind to explore ideas, and the results are almost always more interesting and more entertaining to read than what results when they are given standard essay assignment.

The whole point of this alphabetical challenge, as I understand it, is to more or less force yourself into territories that you might otherwise not wind up in. That certainly happened tonight. What results from the exercise are often zero drafts like this one: preliminary assays that provide the raw material for what might later become more fully developed essays. I won't be sorry to get to the end of the series. But it's been an interesting ride.

Monday, April 30, 2012


(This is the twenty-first in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Process Reflection:

This is the sixth of a series of pen-and-ink drawings I've been working on in this particular format. (The last one I did, which was actually the first in the alphabetical series of posts I started on April 1, is here. That the title wound up being"Urgent," had something to do with the feeling of the piece as I drew it, especially the organic, teeming aspect of it that I noticed as I was working, and something to with the fact that I couldn't think of any "U" words for today that really struck me as being good starters for the post.

I started this one by drawing the detailed shapes in the upper left hand corner, first in pencil outline and then inking in the shapes. I knew pretty early on that I did not want the whole paper to be that busy; I wanted to show some contrast and movement in terms of both size and shape. So as I was completing the Friday night's work (about an hour and a half) I penciled in the diagonal line and its perpendicular, filled in area up above the diagonal, and stopped there. On Saturday I began by drawing in the second, lower diagonal line, and the signature box on the right (a common element for each drawing in the series). Then I drew and inked the forms in the area in the lower left corner, intentionally extending the lines into the adjacent spaces and leading them into larger forms. At that point what I had drawn was a lot of fairly busy small stuff, so more or less on a whim picked up a compass and drew in the big circle, just to completely redefine the rest of the space. I knew I wanted to have some fluid lines penetrating the circular space, so I penciled those in, although I wound up doing too many and erased a lot of them later. At that point I realized whether I was going to have a black circle with white tendrils, or a white circle with black. The decision was going to affect all the other inking I was going to do. I decided to go with the white for greater contrast with what I already had. I inked in the large tendrils first, then laid out and inked the big black areas, then finally returned to the blank area to the left of the circle and did a little formal dance in there. Done for the day (another two hours). Sunday I spent another hour or so re-inking (using pen and ink always leaves little missed spaces, no matter how carefully you try to lay it in the first time) and smoothing shapes. Finally I added the chop, took the photo and formatted that. The result is what you see, more or less, although I've found that the photo does not hold or reflect the light the way the ink on paper does.

Doing this kind of artwork is my play zone, it's where I can watch something unfold under my eyes and fingers, trying to find a balance between exercising some conscious control as I work on it, while at the same time allowing the drawing to take its own shape and become what it seems to want to become. It's a lot like writing. It's a lot like teaching. It's a lot like life.