Archive for the ‘A to Z’ Category

Zvi Zaks

So here we are at the end of the A to Z challenge. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it might be, even with a trip to Montana thrown into the mix. I managed to post on time — well, except for yesterday. And a couple of glitches with the scheduing. And tongiht, when I’m barely going to make it by midnight. But mostly it went smoothly and I found myself with more to say than I thought I would. More interesting stuff, too, even for me.

But this post isn’t about the end of the alphabet. It’s about transitioning back to the every day routine. Hopefully I’ve learned some things that will help me be more productive and interesting throughout the year, not just for one month.

And so, instead of a last art post, I’m putting up a book review for A Virtual Affair, a near-future science fiction novel by Zvi Zaks. If you’re looking for a well-told story that deals with the ethical and emotional issues that an everyday person faces dealing with the miracles of modern technology, A Virtual Affair is for you.

Jack, the main character, is a sad middle-aged man leading program development at a struggling startup that has developed a virtual suit for simulated sex, and accompanying artificial intelligence named Bambi. Her desire to please the client makes her more and more self-aware, and draws Jack deeper into a puzzling and ambiguous relationship.

Zaks does an especially good job portraying Jack’s worry about his decaying body and deteriorating relationship, and with the ethics and context of the situation.

I had the good luck to discover a couple of years ago, when I was SF editor at the now-defunct Daikaijuzine. He submitted a lovely story called “Jumper,” which we published in March 2011. A True Son of Asmodeus came out last December. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon. How can a person resist deeply orthodox Jewish vampire fighters?

You can find Zvi Zaks at Goodreads

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Yellowstone Park

I grew up in Montana, in an area usually called either Four Corners or Bozeman Hot Springs. It’s a wide spot in the road about 10 miles outside of Bozeman and about 80 miles north of West Yellowstone, the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and about the same distance from Gardiner, the north entrance. We didn’t have a lot of money for entertainment, so one of our favorite things for a Sunday was to pack a lunch in the car and head to the park for the day.

Back then the Gallatin Valley was mostly ranch and grazing land and there was a thriving dairy industry. We’d stop at Heap’s Cheese in Gallatin Gateway on the way south to get fresh cheese curds to go with our spam and crackers, then drive down Gallatin Canyon looking for deer and sometimes mountain sheep. Back then there wasn’t any Big Sky, just Soldier’s Chapel framed against the distant Lone Mountain (photo by Jeff Clow).

Usually we’d go down to Old Faithful to catch an eruption, then drive north via Norris or Canyon to Mammoth to visit the Terraces (an essential part of the trip was listening to my mother lament how the terraces had become much dryer since the 1959 earthquake). If we were lucky, we’d see a moose, or a few elk. When I was very young we’d often see a black bear begging for garbage, but after they took steps to separate the bears and the people, sightings were rare. Mostly we went for the thermal features and the scenery; animal sightings couldn’t be counted on except in winter in the Lamar Valley, where the buffalo and elk herds retreated.

All that changed after the massive fires the late 80’s. Dense lodgepole pine forests turned into piles of charred smoking timber, black as far as the eye could see.

And the eye could see pretty far with the lodgepole desert no longer blocking the view. Spring came, and with it new grass, new trees, new vistas — and most of all, vastly expanded habitat for the animals. Grizzlies, black bears, wolves, mountain sheep and goats, coyotes, sandhill cranes, eagles, ospreys, and of course buffalo, elk, and deer.

Last weekend while I was back visiting family, my brother and I went through the park again, accompanied by his wife. We saw a wolf gorging on a freshly killed elk (probably roadkill) just across the river from the road outside of Mammoth. We saw a grizzly only just out of hibernation, and a herd of male mountain sheep who were apparently killing time while waiting for the females to give birth. We were hoping to see newborn buffalo, but they were just starting to appear. The ranger said they’d seen three in the park. We saw one female clearly in labor, but she was going to be a while and we didn’t wait. We even saw a gorgeous black-and-white raptor we couldn’t identify sitting above the river waiting for a fish. The pictures aren’t great because I took them on my cell phone. The animals were that close.

And as I sat there watching the bluebirds flash above the sagebrush and the snow sparkling in the sun, I thought, “No matter where I live, this place is where my heart is home.”

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In the defense industry, the designation X-nnn tells you that the plane, rocket, or other airborne entity (VTOL, helicopter, lifting body, gyrodevice, etc.) is an experimental one. Most of these planes never become production models, and are not intended to. Rather, they’re testing concepts and possibilities that will lead to further research or be incorporated into later designs, or they prove whether certain materials or construction techniques will function properly under real flight conditions. (Here’s a list of the official X-designated craft.)

Some of the X planes became quite famous in their own right. The X-1 was the first plane to break the sound barrier in horizontal flight, and in the sixties the X-15 hypersonic craft generated headlines with manned suborbital flights. But mostly they’re temporary. They’re used, the data is gathered, and they’re put aside.

I’ve had a lot of fun doing something similar for my art. I’ll fill a postcard-sized paper with squiggles or jiggles, or smear different colors around to see how they mix, or roughing out alternatives for a painting’s composition. Sometimes on the larger pieces, I get hung up on the importance of doing something “real,” forgetting that it’s all X-perimental.

And my writing has totally lost that feeling of experiment. I approach it all with a rigid “gotta finish gotta send it out” mentality that makes it difficult to let anything flow or grow. No wonder it’s only rarely fun these days.

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I love working in watercolors. I didn’t used to use them much; they seemed too delicate and ladylike. My style is not delicate and ladylike. I liked oils — the intense color, the way you could slather them on with a palette knife, making mountains and swirls, or thin them with oil and apply a layer that’s no more than a glaze. You can use small brushes to make fine delicate lines, as detailed as you want. And best of all, if you make a mistake, you just scrape it off and paint it over. You can make an underdrawing that disappears under the paint.

The drawback to oils is that many of the best colors — the cadmiums, for instance — are toxic. Acrylics are a lot safer. They’re water based and have a bit of transparency, especially in thin layers, but still you can overpaint and refine, adding detail and refining lines and shapes as much as you’d like.

Watercolor is the complete opposite.

Watercolors are transparent. If you make a pencil drawing beneath your paint, you’ll still those lines in the finished product. If you paint an orange line, you can’t paint over it with white or even black. A bit of the bottom layer still shows through. The paint dries almost instantly. You can make it very dark by using lots of pigment and hardly any water, but even at its darkest and most intense, it stays lighter and clearer than oils or acrylics.

Because it’s thin and it dries quickly, you have to work quickly. You don’t control it, exactly. You have to go with the flow, with what it wants to do. It surprises you all the time — sometimes wonderful surprises that you didn’t even imagine, sometimes in ways that make you sigh and sling the paper into the recycling bin.

It’s a very free and open way to work. It lets me plug into a kind of creativity I’ve never felt before. I’d like to be able to transfer some of that same flow to my writing, but so far I haven’t been able to. It may be a kind of flow that only belongs to this one medium.

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Vincent van Gogh

I never used to like van Gogh.

Partly it was from being raised in a traditional family in a traditional American small town with a good but unadventurous education. I knew enough to know that there was “art” which meant something that accurately represented nature, and there was what artists were doing in the evil decadent big cities, which was abstract and meaningless and insulting to the intelligence. Because of the big swoopy stars in the sky of his most famous painting, I categorized van Gogh with the abstracts and dismissed him. (I’m oversimplifying here — as I’ve mentioned before, my parents, especially my dad, taught me from an early age, and he liked at least some modern art even when it was weird.)

Okay, truthfully, those big swoopy stars scared me a little bit. Nature is so big and we’re so small.

After Don McLean’s hit song “Vincent” (here if you’ve forgotten or want to listen again), I became more familiar with his work, but it was in the context of his mental illness. There was a TV documentary about how you could predict his approaching suicide in the works he produced towards the end of his life, especially the one where the road dead-ends in the wheat field (Wheatfield with Crows.

By then I was aware that I was prone to bouts of depression and occasional suicidal thoughts. After that documentary I couldn’t even bear to look at his work. I was afraid if I looked at the stark honesty of his mental and emotional decline, I would see my own end. I was even more afraid of my own painting and put it aside for most of my adult life, though I continued to enjoy art museums and continued to make pencil drawings of places we visited and things we saw. Somehow black and white was less threatening than color.

About five years ago, I started taking classes again, and recently returned to van Gogh not as a weird painter with a contagious insanity, but as a serious artist doing his best work despite wrestling with a crippling illness. Though he’s often classified with the late Impressionists, he’s also the first Expressionist painter.

I discovered that while “Wheatfield with Crows” is grim and lonely, The Fields, made at almost the same time, depicts a far different mood. I look at “Wheatfield with Crows” and see that the road isn’t a dead end. It just turns and disappears into the wheat at the crest of the hill, continuing to someplace we can’t see from where we’re standing.

I look at Starry Night and I see that what I felt when I was young, when I felt the hugeness of nature, was exactly what he wanted me to feel.

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For me, one of the essential characteristics of art, as opposed to, say, decoration, is the aspect of surprise. If everything is the way I expected it to be, if all it does is confirm my beliefs and tell me I don’t need to think (yes, this is a swipe at Kinkade :p), it isn’t art to me. Good art, art that is telling the truth, has something that challenges me, surprises me, shows me things in unexpected combinations or perspectives, offers an insight, shares an emotion or an idea very precisely — anything unexpected. A really great piece of art is always new no matter how many times I’ve seen it (or heard it or tasted it or whatever the form is).

Some of the best art I’ve seen comes from mothers making birthday cakes or presents for their children. Hours, sometimes weeks, of work goes into what’s basically a piece of performance art; it lives for that moment of unveliing, for the joy on the child’s face as they view the always true but always unexpected realization: Mommy loves me.

The MFA in Boston has a huge hall full of grand works from the Renaissance — portraits by van Dyk, El Greco, Velasquez, grand scenes of history and hunting and saints wrestling with dark angels. Every time I walk into that room, it takes my breath away from the unexpected beauty and grandeur of both the individual pieces and the totality of the grouping. I’ve been in that room dozens of times, I know what’s there, I know what’s going to happen, and still it surprises me every time.

Burchfield is an artist like this for me. My first impression of his work was that it was bizarre, almost surreal — which had its appeal, but was also a bit off-putting. Then I camped out over a rainy night in Vermont in a campsite surrounded by big old hemlocks. When I woke up the next morning, this is what I saw: Dawn in Early Spring. I was in late fall rather than early spring, but all the details were there: the bright stars disappearing into haze, the frost coating everything, the ominous looming trees suddenly brilliant with the first hint of daylight. I didn’t realize it while I was experiencing the sunrise, but later, when I stumbled across the painting, it was like walking into a space of eternal truth.

Vincent van Gogh is another artist who does that for me, but that’s tomorrow’s post.

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(note: apologies for the late post. I screwed up in the scheduler.)

“I have often heard Degas say that in painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false.”

Walter Sickert, “The Royal Academy,” English Review (June 1912)

One of the questions I’ve been worrying at since I started taking art classes about five years ago is the question of what art is, anyway? And how is it that something that’s completely artificial, nothing but pigment on paper (speaking only of my own work here) winds up saying so much more than it seems to — usually so much more than I intended and often more than I can see myself?

I haven’t found answers. I have a long list of paintings that seem to me to express the kind of deep artistic truth I’m searching for, and thousands of examples in other art forms — for instance, the literally unforgettable Othello with Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones (we saw the Stratford version). That bit of artificial life played out on the stage by people pretending to be other people wind up revealing human nature in a way that no amount of psychoanalysis or social science ever will.

Art that tells the truth leaves you saying to yourself, “Yes, this is what people are like. This is what I am like.” Lots of variations, of course, from “It shouldn’t be like this” to “we’re all going to hell” to “welcome to paradise,” and everything in between. Some truths are mundane, like the focused reality of a Dutch still life of bacon and cheese. Some truths are terrifying, like Dali’s melting clocks The Persistence of Memory), which many have interpreted as embodying the way quantum mechanics destroyed the conventional view of the world but replaced it with nothing.

Some truths are even comforting, such as Berthe Morisot’s Le berceau or Mary Cassatt’s The Bath, depicting the warmth and beauty of the mother-child relationship and the best aspects of domestic life.

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Thomas Kinkade, the self-christened “painter of light,” died earlier this month. I’m sorry he’s dead, and I send my condolences to his family and friends over the loss, but I never liked his work.

His paintings define sentimental. One of my friends wondered how I could object to that, since most of my paintings are very emotional. I had to stop to think about that — because as far as I can tell, sentiment and emotion aren’t the same thing.

Sentiment is just a feeling. It’s a vague pleasing cloud that disappears if you look at it too closely, or try to think too deeply about what’s behind it or what made it happen. Emotion is hard, and sharp, and precise, and honest. It cuts like a blade to the truth of the heart.

Sentiment tries to pretend it’s all one thing, and that thing is good. Emotion knows ambiguity and contradiction.

Sentiment is nearly always about emotions we define as positive — love, family, warm little houses full of light. Emotion doesn’t have to be negative, though strong emotions are often perceived as negative in our society. Emotion looks at that little house full of light and wonders whether inside there’s a child being starved or a woman being beaten or a teenager being disowned because he’s gay.

Emotion depicted well is like a complex dry wine, layered, nuanced, and not to everybody’s taste. Sentiment is that same fruit sugared and whipped and covered in cream until all you taste is the cloying sweetness.

And I think I react so negatively and so strongly to Kincade because I’m afraid my art and especially my writing is sentimental more often than it’s truly and deeply emotional.

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Charles M. Russell

Unlike the more famous Frederic Remington, whose passion for all things Western was as an observer, Charles Russell spent a good part of his life as a working cowboy on the high plains. Both men were from similar well-to-do backgrounds, but while Remington studied art at Yale, Russell was self-taught.

My mother’s favorite painting: Bronc for Breakfast

When the Land Belonged to God

Russell had an acute eye for detail and color. People who’ve never been in the high mountains of Montana and Wyoming will complain that the colors in Russell’s paintings don’t seem natural to them. For instance, To the Victor Belongs the Spoil seems too purple even for twilight. But compare the colors in this photo of a black bear in Yellowstone Park, taken yesterday. Notice the purple cast to the shadows and the way the yellowish grass grows around the patchy soil and rocks.

Russell was also a fine sculptor: Wolf with Bone
Will Rogers

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The urge to create and enjoy art (I’m using the term in the broadest sense here) seems to be an essential part of being human. Representational art such as cave paintings and petroglyphs, sculptures of human and animal forms (such as the Venus of Willendorf), and beautifully symmetrical stone tools found in Paleolithic sites all over the world testify to early skill with art and artifact.

Incised stones found in South Africa date back 75,000 years or more and indicate that abstraction might have been a very early human concept as well. The lovely Venus of Schelklingen, about 40,000 years old, was found near a bone flute, indicating that nontangible forms of art existed from a very early date.

Some of this art appears to be symbolic as well. For instance, some of the early statues seem to represent spiritual beings; it has been speculated that the cave paintings were part of magical hunting ceremonies. But we don’t really know what these items meant to their owners. We look at these objects and we tend to assume that the person making it was feeling the same thing we would be feeling. And we could be right — art lasts far beyond the lifetime of the creator. Across space and time, it connects with the viewer in ways the artist never anticipated. But the human connection is still there.

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