American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

The Portrait.

It’s pretty frustrating that Netflix has just announced a whole new cast of The Crown but is holding off on when the new season will be available—for now they’re just saying 2019—but it made me look back at my favorite episode so far—episode 1, season 9, the one called “Assassins”. I’ve read a little bit about art history—just a few dozen books or so, and taken some classes, but I’d never heard of Graham Sutherland, the artist who painted Churchill’s portrait, a portrait Churchill hated, and which was ultimately destroyed. When Churchill called it “a remarkable example of modern art” he meant that as an insult and the audience laughed.

The episode—spoiler alert—shows Mrs. Churchill burning the portrait herself in broad daylight, with Winston himself as a witness, which is what she claimed happened. It wasn’t until 2015 that it was finally revealed that the portrait, which was supposed to hang in Westminster Abbey, was kept in a cellar for years. Then, in the middle of the night, Mrs. Churchill’s secretary Grace Hamblin and her brother took the painting to the brother’s house and burned it there.

So the story as told in The Crown episode is sort of true and sort of not true. That’s interesting because, as Graham Sutherland himself said in 1944,

I feel that an artist’s business is to find an equivalent to the things which give him is idea, an equivalent which derives its life from being a ‘work of art’ rather than a ‘work of nature’…A metamorphosis has to take place.

Here’s a good example of that: Sutherland’s 1975 work Cathedral Of Rocks:

Source: Pinterest

And here’s a photo of the rocks which inspired that painting:

Source: Graham Sutherland : life, work and ideas by Rosalind Thuillier (The Lutterworth Press, 2015)

At the time Sutherland painted Churchill’s portrait he was highly respected in Britain but his reputation diminished, not so much over the portrait but because of his decision to live part of the year in the south of France, although he became highly respected—and well paid—in Italy, where they know a thing or two about painting. British critics raised their opinion of him a little when he started painting regularly in Wales, drawing inspiration from the landscape and painting pictures like the one above and his 1978 Thicket With Self Portrait. It’s good to see him get some attention again because his paintings are remarkable examples of modern art—and I mean that as a compliment.

Source: Elephant & Castle


The Handwriting On The Wall.

It’s hard for people to understand the importance of a cartoonist’s handwriting. In the same way melody transforms lyrics, handwriting transforms words and can have a profound impact on how the story is received and understood.

That’s from Lynda Barry’s review of BRAZEN: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, a book of cartoon portraits of historic women, in the March 20, 2018 New York Times Book Review. Barry adds that, since this is a translation from a French book, Bagieu’s original handwriting has been almost entirely removed “even when completely unnecessary”.

That’s a shame and it also got me thinking about the intimacy of handwriting, of written language itself. Letters evolved from pictures and we’re kind of getting back to that with emojs becoming a language of their own.

Lynda Barry is a cartoonist herself and I remember seeing some of her comics when I was in college, in various alternative newspapers that got passed around the dorms. Something I remember from the same time one of my professors told me, “I always recognize your handwriting because I can’t read it,” but that’s another story. I loved Barry’s excruciatingly weird and funny portraits and I never thought about it but there was something special about the way she lettered her comics too.

At the same time I was reading Lynda Barry’s comics I was also reading Arthur Rimbaud for the first time so, as a final send-off to National Poetry Month, here’s a poem of his, translated by George J. Dance.


Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O: you vowels,

Some day I’ll tell the tale of where your mystery lies:

Black A, a jacket formed of hairy, shiny flies

That buzz among harsh stinks in the abyss’s bowels;


White E, the white of kings, of moon-washed fogs and tents,

Of fields of shivering chervil, glaciers’ gleaming tips;

Red I, magenta, spat-up blood, the curl of lips

In laughter, hatred, or besotted penitence;


Green U, vibrating waves in viridescent seas,

Or peaceful pastures flecked with beasts – furrows of peace

Imprinted on our brows as if by alchemies;


Blue O, great Trumpet blaring strange and piercing cries

Through Silences where Worlds and Angels pass crosswise;

Omega, O, the violet brilliance of Those Eyes!

That’s pretty good but I think Lynda Barry deserves the last word.

Source: Lambiek Comiclopedia




Where They Lived.

A question that I’ve been turning over in my head for as long as I’ve been studying art history and the philosophy of art is, what is art, anyway? The other day I walked into the breakroom where I work and on the table there was a banana with a spoon balanced on it. I figured the spoon was left there by the person who brought the banana and when I talked to her later she said yes, she’d put the spoon there so people would know she wasn’t giving away the banana. Whenever someone has food they want to get rid, usually cookies or a cake, of they leave it on one of the breakroom tables, although for a while I had a coworker who liked to go through the food in the fridge and take bites out of peoples’ lunches, but that’s another story.

Anyway I thought that if I’d taken a picture of the banana and spoon it would be, well, just a picture, just like the millions of odd ones that people take and upload every day, but if I printed it and framed it the picture would then be art and if I put it in a gallery it could be really expensive art. I didn’t take the picture and now, writing about it, I regret that.

Source: SF MOMA

There’s an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of twenty-three lost bird posters collected by the artist Rigo 23. I haven’t seen it in person but you can see the works online. Here’s one:  I heard about it on an episode of the Bullseye podcast. In the final segment host Jesse Thorn talks about growing up in the area then being forced out by development and rising property prices. The fliers for the lost birds have been preserved but the neighborhood where they were collected is gone. That, and many of the messages, hit me where I live, which is what art should do.


It’s Inspiring.

A little over three years ago I took a picture of this graffiti because it made me laugh:

It made me laugh because I had this idea of the artist being really inspired and fired up and then sort of trailing off. And every artist has been there. I know sometimes I feel this sudden surge of energy and start a story and then realize I’m repeating myself and end up sort of trailing off, but that’s another story.

Whenever I think of inspiration I think of this painting of Voltaire.

Source: Wikimedia

It fascinated Kafka who knew a thing or two about inspiration. In a diary entry on February 19, 1911, he wrote,

The special nature of my inspiration in which I, the most fortunate and unfortunate of men, now go to sleep (perhaps, if I can only bear the thought of it, it will remain, for it is loftier than all before), is such that I can do everything, and not only what is directed to a definite piece of work. When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, “He looked out of the window,” it already has perfection.

from The Basic Kafka

Anyway I feel kind of guilty for laughing because, as I said, we’ve all been there. And here’s the same building now:

Someone was inspired to scribble an aqua-colored tag on the door but mostly, since the earlier tag was painted over, the whole building’s been a blank canvas. Inspiration is a fickle thing and sometimes making a work of art is more work than art, which is why invention is Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple, as Willy Wonka so wisely said, although sometimes you have to up the percentage of butterscotch for a reason I had in my head a minute ago but now it’s gone and I’m just sort of trailing off.

Judge A Book By Its Cover.

Every year on or around April 1st there’s the International Edible Book Festival which I only learned about because one was held at the Vanderbilt University Library, which is close to where I work. Here are some of the entries from the event:

A popular theme was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. There were at least five entries based on it.

There were also some creative interpretations of the theme with items inspired by scenes from well-known books.

Or just loose interpretations.

And a lot of clever puns.

My favorites, though, were the ones that went for the most literal interpretation of the idea, creating works that were as readable as they were eatable.

Those last ones reminded me of a quote from Gargantua & Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, translated by J.M. Cohen, that I have on the wall behind my monitor at work that always reminds me that you are what you read:

The philosophers, preachers, and doctors of your world feed you with fine words through the ears. Here we literally take our teachings orally, through the mouth. Therefore I do not say to you: Read this chapter, understand this gloss. What I say is: Taste this chapter, swallow this gloss. Once upon a time an ancient prophet of the Jewish nation swallowed a book and became a learned man to the teeth. Now you must immediately drink this, and you’ll be learned to the liver. Here, open your jaws.

That’s a literary equivalent of one spicy meatball.

Where We Live.

Recently Vanderbilt University students, together with Habitat For Humanity, put together an open air exhibit on the quad in front of the library. The simple wooden benches were made to raise awareness of homelessness. Students do this every year in the spring, at a time when the homeless are less at risk from freezing but still face challenges.

The exhibit included a pamphlet with some disturbing facts. Homelessness is a concern in most cities, but Nashville’s rapid population growth has made it even more difficult. There have been some efforts to help; all over the city you’ll find people selling The Contributor, a weekly newspaper written and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people, but it’s not able to help everyone.

During the day the unfinished wooden benches stand out against the green grass, but at night they’re transformed. Solar batteries, at a time when the days are getting longer, store and transfer power to them through the night. They remain visible; they may even be more visible. And the placement of the exhibit in the middle of a university campus is especially poignant. This is a place where students, and some faculty and staff, live. It’s where others spend a great deal of their lives. Vanderbilt is a private university, but it’s also part of and aware of the community that surrounds and supports it.

The exhibit is only temporary, unlike the issue of homelessness which will still be with us.



Let It Out.

Some places keep drawing me back, mostly because they’re convenient, but also because I know I’m likely to find interesting graffiti there. And it also fascinates me that some places seem to attract repeat offenders, if you consider them offenders. In my mind the jury’s still out, but that’s another story. That brings me back to the old Madison Mill industrial complex on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue which I thought was slated for total demolition and urban renewal six months ago, and which had been scrubbed of all its graffiti.

Now it’s started to return. It appears to be different artists, but they’re presumably drawn to the place for the same reason others were: it’s a large and largely unguarded canvas. What really fascinates me, though, is the compulsion some people have to decorate. That’s what I think produces a lot of graffiti: there are people who have a desperate need to create and no other outlet. It’s like the moment in Spinal Tap when Viv Savage is asked what he’d do if there were no rock’n’roll, and he said, “I’d probably get a bit stupid and start to make a fool of myself in public, ’cause there wouldn’t be a stage to go on.” And, yes, I know Spinal Tap is not a real band and that Viv Savage was actually the musician Dave Kaffinetti, but stick with me here.

Forcing some people to stop creating would be like forcing them to stop breathing—and the effect would be the same. They need a space, and there should be spaces for artists. They shouldn’t have to find illicit places. This was already in my mind when I read a great review of the new film Wild Nights With Emily over at Assholes Watching Movies. The film is about the largely unknown life of Emily Dickinson; she was apparently not the demure recluse whose poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas we all learned about in English class.

What I’m really stuck on, though, is how Dickinson wrote compulsively, and her family allowed her the freedom to do so. She did publish a few poems in her lifetime but mostly she just wrote, filling up private books but certain there was a receptive audience out there. As she says in #162, titled “The Outlet”,


My river runs to thee:

Blue sea, wilt welcome me?


My river waits reply.

Oh sea, look graciously!


I’ll fetch thee brooks

From spotted nooks,—


Say, sea,

Take me!

And I also think about when I was taking pictures of that graffiti. It was a really nice day and there were a lot of people sitting out on the patio of a restaurant that’s right next to the Madison Mill. People probably noticed me and wondered what I was doing. No one asked, though. If they had I would have said, “I can’t help it.”

Free For All.

“I really thought if I ever learned to draw properly I would try to change the world for the better.”

Ralph Steadman

I first saw this mural in Cincinnati from a moving car, which is funny because I don’t know where to start with it. In fact I was so excited when I saw it I almost jumped out of the car, and that was before I realized it was by Ralph Steadman. Steadman is best known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, a long collaboration that began with Steadman providing illustrations for The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. Steadman’s slapdash style looks decadent and depraved, at least from a distance, but up close is exquisitely detailed. He combines accidents and precision, an interesting contradiction given that Steadman himself seems very contradictory. His art is often brutal and angry, raging at state of the world, and yet he also does commercial work. You may not be able to buy an original painting by him–he’s really very reluctant to sell his work and has said, “If anyone owns an original Steadman it’s stolen”–but copies are cheap and easy to find.

Among other things he’s done the labels for Flying Dog beer, and it’s not surprising that when my friend James, who was driving the car I’d later almost jump out of, and I were perusing the beer aisle of a store I pointed some out to him. He’s lucky he can find Flying Dog beers since they’re no longer available in Tennessee, and I once drove a really long way to find some. Then I sent them an e-mail describing my ordeal and got a really nice reply and they sent me a t-shirt, but that’s another story. He’s also a prolific author of numerous books.

As for the mural, it is an original Steadman.

Who owns it, though, or if it’s really owned by anyone, is another question. Public murals are contradictory in themselves: they’re commissioned and approved and an artist gets paid but once done they belong to everyone who happens to pass by. You don’t have to go into a gallery or museum; most of the time if you see a public mural it’s an accident, but hopefully an accident that makes your world a little better.

This reminds me of that great quote from Winston Churchill, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Dragon Soup.

Nashville’s Fannie Mae Dees park is a local curiosity. Created in the 1970‘s as part of the urban renewal craze it’s named, ironically, after a woman who opposed its development and other changes to the neighborhood around it. Its real attraction is the sculpture at its heart which has earned it the nickname “Dragon Park”, although the sculptor originally called the work a sea serpent. It was built by Pedro Silva, a Chilean-born New York artist who earned national attention for his whimsical benches around Grant’s Tomb. Meant to revitalize the area he employed local graffiti artists and when Silva came to Nashville he enlisted the help of local volunteers, using a few rough sketches but mostly improvising. Near the Vanderbilt hospital complex it’s attracted a lot of visitors over the years, including R.E.M. who took pictures in the park for the cover of their 1987 album Document, so I guess it’s not just a local curiosity.

Anyway right now the dragon is in trouble, in need of repair and closed off to the public while funds are being raised for restoration. And a curious thing has happened: the walls put up to block off public access have become canvases for local graffiti artists. A lot of graffiti now covers the walls, and most of it is…not very good.

In fact most of it might be unintentionally contributing to the fundraising because people will want to get rid of it. I’d like to see the dragon come back too. It’s an important piece of Nashville history. And yet, while it’s good that most of the graffiti is temporary, some of it is pretty good.

It may even be good enough that it deserves to be recognized as part of Nashville’s history too.


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