Latest Posts

In Depth.

The artistic tradition of trompe l’oeill—fooling the eye—goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, which had stories of competing painters who tried to paint the most realistic pictures. The painter Zeuxis produced a picture of grapes that was so realistic birds flew down to peck at it, which isn’t a big deal because birds are idiots, andhe was outdone by his rival Parrhasius whose painting of curtains was so realistic Zeuxis tried to pull them back, hence the expression “it’s curtains for you”. It also may be why Plato wanted to kick artists out of his ideal society. He saw artists imitating reality as a threat to understanding what was really real, which makes me wonder if Plato knew what was really going on.

The Greeks understood perspective but much of what they’d learned was lost during the Dark Ages, then recovered in the Renaissance which saw the rise of increasingly detailed paintings. Many Dutch artists, including Vermeer, are known for their highly realistic paintings, although there’s some controversy over whether Vermeer and other artists used a camera obscura, essentially copying images projected onto the canvas. It’s an interesting question but one I think is ultimately unanswerable until we develop time travel. And whether artists from the 17th century or other periods used a camera obscura or other means of reproducing images their technique is still pretty impressive. And it reminds me that in the 19th century some French sculptors were accused of surmoulage, the practice of simply using casts from bodies–a charge that haunted Rodin and that he tried to avoid by making statues larger than life, but that’s another story.

Anyway I realize the graffiti above isn’t really an example of trompe l’oeill art, but it is very cleverly done and appears to have depth. It even looks like it might move right out of the wall.

Something New, Something Blue.

It was twenty years ago today…well, not today, really, but never pass up a chance to quote The Beatles, even though it’s now been much more than twenty years since Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, and even when that album was released those uniforms looked like they must have been from before World War I and probably from when Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major General really was modern, but maybe Sgt. Pepper had long since retired, having been unable to get a promotion, and organized a band as a hobby.
Anyway it was in 1999 that my wife and I bought a new blue Honda CR-V. Technically the color was listed as “twilight obsidian blue sparkle sepulchral radiant crepuscular welkin” because car makers name car colors by throwing a thesaurus into a blender. We got the car at the same time we got a new dog, a Dalmatian puppy named Baxter, who was the perfect dog at the perfect time. My wife had gotten her first three Dalmatians before we even met–and in a convoluted way it was because she had Dalmatians that we met. By 1999 we’d been married a few years and were down to one dog who was as sweet as ever but also partly blind and deaf. Baxter, a funny little puppy with one blue eye and one brown eye, was just old enough to be up and bumbling around with the rest of his litter when we went to see him and, if you know dogs, you know how this sometimes happens: he chose us. Between that first visit and the day we took him home we went to look for a new car, and we were supposed to get a green–let’s leave the other adjectives out–Honda but instead ended up with a blue one.
We lost Baxter much too soon to cancer. The Honda, on the other hand, just kept going. Eventually my wife bought a van to drive to dog shows, both for size and just the convenience of having a single vehicle that would be dedicated to canine transport, and the CR-V became my go-to vehicle for going after I finally got around to getting a license, but that’s another story. For years there was a picture of Baxter in the right rear window that I only took out when the sun caused it to fade. One day I was stopped at a red light and a guy standing on the corner yelled something at me. I rolled down the window which is usually a bad idea when someone on a street corner is yelling at you, especially when he bears a strong resemblance to Howard Morris, but I’m an outgoing kind of guy and I thought maybe he had something important, or at least interesting, to say.
“You have Dalmatians?” he yelled.
“Yes.”
I was in the lane closest to the corner which, in retrospect, makes rolling the window down, even partially, an even worse idea, but he leaned over so he didn’t have to yell as loud.
“I had a Dalmatian when I was a kid. Best dog ever. They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”
Yes, I agreed. Then the light changed. I waved at him and said, “Thank you!”
He waved back and yelled, “You have a good day now!”
I had trouble focusing on the road. There was something in my eye.
Anyway when the fuel line on the CR-V went my wife and I independently concluded it was time for a new car. It had been twenty years, after all, and I’ve heard at least three stories that end with “So I had to get a new car” that started with “First I tried replacing the fuel line.”
Because the original worked so well, and in fact it was exactly twenty years to the day that we walked back into the same dealership, we decided to go with the CR-V, although a much more recent model that, in spite of the name, resembles the old one in much the same way a Dalmatian resembles Howard Morris, but it seems to be a good car and hopefully will last as well as the old one.
One thing the new car has in common with the old one: it’s the same shade of blue.

Behind Every Answer Is Another Question.

GUILDENSTERN: What’s the first thing you remember?
ROSENCRANTZ: Ah. (Pause.) No, it’s no good, it’s gone. It was a long time ago.
GUILDENSTERN (patient but edged): You don’t get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you’ve forgotten?
ROSENCRANTZ: Oh I see. (Pause.) I’ve forgotten the question.

-from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

One of the problems with collecting graffiti and trying to talk about it like any other art form–because it really is like any other art form, or at least any form of painting or visual art; it just happens to be placed in places where it’s not always wanted–is that usually I don’t know anything about the artists who produce it. I used to think that every work of art should be judged individually, which I know is a pretty extreme position, but think about it this way: if somebody tells you a musical composition is by Mozart you’re probably going to think it’s better than you would if they told you it was by Salieri, especially if you’ve seen Amadeus. And maybe that’s true even if you know music pretty well. Why does Mozart deserve a leg up just because of name recognition? He was kind of a genius, and even if not everything he did was great most of it was at least pretty darned good.
And there’s also the fact that every artist’s work changes and evolves over time. They’re influenced by where they’ve been, what they’ve done before, and what they’ve encountered. And the same is true for us, the audiences, viewers, spectators–whatever we are. We don’t see, hear, read, or experience anything in a vacuum. Everything we experience is judged by and compared to everything we’ve experienced before.
These are things I keep in mind in case I do meet a graffiti artist because there are so many things I’d like to ask: what are your influences, what made you choose that particular tag, how much did you have to practice, did you have help or did you learn on your own, what do you want to accomplish with your work? Knowing me of course I’ll probably forget all these questions.

Getting Things Done.

When I was a kid and we’d go over to my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would always start conversations by asking me, “What did you do today?” And I could never think of an answer. I’d just go silent and my eyes would glaze over, and I knew it was rude to not answer, but for some reason the question just wiped everything out of my brain. What had I done that day? Probably played with my friends, watched something stupid on TV, caught some bugs and put them in a jar and studied them, tried to build a log cabin in the backyard only to discover that it’s really hard to build a log cabin when all you can find are twigs, gone to school. We often went to my grandparents’ house on Fridays, so for most of the year having gone to school could have been at least part of my answer. Most days I took my lunch to school, but on Fridays the school served “fish” which was a square of breaded and fried fishlike substance warmed just enough that the slice of cheeselike substance draped over it would start to melt, and I thought it was the greatest food ever, or at least the greatest food the school cafeteria served, which, now that I think about it, it probably was. We all had to walk single-file to the cafeteria for lunch and each kid would get a turn being at the front of the line, and the day it was my turn to be at the front of the line just happened to be a Friday, so that was a pretty good day. And I’m pretty sure when my grandfather asked me what I did that day I couldn’t come up with a single thing.

Looking back I realize at least part of the problem was I wanted to tell him something interesting and, given what I knew about him, that seemed like a pretty tall order. If I’d turned the question around and asked him what he did that day he probably would have said, “Oh, not much. I finished varnishing the cabinet for a clock I’m putting together, pollinated a vanilla orchid in the greenhouse I built, reorganized my collection of fishing lures by color, size, type of fish, and date of purchase, rescued a snake that was caught in the rain gutter, went to the hardware store and demonstrated the proper way to calibrate the scale they use for bolts, and had a banana for lunch.”

Eventually I started anticipating the question. In fact, now that I think about it, knowing that the first thing my grandfather was going to ask me was, “What did you do today?” made me aware of both time and what I was accomplishing, or not. It made me start mentally listing what I’d done during the day, and also prompted me to try and do things, to stretch myself a little each day. Most days I didn’t think about it, but if I knew I was going to see my grandparents I’d try and do something that I could tell my grandfather about. And it’s not a bad approach to life, considering what you’ve done and using that as a prompt to try and do more, or do better, in the future. Maybe it’s why some people keep diaries; not so much to reflect on what they’ve done but as a way to push themselves forward.

Ask yourself, what did you do today? Just please don’t ask me because I know I did something but I’m pretty sure as soon as you ask me I’ll just go silent and my eyes will glaze over.

Treasured Trash.

April is National Poetry Month. In past years I’ve seen Poetry In Motion poems on Nashville buses, since Nashville is one of many cities that participates in the program. This year, though, I haven’t seen any. Most of the overhead advertising space is taken up with promoting the new buses and how many improvements they’ve made. They also still advertise the Music City Transit Tracker app although they’re no longer updating it which meant all it was doing was taking up space on my phone until I deleted it, but that’s another story.

Since my employer pays me to ride the bus—at least as long as it’s to and from work—I don’t get bus tickets, and maybe that’s why I haven’t seen the local Poetry In Motion poems. One day I happened to find this on the seat before I sat down:

That reminded me of the time I was walking to work one spring morning and a coworker came up to me holding a brown paper bag. She held it open under my nose. It was full of what looked like a bunch of weeds somebody had pulled out of their yard, probably because it was a bunch of weeds somebody had pulled out of their yard.

“Can you believe my neighbor was throwing these away?” she asked.

Yeah, I could.

“Pokeweed leaves!” she shouted. “I’m gonna make poke sallet!”

Truly one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

The Art Of Looking.

It’s been four years now since I started documenting graffiti. Most of what I took pictures of is now gone, which is sad, but also a lesson in the nature of art. In the classical view a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Since nothing can really last forever a thing of beauty can only be a joy as long as it’s still around—even the classicists have to accept that all things must eventually come to an end.

I’ve really had an almost lifelong interest in graffiti. As I’ve said before it really started when I was a teenager and saw a documentary about the New York subway art movement of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. There were the taggers who just scribbled, but there were also those who created big multi-colored murals. Some of these artists went to jail for what they did. Some also got noticed by art dealers and collectors and were given studio space and materials.

In the four years that I’ve been taking and sharing these pictures, though, I feel I’ve become even more conscious not just of graffiti but how the neighborhoods where I find it are changing, as well as the purposes served by any kind of creative expression. I feel like it’s made me look at the world differently, and I hope I’ve passed that on.

Beach Time.

April is National Poetry Month and the beginning of beach season, depending on where you are, so here’s a poem I wrote on a beach several years ago.

A “mermaid’s purse” is a black, leathery rectangle that’s the egg case of skates, stingrays, and certain kinds of sharks. They often wash up on the beach once their occupant swims away.

Mermaid’s Purse

I was also born out of the sea, out of rocky oyster shells and polyphemous waves,

Under gulls riding changes in the wind.

Tied To coral, to warped twigs in green light, cartilage congealed

Into a diamond-winged body, brown above and ghostwhite below, and a trailing tail.

Swimmers all of us.

What I couldn’t see from my point on land I connected

To things I recognized. It rained.

Water met water, a million drops disturbed

 

The surface.

But the fish only feel it when the waves grow heavy enough to drag

Them into the air. They feel it always. Even fused to their element

They breathe the threat

 

Above. Where

I walked gulls ran at the waves, caught quick bites, and picked at tidal remains. No sun

Breaks. Not since my birth has the sun come

Through to here, and the cold water runs wild and foul abandoned

To itself. I never noticed the currents above and below that shook me in

The tasteless pouch of comfort and unliving,

My dark home. The light broke, called me to follow, and my world split and was carried

Upward to the gull cries and foamy strings playing on the surface. I catch

It as it comes in

 

With the waves: a black leathery rectangle with wiry

Arms at its corners. It’s a mermaid’s purse, still thick with the smell of the sea.

 

On the sand

Nearby, half-sunk in foam and nearly invisible where it lies exposed,

Is a skate

Thrown onto the beach by an earlier wave, tail still

Touching the tide as it goes out.

 

I skim the bottom while threatening shadows of gulls pass over

My body blended with the background. Only touches of white where

My wings curl over reveal

Me, and the waves protect me for now. I prowl for the dead, scavenging for leftovers

 

Of storms, starvation,

And the hard black tides that strand and take back.

An offshore squall washed up blowfish, foam, and bubbled tresses of seaweed.

 

A strangled heron

Lies spread in flight on a pile of driftwood, cracked beak pointed toward

Sky-blue crabs clustered in a collective grave. A rust-skinned hook threatens nothing,

Though it lies close to a fish still and silver in the gray light. All around

Are fragments of sponge and coral. A string of bleached and broken shells has settled

Into a ridge to hold

The water as it comes in, puts its arms out to the things in its reach, and pulls

 

Them close. When

I broke from the blackness it was freedom, it was the beginning

Of the new tide.

The wind dies

Suddenly and the sun pushes through. From over the water, for a moment,

 

It becomes

The same sun under the water, rays reflected into sea urchin spines.

The farthest

Waves turn blue then, as they approach, they change to aquamarine,

Shedding skin

And mingling with white. They roll in. Smoky quartz

Carries the beat of sand against sand. They reach forward,

And water curls

Over land, over itself. Its edges end, then begin, in the moment when the foam reaches

The highest point and remains trembling in the wind.

Found And Lost.

How do bus drivers know where they’re going? Sometimes I see a person in a driver’s uniform sitting behind the driver watching out the front and I’ll think, maybe they’re learning the route, or maybe they already know the route and are giving directions to the driver who’s really the learner. And I know that buses are, or at least were, equipped with tracking systems. I first learned this when I mentioned to a friend that on some buses the same bass baritone voice that says, “Stop requested, please remain seated until the bus comes to a complete stop” also occasionally chimes in with things like, “Now turning onto Twenty-First Avenue South.” I said it would be pretty embarrassing for the driver to have announcements like that pop up at the wrong time and pretty hilarious for me because I’m obnoxious.

Anyway that’s when my friend told me they have location tracking so the automated voice is activated based on where the bus really is, and to me that would make it even more hilarious to have the announcements pop up at the wrong time because I’m really obnoxious.

And I did once get a real demonstration of the location tracker when a driver was forced to make a detour because of construction. Within less than a minute of the driver turning onto a side street the radio beeped and a voice crackled, “Number 459, why are you off your route?” And the driver picked up the handset and explained about the construction, and fortunately it was a short detour so we all got where we wanted to go. I wouldn’t have found it hilarious at all if I had to walk a long way out of my way.

I also think sometimes the drivers turn off the location tracking system. I’m not sure this is something they’re supposed to do, and it certainly doesn’t seem right. I can’t even understand turning off the automated voice. Sure, if I were a bus driver I wouldn’t want to listen to the same announcements over and over, but it’s there for the benefit of visually impaired riders.

The reason I think they can turn off the tracking system is the other day I was riding the bus and the driver suddenly took a wrong turn.

“What the hell is this?” she asked. “Is this where I’m supposed to be going?”

I walked up to the front of the bus and started giving her directions.

“I thought this was too soon to turn into the end of the route,” she said.

“Yeah, you’re right, there’s still an overpass to go under. The end of the route is still about a mile away.”

I got off shortly after that and the bus continued on its way. Fortunately it was a straight shot and I hoped I’d helped. The next day I got on and recognized the driver from the day before.

“Did my directions help?” I asked.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

Either she really didn’t remember or she didn’t want to admit she’d gotten lost. I went and sat down. I decided I wasn’t going to try and embarrass her by pushing it. I’m not that obnoxious.

Time Moves On.

Almost a year ago I took some pictures of this turtle sculpture at the Dauphin Island Estuarium. It’s made of around twelve-hundred cigarette butts picked up off the beach by volunteers. I’ve thought a lot about how this sculpture turned art into trash, how it’s a form of recycling. A lot of works of art break down over time. Some are meant to, but others are meant to last. Preservation and renovation are important jobs in the art world.

Then the fire at Notre Dame cathedral happened.

Fortunately the damage wasn’t as bad as it was first feared, but it’s not good either. The fire devastated a building that is itself a work of art and that was being renovated, and that was originally built to last. It’s undergone some changes over time. Figures representing the twelve apostles and symbols of the four evangelists around the spire had been removed just days before the fire. They, and the current spire which collapsed in the fire, were added by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century. The original spire, neglected and damaged by wind, was removed some time between 1786 and 1791. Whether, after all the changes it’s been through, it’s still the same Notre Dame it was when it started gets into the territory of the ship of Theseus, and for now let’s just say that ship has sailed.

Both the turtle sculpture and Notre Dame came together in my mind when I realized that the sculpture represents something living and breathing that must be preserved, and Notre Dame, having been built, changed, added to, passed through, or simply seen for more than eight hundred years, is a living, breathing work of art. One represents the nature that sustains us, the other represents how we are sustained.

I don’t know if the turtle sculpture is still there, but, in spite of the damage, I want to see Notre Dame restored and preserved. The future may be uncertain but it’s shaped by the past.

%d bloggers like this: