American Graffiti.

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

Back In Style.

I bought the t-shirt back in 2011, during the last great cicada invasion, and joked at the time that I wouldn’t be able to wear it again for another thirteen years. In fact I’ve worn it several times since then just because I like it. It was created by local artist Eli Moody who works as a freelancer. You can also check out some of his work at Eli’s Art Pad. He has a very distinctive art style I really like. He does great pictures of people but it’s his animals, with varying degrees of anthropomorphism, that really stand out to me. It’s also really cool that he sometimes includes detailed rough drafts, as in his Dapper Armadillo picture.

He also did the art for a fun webcomic about working behind the scenes at a library called Search & Research with a main character named Marc Record. That’s a joke for the librarians out there.

Source: Search & Research

The cicada is a good example of that. It’s definitely a cicada but it’s also got a slight smile. Their adulthood may be short but the cicadas are going to make the best of it. And one of the fun things about this shirt is sometimes when I’m wearing it people come up and tell me it scared them because they thought at first I had a giant bug on me. I wasn’t trying to scare people, and neither was Moody, but it does make me laugh.

He didn’t make one for 2024, having a lot of other projects going on, and who knows where we’ll be in 2037? Maybe I should put the shirt in storage, though, to preserve it for the next time around, just in case.

And, yes, that’s an actual cicada on the shirt. It’s been thirteen years since I’ve been able to have one on it. Maybe it thought the picture was real too, only it wasn’t scared.

This Is All Improvised.

I’ve done enough improv classes now that I’m starting to feel like an old-hand at it, even though I can still count the number of classes I’ve taken on one hand. Recently I went to one at a local library that was the smallest one so far: there were only four of us, including the moderator, who’s a teacher and organizer with the Nashville Improv. It was fun but with only four people it felt like the pressure was on, and since most of the games involved two people at a time it also felt like there was never enough of an audience. Of course as soon as I say that I think of Whose Line Is It Anyway? with its four performers, but, first of all, they generally knew each other and worked together professionally, and they had a moderator—I won’t choose between Clive Anderson and Drew Carey since I think that’s like comparing apples and pineapples—and a large audience.

Because this group was so small any time I wasn’t participating I was trying to be focused and supportive and, in spite of one of the main rules of improv being “don’t overthink it” I was quietly sitting there overthinking what I might do if I had to jump in and say, “Yes, and…”

I’ve also done an improv class with a group of seven, which seemed like a much more comfortable number, even when we did some group games that involved everyone. And then there was the time I did an improv class with at least twenty people. We started out sitting in a circle in folding chairs and each introduced ourselves. A guy who was two chairs away from me said, “I’m Greg, I work as a waiter, and I also sell drugs.” When it was my turn I said, “I’m Chris, I’m an undercover cop and I’ve been following Greg.”

He got what seemed like a genuinely panicked look—did he really think I’d just blown my cover?—and so I quickly switched to, “but seriously…”

A group that large seemed a bit much, and while the leader did have some group games that involved everyone I’d say seven is close to the minimum for an ideal group, with fourteen being the upper limit, just from my experience.

While I enjoyed this latest one that jumbled looking sign on the floor made me laugh before I even went in because it looked so sketchy. I sent it to a friend who replied, “Holy cats, are you sure that’s not a trap?”

I didn’t know what to say to that so I said, “Yes, and…?”

Since it’s all about sharing and communication what are your experiences with improv?

Making A Scene.

When I photograph street art I never think of myself as making art; I think I’m merely documenting someone else’s work. I know it’s much more complicated than that. After all I’m choosing how to frame the work I’m photographing, choosing the camera, even if it is just my phone, the distance between me and the work. Sometimes I crop the image, and if altering a picture isn’t an artistic process I don’t know what is. There are also other factors like the ambient lighting that I can’t control—or that I could partially control by choosing to come back at another time. Nature photographers sometimes try to capture their subjects either at sunrise or sunset, considering the lighting optimal at those times.

So I recognize that the pictures I take of other people’s art are, themselves, art, but I try not to think of them that way. After all I’m looking at the art critically—not in a negative sense, but I’m trying to understand what the artist was trying to convey. Because it’s street art I have no way to talk to the artists. It’s their work that speaks for itself, and I like it that way. Some artists are happy to describe their work, the inspiration, what they meant by it, but I enjoy it when an artist just puts the work out there and leaves it up to us to understand it, to decide what it means.

I’m breaking my own rule a bit here, though. I found this red balloon when I was out for a walk and decided to put it next to the red building, among the green plants, next to the red No Parking sign. I made this little scene—sort of. The balloon was out on the street. I have no idea where it came from, and the red building—Gilda’s Club—just happened to be near where I found it, as did the sign and the plants. All that got me thinking about how much art is a result of coincidences. I know some artists dismiss or downplay inspiration. They talk about how much time they spend learning skills, honing their craft, all of it so they can be ready when inspiration strikes to make the most of it. I haven’t really studied photography but I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art and studying things like composition and I feel like all that was preparation that allowed me to take advantage of this confluence of events to make a picture.

As for what it means I leave that up to you.

How’d That Art Get In Here?

An employee of a German museum has been fired for smuggling his own artwork in and hanging it on the walls. I haven’t seen the artwork but I can already say I like his style. Yes, I understand that museums can’t let in just any artwork by anyone—there always has to be a certain amount of gatekeeping and at least some basic philosophy or statement of purpose, but it was a gallery of contemporary art. You can’t get any more contemporary than someone who currently works for the museum. Also it’s not as though he broke in or that he wasn’t authorized to be there. The museum’s being very circumspect about his specifics but he worked in Technical Services. I worked in Technical Services for a library, which was a catchall term for everything from the mailroom to paying invoices and assisting with collection decisions.

And why, instead of turning it into a criminal matter, couldn’t the museum take the opportunity to have a community discussion about what qualifies as museum-worthy art, who gets to decide, and why? I cringe when I hear the term “outsider artist”, which usually refers to self-taught artists, but why is that term never applied to Francis Bacon (the 20th century painter, not the 15th century philosopher)? Mostly because he was established decades before the term “outsider artist” was coined, but he also had connections to upper class British patrons and was friends with prominent art critics, which made him very much an insider. But he was still self-taught, as are many artists.

For that matter why is it that when Banksy sneaks his works into museums it’s considered an art stunt, if not a form of art in itself, but when someone who works in a museum does the same thing it’s a crime?

I understand the museum couldn’t just let this stand but, in addition to using it as an opportunity for discussion, couldn’t they have just docked the artist’s pay, made him responsible for fixing the holes in the wall? They don’t want to encourage copycats—fair enough, but one way to do that could be to provide staff an outlet—or inlet, giving them a chance to be more than just workers. Most people are drawn to work in museums because they have an interest in art. Why not tap into that?

This also reminds me of the time I was talking to librarian who worked in a music library. I said to him that it was cool he played so many instruments. He smirked and said, “You know everybody who works here is a musician, right?” I didn’t know that, and I wonder why.

Everything’s Local.

It’s a local shop for local people. There’s nothing for you here! Source: Tellyspotting

A friend of mine who’s from Chicago is really annoyed by a recent story about the best Chicago-style pizza—the deep dish stuff—being found in California. There are a few things to keep in mind here. The first is the ranking came from Yelp so there’s not exactly a lot of control. Another thing is that taste, especially in food, is really subjective and there are a lot of factors that influence it, including price, which is why you can pour cheap wine in an expensive bottle and wine snobs will love it. Also the best Chicago deep dish pizza I’ve ever had, which was the first time I had it, was in Chicago. A lot of things that had nothing to do with the pizza itself made it great: I was with good friends, we’d had a fun evening, and it was nine o’clock at night and we hadn’t eaten since a little before noon. I also mentioned that I’d never tried deep dish pizza and that’s all it took for us to decide we wanted some. We wandered down the street from our hotel and asked a nice cop where to go and she directed us to a place just one block over. It was a nice place with checkerboard floors and friendly staff.

There was also something special about having Chicago-style pizza in Chicago.

I get it: Chicagoans, like people in a lot of other places, take pride in things that make their city distinctive and when somewhere else lays claim to those things it can be annoying. It bugged me when KFC started selling “Nashville hot chicken”. I felt like something special that originated in Nashville, something people purposely go to when they come here, was being ruined by mass-production. It was losing its authenticity.

What’s authentic, though? I get defensive about Nashville hot chicken but I also love the fact that I don’t have to go more than a few miles to find restaurants that are Vietnamese, Korean, and Thai. I can get “certified” Neapolitan pizza, made with ingredients imported from Naples and baked in a special oven that’s been approved by a committee of Italian chefs. Across the street from the pizza place I can get sushi. Could I get similar sushi in Tokyo? Maybe, depending on where I went, but having it in Tokyo would feel different. Maybe it would even be better—or at least it would seem that way, even if it were made with the same ingredients.

In fact there’s a place just a few blocks from me where I can get an authentic Chicago-style hot dog. I could really go for one of those right now.

Would someone please pass the ketchup?  

Source: Yarn

Always Something There To Remind Me.

I took a lot of books to the used bookstore, most of which I’d read, but it’s still always difficult for me to let any book go. There are some I’ll always treasure, and I’ve passed on a few when I know they’ll be appreciated. A friend of mine is a big Walt Kelly fan and, as much as I enjoyed a Pogo collection I had, I gave it to him without any regret because I knew he’d enjoy it even more.

The used bookstore is a little more of a crapshoot, though. I never know what they’ll take and what they’ll reject. It’s great when they take a book. I get a little money and, hopefully, it’ll find its way into the hands of someone who will enjoy it, maybe even treasure it. If they reject a book, though, I don’t know what to do with it. There are two big bins in front of the used bookstore where people drop their rejects, and I often see people going through those, looking for the wheat in the chaff. And since one person’s reject is another’s treasure it’s possible some of those will find someone who needs them. I saw a guy pull out a Windows 95 manual and carry it away so you never know what someone will consider useful.

I still have so many books I could part with, including more than a shelf of anthologies from college, which I’ve mostly held onto for sentimental reasons. Anthologies are great introductions to a wide range of authors but every time I look at them I think they’re for readers, not writers. Anthologies are like greatest hits collections, which are fine, but for aspiring writers the real lessons are in the deep cuts. It’s the forgotten or neglected works that can reveal an author working out the ideas that would eventually crystallize into what they’re known for, or that show their mistakes. The best lesson of all is that no one’s perfect all the time. It may even be possible that, doing a deep dive, you find something better than the anthologized work—after all, anthologists make mistakes too, and many anthologized works are pulled from previous anthologies.

That was a bit of a tangent but I also think used bookstores are the ideal place to find those neglected, forgotten works. After all they have a lot of stuff, and a lot of very specific categories.

Teach Me Your Songs.

I always wonder about the things I see left by the side of the road. Why are people throwing away that old couch? Or what looks like a perfectly good table? Or a chair? Most of the time stuff gets left there because they’ve called a removal service to come and take it away but I wonder, would they mind if I pulled over and grabbed it? Most of the time it’s not something I want or even have space for, and in the case of that old couch, if it’s rained recently it’s probably not even worth taking. It’s going to be consigned to a sad fate in a dump somewhere.

And then there was the piano. The house it was sitting in front of was being completely refurbished—I mean there was a construction crew tearing the house apart from the inside, leaving the outside mostly intact, I guess so they could completely update it with a modern design. Maybe the house was falling apart inside but had solid bones that they considered worth keeping. Most of the time in my neighborhood when a house gets sold, even if it seems to be a perfectly good house, it gets completely demolished so they can build a McMansion that’s too big for the lot and taller than any of the other houses, so it was nice to see the outside of a house being preserved.

What about the piano, though? Since I was taking pictures I also tapped a few of the keys—they were sticky. I don’t mean my fingers stuck to them, but they were hard to press down and didn’t make much sound. Some were okay but even my tin ear could tell they were seriously off-key. It reminded me of a piano my grandparents had in their front living room, which sat under a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Nobody ever played it except me—I liked tapping on the keys sometimes, but most of the time it sat closed. I never thought to ask why they even had it since no one in my family had any interest in music. Maybe, like the Gainsborough painting, it was just something post-war middle class suburban people had in their living rooms, along with overstuffed chairs and sofas.

There’s something special about a piano, though, something that makes me hope this piano will be rescued, that makes me hope the one from my grandparents’ house found a better home.

Here’s a song about rescuing a piano.

Working At Least One Muscle Group.

We have a wooden fence in the backyard and sometimes when I sit by it I feel like it’s watching me. I know it’s just pareidolia, that tendency to see patterns, usually faces, in random assortments of things. I’ve experienced it all my life but I wasn’t really conscious of it until I learned the term and then I realized how often it happens. But that’s no big deal because we all do it, right? Not everyone paints or draws but our ability to look at a work of art and see it as representing something, not just dabs of paint on fabric, is pareidolia. There’s really no such thing as truly “abstract” art because our brains will always perceive some kind of pattern or meaning in anything. Even the visually impaired perceive patterns in what they perceive. Pareidolia isn’t just visual–it can also be auditory. It makes evolutionary sense: camouflage is part of the arms race between predators and prey and being able to distinguish something hiding in the bushes is good for survival. Even if it turns out the bushes just look like there’s a jaguar in them at least we’re on alert. So we all experience it, right?

Then I read this article about how experiencing pareidolia is a sign of creativity and it’s made me really anxious. It says this:

Scientists are now exploring the connection between pareidolia and creativity; several recent studies have found that creative people are more apt to see pareidolias in the world around them than are less creative people. Assessing individuals’ capacity to recognize such patterns has even been proposed as a way to measure relative levels of creativity.

Am I experiencing pareidolia enough to legitimately call myself “creative”? What if I stop? Creativity is really important to me and always has been. I remember being told I was creative a lot as a kid. One example from second grade really stands out in my memory. My teacher, Mrs. Knight, had some kind of toy model kit in her classroom. It was like a Tinker Toy set but it combined hard pieces with colored flexible tubes. I found it one day and made an alien creature I called Boka. Boka was sort of a cross between a jellyfish and a giraffe, and I was marching it around the table when Mrs. Knight saw it and got really excited. She was always encouraging us to be creative—she was a great teacher—but Boka, this thing I’d just put together without much thought, seemed really imaginative to her. And that kind of recognition felt really good. Being creative felt like a superpower. Of course as my favorite superhero is famous for saying, With great power comes great responsibility. I felt pressure, all of it internal, to continue to be creative, to keep chasing that feeling. I also had, I think for the first time, a feeling that’s probably experienced by every person for whom creativity is important. What if this is the last thing I do? I couldn’t just keep copying Boka but what if I never created anything else that reached the same creative level, never elicited the same response? And that feeling never goes away. I get something published, or win a contest, and it feels great but I can never escape that thought of, what do I do next? What if this is my last success? In college a friend and I once talked about Van Gogh’s suicide–always a cheerful topic–and she said, “I believe he shot himself because he’d completely run out of ideas.” I thought, oh, if that were true I’d shoot myself at least three times a week.

Something else I think about, though, is that knowing what pareidolia is, and seeing examples of it, has probably caused me to see it even more. Creativity can actually feed off itself, and even if I didn’t come up with something on my own I can be inspired by the ideas of others. The article even says, “spending time looking at ambiguous figures ‘primes’ a creative mindset, inducing people to think with more fluency, flexibility, and originality.” Creativity is like a muscle. It can be strengthened through use.

The wooden fence in our backyard is really old and the knots are starting to wear down and disappear so to get that picture I had to look really hard for some that still look like eyes. So anyway there’s my workout for the day.