Quidditch reveals all…or does it?

towards-the-great-peace Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_Cover

Reading: Ralph Adams Cram, Towards the Great Peace (1922)

“The only thing that is left in the line of emotional stimulus is competitive athletics, and for this reason I sometimes think it one of the most valuable factors in public education. It has, however, another function, and that is the coordination of training and life; it is in a sense an école d’application, and through it the student, for once in a way, tries out his acquired mental equipment and his expanding character—as well as his physical prowess—against the circumstances of active vitality. It is just this sort of thing that for so long made the “public schools” of England, however limited or defective may have been the curriculum, a vital force in the development of British character.”

That’s Cram discoursing on one of the few things he likes about public education in America and Britain, c. 1922. Believe me, he didn’t like much; and interestingly, in the intervening 92 years, schools are still bad in a lot of the same ways they were then. Cram was a religious-minded architect who built Gothic-style churches and university buildings in the first years of the 20th century, and I came to his writings while researching a restoration project that had come to an architectural firm I was working for at the time. He is extremely insightful in his diagnosis of the ills of his (and our) era, and well worth reading for that, though I can’t say his solutions were too practical, but I think he knew it. As I read this comment though, the Harry Potter books sprang to mind, but then, a lot of things remind me of Harry Potter. Just wait till I start talking about David Copperfield!

Harry Potter gains popularity early on in the series when he takes up Quidditch, a sort of irrational, flying rugby on broomsticks, for which he has a natural gift. The books have been criticized for the centrality of this goofy sport in the lives of the entire wizarding world from student to the highest levels of govenment, but those critics must never have lived where the fortunes and failures of the local football heroes provided the social and emotional core of a community. Or maybe they wished they didn’t… Even Rowling supposedly rued the day she injected Quidditch into the books, primarily because she found it tedious to try to conjure exciting action for each match that she wrote, but sport was always a part of the boarding school book tradition from which Harry Potter sprang, so there had to be a wizard equivalent. QED Quidditch.

So how do the characters in Harry Potter demonstrate Cram’s ideas? Most of the characters played Quidditch; it was a huge social factor in the school. Excellence in studies… less so. Sic erat scriptum Hermione. I was the same. Harry Potter, our erstwhile hero, came from obscurity to discover he had the makings of an athletic superstar. In Cram’s terms, this was a literary sign of his character and potential, and the books proved this out. His parents had risked their lives to save others and he grows up to become the same sort of man. Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy, was also a skilled player, but his lack of character was made plain in his cheating, lying and generally underhanded methods of manipulating the game. His father, acting in the world of politics, operated in the same way. Harry’s buddy, Ron Weasley, had enormous potential when his self-doubt didn’t cripple him, which it mostly did. That was the view of the world his parents had taught him to see–poverty standing in the way of active participation and serving as an excuse for weakness and shortcuts. Exposed to stronger personalities like Harry, Hermione and Neville, Ron has a chance to grow, but his path is often an unhappy one. The only character that stands apart form this paradigm is Neville Longbottom: an orphaned loner who struggles for success in everything he attempts, Neville never played the sport, but nonetheless became a hero of the same stature as Harry. And with less outsized praise and more dignity, for my money.

Me, I was never very good at school athletics; I was not encouraged in it at home–and how many girls were, back in the day?–but I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to get better, but mainly it was just the catalyst of anxiety attacks. Small wonder that Ron Weasley was my favorite from the books. But since athletics was not going to be the way for me, and surely cannot be anymore, perhaps I ought to study the Path of Neville. Own my differences, judge for myself, enjoy the victories of my friends. Maybe we all should.



Under the Influence of Photography

Walter Crane“In short, photography is an excellent servant and friend, but a dangerous master. It may easily beguile us by its seductive reproductions of surface relief and lighting to think more of these qualities than any other, and to endeavour to put them in the wrong places—in places where we want colour planes rather than shadow planes, flatness and repose rather than relief, for instance, as mostly in surface decoration.”–Walter Crane

The above is from Walter Crane’s Line and Form (1900), which I’ve been reading…. and enjoying all his wonderful drawings! As an illustrator and designer, Crane is primarily discussing drawing for print c.1900 and the decorative arts. My interests are different, but I still think his ideas apply. I turn to photography because, lacking live models for extended study, I need images of people who don’t mind that I am looking at them. And if you don’t think that’s a problem, believe me, it is! Also, with photos, there’s action, variety and access to worlds I would not otherwise know. I’m aware that this does not create truly original work–the photos I draw from are not usually mine–but I haven’t given much thought to the nature of what photography presents and what I might be missing because of it. So this is interesting for me to think about.

I probably would have learned about this in art school, right?

How different are the self-portraits I’ve done based on photos from the ones I did using a mirror? Maybe self-portraits aren’t the ideal subject to examine on this point since all work is mediated by some form of optics beyond the eye. And when it comes to optics, what about my glasses? Mine correct for astigmatism as well as distance, and there is a distinct difference in work done with my distorting, naked eye. A new subject to dig into!

Some things never change

“Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to  wander from one to another. Always, west of Pittsburg [sic], and often, east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops.”

–Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (1920)

Here it is, 94 years later, and the complaint is the same. Now it is identical malls and chain restaurants and gas stations at every highway off-ramp to suburbia instead of lumberyards and creameries in small rural towns. Nowadays, we find the 2-story Victorian Main Street shops “quaint” and install galleries and coffee shops, while the local Historical Societies claim and refurbish the old train stations as time capsules of the way-we-were. What in the world will the 22nd century do with our cloned junk? I’m kind of glad I’ll miss the doctoral dissertations on the obscure beauty of it all.

The Importance of Drawing

gayfordI’ve been reading Martin Gayford’s chronicle of his sitting with Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, but since it is Freud’s birthday today, it seemed a good time to write about him. I’ve just begun the book, but so far it’s great, not just for the insights into Freud’s working methods and ideas, but also because the writer is an art critic who looks with a keen and humanizing eye.
“Being able to draw well is the hardest thing–far harder than painting, as one can easily see from the fact that there are so few great draughtsmen compared to the number of great painters–Ingres, Degas, just a  few.”–Lucian Freud

Freud goes on to make his point by describing a painting by Max Ernst he once owned. Over time, he got tired of it, largely, he believed, because Ernst did not know how to draw. It’s an interesting idea–we may be able to master painting without being able to draw well, but that the superior draftsman brings something extra, something more, to anything he paints. I merely dabble in paint, would like to do more with it, but this quote inspires me to try harder with my drawing. After all, who wouldn’t want to earn the right to the company of the likes of Degas and Ingres?

Week in Review

3 5 2 natural SXP21 girl

It’s been a little while since I rounded up my drawings, probably because I’ve been covering some uneven ground and creating work I’m not sure how to evaluate. Subject matter has shifted, broadened maybe, but I also feel as if I have been more hurried lately. I haven’t written much either, though I have given thought–and a few scribbled sketches–to visually mapping a recent story idea. It’s a stretch for me to think that way, to decide where words and image might unite to build a better story, but it’s where I’d like to be going just now.

Inspiration is flowing in from Twin Peaks, Jayne Anne Phillips short story collection Black Tickets, Boulet’s X-Files drawings on Instagram and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. There’s something about that magical passage between worlds that really appeals to me; I have dreams like that. In fact, I had a somewhat threatening version of that just a few nights ago. You can sure count on David Lynch to help you dredge up all your inner darkness….

Week in Review

ADovercoat boy summer dress from Moebius2

Schiele1 Schiele2

These are the main things I’ve been working on over the last few days, although there are doodled people I see on the streets, practice drawings of hands and the Gorillaz characters scattered throughout my journal and on scraps of paper that seem to proliferate wherever I am. Aside from Moebius and Schiele, I’ve also gotten very excited about the work of Sergio Toppi, Bill Sienkiewicz and Kenneth Rocafort. Still reading Harold Speed’s drawing book from 1913 (free download on Project Gutenberg), which is full of all sorts of helpful thoughts on composition, brushstrokes, line quality, and exactly what it is that an artist gives us with his work. Or should. Maybe more thoughts on that later…

Patient Work

misadventure from Moebius  tank girl

And my view is that a living studio you will never find ready-made; it is created from day to day by patient work.–Vincent van Gogh

And it shows perfectly that to get at the real character of things here you must look at them and paint them for a long time….it is not enough to have a certain cleverness. It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding.–Vincent van Gogh

I had an amazing drawing day on Saturday, 8 full hours of absorption and concentration and a hell of a lot of fun. The work was something I don’t usually do and a subject I’ve only begun to look at–studying the color, style and layout of Hewlett and Martin’s Tank Girl from the early 90s–which may have contributed to the fun. A little. Tank Girl is just fun all by itself; raunchy, juvenile, gross and violent but funny. Hewlett’s drawing style kept me captivated–granted, not in every panel, which at times seemed hurried or dashed off–but often enough; moments of solid draftsmanship and studiously observed detail beside pure flights of imagination, resulting in something like a movie co-piloted by Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. How could I not have fun?

But…days like that up the ante, so that on Sunday when I could barely make myself draw, it was really depressing. Reading Vincent on the bus in to work this morning though, made me take another look. Maybe I was able to sustain this working day on Saturday in the same way as someone training as a runner: day by day you go greater distances, even run a race, but can’t expect much the day after an extraordinary run, at least not from a beginner. I hope with time I can have more sustained days of work like that because it seems the only way to get a grip on drawing the way I’d really like to.

You are Here

 “Just now I am working on a landscape with cornfields which I think as well of as, say, the white orchard; it has solidity and style. The days when I bring home a study I say to myself, If it were like this every day we might be able to get on. But the days when you come back empty-handed, and eat and sleep and spend money all the time, you feel a fool and a good-for-nothing.”–Vincent van Gogh

 “Just when I was going to start home in the morning, very early, I made a drawing of the boats. I have been here only a few months, but tell me this: Could I in Paris have done the drawing of the boats in an hour? And without the frame! [a drawing aid] I do it now without measuring, just letting my pen go.”–Vincent van Gogh

I am still reading the Van Gogh letters; our hero is only recently arrived in Arles. We all know how this story ends, but I have been surprised what a sharp, thoughtful firebrand he wa. These two passages especially caught my eye because I feel somewhere between them these days. I’ve improved somewhat over the last 3 months, and done some things I am pleased with, but I am not consistent. I long for that moment when my hand is firm and can go about tasks, now painstaking, rapidly and with assurance. There is still a great deal of work to go to get there. My trouble is finding the time with a full-time job and a bit of a life.

Invisible Shifts, Big Horizons

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?”–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

All too true, I think. I get frustrated by the few pages of reading I squeeze into my bus ride, a taste when I want a gulp, when I want to read 52 books a year and will probably get under 20 at best. I write a few paragraphs, a few pages, edit a sentence or two, but it ain’t no novel. I draw day after day after day, but can’t see my improvements. Is nothing happening, does one really need to quit the day job and do the creative work 24/7, poverty be damned, or is my time scale is off? Here’s an example: Some time around 2006, I dropped my obsession with capturing likeness (nice when I could still get it), and began to focus on characteristic gesture and expression instead. I used to practice this in the interminable meetings we had at the job I worked back then.

Geoff1Kate1retreat 2007

After that job ended, so did the opportunity to find sustained poses, and between economic woes and a refocus on writing, I really didn’t do much drawing at all until this spring. But now look what’s happened.

Character sketches, pen, 2013

There’s something here. Not everything I want, but a piece of it. Yes, there’s the difference of working from a photo, but those meetings made passionate, 20-somethigns into veritable still life. No joke. So the change must have happened when I wasn’t looking, maybe even in unsuccessful sketches, then and now, that I grumbled over, dismissed and begrudged. The verdict? Trust the process, do the work, and every now and then, lift myself above the day-by-day routine to see where I am. Which is comparatively easy to say, forgetting the disappointment of coming short of the vision, except for this–

I may be closer to my Emerald City than I think.


Learning to Draw

“For the great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not something accidental, but must certainly be willed. What is drawing? How does one learn it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do.” –Vincent van Gogh

It is heartening to be reading Van Gogh’s letters when it comes to learning to draw because any struggle you have, he had–and he wrote about it at great length. But van Gogh had one answer to all his troubles and that was Work! Harder, more, diligently, consistently, and as he might say, with truth and sentiment. His lofty standards make me think about what it is that satisfies me when I think I’ve done well. Is it making a nice arrangement, something pretty? Capturing a likeness? Evoking a mood? Or maybe there is more, maybe one can find that characteristic gesture, look beyond surface to character, hold onto a figure in motion, find beauty where no one has before. I’m used to hearing van Gogh characterized as all impulse and emotion, but that’s only part of a more complex picture. Vincent thinks–and he asks you to think too.