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Will Eisner: Dedicated Genius or, Why You Should Get to MoCCA

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Coming up on its 10th year in existence, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) is a great space in New York City, just below Houston on Broadway, devoted to “the collection, preservation, study, education, and display of comic and cartoon art.” On display through June 30th is the legendary Will Eisner’s work in an exhibit entitled, Will Eisner’s New York: From The Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel, curated by Denis Kitchen, publisher of Kitchen Sink Press, and comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth.

Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Will Eisner forged a revolutionary career in the comic book industry that spanned nearly 70 years. He’s responsible for setting many precedents, among them owning the copyrights to his work and coining the term “sequential art.”In his interviews, Eisner often mentioned the influence books in his life. On his official website he’s quoted as saying that his “first true literary influences were the stories by Horatio Alger.” Alger was a 19th-century American author of teen fiction who wrote about the merits of hard work and honesty. Growing up poor in Brooklyn, it’s easy to see why Will was taken with the down-and-out kids guaranteed success through determination.

What he saw in the stories was an “average person triumphing against obstacles,” a theme he deliberately used in his own work. Alongside these stories for boys, was his insatiable appetite for gritty pulp magazines. Cheaply produced and full of exploitative genre fiction, pulp publications were at their peak in the 1920s and 30s, with the most popular often selling up to 1 million copies. They were available on every newsstand, inexpensive, and instrumental in Eisner’s sense of storytelling.

In addition to an innate ambition, Eisner had the good fortune of attending DeWitt Clinton High School, which I believe was located in Hell’s Kitchen during his years there. The school still ranks high on the nation’s quality education lists and counts among its alumni the famed photographer Richard Avedon. While at DeWitt, Eisner illustrated many of the school’s publications, art directed its magazine, and created stage designs. Of his education he said, “it would be hard for me to overstate the depth of the effect my high school experience had on me. It meant everything to me, and in large part was responsible for the person I became and continue to be. I had the opportunity to try so many things, to find the things that suited me the best.”

Surrounded by other creative types, while there he teamed up with a classmate to created an intentionally pretentious literary journal with the intentionally pretentious sounding name of The Lion and Unicorn. Producing the magazine, a mixture of art and writing, came with a valuable lesson. To print the artwork using metal plates would have been too expensive so he learned to use cut wood engravings. Eisner said, “it taught me the value of learning to work in other media” and later shaped his pedagogy. During his later years teaching at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan he would tell his students “not to resist dabbling in other media,” saying that “they all have value.”

A pivotal moment in Eisner’s direction as a professional artist occurred one summer when he joined the Art Students League, an art school in New York whose former students include Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock. It was there that he studied under well-known artists. At the age of 19, after leaving the school, Eisner joined an advertising department of a New York-based magazine but soon left in favor of freelancing and working as a printer’s assistant.

During this time he approached Jerry Iger, the editor of a the short-lived magazine Wow!, which included comics in their issues. Turning down an offer as Iger’s assistant, preferring to draw comics rather than attend to administrative tasks, Eisner published a few features with them. Four issues later, after the publication folded, Eisner, still 19 years old, approached Jerry once again. Sensing a shared vision for the future of comic books, he suggested they become business partners in a studio. There they developed and produced work for pulp publishers, still a large market but at that time facing a decline in popularity, and built enough of a name for themselves to begin creating stories for the first comic book publishers.

Eisner was developing a reputation for himself, not only by producing material on time, a feat that required incredible dedication given the amount of work the Eisner-Iger Studio was creating with a small staff, but also for being one of the most talented artists in the business. It wasn’t long before he was approached by one of the leading comic book publishers, Everett “Busy” Arnold, to come up with a comic strip for newspaper syndication. The only problem was, it would be a full-time gig and he would need to leave Iger.

After settling the sale of half the business to Iger and after securing the unprecedented demand of owning the copyright on his new creation, Eisner went to work creating The Spirit, a 7-page insert about Denny Colt, a vigilante fighting crime on the streets of Central City. “I had at last struck a new market … a comic book insert for Sunday newspapers … that had never been done before,” he later said in an interview with The Comics Journal.

There was one stipulation, it was 1940 and Superman had just come out about 2 years earlier. The newspaper industry, seeing the Sunday section as a service for popular demands, craved superheroes; The Spirit leaned more towards realism but to appease the editors’ desire to adhere to the new fad, Eisner gave Spirit a mask.

His approach to writing the new comic was innovative and drew upon his beloved books. About his vision for the series he said, “what I originally wanted to do was a straight detective character that would give me room to do stories. I was interested in the short story form, and I thought here at last was an opportunity to work on short stories in comics. I could do the stories I wanted, because I was going to have a more adult audience.” The short stories of O. Henry and Ambrose Bierce were his literary inspiration. It was “the twist endings, the surprise endings” that formed his story arc and, as for his philosophy, “The Spirit, as I saw it (and as I saw comic books), was nothing but a series of short stories. They were the pulps in visual form.”

Back then, and continuing into today, there are two categories for comics, strips and books—Eisner straddled both genres expertly.

In 1942 Eisner was drafted into the Army to fight in World War II. This interrupted his work on The Spirit but did not end the series itself. He’d worked with a number of artists, most notably the cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer, to produce the story and left it in their hands until his service ended in 1945. While in the military, as was known to happen to talented artists, Eisner created posters, illustrations and strips for the troops, both to entertain and educate. Eisner continued this work with the military when, in 1951, the army publication PS magazine was created. For 20 years he served as its Art Director.

After his service ended, he picked up The Spirit from the artists who had kept it going and for the next 12 years, Eisner used the strip to play with form and content, pushing his craft to heights that would inform his later work. For the structure of the stories he experimented with song and poetry; for content he explored the lives of common people as well as themes in science fiction.

Just as he paved the way with The Spirit, Eisner once again proved himself an astute businessman, rightly predicting a new opportunity to push the genre forward. In 1978 Eisner released  A Contract with God, a collection of four semi-autobiographical stories set in a Bronx tenement. He’d originally wanted to publish the book with a major house in New York, calling the president of Bantam Books directly, but when he got him on the phone it occurred to him that if he said he had a “comic” to show him he wouldn’t get through the door. Instead, he used the term “graphic novel”. The publisher took a look at Eisner work and told him it was a comic and to try a smaller publisher. He might not have gotten a deal with a major house, the book was ultimately published by a Baronet Books, but he did expand the notion of cartoon art, creating a story and format that appealed to a population of aging comic book fans.

The book was a commercial success and because the cover of the paperback edition said “graphic novel” it’s often thought that Eisner coined the term. Luckily comic book fans do not shy away from research; so in 2003, when TIME magazine ran a feature on graphic novels as a way of celebrating the 25th anniversary of Eisner’s book, a reader wrote in with the history. It turns out the term first appeared in November 1964 when critic Richard Kyle used it in a newsletter to members of the Amateur Press Association. TIME ran this response:

Eisner acknowledges that the term “graphic novel” had been coined prior to his book. But, he says, “I had not known at the time that someone had used that term before.” Nor does he take credit for creating the first graphic book. Eisner admits that, “I can’t claim to have invented the wheel, but I felt I was in a position to change the direction of comics.” TIME.comix’ argument is that Eisner’s book, published outside the comic book system and pretty clearly the first comix work deliberately aspiring to literary status, by having the term on the front cover, crystallized the concept of a “graphic novel.” But the matter is clearly open to debate.

Comic-world squabbles aside, it’s undeniable that Will Eisner pushed boundaries, created standards beneficial to artists, and forged a creative path for future generations of cartoonists. When you go see the exhibit at MoCCA, because why wouldn’t you?, it’s important to view his work as the grand accomplishments that they were and not just as the masterpieces they will always be.

Eisner On Art and Writing:

To achieve the name, or to be worthy of the name, of creator, a man should be both writer and artist. Now, he doesn’t have to write with words. After all, [Diego] Rivera and [Jose Clemente] Orozco were making murals which, as far as I’m concerned, were vast pieces of writing, because the painter had an idea and he was trying to communicate with the people who would ultimately view it. He had something to say. That’s the heart of it — having something to say. The man who sits down and takes somebody else’s script and merely renders it into pictures is doing something, and I don’t withdraw from him what is his due. I can only measure him by the contribution he’s made to the script. He is going just so far, but he has a limitation. [Salvador] Dali is a writer-artist combination.”

—Interview in The Comics Journal

Eisner’s Legacy:
One of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after him. Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comi-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics convention.

Eisner in Pop Culture:
Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is based in good part on Eisner.

Will Eisner’s official website
Documentary: Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist
Interview with The Comics Journal
MoCCA events
MoCCA classes
MoCCA on facebook

Written by Gabrielle

April 26, 2011 at 9:05 am

Posted in art

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lusting for the life of van gogh

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a moving account of vincent van gogh’s tortured life 

for many, the mention of vincent van gogh brings to mind images of a swirling evening sky, sunflowers with textured orange and yellow petals, and slightly distorted self-portraits, perhaps one with a white bandage wrapped around the painter’s head, covering the place where an ear should be. what also comes to mind is the image of an artist unhinged.

one of the most recognizable artists in history, van gogh, the dutch post-impressionist painter born in 1853, is both pictorially ubiquitous and personally enigmatic. lust for life, the 1934 biographical novel written by irving stone, cuts through the mythology, fleshes out the details, and creates a sympathetic character.

not well-known about van gogh is his circuitous route to painting and the real growing pains endured while getting there. van gogh was something of a late bloomer; his childhood was not marked by years of art instruction. however, he was born into a family of prominent art dealers with shops in many european cities and in his early 20s he worked in their london gallery selling commercial works to wealthy clientele. he was good at it and advanced quickly. that was until he was rejected by his landlord’s daughter. emotionally derailed and obsessively persistent, he alienated those around him and, after some major professional missteps, lost his job. the irreparable damage was done and van gogh had little choice but to leave the city.

without salary or direction, vincent moved to his uncle’s house in amsterdam where he set out to study his family’s other profession: theology. vincent’s father was a protestant pastor and he himself was not without religious conviction. although failing miserably at latin and greek and unable to deliver an elegant sermon, one pastor had confidence in his skills as a missionary and sent him to borinage, a poor mining town in southern belgium, where the disapproving church authorities gave him 6 months to convince them he deserved a permanent position.

the night cafe

in one of the more comical scenes, when the pastors showed up for their visit, they found that van gogh had not been satisfied purely with preaching. taking his work to heart, vincent had decided he should become part of the community, living as the miners did, which often meant going hungry and walking around filthy from coal ash—cue the parallels to christ. this gesture of genuine devotion had endeared him to the local population but clearly upset the pastors’ conventional sensibilities: they banned him from preaching, swiftly ending his religious aspirations.

once again without salary or direction, vincent went to live with his family in etten, an hour and a half south-west of amsterdam, but the relationship was strained. he was well-meaning and sincere but couldnt shake his status as the black sheep of an otherwise refined family.

although he sketched the mining families in borinage, it was during his time at home that vincent began to take his art seriously, spending full days in the fields sketching the landscape. it’s in this early period that he developed a unique style—unencumbered by formal training and outside influence—but, as was becoming the leitmotif of van gogh’s life, his stay was not without emotional turmoil ultimately leading to his having to pack up and leave the area. he’d fallen for his cousin, which seemed to have grossed out everyone but him.

next, he moved to the hague to study under the reluctant tutelage of his cousin-in-law, painter anton mauve. by then he was receiving a monthly allowance from his younger brother theo with whom he had a heartfelt relationship until the end of his life. the stipend covered rent, food, and supplies so he could devote all his energy to art. theo was a successful dealer in the family’s paris shop and, having close contact with the french impressionists, was one of the few who saw and encouraged vincent’s talent.

terrasse cafe

but alas, the hague proved too stuffy for vincent. the dealer in the city’s shop was traditional-minded, as was his uncle, and vincent’s work didn’t make sense to them. he’d also met a so-called fallen woman who was as close to a wife as he’d even know, which, once again, caused a stir within the provincial circles forever concerned with him by birthright. by the time he left the city, called away by his ailing father, his relationship with the woman had soured. vincent had found it difficult to support a family, which included her two bastard children, and his art on theo’s money.

van gogh was dutch but it’s also the french who have a legitimate claim to his legacy. when theo finally convinced his brother to come live with him in paris vincent was 33 years old. their time rooming together was far from a pleasant experience—vincent frequently picked fights with theo about art and woke him up in the middle of the night to look at the day’s canvases. vincent was frustrated by what he saw as his inability to absorb all the techniques he was witnessing at a dizzying pace. before then, he’d never worked in oil; neither had he heard of the impressionists: monet, degas, renoit, but soon his circle of friends included seurat, the painter made famous to generation x’ers by the museum scene in ferris bueller’s day off, as well as cezanne, gauguin, and henri rousseau.

It looked so easy. All he had to do was throw away the old palette, buy some light pigments, and paint as an Impressionist. At the end of the first day’s trial, Vincent was surprised and a bit nettled. At the end of the second day he was bewildered. Bewilderment was succeeded in turn by chagrin, anger, and fear. By the end of the week he was in a towering rage. After all his laborious months of experimentation with colour, he was still a novice. His canvases came out dark, dull, and sticky. . . .
. . . If it was a hard week for Vincent, it was a thousand times harder for Theo. Theo was a gentle soul, mild in his manners and delicate in his habits of life. . . .
The little apartment on the rue Laval was just large enough for Theo and his fragile Louis Philippes. By the end of the first week Vincent had turned the place into a junk shop. He paced up and down the living room, kicked furniture out of the way, threw canvases, brushes, and empty colour tubes all over the floor, adorned the divans and tables with his soiled clothing, broke dishes, plashed paint, and upset every last punctilious habit of Theo’s life.
. . . “It’s of no use,” he groaned. “I began too late. I’m too old to change. God, Theo, I’ve tried! I’ve started twenty canvases this week. But I’m set in my technique, and I can’t go back to Holland and paint sheep after what I’ve seen here. And I came too late to get in the main swing of my craft. God, what will I do?
but he didn’t come to painting too late, paris was a turning point for vincent. his knowledge of color and approach to painting flourished. the tight-knit group of artists were intensely devoted to their work but, with few exceptions, they were underappreciated, often broke, and mentally unstable. paris had been his most social period and he was beginning to feel run down. 

always a good judge of when to move on, van gogh left for arles, a small city in the southeast region of france. he went to the countryside to regain his strength and to spend some time alone, to process all he’d learned and find his own voice again. presciently, on one of his first days there he was warned by a parting journalist, “Arles is the most violently insane spot on the globe. . . . I’ve been watching these people for three months, and I tell you, they’re all cracked.”

self portrait

the hot sun of arles, not to mention the strong winds, had a tendency to drive the sanest person mad, but the bright light was great for vincent’s use of color—he’d never seen such vibrant yellows. some of his best, and most recognizable, paintings are from this period: the sunflowers, the bedroom, the cafe terrace. but in the end, vincent never stood a chance against the cursed city and soon developed nightmares, experienced bouts of insomnia, and began hearing voices.

by the time he’d convinced gauguin to come live with him he was unpredictable and easily irritated. gauguin was not feeling too amiable either. the two would have heated arguments about art. the excitement ultimately drove van gogh to his breaking point. one night he nearly went after gauguin with a knife but, always one for self-destruction rather than harming others, he opted for cutting off his own ear instead. unrequited love was not involved, unless you count the disapproval of a friend.

the incident, a bit too crazy for even the most tolerant arlesian, prompted a yearlong stay at a nearby sanatorium but episodes of mental breakdown continued and ultimately cost the painter his life.

when alive, vincent van gogh was no better than an untouchable but in death he is one of the most celebrated artists in modern history; and while this is true of many artists across all mediums, stone’s ability to cultivate empathy for van gogh makes his story especially heartbreaking.

a good book is remembered as enjoyable but an extraordinary one creates a desire to know more; and so, the last page of lust for life is not the end, it’s only the beginning.

::[further exploration]::
dear theo: the autobiography of vincent van gogh
van gogh’s paintings on view at the metropolitan museum of art

Written by Gabrielle

March 23, 2011 at 7:43 am

Posted in art, books, reviews

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portrait of an artist as a tormented man

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Theo decided to give a party for Vincent’s friends. They made four dozen hard-boiled eggs, brought in a keg of beer, and filled innumerable trays with brioches and pastries. The tobacco smoke was so thick in the living room that when Gauguin moved his huge bulk from one end to the other, he looked like an ocean liner coming through the fog. Lautrec perched himself in one corner, cracked eggs on the arm of Theo’s favourite armchair, and scattered the shells over the rug. [Henri] Rousseau was all excited about a perfumed note he had received that day from a lady admirer who wanted to meet him. He told the story with wide eyed amazement over and over again. Seurat was working out a new theory, and had Cezanne pinned against the window, explaining to him. Vincent poured beer from the keg, laughed at Gauguin’s obscene stories, wondered with Rousseau who his lady friend could be, argued with Lautrec whether lines or points of color were most effective in capturing an impression, and finally rescued Cezanne from the clutches of Seurat.

The room fairly burst with excitement. The men in it were all powerful personalities, fierce egoists, and vibrant iconoclasts. Theo called them monomaniacs. They loved to argue, fight, curse, defnd their own theories and damn everything else. Their voices were strong and rough; the number of things they loathed in the world was legion. A hall twenty times the size of Theo’s sitting room would have been too small to contain the dynamic force of the fighting, strident painters.

Lust for Life, the classic biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh / Irving Stone /1934

painting: Coalmine in the Borinage / Van Gogh / 1879

Written by Gabrielle

March 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

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the underground surfaces

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exit through the gift shop is as entertaining as Banksy’s art, and warrants the same double take

the elusive street artist Banksy has earned an incredible amount of recognition over the past few years. his public displays of political satire have since expanded from the confides of his hometown, bristol. the attention reached new heights when, in 2005, he painted nine ironic images onto the separation wall in the west bank. before that he’d caused a stir at a number of prominent museums in new york and one in brooklyn when he put a few paintings of his own up on the walls. now, the documentary exit through the gift shop, which he both stars in and is given credit for directing, is up for an Oscar.

for people unfamiliar with the big names in street art—shepard fairey, hands-down the most recognizable in the film; space invader, a true up-and-comer; swoon, a woman who knows how to use a haunting image; and ron english, a contemporary artist who turns pop-advertising on its head—this documentary is a great intro not only to the cast of deviant characters and their works but also to the essence of the movement: a rebellious world where smart asses and class clowns reign.

street artists—whether they use paint, stencils, or mixed media installations—go to great lengths to thwart fines, arrest, and injury; most of the time it’s hard to tell if they do it in spite of or because of the risks involved. these talented and determined artists use the street as their canvas. they don’t create for the money but will most likely admit that fame plays a factor. Fame: not in the lindsay lohan and lady gaga sense but fame: the ubiquity of their signature character or style. like puppies on the first day in a new home they tag every spot, leaving no corner, wall, or fixed object unmarked; the harder to reach the better. even when a person’s technique or image isn’t the best, if they reach new levels of visibility, they earn respect.

this is why thierry guetta, a frenchman living in los angeles, is the perfect documentor for an authentic film on street art. just like the people he follows, he’s driven to take it one step further.

from the day thierry held his first video camera, the context of its arrival now forgotten,  it became an appendage. this new extension was always on, filming every moment to the annoyance of strangers and movie stars, and to the resignation of family members.

as luck would have it, one of those family members, thierry’s cousin, is the french artist space invader. during a visit to france, thierry collects footage of invader’s stealth gluing adventures. space invader, for all who have not yet had the pleasure of spying his work, is the creator of small mosaics featuring much-loved 1980s video game characters. these tiled squares, ranging from small to medium in size, have since made their way to many cities around the world—berlin, bangkok, bilbao, lyon, los angeles, and new york.

in a scene where the camera is turned on the filmmaker the audience is privvy to thierry’s sincere appreciation for what his cousin is doing; pasting up art in a public space for all to enjoy without having to pay an entrance fee. the experience changes him, his focus, and sparks an obsession; all of which only adds to his quirky charm.

thierry, obviously prone to obsessive behavior, digs deeper into the haphazard project, stubbornly pursuing and building relationships with the top names in the industry.

his first non-familial subject is shepard fairey, a connection made in 2002 through space invader. thierry goes to kinkos where shepard is printing out large sheets of his trademark image: a tightly-cropped face of wrestling legend Andre the Giant with the vague command, “obey,” written overhead. shepard had become used to increased media attention, his art having been recognizable for a few years at that point, but repeat interviews was something new and like any sane person, after a few mildly-intrusive days with the odd frenchman, shepard questions thierry about his plans.

thierry claims he’s working on a documentary about street art; fairey, convinced, allows him unprecedented, near-continuous access. soon thierry takes off for days at a time, leaving his wife and three kids at home, to travel the world documenting shepard’s wheatpasting escapades.

through thierry’s adventure videography, and because of his unrelenting desire to capture everything, viewers experience the streets with these graffiti-world heroes, witnessing firsthand what it’s like to scale the highest point of a building, dodge the police, and remain incognito—sometimes unsuccessfully—while committing unlawful acts, often on a large scale.

after embarking on a dogged pursuit thierry tracks down Banksy, the one artist notorious for keeping his face out of the press. his encounter with the indispensable figure, who appears on film only in the shadows and with his voice digitally altered, fundamentally changes the course of the film (or, the film that wasn’t, to be more precise).

in 2006, the art world experienced a shock: banksy’s show, “barely legal,” drew lines which, until that time, were reserved only for major museum exhibit openings. adding to the awe, the line wasn’t just for the first night, it persisted for three consecutive days; and even more incredible, it was in a warehouse located in downtown LA’s skid row, an area that contains one of the largest homeless populations in the US. big-time collectors started coming out to auction houses and paying good money for these pieces that were once categorized as crude vandalism. but now shepard fairey’s work hung side-by-side with rothko’s in the homes of international elites.

concerned with the commercialization of the work, banksy told thierry it was the time to finish the documentary—to show the artists for the anti-establishment, adrenaline addicts that they were and not some money-seeking flashes in the pan.

nearly a thousand, possibly more, hours of tape sat in thierry’s garage, uncategorized and abandoned without future. under pressure thierry does something he never expected: he edits the footage into a full-length feature; the end product is akin to acid visions on speed. filmmaker thierry is not but compulsive collector his is and banksy, with the eye and instincts of a world-class artist, takes over, turning the camera on thierry in the process.

along the way thierry had come up with his own character, an image of himself with a video camera, and had begun stickering and stenciling alongside his mentors. with this in mind banksy sends thierry back to LA with the idea of curating an art show in his head. it was a way of getting thierry out of his hair so he could sift through the footage but thierry, apparently very literal-minded, took it as a direct order. moving full-steam ahead as his newly-adopted street art persona, mr. brainwash, what becomes of thierry is comical—or horrific—depending on your sense of humor. rather quickly he sets up a studio ala warhol, hiring artists to create his mashed up visions pulled from a variety of art books and pop culture resources.

the speculation surrounding the film has become trite. skeptics believe banksy staged it all as another one of his sarcasm-soaked critiques of society. it probably didnt help that around the same time, joaquin phoenix came out with a documentary that supposedly followed him during his alleged nervous breakdown. both were a hoax, confirmed by the director and mentally-healthy star a few days after it hit the theaters. real street art fans won’t care; after all, they crave intelligent, well-crafted pranks; and anyway, exit through the gift shop, is so amazingly absurd it can’t help but be genuine.

exit through the gift shop‘s official site
interview with producer and editor on KCRW’s the treatment
space invader’s website
extra special thanks to laughing squid for running a giveaway of the dvd, which i won

Written by Gabrielle

February 24, 2011 at 8:53 am

Posted in art, film

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things new yorkers like :: art school

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from the mission statement:

3rd Ward is an incubator for innovation and possibility. Our members come from all walks of life to realize their potential and find additional meaning in their lives through our supportive community and top-of-the-line creative resources, including photo studios, media lab, jewelry studio, wood & metal shops, and a huge education program.

Anyone can come to 3rd Ward to work, play, learn, grow and, ultimately, transform.

195 Morgan Ave, Brooklyn, NY

:: [join in] ::

moviehouse :: every second sunday / doors.7pm . . . film.8pm / free
this series presents the best local filmmaking. music, drinks, snacks, and people to talk to.

sweatshop social :: every last monday / 7 to 10pm / $10 suggested donation
you bring fabric and 3rd Ward gives you sewing machines, more fabric, advice, beer, and music.

drink n draw :: every wednesday / 8 to 10:30pm / $15.person . . . $10.w friend . . . free for members
bring your drawing tools, they have the model and beer.

classes :: interdisciplinary courses in art, digital multimedia, photography, fabrication and craft.

3rd ward homepage

Written by Gabrielle

February 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

must-see :: norman rockwell

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the tattoo artist / norman rockwell / 1944

norman rockwell’s illustrations are known by almost every modern american born before 1985. his style, sentimental to the core, along with talent, are what carries his work through the day.

while rockwell’s paintings most certainly have their own allure, what interested me about the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, something i’d never known, were the photo shoots he’d arranged in order to have stills to reference—one of the building blocks to his hyperrealism.

rockwell would choose his models from friends, family, and neighbors; he’d once said, “I paint human-looking humans and professional models just don’t qualify.” he selected his participants not just on appearance but also their ability to perform and smile on cue. although the camera’s shutter was ultimately snapped by one of his hired photographers, gene pelham from 1939 to 1953 when rockwell was based in vermont; then bill scovill from 1953 to 1963 when rockwell first moved to massachusetts, and finally, the longest serving assistant, louie lamone from 1953 to 1977, also based in massachusetts, it was rockwell who set the scene, showing the models sketches of the poses and then acted them out to make sure they had it right, and setting the camera angle as well. even with all his elaborate efforts to create the photos, rockwell felt as if he were cheating and often felt guilty.

authenticity was important to the artist and would travel, within the US and abroad, to get the right setting for his paintings. one advertising assignment mentioned at the exhibit that sounded interesting was his work for Pan American, the international airline. apparently the job didnt go so well for rockwell. here’s what he had to say in his autobiography:

“And then there’s advertising. and my most disappointing fiasco. A few years back Wally Elton, a vice-president at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, asked me if I would like to go around the world for Pan American Airways. I would visit all the major cities at which the Pan American clippers landed and make sketches. When I returned the sketches would be published as advertisements for Pan American.

“I [assumed] that he wanted me to sketch the people I saw and the strange sights, sort of get the flavor of the cities we passed through. And that’s what I did. In Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Istanbul, Beirut, Karachi, Calcutta, Benares, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Hawaii. People from bullfighters and priests, to snake charmers, monkey tamers, Arabs, and Geisha girls. Scenes from a fountain in Rome to a camel-elephant-water buffalo-bicycle-and-beggar-thronged street in Karachi.

But when I returned home and submitted my sketchbook it was rejected. Oh, I did a few ads. Nothing to justify the time and money which had been spent, though. Because the agency and Pan American did not want pictures of the strange lands and people. “Those would only frighten tourists,” they said; “we want pictures of smart-looking tourists sunning on smart beaches in front of smart hotels.” But that’s not the kind of picture I can do. So I did nothing.”

adapted from: my adventures as an illustrator: norman rockwell (an autobiography) / 1995

marriage counselor / norman rockwell / 1963

this exhibit is running until april 10th. jump on the 2,3 and head to the brooklyn museum stop.

[big moments] ::
1894 : born in new york city
1916 : first cover illustration for the saturday evening post
1963 : ends relations with the saturday evening post
1978 : dies, age 84, stockbridge, massachusetts

[sources] ::
rockwell exhibit page at the brooklyn museum

brooklyn museum

Written by Gabrielle

January 5, 2011 at 6:06 am

Posted in art

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meet the artist :: charrow

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catrobatics / charrow / 2010

i first saw charrow’s work at Joe, an independent coffee shop with five locations around manhattan. the chalk-drawn squirrels on the outside blackboard, meant to entice passersby, had a hard-edged, snarky charm. inside the 13th street location, just southwest of union square, charrow’s work is displayed on the walls: light-hearted yet critical, colorful yet muted. her subjects, mainly animals, are whimsical. it makes waiting for the morning espresso tolerable.

the paradoxical nature of the illustrations, wholly intentional, pairs well with charrow’s choice of medium: gouache, an opaque paint that’s similar to the watercolors most people used in grade school. what differs, gouache’s less binding nature and the addition of white, makes it easier to fix and better for scanning. “it’s for people who are stressed out by watercolor,” charrow said, adding that the paint can also take on the appearance of acrylic depending on how it’s mixed.

prior to grad school, outside the occasional highlight, charrow worked in pen and ink. she didnt know how to use color; her disastrous experience with oil paints was far from encouraging, not to mention her hostile feelings towards acrylic. both were too heavy and any attempts at thinning them out ended in a soupy mess.  it wasn’t until a professor introduced her to gouache that she realized working with color could be enjoyable. now whenever she thinks about what to draw, she first wonders how it will look in color.

burning / charrow / 2010

charrow, now living in brooklyn, got her start in academia start studying art history at Smith College. “it gave me a more analytical eye,” she said, paying homage to her degree in spite of it not having been necessary for the jobs she’s had so far. she continues, ” it helps give you the language, for sure; i definitely have a language to describe what i’m seeing.. . . but,” she says of art critics, “they attach and apply all this language to what people were doing. they dissect their inspiration; dissect what it was they were accomplishing; and i was like, you can’t actually know what that person was trying to accomplish.. . . language is useful when used properly,” she concludes.

“they’re words. if people pay for art and hang it up on their wall, that makes it fine art in my opinion.”

as her education progressed, charrow came to investigate the conventional labels art uses to define itself—especially within the realm of art history. school had taught her about color, introduced her to a life-altering medium, and gave her language to explain art, but it also made her hyper-aware of that same institution’s distinction between fine art and illustration. “i’ll never be able to be an artist because i’m an illustrator,” she’d think. although it’s since been worked out in her head with illustration validated, she still feels that, minus a few superstars, illustration and comic book art is not yet taken seriously within the art world. “when talking about late-20th century artists,” she said, “they never reference [Robert] Crumb,” the underground comic book artist now in his late-60s. “he’s an artist.”

spooky / charrow / 2010

most artists know that the pressure to create can hang like a weight around one’s neck. “when i don’t have any ideas i will try to find assignments,” charrow said when asked about her process for collecting ideas. illustration friday, an open online forum for artists, has been instrumental in helping charrow break out of stale moments and has rescued her from burnout. the site posts a new word each week and whoever participants has 7 days to create something based on that one word. although artists compete for “pick of the week,” charrow finds that using it to keep the creativity and artwork flowing is reward enough. charrow, however, does submit her work competitively and has recently been chosen by they draw and cook, a website devoted to illustrated recipes, to be a part of their illustrated cook book coming out in the fall of 2011.

[interview] :: back from her tour of coffee and graffiti in western europe, charrow sat down with me to discuss campy new york pets, the status of the city squirrels, and the varieties of aqua:

[bonus audio] :: listen to charrow discuss the illustration industry from an artist’s perspective:

5 random questions for charrow:

  • top 3 children’s book illustrators:
    Emma Adbage (Swedish), Oliver Jeffers (British), and Arthur de Pins—but he’s really for adults so as an
    bonus, Jay Ryan. he does amazing poster art that looks like a children’s book.
  • cause for your last great burst of inspiration:
    The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens. It’s really amazing.
  • in rotation on your iPod:
    Florence+Machine on repeat mixed with a little Le Loup
  • favorite coffee drink to make: Large Latte in ceramic…it allows me to show off latte art the best…but I enjoy drinking cortados.
  • what you should do more of but don’t:
    laundry and proof reading


in addition to churning out art, charrow currently teaches coffee classes at joe on 13th street

charrow’s official website
charrow’s blog
charrow on etsy
they draw and cook :: forthcoming cookbook with charrow entry
joe: the art of coffee :: take coffee classes the 13th street location with charrow
the ispot :: illustration portfolio site
illustration friday :: for artist’s block and inspiration

Written by Gabrielle

December 27, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Posted in art, podcasts

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the helvetica around us

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i was in my favorite bookstore yesterday looking for the dvd of Examined Life (opens with video). turns out, it hasn’t been released yet but while i was looking over the videos they had on display, one caught my eye: Objectified. it had a bunch of simple, everyday images in black on the cover. the sticker on the cellophane said something like, “from the director of Helvetica“. being that i am a Netflix subscriber, i made sure to write down both film titles so i could put them in my queue when i got home.

as luck would have it, Helvetica was available for instant viewing, meaning i could play it on my computer at any time. so i watched it that night.

the film opens with typeface blocks cut from steel, a man inking them, rolling a press over them, and showing the end product – a fresh, black, inky ‘Helvetica’ in Helvetica on a piece of white paper. then, Times Square. it turns out that Helvetica is all around us and about 30 minutes into the film, it started to feel a bit oppressive. not the movie, but the fact that we are surrounded – overwhelmingly – with one typeface. i have a fear of walking outside my apartment and going mad from the oneness of our society’s choice in signage.

but, as the film goes on to show, there are reasons to embrace Helvetica. it is bold, clean, and easy to read. it is also the product of the “Swiss style,” which means it is very much concerned with the ‘figure-ground relationship,’ adding to it’s aesthetically pleasing presentation. the pro-Helvetica camp interviewed for the film even went so far as to philosophize about it’s rationality. to the pro-Helvetica camp, Helvetica is perfection.

i must say, i was buying it. i thought back to my zine days where i would toy with my font choices and even handwrite a few things. was i wrong? unwise to the supreme status of Helvetica? i was almost about to drop all my typeface-adventurism when in walked the anti-Helvetica camp – or the ‘we’re-just-not-that-into-you’ camp.

one of these revolutionaries has been my long-time design hero, david carson. i found myself cheering him on, like the dorky kid in class secretly willing the class clown to do the things she’d never dream of doing herself. david carson played with text. it looked weird, it overlapped, it didnt always make sense but it was art. it was rebellion textified.

but, as with many things, there was no simple answer. the pro and the anti camps kept coming back, intertwining and making their equally compelling cases. in the end, i came away with a shocking awareness of just how prevalant and profound something as unassuming as typeface can be.

the quality of Helvetica is astounding. the framing of the shots, the conversations from and observations of the world-renowned designers make this history of a runaway font thought-provoking and entertaining.

Written by Gabrielle

November 18, 2009 at 10:21 am

Posted in art, film

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kandinsky for beginners

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i’m not exactly sure how i found out about kandinsky, the russian painter who lived during the early 1900s, or when i did but i feel like it was probably a few years ago on the internet. it was at that time that i was getting into art. i had an instant love for rothko and thought andy warhol was pretty awesome. both had a great sense of color and shape. basquiat was another of my favorites. his stuff was warped childhood nostalgia personified. these guys made you feel like you could go home and create brilliant works of art – until you went home and found that you couldn’t.

the first painting of kandinsky’s i had seen was the one i think many people have seen without knowing whose it is. it’s the one with the rows of circles in all different colors, in fact, i think it hung on the wall in my pediatrician’s office. when i dug around some more i thought he was even better.

the other week, i was looking through the New York Times and found an article about the upcoming kandinsky exhibit at the guggenheim. i have to admit, i had never been to the guggenheim – the museum designed by frank lloyd wright. it would be my first visit.

this saturday i was sitting around doing the same old thing – drinking coffee at the local cafe and reading. a friend of mine rode up on his bike and stopped to say hello. we both lamented about how we had things we wanted to do in manhattan but were too lazy to leave brooklyn. we wished each other luck and he rode away. sitting there for a minute or so, staring at my book and coffee cup, i decided to get up and march toward the subway. i was going to the museum.

when i got there it was the height of the afternoon but i didnt wait on line for more than 5 minutes and even better, the let me keep my bag with me. the no camera rule however was frustrating. the guggenheim itself is a work of art and a great way to see an exhibit. the building spirals upward with the inside walls showing the artist’s work and the outside of the spiral exposed. the view both looking up and looking down could be framed on a wall. a close up of the paintings would have made good postcards and pictures of people looking at the art are usually interesting. but there would be none of that this time around. i was asked twice – politely, i want to add – to put my camera away.

kandinsky’s work on view spans the trajectory of his career. his impressionist paintings that i didnt know he did were some of my favorites. they were cheery, blobby monets.  his middle stuff while he was at bauhaus in germany was very sharp and geometric – like he was some architect gone off his rocker. the later stuff fused the abstract with the  mathematical precision and came out with what seemed to me to be some sort of parody of space culture. it felt very cold war russian – which then led me to believe he was brilliant since he had died in 1944 – a year before that era had begun. so, like rothko, warhol, and basquiat, kandinsky was revolutionary and definitely worth the $18 admission fee.

if you’re in new york between now and January 13th, 2010, you should go see it.


Written by Gabrielle

September 27, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Posted in art

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