February 20, 2018

A Review of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

In addition to finishing all my halfway done manuscripts and drawings, I am methodically attempting to finish a good many books that I had read to the halfway point. Today I finished Geoge Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. I was first introduced to the book by a colleague online (yes Facebook is actually sometimes valuable). The book intrigued me because I am also at work on a book with an imperative in its title and that also proposes to speak truth to power: You Look Great! Making Invisible Disease Visible.

George Lakoff’s book was worth the read. Yet throughout the book there were moments of disconnect for me. Most of these, thankfully, were overridden by areas of saliency and substance. And some of the framing may be useful for my own book so Don’t Think of an Elephant! Will most likely make it in to the bibliography of You Look Great!

First, what were those moments of disconnect I mentioned? Those discoveries are always more interesting so I will begin with them. They began right at the outset. "Don’t think of an Elephant!" I read in the opening pages. Got it! I conjure a robust image of an ostrich in my brain. The ostrich really wants to be there. This is disconcerting when I continue to read in Lakoff’s book that anyone reading or hearing the phrase "Don’t think of an elephant" will instantly envision an elephant because that is how a normal person’s brain is wired. Lakoff goes on to reinforce this bit of cognitive scientific reality by maintaining that in his decades of teaching, not one of his students did not think of an elephant when told not to. The ostrich, now fully ensconced in my psyche, starts pecking away at something. Yet I read on.

I am told, in Don’t Think of an Elephant!, that human perceptions and social interactions can basically be boiled down to human beings falling in to three distinctive camps: the "nurturant parent," "strict father figure," and "co-conceptuals." These are translated into the respective politics of "liberal/progressive," "conservative" and perhaps "moderate." These are oversimplifications for me which unfortunately makes the further expository remarks on these groups seem frail. And the labels conjured up an unpleasant memory of being subjected to educationalist theories back in the days when I was a teacher. - I recall a particularly time wasting lecture by an educator who categorized people as "circles, triangles and squares."

As you can see, I am not a great fan of labeling people. Yet authors, cognitive scientists included, use labels as tools for framing debate, some more effectively than others. It may be just a matter of semantics, but a better user friendly model for me is to frame ideologies as thought and social processes rather than as labels for groups of people. This makes debate more edifying and fluid. If you describe a person’s idea, for instance, as being influenced by sexism, racism, or fanaticism, it allows that person the opportunity to review and evaluate those ideas as well as their sources. It offers the hope of throwing off that yoke. But "You are a fanatic," even if unvoiced but understood, describes the totality of a person’s being and is rather hopeless - end of debate.

Yet later in Lakoff’s book, he does an exemplary job of offering a road map of sorts for greater civility in political discourse while holding fast to ethical principals and evidence based science - especially in his final chapters. Other places where the book shines is in Geoge Lakoff’s sensitive and astute examination of the effects of September 11 on the American psyche. The historical background of the legal precedents - all the back to 1623 - for Citizens United was a nice little feast of facts. And much to his credit, George Lakoff offers a finely faceted view of the abortion debate.

I often found that I was more fond of George Lakoff’s smaller observations than his larger vision. A particular gem for me was his illustration of corporate externalization of costs as having to wait on the telephone through time consuming menus in order to finally get to ask a question of a customer service representative. Your time traded for their money.

So take the time to read this book if political and social framing interests you. It is worth the value.....just don’t think of an ostrich!

February 19, 2018

A Revised Drawing For Noone

My book that required eighty illustrations is finished. I never thought I would see the end of it.

The days that follow the end of a long project are generally fairly quiet for me. A visual artist’s performance is silent and solitary. No applause. No curtain bow. Just a quiet pause in wielding that brush or charcoal.

The next project is never far behind. I have been asked to create a short painting series of bucolic scenes around South Carolina. I am obliged to do them because people want them. But before committing to the new work, I gave myself a little vacation yesterday and today. A vacation means making things that have no immediate market value and no one asked for. Instead of starting something from scratch, however, I chose to do some old drawings to "improve" upon. I plucked out a satisfactory but rather boring drawing of a woman seated at a table. I made the darks much darker, the lights lighter, and the midtones more uniform. The figure popped out of the background after these changes. The wall on the right begged for something interesting and eye catching. For that space I added a scroll with a depiction of a painting by the late Chinese artist Xu Bei Hong. Now this drawing seems just a little more special.

One more afternoon of reading, rest and planning before I get back to work.

February 18, 2018

Last Drawing for Moments in Light and Shadow

Finally. I finished drawing number eighty of the eighty that I set out to do to illustrate my last book of poetry. This one is for the poem, "The Salt Eaters: A Song for the Americas." For the background I once again consulted my father’s World War Two photograph album and selected one of his landscapes. I selected this one because the sinuous road winding its way up the mountainside echoed the shapes a dancer’s cape made.

The poem is about human flight the way it is sometimes experienced in dreams. I used this as an analogy for the strange but exciting rootlessness that children of immigrants might feel as ties with a homeland loosen. In the poem, the unbound start to float then swim through space as if the air is water. My original poem was written so long ago I can no longer recall the source for the story of a mythological salt that enables one to fly.

It seemed to me that the best model for a flying figure would be a dancer. So I used a picture I had taken of a dancer from the Beijing Dance Academy as he spun around with a cape. He truly appeared to be airborne. I was lucky enough to have been invited by the Confucius Institute,  along with my husband, to the Chinese New Year celebration at the University of South Carolina where we were treated to an outstanding dance performance.
  I superimposed the dance figure over my father’s landscape to create the effect of someone flying through space to an uncertain horizon.  I did change the head position so his face is turned towards the horizon, as this seemed to better suit the theme of the poem. 
The completed charcoal drawing is below:

February 12, 2018

A Drawing for Pentimento

The penultimate drawing in my series, number 79 of 80, is for the poem "Pentimento." The original painting was done from life. Ann Bayard had posed for the preliminary sketch that became the painting for my color version of Moments in Light and Shadow. So I decided the easy thing to do would be to finish up this drawing and use it for the black and white version of the book.

Getting close to the end of my revisions, I did an overview of all the drawings for the book. I realized that the revised drawing I made of Ann would be more appropriate for the poem "Diamonds in Serpent Eyes," since I had added an image of a snake in the mirror.

But what to do, then, about an illustration for the poem "Pentimento," now a blank? The poem describes the phenomenon of a previous painting shining through an over painting, after years of wear. Pentimento is sometimes translated as "an artist’s regret." One could think of it as a ghost of the artist’s past coming back to haunt him.

My poem was written so long ago I had to read it over again to figure out what to do in order to represent it visually. In the poem, the image is of a man with his head turned. The ghostly re-emergence behind the man is a woman. The artist changed the position and gender of the model.

Searching through my old sketchbooks, I found a drawing of a man in the position described in the poem. So I lightly added an overlay in the shape of a female. Just for fun, to add to the gender bending experience, I made a poster on the wall of that famous photograph Marlene Dietrich dressed in a tuxedo.

February 11, 2018

A Man and his Art in Drawing Number 78.

My drawing number 78 of the 80 I wished to finish for the black and white version of my book Moments in Light and Shadow was a remake of the painting I made earlier from a photograph of a well known gallery owner and curator. I had photographed him about ten years earlier in his loft studio sitting amongst his books and art work. I was especially fond of the tall bronze statue. The poem for this work was eventually named "Tall Bronze Woman," after this statue. I gave the painting the same title.

Fortunately, I still had the original photograph in my archive from which to create a new drawing. The painting was ten inches square, which cropped off a number of details in the photograph. This time, I made the charcoal drawing 11" x 14", allowing for more room to rearrange the elements. As you can see from the original painting, a number of things have been reconfigured, and I introduced a clear view of a background painting.

For the drawing, I decided to have a bit of fun with the model’s expression. In the original painting, he is somber - perhaps in keeping with a line in the poem which includes the word "deadpan." This time I decided to make the subject look as though he were suppressing laughter - hardly a poker face.

When I posted this drawing online recently, a number of people recognized the elements in the picture: the man, the art, who made the art and even who now owns it. I am happy to have jogged some pleasant memories.

February 10, 2018

The Rose Familiar in Black and White

My black and white version of my poetry book is being completed with drawings that have been reconfigured from the paintings that adorned the original color version. One of my favorite poems, as well as the painting that served as an illustration, was The Rose Familiar. I published this to my blog site about ten years ago, so I’ll restore it here for comparison.

For the black and white version, I used a different dog, a different portrait, and an archaic piece of pottery in substitution for the amorphous form that was originally there. I made the original painting from life so I had no preliminary sketch to adapt this time. Google images came to the rescue once again. From the latter source I was able to study the various forms of hibiscus that made their way in to the composition.

February 9, 2018

Drawing for "The Plagues"

The frightening black and white photographs of the Palermo mummies from my father’s WW2 photo journal proved to be good material to mine for drawings. In one section of the crypt, there were mummied children dressed in stylish garments. I chose one of these for the central figure in my drawing "The Plagues."

I then selected another mummy that was hung upright on the wall and added that figure to the bottom of the page, turning him horizontally. This mummy was not as deteriorated as others, which is why I chose him for this drawing. Unlike the skeletal remains, one can catch a glimpse of humanity in the man’s face.

The moths and grasshopper were added later. I chose the grasshopper for the association with the plague of locusts. The moths carry death head details.

Finished with the drawing for the title poem "Plagues," I am almost finished with the eighty drawings I set out to do for my eighty poems.

January 30, 2018

A Return to the Crypt of Palermo

The pile of unfinished work on my easel from December 2017 is now finished. So I’ve turned once again to other projects. Yesterday that entailed returning to my father’s WW2 photo album. I have been reinterpreting these photographs from 1944 in to large charcoal drawings. Some of these photographs are sublime. Others are sad and frightening.

While in Sicily during the Mediterranean campaign, my father visited the Capuchin crypt in Palermo. There he took several photographs of the mummies hung on the wall. This week, I am peering in to that crypt from 1944. I asked my father recently why he took those photographs. His answer was a characteristic no nonsense one: "Because they were ugly."

Indeed they were. The mummies were hung upright against the walls of the crypt, and, in a fashion making them even more ghoulish, dressed in formal clothing. These mummies can still be seen in Palermo and are apparently an offbeat tourist attraction. I checked their holdings on line and saw some familiar figures. They look like their environment has been spruced up a bit since 1944. My father’s photographs from that time show some crumbling in the walls and what looks like wire barriers.

As I began my crypt series, I retained the damaged look and the wire barriers by drawing in splattered ink on a large crisp piece of ivory drawing paper with a nice deckle edge. I selected a figure that was particularly gruesome looking to me. It is one I remembered coming across over fifty years ago in the photo album I discovered as a child as an intrepid explorer of other people’s closets.

To my surprise, as I worked on this piece, it engendered the same discomfort that I experienced all those years ago and I wondered if I would even be able to finish it. Like most art works, though, working continuously on the composition caused the subject to diminish and the medium to grow. The charcoals made nice scratch marks as they stumbled over the ink. The oil in the Chinese ink I used caught the light at different angles and livened the drawing with reflective properties. Pastels added some softness and modulations. Stepping back from the finished work, though, I have to agree with my father’s assessment "they were ugly."

January 27, 2018


More paintings from stone and linoleum blocks. The inspiration came from looking at collections of ancient glass bottles in the Princeton University Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although I studied these collections, none of the bottles were exactly represented in the paintings. The closest representation is the Persian bottle that I saw in the Philadelphia Museum.

This one at right is only four inches square.  The stamped design, which is barely visible, is the word for "honesty" in Chinese.  Some others include this painting with a background stamped several times with the word for "flying."  The stopper on the bottle reads "Good Health."  I imagine the bottle must contain some curative elixir.  Thinking of elixir, and Valentine's Day quickly approaching, I started thinking of that old song from the 1960's "Love Potion Number Nine."  With that, I began to carve heart shapes out of linoleum and print those of paintings of little bottles.  These too are small, no larger than 5" x 7."  This would, however, make these little bottles actually life size, for the ancient perfume bottles that inspired them were about that size.

January 25, 2018

The Belated Answer to a Dialogue Across Media with Susan Lenz

Ten years ago, I had a pleasant visit with the fiber artist Susan Lenz. We were trying something unusual for western artists - an art dialogue across media but on the same page. I had always wanted to try something like this as I was familiar with art dialogues in China; one artist creates a painting and another artist writes on it, or sometimes they paint on the same piece of paper. But the rugged individualism of American art would make such a process almost unheard of here. Yet we persisted. I brought out some abstract paintings and Susan attached embroideries. I came across these things again and realized that the dialogue was never finished. I made the art statement. Susan commented on it with an embroidery. Only now I realized that in keeping with the tradition I had learned, it was up to me to answer the embroidered comment. So this week I have - one decade after the fact. (Speed is not something I count as one of my feature qualities. )

The embroidered comments in my abstract paintings I found, as I revisited them, were rich with shapes, textures and details. My answers to these embroidered comments, then, was to work those shapes and details back in to the paintings. In the first work this was accomplished through stamped designs and textured surfaces. Coppery looking threads were used in most of the fiber fragments so I threaded iridescent copper paint over the surface of the surrounding paintings. In the second completion, I added a square collage with a rubbing of a Chinese character from one of my previous carvings. The claw and whisker like additions prompted me to change the title of this work from "The Medal," to "Claws and Whiskers."

The last collaborative painting/embroidery was something of a challenge. It was an embroidery of a leaf over my painting of blue with red and white stripes. This collaborative work was entitled "Flag." My answer to the added leaf was to print stamped leaf designs in to the painted surface. Hidden in Susan’s embroidery were tiny designs in black thread almost like a cartouche. My answer to that was to write in Chinese characters on the flag using the same thin black thread like strokes. I believe all of these works are finally complete, unified and answered.

Enjoy the images of the challenge and these belated answers to the challenge.