15 March 2015

My Arts & Crafts

A few years ago, my friend Doug Wittnebel posted a digital sketch he made that included a photo. Making inquiries, I learned that he used an iPad app called Procreate to do it. After getting a copy, I started making photo-collages, typically sampling the stream of images that kick up on tumblr and Facebook. While there's an ebb and flow to it, I work fairly consistently at it, finding the medium conducive to the kind of free association that also drives my poetry. 

As a kid, I painted watercolors at a Saturday class at Tanglin School in Singapore. My mother kept the pad, so I still have a record of the work. She also kept several sketchbooks. The watercolors have a free style that seems to reflect a fearless approach to that quite tricky medium. The drawings are tighter, with text as a graphic element - literally, since I couldn't read, but had memorized perhaps 100 words in the course of trying and failing to learn by rote. The "J" in my name is typically reversed. Rudolf Steiner, understanding the visual nature of young children, tried to keep them from reading. In my case, not being able to read sharpened my visual-graphic memory. (I still can't remember people's names until I see them written out.)

I never did well with art as taught. Photography interested me, but it took the iPod and iPhone to revive it. The artist Henrik Drescher told me that he finds digital art too removed from art as he practices it, but for me, the iPad has proved to be a liberating medium. Starting with visual material triggers my imagination, which is fundamentally receptive.

In relation to weaving, though, I can appreciate Drescher's preference for materiality and process. I've done weaving for about three years, moving from a very simple two-shaft loom to a four-shaft loom on which I can do patterns. Weaving combines planning with improvisation. It's the closest I get to design - to the part that resonated with me when I studied it. Mixing different colors, thicknesses, and textures in with variations in the weft is the heart of it. I see commonalities between doing this kind of weaving and writing sonnets.

I post my photo-collages on my tumblr site as I do them. It's interesting to see what gets traction there. The one above had a life of its own; I wouldn't have chosen it myself. (The one below is a favorite, for example.) The artist Ward Schumaker told me that he generates a lot of work and then culls through it. So in this respect tumblr is my warehouse.

13 March 2015

Two Deaths

News of the deaths of Michael Graves and Herb McLaughlin reached me on the same day, although McLaughlin died earlier, in February. Their arc (1934-2015) was also similar. 

I met Graves once, at a signing party for the version of The Great Gatsby that he illustrated. I also heard him on a panel with Thom Mayne, during which it was evident that Mayne loathed him. Graves was an elegant man. On the panel, he was ebullient and self-deprecating, making no claims for his work except to note that he liked to draw. (His making no claims seemed to annoy Mayne even more.) Graves had a real hand, as good as Aldo Rossi. Their work had similarities, although Rossi was more astringent. His Theater of the World was to me their point of overlap. Charles Moore, the pop-art Venturi and Scott-Brown, Ettore Sottsass and Memphis, Isozaki, Botta, Jerde - at certain points in their respective careers, they and Graves overlapped.


Graves could be hit or miss. While some of his buildings were outlandish, others were iconic. The objects, especially the Alessi teapot, and the drawings are wonderful. He was a miniaturist who managed to get writ large. That's not always a good thing, but it comes with the territory of "architect."


Herb McLaughlin was an entrepreneur who attracted entrepreneurs in turn; they came and went. His instincts were sound, but his attention span was brief. He constantly reinvented his firm. To me, it never quite added up, but each new incarnation was interesting, a snapshot of the zeitgeist. Born later, he might have been part of the current cohort of new-tech moguls - disruption came quite naturally. Thanks to a mutual friend, I met him socially on two occasions. He too was elegant, and good company. Architects often stake their claims to a larger reputation on their work, but McLaughlin seemed to understand that "being Herb" was sufficient.

25 January 2015

Bill Callaway, 1943-2014

The program for Bill's memorial.

The landscape architect Bill Callaway died in the fall on 2014. I heard about it from a London friend whose October visits sometimes occasioned a dinner at Bill's house. He wrote me that "Bill lost his tussle with cancer." On 24 January 2015, my wife and I went to a memorial for him organized by his company, SWA Group, in Sausalito. The place was packed, which was good to see. Along with members of his family, the speakers included Peter Walker, a founder of SWA's predecessor firm and a mentor to Bill and others, and the architect Rodney Friedman, leading what must have been a Harvard cheer at the end.

Bill was a leading light among landscape architects and planners. In the panoply of that field, SWA has and had a strong reputation. It was never trendy, but it consistently produced good work, especially in the arena of commercial work where more high-flying competitors often faltered. Under Bill's leadership, SWA won the ASLA's Firm Award.

At a dinner once, I had a short, memorable conversation with Bill. It followed an even shorter one at the memorial for Barry Elbasani, another good man that cancer took early. It wasn't anything really special, but I got a sense of him. When this happened, other things made sense - I understood why Bill was the sun around which so many others orbited. When that light and heat go out, those lives can go dark. So I was glad to see everyone regrouping and hear the jokes. We all grew up listening to "Paint It Black," but Bill wouldn't have wanted us to take the lyrics to heart.