Friday, November 30, 2012

Artwork Inventory

Oil on Board, 6" x 6"
Sometimes I get an idea and I start a painting without ever really finishing it.  I have a lot of work going now and my goal between now and winter break is to get it all wrapped up.  So I thought to myself as I was driving home last night listening to the most recent Passion Pit album, "I need to make a list.  That will organize my brain, and help me accountable to boot!"  Okay, that might have been a paraphrase, as I don't usually incorporate the term 'to boot' into my thoughts.  

Anyway...when I got home, I did make that list.  I got a bit of a shock though when I looked it all over.  There was a lot more than I had expected.  I didn't know how many loose ends I'd left untied.  It's no wonder that my brain feels like a swarm of angry bees.

The list makes me feel better.  Probably because, I'm a list person.  A list makes it all seem possible, and the joy of crossing completed tasks off is something that is hard to beat.

Paintings that I have started, but not finished, but WILL finish, hopefully by the end of 2012, but if not by...NO, by the end of 2012 - I can do it! - include:

  • Chicago: Morning Commute (4') - all about the time I spent traveling from my apartment to my job at Chicago Children's Museum on Navy Pier, begun in 2004.
  • 8 black squares (4") - featuring an odd collection of monsters and candy, begun in 2010.
  • 4 tan squares (4") - with more monsters, begun in 2012.
  • Love & Cheeseburgers diptych (2' each) - a failed attempt to make fun of romance, begun in 2006.
  • A green square (18") - comparing the convention and the unconventional, begun in 2011.
  • A blue square (18") - nonobjective right now, but I could see some other subject matter popping up on the top layer, begun in 2011.
  • 4 small blue squares (6") - monochromatic, begun in 2010.
  • 18-24 Little Boxes (4") - tequila shots, and gingham, and Oreos.  Oh my.  All begun in 2012.
  • 4 small red squares (6") - pretty food, begun in 2010.
  • A pink square (2') - sparkling pink and mud puddles, begun in 2009.
  • 4 white squares (12") - with more monsters, begun this week.
  • 3 landscapes (2') - like The Gray Square, begun 2011-2012.
  • 2 QR code paintings (12") - with so many tiny squares, begun 2011.
  • Stupid Cupcake Girl (2') - with a flaming neon background, begun this week.
  • Just Love Me Boy (2') - in cool colors, begun this week.
  • A doughnut (6") - with pink icing (so more pretty food), begun in 2012.
  • A field of flowers (6") - blurry and colorful, begun in 2012.
Wow.  That's 56 - 62 paintings.  If you'll excuse me...I need to go paint.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stupid Cupcake Girl

Stupid Cupcake Girl is a character that I've been doodling for years.  After the Little Kid Paintings from college (see archives for blog entries about that work), I couldn't stop these characters from coming.  They pop up on notes in meetings when I'm supposed to be paying attention.  They end up as doodles while I was on the phone.  Painting that body of work caused something to happen in my brain that left me programmed to create these strange little people - whether I wanted to or not.

I do enjoy drawing them though.  They're fun.  They're insightful.  They make me feel original, which is important to me, and they don't overreach.  They just are.  

Most of their appeal comes from the simple fact that they are uncomplicated.  They're basic.  Not just visually, but in terms of what they represent.  They're fundamental human traits personified.  They haven't been complicated by the rules of society or the expectations of the world at large.  They're impulsive.  They're rude.  They're unencumbered.  They are, at their very core, human.

Stupid Cupcake Girl Sketch, 2012
Ink on Paper, 2.5" x 3.5"
Though some of these characters are joyful and pure...some aren't.  Some are the darker side of human nature.  Stupid Cupcake Girl is like that.  She's mean and greedy.  She doesn't share.  She puts her own interests first.  She's judgmental.  She doesn't look for the best in people.  And she doesn't care.  She's fine being the way that she is.  She has no desire to be well behaved, well liked, or to be good.

Very soon there will be a finished 4' painting of Stupid Cupcake Girl.  I stopped myself from painting my little people for a long time because I wasn't sure how they fit into my overall body of work.  Peh!  Screw that.  I'm tired of trying to make it all make sense.  Let the art historians and the biographers figure out why I painted what I did.  I just want to paint.  Besides, I miss painting my characters, and though I don't have reason to paint them now, I want to.  And as I've mentioned before...wanting to paint something is reason enough to make it happen.

So stay tuned for a big, bright, candy-colored painting of the meanest little girl on the block.  She looks forward to showing you just how awesome she is.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Inside Creativity, Volume One

I admit it.  I'm creative.

I've spent most of my life making one thing or another.  I've also spent a great deal of time watching or helping other people make things.  Despite those efforts, I don't really feel like I have a full understanding of creativity.  When I paint, I sit toiling away - my brush and my mind working furiously to make something that will become more than paint and empty space.  Something with value.  Something with worth.  I understand that creativity is about seeing options.  It's about problem solving and considering multiple outcomes.  It's about following that process to an end result.  It's about ending up with a product. It's about making something.  I know that.
Anatomy of Gray, 2010
Ink on Paper, 9" x 12"

I also know that everyone is creative.  Now...don't argue with me.  I've read the reports and articles and studies and I know that creativity is a cognitive process that we're all capable of.  I've spent roughly 40,000 hours with kids teaching them to make things and I've seen creativity in action.  Not one of the hundreds of kids that I've taught has ever not been able to create.  That said - I also know that, like most genetically based traits, there is a great deal of variation from person to person, so it exists within varying degrees in people.  But it is there.  Every person makes something. We put into existence that which did not exist before.  Everyone does that.  We all make.  We compose sentences for e-mails and letters.  We make cookies and Easy Mac to fend off hunger.  We make handmade Christmas ornaments.  We carve wood into furniture.  We conjure up a symphonies.  We improv drum solos.  We write plays!  We make paintings!  We make wallets out of DUCT TAPE!  Oh...people aren't doing that anymore?  It's not the trendy reference that I'm looking for?  No?  I'm hip.  Really I am.  I mentioned Easy Mac.  The point I'm making is that we all know what it's like to make something out of nothing.  We all toil away.

I guess what scares me, is that I don't know why I create things.

A major contributing factor to this blog's existence is my need to understand the reasons behind my own creative processes.  I got to a point where I didn't understand my own need to create, and I felt like I had to perform a sort of dissection to see what made it work, and how to keep it going.  In the most selfish of ways, I wanted to explain how it happened so that I might see something in the process that would help me to better understand it.  It is an act of self preservation.

I know the basic reasons.  I like making things.  I'm good at making things.  I feel like my day wasn't wasted when I make things.  Largely, for me creativity has to do with communication.  Art is a language that I need to say all of the things that I don't know how to otherwise.  

But that is really only part of it.  There is more to be understood.  More to be discovered.  There is a reason, that I've yet to hit on, that makes me create things, and it feels bigger than I know how to express.  So I'll keep dissecting.  I'll keep examining the parts to see if the whole becomes apparent.

In the meantime, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Little Boxes 4: Mr. X. & Missy

X., 2010.
Acrylic on Board, 
4" x 4"
And now...another set of Little Boxes.

Mr. X was a college friend.  He taught me a great deal about what it means to be an artist.  He also was my first friend with something of an edge.  Don't get me wrong, my friends have always been rowdy hooligans, but he did it a less boys will be boys/small town way - thus the hitter pipe.  X. wasn't the first person I saw partake in recreational use of weed, but he was the first person I spent frequent time that I valued with who did. That edge made him someone that I found fascinating. There were things he did in a "who gives a fuck" sort of way, that shocked and surprised me.  The way he'd walk into art history class with a ceramic mug (that he made) full of rum or Guinness was beyond the pale.  He was a new friend with freedom and uncertainty, and he kept things interesting.  He was also ridiculously intelligent, and studious.  He always had old school comp. books that he wrote in, and this was 1996...way before that sort of retro chic business had caught on.

Missy, 2004
Acrylic & Encaustic on Board
.  4" x 4"
Missy was a girl I was once very close to, but because not every story needs to be retold, I'll just say that we were very close and that I cared for her very much.  Regarding the included subject matter of this painting, the foreground element refers to how she once sent me a lavender origami butterfly in a letter (yes, a real one - with stamps and such.)  The pattern in the background is from the walls of Keith Haring's Pop Shop in lower Manhattan, which we visited in 2000.

I continue to be a little surprised by the effect that these silly little paintings have on me.  I don't even allow myself to consider how they'll all be displayed when they show someday because I get too excited.  And one can't maintain that level of excitement for a decade plus without turning into a game show host.  So I bide my time.  It's good for me to learn to downshift and not a terrible idea that I learn patience.  Some things develop best slowly.

Tune in next week for more Little Boxes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Illustrating the Promised Land

Tripp Lake Camp Illustration, 2007.  Revised 2012.

I was hired to create this image in the spring of 2006.  I don't do a lot of commissioned illustration for marketing purposes, but I have a vested interest in this company, so I was eager to work on this project. 

I've worked at this camp in Maine since 1999.  It also happens to be one of my favorite places on Earth.  It's a summer camp - residential, for a full seven-week session.  We offer wonderful programs that encourage adventure and self discovery, creativity and emotional connectivity, growth and love.  Camp also happens to be in an area of Maine that is traditionally referred to as The Promised Land.

It was interesting to create what would become an iconic image for the organization.  Representing The Promised Land was daunting.  Normally, when I create an image, it is from something that I have previsualized that the rest of the world hasn't seen before.  The camp illustration isn't something of my own conjuring.  It is a known place, and it is known by many.  And those who know it hold it in high regard.  The expectations of that very specific type of realism were scary, but fear can be a powerful motivator.

To get it just right, I needed to familiarize myself even further with that place that I had come to love.  I walked the grounds.  I sketched details.  I communed.  I climbed on top of things.  I looked at things from different angles.  I studied.  That process was interestingly educational, and I was surprised how much more thoroughly I came to know camp.

That project nicely reminded me of something that I already knew, but had maybe let myself forget.  Preparation is important.  Doing the legwork changes the way you approach a project.  It greases up your mind, and readies you for what is to come.  It allows for alterations in the thought process and teaches the importance of taking steps.

Overall, I was pleased with how the camp map turned out.  It has since been printed on folders, posters, and made into a digital tour of camp on

As fate would have it, in 2011 I had the great privilege of being able to see camp from the vantage point that until then, I had only imagined.  I was art directing a photo/video shoot for additional promotional materials, and we went up in a helicopter.  

Up there, high above the promised land, I saw my camp drawing for real.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

10 Weird Subjects That I Want To Paint

First and foremost, apologies to BOTH of my readers for my blogging break over the Thanksgiving holiday.  I'd like to say I was so busy painting that I couldn't find my way to a computer, but that would be less than true.  I have recently started working on a couple more paintings.  We'll take a look at those when they're a little further along.

Sometimes while I'm painting, I think of other things to paint.  And sometimes, I think of things to paint that make complete and total sense because they fit together with my pre-existing ideas and help to illustrate some of my overall themes.  

Other times...not so much.

Sometimes, I just want to paint things without having much reason.  Maybe it's because I think that particular subject is beautiful, or maybe because it present a certain kind of technical challenge.  Who knows?

But here are 10 weird subjects that I want to paintt (even if I don't have a reason): 

1.  Russell Edgington kissing the Talbot jar of goo from True Blood.

2. Castle Greyskull from Masters of The Universe.

3. A Guinness.

4.  June Cleaver.

5.  An Oreo cookie.

6.  Raw meat.

7.  Barbie shoes.

8.  Anything with frosting.

9.  Kristin Wiig as Dooneese.

10.  Kevin Arnold & Winney Cooper's first kiss.

If there is anyone still out there, who thinks I'm totally well balanced, you may go now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wisdom from the Master

It's no secret that I love Gerhard Richter.  Today I was in the city (Chicago) on a field trip with some of my kids and I was in the Richter room of the new(ish) Modern Wing of the Art Institute when I remembered one of my favorite things that he wrote from The Daily Practice of Painting.
“To talk about paintings is not only difficult but perhaps pointless too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing-- what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.” 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reasons For Painting, Volume 2

Wanting to see a picture exist may be the only reason I need to create a painting, but it's definitely not the only reason I have.

Historically, my work has been about (for lack of a better term) connectivity - about who we are as a people and how we interact with each other and our world.  That approach has served its purpose at various times, but that sort of expressionistic schtick can get pretty tired, and it can get pretty tiring.  No one wants to wear his heart on his sleeve every day of his life?  Worse still, no one wants to watch a guy wear his heart on his sleeve every day of his life!?

So now?  What do I want to use the picture plane to do?  Well, hopefully I use it for a lot of things.  The newest example that I will offer is simple.  I like paint.  I make paintings because I LOVE to push paint around.  Getting that perfect blend from one color to another.  Letting two colors smear together in that awesome way that can only be paint.  Glazing.  Spray paint spattering across an otherwise pristine surface.  The texture of colors piled on top of each other.  It's magic - and I get to wield the wand.

Jackson Pollock, White Light, 1954 (Detail)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Inspiration 2: The Mystery Note

What is inspiration really, but a desire to be better?  It comes in strange and varied ways.  Sometimes as a total surprise.  Other times as something that returns again and again - the movie It's A Wonderful Life.  The last six pages of Summerland by Michael Chabon.  The song Skinny Love. 

Another source of inspiration that I've drawn from again and again is a mysterious note that I found on my computer in the summer of 2006.  It reads:
E. Bell, if my plan works out, you’ll never figure out who wrote this.  Well, any dummy would be able to run some sort of file analysis and you can find the date and time the file was saved, which would narrow it down to SOMEONE at TLC…but who?  Who would torment you in this way.  Is this some sick idea of a prank?  If so, it’s quite lame.
Rather, this is a mere friendly gesture.  You make people smile.  You should keep doing that.  Also, your paintings touch people.  You should keep painting, and keep sharing your paintings with others.  And do it more, and more.  And never stop.  Some people are granted gifts that are….well, in the grand scheme of things…worthless.  They are gifted with physical strength or speed.  Does this touch people?  Can it change lives?
Your gift can.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

One Cup at a Time...

This is clip art.  I was too lazy to
photograph our coffees, but for the
record...ours look better.
As I've mentioned, I'm a teacher.  One of the side projects connected to my teaching career is fundraising.  We all do it.  We all hate it.  But, in the world of the ever shrinking budget - so it goes.  

I like to think of fundraising opportunities that don't impose upon our school community too much.  I don't want to be like, "Here, buy some $25 popcorn when you could buy a product of similar quality at the grocery store!  IT'S FOR A GOOD CAUSE."

So I've tried to focus on things people already spend money on, and then compete within those markets.  I put said philosophy into practice with The Coffee Stand.  

Let us start at the beginning of the story...One fall morning a few years ago, a student walked into my room carrying a Starbuck's coffee.  Not a hugely strange event in this our modern times, but strange for us.  You see, where I teach, we are 15 miles away from the nearest Starbuck's.  In response to my confusion, this girl confessed that she sometimes gets up early to do a coffee run for she and her friends.  

Wait for it... LIGHT BULB!

The kids all buy something to drink at the beginning of the day.  Some gas station coffees, and sweet teas, and Monster energy drinks and soda pops.  Why couldn't we target that market?!  I talked to my principal, and he was on board, and in October of 2010 we opened.  We serve iced coffees, and amazing cocoa, and now our menu includes a ridiculous variety.  What can I get you?  Chai Tea with Skim.  You betcha.  Feeling seasonal?  Pumpkin Spice coffee coming right up.  Cinnamon Mocha?  Gingerbread Spice?  Merry Mocha Mint?  We've got it all. And the kids are always coming up with new ideas to add to the mix.

Our coffees are good - really good actually, but my favorite part is creating toppings.  I guess it's the artist in me.  I guess it's also the foodie too though.  We eat with our eyes.  There is no reason not to put a gingerbread cookie and candy sprinkles on top of the whipped cream that crowns the Gingerbread Spice Iced Coffee.  No reason at all.  

So what is the point of all this genius fundraising?  Well...we go to New York City.  It was my Art Club that started the project, but my drama kids participate too.  Each kid who works a given day, the profit goes into a trip account.  They keep working.  They keep earning. 

In April of 2011 we made our first trek to The Big Apple with Coffee Stand funds and it was an incredible experience.  To travel with students is to watch the world unfold in front of them.  To watch a kid walk through Times Square for the first time is to watch them know, without a doubt, that we live in a world that is filled with possibilities.  New York is creativity central.  It's Art & Theatre nirvana.  It's amazing.  It's wonderful.  It's inspiring.  I want to show as many kids that as I can.  And I remind myself that when I have to go to school an hour earlier than I want to.  

But it works.  So each day we keep showing up early.  And we keep earning and saving and making our way to cup at a time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Putting It Out There

I haven't showed my work in a long time.  The last group show I was in was about 2006, and my last solo show before that was in 2001.  I'm both surprised and ashamed that I've let that much time pass.  

I got really lucky early on.  At the end of college, and just after I showed a lot.  Between 1999 and 2001, in the midst of that post college/I've got life by the balls euphoria, I had four solo shows.  People came.  They looked and talked.  They congratulated me and understood what I was trying to do.  They bought art - my art.  A lot of it.  And I liked it.  

There is something to be said for having a captive audience all pouring over your work.  It's not just ego either.  Don't get me wrong, there's a healthy dose of that included, but it's not just ego.  A lot of it has to do with the idea that your work is getting to someone.  They understand it!  They get what I'm trying to say.  It's a powerful thing to feel like someone gets you.  If art is a communication, then having your words fall on receptive ears can be a very powerful thing.  I miss that.

Don't get me wrong, I know I'll show again.  When the work that I'm making now starts to pile up, I'll have to do something with it.  I think a big reason why I haven't shown is that I haven't felt worthy.  Artists who show are proud of the time that they've poured into the body of work on display.  They need it to be seen.  They are ready to make their next public pronouncement.    

The early success I experienced set a standard, and during the last decade of teaching and coaching and being the professional that I thought I needed to be, I haven't really met that standard.  The pragmatism that comes with experience has taught me something that I hope many artists already know - which is that sometimes you just have to give yourself a break. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bubble People

Bubble People, June 2012
I may not feel confident enough in my writing abilities to lay the foundation for a classic children's story, but I do love to make up characters.  Sometimes when I doodle, the strangle little people that bubble up from my mind are surprising  even to me.

This group of little weirdos was conjured up during a staff meeting I was attending this summer.  I can only imagine the things that The Inappropriate Candy Cane would say.

On a somewhat related note, I have a friend who is a gifted writer.  She can bend and shape the written word with a grace that I envy.  Her prose flows with a readable ease that summons a wide range of emotions.  

Someday, when I see that cover illustration of mine peering out at me from the handsome bookstore display that I mentioned last week (it's probably a staff pick), I see her name on that cover too.  Earlier this fall, I proposed a creative writing assignment to her.  As an English teacher, she loves her some creative writing assignments, so she took me up on it. I asked her to work up some text for these goofy people.  We're not going to rush this process.  We're just going to take it slow, and see what happens.'s to what I hope is a long and fruitful partnership.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Little Boxes 3: Sarah & Chris

Sarah, 2002/2008
Oil on Encaustic/Acrylic on Board. 4" x 4"
Here, my readers, is the first official set of Little Boxes. (Please hold your applause.)

Remember each box seeks to preserve something.  It is storage.  It's not a living record - just a dead butterfly pinned to an old cork board.  It is documentation and validation.  It proves to me that my time had mattered.

To the viewer, I'm not sure what these are.  Individually, I think they'll be odd little excerpts from something bigger.  Collectively I think they'll be powerful.  They'll be a cross-section of the last 30 years of life.  Of America and pop culture.

Ultimately, I think they can only be considered at one large installation of a collection of smaller paintings.  They are not complete works of art in their own right.  They are pieces of a larger idea, and will be seen as so someday.

Above you see Sarah.  She is my friend who I worked with at Chicago Children's Museum.  We did all of the art programming together in 2001 & 2002.  During that time she taught me what toile is.  I'd never even heard the word.  She dragged me into a Pottery Barn and pointed it out to me.  Now I know what toile (or I suppose more accurately what toile du jouy) is.  During the time we worked together, we ate a tremendous amount of peanut M&Ms.  The combination of these two visuals is a powerful reminder of our time together.

Chris, 2003
Oil on Encaustic/Acrylic on Board. 4" x 4

This is Chris. When we were in college, Chris incorporated many images of Fisher Price little people into his work.  We have been friends for years, but in that process we also became colleagues, as he is a member of my art staff a camp in Maine.  As partners, co-teaching drawing and painting in the Fine Arts studio, Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes and the funny ways that their relationship mirrored our own became a recurring theme.

As the Little Boxes progress, I predict that my excitement to see them all in a shared space will also grow.  With that I further predict that my motivation to find such a space will also increase, hopefully.

In the meantime, please know that these are two of approximately 400 small paintings.  I may post them in greater numbers later.  Now that I'm doing the math in my head, I see that if I only post Little Boxes once a week, I would still need 200 weeks to cover the full scope of the project.  

Although, I did grant myself the 2016 extension so...we've got time.

(You may resume applause.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Boy in the Blue Cape

Southport Avenue, Chicago, IL
I used to live in Chicago. It was only for a couple years between college and real career, but I loved it.  There's something about being in a city that I find completing.  It has to do with possibilities and options and there being so much to look at.

One day I was walking down Southport Avenue with my friend Carrie.  We were passing a children's bookstore when the door burst open and this little boy wearing a blue cape came bounding out.  He was wearing that kind of outfit that clearly communicated that he had been allowed to dress himself that day.  He had on layered t-shirts, rain boots, bright tie-dyed pants, a paper crown, and he had a wand.  He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned our direction.

"Who wants to be turned into a superhero?" he asked in an almost accusatory fashion waving his wand over his head.  We paused, looked at each other, exchanged knowing smiles referring to just how freakin' cute this kid was.  We looked back at him just in time for him to say, "Well...who does?"  His mother/nanny/caregiver type person had followed him out of the store and was patiently looking on with a "he does this" sort of resolve plastered across her face.

I had, in fact, wanted to be a superhero for just about as long as I can remember.  This is nothing to be taken lightly however, so I inquired, "What kind of powers would I have?"  He responded quickly, as though this list had been predetermined and he was saying it for the hundredth time.  He said:
  • "You'll be faster."
  • "You'll be stronger."
  • "You'll be able to do more of the things that you like to do."
"Not bad," I thought.  I'd accept that.  I was about to tell him that I would in fact like to be turned into a superhero when he added, "Before you decide, I have to tell you something else.  Once you're a superhero, you can turn OTHER PEOPLE into superheroes too!  But you have to be careful who you choose."

This was heavy.  Powers?  Responsibility to others?  More powers?  Was I ready for this?  Had I grown into a strong and stable enough adult to handle such gifts?  Wait a minute.  Bruce Wayne isn't stable.  Peter Parker is a neurotic mess.  The X-men boast an entire laundry list of neurosis, psychosis, and various issues.  I quickly decided that I'd be fine.  

"Sure," I said.  I'll be a superhero.  "Me too," my friend Carrie added.  And with a wave of his wand, we were superheroes.  "Do you feel different?" he asked.  Sadly...I didn't.  This was worrying because I had hoped that super-strength would kick in immediately as I was feeling tired from the night before's adventures at Rush & Division. "Not yet," I confessed. "Don't worry," he said, "you will."

The Boy in the Blue Cape, 2002, © E. Bell
And that is how I became a superhero.  I've often thought that this story would make an incredibly fun picture book, so maybe this is how I can work my way into illustrating children's books.  I sketched the boy in the blue cape once, which you can see to the right.  He needs to be more compact ..I drew him a little lanky, but I think it would be a good starting point for a character design if I were to ever try to illustrate this story.

Sometimes I wonder, in some less magical and more literal way, if the gifts bestowed to me by the boy in the blue cape weren't real.  I have gotten quite fast at doing things.  Had to.  Only have so much time in a day.  I'm pretty strong.  I can handle most things with the appropriate amount of emotional and physical toughness.  And I do often get to do the things I like.

I admit that up to this point I've not really exercised the ability to turn others into superheroes.  Or have I?  Every day I try to convince people to be faster and stronger and to devote their time to things that they care about.  So...does this mean I am a superhero?  If so, I'd better go find a way to use my powers for good.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Something Spicy from the Art Room

Some days, doing classroom examples is the full extent of my ability to exercise my creativity.  That doesn't mean that sample projects for classroom use don't require a healthy dose of my favorite attribute, it just means that sometimes the act of showing other people how to do something (repeatedly) can take all the creative energy I have.  I can only demonstrate how to adjust pressure to create a colored pencil gradient so many times before I want that colored pencil to morph into a tranquilizer dart that I will then stab into my jugular as I reenact the Will Ferrell pool scene from Old School.

"Spicy," 2011
Colored Pencil on Paper
However, that is not always the case.  Sometimes I really, really like it.  I could demo paint techniques all day.  I love showing kids how to make textures in pencil, and I like some of the projects we do so much that I just keep doing them over and over with the kids.  My descriptive word illustration project that I do with 8th graders at school (as well as 13 year-olds at camp) is just such a project.  

I designed this project when I was student teaching in 1998.  Wow.  That wasn't yesterday was it?  Anyway, I needed a drawing project that would facilitate experimentation with colored pencils that also had graphic design elements, pushed critical thinking skills, and also had a possible literacy tie-in, so I came up with Illustrated words.  I've seen stuff like it before, so (like everyone who creates art curriculum) I tweaked and adjusted to get the project that I needed.

It works like this: the kids pick and adjective or adverb (that has between five and eight letters - for spacing purposes) and spell out the word using pictures instead of letters - and all the pictures fit the theme that the word itself creates.  They brainstorm and sketch and research and re-sketch and draw and shade and it usually turns out pretty nicely for the kids who put forth the required effort.

I think that I like this one so much because a) I love teaching colored pencil illustration, but b) now matter how old I get, I just still really, really love to color.  I mean who doesn't?!  You lock in and tune out the world.  You're in total control of the situation as you pick colors and choose what details you want to include.  It almost becomes meditative as the colored pencils smoothly glide over the surface of the hot press 80 lb. white sulphite drawing paper.  A Zen calm usually follows and I end the whole experience feeling like my mind just received it's own deep tissue massage.

All the high pressure stress jockeys that are riding the wave of pushed back meetings through their day should stop and color for a little bit once and a while.  That little slice of Zen might get them through.  

But if they did that, what would they post on Facebook?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Inspiration #1

Since I'm trying this whole daily blogging business, I decided to keep it going seven days a week, but with an ongoing Sunday theme of Inspiration.  So each Sunday, I'll speak to the things that inspire me.  It might be artwork that I admire, people that spur me on, or other ideas and concepts that inspire me.

Sunday Inspiration #1: Mark Rothko's #10

Mark Rothko, #10, 1950
Oil on Canvas. 58" x 90"

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Little Shop of Horrors, 2012

The finished set for Little Shop of Horrors ended up being something to be proud of.  And though I would love to take the credit for its success, it comes not from me, but from a group of very committed high school kids who were both willing to listen and follow instructions, and to lead each other through all that sticky decision making that comes during the creative process.  

What my students learned is remarkable.  So, let me remark:

Here you see Skid Row - envisioned, planned, built, painted, and lit - all at least in part (and sometimes in full) by a bunch of high school kids.  The understood the need to represent a rustic, urban beauty, all while maintaining the needed acting areas. all moves!

Here is the inside of Mushnik's Skid Row Florist, complete with Audrey II.  I might post some seperate pictures of Twoey myself later.  

Though I know I'm not completely sure how it all came to be in the right way and the right time, I'm pretty glad it did.  It served our play well, and if I'm here on this blog to dissect creative processes, then I'd like this to stand as one of those products that stands as a parallel to its process.  The action of bringing this to life was about collaboration.  It was about not stepping on the green squares while the floor painters were in action, while still getting the cabinets primed before class was over.  It was about making sure all the props got set during You Never Know without being seen by the audience and without running into Pod #3 while it was being moved.  It was about making sure the guy next to you had what he needed, all while doing your best to get what you're responsible for done.  The creative work done for this show was a stunning example of how a group of creative people really can achieve something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

And when you're the guy who's responsible for all of those creative people, and you realize that your greatest role in it all was to push them in the right direction, it becomes hard to take too much of the credit for yourself.  But this never was about credit.  It was about giving people a chance to create something that wasn't there before.  And that they did.  I hope everyone involved is as proud of themselves as I am of them, but I don't know if that's possible.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Little Boxes 2: The Walnut Prototype

The Walnut Prototype, 2001.
 Acrylic & Encaustic on Board. 4" x 4"
This painting is meaningless.'s not, but it's not really about anything.  This painting is affectionately referred to as "The Walnut Prototype."  It was a test, and became the (unofficial) first Little Box.  

I was testing composition.  I had to see what would happen if I floated a simple object, like a walnut grabbed from a holiday nut bowl, on a pattern. Would it be too loose?  Too stiff?  I mean, I've broken the rule of thirds rule all to pieces here.  I was comfortable with the layout.

What I ultimately noticed, in the way that you notice those things that you don't plan on noticing, but are super glad you do, is that it has a memento-like quality to it.  Like I'm displaying a ribbon won at a contest prominently on a bulletin board.  I hadn't considered that, but I liked it, and that composition has crept into may of the Little Boxes since then.

Speaking of which, I have dozens of Little Boxes now.  I guess I'll start posting them.  I had originally given myself 10 years to complete the project, and that deadline is FAST approaching - so I've applied for a 5 year extension with myself.  I'll let you know if I get it once I've processed the paperwork and let myself know.  In the meantime, I might as well post a few of them.  They're not really doing much while I get the rest of the 400 of them done, so I may as well get them out into the blogosphere, where they can be seen by literally tens of people. (If you laughed at that...I have to admit that I've hijacked that from someone, but I can't remember if it's Tina Fey or my friend Erin.  Could be both.  Either way.  One must give credit where credit is due.

Ultimately, I will see all of the Little Boxes together, until then, stay tuned for the slow reveal.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Misadventures in Illustration

I want to illustrate children's books.  I always have.  I want to create images that will let a kid sit and pour over them - wondering if such a magical place could exist. I want to wander into a bookstore and see one of my drawings beaming out at me from a handsome and well-thought display.

I've tried to come up with ideas for books.  I'm just not confident enough in my writing skills to do it.  All my ideas have a tendency to be a little bit... derivative, to say the least. Take the illustration to the right, her name is Ms. Anita D. Venture (Ms. A. D. Venture, i.e. misadventure - clever, right?)  I thought I could build stories around her being a substitute teacher who leads her classes into crazy adventure filled with high jinx - all learning lessons as they go along.  So original, right?  So creative, right?  Then a friend was like, "You mean like Miss Frizzle.  From Magic School Bus?" Fuck.  Yes.  That's exactly what I mean.

It's a cool enough illustration.  Well rendered in Prismacolor & ink.  Plenty of detail to tell the story.  And the character design isn't bad.  She's fun, she's hip.  She could probably make some pretty great things happen.  But the problem is...she's not original.  She didn't bring anything new to the table.  She'll be beaming at no one from a handsome bookstore display any time soon.  So I put her away, and considered her little more than a colored pencil exercise.  

But regarding the whole illustration idea,  I still want to find a way to do it, and someday...I just might.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Other Art

Mushnik's Skid Row Florist, Little Shop of Horrors, 2012
 When I'm not painting, which is pretty often, I'm a high school teacher.  Part of what that job has become over the years is being in charge of our drama program.  I'm not a naturally gifted director, but over the years I've developed some skills (if I do say so myself.)

However, being the visual guy that I am, I took pretty naturally to theatrical design.  I'm okay at costumes, but sets are really where  my bread is buttered.  I think I was so drawn to it because I  like the idea of creating a world.  To conjure up a place that the audience will let their minds live in for a little while as we tell them a story is a special kind of creativity in action.

Skid Row, Little Shop of Horrors, 2012
Most recently, I designed and directed LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. It fast became one of my favorite shows, and faster became my favorite set design of any that I have created before now.

Here are two sketches.  One for the interior of Mushnik's.  The other, for Skid Row in general.  I wanted to go past the grit and grime that was required to communicate the play's pre-determined setting and find more.  I like the idea that something beautiful can be found in unlikely places, and since this was a theme of the show, my plan was to let some of that come through the design.

Later on, I'll post some completed production photos with the finished product.  I  had to eliminate a few elements as it all progressed, to reduce clutter and open the composition a little, but in a lot of ways, this design is still my most complete to date.  I didn't run out of time and have to compromise my vision.  My Theatre Arts class and I got it all done, and to be honest, it ended up working out better as the finished product than it did as the original design.  That's a nice change of pace for the producing/directing/designing/ building one-man theater department - let's hope it's the start of a trend.