Monday, September 30, 2013

Is "All Art Quite Useless?"

This quote, famous or infamous is from Oscar Wilde's book THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY published in 1890. It's about a ne-re-do-well who leads a life of depravity but seemingly never ages as his whose portrait does.

MONA LISA, Leonardo DaVinci
the world's most famous painting
Always a controversial character Wilde's life was full of wit, vivacity and controversy. Many have argued that his quote was trying to say that art, on its own, has no value. "Art has value because we give it value, and we give it value because of what it does to us. Art is a reflection of the artist, which is why the artist creates the art, but we like looking at it because what we see in it is something that reflects ourselves in some way. He was saying that different forms of art aren't necessarily "moral" or "immoral" ("Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming", "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral art. If you look at something and find ugliness, and art is a reflection of yourself, it means you are corrupt in some way, whereas someone who can look at something and find the beauty in it, even if it's ugly, it means that person has good in them (since art is a mirror of the spectator). 

I came upon this quote reading Jared Diamond's book THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE: The Evolution And Future Of The Human Animal. For those who didn't know chimps share over 98% of our genetic code. However, with rare instances no animal creates art like Homo sapiens. So, Wilde might well be right. 

We diverged from chimpanzes about 7 million years ago. The first unequival proof of art by modern man was created by our Cro-Magnon ancestors 40,000 years ago in the now famous caves in Lascaux France. Slowly we have become more articulate in expressing our artistic impulses. 

Wilde is right in that art doesn't help us survive (or does it make life more bearable?) or pass on our genes. However, one could argue art inspires us, like our ancestors, to do something better, like be better hunters, and ownership of art can prove our ability to provide thus insuring our genes are passed on. If you own a Monet, there is little worry about having a roof over our heads. 

Diamond and others argue that art is learned. That every culture, society on earth teaches its people the tenets of its art. It is not genetic. It's learned. Yet, recent studies have discovered that we ARE programmed to create and enjoy music.  Just like music, every single culture on earth has art. Will we discover that art is is encoded in our brains as well? Is art the means we have to explain who and what we are in this time and place? Can art, as some believe, predict our futures? It certainly has provided a glimpse of our past. 

I believe that art has relevance. That it has a story to tell. That it records who and what we are and more frequently who we were. While it's true we give it value, it also gives us great pleasure. It makes our lives bearable. It gives us hope, inspires us, makes us reverent, has the ability to make us better people. To remove art, would make us nothing more than the animals we sprang from. If that were so, then Wilde would be right, art would be quite useless.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Is "Undercover Boss" Reality or Just A Script?

One of the few new shows on TV I've liked these past few years is "Undercover Boss." It was like someone had read "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams book questioning the motives of CEO's and their companies.

A quasi reality show it follows a CEO around under some pretense so that he gets to see undercover just what company policy is like in reality.

The first show I saw had the CEO of Waste Management doing grunt work and what he found was eye opening. Potty break for drivers, men AND women was peeing in a coffee can. I thought finally, here is a show that shows just about what every employee would like to say to their boss.

The show that turned me off for awhile though was when the CEO at the time for Hooters, a company the father started, showed a sequence where the manager of one of their stores during a slow day asked his "girls" who wanted to go home early? About 5 raised their hands. His method of deciding who left? Eating a plate of beans off a bar table with their hands behind their backs. Hooters already had a rather T & A kind of reputation but that this CEO, an avowed family man, stood back and said nothing stunned me. I'm sorry. That man should have been fired on the spot. Talk about a Gloria Allred moment. In fact I'm surprised she didn't show up on TV the next day her girls in hand!

Last night, the season opener had the CEO of a company not in yet California called "Twin Peaks" based in Dallas. If anything it is even worse than Hooters. The "girls" wear such small tied halter tops every guy in the joint must be waiting, like we did for years as kids watching Elvira, that something will pop out. And the shorts? Forget bending over. The "girls" are encouraged to smooze with the boys getting them to eat and of course drink more. When the undercover CEO had to smooze with the boys well, it was pretty sad if not lame. It exposed exactly what the "girls" were supposed to do. Sell sex.

There were complaints about how some of the customers handled the "girls," not surprising considering how they dress and how "friendly" they are, so this erstwhile CEO calls the now ex CEO of Hooters (guess he couldn't wait to cash in now that dad was gone) to help him out. I won't even comment on this pair other than he was to play a jerk and was quite good at it.

I find reality shows of any kind distasteful because they take every Judeo-Christian ideal and stand it on its head. Instead of love thy neighbor, it's stab your neighbor in the back ... All for the payout. It shows us willing to do anything to make a buck. This show has shown generosity to employees and a willingness to listen and learn. However, the harsh reality of the everyday workplace, home to half of all country music lyrics, isn't enough so it's time to throw in sex and sleeze.

I comment on this and other reality shows, TV in general, because they are as scripted and created just like and maybe more than any painting, book writing or scoring for a song. Sure there may be some rare unplanned moments but there is little margin of error and hours of footage are captured and edited down to the maybe 50 minutes we might see. For every "juicy" or truly revealing moment we see, most ends up on the editors floor or hard drive never to be seen again.

Consider what you create. Consider who sees it. Consider what it does for your reputation. They may not have trouble sleeping at night but you might.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Color Blue In Life And Art

Thomas Gainborough - THE BLUE BOY
When I woke up this morning "the color blue" popped up in my mind. I don't know why but it did. I know that I struggled trying to find the "right" color blue for some Christmas ornaments I was painting last night but didn't think my poor mind would dwell on it while I slept. Apparently it did.

Blue is an interesting color and an even more interesting concept. I can remember taking my daughter, who was probably about 5 at the time to the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles. There was a show on famous abstract painters from the mid 1950's to mid 1960's. There was one painting that was titled "The Blue Room." For some reason my daughter stared at this painting for quite awhile and finally turned to me and said, "Daddy, there isn't even a drop of blue paint in this painting!" Looking at it myself I discovered that while there were lots of colors in it, blue, in any form, was not there.

Hearing that statement brought everyone in the room to a standstill. I later realized they were waiting to hear what I would say. I actually laughed and told her that while blue is a color, it is also an emotion. In this case (the English language has SO many variables) it meant that the painter was sad or was feeling some kind of turmoil and that he was trying to show us how sad, or "blue" he was. He was using blue to describe an emotion, not necessarily the color. That seemed to satisfy her and my impromptu audience as the room returned to normal. The memory of that day was when we stumbled on Ellen De Generis and her mother who were also at the museum.

Blue has so many meanings. Consider, you are blue, there is blue Monday, then the blue bird of happiness, and feeling kinda blue, "blue" jeans, blue is my favorite color. Getting the exact color of blue is so hard, the skies of Paris have such a wonderful blue, the blue of the sea, the blue of the sky, clothing, house colors, fabrics. Blue is with us everywhere and yet it is such an elusive color.

Anyone who paints knows exactly what I mean. I noticed that the skies of Norway were of a intensity I was not used to. The blue was so intense it could hurt your eyes. The camera had trouble capturing it. Yet it was the perfect foil to greens so deep and so intense that without the blue of the sky you would have complained seeing a photo that I had messed with it in PhotoShop. I didn't need to. It was that way. The sky was a bit softer in Denmark and while brighter different in Amsterdam.

I remembered my first time in Paris and my second, both times in winter. There is something about the sky there that is also arresting. Los Angeles has blue skies, yes we do, but not necessarily of anything you would take note of, unless of course the Santa Ana's are blowing, the humidity drops to around 5% and the sky is deep and rich. Shadows become luminous, the San Gabriel Mountains seem so close that you can touch them and everyone is irritable, especially the drivers!

Yes, the color blue. Consider it the next time you paint. I know that DecoArt has an unbelievable number of blues in their Americana and Traditions paint lines. I believe that they will expand their new Satin line as well. Do we need so many? Yes and no. I find that it takes a lot of time to find the right color rather than doing what the old masters have done for centuries...they mixed the color they needed. We spend too much time finding that particular color and I have found that crafters get upset if they can't find the exact color the "kit" calls for. For many, the idea of improvising is beyond, they think, their ability. I believe, it is what you "see" in your own mind's eye.

As a final thought, let me ask you when do you put in your sky? First or last? This was a debate I frequently had with my first oil teacher. She preferred putting in the sky last and then daubing blue between the branches and leaves. I resisted that especially after seeing a wonderful painting at the Autry that, to me, was ruined because that artist did that very thing. His painting was ruined because the holes of the sky between autumn leaves were just that, holes.

If a painting has a sky, I feel that putting the sky first determines the colors you will use for the rest of the painting. The sky, featured or not, sets the tone for the entire painting. Consider. A stormy blue, a red blue, a sunset or sunrise blue, midday blue, evening blue, cloudy blue. Each one of these skies gives the color spectrum we will use for every other color in the painting.

Again, consider, the color blue.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Using Humor In Art

Art surrounds us each and every day. Whether its a billboard, the poster on the side of a bus, even the apps we use on our iPhones, there is some form of art often begging for our attention. Probably 99.9% escapes us. I know most of it does me. Yet, it is art.

What? That photo of a sad woman needing a cold reliever isn't art? Or the illustrated smiling face with the Hollywood sign in the background isn't art? The anti-war message of Picasso's GUERNICA, that's art but with a message?! What? Are you confused?

To those in the trade, "art" is anything that isn't type. I think art, no matter what type, is by degree. I think if we really thought about it, art is selling us something ... a product, an idea, and often an emotion. Standing in front of Monet's WATERLILIES at the Met, Van Gogh's CROWS IN WHEAT FIELD, NIGHT WATCH by Rembrandt in Amsterdam, the MONA LISA in Paris, any Pollack at the Guggenheim, this art certainly illicits an emotion every bit as great as an ad you hate or laugh at on TV. Art is about creating emotions.

Street Art From A Chalk Street Art Project In The Philippines
I find that the rarest artifice used in art is humor. There is something in us that seems to resist humor in art. It is fine for cartoons but for anything else, its almost taboo. Yet, when you think about memorable TV ads the majority of them are those that were funny. A funny movie usually lingers in your mind long after a drama unless it was a slasher movie.

Why then are we so reluctant to use humor?

I saw this image that someone had posted on Pinterest and after a surprised laugh clicked on it and was able to trace the origin down. It was an art project for students in the Philippines who were given chalk and told to be creative. I sure hope this student got an A+ because it is funny, very clever and apt. You have to be very creative to look at two pipes coming out of a building to think they could represent two legs! I am sure that everyone who saw this did a double take. I sure did.

There are times when I too attempt  humor when creating my own projects. The "Last Chance" series was an attempt at humor. The poignant reminder of "last chances" was the resin cow skull that graced each of my creations. Some got it, most didn't. After coming off a series of cactus paintings, I woke up one morning and realized how I wanted to use a rocket shaped birdhouse. I painted it to resemble a cactus. "Rocket Cactus." I loved the humor and while it was popular on my blog, it is one of the least viewed products on my Etsy store. I guess because it was too out of the box. I mean a cactus that is a rocket? Really? That was an idea people couldn't wrap their minds around.

Like everything in life, there are successes and there are failures. You learn from one and don't get bogged down with the other. Art, like humor, evolves and must continue to evolve or it becomes redundant, a parody of itself. Give it a try. The student who created these feet can serve as an inspiration.

Please visit my store on Etsy! Thank you for stopping by and reading!

Monday, September 23, 2013

My First Four Days With iOS7

iOS 7's "New" Flat Look
All the Mac Heads and Apple geeks have had a few days now to play with Apples new iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch operating system called iOS 7. I started trying to get it around 5 am Sept.18th in Southern California and gave up after about 9. Past experience told me once you start its at least a two hour process, once started you can't leave, that its akin to watching grass grow. You phone is utterly useless but you have to follow commands.

After using my iPhone 5 camera for some product shots for my Etsy Store, when I downloaded the photos up pops a message in iTunes that a new iOS is ready to be downloaded. First, however I needed to install the new iTunes 11.1. Finally! So I did that and after a few restarts got that loaded. Of course about 200 million others were doing this as well so in many respects kudos to Apple. I don't think anything like this has happened before in Internet history.

Then I tried to install iOS 7 on my iPhone 5. It wasn't perfect but it finally loaded. My iPad 2 had more problems and took a lot longer with even more restarts. By afternoon though they were done and I started playing. Checking with friends I discovered just about everyone else had done it too!

I attended the 2007 MacWorld Conference and walked in literally after Jobs announced the iPhone to the world. I was number 222 at the Glendale Galleria June 29, 2007, when they sold their first phones. In a day I mastered it, not bad for a 62 year old. While I'm no expert I know my way around the phone well enough.  I had heard the critics tear the new "look" apart and mused myself, is this another Windows 8? Flat, ugly, useless? As you can see above, the icons ARE pretty flat.

I'm happy to report it's not ugly or useless. However, many icons have changed but once or twice poking at them and you get it. My biggest complaint is while I love simplicity, some of those minimalist lines are exactly that ... Minimal. My nearly 68 year old eyes find them hard to see. A pixel or two wider would be much appreciated. However, the overall effect is stunning, clean, uncluttered. True minimalist art.

I love the addition of controls when you swipe from bottom up. You control music, Bluetooth, airplane mode, timer, even the camera and there's a nifty flashlight. Really. I deleted my other light apps. A swipe from top down give you notices, calendar, etc.

So far no problems. Closing open apps (double click the home button) shows everything that's open. Flicking it up closes that app. Sweet. To view open pages in Safari pages you are given a top down look of all the pages open. You simply scroll up or down. You see many pages clearly at once.

There are many little changes you'll like. The camera offers several formats. Instagram Square is one. There are filters and a few other editing features. Be SURE to try out the Panorama feature.I got some stunning views in Norway!  Folders can now hold unlimited apps, not just 12. Lots of cool new ringtones and Siri can be a man. Actually he sounds the best. For Anglophiles picking British English gives you an English butler, snooty as hell.

I'm not due for an upgraded phone yet so can't review that. iOS 7 peppy on the iPhone 5 though. It must be a lot slimmer too.  My poor iPad 2 had almost no memory left. Now there over 2 gigs free.

If you haven't upgraded, and can, any iPhone 4 and after, do it. It will most likely give you some extra memory and after a day or so you will find the new features very useful. Enjoy!

Be sure to visit as I am adding new items all the time. Thank you for reading!

P.S.  I just heard on the news the city of New York is encouraging its citizens to upgrade to iOS 7 as     the level of security is vastly improved. SO, if there is no other reason, THAT IS a reason!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Creating An Southwest Outhouse Birdhouse!

The Beginning
I am a confirmed roamer of craft stores. The choices in Southern California are pretty limited. Most of the independents are gone driven out of business, they say, by Michael's. The addition of Hobby Lobby has been a wonderful addition and hopefully more competition to Michaels. Now and then you might find something from JoAnn's but for wood crafters, their heart just isn't in it. You have to look hard to find more choices. My teacher's store in Norco, CA, the Tole Bridge, has lots of surfaces but you need to go there to find her treasures.

I found an outhouse birdhouse at Michael's one day and bought it. No it's not like the one on the right, but close. In fact, I can't even find the birdhouse I used on the Internet. Mine probably cost me $3.99, the one shown here is $22.50, hardly a bargain.

However, the dilemma is still the same. What do you do with it? It sat on my craft table all summer. How do you have fun without being cutsy or corny or quasi pornographic? An outhouse? Come on, the possibilities are endless!

I woke up one day and decided that I would give it a old battered door but the rest of it would be the great Southwestern Desert! The roof would be the evening's sky and it would have the dramatic colors of sunset. Once the decision was made, it became a kind of three dimensional painting but on wood, and on a birdhouse.

You will notice that I also decided to add feet to the birdhouse, make it stand out from the normal cheap fare. I think the cheapie birdhouse is far more fun and distinctive than the blank one here. The sign and moon on the front made it the perfect foil for my plans. If you look closely you can see the pencil design so that I would keep all the parts in the right perspective.

Here, I started with the sky, something that I thought would be the hardest to control. Blue at the top along the roof, then yellow, orange and darker red. I had already colored the saguaro cactus' not worrying about coloring over them. The biggest problem was controlling the dripping. After getting about as much wet paint on me as the birdhouse I quit for the evening letting it dry.

The next session had me putting in the mountains in purple and then the plains. I didn't care if the cactus was painted on as I knew it would have to be painted again.

I then painted the plains going from darker in the front to lighter as it ended by the mountains. I know this isn't reality but I wanted this to be a decoration not the true representation of the world. The colors and creation of distance were more important.

The cactus's were painted again, and I worked on the door. It was painted brown, then streaked with a darker wash. "Cracks" were put in the door and the edges were antiqued. The idea was that when you opened the door you were suddenly in the desert!

One of the most fun parts was the roof. I had a fairly small star and lots of little glitter stars. Over Prussian Blue I glued them in place, added more gold dots and varnished the whole surface to keep the pieces in place.

The desert floor was added and finally the ferny, feathery plants I saw in Saguaro National Park added to the foreground. Even the feet were included and seem to fit perfectly into the scene.

The sign took much thought. I could come up with all kinds of names but finally remembered the signs I often saw in Oklahoma. "Private" seemed fitting AND acceptable for home decor. All that's missing is the old Sears catalog!

My purpose here is to encourage you, as artists and crafters to think outside the box. Looking at the variety of outhouse birdhouses on the Internet, most used the shabby scene of some forlorn wooden shed, long past it better days. I wanted it to be fun, beyond that. I think I succeeded. I encourage you to think outside the box on your own next creation. It can have expected dividends!

Be sure to visit my store. I am always adding new items. You never know. Many would make wonderful gifts!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Make It Simple Stupid!

Catching up on some delayed reading last night, I happened across an article in WIRED that discussed something I have wondered about for years - how subtraction is the hardest math in product design. By that, it means taking things away rather than adding complexity. It goes on to discuss our technology and why simplicity triumphs. He says, "Simple doesn't just sell, it sticks. Simple brought back Apple from the dead. Its why you have Netflix. The Swiss Army Knife. All are marvels of simplicity."

I remember in my youth that Coco Chanel was the goddess of fashion. Her statement "less is more" rang true then as it still does today. It is very easy to make things complex and stores are filled with such objects. (So are our homes - many sitting on some dusty shelf unused. VCR's that flashed 12:00 until they died.) However, it is very hard to take something we use, often everyday, and make it, well, usable. The article mentions the first microwaves. We had wealthy friends who had one and he is right, it had three settings; low, medium and high. The one that sits on our kitchen counter looks like a doomsday machine. I can barely use it. I heat coffee in the morning, leftovers in the afternoon and maybe make popcorn at night.

Author Mike Montiero whose book DESIGN IS A JOB notes that simplicity is about subtraction. We live in a culture of consumption where quality is associated with more. The question we have to ask though, is it really more? Is it quality if our technology does more than we will ever ask of it because you just can?

Artists probably unknowingly do this cutting out all the time. Every detail of a painting doesn't need to be there. Amazingly our eyes will fill in what we leave out. Sure, there have been realistic paintings that boggle the mind but you can bet not everything was there or in that order. It is more important to bring the viewer into the piece, give them enough of an image so they can complete the rest. Even well done abtract pieces use simplicty in ways we often are not conscious of. While the artist tries to say with words what he did, it is the visual image put down on canvas that speaks louder than words.

Using Apple as a prime case of simplicity that has grown to complexity (yes it has and it is very discouraging) it was simplicity that saved Apple. Hit after hit rolled out. Each item was simple to use because the complexity was hidden from the user. Yet, like Microsoft, as it grew complexity crept in. I hate OS 10.8. iTunes has become the parody Microsoft did of themselves. The opening screen looks like a souk in Casablanca. Its time they get back to basics. I think many are hoping that Jony Ive will do just that.

Microsoft was brave in creating Windows 8, again in theory simplicity itself. Yet, once you get beyond the colorful squares, it quickly becomes a nightmare. To use your old apps, you return to the old screens and menus that now take twice as long to get there. It's confusing, even jarring. In essence Microsoft made Windows 8 more complicated not less.

I remember when MS Office 2008 came out. The howls of rage could be heard across the earth. Every menu we had learned was changed. A new, take more of your screen (a precious commodity on laptops) ribbon had a bunch of new icons that was to make your life easier. It didn't. To add insult to injury documents now added an x so a Word document now ended with .docx. Guess what, any version before 2008 couldn't open them. In the Mac world, the best Office Suite was 5.1. It was fast, elegant, simple. It did what what most people needed, probably more. In making niches happy, they added more and more until it is a huge bloated pig of a program that is slow to load and slower to save. Did the average user need all this? No. They should have made specialized modules available and kept a slim, fast program. In fact they still could. Will they? Probably not. They missed their chance twice to completely re-write their OS. It is a bit jarring in the 21st century to see that flash of MS-DOS on your start up screen. Apple did it. Microsoft should have.

The question remains CAN a computer, phone and tablet use the same operating system? Even Apple will not go there. Computers may have elements of iOS but they are distinctly different. Hopefully Apple will finally get these different pieces to talk to each other (iCloud is NOT it) but for now they recognize they are different breeds.

Simplicity is really simple. It requires cutting things away even if market forces say to add more. We should be taking layers away instead of adding them. "All it takes," as Mat Honan notes, "is a bit of courage."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Design," The New Buzz Word in Marketing

October 2013 FAST COMPANY
I just received my new Fast Company magazine and of course had to read it. Not only was I intrigued by the photo of Jony Ive on the cover, who by the way could have shaved for the photo, but by the lure of the awards for design.

Design today is what customer service was yesterday. You know, when you call and you are put on hold for an hour being told that "Your business is very important to us. Please hold and we will be with you in a minute (substitute hour, day, month)" while terrible music slightly out of register plays and a sappy voice reminds you how important you are to them. I once confronted a rep and got him to admit there were only two people on the phones - all day every day. The Indian call centers have far more, you can hear the chatter in the background, but understanding them is another conversation.

So, as the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig but its still a pig. Too many businesses still don't get it.

Case in point, I recently purchased a light timer when the one I had finally burned out. It was some GE product that was supposed to give you two settings a day. Easy to use. It sits in the junk bin because neither my wife nor I can program it. The instructions might as well be Greek because I have yet to get it to do anything. I am sure the product designer can set it in a jiffy. The rub is, he never gave it to someone else to try. How many products do we have that behave in the same way? That's why Apple is the world's most valuable company. When you buy one of their products you simply know it will work. If Grandma can use an iPad so can a two-year-old.

So it was with interest that I read about the collaboration of various companies, Burberry, Nike, Pepsico, Jawbone, Samsung and others. With the exception of Burberry or Pepsico I have owned or used their products and would not ever again for precisely this reason, design or failure thereof.

Robert Safarin of FAST COMPANY was insightful when he wrote, "When I arrived at FAST COMPANY I still had an archaic understanding of design. Like many businesspeople, I equated design with tangential aesthetics and fleeting style trends. I was taught that good design is really about problem solving, that it offers a more sophisticated perspective on modern business challenges than traditional spreadsheet-based approaches. He goes on to say that a well designed business - one that delivers customer delight-has a significant competitive advantage. If that was true, WHY aren't they all doing it?

The main article is about Apple and while secretive to NSA standards, they were able to get glimmers of the design process from past employees. Apple has stumbled, we all know that. Jobs was kicked out in 1985 and finally on its death throes brought back in 1997. That it endured that long is a miracle. You have to wonder what the company would have been like if he had remained at the helm those 12 years. On his return many things were tried. However, as the article points out, even the failures went on to create the items we know and love today. They weren't defeated, they learned and continued to innovate. Each newer item got better, was easier to use. They were not afraid to try new things and in fact have been the leader in innovation leading the industry kicking and screaming into the future for years. If Microsoft had their way we would still be using floppies.

My question is, they have recognized 14 companies. Where are the rest? I don't see Ford or AT&T, IBM or Wal-mart, even Microsoft. Even with the companies that were recognized you have to wonder. Writers tend to talk to the CEO's or designers, people intimately involved with the creation of their products. Of course their products are better than sliced bread. Could they say anything else? Their business lives depend on success. I have yet to hear from the man or woman in the street, (no I don't mean TV ads with "real" people) hear their real world experiences with these same products. I do, however, pay attention to friends and acquaintances who talk about a product. Often writers, journalists, artists or whatever talk to themselves so often they can't see the forest for the trees. Remember the Edsel? New Coke? 3D TV? The list goes on and on. These people were so busy talking to themselves they completely missed their audience. As the article points out, when the audience speaks out the results can be brutal. As my wife says, "Every idea is not a good idea." Amen to that.

Design IS important. It literally guides everything that we do. There is no element of our lives that is not designed, not created. If you are an artist, you are designing something. If you are a writer what you write has a mental design in mind...beginning, middle and end. Politicians too are designing the laws we live by. Highways, the TSE, FAA all are created by design that effects us every single day. Yes, design is important however, design for designs sake is "designed" to fail. Design at its very best is problem solving. It seems sadly, there is never an abundance of that.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Georgia O'Keefe A Realist Too?

In the process of trying to find the "best" American artist, I looked at many paintings. I couldn't really say the arguments for "best" were all that valid as I think that each of the articles I saw were heavily biased by the author. However, one of the things that was clear was that there are many American artists that have captured the hearts of their fellow citizens.

After my mother moved to New Mexico from Portland, OR when I was going to Oklahoma State University, I had chances during several summers and the nine or so months I lived there after returning from the Peace Corps to "get into" New Mexico.

After Oregon, there really is no comparison. Even eastern Oregon, about as dry as much of New Mexico, doesn't have the sweep or the landscape. The vistas used to great advantage by the Native American and Spanish settlers somehow has created an artistic world all its own. The challenge for artists then is to capture it.

I learned to love the shades of browns, yellows and reds, purples and blues and few greens coming from a land that was mostly green. For the first time I realized a forest is fairly boring. Here, you could literally see for miles and the colors changed with distance. It seemed you could literally see the end of the earth!

I will never forget the assault on the senses of walking up Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM, seeing the wild colors on the houses and even more color in the shops. The canyon was awash with color.

O'Keefe, a midwesterner, who married the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz in NYC had a studio and finally settled in New Mexico. She seemed the perfect artist to capture what was around her. Until I saw my first sunset on the Sandia Mountains behind Albuquerque, I never realized that mountains really could turn watermelon red and that shadows were not blue or black but brilliant purple.

O'Keef's style is realism...but in some ways hyper realism or fantasy realism. The images are sharp and clear, detailed yet they are often used in ways that are not real. Like Dali whose surrealism was distorted and at times impossible to understand, her images were sharp and clear yet distorted as well.

O'Keefe used realism to create a world of things we might understand but used them in ways we had never seen before. Her florals are ravishing and yet many are borderline pornographic. We know they are flowers but we also know they could be something else. Her famous cow skulls stare at us with a realism and mortality that we find uncomfortable to stare at. Even earlier city scenes create both a realistic cityscape but are clothed in fantastic dynamism. These press on you bringing you closer as you tend to fight to get away.

There can be no doubt realism is important in art. Even though it appears to be exactly what the artist saw, any artist knows that some things are added and others left out. While it is realistic, it is also an expression of what the artist saw and felt. That, in essence, is what realism is all about.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Who Is The Great American Artist?

After telling a friend about the recently discovered Van Gogh painting, SUNSET AT MONTMAJOR in Provence, one that I missed by about a month at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I related it was originally purchased by a wealthy Norwegian industrialist in 1908. He was then told it was as a fake so he rolled it up and stuck it in his attic. The current owner of the home rediscovered it and had it appraised. Oddly the Van Gogh Museum authenticated it this time after rejecting it in 1991. Apparently someone actually read his letters to Theo and found mention of it several times. Van Gogh loved the scene but considered the 1888 painting a failure. It is anything but a failure being painted in the final and best years of his life.
Cheyenne Tribe - LEDGER PAINTING

My friend then asked me who is the greatest American painter?"Everyone knows about Van Gogh," he said. "Who is the greatest American painter?" I was stumped. Wracking my brain I came across a bunch of people, but the best?

I "Googled" the question of course and found that while I agreed with some of the answers, others were odd choices or more likely the author's bias in his current era. I mean who WERE some of these people.

Shepard Fairey- BARAK OBAMA/HOPE
One of the last mentioned but probably should be the first considered would be the poeple's the settlers found here. Not much remains of the American Indian's culture and even less of the tribes art, unless of course you consider the cultures of the Southwest great artists. I and many others do.

Gilbert Stuart with his iconic portraits of George Washington came to mind. Yet at the same time, who can forget the recent art of Shepard Fairey and his iconic image of President Obama that will most likely reflect this current era! Using a palette of red, cream and blue, Fairey captured the hope of a nation that while still divided on race and even more on philosophy, was willing to move past the topic of race and instead focus on getting things done. How it will play out is anyones guess but artistically, it is iconic.

America, even in its earliest years had great painters. Most were European trained but in viewing the vastness of the land they lived in were moved to create a style more fitting to the great continent. Americans began to dominate. While
There were artists who had hopes of heaven on earth, artists like Edward Hicks' PEACEABLE KINGDOM. It wasn't to be. The United States also became more like its European cousins with scenes of war dominating the painters palette. Benjamin West's DEATH OF GENERAL WOLFE relates a battle in the New World but gives it all the glory and drama of those battles in the old.


As I meandered through a quick catalog of artists that I considered great American painters I began to realize that there really isn't a single one. I have written about Andy Warhol and while I haven't mused about it here deplore Thomas Kincade for creating a genre of  bedroom and bathroom art. I know that there are many who would argue with this but you have to ask, is a little cabin painted in glowing colors in the woods in scenes that will never be really art? Can it compete with the angst in Andrew Wyeth's paintings? I remember seeing that painting for the first time in an article. I was so struck by a whole flood of emotions including its amazing detail. Yet it seemed to portray, to me at least, a kind of loss, a never attainable event.

Or can Kincaid be compared to Thomas Eakins and his iconic images of the late 19th Century, or John Singer Sargent? James Whistler, George Bellows or even Edward Hopper?

I began to realize there are so many and the images they have created are part of the American experience whether you are an art fan or not. Probably one of the most iconic paintings ever in American art, one that is played with and tortured the most, has to be Grant Wood's AMERICAN GOTHIC. In looking for images for this portrait of a farm couple in the midwest, and believe me I saw their clones a thousand times going to school in Oklahoma, there were also hundreds of variations, twists and spoofs on this. Yet it remains truly American.

Yet, to my surprise while looking for images of great American artists, many that I knew quite well, I stumbled on this amazing Winslow Homer, one that I had missed but that looked amazingly to me like an Impressionist painting. It was created just before that period of art began in Europe. So it seemed, Americans were on the cusp of art even then. This painting, created in 1865, seems to be one of a soldier returning to his farm after the horrific Civil War. Yet, in so many ways it uses the same device as Millet in France and of course Van Gogh.
Winslow Homer - The Veteran In A New Field
 It seems that art, no matter where it is created captures a time and place and for each person, a painting represents something that they cherish or feel for. It can be like a song that never goes away. It just is.

So who is the greatest American artist? I discovered that I had no answer. I only know that there are many that I love and at times review just to see how they handled a problem.

If anyone has a word or three to comment, please do. I would be interested in hearing what others think is the "best" American artist and most importantly why.

Be sure to visit my store - for a series of new items.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Making Rosemaling Into Your Own Styling

Rose Rosemaling Birdhouse by KrugsStudio
Since I took a class on basic "rosemaling" at the Las Vegas Painting Convention, or as I discovered recently in Norway, translated meaning "rose" painting, I found that I was in love with a design that seemed so unique and yet so complete. I realized that while it was incredibly popular in the 1700's it led to what could best be considered "tole" painting here in the United States. As we were told in Norway, over 880,000 Norwegians, Danes back then, immigrated to the United States and surely brought their traditions and art with them.

While I never stumbled on rosemaling except in historic settings, I did find a wonderful book in English and Norwegian in the town of Mundal near the Jostedal Glacier in the middle of Norway. This little town, at the gateway to the glacier, of maybe 1,000 people, is known as the "book" city. Local vendors there have over 300,000 used books for sale. It was there that I found my treasure, a classic book on rosemaling in both English and Norwegian. Its even spiral bound to boot!!!

Rosemaling, and styling changes from town to town, is best known for the use of artistic flourishes using the letters "S" and "C." However, as I read through the book it also mentions that it is flexible and that really, just about anything could be used. This led me to consider the birdhouse pictured here. When seen from the side, the flourishes that are visible on the side continue all the way up to the roof. No one ever used a birdhouse back then but while I created a kind of rosemaling effect on the front and back, similar but not the same, I felt that the side and roofline would be the perfect foil for this beautiful technique. And while my skills are still developing, I think that while simplified (some of the designs are very intense and almost too much) I found that a simpler and more colorful approach seemed to attain the same ends.

I started with a traditional background, a solid clay pink-rose, then gave it a kind of marbling using red. Then the designs were applied using a DecoArt Napa Red, a deep Green Umber and then brighter reds, oranges, a variety of greens and a splash of buttermilk. The whole thing was antiqued using a deep brown to darken the edges. It turned out to be a striking piece and while not exactly what I intended found that I am quite happy with what turned out.

Art and artistic styles are often an evolution. You start out with one idea in mind, but, if you have any innovation talent at all, you discover that there are many possibilities. That is how art evolves and even more important, how an artist evolves. Change or die.

This piece is merely the beginning. I am already planning the next piece, a plate or maybe a Lazy Susan. Oh, the possibilities!

Check out my store and this birdhouse at

Monday, September 9, 2013

Does Anyone Write Letters Like Van Gogh Today? The Intimacy of Letter Writing.

People of a certain age used to write AND receive letters. In this newfangled age of text messages, emails and such, receiving a letter ranks right up there with viewing dinosaurs on the prairie; at least in the minds of anyone say under the age of about 40.

What brought this to mind was a letter, handwritten of course, to a friend that I was unable to see on a recent trip. It turns out that he came down a few weeks later and when we connected he had with him that letter. He was so surprised to receive an actual letter. I was surprised that he had it with him! It got me to thinking.

Even though he is in his 90's and knows how to write and receive email, it just seemed that I should write him. I know how wonderful it is to hold a letter in my hand and I was sure he would enjoy it too. An email, printed or not, has about as much intimacy as a dead frog. This is something youngsters have never understood. The more we are digitally connected, the more we seem to separate ourselves. To actually pen a letter is to expose yourself and your thoughts on the first go-round. No spell check, no is what you are thinking at that very moment. To receive such a letter gives a rare glimpse into anther persons thoughts and feelings. Its a rare moment of intimacy.

For artists, of course, the most memorable and very intimate letters regarding art and the mind of an artist, have to be those written by Vincent Van Gogh. To read the struggles, despair and rare moments of triumph in letters written to his brother Theo, is to witness at first hand the birth of an artist. In fact, it was those very letters, written in 1888 just helped a Norwegian man prove that a canvas he had, had stored in his attic when told it wasn't painted by Van Gogh, WAS in fact a Van Gogh, one that the master himself thought a failure and wrote about several times in his letters.

Writing an actual letter has, in fact, become such an archaic thought that the question of getting clip art on Google Images for a "person reading a letter" gets you just about everything but. Has the idea of letter writing already gone out the window?

I can remember how my mother would nag me and then my sister into writing thank you notes to people who gave us gifts. It was always a drudgery. Yet we did it because she checked. Then in high school, the year my father passed away, I started making Christmas Cards. I created them by hand over and over again and sent them to family and friends each one with a personalized note. I continued that in college as I was 2,000 miles from home. Then, when I was in the Peace Corps, I had plenty of time and created some interesting cards I wish I had today. I have done it ever since. 60 years now and counting.

When my kids were young it became our yearly Christmas post card of the kids usually taken a few weeks before December 25th. Back then we didn't run to Wal-mart or Costco for the cheap and meaningless prints because I had my own darkroom and each kid had a chore. I would print, my son would develop and my daughter, who could barely sit up at first did the fixer. It became a yearly ritual. The horrible photo taking session, the developing and finally the printing with the photo everyone agreed on. There were several years where the photos of the kids fighting as we were taking the photos would have been more revealing but we never used those. Too bad. THAT was what life was like then. Looking at them today, they are very funny.

We hear the post office bemoan the fact no one writes a letter anymore. I wonder. Could they create a campaign talking about the joy of writing letters? Have people speak about the pleasure it brings? Would it make any difference? To me, receiving a real letter ranks right up there with a real person answering the phone when you call a business. In the blink of an eye they get you where you need to go, no prompts, no #3, then #2 and the message that "we are experienceing an unusual increase in call volume. Please stay on the line, your business is very important to us," then minutes of terrible music that is too loud and not tuned in right. The increase in volume is more than one person calling and only one person answering.

The mail equivalent to that is email, tons of junk email that no matter what you do never seems to go away. Even here no one really writes a letter. Its a link, a few short lines, forwarding something that someone else sent them. As intimate, as I noted before, as a dead frog.

Doris Kearns Goodwin made a comment when we heard her speak about this very fact. Historians for thousands of years have mined letters and such to gleam facts and details about the people and events they write about. The fact that the Founding Fathers wrote to each other and others frequently has been a gold mine for historians writing about the founding the United States. She moaned that everyone was writing emails and that those intimate details in diaries and letters would never be written. However, I believe that she is wrong, In fact, just about every email ever written is saved somewhere on some server somewhere on the planet. Can you imagine the drivel you would have to go through to get anything interesting? It could be a gold mine though as people write what they think is private and deleted after they read it. Its not.

The next time you want to "drop a note" why not make it a real, hand written note? Remember the joy receiving a letter brings you. Bring some joy to a friend as well. If you are willing to take the time to write an email, write a note instead. It costs 45¢ but can you put a price on friendship?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Did We Ever Have Privacy?

This Was Pinned in 2007!
Over the past few weeks I think Americans, or rather the citizens of the United States (because the Brazilians are mad as hell over being spied on and consider themselves Americans too) and the rest of the world has been having hot and heavy discussion about what privacy means. After listening to President Obama, I am beginning to wonder if he knows what privacy means. Seeing the movie THE BUTLER, it makes me wonder if any president since the 20th Century has even known that?

Following a rather intense discussion with my wife, I then heard on the radio that the State of California is considering suing Google over privacy concerns. It appears they too are doing their share of spying. Each email you write is checked for "keywords" that are then sold to advertisers to send us email soliciting things we might be interested in buying. NOW I know where this junk comes from. If you mention you bought a pair of do the math and the deleting. As an Advertising Journalism major, we could only dream of things like that in 1967. Gosh!

When asking Google for images that have to do with privacy this cartoon came up. What makes it so amazing was that it was created in 2007, LOOOOONG before Snowden. But then George Orwell wrote about that in 1984 or Huxley in ANIMAL FARM or for that matter C.S. Lewis. As my wife pointed out they knew things about us in the 1800's and I am sure they were pretty good during the Reformation, the Renaissance, The Roman Empire and back to the beginning of civilization. A casual reading of the Bible even gives you more than enough clues about who was doing what to whom!

The dream of privacy is, well, ephemeral. We probably have never had it and for every step that we take to make it so, about 10 steps are taken to make it less so. I find it fascinating that the two greatest democracies in the world, The United Kingdom and The United States have, we now know, the most sophisticated surveillance systems in the world! While we were pointing our fingers at China, we were in fact, doing as much and far, far more!

If you live in Los Angeles, it has been called the loneliest city in the world. Everyone comes here to escape. It is often rare that neighbors know much about each other. In fact, the less the better.  Think about it. If you are from the midwest and lived in a small town, even larger ones, you were known to all. You were under a kind of microscope. If you were uncomfortable with that, for any reason, you fled here. I can remember my first days in college. I came from Portland, OR to Stillwater, OK, home of Oklahoma State University. The first question they asked was your name, the second, what church you went to. THAT was the great divider. You were a believer OR you were a heathen and it was their duty to save you. Baptist's didn't dance or play cards, Methodists didn't dance...and on and on. For someone from the West Coast, it was like entering another time. Cotton Mather anyone?

We visited my best friend in college who now lived in Tulsa, OK while taking our daughter college shopping. She was interested in a college in Memphis. He asked her are you sure? Yes, she said. Well, he said, you know that Memphis is the buckle. The buckle? Yes, he answered, the buckle of the Bible belt. We all had a good laugh at that. My daughter, born and raised in the Methodist Church was sure she could handle it. Turns out she wasn't fond of the church at all. The church she had known in California was nothing like the church in Tennessee.

So there have always been spies, or snoops or whatever. We can't escape them and I guess we never will. Maybe, just maybe by just knowing that we will lead better lives. Let's hope so and those that don't well, lets hope that with all this surveillance, they get caught!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Does The Big "3" Design A Car Americans Will Buy Anymore?

Car designers and their engineers try to make a vehicle a fairly wide audience will purchase. If you are Porsche or Ferrari that is not often a consideration. However, if you are Ford or Chevrolet, Toyota or Honda, you are hoping to get the biggest bang for your investment buck.

1958 Edsel
American cars, at least in the United States ruled the road. That began to slip I remember as a child when in 1960 Ford gave us the Falcon, GM the Corvair and Chrysler the Valient. Their take on a "small" car. They were going to be the import killers. If you see one today you are rather surprised at how big they were. They also didn't stem the flow of imports, If anything, probably hastened it.

Compared to a 1959 Cadillac however, they were well, smaller. That '59 Caddie is bigger than my full sized 2003 GMC pickup; weight, length and width!

With this in mind walking my dog the other day, I became aware that every single car on the street, the place looks more like a used car lot than suburb, was an import. I went several blocks before a saw an American vehicle and they were two beat up old Dodge Vans. Everywhere there were Toyotas, Hondas, a Nissan or two, a few Audi's, Kia's, a few Lexus' and BWM's. Then, in one yard sat a forlorn, 1980's Cadillac not unlike the sad picture above of an even more forlorn vehicle in its day, the 1958 Edsel! The Caddie was out in the open, dusty, tires half inflated while under the carport was a snazzy Infiniti coupe and SUV.

You had to walk down to my house to see American. A 2006 Buick Renaissance and the 2003 GMC pickup. Kind of a sad state of affairs.

How could the American car companies ignore the fact that imports, first from Germany then Japan and now Korea were making what their audience wanted and were fleeing their offerings. Yet, as I discovered on trips to Europe, Ford and Opel (GM) were making great cars that held off Japanese imports in Europe because they made the same type of cars there, oftentimes better looking and just as reliable. You have to wonder. All they needed to do was build the same cars here.

It wasn't that Ford and GM were clueless. The German Ford Capri was a snazzy little coupe that was all the rage in the 70's. It went head to head against the 240Z and was more fun to drive and cheaper. Then Ford imported the small Fiesta a truly cheap small car that was a favorite of the college crowd. Cheap to run and reliable you see them once in awhile still.

Finally, in the midst of the "Great Recession" Ford brought over the new Fiesta to acclaim and sales, then the Focus in several model changes and now the Hybrid C-Max, very popular in Europe right now. There is an S-Max but you would never know that in the states. In fact there are quite a few other small cars they sell there but for some reason not sell here.

GM - Opel is no different. In its dying days in desperation GM brought over a series of Opel models and branded them with the Saturn label. They got rave reviews but it was too late. The bankruptcy forced them to shed product lines so the Saturn, Oldsmobile and Pontiac's bit the dust.

I remarked that the Tesla-S won one of the highest rating ever on Consumer Reports and is, for American cars at least, the gold standard to be compared to. While there are some remarkable features unique to this car, it was their design AND attention to detail in every aspect of their vehicle that makes it a standout. It was DESIGNED to be successful from the beginning to end.

One can hope American auto makers have learned their lesson. It was gratifying to read the other day that the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, at one time a great car but wandering in the bloated wilderness for 30 years, got a 95 rating in Consumers Reports, 4 points below the Tesla. They were stunned. The model it replaced scored 62 and you get the idea is was a gift.

Design is so much a part of our life that we, as artists, often don't even realize the strategies we use. However, just like "quality" you know it when you see it even if you can't define it!