Saturday, May 21, 2016

Benched Week 100: the acorn awaits


Forgive me if I seem sentimental. Or if I nod toward nostalgia. This is, after all, the final official post in my three-year undertaking to find benches to blog about. And on the way, I’ve sought to uncover a personal expression of art.
One hundred benches. It seems like the perfect point to call it quits. So, with the morning sun throwing long shadows, I went back to my initial bench in the local park by the river to take a look back. Will you indulge me?
There are many ways to slice up a hundred posts. I decided to touch on a few themes.



There are too many I like to be able fit into this, so I will do a visual retrospective as an add-on. Call it a post-post. My photographic exploration reminded me of how much I enjoy the art form. Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” That has certainly been true for me. Watch for my photo reminiscence soon.



One of the great joys on the journey has been when Serendipity showed up. And true to her nature, she arrived without advanced notice. Here were a few of her appearances:
In post #17, I literally drew a family of kids over to me in Grand Central Terminal in NYC

#12: Rembrandt, with his look of world-weary wisdom, challenged me over the heads of tourists in the National Gallery

#63: Interacting with strangers over my art at the Cloud Gate in Chicago

#88: watching a guy lower himself to a cliff-face cave in St. Paul, right when I was wondering about it

#92: the funny alignment in this shot from Sugarland, TX

#97: X marks the spot where Grace and I had our picnic

#98: kids triumphantly posed on a wall in Ft. Lauderdale in the waning light




Traveling is undeniably lonely. So, connecting with someone over a bench was always a pleasant addition. Some were strangers. Some were old friends. All made the moment richer.
#45: Fabian, a young artist I met in a park in Atlanta

#57: Fred, the self-anointed expert on all things in the town of Chagrin Falls, OH (including its most famous resident, Bill Waterson)

#64: Carol, a long-time internet friend with whom I shared wonder in the Art Institute of Chicago

#73: drawing for the boys of a dear friend, Jenny, in northern California



I had no idea how many forms a simple bench could take. I’ll follow with another collection of images: my favorite benches. (How long can I stretch out our goodbye?)

The question remains: have I found my personal art? Not really. But I’ve turned over a few of the jigsaw puzzle pieces. Whatever my future personal projects will turn out to be, they will include a strong connection with an audience. And blending words with images. And co-creating with people, whether they’re friends like you or strangers on the street.
Last week, which hiking alone in the Shenandoah mountains, I stopped for a breather and noticed something peculiar: an acorn sitting in a hole in a decaying tree, like an egg in a protected nest. It’s a perfect metaphor for my continued journey: the germ of a new adventure often lies in the learned wisdom of the previous one.

Thank you for taking this trip with me. I know I've had readers here on but you tend to stay in the shadows.  I think I've actually had only three or four comments over the hundred posts.  So now's your chance.  If you enjoyed reading this, will you leave a parting word?  I'd love to hear from you.

So with Grace and some celebratory fro-yo, I raise a toast: here’s to slowing down to notice life’s unexpected pleasures, and to fellow travelers along the way.
And if you have a yearning for either, there’s always room on the bench for two.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Benched Week 99: a crowd-sourced story

I was on a quest. To draw a quest. By asking questions of strangers. The words of Van Gogh describe well what I was after: “For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” I intended to draw the start of a graphic novel by using ideas from people walking by me as I sat on a bench at our town’s Arts Festival.
I had the impulse. Now I needed the “little things.”
Packing up all I needed, I walked the mile between our house and Lewisburg’s downtown, barricaded off to traffic and filled with artisan tents.
I chose a bench in a perfect location. But I quickly realized what I had not planned on: the wind. It caught my large sheets of foam core and blew over my flimsy tripod. Two brothers nearby came over to help me pack up and move to a more secluded spot.
Tucked in between buildings (and with borrowed chairs to help stabilize the easel), I set up shop. I sloppily lettered out a sign to explain what I was doing.
Here’s what I had inked out to start with. 
I wanted enough visualized to give the story a running start. I was aware, though, that the first people to stop would set the course for the day: they’d decide what was in the box.
“They” turned out to be a group of teens. And possibly remembering an age-old joke in present giving, they decided the box would hold another box. One that was locked. And his quest would be to find the key
After them, a woman suggested that he find a clue on the box. For lack of something better, I put my personal symbol on it. (For me, it means: Watch this!)
Soon someone else thought that Josh would remember that he had seen the symbol in a painting. Another passer-by suggested it be one of his father’s paintings.
Then a large group of high schoolers stopped by. When I asked if the hero’s mom should let him into the attic, they said, emphatically, “No.” “Then how,” I followed, “will he get her to let him up?”
Apparently, the answer was, to lie to his elderly, widowed mother. I complained that Josh had sadly become a more shaded character. Maybe even shady.
The suggestions kept coming. Random visitors suggested that Josh look through the eye, lining it up with the painting and something would be revealed. A dear friend, back in town for the day, added that the quest could expand into Josh’s search for messages left for him in all his father’s paintings, discernible by the eye symbol.
But I was done. There was enough material for the whole board. I took the evening to finish the drawing, and mused on what I learned.
Had I achieved, in Van Gogh’s words, greatness? The drawing was passable. The story: convoluted and with gaping plot holes. (Why was the box in the river in the first place?) But my goal had not been to make great art. Or even a complete story. I had been after the experience of creating as a community -- blurring the line between artist and audience.
I had met and interacted with dozens of people. And better yet, heard from them stories of their own creativity: the young woman who had majored in art, the mother who had taught her kids to tell round-robin stories around the table, and the elementary school teacher fighting the good creative fight in the classroom every day.
That’s what made today special. All these strangers getting connected, frame by frame, through a common love for narratives.
And the way I picture it, that’s pretty darn great.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Crowd-Sourced Graphic Novel

If you came by my board during the Arts Festival, thanks for your input!  I really enjoyed meeting you and hearing your ideas!  Such great fun.  My experiment went even better than I had imagined it would.  I will be working on this over the next couple of days and will post it -- as my latest Benched post -- #99. 

In the meantime, if you're curious, feel free to read some of my other posts from other benches I've warmed around the country.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Benched Week 98: what the waves whispered

The surf, kicked up by a strong breeze, matched my spirit: restless, hurried, purposeful. I had, perhaps, another half hour of light. I was determined to finally sit on a beachside bench.

Since I began this blog, my life has changed. I am now primarily traveling to Florida for events. Worse things have happened, I know. It has been wonderful to catch an occasional sunrise. But the time to have a leisurely sitting has been elusive.

On top of that, I’m pressing. My goal of 100 posts is within sight. I want go out on a high note.

So, as I found my bench and sat, my internal voice chanted, “Make it work, make it work.”

But the ocean had a different thought. “Just…wait,” it whispered. “Just… wait.”

 I took a deep breath. And waited. And tried to stop looking through my framework of hurriedness.

That’s how I noticed the moon over the palms.

The flock of pelicans overhead.

The elderly woman who had joined me in taking in the beauty and the breeze.

And the joyful kids who were poised like victors on a wall they just climbed.

Most of all, I was able to take in the ocean. Scientists say that humans experience a calming effect when faced with something invariable in form, yet filled with variety in expression. That’s why we love campfires, aquariums, waterfalls, and, yes, oceans. We’re all a bunch of oxymorons. Our hearts long for the comfort of constancy mixed with the delight of difference.

Theme and variation: too much varying is exhausting. Too much theming is dull.

I’m ready, after 98 benches, to riff some variations on a different theme. What that will turn out to be is yet to be discovered. I have an experiment I’m going to run on Saturday for my penultimate post that may give me some answers. We’ll see. It may, eventually, involve social media.

But, sitting and soaking in the view of the sea, I’m comforted by the constancy of the pursuit, wherever it may take me. Call it The Call. Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free. Onward and upward.

And like the husband who reluctantly removed his shoes to follow his wife onto the beach, I may take a bit to get adjusted to each new idea that pops up. But I’m ready to get my feet wet.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Benched Week 97: found in translation

 One of life’s great joys is passing on a passion. Not simply handing over information, but igniting a flame in someone else. Or opening their eyes to a new way of seeing.

I found a pointed visual for this as my daughter, Grace, and I wended our way along the second of three hikes in my favorite Pennsylvania state park, Black Moshannon. (Which in a perfect world, would have been thus named in honor of a pirate and not just the tannin-steeped water of the boggy lake.) There, just off the trail was a dead pine, with the green branches of a sapling growing out from just behind it.

The old giving life to the new.

On this day, passing on a passion meant handing over the camera. As I did, I gave her this challenge: find me shots for this Benched post.

She took to it with gusto and an exquisite eye for framing. On our first stroll, she was taken with the bright sunlight reflecting off the lake, silhouetting a bird.

And a stump she likened to a tiny island.

When we stopped for lunch, the magic of serendipity was in full force. I asked Grace if she knew why I chose this table. She said no. I said, pointing up to the vapor trails above us, “I just looked for the X that was on the map.”

After lunch, I found my bench. She joined me. I asked her what she liked about photography. She answered readily. “Seeing things differently. Framing things.”

“What do you think is hard?”

She pondered this. “Finding interesting subjects,” she answered. “And how to highlight them to make them look differently to others.” I expanded on this a bit. It’s hard to capture wonder for people. She added, “It gets lost in translation.”

We all have perspectives and values we hope to pass on, particularly our kids. Creativity is one of mine. A key part of that is the ability to recognize the extraordinary around us every day. But great treasures should be shared. How it warmed my heart to see Grace splayed out on the wooded walkway, eager to get a close-up of the shoot of the ignoble skunk cabbage. She sees. She’s eager to share.

At the end of our third hike, we chanced upon a natural hallway in the brush. Immediately, I said, “You know what that reminds me of?” She knew what I was going to say: we found a similar scene six years ago on another hike. “Do you remember the pose?” I asked.

The question was unnecessary. She had already struck it, waiting for me to take the shot.

It made me beam.

I guess we’ve had a long history of translating delight. And sharing it.