Monday, October 27, 2014

Benched Week 62: unrehearsed

“Well, this seems fitting,” I said to John Blair, Esquire, as he posed for a picture in front of a bench.  At least, that’s who he purported to be.  As I sat down next to him, he inquired as to the reason for my comment.

Silly man that I am, I began to explain my Benched saga.  He interrupted with a slightly off-topic comment about having skipped church because he was tired of the preaching of the rector.  Then it dawned on me.  I had been talking to him as if he was just a guy rather than a guy pretending to be a guy who lived two hundred years ago.

One should expect such things in Colonial Williamsburg.

I got into the flow of the make-believe.  I asked questions about his church and its attitude towards those who miss services.  (Slackers were only obligated to attend once a month.)  I posed another about other denominations.  (He confessed that he didn’t know the word.)

It was a performance, and I was a part of it.

Which made me think of jazz.

Williamsburg, with its starkly beautiful houses, would not normally be a place one contemplates jazz.  In fact, it wasn’t until later the next day, as I found another bench in the late afternoon sun, that it came like an Aha! moment.

The improvisational nature of that dialogue was very much like the session I scribed last week – one that may have contained my favorite moment of scribing ever.  In it, a jazz quintet invited a member of the audience to come up and tell a personal story.  While he talked, they adlibbed a jazz score to accompany it.  Meanwhile, I attempted capture it all visually.

It was incredible.  Call it in-the-moment magic – an impromptu harmony of spontaneous word, music and drawing.  No one knew where we were headed, but who cared – the journey was exhilarating.  I’ve never been more buoyantly happy with a marker in my hand.  (I can’t show you that part, but here’s what I drew when they first came out and played.)

Art that is unrehearsed, that plays with the boundary between performer and audience, that blends with music and storytelling -- this is my new-found north star.  I’m not sure what the next step is, but I’m keeping that star in my sight.

Walking later down a back street in the historic district, I saw John again, this time presumably coming back from his break.  As we passed, I said, “I enjoyed our conversation earlier.”

“As did I, sir,” he replied with a nod and touch of his hat.

Well-played, my extemporaneous friend.  Well-played.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Benched Week 61: of anchors and bubbles

My first encounter with Baltimore’s Inner Harbor came when,six months before my wedding, I quit my nine-to-five job to start freelancing.  First up: helping an established illustrator paint a seascape on the walls above the tropical fish tank in the National Aquarium, just a month or so before it opened.

Coming back today, felt like a returning to an anchoring memory.  How suitable it was that a huge anchor lay nicely along the harbor walkway as a reminder.

But the harbor had changed over the years.  Gone were the fun little food stands inside the building Don and I frequented during our lunch breaks.  Now, restaurant chains muscled each other in the tight space and – believe it or not – Ripley’s had staked a claim, announcing its presence with an aggressive-looking sea serpent.

The change made me slightly nostalgic.  Though, I realized as I sat across the harbor from the aquarium, the anchor of this memory was actually more about what I learned about work from Don than it was about the place.  He told me during those days, “Among professional illustrators, everyone works at, like, a 95% level.  To stand out, you have to do 97%.  That little extra you put in – that makes all the difference.” 

I had no idea at the time how that advice would become a standard for all my work that followed through the years.  Not that I’ve attained it consistently.  But I’ve never drifted far from that point.  That’s what anchors help you do.

And little did I realize the crazy, unpredictable career I would have.  How could I have imagined, as a young, untested artist riding the coattails of another painter’s success, that I would find myself back here as the featured artist of a major conference?  There’s nothing like bumping into a long-ago version of oneself to see the crazy, twisting ride of life.

Thinking of this, I started back to the hotel.  When I glanced up at the aquarium, I saw this sign and laughed aloud.

I strolled over to take a close shot of it and walked into a swirling explosion of bubbles.  A young boy fired a long stream of them into the harbor breeze as his brother jumped around trying to catch them.

One large bubble flew around me then danced on currents between the dock and the boat moored close by. Before the bubble burst, its unpredictable journey lasted impossibly long for such a delicate thing.  So many twists and turns.


Amazing things do happen every day.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Benched Week 60: the quicksand of time

Out of the beach before me rose a great, metal foot, dully gleaming under overcast skies.  Farther on, an arm and hand had emerged.  Near it, the head of the giant, silently screaming.

I say emerged, but in fact – as I have learned in my years of illustrating – capturing a motion in a single pose is tricky.  One can never be sure that what is being pictured is actually the doing rather than the undoing.  The giant could very well be sinking.

Which is how I felt as I sat on a nearby bench and ruminated on the sculpture.  I was sinking.

I had come to the National Harbor in Washington, D.C., with scarcely half an hour to spare before meeting the woman with whom I was to scribe an event.  It had been a hectic week of work and travel, and I felt like I was being swallowed up by the quicksand of my own schedule.

Creativity and busyness have a love-hate relationship. Calvin, in his usual perceptive way, puts his finger on the core tension.

There is an inertia that needs to be overcome in order to make one’s flitting imaginings concrete.  But there is a point where a level of activity undermines that output.

Here – let me show you how this works in my life using my simple Activometer.

Boredom, like gravity, requires an escape velocity.  Work has to ramp up to a medium-high level in order to get the synapses firing.  I’m sure you’ve found this to be true.  There is an optimal place on your meter where you’re the most productive.  For me, it’s just below the breaking point.

After that point – in the danger zone – I get too busy to be innovative.  Breakthroughs get trumped by just getting through.  Excellence is replaced by good enough.  This zone is perhaps the greatest reason why fast-food restaurants thrive.  If only they’d be honest and put on their signs: When You Only Have Time for Good Enough.

The obvious solution?  Leave more margin in the schedule.  To change analogies, we make our own tethers.  We can untie them.

So, scale back the busyness, Bruce.  Put the marker down and no one gets hurt.

We can all rise above that sinking feeling.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Benched Week 59: coming back around

It started with a carousel – the second I've come across in two weeks.  This one was in Bryant Park, Manhattan, a site of a previous Benched post.  I was coming around again, only to find the pastoral field completely buried under construction.  (They apparently turn it into a skating rink every year.)  I missed the field.

Which drove me inside the nearby NY Public Library.

There, in an oaken room filled with silent laptop users, their glasses glowing with reflected light, I found this large painting.  It’s of Homer, dictating to his daughters Paradise Lost.

How apropos.

My bench for this week waited just outside, in a high-ceiling hall that sported four, impressive murals, each one depicting a scene from the history of making books. I sat down across from this one.

The irony of the shot is not lost on me: beneath a medieval scribe, painstakingly hand-lettering a manuscript, a young teen thumbs out her texts.

Which made me think of what we’ve lost in our latest technological convenience.  Let’s not simply call it “handwriting,” for in that single action are countless delights – the flourishes, the unique slant of letters, the lilt of loops, the sweep and solidity of a signature.  There’s art in one’s scrawl.  It’s a unique product of you.

The first decade of this current century was a dark time for illustrators.  American culture turned away from hand-drawn art for the fancier imaginings of photo-illustration.  We were all entranced that photographs could be just as unreal as paintings.  At the time, I kept thinking that the trend would turn around and come back.  We have a deep longing for connection to other humans that digital effects cannot satisfy. 

And I was right. 

There is a renaissance, a rising tide of demand for hand-drawn art in popular media and advertising and even the corporate boardroom.  I am happy to be riding that wave and hanging ten for as long as I’m able.

I do sometimes (as my niece would testify), but not nearly enough.  How about you?  Will you invest twenty minutes to write out a note for someone you special?  Let’s regain the human touch we’ve lost in our messaging.  It's time to turn the trend around: what has gone from popular to neglected to nearly forgotten can be rediscovered and made popular again.  Let’s bring handwritten letters full circle.

Just like a carousel.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Benched Week 58: a singular idea

Perhaps it was the gray blanket of clouds overhead.

Or the solitary gull that posed for me.

Or the final bloom on a rose bush, vainly defying the coming cold.

For one or all of these reasons, I found myself on a bench under the looming, dramatic cluster of the GM towers along Detroit’s riverfront feeling a bit melancholy.  There was a sporadic sprinkle of rain and a trickle of people passing nearby – an occasional lone jogger or cyclist.  It was the right setting to be by oneself.

My thoughts, however, were on collaboration.  On the flight, I read a chapter of Creativity Inc., a book by Ed Catmull, one of the execs of Pixar, about lessons learned in building their innovative culture. I’m sure I’ll come back to it in these posts, but what struck me in this sampling was the power of collective creativity.

A breakthrough at Pixar during the time of Toy Story 2 was that “getting the team right is the necessary precursor for getting the ideas right.”  Why? Because “ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”  Catmull explains, “…too many of us think of ideas as singular, as if they float in the ether fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.”

Think of it: dozens of people coming together to puzzle out the creation of a work of art. 

Intriguing, don’t you think? Sure, that makes sense for a movie.  But can it be applied to a painting or a drawing?

A friend’s son tried this on street level, pulling off   of performance art where the passing people became the artists.  He called it a continuous drawing: for over a day, a piece of graphite was kept moving on a huge canvas wall.  Anyone walking past was invited to take it for a while to add whatever fancied him or her. The accumulated image was startling and complex.  Random, yes. A bit gimmicky.  But sublimely interesting.

So here’s my question: what can we create together?  You and me.  Not just you, singular.  You, plural. Us together.  Social media is fertile soil for collaboration.  How can we join our varying skills and interests and ideas to fashion something unique?

Maybe it’ll be a piece of writing, like the story our family once tried to write, with each member taking a chapter.  (Given up quickly, alas.)  Or could we assemble a montage, with each of us contributing an image? How about a group doodle?

Share your ideas with me. Let’s put our heads and hands together.