Monday, May 25, 2015

Benched Week 78: master class

A bluebird landed ten yards ahead, as my good friend, Scott, and I emerged from the woods.  I fumbled with my camera, eager to catch the wonderful juxtaposition of the brilliant bird on a dark, weathered sign.  I checked the settings, raised the long lens, and… was gone.

I hadn’t been ready.

But that’s why Scott and I had each set aside this day from our busy travel schedules: to help me learn from him how to take better nature shots.  He’s an internationally known nature writer and speaker.  What is not as well known is his keen understanding of photography.   I had asked him to give me a few tips.  He was eager to help.

The first lesson was to better understand the combinations that went into taking a long, slow capture of a waterfall to give the rapids a silky feel.

On the way back, I had missed a dramatic framing of a chipmunk perched in a ray of light on gnarled tree roots eye level with the path.  But it caused me to notice this rather grumpy-looking fellow.  Scott showed me how to use the tripod and a timer to get a richly detailed shot of him.

A little later, we came across this butterfly.

In this world of instant online tutorials, instruction is easy to find.  But videos and web-guides are a pale comparison to a flesh-and-blood instructor.  Teachers have enthusiasm.  And lessons fit more into a broader context.  For Scott, nature photography is more than configuring f-stops and film speed.  It’s about knowing the subject matter.

Sensing my disappointment over missing the bluebird, he said, “Let’s sit on that bench.  The signpost is most likely one of his territorial perches.  He’ll be back.”

And sure enough, a few minutes later, the bird returned.  I got my shot.  And with it, I realized that a major reason why I enjoy photography is because it is another way to co-create.  Nature provides impromptu, unexpected opportunities, ready to be a part of a new, creative work.  But as Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors a prepared mind."  Those opportunities test my preparedness and knowledge and artist's eye. Even the bluebird seemed to turn to me with a lecturing look that said, "You ready now?"

Of course, it's easier to be prepared for a test with the teacher at my side giving me the answers!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Benched Week 77: public faces

Do you think you can read a person by his or her face?  And conversely, do you think the face you present to the world accurately depicts you?

I mulled these over this week as I roamed around the Detroit Institute of Arts.  My original intent was to build on last week’s post and find something that represented  “secret spaces.”  But though I found some interesting paintings, none seemed to quite fit.

Then, in my wanderings, I noticed the grand hall decorated for a reception.

Not long after that, I saw the reason: a bride and her entourage.

I wondered what possesses a person to put herself on display in such a public way.  It’s one thing to be surrounded by friends and relatives; it’s entirely another to be intentionally engulfed by hundreds of gawking tourists.  (Not to mention sly amateur photographers.)

But as I sat on a bench and reflected on the art around me, I realized that artists have always been doing that: putting themselves on display.  And nowhere is that more evident than in self-portraits.  The museum had a number of them.  Some I recognized.


Some I didn’t.  But were impressed with all the same.

There’s something bold and revealing – and vulnerable -- about putting one’s face in a painting.  A self-portrait invites strangers to come up and engage, to decide for themselves what kind of a person this painter seems to be.

It’s ironic that in my life, I’ve turned my back on audiences.  Literally. Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain – that interplay of words and pictures I weave.  I’ve become the man of a thousand typefaces.  Or of at least a half-dozen.  But I’m convinced that anything we create as humans speaks about our true selves – whether it’s the paintings we make or the words we write.  The clothes we select.  Our gardens.  Our houses.  The mugs we drink out of.  The mugs we look out of.

My deep desire it to make all these things in my life speak to who I am.  Or better yet, the person I’m becoming.

And put that best face forward.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Benched Week 76: secret spaces

Growing up, I had a number of places I could go to be alone – special spots to call all my own: a semi-hidden crawl space in the wall of my bedroom.  A tree house.  A row of neighborhood forsythias, under the arching branches of which I buried a tin of treasures.  And an abandoned stone mansion next door.

I’m sure you had your own special spots, too.

The memories of my secret spaces came back to me as I walked a path in an arboretum (read: a patch of scruffy woods) near Princeton, N.J., and came across a brooding, neglected house with a single, soulless eye of a window on its weathered face.

Nearby, a shed held another surprise.

Clearly, these buildings attract the curious.  And, judging by the contents of the tub, they draw those serendipitously carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels.   Such obvious reasons aside, I wondered what it was that cause us to seek out (or create, as with blanket forts) corners of concealment.  Was it the thrill of being the sole owner of the knowledge of such a place?

How I wished there were a bench nearby to ponder this.

That bench turned out to be in a pleasant park on the way back to the hotel. 

By the time I found it, the sunlight was in its golden hour.  I sat and took some shots of a red-winged blackbird perched on rustling reeds.

A young dad came by, strolling with his daughter.  We greeted each other then he pointed out to her the Canada geese on the pond with a line of goslings between them.  We stood to watch them.

And I realized that a moment in time can be a secret space, as well.  To “own” the knowledge of the uniqueness of the situation – the play of light on the water, the breeze, the effortless gliding of the geese, the cuteness of the goslings – it feels like a treasured thing.  A clandestine gift.

But it’s a gift to be shared.  A moment like that can be a burdensome pleasure: we want to pull someone else in to enjoy it with us.  There is a longing to have others join us in the space.  Not "Keep Out!" but "Come in!"  Check out my treehouse.  Crawl under here with me.  Look what I found! 

Look what I found.  That’s the spirit of this blog, I think.  I find little, secret places – surprising moments – and invite you to share them with me.  I'm glad to have the company.

So tell me: what was your secret space growing up?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Benched Week 75: listen up

Two years ago, this blog started in this park.  Back then, I said I couldn’t see the river for the trees, both literally and metaphorically.  Today, the park was quite different.  Brush was cleared away, giving me a panoramic view of the flowing water.

How apropos.

This two-year journey has given me clarity, as well.

I notice things more.  And not just visually.  I’ve learned to tune into the sounds around me, as well. (Though Alison, reminding me last night of something she told me before, might not agree.)

For instance, I listen now to the language of birds.

It started a month ago, as I helped Grace learn bird calls for a project.  Suddenly, a world of meaningful sound opened up to me.  The cacophony of early morning chattering has become a chorus of individual voices, like being in a loud party and suddenly discerning each individual conversation.  And I can’t stop hearing them now.

Like the single, strong chirp of a Baltimore oriole in a nearby tree.

Or the loud churr of a northern flicker.

Or the scolding mews of a catbird.  (Not worth picturing.  Let's not encourage them.)

We’re so good at tuning things out.  It’s a necessary skill to navigate through life.  But I think it’s the job of art to be a spotlight that swings around in the periphery of our lives, saying, “Look at this!”

Look at all these benches!

Look at all these birds!

Look at all these mugs!

I've started a new experiment in crowd-sourced creating called Mugshots on Facebook. People send me photos of their favorite mug, I post them, others comment, and I hand write the comments into the photo.

I think my quest had been clarified in that sense: try to find ordinary things bring into that spotlight.  For me and for you to notice.

A few months ago, as a joke, I came up with a symbol to represent me.

It means, “Watch this!”  Though it originally pertained to my scribing, it equally fits this clarified quest to look over something previously overlooked.  And let's view it together.

So, two years in, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll keep blogging about benches.  I’ve already slowed down how often I post them. But as long as there are interesting things to point out – and readers to point them out to – I’ll keep looking.  And listening. 

And sitting. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Benched Week 74: on all fours

I learned a new formula yesterday: 5 X 4 = Newton Falls.  On my way back from a gig in Cleveland, I stopped by this small town in Ohio for one reason only.  Its zip code is a wonderfully monotonous 44444.

Driving there in the early morning, I determined to photograph five fours, find a bench, and think about my love for typography.

The town cooperated nicely.  After the namesake waterfall, there wasn’t much to see, but that made the hunt for fours more of a delightful challenge.  The single-street downtown was nearly deserted, giving me the freedom to snap away without annoying residents and shop owners.

Imagine my happiness in discovering the temperature.  (I only counted this for one of my shots.  But in my inner ear, I could hear Obi Wan say, "The fours are with this one.")

The other shots came quickly, so I soon found my bench, sat in the sunshine and turned my thoughts toward fonts.

Typography fascinates me.  Think of it, we don’t simply have marks that build together into a language that communicates.  Even the way we make the marks – call it the character of the characters – helps to shape the meaning.  Fancy, plain, funky.  Type comes in many flavors.  And each one adds a layer of meaning before we even read the message.


And I’m particularly pleased that hand-written type has made a comeback. On events, I collect comments made to me about my scribing and this week a man said, “Your works reminds me of those signs in Chili’s.”  He meant it as a compliment, referencing the popular chalkboard signs used by restaurants – and this coffee shop.

I’ve found, to my frustration, that the speed of scribing precludes many of the nuances of type.  It’s hard enough to capture content.  Not to mention spelling, as the young creator of this poster must have realized too late.

So, playing with type is something I want make a part of my personal art.  I am, after all, a man of letters.  And to that end, I have an idea for a new series I’d like to here on Facebook, which would involve hand-written content that would be crowd-sourced by friends like you.   I’ll spell it out for you in the coming week.

But for today, I’m just playing the numbers game.  In Newton Falls, fun comes in fours.

Benched Week 73: whose tide are you on?

The sun was rising in its long-slanted brilliance over the Pacific.  I sat on a bench on a bluff high overlooking the gentle waves, watching surfers bob.  Sea lions barked in the distance from their beds of metal beams beneath the long jetty. (I had to go find them later.)

It was the perfect time to sit and ponder the events of the day before, and muse upon the ebb and flow of time.

Being stuck in California for a weekend in early April is no hardship, especially when I had a car (a rare occurrence for me on business trips) and friends to visit.  First up was Jenny, a young mom who I had befriended some years ago through a blogging site we both used.  I had a chance to visit her and her delightful family for a morning, which involved chalking with her young sons.


Then, as fortune would have it, an old mentor of mine just happened to live ten minutes from Jenny.  I had stayed in touch with Foster ever since the summer in college I worked with him in the Philippines, but this was the first time I had seen him since then. 

At ninety-five, Foster is a frail, bowed version of the energetic man I knew, but his mind is still sharp and his gentleness and kindness very evident in the way he listened to me and offered his wisdom.  Fos was the first one to put in my head the idea of using art to connect to an audience.  He had forgotten that he had plunked me down in a busy outdoor market in Manila with a sketchpad and pencil.  It’s as clear in my memory as if it had happened yesterday – my nervousness, the press of the people against me in order to see, the laughter and the chatter in a language I didn’t understand.  It didn’t go particularly well that day, but an idea was planted in my mind.

In a way, each generation is like a wave.  We swell.  We crest.  We make our splash and recede.  But the very act of receding feeds the next wave.  I think about that in this area of encouraging creativity.  Fos did that for me.  I hope to do that for Jenny, for McKenzie, the young artist at the church where I scribed the next morning, and for others as I have opportunity. 

Including you.  You take the time to read this blog and I sincerely appreciate it.  I think about you every time I write: that my thoughts could be the wave that feeds your imagination, whether you just ride it for the few moments you read this, or if you let it feed own creative expression.

That’s why I post.: so we can make some waves.

Benched Week 72: picture this

Do you know what is hard about these bench-sittings? (Besides the majority of the cushionless benches.)  It’s conveying even simple concepts concisely.

Like cold.

How do I best describe the body-clenching temperature of downtown Milwaukee today?  Should I mention that both the cab driver and the housekeeper on my floor of the hotel described the city with that word, pronounced: COLLLLLD.

Or do I show a photo?  But what photo can depict something invisible?

A frozen river?

Or this simple detail I found in an alley?

Imagine how much harder this task becomes when the concept becomes complex, like...


As I sat in the small art museum on the campus of Marquette, two pieces spoke to me about how to visually portray the inhabitants of a very specific time and place.  They couldn’t have been much more different in their approaches.

This photo of Dublin, Ireland, taken by Robert Von Sternberg, is far more subtle than a simple point-and-shoot.  Notice how the smiling older siblings and father are cut off.  The younger kids seem a bit dazed by the commotion, but the camera – viewing them from a child’s height – makes them the center of the scene.  Dirty, confused, but the heart of the moment. 

Then there’s Abert Birkle’s Street Scene, Berlin.  More fanciful, even a bit grotesque, it imagines a collection of people who embody Berlin in the early 20th century.   No one smiles in this grouping.  Misshapen faces and outstretched hands convey sadness and isolation.  Or perhaps longing.

Both speak volumes to me about a single thing: community. We wish for it, but in our age of remote connecting, we find it becoming more and more elusive.  Maybe we’re like the children, left out by a laughter we don’t quite understand.  Or maybe we’re surrounded by others who share our longing, but we don’t know how to break down the isolation between us.

Community.  Now there’s a tricky concept to convey.

It will take more than art to do that.