My Gray Goose Chase

I will restrict my illustrations here to two songs, differing in as many aspects of provenance as any two folksongs in the language can differ, and almost certainly not related through diffusion, yet remarkably similar in their use of an indestructible and gigantic bird for symbolic expression of social protest.

~~ John Greenway, “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad”

It’s funny what might get under my skin, leading me on a – dare I say it – wild goose chase. Even funnier, where that chase might lead me.

TNY published Lethem’s “The Gray Goose” a few weeks ago. It referenced the folk song of the same name, appearing in the story first as a children’s song by Burl Ives and a few pages later in a Greenwich Village club, as laden with significance for the main character: her mother, as a member of the American communist party, had taught her the goose represented the struggling middle class, a tidbit with which she later impressed her friends at the club.

I was curious at the time, so I began my wild – or rather, gray – goose chase. I discovered the Burl Ives 1959 version was a cover of a 1935 Leadbelly recording (the two knew each other and sometimes performed at the same folk concerts), back when white artists frequently “covered” black songs to bring them to wider audience rather than in the current sense of simply re-recording a song. I still wanted to know more about the origins of “The Gray Goose” folk tune: was it a spiritual? A children’s song? Something older? Was it American, European, or something entirely different?

The most promising source of information I could find, based on a footnote to a footnote, seemed to be an elusive article titled “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad” by one John Greenway, published in a now-defunct journal, Southern Folklore Quarterly in 1954. How does one find a copy of such an article?

I called the Portland Public Library. I felt a little silly – it seemed like a mission that was doomed to fail – but they have this “Ask a Librarian” number, so I asked a librarian if they had some magical way to find a 60-year-old article from a Kentucky journal out of print for 30 years.

They did.

It would take a couple of weeks, I was told, since the University of Maine at Orono (about 135 miles away) was in summer session. Three days later, a PDF arrived by email. I love my library. I love all libraries. And I love librarians.

So what did folklorist Dr. Greenway have to say?

He starts with “The Cutty Wren,” an English folk song unrelated to “The Gray Goose” but similar in some ways as it served as a medieval protest song associated with the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, protesting feudalism and the abuses of the landlords, and, like “The Gray Goose,” features an undistinguished bird elevated to great status. Greenway considered “The Cutty Wren” not in the American culture at the time of the article; today, it’s listed Mark Gregory’s worldwide database “Union Songs” and was included on the 1960s album “Songs of Protest” by the British folk group led by Ian Campbell. John Greenway didn’t know, in 1954, that the 60s were about to happen. And the internet, well, he would’ve laughed.

What does “The Cutty Wren” have to do with “The Gray Goose”? Not much, really, other than they both involve less-than-glorious birds as symbols of resistance to oppression:

A somewhat similar area of protest to that out of which the song came, however, existed in the South during slavery days, and still exists in rural prison camps. In both cases a defiant society or group, living in an environment of deprivation, restriction, and oppression was denied free channels of expression; such conditions inevitably produced songs in which protest is concealed from those outside the group by symbolism, allegory, and other devices. During ante-bellum times the slaves had a semi-religious song ultimately derived in form from the African “call and response” group singing, which may have begun something like this modern descendant:

George went a huntin,’
O Mount Zion
He kill a eagle,
O Mount Zion.

and went on to tell of the difficulty George’s mama had in cooking the bird; the last time the singer saw him, “he war flotin’ down de riber.”

This, then, seems to be the song that developed into “The Gray Goose.”

He further relates the symbol of the goose more generally to “Ol’ Sis Goose” – when the goose goes to court, she finds the judge, attorneys, and jury are all foxes – depicting an overt kind of racial injustice: “the Negro in a white man’s court is I pretty much the same predicament.” Greenway then traces the Goose through Leadbelly, who, having spent eleven years in Southern chain gangs, saw it as a way of honoring the prisoner who survived.

Greenway is uncertain about the reason the goose itself was selected as the bird of choice for this symbolism, however:

Just why the goose should be accepted by the Southern Negro as a symbol for his people is not easy to see (although the goose is a similar symbol in folklore from Finno-Ugric to Hindu mythology); perhaps because of its very homeliness, perhaps because he recognizes in the goose certain qualities that we city-dwellers do not see. I felt a hint of this two weeks ago when the papers reported the incident of two wild geese vainly attempting to help a broken-winged companion into the air. Perhaps the goose has a highly-developed sense of social consciousness.

Sentences like that final one make me very glad I called my library to obtain this article.

He further traces the evolution, or, in some cases, devolution, of folk songs: some lose their symbolism, and thus their meaning, and become children’s nonsense songs. He specifically points out the modification of “The Gray Goose” that replaces “Lawd, lawd, lawd” with “Ho holly Ho” and additional “repetitive nonsense;” it’s interesting I can’t find that lyric online, while the original version – the version Leadbelly and Burl Ives sang – is plentiful. That feels like a kind of small justice to me.

Now – what does any of this have to do with the Lethem story?

Miriam, the daughter in the story, is somewhat dismissive of the song when she hears it in the club, since she remembers it as a children’s song. She does remember, however, that her mother had a Marxist interpretation for it, and thus impresses her friends with that knowledge. Greenway acknowledges that “many songs of social and political significance have a disconcerting habit” of losing their meaning between the fields and the nursery, but here the meaning was significantly preserved, if lightened by Ives’ delivery. Miriam’s mother, furthermore, adds her interpretation to keep the meaning with the song – if a different meaning than it had when Leadbelly sang it, which was very different from the “George Went a Huntin’” that originated in slavery.

In the interview that accompanied the story, Lethem made some references to the song. He remembered the song with some mixed feelings, and so Miriam came to see it as “a sort of trapdoor into the mingled shame and pride of a family’s political past.” Thanks to Greenlaw, I have a better idea of the origins of the song, but Miriam, at 16, thinks her mother’s interpretation, Burl Ives’ version, is the original one. It’s possible, given that the novel follows her to other protests and revolutions and uprisings, that the song remains the same for her, a more general symbol. Or perhaps she, too, discovers more about it: Lethem mentions in passing “an Irish-American folksinger discovering he’s no Bob Dylan” but it’s not clear whether or not that is part of the novel.

Is it ok to co-opt a song? To change the symbolism for a different purpose, another oppressed group? What if we allow the goose to be more generous – to represent anyone who is downtrodden, oppressed, struggling, staying the course, resisting destruction, and believes that release, flight, freedom is possible? The origins of the song in slavery, America’s seminal injustice, merely provides the bass line. The harmonies and melodies of racial injustice, prison inequalities, socioeconomic disadvantage, discriminations based on gender, religion, sexual preference, can create a refreshed, not a new, song.

Is this co-option, or growth, a sign of life, of universality? It depends. I think it’s important for the co-opters to acknowledge the original origins, which is not something Miriam or her mother do in the story. Perhaps they (or the Irish-American Dylan wannabe) encounter it later. Or perhaps the song fades from the novel – titled Dissident Gardens – with this section.

But The Gray Goose will fly on, regardless.

Sunday with Zin: The Books Artists Make

Sissy Buck: "Inextricably Woven"

Sissy Buck: “Inextricably Woven”

Hello I am Zin and what could be better than books and art? Bookart!

These were not illustrations for books or books about art or books containing art but books as artists conceive them so they are not traditional books they are art pieces! This was an exhibition of the students from the Kate Cheney Chappell ’83 Center for Book Arts at USM!

This was part of the Portland First Friday celebration for April and happened the same day as the Edible Book Art Festival! I could not find many pictures online so I had to rely mostly on my own pictures which are not great but they may give you an idea of what happens when artists create books and reading them becomes part of an artistic statement!

Some of my favorites were by Sissy Buck who did the piece in the header photo. She also made a piece from her series “Fitting Words:”

In this series, “Fitting Words”, I have used the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles that I have done over the years (in varying degrees of completion) for my imagery. By enlarging the crosswords and printing them in layers of different colors using Xerox lithography, the abstracted images take on a different meaning and quality…another riddle or puzzle.

I love the NYT Sunday puzzles and no other puzzles will do! I photocopy them every week at the library so this was a convergence of all sorts of great things for me!

Artist Rush Brown also did a piece called “Susie Dancing” which I liked a lot it was like a cutout mural hung across the wall! He said he was the only man in the workshop at the time! I wonder why women are more interested in making books as art objects than men?

Many of the books took unusual form! Cynthia Ahlstrin made “Without Consent” which was an actual book turned into a shoe and because of the title hints at a very interesting story! In an “introduce yourself” video she talks about “getting away from rendering what you actually see and it becomes more of a conversation between the layers” and yes this piece did that! She also made a piece about a shoe and books that won an art show titled “Every Shoe Tells A Story” which is very clever!

Bonnie Faulkner is a glass artist but she played with book art and made “The Journey’s Angst” which was more of an accordion shape out of paper.

Libby Barrett (who has a fantastic website of wonderful book art where each piece is amazing) made “Summer Day” which is also like an accordion shape with haiku. Libby also made a wall hanging “30 Days” a wall book of postcards for a month!

I wish there was an album of professional pictures for all the pieces because many of them were wonderful! Elizabeth Berkana made a book out of playing cards and Tessa Jeffers made “Little Gold Dress Book” which was a dress made out of the folded pages of a book! Catie Hannigan made a weaving on one page with “I don’t think about you” on the other page! That was brilliant! Susan Colburn-Motta made a wonderful piece titled “Leaf Floating on Water” and she makes a lot of book art but I do not have a picture so you will have to take my word for it or keep an eye on the Center for Book Arts for their next exhibit or workshop!

Sunday with Zin: Edible Book Festival

Hello I am Zin and I am back from my vacation! I hope everyone missed me!

While I was on vacation (and I did not really go on an actual vacation I just took a few weeks off from Sunday with Zin) I went to the Edible Book Festival at the Library!

I had a lot of fun with this last year and I did try for a while to come up with an entry but last year the guy who did the Banana Kareninut Bread with the little smashed banana Anna on the train tracks intimidated me especially since the year before he did Beer and Loathing in Las Haggis the year before and set a very high bar! But he was not there this year which was sad. There were other wonderful things though!

Pi(e) was very popular this year! The winners for both the Children and Adult divisions were about pi(e). But they were very different kinds of pi(e)!

A nine-year-old girl won for “Lord of the Pies” complete with broken eyeglasses and a pie-dough pig head bloodied with strawberry-rhubarb juice! I voted for it because I could not help but vote for it, but I was surprised other people voted for it! And I was most surprised that nine-year-olds are reading Lord of the Flies! She must be very special and I think her parents are probably very special too!

The adult winner was for Life of Pi which of course featured the life cycle of a pie arranged in a circle from the apples and flour to the completed pie! She had to put warnings on one pie to say it was not baked and should not be eaten (we were allowed to eat everything after the judging so taste was not a factor at all). But I had a soft spot for the book and she was clever so I voted for her too! I am so surprised I voted for the winners in both divisions!

Stinky Cheese Man came in third maybe not because it was such a cool rendition but because it is such a cool book! It is a Post Modern Book of Fairy Tales and right there I wonder if I have become so very old, that children are reading post-modern literature! But it is very funny and I enjoy watching the video because I like all that meta stuff! I wish we had meta fiction when I was little!

One of the prettiest entries was Gingerbread Man and it won a prize too. It was a very well-done gingerbread house book!

I voted for an entry that was not very pretty and did not involve any baking or really any food work at all but I appreciated the sign that accompanied it: it was an ordinary fruit salad in a plastic tub from the grocery store with a little note:

Literary Fruit Salad
One Pound of Cantaloupe, Ezra Large
one Sun Dried Raisin
A Half Cup California Grapes, Imported from Oklahoma
Five Small Peppers
One Diced Mango from South America (I think maybe it should be Mexico but I could be wrong)
Peach Jam from Giant Peaches

Now I have to come up with ideas again for next year! I still have this idea to actually make a book out of fruit leather and licorice laces and maybe big bars of chocolate. Except I probably will not but it does not hurt to think about it. It is always fun to see what people come up with.

Sunday with Zin: Naked Shakespeare

Hello I am Zin and on February 1 Shakespeare went Naked! And I watched!

Naked Shakespeare is a performing arts group in southern Maine that performs Shakespearean sonnets and brief scenes from his plays in everyday places like taverns and summer fairs without costumes or lights or scenery or even a stage! They just show up and speak! It is pretty remarkable! On February 1 as part of the First Friday festivities here in Portland they took over the Atrium of the library for a performance. It was quite strange because the Atrium is very small, it is maybe 30 feet wide, and people were sitting on the floor and wee littles were crying and people were coming and going and the actors never got distracted! It was amazing to watch them keep focused on what they were doing!

They had a special challenge because they were in the middle of the floor with nothing but a bench and people were lined up against both walls and the ends, so it was like they were in the middle of a rectangle of audience! They had to keep moving around so everyone had a chance to hear and see them up close and all of this was improvised which I think is pretty impressive when they are also performing Shakespeare!

Because of the time of year the theme was “Will You Be Mine” and the works were about love of all kinds from the love sonnets and the comedies to of all things King Lear and Cordelia! That was my favorite because the actors were really good! When Lear entered I think the whole audience was worried the actor was having some kind of medical problem he was so convincing!

I took a video recording of the Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…. Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising…”), a short scene from Measure for Measure, and a longer passage from Troilus and Cressida which I have never read or seen before. Because the actors were sometimes two feet away and sometimes fifty feet away the sound is a bit odd but it gives an idea of the very un-Shakespearean setting! At least un-Shakespearean as we are used to seeing Shakespeare performed now.

Good words and good performers work anywhere!

FLOODED: The Benefit for Longfellow Books

Imagine this:

You’ve got cancer. You’ve just completed a round of chemo with a new drug, a nasty one that not only knocked you on your ass, but knocked your white blood cells right out of existence, so you’re three days in the hospital on IV antibiotics trying to get the infection under control. You’re feeling like crap, so you haven’t had time to worry about the historic snowstorm – Nemo, some nitwit at The Weather Channel decided to call it – that started last night. It’s all white from your hospital bed, anyway.

Oh, and you’re the co-owner of a Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore, which you coaxed into existence when the bookstore you managed went under after the new Borders opened at the mall thirteen years ago. Of course, Borders is Books-a-Million now, but your little place is still there, though you get a little nervous every time a showroomer aims a cell phone at a best-seller, or you see someone sitting at Starbucks with a Kindle. Still, you love what you do, and that counts for a lot.

Your phone rings. Who’s calling on a night like this, a night white with snow? Ah, it’s your buddy, neighbor to the store, probably going to give you a pep talk. Ok, you’ve got the energy to deal with that. Though for someone who’s just been lying in bed for three days, you’re awfully tired. You hope it’s because your body is working hard along with the antibiotic, and maybe making new white blood cells to boot.

“Stu, I’m standing outside your store, water’s pouring down from the ceiling, alarms are ringing, fire engines are pulling up, they want to break down the back door… ” You wonder briefly if this is some kind of strange semi-hallucinatory reaction to the antibiotic, but the phone is very real in your hand, your friend’s voice is very real in your ear, and apparently the water and alarms and firemen are very real at your store. But you’re tethered to this IV bag with a length of tubing and to this bed by chains of fatigue, so you call your co-owner (who might also wonder if you’re hallucinating; hell, you still sorta wonder/hope maybe you are, yourself) and he says he’ll check it out.

He calls a little while later. There was indeed water pouring into the store from the ceiling. Water + books = not good. “Stu, the firemen were carrying books out of the way of the water! Double armloads of books! A Bucket Brigade of books! Firemen saving books! Like they’re children!” You wonder again if there’s something in the IV antibiotics that causes hallucinations.

But no. The storm blew in a window on the second floor above the store. Snow blew in and melted, which would’ve been bad enough, but the real trouble started when the pipes froze because that set off the sprinkler system that’s doused – ruined (sprinkler water isn’t clean and pretty) – half your stock. Only half your stock, thanks to the Portland Fire Department. But you’re going to be closed a while.

Maybe this is it. You’ve been selling books in one way or another since the 70s, but maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

Turns out, the universe may be trying to tell you something, but Portland is telling you, Not So Fast.

Within two hours of the story being Twittered out by the Portland Press Herald, your Facebook page will have 200 offers of help.

Within two days, you’ll have to ask people to stop calling and dropping by the store as you clean up and try to figure out a recovery.

Within four days, the Maine Publisher’s and Writer’s Alliance will schedule FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books – and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo and a host of other Maine writers like Ron Currie, Jr., Bill Roorbach, Monica Wood, Moira Driscoll and Brock Clarke will all volunteer immediately for the panel – at the SPACE Gallery, which will donate the facility for the evening, since you’ve schlepped books the four blocks so many times for so many literary events over the years (Zadie Smith being the first, back in 2002), and Rogue’s Gallery will provide T-shirts at cost with “We Survived the Flood of 2013″ on the front and “Longfellow Books, Fiercely Independent” on the back for sale. The Benefit will sell out in less than a day, probably the quickest sellout in SPACE Gallery history. That night will be full of love, full of humor, full of books, full of talk about books and writing those books, full of t-shirts, full of readers, writers, and business people in a tiny city that won’t let its bookstore go gentle into that good night.

And this is the story you will tell.


Footnotes: Because this story was too important to me to be cluttered up by links, I’ve listed them all here:

Longfellow Books now scheduling readings just like old times
Zin posted about the flood; I wanted to get my two cents in, too, so I got to do this post about the recovery
FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books, organized by Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance – thanks for a great evening
WCSH-6 News Coverage of the recovery
Portland Playback Theater, a unique troupe dedicated to “the art of improvisation with real-life stories spontaneously shared by members of the audience” who donated the $900 in proceeds from their March First Friday performance
Richard Russo, who discussed how painful it was to write his new memoir, Elsewhere
Monica Wood, whose memoir When We Were The Kennedys Zin discussed last year after attending a reading at PPL.
Ron Currie, Jr., whose new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles features a character named Ron Currie, Jr., who’s a writer…
Bill Roorbach whose new novel Life Among Giants about a football player’s tragedy started with the notion of fame
Brock Clarke who skillfully moderated the Fiction discussion in a hilarious direction (“There’s a lot of sex in these books”) so we didn’t get a chance to hear much about his latest novel, Exley
Moira Driscoll, actress, audio book reader, and gracious Memoir panel moderator
Rogues Gallery provided t-shirts which became an instant hit

Sunday with Zin: Everyone Should Know About Vi Hart

"You Are Safe Here" - Vi Hart

“You Are Safe Here” – Vi Hart

Hello I am Zin and I am very happy to see that Vi Hart is branching out even more and bringing her clever video approach to address more personal issues!

I first discovered Vi in connection with Khan Academy! And now she is featured on Brain Pickings in an article about her latest video about dealing with trolls! No not the fairy-tale characters but the contemporary trolls who leave mean messages and tell you how bad your video (or blog post) is! She also has a wonderful video about making videos (“They Became What They Beheld: Medium, Message, and Youtubery”)! And then a video about making a video about making videos! Can you see why I love Vi Hart?

You can check out her YouTube channel and I will help by listing my own favorites!

First she did Math and then became the Mathemusician for Khan Academy. But not just Math: Math like the Binary Hand Dance! And it makes sense whether you know about binary or not!

And my favorite of all time, her story about Wind and Mr. Ug which turns into… well I will not tell you, it will be a surprise!

I think her crowning achievement in math videos was in her series of videos about Thanksgiving Dinner: Green Bean Vectors (I never realized green beans are like vectors) and Borromean Onion Rings (which is better than a Blooming Onion believe me!) and finishing off with Turducken except it is more like turduckduckhenhenhenhenailailailailailailailail. And she actually makes these dishes! She can bone poultry! This is a multi-talented woman!

She started doing music with paper instruments then made some part-science-part-music videos! (Folding Time and Space is my favorite! Her website includes instructions for making paper instruments like a recorder and a didgeridoo! I told you she is multi-talented!

And now she is going into more general topics and doing them just as wonderfully!

I wish I knew how to drop a bug in the ear of the MacArthur genius grant people so they would notice Vi Hart because she has some wonderful things to say and some very creative and entertaining ways to say them!

Sunday with Zin: Puppet Opera

puppets finale

Hello I am Zin and I love opera! And I love puppets! So what could be better than a puppet opera?

Paper Bull Puppets and VOX Maine put on Hansel and Gretel this year! I did not attend the formal performance where they had live singers and a pianist but they did excerpts at the library and even though it was announced as a Children’s Event, it was ok for adults to go! So I was able to see it! It was really wonderful! It was something like a dress rehearsal for them with all the scenery and the shadow work and it was lovely! They did the beautiful “Evening Prayer” scene which was really lovely! Unfortunately Hansel’s head came off at the end of the first excerpt so they had to repair him during intermission but one of the guys came out and had us singing and he talked about opera and puppets, so it was just fine!

They do not use hand puppets or marionettes, but bunraki, a traditional Japanese theater that uses hand-guided puppets! Two or three people, dressed in black, handle the puppets, one the head and body, one the arms and one the feet! It kind of looks like they are taking care of an injured child because they are all gathered around these three-foot-tall puppets but after a while I stopped noticing the people and just looked at the puppets!

puppets closeupI went to the library early to browse the Edward Gorey display again and maybe find some new thing to read and in the lobby were Hansel and Gretel! It was so cool, the puppet handlers had them sitting on the fountain and they just were trying to generate some interest so they let me take a short video and some pictures! There was a lady telling the puppets not to fight and I wanted her to be quiet but she kept telling them to kiss and make up and they did! Then the puppet handlers talked to us for a while and while they were talking Hansel and Gretel’s heads were moving like they were looking around, and Hansel poked Gretel and pointed to something in the commissary, it was really quite good, they made those puppets look alive even when they were talking to us!

puppets headerI did not know this before I went to see the show but it is very appropriate that Hansel and Gretel is a puppet opera because that is how it was written! He wrote a few songs for a puppet show his nieces were doing, then he wrote a few more and a few more and suddenly he had the whole story as an opera! It is frequently performed this way in fact!

Thank you Paper Bull Puppets and VOX Maine (and Portland Public Library) and I hope you do another show soon!

Sunday with Zin: Illustrations

Sharon McGill

Sharon McGill

Hello I am Zin and I am so impressed with story illustrators and how they capture a story! How do they do that? At last I have some answers!

I love looking for art to go with blog posts! But I can not draw! I can not photograph! I can not use Paint! So I have to search for things that comes close to what I see in my head, and it is not easy (and it is sometimes scary)! Sometimes I am very lucky, like with “Shrimp Attack” for a Next Iron Chef episode recap – who knew someone had painted a picture with that exact title which are words one of the NIC contestants said? I did a Google image search and there it was, the perfect art! I used themes once upon a time, black and white pictures, black and white baby pictures, and for the Second Person Study, black and white twin baby pictures! I am not sure I could cope with a blank slate, though, creating something from scratch!

And that is my question today: how to artists come up with illustrations for stories when they start only with the text?

I am not talking cover art for books, which is also very interesting and maybe I will write about that some day! But that has a lot to do with marketing, so it is more complicated! And it has to incorporate the title and the author which story illustrations do not. I am focusing on story illustrations like those that appear in The New Yorker and in online magazines!

I always pay attention to TNY illustrations to see what scene they incorporate. Some seem perfect! Like what Victo Ngai chose for “Casserole” by Thomas McGuane, the woman looking over the edge of the boat.

And some puzzle me, like the choice the same artist made for “Sweet Dreams” by Peter Stamm! It was another wonderful story (I nominated it as one of my picks for best TNY story of the year at Perpetual Folly, the blog Cliff Garstang runs) but there were so many images that seemed more striking to me, I was surprised that was the one she chose! This has nothing to do with the style of her art, by the way (which is beautiful), and I always wonder if someone at TNY or maybe even the author has any input or if it is 100% up to the artist.

Tomer Hanuka showed a tiny bit of behind the scenes development and wrote a tiny bit about the role of the Art Director in his blog post about his illustration for the wonderful story “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” (I also nominated this for TNY-SotY) but he says the process varies!

When I saw Richard Russo and his daughter Kate talk at the library I was really interested in what she said about the art she created for the stories in Interventions! For “Horseman” she read the story then put it aside to see what would stick. She kept thinking of the poem, and wanted to draw the horse from the point of view of the rider, which is pretty clever!

Then again with “The Whore’s Child” she was struck by the paragraph about the girl being given shoes two sizes too small that crippled her, and she used the black and white of tiles and saddle shoes to echo the habits nuns wear! It is interesting she also thought of blood in connection with “High and Dry.”

I love these thought processes! But I want to hear more! I need to talk to more artists!

So I was very happy when I recently stumbled over Sharon McGill on the Information Superhighway! I am surprised I had not stumbled over her before, she has a wonderful story on Smokelong #35 from last March titled “Benediction” which I have added to the Online Fiction Sampler page!

But that is not all! I discovered Sharon is on Zoetrope Virtual Studios! She is a story illustrator as well as a writer! She did the illustration for her story! And best of all she answered my questions about illustrating a story when I sent her a z-mail!

Sharon has a terrific blog post about the process of illustrating her own story “Benediction“: the conflict between the Writer – who saw the story as taking place under a dull grey sky – and the Illustrator – who wanted bright hot stark sunlight for lots of shadows and angles! It did not make it any easier that the Writer and the Illustrator were both her! And then she realized the Illustrator had “plagiarized” the hot sun and the junkyard from a novel the Writer was working on! It is a wonderful little flash all in itself, the story of this illustration! I love the duality of her arguing with herself! I can understand that!

But I kept asking why that opening scene? The end, with the man in gold, is so dramatic! Is there something like a spoiler rule in illustrating? And here is what she told me:

I tend to pick something that pops out to me and which I feel has the drama, intrigue, and/or immediacy to pull someone into a story. In this case, I think what also happened was that, as a writer I could see this dreary, low sky, but the moment I started actually thinking about drawing it, I knew that would look too flat. There had to be a strong light source. I was also influenced by the editor who selected the story–she said she really loved the opening line. Since I had worked on it a lot, it had a lot of importance to me, too.

I agree that the final scene is pretty dramatic, but I didn’t want to give it away. Also, it’s one of those scenes that I wanted to have exist only in the reader’s mind. I actually got the idea from a guy who wore a costume of gold leaf to a party and the gold kept falling off. He looked kind of scabby, which was a bit gross and not the image I wanted to leave the reader with (!). I figured it would be very hard to depict that kind of figure without it looking totally goofy.

I see – yes, I had a discussion with someone about writing once in which we talked about forcing the reader into a chair when he maybe wants to dance, so it is the same with illustrating, you have to allow some freedom for reader interpretation!

Sharon also illustrated another Smokelong story in that issue, “Everyone Continued to Sing” by Josh Denlow. And she has another wonderful post on her blog explaining “the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane” as well as some more technical art elements like not using outlines for this picture!

I am so thankful to Sharon for taking the time to email back and forth! I am always glad when I learn something! And now I am following her blog so I can learn more about how illustrators think!

This has inspired me to talk to some more people, like art editors at online magazines about how they choose art for stories! So I hope I will have a Part 2 for this post in the future!

Sunday with Zin: Construction Art

The building is being renovated to become the Preble Street Resource Center’s new Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter. But the mural is actually a collaboration between Wright-Ryan Construction and this year’s freshman class at the Maine College of Art.

- LiveWorkPortland, 10/1/12

Hello I am Zin and this is the prettiest construction site I have ever seen! And it is right down the street from me!

The art panels suddenly appeared on the construction wall this summer! The construction company had to build a false facade so they could do the renovation of the street level, and they decided it would be nice to have something pretty instead of just ugly old plywood!

And it just so happens the Maine College of Art (MECA) has a Public Engagement program intended to get students to “take action as citizens, artists and designers. As a result, each student gains the entrepreneurial skills and confidence to directly impact their culture and society during and after college.”

So they joined forces and the freshmen at MECA painted the panels to represent all the different nationalities of students at Portland High School!

After a group brainstorming session, the students were divided into groups of two, each of which was assigned a letter, as well as a language commonly spoken in Portland to act as a visual prompt for the painting of their letter. The mural is divided into 4’ x 4’ squares, each containing one letter, and the individual artworks that developed around each of these letters is based on the students’ extensive research into the visual language of the assigned cultures.


It is gone now, in early December they took it down since the building will open soon and the building is now glass and brick, but the construction wall was very beautiful and I was happy to see it every day when I went out! I will miss it but I will remember it every time I walk past the building! That is what art is for even if it is temporary!

Sunday with Zin: Pecha Kucha

Hello I am Zin and welcome to the October 2012 Pecha Kucha Night in Portland Maine!

Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pa-CHOK-cha” and meaning “chit-chat” in Japanese) is like a flash art exhibit! Except sometimes it is about more than art! There have been 2,226 stories told so far since 2003 worldwide, probably one near you! It was started as a design thing in Tokyo, and grew from there!

Each presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds each! That is six minutes and forty seconds to display and narrate 20 slides of whatever you have! Paintings, sculpture, projects, sketches, ideas, dance, poetry! Anything that can handle narrated slide format! And no introduction – the emcee takes care of that! It is amazing how much ground you can cover in that time!

I learned about Pecha Kucha at the Sidewalk Art Festival this past summer via Dana Trattner, who showed the art she painted over the years through several eye surgeries! I made a note to go to the next one, and it was last month at the wonderful SPACE Gallery!

My favorite was Lindsay Stockbridge, a sculptor and recent MECA graduate who was inspired by her walk of the Appalachian Trail! Before she left she made some sculptures of beached whales, because that is how she felt! When she saw the trees she imagined them as the legs of giant moose, so she made a bunch of moose! Some of them she bronzed! Then she made a 4×4 house in the sand that washed away with the tide leaving only the frame! And because, she says, we always look for a face or figure in inanimate objects – like the man in the moon, or even the moose! – she sculpted a conch shell with a hand coming out of it – this was I think my favorite thing I saw all night!

Moose Sculpture by Lindsay Stockbridge

Moose Sculpture by Lindsay Stockbridge

Activist and USM Art Teacher Jan Piribeck described her work on the Good Fences for Good Neighbors project! Since there are a bunch of ugly chain link fences in the Bayside area, a group of artists got together and created art from them! They used only recycled materials, things that would have been thrown away. One of the most available materials was Blue Wrap, the stuff medical facilities use to wrap up sterilized items! It is not reusable once it is removed from the medical instrument, but it is not soiled or damaged in any way, it is just not sterile any more, so people are looking for ways to re-use it, and these artists came up with this one! One of the fences cast a shadow of faces on the ground when the sun was at a certain angle, it was amazing! And the Blue Wave fence just blew in the breeze like a real wave!

One of the goofy things at Pecha Kucha was the Flashlight Sponsors! Do you think this is worth $25 to a local business: “Your logo slapped on an 11×17″ billboard and personally marched across the stage for all to see. As your logo makes its way across, the emcee will say a few kind words about your business while it gets beamed at by a 1,000,000 candlepower flashlight.” It was really cool! It was like something out of Vaudeville!

Dave Weinberg is a graphic designer and illustrator with a hobby: collecting captioned cell phone pics for his Cellphone Sketchpad blog! Some are funny, some are pretty! Anyone can submit! With or without the headline and caption!

Kevin Tacka is a Portland artist who also makes fountains for each First Friday celebration! He considers it a success if it works without losing water for 3 hours! He makes these videos of them on YouTube! My favorite is Who Let the Kitty Out of the Bag for his Cat-Topped Fountain from 2010! I am amazed at how creative he is with fountains! Water falling from the sky, the Pyrex, the Wedgewood, the Campfire Cowboy, water shooting through the sky over his sketchbooks onto an old canvas – I never realized fountains could be so much fun!

Marty Pottenger talked about one of her many projects, Art at Work, particularly the City Writers Group that gives police officers, fire fighters, engineers, accountants, parking lot managers, anyone who works for the City of Portland, to meet, write, and react to work-related prompts like First Day, or Mentors.

Not everything was about art! John Ossie told us how a bow saved his life! As in bow and arrow! He had been getting worse and worse with degenerative disk disease in his back and neck, in more and more pain, on so many medications, but he was dragged to a yard sale by his wife and he found a bow and started working with it and it did great things for exactly the right muscles and he is much better now! He even went camping! And oh by the way he is a skilled archer, he shot an arrow that split right into the one already in the target! That is very hard to do! So the bow he found by accident was a real gift! And Brody Wood read her poetry while a dancer performed and the slides were cast on them, it was very interesting!

All of the presentations had something to say and were unique and interesting! Portland has an event about once a quarter and I bet there is a Pecha Kucha night near you! If you have been to one, or if you go to one in the future, tell me about it!

Sunday with Zin: First Friday in October 2012

Hello I am Zin and I had so much fun at First Friday this month! It went from Edward Gorey and string quartets to blacksmiths with marimbas and break dancers in between!

First I went to the Edward Gorey exhibit titled “Elegant Enigmas” at the library! Even if you do not recognize the name, you probably have seen his work! The exhibits included first editions for many of his works, from the 1982 illustration for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and War of the Worlds to his backdrop and costume sketches for the 1983 Carnegie Mellon production of The Mikado! And his completely crazy alphabet books, including my favorite, The Glorious Nosebleed (“He wrote it all down Zealously”)! It is truly Zin material!

A string quartet was playing in the lobby when I left, so I waited and listened with about thirty other people because we would have had to walk between them to get out! Everyone just stood and listened, it was like a six-minute pause, very sweet!

Across the street in Monument Square a different band was playing – The Maine Marimba Ensemble plays contemporary Zimbabwean marimba music! I did not know there was contemporary marimba music, but of course there is! It is wonderful, you can watch videos at the link above!

And because it was a warm night, many people were out for First Friday! Some of them were funny – there was a man trying to preach and a group of girls in green makeup and dressed as monsters – maybe zombies? – kept following him! They had a sign on a sheet between two poles that read “DamnedNation” or something like that, and it was so funny, because they can not tell him not to preach but he can not tell them not to be on the sidewalk either! I actually am not 100% sure they were not part of the same troupe doing street theatre!

There were also several dancers, including one young man doing break dancing (ouch, the brick sidewalk must have hurt his back!) using a glass storefront as a window! That is what happens a lot, people just come out and practice whatever it is they do and they put a box or a hat down and hope someone gives them money! Some girls doing modern dance did the same thing, they had hula hoops but they did not use them while I was watching.

All the galleries and stores and of course the art college (MECA) had displays and lots of stuff going on, but my favorite thing was the Blacksmith! Sam H. Smith – that is really his name – is a Master Blacksmith and had a mini-forge and hammer and was making hooks and pokers and triangles right there on the Congress Street sidewalk! He was very nice and answered a lot of questions (yes, this is what he does for a living, and he has to abide by the same First Friday rules as the musicians because his instrument is the anvil). Update May 22 2013: Today the Portland City Council banned fire! Not completely just for blacksmiths and jugglers and street artists because of safety concerns! He seemed very careful to me but I do not know much about fire safety but I am now so sad I will not be seeing him again at First Friday any more! The website for Sam has disappeared but you can still find him at the Portland Forge page on Facebook!

Thank you Portland for another great First Friday!

Sunday with Zin: The Artists of the Chestnut Street Lofts

Archival Pigment Print by Robert Moran from his series "Relics"

Archival Pigment Print by Robert Moran from his series “Relics”

Hello I am Zin and today we are back at the library!

This month, the exhibit at the Lewis Gallery is “Inspired by Place: Artists of the Chestnut Street Lofts!” The Chestnut Street Lofts is a recently-constructed condo, and I am not really sure why six artists live there! Coincidence, I guess? I am also not sure why they get their own art exhibit, except maybe because it is located around the corner from the library!

My favorite art was by Clyde McCulley. He was at the show and I was lucky enough to talk with him! He produces “dye-infused metal prints.”

Now that does not sound very artistic, but in person the pictures have a unique finish that is both matte and glossy and seems to have some depth as well! But he does not just send his photos to be printed, no! It is a whole process! First he takes digital photographs of a scene that interests him. He pays special attention to light! Then he manipulates the image using three kinds of software, including Photoshop, to brighten the colors and also make it look more like a painting (he was a trained painter) then sends it to be put on metal. The effect for me was warm and very pleasant! From a distance the finished products look like photographs, but up close, when you can see brush strokes, like paintings!

I also very much liked the “Relics series by Robert Moran! They are also digitally manipulated archival pigment photographs! This sounds like gobbledygook but it is quite interesting because medium and method work together! Archival pigments allow the finished print to last longer than regular prints, and his photographs are of old items (a very old medical bag, a 50s radio, an old television set), and he is also using digital manipulation, so old and new are entwined! I like that! The pictures are very simple but striking and interesting to look at for a long time!

Leslie Anderson had pretty landscapes on exhibit, but what interested me about her was her website! She offers “Paint Your View!” In the summer she will come to your house (if you live near her) and paint your view! That is a pretty cool idea!

Savin Mazzotti is interesting because he is just a kid! He is a high school senior! But he is very serious about photography, and his photos were from a trip he took to the Dominican Republic with a volunteer group! He too was at the show, and was very nice though he did not say much. He is the only one who does regular film photography! The youngster in the group is using the oldest technology!

It is a nice exhibit, if not a groundbreaking one! I understand next they have an Edward Gorey exhibit coming in, and that will be fun too!

Sunday with Zin: at the 2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival

2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival

2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival

Hello I am Zin and last weekend was the 2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival!

Every year, the city closes down the main downtown street on the Saturday a week before Labor Day weekend and artists take over! Some years it is very hot, or rainy, but this year was perfect!

You can see a whole slideshow of photographs of the festival! There are also a lot of slides of cars which was a different festival but somehow the pictures are all together in the same slideshow so you have to zip through some of them! Unless you like cars in which case you will have twice as much fun looking!

Most of the art was of the “pretty art” variety – landscapes, animals, and a lot of Maine scenery which is fine, it is pretty! Not all of the artists are from Maine but I think only Maine people can win the Prizes! I would say all of the four prize winners were of the “pretty art” variety. I do not remember seeing any of the prize winners (there were three hundred artists and I did not even get to some of them) but they all have websites where you can see their work:

Third place went to Heidi Wilde for her Wilde Accents, reverse paintings on glass (“Life captured in a window”)! This is an interesting idea, and requires some planning, and some are done in multiple panes which is clever! I like some of her small-town scenes!

Pamela Jo Ellis won second place with her watercolors.

First Prize was for the Collagraph Prints of Kathleen Buchanan, owner of Grey Seal Press!

The Purchase Prize which puts a piece in the WCSH collection went to Catherine Meeks of Artistic Sisters! She works in an interesting array of media, from Paintings and Illustrations to iPad Digital Finger Paintings (ooooh! An artist who embraces pop technology!) and Polaroid Image Transfers.

I had my own prizes! The Zinnies! Some of them are from Maine, and some are not, but they all seemed a little different to me!

My Oliver Sacks award: I was drawn to the intensely bright colors of Dana Trattner but even more drawn to her story: “The art before you is a celebration of my new visual world.” She has had many eye problems (keratitis, astigmatism, and believe it or not, color blindness!) and each procedure, including corneal transplants, has changed her perception and her art! She gave a seven-minute slide presentation at Pecha Kucha Night (a kind of speed-presentation for artists and designers) in 2010! Not only her use of color but of contrast changed! It is an amazing seven minutes! She speculates: “…I’ve been wondering how different art might be if famous artists had been forced to wear glasses constantly. In the book The World Through Blunted Sight, Patrick Trevor-Roper states that many Impressionists, such as Cezanne, [were] nearsighted and painted without glasses. So I wonder, is it like Thomas Wolfe said in The Painted Word, that art critics started impressionism while the Impressionists were merely drawing what they saw?” I think this is an exciting thought!

My Best Use of the Name of the Artist award: Burrealism is the work of John and Carolyn Burr of Springvale, Maine! They do reverse acrylics, using acrylic sheets instead of glass which is pretty cool! Their subjects are sometimes brightly surreal (floating cubes and spheres in architecture, planet landscapes seen through Grecian columns) but sometimes more traditional and nature-themed.

My Emotional Tug award: I loved the lonely silhouettes of Sus Iserbyt! She is originally from Belgium and now lives in Massachusetts. I am not sure what this elongated style is called (she just calls it silhouettes), but it interests me! Another artist painted in the same style – you can see a couple of examples on Slide 28 of the WCSH slideshow, behind the man wearing the hat) but that artist was not at the booth at the moment I was there so I could not talk to her to see if there is some word for this style (if you know, please tell me!).

Some runners-up for the Zinnies:

Renaissance Man: Chris Newcomb (ARTernatives) of Gorham, ME does some acting, writing, and storytelling in addition to his steelwork! I wonder if I will see him at some future MOOSE meeting!

Art on a T-shirt: I loved the Wild Woman series of paintings by Peyton Higgison; he also does landscapes, and he and his wife Chaké run the Wilderwoman Country Store in Brunswick ME and sell t-shirts online with some of the Wild Woman designs on them!

Found Materials: Geri Geremia from New York caught my eye with her mixed media pieces using gold leaf and corrugated cardboard and other textures!

Sense of Humor: Phillip Singer does puns (A Mangoes to a Bar or Apple of My Eye). I like puns!

Nostalgia: I was charmed by the old-time street-corner jazz portraits of Joel Beckwith from Vermont!

I had a lot of fun at the Festival and thank you to all the artists whose work is so wonderful!

Sunday with Zin: Inuit Culture on Cloth

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik

Hello, I am Zin, and this week we will go to the Arctic to cool off in the middle of the hot summer, thanks to the “Culture on Cloth” Inuit wall hanging exhibit is now at the Portland Public Library!

Judith Varney Burch loves Inuit art! And she collects wall hangings, sculptures, and prints! She is not an artist or art historian (her degree is in Sociology) but she has been working at the Smithsonian as a Research Collaborator, and now she has opened the Arctic Inuit Art gallery in Charlottesville, VA to bring these items to more people! And she has been all over the world, from Mexico to India to Russia to Japan to just about everywhere, touring with various items from her collection and speaking about the people who make them!

And last week she came to the Portland Public Library! A selection of wall hangings, and a few sculptures and prints, is on display for the rest of the summer! You can see more art from Nunavut – prints, carvings, as well as the wall hangings – on her website!

She focused on the wall hangings done by the women of Baker Lake in Nunavut, the newest Canadian territory created in 1999 out of the Northwest Territories. They create these wall hangings from boiled wool that is shipped in, because nothing NOTHING grows in the Arctic Circle (except the Arctic Willow, symbol of Strength and Suppleness) so they have never had much beyond skins to work with! But they have been sewing clever items like the amauti, a coat with a place for a child on the back, for a long long time, so now they are creating art!

One of the art-related things she said was about the apparent lack of perspective and point of view in the wall hangings and prints! She learned from anthropologist Edmund Carpenter that this is because it was a pre-literate society! I am not sure why perspective in art is linked to reading, but that is was he says in the Seeing in the Round chapter of his book, Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me!:

To depict a whole object on a flat surface, literate man employs three-dimensional perspective: he shows only that surface visible from a single position at a single moment. In short, he fails.
In contrast, native artists of British Columbia represented a bear, say, in full face & profile, from back, above & below, from within & without, all simultaneously. By an extraordinary mixture of convention & realism, these butcher-draftsmen skinned & boned, even removed the entrails, to construct a new being, on a flat surface, that retained every significant element of the whole creature.

To be honest (and I try to be always as much as possible) I thought her talk was a little bit disjointed, jumping from Nunavut to her travels to a piece of art to building an igloo (it took the man 45 minutes!) to the Smithsonian to Nunavut again and around again, I wish it had been better organized because there was some wonderful information there! Like, there is a concentrated effort to keep the culture alive in the next generation! And she talks to the women who did these hangings by internet! Facebook in the Arctic Circle! I think that is hilarious! But it was wonderful anyway, and a lot of the nuggets were wonderful! And the art was beautiful! It was not meant to be an academic lecture after all! And she is very nice, she answered an emailed question I had within minutes! Thank you again, Ms. Burch!

The pictures you can find on the website links above do not really do the wall hangings justice; they are beautiful! The one above was my favorite of the ones I saw because it used a lot of shading in the stitches, from colors to white and back. Here is the artist bio of that piece from the UVA Arctic Culture Forum website:

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik
Born and raised on the land, Mary Yuusipik settled permanently in Baker Lake around 1960 when her son started school. She learned to sew from her mother, the famous Jessie Oonark, who also encouraged her to make wall hangings. For inspiration she recalls the stories that her grandmother used to tell her as a child. Although Mary Yuusipik is mostly known for her wall hangings, she is also a recognised carver and occasionally does graphic art.

Most of the Inuit were nomads (she told us the story of Irene Avaalaaqiaq, one of the most famous Baker Lake artists, raised by her grandparents, who was a young teenager before she realized there were other people in the world!) who were pretty much forced to move to Baker Lake to avoid starvation as they found it harder and harder to survive on hunting! That is so sad! But now they have houses and the Internet! I would like to know how they feel about that, if they would rather go back to nomading!

The art honors their heritage, and the legends they have told for centuries, and I am very happy to have seen it! I will visit it again every time I go to the library in the next six weeks!

Sunday with Zin: An Inconvenient Book

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child's Garden of Verses by RLS

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by RLS

Hello, I am Zin! And this week, Richard Russo brought his Interventions book tour to the library!

He and his daughter Kate spoke about the stories, the art (which Kate did, she is an accomplished artist) and the design of the book by Tom Butler (he was not able to be at this particular presentation), an artist who is married to Kate – a family project! It was also very important to Richard that he use a Maine publisher (Down East Books), that it be made in the US, and that it be printed on sustainable paper. All of this adds to the cost of the book, of course – and the book is not cheap, it costs $40, which is a lot for 4 works (one essay, one novella, and two stories), three of which have been published before. But the idea was not to release new material, it is to create a synthesis of art forms into a beautiful reading experience!

The first thing Richard wanted to discuss was to get out of the way the claim, which first appeared in a BBC web report, that he is anti-e-book! He is not boycotting ebooks! All of his work, except this one, is available as ebooks, and he has a novella coming out that will initially be available only as an e-book! It is just that he envisioned this as a tribute to the printed book, and because of the way it was conceived, he did not think it would translate to e-book form! So lighten up on the e-book thing!

When he was a little boy, Richard used to be almost happy to get sick – just a little sick – so he could stay home from school and read in bed! One of his most prominent memories of reading was being in bed with A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, a beautifully illustrated edition! I am not sure the link points to the same edition with the same illustrations, but it gives the idea! He was particularly drawn to “The Land of Counterpane” (a counterpane is a blanket or bedspread) about a boy reading and playing with toy soldiers on his bed – and including a picture, as the one above! Young Richard thought it was fun to be reading in bed looking at a picture of a boy reading in bed! And that was the basic genesis of the idea to create an illustrated book, an object in addition to text! I suppose some day an author will talk about how he used to love looking at a picture of a child reading a Kindle while he was reading a Kindle, and that will be an ebook!

When it came time to design the book, they ended up with nine pieces: four individual volumes (one for each story), four paperback-book-sized pieces of removable art (Richard wanted the reader to be able to take something of the book with him/her), and a slipcase! This is why he calls it “an inconvenient book”! Again, this all adds to the cost of the book, but it is unique! You can buy 12″ x 18″ prints of the art by Kate Russo on Etsy!

He wanted some connection between the narratives, which became the idea of intervention, and that became the story he wrote to tie the other three together!

High and Dry” is an essay that was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta, themed “Going Back.” It is about his home town of Gloversville, NY, which used to be the center of glovemaking in the country, and how the recession affected the people there. It also serves as a model for the setting of most of his novels.

My other grandfather, who lived in an Italian village near Rome, had heard about this place where so many leather artisans had gathered in upstate New York, and so he journeyed to America in hope of making a living there as a shoemaker…. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

For the art, Kate thought about the gloves, and how making the gloves ironically would harm the hands of the workers, so that resulted in a painting of beautiful gloves side-by-side with bloody hands! That is making a statement!

Horseman” was published in the August 2006 issue of The Atlantic (and is available online). It starts with a few lines from the poem “Windy Nights,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.

…When she jogged in the woods behind the New England college where she taught, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence — whenever the moon and the stars are set — as if she were a horse. And then the familiar heartsickness, as if she were suddenly clomping not through the woods but through an endless cemetery.

Kate read the story and set it aside for a few weeks to see what would stick most with her when she returned to it later: it was the last line of the poem, and the obsession with the wind which started at night but was still going the next morning! The character is a woman obsessed with a poem from childhood, aware of her own mortality, imagining the woods becoming a cemetery! So the painting is from the point of view of the character, physically – when you look at it, it is as if you are riding a horse and can see the back of the head of the horse, and the road stretching out, and gravestones cropping up later on, just like what the character envisions! I like the explanation a lot better than I like the painting! The cover for the book is a repetitive pattern (patterns are what Kate is known for) of the bent leg of a horse!

Kate had read “The Whore’s Child” before (as have we – it is wonderful; the first section is available online). It is about an elderly Belgian nun who shows up for a creative writing course and writes her autobiography in a search for witnesses, justice, or just to finally express her rage:

The first installment… detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain…. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small, an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.

Kate wanted to capture the idea of memory, embodied in the black and white saddle shoes, stained with blood on black and white tile; black and white because those are the colors a nun would wear, and it shows the discrepancy between nuns who are supposed to be kind and caring but were in reality cruel and heartless! It is a very powerful painting in combination with the story! The cover is the black and white tile pattern!

Intervention” (in the singular; the title of the whole book is Interventions) is the new story written to tie these things together! In the essay, businesses, and later the economy, interfere in the lives of craftsmen to their detriment; the memory of the horseman poem intervene in the life of the college professor; and there are many interventions in “The Whore’s Child” from the nuns who take her in to her appearing in class to the students who critique her work and thus provide some measure of objectivity to her self-examination! So he wanted to write a story expressly about an intervention!

He started with a character: Ray is a realtor in Camden, ME. Now, it just so happens that Richard is married to a realtor and lives in Camden! She has told him numerous stories but he feels they are confidential, kind of like a priest or bartender (he never specifies if this comes from a story she told him or not)! Ray has a medical problem that will become life-threatening if he does not deal with it, and he shows no signs of dealing with it! He is reluctant to do the simple, right, good thing!

Enter a young woman who, due to the economic downturn, must sell her home before she loses it to foreclosure! But there are problems, such as, she has gone to Portland to find work, leaving Ray in charge of selling the house; and she is a bit of a hoarder (such a popular obsession these days!) so she has left many many cartons stacked in the house, unable to pay for storage! She seems to be sabotaging a sale she desperately needs to make! People who come to see the house can only see her stuff, her mess! It is easy for Ray to see her problem and the solution, because after all it is always easy to see the problem someone else has, as it does not have the emotional connotation that prevents you from fixing it in the first place! So the tension of the story becomes: should he intervene, and how? And of course there is the underlying question about his own need for intervention, will he recognize it before it is too late? This sounds like a great story!

Kate decided the painting would be a stack of boxes blocking the window, using the metaphor of the boxes being in the way, they are the mess, you can not see anything but your own mess so you can not see a way out! I love that! And again I like the explanation better than the art itself!

We then had a brief Q&A which of course went to writing! I only took notes on two questions:
How do you learn to write better if you can not go to a university program? The advice from the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist was to read voraciously, write daily, and get someone else to read your work and give you feedback, someone who 1) knows more than you do and 2) does not love you, like a spouse or parent!

He was also asked why the teenage girl in Empire Falls was in present tense! I have not read the book (one of these years that will be my project, all the Pulitzer-prize winning books, except for A Visit From the Goon Squad which I have tried to read four times and I refuse to try again!) but he said something interesting about present tense: it brings you closer, slows you down, and has an immediacy, and for a teenager that was perfect because everything is happening right now since they do not have the perspective of time an older person might have!

I did not buy Interventions – I had decided I would not before I went – but I have to admit I was very tempted, and am again tempted just writing about his visit! I do have a hold on the library copy so I can read the stories I have not already read, and I will post more when it comes in! Until then, you can listen to a radio interview with Richard and Kate on a radio interview from June 26 on WMAC!

[Addendum: Comments on "Intervention," "Horseman," and "High and Dry" now posted. - KC]

Sunday with Zin: Papyrus, Parchment, Paper, Pixels!

Hello, I am Zin! Last week the Boston Athanaeum came to Portland!

Not the whole library, but James Reid-Cunningham (does that not sound like the name of someone from the Boston Athanaeum?) who is the – take a breath – Chief Conservator and Associate Director for Digitization and Preservation! He gave a talk titled “Roll to Codex to Kindle: Books and Libraries in the Age of Digitization.”

Do not be afraid! Surfboards and Hell Money are coming up, just give me a minute!

For those who are not properly awed, the Boston Athanaeum is a private library founded in 1807 and has an image (at least it did when I lived in Boston 20 years ago) of being the sort of place no one goes except for tenured Harvard professors, except that is not really the case, it just is the image they have!

Mr. Reid-Cunningham is a very nice, highly distinguished gentleman who seemed afraid no one would be interested in his lecture, except we all were! That is why we were there! And he seemed worried no one would get his jokes, but we did, especially when he showed the digitalized collection of surfboards! I mean, who could not love online surfboards?

But the fact is – and I discovered this after the lecture while I was looking for the text online – he is also a Book Artist! This was not part of his lecture, but it is too good to miss, just look at some of the amazing works of art he has created:
Love: 12 Devices: it is beautiful, it looks like Chinese script, but not!
Crimson Fears: (with Mike Jennings), a six-copy edition released by Wages of Fear – does this sound like a stuffy Bostonian book conservator to you?
Zakka II: a teeny-tiny book! And I just love teeny-tiny books!
Apocalypse: Zero Hour: it looks like a Kitchenaid mixer but it is actually a “Hell money textblock sewn with a long stitch using magenta linen threads on snakeskin tapes. Plexiglas and copper boards laced on with alum tawed goatskin tackets. Boards and textblock burned. Galvanized steel and snakeskin clasp. Slate display stand with mahogany and rubber supports.” What is Hell Money? I am not sure, I never heard of it before, but it was apparently printed in Hong Kong by missionaries for use in the Afterlife to demonstrate the folly of mammon! See where a trip to the library can take you?
The Enemies of Books: Bookbinders: This is wonderful! It is an 1887 essay by William Blades excoriating bookbinders, bound by a bookbinder into several renditions – some have nail-studded covers! And a micro-book – less than 2 inches across! Look at the photo, it is only about twice the size of a dime! This is spectacular as a technical accomplishment and as an artistic statement!

I wish I had known about this when I went to the lecture! It had nothing to do with his talk, but it was amazing to discover afterwards!

The lecture he gave was excellent even if it did not include Crimson Fears and Hell Money, and you can read it online complete with slides (the surfboards are on pages 59 & 60)! He talked about reading material from papyrus scrolls to wax tablets to parchment codex to paper, the development of bookbinding (which has been substantially unchanged for 500 years!), library technology (back in the days of the card catalog, no one thought computers would work because it was assumed only one person at a time could use it!), and digitization technology (the new-fangled “v-cradle” allows books to be copied without having to be opened flat, which hurts the bindings especially with old books; and a robotic arm to turn pages – “the debate is, which is less likely to damage books, a robotic arm or a bored human being?”). The purpose of digitization is not really to keep people from handling the originals, but to increase availability to those who can not travel to the documents! It actually increases the number of in-person visitors by increasing awareness of what materials are available! This is very cool! And he showed some repair processes: washing paper, mending tears. The next technology will be to allow digitization – copying – of books that can not be opened 90 degrees, which is the case with some very old or damaged books!

And it ended with a cartoon by Edward Gorey: “There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Books!” This means a lot to me; when I was little I was not allowed to buy books, because I already had books! When I had my own allowance and bought my own books (and records and sheet music), my father disapproved because I already had books and records! He was not anti-book, he just grew up during the Great Depression so he was very practical and could not understand that books and music were as necessary as food and clothes and air! But I always enjoy seeing my love for books validated!

The Q&A included some discussion of why “the original is always better” than a digitized copy, and the observation by one attendee that Kindle and other electronic media depend on electricity and additional technology which has been around a very short time! It is true, while it is very nice to have 2000 books on a device you can put in your rucksack, what are you going to do when the Apocalypse comes and your Hell Money is no longer good? You are going to want paper books again! But seriously, everything has its place, and while I love my paper books, if it were not for technology, I would not know about this lecture (or the Book Art), and you would not be reading about it!

This was a wonderful event – there were many great nuggets not included in my much-too-brief summary – and I am glad the Boston Athanaeum no longer has that stuffy snooty feel to it for me! If Mr. Reid-Cunningham comes to your library, I highly recommend his lecture! And in the Q&A be sure to ask him about his book art!

Sunday with Zin: Furniture as Art

"Palimpsest Bench" by Seth Keller and Michelle Janssens Keller, photo by Mike Krivit, Krivit Photography

“Palimpsest Bench” by Seth Keller and Michelle Janssens Keller, photo by Mike Krivit, Krivit Photography

The Furniture Society and Maine College of Art present an exhibition of collaborative works: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is an exploration of work in all mediums by pairs and/or groups of artists at different points in their career, ranging from emerging to established artists through collaborative projects.

Hello, I am Zin! Until I saw this exhibit at the Lewis Gallery in the Portland Public Library, I never thought of furniture as art! Furniture is something you sit on or put your books on, and sometimes it is pretty (I have a beautiful roll-top desk and some barrister bookcases I am quite fond of) but art? Yes, art! I only regret that the exhibit was named after one of my least favorite stories of all time! But I very much enjoyed the exhibit!

My favorite was the piece shown above, the Palimpsest Bench by Seth Keller and Michelle Janssens Keller! A palimpsest is a text, usually a very old one, that has been written over, like a re-used canvas for a new painting, and this happened a lot in ancient and medieval times. The most famous one is probably the Archimedes Palimpsest, which started out when an 11th century scribe in Constantinople copying some works by Archimedes (from about 212 BCE) onto parchment; then 200 years later a Christian monk reused those pages for a Greek prayer book! That is quite a statement, yes?

The Palimpsest Bench presents one text carved lengthwise and one crosswise and if you try hard you can read both! You can see in the above detail the letters are carved in different fonts, and the lengthwise text is painted white. You can see a better picture of the overall bench here.

I was lucky enough to connect with Seth by email, and he gave me some additional background about the Bench, and the Minneapolis arts/literature community from which it sprang:

The bench was completed in 2009 as a part of a collaborative project I did with 6 writers from the excellent Minneapolis/St. Paul writing community. You may want to search Talking Image Connection out of Mpls. put on by Alison Morse, to shed more light on the project. I believe there is a nice video on 3-Minute Egg, a video blog about the arts in MN.
I cut the tree down myself, and milled it too, and then waited 2 years for the wood to dry. The construction and carving probably took 3 days??? I chose the fonts mostly based on the contrast. I painted the white into the first set of carving, sanded the paint off, and then carved the second set of text, and then finished the whole thing.

I found the 3-Minute Egg video especially exciting, not only because Seth explains where the trees came from, but because I happen to know one of the writers he worked with, Marc Rapacz, from Zoetrope Virtual Studios! See, we really are all connected! Sometimes a bench reaches all the way from Minnesota to Maine!

Then Michelle told me a little bit about the text:

I did write the text…originally it was part of my graduate thesis for my MFA in creative writing at Hamline University. I cut it down to fit this project. It is actually about my grandfather, who was an immigrant from Belgium. I never met him, and he was a man of mystery to my entire family. I also was working with refugees and immigrants at the time of the project, which further inspired my exploration of story/myth, immigration/migration, home/identity/displacement, and most importantly the idea of an immigrant as palimpsest. Here is the text:

Underwriting:

Take the dark-eyed immigrant back further in time before the teenage run-away and give him a baby writhing blue then red with rage as a different wife’s blood pours away. Take him further back into the story before that wife dies, before they meet in the New Country and marry. Put him alone on a boat, starboard set for America, position him hunching over the corpse of the first wife, rain ruining the glint of his medals, weighting down the fabric of his dark woolen uniform. Make him stand alone as the Atlantic paws the ship like prey.

Overwriting:

If this water were human it would be insatiable. A constant roar swallowing shore in gulping bites. But also conflicted. Choosing half its life to surge forward over borderlines, running thin with this flooding, seeking to cover. Then the hesitation and the reversal to the other side. The revelation. Half a life spent receding, leaving the inevitable hard bits of its underbelly exposed to be picked over and scavenged by beachcombers and gulls. Such a burden to be divided like this. Did he love this place, walk these dunes, touch this sea? Yes, I’m sure of it. But did he love them? I’ll never know. You can crave something and not love it. You can know a void un-crossable yet obsess along its edges. The sea. A life. A grandfather.

— Text by Michelle Janssens Keller

The idea of the immigrant as palimpsest… is that not an amazing concept? It is absolutely brilliant, and adds a depth of understanding to the project as a whole that I had not seen at first! In fact, there is so much more to this piece than I saw at first, I am in awe of the project!

There were other wonderful pieces as well, like the Rivers Series by Bill and Saer Huston of Huston & Company Furniture:

The Rivers Series evolved out of a desire to explore the inherent connection and interaction between furniture design and the unique grain patterns in wood. Using the naturally flowing lines of the wood grain, a pattern is carved into the surface. In one design the lines increase in depth, allowing the form to catch light and cast shadows, changing the appearance from different viewing angles. In another design the pattern is carved into the entire surface, creating texture and evoking emotion.
The table forms are classic, built with American hardwoods and precise joinery. But by allowing the surface designs to be created by the wood’s natural grain structure, there is a free-form spontaneity and creation from intuition that brings out tension, drama and surprise.

Wood is so beautiful, when it is handled like this! One piece turns into water! Another looks like carved ivory!

A furniture maker named Charles Radtke teamed up with silversmith Sarah Perkins to make a cabinet they called “One of One” (sounds sort of Borgian, yes?) that included enameled silver panels. Peter Handler and Karen Singer made a Coral Reef Table (I think the captions on the website pictures are reversed) which put coral seascape under a glass table top, it was very beautiful!

Then at the end of the exhibit if you walked through from the entrance was a fun piece by Aaron Miley and Steven Sandler, called “Note to Myself” – I could not find a picture, but it was a simple table with the top covered by pads of sticky-notes and tiny pencils sticking out of holes in the tops of the legs so people could write a note and leave it on the pedestal the table was set on!

I left a note: “This made me very happy, thank you!” It was the perfect way to end a wonderful exhibit!

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 5 (final)

After 560 years of moveable type, why is our job not yet done? Why is the world still full of serious people trying to find great names for different new alphabets?….Because the world and its contents are continually changing. We need to express ourselves in new ways.

I’ve put it off as long as I could: sadly, we have reached the final chapter.

Chapter 22: Just My Type

What does your favorite font say about you? This is what Lexmark thought in 2001:

Don’t use Courier unless you want to look like a nerd. It’s a favorite for librarians and data entry companies.
Alternativesly, if you see yourself as a sex kitten, go for a soft and curvy font like Shelley.
People who use Sans Serif fonts like Univers tend to value their safety and anonymity.
Comic Sans, conversely, is the font for self-confessed attention-seekers because it allows for more expression of character.

It seems “big round O’s” seem friendly, and, as you’d expect, more rectangular letters appear technical. Italicized Humana Serif Light is the font for a love letter; a Dear John letter could be gentle in Verdana, or more absolute in Courier. But all that’s from 2001; now we have Pentagram’s online therapist who will determine What Type Are You? I turned out to be Archer Hairline, which, I’ll admit, is appealing, but is far too light for everyday use.

Fonts are fun, and font designers know it; look at all the games and sites we’ve come across so far – and don’t forget Max Kerning (kerning is the art of spacing; once you design a letter, you have to decide how much space goes between them). Apple has TypeDrawing, and MS-Word has had WordArt for decades now – for that matter, remember ASCII-art?. Or you can play Cheese or Font online. Look how much time is taken picking out business cards and wedding invitations; and if you’ve ever tried to create a flyer on your computer, you know how much fun you can have – and how much time you can waste – er, spend.

Type is emotional. Way back on page 2, when I saw Chicago, the Apple font, it brought me right back to the mid-80s when I encountered my first Apple. I couldn’t have reconstructed the font from memory, but seeing it, yes, I remember exactly where the computer was, what I did on it (a calendar was my primary project), and I remember Ivy Seligman (name changed to protect the innocent) accusing me of deleting files since I was the only one in the office capable of accomplishing such an advanced feat. Remembering the Superior Cub printing press brought back all sorts of memories of my brother.

Type matters. I recently came across (thanks to Paul Debraski at IJustReadAboutThat) a remarkable short fiction piece by Jonathan Safran Foer titled “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition.” As Paul says, “it works as meditation on what a book is, what words are and how we will ultimately read or experience books in the future.” That’s what type is for, after all – to affect, one way or another, the aesthetic experience of reading.

When I started this blog, I added a little at a time. One of the last things I played with was adding a feature font through TypeKit. Several free options were offered, and I ended up with what you’re reading now, FertigoPro from ExLjbris. I spent about two weeks, several hours a day, trying to figure out how to incorporate this; the directions were less than helpful. A few months later, WordPress sent out a directive that they were changing their system, and panic is the only word to describe what I felt. I’d actually like to change this font – while it’s lovely, in practice it’s too small, it’s not that readable, I don’t like the “1,” and the italics aren’t easily distinguished – but I never could figure out how, and now, from what I understand, if I change anything I will have to pay at least $30 a year for the service. While that’s not exorbitant, I’m pretty rigid about not paying for stuff on the Internet since it can get out of hand very quickly. I’ll probably relent one of these days.

I suppose there are people who think this is all foolishness, this font business – that Times New Roman is good enough for anything, and if not there’s always Arial. I choose to believe those people are rare. I prefer to hang with people like Karen Kavett, who has an entire series of videos on YouTube about typography. Or with John Boardley, whose I Love Typography site is full of delights – or with Simon Garfield (who was kind enough to answer an emailed question immediately), who was inspired to write a book about fonts, and who provides plenty of further reading therein.

Did I mention I love this book?

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 4

Paul Felton's #1 Type Heresy

Paul Felton’s #1 Type Heresy

We’re done with sagging now; it’s all party from here on out.

Chapter 18: Breaking the Rules
In most human enterprises, there’s a conflict between craft and creativity, between minding the rules and pushing the envelope. In most things, the mantra is: you have to know the rules to know when and how to break them. That’s where progress comes from, after all. Paul Felton crystallizes how this phenomenon affects the typographical world with his twin-book, The Ten Commandments of Typography (“Thou shalt not apply more than three typefaces in a document”) which flips over to reveal Type Heresy, a graphic rendition of how to break the rules by the Fallen Angel of Typography, including the image above as Heresy #1. Another book I just have to get.

fontbreak: The Interrobang
The combination question mark and exclamation point, proposed in the 60s by ad exec Martin Spekter, was offered on a few IBM and Remington typewriters, and exists in Wingdings but it never caught on. Garfield speculates: do people just like typing all those symbols to emphasize astonishment!?!?!?! It does feel satisfying somehow, even if you edit them out later. He speculates on punctuation’s resistance to change.

Chapter 19: The Serif of Liverpool
If you’re a fan of “popular” music (or just cover art) this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. And it could keep you busy for hours, looking for yourself to find Bootle, the font, complete with dropped “T”m modelled after the logo used by the early Beatles. Maybe you’d prefer Floydian, the scrawl from The Wall. Or I Blame Coco, derived from Coco Sumner’s handwriting as used on her album of that name. Songs have been sung about fonts: “Boring Arial Layout” by The Grace Notes seems to contain only the lyric “That’s me, I’m so famous!” “German Bold Italic” by Japanese singer Towa Tei and Australian Kylie Minogue doesn’t really make sense (“I am a typeface…I can compliment you well Especially in red Extremely in Green…I fit like a glove”) but I think it’s just supposed to be strange, which is fine. I’m reading a book about fonts, for god’s sake, I’m down with strange.
Returning the focus to type, we learn about the work of Peter Saville (New Order, as well as Kate Moss and Dior). For a grand finale, the creator of the Rolling Stone masthead (as well as Doobie Brothers album covers and former Hallmark card font designer) Jim Parkinson gets his nod.

Fontbreak: Vendome
Because: “Sometimes you just need a type that says Pleasure, possibly in French.”

Chapter 20: Fox, Gloves
Someone actually shot a video of a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog, but that phrase has become passé as a font display. Others with all letters of the alphabet, such as “Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim” and “Zany Eskimo craves fixed job with quilting party” never achieved widespread use. Besides, they’re all too long when new fonts are released every day. The current rage is “Handgloves” or “Hamburgerfont” – there is a method to this, since some letters better show the differences between fonts than others. But FontShop has a better idea: for email updates, why not choose a word that fits the use of the font? Alas, their online site uses “Handgloves” but I do wish I could find the best example of all, if most cynical: the words “Removes unwanted hair” demonstrating the Chernobyl font.

Chapter 21: The Worst Fonts in the World
See this video: Trajan is the Movie Font. That doesn’t make it a bad font – it’s lovely – just overused. The idea of “worst font” could include many things – the inane, like Comic Sans, or the gross, like Grassy, “a type with hair” (let it be noted it won Linotype’s design contest in 1999). But Garfield has his own definitive list:
#8: Ecofont, the well-meaning, ink-saving font. It’s not so much a font as a process that puts holes in Arial, Verdana, et al. “and prints them as if they had been attacked by moths.” It is, however, available free.
#7: Souvenir, “A sort of Saturday Night Fever typeface wearing tight white flared pants” says Mark Batty (whose ITC owns the font) of the font that graced the BeeGees albums (and Playboy) in the 70s. Peter Guy of the Folio Society is blunt: “A souvenir of every ghastly mistake ever made in type design gathered together – with a few never thought of before.” I’m not sure why – I think it’s pretty. I’ve always said I have no eye for art.
#6: Gill Sans Light Shadowed. “…it will soon induce headaches.” I agree.
#5: Brush Script.I think everyone with Word has tried to use this at one time or another, but it never really works. I regret to say that my beloved city library uses this as a headline for event promotions. Garfield’s complaint is that it’s phony. All printing is imitating handwriting, so what? I just think it’s too squat. Here’s the pay dirt, though: you can get a font of your own handwriting, or anyone’s handwriting for that matter, at fontifier.com, for $9 (you do need a scanner).
#4: Papyrus, another ok but seriously overused font. But you can fight back: website Papyrus Watch “sets out to document and expose the overuse of the Papyrus font.” [tiny whisper: I happen to like it, and I don't see anything Egyptian about it, other than that's how it's used by fifth graders writing reports. But it's so cool that fifth graders are using computers - and fonts! - says one who thought the Flair felttip was innovative technology]
#3: Neuland Inline “says Africa in the way Papyrus says Egypt.” Meaning, it says “stereotype.” Again, I don’t see anything particularly African about it (I’m not even sure what an African font would look like; Africa is a big, diverse place), other than its now-permanent association with The Lion King.
#2: Ransom Note: This isn’t so much a font as a category; many similar fonts use the torn-out-of-a-magazine-and-pasted-together style: “the names are often better than the type.” Very true: my personal favorite is Got Heroin?
#1: And the Worst Font in the World (if you ever saw either of Keith Olbermann’s news shows, you’d hear the echo in your head): the 2012 Olympic Font known as 2012 Headline. The logo is bad enough – “some detected Lisa Simpson having sex, others a swastika” – but the font “is based on jaggedness and crudeness, not usually considered attributes where sport is concerned.” And of course, there’s that stereotypical thing again,the nod to Greece, “the sort of lettering you will find at London kebob shops and restaurants called Dionysus.”

My own font faux pas: About a decade ago, one of my more interesting if less frequent work duties was the writing and pre-production of a client newsletter. One month I did some work on it at home, and emailed the result to the office, where my boss intercepted it. Somehow, his computer changed the headline font to a hideous thing (I thought it was called Dancin’ but no, it was much worse, more like Party Mush). I didn’t even bother to explain that it was Century Schoolbook (or some such thing, maybe Garamond or Georgia or Calisto or Perpetua, I’m fond of serifs, though Verdana has its moments) when it left my home computer. From then on I used what I knew worked across platforms. It may be boring, but it doesn’t make a fool of me.

My personal Microsoft Word (circa 2000) least favorite list? Blackladder ITC and Gigi. Most of the scripts, really (except Lucida Calligraphy, which I sometimes use in condensed form for my name on stationery header). And the goofy things like Curlz and Jokerman, though they might have some use, in extremely small quantities, in some applications.

I’m saving the last chapter for next week. I’m having such a good time, I don’t want this to be over. For those of you wondering if I’ve lost my mind – long ago, but this phase is almost over.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 3

Art by Tom Gabor

Art by Tom Gabor

Just like people, many books sag in the middle. That isn’t to say the group of chapters here is boring; I was still fascinated. But in some of them, there is less of a “fun” factor, and readers who aren’t generally interested in printing and typography might wonder where the magic has gone. Don’t worry – it comes back, in spades. But there’s still interesting stuff to discover here.

As an incentive – just today I got “I Shot the Serif (but I did not shoot the san serif)” game (unrelated to the image above, which is also fun; you can it, or variations, on a t-shirt) in my feed from the NYT’s newly named “Page-Turner” blog.

And now back to our scheduled book:

Chapter 6: The Ampersand’s Final Twist
Caslon, then Garamond, created what many consider to be the finest examples of ampersands, the typographical character even the most staid designers get a little wild with. You can get Caslon’s on a t-shirt (oh, how I want one). In 2010, the Society of Typographic Aficionados released “Coming Together“, a digital font of over 400 different ampersands to raise money for victims of the Haitian earthquake. They did something similar with Japanese characters in 2011 for the Japanese tsunami relief. Typographic Aficionados care.

Chapter 7: Baskerville is Dead (Long Live Baskerville)

…it has one one attribute that makes it infallibly recognizable and timelessly stunning – the upper-case Q. This has a tail extending well beyond its body width…The lower-case g is also a classic with its curled ear and its lower blowl left unclosed, as if all the ink was being saved for that Q.

In spite of Benjamin Franklin’s support, Baskerville never enjoyed much success during his life. But all things come to those who wait: his font was one of the five initially available on the iPad. And it’s a beautiful Q.

Font Break: Mrs Eaves & Mr Eaves
Baskerville may have missed out during his lifetime because of social disapproval: his wife came to him first as a housekeeper after her husband abandoned her and her five children. When things turned romantic, they couldn’t marry until the absent husband died. In honor of this sad and romantic tale, Zuzana Licko used the name Mrs Eaves for her 1996 update of Baskerville. And Australian artist Gemma O’Brien took the name Mrs Eaves for her “Write Here, Write Now” video project to support creation of open-graffiti zones as places of self-expression.

Chapter 8: Tunnel Visions
Even if you live in a city with a subway system, you may never consider that thought went into the signs used. First was the London Underground. During WWI, Edward Johnston – friend of Evelyn Waugh, teacher to Edward Gill – created the first modern sans and the first created for random public(as opposed to academic) use.

In the lower case the key letter was the o, whose counter (the internal white space) he created equal to twice its stem width, thus giving it “ideal mass-and-clearance.” His most distinctive letter was the lower-case i, which had an upturned boot…. The most beautiful was the i, on which Johnston placed a diamond-shaped dot that still brings a smile today.

But that was 1916, and of course things change. In 1979 Eiichi Kono was brought in to update the Underground font: “when he came to present his work for the first time he displayed his vaious New Johnston fonts with just one word: ‘Underglound.’” Now there’s a man with a misch sense of humor.

Chapter 9: What is it about the Swiss?
It’s the title character in a movie and the sole subject of a book. Type designer Cyril Highsmith tried to avoid it for one New York day and couldn’t travel, eat, shop, or get dressed, without great difficulty. Bloomingdales, Jeep, Gap, American Airlines, Panasonic, North Face, Toyota, Nestle, Verizon – and countless other companies – stake their corporate images on it. Only on the French Metro has it failed.
Oh, Helvetica:

…it’s Swiss heritage laying a backdrop of impartiality, neutrality and freshness….The font also manages to convey honesty and trust…a friendly homeliness….designed with some wit, and certainly with the human hand….the inner white shapes serve as a form guide to the black around them, an aspect that one designer called ‘a locked-in rightness”.…..[the lowercase] a has a slightly pregnant teardrop belly and a tail… the t a nd j have square dots….[The capital] G has both a horizontal and vertical bar at a right angle, Q has a short straight angled cross-line like a cigarette in an ashtray, and R has a little kicker for its right leg.

But Helvetica is not just one font: it is a typeface family, Helvetica Neue by Linotype, and contains over 50 fonts from Ultra-Light Italic to Black Condensed Oblique. How is the amateur to tell? The most telling distinction seems to be “horizontally cut finals” particularly on the c and s. It’s the sort of thing I never noticed before, but will always see from now on.
This feature also applies to Univers by Swiss-born Adrian Frutiger, which marked a new era: “the point when the design of type moved from something performed primarily with the eye through the hand, to something that resulted from science….Men in labcoats and clipboards were now defining our alphabet – a long way from ‘gutenberg, Caslon, or Baskerville.” It’s such an interesting point, I’ll resist trying to imagine men in clipboards.

Fontbreak: Frutiger
Though the successor to Univers (a little more relaxed, less mathematical, with some quirks that are simply pleasing to the eye) is the focus, it’s really an excuse to discuss use of fonts on sports jerseys around the world – an issue that most likely has never crossed anyone’s mind before, except the people who decide what players will wear. Germans use something like Serpentine, the French Optima, and those crazy Argentines go Bauhaus. Don’t you just love it?

Chapter 10: Road Akzidenz
This chapter would have been a lot more interesting if I knew more about English roadways, though it does end in New York City. The takeaway for me: only Germans would design a font named Grotesk Akzidenz for road signs.

Chapter 11: DIY
My cheeks hurt from smiling when I got to the end of this chapter. I remember the toy printing press my brother and I used to churn out a newspaper. “Just the mention of it may send a grown man to Ebay” – or a grown woman, who’ll find a Superior Cub for $9.00. And Letraset – oh, the agonies, one letter would get stuck halfway down the stem and break off, or something would be crooked. I’ve never had the eye for lettering: spacing matters.

Chapter 12: What the Font?
So you want a reference book of fonts listed alphabetically by name? Try 1953 Encyclopedia of Typefaces (the next chapter will bring in Fontshop’s more recent Fontbook). Say, though, you want to identify a font, maybe the lowercase “g” on the cover of the Encyclopedia – Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder might be more helpful, listing fonts by characteristics such as a sloping e-bar. Or you can go digital and try WhatTheFont, an iPhone app. The author found that highly unreliable, and turned to the MyFonts.com Forum which was far more helpful (odd, since MyFonts makes the iPhone app; but in a forum, you have all kinds of crazy people with nothing better to do than flaunt their arcane knowledge; that’s how Dan Rather got fired, IIRC).
Would it surprise you to find out I spent a couple of days fooling around with this stuff, trying to identify fonts on everything from prescription bottles to clothing tags? Hey, I don’t laugh at your hobbies (I found Identifont to be very helpful)! And now maybe you understand why I’ve been discussing fewer short stories lately. And by the way, Eyehawk at the MyFonts forum had an answer for Garfield: the “g” on the cover of the 1953 Encyclopedia within minutes: “Font identified as ACaslon Pro-Regular. Case marked solved.” I love geeks of all stripes.

Chapter 13: Can a Font Be German, or Jewish?
Erik Spiekermann, co-founder of FontShop, is an authority on type. He’d have to be, since his FontBook contains 100,000 fonts, including things that will never show up on a PC, like Stoned, Elliott’s Blue Eyeshadow, and Monster Droppings. And he has his own interpretation of a little-known facet of the Third Reich. Up until 1941, roman type was in the same category as modern art and music: degenerate. Only gothic script would do. Then there was a change, as gothic type was labeled Jewish; now roman type was required. Spiekermann’s explanation? The elaborate blackletter script was barely legible outside Germany. And the Reich was running out of typeface; French and Dutch foundries didn’t have much, since they hardly used it. But what I’ll take away from this chapter (besides Monster Droppings) is the 1933 arrest of Paul Renner, designer of Futura, for being “too sympathetic towards roman types” in his college lectures. But he did have the last word: in the next Fontbreak, we discover Futura was used for the plaque left on the moon in July, 1969 by Appollo 11.

Chapter 14: American Scottish
American type didn’t start until 1790 with Binny & Ronaldson, two gents of Scottish descent who broke away from the previous English monopoly on type used here (the Declaration of Independence, for example, was printed in Caslon) with Monticello. But the “most enduring” American font is Franklin Gothic, named after Benjamin Franklin: “Things ‘All-American’ have a habit of using Franklin Gothic to press their case, be it the titles on the Rocky films or the block capitals on Lady Gaga’s album The Fame Monster.’” I find these examples of All-American-ness hilarious. Frederick Goudy was our premier type designer: “one of those rare things – a prolific type designer with a penchant for the jazz life.” So prolific, his fonts were used by William Barrett to create “My Type of People” – a series of graphic representations of various people made up entirely of Goudy-created typographic characters.

Fontbreak: Moderns, Egyptians and Fat Faces
As technology developed in the eighteenth century, the Moderns emerged: fonts with more extremes of thick and thin strokes, and more delicate serifs, such as Bodini. Then fonts went in the opposite direction, with Fat Face and Egyptians.

Chapter 15: Gotham is Go
In 2000, Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler and Frere-Jones designed a new typeface for GQ, based on the sign over the entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In 2004, it was used for the cornerstone of the in-progress Freedom Towers at Ground Zero. Is it coincidence the Obama campaign decided to use it in 2008? Maybe – they started with Gill Sans, but found more variations with Gotham. For the record, the McCain campaign used Optima, the same font as used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And oh, by the way, Sarah Palin adopted Gotham for SarahPac. Politics, and fonts, make strange bedfellows.

And finally there is the ultimate tribute, that point when you know your typeface has really joined the pantheon of the greats. This is the point where people decide not to pay for it.

Chapter 16: Pirates and Clones
It ain’t easy being a type designer. The simplest typeface can consist of 600 characters – the alphabet, plus numerals, punctuation, accents, and special characters, in multiple varieties (bold and italic at the very least) and a comprehensive one far more. Obviously this is easier in the digital age than it was when each character was punchcut and molded, then produced in metal or wood, but it’s still an investment. Max Miedinger designed Helvetica, one of the most used fonts in the world, was “virtually penniless” at the time of his death because the company, Stempel, got the royalties, while he was paid a fee for services rendered back in the day. And piracy isn’t only about movies. Microsoft’s Arial is regarded by type designers as a ripoff of Helvetica – a situation played for humor in this CollegeHumor video, “FontFight“); though it looks different, it fits the same grid and was designed to be swapped in for the more expensive-to-license font. Lawsuits have historically been unsuccessful; just ask Hermann Zapf, creator of Zapf Dingbats (subject of another hilarious CollegeHumor video, Font Conference) who pushed for greater protection as early as 1974. And piracy isn’t always done with malice: the French agency conducting an anti-piracy campaign released their materials in what turned out to be a pirated font.

Chapter 17: The Clamour from the Past
Sue Shaw oversees the Type Archive in London, a collection of typeface from the past from 1500 to the dawn of the digital age:

…all the 23,000 drawers of metal punches and matrices, hundreds of fonts in every size, all the flat-bed presses, all 600,000 copper letter patterns. All the keyboards and casting machines setting hot metal type, all the woodletter type collections and machines from the DeLilttle company in York, all the steel history from Sheffield, all the hundredweights of artefacts that made the great libraries of the world. This is where it ended up when computers arrived. All quiet now….
The names of other fonts may be found elsewhere in the archive in the bound records of Stephenson Blake, Britain’s oldest and longest surviving typefounder in Sheffield and London – or it was until it shut for good in 2004 and sold the Sheffield site to be made into flats. In its heyday,which covered 1830 to 1970, it swallowed up the punches and matrices of the vast majority of British typefoundries, streching back to John Day in the sixteenth century, and encompassing hallowed designs and equipment….. Stephenson Blake manufactured typefaces for the world, and the names are regal, distant, and grand…They even had a precursor of Comic Sans: Ribbonface Typewriter, created in 1894.

Ozymandias springs to mind: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, this storage awaits you, some day.
And where is this treasury of type, printing machinery, and historical documentation housed? In a stone fortress with a marble façade? A modern glass and steel tower? No, it’s in an abandoned horse hospital.
The chapter also covers the rise of Monotype and Linotype, from automated typesetting to digital composition. There’s a palpable sense of history in the description of White Books, who publish only eight classic titles but treat each one with care; and the disappearance of the font notation from the title page of most modern books. That’s what charmed me most about Pear Noir!, you know: a little blurb about the Garamond type they used in issue 4 (where Zin was featured). And Rabbit Catastrophe, which not only names the type but hand-makes their journals. These may not be the most august literary journals around, but they are doing things worth doing.

Fontbreak: Sabon
It’s the font used for the main chapters of the book (not the Fontbreaks), and is considered one of the most readable book fonts.

And next time, things start getting a little wacky again…as if Monster Droppings and those College Humor videos aren’t wacky enough.