Persimmons on a dish. Osmiroid pen on an envelope, about 4" x 4".
Warning: Art tech talk coming up!
Yesterday, inspired by some recent posts by sketchers Shari Blaukopf and Liz Steele, I spent some time going through my fountain pens. I'm a fountain pen lover from way back, but I generally don't buy expensive pens, or collect them. It's a preferred sketching method for me, though, and I'm always open to trying new ones. My favorite pen is a Sheaffer, from their "Mediterranean Seas" series. I bought it from Levenger at least fifteen years ago, maybe twenty, and that series has since been discontinued. The pen has a beautiful gold-plated fine nib, it's flexible and responsive, and makes a lovely line. The only drawback is that you really can't use permanent ink in this pen, so combining a drawing with watercolor washes is not a good option unless the dissolving line is a desired effect. Yesterday I looked up this pen on eBay and was stunned to discover that pens of that series are now selling to collectors for $200 and more: at least four times what I paid for it. And to think I've been throwing it in my bag and not even thinking about it!
I bought a Lamy Vista a while back, for about $25, specifically because a lot of the Urban Sketchers were raving about the Lamy and its ability to accept Noodler's permanent inks, which come in a whole range of colors. It does work well with permanent inks, but the nib is just too stiff for me, and also too wide in the model I bought. Yesterday I ordered a replacement in extra-fine, and hope that will help, but I know now that I've been spoiled by using a very good pen. So I rummaged around in my boxes, curious to see what else was there. Among a number of defunct pens was an old Osmiroid from my calligraphy days. Osmiroid closed in the late 1990s, but I do have some good nibs still, and this pen seemed like it might be salvageable. I washed it out carefully and examined the bladder of the squeeze converter -- there was packed, dried ink in the base that I couldn't get out, but enough space to accept a small filling of ink. I did the drawing above with that pen, on the back of an envelope, and I liked the result: the thick and thin line is a nice option, and the pen felt familiar and happy in my hand. It will work as a dip pen, but I think it will hold enough ink for drawing purposes, if the bladder doesn't disintegrate. And I might be able to find a replacement converter - fountain pen people are pretty obsessive and apparently there's a lot of trading and selling that goes on online.
A few pens from my stash: top to bottom: Osmiroid, Lamy, Pilot, Faber-Castell.
Meanwhile, there are always technical pens in my bag, and that's what I use for quick sketches. The problem with these is the short life of the points: they wear down fast and render the pen unusable even when there is plenty of ink left. I don't use Sakura Micron pens anymore because of this; I've had better luck with the Pitt Artist Pens from Faber Castell, which come in different colors and point styles, but my preferred technical pen is the Pilot DR. It still wears down, but not as fast, and the ink is totally permanent.
Once again, the internet thrums with indignation, a great deal of it spewing from the keyboards of white people who will never, ever, be in the same position as a poor black man, or a poor black woman, or child... or any black person for that matter.
Whether or not you think you are racist; whether or not, as you examine your conscience, you come up with anything you've personally done to hurt a black person, or advance the injustice that is endemic in American society and has been that way forever; whether or not you can wipe your own mental slate clean -- I simply want to say that we are all involved in systemic racism: if not by what we have done directly, then by what we have not done -- through our inattention, our turning away, and our refusal to use what we have been given, solely by virtue of our skin color, to create a society in which there is justice for all.
I grew up in a small town in the North where people were proud of not being racist. I went to a prestigious liberal university, and then lived in New England in a prestigious university town. Nobody would have ever said they were racist. But they were. They were racist about blacks, about Jewish people, about Muslims, about working class ethnic groups and the poor, about everyone who wasn't just exactly like them: privileged, educated, white. Racism lurked there, just beneath the surface, just as it does everywhere in America. It lives on in jokes, in social norms, in housing prices and club rules, in who we marry and who we associate with, who we vote for, who we let into our clubs and schools and workplaces, who gets beaten and arrested, who goes to prison, who is on death row.
This is indeed a time to examine our own consciences. A time to show up at a protest or prayer vigil. A time to say with sincerity, I am sorry, and I am deeply ashamed.
But it is also a time when less said might very well be more. Perhaps we white people could actually shut up for once and listen hard to the lived experience of the black people in our communities, and then use our considerable power to demand changes that address the inequalities, the injustice, the profiling, and the violence that are the reality every single day in the lives of so many of our fellow human beings.
The Empty Bottle. 9" x 6", fountain pen on paper.
Mexico has been much on my mind lately. In Washington, we have Obama making a bold executive order about immigration. In Mexico, continuing violence by the drug gangs, and massive public protests. Last night's anti-government-corruption demonstrations in Mexico City were peaceful, but I am worried: I've come to care a lot about this country and it people. The drawing wasn't a result of conscious thinking. For some reason we've kept this thick glass bottle that we bought in the Mexico City airport, intrigued by its name and design. Awareness of the Mexican revolution is still everywhere: in the street and building and monument names, in popular culture, in the murals. Spiraling violence, government corruption and increasing revelations of government complicity with the drug cartels have created increasing frustration and anger. After the recent killings of protesting students in Guerrero state, apparently handed over to a gang by the mayor of a town and his wife, who had ties to the group, public outcry has risen to its highest in recent memory. I'm the last person to condone violent revolution, or violence of any kind, but I greatly admire the spirit of the Mexican people and their tradition of protest, and I share their outrage. This week the image on this bottle (the paired guns, much larger, are also deeply impressed in the glass on the back) seemed ominously appropriate : the Mexican revolution was intended to give power back to the people, and they remember that. Today I saw a Mexican proverb posted on social media: "They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds." How much we, in this rich country (where we buy the drugs and refuse their citizens entry) have forgotten.
Dish Drainer. 9" x 6", blue fountain pen on paper.
A very fast drawing made after dinner one night, intrigued by all the shapes and the complexity of how they fit together. This image would easily lend itself to abstraction, but I can't say that abstraction interests me very much these days. I seem to be drawn toward the concrete and the everyday.
Old doll in my Studio. Grey ink and wash on paper, 9" x 12".
I've had this doll ever since I can remember. She was given to me by a close friend of my grandmother's, a single woman who lived in New York City and traveled a good deal. I also have a small heart-shaped box with the same yarn embroidery that must have come from her as well, but I've never known what country's folkloric costume she is wearing. I've always thought she was from eastern Europe - maybe Hungary - does anyone know? Her dress is red with yellow and green embroidery and colored ribbons, and she wears a lace chemise and large gold earrings, and a long red headscarf. Her enigmatic, sideways glance intrigues me, and I'm hoping to explore other ways to use her more expressively in still life compositions.
Where are these drawings going? I don't know. Maybe toward paintings, maybe toward some larger charcoals where the relationships between objects are more developed. I figure eventually they'll tell me themselves. Right now, they are practice, and exploration.
Fruit in a wooden bowl with Mexican kitchen retablo. Fountain pen on paper, 6" x 8.5". 11/6/2014.
The only story behind this drawing is that we found the little folk art retablo at the Saturday craft market in San Angel. The craftswoman had a large display of these shadow boxes hanging in her booth. The wooden exteriors were painted in bright colors - ours is a sunny yellow - and inside, on three shelves, were miniature kitchen objects found in traditional Mexican kitchens, all made of the same materials as in real life. The pots are real ceramic, the straw brushes real straw, baskets are made of woven palm leaf..well, OK, the stacks of tortillas aren't real corn! We were completely captivated and had to bring one home: the only hard part was choosing which one.
We were in northern Florida for the past few days for a funeral and a time of family gathering; J.'s uncle (the brother of his father) lives there and is very elderly, so we were happy to be able to stay on an extra day and visit with him. There's a lot that I don't like about Florida, but I'm crazy about the plantlife.
There wasn't a lot of time to sketch but I managed to do a few. We were staying on land near a river, with many huge live oak trees festooned with Spanish moss, whose swaying softness was punctuated by the spiky leaves of palm trees. I found it very difficult indeed to capture the essense of the overgrown tropical wildness. It would take a lot of practice and trial and error with different media to find ways that satisfy me, and I thought back to Winslow Homer's and John Singer Sargeant's tropical watercolors with even greater admiration.
During different times of the day, the moss and the leaves were backlit, or in direct sunlight. Along the great old branches of the live oaks were colonies of ferns and other plants, living high in the canopy where they could catch and retain moisture and the additional sunlight they needed to thrive.
Fantastic, brightly-colored flowers bloomed below, and vines scrambled over walls and fences and other plants with a rampant vigor unknown to northern gardens.
Tiny lizards whose feet made a thin clattering sound scuttled ahead of my hand on wooden railings, mosquitoes and ants feasted on my exposed ankles, and feral cats lurked under trees weighted with ripening grapefruit and lemons.
Time-lost decay and feverish growth coexist there, in the moist heat that slows my feet while quickening my pulse. I sat on the glassed-in porch of the old house watching the moss sway in the breeze, while cracking fresh pecans and picking out the nutmeats, wondering how different I would have been if I had grown up in such a place. I'm fascinated by the tropics but it's an attraction tempered by awareness of violent weather, unfamiliar insects and serpents, disease and fungus, the unpredictable sea, and an aversion to heat-induced torpor; I'm so much more comfortable with rocks, snow, mountains and forests, and extreme cold. Still, I'd like to spend more time exploring these places with my camera and my paints, preferably with a guide who knows far more than I do and could keep me out of trouble.
It's finally here! After three years of effort, I'm thrilled to announce that Jonathan's book of photographs of the turbulent years of the late 1960s and early 70s, How Many Roads? is finally launched. In addition to the book's 91 sepia-toned photographs, it contains an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Steve Tozer, Hoyt Alverson, and myself, and a preface by Jonathan.
We've published it in both a paperback version and a limited-edition hardcover, with or without a signed photographic print. The books will be available for pre-order at special prices through the end of October. Paperbacks will ship soon, hardcovers at the end of the month. All the details are on the Phoenicia Publishing website.
We hope you'll take a look; this book would be a good gift for anyone who remembers or is curious about the 60s, or who'd like their children to know what it was like. (And, of course, it could be a great passive-aggressive gift for someone you know who voted for Nixon!)
This past Wednesday, we held a lancement (launch party) at our studio, which meant that we had to clean and reorganize it -- for the first time, really, since we moved in. So not only do we feel like we have a book we're proud of, but we've got a studio that feels almost new.
For my own part, I'm extremely happy this project is finally out in the world. The book's title, drawn from the Bob Dylan song, not only echoes one of the book's sub-themes -- what the interstates did to rural New England -- it also describes the circuitous path we've been on to this point! Jonathan and I have done so many publishing projects for clients and other people in the past that it makes me very happy to finally see some of his own work collected permanently in book form. It's part of his own photographic legacy, and it's also social documentation of an important period in American history that has a good deal to say to us today. Although these photos were taken before we met, our experiences of that time were similar. The process of revisiting this part of my own past has been both interesting and fruitful: I understand more about how I was shaped by these events, and also about the fateful turns our world has taken since then. Meanwhile, the accounts of the people and events of those years are already becoming simplified, distilled, and distorted -- or so it seems to me. Even recent history deserves a closer and more first-hand look than the textbooks are likely to give.
Thingvellir, Iceland. In the far distance you can see Skjaldbreiður, ("Broad Shield"), the prototype for all shield volcanos worldwide.
Standing in the main rift, Almannagja, which marks the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate.
Three years ago, this past weekend, I was at Thingvellir, the great rift valley of Iceland. It was my 59th birthday, so I'll always remember the date. A lot happened that day that changed me. Even though we didn't witness an active volcanic eruption, we were surrounded by raw evidence of the earth being born in the not-too-distant geological past, and by a kind of beauty I had never before seen. Something happened that shook up my sense of time and solidity, and of my own identity within it. It took me a long time to understand why I felt so captivated by the strange forcefield that is Iceland, but one result was the reawakening of my own artistic creativity: not just because of wanting to express what I had seen and felt, but because I had a renewed sense of myself as an intrinsic part of the creation that is always happening, a link in the human chain of becoming, creating, and passing away that mirrors events in nature.
Three years later, I've got an unfinished but fairly extensive book manuscript, a lot of directly-related artwork, and seem to be back on a track of sustained drawing and painting. I'd hoped to go back to Iceland again by now (and we will, eventually, who knew we'd go twice to Mexico instead?) but, more importantly, it has become for me a kind of spiritual island, an Avalon in the middle of the far northern ocean, both real and mythic. I visit it in my thoughts, and feel sustained and encouraged by what I discovered there.
Lake Þingvallavatn. Charcoal on prepared paper, 30" x 22".
Still life with Mounir's ceramic donkey, wedgewood pot, and Turkish tiles.
Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends.
I find myself thinking a lot about what to paint or draw these days. With Gaza and our chaotic world so much on my mind, it's hard to focus on simple beauty: it somehow seems trivial, oblivious to reality, self-indulgent. And yet simple beauty and simple pleasure are what nearly every human being desires, and deserves.
The little ceramic donkey in this drawing belonged to my father-in-law, so it's precious to us. I think it came from his native Syria, though I'm not sure; to him it was a reminder of the donkeys that used to bring fresh cool water from the mountains into Damascus. In the later years of his life, he had a whole menagerie of small animal figures: birds, monkeys, camels, an elephant, snakes: a veritable Noah's ark. None of them were to scale, which gave the arrangement an even quirkier air. When he still lived in a house, they were arranged around, and in, a large houseplant. After he moved to a retirement home, they were on a wooden stand, and he sometimes liked to rearrange them for his own amusement. His favorite was a tiny mouse made of ivory. One day it disappeared and he was disconsolate. We searched everywhere but never found it. He blamed the housekeeper, saying she must have knocked it onto the floor and vacuumed it up. After he died I hoped it would turn up as the apartment was emptied, but it never did: I like to think it scampered away to live behind the bookshelves, exactly as long as he did.
Last night I began reading Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun ("Bab al-Shams"). It's been on our shelf ever since we heard Khoury read at the Blue Met literary festival in Montreal some years ago, when he was interviewed and spoke about his close friend Mahmoud Darwish. Afterward we went up and met him, and he inscribed this copy to J., whose grandmother's maiden name was also Khoury. The novel is a story of relationships that contain Palestinian and personal histories; it is woven together rather clumsily - as the NYT reviewer notes - from snatches of stories, but this was a deliberate device by the author, who tried to write in a way that mirrors Palestinian reality: the history of the nation and each person seeming torn and patched together.
The novel is written in the voice of a surrogate son sitting at the bedside of his "father," an elderly freedom fighter who has had a stroke and lies in a coma. The son, a medic in a hospital in a refugee camp, spends most of his days bathing and caring for the dying man, refusing to believe he won't regain consciousness, and then at night, like Scheherazade, tells him stories, hoping that the words are still penetrating. I've been afraid of reading it, and now, even though I've started, I still am.
In addition to the tragic and horrifying events it recalls, the book of course also reminds me of my own dialogue with my very alert, very aged father-in-law, and of the last few months when he slipped in and out of present time and space as we sat by his bed, talking to him and listening to his own stories. When he died, at 99, a door into our family's life and history closed forever; now we too must patch it together out of fragments. Last night, when the narrator began reciting bits of verse by al-Mutanabi, perhaps the greatest of all classical Arab poets, I felt myself back in the familiar room with its blue and yellow silk carpet, the books lining the walls, the statue of Socrates on the stand in front of the old shortwave radio, and my father-in-law, leaning back in his chair, eyes shut, smiling at the ceiling as he recited poetry.
Terrible times can paralyze us, or we can use them, turning their negative energy into something better. Perhaps the time has finally come for me to pull out those dialogues that were collected here under the title The Fig and the Orchid, and see what can be done with them. As sad as my father-in-law -- a former UN administrator of a refugee camp in Gaza, among his many positions through a long life of teaching and ministry -- would be over the events today, he always believed in the power of education, beauty, literature, noble ideals, and -- most especially -- reason and truth. He often spoke about their remarkable ability to endure across the millenia, lifting people above the worst.
"The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.
Al-Mutanabi, I have just learned, was the son of a humble water-carrier.