Archive for Creativity

The Archive of Childhood, Part 1: Crayons

John Tenniel, illus. of Mock Turtle, Alice, & Gryphon from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)We tend to imagine the self as an unbroken whole, but it might better be described as plural, a series of selves that, though temporally contiguous (and often overlapping) are not always the “same” self.  That’s one of the conclusions suggested by Robert Krulwich in “Who Am I?,” a Radiolab podcast from 2007.  It is also a central theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), whose protagonist answers the Caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?” like this: “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then” (35). Later, she offers to tell the Gryphon “my adventures—beginning from this morning,” adding, “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (81).

The ever-changing self is one reason that encounters with the past can be surprising.  They remind us of earlier versions of ourselves — discarded, forgotten selves. They remind us of parts of our current selves that we no longer recall. They tell us who we were, who we are, and — perhaps — who we have yet to become.

"Madeleines with tea" by Lulu Durand PhotographyThis blog post launches an occasional series of excursions into my past, each one motivated by a particular thing. This first one is Proustian. As he had a cup of tea and a madeleine, Marcel Proust experienced a “shudder,” as his senses transported him to his childhood, when he would wish his aunt Léonie a good morning, and she would give him a madeleine, “dipping it first in her own cup of tea.”

For Proust, it was the taste of madeleines and tea.  For me, it was the smell of crayons.

In the process, this past September, of helping my mother move, I had to face the vast archive of my childhood — well over a dozen boxes, some containing items I’d not seen in 30 years. I needed months to sort through it all, but I had only days. She was moving at month’s end, and I couldn’t ship everything from her house to mine. I made snap decisions, some of which I regret. The saddest item to throw out was a cigar box full of crayons, most of them well-worn, some of them broken.

My cigar box of crayons (photo taken Sept. 2014)

The smell of those crayons transported me to my many childhood hours spent drawing. Then, the boundary between the real world and imagined ones was literally paper-thin. The crayon was the key that opened the door.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverAs a child, I knew that my art was only lines on paper (to paraphrase R. Crumb), but it did not feel that way. Drawing was an emotionally immersive experience. While I was moving those crayons across the paper, I was in the drawing, part of it. I realize that this is one reason that Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon resonates on such a deep level. Harold enters his drawing because that’s what childhood art-making feels like.

Before I threw out the box of crayons, I first photographed it, then dumped the crayons out onto the floor, and ran my fingers through them. So I could retain just a little, I decided to save the purple ones. As Crockett Johnson’s biographer, that choice seemed a reasonable compromise.

my purple crayons

But it’s hard to make reasoned compromises about irreplaceable things. My mother had saved my childhood drawings, in recycled manila envelopes, each labeled by year. I thought: well, I can’t save all of this — so, I’ll save representative samples. I put out most for recycling, but saved a few pieces of art created by me at 5 and 6 years old. Later, I thought: why not save more of these? I even went out to retrieve one drawing I’d thrown into the recycling bin. Now, I think: why not save them all?  Had I kept them, these drawings would have taken up the space of a large art book. Maybe two.

In that moment, having no idea what I’d uncover, I was conscious mostly of limited time at mom’s house and limited space at home. So, I thought: better to be ruthless about this.

So many lost things. So few saved. But I’m grateful for these glimpses into the past, traces of that crayon line that extends from my childhood bedroom floor to my adult career. I’m also surprised by how much of what interested me then still interests me now. I’m four decades removed from that small boy who made those drawings. Yet I am also still that boy, dreaming that art can transform the world.

Image sources: Tenniel from “Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Madeleines with Tea” from Fine Art America, photos of crayons and scan of Johnson’s book from yours truly.

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Art for Art’s Sake; or, OK Go Videos Make Me Happy

OK GoOK Go videos: They’re surprising, clever, and eminently re-watchable. They also have an appealingly handmade feel to them, harkening back to a time when digitally manipulating images was too expensive for a music video. For the stop-motion classic “Sledgehammer” (1986), Peter Gabriel had to lie still for hours, beneath a plate of glass, while people from Aardman Animations manipulated fruit above him.  And they’re unapologetically Art with a capital “A.” Yes, OK Go hopes you’ll buy the band’s music, but the videos don’t feel like they’re trying to sell you anything beyond the sheer enjoyment of watching creative minds trying to create something beautiful. If this were the 1980s, I would be waiting by the TV, ready to hit “Record” on the VCR when the next OK Go video came on. Fortunately, today, I can simply collect eighteen of them right here, on this webpage.

I Won’t Let You Down (2014)

You see, there’s a new OK video out today: “I Won’t Let You Down,” directed by Kazuaki Seki and Damian Kulash, Jr., with choreography by Furitsukekagyou Airman, art direction by Jun Nishida, and creative direction by Morihiro Harano.  The whole thing is done in one take, shot with a drone (!) — one reason, I gather, that it had to be filmed in Japan. In Billboard article about the creation of the video, OK Go bassist Tim Norwind described the experience as “the best hour of my life.”


Unless I’ve miscounted (always a possibility), this is the eighteenth video from the band’s art-for-art’s-sake era, the latest in a nine-year period of video innovations that began with “A Million Ways.”

A Million Ways (2005)

The first OK Go video choreographed by Trish Sie (sister of lead singer Damien Kulash), “A Million Ways” is also OK Go’s first viral video.  Co-directed by Sie and OK Go, it establishes a key piece of the band’s video aesthetic: performed live, all in one take. It also introduces dance as a recurring motif.

It’s not that their pre-“Million Ways” videos are bad. “Get Over It” (2002), “Don’t Ask Me” (2003), “Don’t Ask Me (Dance Booth version)” (2003), and “You’re So Damn Hot” (2003) are all visually compelling, and some even buck convention — the ping-pong pause in the middle of “Get Over It,” for example. But “A Million Ways” starts their period of video innovation.

Here It Goes Again (2006)

Also choreographed by Trish Sie and co-directed by her and the band, “Here It Goes Again” is in many ways synonymous with the term “viral video.” If you’ve been on-line in the past eight years, you’ve almost certainly seen this one.

It ups the ante on “A Million Ways”: not only are they performing choreographed dance moves, but they’re doing it all on treadmills (all of which, incidentally, were set up in Sie’s basement).  It inspired many fan videos, a Simpsons tribute, and the band even performed the dance live (on treadmills!) at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Invincible (2006)

Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, “Invincible” is… well, actually, less of an eye-opener than the previous two. Using multiple takes, it juxtaposes shots of the band performing (on one side of the screen) with stuff getting blown up (on the other side of the screen). It harkens back to the pre-“A Million Ways” period. But you can’t expect genius every time. And, anyway, it still has sharp visuals, and is fun to watch.

Do What You Want (2007)

There’s actually an earlier video for this song, directed by Olivier Gondry, but I can’t find it on-line.  This video, directed by Damian Kulash, finds the group back in risk-taking mode. Wearing outfits that match the wallpaper behind them, the band and other performers rock out. But because the costumes prevent us from seeing their faces, even the rock stars become oddly anonymous, phantoms launched from the wallpaper.

I think also of the masked couple in Magritte’s The Lovers (1928) — intimacy obstructed by cloth. Here, we have improbably energetic performers, encased in wallpaper suits. But there’s still a tension between what you expect (stasis) and what you get (activity).

WTF? (2009)

With “WTF?”, the first video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, OK Go is fully back in innovation mode. Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, the band creates another video which prompts you to wonder OK,… so, how did they do that?

Knowing that we’d wonder how they did it, the band also created what I think is their first making-of video, something that would become a regular feature.

This Too Shall Pass (Marching Band) (2010)

The first, and less famous, of the two “This Too Shall Pass” videos features the University of Notre Dame’s Band of the Fighting Irish and took 20 takes to get right. Brian K. Perkins and OK Go directed the piece, shot in a single take.

I love that they recorded a whole new arrangement of the song for the video, too.

This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Machine) (2010)

Directed by James Frost, OK Go and Syyn Labs, this is the better-known version of “This Too Shall Pass.” In some ways, it inaugurates an even more ambitious period of video-making for the band — and establishes the Rube Goldberg Machine as a key part of the OK Go aesthetic.

There’s a series of behind-the scenes videos, of course!

End Love (2010)

Filmed over the course of 18 hours (including a period when the band sleeps!), and then sped up (at different speeds), “End Love” also features… a goose! They shot the video in a park, and the goose, evidently, wanted to be a part of it. Hey, can you blame her?  Directed by OK Go, Eric Gunther, and Jeff Lieberman.

White Knuckles (2010)

Bringing back choreographer Trish Sie, “White Knuckles” shows the band mastering the art of… stacking!  Yes, stacking. And working with dogs. Again, shot in one take!

And, yes, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos for this one!

Last Leaf (2010)

A stop-motion video using over 2000 pieces of toast, each laser-cut with art by the band and Geoff Mcfetridge. The notion of telling a story via animation on toast compliments this quiet song’s themes of longing and impermanence. Sure, it’s an unusual way to express these ideas, but that sense of novelty is what makes it an OK Go video. 

Back from Kathmandu (2010)

In this video, OK Go takes its fans on a GPS-led parade through L.A. Their goal? To use a GPS app to spell out “OK Go.”  The New Orleans vibe of the parade has its pleasures, but the concept is more fun than actually watching the video documenting the concept. Still, though, I give them credit for trying something different.

All Is Not Lost (2011)

Fearturing the dance troupe Pilobolus, and directed by OK Go, Pilobolus, and Trish Sie, “All Is Not Lost” brings us back to the Wow! How did they do that? for which OK Go has rightly become famous.  There is also an interactive version of this one, which is well worth checking out.  Really.  It is “way cooler,” just as the video (below) tells you.

Also, for those who want to know how it was made, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos.

Needing/Getting (2011)

Directed by Brian L. Perkins and Damian Kulash, the band drives a Rube-Goldberg’d car through a Rube Goldberg’d landscape. Instead of making a Rube Goldberg machine that choreographs movement and image to the song (as in “This Too Shall Pass”), this machine actually performs the song it accompanies. According to the YouTube page, “The video took 4 months of preparation and 4 days of shooting and recording. There are no ringers or stand-ins; Damian took stunt driving lessons.”

And you bet there’s a behind-the-scenes video series for this one!

Skyscrapers (2011)

The final video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, “Skyscrapers” features choreographer Trish Sie dancing the tango with Moti Buchboot.  Sie also directed it.  Brightly colored, elegant, and absorbing, the video is a reminder of the band’s understanding that we (its audience) don’t require Rube Goldberg machines to hold our attention. It’s also nice to see Sie — who launched the band’s career as video auteurs — move to a starring role.

Muppet Show Theme Song (2011)

If you’ve watched the preceding videos, now… watch the meta-video!  OK Go and the Muppets pay homage to the OK Go oeuvre and, of course, to the Muppets!

Primary Colors (2012)

For Sesame Street, OK Go did a stop-motion video explaining the primary colors. Watching it again reminds me, too, that their post-“A Million Ways” videos all have an almost childlike playfulness to them.  There’s a sense of hey, what if we tried this?  The end result requires careful planning, of course. But the band and their collaborators seem animated by a spirit of adventure and experimentation.

The Writing’s on the Wall (2014)

And that brings us full circle, back to the first video from their latest record (Hungry Ghosts, which I strongly recommend).  It’s another single-shot video, but this time the emphasis is on optical illusions.  It reminds me a bit of the optical-illusion street art where, from the correct angle, the street has suddenly become (for example) a cliff. Directed by Aaron Duffy, Damian Kulash, Jr. and Bob Partington, “The Writing’s on the Wall” is great fun to watch. And that, friends, is the theme of the OK Go videos. They are fun. The band is making art because it is fun to make art.  They’re art for art’s sake in the very best sense of that term.

On this one, they’ve gone one better on their making-of videos, creating an interactive making-of video. It’s as fun as the video itself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of OK Go’s music-video oeuvre. I wonder what they are planning now…?

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Fall 2012 Graphic Novel Course: New! Improved! Flawed!

I sometimes feel that I should apologize to students who took earlier iterations of my courses. I know more now than I did then, and have crafted a much better syllabus than we used for that earlier class.  That said, I also know that in a few years’ time, I will consider my current (new! improved!) syllabi to be embarrassingly inadequate. But, then, the more we learn, the more we are conscious of how much we do not know.

My new “Graphic Novel” course — its third iteration — occasions these reflections. I’m particularly pleased with the paper assignments: Using Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning Philosophy and Practice (a required text for the first time), I’ve scrapped one large paper for two smaller ones, both of which require (a) creativity and (b) analysis of part a.  One of these creative assignments is to render an entire novel as a single-panel cartoon.  Yes, this is challenging, but Brunetti walks you through the process, and students can follow his example (click for larger image).

From Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning Philosophy and Practice (2007, 2011): The Catcher in the Rye as a single-panel comic

The idea in both this and the other creative assignment is to get the students to think like a comics artist.  It is not to create a comics artist.  I’m an English professor, and this is neither a creative-writing class nor a studio class & so I do not expect them to create art.  In evaluating students’ work, I’m grading their analysis rather than the creative work itself.  Why did they make these choices and not different ones?  Do they think their choices worked? What have they learned from the experience? These are the questions their analysis must address.

Ivan Brunetti, Cartooning Philosophy and Practice (2011)I want students to see just how difficult and complex the comics form is. With a novel, you have all that is available to a creative writer — diction, tone, metaphor, point of view, and so on. With comics, you have all that is available to a creative writer and to an artist. It’s not only the words that matter; it’s every millimeter of space on the entire page. Students need to think about layout, design, size, shape, space, perspective, and so on.  Graphic novels — I’m using the term “comics” and “graphic novel” interchangeably — are far more formally complex than ordinary novels.  I hope the creative assignments will help students appreciate the form’s complexity.

In order to deepen their sense of how comics work, I’m also assigning more critical reading. Scott McCloud’s definition (juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence) — itself a modified version of Will Eisner’s — has become the dominant way of thinking about comics. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)And it’s a valuable paradigm. But Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik provide another model, Brunetti yet another, and Robert C. Harvey another still.  It’s valuable for students — and all of us — to ponder competing theories of how comics work.

An ideal course would give equal time to the single-panel comic (which McCloud excludes from his definition), the daily comic strip, the comic book, and the long-form graphic narrative (often called the “graphic novel”). Mine spends most of its time on the longer-form works, but does include more comic strips than it used to — and that’s an improvement. What I really want is a brief anthology of classic comic strips, running from Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) to Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac). The large format of McCay would make his inclusion tricky, but let’s say we just include one McCay and as a fold-out.  Then you’d want other greats: George Herriman, Otto Soglow, Frank King, Ernie Bushmiller, Hal Foster, Milt Caniff, Crockett Johnson, Walt Kelly, Charles M. Schulz, G. B. Trudeau, Lynn Johnston, Lynda Barry, Bill Watterson, Aaron McGruder, Richard Thompson.  Oh, and I’m sure I’m missing someone.  Anyway, one could do a week’s worth of a narrative-driven strip but otherwise restrict the selection to a few Sunday strips per artist, say. This is the anthology I want to assign. Since it doesn’t exist, I furtively copy a very few strips for the course pack or handouts.

Ho Che Anderson, KingIt’s all about balancing competing interests. I want different graphic styles, different time periods (my course offers only a glance a medium’s history, alas), different identity categories (race, gender, sexuality, nationality, &c.). On this last point, I’m pleased to be including Ho Che Anderson’s excellent King: A Comics Biography, but sad to have lost Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and even Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (!).  There are texts I feel bad about cutting (Persepolis, which does at least remain on my Lit for Adolescents syllabus), work that I keep meaning to include but don’t (Joe Sacco’s Palestine), and artists I lack the courage to assign in an undergraduate class (I’ve taught the brilliant, powerful, disturbing work of Phoebe Gloeckner in a grad class, but not undergrad).  But I like what’s there: Spiegelman’s Maus, Tan’s The Arrival, Barry’s One Hundred Demons, Tezuka’s Buddha (Vol. 1), Bechdel’s Fun Home, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, Ware’s brand-new Building Stories (which isn’t out until October), and all the rest.  (If you didn’t follow the link to the syllabus in the second paragraph, then click on relevant words in this sentence.)

Every syllabus is an impossible puzzle that begets a series of necessary but regrettable compromises. That’s never more true than in Big Broad Course Topics: Children’s Literature, The Novel, the Graphic Novel. These topics are immeasurably huge, and a single semester cannot even approach doing them justice.

But… that’s OK. Each such course provides an introduction to the material, and gives students the skills to seek out more knowledge on their own. And this is the point of college: to prepare students for a lifelong journey of learning. Students should graduate from a university proud of what they’ve learned, but also humbled and inspired by all they’ve yet to learn. College is only the first step.

Taken in that context, I’d say that my syllabi for Fall 2012 — while they could be better, and will be, in future — represent a pretty good first step.  (Though, of course, critical comments are always welcome!)

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It’s Good to Be Curious: Mr. Rogers Remixed

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood (title card)

Delightful remix of clips from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which (thanks to auto-tune) Fred Rogers extols the virtues of being curious.  John Boswell (a.k.a. MelodySheep) has done a fine job here.  If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of the song (“Garden of Your Mind”), it’s included on his album Remixes for the Soul.

And here are a few media stories on the project:

Hat tip to Josh Pearson (via Facebook).

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