I don’t feel like writing anything today

Keyboard with no letters - The Stone Mind

After breakfast Sunday I waded desultorily through my mental list of possible blog topics, and all I could think was, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” My wife and I took the dog for a walk and ate some leftover saag paneer for lunch. Then I thought some more about writing and decided to read another chapter of Dune and take a nap.

It was just one of those days. I wasn’t feeling inspired. Then I remembered that thing Chuck Close said in a letter to his 14-year-old self, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Which is a weirdly inspiring thing to say.

So I sat down at the ol’ laptop and clacked out, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” Even as I typed it, a second half of the sentence jumped onto the page: “I don’t feel like writing anything today… but I’m going to do it anyway.”

From there, the thoughts began to roll. I followed one thread, decided I didn’t like it and backtracked, followed another one. I started reading some blogs on the topic of inspiration and motivation. I re-watched some videos that touched on similar ideas. Connections started to make themselves and ideas spawned new ideas. I wrote the better part of a blog and deleted it and then wrote this one.

In that same letter to his boyhood self, Close wrote, “Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself.” It’s worth pinning up over your desk, or carrying around in your wallet or something.

In a post celebrating his blog’s three-year anniversary, my friend Brendan wrote, “Basically this thing turns three today because I’m too stubborn to not let it turn three.” His very popular blog, semi-rad.com, is by turns uplifting, insightful, hilarious, and touching. And it would not exist if not for stubbornness.

Stubbornness gets a bad rap. When someone stubbornly refuses to admit they made a mistake, for example, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But all those people society holds up as great and significant were, I guarantee, stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to really accomplish anything in a world heavy with inertia and full of seemingly good reasons to give up on whatever it is you’re interested in doing.

I think stubbornness can be an excellent attribute to cultivate, though, because it allows us to move forward even when everything seems to be pointing in the other direction, even our own desire. Often people attribute the drive to push ahead to passion, but that’s really only half—or less than half—of the story. There are too many days when the passion just isn’t firing. You gotta be stubborn, unwilling to bend to the whims of the moment. Confident that you’ll thank yourself later, as when the alarm goes off for dawn patrol.

In a TEDx video, pro skater Rodney Mullen explains that for every few seconds of success on a skateboard, there are hours and days of failure. “What we do is fall…all the time. And we get back up,” he says. Climbers engage in the same quixotic pattern, stubbornly chasing the moment when impossible becomes possible. To do anything well and explore it deeply, this ability it required.

It’s of primary importance to show up again and again and do our thing, whatever that may be, with earnest effort and open mind. Dig deeper, work smarter, think different—yes, yes, and yes… but first you have to show up. And sometimes that’s the hardest part. It was for me when I started writing this.

In the end, if we’re stubborn (and lucky) enough, the result might be something revolutionary or ground-breaking or world-changing. Or it might simply be a life well-lived, which I think is even better.

What is the Value of A Climb?

 

value_of_a_climb

It’s hard to pin a value on climbing. Like art, it has no clear purpose. Like a poem, a route is open for interpretation. How much would you pay for a perfect fall weekend in the Gunks? I’m not talking about the cost of a plane ticket or campsite or day pass, but the actual worth of the experience. How would you even express it?

Consider the first climber to push a new line up a peak. Like an artist laboring over a painting, he undertakes the act for mostly self-serving reasons: to explore and expand the limits of his ability, understanding, and conviction. He seeks the personal rewards of success or, as a consolation prize, the lessons of failure.

The artist and the first-ascensionist alike learn as they work, surprising themselves, discovering that the path they plotted in their minds might not be the path that works in the end. This discovery is part of the excitement and the value of the creative act.

And at the same time, this act can create value for others, too. Transmitted verbally or through a topographical map, a guidebook, an article, or a blog, it becomes a conceptual blueprint for a powerful experience.

Like a story, a route is inexhaustible. Every person who repeats a route or reads a book can have his own journey of discovery, much like the original creator had. Every one of us can grasp the same holds and enjoy much the same view as Royal Robbins and Pat Ament experienced on the first free ascent of Yellow Spur, in Eldo, fifty years ago.

“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist,” wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. By extension, when many people experience a work of art, the separation between one receiver and the next can be broken down just a little, too—a shared experience is created, and from this a culture, a community.

Spend any time around a campfire with climbers, and you’ll witness the bonds formed by the shared experiences of icy couloirs and lichen-encrusted rock walls, of headlamp-lit rappels and stomach-flipping whippers. Politics and educations and upbringings may differ, but something found in those high places unites.

The essential value of a climb cannot be measured in dollars nor, as is more commonly thought, difficulty ratings or even guidebook stars. Nearest I can tell, it is measured in the transformations it enables and the communities created by those transformations.

Transformation cannot be sold, bought, or processed. The value of a climbing is as intangible as the value of reading Moby Dick or seeing the Mona Lisa, yet no less profound. The more it resists codification, the greater climbing’s value becomes… or maybe it’s just that the idea of value grows a little fuzzier around the edges.

Salt and Spirals

The Spiral Jetty 1
The Spiral Jetty 1

“I expected it to be bigger,” I say.

“Yeah, me too…” my wife responds.

We stand at Rozel Point, in Utah’s Box Elder County, where Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork strikes out into the shallow, super-saline waters of the Great Salt Lake. The work comprises over 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth taken from the surrounding landscape, arranged into a 1,500-foot long spiral that looks precisely like a fiddlehead fern. Smithson and a team of workers with heavy machinery built the great shape in 1970, before either of us was born.

To get here, we drove north from Salt Lake along the still snow-capped Wasatch mountains, past gravel mines and oil refineries, grain silos and endless miles of fenced-in farmlands, past small towns full of people who’ve never heard the name Robert Smithson. Past ATK, “a world-leading producer of ammunition, precision weapons and rocket motors,” and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869.

For most of the trip out to the Jetty, signs of human industry and habitation are unavoidable, persistent. But on the last stretch of fenceless gravel road, surrounded on all sides by open grassland spotted with scrubby brush, you could be almost anywhere or in any time if it weren’t for the dark clusters of cattle with their fluorescent ear tags.

Loitering in the hillside parking lot overlooking the Jetty, we speak briefly with some reporters from a local newspaper who came out for the same reason we did: to watch the “Return to the Sea,” the culmination of Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s salt-based installation piece at Westminster College.

“I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and have never been out here,” one of the reporters says.

During his brief stay in Salt Lake City, Yamamoto meticulously created a huge, labyrinthine pattern on the floor of Westminster’s science center using only a squeeze bottle and monastic patience. After a few weeks, the piece was swept up for a symbolic return to the source—in this case the Great Salt Lake, which was once an inland sea. (I wrote an essay about the installation for the blog dxMag. You can read it here.)

Now, a large group of students and other folk carrying the remains of Yamamoto’s work in baggies and boxes and tubs unceremoniously flings the crystals into the water, shouting and laughing. It’s more of an undirected celebration than a contemplative gesture. Still, I imagine Yamamoto must be happy to enter into such an artistic dialogue with the legendary Smithson, even if neither man is directly present for it.

After an hour or so, the group departs and the Jetty almost immediately feels like a place out of time, a bridge between nature the familiar creations of human ingenuity. This simple shape, set in an expanse of salt and mud and mirror-like water tinged red by bacteria, somehow blurs the lines that normally separate and define. Is the Jetty natural or man-made? And what’s the difference, really? “The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments,” wrote Smithson wrote, “but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper.”

The space surrounding the jetty is littered with the remnants of old industry. In describing the site in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson mentions a wooden hut that “could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’” On our visit, the hut is no longer, though its decrepit wooden pilings remain, as does a rust-corroded steel ball sunk partway into the muck. “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” Smithson writes.

At the same time, Smithson saw an eons-old palimpsest when he looked out into the horizon at Rozel Point: “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.”

Like a musician with synesthesia (or perhaps like one under the influence of LSD), who sees shapes and colors with every note, Smithson experienced the site for the Jetty in his viscera, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.”

As we walk down into the jetty and trace its course on foot, its spiral form breaks down. We are too close to see it whole. Instead, we see the arcs of the spiral as rough forms mirroring the mountain ranges on the distant horizon. We see black rocks, belchings of a long exhausted volcano, with white and yellow and green rings of salt crystals grown up in delicate papery fringes around their peripheries.

We stand out on the salt flats around the Jetty and look back. The sculpture appears bigger now. On the blank canvas of the flats, perspective changes every couple of steps. “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” Smithson explained, and we experienced his observation repeatedly throughout the day.

Another excellent place from which to experience the uniqueness of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island, some 30 miles southeast of the Spiral Jetty. But here, looking out into the expanse, there is little to connect our humanity to the place. Everything is background, with no subject. Smithson’s spiral gives us a subject, uses the materials of the place and the tools and mind of human intention to offer a subject, at once natural and unnatural, through which we can enter and participate in this particular bit of geography. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar on a hilltop in Tennessee, “the wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.”

The Spiral Jetty, nothing more than a bit of rock arranged, is also a portal—a reminder that we are no more out of history than the dinosaurs who once dwelt here. We, dear reader, just happen to be at the current tip of history, soon to be subsumed in its ever-spiraling line.

My personal experience of The Spiral Jetty was moving, but not dark or fatalistic, which is why I was surprised to read Smithson’s own words on the piece. “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through my lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks,” he wrote. And, “Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me.” It was if the place wracked him with an existential dread. I couldn’t help but recall Meursault’s walk on the beach in The Stranger:

Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.

It left me glad that the intent of the artist and the experience of the art are, if not entirely, then mostly separable. I tend to prefer the more Eastern perspective on time and mortality in Motoi Yamamoto’s artwork. He, like Smithson, uses the symbol of the spiral, but in a purified form and isolated indoors, to be destroyed in a controlled manner. The Spiral Jetty was meant to be slowly eroded by the work of weather and tides, by nature in all its entropic messiness.

It’s as if the two artists and the natural world are all saying the same thing, only in different languages.

Cycles

sit_and_watch

This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.

 

Photo Friday: Sorry for the Lack of Posts

I’ve been out o’ town lately (in Denver — see photos below), shooting a video with the inimitable Timmy O’Neill and the talented Mr. Jim Aikman. Plus I’m getting hitched next week to the wonderful Kristin M–, preparations for which event have had us running around like a pair decapitated baryard fowl.

Life is good, but busy. Too busy to post anything of substance. I’ll get some more stuff up soon after our wedding. Until then…

— The Blockhead Lord

The ever-patient Kristin M--.
The ever-patient Kristin M–.
Timmy O-- freeing "The Nose" (and "The Eyeball") of a public sculpture in Denver, Colorado.
Timmy O– freeing “The Nose” (and “The Eyeball”) of a public sculpture in Denver, Colorado.
View of the Coors Field from our crash pad in Denver.
View of the Coors Field from our crash pad in Denver.
Denver street art.
Denver street art.
Officially sanctioned outdoor art installation (street art?).
Indeterminate Line, by Bernar Venet.
Indoor art at the Hyatt across from the Colorado Convention Center.
From a walkway leading to a side entrance of the Colorado Convention Center.
From a walkway leading to a side entrance of the Colorado Convention Center.

Telling A Story With Video — A Work In Progress

To practice rapid-fire shooting and editing, I made the above short video of my fiancée, Kristin, at work on a new painting. Kristin earned an MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art, in Philadelphia. Today, she works full time as a graphic designer, but tries to get some painting in after hours. Like me, she faces a constant struggle to remain creatively active, but I think we have both managed to find a tolerable balance. It’s better some weeks than others, but, as always, it’s a work in progress…

I took the basic order for the shots from a handy little article by University of Florida Journalism Professor Mindy McAdams. She describes a simple method for capturing a scene in just five shots. I’m fairly certain she didn’t devise this method (I’ve heard of similar approaches from other sources — in fact, there’s a nice BBC video on the “five-shot rule” here), but she does a nice job explaining it.

If you decided not to click the link, I’ll distill McAdams exercise here:

[In the case of a subject who is relatively stationary and using her hands]

  1. Shoot the hands up close (tight)
  2. Shoot the face up close (tight)
  3. Pull back and get a shot showing hands and face together (medium)
  4. Shoot over the shoulder (medium)
  5. Shoot “something else,” typically from a wider perspective

In making the short video above, which would typically be  just one scene in a longer documentary-style piece, I considered this approach and tweaked it a little based mostly on my own gut. I do not believe in any hard and fast “rules” about communicating, whether it be via video or the written word, or any other form or medium. We can get our point across in many different ways, and strict adherence to rules or formulas, although it can save time and effort, is a good way to bleed the life out of a story. That said, starting with a solid understanding of the basics is really a must for any aspiring creative.

As you can see in the stills below, I used more than five shots, but the basic ideas were covered:

1. Close-up of hands at work.

2. Medium shot showing hands and face (notice I skipped the suggested tight shot of the face — that comes in later).

3. Vertical pan on the painting. Again, this is not in keeping with the suggested five-shot order, but I felt it made sense to show the piece up front, for context.

4. Back on track, here’s the sometimes-tricky “over the shoulder” shot. I think it works well enough.

5. Because mixing paint was the first tight shot, I figured it would make sense to do a second, this one focused on the act of painting. I like the precision with which Kristin paints.

6. This shot falls between tight and medium, in my estimation, but it’s probably closest to what McAdams identifies as “something else,” a creative shot that adds visual interest to the edit. Kristin was interested to see it, as she didn’t realize she held the brush so high up. “It looks like Japanese brush painting,” she said. It’s her favorite shot and mine.

7. Here, I decided to go back to the face (what would be the second shot in the McAdam’s method). Not sure why, really… In retrospect, it may in fact have made more sense to put it up front.

8. A quick cut to an even tighter face shot. If I could lose any of the shots in the piece, it would be this one, as I don’t think it adds any information that shot No. 7 didn’t already convey.

9. To close out, I decided to give the contextualizing wide shot, which is how McAdams suggests finishing the a sequence. It’s not the most interesting image, and informationally it overlaps with the pan in my third shot, but I like how it gives a sense of scale — this is quite a large painting!

In the end, I used nine shots instead of five, although I’ll admit that for this very basic sequence, eight or even seven would have sufficed. I have shot and edited much longer, more complex videos, but as I’m self-taught, I try to go back and brush up on basics regularly. Like a lot of media makers in the digital age, I learned quick-and-dirty at the U of Hard Knocks. Without going back and practicing fundamentals, it’s easy to get caught in a big project with shaky foundations.

Always curious to hear what rules of thumb you use when telling a story with a video.

Photo Friday: Art & Architecture in LA

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and took a walk by the Disney Opera House, part of the LA Philharmonic complex and designed by the inimitable Frank Gehry. The following photos are from those two spots. Happy Friday!

For more photos from our trip to LA, click here.

For a write up of some of the great food we found in LA, click here.

Open House: Art On Iowa

The Art on Iowa House
The Art on Iowa House

Salt Lake City’s Iowa Street is a diminutive thoroughfare, existing only between 300 South and 200 South. It’s less a street than a block-long one-way alley, tightly arrayed with middle-class houses. Wood planks, brick, peeling paint, yard plots maybe big enough to lie down in, a few gravel parking spots, the odd tree. Halfway along Iowa on the east side of the street is the brick edifice of Tim and Camille Erickson’s house, site of Art On Iowa, a gallery concept devised to make viewing art more of a personal, communal act, than a sterile and pretentious one.

I first encountered Tim and Camille in New York, where Tim and I both were in a Masters writing program. We all ended up in Salt Lake City by coincidence — them mostly because it’s their hometown and me for work. When Tim braved Facebook (for the first time) to announce Art on Iowa, I was immediately interested. Salt Lake City is a cultural dead zone compared to Manhattan, or even to my last town of residence, Boulder, Colorado. Every creative spark here offers promise of a new age of enlightenment. Also, I have a friend who ran house concerts in Denver and Boulder under the name Back Forty Presents. Those crowded, super-personal little performances were unique experiences worthy of duplication.

The artist showing her work at Art on Iowa
The artist showing her work at Art on Iowa

On the night of the event, from my stance beneath the house’s green-columned portico, I could see through the glass outer door into the clean, well-lighted interior. Looking past a little handwritten note Scotch Taped to the door (“Doorbell broken. Please knock.”) around 9 p.m., a well-dressed, hipper-than-usual crowd was visible. Thirty or so people mingled and maneuvered, clumping together in conversation or else wandering the peripheries of the rooms to examine the dozen or so framed photographs by the artist Michelle Buhler.

Tim and Camille patrolled the party conversing with the guests, some of whom they’d known since childhood, others who were complete strangers. Four or five young children (presumably belonging to the guests) played raucously around the adults’ knees. Far from being upset, Tim expressed joy at their presence. It was all part of his vision for the show. It reminded me of the open-house days at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, where whole families would come and drink, order pizza, and look at local artists’ works in an old-school block party atmosphere.

A Michelle Buhler photograph, on show at Art on Iowa
A Michelle Buhler photograph, on show at Art on Iowa

Tim’s attire was a kind of professorial chic — a broad, patterned tie beneath a dark cardigan, thick-framed retro specs, and blond, pointed goatee. I asked him about the motivation behind Art on Iowa. “You know, we came from NYC, from that shark tank, where everyone preens and postures at these kinds of openings, everyone sizes each other up,” he said. “Part of our inspiration for this was to provide a place where serious art could be shown, but that avoids that sort of fake-o stuffiness.”

Boxes of wine and a bucket of beer on ice sat next to a collections jar in the kitchen. In the den, the artist discussed photographs (“They’re inspired by the movie Apocalypse Now”), which featured colored blooms of smoke rising up out of assorted natural landscapes. The images were brightly lit, the scenes conspicuously lacking a human element. Their starkness implied a trauma somewhere out of the picture. “I specifically am drawn to smoke signals in the context of war,” Buhler’s artist statement begins. “I am interested in the phenomenon that the occurrence of something beautiful is contingent on an opposite or less-attractive happening at or around the same time.”

A guest and a photograph at Art on Iowa
A guest and a photograph at Art on Iowa

“Where’s a red marker?” cried Tim after one guest expressed his desire to make a purchase. “We need to put a red dot next to the piece to show that it’s been sold!” Camille, who studied painting in college, stood nearby in a simple black dress and a brightly patterned scarf to hold back her fine blond hair, a cup of wine in hand. The proliferation of beer bottles and plastic wine cups, while not worthy of note at art openings elsewhere in America, was a bit outside the norm for Salt Lake City — a fact that seemed to make the guests appreciate their drinks all the more.

In New York, Tim co-directed a poetry series called Speakeasy. Would he be interested in bringing readings to the Art On Iowa setting? I asked. “Readings are so fraught with stuffiness, and so often sheer boredom, that they are very difficult to pull off.” He replied, adding, “if we can come up with some formula to get poets heard (in a world where we poor poets… are completely ignored unless we’re playing guitar), that would absolutely be a part of Art on Iowa’s mission.” Music, too, is on the docket, as long as the noise doesn’t reach an un-neighborly level.

The shoes of the very first Art on Iowa
The shoes of the very first Art on Iowa

The goal with Art On Iowa is eventually to have a show on the third Friday of every month, though at the moment every other month will have to suffice. Originally, the couple hoped to get several houses on the tiny street to open their walls to art, to create an Art On Iowa gallery stroll, of sorts, but Friday’s opening was the first, and Tim seemed unsure whether his neighbors would follow through. “If we don’t get anyone else,” he said, “we’re still excited to keep it going at our place.”

For those interested in showing their work at Art On Iowa, email the Ericksons at artoniowa@inkwill.com, along with JPEGs of three representative pieces of work. And for those who want to attend future shows, send an email saying as much to the same address, and you’ll be added to the mailing list.