Jul 19 2017

Documentaries Abstract: the art of design & The Defiant Ones offer insights on how people create


I’ve been watching the Netflix series Abstract: the Art of Design and the HBO series, The Defiant Ones. Abstract features interviews with different kinds of designers: an illustrator, an architect, a graphic designer, etc. The Defiant Ones is about the careers and collaboration of hip hop artist Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine. There are 8 episodes of Abstract on Netflix. The Defiant Ones is a four-part series on HBO.

An observation that artists from both series make is that art captures moments in the human condition that are familiar and common. We see a painting or photograph, hear songs, read and watch stories that remind us of something in our experiences. Artists take the elements of design for their particular mediums and use them to capture moments and tell stories in fresh ways.

Every art form has it’s own set of elements. The language of music is rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form, and dynamics. Pop music tells familiar stories in new and authentic ways. A live musical performance, and certainly music video, incorporates visual elements as well as sound to convey message. Writers use narrative devices and style techniques to arrange words on a page. Filmmakers add visual language and sound to narrative. Realistic art and photography work with visual elements like shape, color, shadow, arrangement, texture, weight, etc. to tell a story.

With abstract design and instrumental music the story is less obvious. Sometimes an image evokes a memory through shape, color, size, tone. Basic shapes and color reference icons that relate to common experience. And yet what we see may represent but does not duplicate a tangible thing. Illustrator Christoph Niemann, who is featured in the first episode of Abstract says, “My goal is speak visuals the way a pianist speaks piano.”

Both series explore what is involved in the creative process.  These were my take-aways:

Message: Photographer Platon believes that “What’s important is the story, the message.” As a graphic designer Paula Scher emphasizes simplicity,  finding “the essential that opens you to the core idea or emotion.”

Inspiration.  Niemann echoes an idea that Stephen King talks about in On Writing. Professional artists cannot expect to only work when feeling inspired. Niemann believes “feeling good in the process turns out lower quality work.” Paula Scher counters that she needs to be in “a state of play” to create anything. When inspiration does show up Dr. Dre will stay in the studio for days “because that train doesn’t come along all the time.”

Process. Schier says that tools should never take precedence over the work.  Photon prepares for a photoshoot by asking “What can I learn from this person? What questions about the human condition can this person communicate?” He uses the same set and camera for every portrait. Niemann uses Lego blocks to help abstract shapes. Each artist figures out what works for them and usually sticks with that.

Editing. “I need to be a much more ruthless editor and a much more careless artist,” says Niemann.  Another quote about editing I love is in the 2000 film,  Finding Forrester. Sean Connery say, “You write the first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head.” Artists can be so critical of themselves. Sometimes someone else needs to help the artist sort out what is and isn’t worth putting out into the world.

Careers and Experience. Jimmy Iovine’s story about becoming a producer illustrates the process of gaining experience. He kept showing up, paying attention, asking questions, and working out of his comfort zone. Being well-known or well-paid as an artist is usually part talent, part hard work, and part luck. Almost every artist has a serendipity story that accounts for gaining the opportunity to be famous. The creative process and the satisfaction of making something is the motivating force. With more than 40 years of experience, Schier still asks “What can I make next?”

Control. Artists don’t always have creative control. Artists who are creating for others must understand the message that other people want to convey in order to capture it in a piece. Paula Scher did that famous 1976 Boston album cover, but thought it was “dumb.” However, it was what the band wanted and they were happy with it. Whether she liked it or not, it’s become an iconic piece. On the other hand, Jimmy Iovine says of managing artists, “They have the talent, give them the keys and let them drive.”

Collaboration: Tinker Hatfield the designer who collaborated with Michael Jordan for the Air Jordans line discusses factors like function, market, and the personality and style of the celebrity in designing a shoe. You have to know when collaboration is going to produce something great and when to walk away. Dr. Dre illustrates this point his choice to work with Eminem and in knowing when it was time to walk away from Death Row.

All these creators describe a combination of inspiration and process that leads to a finished work. There is an intangible experience that happens in the process of making. Even when there seems to be a definite plan, the act of making is often an act of discovering the work as it is in creating it.

Feb 10 2017

La La Land: Conflicting Dreams


La La Land is about contrasts and choices. The film starts with lots of light, a bright color palate, and an energetic, upbeat a song and dance…hopes and dreams. The film ends in a dimly lit club, with bluesy jazz…regret and acceptance. The film communicates a contrast between the pure joy of developing a talent and engaging in art and the self-aggrandizing, greedy, prideful world that promotes and monetizes art. It juxtaposes homages to mid-20th century musicals with modern-day challenges of pursuing an artistic career in L.A. The story centers around relationship of an actress and a musician who meet and fall in love in L.A. and on the tension created as they try to balance their relationship with pursuing their separate career dreams. La La Land considers the difference between the romance of dreams pursued with the reality the dreams realized. Continue reading

May 31 2014

Searching for Sugarman encourages creativity


Searching for Sugarman is a story about one unique man, Rodriguez, but it is an encouragement for the rest of the observers and interpreters among us, the writers with a thousand posts and sixty followers, the musicians posting amazing songs with a couple of likes on Soundcloud, the artists whose gallery wall is Facebook, the creatives who work day jobs and create because they need to and want to even if they never get a check or an audience. Poets and philosophers write because they have something to say. not because they have something to gain. They have already gained, or they are in the process of gaining, some elusive but personally important thing that is the impetus for creating. When we cast our bread upon the water we have no idea when and how it might return. For Rodriguez it comes floating back nearly thirty years later. Continue reading

May 2 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel was just the story I wanted to be told



The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lovely, funny tale told as meta-narrative, a story about a story being told. It takes place in an almost real land in an almost historical setting. I’m always tempted to wear pajamas to Wes Anderson movies because he makes me feel like a kid who is about to hear a story. Even though his themes and tone are definitely for grown-ups, his story telling style demands the suspension of disbelief that makes hearing a yarn as a child so delightful.  It’s not realistic but the story is consistent to it’s own set of rules and the themes are accessible and universal. It was an enchanting hundred minutes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is populated with zany characters played by the usual suspects in an Anderson film: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, and newcomers to Anderson’s films: Ralph Fiennes, Saorise Ronan and Tony Revolori. The characters take themselves seriously in the midst of the surreal silliness of the plot. The deep sincerity of Gustave and Zero plays in stark contrast to the slapstick situations in which they find themselves. As concierge Gustave is the picture of solicitous perfection. Acting as mentor to young Zero, Gustave passes on his philosophy of service and his love for the grandeur of Grand Budapest Hotel.

One aspect of Gustave’s service is “taking care” of the needs of rich, elderly women who are guests of the hotel. His devotion to one such lady lands him in an inheritance battle with her children. Throw in a stolen art piece, greed and poverty, evil Nazi-ish cops, and romantic adventure  for Zero and oh, yes, a train; and the funny-sad-exciting-reflective story unfolds as told by Zero to the unnamed Author in 1968 whose book is being read on a bench by a teenage girl in present day. (Summarizing this requires several run-on sentences, so get over it grammar freaks.)

In addition to the financial appreciations, Gustave does seem to have a certain attachment to these older ladies, perhaps because they hold to the manners and customs of the age that is quickly slipping away. Years later, as Zero tells the story to another guest, he says of Gustave, “I think his world had vanished long before he even entered it.” The first few decades of the twentieth century marked a slow death to an era of manners and pretenses. It was a time when fortunes were made and flaunted and a time when people dressed up for dinner. Gustave and Zero’s story takes place in a similar time. Formality is beginning to relax in their world too, but Gustave is having none of it. The Grand Budapest clings to its shabby formality as it slowly wears out over the decades between the 1930’s and 1968 when Zero tells the story to the author.

Ultimately my take-away was a mood of  nostalgia for the times when  I sat cross legged on the floor, entranced as someone read me a story, or, better yet, embellished one told from memory. I remember visualizing unfamiliar settings and characters with the license of imagination. What I saw in my head skewed a bit from what the authors intended or what might eventually appear on screen when the story was made into a movie. Anderson has a way of making me feel like I’m reading a book and seeing it in my head but getting to share his skew. Like imagination inception.


Mar 6 2014

Reflections on Monument Men and the preservation of the creative arts


Monument Men is about a group of art scholars who are trying to chase down caches of art taken by the Nazis before it is destroyed. Though I thought the film itself dragged a bit in places, it raised the compelling question whether preserving civilization’s art during a war was worth spending lives and using resources. The film’s answer was a resounding “yes.”

Statements at the end of the film outlined art and architecture that was lost, not only to Nazi pillaging, but to bombing by both Allies and Axis forces. It made me think of the loss of literature during the Middle Ages. Invasions and the resulting battles all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East resulted in destruction of literature. Goths and Franks, Huns and Muslims, Vikings and Normans, and Christian Crusaders all contributed to the destruction of classical and Biblical literature. On top of that, scribes themselves sometimes made a call of scrape off writings and reuse the paper since paper was scarce and everything had to be painstakingly copied by hand. As lives crumbled and cities burned some scholars, many of them monks, predominantly Irish, decided that preserving art and literature was worth the effort. Many important texts of Western culture survived to be studied by the likes of Washington and Jefferson. Reading Euclid influenced Lincoln’s phrasing in his Gettysburg Address. To a great extent centuries of scholars studied the same collection of literature known as the Western Canon.

American education over the last century formed a common cultural canon. A liberal education meant students were exposed to roughly the same set of pieces. With the ability to digitize, massive amounts of literature, arts, music is being preserved for the next generation. The question is whether the next generation will find it relevant and worth looking at it, much less sacrificing to save it. Through education and culture there does still seem to be a collection of literature, art, music, and film that provides a sort of post-modern canon, a collection of works experienced by most of us. With the variety of schooling options and subcultures, along with the trend toward personalization, over time, as a culture, we may have fewer and fewer pieces in common. I suspect each of us will form a personal canon based on individual values. Continue reading