April 2012

Flimmaker Peter Hutton : It’s Not About the Pyrotechnics, It’s About Limitations

By |04.06.12|


The first time I saw a Peter Hutton film was at a screening at The MacDowell Colony several years ago when Peter was in residence. A small group of us gathered in the Colony library to watch Study of a River. A 16mm projector hummed over our shoulders as we all sat in the dark, mesmerized by this silent, black-and-white film. It was like watching a contemporary version of a Hudson River School painting come to life before my eyes. I’ve never forgotten the experience of seeing that film—of sitting silently watching ice and ships drift over the Hudson River.

Experience is central to Hutton’s creative approach. There are no special effects or dramatic story arcs in a Peter Hutton work. Whatever your expectations are of cinema, set them aside. Hutton’s sublimely nuanced creations are everything commercial movies are not—subtle, completely silent, thoughtful, and devoid of narrative. Hutton’s films are more like meditations or visual poems—they linger over landscapes and scenes, capturing both dramatic and mundane moments that would otherwise be lost.

I was not surprised to learn that Hutton began his art career as a painter. He has a painter’s eye—a contemplative style that is completely radical in today’s culture. He uses old movie cameras not for nostalgic effect, but as a vehicle to focus the viewer’s attention. There are no sounds, special effects, or fancy tracking shots to distract us. Hutton’s camera is like an extension of his own body. We see what he sees. We experience what he experiences.




A few weeks ago, I had a chance to watch Hutton’s film At Sea, which is currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The piece was named the best avant-garde film of the decade by Film Comment magazine and is part of the museum’s FreePort series, which invites contemporary artists to explore the roles of trade, exchange and translation in relation to the museum’s collection.

Hutton’s film chronicles the birth, life, and death of a colossal container ship. It begins with a container ship being built in one of the world’s largest shipyards in South Korea. Hutton then records the ship’s journey across the Atlantic from Montreal to Hamburg. His film ends in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where he captures the dangerous and mesmerizing process of ship breaking at a maritime graveyard on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.



Ship breaking allows materials from the ship, especially steel, to be reused. Most ships have a lifespan of just a few decades before repairs become uneconomical and the ship is scrapped. Today, most ship breaking yards are in developing countries because labor costs are lower and environmental and labor regulations virtually non-existent. According to eye-witness accounts, waste from the scrapped ships is drained and dumped directly into the Bay of Bengal. The prevalence of highly toxic materials in the ship breaking yard is causing serious health problems in the local population and in local wildlife.

But these are facts I discovered in my own research, not through Hutton’s film. He is not a journalist or a traditional documentary filmmaker. There are no heavy-handed diatribes or talking heads in At Sea. As viewers, we simply observe these men working, posing and smiling in front of the camera, and risking their lives in this surreal, post-industrial landscape. The effect is very different from watching a traditional documentary. We aren’t pelted with shocking statistics or heart-wrenching stories. We simply find ourselves glimpsing the everyday reality of these men. This is hard work. Dangerous. Slow and tedious.


The Peabody Essex has a exquisite collection of ship models. For the first time in the museum’s history, a highly detailed model depicting the ship-breaking of an industrial tanker has been created by Michael Wall and Peter Hutton. Commissioned specifically for this exhibition, it may be the only such model of its kind in existence.

This short video produced by the Peabody Essex Museum shows scenes from the film and discusses the process of creating this unique model.

(If you’re reading this in an email, click here to watch the video)

A former merchant seaman, Hutton has spent nearly forty years traveling around the world, often by cargo ship, to create his remarkable films. I was interested to learn more about Hutton’s experiences at sea and his approach to film-making. Peter kindly supplied me with still images for this article, and Mike Plante, the editor and publisher of Cinemad, graciously agreed to share his interview with this highly acclaimed filmmaker.

As Mike points out in his introduction on the Cinemad website, what may be most remarkable about Peter Hutton is that his films manage to be avant-garde without being pretentious. (Not an easy task.)

In the following interview with Plante, Hutton discusses how traveling and being at sea trained his eye as an artist how  painting and Eastern art have influenced his filmmaking. He also explains the importance of craft and practice and describes why his films are more like sketchbooks than highly polished artworks.

“I wanted to keep everything very simple,” Hutton says. “Cinema tends to be this additive thing, it gets more complicated technologically…It’s very expensive and complicated logistically. I wanted to do it alone, keep it personal and private. Almost like making sketchbooks. The more I kept it simple the more I could work…It’s not about the pyrotechnics, it’s about something else—being inventive with limitations.”


The following interview is courtesy of Mike Plante, editor and publisher of Cinemad and founder of Cinemad Presents, a film dis­trib­u­tor for inde­pen­dent, for­eign, avant-garde, cult and under­ground films.

CINEMAD: Was there a flashpoint where you became interested in art film?

PETER HUTTON: For the first 10 years of my creative life I wasn’t making films, I was a painter as a teenager, then a sculptor. I was in L.A. for a summer in the mid-60s. I went to see one of Kenneth Anger’s experimental films on La Cienega. I then moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. I started seeing Harry Smith and Bruce Conner at the Straight Ashbury Film Society that Freuda Bartlett ran. I thought this was going to be huge! Everybody did! In some way a rival to commercial film culture, because the parameters were so blown open from traditional cinema. It’s interesting watching it over the last 40 years collapse into a pretty delicate little culture. It’s kind of kept alive by young people who are just discovering this work, who get really excited about it, and fortunately start writing about it. But it’s also kept alive by those who teach, the art schools who are, for the most part, employing a lot of people who are propagating it through showing their own and other people’s work. It’s a relatively modest yet a wonderful alternative to commercial film culture.

If you want to see it, you’re going to have to become involved with it.
I think that’s good though. One of the things that is important to me is the contrast between the accessibility of TV and commercial media that are being pushed at you…You have to be curious, go out of your way. Like going to flea markets and finding great old books, photographs, paintings. You have to have that curiosity. There’s an element of satisfaction that comes with discovering something that wasn’t publicized or in front of commercial culture. I like the fact that there’s an obscurity to the culture. Maybe that’s good…

Did you study still photography?
No. Painting was my big deal. My uncle was an artist, Edward Plunkett, he knew a lot of New York artists, including Marcel Duchamp and collected pop art. He was a great influence on me. My mother was also an amateur painter.

When I was a kid, my father had kept a photo album as a merchant seaman. I loved looking at these photo albums filled with images of places he had gone when working on ships; India, China, Indonesia. They were just snapshots. Landscapes, seascapes, very amateur casual photographs. This was before TV, so it was a very cool place to zone out and imagine these places. When I started working on ships, I was so happy to be going to these places. It built up my appreciation for this sort of traveling.

I took photographs when I went to India, then after that I eventually learned film…there was a 10-year period from ’64 – ’74 where I intensely worked on ships. I paid my way through art school by working on ships. I went to sea for a semester, then to school for a semester, back and forth from sea to school…


What were your duties?
In the days when I worked on ships, they were smaller. I almost always worked on the Deck gang. This is pre-containerization. I spent a summer on the Great lakes working on Ore boats then I saved money and moved to Honolulu from Detroit to catch real ocean going ships.

The first salt water ship I worked on was a freighter that was contracted to haul grain to India. We were giving the Indian government grain. This is about 1964…The ship was leased from a company in Singapore, Liberty Navigation, by USAID to carry wheat to India during a famine. But the wheat had been held in the ship so long…[that] by the time we got to India, a lot of the wheat had rotted inside the ship. They popped open the hatches to unload it and there was this huge stench. It was Conradian in a way. A deed of good will gone very bad.


March 2012

Jonah Lehrer on How Creativity Works : 5 Insights from Julia Child, Dylan, & Picasso

By |03.23.12|


In 1965 singer Bob Dylan was burned out after a grueling tour; he was sick of reporters’ questions and tired of performing the same old songs. Dylan told his manager that he was quitting music for good and proceeded to disappear. He squirreled himself away in a cabin in Woodstock. Dylan’s plan was to write fiction and paint, so he didn’t even bother to bring along his guitar. But after a short period of rest, words began pouring out of the songwriter. By some accounts Dylan wrote 10 pages of stream-of-conscious verse in a short burst of activity; in other accounts, Dylan says it was 20 pages. Regardless of the length, in only a few months the singer was in the recording studio again recording one of his most memorable and influential songs, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan called the creation of the song a “breakthrough,” later explaining that it changed his perception of where he was going in his career.

Why do creative epiphanies like the one Bob Dylan experienced happen? Is there a scientific reason that breakthroughs occur at certain times in our lives and not at others? Are there specific things we can do to encourage innovation in our personal lives and in the workplace?

Writer Jonah Lehrer delves into questions like these in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer, whose previous books include Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, specializes in the relationship between science and the humanities. Lehner’s work could be described as Gladwell-esque. His books and articles for publications like Wired and The New Yorker are aimed at a general audience and attempt to synthesize research from the fields of neuroscience and psychology with interviews and biographical accounts of artists, creative thinkers, etc.

Lehrer’s recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air is a useful introduction to many of the ideas discussed in Imagine. While most of these findings won’t be new to those of you who have read other popular books on the subject of psychology and creative thinking, Lehrer does a skillful job weaving together disparate sources. This book will surely be a hit with the TED crowd and with entrepreneurs, managers, and creative professionals who are trying to foster innovation in the workplace.

But after listening to Lehrer’s NPR interview this morning, I’ve been thinking more about how Lehrer’s ideas apply to artists of all disciplines, as well as to the employees of organizations. Here are some key insights that I find most compelling…

The deepest, creative insights usually occur when we relax and let go.
The worst thing we can do as artists is to try too hard. We try too hard in all sorts of ridiculous ways–we set unrealistic goals and deadlines, we set out to make the ultimate “masterpiece,” we compare ourselves to others, and we chastise ourselves when we fail to live up to these lofty standards. In order to make our best work, we have to leave all of this mental baggage at the door and approach the work empty-handed without expectations.

Lehrer cites Bob Dylan and the story of how he came to write “Like a Rolling Stone” as a prime example of an artist who experienced a major breakthrough as a result of letting go.

When we’re stressed, under deadline pressure, and trying desperately to produce our best work, we are likely to fail unless we step back, force ourselves to unplug, and take a break. As Lehrer points out, we’ll actually be more innovative and efficient if we stop obsessing and instead go for a walk, take a shower or nap, tinker with a favorite hobby, or meditate. Scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts.

Lehrer gives some striking illustrations of this symbiotic relationship between creativity and relaxation. Researchers have found that people are more creative and productive when they work in a room that is painted blue, to give one example. Why? Because blue is associated the ocean and the sky and relaxation.

Relaxing and letting go is not just an internal process, but in many cases demands changes in our external behavior as well. As William Powers has pointed out in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, we must make conscientious choices about how and when we use technology, unless we want to be slave to a screen 24/7. Compulsively checking email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. interrupts deep creative thinking. We’re addicted to screens; too often we forget that we control technology–it doesn’t control us. We have a choice–we can keep technology in it’s place, or allow it to erode our attention spans and precious work time. Taking digital breaks is just as important as taking physical ones. Whether we use internet blocking software like Mac Freedom, turn off social networking, phones, and email while working, or commit to staying offline on weekends (as Powers has done), our creative work will benefit.

Art isn’t all fun and games.
If only the deep insights and epiphanies were enough…But it takes a lot of hard work to realize a creative project. Here’s Lehrer discussing the subject in his Fresh Air interview:
“It would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach, but when you really talk to people in the creative business, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies but then if you push them, they say even that epiphany had to go through lots of edits on it and iterations and lots of hard work after we have the big idea. And that’s a big part of the creative process too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there’s evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it’s a crucial part in creating something interesting and worthwhile. If creativity were always easy or about these blinding flashes, Picasso would not be so famous.”


In order to do our best creative work, we need to find the right balance between mental absorption and letting go.
Silence, focus, and concentration are important. But too much introspection and self-awareness can get in the way of innovation. Research has found that when professional musicians and performers improvise on stage, their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex–the part of the mind that controls inhibitions–actually shuts down.

Self-consciousness is an enemy of creativity. Remember how exciting art class was in kindergarten when we had no inhibitions? But eccentricity, individuality, and creativity are discouraged and eventually “schooled” out of us. At some point, we all learn the so-called “rules” about art–rules about staying inside the lines, coloring in one direction, and choosing the “right” green crayon for a grassy lawn.

Lehrer’s research shows that ignoring such rules and allowing ourselves to be playful again is an essential ingredient for the creative life. As Yo-Yo Ma told Lehrer, we must welcome the first mistake, because the first mistake makes us free. To do our best creative work, we must be focused, but also relaxed and at ease in our own skin.


Ai Weiwei : Creativity Is the Power to Act

By |03.11.12|




Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 has been good company the past few days. Between 2006 and 2009, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei used his blog as a daily notebook where he posted thousands of photos, documented his artistic practice and personal life, wrote about art and architecture, and turned out a steady stream of scathing social commentary. Over 100,000 people visited the blog on a daily basis until the Chinese government shut Ai’s site down in 2009.

Ai Weiwei is a Renaissance man of sorts, with a broad range of interests. He is a writer, architect, sculptor, curator, poet, critic, publisher, and photographer. In the West, he is probably best known for his spectacular installation Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in London. The work consisted of one hundred million porcelain “seeds,” each individually hand-painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans, and scattered over a large area of Turbine Hall.




Ai is also a self-taught architect and proponent of authentic, simple design. He has worked on over 70 architectural projects total, including a notable collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron , which resulted in the memorable “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics

Recently, Ai has been making headlines for other reasons. On April 3, 2011, the artist was arrested at Peking Airport just before catching a flight to Hong Kong. Around 50 police officers searched Ai’s studio and took away laptops and hard drives. Police also detained eight staff members and Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. The arrest sparked major protests around the world. On 22 June 2011, the Chinese authorities released him on bail after close to three months’ detention on charges of tax evasion. He is prohibited from leaving Beijing without permission for one year.



In his art practice, Ai has actively embraced technology. “I think the Internet and information era is the greatest period mankind has encountered,” Ai told Hans Ulrich Obrist in the book Ai Weiwei Speaks. “Thanks to this period, humans finally have the opportunity to become independent, to acquire information and communicate independently…I think that art won’t have too grand or too much of a future if it fails to connect with today’s lifestyles and technologies.”

For Ai, virtual reality is as important as reality itself. He believes that all art is social in its way and  that technology can bolster the power and reach of art, particularly in oppressed societies. Ai’s first blog post was one sentence: “You need a purpose to express yourself, but that expression is its own purpose.”

In 2007 Ai used his blog to create a compelling work titled Fairytale. Using the internet, he recruited 1,001 Chinese people who had never been to Europe to wander around the town of Kassel Germany during Documenta. As someone who spent 12 years in New York City, Ai understood the power of travel and hoped Fairytale would change the lives of those 1,001 individuals who made the trip to Europe.

February 2012

Filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara: Gaudi Made Me Realize the Lines Between the Arts Are Insignificant

By |02.16.12|



In the West, Hiroshi Teshigahara is best known as the avant-garde director of the 1964 film Woman in the Dunes–an erotic, surreal film that was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Teshigahara’s haunting shots of sand, skin, and water amid the advancing sand dunes have stayed with me over the years. But there is another Teshigahara film, one that is less well-known, that left an even greater impression on me.

Antonio Gaudi is like no other movie I can think of. Teshigahara’s 72-minute meditation on the Spanish Art-Nouveau architect is essentially wordless. He avoids conventional  narrative and instead, lets Gaudi’s buildings do the talking.

Before watching this film, I didn’t consider myself a fan of the Spanish artist. (George Orwell described Gaudi’s cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”) But my judgment was based on ignorance–on some vague, false impression that Gaudi’s work was not much more than bulbous, overdone kitsch.

But after viewing Teshigahara’s breathtaking film, my opinion of the Spanish architect has been entirely transformed. Anotnio Gaudi was nothing less than a visionary genius–an original, madly brilliant artist who was unappreciated and misunderstood in his own time.












Teshigahara’s passion for Gaudi’s work comes through on every frame. Once he has set the scene with opening shots of contemporary Barcelona, Teshigahara brings his camera into Gaudi’s universe, taking us up a characteristic Gaudi spiral staircase. He’s a patient, attentive director with a craftsman’s eye for details. He takes the time he needs, allowing the camera to linger. Blue tiles shift in the light like water moving. Mosaics morph into a dragon’s scales. Güell Park, a planned garden village, feels like a surreal, fairy-tale landscape.

Teshigahara moves his camera slowly through these fluid, organic spaces. Slow tracking shots give us a sense that we’re actually inhabiting these bizarre, sublime places. Gaudi’s curved, organic designs are shockingly surreal and erotic. Like Woman in the Dunes, Antonio Gaudi pulses with human sensuality, and yet there is also something of the divine in both Teshigahara’s film and Gaudi’s fertile imagination.

This meditation on the power of and beauty of nature is enhanced with music and sound effects by the renowned Japanese  composer Toru Takemitsu and two collaborators, Kurodo Mori and Shinji Hori. As the critic Stephen Holden explains, Takemitsu was an eclectic impressionist “whose music blended avant-garde Western techniques, electronics and random compositional methods with more conventional symphonic music and Japanese traditional instruments.”

The spiral motif, associated with the seashell, is emphasized in Takemitsu’s soundtrack, which incorporates the sound of the distant sea. “The score for Gaudi is a kind of free-floating East-meets-West impressionism,” says Holden, “whose organic flow mimics the sprouting curvilinear shapes of Gaudi’s buildings. The score includes four Catalan folk pieces, electronically altered and combined with other sounds.”

Antonio Gaudi is a tactile film–a visual poem that lingers in your memory long after its over. If you have the patience to listen and look and to defer any pressing questions you may have about Antionio Gaudi the man until the DVD extras, you will find the melding of Gaudi’s inventive architecture, Teshigahara’s sensitive camerawork, and Takemitsu’s haunting score a rewarding experience.










But how exactly did the avant-garde, Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara develop such an intense appreciation for the architecture of Antonio Gaudi? I was curious to know more.


How To Feel Miserable As An Artist

By |02.09.12|

This week a reader sent me a copy of “How to Feel Miserable As An Artist.” This marvelous list was created by illustrator Keri Smith and is part of The Artist’s Survival Kit, which Keri wrote […]

Creative Spaces: Painter Kim Uchiyama

By |02.07.12|


Kim Uchiyama’s studio is located on a quiet, tree-lined side-street in Lower Manhattan. On a crisp fall day in mid-November over tea and brunch, I visited Kim in her Tribeca apartment. We spent the day looking at art and discussing her new painting series, her artistic development and influences, and the ups and downs of the creative life.

Her space is decorated in a minimalist, modern style, but is also intimate and warm–the perfect blend of Kim’s Iowa roots and vibrant life as a New York painter. The bedroom is the coziest room in the apartment with many personal photos, mementos, and artworks that have special meaning to Kim. The focal points of the living room are Kim’s marvelous art collection, her books, and the striking view of the Hudson River glimpsed through the windows.

The painting studio is in a separate room from the living space. It is tidy, but functional, and in many ways is the heart of the apartment. Bright canvases are stacked and spread throughout the studio; painter’s tape, paint, and brushes are close at hand. Postcards of favorite paintings and places are pinned to the walls.







For those of you unfamiliar with Kim Uchiyama’s work, a short introduction may be useful.

Patient, attentive viewers will find a lot to enjoy in Uchiyama’s paintings. Art works that could be mistaken for simple, colorful designs at first glance unfold into a deeper and richer experience upon close observation. Layers bubble beneath layers, colors recede or emerge from the canvas. Music is a useful parallel, since Uchiyama creates variations on a theme, much like a composer or jazz musician would–texture, rhythm, timbre, and harmony are integral to each piece. There is an exciting tension between order and variation.

As she explains in our interview, place and landscape are central to Kim’s work. Whether she is influenced by the light of southern Italy or the color of the sky or sea, her work is an expression of her own experience within a landscape. She is not trying to capture a place literally, as a realist painter might, or make some grand political or personal statement, but is instead, trying to convey something deeper and more mysterious.

When viewing an abstract painting like Uchiyama’s, it is useful to quiet the mind and let the senses take over. Only then can you begin to appreciate the complexities, nuances, and visceral pleasures of her work.

Uchiyama’s art owes something to Josef Albers’ chromatic interactions with concentric, colored squares and to Hans Hofmann and Nicolas Carone’s ideas about spatial illusion and color relationships. But the writings of painter Agnes Martin are also strikingly relevant:
It is quite commonly thought that the intellect is responsible for everything that is made and done. It is commonly thought that everything that is can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses that we are not consciously aware of them until they are represented in artwork…
Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds – all speak of happiness.
The clear blue sky illustrates a different kind of happiness, and the soft dark night a different kind. There are an infinite number of different kinds of happiness.
The response is the same for the observer as it is for the artist. The response to art is the real art field.
Composition is an absolute mystery. It is dictated by the mind. The artist searchers for certain sounds or lines that are acceptable to the mind and finally an arrangement of them that is acceptable. The acceptable compositions arouse certain feelings of appreciation in the observer. Some compositions appeal to some, and some to others.
Like Martin, Uchiyama’s earliest paintings were landscapes. (You can see two of Kim’s early works below). Both artists eventually found a deeper, more power expression through abstraction. After all, it is not the actual sky or ocean that interests these painters–it is more elusive qualities like light, space, and color, and the ways in which these visual sensations affect the attentive observer.

We’ve all seen a vivid, memorable sunset. The impulse to capture such a sunset through painting or photography is as much about capturing the sensation of being there as it is about capturing a beautiful scene. These perfect and elusive moments of awareness are an underlying force in both Agnes Martin and Kim Uchiyama’s work.

Kim has many fascinating things to say about her creative development and about painting itself. Enjoy the interview and this special tour of her studio…

(Click images to enlarge)






Michelle: How long have you lived and worked here in Tribeca?

Kim: I’ve been living and working continuously in Tribeca since the mid ’90s. Originally I started here in 1976, two blocks from the newly constructed World Trade Towers, before the area even had a name. Then came studios in Chinatown, the East Village, upper Chelsea and finally, back to Tribeca.


Do you have any particular work routine that is best for you? Is it difficult to live and work in the same space? Do you limit your computer and phone use while you’re painting or drawing?

Where possible, I prefer to wake up and start the day in the studio. Straight from sleep and not yet conversational with the rest of the world, I find it’s easier to become immersed in my thoughts and connect to the language of painting. I’ve had outside studios at various points, but I do prefer to live and work in the same space for this reason. Living where you work also facilitates some very off-the-cuff glimpses and sideways glances — sometimes in the middle of the night — at the work in progress, which can be really illuminating because you’re not expecting anything.





Did you grown up in an artistic household or did you have to make your own way as a young artist? You have a small image of Florence in your studio. Was Florence significant to your artistic development in some way?

January 2012

Artist Doris Salcedo: I Began to Conceive of Works Based on Nothing

By |01.19.12|



With the continual stream of information and images flooding past me each day, I’ve come to appreciate the rare, found gems that stop me in my virtual tracks. This week it was the above photograph of wooden chairs piled between two buildings that caught my eye on a friend’s Facebook page and sent me on a pleasurable hunt for more details.

Doris Salcedo’s haunting artwork Shibboleth, a giant crack installed in the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, brought the Colombian artist well-deserved attention in 2007. But most of us are less familiar with her earlier projects, such as her 2003 chair piece titled Installation for the 8th Istanbul Biennale.





Like Shibboleth, Istanbul is simple in its concept, but powerful in its impact. Salcedo’s idea was to create a “topography of war”–not tied to a specific historical event, but to war in general. Seeing these 1,550 wooden chairs piled high between two buildings in central Istanbul, I’m reminded of mass graves. Of anonymous victims. I think of both chaos and absence, two effects of wartime violence.

Born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, Salcedo’s installations express the silenced lives of the marginalized. She is particularly interested in the gap between the powerful and the powerless, and in victims of violence and forced migration. “I am a Third World artist,” says Salcedo. Her artwork emerges “from that perspective—from the perspective of the victim, from the perspective of the defeated.”

“What I’m trying to get out of these pieces is that element that is common in all of us,” Salcedo explains. “And in a situation of war, we all experience it in much the same way, either as victim or perpetrator. So I’m not narrating a particular story. I’m just addressing experiences.”

According to Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, Salcedo once witnessed “a horrific clash between guerrillas and the state that ended in people being burned to death in the occupied Palace of Justice in Bogotá: ‘It left its mark on me. I began to conceive of works based on nothing.’ Her response was to go to a hospital in Bogotá and collect dead patients’ discarded shoes, which she put into cavities dug in a wall and veiled in a weblike fibre.”

Jones makes the excellent point that Salcedo’s approach to art is not to give form to the voices of the powerless, but to take form away:
“To give form is an act of power. There is no art more involved with power than architecture because nothing says as clearly as a building that ‘I had the power to build this.’ Surely it’s no coincidence that women such as Salcedo and [Rachel] Whiteread take on the heavy-duty materials and the power-bragging aesthetic of architecture and turn it inside out.”






On Money, Fear, and the Artist

By |01.11.12|

An Artist Gets Audited
A visual artist I know once told me about an audit she endured with the IRS. My friend is a professional artist in New York City with her own studio. Her work […]

December 2011

Grace Paley: “Write What Will Stop Your Breath If You Don’t Write”

By |12.11.11|

Today is the birthday of writer Grace Paley.

Although Paley’s writing output was modest during her 84 years — some four dozen stories in three volumes: The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and Later the Same Day (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985)–she was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and continues to have a devoted following today.

In a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, the magazine made this observation about her brevity in both her fiction and in her conversation:
Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” Paley is noticeably unaffected by the pressures of mortality which drive most writers to publish…
The oft-noted Paley paradox is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a yes-or-no question, and she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience. Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless.
Grace Goodside grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish at her home in the Bronx–her parents immigrated to New York 17 years before she was born. Writing was only one of Paley’s jobs. As The Paris Review observes, she spent a lot of time in playgrounds when her children were young, was very active in the feminist and peace movements, and taught courses at City College, Columbia University, Syracuse University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She was also a co-founder of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York in 1967.

“Our idea,” Paley said at 1996 symposium on Educating the Imagination, “was that children—by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started!”

Paley’s writing, which appeared in the latter-half of the timorous 50s, was radical for its time. As the New York Times noted in Paley’s obituary, “Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.”

November 2011

The Dow of Art: Why Art Still Matters in Our Market-Driven Society

By |11.30.11|

Writer Nova Ren Suma has just published a new essay of mine over at “Distraction No. 99.”

Although the assigned topic was “inspiration,” my piece covers a range of subjects, from library book censorship to the financial stresses of being an artist. But the central theme concerns the value of imagination and creative exchange, and how these values are often in conflict with the marketplace.

Here is an excerpt from the essay:
“For many artists, money is a constant source of anxiety because most creative projects don’t make economic sense. As artists, we have chosen an alternative paradigm to the profit-oriented one. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be smart about the business-side of art making, only that money isn’t our primary motivator.
The concept of creating for its own sake remains a radical concept in our culture. This is one of the central rifts we see playing out now between Wall Street bankers and supporters of the Occupy movement. One camp places a higher value on profits, while the other a higher value on more elusive qualities like imagination, empathy, and justice.
Of course, if you have your money invested in the stock market, then you want your broker to be greedy with your money—you want to earn 6%, not 4% like everyone else. But when it comes to art, greed turns the best ideas sour. It isn’t hard to sniff out the difference between work that was created from a free, deep place, and a blatant commercial commodity.
You may be able sell the end product of art—the concert ticket, the photograph, the book—but the idea itself is free. Art is a gift. It is an elusive mystery that thrives only when it’s shared.
Being an artist is hard because we’re operating in a parallel universe—one that values imagination, creativity, and ideas more than money or status. But a true creative exchange—one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism. I would go so far as to say that it’s an alternate way of being. It’s this free exchange between artist and audience that creates movement, provides pleasure, provokes change, and offers meaningful connection…
‘The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market,’ [Lewis] Hyde explains. “He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.'”
You can read the entire article on Nova’s site, Distraction No. 99. There are also a number of guest posts from talented writers like Alexander Chee, Anna Evans, and Laurel Snyder.

Nova’s own contribution to the series is also a stand-out. She discusses rejection, the burning need to find her voice, and the long, difficult path to becoming a published writer:

“So how do you rise out of debilitating shyness to show that you are a person worthy of opinions, a person with a voice who has things to say? To show you are worth something. You are someone. How? In my case, you write.”

I particularly love Nova’s description of juggling writing with various day jobs:


Sol LeWitt’s Advice to Eva Hesse: Don’t Worry About Cool, Make Your Own Uncool

By |11.25.11|




Because I’m surrounded by artists in both my professional and personal life, people often ask me what insights I’ve gained into the creative process.

The unromantic truth is that being an artist in any field is […]

October 2011

Photographer Bill Jacobson: A Rare Look at the Evolution of an Artist

By |10.19.11|



If you’re in New York be sure to stop by Julie Saul Gallery to catch Bill Jacobson’s new photography show. Into the Loving Nowhere (1989 till now) opens Thursday, October 20th with a special reception from 6-8 p.m. and will be on view through December 10th. The featured photographs were made over a 22-year span and offer a rare opportunity to see a select retrospective of Jacobson’s work.

I’ve been following Jacobson’s photography for many years now and have enjoyed watching his style evolve from the soft, out-of-focus black and white photographs of his early career, to his series of color landscapes and interiors, to his current exploration of space and geometry.

As Jacobson explains on his website, his work “parallels an inner journey through a world we are constantly experiencing with the uncertainty of the mind’s eye rather than the sharp clarity of a camera lens.” His photographs are intimate and deeply poetic, evoking the fragmented states of memory and dreams.




Looking at Jacobson’s earlier blurred portraits of people and places, I am often reminded of the vintage, out-of-focus snapshots I collect at thrift and antique stores. It came as no surprise then, when I discovered that Jacobson also has a fascination with 20th century vernacular photographs. He describes their influence in an interview with Ian Berry:

Creative Spaces: A Legendary Songcatcher Inspires Two Musicians on a Vermont Farm

By |10.09.11|

Two weeks after Hurricane Irene I’m wandering the back-roads of Marlboro, Vermont, making my way to Robin MacArthur and Tyler Gibbons, also known as the music duo Red Heart the Ticker.

Route 9–the main thoroughfare between Brattleboro and Bennington–is closed because of storm damage, so Robin sends me “the back way.” When her lengthy driving instructions arrive by email, she says, “I realize these directions sound crazy…your phone might work along the way, or might not…if you get lost just knock on a door and ask directions.”

On the drive I pass cows, orchards, and working farms. As predicted, my cell phone has no signal, but so far, there’s been no need to rely on the kindness of strangers. The dirt roads wind and curve. As I climb Ames Hill, I catch glimpses of the Green Mountains rising above barns and fields.

Although it’s been two weeks since Irene, the storm has left a mess in its wake. Water rushes through deep gullies and the road is like a washboard. I pass hand-painted signs that say Bridge Out and Road Closed. Totally impassable. Bridge gone. Dangerous gullies. No sightseers please.



The Vermont back-roads are named for local landmarks and the families who have lived here for generations. Finally, after miles of twists and turns, I see the name I am searching for: MacArthur Road.

There have been MacArthurs here since the 1940s. Decades ago a young woman named Margaret MacArthur and her husband, John, moved to an abandoned 1803 farmhouse in these woods. Margaret grew up hearing traditional music, first in the mountains of northern Arizona where her step-father was cruising timber in the Tonto National Forest, later in Missouri where he was raising seedlings for the Mark Twain National Forest, then in Southern California where he was raising guayule rubber plants during the war.

But in Vermont, the only songs Margaret heard were church songs. Hungry for the musical traditions she had left behind, Margaret bought a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder, trekked around Vermont with her two-year-old daughter in tow, and began recording the forgotten folk songs of the region.

When Moses Asch, the director of Folkways Records, learned about Margaret, he asked to hear her music. She put some batteries into her Wollensak, sat down at the kitchen table after her five children were asleep, and recorded fifteen songs, never imagining anything would come of it. Six months later she received a letter from Moses and a record of the music she had recorded. The resulting Folkways’ record, Folksongs of Vermont, became the first album in MacArthur’s nine-record career. Her life-long dedication to the lyrical ballad would make her a seminal figure in Vermont’s folk music scene.




More than 70 years later, Margaret’s granddaughter, Robin MacArthur, and her husband Tyler Gibbons, set up their instruments and recording equipment in Margaret’s study–the same room where she died in 2006–and began making their third album, Your Name in Secret I Would Write. The album is comprised of their favorite Vermont folk tunes in Margaret’s collection.

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September 2011

On Crows

By |09.19.11|

Here in New Hampshire the air has turned chilly, and frost warnings are popping up across the state. Autumn in New England means birds are on the move. The climax of the migration season is the departure of the broad-winged hawks in mid-September when thousands of broad-wings leave New Hampshire en masse, gliding from one thermal to the next.

Each fall I find myself torn between the lure of the outdoors and the creative work that needs to be done inside. Today is no exception. I was going to share another article with you, one on photography, but my plans have been derailed by birds–crows to be more precise.



It’s funny how certain sounds become so embedded in the places we live. At Skyfield, I’m familiar with the bubbly call of the red-winged black birds and bobolinks when they arrive in early spring, the croak of the first peepers in May, the chirr of the grasshoppers in August, the hoot of the barred owl hunting in the woods, and the slow rustle of the porcupine passing by my open window at night during the height of summer. I also know the subtle differences between the rumble of my neighbor’s truck cutting through the property and the truck of the nearby farmer who plows the driveway each winter.

But the sound I’m most attuned to is the chatter between the two resident crows, who live on the property year round. Crows have an extensive vocal repertoire–they can communicate alarm, defend their territory, relay messages about feeding or courtship, or demand that another bird come back and fight. Each day I wake up to the same two crows cawing to each other across the field. The dying tree near the marsh is their favorite place to perch during this sunrise, wake-up call.

During my morning walk, I watch the crows strut around the fresh-mowed field looking for seeds and insects. In early fall they gorge themselves on the fruit lying beneath the neglected apple tree. (For some reason, eating these tart, rotten apples makes the crows extra talkative. Is it possible they’re getting drunk? I wonder.)


I’m fond of crows. They have a bad reputation because they’re smart, which often makes them pests to humans. Recent research has found some crow species capable not only of tool use but of tool construction as well. The New Caledonian Crow has been seen making ‘knives’ out of stiff leaves and stalks of grass, and dropping tough nuts into a busy street so cars will crush them open. In areas where crows are hunted, the birds can tell the difference between a hunter with a gun and a farmer with a shovel. They can also tell humans apart based on individual facial features. Crows can work together when an enemy invades their territory. They will send out alarm calls and mob the intruder until it flees.

Early this morning I knew something was amiss when I woke not to the familiar caw of Skyfield’s two crows, but to a noisy, cawing ruckus instead. Even from my bed, I knew there were strange birds on the property. Still half asleep, I threw on some clothes and grabbed my camera. Outside, I saw about thirty crows circling and diving overhead. They were chattering, perching in the tops of the pines, and riding the currents. In a nearby tree, I heard the excited “chwirk” of a red-tailed hawk. A red-tail can kill and eat a crow if it’s determined enough, so perhaps the flock was gathering in order to protect itself. Or maybe the crows were on the move and momentarily embroiled in a territorial dispute with the two birds who live here. It’s impossible to know.


Sonny Rollins: “It’s All about Space”

By |09.07.11|

Today is the birthday of jazz legend Sonny Rollins. At the age of 81, Rollins is still touring, making new music, and recording records.

The long, remarkable career of Sonny Rollins is a good example […]

August 2011

The Art of Poetry Bombing

By |08.24.11|

What if cities that have endured horrendous, wartime bombings could experience a different sort of “bombing”–one that would bolster the morale of its citizens, instead of breaking it?

In my introductory article on street art, I discussed yarn bombing, a new type of graffiti art that is being championed by artists like Olek and Jessie Hemmons. This week I came across two different art projects inspired by the idea of poetry bombing. The idea was new to me, so I was intrigued.

Since 2001 the Chilean art collective Casagrande has been staging “Poetry Rain” projects in cities like Warsaw, Berlin, Santiago de Chile, Dubrovnik, and Guernica–all cities that have suffered aerial bombings in their history. The most recent event took place in Berlin in 2010 and was part of the Long Night of Museums. Crowds of thousands gathered in the city’s Lustgarten as 100,000 poems rained down from the sky.


The poems, which were dropped from the helicopter by Casagrande, included work by 80 German and Chilean poets, including Ann Cotten, Karin Fellner, Nora Gomringer, Andrea Heuser, Orsolya Kalász, Björn Kuhligk, Marion Poschmann, Arne Rautenberg, Monika Rinck, Hendrik Rost, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Tom Schulz, Thien Tran, Anja Utler, Jan Wagner, Ron Winkler and Uljana Wolf.


Casagrande says that these poetry bombings are intended as a protest against war. (The Berlin event was also a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the independence of Chile). As the members of Casagrande told the Guardian, “wartime bombings were intended to ‘break the morale’ of the inhabitants of a city, so the poetry bombing ‘builds’ a new city by giving new meaning to events of her tragic past and therefore presenting the city in a whole new original way.'”

I loved watching this video of Casagrande’s poetry drop in Berlin. There is so much excitement and joy on the faces of the people gathered in the city’s Lustgarten. To renew a sense of child-like wonder through the experience of art, is a true gift to the citizens of Berlin. (If you are reading this article in an email, click here to watch the video).


Agustina Woodgate
While Casagrande’s poetry bombing events happen on a grand scale and require a great deal of planning and organization, the poetry bombing of artist Agustina Woodgate is a true guerrilla art project.


As part of the “O, Miami” poetry festival, Woodgate spent a month secretly sewing the poems of Sylvia Plath and Li Po into pants, dresses, and jackets in thrift stores around the country. She created the project to make poetry more accessible and to give customers an extra gift with their purchases.


Paint Palettes of the Old Masters

By |08.08.11|

Why is van Gogh’s paint palette worth preserving? Lucy Davies, photography critic for the Telegraph, tackled this question in a blog post she wrote last year:
“The daubs of raw pigment or the mixes left in position can be an intriguing index to the working method and the mind of the artist…Where and how colour is laid can convey emotion, psychology, religious significance. ‘The whole value of what you are about’ wrote John Ruskin in his Elements of Drawing, first published in 1857 ‘depends on colour. If the colour is wrong, everything is wrong: just as, if you are singing, and sing false notes, it does not matter how true your words are.'”
These photographs of palettes used by painters like van Gogh, Gaughin, and Degas are fascinating to peruse. You can read Davies’ full piece on the use of color in painting here.




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July 2011

Designer Milton Glaser on Creativity and the Fear of Failure

By |07.22.11|

You may not know graphic designer Milton Glaser by name, but you undoubtedly know his work. He is best known for the “I ♥ NY” logo, his “Bob Dylan” poster, the “DC bullet” logo used by DC Comics from 1977 to 2005, and the “Brooklyn Brewery” logo. He also founded New York Magazine with Clay Felker in 1968 and was one of the co-founders of Push Pin Studios in 1954.

Many of Glaser’s designs have achieved iconic status. “The hallmarks of his work are its simplicity, wit and elegance,” said Stephen Holden in the New York Times. “It may be commercial art, but with a capital A.”

In 2009, Glaser was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, and his work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, among others. Milton Glaser, Inc., which was established in 1974 in Manhattan, is still producing work in a wide range of disciplines. Philip Roth fans may recognize the numerous book jackets Glaser has designed for his friend over the years.


Glaser is an articulate speaker, as well as a talented artist. In this seven-minute video, the renowned designer shares his own views on the creative process and the inevitable fear of failure that all artists confront.


June 2011

Creative Spaces: Angela Cappetta’s Love Letter to Medusa

By |06.30.11|

Photographer Angela Cappetta has a new show opening this weekend at the Medusa General Store as part of their MGS Projects series. “Medusa: A Love Letter to the Mountains” reflects on the working farm community […]

May 2011

MacArthur Fellow Anna Schuleit & the Whole Sweep of Trying

By |05.31.11|




Welcome to the first installment of “Creative Spaces,” a regular Gwarlingo series that will focus on the creative habits and work spaces of visual artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other talented individuals.

I’m so pleased to kick off the series with an intimate profile of visual artist and MacArthur recipient Anna Schuleit.
Anna graciously agreed to talk with me about her daily work habits, studio space, recent projects, and much more. She also gave me permission to photograph her studio in exceptional detail, granting me access not only to her works in progress, but also to many of her sketches, personal collections, notes, and books.
Such generosity is in keeping with Anna’s personality. She is curious, playful, open-minded, intelligent, and exudes a positive, contagious energy. But forget the stereotypes of flighty creative geniuses (a word that makes most MacArthur fellows squirm). Anna is as deep and introspective as she is energetic and outgoing.
Born in Mainz, Germany, and raised in a family of artists, Anna came to the US at 16 as a high school student. She went on to study painting at RISD and creative writing at Dartmouth.




Anna’s early, large-scale installations included Habeas Corpus (2000), in which she brought the crumbling Northampton State Hospital to life with the music of J.S. Bach, and Bloom (2003), where she filled the Massachusetts Mental Health Center with 28,000 blooming flowers and 5,600 square feet of lush, green sod. In 2007 she created Landlines–a public art project commemorating the centennial anniversary of The MacDowell Colony.

In 2009 Anna’s paintings and drawings were exhibited at the Coleman Burke Gallery in New York City. In 2010 she completed Just a Rumor, a large painting commission at UMass Amherst, as well as a painted set-design for Ivy Baldwin Dance at the Chocolate Factory Theater in New York. Her work has been praised for its “conceptual clarity, compassion, and beauty.”

Anna has been a visiting artist and lecturer at MIT, Brown, Smith, RISD, The New School, Bowdoin, and other institutions. Residency programs have been an important cornerstone to her artistic development. She has been a fellow at The Blue Mountain Center, The MacDowell Colony, Bogliasco, Yaddo, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, among others. In 2006 Anna was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

The following interview and photo shoot took place in the early spring of 2011 in the small, rural town of Harrisville, New Hampshire, where Anna’s studio is currently located. On the morning I arrived at the studio, Anna’s dog Finnegan was relaxing on the couch and Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” was playing on the stereo. When I commented on this musical choice, Anna explained that she begins every work day in the studio by listening to Steve Reich’s “Drumming” and “Music for 18 Musicians.”

Michelle Aldredge: Anna, what is your typical routine? Do you have any rituals that are important to your creative work?

Anna Schuleit: When I wake up in the morning I first go outside with my dog to check on the weather and the overall feel of the day. That’s the very first thing, going outside. Then a walk or run in the woods, then breakfast. And then off to the studio for the rest of the day.

Once there, I usually continue working on what I was doing the night before–a series of works, never just a single piece. If I stay long enough in the studio, just stay with the work even if it doesn’t feel great or seem satisfying or directional or conclusive, if I just stay to tend and garden, then my mind gradually yields control to the more automatic labor of painting, and with that comes a sweet spot in the process further down, a worn groove, a sense of ease.

That’s a bit elusive and hard to describe, and it doesn’t really depend on any rituals other than, well…presence. Just staying with it allows it to open up. The same is true for any creative task, no?

I listen to music while I work, usually abstract things. But I also enjoy the quiet, sounds from elsewhere–birds. I eat simple meals, more lunch than dinner, and I read the news when I can, or make phone calls, or run quick errands, but usually I’m in the studio for long stretches of sameness: mixing paint, looking at paintings, drawing, looking more, painting, mixing more paint, drinking some tea, looking more. And so on. Just maintaining a presence. And I do enjoy this more than I can adequately express.

By the time I leave the studio at night I often feel deeply connected to my work, and I have to tear myself away like a kid from a playground. The process feeds itself, somehow, and I get to be a part of it, which is the best and simplest, and most tumbling and humbling feeling I know.

What do you do when you hit a roadblock or get stuck on a certain piece?

For the past six years I’ve been working in series: multiple panels of drawings and paintings that help prevent the formation of serious roadblocks by creating a multitude of views of the same thing. That means there are multiple options spread out across more than a single pictorial plane, side-by-side, which means repetition, which in turn, means a built-in possibility for continuation.

I try to keep going at the speed each particular piece seems to require naturally, some slow, some fast. Slow for me means more than a month, and I actually have several works in that category right now, large paintings on linen. They just seem to need more time to remain “open” while I keep them around, keep looking without specific expectations other than to stay engaged.

When I do get stuck and nothing moves forward for several days I will take a snapshot of the painting and enlarge it at a copy shop onto a large piece of paper, which I bring back to the studio with me. I cut the copy apart, paint on top of it, and use it as an impermanent collage. It gets me back into the work through a back-door and lets me see the colors and the composition differently, which can be crucial to getting unstuck again. But that kind of roadblock is ultimately part of the piece like all the rest, a sort of necessary detour.

I love the combination of intense creative energy and controlled order in your studio. Can you explain how your studio is organized?

My studio is one large space subdivided into several parts: paintings on the walls, drawings and prints on tables in the middle, paints and inks and dry media and other tools in-between, and books and papers on the fringes. The different parts of the studio help me to keep moving, like stations along a road.

Things are in flux though; it’s definitely not overly neat, nor is it too tidy. But it’s not chaos either. It’s a good, medium kind of state with room for dried paint and dust and empty bottles and clothes and traces of use. And there are large, handsome industrial windows overlooking a row of trees. Oh, and lots of lamps and spotlights, since I work at night, too. Working at night makes all the other things that aren’t part of the paintings fall away, adding contrast and saturation and a kind of temporary authority in the composition that the next day supersedes again.

Are there any objects in your studio that have special meaning to you?


March 2011

Ira Glass Talks about the Creative Process

By |03.23.11|


In the following clip, Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life, gives some useful advice to writers, journalists, and broadcasters about the art of telling a good story. Remember the […]

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Hedgehog in the Fog: A Short Animated Classic by Russia’s “Golden Snail”

By |03.19.11|

If you’ve never seen Yuriy Norshteyn’s Hedgehog in the Fog, then you are in for a special treat. And if you have seen it, you owe it to yourself to revisit this classic, animated film.

Hedgehog in the Fog is one of the most beautiful, evocative short films ever made. It won many prizes and awards on both sides of the Iron Curtain when it made the festival circuit in the mid and late 70s. In 2003 Hedgehog was named “the number one animated film of all time” at an animation competition in Tokyo.

The story is simple–a hedgehog makes his regular evening journey to see his friend, the bear cub. But on this particular night a fog has descended on the forest and the hedgehog has many frightening, transformative encounters. The cinematography of Nadezhda Treschyova, story by Sergei Kozlov, and music of Mikhail Meyerovich come together with Norshteyn’s animations to create a moving, memorable experience.

Norshteyn’s craftsmanship and originality, as well as his affinity for small, quiet details have earned him tremendous respect in the animation world. Nick Park is reportedly a fan, and the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, cited Hedgehog in the Fog as one of his favorite animated films and called Norshteyn “a great artist.” Miyazaki and Norshteyn both share an eye for natural beauty. The forest in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke may owe something to Norshteyn’s mysterious forest in Hedgehog, though Miyazaki’s final vision is certainly his own.

Norshteyn was born in a working class suburb of Moscow. His early artistic path was a difficult one, plagued by anti-Semitism and struggles within the education system. Norshteyn practiced carpentry and painting before learning animation.

Norshteyn works closely with his wife, Francesca Yarbusova, who is an important collaborator on his films. He uses a unique, multi-plane technique to give his work its remarkable sense of depth. The camera shoots down at a series of glass plates that can move horizontally and vertically, giving the illusion that characters are moving toward or away from the viewer.

This stop-motion technique, which does not employ computers, is incredibly labor intensive. His slow production pace has earned Norshteyn the nickname “The Golden Snail.” Since 1981 he has been working on a 65-minute production of Gogol’s The Overcoat. In 1986 he was fired from Souyzmultfilm (the primary Soviet animation studio) because he was working too slowly. It reportedly took Norshteyn and his small team two years to create 10 minutes of film.

While some critics have attributed Norshteyn’s slow output to his obsessiveness and perfectionism, one could also view his story as a remarkable dedication to craft and personal vision in an overly commercialized movie industry. It is a terrible irony that Norshteyn no longer has to contend with Soviet censors, but must now struggle to find capitalist funding for films that have no mass market appeal. In a 2005 interview in The Washington Post, Norshteyn railed against the state of cinema today: “There is no artistic freedom because artistry has been replaced by ignorance.”

Somehow, Norshteyn has found the tenacity to persevere in spite of tremendous setbacks. During the creation of The Overcoat, Norshteyn has endured continual funding problems, the death of his close friend and cinematographer Aleksandr Zhukovskiy, and the closure of the Moscow film labs that were processing the movie’s black-and-white film stock. (For now, Norshteyn has overcome this hurdle by developing the film himself).

Perhaps like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, the plagued production of The Overcoat should become a story in its own right. Undoubtedly, the final product will determine whether the film is dubbed Norshteyn’s greatest triumph or his greatest folly. If the film lives up to expectation, Norshteyn will likely be portrayed as a hero, and if the film is anything less than a masterpiece, he risks being dubbed the Captain Ahab of the animation world. Regardless, it is an incredible example of an artist remaining true to his vision even in the most difficult circumstances.


Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

By |03.19.11|

The Guardian’s two-part series “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” […]