Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How to draw like a pro when you're stuck

 My daughter Caitlin is doing a project for school. She is creating characters to illustrate the "E" number she is studying in AP Calculus. She already wrote a fairy tale with witty math wordplay, "The Princess and the E." Right now she is drawing the characters. It's going to be a picture book she can show and read to her class of 30.
 "I have always loved the art of William Steig and Quentin Blake, why can't I draw like them?" she moans. "Or Dr. Seuss, he was such an original!" More sighing. "Why did I wait so long, this is due in the MORNING!"
 She's an art major at her visual/performing arts high school, so yes, she can draw.
 I tell her to grab one of our many picture books illustrated by Blake. She grabs Dahl's The Twits.
 "Copy his style as exactly as you can. Don't worry about plagiarizing, copy away, no matter what, it will turn into what you do more than what he does. Quit trying to be original, waste of time. You'll get there faster by cheating."
She is drawing reckless princes and cavorting witches.
 "They aren't interesting enough," she says squinting.
 "Give them silly hats, can't have enough hats."
I just looked over her shoulder. The drawings are fresh and fun and look nothing like Quentin Blake.
 "You can't pass these off as Blakes," I mention.
 "No, I realized it was easier to draw it my way. Thanks for getting me to see that."
 I freely share this sage advice with the rest of you.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Scottish Dream

No, in this dream I did not see ghosts or have a problem washing my hands clean. I was in a home where an older man proudly and tersely showed me his photo gallery. Strong and riveting images. Even in the dream I realized I was some sort of critic and this guy fell into that class of artists that operate outside of museums and collections.
He paused in front of one shot of a young woman who at first appears to only be holding a shawl or something. Then you realize she is clutching the bloodied hat of someone fallen at her feet. The moment is discordant, the light on her almost pastoral, at the scene of a terrible accident. A hit-and-run?
The man's wife comes up to me and says, with a burr, "there's an old saying, you get the best twice, once when you know it and twice when you show it." The man clears his throat or maybe he is saying something unintelligible to me but his wife laughs and says she'll be serving tea.
I sit down to interview this master of light.
The alarm goes off and it is Monday and the gray skies and work week hours resume.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Stephen Colbert [Poetry!] book interview

Stephen Colbert: Tonight, Americans, we are going to give me a round of applause for having a live poet, Claudia Carlson, on our show. With this book.
(Colbert runs and accepts wild applause.)

SC: So. I see this book has an elephant on the cover and the back cover says it is about your mother.

CC: Well actually...

SC: Your mother is an elephant?

CC: Uh no, she was...

SC: Plus, it says The Elephant House, don't you live in New York City, shouldn't you have called your book The Elephant Apartment House?

CC: Many of the poems are set in other locations...

SC: Places elephants live, like zoos and India?

CC: Close, yes, the Bronx Zoo as well as Baton Rouge and the Grand Canyon.

SC: You travel with a lot of trunks?

CC: (laughing)

SC: You don't have many political poems in your book, why is that?

CC: That isn't my focus...

SC: Why aren't you writing true blue American ditties? With this elephant on the cover I assumed you were. After all, you didn't write The Donkey House or Jackass Loser Democratic Diaries.

CC: I wrote the stories I had to tell.

SC: So why don't you rhyme everything? I thought poetry was supposed to rhyme. You know, "roses are red, pachyderms are gray, Colbert is hot, day after day."

CC: I write in free verse and...

SC: No you don't, the book costs $12.95, that's only close to free if you're a European tourist. So. You also interview dead people such as the artist Goya and scientist Mendel. And people like Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty.

CC: Well I prefer to think of it as a creative visit.

SC: Like what I do?

CC: But with more metaphors.

SC: And more elephants. Tell me, do you have many in your closets? In your jello?

CC: I try to not forget them.

SC: Well, we won't forget you, and America, go out and put (or elect) an elephant in your house.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Flash forward

Tonight I am beginning an intensive course in Flash. All the moving flashing bling of websites and interactive applications will become something I will be able to do myself, in theory. The real goal is to know what can be done and direct others to do it for me. The class is a fine perk of my job.

My whole adult life I have designed print and web pages that mostly stayed still. Didn't attempt to be a director with the video camera. Didn't hanker to make cartoons. But there is some part of me that would like to know how much movement and extras are delightful, and where it becomes annoying. I know many movie and game sites are fantastic, artists create beguiling online environments, and this is the future. Even if Flash gets replaced by something called "Pow" or "Zoom" it is still the way things are going. And I'm getting on board.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Truffle hunting

What is it about chocolate?

I was at a party where one of the guests had made truffles with an ingredient that I have never heard of . . . tonka bean. It isn't used in US cooking because the FDA has banned it. In large doses tonka can be a lethal anti-coagulant. But in the truffle that melted on my tongue it was a vibrant relative of vanilla, with hints of cinnamon, cloves, and almonds. As if the tame vanilla of--let's say a hostess twinkie--had gone to South America and now emoted Carmen Miranda. Zing-badda-boom.

I must eat chocolate nearly every day. At work we serve chocolates at long meetings, just as attention wavers the theobromines gives us new focus and amity. I know some, a few odd people, don't like it. And dogs shouldn't like it but they do. They can't break it down. And it's so good they'll keep eating non-stop until it kills them. Our dachshund ate some mislaid Halloween chocolate bars and shivered, panted and sicked up for a day. I wonder if she would have a problem with tonka?

Nobody has legislated for no chocolate to protect dogs. Seems as if a little tonka could be allowed into the food American humans eat, they use it in Europe. Unlike dogs, we wouldn't eat it until we died, would we?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Short attention spans

Some good deeds take decades to prove profitable. For instance putting small kids in Head Start, feeding them a healthy meal and preparing them for school, or inviting a freshman seminar to your home every week and feeding them cookies along with nuggets of science and liberal arts. The Head Start payoff is 15 to 20 years later, these kids go to jail less frequently and have a greater chance of going to college and earning more. Clear cost benefit. But you have to be far sighted to see it. Bush's administration seems keen on dismantling Head Start, savings today over long term results tomorrow.

My father ran a freshman seminar at Stony Brook with his typical form of generosity, he brought students into his living room and my stepmother baked cake or cookies and poured tea. No clear benefit in dollars. But of course, you can't look at it that way. Yesterday the acting surgeon general came back to Stony Brook, thirty years later, and publicly thanked my parents for their instruction and kindness. He was one of those freshmen. My father ran this and other programs with the same enthusiasm. These programs had always been prone to dangerous scrutiny from administrators. They tend to look at money coming in now (such as grants) as far more valuable than potential. As a teacher, it takes years for your work to mature, make careers for themselves, and report back, but even the flintiest administrator must be delighted when a notable former student thanks a former teacher and this directly leads to more donations, grants, and future classes enlarging the reputation that was built on such slow good will.