speaking for our time

Last month, I celebrated the first year of marriage with my wife. We didn’t have a lot of money or time to plan a big getaway, so we borrowed a car and headed up to The Berkshires for an overnight stay in a Super 8 Motel. Not knowing the area, we hopped online to research what fun we might find. We discovered The Norman Rockwell Museum is in Stockbridge, MA just twenty minutes away from our motel. I was super excited at the chance to see the original paintings made famous by so many Saturday Evening Post covers.

“Coming and Going”

My wife was interested, but didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“We have to go!” I insisted.

She conceded, and we embarked upon what I can only describe as a magical afternoon.

It may seem odd that I was so insistent on visiting the museum, but Norman Rockwell is a childhood hero. My father owns Monical’s Pizza Place in Canton, IL, and when I was in junior high, my mother and he redecorated the small restaurant. They chose to cover one wall with Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post wallpaper. The pizza place was my second home, and that wall spurred me to learn about and fall in love with Norman Rockwell.

Typically, I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t yearn for my youth. For some reason, though, Norman Rockwell turns me to a 14-year-old again. I look at his work with wonder. He had a way of capturing life that photographs don’t. Now, I was going to see his original paintings

If you look at his work, it’s not exact. Sure, the faces look almost like the photographs from which he worked, but he’s fabricated the scenarios. He was a storyteller; a curator of life, plucking people’s faces to put in his paintings and tell tales about certain times and places. Sometimes, they are iconic, like the family around the dinner table at Thanksgiving in Freedom from Want.

Other moments are highly political and charged with dissonance of the day, like The Problem We All Live With, depicting the real-life Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, walking to an all-white public school in New Orleans, LA on November 14, 1960. President Obama displayed it outside the Oval Office for the first three years of his presidency. That’s how important this painting is.

It all deeply impressed my wife. She’d always viewed Rockwell as an art director of magazine covers. A commercial artist who created hazy, iconic Americana. Certainly, at first glance, his oeuvre can feel like this, but the deeper you look, the clearer it becomes: He was a great artist who reflected the times in which he lived with immense passion.

Dario Fo, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, said, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”

Norman Rockwell spoke for generations. His images still influence artists today. Just two weeks ago, The New Yorker riffed on The Tattoo Artist, a painting of a man receiving a tattoo where he’s crossed out his previous girlfriends and adds a new one. The satirical illustration, Skin Deep, is by Barry Blitt and featured Mitt Romney having old political positions that no longer suit his platform crossed out for new ones.

He also influences painters, like comic artist Alex Ross, who has his own exhibition “Heroes and Villains” at The Norman Rockwell Museum from now until February 24, 2013. To commemorate Rockwell, Ross painted a portrait of the master specifically for this exhibition. Unsurprisingly, he chose to portray Rockwell as an American hero, draped with an American flag.

“Norman Rockwell” by Alex Ross

Norman Rockwell’s attention to detail and subtle storytelling boldly spoke for his own time. That isn’t an easy to do. Often, I see young artists bent on portraying their own lives, which often leads to self-indulgent psychological work to which others cannot relate. As artists, we must seek truth in others and do our best to curate stories that change the way humanity sees itself. Through empathy, we can see others and, hopefully, make a better world.

All photos were taken by me on my iPhone, except for the Alex Ross image, which was found on his website: www.alexrossart.com

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the music of our city

Last night, I took the F train into Manhattan after being restricted to the borough of Brooklyn for almost a week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It was a surreal experience. The city was as quiet as I’d seen it since 9/11. Practically, the only cars on the street were taxi cabs, outnumbering other cars 10 to 1. There was a tension on the trains punctuated by supportive smiles and silent nods from other passengers.

I went to Manhattan to attend a talk, The Public Forum at Joe’s Pub, featuring two of my artistic heroes, solo performer Anna Deavere Smith and David Simon, creator of “The Wire.” They talked about their work processes, the music of speech, and, of course, Sandy. It was great being in a theater for the second time in as many nights, and hearing them speak in a place I consider a home was healing.
David Simon and Anna Deavere Smith

One of the most poignant moments came when Ms. Smith spoke about how tragedies can invigorate creativity. They spur artists to vehemently return to the work because artists make art. She expressed her anticipation of rejuvenated creativity and related it to shopkeepers returning to work after Hurricane Katrina. This is who they were, and if they didn’t open their shops, their lives lost meaning.

The Forum inspired, indeed. Mr. Simon shared how he records actual background conversations for all his productions instead of the traditional “peas and carrots” walla typically taped because it works as a soundtrack – the music of conversation. Ms. Smith insists on word perfect recitation of the interviews she performs because every “like” and “um” represents the soul of that person.

I left Joe’s Pub on cloud nine. After the talk, I was supposed to connect with my wife Christy, who was teaching yoga in the neighborhood, but my phone died and I couldn’t call her. We planned to meet up and ride the subway back to Brooklyn together. Instead, I hopped on the F train at Broadway-Lafayette, resigned to ride home solo. When the train pulled into the Delancey street station, I peered out the train’s window, hoping Christy might be on the platform, since that is where she typically catches it.

Low and behold there she was.

My train car passed Christy, and she didn’t see me in the window. She boarded the train two cars behind me, so I had to walk back to surprise her. At the next stop, I was able to skip to her car and sneak up on her, smiling big, hoping for a hug.

She saw me, and with wide eyes she said, “Were you down there next to the fight?”

Fight? What’s she talking about? Where?

She pointed to the end of the car, and I saw it: Two men – one big, young guy and another, older, homeless man. They yelled at each other. The young guy was pissed because the homeless man was staring at him. The homeless man shouted that he wasn’t looking at the young guy.

They got louder and louder until I said, “Let’s get out of here. Go to the next car.”

Christy hesitated, but the fight escalated, and it seemed punches might fly at any moment. She stood, and we went to the next car, fleeing the fight.

Through the end windows of our new car, we safely watched the young guy, inches from the homeless man’s face, screaming. Finally, as the train pulled into the Jay Street-Metro Tech station, the young guy lifted his arm and slammed it against the homeless man’s face. The homeless man dropped to the ground, and the young guy grabbed his own travel bags, exiting the train onto the platform.

Dazed, the homeless man stood up, scrambling for the young man, but then he realized he was leaving his own bags. He went back for his bags, grabbed them and stumbled onto the platform where I assume they continued fighting. The F train pulled out, and we headed home, both shaken by the experience.

A woman sat across from us. She was eager to recount the altercation blow by blow. How she evacuated the fight car, too. How the young guy had also yelled at her when she sat across from him. She speculated he might be displaced by the storm. He had travel bags. Maybe he was going home. Maybe he was an evacuee, headed to a friends’ place in Brooklyn. Whatever the case, he was disproportionately angry, and the homeless man got the brunt of that rage.

Soon, she spoke about the storm. She’d been volunteering in Red Hook and Coney Island, and the stories she shared were harrowing. She and her friend purchased saris in Jackson Heights and took them to Coney Island because women who wouldn’t leave their homes uncovered for religious reasons had been wearing wet, moldy saris for days. In the Red Hook Housing Projects, there are many elderly residents who didn’t evacuate and won’t leave. There is plenty of support from Red Cross on the ground, but the residents won’t evacuate. One elderly lady’s apartment had wet, moldy carpeting and was infested with rats and raccoons. The woman begged the older lady to let her carry her down 12 flights of stairs, but the older lady wouldn’t abandon her home. The woman told us she must get a hepatitis shot because she’d been wading in waste for two days.

Christy and I arrived at our stop, leaving the woman on the train with faint smiles and weak waves.

“Good luck,” we said.

“You, too,” she replied.

We felt gut punched. It was hard to talk for a few minutes, grappling with the fight we witnessed and the woman’s tale. After a detached week watching devastation on the news, we heard first-hand accounts of what it looks like inside the madness. We saw the affects of madness on men. We tried to make sense of our fortune of living at the highest elevation in Brooklyn, a place barely touched by Sandy’s wrath.

Then, I remembered the conversation of Ms. Smith and Mr. Simon just an hour earlier. As an artist and a writer, it is my job to share these stories. It is my job to reflect the madness of victims and triumph of heroes. It’s important to get back to work. For many, this may not be possible for a while, but it is important to return as soon as we can.

I can return to work now. I can help others with not only my donations and service, but by writing and sharing stories. It doesn’t matter if you sell coffee, teach yoga, work in a skyscraper, or entertain and educate through artistic creation. As soon as you can, get back to what you do best. It adds your unique voice back to a wondrously diverse symphony – the music of our city.

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP NYC RECOVER

The City of New York volunteer registration nyc.gov/service

Park Slope Armory 8th Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in Brooklyn
(Kids cannot volunteer and should stay at home)

Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation
402 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY 718-965-3100

Red Hook Initiative 767 Hicks Street Brooklyn, NY 11231
ONLY ACCEPTING PREPARED FOOD

Red Hook Recovers  (347) 770-152 https://redhook.recovers.org

Resurrection Parish (Gerritsen Beach)
2331 Gerritsen Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11229 (718) 743-7234

The Silver Gull (Breezy Point) 1 Beach 193rd Street, Breezy Point

Far Rockaway St. Francis, 219 Beach 129th Street

Coney Island  Staging area @ 2770 West 5th Street Between Neptune and West Ave.

Staten Island – Tottenville High School 
100 Luten Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10312
nysassembly60@gmail.com

Rebuild Staten Island
https://www.facebook.com/RebuildStatenIsland

biscuit! the super power of touretteshero

About a year ago, my friend Matthew Pountney introduced me to Jessica Thom. Well, he virtually introduced me to her alter ego, Touretteshero. Jessica was born with Tourette’s and does not medicate (aside from muscle relaxants) because of unwelcome side effects. As a result, her tics are frequent – she spouts the word “biscuit” 16,000 times a day – and they strain everyday relationships. When Matthew shared Jessica’s website with me, I was inspired.

Aside from Jessica’s obvious bravery, I’m extremely impressed with her transmedia approach to share her story. She embraces Tourette’s as a super power and uses this narrative to teach children about the syndrome. Thus, Tourretteshero was born. Jessica offers workshops for kids where they can embrace their own super heroes, and she’s got a YouTube page featuring fun videos about her work and causes she supports.

Her website shares interactive art created by Touretteshero fans based on Jessica’s verbal tics. She posts the tics and allows fans to vote for their favorite tics. Fans have created illustrations based on the tics, including some of the hilarious R-rated drawings you can see here.

I’ve got ninety nine problems but a bear ain’t one.

Quirky video art duo chris+keir re-enacted a number of Touretteshero’s tics as performances.

She remixed soundbites into a song featuring actor and comedian Stephen Fry, and, of course, a multi-platform campaign wouldn’t be complete without social media, which you can follow on all the typical channels. My favorite is TicBot – the only bot on Twitter I will endorse – which randomly injects tweeted tics into your feed when you least expect it. Follow @ticbot. Fun stuff.

And now, Jessica is publishing her diaries, Welcome to Biscuitland: A Year in the Life of Touretteshero. You can read some excerpts from the book on The Mail’s website, and pre-order the book on Amazon.

The more I see from Jessica, the more I want to meet her in person. An ocean divides us, but I’ve hope Matthew’s virtual introduction will someday lead to a face to face meeting. Jessica’s creativity, humor and bravery inspires me to not only make good, fun art, but create important work that educates and enlightens.

Tourettshero.com

Welcome to Biscutland: A Year in the Life of Touretteshero

enter the burn – part deux

I love to watch stuff burn. I’m drawn like a moth, hypnotized when flames play in the wind and consume oxygen, paper or wood. Twice, as a child, I almost caught our house on fire from playing with it. Finally, I figured out fire isn’t a toy, but an element to revere. A year ago, I made it to the festival that celebrates fire (and much more) in all its glory: Burning Man.

My first pilgrimage to the desert was difficult, fun, sad, joyful and rewarding. Burning Man is a lot of things to a lot of people. Just as with any art, everyone has her/his own relationship to it, and some people love it while others can’t be bothered.

No matter your take, I’m amped. When I saw a video documenting the creation of the official welcome sign, it fueled my fire.

Burning Man 2012 – Fertility 2.0 Festival Sign from Mad Dog on Vimeo.

Earlier this year, Tedshots posted a beautiful adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” shot in 2011. It’s one of my favorites.

Now that I have the lay of the land and a better perspective on the culture of it all, I’m hoping I’ll be able to see more fun things. This video by Rainbow Raccoon is long, but that’s because it covers so much. I didn’t even see several wonders it features.

Home is where the heart is, and I know so many burners declare it’s like returning home. It may seem silly to you, or perhaps you’re a kindred spirit who gets it. Whatever the case, my heart fills when I imagine riding my bike across the playa.

should i work for free?

The fabulous letterer and illustrator Jessica Hische created a monster flowchart asking the question so many artists ask: Should I would for free? It sifts through the complex emotions attached to money and takes a humorous look at the inner workings of the work/art relationship. Plus, you can order it on letter press and hang it up in your studio, so it is extra super cool. Just like Jessica.

To interact with the flowchart, visit shouldiworkforfree.com.