Thursday, May 27, 2010

buying the brand

I remember becoming aware of brand names in Elementary school. Back then my little metropolis had only one traffic light and as far as I knew the primary purpose of an automobile was to effectively transport people and good from point A to point B. Today this appears to be a secondary or even tertiary purpose falling well behind being an outward demonstration of the driver's personality or financial status. Radio and TV ads teach us exactly which car brands are the cool ones, which ones will make us still seem cool while we transport our kids and things, and which ones will make us feel macho and manly while driving to our cubicles. When you think about it, it makes you wonder what the highway landscape would look like if there were no advertising at all. If cars were still just transportation would you be driving what you are driving?

I don't care what kind of car you drive or why you drive it. What concerns me is how the ideas of brand marketing bleed over into areas not normally thought to be associated with advertising. Maybe you're into religion. Have you noticed how your local church is being managed like a business? Have you noticed how your church is marketing itself to a certain demographic? Maybe you have kids. Have you noticed how fashion and dietary concepts are introduced through cartoons? Have you watched as your child begged for the "Scooby Doo" gummy fruits instead of the ones without familiar characters on the box?

Or maybe you like art.

It would be easy to start with Picasso. As the first real art superstar he stands as the beacon of art marketing. And while he certainly deserves some credit for learning how to make the most of the attention he received, we'd have to look more to the left on the Art History timeline to trace the branding of art. In fact, just follow that imaginary line back to the early Renaissance in Europe. This was the time that money began to flow more freely from the royal and aristocratic donors and among those with money, certain names began to surface as the most sought after artists. At this point a person's social and financial status could be outwardly demonstrated by the name of the artist they hired for portraits or altarpieces. We could presume that these artists were actually the most talented, but realistically we should consider that they were just the most connected. After all, the reason many of them are in our Art History books is that their brand was chosen by the people with bags of money.

We'll get back to the bags of money momentarily.

But you're an educated, self actualized American - you don't buy into branding. You're smarter than that. Right? OK, maybe on a very subconscious level the car you picked out was designed by an artist who used strong lines and hard angles and large proportions in order to visually communicate ideas of strength and reliability. So they slipped that one by you. And maybe your religious group is targeting a specific demographic who happens to have families and money, but that's just what churches do, right? And kids, come on, kids love Scooby Doo, heck, they're even called "Scooby Snacks", what's not to love about that? But there's no way branding has anything to do with my sense of aesthetics. I mean, some things are sacred.

So what about Robert Therrien? Have you seen his work? Do you have a T-shirt he designed? Any books? Do you have any prints of his drawings hanging in the guest bathroom? No? And yet Therrien has been producing very strong, relevant works of Contemporary Art for years.

OK, but what about Shepard Fairey? What about Banksy? What about Damien Hirst? You've seen their work, you may have a T-shirt, a few books, and every artsy person needs a couple of their prints to hang in the guest bathroom so that, almost as an afterthought, you can tacitly suggest to visitors that you are just hip enough to have such a thing.

But, you argue, these guys are amazing artists! Their work is everywhere. Fairey just had a show at the ICA/Boston last year. That Banksy guy is everywhere and he's all over the news...and he's so mysterious. And haven't you seen that diamond studded skull? The dead shark in formaldehyde? Genius, right?

Maybe genius is a good word because it gets us around the idea of having to discuss the artistic merit of the work they produce. Do not misinterpret me here. I'm not saying they are bad artists. But are they the best? Do these guys represent the peak of Contemporary art in the early 2000's? Or do they simply represent the state of branding in Contemporary art?

Hirst does make some finely crafted objects. He certainly has found ways to communicate subversive ideas of beauty in the post-Post Modern era, but there's also evidence that he's much better at marketing than he is at sculpting. ( - details a few examples of this including how he "sold" the diamond studded platinum skull to himself for 50 million pounds and how he's used art auctions to inflate his sales by self bidding. Thanks to for the link)

Maybe you thought Banksy's illegal graffiti paintings were witty when they began popping up on walls in England. Maybe you like that he's figuratively and sometimes literally giving the finger to the government and the social structures of many countries. But you also have to consider that he's been playing that same note for quite a long time now. Sure, he takes his one trick pony to other cities and news shows foam at the mouth when his work appears, but it's still the same note again and again. Maybe he missed his calling as a political cartoonist (see Thomas Nast) or maybe he could consider making his artistic statements a bit less obvious and become the new Dr. least that would provide a new audience for the single note symphony. You should also consider the Robin Hood factor when you think of Banksy. It's romantic to think of the man who steals from the rich in order to give to the poor until he steals something from you. Strip away the romance and you just have a thief. Strip away the street art hype and you just have a guy who spray paints things on walls. And don't even get me started on the use of stencils. But if you can find a way to keep the hype going and you can convince a modern art gallery that hype equals paying foot could be the next golden child.

In college Andre the Giant stickers were everywhere. Or at least they were everywhere that Shepard Fairey went. If you're near a college town in South Carolina, you might still see one on a traffic sign and oddly enough there's still an "Andre the Giant has a posse" sticker on a handicap sign in a parking lot here in Sparkle City. As a fellow Sandlapper, I want to support Fairey but I've seen his artistic feet of clay. ( - a very well supported argument with critical notes at the end. Thanks to for the link) And that's not to mention the whole Obama poster scandal from the recent Presidential campaign. (Whoops!) I should note that I'm a bit personally biased with this one. A few years ago Fairey was a guest speaker at Winthrop and there was an explosion of poorly executed graffiti on campus directly afterwards. Everyone who could cut cardboard and purchase spray paint felt they were empowered to be a great public artist. All spray paint was banned from campus two years later. At last check Google image search was still allowed. (Come on, that's funny if you read the article.)

I know many of you are really fond of some or all of these artists. I know many of you at this point want to argue about the impact of these artists and their relevance to Contemporary art and Graphic Design. And surely some of you would want to go personal and say, "It sounds like someone is jealous of their success."

Totally. I would love for my creative work to have a fraction of the media attention these guys have enjoyed. I'll say again that the word "genius" comes to mind when I think about how these men have used the system to succeed. They observed the industry, they considered plans of action, and they found intelligent ways to work with the system to promote their work. What I'm saying is, they branded themselves and their work and they effectively sold that brand to an artistic culture.

As London art critic Ben Lewis is quoted in the article from Art Practical above, "I don't think there is a disconnect—there is rather an over-connection. The money splurged on these big-name artists generates headlines—the money and the headlines make the artists into stars. The museums want attention and to increase footfall, so they exhibit the work of these new stars. Museum-goers, tourists, art lovers pour through the doors of museums and see the work they've read about in the papers or seen on TV."
Genius branding indeed. If it's cool, people will buy it. And we're back to those bags of money. Who needs money in a faltering economy? The Arts. And if all we have to do is make some super-stars to increase our cash flow, so be it.

*Note to the arts agencies of the State of South Carolina: Hey y'all, this works, maybe you should consider creating a couple of art superstars to bring back that much needed art cash. I sacrificially offer myself to this cause. Call me.

Let's not forget about Robert Therrien. I know, he doesn't even have a website so some of you won't believe he's a real person, but he does exist. He avoids the media and tends more towards the hermit side of life, but he's there and he continues to turn out great quality fine art. He appears to be very content to focus his attention on the artwork and leave the marketing schemes to someone else. It is the quality of the work, after all, that will be put to the test of time. Go on and look for the websites and historians dedicated to criticizing his work - you're not likely to find any.

Remove the media-colored glasses for a moment and see what's left. Without those diamonds, maybe it's just a skull. Without the enigma, maybe it's just a couple of guys pulling a prank with spray paint. Without hipster status, maybe it's just a guy who's really good with Photoshop. Then there's Therrien over there in the shadows making stuff for people to enjoy and think about. He's just a guy going from point A to point B and trying not to make a fuss about it.

All this begs the question: Do you like it because it's hip or do you like it because it's excellent?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

And now, a word from Blue

"Daddy, you know what? God likes apples and chocolate chip cookies. But not bananas. And He likes sandwiches - peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and when He eats them He gets the jelly all over His face!"

Friday, May 21, 2010

no title

The cute kid images I sometimes burden you with are part of my processing system. Sure, there's a part of it that's simply saying "Hey, look at how cute this kid is", but a much bigger part of it is about me trying to figure out how to be a parent and how to take in and process the impact these little creatures are currently making on me. With sketchbook and with photos I document as a first step in this process so the information and experiences are recorded. Then I can begin to revisit the images and ideas after time has passed and try to figure out what drew me to each one. Why was that smile so important? Why was that very instant deemed photo-worthy? What do those answers mean in a larger context? How do we contextualize the joy, pride, fear, and constant worry brought on by these tiny humans (who look just like their father)?

The kids are just one of these areas of exploration as I watch the years add up. While I'm watching my children grow stronger I'm simultaneously watching my parents and elders grow older. Which brings us back to the joy, pride, fear, and constant worry. I guess the main difference is that my parents and elders are not constantly in arms reach of my camera.

Your own experiences with your kids or your friends’ kids make it difficult for you to understand what I’m getting at. I remember the days of being tricked into viewing photos of someone else's kids and a part of me would die on the inside. My experiences up to that point would not allow me to see what the proud parents saw. When I saw that pathetic look in the parent's eyes I assumed the camera captured the look of defeat and misery and refused to lie about it. But now I recognize that same look in my eyes and I see that I assumed incorrectly. I wasn't even close. What I was not equipped to recognize was the look of unconditional, absolute devotion. Apparently kids will do that to you. Terrifying, but I'm cool with it now.

The same goes for your experiences with your parents and elders. Your experiences are not exactly the same as mine for an infinite number of reasons, so when I mention even the word "parent" your mental associations are not the same as mine. This is the aspect of personal experience that I love and one that I consistently try to incorporate into my creative work. Josef Albers gave a great illustration about personal association with colors (which is probably more important to me than to you, but humor me for a moment). He spoke of specific personal experiences controlling how an individual would respond to a specific color and how the artist had very little control over this aspect of color. He said that if you walk into a room filled with a certain number of people and you ask them to think of the color "red" you can be sure that everyone is thinking of a different specific red and for each different person you can count on a different personal reaction to that specific red. To oversimplify, you could say that when confronted with the color "red" some people think about cherry candy while some people can only think about blood. It all depends on your past experience.

My parents and elders though, they're cherry candy. And watching them age (the three specific ones I'm thinking about are well into their "three score and ten") is at once wonderful and difficult. I look at them and it seems as if they've known exactly what they were doing the whole time. Each step looks like it was written by Mozart and they smile and laugh and roll with the punches....and it's beautiful. Even in hardship their grace is beautiful.

I wonder how they do it. I wonder how they did it. Even when I was a wee lad they oozed confidence at every turn. They knew the rules and even seemed to know exactly how the rules would build my character and make me a decent person. My wife and I get cracked up sometimes by our own complete lack of parental knowledge. We both know we have no idea what we are doing and we wonder if we're leading with the same skill we saw in our parents. When I mentioned this to my mom a while back she laughed and said they were just making it up as they went along too.

Often I have no idea what I'm doing while working on a drawing or a sculpture. One line or shape causes a response, then a decision. Each choice sets off a chain reaction of new choices and decisions. I try my best to keep my wits about me hoping to balance formal and conceptual issues while keeping one side of my brain in an art historical context. Many times during the creative process I have no idea exactly what an image or shape means or what I am hoping it brings to the visual conversation. It is a feeling of trying to control the uncontrollable. Weeks, sometimes months later, I can look back on the creative result and consider the events and thoughts I encountered during that time and the view becomes much more clear. It all makes sense. And to the outside observer it must look like I knew exactly what I was doing all along.

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards" - Søren Kierkegaard

Sunday, May 16, 2010

This is....

This is Viking Molly....

And this is Lucha Josh....

They're getting hitched and they'll be wearing these costumes.

This is a wild rabbit....

This is the first year these have appeared on my Japanese Maple....

This is my boy....
(you're my boy Blue, you're my boy!)

And this, this is just cute....

Thursday, May 13, 2010

meet Lila

I had the opportunity to teach an advanced Drawing course to Lila Shull during Spring semester. She was looking to develop beyond the normal classes and was interested in finding her own voice as she worked to visually communicate her ideas. I taught Lila a couple of years ago in 3D-1 and have watched her progress into the upper level Art courses so I knew she was a serious student. She produced an impressive amount of work in the class and the quality matched the quantity.

Here's a couple of works from her first series:

And a few from her next series:

And the third series:

These are all fairly large drawings on Stonehenge paper. She used everything from graphite to colored pencils to paint washes.
In addition to completing these drawings she was awarded the Outstanding Student in Drawing Award for this academic year. I think it's been a big semester for her. She's certainly moved forward. Next semester she's studying abroad and I'm sure we're going to see more excellent work from her next year.
Congratulations Lila. I'm proud.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Bubba revisited

Bubba has been living at SeaLevel Systems, Inc in beautiful Liberty, SC for several years now. The sun and the mulch during that time had him in need of a bit of a makeover so I made the trip to fix him up. After a couple of hours of sanding and scraping here's what Bubba looked like:

And after several coats of new paint, here's what he looked like after:

Good luck buddy. I'll see you around.

Also, today I ran into someone I have not seen in years. She was a student of mine ages ago, before I was teaching at the college level. She's all grown up, getting married soon, and she's now teaching elementary school in my home town. It's so cool to see people do well for themselves. Good for you Coop-doggie-dog. -And now that she's a professional person and all, I should really stop calling her that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

feedback ambushes

I tell my students that it's good to get feedback on a project. I tell them to step back a few feet from the project and have a look and if anyone else is around I suggest they seek feedback from someone who has not been staring at the project for the last couple of days. Feedback is helpful if you want to improve. Feedback, though, is not always fun.

The end of the semester brings opportunities for feedback. I'm not talking about final critiques which can be tearful and messy affairs - I'm talking about verbal interactions in more casual settings. In the critique setting you come prepared. You know a room full of eyes are picking apart every detail of your work and you understand the questions and comments are on the way. You're ready. You've thought through the project and you have anticipated the questions. It's fair.

Not so with the casual encounters. These situations are much more relaxed and typically I've entered the setting with the belief that I'm attending a social function or just walking through a building. These are not the moments when I'm anticipating an interrogation or a critique of my teaching.

Of course many of these ambushes are nice surprises. Sometimes a student blind-sides me with a compliment. I had to mentally wrestle with a student this semester in Drawing class. This young man was a Sculpture major and did not enjoy drawing at all. He made this quite clear and really struggled with the class early on. I kept at him and kept trying to convince him how important drawing skills would be to a sculptor. Eventually he pulled himself together and became a pretty good student - a remarkable turnaround. A couple of weeks ago I walked in the Drawing room and out of the blue he says to me, "You know, because of you, I think I actually drew for fun yesterday." I was floored. Certainly his comment said more about his own development than it said about my methods, but was nice to hear.

And then there are the not so nice ambushes. I shared the story a while back of being accosted at a school gallery reception by a parent who wanted to know why I would encourage her child to change her major to Sculpture. She had legitimate concerns about her daughter being able to find gainful employment after graduation and being caught off guard, I had precious little comfort to offer. The mother was dignified, classy and sharp as a tack and I was a rambling idiot desperately trying to remember how to arrange words to form a coherent sentence. The daughter has since gone on to win multiple awards for her sculpture and is graduating in a few days with honors, leaving as the best undergrad sculpture student in while. I conversed with her mom again at a reception this week and I'd like to point out the fact that I did NOT gloat.

There was no time for gloating because of the next feedback ambush. I gathered the dishes from our small group as we prepared to exit gracefully. As I walked across the lawn to place the dishes on the designated return table I heard someone use my name in context. I turned to see another former student at the honors reception with her family and her mentor professor. I walked over to say hello and as the former student waxed nostalgic about some of my project challenges her mother says, "Oh, this is the one!" We all know this is not going to be pretty, right? So then the mother and daughter begin telling horror stories about negative emotional and physical impacts of my 3D Design projects giving explicit details about tears and blood and paint stained kitchens. In these stories my character is depicted as a ruthless, heartless hater of all things cute and cuddly. I wanted to defend myself but I quickly found the hyperbole insurmountable. While all of the stories were technically true it was simply the adjustment or absence of some minor points that helped paint me as villain. This was not a battle I was going to win. I listened helplessly as the mother began detailing how a project ended up sending her to the emergency room but in a surprising plot twist it turned out that project was not one of mine, but rather one developed by her mentor professor who calmly bowed his head and prepared for the blame to fall his way. Help finally arrived, albeit a few minutes too late as the rest of my group rescued me. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and tried to avoid seeing any other former students on my way out.

Monday, May 3, 2010


I could have been a Braves fan. When people ask why I like the Chicago Cubs I tell them that I grew up watching Cubs games on WGN, one of the first cable "superstations". Back then Wrigley Field had no lights so all home games were day games. When I was still too young to be in the fields picking corn, I'd get to man the sales table and between customers I'd watch the games. I would go out and sell bushels of corn when cars pulled up and run back in to hear Harry Caray butcher a Venezuelan or Cuban player's last name.

But there were two "superstations" back then. The Atlanta Braves played on the other one and everyone around me loved the Braves. Why didn't I like the Braves? It seems the easy assumption these days is to say I am an optimist. The Cubs have not won a World Series in over 100 years. Each year they under-perform to the point of making September nearly unbearable and yet with each February I get excited about Spring Training and every April I find myself thinking that this could be the year.

Admittedly that does make me sound like an eternal optimist. But I'm not. Sure, I believe in positive thinking and I've seen the destructive power of negative thinking, but I have no problem being realistic. I say I'm a realist with a positive attitude - not an optimist - and maybe I like pulling for the underdog. During those early baseball fan years the Braves were consistently competitive. They won things and it would have been easy to pull for them, but it was more fun to pull for the Cubs. It was more exciting to think that "the lovable losers" would find a way to win. That story was more interesting to me.

The end of each semester brings a familiar internal struggle. As a teacher it's my job to make my students better artists. Wherever they are in talent and ability when they arrive in my room it's my job to move them forward. Some rise far above my high expectations and some, inevitably, do not. Of course I'm proud of my over achievers and I take a lot of pride in their continued successes at higher levels. However, my mind tends to dwell on the ones that got away.

For the last 7 years my classes have consisted mostly of college freshmen. I see all levels of talent and skill and a very high percentage of my Art majors will change their major twice before graduation. Not all of my students are great at Art when they enter college and some of those seem to have no intention of even trying to be great. The fact is there are some who just don't seem to care at all. Generally speaking I end up with a few students who do not intend to give their best effort.

Oddly, I love the challenge this presents me. Chalk it up to pulling for the underdog, but I find myself sometimes focusing extra time and effort on these students in an effort to help them succeed. I try to get a handle on their personality in the first couple of weeks. During that time I look for anything I can learn about what motivates them. Then I set about the work of using those means of motivation to see how they respond. Perhaps this highlights a weakness on my part, but any sort of positive response during this time encourages me to stay on the case. I try to be fair in my distribution of class time among students but I find myself on the long commutes thinking about a plan of action for a particular underdog or trying to find a different approach to see if it will have any more success. I end up spending a lot of time and energy on working to bring these students up. I figure that once they get their footing, they'll pick up the pace and do very well for themselves.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes the student is eventually willing to put the partying aside and realize that they need to seize this opportunity to learn as much as possible. Sometimes they'll shake off the procrastination and learn to be self motivated. Sometimes the student will come back years later and say, "You know, I hated you at the time, but I graduate in a couple of weeks and I just wanted to say thanks."
I don’t think anyone living now knows for sure, but I think this is what it would feel like if the Cubs won the Series.

Sometimes it doesn't work. And even when I feel I've done my best - even when I think I’ve tried every approach possible, failure still feels like failure. That long drive home after a final critique is usually a very quiet one. I wonder what I could have done to produce a different outcome. I wonder if I tried everything. I wonder if they'll ever get it. I wonder if next year could be the year.