Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Does This Make Me Look Campy? Notes on the Met Gala

Pop singer Ariana Grande's 2018 Met Gala gown is
literally covered in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
paintings. She looks like a renaissance dream.
Last year I discovered the Met Gala.

I came into work one day and my news feed was overrun with celebrities dressed as religious icons, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, and elaborate stained glass. I had to work, but when I got the chance I spent an embarrassingly long time scrolling through the red carpet best-dressed lists. I didn't want to miss a thing.

I'd heard of the Met Gala before, but I didn't know that it's basically a costume party. Each May the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute throws an extravagant party for the opening of its fashion exhibition. Attendees are expected to dress according to the theme of the exhibition.

The exhibition runs through the summer, but the opening night is one of the most exclusive events and one of the biggest fundraisers in the world. In its 70-year run, the Met Gala has become high fashion's premier red carpet event, attended by everybody who's anybody in the arts, music, fashion, film and society.

Last year's theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

Actress and singer Zendaya wasn't the only one
inspired by Joan of Arc, but her ensemble is by
far the most successful of the night. A year later
I'm still infatuated with this look.
A-list celebrities attended the gala dressed in couture clergy robes, wore billowing draped dresses reminiscent of renaissance altarpieces, or accessorized with halos and angel wings. It was spectacular. I hadn't seen anything like it. I'll admit, I only knew who half the celebrities were, but that didn't matter.
I was entranced by these couture clothes inspired by religion and art.

"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
- Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde

Of all the possible Met Gala themes, 2018 was the perfect one to get my attention.

As the 2019 Met Gala approaches, I've wondered how they could possibly top Heavenly Bodies. It seems a lot of others are wondering, as well. I used one of my 10 free New York Times articles to read up on the 2019 theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion.

Camp, you say? Surely not the camp I'm thinking of... Tents, cabins, fishing, campfires... Surely they don't mean for Beyoncé to show up in a fishing hat, or Scarlett Johansson to wear a billowing polyester dress accessorized with collapsible tent-poles. Right?

Right. Not summer camp. Aesthetic camp.

Camp, in terms of style, refers to something which is over-the-top, flamboyant, exaggeration and artifice, "so bad it's good." What the kids might refer to as extra.

In short, this is going to be wildly different from last year's ethereal Heavenly Bodies theme.

Ensemble, Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of
Moschino (Italian, founded 1983), spring/summer 2018;
courtesy of Moschino. This is one of the 250 pieces in the
Costume Institute exhibition at the Met this summer. Image
courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019.
Camp: Notes on Fashion specifically refers to writer, filmmaker, and activist Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, Notes on Camp. Curious, I read the essay, or rather, series of 58 notes describing what camp is and what it is not.

It's hard to pin down; there's no formula for camp. You might say camp is to the arts as quotation marks are to an ironic statement. Camp is the air-quotes of the arts world.

We often describe bad '90s movies as "campy," but there's more to camp than just cheesiness or poor production. Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci, explained, “Camp really means the unique ability of combining high art and pop culture."

"The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," Sontag writes.

"When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ('It's too much,' 'It's too fantastic,' 'It's not to be believed,' are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)," Sontag writes.

As for those bad movies... there is an element of failure in camp. True camp often happens when something (or someone) is too ambitious in its flamboyance and is therefore not taken seriously.

Movies and TV shows like Godzilla, the Batman tv show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), Hairspray, Beat the Devil, and Gilligan's Island are all camp. The (im)famous leg lamp of A Christmas Story is camp. Many operas and classical ballets have developed camp leanings over time. Art Nouveau often blends with camp, as does Pop Art, like Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans.

Well-executed camp can be found in RuPaul's drag
personaes. There's absolutely nothing natural or understated
about it, and that's part of what makes it excellent.
The best camp art is genuine, takes itself seriously, believes it is all that (as much as art itself can believe something), but is rejected by society because society isn't ready for it. "Of course," Sontag reminds the reader in point 23, "not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve."

Sontag is also careful to remind the reader that camp is not always poor in form, technique, or production. The art may be extremely well-executed, wonderful art, but be so exaggerated, ostentatious, or theatrical that it is also camp.

Vogue describes camp as "a kind of winking bad taste." 

Diana Vreeland, former Vogue Editor-in-Chief and special consultant at the MET Costume Institute, passed away in 1989, but she would have loved this 2019 camp theme. "A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste - it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I'm against."

Balloon Dog (Yellow) by Jeff Koons
Sontag would probably agree. She writes that camp doesn't ascribe to the good/bad binary.  "What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards." Camp may require a dash of bad taste, but it does so while bringing a third dimension to the question of taste.

At this point, I better bring in some visual art before someone asks if I'm converting my site into a fashion blog. No, See Cailey Color is and always will be about fine art! The camp theme gives me a reason to look with fresh eyes at some art I don't normally appreciate, like the work of Jeff Koons.

Some of Koons's best known art is his Balloon Dog series, five highly reflective stainless-steel sculptures of balloon dogs, measuring 10 feet tall and 11 feet long, each a different color.

Koons is known for following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, taking ordinary objects and transforming them into art. When taken seriously, Warhool, Koons, and other camp artists force us to reexamine what we consider art and what we consider ordinary. They force us to consider ourselves and how we relate to art, to each other, and to the "ordinary" world around us.

Koons's work has been called camp and kitsch interchangeably. In some circles, kitsch is an insult, to be treated as other than (and lesser than) camp; considered to be the decorative non-art that fell short of even camp status. To others, it's just a subcategory of camp; "camp" referring to the overall aesthetic, kitsch referring to camp art and music. This difference of opinion can lead to a lot of confusion on a subject that's already a fuzzy and hard to define.

Campy Washington by Scott Donaldson. Cincinnati, Ohio. 
For those who hold the first mindset, the difference between camp and kitsch can be hard to pinpoint. Kitsch is considered camp's ugly, stupid little brother. To those of the latter mindset, distinction between the two is a wasted conversation. Every square is a rhombus, but not every rhombus is a square. All kitsch is camp, but not all camp is kitsch.

Koons and his predecessor Warhol are often criticized as kitschy by those in the first group, but those in the second consider it just another label.

For Koons and artists like him, it doesn't matter whether their work is called camp or kitsch or just plain shit. They make art to challenge the status quo of what art is and what it should be; how society is and how society should be.

I happen to love this mural in Cincinnati, designed by Scott Donaldson of Artworks. Campy Washington combines camp, bad puns, and distinctly-Cincinnatian motifs.

The mural is located in the neighborhood of Camp Washington... hence the pun. It includes important Cincinnati imagery like flying pigs, a nod to our annual marathon, the Flying Pig, and more importantly to the city's history in pork production. It contains imagery referring to nearby businesses, tying it to the Camp Washington community. It is George Washington decked out in whimsical Cincinnati camp glory.

Finally, referring back to the origin of camp, Campy Washington is an image of George Washington in colonial drag.

If her history of red-carpet camp is any indicator,
Lady Gaga must be pretty excited for this theme!
In the early days of the term, camp referred to the flamboyance of gay/LGBTQ culture. Oscar Wilde, who was outed as gay, imprisoned, and sentenced to two years of hard labor for his homosexuality at a time when that was socially taboo, has been acclaimed as an early leader of Camp.

Today the term has obviously taken on a wider meaning, though the flamboyant side of LGBTQ culture is still a strong part of it. RuPaul's Drag Race is an example of camp's passionate, exaggerated artifice extending from the LGBTQ community.

RuPaul, Bette Midler,  Elton John, Madonna, John Waters, Liza Minelli, Elvis Presley, Cher, Prince, and Lady Gaga have pushed camp along in recent decades, embracing over-the-top styles in their clothing, personalities, and arts.

In fact, Lady Gaga is co-chair of the 2019 Met Gala, alongside singer Harry Styles, tennis star Serena Williams, and Alessandro Michelle. They'll join long-time Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, who's basically the queen of the Met Gala (and everything else high fashion, let's be real).

It probably goes without saying, but I'm eager to see how the A-listers and their designers interpret this theme. Will the Gala attendees achieve camp, or be merely campy, or worse? We'll find out soon...



Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre-Dame: Coming to Terms with Near-Disaster

The first fire alarm rang out at 6:20pm (GMT) on Monday.

The news about the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris took a while to sink in for me. It's always been so distant from me, and not only geographically. Not only have I never been to France, but I don't know much about architecture or French history, and I'm only vaguely familiar with Catholicism. Of course I know of the cathedral as the pinnacle of Gothic architecture and a symbol for the arts and Christianity around the world, but I have little emotional connection.

Most of my knowledge of Notre-Dame comes from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Disney classic. It has arguably the best soundtrack of any Disney animated movie.

My reaction upon hearing of the fire was that of surprise, disappointment, and hope that no one would be harmed.

Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse. Getty Images. The cathedral’s 295-foot spire collapsed as smoke and flames engulfed the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday. From Despair and Grief Amid the Smoke and Flames of Notre-Dame, NY Times, 04/15/19.
Over the following hours, my feelings grew deeper as I considered the implications of this event. By the time I awoke Tuesday morning, my relief at the absence of physical injuries remained, but was joined with an intense sorrow.

Sorrow for Catholics and Christians, for the arts and architecture communities, and especially for France.

I thought of the Paris terrorist attack a few years ago, and the depth of pain experienced then. So many disasters occur every day around the world, natural and contrived, and it's impossible to give each the media coverage it deserves. It's impossible for the entire world to mourn every single tragedy together, though I wish we could. But when horrible things happen to international symbols like Notre-Dame, it's good to take time to mourn... and important that we treat it as a reminder of the lesser-known tragedies going on every day.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, daguerreotype, 1841.
Rose Window on the southern façade.
Fortunately only one firefighter was injured, though hundreds were involved in controlling and putting out the fire. Though the spire and two-thirds of the lead-covered wooden roof and attic were destroyed in the blaze, the main structure remains intact.

It was a close call, however: the fire lasted over 10 hours, but it's estimated that the structure would have been seriously compromised if it had burned for only another 15-30 minutes.

The world's art community breathes a sigh of relief over all the priceless paintings and sculptures which avoided damage. Even the famous stained-glass Rose Windows are intact. However, the art community mourns the still-unknown extent of smoke and water damage which was incurred. Fire is among an artist's top fears, after all.

The world's Christian and Catholic communities breathe sighs of relief that we believe in a God who is a greater than any building, and that damage to a building—even one so beautiful and historic as the Notre-Dame Cathedral—doesn't damage the roots of our faith.

This is evidenced by the beautiful videos circulating of crowds gathering around the burning cathedral, singing hymns. It's a powerful reminder of the resilience of  the Christian faith, and the persecution Christians have suffered for 2,000 years. Church buildings come and go, but the true Church is forever.

The Quai Saint-Michel and Notre-Dame by Maximilian Luce,
oil on canvas, 1901. 
That leaves France, which breathes a sigh of relief that only one person was injured. Nonetheless, this is a shocking emotional blow. It's apparent that the fire was an accident, and I'm very glad for that, but France must still face this damage to one of its most beloved and symbolic destinations. For many, this cathedral is far more than just an old and beautiful building.

For many, Notre-Dame is a symbol of their faith and heritage, an almost-living piece of French history. It's been around for 800 years. I can hardly fathom this, since America is such a young nation. Few of our buildings and monuments are older than 250 years. But there stands Notre-Dame, the Lady of Paris, three times that age.

French authorities are still investigating the extent of the damages, and those answers may take some time. However, with the structure pronounced intact, French President Emmanuel Macron has already announced the decision to rebuild. Donations of all sizes have been pouring in.

Furthermore, France's Prime Minister, Edouard Phillippe, has announced a competition to rebuild the spire, open to architects around the world. It's yet to be seen whether the new spire will be a copy of the previous design by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, or a new design altogether. The 90-foot spire, completed in 1869, replaced a previous spire which had suffered severe wind-damage and was removed in the late 18th century.

French authorities are optimistic about the future, and with good reason. They were just beginning a much-needed restoration project, and although Monday's fire is a dramatic and painful setback, the cathedral will be restored and measures will be taken to safeguard it against future accidents.

One element of this event that I found particularly interesting is the opportunity for modern technology to shape the future of the cathedral. Had this fire occurred only ten years ago, the rebuilding plans might have been very different, because in the past decade, two highly-detailed, nearly-perfect digital replicas of Notre-Dame have been created.

Cover of Assassin's Creed Unity, Ubisoft. Notre-
Dame is visible on the left in the background.
Caroline Miousse, a level artist at the video game company Ubisoft, spent almost two years studying every detail of the gothic cathedral for the 2014 game Assassin's Creed Unity.

I'm no gamer, but even I am aware of the reputation Assassin's Creed has for painstakingly recreating historic sites. I'm told Unity's Notre-Dame is no exception. Miousse replicated everything from the structure design to the texture of the wood and stonework, creating a life-like digital cathedral which players can explore in-game.

Ubisoft has offered free access to the game for a limited time in honor of the cathedral, and made a substantial donation for rebuilding. There have not been any official conversations on using the game model as a resource for restoring the building, but Ubisoft has made it clear they will be happy to help if needed.

In 2015, American art historian Andrew Tallon of Vassar College used lasers to digitally map the entire cathedral.

Miousse's and Tallon's digital replicas are two nearly-flawless scale models from which the rebuilding and restoring efforts can be modeled. I'll be interested to see if and how these digital models play into the reconstruction. How many other artistic renderings of Notre-Dame de Paris exist around the world? How many internal and external photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and digital creations pay homage to this larger-than-life gothic masterpiece? These resources, along with existing building plans, could make this one of the most-informed rebuilds of all time.

We all just witnessed a dramatic piece of history: the day Notre-Dame caught fire. The day two-thirds of her roof burned, and her spire collapsed in flames. The week a video game became a memorial. The week digital reconstructions became possible blue-prints for rebuilding an 800-year-old architectural treasure. Wikipedia has already been updated; it's only a matter of time before the history books are, as well.

But for nor now, it's okay to be sad. It's okay to look at photos from before the fire and mourn for France, for the Church, for the arts community.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Cincinnati Art Activities: Pottery Painting

work-in-progress pottery painting
Today I want to tell you about a super fun and wholesome art activity in Cincinnati.

I've been to Art on Fire twice, and I absolutely loved both experiences. My first time, I went to a ladies event with my mom and some of her friends.

I'm not generally the type of gal who goes to ladies events or women's retreats. I was never the "girly girl" who enjoyed spa events or things like that. Mani-pedis and chocolate-covered strawberries? No thank you...

However, this event was 10,000% fun.

I was looking for Friday night plans, so I did what every bored college student does... I called my mom! She told me about this craft night she was going to with some friends from church and homeschool. Did I want to join? 

Painting and pottery? I'm so in.

I hadn't been there before, but I had noticed this little art studio next door to Graeter's Ice Cream. If you've spent any time in Cincinnati, you know that Graeter's is the greatest ice cream chain in the world. Graeter's is a Cincinnati classic that's been scooping up happiness, peace, and ice cream since 1870.

drying canvases
Canvases drying
Okay, back to the point.

Art On Fire is a creative arts studio owned and operated by Toni Smith, a gem of a lady. Art on Fire welcomes individuals, groups, and events, offers classes, allows other artists to use the kiln, and has space for artists to sell their work. It's a great place for birthday parties, bridal showers, scout troops, or families. You can also purchase kits to make string-art or other not-so-messy crafts at home.

We were even allowed to bring in our own snacks and drinks - a real party! I think next time I go I'll stop next door and get some goodies from Graeter's. Why didn't I think of that before?

Art On Fire is definitely a labor of love!

Spend any time talking with Toni, and you'll know how much she loves her business. She is kind, knowledgeable, and possesses the patient heart of a teacher. Toni explained the whole ceramics process for us before we got started, and she also lead a guided canvas painting activity so some of the ladies could create their own wall art. There were four of us painting pottery and six painting canvases, so we could all talk and just have a good time.

mom painting
My pottery-painting buddy... my lovely mom! She's
making a funny grin because I insisted on taking her
picture, and she'll probably give me the same look when
she sees it here. Too bad! She's so pretty!
I was also impressed with how affordable it was.

There are set costs for canvas painting, according to the size of the canvas. For pottery painting, there's a small studio fee which covers the cost of glazing and firing, and then you pay for whatever ceramic item you want to paint. These range from $1-$50, with everything from little magnets and Christmas ornaments to flower pots, figurines, coffee mugs, and kitchen ware. 

I've always had a weakness for square plates, so my first time at Art on Fire I chose a 12"x12" square serving plate, which was $25. Above you can see a work-in-progress photo. I've always loved Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers, so I copied the image on my plate.

I had a lot of fun figuring out what colors to use and layering them to get the effects I wanted. There are tons of colors available, so no mixing required. And it was all so easy! You just pick the colors you want, grab a brush, and paint away. The paints dry very quickly, but you can always paint over a mistake.

Mom made a pair of smaller square plates to give to my sister and brother-in-law as a wedding gift. She loves the beach and swimming, and he's a captain in the US Army, so Mom painted "Mrs. Mermaid" and "Mr. Captain" on the plates, surrounded by colorful designs. They turned out adorable!

The yarn bowl I painted for Grandma Donna. Photo credit
goes to her because I forgot to take pictures!
One of the three fish on the bowl... The other two are
orange with purple fins and purple with yellow fins. I chose
bright and beautiful colors for a bright and beautiful woman.
The second time around was with my mom again... What can I say? We like crafting together!

For months I'd been wanting to paint a yarn bowl for my grandma, an avid crochet-er. My grandma is an amazing, loving woman. She delights in colorful flowers, birds, and tropical fish. Her Facebook and Instagram accounts are full of birds, sunsets, flowers, and her grandkids. I wanted to give her something practical, because her hands are always busy making gifts for others.

Well, December rolled around and I still hadn't done it. I finally contacted Toni at Art on Fire, hoping she had yarn bowls available or could order one for me.

I knew I was cutting it close by doing this right before Christmas, but Toni was awesome. She set aside the last yarn bowl in stock for me!

Inspired by some of my grandma's favorite things, I painted the bowl with bright yellow, orange, and purple fish. It turned out just how I wanted, and I was able to pick it up just in time for Christmas! The perfect gift - my grandma loved it, it was fun to make, and very affordable.

The hardest part of the process is waiting a whole week to 
see the final product!

finished Van Gogh serving plate
My finished Sunflowers serving plate
This is why I draw, paint, and do collage. It's that instant gratification. I guess I'm just too much a millennial for pottery or ceramics? Kidding, I know many people my age who love ceramics! My point is, I just don't like waiting around a whole week before getting to see the final result.

Thankfully, the finished pieces are always well worth the wait.

The colors, pale and dull before firing, come out of the kiln rich and lovely. Compare the first photo at the top of this post with the photo to the left. Both are true-to-color, not edited or filtered. Amazing transformation, huh?

For someone who's done very little with pottery and glazing, this was a really fun activity. And since the raw bisque pieces are fired after painting, it's all permanent. There's no washing off or fading, like when you decorate a mug with sharpie markers... no matter how many times Pinterest tries to tell you the sharpies won't fade.

If you're in the Cincinnati area, I highly recommend visiting Art on Fire. It was tons of fun, inexpensive, and a great way to try something new and get those creative juices flowing. I can't wait to go again! My mom recently mentioned the need to make a gift for a particular family friend...


Saturday, March 9, 2019

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse, Part 2: The Finished Sketchbook

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse Cover
Hey all. Last week I finished a book for The Sketchbook Project!

The Sketchbook Project is a collection of mini sketchbooks housed in the Brooklyn Art Library. Artists from all over the world can order a sketchbook, fill it with art, and mail it back to join the permanent collection.

I was just notified that my sketchbook has been delivered safe and sound in Brooklyn! Thank you, USPS, for taking care of my baby. Pretty soon it will go on a short tour around the country with the other 2019 sketchbooks before returning to its new home on the shelves of the art library.

In my previous post, I walked you all through some of the decisions and artistic process for my sketchbook.

What started as a plan for 16 pages of black and white ink drawings turned into a book of 8 full-color watercolor and ink illustrations. Each page also has includes a stanza of a poem telling the story.

Today I'll finally show you the finished product! The large-text portions below are each stanza of the full-text poem found in Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse, so you don't have to strain to read my tiny handwriting on each page. The regular text is my notes and commentary, not included in the actual book. Enjoy!

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse by Cailey Blair

On a night long ago, I flew to the moon
taking off from the highest hillside
in a steam-powered shuttle, 
—all clockwork and gears and dream-stuff
with a clank and a buzz and a cloud of smoke
I left the earth’s atmosphere.
Page 1 - Flight to the Moon
watercolor, gouache, ink, and mulberry paper 
on paper cloth

One of my favorite parts of the brainstorming process was crowd-sourcing ideas for the girl's transportation. I hopped on Twitter and Facebook to ask for ideas, and the responses were amazing. It's been a while since I crowd-sourced like that, but I love doing it. People can be so creative!

Several friends said the girl should travel by unicorn, one said a space segway, another said a dragon covered in feathers. My brothers suggested an iPod, traveling by the magic of music, or an imperial star destroyer from Star Wars. One friend suggested a book, because that's how she travels the universe.

With so many great ideas, I actually picked two modes of transportation. The second one in particular quickly became an integral part of the story.

The girl would fly to the moon on a "steampunk" space shuttle, but on the moon she would meet a magical moon-horse with whom she'd travel across the moon and all the way to Mars.

As a kid and teenager, I was obsessed with horses. That's right, I was a "horse girl." I still love them, though I haven't ridden since high school. I felt that having the girl travel by horseback through space would make this sketchbook more personal, a nod back to my own childhood and my longing to travel the world on horseback. In recent years my fascination with space-travel has grown a lot, so combining the two felt very natural to me.

Spread 2 - Meeting
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth
I landed on the shore of the Mare Desiderii, 
silver dust in my eyes, on my ragged old hat
I found myself face to face with a blue Moonhorse, 
leader of the Lunar herds.
We bowed in greeting—manners are important 
even on the Moon
in his bold eyes I saw a distant dance I 
longed to join.
He invited me to go with him
with a flick of his flowing tail.

From here, the girl and the horse travel beyond that unique balancing rock formation in the distance to take off at the highest point on the moon—the Selenian summit.

Spread 3 - Balancing Rock, Earth and Mars
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth
We rode far across the moon, far and farther still,
to reach that Selenian summit where surface and 
crater kiss
higher than Everest or K2 could dream,
where space meets breccia. I thought we'd arrived,
but to my—shock—terror—delight—
the Moonhorse gathered his great legs under him,
galloped to the point of the summit,
and took off into the night—a capriole 
unlike any other,
his airs above the moon—we flew.

This is where it began to change a lot between the original intent and the finished product.

In my original 16-page sketches, I had a close-up illustration of the distant lunar rover, and an image of the girl and the moon horse taking off at the selenian summit.

I had to cut these and some other illustrations to lower the page count and compensate for the thick, stiff paper cloth.

I miss some of these illustrations, and I may still draw them one day, but the scenes I did include are much more intentional. Like a carefully edited book, the remaining content is made stronger by cutting out all unnecessary information.

Spread 4 - Flight to Mars
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth
We soared through space, and his coarse
mane whipped my bare arms and stung my eyes,
and his tail streamed behind 
—I now know the secret of the comets!—
we flew
      past Phobos and Deimos,
      past distant stars pulsing,
      past long-lost mysteries;
I marveled at blue dots and ancient suns
and the red planet drew near.

Flight to Mars was heavily inspired by the famous Lipizzaner horses of Austria and their gravity-defying classical dressage. I've always wanted to see Lipizzaners in action, but have had to content myself with pictures and videos of those remarkable airs above the ground.

For this scene, I researched and sketched the capriole move for our moon-horse's long flight.

Spread 5 (center fold) - Landing on Mars
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth, bound with purple thread
At last, with straining legs and quivering muscles, 
his hooves touched solid ground 
I slipped from his back - see my footprints on
sienna stepping stones?

Noses touching in kunik—eskimo kisses—we breathed 
great gasping breaths of the thin, icy Martian air
—air made for dancing— 
      I sensed it, 
      I knew it, 
      my bare toes felt it,
but the Moonhorse’s eyes told me this was 
not the place. We rode on, on, on until 
we reached the deepest crater, 
strung across with a tightrope. My hopes fell
—he still shook with exhaustion from his flight—
a tightrope? Could it be, could a horse— 
even a Moonhorse—walk a tightrope?

Originally, Silhouette Girl and Moon-horse's landing on Mars would only be implied—the first Mars scene was to be a close-up of the girl and the horse examining the red Martian dust. From there, they'd travel toward a Mars rover before arriving at Hellas Planitia, the deepest crater on Mars.

For the new version, however, I cut out the Mars rover entirely, and replaced the close-up with a wide-angle landing scene. I felt this would better tie the narrative together. I took the background from a scene in which our two characters are riding across the Martian plains, and replaced their simple ride with the more dynamic landing action that you see above.

Spread 6 - Hellas Planitia
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth
Indeed—brave eyes sparkling—he nudged 
me on, and the dancing Martian atmosphere 
lifted my chin,
—and we stepped—onto—the rope—
to cross Hellas Planitia,
deeper yet than any Himalaya could fill.
The rope trembled under the Moonhorse's hooves,
and I clutched a long lock of his mane;
arms stretched wide for balance.

Like I said, I cut out a lot of planetary travel, but I couldn't bring myself to cut out the scene above! For a long time I've had a mental image of crossing the deepest Martian crater, Hellas Planitia, by tight-rope.

In reality the downward slope of the crater is much too subtle for a tight-rope, but the entire book is lodged firmly in the surreal—there's nothing realistic about it! Being fanciful to begin with, I indulged myself and stretched a rope across the crater.

Finally, after that long tight-rope crossing, our interplanetary travelers have reached their destination...

Spread 7 - Final Destination
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth
At last on the far side of the crater we stopped, 
labored breaths clouding
like wisps of smoke in the frozen air
the Moonhorse and I looked up.
We arrived—we arrived!—The Moonhorse
tossed his great mane, stamped his giant hooves,
and with a leap, abandoned gravity.
I, too, could ground myself no longer—
I gave in to the thin air of Mars;
gave in to the growing dance in my heart.

This scene was inspired by Bryce Canyon in Utah, where orange towers and columns ("hoodoos") rise from the ground, creating natural arches and spires like a princess's castle. This was one of the first sketches I made, and it changed the least over the whole process.

I read somewhere that since gravity is lower on Mars, there are rock formations there that would be impossible on Earth. I don't know if that's actually the case (it makes sense to me), but I definitely had that concept in mind when brainstorming Martian geography. While this particular scene is very reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, I still tried to imbue it with that mystical, low-gravity feeling!

However, this final scene is where weightlessness truly comes into play. The gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on earth, so in reality our beloved travelers would still be bound to the ground. Even the moon's gravity, 1/6 of our own, doesn't allow floating like this! But this is anything but realistic. They traveled all this way to dance, how could they not dance in mid-air?
Spread 8 - The Dance
watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth
The Moonhorse and I, 
we rose above the rock formations,
on cold beams from the distant sun.
We're all of star-stuff, dancing above the dark
slope streaks!
In the magic of Mars we danced forever...

Final page - Morning
watercolor, gouache, ink, and mulberry paper 
on paper cloth
...Or so I dreamed. 

This last page came about weeks after the rest of the images were complete. I kept this final page blank, unsure if I'd write the full-text poem on it, leave it blank, or add one last illustration. As you can see, I chose the latter! I only knew what I wanted to do with it when I started writing the poem and that last line, "or so I dreamed," came to mind.  

I hadn't intended for this adventure to be a dream, exactly, though it has all the characteristics of a dream. But when I had that line, that's what the story officially became. I envisioned the girl waking on a hillside, as if she fell asleep stargazing and woke with the sun. 

This project was both challenge and game for me. I indulged a lot of fancies in this book, and the result is everything I never knew I wanted. Magic and fantasy set in space... a simple but highly unlikely journey, to say the least!

For most of the creation process, I held off on painting the girl - I seriously considered whether she would be Silhouette Girl or someone else, someone with features and visible details. But I think in my gut I knew this would be Silhouette Girl. Who else could manage an adventure like this? It was truly made for the girl who holds the tail of a tornado, conducts wildebeests like an orchestra, and releases a cloud of butterflies from her hands!

I kept telling myself it could be anyone doing this - any little girl could dream this up. Why lock it down for only Silhouette Girl?

My two babies, Stars & Seas and Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse, with a
delicious mocha from my favorite coffeeshop. This is the very mocha that
powered me through writing my previous blog post.
That's where my thinking has been skewed. For a long time, I've thought of Silhouette Girl as an individual. Where is she going next, what fanciful thing is she doing this time? 

However, she's not an individual. She's a concept. Any little girl can be "silhouette girl," because it isn't about the things she actually does. It's about the metaphors. The Silhouette Girl series started as a reaction to tragedy - innocence and weakness against one of the greatest forces on earth, a little girl holding the tail of a tornado. 

The series has grown and taken on new metaphors with each drawing and painting, but the core must remain the same - innocence overcoming the impossible. Weakness overpowering the greatest powers. Childhood and imagination conquering reality. If Silhouette Girl remains as she should be, a concept instead of an individual, then she really can be anyone.

Anyone who values innocence and imagination can be Silhouette Girl.

With that realization, I inked in the silhouettes, covering all the loosely-sketched details like facial expressions and folds in her clothing. Our favorite girl has a ragged top hat and her new friend from the moon... she has everything she needs.

With this blog post, I put a close to this brief project. I had a lot of fun with it, and I was a little sad to tape the mailer shut and send my baby off to New York... but I look forward to seeing it again someday! If you find yourself in NYC, be sure to stop at the Brooklyn Art Library and see my sketchbook for yourself. Silhouette Girl would love to have visitors!


Saturday, March 2, 2019

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse, Part 1: Creative Process

Wow guys, I've been so excited to share this with you...

For Christmas I received a sketchbook to send to the Sketchbook Project in Brooklyn!

What is that? Great question. At the time I was only vaguely familiar with it, myself, so I spent a few minutes on the google machine and checked out the details.

The Sketchbook Project is housed at the Brooklyn Art Library, an amazing library of sketchbooks from artists all over the world. You can purchase one of their blank sketchbooks (a little 5x7 blank book) and fill it however you like. When you send your sketchbook back to them, they add it to the permanent collection, and they'll alert you every time someone looks at it!

I heard about it a few years ago but never pursued information on how to join the project, and forgot about it pretty quickly, so it was a great surprise to open up the package and discover this awesome opportunity.
Coffee and sketching with my little brother!

Every year they have different themes/inspiration cues, but it's pretty open to interpretation. The few rules pertain only to size and a couple of paints (gesso and acrylic) that aren't allowed because they make the pages stick together.

I got started on January 3rd, brainstorming what I wanted to pour into the sketchbook.

As you know from this blog, I work with a lot of different materials and media. Charcoal, pen and ink, paint, collage. My first hazy visions of this book involved collages of texture, color, and folded paper.

Pretty soon I decided to make it a narrative. I took my cue from everything that's been inspiring me lately... Astronaut memoirs, sci-fi novels and short stories, and astrophysics-for-dummies books.

I recently read "Physics of the Impossible" by Michio Kaku, and I was fascinated by his explanations of the science behind some of the "impossible" technology in sci-fi books. Things like teleportation, hyperspeed, and time travel.

Another great book I read was "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut" by Mike Mullane. It's a funny, brutally-honest peek into the NASA's space shuttle program. Mullane doesn't shy away from criticizing NASA management, but he also conveys his love for space-travel and gratitude for NASA and the chance he had to fulfill his lifelong dream. He's also very open about astronaut culture in the '80s, and his personal struggle with accepting feminism (working with the first American women astronauts was a big adjustment for a man who attended an all-boys school and went straight into the military after graduation!).

With the help of these and other inspiration-boosters, my little story grew as a series of images in my mind. I had a plan for the narrative. As I started the rough sketches, I scaled back my intense collage-pages and chose to make simple line drawings in ink. I wanted the images to shine, not the materials I made them with.

Whenever I begin a particular art project, I start with an exciting mental image of it, and work eagerly until I hit a roadblock or two and set it aside (for a week, a month, three years, it varies!). After some time stewing in my mind, the solution suddenly hits and then begins the feverish race to create.

The same process held true for this one.

Once the idea for this journey from Earth to Moon to Mars came to mind, I started sketching away, determining each scene and each step of the way.

The sketchbook had 16 pages, so I had 16 scenes to create. I was able to sketch most of these over the course of a few hours spent with my brother at my favorite coffee shop.

Later, I got out my transfer paper and transferred each image to the pages of the sketchbook, and started drawing with ink... and that's where the big roadblock appeared...

The paper was too thin. 

My ink lines showed right through the paper, and even bled through in a few spots! This was not going to work.

I considered my options. Glue pages together to make them thicker? Prime each page with thin layers of gesso for a more opaque surface?

Gesso was out, since it's frowned upon in the Sketchbook Project rules. Normally, gesso is an awesome primer for art surfaces, but in a booklet format, gesso could cause the pages to stick together. I wasn't going to risk that.

I knew rebinding the book with different paper was allowed, but I wasn't feeling it... I didn't know what paper I wanted, and I didn't know how to deal with the stiffness that comes with thicker, ink-friendlier paper. Inspiration fell away and quickly as it struck.

My Sketchbook drawings stopped in their tracks, I set the book aside and stewed over the paper problem for about a week... until one day I was at work and the solution hit me.

Paper cloth!

I first made this a few years ago, at the suggestion of my art teacher. I fell in love with the unique effects of drawing on tissue paper, stabilized by a layer of cotton fabric. It's awesome for wet media like watercolor, acrylic paint, and pen and ink, and you can glue or sew on other materials to create a collage! I immediately knew that's what I wanted.

So what is paper cloth?

It's regular ol' tissue paper glued onto cotton fabric. I use about equal parts water and mod podge, but you can play with that ratio for stiffer or more flexible results - more glue for stiffness, more water for flexibility.

The sketches are transferred onto the paper cloth, ready to be painted!
You can also layer in other paper, threads, lace, sequins, paint, or anything else you want between the tissue paper and the cloth. Here's a link to a blog post explaining how to make paper cloth and the world of possibilities for customizing it.

I don't quite know why, but I hadn't used paper-cloth since that one project in high school. I was pretty excited to try it out again, so the minute I got home from work I dug some tissue paper out of the gift-wrapping supplies, got a large scrap of cream-colored cotton fabric from my meager sewing stash, and got to work. Yes, I have a sewing stash - I mostly do clothing alterations, with the occasional pillow or baby quilt.

With my paper cloth dried and ready, it was finally time to cut it all to size and get drawing... and time for a serious overhaul in my vision.

For one thing, paper cloth is one-sided. I suppose you could glue tissue paper to both sides of the fabric, but at this point I lacked that kind of foresight. For a brief time I was all action and no thought.

It took mental gymnastics to do this! Each sheet had two
different half-scenes, except the centerfold page.
I had several large sheets of paper cloth, thick but flexible. Being one-sided, I'd have to use twice as much if I wanted to keep all 16 pages, and that was going to be one fat little book. I needed to pare things down to the most important images.

Chop, chop, chop - out went half of my carefully-crafted scenes! This was a tough process, but necessary if I wanted to use paper cloth and keep the book thin enough to be accepted by the Sketchbook Project.

After transferring the remaining scenes, it was finally time to get painting.

Wait... Painting? Wasn't this going to be simple, black-and-white line drawings?

That's where the second element of my overhaul came into play! When paper cloth came to mind, the project changed entirely.

My illustrations would no longer be simple pen and ink. These would be full watercolor paintings, with line details inked in at the end.

That's the thing with art - sometimes you've got to be fiercely loyal to the original concept. But sometimes, you fall in love with one element and the while thing morphs to fit. That's what happened here, and I love it!
All painted, ready for ink details

It's nothing like what I envisioned at the beginning, but this process of adjusting the vision along the way was a lot of fun and resulted in a more creative, organic book.

The end result? An eight-page full-color book, bound with purple thread and with the edges of each page hand-stitched (cloth sides together, painted tissue paper facing out).

Work-in-progress, stitching together the pages
Don't worry, I kept the original cover with its all-important Sketchbook Project bar-code!

Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I'll share shots of each finished page. I've taken copious amounts of pictures - full-page, detail, and process shots. I've also kept all the original pencil sketches, including the ones that didn't survive the big chop.

Since I'm mailing the finished book to Brooklyn in a few days, these pictures and sketches are very important to me. I have to capture it all before it leaves me!

I hope to see it in its new home at the Brooklyn Art Library one day, of course, and I'm excited to be a part of the Sketchbook Project, but I'm going to miss this little book. We've spent a lovely two months together.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

My Western Adventure: National Parks, Monuments, and Sketches

At the end of October, my family went on our long-awaited Western Adventure - a two-week vacation in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. We visited three national monuments and seven national parks, put about 3,000 miles on our rental SUV, and took O-H-I-O pictures at every stop, as Ohioans are bound to do.

The irony of writing all this about national parks and monuments in the midst of a government shutdown is not lost on me. If you're preparing for a visit to any national sites, please try to wait until the shutdown is over! Many national parks are operating on a skeleton crew, or are semi-closed. You may be able to get in, but facilities are not being maintained. Not only will the parks be extremely unpleasant (garbage is overflowing, and many visitors have deemed that the great outdoors is their toilet, since bathrooms aren't being maintained). Already, damage has been done that may never be remedied. Besides that, accidents happen and you or your loved ones could be at needless risk without the usual park staff and rangers available! A few of the parks I'll mention here are open and staffed, currently operating at the state's expense, which is astronomical. If possible, postpone your trip until congress has worked things out and the parks are back at full-staff and proper maintenance, on federal dollars!

El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico
I saw this trip not only as a family vacation but as an opportunity to kick-start my languishing art-making, and it definitely worked. I took along my DSLR camera, watercolor pencils, a paintbrush, and a large, unlined blank book to use as combination journal and sketchbook.

My family and I flew from Cincinnati to Denver, and drove about 6 hours from there to El Paso, Texas, arriving in the wee hours of the morning at my sister and brother-in-law's home.

We relaxed in El Paso for the next few days, enjoying the gorgeous mountain sunsets, Texas barbecue, and Lay's Chile Limon potato chips (my new favorite!) from the Mexican grocery store.

El Paso is a fascinating city, particularly for someone who has spent her entire life in the rolling green hills, forests, and corn and soybean fields of Ohio. I'm pretty sure over the course of this vacation I saw more shades of brown than I ever had before, many of which were in El Paso. Yet I also saw color in some of the most unexpected and beautiful of places. Turquoise trim on the highway overpasses, pale green cacti, and the bright red, white, and green flag marking the US/Mexico border.

Pretty soon, however, it was time to get on with the adventure...

We started with a day-trip to Carlsbad Caverns, spending my brother's 16th birthday trekking into the cavern and through the Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
I didn't expect my fear of heights to bother me inside a mountain, but the birthday boy ended up holding my hand and helping me inch back and forth down the narrow switchbacks as we made our way into the heart of the cavern. Once inside the Big Room, the trail was mostly flat, with only occasional drop-offs on one side or the other. Much more Cailey-friendly terrain!

However, I still found myself clutching the handrails, even on those flat areas. I don't know if my feeling of unsteadiness was the low-level anxiety I have constantly running in the background, or if it's a normal reaction to walking through these dark, stunning, massive, alien-like vaults inside the mountains. I've never experienced much claustrophobia, but maybe it was related to that. I don't know.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a fairly large portion of the Big Room is wheelchair accessible, with an elevator bypassing the steep trail that we took to reach it. If you're an adventurer with mobility challenges, Carlsbad Caverns may be a good stop for you.

The next day saw us off on the big road trip. The nine of us packed into our two rental SUVS and made our way across the gorgeous state of New Mexico.

Taking turns sledding at White Sands National Monument

View of White Sands from Tularosa, New Mexico. Colored
pencil on paper, October 2018.
We stopped briefly at White Sands National Monument for sledding, lots of pictures, and a very messy lunch of barbecue ribs, fruit, and my new favorite flavor of potato chips, chile-limon.

The white sand was enchanting - even in the warm sun, the soft gypsum grains felt cool on our bare feet!

Then we were off again, driving diagonally across New Mexico, our ultimate destination: The Grand Canyon. 

However, we made a couple of side trips...

Horseshoe Bend and the Colorado River. October 2018.
First, Four Corners National Monument, where we got in trouble for playing 4-square in four different states at once... At least Dad got to cross that off his bucket list!

The second side trip was to Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, the world-famous curve in the Colorado River as it meanders its way to the Grand Canyon and beyond. Reaching Horseshoe Bend involves a short hike. The path is well-established and easy to follow, but steep at times, and the elevation (4,200 feet) isn't helpful for those accustomed to about 500 feet.

Following a quick picnic lunch at Glen Canyon Dam, we got back on the road. Grand Canyon or Bust!

Grand Canyon National Park from Lippon Point, shortly before sunset. October 2018.
We got a quick first look at the Grand Canyon that evening, but the next day was to be our Grand Canyon adventure. We walked a few miles along the South Rim, marveling at the vast canyon. When people say the Grand Canyon is big, what they really mean is that it is unfathomable. It's aptly named, because the only proper word for it is grand.

We all agreed that, impressive at the view was as we walked along the South Rim, it was not all that exciting. I think, to truly appreciate the Grand Canyon, we would have had to do one of the hikes down into it. Unfortunately that would have been well beyond the skill set of most of our group.

One of the highlights of our day at the Grand Canyon was simply sitting on the rocks at Lippon point and enjoying the sunset. It was really nice to just sit, talk, laugh, and enjoy the view. We arrived early enough that we had our pick of spots on the point, and the view was incredible as the sun set beyond the canyon walls.

Bryce Canyon National Park
View from Zion Lodge, Zion National Park,
watercolor pencil
As night fell in Arizona, we got back on the road, bound for a rental house in a small Utah town tucked away between Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Cedar Breaks National Monument. We stayed there several days, zig-zagging between the parks, hiking, relaxing, even worshiping under the stars at over 10,000 feet elevation.

Bryce Canyon was beautiful and otherworldly, like it had been nestled in the Utah wilderness by a pack of aliens or elves (depending on whether you prefer sci-fi or fantasy!).

The vivid orange and white sandstone walls and hoodoos were spectacular. We compared them to rows of stone gnomes, nature's answer to the Chinese terra cotta warriors, or the ruins of some massive ancient castle.

We spent the next two days roaming Zion National Park, adventure shoes tied tight.

Zion quickly became my favorite park.

Unlike Bryce, where you can look down on the bowl of the canyon as if from the top of an amphitheater, Zion is entered from the canyon floor. Peaks and cliffs soar above, and if you look closely you may see climbers inching their way up the sheer pink, orange, white, and grey rock. Our visit fell in late October, which meant another layer of color - bright yellow foliage on the trees lining the Virgin River winding its way through the canyon.

The first day at Zion, we hiked a portion of The Narrows, a narrow stretch of the Virgin River with towering cliffs on either side. It was grueling, exhausting, wet, cold, and beautiful.

The second day there, half our group went on some tough hikes while the rest of us (the tired and the acrophobic) took it easy. We finished out Zion with a Mexican fusion restaurant just outside the park.

At the Lower Emerald Pool, Zion National Park. Watercolor pencil and
water from the fall
After leaving Zion, we packed up again and headed toward the city of Moab, Utah, lodged between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

But first, we had to stop at Capitol Reef National Park for pies and petroglyphs!
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef contains quite a few historic buildings from an early Mormon settlement.

This settlement includes a fruit orchard and a small shop where you can get fresh pies, ice cream, honey, fruit preserves, and souvenirs. It felt as if we were visiting a historic village in some park at home in Ohio, but with great orange mesas in the background instead of more trees.

The home-like feeling vanished as soon as we left the ghost town-turned-tourist-center.

Petroglyph at Capitol Reef National Park
Entering the canyon was like entering a prehistoric movie! I imagined that at any moment, pterodactyls might pass overhead in v-formation or a squad of velociraptors might race past our SUVs on their razor-sharp tip toes. 

Indeed, there was some prehistoric action in Capitol Reef. Ancient petroglyphs mark the orange stone walls, answered by a multitude of carved names and messages dating from two to two hundred years old. The graphitied walls of Capitol Reef look like America's illegal guest book. 

After the breathtaking golden hour passed into a quiet sunset, we got back on the road to Moab. 

Buckeyes will be Buckeyes... even at Arches National Park!
In Moab, we did a doubleheader - two national parks in one day. In the morning we visited the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, the largest and least-visited of the Big Five national parks in Utah.

After a quick lunch at Wendy's, we went to Archest National Park.

Like Bryce, Arches was otherworldly. It looked as if some massive baby had left their building blocks sitting about, some in towers and arches, some left tumbled about on the ground.

These cliffs, gargoyles, spires, hoodoos, and of course, arches seem to obey physics only out of a spirit of generosity rather than the obligation of nature.

Arches was a beautiful way to wrap up our tour of national gems. But that last evening in our Moab rental house, spent relaxing, playing goofy games, and enjoy takeout barbecue and Chinese food, was another trip highlight in its own right. The next day, we'd part company - my sister and her husband bound for Texas, the rest of us bound for Ohio.

Two weeks after first departing from CVG, we arrived back home. It was an amazing trip. We saw breathtaking mesas and mountains, played on perfect white sand dunes, saw horses, deer, cattle, and ravens, explored underground caverns, and stargazed about 20x above the elevation of our hometown.

Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, I have four words for you:

You stole my heart.


p.s. the sketches and drawings here ain't nuthin. There's more art from my western adventure and it's headed this way soon, so stick around!