Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Does my Degree Still Matter? Thoughts on the Closing of my Alma Mater

A drawing I made of the CCU Worship & Ministry building. Colored pencil
on paper, 2014. 
Two days ago it was announced that my old college, Cincinnati Christian University, would be closing its doors after this semester. 

I have very many mixed feelings about this. 

On the one hand, I believe it's good. The university has been floundering for years. 

It is deeply in debt, it has failed to align its increasing liberal arts bent with its long history of theology and ministry, and has failed to find a good president in years. The revolving door of leadership has brought people who came up with extravagant building projects and costly new programs, while alienating donors, alumni, and students.

The truth is, I've long believed CCU's days were numbered... although I hoped, and dearly wish, that number were a little larger.

Tonight I spoke at length with one of the trustees, in an effort to understand what brought the university to such a sudden end.

A student-led worship campus worship service. The lyrics on the screen
read "you are for us, you are not against us." I truly believe that even right
now, God is not against us.
Hindsight is 20/20, and he agreed that in hindsight, many, many mistakes have been made in the governance of this university. He agreed that communication has never been a strong suit, and that some of the attempts made to save the school, while well-intentioned, were very poor choices. 

He freely admitted that some of these decisions were made, and/or communicated, without enough research and consideration for the potential consequences, direct and indirect.

In my gut, I wanted to throw it all back at him and say his job was to communicate properly, consider every possible implication for every possible decision, and make the wisest choices to keep CCU going. But I didn't say any of that. What's done is done. Humans are human, and they make mistakes, and they can hardly be held accountable for the mistakes made by others. By the end of our conversation, the trustee I spoke with sounded just as defeated as I feel. I trust that he, for one, did everything he could to save CCU. 

Where I was angry and hurt, I now feel mostly sad. Deeply sad for a university that never truly functioned properly, and a strong community that  has loved it despite all of its issues. 

That thought takes me to the other hand. My heart aches for those whose lives just took a drastic turn: current students, staff, and faculty. I have friends who, in a couple of short months, will be job-less and school-less. Some of these woman and men are one more semester away from graduation. Some of these women and men chose CCU for it's highly-respected counseling graduate program, or took the opportunity to be the first college student in their entire family, or were given the priceless chance to play their sport at a college level. Some of these women and men have worked or taught there for years. Decades, even. 

My grandpa, Glen Springer, later known as Poppa.
Wasn't he handsome?
I'm heartbroken for the hundreds of people directly affected by this. 

Naturally, I thought about this all day yesterday and all day today. I thought long and hard, with a heavy heart, a resigned heart, a drenched and aching heart. I thought a lot about the school itself, about my friends there, and my professors. I also spent a lot of time thinking about my personal history with CCU.

CCU opened 95 years ago, in 1924, as Cincinnati Bible Seminary (CBS). My Great-Grandpa Woods attended CBS not long after it was established. 

My dad before he was a dad, dressed for Halloween c. 1986. Any CCU
Gents recognize this hall? He's posing in one of the halls of Restoration!
My grandpa went to CBS. He and grandma lived in a tiny apartment above a diner in East Price Hill when he was a student. He went on to work as a minister, a camp director, and a diesel mechanic.

My parents, aunts, and uncles went to Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary (CBC). As students, my family all went to the original Skyline Chili on Glenway Avenue. And until that location had to close, I went there, too. It was the family meeting place, the family celebration place.

As a child I lived two doors down from everyone’s favorite CBC professor, Dan Dyke. He would give my sister and me little trinkets and gifts. He liked to get Happy Meals at McDonald's just so he could give us the toys.

My sister and me hyped for a CBC basketball game!
I'm the one in front, posing like a starfish. Or maybe like
an eagle, wings outspread? I definitely had more school
spirit then than I had as an actual student... check out
those matching purple cords!
I spent hours playing on the CBC practice field with my sister and our friends. At the time the field was bordered all around with large square blocks of stone, and (oddly) my sister and I found it amusing to walk laps around the field on those rocks.

My babysitters went to CBC, and my cousins went to CBC. Once my cousin took my sister and me to a basketball game, and we both dressed head to toe in purple and yellow... complete with purple and yellow cheer pom-poms!

My church was (and still is) filled with alumni, and staff and faculty both current and former. Older kids from my youth group went to CCU. 

The Associate Minister at my church was also on staff at CCU when I was looking at colleges, and he’s the one who suggested I consider applying to CCU. I did so. Grudgingly, but I did it... and a few months later I moved into room 301 of Alumni Hall.

I met some of my dearest friends there. During Orientation Week, I and one of my new friends were looking at old class pictures and discovered that we knew each other’s grandparents. Our families had known each other for generations, thanks to CCU (and CBC and CBS).

One of my first college classes was History and Literature of the Old Testament, with my old neighbor, Dan Dyke. Taking his classes was a highlight of my time at CCU!

I got my first real (non-babysitting) job at CCU. I learned to make coffee at CCU, and soon after that I learned to love coffee at CCU. 

I had art shows at CCU. I met my first boyfriend at CCU.  I had my first panic attack at CCU.

A drawing I made as an abstract illustration of a campus worship service,
using rock-like shapes to suggest where people were sitting and standing.
I preached a sermon on prayer and God's faithfulness at CCU. I never imagined I'd stand on the stage and preach like that, but I did. When my friend suggested speaking in public, I laughed out loud... and then immediately knew I needed to do it. I waited a few days before signing up for a speaking slot, but I knew I'd regret if I didn't go for it. I will forever be glad I did. 

My life-long best friend started at CCU a year after I did. I had many heart-to-hearts with her and our other friends within the walls of Alumni, Restoration, Worship & Ministry, Crouch, and President’s Hall, Bloc Coffee, and the Skyline Chili on Warsaw Ave.

I got my second real job at CCU. I painted the halls of Restoration and ripped out flooring and built-in furniture that was all at least twice my age... Furniture that had been around when my Dad and uncles lived in that dorm. I counted signatures on old closet doors, collected long-lost memorabilia, and on the last day of my summer job I was allowed to make a collage of all the old photos, movie tickets, event flyers, class notes, student IDs, and everything else we found in those rooms.

I think it's safe now to reveal that I even broke some rules in my time there. Some (anonymous) friends and I sneaked into the condemned Rhine Hall just months before it was torn down. I went to a concert in Columbus with friends from CCU, and we drove back that night and sneaked into our dorms well after curfew. Yes, we had a curfew! I ate a chunk of raw cookie dough whenever I made cookies in Hilltop. I gave away the occasional free coffee, free cookie, free squirt of whipped cream. I broke dress code, I swore, I broke curfew, I skipped classes, I danced. Yes, dancing wasn’t allowed at CCU! I sometimes went barefoot when the weather was nice. Yes, even going barefoot wasn’t allowed.

I cried, laughed, did homework, ate cookies fresh from the oven, drank too much espresso. 

At the coffee shop, there was a drink on the menu called an Undertow. It consisted of vanilla syrup, an ounce of half and half, and a single shot of espresso, served in a tiny glass and knocked back like a shot. I had a few Undertows in my four years!

In April 2017, I handed over my portfolio, a hulking 95 pages of material demonstrating my abilities in the English field, collected from 20 courses in the fields of English and Communication Arts. 

I was working on yet another paper in the CCU library when I got the news that Poppa passed away. 

In May 2017 I graduated from CCU, my proudest achievement yet. I was one of the first three students to receive an English degree there, just two and a half years ago.

This history, these numerous personal connections, are not mine alone. Many students were 2nd-, 3rd-, or 4th-generation Eagles. Students traveled around the globe to attend the school their families, friends, and pastors attended. We are a close community.

My graduation cap, tassel, and magna cum laude cords.
Moving forward, I know that my degree is still valid. I earned a degree from a fully-accredited, fully-functioning university.  No one and nothing can take that away from me. 

I know that, by law, my transcript will always be available at my request. 

I know that I am, unfortunately, far enough removed from graduation that I still have to pay off my loans... 

And I know that the relationships forged there are far more important than the university itself. But this still hurts me personally, because CCU was, and still is, my college. It is a huge part of my life and my history. 

In their advertising, colleges like to use words like “legacy” and “future.” CCU’s legacy is a beautiful one, and one I feel very close to as I look over my family history. When I heard that the Higher Learning Commission was preparing to pull accreditation, I wished I could believe that CCU would still have a future, but I knew the truth. CCU’s leaders finally dug a hole they couldn’t get out of. 

For all that beautiful legacy, the future is suddenly gone.

Ant yet… that’s not true. CCU’s future is not gone. CCU will be only as gone as our memories of it. Yes, it will fade away over time, just as memories fade. Sooner or later, the arrangement with CCCB will end. Sooner or later, the property will be sold and the buildings will be torn down. Eventually, our great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and parents will pass away and take their memories with them. Eventually, my generation, the last generation to attend CCU, will be gone as well.

But until then, CCU’s future lies in us, the former students, just as its legacy lies in us. Starting in December, CCU will be freed from the control of trustees acting without honesty or integrity. CCU will no longer thrash from one “money-making idea” to another, announcing mergers and building projects it can never follow through on.

CCU’s future lies in us, the former students. Transfers, drop-outs, and alumni alike.

"An Abundance of Hope." Ballpoint pen on paper. I doodled this during a
slow evening at work in the coffee shop. 
CCU’s future lies in our sermons, in our mission fields, in our teaching, in our counseling sessions. It lies in everyone with whom we share the gospel. It is in the words we share with one another, the knowledge we keep, and the old essays gathering dust, either in our Google Docs or the boxes in our attics. It is in our dresser drawers of t-shirts and the highlights and underlines in our bibles.

CCU’s future lies in our relationships and our reminiscing. It is in the relationships we have with our mentors and our mentees, the wisdoms we share with one another. It is in our wedding anniversaries celebrated every May and June, and our friendiversaries celebrated every August. It is in our social media accounts, email address books, and phone contacts, and the small reunions that can happen at the oddest times and places.

CCU’s future lies in our shared love of Skyline, Chick-fil-A, Bloc Coffee, and the 86; in our love of brinner, bingo, The Price is Right, and chili served in a bread bowl. It lies in our strange love of dodgeball, and in Kentucky Christian University, and in the fact that every time we hear the word “yellow” we silently finish the chant, “is the color of urine!”, because CCU’s future lies not only in our togetherness but in our rivalries with one another and with other colleges.

CCU’s future lies in our job hunts, our diplomas, the transcripts we’re all suddenly anxious about, and in our fresh, perfectly-formatted resumes, reference sheets, and CVs. It lies in the books we write and the films we make.

It is, finally, in the anger we feel, because something we dearly loved was twisted and torn and made ugly before our eyes, and we were powerless to stop any of it. And that anger is good and honest and right and valid and true. And maybe it is the right time for the university to close, but for the current students, faculty, and staff, that does not ease the pain and stress of having to pick up the pieces. 

If you are a member of the CCU community and you need a listening ear, please don't hesitate to contact me. Unfortunately I don't have the knowledge or the authority to explain everything through the decades that led the school to Monday night's devastating announcement. I’m only one shy and sad alumna, but I see your hurt and I wish, I truly wish, that I could give you each the answers, opportunities, and resources you need as you move forward. I can only pray and listen, but I like to think that's better than nothing.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

Arts and Accessibility: Robert Colescott at CAC

Wow, so much has happened this summer. Have I got some updates for you!
First I've gotta tell you what I've been up to at work.
You know I’ve always loved both art and writing (hence this blog), but I’ve recently combined the two in a way I truly never expected.
In August 2017, a few months after graduation, I stumbled into what is now my current job at an agency contracted by the Library of Congress and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The place I work is a regional braille and audio-book distribution center, supporting 72 NLS branch libraries throughout the eastern US (and working with our counterpart to the west). We help the NLS branches serve thousands of patrons who are blind, visually impaired, or have other challenges reading traditional books. 
My particular job within this grand scheme is pretty unspectacular, entry-level work. I was lured by good pay, a quiet, introvert-friendly environment, and access (at work) to the entire NLS audio library... but I discovered so much more: a close-knit group of coworkers, a kind boss who supports and advocates for each of us, and work that makes me feel fulfilled.
It feels really good to be part of a program that delivers literature straight to people's hands!
More Than Meets the Eye is a brilliant book about
blindness and art by Georgina Kleege, English
lecturer at UC Berkely and life-long lover of the
arts, unhindered by her visual impairment.
Even with all of that, I was floored when an opportunity came up at work that would perfectly combine my passions: writing descriptions of visual art. 
Much of the arts world (except the obvious, music) is not accessible for those without sight. Touching the artwork is a big no-no in museums! 
Even the performing arts like theatre are heavily dependent on the visual—actions, sets, even playbills are all vision-oriented. 
However, blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals are by no means uninterested in the arts! A large portion of the BVI population loses their sight later in life, and the thought of losing access to some of the arts can be a painful part of adjusting to a new lifestyle with limited or no vision.
However, arts institutions are trying to help the situation.
Some museums have regularly scheduled touch tours, others offer on-demand audio tours. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has options for visitors who are blind, deaf, autistic, or even have dementia! Unfortunately, many places don't have the necessary resources to support so many programs. Lack of funds, lack of staff, and lack of awareness are major hurdles for accessibility. 
The parent organization of my job, Clovernook Center for the Blind, started the Arts and Accessibility Initiative in 2016. The Arts Initiative works to help museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions become accessible for BVI patrons.
The Arts Initiative is comprised of blind and sighted braille transcribers and proofreaders, an audio engineer and a narrator, a tactile graphics producer, and writers... that's where I fit in! We come alongside institutions and help them determine ways to better serve BVI patrons, consulting with BVI individuals and focus groups to ensure that our strategies and end-products are truly beneficial. 
I and my work-friend LT got involved earlier this year because the Arts Initiative was looking for writers. With our English degrees and love of writing and the arts, we were excited to join.
The Arts Initiative made this summer a whirlwind of meetings and projects, on top of my regular workload. We spent the early part of the summer preparing for several members of the Initiative to give a presentation at the Kennedy Center Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD), an annual conference with the goal of creating accessible cultural arts programs around the world. 
Earlier this year we received a $25,000 grant to provide free accessible materials to ten institutions. We reached out to a variety of cultural institutions, both local and around the country.
Since LEAD is over, it's time to get working on the grant projects. First up: the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) here in Cincinnati!
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati.
Photo courtesy of The Cincinnati Region
We worked closely with Shawnee Turner, Associate Educator of School and Docent Programs at CAC, to find out how we could best serve the museum's BVI visitors.
Together we made arrangements for the Arts Initiative to provide accessible materials for their 2019-2020 season-opening exhibition, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. We would write and record audio descriptions of ten paintings, record all of the wall-text provided by the curators, and produce all of that text in accompanying braille booklets.
This was a daunting project for LT and me. It was our first attempt at this sort of description, the stakes were high, and the art was technically and thematically challenging. But we did it!
The first thing LT and I did was sit down with several sighted and visually impaired people to look at the first painting, a huge piece titled "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware." Together we wrote down every single thing we could see. Shape, size, texture, composition, color. We wrote it all down and then transformed and arranged these notes into careful, logical descriptions.

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, Robert Colescott, 1975.
Acrylic on canvas. After George Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Lueuze, 1851. (Private
collection, Saint Louis, © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Jean Paul Torno)

One challenge I enjoyed was thinking about the logical order in which to arrange information. I had to think about the the prominent features of the painting, plus the overall composition and the pattern in which the eye moves around the canvas, and then write it all in a natural, easy-to-follow manner.  

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I wanted to make sure each word was in the right place. If I misplaced a single word, it would throw off all 999 other proverbial words.

That said, once I got over the prestige of the project and finally started writing, this was a fairly easy project. 

My favorite art teacher’s mantra was “draw what you see, not what you think you see.” It means not to let your expectations or ideas get in the way of what’s actually in front of your eyes. Not to let your mental image of a house obscure the actual house you’re drawing. 
Eat Dem Taters, Robert Colescott, 1975, on display at
CAC. After The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885. 

This “draw what you see” mantra held true for writing these descriptions. Write what you see, not what you think you see. Write what you see, not what you expect. 

Once the descriptions were complete, our brilliant audio duo, Joey and Chris, took over. They recorded 40 pages of material, both the descriptive text and the CAC wall text.  
Last Friday, I and my artist-friend, Brynnae, went to the CAC Colescott opening. It was a great event! 
I loved getting to see this artwork I’d so carefully described, all hanging together on the broad white walls, alongside 75 other paintings and drawings by Robert Colescott. I loved getting to learn a little bit about the art scene in New York in the 80s, when Colescott’s career was at its peak. I enjoyed getting to be a part of the VIP crowd, as a contributor to the exhibition. Most of all, I really loved getting to see some of my blind coworkers enjoying the art through the efforts of LT, Chris, Joey, and myself.
Next time, I'll share a bit more about the life and art of Robert Colescott... See ya later!


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!