Thursday, December 5, 2013

Julekalender is Back!

After all well-meaning intentions to get back to regular blogging and making work go out the window, an artist tends to go back to the well of familiarity. In my case, in December, it's the well of the Julekalender, a series of drawings I did back in 2010.

I've reignited the Julekalender idea and have begun drawings for each day in December. On display in this blog post is the drawing from December 1st. It's titled "Piles of Mashed Potatoes in the Shape of the Pillars of Creation," and its inspiration is a Thanksgiving staple and one of the most famous outer space photographs ever taken.

I am hoping that this year's series of drawings will work as a cohesive group, as opposed to the whimsy and randomness of the 2010 drawings. That's not to say that all of the images will feature food or space as subject matter, but you never know.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Shopping Carts

Here's what happens in the summer when you're working on a ridiculously extensive* basement remodel: you struggle to find time to make work.

In the face of a stagnant summer in the studio (mostly because it's full of furniture and tchotchkes belonging to the portion of the basement under remodel), I discovered that I could come up with ideas and make work in the strangest of places and at the strangest of times.

Enter the shopping cart project.

Earlier this year, our local Safeway put number stickers on all of its shopping carts. Why? Perhaps it's a way of tracking their carts in case they are stolen by pesky college students. ("Dude, let's ride this thing!") Or perhaps it's how they identify carts that wind up in the Safeway cart repair garage. ("Cart 85 needs a lube job on its front passenger wheel.")

Whatever the reason, each time I went to Safeway, I pulled out my phone and photographed the labels of the carts I was using.

There's no rhyme or reason to the motivation for this "project." For the moment it means very little. But I happened to stockpile a couple dozen images from which to draw from or find inspiration. Or maybe I'll craft the project into something larger once the basement is complete.

Either way, the challenge of creating images within a busy schedule—not to mention creating interesting images from nearly the same compositional perspective in every shot—was a welcome, if temporary, replacement to the challenges encountered when rewiring, hanging drywall, or installing an egress window.

* By "ridiculously extensive," I mean it's a lot of work because you're going the cheap route and doing it all yourself. For the pros, this the whole thing would've been a six-day job.

Friday, November 1, 2013

From Digital to Physical

With every passing year and an increasing amount of publications that discuss humanity's transition and total immersion in the digital realm, I long for the days in the future where we move away from the hyperspecific, hyperreal arena of the digital domain and back to physical reality.

Perhaps this will occur as a trend that becomes "hip" among a select few. As a meme, notions of physical reality will reappear as some folks choose to "tune out" or go back to the "retro" days of physical media and property. Compact discs will come back, stores will stock them and people will buy them. They'll be the hip thing like the vinyl resurgence—that started in 2008 or so—was (and still is, to some extent). People will write letters. (Perhaps even the postal service will make money again.)

This retro impulse will leave us all more focused on one thing at a time. Instead of streaming video while ordering pizza while Facetiming while Facebooking while tweeting, we might actually live in actual moments. We'll focus more on the things around us. We'll see leaves fall to the ground. We'll feel the booklet that came with the album. We'll see art in person instead of looking at virtual museums online.

And, in this future, we'll be open to more of the world around us because the physical world allows for more distraction rather than less.

We'll become better. We'll become smarter.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Belongings: A Story About Amy Winehouse

I came to know about Amy Winehouse the way any knowledge-lacking music fan would—by proxy. Someone, somewhere had said or read or reread something about the (at the time) up-and-coming Brit-pop-soul singer and a song that might—should the circumstances be right—become popular and/or famous.

So, amid a respite from graduate school—in the summer of 2007—back home at my parents' house, I happened to first see the video for Winehouse's "Rehab." There, in mom and dad's family room, me in a chair and Amy on a couch inside the television, I knew it was her. My instinct told me, in the face of my knowledge-lacking musical fandom—long removed from the days I lived and breathed music—noodling guitarist and evolving cynic I was and perhaps still am—and with that my strange connection with Amy Winehouse began.

Grad school, at the time, was a mess, that summer between semesters. I lacked direction, lacked craft, and lacked any sort of love life. Not yet set in my ways that would lead to my eventual MFA thesis, I ventured into areas of art quite unknown to me, leading—long story short—to my dragging an artificial lighting kit to my apartment on a late summer evening, in an effort better my technique, to enable my elevated distinction in some way. Dare I say it: to become a better photographer. That stupid plastic army battle tank case of lights, bulbs, and cables, still giving me a crink in my shoulder to this day as I think and write. I hated it. I hated what it contained.

This all occurred the summer I had moved away from family and was truly living alone. My isolation, in retrospect, was higher than ever—perhaps leading to my increased creativity and productivity—and I relied on the web (Internet) to reach out to others. I transitioned from public to private, from physical to virtual, and the night I lugged a bomb shelter case of strobes to my apartment happened to be night I bought my first digital music download.

I don't know exactly why I felt like buying digital music at the time, with those strobes in their black Kevlar case staring at me. And I don't exactly remember why I had never previously purchased a digital album at all. But until that point my digital music collection—already, even in 2007, becoming less personal and more stoic than ever—consisted solely of burned copies of every CD I owned and a random assortment of illegally downloaded Napter music from freshman year of college.

Even amid reservation to becoming a little "like everyone else" I decided the first album I'd ever download from iTunes would be Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. And I listened to the thing—though to this day, music that exists only in digital form still doesn't feel like a "thing" to me—and enjoyed it, all while getting nowhere with those artificial lights, the artifice of the the digital album booming in the night.

As I left behind the last remains of music as a physical medium I lost myself in those lights. And it was terrible. The lights, not the music. Neo-doowop-soul pouring from my meager computer stereo speakers, and I was awash in technical conundrums in my brain. Do I change this switch here? Does this setting change there? Why are these images so dark, what speed syncs with this equipment? Though I've since figured out how to use light kits like the one I danced with that night, the thought of that evening still makes me anxious.

It was strange new circumstances, indeed, in the way Back to Black came into my life. From Amy on the video couch on MTV2 to the night I played with strobes to no avail.

Jump to four years later, again it's the summer, with everything about my life wildly different, and I am on the verge of embarking onan entirely new chapter of existence. There's twenty-six feet of belongings behind me, and our moving truck is lurching at a snail's pace up the winding embankments of Interstate 84 known as Cabbage Hill. I have several years of memories with me amidst the struggles of the diesel engine.

The truck is part of my future wife-to-be's great migration eastward to be with me and start our life together as homeowners; we're moving. Picking up and going somewhere else. In a day's time we'll be sipping beer and eating pizza (and, frankly, when does pizza taste better than after a big move?) having transported her belongings from her place and mine from mine, all into our new place.

As we wind our way around Cabbage Hill, a story comes on the radio about the death of Amy Winehouse. I'm struck by this in a way that still stands with me, curious and cold, buffeted by the hauling of six tons of baggage up the hill with me, Amy's baggage released by her death and mine gaining altitude in the back of a rental truck. Emotionally, it felt as though I was pulling a case of lighting equipment up Cabbage Hill, more than two thousand miles removed from that Michigan digital summer night.

The boys in the truck with me, our sons, were curious and wanted to know who she was.

"She was a singer," I said. "And she was pretty wild, and she...well, she died." Assuming it was determined to be by her own hand. Assuming the impending well-known tragedy to be a part of our narratives. For slight shifts in either's veracity might have altered my response to them, these boys, not yet a third of twenty-seven, so far removed from the pains and troubles of others, just asking an innocent question.

Amy Winehouse rose and fell a few times in my life, quite briefly, the way mythical figures often do. Back to Black doesn't get regular play these days, but sometimes "Me and Mr. Jones" comes on, and I can't help but think of those three times in my life where Amy Winhouse actually meant something to me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


I started out 2013 with the goal of completing a piece of work every week. Life quickly took over, and I was teaching online, chairing a department, serving on a search committee, and dealing with my school's budget issues.

But I've had some artistic success this year despite the busy life. In April, I was lucky enough to show in curator TJ Norris' Off the Plain exhibition in Portland. Following that was a solo installation in the Portland Building downtownin August. And in September I received word that my work will be featured in an exhibition in Estonia next summer.

I'm in the process of updating my website, putting process images up on my new artist page on Facebook, and polishing up a new—in-progress—body of work for exhibition opportunities.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Saying Goodbye to John Hubbard

I had an idea for a project way back in 2007. I was approaching my final year of the MFA program at Kendall College of Art and Design, and I had an idea that was going to require effort beyond anything I had ever applied to a photography project.

I was going to fake images of a presidential campaign. Make it fit within the context of the real campaign, and try to make the whole thing look as real as possible.

I began with fake names, fake political parties, fictional stories about these characters who, as third party candidates, stood no chance at winning anything other than a few fringe supporters.

The first person I contacted was Gary Morrison. I found him through the networking settings on MySpace (area: theater, location: Grand Rapids, age: 50+) and emailed him about the project. We exchanged numbers, and it took one phone call for him to say, "I'm interested. I'll do it." At our first meeting, where I posed him in front of an American flag, I asked him why he was willing to help me out. "You've got an interesting project, and it sounds like you need someone to commit to it."

That's the kind of guy I discovered Gary was. He was dedicated. He became John Hubbard throughout 2008, meeting folks, handing out buttons, doing photo shoots, and giving speeches. Gary became a quasi-celebrity during that time in Grand Rapids, recognizable due to his physique (he was a world-record-holding bodybuilder at 65), high-ish pitched New Hampshire accent, and his proclivity to play darts with his wife at Founders on a regular basis.

After I moved to Oregon, Hubbard, of course, lived on in the work from Nobody Wins. I reconnected with Gary in early 2012 after the three year anniversary of the exhibition. Later that year, I found out Gary had cancer and I wrote to wish him the best. He wrote back, saying that it looked like I had staked out a good path in life. He had recently lost a friend who also had an MFA in photography. "It is a reminder to me," Gary wrote, "that for the most part we are in charge of our own destinies. Stay in charge." 

Gary lost his battle with lung cancer on Monday. He is part of the reason I am where I am, doing what I love to do. His dedication to my project helped me see it through to the end, and Gary was as determined with my work as he was with his own. 

Unlike John Hubbard, Gary was — and still is — very real to me when I look at his images and think about the time we spent together. He came to my going away party in Grand Rapids before I moved far away. He kept in touch. He continued to relish the thought that he had run for president, and when a friend asked him for one of his Hubbard lawn signs, he refused to give it up, keeping it at his home because "I consider it a national treasure."

The real treasure, for me, was being able to work with a guy like Gary. And everyone who got to know him through the Hubbard campaign will agree with me when I say he'll be dearly missed. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Verizon Making Us Meme Machines?

Every two years or so, I get an email from Verizon—my mobile phone service provider—saying it's time to upgrade my device. Normally, like when I had my first Nokia phone ten years ago, I jump at the chance, drop into the store, and pick up a new phone.

Two years ago when that deadline appeared, however, I upgraded to an iPhone, so when the time came to upgrade again, I declined. The phone works great, helps me stay connected to my job, keeps me entertained, that sort of thing. I didn't have any reason to change.

My wife is on the cell phone plan too, and this time she wanted an upgrade (on her phone, not her husband). So, after much harangue from the Verizon clerk to get this or that with this screen protector and that case and this charger and this belt strap carrier and the like, she went with her first choice: a free iPhone 4 with no case, no carrier, no screen protectors, nothing.

Then things got interesting, but not in a telecommunications-type way. It turns out that we had been on a grandfathered calling plan, capping our calls at 700 minutes a month and allowing us only (only!) 250 texts each. Verizon doesn't have those plans any more, and we were forced to switch due to the upgrade.

In the end, the change saves us money. But upon further investigation of what we signed up for, some interesting details appeared.

Gone are the days of choosing a cell phone plan with a certain number of available talking minutes. We're no longer limited to 700 minutes, or 450 minutes, or 10,000 minutes; we can now talk to whoever we want for however long we like. And we're not limited in our texting either. Sure, iPhone to iPhone texts don't count for anything, but our new plan allows us to text anyone as much as we like, and our charges stay the same.

Now, though, our data is capped. This, on the surface, isn't a problem for either of us. We regularly use less than .5 gigabytes with both of our phones combined. But capped data—and the rest of Verizon's new plans—reveal something very interesting about how we communicate.

They are encouraging us to spread our ideas.

If you subscribe to the philosophical beliefs of someone like Susan Blackmore, we've evolved to be carriers for cultural genetics. We have evolved as a species to pass along cultural information in the form of memes. Not only that, but memes have FORCED our hand to evolve into better meme-spreaders. So, years and years ago, we developed language, not to be able to tell each other what to do, but to be better able to transmit memes to one another.

The modern digital age, according to memeticists like Blackmore, exists for that reason. Cell phones, the Internet, television, and radio, all exist so that we can pass information along to one another. Memes rule us and our technologies. Ideas, dance moves, songs, jokes, fashion trends, all have their root in our lives as  memes, existing only to be spread from person to person. (Do we really need "Gangnam Style" to exist as a species? How about iPods? Color-coordinated sneakers?)

Verizon's new Share Everything plans blow that "secret"—that modern technology exists not to benefit us, but to benefit the transmission of memes—wide open. Verizon is banking on increasingly fast transmission times, larger phone screens, and the ability to talk or text anyone, anywhere, wherever and tying those capabilities into our natural tendencies—and the driving forces of the memes that surround us—to want to gab to each other about new things, new ideas, new memes. Sometimes we gab about existing memes that get a second wind because of vehicles like the Internet (would Rick Astley still be a cultural phenomenon if it weren't for the Internet in 2005?).

The cap isn't on a specific mode of communication. Now it's all lumped together into the catchall category of "DATA." It's all bits of information, not words or letters or emails or video. It's all just information, and we can send and receive as much as we like, provided we don't go over our cap. And if we do? We just pay a little bit more.

Even the handle of "Share Everything" indicates what is behind Verizon's plan structure changes. If you've got something to say, sing, post, write, or draw, you should do it. They have the bandwidth to let you do it.

The memes have forced our hands, and the large telecommunications firms have obliged them. This isn't necessarily a detrimental thing as far as our society at large is concerned; it's just that it's terribly revealing to see evidence of humanity's memeplex in your run-of-the-mill cell phone bill.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election 2012: The End of the Universe

With the election now just twenty-four hours behind us, a cursory glance at Facebook, Twitter, or national news outlets reveals one thing: because of what happened last night, we are edging closer to the end of the universe.

It's not America that's dying. It's not the destruction of Liberty. The election didn't usher in a dark day for the country; within the next four years, the universe—everything as we know it, as well as everything we don't know and cannot possibly comprehend—will cease to exist.

Before November 8th, 2016, everything will go away. And we won't even know that it's happened. The universe will disappear, and it will take Democrats and Republicans, pundits and laypeople with it. Maybe it will all be one big implosion. Or maybe a fire will ignite from somewhere light years away and blow everything apart.

Whatever it is, by the time we hit November in four years, nothing will be here. And it's apparently all our fault.