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Posts Tagged ‘making art’

The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

In antiques, beauty, cities, culture, journalism, life, photography, US, women, work on August 10, 2014 at 12:13 am

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

It may be creative, but, hell yes, it’s still work!

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, film, journalism, Money, music, photography, US, work on May 13, 2014 at 12:58 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Time to let go, at last

Did any of you catch this recent interesting piece in The New York Times?

The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.

On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings…

This is something I think about a lot.

My father, still alive at 85, was a respected maker of films and network television, as was my stepmother. My mother worked as a journalist.

It never occurred to me that “artist” and “starving” belonged in the same sentence. Nor should they!

This notion that being creative means penury or 1%-land is absurd. We don’t expect or require this of others — the middling executive, the stalled lawyer, the so-so administrator. The world is filled with people doing their best and never hitting the heights, nor surviving on ramen in a group squat.

More, from the Times’ piece:

Inexpensive goods carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes and our food, and it is no less true of those products we turn to for meaning, pleasure and diversion. We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists: myths about the singularity of genius or the equal distribution of talent; clichés about flaky, privileged weirdos; inspiring tales of dreamers who persevered. But we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.

I’ve been writing for a living — sometimes for a nice wage, sometimes for a much-less-amusing one — since I left university. But I’ve never cracked that sexy glass ceiling of the six-figure income.

malled cover LOW

Talent and hard work, prizes and fellowships — got ‘em. There are few direct correlations between the standard metrics and creative success, let alone buckets ‘o cash. Your ability to schmooze, to accept and perform work you find creatively grotesque, to suck up abusive client behaviors — these, too, factor considerably into who will (quickest) ascend the greasy pole of fame and fortune.

The creative life is one that many mythologize or fantasize about: waking up at noon to daub a canvas or noodle about with your screenplay. How lovely, how freeing to flee the grim confines of cube-world and the predations of The Man.

Snort!

Every time I put on a pair of shoes, or eat a meal, I touch the direct reflection of talent and hard work — it produced the income that keeps me housed, fed, clothed and will fund my retirement.

Making art — of any kind — in no way excuses the artist from the costly necessities of life, no matter how cool or offbeat our lives and work may appear to others choosing a different vocational path.

One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit, by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has made her career by — as she eloquently puts it — walking into an empty studio and making a dance.

In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.”
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Creative work absolutely is work, even if/when it doesn’t earn enough to buy you a house or a shiny new car — or any car, ever — or the plaudits of The Right People.

And holding fast to principle — creating something you imagine to be of lasting cultural worth, not merely sating contemporary appetites or shoveling cash at your expenses — remains a difficult challenge for many artists faced with the same costs of heat, fuel, clothing, food and housing as the rest of the workforce.

Jose and I recently saw this terrific 1987 play, The Substance of Fire, about a New York City family-run publishing house and its internal battle over this issue.

IMG_20140512_122236059

Here’s a post I wrote about this in 2011, which was chosen for Freshly Pressed.

I ask whether we should focus on being productive (look what I made!) or creative (which might be publicly inaudible and invisible for months or years, producing no income):

I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.

We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

Do you work full-time in a creative field?

How’s it going?

How do you measure your success?

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Crayons and paper and pens — oh my!

In art, beauty, design on January 29, 2012 at 1:04 am
Art Show - DSC 0035 ep

Image by Eric.Parker via Flickr

This week I did one of my favorite things ever.

I ordered personal stationery for myself, and another set for Jose and I, at Scriptura, a lovely shop in New Orleans where I last bought these things in 2004. Some stores are so perfect you can’t wait to go back, and this is one. You perch on a cane stool at a wide wooden table and their helpful staff spend as much time as you need — while the letterpress printer from 1906 clanks away in the back room.

Now that’s my kind of shopping: personal, attentive, quirky, historic and stylish!

Mine will be white cards with a lime green border, my name printed in a soft orange. Ours are kelly green (!) printed in navy blue. Total cost, just over $100. Score!

I stocked up in Chicago in November at Blick, a 101-year-old store that was totally intoxicating. I bought felt pens with brush tips, an art book, several great binders to hold my loose recipes.

There are such lovely papers to be found, everywhere I travel. Toronto has the Japanese Paper Place, Florence offers gorgeous marbled papers at Il Papiro and the art supply section at Paris’ BHV. Ooooh la la!

There are few things that make me so completely happy as knowing I have lots of gorgeous paper, pens, watercolor, pens, brushes, and my camera…beauty just waiting to explode out of my fingertips.

When we have dinner parties, I make individual place cards for everyone. At Christmas, I make and send out some of our own home-made cards as well. This year was a fun photo I took of Jose — who is not a huge hulking guy — carrying in our tree on his shoulder. Another year it was a photo he took of two canoes, one red, one green.

I grew up in a home full of creativity and feel bereft if I don’t have ready access to the tools of making stuff. My Dad paints, sculpts, works in silver, oil, etching, engraving….The only medium he doesn’t work in, ironically, is photography (although he was a film director for a living.)

We traveled across Canada by car the summer I was 15, sleeping in motels or our tent, and he filmed and I drew. I treasure my drawings from my travels as much as my photos: a temple in northern Thailand, a glass of Guinness in the Aran Islands, a sculpture in Paris, a courtyard in Queretaro.

Drawing, and painting, makes you sloooooow down and really look at whatever it is you are appreciating.

Here’s a fun New York Times story about one of my favorite art supply shops anywhere, Lee’s, on 57th. Street in Manhattan.

Do you love art supplies?

Have a great source to share?

Ready, Set, Draw! Not Your Gun — Your Pencil

In art on May 14, 2010 at 2:27 pm
COLORED PENCILS....

Image by englishsnow via Flickr

This sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday…at Wave Hill, a gorgeous garden in the Bronx. It’s a free day of drawing, tomorrow. As the site suggests, drawing something forces you to slooooow down and really look at an object or a person or a place.

I’ve started a Friday morning drawing class, three hours, working with colored pencils, one of my favorite media. Last week we drew an apple. This week, the teacher was late and one of my classmates brought in 3 spectacular purple flowers from her garden — two iris and something I didn’t recognize. So we drew that.

Gulp.

Flowers are difficult! Lots of detail and minuscule streaks and shades, palest yellow and white. I blew the refraction effect of the stems in water — they look like they’ve moved to the side — but maybe I’ll fix it next week.

The teacher, who’s a bit ferocious, actually liked my piece, which was neat. I did it small and controlled, while my flower-bearing friend created huge, blowsy blooms blasting off the paper. It’s fascinating to see how differently we each see the same things, even side by side, and how we translate them onto paper.

After about two hours, we all get up and walk about the room to see what others are up to. There is a man who sits to my immediate left, doing a large drawing of a photo he took in his native Haiti. His style is loose, free, gorgeous, inspiring. I love being surrounded by talent. One woman is painting a butterfly on a bush, another a cat in a window. All of which demand technical skill, but — most important — the willingness and the ability to look at something really closely and for a long time.

If there is any skill we’re losing, even disdaining, in an era of continuous partial attention and screens filled with “reality” television, this is it.

“What’s happening here?” the teacher asked me, gently, pointing to a blank spot on my drawing. “Um, I wimped out,” I admitted. I didn’t quite know what to do, so I stopped. She helped me see the solution — erasing and moving a line — and I started again.

It’s so regenerating to learn, or re-learn, something creative.  I used to draw for hours every day after I came home from high school. I’ve really missed it. But, being a workaholic, could barely stand the idea of three hours not working on a weekday. Pshaw!

Nothing I’ve done in years is making me as happy.

If you haven’t drawn something in years, sit still for an hour and try it (again.) It does take time, and patience, (and a good eraser and a thick piece of drawing paper.)It doesn’t have to be “good” or realistic. It just has to be yours, and pleasurable to do.

Whether you try to capture the essence of  your kid or your cat or an apple, you’ll never see it quite the same way again.

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