Sunday, February 28, 2016

To Draw, That We Might See: Part The Second (Still February ’16)

As I hope you recall, my last blog left you on tenterhooks, perched on the edge of your seat, pondering the burning question: Was John Ruskin, the famous nineteenth century London art critic, pleased by the advent of the camera? Would he have been thrilled out of his tree by the miraculous technology of today’s tiny cell phone camera, which puts capturing both panoramic vistas and intricately detailed close ups into the hands of the rank amateur?
As you may have deduced (aided, perhaps, by the title of this blog) the answer is a resounding no. Cameras, Ruskin came to believe, stop us seeing. He noticed that would-be photographers were so preoccupied with their cameras, so busy twiddling and fiddling with various knobs, that they quite forgot to look at the particular bit of the universe that had inspired them in the first place. Not so with the gentle art of sketching; having selected the scene, the artist takes out her sketchbook, pencils and paper, finds a place to sit that is neither too hot nor too cold, too bright nor too shady, carefully sizes up her subject, and finally puts pencil to paper. Producing even a simple sketch requires several minutes of intense looking, and it is in the looking that the magic happens.
Ruskin became a passionate enemy of the camera and promoter of drawing—indeed, he spent four years on a campaign to get people sketching again. He wrote books, gave speeches and funded art schools that still flourish today—schools that were (at least in his day) dedicated not to drawing well, but to drawing at all. His ideal was that people should slow down and smell the coffee (which had become quite a popular drink by his time): “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
How beautiful is that—“his glory is not . . . in going, but in being”? (By “man”, of course, Ruskin and everyone else at his time, and many people today,  myself included, understand “and woman.”)
Ruskin died in January, 1900—the year the chief of the Patent Office famously observed that it might as well be shut down, since everything that possibly could be invented, had been (was ever a statement as colossally and monumentally wrong as that!) I am glad, for his sake, that Ruskin wasn’t born a century later, and so was spared the frenetic acceleration of life brought about, first by the motorcar, then by the computer.
So today, in honor of John Ruskin and all the many 20th century self-help gurus who have rediscovered the beauty of life in the slow lane, I invite you and your children to join me on the cool, unhurried pages of a sketchbook. And when you have produced a drawing —you’ll notice, I didn’t say “a good drawing”—whip out your cell phone, snap a photo, and save it till I’ve figured out how you’ll send it to me.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

To Draw, That We Might See: Part the First Feb ‘16

It’s not every day that a voice emerges from the pages of history to give a ringing endorsement to an educational notion you thought you’d scraped off a mossy rock somewhere in Devon some fifty years ago: but precisely such a great pleasure befell me This Very Day. I was fortunate enough to make the online acquaintanceship of the arrestingly titled The Book of Life, and in it the chapter that effectively shut down all other activity for the day: On the Importance of Drawing.

Those among you who have read my book, Entropy Academy, may remember that I waxed most enthusiastic about the benefits of drawing—not because cameras were so unwieldy and expensive way back in the 1990’s (which they were), or because film was so temperamental and annoying to have developed (which it was), but because drawing trained me to see!

I had discovered this during my son’s Special Olympics soccer practices, which lasted about an hour and a half. Hour one was easy—the dog and I wore ourselves out with a speed walk of roughly 60 minutes’ duration. The remaining 30-40 minutes lent themselves admirably to a more sedentary pursuit: finding a flower, whether two feet high or the size of a grain of rice, and painstakingly committing its details to paper. I was familiar with the parts of a flower from the enormous amaryllis we grew indoors every Christmas, and the more I drew anthers, stamens and pistils, the easier it became for me to recognize them in the field. (Incidentally, for those who care, moss doesn't have flowers.)

So picture my delight when I read about John Ruskin, a famous English art critic of the nineteenth century. Ruskin noticed that people have an innate desire to capture beauty and try to preserve it. In Ruskin’s day, the newly invented camera was about the size of a grandfather clock, and thus quite unsuitable for slinging around one’s neck on a visit to Niagara Falls. The only way to capture a “souvenir” (French for “memory”) was to purchase it from one of the aptly named souvenir shops that sprang up like mushrooms at every scene of great natural beauty, and have remained there ever since.

One might assume that Ruskin would have been thrilled by today’s tiny cell phone camera, which boasts some ridiculous number of pixels per image—far more than even camera cognoscenti can appreciate with the naked eye. Surely, technology that puts such creative power into the hands of your average Joe Sixpack enjoying his annual two-week vacation on the rocky expanse of Brighton Beach would have allayed Ruskin’s suspicious mind, and caused a hearty endorsement on his part?

You might well assume so: but the answer may surprise you.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for my next blog to find out.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Shoes and socks

Shoes. From soft, tiny baby shoes to gigantic clodhoppers, they demarcate the transition from infancy to teenagerhood. And with them (one might possibly be tempted to say, ’hand in glove’) go socks. Indeed, keeping track of shoes and socks might be termed a Metaphor for the Marvelous Journey of Motherhood

Time was, I could put my hand in my clothes pocket any time, anywhere, and pull out a tiny, soft, colorful baby sock. Happy indeed was a day when I would later find its mate. Matching a pair of socks became a Major Life Event and called for great rejoicing, representing as it did a successful foray into that day’s battle with entropy. I also knew, however, that the day would all too quickly dawn when my hand would search my pocket in vain, and come up empty. Fully aware of the poignancy of the moment, I’d give the sock an appreciative sniff (“Aah, baby powder!”) and return it to my pocket.

But socks , inevitably, outgrow pockets; and as they do, like cowboys and Greta Garbo, they want to be alone. Solitary mismatched socks soon filled a red plastic bucket kept (in what proved to be a futile attempt to stop them metastasizing the length and breadth of the house) behind the laundry room door. This was raided every Sunday morning in a desperate quest for a matching pair: “Surely somewhere among these tens of thousands of odd socks there must lurk two that remotely resemble a pair? “

But no. Incredibly enough, and in complete defiance of the laws of probability, never mind of logic, the bucket yielded an apparently infinite number of individual socks that were united in one thing and one thing only: a fervent desire for their rugged individualism to remain . . . well, rugged, I suppose, and individualistic.

Shoes, on the other hand, are a good deal more tractable. Pin a pair together with a clothespin, buckle a pair together or tie their laces, and there is at least an outside chance of them staying together.

Just please don’t tell shoes that I called them more manageable than socks. I shudder to think of the shape their retribution might take.