Thursday, December 25, 2008

Aaaargh! Simple Simon!

This is a public apology to everybody in my webmail lists who will have just received an idiotic message informing them that I have added them as a "friend" at a business site masquerading as a social one. A person who really is a friend "sent" me an email notifiying me of such. Because I have reason to be in contact with her, I responded. Somehow this diabolical site dashed in, sucked out all my webmail contacts, and automatically sent messages to everyone with whom I have recently been in email correspondence. These messages inform the recipient that I have added them as a "friend" at said site. I am aghast that such has occurred. Please accept my apologies. Delete all such messages at once.

I'm the dumb-butt in the picture looking at the email--er, pies.

Frederick Richardson, "Simple Simon Met a Pieman," The Vollard Edition Mother Goose, 1913.

Roadside Bethlehem: Merry Christmas

I documented this hotel sign in Denver, near Colfax and Colorado. I changed the color some, and invented a background. Somehow it seemed to capture the "Plan B" aspect of the Christmas story.

This is our Christmas card this year. Have to get 'em printed when I get back to St. Louis...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Grand Canyon: A Post and a Poster

The visual and geological culmination of the Colorado Plateau--that vast, scarred rock slab covering large chunks of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico--is the Grand Canyon. Picking up the family today in Phoenix. Woke up in Flagstaff, with ice and banks of plowed snow. Then off to the Canyon.

Do not have much data on this Sante Fe poster handy. The date is 1924. If I can remember when I get home, I'll dig the illustrator credit out. These posters were a savvy marketing campaign by the railroad to sell the West, and its particular route through it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mesa Yowsa

Okay, I'm posting a few quick photographs, then enough with the vacation pictures already. There's work to do, people! Plus I'm sort of snowed in. Big storm across the Southwest last night.

Yesterday as the day was fading I made a quick hike on the Mesa Arch loop in Canyonlands. Like a lot of the hikes that start off the main road you start along thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever this isn't so dramatic. This sense was heightened by the fact that a big cloud bank had settled over the elevated park, making the far edge of the east canyon invisible. A foggy murk. So I trudged along until I approached Mesa Arch, a sort of squinty eye opening up above the canyon, maybe twenty-five or thirty feet across, then--

Holy Crap! This is one vertiginous vantage point! You think the canyon will reach up, grab you by the belt, and pull you in. Truly magnificent, made more so somehow by the fog.

I walked along the rim for a little bit, then headed back to my trusty Impala as day ended and the storm worked up some gumption to the west...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Toward Devil's Garden on a Snowy Day

It never got warm enough to melt most of the snow, although the sun did some work on the slickrock. I didn't draw today, as I thought I might--I'll save that for tomorrow. I headed out to Devil's Garden, at the end of the main road into the park.

The trail was shoveled out for about the first third of a mile. After that it involved trudging though the snow a bit. I wasn't wearing boots, so the footing was a challenge. Out by Landscape Arch the trail began to rise up onto sandstone fins. They've apparently re-routed the trail where Wall Arch collapsed this summer, just after I got here in August. I'll ask a ranger tomorrow, but it seemed as if the trail now runs up along the middle fin shown here, which would be a moderate challenge under good circumstances, and not possible over snow. I wanted to get another half mile or so along that trail, out where you walk up and along a series of fins overlooking Fin Canyon. Oh well. Another day.

Photographs just do not do the job here. Think of these as stickers or emblems for the real thing, which is so dramatic and capacious as to defy articulation. Here, a jet trail over the "Petrified Dunes," which aren't really legible in this image.

And finally a shot of a big old mesa, just give a sense of these things as architectonic masses on layer cakes of softer stone (at the very bottom).


Today is my 48th birthday. Once it warms up a little I will be going out to sit in my field chair and make a drawing of a huge pile of rocks that fell from a canyon face near Courthouse Wash in Arches a long long time ago. Then I’m going for a hike in Devil’s Garden. I’ll take some pictures and post them later.

My sabbatical is winding down.

The image at the top of this post was taken right around December 1st, when I moved out of the Maplewood storefront studio I have rented since 1997. My wife Lori (an independent video producer) and I used it in various configurations during those dozen years. She leased the space on her own, in 1995 or 96, before I moved out of my old the downtown warehouse studio (in the Leather Trades Building on Locust) to join her. About a year ago she accepted a position with Avatar Studios, a St. Louis production firm, leaving me on my own at 2506 Sutton.

We packed up my stuff--a lot of books, as it turns out--over the last month, and moved most of it into a temperature controlled storage locker, where it will remain until such time as I reconstitute my studio in another setting. I won’t be needing one for a while.

And that is a notable fact, upon which I intend to reflect for a few paragraphs.

I started out as a printmaker. It shocks me now to think that it seemed like a good idea in the mid 1980s to pursue an MFA in printmaking, which I did at the University of the Nebraska-Lincoln under the distinguished woodcut artist Karen Kunc, and in the company of some excellent artists and wonderful friends. But the intervening years, marked by dramatic cultural and technological change, have made the idea of a graduate printmaking degree seem like the craziest thing possible.

In fairness to myself, my art education was shaped by the traditional culture of art which did not admit or address the companion culture of design, which I use here to include communicative pictures, or illustration. I hadn't the faintest notion of what an illustrator was or did when I began making disciplinary selections, because the choice wasn't available. In my small college art department, the options were painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking. I chose the last of these, because I liked graphic images and it seemed on the face of it to be the most democratic and popularly-oriented activity available.

Only much later would I realize that the discipline of printmaking consists of previously significant commercial reproduction technologies repurposed for primarily aesthetic ends. That is, printmaking houses a closetful of technologies once used by commercial illustrators and platemakers, but no longer. It is truly bizarre that the academic discipline of printmaking--representing modes of production in use in Europe from the 15th century onward--was born at the dawn of the Atomic Age. Had I known these things, I would have searched out educational opportunities in (primarily) illustration and (as a supplementary exploration) graphic design for graduate study.

My first significant professional work was in the field of fine press books and folios, which I sold to museums and private collections. I love the act and the smell of printing, especially letterpress, but it is insanely slow and cumbersome if you want to make a lot of pictures, as I did and do, and you can’t really make any money at it. (Case in point: I am a few short months from absolutely finishing the last of these projects, which I began in 1995.)

Subsequently I started edging into illustration, because a) I wanted to make things that would be seen by more people than the curators in museums, and b) I had agitated to change departments and work with the designers, who seemed much more interested in things that I recognized as important.

In the course of the next ten years, I produced a newspaper serial for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called "Sam the Dog" from 1997 to 1999; working with writer and old college friend Terry Cawley and Tim McCandless, a colleague from Wash U, launched a internet entertainment company, Sam the Dog, Inc. which still lives online. After the bubble burst, I focused on corporate creative services with McCandless (now co-owner/leader of the design and motion graphics shop Bandolier Group) to make some money; tentatively began to explore experimental animated projects as an art form of sorts, while trying and failing to figure out how to get people to pay for them; led a university research studio that produced design projects for research oriented clients, working most notably on the MySci Project and a permanent exhibition on cardiac health at Missouri Baptist Hospital; and, after a health crisis in the middle of the latter work, began to crawl toward a murkily-imagined future studio practice. I am proud of that work. Much of it was pretty good. But it wasn’t necessarily good for me.

I have spent many years working really hard but not wisely. The sum total of all those new experiences into which I jumped eagerly if not terribly purposefully has given me a range of case studies on which to draw and put me in a position to write knowledgeably and persuasively about them. There’s benefit there. It’s almost like an extended liberal arts tour through commercial image-making, an under-considered field.

Over the past few years I have worked to learn to focus my energies more productively and directly, in my professional, personal and spiritual life. I have labored, especially, to consolidate what I have learned as a person, to lay the tracks for my next decade of work as an artist and a writer.

In general terms, that’s what sabbaticals are designed to achieve—refueling and refocusing. You get one every seven years. I didn’t use my last one to refuel. I went charging off after the next clever idea, the thing that would be really significant.

But that mortality thing. Bumping up against it at my age reduces your tolerance for piling up experiences that build breadth but not depth. I’ve done the former. I’m ready for the latter. That’s what this sabbatical is about for me, professionally speaking.

But it also has a personal dimension. Depth goes with focus.

Recently in answer to a question from my talented friend and onetime student, cartoonist-animator Bob Flynn, I wrote:

I think it's pretty much axiomatic that the illustration of the future will be delivered on screens as much or more than in print or on electronically-delivered print-like experiences. I got caught up in that, and tried to build something on the fact that I could make cool things and wanted to do so for screens. Turns out that's not good enough. The people who sell screens, or access to them, or who sell tickets to see what goes up on screens, will call the shots. You can't invent an innovative business idea and invent innovative content at the same time--no one knows what the hell you are selling. Apple sells ipods and music to play on ipods, but they don't actually make music. Bottom line, from my perspective: I have nothing to sell but my insights, and they take shape in my pictures and my writing. So I'm shutting down my studio and going back to the kitchen table with no overhead but for internet, a cell phone, and a post office box. Whatever profile I generate will grow out of my work, not my "ideas."

This is a basic insight. I am learning, or trying to learn, to shut up. I have gone back to drawing the world. So today I’ll draw some rocks in a blank book. Later maybe I’ll paint the rocks in gouache. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But at this late date, two years shy of a half-century, the act of showing up, of looking and listening, has been revealed to me as a wonderment. I expect to enjoy what comes next. I don’t know what it will be, of course. But I do know what it’ll be built out of. This. Now. Here.

I don’t need a studio. I need a sketchbook, pencils and brushes, and patience. A kitchen table. A sink. No more Sam the Dog, Inc., no more Dowd Creative, no more Ulcer City Studio, no more branding anything. It’s just me. Sitting and drawing. The rest of it will take care of itself.

My footprint has shrunk. And my subject has exploded.

Jesus, am I happy to be here.

: Ulcer City logotype, 2506 Sutton Boulevard; DB Dowd, Parking Lot with Red Jeep, 2008; Karen Kunc, System, woodcut, 2007; Theodore Davis, The Fur-Trapper, wood engraving, Harpers Weekly, [date]; Dowd, Petting Zoo, linoleum reduction cut from Visit Mohicanland, 1995-2008; Dowd [creative director] character ensemble desktop wallpaper, 2001; Dowd with the Visual Communications Research Studio [illustrator/creative director] Woodland Biome Mural, detail, from MySci; Hands On Science, 2005-2006; Dowd with VCRS [illustrator] animation still, Your Heart, Missouri Baptist Medical Center, 2006; Dowd, Ulcer City, animation still from The Doughboy, 2004; Dowd, Summer Sky Looking North, Moab Utah, 2008; Dowd, At the Royale, Election 2008 Reportage Project, St. Louis Beacon; Dowd, Gas Station Girl, graphite and gouache, 2008.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Arches National Park, Landscape & Oil

The ground was covered with two or three inches of snow this morning, yet it was all but gone by early afternoon. I went for a hike around the back end of the Windows area of the park and took a few pictures.

Afterward I went to the Arches Book Company where I bought a cup of coffee and a newspaper from Judy and sat down to read.

In today's New York Times Timothy Egan writes that the Bush administration is leaving an obnoxious present under the juniper tree for these very landscapes this Christmas.

On Election Day, writes Egan, the Bush administration announced it would open 360,000 acres of public land in Utah to oil and gas leasing, including about 100,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and Dinosaur National Monument.

As with the $700 billion bailout that Bush insisted had to be given to the very bankers, insurance companies and other tassel-loafed failures who got us into the economic meltdown, the president now wants every dead-ender in the energy business to have one last treat.

Solitude and ageless stone may not be commodities as easily quantified as a couple of thousand barrels of oil. But to the American inheritance, they are the equivalent of those first-edition Audubon books and presidential portraits in the White House.

The administration never even consulted with the parks before announcing they would have oil and gas rigs on their borders.

They ultimately backed off the worst of this, adds Egan, but they are still scheduled to sell oil and gas leases for 150,000 acres in Utah this coming Friday. Oh and they've promised to make operators paint the pumps and derricks red, to camouflage them against pictures like this.

I've been reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire the last few days. My God he must be doing somersaults and bearcrawls in his grave...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Signs Signs, Everywhere Signs

I have entered the last month of my sabbatical, and am preparing a return to the Colorado Plateau where I spent the month of August, to wonderful effect.

I am finalizing a book outline and preparing to begin writing. One of the essays I'm planning will address the graphic sensibility, which I think exists in contrast to the painterly sensibility. The former concerns itself with declaration and persistence; the latter, with immersion and immanence. More on that in coming months. But my time in Utah included exploration of Fremont culture petroglyphs and Archaic pictographs. (A petroglyph is pecked into the stone; a pictograph is painted onto it.) I am looking forward to more of the same--tramping around in remote districts, looking for horned critter shapes and headdressed cartoony humanoids.

Days before I left at the end of August I discovered a set of petroglyphs no more than 150 yards from where I was staying, including the fellow known as "Moab Man." Above.

Oddly, Moab Man lives on a rock less than a quarter mile from this horserider road sign. Just as the bison at Lascaux are faithfully formed while the people are diagrammatic stick-units, our drafted horse carries a symbolic man. Funny, when you really look at it. Is the negative space between the man's arm and hand a break in the symbolic form, or a longsleeved shirtcuff? Or both? For that matter, is the guy a priest, or should Ichabod Crane be freaking out behind the wheel?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pictures, Captions, Practices: Time for an Update

Update: This post was composed and saved on Wednesday the 3rd, but edited and posted on Thursday the 4th. So I edited the copy to say "yesterday." But the software records the post on the day it's saved, not posted. Hence the apparent confusion about what day it is.

Yesterday's New York Times featured a quartet of portraits of Mario Cuomo (viewable here), each designed to suggest an art historical vision of the former governor of New York: images "in the manner of" Warhol, Picasso, Mondrian, and R. Crumb. Thomas Fuchs produced the set, which run above the fold on page one. A rare event indeed: illustration on the most high profile broadsheet space in the nation!

Alas, I will confess that from my perspective the conceit is a tiresome one. I thought the same thing when I saw the final credit sequence to [the otherwise fabulous] Wall-E, which used art history as a time-marking device of visualization. Arguably an even more annoying statement, because it mimics the progressive, even teleological conception of the Western art historical narrative that's built into most surveys. Sigh.

But here's the thing: my beef is with the copy conventions displayed by the Times in the caption for the piece. Thomas Fuchs is an accomplished illustrator with quite a broad range, including but not limited to celebrity portraits. Stylish, smart, acute.

But the caption reads as follows:

"Mario M. Cuomo shows no interest in posing, but one illustrator visualized him as if depicted by, clockwise from top left, Warhol, Picasso, Mondrian, and R. Crumb." Italics mine.

The all-cap agate credit line at the lower right of the image set, and above the caption reads: ILLUSTRATIONS BY THOMAS FUCHS

Now imagine that the creator in question was a novelist (say Toni Morrison) composer (say Philip Glass) actor (you get the idea) or poet. Would the caption writer blow by the credit for Toni Morrison by saying, below a representation of her work, "one novelist"? Of course not! The agate line only makes it more irritating, because it's like a service entrance for the illustrator.

Why not write, ""Mario M. Cuomo shows no interest in posing, but illustrator Thomas Fuchs visualized him as if depicted by..." etc. Because the illustrator is an anonymous cultural worker, as opposed to the critically-engaged individualized hero, l'artiste.

I'll write more about what these practices reveal about cultural taxonomies and values some other time. But I did not want to let it pass without comment.

Was anybody else bothered by this?

Images: Thomas Fuchs, Late-cubist Mario Cuomo, New York Times, Wednesday December 3, 2008; Fuchs, The Oscar Fellowship, Entertainment Weekly, undated.