Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Express Male

by Drew Martin

Last weekend I watched Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire. It was the first time I saw the film even though it hit the big screen 1981. Despite some ill-fitting monkey suits and a dialogue of primal grunting, the production is quite remarkable and filmed on location in Scotland, Iceland, Canada and Kenya. It is set 80,000 years ago and focuses on two tribes of early humans in the mix of other prehistoric bipeds.

There are the heavy browed Ulams who have a lot of catching up to do with the more civilized and sleeker Ivakas. For the Ulams, fire is a rare gift from nature, which they must continuously keep burning. If their communal blaze is extinguished, fire is regained by raiding other tribes' encampments. The manner in which this is done is less about Promethean stealth than it is bloody, skull crushing attacks that leave a lot of furry creatures dead.

The distant Ivaka are a much cleverer clan and can start a fire on their own in a matter of minutes with friction sticks. They can also make shelters, have developed the social skill of laughter, have fashioned advanced pre-bow weapons and have taken intercourse beyond doggie-style rape to consensual and mutual love-making, missionary-style. We discover this through the wandering of Noah and his two Ulam sidekicks on their quest for fire after their cave is invaded and their flames are stolen. The eye opener for Noah is Ika, a feisty young Ivaka, who shows the fumbling primate how to treat a prehistoric woman.

The film is an adaptation of the 1911 Belgian novel by J.H. Rosny better translated as The War for Fire or The Fight for Fire. I have not read this book but I am sure the medium draws you into and immerses you in the fiction. What the film version does is put it all right in front of you. It takes the pre out of prehistoric and suggests that what you are witnessing is the merging of a new kind of human, perhaps the common ancestor of modern man, consummated by Noah and Ika, whose ripe belly closes the movie.

The climatic scene is when, after much traveling and many hardships, Noah witnesses one of the Ivaka effortlessly make a fire from scratch. It blows his mind and moves him to tears. Although the film is set in a time before time, it references quite modern characters. Ika certainly plays a Pocahontas role in many ways, especially how she comes to the rescue of Noah from a certain death by her tribe. She is also Eve. Noah is an obvious biblical reference but even without the name, the Flood is represented by a ship-size lump of land in the middle of a marsh, which the Ulam retreat to while they wait for fire to be brought to them again and where they keep away from their more primitive attackers. Don Quixote is also referenced when the Ulam throw a spear at a mound of a hut, which they mistake as a creature.

While Quest for Fire is a creative glimpse into a past, which was certainly wonderfully different and complex, it serves best as a survey of where we are now. What are our achievements and what are we ignorant of? What are those things that seem so far out of reach, which are right under our noses? A good place to start is with the concept of stealing. What is it people steal because they lack and cannot produce themselves but is right in front of them?

It is interesting that music is something which is often stolen. Music is a kind of fire that has an unnatural centralization to it now with iTunes and other sites. Stealing it is a regressive behavior, especially because music is often a kind of distraction so the content is secondary to its function. People once carried harmonicas, tin whistles and other small instruments to make their own music wherever they went.

I always like to hear my father talk about a man who used to live near him when he was a boy, growing up in Virginia. My father and his brothers would catch eels and snakes and give them to the man for sustenance because he was poor. He still recalls, with a smile on his face, what a great whistler the man was and how they could hear him loudly whistling from far away. Whistling, singing, humming, clapping, etc...these were the first means of creating music and all with one's body. As with any creative act, the artist free to make his or her own fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Daybook by Anne Truitt

by Drew Martin

I typically do not reread books but there is one I have back on my list and am eager to return to: Daybook by Anne Truitt (1921-2004).

Daybook is a reflection of Truitt's life as an artist and a parent. What I still remember of this memoir (having read it years ago) is a comfort I felt in her honest voice:

It slowly dawned on me that the more visible my work became, the less visible I grew to myself.

Truitt is often critical, but the nature of this is all part of her down-to-earth candidness:

I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this social attention on the artist's individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists' egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of the social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma. It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one's self that is realistic. The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

The beauty of her writing is through her perspective as an artist:

When we love one another the most delicate truth of that love is held in the spirit, but my body is the record of those I have loved. I feel their bones as my bones, almost literally. This record is autonomous. It continues, dumbly, to persist. Its power is independent of time. The love is fixed, instantly accessible to memory, somehow stained into body as color into cloth. All bodies have this record. It is the magic of drawing them. Here, where my pencil touches the paper, is the place at which a body holds itself intact. The line marks, with infinite tenderness, the experience inside the line, space outside it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Time Zone

by Drew Martin

Time is the greatest differentiator of the arts. Not only does it trump aesthetics and creativity but it rules them. History is simply the byproduct of time. Knowledge is an overlapping, compression and "retrievability" of time.

Time is everywhere. It is in the formative quality and the endurance of materials and it determines the nature of the art form: a live performance versus the past act of having made an object. The former is the simultaneous alignment of creation and experience, while the latter (even action painting) is a kind of posthumous experience (regardless of whether the creator is dead or alive). Robert Irwin referred to the art object as a fossil of that original process of discovery.

Time is the best critic: unopinionated, no strings attached, not trying to impress anyone. Sometimes the relevancy of the art is cyclical, while other times the value appreciates or depreciates, whatever that value system may be: financial worth, perceived uniqueness, admired labor. Ironically, the fresh frivolity behind pop art is eventually judged by its ability to last.

Time is an unstoppable transformation of substance: virgin whites, stain yellow; fleshy rubber, cracks and disintegrates; muscular marble men crumble into sooty powder and smooth bronze beauties become pitted and rusty.

The transformation is also of interpretation: the once, mind-blowing atomic insight of Seurat's pointillism is lost to today's take of the very same works as quaint period pieces. The old avant garde seems cliché.

Which artists understand this phenomenon best? Dali and his Persistence of Memory? Robert Irwin with his subtle shifts of light and form? Marina Abramovic and her epic exchanged stares? Or is it more about what time has shown us in the conviction of Vincent van Gogh? Or is this a matter better suited for musicians, whose repeating chorus is time; or writers who can express longing and waiting so well.

Damien Hirst may "sculpt" with entropy and death but death is just a pitfall of is the curse of that which tries to measure it and defy it. Death is how time measures us with various corporeal tickers: the graying of hair and the loss of it; the wrinkling and drying of skin; and, the slowing and aching of gait. Death is simply the termination of a system of organic time keepers. But there is no death of time or past of time or future of time. The real beauty of a moment is to not be distracted by obsessions of the past and promises of the future. The masters of art go beyond the obvious themes and metaphors. The infinite is not comprehended by following a path of time to an ever escaping termination but by beholding the sensation of the moment.

"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
William Blake

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Graphic Story

by Drew Martin

ome of my earliest and most complete childhood-peer memories were playdates at my friend Jason's house. Unlike the more carefree playdates with other boys, Jason and I got down to business and made books: he wrote the stories and I illustrated them. It was a healthy, working friendship that set the tone for my life-long interest with the relationship between image and text.

For the past 12 years I have been employed in various marketing positions for an international company based in New York. The work includes and has included branding, advertising, presentations, proposals and website development so I feel at home immersed in graphics and writing.

My path to this position has been quite interesting. I had always been busy drawing and was recognized early on for certain artistic talents. By the time I was a senior in high school I was savvy enough to focus my resources on the arts. I reasoned with my school that as a long distance runner it was unnecessary for me to have a gym class so I was allowed to take an additional art class in lieu of physical education, which meant I had two art classes per semester; a fine arts class and a graphic arts class.

In college (University of California at Santa Barbara), I was in the art studio honors program and I also contributed to our school newspaper, which meant I was creating daily cartoons for three years and doing the editorial cartoon every day for a couple years. The latter was an interesting process: I met with the editor-in-chief every afternoon and we discussed the article for which I was to develop a drawing. Then I would read the piece a couple times to get the right visual idea. I drew the drawings with a pencil, then went over the lines with a black-ink pen and finally I shaded them with dilutions of black India ink. This was very different than how I approached my cartoon strips, which I typically did in batches, in seclusion and which simply flowed from my imagination.

A chunk of the newspaper staff, which had graduated a year before me, picked up and moved from California to Europe and ended up in Prague, which led to the creation of the weekly Prognosis, and later to the spin off, The Prague Post. I tried a couple cartoons for the former and ended up contributing a few articles to both of these papers, which allowed for a nice bundling of my writing, drawing and photography. At the same time, I was making artwork for dance clubs and tea rooms in Prague, which consumed most of my time. These jobs all stemmed from one British club owner who saw a painting of a fish I had done on a friend's guitar case, which I  had painted on one of my first days in Prague while I was sitting in a gallery for a young American artist.

Eventually I got into teaching, which would seem to be simply a way with words but found myself drawing a lot. I drew pictures on the chalkboard and the students would eagerly talk about them with their new English words. A typical sketch might simply be of a man walking down a road. The students would talk about where he was going or where he was coming from. I was amazed by how a few squiggly lines stimulated the language centers of their brains more than any of the prescribed "text" books.

When I was in Prague, I made one attempt to get into a graphics job. I went to an ad agency and they asked me to recreate a logo of a stylized lizard with Adobe Illustrator. Although, I was good at drawing, I had never used any kind of computer graphics program. I did not even know what a bezier curve was and trying to make one was like pushing a rope. I was simply at a loss. So after a couple minutes I got up and apologized for wasting the staff's time and left. It was humiliating but they were encouraging and said that I should learn some graphics programs and come back to reapply. I searched around Prague but the only school at the time (1996) that offered a class in Adobe Illustrator had closed.

When I came back to the States, I had a series of temp jobs. One agency sent me to BMW North America Headquarters, in the town where I was raised. I interviewed with the Technical Training group where they needed someone to work on the graphics and layout for technical training manuals: it was a job making books! With this position dangling before me, I took a one-day crash course in Adobe Illustrator in New York for $100. I was amazed by the number of places that taught computer skills and was really happy to be back in the New York area where such things were so accessible.

At the same time, I went for an interview at a music company in New Jersey. The job was to create CD labels and cover art for unknown bands cutting their first albums. I still had not explored Adobe Photoshop, which the job required, so I had a flashback to Prague when they asked me to show them what I could do. I did a little bit better this time. I was given tiffs of duo rappers (NOCOAST) for the test. For the front image, I used the lasso tool and broke up two guys and then I inverted the dude in the background so he had an X-ray look. For the back image I used the same tool, highlighted one of the rappers and gave him a motion blur and then I added the name of the band, album and songs. It was my first thing I worked on in Photoshop and had no clue what I was doing. The owner was uncomfortable with what I had done because I was rendering one person unrecognizable in each image and she said he might take offense to that. The sample was also reviewed by the lead graphic artist who thought it was really cool. They ended up offering me the job but I would have to accept it prior to my second interview with BMW so I declined.

I did not even have a portfolio for BMW position so with nothing to show at my interview that would express my technical side, I dug up a hand drawing I made when I was in high school. It was of an artificial leg I designed for runners, entitled: Figure 5 - The Breakdown of My Design of the Artificial Leg. Not only did I design it but I drew it in an exploded view and labeled it with words pressed letter-by-letter from the old sheets of rub-on letters, which required scratching off/transferring each character, one-by-one.

The employee who interviewed me liked that I had been visually thinking that way since I was a kid so he hired me on the spot and told me he would teach me how to use CorelDraw (the only other thing close to Adobe Illustrator at the time). It was looked down upon by graphic artists but I liked using it because it seemed more intuitive for a technical illustrator.

Culturally, the job was quite interesting. BMW Headquarters in Munich had already created the manuals and translated them into English but the format was too dry and the diagrams were too stiff. There is a big difference between the German and the American mechanic. The German probably learned his trade methodically in a clean technical high school in an orderly city. The American probably started underneath an oily Trans Am on a gravel driveway in a small town in Pennsylvania. He would typically have a lot more hands-on experience, tinkering and experimenting, and less exposure to manuals. The German-style manuals are simply too academic and too assuming. We did not dumb down the materials, instead, we brought them closer to the actual experience, with more specific photographs and technical illustrations that were less flat.

My main job was layout: recreating the books in Quark (this was before Adobe InDesign and the only thing Adobe had to offer for layout was their embarrassing product Adobe PageMaker, which one graphic artist I knew from that time best summed up as being fine to create church bulletins but not much else). In Quark, I integrated the new texts by the technical writers with photographs we took and illustrations we made.

Originally I only did the less complicated tasks but then my boss was absent for a day or two. One of the technical writers came to me with a car part (a Motor Driven Throttle Valve, pictured here) and a screw driver and asked me to take it apart and try to explain it visually. He showed me the German drawing of it and asked me if I could do better. It was my first time really drawing anything on a computer but I approached it as I would a classical drawing. I showed it to the writer when I was finished..."Like this?" He was speechless. My boss' jaw dropped when he returned.

I had set off for college to be a medical illustrator. I started off in the premed program but then switched to the arts, completely. Although I was addressing cars at BMW and not organic bodies, the work was not a stretch. The throttle valve and my drawing of it were sent to all the training centers around the country and I was later told that none of the technicians took the valve apart because I had explained it so well. I was still only 27 and quite proud of this, especially because I knew nothing about cars, but I could figure them out when I got into how their systems worked and thought of them as living organisms.

While I was at BMW, I was also moonlighting for a marketing company that provided materials to BMW and I started doing graveyard shifts in New York as a graphic artist working on presentations for banks. This meant I would work three shifts, back-to-back: a full day at BMW in New Jersey, an evening in a financial institute in Manhattan and then a full day back at BMW, without any sleep. Eventually I got an interview with the company I have been with for the past 12 years.
When I was little and thought about the lives of painters, I was most attracted to the Spanish court painters because they were individual talents but also part of something bigger, which is how I have felt the past 14 years working in engineering firms.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Born to Run: A Do-It-Yourself Marathon

by Drew Martin

In the mid 1990s I ran my one and only official marathon, which was the first Czech marathon after Communism. I had tried to sign up for the 10K portion but that was closed and so I ended up entering the full marathon. I had not run or trained in any capacity for at least five years: since I had done a biathlon in Palm Springs, CA on a torn achilles tendon and consequentially damaged it further.

The marathon in Prague was a disaster even though it started off fine: there were probably only a couple hundred people who showed up so I was right up front on the starting line with a few world-class Kenyan runners. The legendary Emil Zatopek (pictured above, in the lead) made a special appearance and wished us good luck.

I ran a fast first 10K with the top female runner who was from Ukraine. Then she took off and left me in the dust. To my surprise, she dropped out ten minutes later. Psychologically, that killed me and physically I was already spent only a quarter way into the race. Some of the other runners were quitting, hopping in taxis and heading back. At one point a spectator, a young American boy in one of the most remote parts of the course, pointed to me from the side of the street and said to his father "Daddy, that man isn't running". He was right. I was moving forward but it had nothing to do with running.

I hobbled on until I eventually "hit the wall" and collapsed. I attempted to flag down an ambulance with the little energy I had left but an old Czech woman stepped off the side of the road as I writhed in pain and she started chewing me out. "Don't stop! Get up and finish!" I was shocked. Czechs are never so brash. Perhaps she did not want me dying in front of her house for bad luck but at the time I simply felt like this woman had seen the worst of Fascism and Communism and was telling me to stick with it. I pictured her shouting at Russian soldiers to get out of her country, in the same tone. For some illogical reason, I popped up and finished with a strong pace. I don't remember the exact time but it was under four hours.

One problem (other than not having run for five years) was that I was wearing a cheap pair of knock-off Kangaroo sneakers (without socks) that had I bought for a couple dollars worth of Czech "crowns" at an outdoor Vietnamese market. They were too small and so tight that I lost six toenails during the run. Actually, I did not lose them...they were glued inside my shoes by my own blood. By the end of the race my feet were quite a sight: my ankles were wrapped in white tape to protect my achilles tendons and my feet were black and blue and bleeding. A group of international sports photographers came over and took pictures of my poor, mangled feet. I limped around barefoot on the cobblestones. The German tourists especially took interest in my condition and nudged each other when they saw me and exclaimed "A marathoner!"

I was living in a northern city at the time so I spent the night prior in Prague with a friend. We had agreed to meet up at a tea room on Wenceslas Square after the race. I arrived early so I slumped down on the ground of the alley in front of the venue and propped myself up against a wall. An old Czech couple walked up to me. The husband asked me what I had done. I told him I just ran the marathon and then he asked me how long that was. I said it was over 42 kilometers and he snapped at me "That's nothing! The Hitlerjunge ran 100 kilometers a day!" He scowled and they walked away. It was a very warped moment and one I have tried to forget. At that time, I had not given much thought to ultramarathons and the elder's comment was far from inspirational. Long distance in high school was a mere 3+ miles (which is barely getting started) and I thought the body simply could not take much more abuse than a marathon. (I hesitated to show the swastika here but this image strikes me as something the old Czech man admired in some way. It is a disturbing illustration that was on the front cover of 1934 Nazi propaganda weekly).Over the years I read more and more about the longer races. This weekend I finished reading a book a friend loaned to me, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. It is a widely read book that considers how endurance running is part of our evolution and how a tribe of Copper Canyon Mexicans still participate in "fun-runs" at distances up to 100 miles. The book is a great read for any level of runner but the problem with it is that it is too convincing. This is an issue with the abstraction of all media. Although the book is inspirational, it does nothing directly for one's conditioning. So while its contents are, for the most part, non-fictional, the way it nestles in one's mind makes it work more like fiction and as a mythological fantasy.

Born to Run seems cobbled together at times...but then again so is Moby Dick to some extent. As with that classic, you get what seems to be a tall tale (although it's true) sandwiched between facts and informational excerpts.

I have pondered a lot and written about how movement precedes art. One paper I wrote in graduate school, which I proposed for a thesis (which was shot down), was about how moving through space, over terrain is directly proportional to our sense of drawing, most obvious in our ability to draw and read maps. So I was pleasantly surprised to see McDougall touch upon the relationship of running and art and creativity in numerous excerpts:

"Know why people run marathons? he told Dr. Bramble. Because running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running. Language, art, science; space shuttles, Starry Night, intravascular; they all had their roots in our ability to run. Running was the superpower that made us human, which means it's a superpower all humans possess."

"Visualization...empathy...abstract thinking and forward projection...isn't that exactly the mental engineering we now use for science, medicine, the creative arts? And like any other fine art, human distance running demands a brain-body connection that no other creature is capable of. But it's a lost art..."
"Her naked delight is unmistakable; it forces a smile to her lips that's so honest and unguarded, you feel she's lost in the grip of artistic inspiration. Maybe she is. Whenever an art form loses its fire, when it gets weakened by intellectual inbreeding and first principles fade into stale tradition, a radical fringe eventually appears to blow it up and rebuild from the rubble. Young Gun ultrarunners were like Lost Generation writers in the '20s, Beat poets in the '50s, and rock musicians in the '60s: they were poor and ignored and free from all expectations and inhibitions. They were body artists, playing with the palette of human endurance."

"Before setting out for their sunset runs, Jenn and Billy would snap a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl" into their Walkman. When running stopped being as fun as surfing, they had agreed, they'd quit. So to get that same surging glide, that same feeling of being lifted up and swept along, they ran to the rhythm of Beat poetry.
"Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!" They'd shout, padding along the water's edge. "New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of Time! "

"That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow tree, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave painting, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle-behold, the Running Man."

The Tarahumara are the native Mexicans McDougall keeps returning to in his book and are central to several running events he writes about where their talent is matched with the best ultramarathon runners in the world, such as Scott Jurek (pictured right, on the left). McDougall often makes the connection between love and performance and the root of goodness. Here he refers to the Zatopek I met at the start of my marathon:

"So here's what Coach Vigil was trying to figure out: was Zatopek a great man who happened to run, or a great man because he ran? Vigil couldn't quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding. Sex and speed - haven't they been symbiotic for most of our existence, as intertwined as the strands of our DNA? We wouldn't be alive without love; we wouldn't have survived without running; maybe we shouldn't be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other."
I had been training two friends for the New York Marathon that came and went this past Sunday. They did fine, 3:45 and 3:48: times they had been expecting. The night prior, I became a little sad, wishing I could run it with them, after guiding them through the longer runs, where we got up to 23 miles together. So I went on Google Maps and designed my own marathon course. I reasoned that if I could not be next to them, at least I could share their aches and pain, real time. The marathon is about 26.25 miles so I made a course that was 26.5 miles, just to be sure I covered the distance. It was a big loop of towns I grew up around and into my past...I would pass the high school where my mother taught Spanish for most of her career, through the town I grew up in and by my parents' house where I was also married, through the town of my father's former laboratory and where I met my wife, by the house where my wife lived when we were dating, by the hospital where all three of my kids were born and then back home, which included a trail in the woods where I love to run. In the absence of 45,000 fellow runners and thousands of cheering spectators, it is important to have some significant course markers.

Inspired by Born to Run and knowing that one of my friends (who I trained) had several in-laws drive up from Delaware to watch him run and that his father had flown over from Holland for the event, I thought I would tell my parents about my pick-up marathon so they could cheer me on and perhaps offer me some water as I detoured around their cul de sac. This news, however, was negatively received and interpreted that I was trying to worry them.

So the next morning, despite the discouragement, I set out at 7am on a very hilly do-it-yourself marathon course with my bundled-up three-year-old son in a jogger. We packed bananas, juices, raisins and other snacks and beverages. I stopped every so often to tuck in my son from the cold, offer him some snacks and just to make sure he was OK. I had envisioned gathering a bunch of runners along the way but we only passed a few women running in the opposite way with their dogs. We did catch up to one guy who ended up running a mile with us. I had my directions with street names scribbled down, grocery-list-style, on a crumpled up piece of paper as my course guide (no GPS or even a map onboard) and, by mistake, I went over two miles off track. In the end we covered 28.5 miles in 3:38...which would probably put me at a sub 3-hour marathon on my own once you subtract the extra couple miles I tacked on, little breaks and the 50+ pounds of kid, jogger and supplies I was pushing.

Though it wasn't the same as being out in the celebrated event and sharing the moment with so many others, it became a much more personal journey, exploring the depths from which endurance springs, sharing the trek with another generation who might also find the beauty and art of it all.