Archive for December, 2010

More Paintings

December 28, 2010

Well, here we go. As Christmas presents for some friends here this year, I decided to get out the brushes and canvases again and attempt to create one-of-a-kind, personalized gifts. (Notice that I didn’t say “great artwork” anywhere in there!) It has been relaxing and therapeutic to paint after the big push to finish The Star Shard on time. (Not that I was particularly tired of writing — but deadlines help, and the swift approach of Christmas with its need for presents was another great motivator.)

I have to apologize in advance for the quality of what you’re about to see. For one thing, these three paintings would be better if an actual artist had painted them. For another, it’s much harder than you might think to get painted images into an electronic format and post them onto a blog! When I asked about professional scanning at a couple different places, there was a lot of inhaling through teeth (which means, “You’re asking something difficult; I really wish you weren’t asking me that”). The pros were worried about shadows created by irregularities in the painted surfaces, etc. The upshot was that it may or may not be possible, but it would certainly involve sending the paintings away to the lab; it would take a long time; and it would be very expensive. [I’d gone into the first place with the merry idea of having them scan the paintings while I waited and then ordering cheap posters for all my friends . . . um, no. Live and learn!]

I tried using my own flatbed scanner — which, of course, is not nearly big enough for the canvases. They are A3 size, and it can only handle A4. But I thought I might scan the paintings a quadrant at a time and have good, digital images of the details. Again, not. For some reason, even when I played with the brightness control and weighted down the scanner lid with a stack of books, the scanned images came out very dim. Hmm.

So I resorted to taking digital photos of the paintings with my camera. Again, Murphy’s Law was strictly enforced. For one thing, it is winter in the northern hemisphere. That means that the sun over Niigata will next show its face in . . . maybe May? If we’re blessed. So I had to use the gray daylight on the edge of my tiny verandah. As I was jockeying into position, icy rainwater dripping off the edge of the roof hit the back of my coat and neatly splashed over the canvas. Grrr! (No damage, since the paintings are protected by nice finishing varnish.) I took gray daylight shots, and then I tried another series indoors by electric lighting. You’ll see a combination of both.

Problem #2: My preference for varnish is high-gloss. Not just “gloss,” but “high-gloss.” It’s beautiful to look at, but a nightmare to photograph. It’s like pointing your camera at a mirror. FLASHHH! That’s why you’ll see these images at all sorts of odd angles. I’m standing on my head with the camera, trying everything I can think of to avoid reflections.

Okay, I think that’s my full battery of excuses. I’m not an artist, I’m not a photographer, I’m poor, I have no patience, I live in a perpetually-cloudy region, and I like high-gloss varnish. May all that serve to predispose you to look kindly and mercifully on these humble paintings!

"What a Lot of Things You Use 'Good Morning' For!"

So here’s Gandalf talking with Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit. (I’m clearly not in any danger of being commissioned to do a Tolkien calendar anytime soon!) Sorry about the framing — because of the odd angle, I had to crop like mad, so you can’t see to the edges of the canvas. [This is precisely why Marquee Movies will tell you: always go with letterbox format in your movie rentals and purchases — never settle for the “pan-and-scan,” full-screen versions. Unfortunately, these are pan-and-scan versions of my paintings.]

I do like the expressions on the faces of these two. And the Shire looks sort of inviting. (It looks MUCH more so on the actual canvas, where the colors are brighter and everything looks 40% prettier.)

I like Bilbo’s fat stomach! The influence of the Peter Jackson films is quite evident in the hairstyle, huh? For that teacup, I used a color called “English Lace,” and I didn’t even have to mix it. I like the moss effect on the stone porch-thing. See my signature there in the corner? I always do it in gold, an “F” and a “D” together.

This was the outdoor shot, with a big glare on the canvas. (I took several, and believe it or not, this was the best. Sigh!) No, I don’t think that’s the Party Tree in the background. It’s just a tree. I like the purplish stuff in the hedgerow, and I hope that on your computer it looks better than it does on mine. It’s nice in the original, as is the sunlight on the grassy slopes.

The Eternal Now

This is a picture of me and my two closest friends on this side of the Pacific. (Can you tell which one is me?) It represents both Heaven and those “moments of Heaven” we experience at times in this life.

This is by electric lighting. Of course in Heaven it will be midsummer all the time (heh, heh — Mr. Snowflake is away, so I can say anything I want!) — but maybe the cherry trees in Heaven bloom in the midsummer. The sakura blossoms themselves were easy to paint: I used a large, soft brush like the tuft on a lion’s tail, and when I had the paint mixed to the precise color I wanted (white with the tiniest touch of crimson), I just puffed the brush all over, above every trunk I’d painstakingly drawn first. I like how the most distant trees seem almost a mist. (Those trunks took forever!)

What’s “Heavenly” about this image is that there aren’t crowds of people. There’s the picnic, and then just trees, trees, and trees, as far as the eye can see — and friendly blue hills in the distance. There are no responsibilities. There is only a picnic, and close friends, and good books, and a baseball and ball gloves, and time that does not pass: the Eternal Now. A golden moment unending.

This picture allows you to see the two bicycles in the foreground. The thing about cherry trees is that they bloom for a very short time. It’s like about a week at the most — and if there’s rain or wind during that time, the petals can fall prematurely. For the sakura to look beautiful, a blue sky is required. So in most places, people are very fortunate if they have one or two good viewing days during cherry blossom season. That is a large part of their allure, I suppose. Like a human life, they are here for one shining moment, and then they are gone. A breath. A day and a night, and then Eternity.

The peak of the blooming is called mankai, when every blossom is open, and the boughs look positively heavy with flowers, and every tree is poised in that one breathless instant before the pink rain of falling petals begins. If you get a blue sky on the day of mankai, you have received a wonderful gift. For this painting, I chose the moment when the first few petals are falling — the threshold between the perfect beauty of mankai and the perfect beauty of the pink rain.

The Eternal Now

And now we return to Middle-earth:

The Bridge of Khazad-dum

The classic confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog is a favorite of artists. But I have yet to see a rendition of this scene that doesn’t ignore Tolkien’s description that the Balrog’s limbs have the coiling property of serpents. Have you seen anyone else tackle that? I’ve attempted to show that here, and I think my design is plausible.

Flame of Udun

The Balrog should be a combination of shadow and flame. See my little orcs streaming down the stairways in the background?

The Balrog

You can pretty much tell that what I love the most about this scene is Moria itself. Moria is the place in Middle-earth that I’d most like to visit. I mean Khazad-dum in its heyday, of course, before it was full of orcs. The folk of Durin! The great city of Dwarrowdelf! (Is it an accident that there’s only one letter difference between “Durin” and “Durbin”?)

Fleeing Companions

Frodo doesn’t want to leave Gandalf. Sam isn’t about to leave Frodo. Aragorn is trying to get them both out of harm’s way. We see Legolas and Gimli here, and I guess the blond hobbit must be Pippin. (Merry wouldn’t be blond.)

In the actual, I love these colors of the stonework.

Nice chasm, huh? 🙂

And there you have it. Once again: if your computer works anything like mine does, if you click on any painting, you can view a magnified version of it. Click again, and you zoom in further. I haven’t figured out how to “click back out” without shutting down the whole window, though . . .

In the previous post, I introduced a quotation from Tolstoy in War and Peace and invited reactions. Thank you to those who offered your thoughts! Here’s the quote once again, and then my two cents:

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

To love is to step forth, to reach out, to emerge from one’s isolation. It is to sense and savor the world around us. It is to embrace the joy that comes from places, from objects, from activities, and especially from other people. To love is to take a risk — for only when we love do we have something to lose. When we love we are involved; we are invested. Triumph, awkwardness, anxiety, exultation, fear, anger, joy . . . all these emotions that mark us as human beings — are they not all traceable to our loves?

In the movie The Name of the Rose, Sean Connery’s character William of Baskerville says to his novice, “How simple life would be without love, Adsol — how safe, how tranquil . . . and how dull.”

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

I think Tolstoy was right.

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Everything I Know

December 22, 2010

[I know this is awfully quick for a new entry. If you haven’t yet read the previous posting, “The Reality of Dreams,” I urge you not to miss it!]

One of the movies I enjoyed most in recent months was The Last Station, about Tolstoy in the twilight of his life. The film begins with a quotation from his book War and Peace:

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

I recommend this quotation as a springboard for discussion here. What do you make of it? Do you like it? Do you agree? Thoughts? Feelings?

I was trying to discuss the quotation earlier this evening with someone here, and even though I’m sure my Japanese translation of it was perfect, it just wasn’t making sense in a literal rendering to the Japanese mind. I’ve often encountered that barrier: people are people, to be sure, and I believe that we all think more or less the same thoughts, although the vehicles for expressing them are vastly different. But sometimes there’s just a Wall, and a thought that makes sense to westerners doesn’t make any sort of sense in Japan . . . and vice-versa. Who wrote, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”? I’m guessing Kipling.

The last writing class before the holidays went well today. We studied parentheses, quotation marks, and conclusions of essays. When we come back after the break, rough drafts of the five-paragraph essay are due. Then I’ll be checking/correcting day and night in order to get them back to the students by the following week. Hard work, but fun. Today a student sought me out in the part-time teachers’ room with some excellent questions. When you’re able to answer exactly what someone wants to know, you’re very glad to be a teacher. It was a great final note before the holidays.

Anyway, I have this eccentric custom of, when I write in my journal each night, reading the entry from a year ago and the entry from ten years ago on the same day. It’s interesting to see what I was doing then — the ways that life has changed, and the ways it’s stayed the same. Tonight I came across this entry from ten years ago — December 23, 2000 — that had me laughing so hard my eyes were streaming. See what you make of it. In this excerpt, I’m describing the Christmas caroling event at Shirone Lutheran Christ Church (the church at which I was most recently a volunteer before I retired from OVYM). Here’s the (partial) entry:

“Mr. Kobayashi wore a Santa Claus suit, complete with a white beard. We drove in 3 cars to a nursing home. Sang first on a stage, with Mrs. Yosai playing a piano & Ms. Takeda playing ocarina; then we sang in two different rooms (4 beds per room) of people who were bedridden and couldn’t come to the common room. Then we caroled inside the main entrance of Jusco. [Jusco is like a Japanese Wal-Mart.] Finally, we sang outside, on the sidewalk in front of a strange little health-food store. The owner seems to have some kind of connection with the church, but I didn’t ask what. Rachel pointed out that it was like a store in a dream — not quite focused or logical — a rack of used clothes, stacks of unlabeled cans, weird pictures on the walls of people with exotic illnesses — and a few other items like omochi and soy sauce. Rachel & I had fun talking & laughing; we rode in the Nakanos’ car. I’m really going to miss her when she goes back to the States.”

[Rachel was the OVYM volunteer, two generations after me, at Shirone.] I do not at all remember those pictures on the walls, but isn’t that something? I’ve got to use that store description in a story someday! I do remember that caroling event as if it were yesterday. The organizer of it was so deadly serious about it that we started rehearsals in the spring. Throughout the summer and fall, we moved outdoors for practices, so we could get used to singing in the open air. That was the best-rehearsed caroling I’ve ever been a part of!

Okay: at the request of Marquee Movies, seconded by Mr. Snowflake and Scott, I tried taking a self-portrait of myself wearing the Christmas tie mentioned in the last posting. Here you go:

Fa la la la la -- la la la la!

Yes, there are more paintings coming soon to a blog near you! (And yes, the picture is totally staged. I don’t really paint while kneeling on my bed, and I don’t paint while wearing a necktie.)

Again: a merry and blessed Christmas to all! The world is dark and cold, but we can laugh and sing; we can rejoice. Because of the baby born in Bethlehem, there can be a happy ending to every story, no matter how dark the journey.

The Reality of Dreams

December 20, 2010

We’re starting into the last week of classes before the Christmas holidays. This week, I always wear my Christmas necktie. Years ago, a former volunteer in the program through which I came to Japan made these neckties for all the guys in the program. It’s a long, large necktie made from cloth patterned with holly leaves and berries — very bright, vivid greens and reds. Some would call it hideous; I think it’s fun and festive, because it’s so obviously Christmas. It’s Christmas shouted from the rooftops — it’s Scrooge after his reawakening running around buying geese for people — it’s the main character at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life — it’s the Grinch swooping down the mountainside, bringing everything back. It’s the exuberance of Christmas in a necktie! Most every year, some students smile at it. A few comment that they like it. A fellow teacher smirked at it last year (in a friendly way).

Anyway, at this holy time of year, the walls of the worlds grow thin, and it’s a good time for storytellers to think.

I was thinking this week about the reality of dreams. Let’s see if I can explain what I mean. In the movie Inception, the main character has that intriguing line about how the most powerful virus is an idea. Once a person gets an idea fixed in his/her head, there’s no unseating it. I’ve experienced this phenomenon time and again in life. Someone gets a mistaken impression, some misinformation, etc., and believes it. You can correct it any number of times, and you come back in six months, and the person still believes the mistake — corrections are often meaningless. I’m sure I’m often that person, too, with some of the “solid facts” in my head being solidly non-factual. (Correct me if you can, please, but I’m warning you . . .)

Don’t we see this force of ideas on display in many great works of literature? Captain Ahab has this bee in his bonnet and can’t let that whale alone, no matter what the cost. Shakespeare — isn’t there the thing in Othello where the bad guy convinces him his wife is unfaithful, and even though she’s innocent, Othello can’t get the idea out of his mind, and he ends up destroying everything he loves, all because of that one planted idea? The Silmarillion — Feanor wants those silmarils back, and he will take on anyone — Man, Elf, or Valawho stands in his way.

Those are cases where things don’t work out well. But there’s a very positive side to this, too. Take an idea that’s good — a noble theme, a beautiful picture — plant that in the mind, and you’ve done something of service and value.

Take Middle-earth. It’s a place familiar to nearly all of us on this blog. We could fill pages writing the things we know about its peoples, its geography, its history . . . yet it’s “only” an idea — “only” a dream. Where is it? It exists in words printed on pages, enclosed between the covers of books. It exists in paintings and sketches done by artists. It exists in musical compositions, plays, and puppet theater. It exists on records, cassette tapes, CDs . . . and yes, thanks to filmmakers, a version of it exists on celluloid and DVDs.

We cannot get onto a plane or ship and go there. Yet it is a real land, is it not? It’s far more real to me than Norway, or Brazil, or the state of South Dakota — about those places I know next to nothing. But I know Middle-earth. I’ve spent hours and hours . . . I’ve spent years there! And so have countless other readers, viewers, listeners, and dreamers, both in this generation and in the generations of the past.

Yet Middle-earth began as a dream in the mind of one man . . .

The dreams I have at night seem to be forged of memory, emotion, the machinations of my subconscious, and perhaps at times an element from outside, the hints and utterances of the Divine — but I don’t think I want to go there in this post.

The dreams I have in the daytime — my writerly dreams — are forged of much the same things, with a bit more conscious shaping and/or interference, which is both a good and a bad thing.

I was thinking of the storm cellar in our side yard back at the house where I grew up. It was a brick dome, covered with concrete, half-covered with dirt, and overgrown by grass, weeds, and trees-of-Heaven. Nothing at all — a simple, rustic construction of mundane materials. Yet for my cousin and me, playing with our dinosaur sets, it became a mountain of cliffs and jungles, a place of infinite tiny, secret places for dinosaurs to hide. Later, for my neighbors and me, it became the Orca, or a similar shark-fishing boat. These notions exist only in our own heads, and (as Chris noted in a comment on the previous posting) they will vanish with us at no loss to the world. But the memories of those imagined things are more important to us than the bricks and the concrete, or any intent of the original builders of the place — our dreams, I would argue, are for us more real than the physical place. They survive, bright and vivid now, though the old cellar is falling to ruin. The barn of our childhood is gone, but it lives in my story “Star,” about the ghost horse, and in our memories.

The storm cellar -- cliff of dinosaurs, shark boat, fortress, ski slope, movie location, cave.

It seems to me that memory is an enormous tool in the storyteller’s kit — memory, that major component of dream. Is it not memory that gives the major fire, the truest authenticity, to the worlds we sub-create? When we can lay hold of the merest fragment of something we absorbed as children, and when we can get that into an expressed form, we have something alive and powerful. (This relates directly to what Mr. Brown Snowflake and Nick were saying in the comments on the previous post just now!)

And does it not seem that memories can be better and more solid even than the realities they’re based on? We take a memory, and we preserve, amplify, and focus it through art (whatever our particular art form may be). Then it has a life far beyond its original instance.

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck famously says:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this (and all is mended),

That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend.”

I think Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables said to Puck: “Could you maybe apologize and not really mean it?” Heh, heh, heh. Dreams not real? — Pshaw, I say! Few things are as substantial and fruitful as a dream. The power of dream is beautiful and devastating. It can wreak ruin or create sanctuary for untold millions.

Three cheers for art in its various forms! Three cheers for art, which captures the shining moments as they flow past and makes them come-backable! . . . which finds their meanings, near-eternal as the belt of Orion, true as the light in leaves!

And may I take this opportunity to say: a merry and blessed Christmas to all!

The Power of Words

December 9, 2010

Before I get into the main post, some quick statistics. I just finished grading the midterm test in my academic writing course. The grade breakdown was as follows: with the bonus points available, the number of students who scored 100% or above was 6. Scoring in the nineties, there were 7. In the eighties, 9. In the seventies, 5. In the sixties, 3. Those numbers made me pretty happy. On the one hand, I’m teaching the material — no one was clueless. No one failed. On the other hand, the test I wrote was a good measuring tool — with no curving or manipulation of numbers, the students differentiated themselves nicely across the spectrum. Not trying to vaunt myself here — soli Deo gloria! — I’m just saying that, when it’s going well, teaching and learning are things of beauty.

Anyway, I was going to do the Part 2 of the World Fantasy Convention, but I came across something far better. (That Part 2 is still coming, never fear.) With the kind permission of the author, here is another guest column. This is by friend-of-the-blog Nicholas Ozment. You’ve met him before in an interview on these pages. Any introduction of Nick is bound to leave something out. He writes pretty much everything, and does it well. His own site is over there in the blog roll, or just in case, it’s Ozmentality: http://ozment.livejournal.com.

Nick’s new humorous fantasy book Knight Terrors: The (Mis)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon was just released this fall from Ancient Tomes Press, an imprint of Cyberwizard Productions. It’s beautifully illustrated by Richard Svensson.

Anyway, here is his essay, our guest column:

The Power of Words

 I wish for you to have some first-hand experience of—I wish for you to know—the power of a master storyteller, of a golden-gifted writer.

 The future washes over us and washes over us again, becomes the present tide, recedes into the past. In the universities, the English departments shrink, the philosophy departments dwindle down to one or two full-time professors—a token formality, for did they not give birth to the university? The humanities are jostled aside by the colleges of business, computer science, engineering.

 Yet before all our sciences, all our technologies, there were words. Without them, nothing we have achieved is possible. And without Story nothing achieved could have been first imagined.

 Fewer and fewer people read. They don’t read books or newspapers or magazines. Yet the word is still powerful, far more powerful than most realize. “The pen is mightier than the sword” is as true today as when Edward Bulwer-Lytton penned those words in 1839.

 Words are powerful, and stories are the power harnessed and directed. Go ask Homer. Go ask Shakespeare. Go ask Dickens. Sit at their feet and they will still tell you, though they are centuries dead.

 When a student reads Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison, he/she may discover what it is like to be in the hands of a master — a storyteller who binds you with words, and your enchanted response is, “Storyteller, take me where you will; show me what you will. I will go.”

 Such writers can reach inside us and make us think thoughts we never thought. Combinations and permutations of thought our minds would never have conceived on their own. We may feel great emotion or conflicting emotions. We see pictures in our heads we have never seen. This is still a more potent magic than images projected on a screen. And even before a filmmaker and his crew creates the moving picture, a writer has crafted the words that made them see it, to interpret and show to us.

 When technologies fail and civilizations fall, words remain. They are often the one legacy to survive when all else has crumbled. And the stories. Which never grow old, as long as there are humans to hear them. And perhaps, when humankind has passed from the face of the Earth, they will still be stored in the mind and echo in the ears and flow from the breath of God.