Posts Tagged ‘art’

But Is It Art?

September 23, 2010

It brings me great delight to announce that another guest columnist has come forward! The following essay has been written by our own Daylily. [In case anyone doesn’t know: to view the photos at a larger size, just click on them.] With deepest thanks to her, here it is:

But Is It Art?

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” — Allen Saunders in Reader’s Digest, January 1957

Art or art-like constructions may happen in the same fashion. I was planning my errands. I habitually group errands so as to save time and gas and reduce auto emissions. I would be passing by the dry cleaners, so why not recycle all those wire hangers? They seem to multiply like gerbils (but really, it’s because my husband has his shirts laundered and gets them back on hangers). So. Take the hangers out of the closet, stack them up, rubber band them per usual. Easy. Umm, no. The hangers had other ideas. It certainly looked as if it would be easy to remove them from the rod, but they were seemingly bonded together into an amazing tangled mess. I began to wonder, could I purposely build a structure, an artwork of wire hangers? I certainly had plenty of material. I wonder, I wonder . . .

My first construction was in the living room, on the carpet. My self-imposed parameters were that the hangers must not be purposely bent and that nothing must be used to fasten the hangers together. In addition, I purposed to make a freestanding structure, i.e., with no support except from the hangers themselves. I succeeded within a reasonable length of time. Then I found that said structure did not photograph well, because of the patchy sunlight in the living room and the dark couch as background. I might have succeeded with the photo later in the day, but, alas, I brushed against one of the hangers at the base of the creation, and the structure collapsed flat!

"Wire Tree One" in process

Since I would have to start over, I moved the field of operations to the foyer. I draped sheets to make a good background for photos and began construction on the hard tile floor.

"Wire Tree One" -- a three-foot high structure made entirely from wire hangers

 I got nowhere. The hangers could get no purchase on such a surface. After some experimentation, I found that an old nubbly rug, covered with the sheet, made a good surface. After that, I failed several times to build anything with height to it. My technique needs work, evidently. Building the base of the structure, however methodical one might attempt to be, remains an inexact science if one is not going to wire the hangers together to stay precisely where one wants them. Achieving height requires some hangers to be added simply for balance. Hence, the hangers sticking out in various directions. Of course, those help to make the thing more treelike, as well. The technique is something like building a house of cards and something like the game Blockhead, where one must always be aware of the center of gravity of the tower.

"Wire Tree One" with ornaments

Eventually, I succeeded in making what I call “Wire Tree One.” I was forced to compromise on the last parameter. It was either that or start over. I compromised. The tree is supported from the base and from one point at the back, where a hanger leans against the draped antique chest. I thought that the tree lacked definition, so I added some Christmas ornaments.

But is it art? It felt like making art. To me, making art is an adventure. It involves cooperating with the materials, letting the materials dictate what happens next, starting with some sort of idea, but letting it change as the work progresses. Yet, really, how much skill does it take to create something like this? I have seen no classes in creating wire hanger sculptures. Isn’t art a matter, in part, of training and skill? Perhaps this is not art, but rather, doodling with wire. Perhaps if I made many of these wire trees, I would arrive at one so good that it could be called “art.” Or perhaps the photos of the tree, particularly the one that includes the shadows of the tree, are art, while the tree itself is not.

Close-up shot of the top

Here are two pictures of my raw material. You may recall seeing paintings made from dropping paint onto the canvas. If I drop a pile of hangers on the floor, is the result art? How about if I entitle the results “Wire Pile One” and “Wire Pile Two”? Just how much purpose and design does a construction require before it can qualify as art? (Believe me, dropping a pile of hangers on the floor takes considerably less time, patience and skill than “Wire Tree One”!) Maybe if I were to drop the same pile of hangers on the floor numerous times, photographing the result each time, the series of pictures would be art? I could call it “Evolution in Wire.” If I were to start with a small pile of hangers and add a few more for each picture, the title would be even more appropriate. (If you run across this particular invention in an art museum someday, remember, you read it here first!)

"Wire Pile One"

"Wire Pile Two"

Is art, perhaps, a continuum? A beginner’s effort, like a child’s drawing, satisfies the artistic impulse, whether anyone else likes the result or not. Perhaps beginners’ efforts fall on the low end of the continuum, and Matisse and Picasso are at the high end.

"Wire Tree One with Shadow"

Here are some more questions. I am an artist, so if I make something with purpose, is it therefore art, simply because I made it? Furthermore, most people have some sort of creative impulse to make something. Is whatever they make, whether a poem, a song, a painting, a cake, a scarf knitted from a pattern, or a flower arrangement, art? Does one have to be an artist to make art? Or are we all artists, to some extent? What about the distinction between art and craft? If one knits a scarf from a pattern, with the only original feature being the choice of color, is that art or craft? Is art dependent upon originality? Or is art dependent upon whether anyone is moved by it, i.e., appreciates it or is edified or uplifted or amused or horrified by it? That is, is it art because it means something? What about beauty versus ugliness? Is art dependent upon the measure of its beauty? I would submit that there is such a thing as ugly art, though we may not want it in our living rooms.

View of "Wire Tree One" from my study


So, dear readers, what is your definition of art? Is “Wire Tree One” art, art-like construction, doodling with wire, or something else? Whatever it is, it is not destined for long life, except in the photos. It now resides in the place of honor usually reserved for my Christmas tree. One would think that if anyone slammed the front door, that would be the end of the wire tree, but it has proved to be remarkably sturdy. I will dismantle it soon. I plan to time the process of taking it apart, and I will count the number of hangers at that time, for those who want to know! In the meantime, when I see the tree from my chair in the study, it makes me happy. There is something cheerful about its crazy angles and its resemblance to a Christmas tree. Is it the ghost of Christmas trees past? Is it a pleasant foreshadowing of Christmas joys to come? What IS this thing?

Top view of "Wire Tree One"

Gallery of Wonders (Brought to You by “The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club”)

February 18, 2009

There’s very little I have to say in this posting. A picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words. One might also say that a poem is worth a thousand pictures. If that’s true, then you’re getting a 1,007,000-word value here — one amazing poem and seven amazing pictures. (That’s as mathematical as this blog will ever get: it took me about five minutes and a calculator to figure that out. . . . Don’t even ask me about going to St. Ives!)

These extraordinary works by fans of “The Star Shard” are used with the permission of the young artists and their parents. My deepest gratitude goes to all of them — both for creating these images and for allowing me to post them here.

Oh! — all right, you do have to wade through some news from me first. I finished the latest round of revisions to The Star Shard (novel version). It grew from about 53,000 words to almost exactly 55,000. My agent gave it a very careful read-through and made extensive notes for me on some concerns he had. He pointed out 72 separate things he wanted me to re-examine, ranging from cutting or changing a word or two to rewriting entire sections. He emphasized, of course, that his suggestions were merely that — ideas for me to evaluate and make up my own mind on. I only disagreed with him on 5 of them. I left those done my way, and I convinced him to withdraw a 6th point (as being not a concern); so that means I took his advice on 66 of his 72 suggestions. (This posting is just determined to get mathematical, isn’t it?) So his time was well spent, and I am extremely grateful to him — the book is much stronger as a result of his attention. He has a great critical eye and knows his business. So now let’s keep our fingers crossed that our interested editor will be as excited about the new draft as we are, and that he’ll be able to persuade the powers-that-be to turn The Star Shard into a book!

One final note: I’m quoting here from a letter by “Star Shard Luver,” written February 12, 2009 and posted in the “This Issue” section of the Chatterbox in Cricket Country on the Cricket Web site:

“Yes, you should read it! The story is so awesome, and you can read any parts you’ve missed on Cricket‘s site. I read all the time and I have been reading Cricket for years, and it is the best story EVER! From the point where Loric and Cymbril talk for the first time the story just flies, and I never want it to end!” (On the site, Cricket also asked readers how they think “The Star Shard” will end — alas, the end is coming with the April issue — and speculations are running wild!)

Okay! On to the main event! Soli Deo gloria, and thanks to The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club!

Loric -- Crossing the Groag Swamp, by Ethan, age 11

Loric -- Crossing the Groag Swamp, by Ethan, age 11

Look at those fantastic boots stitched of leaves! I love the sword and sheath, those great stunted swamp trees, and the shading around Loric’s eyes! (And also the luminous quality of his eyes!)

The Rake's Cats, by Aria, age 4

The Rake's Cats, by Aria, age 4

I love the colors and the poses of the cats! And did you note the differences in their expressions? The tom is serious, probably worried about Cymbril out on that high ledge; Miwa has her enigmatic, knowing smile. She’s the Mona Lisa of cats!

Loric, by Andrew, age 15

Loric, by Andrew, age 15

Isn’t this an excellent costume design? I’m impressed by the deliberately asymmetrical cut of the shirt, and by the wrinkles/folds in the trousers. And again, superb face quality!

Sidhe Cymbril, by Andrew, age 15

Sidhe Cymbril, by Andrew, age 15

I just love the hem of the dress, and also that beautiful, dreamy facial expression! Notice the delicate collar bones that real girls have. And the leaves on the dress — a very Sidhe design!

Cymbril, by Andrew, age 15

Cymbril, by Andrew, age 15

I totally admire the use of color, pose, and motion here! We’re looking at a living instant frozen in time. Andrew, you’d better become a professional artist! Maybe a manga artist. . . .?

Little Thrush of the Iron Cage, by Irisa, age 17

Little Thrush of the Iron Cage, by Irisa, age 17


“Little Thrush of the Iron Cage”




Little Thrush gently singing

A dreamer’s song of a wide bright sky

Caged by fate

You dance in the day

Yet in the night you cry

Tears shining with lost hopes

Drift away, little bird

To the distant clouds

Spread your wings

Know that the rain

Cannot reach the sun

As long as your heart still sings

Hope is eternal, little bird

Believe once more in her quiet power

Even though the bars

Of this cage are cold

The warmth of inner light

Can shine out and melt the deepest fog

Showing a tomorrow where you can

Sing your truest song


I held off my comment until after the poem, because the poem and picture go together. Isn’t this breathtaking work? What strikes me so deeply about the picture is its use of symbol. Cymbril doesn’t really have wings, but by depicting her that way, the artist is drawing the parallel to the “caged bird” motif. I love the colors, lines, and pose here, too, as if she’s just floating there, an angel in the air. And the poem — such exquisite use of language! And such a message of hope!

Loric, by Maya, age 12: "Patience has limits, collars have to come off."

Loric, by Maya, age 12: "Patience has limits, collars have to come off."

Look at the way the artist has used her pencil in evoking the hair, the shirt, and the chain! The chain looks hard and cold, and everything around it looks flowing and soft. How do such young people know so much about art already? What will they be doing when they’re old and gray and 20? I can’t wait to see what they produce!

Haven’t we just seen and read some wonderful things? This blog is greatly honored by these young artists and poet. May they continue to create their work and develop their skills for their ongoing part in the Great Song!

Tiring Colors

January 29, 2009

Here’s something that may interest all you visual artists. I’d heard that there was a different aesthetic sense of color in America and Japan. I mean, I’d noticed some intriguing things over the years: for one, when kids in the States draw the sun, what color crayon do they reach for? It’s almost invariably yellow, right? Possibly orange. From what I’ve seen in Japan, kids almost always perceive the sun as red. Are they getting that from the flag? Or is dawn the default aesthetic over here? Most of us in the States, unless we’re given reason to do otherwise, think of “sun” as the midday sun, don’t we?–a big yellow ball directly overhead. But . . . is it yellow? Isn’t it more of a blinding white? Why don’t kids reach for the blinding white crayon, and then finish off with the invisible but dangerous ultraviolet crayon?

When I was a kid, if I drew a lizard, a dinosaur, or Godzilla, I used a green crayon. Most kids I’ve seen drawing those things here color them brown. (I know there are exceptions on both sides; I’m talking general tendencies here.)

And then there’s the famous issue of traffic signals: though the colors look pretty much the same, in Japan, traffic lights are red, yellow, and blue. When the light turns blue, you can go. Also, a person who is “blue” is inexperienced, a rookie — like one who is “green” in the U.S.

In Japan, white is the color of death and the supernatural. In the world of manga, if a character has white hair, you can about figure that he’s a demon or a ghost or something not quite human.

So anyway, I did an experiment. This was back in the days when I used a 35mm camera that took pictures on film — remember that stuff? So I shot up a roll of film, and I had it developed, and I had prints made from the negatives, first in one country, then in the other. The photos came from the very same set of negatives. And what do you suppose I observed?

The photos printed by an American developer used distinctly warmer tones: oranges, yellows, reds. . . . The ones printed in Japan used cooler shades: blues, greens, etc. Granted, this was just one set of data — not enough to base a research paper on or anything. But I would contend that the same phenomenon is evident in paintings and graphically-designed items in the two countries. Interesting, huh?

Anyway, wrapping up this little rant on colors, and circling back to the title of the post: I often amuse myself by jotting down phrases that I think would make great titles. Tiring Colors is one such. I think I scribbled it on a napkin — “Tiring Colors — a novel.”

So here’s the point of discussion I toss out to you: imagine that Tiring Colors is an acclaimed new novel, hovering at the top of the bestseller lists. Write a few lines telling us what it’s about. Is it a literary work or a genre story? Is it for adults, children, or something in between? You don’t have to write an elaborate book report, but in a sentence or two, give us an idea of the setting and the plot. If you want, you might even tell us who the author is (a real writer who just might write such a work, or an author you just dreamed up on the spot).

Tiring Colors: A Novel. What do you think?

Focus, Rhythm, Flow, and the Wodehouse Trick

June 9, 2008

Recently a friend, reading a story manuscript of mine, asked, “What’s this scene doing in here?” It was a valid question of just the sort we writers hope our test-readers will ask. As an enlightened master of the I-Really-Have-No-Idea-What-I’m-Doing school of writing, I gave a typical reply: “Well, rhythmically, it feels like there needs to be a scene there, but I’m not sure if that’s the right one.”

We’re forever paddling along in our canoes, exploring the dim boundaries between Craft and Art, between controlled design, inspiration, intuition, and dumb luck. How much of writing is like shaping and firing a ceramic pot? How much is like stumbling through a pathless woods in a direction that “feels right” and coming out, miraculously, twenty steps from the parking lot? I think the best answer to those questions is, “Hmm. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

“But,” you remind me, “it wasn’t a yes or no question.” And the answer to that is, “Very true. Very true.” So let’s proceed as if this post were making sense. . . .

Most of us would agree that writing involves both experience-based skill and a certain degree of something intangible. Craft and Art intersect and overlap each other all the time. The ceramic pot-maker who is an artist makes more amazing pots; the artist who knows how clay and ceramics work can create shapely and enduring vessels for his/her visions.

Where the interplay of Craft and Art becomes most obvious is when one examines a written draft. (That is to say, I’d argue that in writing our first drafts, we don’t really think of such things; we’re just trying to get the story out without breaking it.) When it’s down on paper, then we have to start paying attention to whether it works or not, which parts do or don’t work, and why/why not.

One year at the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, I was enrolled in James W. Bennett’s fiction workshop, and again and again, his advice to us was “Focus.” He was exactly right. I’d say that 99 times out of 100, that’s the difference between a manuscript and a publishable manuscript: the degree to which it’s focused. If you’re only ever going to post one sticky-note above your computer monitor, that’s probably the one word you should write on it:


Over and over again in my own self-editing, I discover sentences in which I’m not really saying what I mean. We all do this: there are conventions of speech that we use in conversation. We hear and read them all over the place. So when we go to write, we stick them into our prose — even when they’re not serving our purpose. When I write a conversation between characters, I almost always end up chopping out about half of it later, and nothing is lost. Maybe it’s Art that gets stuff onto the page to begin with, pulling it out of the nether realm of imagination, and then it’s Craft that cleans it off, hoses it down, or chips away the stone that’s not part of the statue.

There’s definitely a part of editing that’s like sports or music: aside from the meanings of words and the clarity of intent, there’s a pace that we have to feel. Does the eye move along from one sentence to the next? Are we getting snagged and hung up somewhere (over awkward phrasing, perhaps? — poor word choices? — show-offy overdone metaphors?) or bogged down in the mires of too much description or backstory? [Hint: when we find ourselves using a whole lot of the pluperfect tense in the first page or two . . . or anywhere in the manuscript, for that matter . . . something’s probably not right. If we have to tell the reader all these things the character “had” done before s/he did what s/he’s doing now, we may not have started the story in the right place . . . or we may think we have to tell the reader a bunch of stuff that we really don’t have to tell.]

So — the editing process involves paying constant attention to the focus of meaning, the focus of narrative, and the way it’s all flowing.

Toward those ends, P. G. Wodehouse (pronounced “Wood House,” for all you pronunciation buffs out there) reportedly had an intriguing system. Check this out:

“To save time . . . [he] inserted a long, continuous roll of paper into his typewriter. At the end of the working day, he would cut the strip into pages and pin the pages to the wall. He would then walk around and re-read them, stopping to lower a page if the plot sagged or to tilt a page if he felt the story needed a twist. He then revised, page by page, until all the pages were hanging level.”

     — from On Writers & Writing, 2001 Desk Diary, by Helen Sheehy and Leslie Stainton

I’ve never tried his method, but it sounds like it could work well (at least the pinned-up pages part — I’m not inclined to try writing on a roll of shelf paper, gift wrap, or paper towels). Doesn’t it seem that seeing the whole story at once on the wall would be helpful? You could note, proportionally, how much wall space it was taking to get to points A, B, and C in the story. I think you’d begin to associate parts of the wall with the corresponding parts of your stories: “The first major setback happens under the window . . . things are at their worst between the closet and the sofa . . . the climax happens two steps from that corner . . . and by the thermostat, we need to be out of here.”

Wodehouse, of course, used his system to identify the weak points. Fixing them that way, one by one, on the wall would also give a sense of steady accomplishment; it would tell you at any given time how far along you were in the revision process.

Might be something to try. Though, in my little apartment here in Japan, I may have to use my neighbors’ wall space, too.

“But,” you say, “isn’t this whole posting a blatant contradiction of the last one, in which you and Blake told us we’re better geniuses if we don’t work too hard to ‘improve’ our writing?” To which I say, “This is a really Asian thing, Weed-Hopper. This is yin and yang. Hold both concepts at once and know them both to be true. And breathe. And focus.”