Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tyrus Wong at Disney Family Museum

I am so glad I got over to the Presidio see Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: the Art of Tyrus Wong at the Disney Family Museum before it closed.

Wong had a fascinating career. Well, still has, actually. He's 103 and still actively creating beautiful work.  This wide ranging exhibit was one of the best I've seen at the Disney, showing over 150 works by Wong.

Promotional Art from Disney Family Museum.

The exhibit begins with the story of his immigration from China through Angel Island as a child, and what a trial it was, and establishes how he found a balance between Chinese ideas of form and perspective and Western methods of portraying a scene. These ideas are evident in his best known work, the concept art for Disney's 1940's masterpiece Bambi. In a video, Wong talks about the contrast between the mists and the need for distance in Chinese painting, where Western painting tends to feature the main subject front and center. His atmospheric paintings really set the tone for Bambi, and made it the work of art it is.

Gallery View looking down from 2nd floor (from Wong's FB page)
Wong was laid off at Disney following an acrimonious labor dispute and strike, eventually working again as a storyboard artist for Warner Brothers TV. He also designed scarves, dishware, greeting cards, and ceramic tiles. His post-retirement watercolors are lovely and moody, showing his isolation as he dealt with that transition in his life.  Then he discovered kite making, which he does in a very precise, traditional manner. He is still making kites and participating in kite events, particularly at Venice Beach in Southern California.  Wong's kites were well displayed hanging from the beams of the open ceiling of the gallery, and the second floor was ringed with photos of the kites in the air, and with photos and celebratory quotes from other animators that have found inspiration in Wong's work.

There's a documentary film in the making; Tyrus Wong: Brushstrokes in Hollywood (FB page). Here's a Cartoon Brew review by Amid Amidi with lots of images.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Tate Video: Margaret Harrison

Interview with Margaret Harrison about her infamous Motifs Editions gallery show in 1971, and her installations "Women and Work" and "Homeworkers," which are currently on view at the Tate Britain. This part of her career will be discussed in depth in the biographical book we are collaborating on.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Going Back Home: Chester D and Spain

Chester D. Wilson, cover art
by Spain Rodriguez. 1989.
Back in the late 1980’s before South Beach was populated by AT&T Park, million dollar condos and fine eats, it was a light industrial and working class neighborhood. There was a dive bar called Bouncer’s around Townsend and 2nd, that served up cheap burgers and beer to the ironworkers in the area, and a big helping of local blues every night.

My ex-husband Chris played blues guitar, and we owned an indie record label, Blue Jazz Records, which was a labor of love, primarily supported by my day job at Winterland Productions. We recorded blues & jazz bands that played places that are long gone, like the Last Day Saloon, the Lost & Found, the Blue Lamp, or the upstairs bar at the Paradise Lounge. The “big-time” gigs were the Fillmore, Slim’s, The Calalyst in Santa Cruz or Doc Ricket’s Lab in Monterey.

Chester D. Wilson (video) was one of our artists. When we were introduced to him at Bouncer’s, he was a 73 year old retired construction worker, playing country blues in the style of Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It was Jefferson’s music that inspired Chester to build his own guitar as a young man and start playing juke joints around his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. One night at a dance, a white man shot him in the left hand. Chester would always explain that although a white man took away his ability to play then, a white man also took him to the hospital and made sure he was taken care of. “We are all just people,” he would say, “everybody’s good and bad.”

Chester moved with his father to work in the shipyards during WWII, and stayed in the Bay Area, working as a laborer and in construction. At the suggestion of Sonny Boy Holmes, an old friend, Chester taught himself to play the guitar left-handed. It took him a long time, but he was dedicated and began playing gigs again. After he retired, he started to play more regularly, and would play at the 24th and Mission BART station just to get out and stay in practice.

Chester at the Fillmore! Poster by
Whit Clifton (Wolfgang's Vault)
In 1989, we recorded him live to 2 track analog tape at Sound & Vision, a small studio south of Market. Most of the songs were solo, with occasional backup from Peter Chase on blues harp and Gary Bergman on rhythm guitar (Waterfront Blues Band). We included short interview segments between the songs, so people could hear Chester's story in his own words. When we started talking about cover art, he said that he’d met an artist while playing at the BART station that promised him a drawing. So that’s how we got a beautiful portrait of Chester by Spain Rodriguez for the cover. At the time, we could only afford to release the album on cassette, giving half the batch to Chester to sell at his gigs. He loved Spain's art, and Spain gave him the cover drawing as a gift.

Around the time we were working with him, Chester had some fun gigs. He opened for Johnny Winter and John Mayall at the Fillmore, and he played the SF Blues Festival at Fort Mason. "All my songs are true," Chester said in 1989. "They are about traveling, mean-hearted women and tough times. With the death of legends in the Blues like Muddy Waters and Lighting Hopkins, there's not many left who play our style of the Blues anymore."

In the turmoil of my divorce and subsequent moving around, I lost track of Chester, the original tapes, and the mechanical of the cover art. If he’s still around, he would be in his 90’s now. I was honored to know him.

PDF of BAM Magazine review/interview and cover F&B | YouTube video 1990.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Yerba Buena Gallery Walk, Fall 2013

The Yerba Buena Gallery Walk happened to coincide with the Alternative Press Expo (APE) this year. Had a great time catching up with everybody at APE, and only had time to catch 3 exhibits.

The California Historical Society (I am so glad they are doing exhibits again!) has a very fascinating show up, Unbuilt San Francisco, featuring architectural models and drawings of proposed projects that were never constructed. How different SF could have been. There were models of a proposed SF Ballet Center near Yerba Buena Gardens, a scale model of the giant foot that was proposed as a permanent public piece on the waterfront, and many others. The one that held me spellbound was a gorgeous 1897 Willis Polk drawing of the Ferry Building with an arch (think Washington Square, NY) and a peristyle, leading to a grand Rococo fountain in the courtyard. How different would it have been to have this at the foot of Market Street.

Down the street at 111 Minna, the Astronomical Menagerie of Alec Huxley was on display. I was amused by the overall idea of space helmeted figures in various combinations with animals, but I really loved the painting below.

All I've Ever Known is True. Alec Huxley.
I concluded my quick tour at Modernism on Market Street, where they had the collage work of Jacques Villegle. In what seemed to me an unusual move for this gallery, they gave over both their front (main) space and their long back space to the same artist. The collages were large and colorful, and I enjoyed seeing them.

Boulevard Haussmann. Jacques Villegle. From Theatre, Cinema, Music-Hall.

Sex Sells Culture

A fascinating article in today's New York Times Style section, With Money Tight, Museums Take it Off, about several major European arts institutions mounting what could be considered risky exhibitions focusing on sex and nudes, expecting and getting blockbuster numbers.

The museums mentioned, the British Museum, Musee Jacquemart-Andre and the Musee d'Orsay all have deep collections of classical sculpture and paintings with erotic or semi-erotic content. The article is an interesting exploration of the marketing, financial and cultural considerations behind these shows. I think it's interesting, given the amount of porn that is easily available, that people still flock to these exhibitions. Why? Appreciation of an idealized figure is almost universal. Maybe it's the fantasy aspect or insight into the the tastes of other eras. I'm sure these shows would be a big hit in the US too.

Below is the video for the Musee d'Orsay's Masculin/Masculin (Warning male frontal nudity). Stay to the end to see model and paintings side by side. The tableau of Mercury and Paris at the end was also used in commercials and posters.

See also: Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art at the British Museum, and Desirs et Volupte: Victorian Masterpieces at the Jacquemart-Andre.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Steampunk World Begins in Lantern City Prequel Rise

Illustration from Rise, art by
Section Studios
Last year after San Diego Comic-Con, I interviewed Matthew James Daley, the writer of Lantern City, a steampunk inspired TV series he is developing with co-creators Bruce Boxleitner and Trevor Crafts. This year, after making the rounds of conventions all over the country, they returned to SDCC to announce Rise, a prequel novel.

Aside from my interest in the story and design, I am fascinated by the production’s strategic decision to build a grassroots following in the steampunk and sci-fi communities through social media and the convention circuit, which has worked for Sanctuary, a series that may have appealed to a similar audience. 

Lantern City is a walled city located in the parallel world of Jalta, which is ruled for better or worse by the Greys, an authoritarian dynasty. Love, politics, intrigue and opportunities for exotic steampunk inventions abound. Rise, a profusely illustrated prequel, tells the coming of age story of Isaac Foster Grey, and how and why he founds Lantern City. Here’s Matthew Daley talking about Rise, and how it fits into the Lantern City universe (warning – spoilers within):

KM: The illustrations are gorgeous. How did you connect with Section Studios ? What was your collaboration with them like? ("making of" video)

MJD: We first started working with Section Studios last year. They created all of the concept art for the television show and it was a natural progression for us to continue working with them.
    For Rise, they brought in twelve artists to complete the drawings. We met a number of times to hash out ideas, go over sketches, and finalize the finished product. It was a great collaborative effort and I’m extremely proud of all the hard work people put into it.

The Streets of Lantern City. Concept Art by Section Studios.
 KM: I love the descriptions of the steampunk style tech in parts of the story. Did your steampunk community advisers contribute to this?

MJD: They did not contribute to it, so I take your comment as a compliment. My approach to the steampunk elements of Rise were to think about where the technology was during the time period of the show and consider what the seeds of those ideas would be. Rise takes place about 115 years prior to the start of the show. The technology cannot be the same. Look at how advanced technology can become in a span of ten years, let alone 100, so things could not be too advanced.
    Another element to this was that the country where Lantern City is built, Hetra, is an isolated nation. They are more primitive than other cultures within the world. That’s one of the reasons that there is greater technology in the form of steampunk designs introduced later in the story.

KM: Since you mention that timeline, why did you feel it was important to publish a prequel novel?

MJD: The world of Lantern City is well established at the beginning of the show. There is a lot of the world that should be explained, but the television series is not the place to do this, so books work well. Rise and all follow-up books will show fans how Lantern City came to be. Seeds are planted early on that slowly germinate over decades. The prequels also help fans familiarize themselves with the world of Jalta.

Illustration from Rise, art by
Section Studios
KM: In Rise, you take the main character, Isaac Foster Grey, on a real Joseph Campbell journey, complete with revenge, sacrifice and hard moral choices.
MJD: Many writers are indebted to the research and writings of Joseph Campbell. His work is invaluable and I am a great admirer of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth, and Pathways to Bliss. Besides Campbell, I have also found The Golden Bough by James George Frazer and The White Goddess by Robert Graves to be invaluable resources. In fact, these are better than any how-to writing book, other than The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

Throughout the course of Rise, Isaac is ages eight through sixteen. One of the things that I worried about was making a sixteen-year old a believable adult; another layer to that was making Isaac a remarkable adult. He becomes a leader at such a young age and I attribute this to a few things. First of all, his circumstances are unusual. Few people experience so many things at such a young age. This forces him to mature much quicker. He is pushed to the extremes in many situations and, even when coming through scarred, he still makes it out alive. Secondly, he either is responsible or feels responsible for what has happened to him and his family, and instead of recoiling, he takes it upon himself to change things. Thirdly, he is destined for greatness. Circumstances might have sped this up, but he was always bound for amazing things.

KM: You set up a stark contrast between the personalities of Isaac and his brother, and then had Isaac kill his brother in an almost Biblical manner. This won approval from the fearsome natives, and also estranged him from his mother, setting him on his path in the military. Why all these traumatic events?
MJD: It was absolutely necessary for Isaac’s arc that he did something drastic that would haunt him the rest of his life. He has some guilt for not interfering when his father was killed, but it is nothing compared to the burden of killing his own brother. It certainly does have Biblical weight to it and that isn’t an accident. It was important to have the brothers be very different people. Readers will side with Isaac up to that point; the brother’s traits are slowly revealed and readers will become more sympathetic toward him just before he dies.

KM: I'm fascinated by the mythology you've developed with the Gods, spirit & animal guides, and mystical occurrences. It seems that Isaac has to conquer the land itself before he can help his people. What is the importance of the Gods & destiny in this world.

Matthew J. Daley at SDCC
MJD: Religion is essential to every society and it is no different in the world of Lantern City. One of the first things I did when I started to build out the world was to consider the different religious beliefs.
     I wanted to create an interesting dichotomy with traditional versus new beliefs. Isaac wants to believe in some of the old beliefs, whereas his father has no interest in them. Isaac’s desire for belief stems from many things: age, desire, circumstances, and ignorance. His beliefs will be explored further in the subsequent books.   
   The nature-based elements of Rise were extremely important to me. Lantern City is an industrialized megatropolis. Since Rise takes place before Lantern City exists, it was essential to show the conflict between the emerging industrial urban landscape and the natural world that had existed for thousands of years. There is a great fear of nature among most of the people in the story. This is not true for Isaac, even though he must face his greatest tests within the natural world. Before Isaac could become the founder of one of the greatest cities ever, he had to become a man in the natural world. This makes him more prepared, stronger, and more adaptable than most of the people he encounters.
    This is very similar to cultures that require young men to go into the wilderness, complete a task, and return as men. In a sense, this is destiny, because if you survive, you have a set of skills and experiences that set you apart from others. Technically, Isaac wasn’t forced into the wilderness, but that is where his destiny took him. Eventually, he will have to return to fulfill his destiny. 

KM: There are many myths about defeating an enemy/powerful animal and eating its flesh to absorb its power. Rise adds another with the story of Isaac and the Korbear.
Illustration from Rise, art by
Section Studios
MJD: I have always loved survival stories and stories pitting man against nature. Fiction has a way of romanticizing intense and often deadly encounters with nature and all that she contains. One of my favorite films from last year was The Grey. There are many reasons why I enjoy such works, but one of the primary reasons is that such experiences are foreign to me. I’m grateful for this, of course, though my fascination for such tales never wanes.
    As far as Isaac and the Korbear, I wanted to pit him against a nearly impossible force of nature in order to bring out his warrior side. He possesses savagery, as displayed when he kills his brother; he also has formal military training, but neither of these make him a warrior. It was absolutely necessary to have his back against the wall and his only chance for survival result from a total transformation. Another trick with this element of the story was to create an animal that was familiar enough for readers and yet still original. Hence, the Korbear. It’s bigger, more agile, more aggressive, and more vicious than our grizzly bear. To emphasize this I showed the Korbear defeating what seemed to be Isaac’s greatest threat, the White Wolf.
    Isaac’s eating the Korbear’s raw flesh was essential too, because it added both a spiritual element and a level of respect. This isn’t killing for the sake of killing or for sport: this is to survive. Finally, it was important to me that nobody witness Isaac’s feat of killing the Korbear only because it adds to his legend. Anyone that hears of the story will wonder, “did he really do that?”

KM: Let’s talk about the visual theme of lanterns. They pop up everywhere, from the title to technology. What do lanterns symbolize to you?

MJD:    As far as the use of lanterns in the world of Lantern City, it offers hope, it represents the possibilities of the unknown, and it is proof of progress. I hope that the symbolism isn’t offensively obvious.

KM: I thought it was interesting that you use a lantern as a portal between our world and Jalta. In Rise, it seems like the destination at the end of the portal is not entirely controllable. Whether it’s a technological flaw or the hand of the Gods, your characters will risk ending up in places they didn’t plan on.

MJD: It is something that isn’t discussed at length with the books or the show, but it is actually a bit of both. Each lantern will be based on the original blue prints, but built by someone else; since it is handcrafted, it will never be the same as the original (whether it be the actual parts or some of the details of the design). The world in which Lantern City takes place is scientifically advanced, but there are things that cannot be controlled. Those that want to push the boundaries must take leaps of faith through the portals.

KM: It was a refreshing contrast to hear the voice of Spruce, a person from our world circa 1970’s, react to what he sees in Jalta. Isaac, and generations later, Killian, will be aware that another world exists.  It’s intriguing to me that the ruler of Lantern City would be one of the only people that knows about the existence of our world.

Rise Book Cover.
MJD: What sets the television series in motion is three people from our world being transported to the alternate world of Jalta (known only to them, and a majority of the residents, as Lantern City). As soon as I was brought on board the project, I began to build out the history of the world. Through this, I developed what would eventually become Rise. The prequel books could certainly work well without having any dimension crossing, but it enhances the history and ties them into the television show. Readers need to know that the prequels will pay off while watching the television series and one of the best ways is to introduce this dimension traveling aspect.
    Readers don’t know much about the Spruce character by the end of Rise, though I hope he is memorable. He is obviously paramount to the founding of Lantern City and helping Isaac become the leader, but he is not motivated to rule alongside Isaac. His agenda is getting back to Earth.
   He is from the 70’s because he was a pilot during the Vietnam War. Having fought in that war prepares him for the chaos he faces in Jalta. I originally wrote him as a scientist, but he needed to be able to escape from a powerful army and fly airships; hence, he became a pilot. He could not be from the present day because he is transported to an earlier time in Jalta, whereas the character on the show will be in a more modern Lantern City.

KM: I saw a blurb on-line that there could be one or more prequel books like Rise. Can you hint at things to come?

MJD: There is great potential for a series of books. I have outlined six more books that are separate from the series and could potentially even write the television series as an epic cycle of books. The idea was born as a television show and it has grown to be much more.
    One of the benefits of books is that you can really expand the world and characters. All of the possibilities are exciting to all of us because building the world is so much fun.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

SDCC 2013 - Robert Williams & the Wheel 'O Fangs

Sculpture by Robert Williams.
Photo by Lord Cheez
One of the most stunning pieces of work on the SDCC exhibit floor was this huge wheel of teeth/fangs by Robert Williams displayed at the Gentle Giant booth. They had it situated so that you would be directly confronting it by walking toward it through one of the entrance doors and on the main aisle.

Meyer, Reynolds, Williams, Vitello & Stout
 At Williams' spotlight panel, the right people were there to discuss a whole overview of his career: Fellow cartoonist William Stout; Gwynned Vitello (president of Juxtapoz & Thrasher); Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, who will soon be publishing the collected Zap Comics) & Karl Meyer (president of Gentle Giant Studios). While everyone got a few remarks in at the beginning, it soon became clear that everyone wanted to know what was up with that sculpture on the floor. The panel became a conversation between Meyer and Williams about his goals and the process of creating the sculpture.

Williams said "My goal was to do something no one has seen before. Action & color to attract attention and get a reaction. The wheel is about that momentary feeling of not wanting to stand in front of it."

Sculpture by Robert Williams
Williams continued on, talking about the painstaking process of creating it. He plotted it out with a computer tech from his drawings. From this they generated a scale model. Williams worked on the model, revising. They scanned the model and generated a full size version out of foam. Williams revised this one, adjusting and adding pieces. The foam model was cut into pieces, cast and reassembled. Williams perfected the sculpture and began painting. Williams talked about the importance of underpainting, and how he built up transparent layers of color to give in depth and immediacy.

Here's a good interview by Kenny Scharf about Williams' sculptures on Juxtapoz.