Point of Exquisite Suspension

Thoughts & life experiences of a Chicago area graphic artist

21 June 2017

Ken Doll As Cultural Bell Weather

The latest product offering from the Barbie toy line is the release of an expanded availability of Ken dolls that is most likely the most diverse selection ever. Last year's diverse Barbie doll collection boosted sales for toy company Mattel. So you can't blame them for trying this latest roll out. No real analysis here. Just check out the following news videos.

 The last time I recall such a stir in Barbie/Ken toy news was back in the 90s, when my daughters were children. Mattel offered a Ken doll with one earring and fishnet shirt. And that lavender, leather vest!

And a Chicago Tribune writer asks a common but often unspoken question:

Ken doll gets a man bun but still no private parts?

14 June 2017

Acclaimed Graphic Novelist, Emil Ferris: “Always dream and believe in your dream.”

A conversation with Emil Ferris, Graphic Novelist of "My Favorite Thing is Monsters", hosted by Christopher Borrelli at the Chicago Tribune's Printer's Row Literature Festival 2017. Photo © by O. Douglas Jennings

It’s become a tradition for me and my sister Alicia (who is a high school librarian) to attend the annual Printer’s Row Literature Festival in Chicago. I was excited that an artist/author whose book I had recently read would be interviewed this year.

Emil Ferris wrote and illustrated the phenomenal graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters. A combination coming of age story and murder mystery that takes place in 1968 Chicago. Ferris’s drawings are exquisitely cross-hatched and intricate. Printed with soft-cover binding made to look like a school notebook, the hefty tome is a delight to read, view, peruse and savor as the compelling story unfolds.

Like her semi-autobiographical main character, Karen, Ferris grew up in Chicago and currently lives in Evanston, Illinois. She appeared at the Lit Fest on Saturday for a scheduled conversation with Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli.

The author/artist was dressed all in black with a broad-rimmed, black hat accented by a gold-colored pendant. She explained her hat helps protect her eyes which, due in part to her hours of fine-line crosshatch drawing, are painfully sensitive to neon ceiling lights.

Most of the 30 or so attendees (all ages) to the conversation held in a classroom at Jones College Prep School had read the book (or were in process of reading it). Mr. Borrelli often would hold up an open spread to refer to specific pages from the book which depicted numerous Chicago landmarks, including the Art Institute and some of it’s paintings.

Ms. Ferris described the process of writing as “making rope bridges into suspension bridges” and spoke of her youth in Chicago visiting the Art Institute, Hull House and the city’s historic cemeteries. Her mother was a fine artist and her father, designed toys and games (“Simon” is one that he’s credited with creating). She added, “Dad was a comic book guy”. In fact, in response to a question by host Borrelli, she admitted that as she grew up, she sensed some tension between her mother’s “high art” in the classical tradition, and her father’s more pop-culture “low art” appreciation of toys and comics.

Telling of her childhood fraught with physical disabilities but also blessed with loving family and friends (the latter she describes as “impoverished but brilliant”), Ferris shared a rather upbeat message: “If you’re an aspiring writer and you have awful things happen to you, thank your lucky stars!”.

A scholarship student at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was told by a well-meaning teacher “There’s no future in this”, referring to Ferris’ more “comic book”  style of art.

Ferris spoke of her struggling times, before she was published, when she conducted imaginary interviews with NPR’s Terry Gross which eventually became a reality. “Do what you love but “audition”, prepare [for your success]”, she encouraged.

The first twenty-four pages of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” was her Art Institute Thesis. The rest of the book, she describes as being developed more organically. “I didn’t have everything mapped out. I didn’t know what the ending would be early on.”

“The drawing informed the writing and the writing informed the drawing. It was a fusion.”

The road to completion of “Monsters”, Ferris’ first book, was arduous. When she was 40, she contracted West Nile virus which left her with some paralysis. She had lean years, but quipped, “Evanston is a great place to be poor. The rich always throw away good stuff!”

Another odd roadblock was that as the 1st printed copies of "Monsters" were being shipped by boat to the U.S., the boat's crew abandoned their ship and cargo at Panama due to disputes over not being by the shipping company. This delayed the debut of the book.

In spite of her hardships, Ms. Ferris was determined to encourage aspiring writers/artists. “Use everything that has happened to you. Use it like Macgyver! —To get out of the “box” you’re in. Do not give up!”

“Always dream. And believe in your dream!” she added.

She said for the art in her book, she used ball-point pen (sometimes of different colors) and Flair marker pens.

When asked, “What is a monster?”, Ferris thought a moment and responded, “We are. I am. We’re overcomers that are strong but also both good and evil.”

Her typical day begins with coffee and listening to music. Recently she enjoys the song “Insane Asylum”.

“I listen to it and have visions.” she explains. “Honor your imagination and tell yourself stories. Refuse to sign up for everyone’s crazy…. And get rid of TV!”

Emil Ferris' book, "My Favorite Thing is Monsters" is on Entertainment Weekly's list of Top 10 books of 2017

22 May 2017

Starting Young at Keeping Sketchbooks (Part 2 in a series)

Parents can be an important influence on their young artists.    © O. Douglas Jennings. All Rights Reserved.
Parental encouragement had an enormous impact on me as a young artist. Most children enjoy the tactile and visual experience of creating with paint, clay, blocks or even sticks and leaves. I was no different. Yet around the time I entered Junior High, a gesture made by my father persuaded me to determine to make drawing much more than a peripheral interest.

It was at this time that my dad bought me a sketch pad and set of colorful markers.  The act surprised me and filled me with feelings of value and pride in the revelation that my dad considered me skillful enough in art to bestow such a gift. My father was, in many ways, a distant figure to me. In that context, the unspoken message of the art gift had profoundly affirming and life-directing significance.

Although perhaps the most significant adult to initiate and to encourage my artistic aspirations, my father was not the only source of a motivating spark. Later, my oldest brother’s gift of an artist’s anatomy book was pivotal as well as the frequent words of affirmation by a friend of the family who was an artist.

So, not only did my father help encourage me to begin my useful habit of keeping a sketch book, but he and other adults kept me going along the way to eventually complete several volumes of drawings. These sketchbooks represent practice, growth and the learning of what would eventually become a vocational skill.

My dad bought me my first sketchbook and he was also the subject of a few of my sketches!

My father’s greatest role in my artistic development continued as a facilitator. He provided the materials and even paid for a correspondence art course to help me grow as an artist.

In addition, I see the role of what I’d like to call the “affirmer of accomplishment” as being vital to the sensibilities of most artists. While some personality types might have more or less need for a pat on the back, I believe that the artistic temperament has a particular need for his or her accomplishments to be recognized and praised. Praise and affirmation by older artists went along way in keeping me interested in the pursuit of artistic excellence.

The impact of kindly parents, care-givers and/or “significant others” that I have enjoyed as an aspiring artist has been one of the primary influences that led me to become an Art Instructor.

But what if you’re an adult who wants to begin learning to create art? You might have no parent or family member to encourage or facilitate your aspiration. Assuming that you are availing yourself of books, online tutorials or classes to help improve your art skill, try also to find other artists to meet with regularly to discuss your work and perhaps schedule “Open Studio” sessions when you can all draw/create art in one place (I find having music playing in the background and also sharing some refreshments during these group art sessions adds to the creative atmosphere).

Sketches I made when I got together with fellow artists for a drawing session.
Creating art in room with other artists is a great encouragement.
Each artist can work on their own projects or collaborate. It's all good.

You might have to be your own encourager and facilitator at times as a artist (and, again, keeping a sketchbook is part of that encouraging record of progress), but you’ll be surprised at how helpful it will be to find positive connections through local Park District, Public Library or Art School programs in your area.

My parents and I when I was 4y.o.
My dad, Rue Edward, and my mom, Bernadine,
were big supporters of my artistic aspirations.
See part 1 of my series of posts about the importance of keeping sketchbooks.

21 May 2017

The First Graphic Artists

I've been reading and video-watching about early human symbols left behind on cave walls all around the world by ancient people (very ancient --before recorded history!)

Many of these symbols are categorized as "Entoptic" meaning originating within the eye itself through experiences that include use of psychedelic drugs used in shamanistic rituals*.

I first heard about these symbols in this video TED talk by Genevieve Von Petzinger:

And I'm also reading about her research in her book The First Signs that I've borrowed from my local Public Library:

So far, it has been fascinating to learn how hard-wired humans are to create symbols. As a Graphic Artist, I have great satisfaction that my vocation has such ancient connections.

*Other factors that might induce Entoptic symbols within the signals to the brain from the eyes include sensory deprivation-caused trance states. Caves would be good sensory deprivation environments due to providing total blockage of light and (for the most part) sound.

19 May 2017

Robert E. Lee Statue Being Removed in New Orleans

Today, the city of New Orleans will be removing the public statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Although I grew up admiring the pious, gifted and revered general (being raised in Southern Illinois --which had close ties with Southern States), I agree with the removal. Such memorials to the slavery-condoning Confederate regime should not be in places of honor. In my opinion, they belong in museums that show the entire scope of life in the South of that era. This would include depicting the suffering and dehumanizing conditions of the slave economy.

Lee had many admiral qualities and promoted healing after the Civil War. He was also part of the legacy of the earlier Revolutionary War for Independence from Great Britain as his father "Light Horse" Harry Lee fought brilliant campaigns (although later becoming a dead-beat dad). And Lee married Mary Anna Custis, the grand daughter of George Washington's step grandson and adopted son George Washington Parke Custis. But his defense and support of a brutal regime cannot be swept under the rug, no matter how genteel many aspects of that society might have been.

Although, it needs to be pointed out that, although he inherited a number of slaves (which he had freed before the Emancipation Proclamation), he never personally owned slaves.

I recommend this succinct, well-written biography of Lee by Roy Blunt, Jr. for a good account of the Confederate General's life that neither glorifies nor demonizes the man. A more succinct article for the Smithsonian (also by Mr. Blunt) might be another good source.

In terms of the American vision of democracy outlined in the Constitution that was ratified in 1789, the Civil War was taking care of the unfinished business of extending freedom and democracy to all people. This business is still unfinished as you might learn from this interview with the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson by Ezra Klein.

The removal of Confederate memorials from places of honor is a good but small step toward coming to terms with injustice in the United States and moving forward to continue making things right.

UPDATE: See/Read the Full Transcript and a portion of a video of the Mayor of New Orleans' speech regarding the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and other public Confederacy memorials. 

"Instead of revering a 4-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years." - New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

UPDATE, 6-3-2017 -- Atlantic Monthly Article: The Myth of Kindly General Lee 

03 May 2017

Sketchbooks Provide "Lab" & "Playground" for Artists

Keeping sketchbooks is a valuable developmental tool for the artist as well as an evocative, fascinating record. I have yet to meet a serious or accomplished artist who does not have at least a small collection of drawing pads containing their sketches. These “image reservoirs”, bound or loose leaf, are an artist’s laboratory. In my case, such a private arena was invaluable for the practice of my skills of perceiving and creating images. To hone my rendering abilities I would draw from my imagination, my surroundings, my friends or choose subject matter from the works of other artists.

Yet, to use another analogy, sketchbooks have also served my imagination as a playground. In that private realm of line, shade, smudge and shape I can follow the contours of my fancy to soar beyond the constraints of the second dimension. Sometimes, my efforts come up short yet falter harmlessly against the non-condemning and confidential papyrus. Happily, I have only to begin anew with the turn of the page.

Over time, as I looked back through my early books, I noticed improvement, which inspired me to continue drawing. I endeavored, foremost, to learn the art of rendering the human form. Many of my earlier books were filled with pages of awkwardly posed, mannikin-like, pencil-drawn figures (often one to a page) in various attire, modern or ancient. I would begin with a skeleton sketch and build the basic musculature, then subsequently add skin and clothing. Sometimes I would place the figures on backgrounds such as a city street or in the context of some battle. However stilted and contrived these drawings, they were valuable exercises that eventually aided my observation of the human figure and my skill at drawing a natural-looking human form. Eventually the lines of the figures became more confident and flowing. The drawings began to possess more depth and volume.  I also began to appreciate depicting the average, less-ideal human form. 

Such a record of progress served as a consistent source of encouragement and a reminder of my development. In some cases, perusing my sketch books would renew my acquaintance of themes or techniques that I had toyed with but then abandoned. At such times, I would take up the rediscovered imagery and methods again with new vision —like engaging an old friend in conversation after a prolonged absence.

My medium of choice was originally a 2B lead pencil. This was convenient for erasing mistakes. As I experimented with softer leads, I discovered the useful shading technique of controlled smudging which allowed for smooth light-to- dark tones. Harder leads provided cleaner lines that gave my drawing a more finished look. Eschewing the use of lines and smudges all together, I briefly, in the early days, tried the pointillistic technique of shading with multitudinous dots created from the tip of a Flair brand marker. The effect was exciting to me as I was entering a phase marked by interest in gory subject matter. With the “dot” method of rendering, I could draw my monsters and melting figures with almost clinical precision. A form of this technique would serve me later as I drew pen-and-ink illustrations for printed publication.

In recent years, my favorite medium for drawing in my sketchbooks is black ball-point pen. Felt-tip markers tend to bleed through the paper over time and offer less of a range of line than that of a ball-point. The ball-point pen does not smudge like a pencil but it renders a surprising subtlety of shade. It reproduces well on a photo-copy machine and such pens are almost as cheap as their graphite and wood forebears.

My use of ball-point pen is significant. I no longer worry about erasing my mistakes. During the last half of my sketchbook-keeping career, I would most often fill the page with sketches. They seem to spin around each other and sometimes overlap, occupying the same space. Over the last few years, I have experimented with sketching with different colored pens as each color represents a particular image or plane of thought. A sketch in one particular color will be juxtaposed on top of another. The different colors allow me to more easily keep the images separate when I view them later. Originally, I developed this technique to save paper. Yet I became fascinated with it as a type of layering of realities. I feel this is analogous to objects in separate dimensions that are able to pass through one another without losing the integrity of their individual boundaries. More specifically, I liken it to the physical and spiritual realms as they interweave, overlap and interact. 

Many of my later sketch books lean toward a “stream-of-consciousness” look —unlike my initial volumes which typically devoted one small drawing to a single expansive page. The difference could possibly reflect a more adult ability to entertain differing perspectives at once.

Layering colored sketches and not being concerned about mistakes serves my desire to record not just the final out-put of an idea, but the process by which I developed the idea. In the past, the initial stages of my drawings were erased or covered over. In using different colors in developing a sketch, I leave all levels of the drawing’s composition intact. I begin sketching loosely with a light blue pen. As my idea for the drawing becomes more focused, I then use a red pen to develop lines that are  more final. Sometimes I complete the sequence with a black pen to delineate the final or near-final state of the drawing. If I plan to reproduce the layered drawing, I’ll make a more refined tracing of it. Meanwhile the entire process of the work is recorded in my sketch book.

This appreciation of the process involved in creating a drawing can apply to life. Are we not all “drawings” in progress? As I look back on my life as well as my art, I marvel at the twists and turns of the lines rendered in the events of my life and the changes in my outlook and personality. I am still in process of being “finished”. And I have an active role to play in my own development through the choices I make. As far as art is concerned, the record of my choices are partially recorded in my sketchbooks.

(This chapter was originally part of a University essay paper from 1991)

Click on the screen shot above for a gallery of more of my sketchbook art on Flickr.

12 April 2017

First Man into Space, April 12th, 1961

It was said that the first man to enter outerspace (1961), Yuri Gargarin, had a smile that “could light up the Cold War”. The 5ft 2in cosmonaut was an international hero.  

Today is the anniversary of his flight. I found these photos of some of the monuments created to remember him. 

The one on the tall soaring pedestal is like it could represent Superman. I guess in his day, Yuri was the closest we had to a superman.

There are many photos of Yuri's monuments one can view online. The one directly above is another of my favorites.

Tragically, he died in a jet fighter crash at the age of 34.

But by all accounts he was a personable, friendly guy.