Tuesday, June 30, 2009

OCD's newest potter

We put these pictures on our Facebook page, but we thought they were worth sharing here too:

Here's our daughter Eva making her first pot at 20 months old (sort of)!

Yes, Old Cat Died endorses child labor. Her cups will sell for $40, from which she will be paid in blueberries and crayons.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

All Saints Bowl

Just for the heck of it, let's do an actual pottery-related post!

Carrie is using her sculpture class as a justification for experimenting with larger forms than she has previously used. This bowl is slab built on a mold, with a thrown footring. It's the biggest canvas (to borrow a metaphor from another art) we've had to decorate on so far, so there's a lot of work going into the planning. Here's the first stage. We'll keep updating along the way.

Wetting the rapidly-drying piece.

The decorating theme is going to be "saints on a half-shell" - inspired by gothic cathedrals, lots of naves for saints' images and stained-glass windows carved into the thick walls.

Here's Carrie carving a window into the wall. When it's finished, it will have lead lines built in and colored with underglazes.

That's all for now. Keep coming back for updates as this project comes together!

Another update: The Bride of Frankenstein is finally fully dry and ready to bisque. Soon we'll see if the ungainly planter survives for the next step!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cost of Pottery- Follow-Up

Not everyone will agree that hand-made pottery (by that I mean functional ceramics) is now an art rather than a craft – that is, that it should be judged by the same artificial standards as art, rather than the practical standards (time, energy, materials, etc) of a craft. Here’s why I think so:

The problem with selling pottery – the reason this discussion is necessary at all – is that pottery, as it is currently understood and practiced, is in a middle ground. Pottery is, and has always been, a utilitarian item, one of the oldest utilitarian items produced by human beings. And it is still one of the things we use most frequently. The problem is, the technology of mass production means it is no longer necessary to hand-make pottery. Pottery can be machine-made faster, cheaper, and in some instances (as one of Philbeck’s commenters notes), more durably and at higher quality than hand-made.

So people still buy pottery. The “problem” is that they don’t buy hand-made pottery from craftspeople – they buy mass-produced pottery from Target. And that’s only a problem to the craftsperson – not to the consumer, the economy, or pottery broadly considered.

It’s a big problem for a craftsperson who wants to make a living from their craft, however. Everybody who has tried or is trying to make a living at a craft knows that. If you want to make accessible, useful pottery, there is no way to compete with Target in price, no matter how incredible your production schedule. And for the majority of people who drink coffee or bake casseroles, hand-made does not carry a value in itself. It’s not enough to educate people about how much work it takes to make a mug by hand – they can just ask, Why bother?

That means hand-made pottery must belong exclusively to an elite who can afford the higher prices hand-made requires because they appreciate the artistry of hand-made pottery.

Many have made the analogy that, for people who will pay $50 for a shirt or $200 for a sweater, paying $40 for a cup should not be a problem. In general, someone who will spend a lot of money on food might spend a lot of money on clothes, but when it comes to utilitarian items, what you will pay becomes a subjective decision depending on where you place your value. So that analogy breaks down. Some people will pay $100 for a pair of shoes but balk at buying a shirt for more than $10. Some will buy $15 a pound coffee but could care less to have quality clothes.

But hand-made pottery, because of its price and relative rarity (compared to mass-produced pottery), is no longer strictly a utilitarian item. It is a collector’s object. And if what you will pay for necessities is subjective, then what you collect is totally idiosyncratic. There is no reason a person’s preference for expensive food and clothes – things everyone needs – has to extend to hand-made pottery – something that, let’s face it, nobody needs.

(If I wanted to be really brutal, I could say that nobody needs pottery of any kind. We can use glass, we can use plastic, we can use metal – why pottery? Pottery is only necessary because we have a culture that says we should drink our coffee out of ceramic. Pottery is not a practical necessity, it is a cultural necessity.)

So this is pottery’s middle ground – on the one hand, a utilitarian item meant to be used, eventually broken, and finally discarded; on the other hand, an objet-d’art for an elite. And an object simply cannot be utilitarian and art. Art has always belonged to the elite, and if the object is meant for use, it has to be for an elite who can afford to break.it. Coffee mugs break. Plates break. Even plates used once a year or for special occasions break. A fellow pipe collector once answered the question “How much is too much to pay for a pipe?” with the same formulation: “If you’re afraid to smoke it, you paid too much.”

There are a lot of reasons you can decide a hand-made cup is worth the price. Maybe because it is hand-made, and you are aware of a person making it; maybe because it is one-of-a-kind, impossible to exactly reproduce; maybe because it is a beautiful object that appeals to you in an inexplicable way. But it has no more inherent, practical value than a mass-produced Target cup – or a glass jar, or a tin cup, or your own hands held together.

Hand-made pottery has to be considered art. Whatever the potter intends, he or she makes art, in the sense that hand-made pottery is expensive, rare, and only available or desirable to an elite that has developed a sense of taste and value the makes it significant. You have to decide that hand-made pottery is valuable, because on a purely practical level, a cup is a cup, and a $5 cup will hold water as well as a $40 cup.

The art market is an artificial market, because it is sustained not by people buying a necessity but by elite collectors buying desired objects. The value of a work of art depends on the artist’s fame, the desirability of the object, the rarity of the object – all kinds of factors unrelated to the practical aspects of creating it.

So on an art model, some potters make cups worth $70, some make cups worth $40, some $20, some $10. That’s not devaluing the product – it’s recognizing that artists who are starting out, still learning, with no known value, make objects worth less than known artists. That’s the reality of selling art. If you can price your cups at $40, do it. If you can price them at $90, do it. And if all you can get is $10, get $10.

The Cost of Pottery

One of our favorite pottery bloggers, Ron Philbeck, opens a provocative question for discussion in his latest blog – what should pottery cost?

Since Carrie and I have been debating this exact question (prompted, like Philbeck, by Ayumi Hori’s opinions on the subject), I thought I would take it on here in the OCD blog.

Just to be honest, I’m not sure I can answer this question as a potter. Old Cat Died is a family business, but I don’t consider myself a potter – Carrie is the potter. But I am equipped to address this question with an analogy from the world of publishing.

No one – NO ONE – makes a living exclusively from writing poetry. Some poets teach poetry classes, some teach in other fields, some work 9-5 jobs, some write for other kinds of publication – but no one makes a living as a working poet.

In the 19th century, however, many people were able to live from publishing poetry. The reason is simple – at that time, an exploding publishing market and a public taste of poetry made it practically possible. Newspapers published poetry, magazines published poetry, every periodical published poetry. Poetry was entertainment, but more importantly, it was a part of daily life and culture. Poets were craftspeople providing a cultural necessity.

That is not possible today, because there poetry is not culturally necessary in the same way it was 150 years ago. So poetry today survives as an elite taste, poetry books (usually quite short) have tiny press runs and poets have to make a living in some other way. Poets live off the patronage of a set of elite poetry fans, who can afford to buy books that are priced well beyond books of comparable length and who have developed a taste for poetry that gives poetry value to them. For the culture at large, poetry has no value.

The situation is the same for hand-made pottery. For the culture at large, hand-made pottery has no value. Hand-made pottery has no inherent value, no practical value, no economic value. Its only value is an artistic, elite value. Its only value is the value of beauty, of craftsmanship, of cultural cache and status. Its value is the same value as any product of the humanities, whether that product is fine art, literature, dance, etc. And it’s time for potters to accept that.

Maybe it’s the wrong question, asking what potters need to do to convince people who will spend $200 on shoes to spend $40 for a coffee mug. You cannot create a market; you cannot create collectors. You cannot convince anyone logically, because realistically it is not logical to spend money on an unnecessary object.

Some practical advice makes sense – develop a relationship with buyers, find a patron. But one piece of advice, one that comes from the world of poetry, may be more apt – get a job. It may mean getting a degree and finding one of the scarce and violently fought-for academic jobs that can pay for your materials and cut your costs. It may mean working in other fields and struggling for time to produce pottery on your own time. It may mean finding an understanding spouse who will work to provide while you work to produce art. If you love your art, you will find a way to do it.

This is what poets – and a lot of other kinds of artists – have been doing for generations now. The era of the yeoman craftsperson is over – good old-fashioned American technology has made sure of that. And barring a cataclysm that destroys all modern technology and leaves us only mud and stone, that era will not return in our lifetimes.

So pottery needs a new business model. As another of Philbeck’s commenters tells us, trying to make a living as a professional potter will get you a working-class salary or worse – not enough to live the kind of comfortable life your collector/buyers live.

We all want to make a living doing what we love. But sometimes that means finding other ways to do what you love. This is not a problem of the economic downturn. It’s a problem of a capitalist manufacturing culture. And it is not going to change.

It will have to be craft that changes – not our pricing, not our advertising, not our networking, but our way of thinking about what we do. And that is not going to come from longing for a craft past or dreaming about a utopian future where craft is valued for its own sake. It has to come from looking at similar fields and learning from them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Influences Part 2

Carrie started the influences gallery, so I thought I'd add to it.

She didn't say much about R. Crumb and Ben Katchor - they're probably our two favorite cartoonists, or at least two of the top three. Katchor creates an odd world that's kind of New York in the 1950s and kind of his own mind, where minutia is everything and characters are driven by obsessive desires. His books and strips are so deeply realized that you don't really even care that there is no factory where metal grommets from old shoes are recycled for new shoes.

Crumb is a weird, sick, dangerous man, far braver about admitting it and making art out of it than any artist I can think of. Somehow his art turns his dirty mind into beauty, even when you're sickened by what he actually writes and draws.

To the list of top three cartoonists I would add Charles Schultz.

A mutual love of Peanuts was one of the things that brought us together, and believe it or not it has shaped both our lives and personalities. The most admirable thing is that after 50 years of merchandising and licensing Schultz's characters still retain their humanity and dignity, and that's a difficult accomplishment for people made up of, at most, ten lines each.

One of my biggest influences as an artist is William Blake, the greatest (and only) prophet England ever produced.

His work united word and image in a way that anticipated comics and electronic text, but has never really been equaled. I'm always borrowing words and poses from Blake, because he developed a language of the body that I wish I could speak.

And of course, let's not forget the neolithic sculptors who created the stone venus figurines that represent the oldest known human art.

Seriously. Besides creating beautiful images, they started humanity down the creative path. Who cares what they were for - idols, sexual aids, cave-man porn - they are gorgeous and, as far as I'm concerned, perfect expressions of womanhood (except for the creepy headless thing).

I, for one, subscribe to the minority opinion that they were actually carved by women looking down at their own bodies and depicting the perspective as they saw it subjectively. It makes sense to me -- it explains why so many of them are headless, and I think it's just old-fashioned chauvinism that the stone-age artists had to be men.

We've drawn and sculpted lots of them, and so what if they're becoming played-out in pop culure? They've survived 30,000 years, and we can hardly ruin them with overexposure.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Gallery Outing

I'm told its my turn to write. Gabe's been doing a fine job don't you think? Though he says I need to add some Carrie flavor to the blog. OK, he didn't use that phrase -- I don't think I've ever heard him utter the word "flavor," but you get the idea. Well, this will mostly be pictures as I am not much of a writer.

So we checked out the Good Dirt gallery yesterday. OK, so I work there -- not exactly a real deal field trip, but I am usually sweating it out in the back loading kilns and glazing kid pots, not admiring our fine digs from local/regional potters and artisans. This prompted the following: I thought I would show some work (clay and otherwise) that I admire and I would say currently influence OCD. One artist is represented at Good Dirt Gallery, but good ol' Google Images lent me a hand with the rest.

Ted Saupe

Amy Sanders

Ben Katchor


Danny Gregory

Obviously there are some common themes here -- drawings, surface decoration, the human figure. We don't have any fixation on farm equipment here though -- I just couldn't find a decent Danny Gregory example. He has some great books though, and I encourage anybody to pick one up. Gabe and I spent many of our first dates sitting in coffee shops doing drawing exercises from his Creative License book.

Good Dirt displays Ted Saupe and that is where I first saw his work. It was about a year ago and I had just started exploring the world of drawing on clay. Now I can name about a dozen clay artisans that do so- but nothing looks quite like a Saupe for me. Now if only I had 70 bucks for one of his little tea cups!

Amy Sanders is a recent find. It just so happens I married into a quilting-rich family. Gabe is a country boy from NC - everybody in his line quilted-- so we have a chest full of beautiful quilts-- everyday/wedding/first born--you name it! When we moved down to GA I talked Gabe's dad into passing on Aunt Vera's old Singer so I could try my hand at the family craft. Yeah, never got a round to that... I use the sewing table to dry mugs though. As corny as this sounds, I have an obsession from my teenage years with that Winona Ryder movie too -- How to Make An American Quilt. I probably just liked the fact that her Aunt and Grandma both toked up on the porch.

OK, getting off topic here-- what I am trying to say is that I really admire quilts and quilting and when I saw Amy Sanders applying it to clay I got really excited. I also really like that Paragon Kiln ad in EVERY Ceramic Monthly magazine with Earline Green, I think her name is? -- " a Texas Potter fires a 1300 pound quilt with our kilns..." You know who I am talking about if you flip through those magazines. So anyway, my recent sculpture, as Gabe posted about already, is quilted.

The other pictures above are from R. Crumb and Ben Katchor. We love sketching, we don't do it often enough (keep in mind we have Lucia at 6 months and Eva at 20 months) but we are such wannabe moleskin totin', graphic novel writin', beatniks. Yeah, I wanted to be a beatnik, I'm not gonna speak for Gabe (but i think he did too)...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Bride of Frankenstein

Carrie's taking a new sculpture class at Good Dirt, and this is the first work in progress. It's a sort of sculpture, sort of planter, in the shape of a watering can.

It's mostly slab-built, assembled in a quilting technique borrowed from Amy Sanders, a North Carolina potter.

(Incidentally, why are all the potters in North Carolina? Easy - clay. Everything's clay. Everything. And all the other potters are in Georgia. Why? Peaches.)

With the quilting construction, small pieces of rolled slab are attached to leave a pronounced seam on the outside, making it look like the pieces are sewn together.

The spout is wheel-thrown and manipulated to follow the curve of the body.

We decided to keep the top open rather than build a handle or a lid, because the quilted construction looks really cool from the outside. It was that decision that made it a planter for sure.

The shape was my contribution. Originally it was a rectangular box, but Carrie was bored with the shape and wanted to find something more interesting. I took it apart and played with it with the freedom of a person who doesn't know what the hell he's doing and found that the clay really wanted to curve, so I decided to go with it.

Carrie always tells me that clay has memory, and that's why it's not that big of a deal when I bump or squish a wet piece a little. So, if clay has memory, I guess it also has kind of a mind of its own. I think of it as a turtle - once it decides to go in one direction, you can't turn it around.

So, the planter curves.

This side is the part I think is the most beautiful - the texture Carrie impressed into the slab and the shape of the panel reminds me of a cathedral, and that gothic element kind of puts me in a particular frame of mind.

Add to that the fact that, from behind, the top looks like shoulders and the back panel like a woman's waist.

Add to that the fact that I took it apart, cut it up, and stitched it back together again, and you get the Bride of Frankenstein.

So from here, there's still a lot of superficial work to do. The two white panels are preparing for scraffito, and on the wide white panel (you can see it in the first picture) Carrie has a surprise that I don't want to give away quite yet. But you'll get to see the progress right here on the Old Cat Died blog.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Naked, the Nude, and the Pottery - Part 3

For us, the nude imagery just came naturally. We love the body, and we love drawing it and sculpting it. The motif started with our naked peeps, which were Carrie’s idea. She made them years before meeting me, mobiles with little naked women of different races, hair colors, and body shapes – little tributes to the varieties of womanhood she sculpted and strung for friends’ Christmas and birthday gifts. But after making a couple to look like us for Valentine’s Day, she felt inspired. What if we sold custom-made clay couples online? She’d been trolling Etsy for months talking about how she’d like to start her own store for her ceramics. She needed something simple, easy, and fun for Etsy, which is all about simple and fun (though not necessarily easy). Polymer clay naked people seemed perfect.

Some things we didn’t expect. One of my friends, seeing the website, said, “I was shocked. I thought it was really you for a minute.” We were surprised by the detail, even the relish with which people would describe their naked bodies. And once we started doing nudes on pottery, we were surprised by the reactions of customers at craft fairs – amusement and embarrassment.

Nudes on pottery was a natural extension of our tastes. It’s not like we came up with it – the ancient Greeks decorated pottery with nudes, sometimes artistic, sometimes erotic, sometimes outright pornographic.

We make no claims to be fine art. We’re more interested in making things that are beautiful, personal, alive and honest, things that people can make part of their lives.

So far, we’ve used the naked motif in four different media:

Naked Peeps – custom-order couples, mobiles, and magnets

The Naked Peeps came first. At first we considered OCD a separate enterprise from Carrie’s pottery, and the Naked Peeps were OCD’s main project. They’re made out of ordinary polymer clay, a medium always in danger of becoming kitsch, and we took special care to keep them from becoming crass and exploitative. We still think the Naked Peeps can be beautiful expressions.

Pebble People

Pebble People may be the weirdest thing we make. Carrie’s been doing them for years, painting scenes on reclaimed wood and gluing pebbles for heads. They’re all kinds of scenes – sketches from life, borrowed images from children’s books, images inspired by lines of poetry. Once, a painting of a naked little old man in the garden was bought very enthusiastically by an elderly woman who exclaimed, “It looks just like my husband! He loves to garden naked!”

See what we mean by being surprised at the things people will tell us?


Extending our nude motif to pottery has actually been a very recent development. We’ve been using both colored underglazes and a combination of slips, scraffito, and underglazes. We’re still experimenting with techniques and effects, and so far it’s been an education in what is possible with different clay bodies, firing temperatures, and decorating elements. Our next experiment, as you’ve already seen, is decals – another learning experience. But you’ll have to wait to see the product.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Naked, the Nude, and the Pottery - Part 2

To oversimplify for the sake of argument, in our culture nudity can only be pornographic or artistic, and we frequently confuse the two.

Sally Mann and Jock Sturges have both been banned at various times, Mann for her photographs of her children playing naked in their mountain farm, Sturges for pictures of families and young people on nude beaches and communes. Janet Jackson is fined for an accidental titty on the Superbowl, the internet is filled with shots of celebrity “nipple slips” and “up-skirt” shots, and the rite of passage for every teenybopper female star is a nude or semi-nude photoshoot, which will inevitably be attended by hours of drummed-up controversy.

A few weeks ago, a fantastic incident – at the Cesar awards, France’s Oscars, a young French comedienne, in character as a ditsy starlet, came out to present an award with one of her breasts “accidentally” exposed. The Bristish actress Emma Thompson (the British having much the same cultural confusion as us – witness Benny Hill and Victorian prudery) came onstage and covered her up, obviously feeling terribly embarrassed for the girl.

The French must have thought that was hilarious – a comic satire of prurient media prudery aided and abetted by an unwitting (and surprising) prude.

Or consider an even more recent incident. Tom O’Bedlam, a pseudonym for an unknown spoken-word actor who posts himself reading his favorite poems on YouTube, had a posting removed because it included a nearly 100-year old photograph of a nude Sri Lankan girl to accompany a poem about the islands. YouTube’s explanation verged on the absurd – if a user flags a video, it is electronically scanned for “flesh tones” and other signs of nudity, and removed if it meets the criteria it is removed.

Obviously, this broad definition is designed to filter out pornography. But a computer program has no discernment and cannot distinguish between pornography and art, or between art and anthropology. Ralph Bakshi’s racist, misogynistic, and unapologetically pornographic cartoon adaptation of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, however, is available in its entirety on YouTube. Enormous animated anthropomorphic animal penises and vaginas, apparently, don’t tip off YouTube’s filter.

But even when the filters are human, the criteria can be laughable. When we first posted oldcatdied.com, our hosting company took it down within 24 hours. The offending image was of a nude male figurine, obviously not real and even without a face. Turns out the hosting company was based in Utah, which has draconian Mormon-mandated anti-smut laws, and that no nudity whatsoever is permitted – even artistic, even historical. I angrily asked a customer service representative, “So if we took a vacation and took a picture of Michelangelo’s David, we couldn’t post it?” That’s right.

Obviously, we got a new hosting company.

Speaking of Michelangelo – when a dirty-minded cardinal expressed his disapproval of the nude saints in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted him into Hell, nude and sporting donkey’s ears - with a serpent biting his penis. That’s probably the most delicious revenge I can think of. Sadly, the church eventually had another artist paint clothes on the saints. But Mike still had his revenge hundreds of years later when the church paid millions of dollars to restore the painting to its original state.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Naked and the Nude and the Pottery - Part 1

We’ve been asked about it over and over. Yes, we do a lot of naked people in our art.

It was the main thing a reporter from the local newspaper wanted to talk about when she interviewed us for the features section. Granted, the article was about the custom-order nude figurines we make (Naked Peeps, so named by a customer). My answers didn’t make it into the paper as I had hoped – it comes out as some absurd utopian mush about freeing people and making nakedness a part of casual life. And the reporter presents it as a joke – the headline, “Couple’s Art Proves Everybody Looks Funny Naked.”

No, dammit! Everybody looks beautiful naked!

The human body is the single most glorious thing in the known universe, the most perfectly designed machine and the most magnificent, soulful of creatures. As a Christian, I think the most dangerous thing in Christian doctrine is the neo-Platonic separation of soul from body – the beauty of the body is that it has and IS soul, vitality, goodness, and that we cannot corrupt the body – only our minds.

And most of us just elbow each other and make eyes when we see one stripped.

We see the same thing every time we do a craft show. People walk by, snicker, point, turn red, grab their friends, pick pieces up, tell us how cool it is, how funny, how liberating – and then buy nothing. How many times has someone picked up a bowl, a cup, a magnet, and said “I have to have this, it’s so beautiful,” then, in the end, cannot bring themselves to buy naked pottery in public.

As I said to the reporter, our culture’s attitude toward the human body is confused and diseased. We are the inheritors of a mixed tradition – Puritan anti-body, anti-sex rigidity; Enlightenment Neo-Classical glorification of the objective, idealized body; and working-class bawdiness of the kind embodied in Hogarth. Sometimes these traditions clash in amusing ways, as with Greenough’s Neo-Classical statue of George Washington shirtless in a toga, which was rejected by the government that commissioned it in 1840, probably because they were intimidated by Washington’s well-developed, shaved pecs.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Imagery in the Pop-Rotted Imagination

We don’t want to produce kitsch. We don’t want to be ironic. We don’t want to be arch, disconnected, self-conscious, or sarcastic. Most of all, we don’t want to make pop culture references.

Too bad I can find a Simpsons’ reference for almost every situation.

Let’s face it – we are middle-class white Americans from the tail end of Generation X, and we are saturated in pop culture. It provides the context for every social interaction, for every intellectual exercise, for every conversation and argument. We fight with our spouses with scenes from sitcoms and 80's teen movies in our minds. We play with our children wondering if they will think of us as the parents from “Growing Pains” or the parents from “Married with Children.” On some level, we really wish our pets talked and our cars turned into robots.

Better writers than I have considered our generation’s borderline-diseased fixation on the pop-culture detritus of our childhoods, the combination of nostalgia for the simple, safe leisure of our suburban summers and over-developed, too-early cynicism that results from an education by TV, colliding with unprepared entry into a world that does not meet the expectations formed by our pop-coddled upbringings. It is this psychology that results in our fascination with Saturday-morning cartoon shows, Saturday-afternoon B-movie cheese, and all of the garish merchandise that we saw advertised on those programs. It results in adults wearing Thundercats T-shirts, hanging “Supervan” posters on the wall, and having children for the express purpose of showing them The Smurfs.

And we at Old Cat Died were raised on the same diet of TV, comic books, teen magazines and trashy, product-placement focused children’s movies.

So when we think about how to decorate our pottery, what Pebble People to paint or how our Naked Peeps should look, we are walking a fine and often imperceptible line. At what point does cute or appealing turn to cheese and kitsch?

Let’s face it – there is no such thing as originality. There are no original images. There are no unique images. Especially in a media- and image-saturated culture like ours. There are billions of images free-floating in our collective consciousness ready to be plucked out of the air and drawn, painted, sculpted, or carved.

So, when we use cloth diapers and Carrie starts drawing clotheslines in her sketchbook, it’s only a matter of time and a Google search before she finds another potter already drawing clotheslines on pots. When Carrie puts doors on bowls and cups, there’s no doubt that someone else has a whole door motif. It’s a vicious thing, really – when someone beats you to an image, it becomes theirs by the curious laws of temporality, but in reality, anyone could have drawn a robot on a teapot first. The first to do it is original. The second is an imitator.

But we all draw our images from pop culture to some degree. Few of us know what an owl looks like except from Tootsie-Roll Pop commercials and public-school educational cartoons, and even when we’ve seen the real thing, the simulacrum is more compelling.

And, since we all draw our images from pop culture, we are all on the verge of kitsch.

We’re all going to be tempted to draw, paint, or sculpt robots at some point in our lives. If we consider ourselves artists, the question is how to draw robots as a genuine personal, social, and cultural expression, rather than a knee-jerk response to the pressure of having to create out of a pop-rotted imagination.

Pop-culture nostalgia is a tricky gnome. As soon as it gives (common experience, unity, memory, the momentary joy and comfort of recognition), it takes away (irony, snideness, the bleak recognition that our innocence is behind us). While the imagery – cheesy surf T-shirts, big-eyed Japanese cute, robots, space ships, whatever – belongs to all of us, in belonging to all of us, it belongs to no one. It cannot be taken truly personally. It cannot be made one’s own. It can only be regarded from the outside. Ironically.

With Old Cat Died Carrie and I find ourselves constantly confronting this problem. Almost daily while sketching or decorating pots we ask each other “Is this kitchy? Is this ironic? Is it too hip? Is it too cheesy?” One of the pitfalls of coming from a self-aware and ironic culture is second-guessing yourself (and fighting the brain farts that remind you “Pitfall” was an awesome Atari game).

We’ve tried to combat the problem in different ways. I’ve embraced the inner child who wanted to be a cartoonist, and designed pieces that bring cartooning front and center, including panels, bold primary color and narrative. But then Carrie asks, “Why is it pottery? Just draw comics.” Carrie has made a conscious effort to explore personal imagery from our daily lives and childhood, taking great care to focus on imagery that is unique to her experience and not our pop-culture common knowledge. To which I can say, “But how much of our experience was even unique?” Did anyone of our class, race and generation have an unmediated childhood experience without TV and teen movies to show us who we were supposed to be?

There is probably no way to solve this problem. It’s one of those problems that has to be negotiated, not solved; treated, not cured. We will continue to second-guess the images that pop into our heads and into our hands; we will always wonder if we’re being ironic without meaning to, or whether irony is just our generation’s version of sincerity in the face of corporate fascism. In the meantime, I’ll be drawing Yoshi in my sketchbook and worrying whether it’s hip.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Google Images and the Artist’s Filing Cabinet

A story: when Carrie saw Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about the great underground cartoonist R. Crumb, she went out and bought a digital camera to start a file of stock images. This was a while back – you know, the days when a top of the line digital camera boasted an impressive 3 megapixel resolution. She watched Crumb sketching incessantly in public and as cool as that image seemed, the movie also made it pretty clear that Crumb looked like a weirdo to everyone around him. Not wanting to call attention to herself by sketching in public, Carrie thought a camera would be more helpful – she could take quick pictures of things she wanted to draw later in the privacy of her own apartment.

The inspiration faded pretty quickly. The camera itself was slow, bulky, and inconvenient, and besides, she began to feel silly carrying the ugly, awkward thing. It just wasn’t as cool as an old-fashioned SLR. And it was just as embarrassing to be seen taking pictures of everything as to be seen sketching everything. Bottom line, she was self- conscious. She was also very fortunate that another great innovation appeared around the same time: GOOGLE.

The filing cabinet stuffed with reference photos used to be a basic furnishing in the cartoonist’s studio – and the painter’s, the sculptor’s, pretty much any artist. I remember vividly a young adult cartooning book I had as a kid, a “how to be a cartoonist” primer that had an entire chapter about developing a stock photo collection. That was my inspiration – gathering hordes of cuttings from newspapers, magazines, books, and so on, categorizing them, and filing them away for future reference, really appealed to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And collecting magazines and newspapers for their images lasted long past my determination to be a cartoonist.

But seriously, who still needs to do that? If you have internet access, you have the biggest collection of reference images ever. We’re all like Steven Wright in his old joke about having the world’s largest seashell collection. I have the world’s largest reference photo collection. Maybe you’re seen it – I keep it on Google.

There is, quite simply, no need for a reference file anymore. If you need to draw a dog, you can immediately find millions of photos of every breed developed by man. If you want to draw a fire escape, like Carrie did just this afternoon, and there’s none close by, you can find pictures from every conceivable angle.

Granted, reference photos can’t replace drawing from life – they were never intended to. The point of a reference collection is to aid experience, to remind you of things you’ve seen but can’t quite remember, to give you access to pictures besides those in front of you or in your head. And just think how lucky you are, next time you Google “dachshund,” that you don’t have to go find one of those yippie things just so you can draw it.