Thursday 24 October 2019

The Barest Sketch of An Idea

Teaching is such a funny thing - there are days you think you haven’t got a clue what you are doing (“what am I teaching tomorrow?”) and there are times you decide to risk it all, to take a flyer on the barest sketch of an idea. This is a true story, in a sense, hundreds of years in the making.

A little more recent history. In 2009 a movie called “It Might Get Loud” came out. Three remarkable musicians sharing what they know about guitars, specifically electric guitars and the music they have made over the years. Jack White’s snippet of him assembling a Diddley Bow, with a chunk of wood, an old pickup, distortion pedal, mouldy old tweed-faced combo amp, a fist full of nails and a hammer totally captivated me. It didn’t take much to make something that worked, in its own gnarly way.

In mid 2011 I had to present a collaborative lesson plan as part of my graduation from the Faculty of Education at what was then the University of Western Ontario (now Western University). Having dabbled in guitars for years (I have never really learned to play one, but I did actually build one from scratch and own two more) and that little Jack White experiment still ringing in my ears I hit on the following idea: a lesson that incorporated French, French medieval music and a single stringed, monochord instrument.The French bit had nothing to do with me, save that my partner needed an angle to explore. I built several prototypes, one of which fulfilled the sculpture component in my Visual Arts section and the others ending up as part of the collaborative lesson plan thing.

It all worked - I got an A+ from both my music and fine arts teachers - save for one little bit: there was no amplification. I couldn’t find an easy to implement, no soldering iron required, solution. All acoustic was good enough, at least for then.

In the Fall of 2011, during my first teaching break while in Vietnam I went a wandering down in District One. I happened upon a musical instrument store and two things blew me away: a guitar pick-up, with a pre-wired jack and a single stringed musical instrument. The former meant there was a way to make my own amplified electrical instrument, my own Diddley Bow and the latter meant something already existed that was very Vietnamese traditional and eminently playable (the shopkeeper, in an effort to sell me one, played it for me). And it had a rudimentary pick up; it could be played through an amplifier.


The Đàn bầu, the single stringed Vietnamese instrument I saw that afternoon, has a history, dating back, for sure, to the 17th century. It is likely a lot older, maybe a thousand years or more. It is a countryside instrument, in the sense its playing has been largely abandoned in the large metropolitan areas of Vietnam, but likely to be backing some local village storyteller.

The Diddley Bow has not as long a history, but its place in the telling of country blues in North America is well established.It is a favourite of musicians seeking that authentic, (very) old school feel for tales of woe and unhappiness.

Late in the 2017-2018 school year our school administration approached us with a question: what else could you teach, what else could we offer our student population? Something fresh, new, something that could refresh the offering list. I suggested that Media Arts was something I could teach and something that could offer an enhanced, slightly technical approach to art production.

They agreed and it was offered for the first time for 2019-2020. There was certainly interest, enough so that we actually hired another art teacher (who ended up teaching 9-10-11 Visual Arts and 9-10-11 Drama) to make sure Visual Arts was still supported in the school while the Media Arts adventure began.

While I was reviewing the curriculum requirements for this brand new course I noted the hybridization element - wherein the students would have to do at least one project that blended two of the Arts (dance, drama, music and visual). Initially I wasn’t sure what I would do - I had projects with graphics design (so we could establish a base language of communication), photography, videography and digital portfolios, but nothing yet around a combination of two Arts.

I was combing through internet one evening in the Spring of 2019 when I decided to listen to one of my favourite blues guitar players, Justin Johnston. He had just received a beautiful new guitar from Europe. Dashtick Guitars are musical instruments assembled from castaway hurling sticks. They are carved and painted and polished with care, and augmented with strings, tuning pegs and pick-ups - just wonderful, mystical pieces of magic.

Boom - it was a bolt of lightning moment - there was the idea: get my kids to build their own sculptural musical instruments, their own Diddley Bows, with a strong years long tie-in to the past.

I wrote my materials proposal in the early part of the first semester. That purchase request must have looked pretty strange - not surprising considering that the whole thing was vaguely developed and still cooking in my head. I made my verbal pitch and administration got behind it. Much to my pleasant surprise the Board of Directors got behind it as well. Considering I was asking for the purchase of two traditional instruments, a Đàn bầu and a Đàn nhị (that’s a two string, bowed instrument - for a future project), mixed in with a number of pickups, planks of wood and sixty E guitar strings I felt I was very fortunate.

A large number of expensive tools were purchased - all from my funds; by doing this I would have maximum flexibility in terms of access and usability.

I drew up my lesson plan, organized my rubrics, sourced some informative videos, and designed my kick off lecture slideshow. I allowed three weeks from start to finish and got the students down to work.

Three weeks later this is what they made. I could not be prouder of them - and every single one was tested and played - they actually work. The thread of history has been extended; I can hardly wait for the next semester to do it all again.

PS I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge the love and support of my family during this - their patience and participation is so very much appreciated. Thanks also to Mr. Mark for his support. And last but not least, thanks to Robert Johnson for meeting me at the crossroads and holding my hand.

Update: just a little fun video to further flesh out the amazing work they did...

Wednesday 16 October 2019

On Drawing

I just received notification today that this URL will be up for renewal soon.

I guess that means it is time to finally put a blog entry on the Interwebs.

Time to crack the seal, pop the cork - here goes.

So, how about drawing. I have been drawing since I can remember. I seem to recall drawing at the age of four but I was probably drawing before that. I've always drawn to escape. It has been my way to get outside of what's going on in the room; in the world and the day, the minute, the hour, of the second, of the right now: whatever was taking place at that time that I did not want to be a part of. In grade school I was always filling the margins of my books, my journals, my textbooks with drawings. The teachers hated it; but I think they recognized that I was doing something that I had to do. I'm not saying I'm very good at it but I like trying to be as good as I can. Drawing has always been something I've wanted to do and something I've always liked to do; something I hope to keep doing before I leave this world. 

One of my former students posted a drawing on Facebook for the drawing exercise called inktober. That reminded me that I've always wanted to try it and it was about time that I got off my proverbial butt and do some drawings. Pen and ink drawing is something I've always been intimidated by but it's also something I'd like to do so once again it's that whole quandary of: liking, doing, maybe, yes, don't know, oh my what have I done - trash it, start again. 

I had no formal training until I reached university; they did not teach art in the high schools that I attended. I did take one summer drawing course when I was 13 years old for about six weeks. It was really interesting. It was life drawing and I was drawing naked people! Using Conté pastel (or chalk if you will) was really hard; but man, I loved what I got to do because it was so different.

Once I started doing the exercises (did you know there were inktober rules; initially I did not) I started thinking about the artists that I have been influenced by. 

From my mid-teens to my mid-twenties it was an explosion of art. I started seeing, believing, tasting, listening to, breathing, smelling, touching; you name: it was art art art and art. I started seeing art as something that maybe I was a part of; maybe it was for me. One of the first artists I discovered, completely by chance, was Aubrey Beardsley. I found one of those Dover compilations of his work; beautiful black and white drawings they looked like pen and ink (probably was pen and ink). Just gorgeous, simple, to the point: elegant. 

At the time I was the editor of the school yearbook at this prestigious boys school north of Toronto. I wanted to divide the book into the four seasons; I planned on doing illustrations in the manner of Beardsley for each of the natural breakpoints. Being the editor I could do that - a little bit of illicit freedom, if you will. I don’t have copies of the drawings, they are long gone. I’m not even sure where my copy of the yearbook is anymore. I do remember that the faculty advisor wasn’t too keen on them and was concerned about negative feedback by the folks from above. He, Mr. Stewart by name, was young, cool and very hip for this time and place. However, he was also smart enough to recognize that the conservative values of the school might take precedence in this regard. Fortunately, the production of the yearbook went right to graduation day (and this was a time when everything had to be laid out by hand - I nearly missed the graduation ceremony) and there wasn’t time to pull the illustrations. Oh, well - wouldn’t the first time authority and I dodged a bullet and I'm sure it wouldn’t be the last (fuck, I know it wasn’t the last time).

It seemed that every birthday and/or Christmas was filled with books of very different illustrators: Duncan Macpherson, the star of political caricaturists in Canada at the time, (we were subscribers to both the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star - Macpherson was the “star” in The Star); Carl Giles, an English cartoonist who told jokes that only made sense to people living in Great Britain but who’s really simple use of line I greatly admired; occasional bits of Terry Mosher and Pat Oliphant and David Levine all kept me on my toes in terms of the beauty of carefully controlled line and crosshatch; once in awhile an Al Hirschfeld would come home (via Life magazine?) - finding NINA was a treat and magic all at the same time.

As I started to read more interesting books, it seems that more interesting artists came along for the ride. Beardsley begat Doré with Dante. Hunter S. Thompson opened me up Ralph Steadman. I started looking out for underground comics and up pops Vaughn Bodé and his ribald tales of lizards and nubile young things and lizards with penises. B. Kliban started with Cats and ended with Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head - I still love his work and the narrative he spun in a single frame. I found both Winsor McCay and George Herriman well after the fact, when copyrights had ended and cheap compilation anthologies turned up; who couldn’t love Little Nemo and Krazy Kat?

Robert Crumb came very late in my life; his frenetic energy was all I needed to see and bathe my eyeballs in. I am sure I did not understand all of it, but perhaps that was the point. Similarly my discovery of Jean Giraud was initially held back because my French language skills had vanished. However, the organic warmth of his drawings made knowing what was being said immaterial. 

Black and white drawings have always held that certain appeal I guess. The first time I saw a Piranesi I was in love: mostly etchings, some drawings, all black and white. His prisons continue to be a place of exploration and adventure. 

There were two draughtsman who influenced me directly while I was in university: Tony Urquhart and Virgil Burnett. Urquhart was my second year drawing and painting teacher and also chair of the department. Well known, Canadian famous, etc.; knew his stuff and the people that make artists accepted and respected in Canada. Of course someone I should cultivate a positive relationship with. Which means, of course, that I pissed him off from day one. He likened my drawings and paintings to masturbation, when I should be making long, slow love to the paper and canvas. Fuck me, I was 19-20 years old - what did I know about (slow) love making? I was all about getting to the next idea. I didn’t like the fucker then and I guess I don’t really care that much about him now. He did have this wonderful way of drawing his own stuff, imaginary boxes, holding dreams or something else existential. I remember his hands were always spotted with India ink, from his use of croquille pens and such. When my hands get ink on them now I remember his.

Burnett was this grand old man of drawing in the department. My Hemingway, in a way - rotund, but not fat, great beard, marvellous (all seeing) eyes). I took one course with him, life drawing and I was failing miserably at it. It required a sophistication and time commitment I was just not prepared to do. He pulled me into his office and said, “Look your drawings of Rachel are shit. Let’s say you aren’t going to get there. How about you give me ten drawings of those renderings you’ll be doing, the ones that like Saul Steinberg? If they work I’ll pass you; if they don’t I’ll still pass you, but you’ll learn a harder lesson.” At that time I was playing with the concept of a spirit object. I chose a saxophone, a flying saxophone no less, that could get itself involved in all sorts of silly adventures. Part Kliban, part Steinberg, all absurd and so much fun to do. He passed with me with an A+ and the meetings we held to discuss art, life and the universe, with the occasional drawing critique thrown in to justify the time, will reside with me forever.

That’s about it. I’ve listed the wiki articles below in support of the artists I’ve discussed and a few I didn’t mention. They all have informed how and what I draw and how I live.

Gustave Doré         

Teaching at Minus Fifty - Part Seventeen

So, back to writing again. New position at the school has me writing a lot more than I am used to, so keyboard time is preoccupied with that...