Summer Artist Inspired Projects: Alexander Calder

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My Roswell Calder mobile using plastic folder sheets and jewelry wire.

My Roswell Calder mobile using plastic folder sheets and jewelry wire.

The Artist: Alexander Calder

American 20th century artist Alexander Calder did a little of everything in the world of visual arts, from abstract paintings to large-scale monuments, theater set pieces, and jewelry. And, yet, it is as the originator of the mobile where his style really stands alone.

Calder created the mobile as a type of kinetic (movement-based) sculpture, where the components are perfectly balanced. When balanced, these suspended components can move to natural air currents (wind), or in some cases, a motor.

In 1926, he created a miniature kinetic circus model he called Cirque Calder, using string, wire, rubber, and assorted found objects.

He displayed this portable model in both Europe and the United States, and even gave some improvised “performances” from the little circus performers, who moved while suspended by thread. The sculpture can be seen today at Washington, D.C.’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Cirque Calder is seen as a start of Calder’s love of kinetic art, although it was fellow artist Marcel Duchamp, who first dubbed

Calder's work demonstrated his meticulous attention to balance. Images from Public Domain and Wikicommons.

Calder’s work demonstrated his meticulous attention to balance. Images from Public Domain and Wikicommons.

Calder’s pieces, “mobiles.” Calder’s non-movable sculptures, by the way, were called, “stabiles.”

Some of Calder’s mobiles were quite large. One of his mobiles, White Cascade, was installed in 1976 in the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, the city in which Calder was born. This mobile of stainless steel rods and 14 white aluminum discs measures 100 feet tall and 60 feet across at its widest point. It weighs around 10 tons.

Calder died in November of 1976, not long after his epic mobile was installed, but White Cascade is still considered the largest mobile in the world.

The Project: Space Mobiles

Calder’s mobiles are all about balance and movement, so this project is easy to construct, yet a bit tricky to hang properly.

For first-time mobile-makers, this project works best using a light plastic material, such as the poly plastic some school folders are made from. These can be found with most school or office supply areas, and often come in packs of three or more folders in bright, solid colors.

These can be hung with plain (not cloth-wrapped) floral stem, and shaped by hand or with with a pair needle-nose pliers. The pieces can be attached to the wire using large jewelry chain links, or placed directly on the wire by centering a hole at the top of the mobile piece. Two identical pieces can also be glued together at the end of the wire for some designs.

Fishing “pin connectors” can also work to attach pieces, and are fairly inexpensive from any sporting goods store.

Many types of lightweight materials can be used to create a good mobile.

Many types of lightweight materials can be used to create a good mobile.

When possible, avoid using any string or thread in building mobile pieces, with the exception of the very top hanging thread. Calder’s wire-based mobile designs are great for all ages, because the lack of string means no risk of tangled pieces.

Younger, beginning artists can also use chenille craft stems and colored card stock or craft foam, and more experienced crafters can experiment with other materials like aluminum sheets, clay, balsa wood, or even found objects.

Once the materials are gathered, cut the plastic or paper into simple shapes (circles, squares) or long swirls. These can be random shapes to look like a galaxy, or even shapes inspired by simple spacecraft.

Keep the shapes simple, similar in size, and, most importantly, weight. They don’t have to be completely identical in shape, but they should balance.

Now for the tricky part: the final balance. Think about how these pieces will hang. Will they be balanced on both ends of a wire? Will the pieces be hanging at one end of a wire, all originating from a heavier piece? Will they resemble a hanging bouquet of flowers or a large fireworks display? The Calder Foundation site features plenty of his mobiles for idea inspiration. This will also give an idea of how he created balance with various shapes and materials.

Once the idea is determined, hang the top piece of the mobile from a counter or table edge, and hang pieces one by one, checking the balance each time. Te be extra certain, try hanging these pieces together with paper clips before placing any permanent holes or links in them.

Be prepared to do a little “trimming” here and there to get the pieces to hang properly. Also, be ready to adjust the shape of the wire—a lot. For example, maybe the loop in the wire shouldn’t always be in the very center. Calder, who had studied mechanical engineering, was very meticulous about his designs, and made drawings or blueprints of his work. For crafts and beginners trial-and-error is fine, too.

Once the design is finished, hang it from an area with plenty of surrounding space and a good, gentle breeze. Make sure it is in a space where others can enjoy it as well. Calder didn’t care if people interpreted his works the same way he did, but he did want others to get a chance to use their own imagination.

He said as much in his 1951 essay, “What Modern Art Means to Me”:

“That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential,” he wrote, “at least as long as they have something else in theirs.”

TARDIS in balance, Calder-style.

TARDIS in balance, Calder-style.

Summer Artist Inspired Projects: Joan Miró

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 “Octopus-powered Planet-Organizer,” a Miró-meets-machine project idea. Art by Lisa Kay Tate.

“Octopus-powered Planet-Organizer,” a Miró-meets-machine project idea. Art by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Artist: Joan Miró

Joan Miró was a Spanish sculptor, ceramist, and painter, who created his style of Surrealism partly out of his dislike for what he called “bourgeois” conventional painting. He experimented with complex, busy arrangements of objects and figures. His influence came from many places and styles, including surrealistic methods from Fauvism to Cubism to Dadaism. He was also one of the first artists to work with automatic drawing, a surrealist technique where the hand works freely, leading the subconscious mind in creating the painting. This led to the evolution of his signature style, in which he created a type of “pictorial language.” In this style, he used intricate lines and isolated simple figures to tell the story.

His style was so distinct, it was evident in everything he did from the 1920s well into the 1970s. This included monographs, lithographs, tapestries, murals, and mixed media sculpture. He even wrote essays on exploring more radical ways of creating

Miró and some  examples of his signature style. Images from Public Domain and WikiCommons.

Miró and some examples of his signature style. Images from Public Domain and WikiCommons.

art, such as “four-dimensional paintings” or “gas sculpture,” the art of making sculpture out of gaseous materials like cold-water steam or fog. He influenced several painters in the twentieth century, including Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Retrospective exhibits of his work have been seen in such prestigious locations as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Tate Modern in London, and in his home country of Spain at Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo in Madrid. He was honored with such awards as a Guggenheim International Award in 1958 and the Gold Medal of Fine Arts from King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1980, which was given three years before he died. His works have sold for thousands to millions of dollars, including one record-setting piece, his 1927 painting “Blue Star,”  which went for $37 million during a 2012 art auction in London. To Miró, his work was more than just pictures; they were his literature and music, and he has described his use of color as “words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.”

The Project: Miró Mother Boards

Miró wanted art to be poetic, alive, and not what people would expect. He also wanted it to be spontaneous. For this project, try combining Miró’s poetic free-flowing style with the rigid, immovable world of machines, to create a type of living machine. To a casual viewer, Miró’s work may look like just a collection of abstract lines and colorful shapes, but look closely and there are faces, figures, artifacts, and natural elements throughout.Computer programmers and machinists feel the same way about their creations. The inside of a laptop or watch isn’t just a random collection of wires and chips or gears and cogs, it’s an intricate language all its own.

The process is easy, but telling the story is where this gets tricky. First decide what the machine will do. Does it help people with everyday tasks? It is a time machine? Does it help keep track of information? Is it a mad scientist’s secret weapon? Now, use Miró’s style to tell this machine’s story. Draw different types of lines: curvy, jagged, straight. Then mix in two types of shapes: geometric, which are shapes with a precise edge like squares and triangles; and organic, which are free-form and curvy shapes. The shapes can even represent a specific object, such as a sun, star, or alien. It’s okay if they overlap. Miró took advantage of it when objects in his works did. Fill in the solid shapes with bright colors, and use a different color where two or more shapes may overlap.

When done, leave the background white or use a very light coat of watercolor sponged on or colored pencils for the background. As an extra challenge, try out Miró’s automatic style, and let the feel of the drawing and painting process guide the hand. Miró felt even the simplest things could give him ideas, so just start drawing.

Who knows what story will appear?

“The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words,” Miró said of his work in the early twentieth century. “The meaning comes later.”

 “Adventures of a Computer Bug Zapper"  by Lisa Kay Tate.

“Adventures of a Computer Bug Zapper” by Lisa Kay Tate.

 

A Talk with New Tenth Doctor Comic Series Scribe Nick Abadzis

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Doctor-Who-The-Tenth-Doctor-1

Doctor Who Adventures with The Tenth Doctor Issue, cover art by Alice X. Zhang.  © Titan Comics.

My GeekMom interview with Nick Abadzis, originally published July 22, just prior to the release of the new Titan Doctor Who comic series.
 
Since the first announcement of Titan Comics’ new ongoing Doctor Who series, the anticipation for the July 23 release of the series’ first issue has been heavy among Whovians and comic fans alike, especially since the comic will introduce a brand new companion for the Tenth Doctor.

Eisner Award-winning Nick Abadzis penned the first 5-issue story arc for the Tenth Doctor’s adventures, with art by fan-favorite Elena Casagrande. Abadzis’ accomplishments include the celebrated comic Laika, a fictionalized account of the dog who would be the first living creature in space. As a lifelong Doctor Who fan, he jumped at the chance when Titan Comics Senior Editor Steve White offered him the book.

“I’d written the Tenth Doctor once before, a long time ago for Doctor Who Magazine, before I’d even seen David Tennant in the role on TV (it was his debut comic strip),” Abadzis said. “But now I know the character much better, so this is an opportunity to really add to the mythology, expand on what we know about him.”

Abadzis said his favorite aspect of The Doctor was when he found himself in unfamiliar territory. He recalled watching the show as a kid and how he loved it when The Doctor went places and figured out how things work, be it an alien planet or ancient Rome.

“Sometimes he’d land somewhere and just ‘know’ things, and could be a bit insufferable for it, and sometimes that’s necessary to get a story started quickly. But I liked it when he got caught out or was shown something he didn’t know, and he was delighted by that,” he said. “That’s the core of the character for me, a traveler who is curious about the universe and wants to see amazing things.”

He said The Doctor does battle evil when he finds it, but he is also on a mission of discovery, sometimes taking his friends along for the ride.

“He’d bring the best out in people that way. I like The Doctor as a character when he’s an empowering force, someone who helps a local population deal with an invasion maybe, but someone who gives them confidence in themselves, too, which is something he also does for many of his companions,” he said.

Abadzis is already several issues in the current series, and is planning further adventures. He said writing Doctor Who is a natural fit. He said he never thought too hard about how he would take on the Tenth Doctor, and feels to a certain extent he is “recreating” a character that Tennant, writer Russell T. Davies, and other Doctor Who writers evolved over the course of the show. He hopes to remain true to that character, as well as add his own something special. That includes the new companion.

“I really liked the Tenth Doctor on TV, so you have a head start with the mannerisms and cadences of speech and so on, but you want to add to that, expand it further, cast some new light on his behavioral tics and traits,” he said.

“The Doctor is the ultimate cosmopolitan, a traveler and cultural observer as well as a hero who fights evil and injustice, so I knew I wanted to have him traveling with someone who would enable me and other writers of this series to show new aspects of his character; things we haven’t witnessed before, and that’s how we came to create a new companion for him, Gabriella Gonzalez,” Abadzis said.

Abadzis is breaking new ground with Gonzalez, a Mexican-American, as the first Latina companion of The Doctor’s. Abadzis said his editor, Andrew James and series co-writer, Robbie Morrison, were very receptive to the idea.

“She is an individual who, although she’s proud of her background and loves her culture and traditions, refuses to be completely defined by it, either by her own family or the country she’s grown up in,” he explained. “She’s American, she’s of Mexican origin, she’s modern, but she’s very much her own person and is ready to explore that and is chafing a little against family expectations.”

Gonzalez resides in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, which has the largest Mexican population in New York City. In the story, Sunset Park is about to celebrate la Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) when an alien invader uses the celebration as cover for its own nefarious ends.

“When he lands in Sunset Park and meets Gabby, The Doctor thinks at first he’s rescuing her—and he is—but he’s not quite prepared for how useful she makes herself, by being brave and smart and thinking of possibilities he overlooks.”

At this point in the Tenth Doctor’s timeline, he has already lost companion Donna Noble, and didn’t think he’d find a companion to match her stature.

Admittedly, it takes a period of adjustment for both Gonzalez and The Doctor.

“Gabby responds to the best in The Doctor, and, uncomfortably at first, he does likewise. He’s the best character in the world to write, and hopefully Gabby is a great foil,” Abadzis said.

“She’s smart, a little bit tough in a self-protective way but she’s emotionally intelligent, she’s got good empathy. She draws, too–I don’t think there’s been an artist on board the TARDIS since (Fifth Doctor companion) Vislor Turlough.”

Abadzis said Gonzales should be the Tenth Doctor series’ companion for at least a year, but with The Doctor there is always a possibility to explore new, interesting companions in the future.

“There’s nothing to say that there might not be other companions who come along later, who might indeed be from other regions on Earth, or maybe they’ll hail from an alien world,” he said. “It’s Doctor Who–anything can happen.”

For those worried about the comic stories interfering with the television or other continuities or wishing to see some more familiar faces, Abadzis said he is aware of the pitfalls of writing in the gaps.

“I think little continuity references can be fun most of the time–they needn’t affect a story but it’s easy to drop them in and it’s a laugh for longtime fans,” he said.

“On a larger scale, you have to come to it with the right sensibility–it’s when you do it for gratuitous reasons that it can become something you can trip up over. Bringing back a companion for the sake of it rather than because you’ve come up with a great story and they’re the ideal character to help some aspect of it smacks of gimmickry.”

He also feels filling in continuity gaps is “a great pastime, but doesn’t necessarily make for original storytelling,” and creating a new and original story is something writers should always be pushing themselves to do.

“That said, I’m as big a fan as the next person, and if I come up with a brilliant idea for a story featuring Nyssa or Ian or Sarah-Jane, I’m gonna have a go at making it work,” he said.

He promised there would be plenty of surprises, including one returning foe in the first year as part of a story written by Robbie Morrison. There will also be many all-new threats.

“While we’re trying to recreate the general feel of the Tenth Doctor’s era, we want to make the comics must-reads, their own thing, a book you’ll really want to pick up and enjoy every month,” Abadzis said, “You can certainly expect some crazy happenings, some fun character dynamics, some unexpected twists and turns of events. I like to keep myself amused, so you can be sure I will be surprising myself whenever I have the opportunity–and hopefully the reader too.”

As for other incarnations of The Doctor, the first Eleventh Doctor Adventures issue by writers Al Ewing and Rob Williams, with art by Simon Fraser, will be released alongside the Tenth Doctor’s series, and the Twelfth Doctor’s series will follow later this year.

Titan Comics’ Doctor Who Issues #1 for both the Tenth Doctor and Eleventh Doctor Adventures come out Wednesday, July 23.

Abadzis doesn’t know what his editors at Titan Comics have planned for the other Doctors but he said is petitioning to write stories for the other incarnations. Hopefully, he said, this will be only a matter of time.

Summer Artist Inspired Projects: Georgia O’Keeffe

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Get up close and personal with an image or subject like Georgia O’Keeffe did. Image: “Audrey Two” by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe

When some people hear the name Georgia O’Keeffe, they think “western artist” or “southwest artist.”

It’s true, O’Keeffe created many of her most famous works during her time in Northern New Mexico. But her legacy is so much greater. In the art world, she’s recognized as the “Mother of American Modernism.”

She moved to New Mexico part-time in 1929, and by 1949, she had made it her permanent home. She was already making a name for herself in the New York art scene with her large-scale floral

O’Keeffe gave art lovers an intimate look at the natural world. Images Public Domain.

O’Keeffe gave art lovers an intimate look at the natural world. Images Public Domain.

drawings of “enlarged blossoms.” These images were as if someone was viewing the flower through a magnifying lens.

In New Mexico, she painted flowers, churches, mountains, animal skulls, flowers, skies, and other aspects of the state she made her home.

In 1946, she was the first woman artist to have a one-artist retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. She lived to be 98 and during the last decade of her life, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honor awarded to American citizens) and the National Medal of Arts.

O’Keeffe loved painting the area around her famous Ghost Ranch home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She knew how to zero in on the often-overlooked details of that world, a landscape or single object, and place it in the forefront of her art. She could make a dried-up pile of bones seem beautiful, a simple flower almost scandalously attractive, and rigid, dead environment look fluid and alive.

She said she wanted to “give that world” to others through her art.

“I want them to see it whether they want to or not,” she said, describing her work in her New York exhibits.

The Project: Super Natural Floral Close-Ups

O’Keeffe was a master at taking everyday objects and focusing on an aspect of it that showcased

Once you learn to look at just one part of a larger image in a different way, this is done, drawing the image is the easy part.

Once you learn to look at just one part of a larger image in a different way, this is done, drawing the image is the easy part.

an entirely new angle.

Although she focused on natural elements, such as flowers or skulls, our project will visit fictional worlds that contain unique natural elements, such as Hogwarts, Wonderland, or Pandora. As imaginative as some of these items already are, try to use O’Keeffe’s up-close way of looking at things to see them in a new light.

The circled area on the original images show the “magnified” area  in the final drawing.

The circled area on the original images show the “magnified” area in the final drawing.

First, find a photo of a “natural” object from a fictional movie or book. Or, take a picture of a toy, theme park souvenir, or park replica that might represent this object.

Next, find a small section of this image and “close in on it” by drawing a circle or square around it. If you’re using images from a computer, you can crop and print out the cropped version.

Finally, draw or paint  just the isolated area. O’Keeffe used oils, but they can be messy for beginning artists. Try crayons, colored pencils, markers, pastels, or other mediums as well.

"Upclose Wonderland Garden."

“Upclose Wonderland Garden.”

Over-60 Gals Who Rock Guitar

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Age is just a number when you know how rock that guitar.

Age is just a number when you know how rock that guitar.

This summer, I will begin contemplating the possibilities of re-learning the guitar.

I was never a “performance-worthy” player, but I wasn’t too bad. More importantly, when I was playing as a teenager, I felt like I was a full-fledged rock star. Even though I was an awkward, socially inept teenager, when I sat on the step outside my bedroom cranking out the easy version of Stray Cats or Social Distortion hits, I was a tall, slender femme fatale, who could rock as good as any mullet-wearing boys in an 80s hair band or early 90s grunge group.

I knew that if and when I became a mother, I would spend at least an hour each day teaching my children rockin’ chords and passing my love of this instrument to them via the magic of the family jam session.

This hasn’t happened.

It isn’t that I have been completely negligent in this area. I have instilled in my girls a love for all types of music. Of course, I always emphasize there are really only two types of music: “good” and “bad,” regardless of actual genre. My oldest joined the guitar club in fifth grade, and we do “rock out” occasionally with the help of a PS3 and an old version of Rock Band.

Note: My definition of “good” and “bad” is one I picked up from a quote taped to the our college radio station’s door when I was a disc jockey. I can’t remember the name of whatever clever curmudgeon coined it, but I think it holds true to everyone, whether they admit it or not: “‘Good music’ is music I like. ‘Bad music’ is music I don’t like.”

Despite all this, actually breaking out the old electric I’ve had since I was sixteen and wailing away on it with my girls has become a forgotten priority, until recently.

I explored the back of my closet as if it were a passage to Narnia and dug out my guitar. It still looked polished and primed for the spotlight, but when I looked in the mirror after pulling the strap over my head, I realized I did not. My 45-year-old frame didn’t look anywhere like that of a headliner, or even the local opening act.

Who was I kidding? Was I simply too old to take up the “axe” again?

I was on my way to settling into some self-pity of being past my “cool” years, when I remembered a beer commercial in the 1990s featuring one of the musicians, who inspired me to begin playing in the first place, Brian Setzer.

In this ad, Setzer shared the stage with a retro-looking grandma matching his style, note for note. I realized there were—and are—plenty of women age fortysomething and older who are still considered masters in their field. As a matter of fact, there are sixty-, seventy-, and eightysomethings out there, as well.

Here are four women in over 60—plus one “youngster” in her 50s—who have remained celebrated guitar forces in everything from classical to punk:

Cordell Jackson, Rockabilly:

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cordell Jackson and Charo...don't call them "old ladies."

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cordell Jackson and Charo…don’t call them “old ladies.”

The aforementioned “old lady” in the Brian Setzer video, Jackson was in her 70s when she filmed this commercial. She was discovered by a whole new generation of rockabilly fans, for the high-speed riffs and sassy attitude. She had already broken ground for women in the music industry long before that, however, as she was the first woman recording engineer in America. She also founded her own Memphis-based record label, Moon Record, which she ran until her death in 2004.

It wasn’t until 1989 that she released her first music video, leading to all types of appearances from MTV to Late Night With David Letterman. She even landed a bit part in the 1992 comedy, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blues/Gospel:
Tharpe has made several critics’ lists of best women guitarists of all time, as well as best guitarists—men or women. Born in 1915, she picked up the guitar at age six, and dabbled in everything from blues to jazz, to swing, soul, gospel, and early rock and roll. Her club and theater shows helped spearhead the pop-influenced gospel music genre.

During World War II, she and her band were the only American gospel act to record V-Discs (morale-boosting “Victory” records) for American troops stationed abroad. Her performing career was cut short by her mid-50s when a stroke prevented her from performing in 1970. She died just three years later, but continues to influence guitarists today.

Charo, Flamenco:
Yes, it is possible to “rock” in flamenco. When she isn’t playing guitar, Charo can come across as simply the cheesy 1970s version of Sofia Vergara, or lounge-act fodder for the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Guitar aficionados need to patiently look past this “cuchi-cuchi” front, as Charo has been named “Best Flamenco Guitarist” in Guitar Player Magazine readers’ polls twice. Growing up in the Murcia Region of Spain, she was a serious guitar student at age nine, and was as pupil of flamenco great Andrés Segovia. At age 69, she still continues to tour and perform throughout the world.

Bonnie Raitt, Blues and Rock:

Raitt released several albums in the 1970s, but her biggest commercial success finally came in the 1990s with her album Nick of Time. Raitt’s guitar and vocal talents have gained her at least ten Grammy Awards, and she was listed by Rolling Stone Magazine in the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, as well as in the Greatest Singers of All Time. She is also known as a vocal activist for environmentalism, social justice, and other issues. She released her latest album two years ago at age 62, and is still a concert favorite at age 64.

Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kristy Wallace), Punk and Psychobilly:

I’ll admit I was hesitant to include Cramps guitarist Poison Ivy in this list, as her extreme punk lifestyle and wardrobe, not to mention some just south of X-rated lyrics, is something I do not want my daughters to emulate in any way.

Her “day job” as a dominatrix even helped the band fund their first recording at Sun Records. But, man, could she ever play guitar. Her eccentric performances with punk band The Cramps in the 1980s were proof that women know their way around a hollow-body Gretsch guitar as well as any boy.

The Cramps, who coined the phrase “psychobilly” in 1976, performed live worldwide until 2009, when lead singer Lux Interior passed away. Poison Ivy is also a prolific songwriter, who not only co-wrote most of the music for The Cramps, but wrote songs have been recorded by bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Queens of the Stone Age. At age 61, she still maintains a huge cult following.

I decided that, before dusting off the guitar strings, I intend to share with my own daughters a reminder that it is never too old to be awesome, as well as to remind myself I still have at least 15 to 20 years before I’m cool enough to rock like them.

Author’s Note: For the sake of space and sanity, I limited this list to five names, but I realize there are many other women guitarists of all ages who deserve a mention (sorry Joan Jett, you were just a little too young). Readers are invited to chime in with their own additions to this list.