Artivism as Activism in Laguna Canyon

It was only recently that I learned of the term “artivism.” It came to me through a friend by way of an amazing project and a book. The project emerged from the mind of Mark Chamberlain a California artist who used his formidable photography talents to mobilize a community. With the efforts of hundreds of citizens and through the lens of a mural, the beauty and history of their landscape was forever preserved.Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 12.18.39 PM

In the newly released book, The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism we are immersed in an inspiring story of how the power of photography combined with activism can prevail.

Mark Chamberlain drove west in the winter of 1969 from Iowa to the sunshine promise of California. Eventually he was stopped by the Pacific Ocean at the end of Laguna Canyon. He found his new home. At that time that area of California was populated by a small art colony that began in the early 20th century. There he stayed, making the project certain.

In the 1920’s, Hollywood studios were accelerating their output and found Laguna Beach a convenient and beautiful shooting location. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the 1954 version of A Star is Born are just two of the dozens of films and tv episodes shot there. Several actors used it as a respite from the stress of the industry with many of them eventually settling in. The canyon also hosted music festivals and counter-culture gatherings that grew larger and larger crowds each year. They made the city leaders uneasy and moved to shut down these events, but an awakening had already begun.

As commerce expanded to the south of Los Angeles, developers created a master plan to eradicate orange groves, build housing, business centers and of course strip malls. The locals wanted to preserve the natural beauty and protect the environment, but began to feel their power waning. The Laguna Canyon project gave them a focal point to band together, increasing their power.

Mr. Chamberlain put into motion a multi-phased plan to photograph the entire nine mile canyon stretch as well as collect garbage (dubbed a “garbological” study) to create an immense visual archive. In the book we are taken from phase to phase, complete with images of the time, as the community comes together to make their cause known.

All the work and effort culminated in a 636-foot long sculptural mural consisting of thousands of photographs of ordinary California life. The mural is essentially a wall with a wooden supporting skeleton where these photos would be placed. When viewed from a distance it took the shape of a reclining female figure. The mural was named “The Tell,” taken from the archeological term referring to a mound of earth that has buried civilizations over time.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 12.34.20 PM.png

The timbers for The Tell superstructure cost over ten thousand dollars, January 1990


Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 12.37.09 PM.png

An overview of The Tell under construction

The result was astounding. As most of the images were small snapshots, the mural resembled a neo-impressionist painting of tiny dots. The genius was how the images were sorted and assembled. Content, color, character and many other criteria were taken into account and helped determine where the images would be pasted on the surface. Needless to say, hundreds of people volunteered their talent and resources to achieve the visual language goal of the mural.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 12.40.38 PM.png

Diving Figure in the early stages

Over time the natural elements worked their own magic, slowly shaping the experience by washing out or enlivening the colors of the photos themselves. The mural became integrated into the beauty of the canyon – claimed by the land – thereby increasing the power of the work, which in turn broadened interest and attention.

The project was so effective that in 1990, ninety-eight percent of Laguna Beach residents approved a vote to increase taxes enough to purchase the land outright. It is now a key part of a 7,000 acre wilderness park.

Although it is a slim volume, it packs a cultural punch and a reminder of the power of collective art. It combines Mr Chamberlain’s personal thoughts integrated with supporting contributions by Mark’s long-time partner, Jerry Burchfield, along with academics, advocates, writers and artists. The images chronicle the journey from beginning to end and provide a genuine sense for the scope of the project.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 1.12.06 PM.png

Mr. Chamberlain on June 21, 2010. He passed away April 23, 2018 at the age of 75. Photo by Diana Drake

Order your copy directly from Laguna Wilderness Press.

More about Mark Chamberlain by Liz Goldner.

All unattributed photographs are from the BC Space archives.

Remembering Roger Ebert

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsAny lover of film my age was heavily influenced by what Roger Ebert wrote about the movies. He was not trained in film theory and started out his career as a journalist. You might say he was in the right place at the right time as the Chicago Sun-Times decided to anoint their first film critic. Ebert was already an accomplished individual and writer and in a way entrepreneur. He was more than up to the task and in no time developed his unique style of looking at and writing about movies. He played several roles; guide, interpreter, analyst and industry watchdog. No matter your education level or understanding of film as an art form, you could easily access his reviews and find something interesting, even unique. Oh yeah, one more, teacher.

His output was nothing short of amazing, watching movies everyday, most days more than one. He reviewed nearly 250 films per year for decades and despite being stricken with cancer, continued to be a film sponge. He was probably the best friend the movies ever had because he connected them to our society through the lens of culture. When you are that deep and long involved in an industry you become a historian as well. He connected the dots across decades, genres, actors, directors, even themes. If I was forced to select one word to describe him, I’d say, rare.

Like so many people, I followed him on Twitter and read his blog to ensure I kept my film mind sharp.

In 1984 he published the  first of his fifteen books called, A Kiss is Still a Kiss. It was s chronicle of the film beat with stories of stars and filmmakers up close and personal. You got to see how near industry people let him get to them and it no doubt helped shape his personal view of the business. It was a business/industry/art form he loved and because of that special relationship he freely criticized it when he felt it was needed.

Ebert Signature
Ebert personalized his first book for me

The 1980’s was the decade I ran a bookstore chain and we had a store in Champaign, IL. Ebert grew up in the neighboring town of Urbana and attended the University of Illinois. I read in Publisher’s Weekly that he was publishing his first book and immediately contacted his publicist and arranged for a book signing event in that store during one of his trips back to Champaign. In he came with no sense of entitlement or conceit. It wasn’t that long before that he won the Pulitzer Prize, but you’d never know it. He was jovial, relaxed and engaging. We spent a good half hour before the signing time in the stockroom of the store talking movies. His all time favorite was Citizen Kane, which I was a huge fan of as well. It was such a pleasure to have had that time with him and my mind and heart will sorely miss him.

Thank you Roger for allowing me to share decades of your life at the movies and I’m so happy that I can go back and pull any of your books off my shelf and indulge in my ongoing quest to learn more about the movies.

Audio Podcast of this post: 

Kiss Ebert book

Book dust jacket scan

ebert young interview facebook 650

From Roger Ebert’s Facebook Page. Interviewing Senator Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956 for his Urbana, Illinois high school paper.

Photo of Ebert from The Chicago Sun-Times

Scan of A Kiss is still a Kiss from the collection of Steve A Furman

Washington, A Work in Progress

US Capitol

I spent last week in Washington D.C. This city used to be a frequent destination for me to visit museums, take in the architectural beauty and reflect on our history as a nation. This was however my first visit in nearly nine years and it was a very different trip as it involved my 8 year old son. We spent some time up front discussing the history and importance of the city and reviewed maps and photo books. When I got there it felt like I was visiting an old friend.

It’s not a perfect city nor a perfect democracy. We need to remember that our country is still a great experiment and there is still much to learn. I do worry that we are in danger of forgetting how to learn or work together for a greater good. We’ve created so much in such a short amount of time. We need to take the next steps, together.

There were people everywhere from all over the world this past week. They came eager to learn and excited for the opportunity. There’s a huge benefit to being a tourist. We don’t have to do the negotiation or the hard work of trying to support a base and stay true to what’s inside one’s heart.  I don’t envy their job, but they chose it and I do expect them to make progress for the nation at large.

One thing is obvious. Much of what our founding fathers did was correct. They knew they were creating something from scratch, but were wise enough to incorporate aspects of what was working across the world at large. The layout of the city. The thought that went into the decisions is probably the most impressive to me. So many things were consciously planned with deep meaning. Lady Liberty on the Capitol dome faces east, because the sun never sets on freedom. The cities’ main architect Pierre Charles L′Enfant is buried in Arlington Cemetery at the highest point so he can forever watch over his design. The streets were labeled based on the population of the states at the time. The most populous states got the longest streets.

The city has bones with a capital B. It’s a low city. Flat. Things happen close to the ground where the interaction is most personal. And nothing is more personal that one’s government.

All Photos: Steve A Furman with either an Olympus E-350 or my iPhone5.

SXSW – Storytelling

SXSW LogoAustin welcomed the 20th SXSW Interactive event. That’s right twenty years. Despite the fact that digital moves at the speed of light, it has a way of creeping up on us. We’ve become so comfortable with it permeating nearly every corner of our lives we hardly notice when it does.

And so there I was in the midst of digital humanity. It’s kind of like being in a tsunami of content. Tens of thousands of smart (and quite polite) people from all over the world in one place sharing ideas, collaborating and connecting.

The question most asked of me was, “Why did you come here and what do you hope to get back for this large time commitment?” I found myself giving a different answer each time I was asked. Or maybe just identifying another layer of the onion which shaped my personal narrative of benefits. Here’s why I attend SXSW.

  • Quality session content presented by knowledgable and experienced professionals
  • Opportunity to see what’s coming next in the expansive exhibit hall
  • Hear directly from politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, icons and media mavens
  • Meet new potential vendors, agencies, partners and customers
  • Conduct business in the context of an innovative atmosphere
  • Reconnect with people from the past and meet your social friends IRL
  • Make cool new friends and followers
  • Network for future opportunities
  • Come back completely exhausted and fully energized

It’s hard to say exactly who should attend SXSW from your company. It’s not obvious what you are going to get out of it. One has to really spend some time thinking about what you’re seeing and experiencing. It has to be carefully observed, listened to and processed. Only then does your own personal narrative will emerge. My advice is send people who thrive in a crowded environment, are gifted observers, good note takers and have stamina to remain focused on about four hours of sleep a night.

There are hundreds of sessions so one must spend a good chunk of time preparing. Reading the titles gives you a window into what people deem important. The words “story or storytelling” appeared in 112 session titles! Why? My opinion is that we have been inventing, innovating, disrupting and layering so fast that we now need time to step back, take a breath and see if we can recognize what we have made. What does it mean? What do we see? Where do we go next?

Sometimes you can tell what’s going on by noticing what people are not talking about. This year there was a lot less hype around mobile, aside from the mobile focused sessions. The cry of “mobile first” has done its job. Message received. We have apps and mobile web and responsive design. Mobile is an “extension” of almost everything now, Our smartphones are a swiss army knife and that’s the problem. They are maddeningly distracting. Show-rooming gets a lot of notice, but shopping is a flow that is best not interrupted or you have an abandoned cart. We begin to shop and then there’s the call of Twitter or Facebook or Text that takes us off track. Solving this problem is what’s next for mobile. Delivery of relevant content that can garner the same interest as a text from a friend would be awesome. So much of what people are doing now on mobile are either payments or offers related. Of course we love Angry Birds, but it’s time now for mobile to get down to business.

The white space left by the volume on mobile being turned down this year has been filled with stories. I noticed a more than usual amount of personal life content in many of  the sessions. They delved into their past, even their childhood, to paint a personal narrative of what motivated them and what fuels their passion.

Here are my notes from the first day, Friday, March 8, 2013

Opening Remarks – Bre Pettis

Bre Pettis is co-founder of MakerBot, a 3-D printer manufacturer. He told his story showing photos of himself as an 8 year old interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. The narrative progressed to the early days of MakerBot and how the team worked almost around the clock to realize their dream. He is deeply passionate about building this printer to help people create and build.

Maker Bot opens the world of creation the way Dreamweaver opened the way to making web sites. — Bre Pettis

He launched in 2008, a web site that has thousands of templates and examples of things you can make with a MakerBot. Their biggest customer is NASA, who uses it to build prototypes, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars on each project. One of the best stories he shared was a about a the collaboration between two gentlemen who are using the MakerBot to build prototype hands for that will eventually become prosthetics for children who were born with no hands or fingers. He introduced a new product called The Digitizer. A small contraption that uses lasers to scan in an object and upload it directly to the MakerBot, eliminating the need to know CAD software to create the template. They have a store in New York where you can visit and have a likeness of yourself printed for free. Mr. Pettis was humble and inspiring. I want a MakerBot.

Tales of US Entrepreneurship Beyond Silicon Valley – Alexis Ohanian

Alexis OhanianThe Internet wants, needs to be kept as open as possible. As it has grown in influence and usage it was only a matter of time before politics and legislation would leave its mark. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Internet activist talked about the growing number of entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley. Small towns using the Internet to start businesses and people connecting online then moving to the physical world to manifest their ideas. He chartered an across the country bus trip and documented these travels in a film. Proof that the Internet of things is the Internet of things. Mr. Ohanian is concerned about the encroachment of regulation on digital assets. He feels that your digital footprint should be protected with the same vigor as all other personal content. Through due process, court orders an search warrants. Not a broad shut down policy or request to get at the information.

Technology, Imagination and Exponential Thinking – Jason Silva

Jason Silva is a futurist, filmmaker and epiphany addict. That’s how he describes himself. I would not disagree, but would add that he is also a 5 hour energy drink. He did not hold still for even a millisecond onstage. You got the feeling that he is a perpetual steeping pot ready to go off any second. His talk spanned just about everything related to the web, human nature, physics, the future. You name it and he talked about it. He was the perfect end of day speaker, raising the energy bar and sending everyone off on a high. I won’t even try to describe what he does. The only way to understand is to watch.


Jason Silva
Me with Jason Silva

So many of the speakers are approachable and happy to talk along the way. I ran into Jason the following day in one of the lounges and he took the time to connect and engage. Not promote himself, but talk and ask me what I thought. This kind of interaction opportunity is rare. Another benefit of SXSW.

There you have my snapshot of day one! More to come.

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

It was over 90° in Chicago today. Climate change is making this incredible city more desirable with each passing year. But never mind that. Hot weather and the pop art king drew me to one of my favorite places on earth, The Art Institute of Chicago. I went with my older son and as we scaled the noble steps off Michigan Avenue, we looked at each other and realized we have been doing this for nearly 25 years together. Art binds like nothing else.

The main event was the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective. It was the first show to examine his works since his death on September 29, 1997. The show was years in the making and I’m sure it was challenging to collect just the right pieces to do justice to an art pioneer. Indeed Mr. Lichtenstein was a major dude. Early on he took lots of criticism from all corners, but pressed on nonetheless. I’m so happy he did.

The show is beyond massive. It engulfs several galleries of the AIC, carefully arranged and choreographed so even the casual observer can enjoy. Over 160 works created between 1950 and 1997 that includes paintings, drawings and sculpture. Each time you turn a corner the senses are assaulted with dots and colors and explosions of primary colors. So much of what he created looks machine made, but all of it was crafted by hand. Perhaps he invented more than created. Borrowed more than others. But therein lies the power of Lichtenstein. Like Warhol, how it’s made is nearly as important as what is made. Both sourced from everyday objects. Lichtenstein invented a new easel that could spin, allowing it to keep pace with his mind and brush. The result feels somewhat slight of hand, but everything was pre-meditated.

I was completely taken aback by his landscapes. Most of my time over the years was spent studying the larger, more commercial works. But the landscapes were made for Lichtenstein. Dots turned into the line of a horizon or the deep blue of the ocean. These felt more meditative and focused and it gave him more of a chance to broaden his skill.

Lichtenstein once said in an interview in 1962:

I’m never drawing the object myself, I’m only drawing a depiction of the object—a kind of crystallized symbol of it.

About halfway through the exhibit there was a small room, painted a deep brown, displaying dozens of sketches and studies. Amazing to see how he brought things to life. Personal notes on what options could be explored from the shape and size of the dots to the color. Many of the studies were high fidelity, showing his deep need for quality.

As an accidental post-modernist I have deep appreciation for what Lichtenstein gave us. His work is an act of borrowing, decompiling, and rebuilding classic modern executions.

I believe many people dismiss Lichtenstein out of hand as cold or not professional. This is a mistake. If you can make the trip to Chicago you will see for yourself.

Images taken by Steve A Furman inside the exhibit.

Passion and the Digital Space: A Moment in Time

There are over 133,000,000 blogs actively indexed by Technorati. Each day 900,000 posts are published to those blogs and they are read by 346,000,000 people worldwide. Well, maybe not all of those 900 million posts are read. Those numbers stagger the mind (see source here). But serious blogging is about words, not numbers. Content, not concept. Substance, not flash. Authors, not note takers. If one closely examines the blur of daily posts one begins to realize that most of what is written is not inspired, but contrived, perhaps even forced so the owner can stay on a posting schedule driven by an obsession to increase readership. There’s no harm in that, as most of us, including me, post to keep visitor momentum.

As the December sun sets on the newspaper we find ourselves in a rare moment in time. How we handle that moment is important. Will we continue to obsess over the numbers, or will we step back and step-up to the task of replacing a storied source of information? But it’s probably not about replacing traditional writing form factors. That would be very difficult, perhaps even impossible as I discuss in an earlier post here.

In my opinion, the element that produces the most emotional work is without question; passion. Arguably it can be manufactured, but only in small doses and it’s not sustainable. Even the great newspaper machines struggled to maintain quality and keep ethics on the radar. But inside that editorial meeting there was most definitely passion. Real passion is discovered, revealed, teased out after having been drawn in by some intangible force. It emerges from one’s inner core. All of us have it. Most of us don’t recognize it as easily as others. Some lucky souls see it very clearly. They tame it then shape it. One of those people is Liz Goldner.

I’ve known Liz almost 15 years. She has led a life that runs predominately on emotion and passion which has transported her from one end of the country to the other. Today she makes her home in Orange County, safely tucked inside the Golden State. She roams the art world and reports her observations on her site, Contemporary Art Dialogue. Technically it’s not a blog, but that’s not important, for good content can inhabit almost any form factor. (Full disclosure: Liz writes about me on her site, but there is no financial arrangement)

She likes to poke around in the artist’s mind and has conducted hundreds of interviews to help her understand why someone creates, which leads her to scribe about something deeper, maybe not so obvious in the finished work. This pairing of conversation with the artist and study of the work has shaped her brand of observation into something special. She writes mostly about contemporary art, and cuts across photography, painting, assemblage, even graffiti. She likes to think deeply about theory as well as style, and delve below the water line. Postmodernism is a speciality.

Of course getting a site like this off the ground takes time and care. One of the techniques she now has in the works is to offer a free eBook to her newsletter subscribers. It’s a smart idea to move beyond the inbox and onto the desktop. When I hear eBook it usually means someone has thrown together odds and ends and called it an eBook. But when I opened  BC Space: Defining Artivism, it was clear that this was what an eBook should be. It’s digest in size with a wide range of topics and compelling images sprinkled throughout. Fifty-two pages of history and cause, punctuated with that special behind the curtain conversation with the artists. It’s a generous gift. I wonder if it’s too generous.

I asked her to reflect on how she came to develop this eBook, how long it took to create and in particular, why she chose BC Space as the tentpole. Here is her reply.

Steve Furman asked me to write a page for his blog describing how long it took to write my eBook, BC Space: Defining Artivism. The short answer is three weeks. But the real answer is more than seven years.

I originally wrote my eBook, offered free, as an incentive for people to subscribe to my newsletter. Yet completed, it took on a life of its own. I realized that the story of BC Space Gallery is so compelling that it could be the genesis of a larger eBook that I will sell through the Internet in the future.

Here is my story!

On March 30, 2003 (shortly after the Iraq War began), I walked down Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach, opened a heavy steel door and climbed the stairs to BC Space Gallery. I was there to interview gallery owner Mark Chamberlain about his exhibition, “Pretty Lies, Dirty Truths,” addressing the horrors of war.

I reflect back to that day in Defining Artivism: “Open that 85-year-old door, climb a steep, narrow stairway to a large, bright entryway lined with artworks. Walk into two well-lit galleries, the second with a skylight and black ceiling. Continue into a large open area, the combined studio/entertainment/performance area. Accoutrements include a small stage from the original Masonic Hall, a first-rate sound system, a projection screen, and large glass doors facing a quiet lane.”

As Mark and I talked, I realized that the thoughtful, artistic person facing me was leading the adventurous life I had always yearned to live. I was attracted to the artworks on display, to the spare magnificence of the 30-year-old art space and to the philosophical perspectives and bohemian lifestyle of the gallery owner.

Mark and I began a friendship that included dialogues about the relationship of art to social issues, and about the intersection of art and politics. Our conversations, in person, by phone and email, were punctuated by forays to art events, films and sometimes meals.

Tales of His Life

Perhaps because Mark sees no separation between his work, art making and his life, he often weaves together tales of his childhood and adult life with those of his career as an environmental artist and of the ongoing development of BC Space Gallery.

From my eBook: “Located in a commercial area on Forest Avenue, Mark Chamberlain continues to support the [BC Space] gallery through his Photographic Art Services.  Within that space, he explores his personal artwork, while mentoring (and curating) other artists in their quest for creative expression – all free of the need for commercial conformity…Today, BC remains firmly ensconced in the building in which it was launched. It has kept pace with the dramatic changes from film to digital image making, while also presenting exhibitions of painting, sculpture, installations, and video, as well as film, music, theatre, and dance events.”

As Mark and I talked over the months and the years, I listened carefully to his words about the gallery and exhibitions and about the concurrent artworks he produced. As I questioned and absorbed his many stories, his focus, passion, courage and insights inspired me to be more focused, passionate and courageous in my own work. Mark was mentoring me to become a more confident and insightful art writer.

A year after we met, Mark invited me to a slide presentation/talk that he and former BC Space partner, Jerry Burchfield, were giving at Laguna Beach City Hall. While the hour-long talk about their ongoing Laguna Canyon Project (photographing historic Laguna Canyon Road) was fascinating and expertly delivered, I was impressed by their passion for the work and by their camaraderie. In time, I learned that their deep, symbiotic friendship was often the catalyst for individual and joint artworks.

Careful Documentation

Being a scribe, I kept many emails that Mark and I wrote to each other, turning them into documents. I also kept essays, press releases and letters that Mark sent and received. Mark and I joked about me being his personal biographer. What began as a joke became a more serious matter.

No one else was keeping track of the ongoing multifarious activities of BC Space and its proprietor – a combination Mississippi River rat (he grew up on that river), campus radical, sensitive aesthete and unbridled mustang.

Jerry Burchfield had been an excellent gallery chronicler, but he left BC in 1987 to teach full time. While Jerry continued to support the gallery’s activities, he no longer kept assiduous track of the evolving art space.

After Jerry was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, I requested an interview to discuss his love for photography and involvement with BC Space for 14 years. He and I talked for several hours, then refined our discussion via emails.

“We were a pioneering entity, showing work regardless of its salability, ignoring the tourist art tradition of Laguna art galleries.” Jerry said. “We even called ourselves ‘obscurists.’  Artist friends told us we were crazy to start a business like this in Laguna – that we needed to be where the action was in L.A. But Laguna was so nice and we had cheap rents and could walk to work on the beach. In time, we exhibited work by artists from all over the country.”

“Shortly before his passing in September 2009, Jerry said, “There wasn’t any separation between art and life. We did our work out of love, and attracted extraordinary people to share in our mission. Anyone could approach us about exhibiting here. BC Space was like living a dream. We created a playland that allowed us to explore art and life.”

BC Space History

Last year, Cal State Fullerton’s Santa Ana exhibition space was preparing to mount “BC Space: Mything in Action,” chronicling the gallery’s 37 years of exhibitions. I was asked to write BC’s history for a catalog accompanying the show. I spent four months writing, researching and refining my words, often with the help (and provocation) of Mark Chamberlain.

This year, I expanded the 3,500-word history into my 9,000-word eBook, Defining Artivism. From late June to mid July, I worked nearly 200 hours – often in the middle of the night – on this eBook. I revised my original history and added in many comments about Jerry and Mark from artists and supporters. I also added a chronology.

For three weeks, I wrote day and night, drawing from a bottomless well of creativity. During that period, I mused that art often draws from and follows life experiences. In particular, the artistry I was building in Defining Artivism was inspired by the subject matter I was writing about, including my many experiences at BC Space Gallery over the years.

Thank you,

Liz Goldner – Laguna Beach, California


You were forewarned about the passion thing weren’t you. This kind of commitment and care is more common than you might think among people who write vs. post. Certainly there are serious blogs out there that explore with great prose and structure. And a blog was not originally developed to be a replacement for a finely crafted magazine or newspaper article. However, a blog is a technology tool, and with all tools the final product that comes out of using a tool varies greatly. There’s room for all of it certainly. Take a moment and  subscribe to the Contemporary Art Dialogue newsletter to get a free copy of the eBook and see for yourself. By the way, in case you were thinking of using the eBook technique to promote your own blog or site efforts. The bar is now officially set to high.

As the newspaper fades away and the torch of journalism (term used loosely) passes to the masses, we will need to raise our game to meet that awesome responsibility. Many people fear this moment because of the drastic change and loss of something tangible. Yet another thing we were so comfortable with has been taken away. Not so. This moment should be embraced and cherished. Celebrated even. Keep your passion burning brightly. If you don’t have it yet, find it. It’s right there in front of you. And most importantly, keep writing.

Art, Journalism and Dialogue in the Internet Age

As a technology optimist I am almost always in favor of pushing the art  and science of the web further. As we know the current period is hyper-focused on Social Media. We hear a lot of discussion about the new era of personal journalism. The news is now frequently reported by regular citizens who are witness to something and broadcast it through Social Media. But having a Twitter account and practicing serious journalism are worlds apart. Wired Magazine published the following list of untruths that were spawned by this new army of journalists on Twitter in 2009.

Bill O’Reilly is gay (Jan.) // Rick Sanchez is high on crack and might not be coming into work today (Jan.)// Britney Spears is dead (March) // Pork gives you swine flu (April) // Google is buying Twitter (April) //Apple is buying Twitter (May) // Prop 8 was overturned (May) // Steve Jobs is dead (June) // Sarah Palin is getting divorced (Aug.) // Kanye West is bisexual (Aug.) // Jeff Goldblum is dead (June) // Zach Braff is dead (Oct.) // Microsoft is buying Twitter (Oct.).

Real journalism is on the decline and Social Media loose cannons are everywhere. Which brings me to the actual topic of this post; art journalism. Yes you read that right. art and journalism. Writing has never been lucrative, at least not for 99.9% of writers. And writing about art is probably at the bottom end of the writer’s financial food chain. So when you find someone who does it well you can be sure it’s a labor of love. That’s the case with Liz Goldner and her Contemporary Art Dialogue site. She loves art and people, and is a splendid writer. She listens and tries to write about what people are interested in. She lives in southern California and moves fluidly through that active art community. Much of her research is carried out in interviews. Her work effectively teases out the interesting details. She describes it as follows.

Working in art journalism, I am privileged to know a world infused with color, light, form, texture and the often-intense emotions of artists as translated onto canvas, photo paper, wood, clay or any material. I converse with those who draw inspiration from genres as diverse as the dada movement to abstract expressionism. They pay homage to these influences in their own works, filtering them through the prisms of their inner muses.

Her writings are a journey. She explores, connects and celebrates art. I’ve known Liz over 10 years and the best word I can find to describe her is “rare.” Have a look at her site. Take a moment to read about abstract art, assemblage art, photography, graffiti art and of course people. Add your experiences and impressions. If you find yourself in the Laguna Beach area, look her up and buy her dinner. It will lead to great conversation.

Full disclosure. Liz has dubbed me a Postmodernist (guilty as charged) and has included me on her site.

Appreciation: The Art Institute of Chicago

I first visited the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960’s as a young boy. I ascended the great staircase and entered the Impressionism gallery and was absolutely blown away. Instantly I was transformed into a hardcore museum goer for all time. I’ve done a rough calculation and believe I’ve visited the AIC about 250 times. Of course I’m a long time member and frequent contributor to this storied (over 130 years) institution. At times I’ve shared more about my personal life with certain paintings that adorn these gallery walls than I have with many of my closest friends. Occasionally I sketch them (badly), write about them (somewhat better), and photograph them along with the building (best of all). View my AIC flickr gallery here. Many times I would visit alone and spend time trying to understand the art and artist and ask them to understand me. They always did.


That experience given to me by my father was a rare moment, and so I felt strongly about returning the favor to my first son, Julian. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 2, and as such processes information much differently than neuro-typicals. That’s a fancy word for people whose brain functions normally. For context, here’s the best definition of Asperger’s I’ve ever run across.

The dominance of specialized thinking and ability that prioritizes doing one task, one way, one step at a time with limited flexibility. This occurs to various degrees and results in strengths in the areas of focus (especially in the area of specialization), honesty, detail orientation, logic and original thinking. This tendency toward specialization also often results in challenges developing more generalized and complex skill sets such as conventional socialization and communication.

He was four years old when I first took him to the AIC and he had a perfect photographic memory as a result of his condition. His focus at that time was Impressionism paintings. He took ownership of my prized Big Book of French Impressionism and set out to memorize all the artists, their birth and death years and all the canvases they painted. He was a walking encyclopedia of the facts of this body of at the age of four!

In April of 1985, not long after we had moved to Chicago, we made our first AIC visit together. We entered the classic Beaux Arts building, climbed the grand staircase and immediately saw Gustave Caillebote’s Paris Street, A Rainy Day. There it was, bigger than life in the middle of the gallery. I’m a little fuzzy on this detail, but I think we both said “wow” at the same time. He too was instantly hexed with museum-going for the rest of his life.

Needless to say year after year we visited, taking in the traveling exhibits and re-connecting with our favorite masterpieces.

Fast forward to the year 2004. After a new offspring drought spanning 23 years I was blessed with a wonderful second son, Connor. Completely normal in every way, and turning into quite a negotiator. Last weekend was his first visit to the AIC. We took the same path that I took when I was a lad, and again when Julian was four. Photos from both moments were captured. The juxtaposition of these images solidifies my connection with the Art Institute.

AIC 1984 and 2009
Me with Julian in 1984 and again with Connor in 2009

The AIC is a priceless gem as well as the second largest museum in the country, thanks to the opening of new Modern Wing. You can read my impressions of this new showcase here. Year in and year out, despite challenges in my life or the mood of the world, the AIC is a constant. Always there for me, for us, whenever we need to escape the press of the day and roam the boundless spaces of creativity.

Here is a select list of exhibits that have stood out in my memory and hold a special place in my heart.

  • Edward Hopper – 2008
  • William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes – 2000
  • Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman – 1999
  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh – 1997
  • Degas: Beyond Impressionism – 1997
  • Claude Monet – 1995
  • Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist – 1995
  • John James Audubon: The Watercolors for The Birds of America – 1994
  • Magritte – 1993
  • Marc Chagall: The Jewish Theatre Murals – 1993
  • Master European Paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland – 1992
  • Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany – 1991
  • High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture – 1991
  • Andy Warhol: A Retrospective – 1989
  • John Singer Sargent – 1987

If you have never visited the AIC, do so as soon as you can. Get information from their web site here. Follow them on Twitter here. Fan them on facebook here.

The Modern Wing Takes Flight

WelcomeSignThe completion of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago adds an additional 264,000 square feet of gallery space to this already impressive museum. It’s now the second largest in the country, trailing only The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had the good fortune of being at the AIC on Wednesday, May 13th giving a talk on Customer Experience, so I took advantage of the opportunity to tour the new Modern Wing. As a museum member I was allowed in on a self-guided tour ahead of the opening on May 16th.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the wing has it’s own entrance on Monroe street, placing it squarely in the cross hairs of the The Great Lawn, raking down from the Jay Pritzker Pavilion of Millennium Park (designed by Frank Gehry). From this view you can’t see a trace of the familiar Beaux Arts building that’s been in residence on Michigan Avenue for more than 130 years. It feels as if you may even be in a different city as you approach the glass rectangles and massive cantilevered grid roof. Perhaps Los Angeles, sans palm trees. The design has a transformative power filling one with anticipation of what’s to come.

The Foyer looking to the Monroe St. entrance
The Foyer looking to the Monroe St. entrance

The main foyer is narrow and deep like a pure white slot canyon. The offset, light oak floor planks deliver you into the space like a moving sidewalk. Your eye is drawn up to the sky pouring in through the stainless steel and glass grid ceiling. The stairs off to one side float up and into the more approachable squarish gallery boxes that array the museum’s stunning collection. A wonderful geometric compliment to the extreme main hallway.

You are however swarmed by the sameness, almost monotony of the structure; white, chrome and glass. But the space overall is workmanlike and the design is kind and courteous to the artist. Once you are inside any of the galleries, the building clears out of the way and allows the art to take center stage. It’s early days, and so, the curators still have work to do. But overall, the experience is splendid.

View of the Modern ceiling
View of the Modern ceiling

The museum’s collection is expansive and inspiring. Modigliani, Picasso, Johns, Pollack, Warhol, etc., they’re all here to be rediscovered under the eye of the Modern. It works best if  you go immediately to the third floor and wind your way down. At first you see classic galleries. As you descend you slowly begin to notice variations on how the space is shaped. One section contains 30 shadow boxes by Joseph Cornell, appropriately lined up in their own cubbies. At the north end of each floor is that constant view of Millennium Park where city goers gather and mingle among evening concerts in the warm Midwest summer nights. Taken together it’s an oasis of culture and reflection. Both are welcome in these tough times.

SolitudeOnce you are back at ground level an architecture gallery second to none (sorry Met) awaits you. Chicago is after all the home of the skyscraper, our payback for enduring the Great Fire. And so, this gallery is filled with elegant drawings and detailed models tracking the growth of structures and modern design of all types. Photography and video galleries round out the first floor. If you still have enough energy to take in more, you can exit the Modern foyer opposite of where you entered and violà, the rest of the Art Institute awaits.

On my tour I followed a senior gentleman with his daughter for a short while. He was in constant awe and I caught a sound bite as he gazed out of the third floor northern facing window. He said, “It sure is a modern world.” A fitting comment.

Chicago is a city of dreamers and doers. The Modern Wing has found a home.

Photos: Steve A Furman. To see more Modern Wing photos go here.

Adrew Wyeth – Simple yet Complicated Modern American Painter is Dead at 91

We have all seen dozens of images from the three generation of Wyeth painters. The Elder, N.C. Wyeth, helped shape my childhood memories with his realistic illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Treasure Island and others. As I grew older Andrew took center stage for me and he pushed his father’s style a little further. Andrew wanted to go beyond being known as “an illustrator” and in my humble opinion succeeded. His father allowed him to move through phases and then pull back again, which gave him courage and experience. Andrew had strong academic training but did not allow that to dominate his body of work, which is quite fluid.

Snow Flurries, 1953, Tempera 37¼ x 48 in.

In the book, The Two World of Andrew Wyeth: A Conversation with Andrew Wyeth by Thomas Hoving, they discuss Snow Flurries painted in 1953. The subject is a very simple hill that Andrew walked nearly everyday which makes it extremely difficult to paint, yet a wonderful challenge. On the surface it appears to be a simple work, but the more you inspect it, the more details emerge. Mr. Wyeth describes this paradox in the interview.

I don’t agree with the theory that simplicity means lack of complexity. I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be. I’ve found that some of the simplest people are very profound and actually very complex… Well actually, this picture is to me a whole lifetime. It summarizes an awful lot. That’s really what interests me. What I was after is what you get after sugaring off maple sugar from the maple tree. You keep boiling it down until you have the essence of purity. That is what I was after. I’m not saying it’s all that pure or good, but I did want it be be all the hills but yet a very definite hill

Mr. Wyeth elected to sell many of his works in a massive deal with a Japanese investor, and live the rest of his life outside the public eye. His works can be found in great museums all over the world. He’s gone now, which always causes me to seek out the work, knowing there will be no more.

House at Dusk: A Study

Only the top floor of the stone apartment building is revealed in Hopper’s House at Dusk. Our eye traverses past each window and quickly we notice a woman, alone of course, sitting on a bright red chair looking down. Perhaps she is reading a book or stroking a newly acquired kitten. You get the feeling that she has spent all day in her apartment and from time to time glances up and out through her window to the vista beyond. Her chair is strategically positioned to allow her that view as well as of her small space where she lives. There is no television, only a radio.

The limestone structure is Georgian in style, exhibiting a formal arrangement of parts employing a symmetrical composition, enriched with classical detail. It’s ringed in dental molding and framed with large quoins at each corner. The exterior finish is smooth, not course ashlar, and the sash windows are narrow and long and vertically separated from the ones below with a decorative inset. Hopper has removed the panes of glass dividers frequently seen in windows of this architecture style, as if plucking companions from the lives of those still occupying the rooms. This is yet another signal of aloneness which permeates his body of work. No one else can be seen through the windows, either they have not yet returned home from their daily work ritual, or are positioned more in the center of their apartments.

The chimneys rise to equal heights but varying widths above the roof, and are perfectly aligned with the windows or wall columns beneath them. Hopper loves his symmetry. They reflect the dental ribbon and their stark contrast against the dark clump of trees resembles teeth. No smoke can be seen, which means there are no fires in the hearths beneath these stone stacks.

The perspective in which Hopper has painted the structure combined with how the molding juts out at the roof line causes the building to be seen as a trapezoid, not a rectangle. The sharply and probably somewhat steep steps off to the right intersect the building exactly at the inset space separating the top two floors. This connects the house with the preserve of trees that dominates the middle layer of the painting. The angle of the steps means it’s a completely different world beyond those trees. There is no one on the steps and although we can’t see much of the grounds behind the building or off the canvas to the right, we know for certain no children are pushing their play time as the sun sets. No young lovers are lounging on a blanket enjoying each other’s company. There is nothing there.

A lone street lamp in the lower right hand corner of the canvas echoes the simple buffet lamp with a classic, pleated, empire shade in the top floor apartment. These two lamps are the only overt light sources revealed. However, since the front of the building is well illuminated and we can see a shadow on the third chimney from the left, it means other street lamps exist.

The thick grove of trees immediately behind the house serves as a lush, green fence, completely detaching the life of the occupants of this building from what lies beyond. The structure is most likely on the outskirts of a bustling urban area, which by contrast is rich in sight and sound and dialog.

That amazing, signature Hopper light permeates the entire canvas. How much of it is that ever-changing dusk light and how much of it is coming from the city beyond, waking up to its evening? Hopper always keeps us guessing about the stories, but never forgets to provide us with perfect light. The light gives me everything I need.

There was a Hopper show at The Art Institute of Chicago in the spring of 2008. You can read my thoughts on that exhibition here.

Google in the Classroom – What if…?

I have always loved the way Google transforms their logo to draw attention to key dates or milestones. You can see a previous post on this topic here. Underway now is Doodle 4 Google. School kids from kindergarten through high school have been invited to create their own Google logo around the theme what if?

From the thousands of entries they have narrowed it down to 40 and put it out for public vote. It was so much fun to see the entries and cast my ballots. Imagine what was going through those little and not so little minds. There were recurring themes. The environment, world peace, reaching out to those less fortunate. Very encouraging.

In keeping with Google’s playful tone, they created a fun way to display the judging bracket as a chalkboard.

Looking forward to seeing the winner displayed on the site May 22nd. There are videos on You Tube that youngsters have posted about creating their doodle. Here’s one I selected that was professionally made and taken from the Google channel.


Edward Hopper – Sunlight on the Side of a House

It was gray today with periods of showers. Perfect for spending time in the Art Institute of Chicago viewing an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s works. Hopper is a mild obsession of mine. But you have to understand that mild for me is probably equal to an off the charts extreme for most people.

Hopper chooses ordinary scenes; houses, streets, rooms, lobbies, buildings, seashores. They are dominated by shapes of color and bathed in light. Squares, rectangles and trapezoids, decorated at times with ornamental curves. Sometimes people are present, sometimes the space is completely empty, save for that Hopper light. If he includes people they strike routine poses, but what they are thinking is omitted. Usually we are peering into their private spaces as we pass by on light rail, or simply looking out the kitchen window. Nature frequently finds its way into Hopper’s works.

House at Dusk, 1935

I’ve spent hours looking at and thinking about House at Dusk. You can read my in depth study of this painting here.

Mark Strand, a recent poet laureate, has studied Hopper at length. In his 1994 book entitled Hopper, Mr. Strand makes these observations.

Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narative of what came before. They engage us when the idea of passage cannot be far from our minds—we are, after all, either approaching the canvas or moving away from it… Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness. They are all that can be gleaned from a vacancy that is shaded not so much by the events of a life lived as by the time before life and the time after. The shadow of dark hangs over them, making whatever narratives we construct around them seem sentimental and beside the point.

The exhibit was beautifully staged on the second floor of the Rice building. Early works on paper through to the final canvases. At about the half way mark we encounter New York Movie. This is Hopper immersed in the urban environment of a meteoric America. On the left side of the canvas is a crowded movie theater, elaborately decorated in the palatial style of the old grand movie houses. People escaping their daily problems through the newly discovered art form of cinema. On the right side is a lone figure. A blonde usherette, leaning against the wall of a simple space completely detached from the emotional rake of the movie theater. She works in a house of escape, but is tortured by something very real in her life. Perhaps she could use her flashlight to illuminate the answer to her problem. We can see that Hopper’s characters always ponder, we just never know if they are making progress. He floats space on one side, and fixes it on the other. This is classic New York Hopper, showing a dense city that feels completely empty.

New York Movie, 1939

Naturally, Nighthawks took center stage in the exhibit. The Art Institute recognized this masterpiece immediately after it was painted in 1942, and acquired it for $3,000. It has been one of the museum’s gems ever since. The image is iconic, so much so I don’t even need to post it and everyone reading this can close their eyes and easily conjure up a detailed picture of it in their mind. Art is power.

There was a glass case in one of the galleries that displayed two of Hopper’s personal journals. He would make a small pencil drawing of the painting just completed and then scribe notes beneath it. Fascinating to get a brief glimpse into his thoughts. The journals were inexpensive hardbound ledgers. He did not require an overabundance of creature comforts and lived in a 4th floor walk up at Number 3 Washington Square North in New York. He and his wife Jo frequented small, locally owned restaurants.

The last canvas in the show, and one of my favorites was, Sun in an Empty Room. Although not his final work, it came less than four years before his death in 1967. There is always an emotional undercurrent to Hopper’s work. More imagination than observation. So much so that it’s easy to forget the work is very personal. When he was asked what he was after with this painting he responded, “I’m after ME.” A truly American response by a pure American.

Sun in an Empty Room, 1963

Hopper once said,

All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.

This once in a lifetime opportunity ends in Chicago on May 11th. If you missed it in Boston or Washington, D.C., or here in Chicago, then you have truly missed something. But you can see Hopper all over the country. Go see it.

Link to The National Gallery of Art’s interactive web site on Hopper here. They have a very interesting timeline of Hopper here.

Note. Images of Hopper paintings taken from web searches for Public Domain images.


Video Self-Portrait From SFMOMA

I had an extra hour this week between sessions while attending a board of advisors meeting in San Francisco, so I walked two blocks to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I really love this structure and was here while it was under construction, then came back a couple of times after it opened. The finished product is an appropriate space for a modern art collection. It’s constructed in perfectly even layers of black, gray, white, brown and blue. The modern interpretation of geologic strata found naturally in rocks of the west. Mostly straight lines and crisp angles, with curves sprinkled in to soften the experience and direct your eyes back into the main space of the building. None of the art can be seen without taking sharp turns. It’s the opposite of the Guggenheim in NY, where the art can be viewed from almost anywhere, as if one was surveying the landscape. An oval eye is proped up on top of the structure, evoking a communications dish poised to collect radio waves from the cosmos.

There was a fascinating media art installation on the third floor entitled, Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay. The artist is Dan Graham, and it was composed of two black and white television monitors, two video cameras and two large mirrors positioned on opposite sides of a wide gallery. As you approach, the camera records you, but holds it for a few seconds before feeding the video to a small TV screen. The result is a bit jarring. You move inquisitively toward the television screen expecting to see yourself but you don’t. Suddenly you appear as you were a few seconds earlier, giving you an opportunity to study yourself in motion. It takes a while to notice what’s going on, but once you get it, the brain lights up.

It’s like that old trick where you are looking into what you believe to be a mirror, but in fact it’s an opening, and someone else is facing you (your identical twin), pretending to be your reflection. That person mimics your body movements and facial expressions exactly, hoping to keep up the illusion. You then try to outsmart the reflection by making sudden, unexpected movements. In the trick it works, but in this installation, it’s always you. I snapped this photo of me inside the monitor with my iPhone.

Eventually you start performing, to see what you look like. You move in for a close up and make faces. Travel from one side of the gallery to the other and do it all over again. The mirrors keep the image moving and changes the point of view, so you can see both your front and back. Kind of a reality show on yourself, but without the personal humiliation or prize money. Everyone that passed by was instantly engaged. This is the power of modern art; the viewer participates and the common perspectives are challenged.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to see much of anything else, but captured a few more images on the way back to the summit.


Photos by Steve A. Furman