Tuesday 6/19: Extending a Project

This was probably the most formal critique we’ve done in this class. Professor Ruby prompted us to talk about each project in terms of its design elements and principles, and we had a surprising amount to talk about.

Toward the end of each critique, we discussed what the artist could do to extend their project. For Julia’s project (a jar preserving the ephemera of a relationship), Celeste thought of a romantic narrative that could be built from the piece, Rae thought of a companion piece—an opaque jar with a clear lid that would force the viewer to put more effort into seeing the objects inside, Ruby suggested making a timeline of the relationship using the items contained in the jar, and I wanted to create a museum exhibit about the relationship and fully contextualize and openly display all the bits of romantic ephemera.

I would really like to stick some cards for them, thon, and hir in this incredibly gendered display, and I would never have thought of this without Rae’s “For Them” card.

This aspect of the critique underscored how differently each of my classmates sees a given piece. I’m a child of the 90’s. All my life, I’ve heard that you, me, and every amoeba living under my fingernails are all special and have our own unique perspectives that no one else shares. However, I spent enough time on Livejournal in the early 00’s to appreciate that this is a often a weaker sentiment than Barney and Baby Bop implied. However, listening to my classmates and their wide-ranging ideas for where to take the same project was exciting and mind-expanding in the same way that a good collection of short stories or essays on the same theme is. I find that I often don’t really understand an issue until I’ve read at least three perspectives on it: my understanding of Spinoza owes considerably more to the Cambridge Companion to Spinoza than my initial reading of his works, even though I don’t really agree with any but the most uncontroversial positions from those essays. In the same way, I probably won’t wind up doing anything like my classmates’ suggestions for expanded works, but each proposed project enriched my understanding of the possibilities contained in each piece and all the possible approaches one could take to a given project.

I’m not sure how I’d expand on my eye chart valentine. I could make it larger and more like a “real” eye chart, or I could make it possible to project it and do something resembling an autorefractor machine. I could create color blindness tests out of flower petals. I could partner with someone who is hard of hearing and help create an audio piece about the effect that hearing aids had on their life. I could create a series of images about the various ways that eyeglasses have improved my life and use them to promote charities that provide eyeglasses to low-income people or help people start eyeglass businesses in the developing world. For the time being, though, this is my companion piece. It expresses the open-mouthed awe I felt at seeing nature clearly for the first time. It’s a little silly, but so are five year-olds with new glasses.

Tuesday 6/19: Flowers

A selection of my flower photosOn Tuesday morning, I went to the Farmer’s Market (source of all of the best art supplies) to get flowers. I knew I wanted something pink or magenta with large, defined petals, but I wasn’t expecting to be so lucky as to find magenta gerbera daisies.

I thought I might be able to get away with placing a daisy (with stem removed) on my scanner and editing the resulting images. This…did not work.

My next option was to take photos of the daisies on a white sheet of paper, which would then be edited to be transparent in Photoshop. Daisies are surprisingly terrible models, by the way. I had to use a combination of a piece of purse hardware left over from a sewing project and a bit of the daisy’s stem to get any of them to stand up straight. I played with the lighting between shots and found that natural light without any other lighting seemed to work best.

I went to the Mac lab in the studio to edit the photos in order to use them on the valentine. I think it wound up looking like clip art, and I’m not sure whether I mean that as a compliment to myself.

The daisy with background removed and color levels somewhat altered

I wanted to have a line of daisies looking progressively less blurry going vertically down the page, to convey the idea of the text more visually. I spent some time putting that together in Illustrator and Photoshop and editing the text further. I really wanted to get the eye chart looking like a flower petal.Here’s the finished (digital) product. There are some problems with the images: I did not allow for enough space for the Gaussian blur to not get hard edges, and I couldn’t really figure out how to fix that in Illustrator. However, I’m generally proud of it.

After that, I experimented with adding real flower petals with hot glue. I also added photosensitive nail polish to create the effect of illumination creating rose-colored glasses.

A few experiments

The final product I presented is at the top center. It was a little busy, but I think it worked as a valentine and as something I was proud of.

Monday 6/18: Design Statement for Eye Charting

I want my valentine to evoke the experience of getting glasses for the first time. I didn’t get them until I was five years old, and I’d never really been aware of a world in which everything was sharp and clear. Trees were blobs on sticks, flowers were more colorful blobs on thinner sticks. When I walked out of the optometrist’s office wearing glasses for the first time, it was like gaining a superpower: trees had leaves and flowers had petals. It was as though I was looking at my hand and seeing each individual cell, along with the hand as a whole.

So, while trying to evoke that sense of wonder, I’ve been struggling with the wording for my eye chart. The line I used for my first mock-up wasn’t bad, but I’m not crazy about it. It doesn’t really seem like a valentine to me; more of a statement:

I love flowers. I never knew you could see petals from far away until I got my first pair of glasses.

I went through a few versions of this in my notebook, trying to chart out the arrangement of letters in my notebook.

I love flowers. Until I was five, I thought you had to be close to the flower to see its petals.

I am myopic, and I didn’t understand that flower petals were supposed to be visible from a distance until I got glasses.

My first glasses gave me superpowers. And flower petals.

My first glasses gave me flowers and leaves.

My first glasses gave me flowers, with petals.

I knew I liked the imagery of my glasses giving me flowers, so I finally decided on this:

My first glasses gave me flower petals for the first time.

This whole process has reminded me of the scenes from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Harry learns to conjure a patronus. (They’re much better in the books than in the movie—Harry struggles with it much more—but I don’t have a copy with me, alas.)

The patronus is a happy memory made corporeal through a charm. As Professor Lupin explains, you have to have absolute focus on an adequately strong happy memory in order to conjure one. This seems reminiscent of what we discussed in class on Thursday: if you design from a place of wonder, that sense of wonder is likely to be present in the final product.

I spent two hours after class playing with the letterforms in Illustrator and tweaking the wording further. I decided on Rockwell for the font, and started experimenting with putting the text in the appropriate format for an eye chart.

Sunday 6/17: Eye Charts and Petals

I took a walk on campus today, considering Maria Bantjes’s comments about curiousity and wonder, when I saw this magnolia blossom. I really struggled to get a good, in-focus photo of it. The process reminded me of the first time I put on a pair of glasses. I was five years old, but I refuse to forget the joy I felt upon walking out of the optometrist’s and seeing trees with individual leaves and flowers with petals instead of blobs on sticks that resolved themselves into petals and leaves as I got closer. It was like seeing your whole hand and a close-up of each individual skin cell at the same time. I thought I’d gained a superpower.

Every time I get new glasses, I still look at the leaves and flowers outside first.

Snellen eye chart (Source: i-see.org)

I’ve decided that I really want to play with the form of an eye chart. Doing a Google Image Search for eye charts was surprisingly inspiring. I was mostly looking for guidance on what the official format for eye charts is, but I realized that there’s actually a very diverse array of eye chart forms. I was particularly drawn to the Snellen eye chart. The alignment of the text seems to form the shape of a leaf or a flower petal.

I spent about 2 hours fumbling around, trying to get Photoshop to make this look like an eye chart. There is nothing quite so bizarre as going through 40 fonts and eventually deciding on Arial. I think it needs something to look more like an eye chart; possibly horizontal lines every few lines, definitely distance measurements in the margins. I’m not sure if the blur is too corny.

The color is working toward its valentine-ness, but I think it may need an image of a flower or a heart to really convey it.

I’m also considering making this the lid to a box of chocolates (which is, after all, the best generic valentine). Each row of chocolates might be less and less fuzzy because of various additives (coconut, cocoa powder, that kind of thing) to simulate an eye exam. I’m not sure if that’s getting too far afield, but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Thursday 6/14: Marian Bantjes and Summer Valentines (That Aren’t Valentine-y)

Marian Bantjes’s TED talk was fascinating. Bantjes’s modus operandi is to involve the ego (in the sense of “self,” rather than “arrogance”) in graphic design, in opposition to the traditional view that graphic design’s goals should be defined by the client rather than the designer. By making her work more personal, she believes that she’s more able to make it compelling, sustaining, and universal. Given the success she’s had in creating beloved campaigns that often go viral, it’s hard to argue that she’s wrong about tapping into universal themes by way of the self.

Bantjes also points out that ornamental images are seen to detract from the seriousness of text in modern Western society. This is a somewhat obvious statement: it’s a trope to show a stupid or anti-intellectual character complaining about the lack of pictures in a book. Still, speaking only to one way of understanding an idea (the left-brained, verbal way) cannot help but make a message intellectually poorer. That’s worth considering.

She also speaks about the valentines she sends. In the past, she’s done varying levels of personalization, from making 150 unique valentine designs for her entire mailing list to sending the same fragment of a fake love letter to everyone. You’d think that the completely personalized valentines would seem more intimate, but the love letter is very immediate and hits that perfect balance of universal applicability and semi-uniqueness that astrologers and copywriters live for. Surprisingly, it works.

For the next project, I’m going explore what makes a valentine a valentine, and then create an object that subtly says “This is a valentine,” using unusual materials. The goal of this project is to create a strong sense of unity between the text of the valentine and the images used in order to evoke some message; the message does not have to be “I love you,” and the recipient of the valentine can be anything or anyone.

The first known Valentine message, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife during his captivity in the Tower of London. Source: BBC

I’ll admit, I got excited when I first saw “Summer Valentines” on the syllabus. I’m one of those vile people who love Valentine’s Day, even when I’m single. Valentine’s Day mainly involves ritualized craft projects and candy. Yes, there are some bloody, bloody stories behind it: St. Valentine was executed in all of the varied versions of his story, and the first known valentine message was sent by a prisoner of war in 1415. But, as they’re practiced today, Valentine’s Day is like Easter, but with the torture and capital punishment deemphasized—what’s not to love?

So, what is the bare minimum required for a thing to be recognizable as a valentine? The Duke of Orleans didn’t fuss over the color pink or pictures of hearts, but the combination of old-fashioned handwriting and 15th century French makes the content a little hard to decipher.

The least valentine-y Valentine’s Day cards I can think of are the pre-made sheets of cards intended for elementary school boys to give to their classes. They’re no-frills, rarely feature hearts or the color pink, and virtually never get more romantic or emotional than “You’re cool!” (or, in the case of these Transformers cards, “You’re a strong ally”). The color red is common among these cards, but that’s a commonly-used color in most of these franchises; these Batman cards have virtually none of the color red. What makes these valentines seems to be that they’re cards given around February 14th that directly address the receiver and say something positive to them.

When Professor Ruby asked us to think about our associations with valentines, my first thought was of this Old 97’s song:

This is my favorite of their songs with Murray singing lead, mostly for these lines:

True love, I knew, some thought of leavin’ you.
Bad thoughts I had, when valentines were due.

I love the image of valentines being “due,” like tax forms or homework. (I suppose that valentine cards technically are a sort of homework in certain elementary schools—and in this class, now that I think of it.) There’s a pervasive notion in American culture that Valentine’s Day is an annual audit of one’s romantic worth: one’s romantic status on Valentine’s Day is construed as being more important than on any other day. That’s the only way to make sense of this movie‘s existence, anyway. From a more data-driven standpoint, dating websites see a statistically significant uptick in registrations in the weeks between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, and some claim to see an increase immediately afterward.

I think I’d like to do something blending some sort of government or medical form with a valentine. I love the idea of playing with the overseriousness of the holiday.

Wednesday 6/13: Gluing Down the Details

I woke up extremely early today to get the shrimp finished. I had written out, step-by-step exactly what I needed to do and how I needed to do it, and the work went quickly.

My to do list read:

  • Fill inside of shrimp (dryer sheets > polyfill > cotton pads > feathers > rice?)
  • Cut cups into pieces and attach to body
  • Glue bark and crab pieces to tail, then magnolia leaves
  • Attach tail to body
  • Legs! Hanger > packaging > toothpick >styrofoam > magnolia stems, then magnolia stems > pine twigs > crab legs x2
  • Feeders, antennae, etc.

The filling and exoskeleton went as planned. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the hot glue gun adhesive created lines in the exoskeleton that resembled veins or warping in a natural exoskeleton.

To my surprise, I kept making additions to the design. The shrimp was not initially supposed to have eyes: these were supposed to be empty sockets, as in cave shrimp and the disturbingly deformed shrimp found in the Gulf of Mexico. However, in my reading about shrimp anatomy, I’d learned that shrimp have compound eyes, like spiders. I couldn’t resist making faceted eyes out of the broken bits of vine charcoal left over from my plant drawing.The shrimp also wasn’t supposed to have nylon broom bristles for antennae. In my original plan, one set would be wire and the other would be pine straw. However, while I was filling the digestive tract with potting soil and a mix of charcoal and chili powder (how I arrived at the latter, I cannot explain), I saw the broom and knew I’d have to use it. I removed the wires I’d already glued without a second thought.

The feeders were made of the hooked parts of a clothes hanger. I had thought I might use the tips of a broken hanger made of hard plastic, but this alternative occurred to me as I struggled with removing those tips.

The bits of “tar” on the shrimp occurred to me as I was leaving. I spotted an old tube of mascara and remembered something Professor Ruby had said to me about paint. I’d asked her if she thought painting the shrimp’s rostrum (the pointy bit above the head) was a good idea, and she told me that it’s “too easy for something painted to become a focal point” of a piece like this. I brushed mascara heavily on the front of the shrimp and more and more lightly as I went, and I was pleased to see that she was right.

I feel like I was in a perfect fusion of left and right brain modes. I was open to seeing new things as part of the whole, but I also had a plan and knew how I would execute it. Despite my love of crafting, I’ve rarely felt this way about a project. Often I’ll write out knitting patterns that never get knitted, or sew half of a skirt and lose interest once I’ve seen how it will fit together. I think that leaving some ambiguity and room for my right brain to surprise me kept me interested—the final look of the sculpture was never a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday 6/12: Plastic

Some early experiments with the shrimp’s head

With all my crayon drawings and plans for the shrimp, I thought this would be easy. I’m a crafter—I know how to scribble some notes on a page and turn that into a 3D object. Well, yarn and fabric are generally obedient and forgiving. Plastic is willful and not even slightly merciful.

My initial plan was to use the clear plastic packaging from a makeup brush, basically as-is, to encase the internal parts of the shrimp within the exoskeleton. This seemed like it would work until I decided to use the orange lid to a bottle of Off! spray for the shrimp’s head carapace. That threw off the scale, so I attempted to sew in some scrap fabric. On the first attempt, the needle and the feed dogs on my sewing machine shredded the plastic. I cut the shredded bits off and tried again, but the result was much too small.

This really seemed like it would work.

Working with found and recycled objects offers many opportunities to panic when you’ve ruined your only piece of a particular material. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider running out to Target and buying another brush for the packaging, but that struck me as a violation of the terms of the assignment, the Honor Code, and the message of my sculpture. I wandered around my apartment looking for any possible replacement, hoping like crazy that I wouldn’t have to resort to trying to make Ziploc bags support all of my other materials. I couldn’t find anything.

In desperation, I boiled some water and attempted to use the heat to reshape the Off! lid so it might fit with what I’d sewn. At first, it seemed like it would work, but the PVC was just too hard. I took a break from working at home to go to the studio and pick up the materials I’d left on my desk. I also enlisted Professor Ruby’s help in looking for a heat gun in order to have another go at reshaping the head, but we couldn’t find it.

I went home and finally saw the (huge) clear plastic bag that my comforter had come in. I was so grateful to find a material I could make mistakes with. The scarcity of some of my other materials made me afraid to experiment too much, but now I could try different proportions of plastic to fabric to my heart’s content. In the middle of this experimenting, I realized that I could sew darts in the plastic in order to give the shrimp more shape and structure. If I hadn’t destroyed my original plastic, I would never have tried it.

It’s a lot like the logic behind making a muslin version of a sewing pattern. You don’t want to ruin the (presumably) nicer and more scarce fabric you’re using for the final product, so you do a dry run with muslin and work out the issues in the pattern in a lower-stakes way. However, if I’m just using cheap quilting cotton for the final product, I’ll won’t bother with a muslin; I’ll just experiment. It’s a lot more fun.

I swear, all of this was relevant at some point.

I finally managed to attach the shrimp’s head to its body before I got too tired to continue. The whole process of making the body and attaching it to the head took 8 1/2 hours.