If you’ve ever seen my project Rockwell’s Camera Phone, then you know how much I love Americana, especially Norman Rockwell. His paintings capture something innocent and profound about our daily lives, as if every moment has the potential for wonder and surprise. It’s fun to think that the everyday is an adventure. This is part of the reason I really enjoy American events like baseball games, Thanksgiving, and, well, chili cook offs. A couple of weeks ago I went to a chili cook off in North Park, San Diego, and I snapped some pictures.
I’ve been fooling around with Adobe Illustrator lately, trying to become better at my job as a creative director and learn to add more interesting content to my blog and journalism. It’s clear that if you’re going to be a writer in the digital age, then you should have an understanding of creative software like Photoshop, Adobe Premier, Final Cut, Illustrator, etc. (just look at BuzzFeed), and I want to improve my skills so I can create endlessly across multiple platforms. I’ve come across some great designers recently that have inspired me to work on the craft even more. I have a way to go, but that’s fine. My creative life is taking new shapes and forms, and I’ll follow this where it leads. Of course, my first love will always be the written word, but I have been finding design inspiration everywhere I look. The designers that have really inspired me recently are David Plunkert, James Yang, and Whitney Sherman.
As I begin to experiment in this new medium and look to other designers for inspiration, I understand that this is only going to take my writing to the next level because it will add a visual element to correspond with the text. (Of course, illustrations will not make the actual writing better.) But this train of thought brought me to a new idea for a blog post. I started to think about how painters have influenced my actual writing. When I was teaching freshmen composition, I would always bring in paintings to help my students understand how to create detailed and vivid scenes in their personal essays, and I would point to painters to illustrate the way that details can powerfully convey meaning. I started to “sketch” scenes in my journal, after reading Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, and I kept them in my journals. In some ways, painters have actually inspired me to create stories and poetry more than some authors. So I wanted to blog, today, about three painters who have influenced my writing.
3. Vincent Van Gogh
I didn’t think much about Vincent Van Gogh when I was younger, but then my father and I went on a trip to Amsterdam and stopped at the Van Gogh Museum. I stepped into that museum without expecting anything other than a cultural experience, and I walked out completely changed. What I loved about the museum was that his paintings were curated in a chronological fashion, so as you moved throughout the museum, you would begin to see Vincent’s story take shape. It hit me hard, because like Theo, Vincent brother, I have also had loved ones who have been touched by mental illness. I won’t delve into too many personal details, but for the longest time, mental illness brought my family pain, and it was reassuring to be able to witness the same pain and suffering yet beautiful moments that Vincent and Theo shared in their letters and in Vincent’s paintings. From this experience, I was able to see that beauty and profundity could come from so much confusion and struggle. It put me on the path to start beginning to write about some of the incidents I’ve witnessed in my life. It put me on a path to defend the mentally ill. It put me on a path to tell stories.
2. Neo Rauch
I first came across Neo Rauch when I was studying at the Prague Summer Writing Program sponsored by Western Michigan University, and a local museum was featuring some of his work. I had never heard of Neo Rauch, but when I walked into the artistic space I had a similar experience as in the Van Gogh Museum. He was blending elements from comic books and suburban life from the 1950s with elements of science fiction and the surreal. What I admired most about Neo Rauch was that he was able to create universes in his paintings, somewhat like Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury in their fiction, that seemed fantastic and surreal but were governed by clear rules. The characters in his paintings are able to move back and forth between separate worlds (in the physical and mental sense), and this forces his work to exist in that weird space between the realistic and the absurd, because his images are rendered with an almost hyperbolic tangibility that can only be compared to having a dream where you know that you’re in a dream but everything is so clear, sensual, and defined that it feels like you’re awake. Ah, that was a long thought.
There is one painting that always startled me by Neo Rauch. It’s above. It seems to suggest that someone is sleeping, and I can’t help but feel the characters in their white coats are nothing but figures from a dream. They seem from another time. I want to be able to create stories where dream worlds and physical universes almost fold into each other. I want to find a way to write between the dream and the real world. Two writers that I admire who pull this off exceptionally well are Denis Johnson and Marcel Ayme. I want to find a way to capture this quality. I’m far off, but it’s a goal.
3. Norman Rockwell
Well, if you’ve been following my blog or my writing, then you might be aware of the project I created called “Rockwell’s Camera Phone.” Basically, it was trying to imagine how Norman Rockwell would have seen the world today. What really fascinates me about Norman Rockwell is that he was able to take the most ordinary moments of American life and make them universal. He was able to take a young boy sitting at a diner next to a cop and transform that image into one of the most iconic images in American history. He was able to make art and illustration speak directly to as many people as possible. But most importantly, he was able to find the poetry in the everyday. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of a poet like Frank O’Hara. Of course, they’re different realms and styles, but they were able to find the sublime in the old man sitting on the crate begging for change or just the general activity of a Main Street in New England. They were artists who were able to find the sublime in running to finish errand. They were the artists who found the sublime in walking down the street or on their way to pick up a sandwich for lunch. They were the artists who found that life, ordinary,everyday ritualistic life, was the sublime. I’m from a small town in New England. Art still exists in those streets. There is still poetry. There is still beauty, even if it feels ordinary. I would love to tap into that, and I’m trying.
So I’m not sure if this at all wraps up to a cohesive whole. But these are painters that I admire tremendously, and they’ve made me want to write. Okay, I’m tired and want to watch Boardwalk Empire. Leave a comment below and let me know some of the painters who have inspired you in your creative life.
I’ve created a new project that poses the question: “How would Norman Rockwell see our world today?” Check it out here: http://www.rockwellscameraphone.com. Also, big news coming regarding The Working Poet Radio Show. Stay tuned.