Art Oasis in Mexico City

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Maestro Gerardo Torres Gonzalez (center) tends an oasis in one of the world’s largest cities. Mexico City’s Bosque de Chapultepec is home to many wonders including Emperor Maximilian’s castle. Below the castle in a grove of eucalyptus trees you will find a house called Quinta Colorado. In the patio every Saturday and Sunday there are art classes. At the center of this school is an extraordinary art teacher, Maestro Torres. Anyone who finds their way to his class is welcome. The classes are free. Maestro Torres gets support for the project from the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes , the famed Mexico City art school where he studied.

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Carolina, one of the youngest artists in the open-air class.

Mexico has a long tradition of open-air and free art education. It was especially big in the 1930’s. It is wonderful to see the tradition continue. Maestro Torres told me he has been in the park for 6 years; before that he taught  classes for 11 years at another location. He has a truly amazing in his capacity to teach a class of diverse students of mixed abilities. Some of his students arrive with recycled copy paper and a single pencil. Others bring watercolors and proper sketchbooks. When I visited one young artist , Luis, was painting in oils. Maestro Torres works with what he gets, and treats every student with respect. Over the years I have observed many art teachers in action. This man is special.20131013-114118.jpg
My friend Diego works as a civil servant in a skyscraper at the metro stop Zapata.  Weekends he gladly rides the train a few extra stops to Chapultepec Park. Diego has no expectation of quitting his day job to become an artist. He told me the art class means so much to him because his office work is so very routine. At Quinta Colorado, Diego has a chance to do something creative and forget the stresses of his week.

Carolina, a talented little girl came with her grandfather, who sat behind her on a stone wall reading a novel while she painted. There was one older fellow with gray flecks in his beard and long hair tied up in an odd knot like a Hindu monk. His fingernails were painted black and he didn’t say much. Maestro Torres greeted every student with enthusiasm, and hopped from table to table giving encouragement and technical demonstrations.

Alberto, age 7, uses crayons for his art.
Alberto, age 7, uses crayons for his art.

Maestro Torres believes that copying photos is a fruitless way to learn to draw. He told me there must be a balance between observation and imagination. He has developed a number of quick exercises to facilitate imagination. One he calls the ‘Constellation.’ He peppers a page with random dots. Then with the side of a pencil, or a hexagonal bar of graphite, he connects some of the dots creating a balanced, but abstract, tonal composition. He then takes a quick breath. I noticed at this point he sometimes looks up into the trees for an instant. Then he finds something on the page. If he is working with a child, he might draw an animal. If he is working with an adult he can create a complete figurative drawing in a matter of minutes. He dates his drawings, signs them with a carved stamp and gives them freely to his students.
20131013-114219.jpgThe maestro is a firm believer in keeping a sketchbook. In fact, he keeps two. He was good enough to share these pages. Even his tiny pocket-sized Fabiano notebook demonstrates his mastery of the human figure and his delightful drawing ability with brush, pen, and pencil. Maestro Torres is working on a book about his teaching methods. I look forward to seeing it.  When I return to Chalputelpec Park, I know where to find him. Gracias, Maestro.

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Kutztown Beats Columbia!


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Kutztown Beats Columbia and Dartmouth and Netflix! 

Kutztown University will screen Cartoon College on March 28, 2013. Columbia University and Dartmouth screenings are not until April and who knows when it will show on Netflix? The Free screening for the KU community is Thurs, March 28, Sharadin Art Building, Rm 120, 7:30pm.

inky_solomonHere’s how the filmmakers describe their movie: “Each fall the Center for Cartoon Studies invites 20 aspiring cartoonists and graphic novelists to White River Junction, Vermont for a no-holds-barred education in comics. Those who complete the program earn an MFA and are ready to face the uncertainty of a career in one of the world’s most labor-intensive, drudgery-inducing art forms. CARTOON COLLEGE is their story.”

It features literary comics’ biggest stars, including Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Francoise Mouly, Scott McCloud, and CCS director, James Sturm.

Art here and above © Joseph Lambert
Art here and poster above © Joseph Lambert

Filmmakers Josh Melrod and Tara Wray funded this movie, in part, by a successful Kickstarter campaign. It has been on the film festival circuit from San Francisco to Palm Beach.

Last month it was a hit at Scotland’s Glasgow Film Fest. UK reviewer Henry Northmore’s wrote “Based in the sleepy town of White Water Junction in Vermont (which looks like an idyllic place to live, work and study), the students’ lives are a mix of geeky bohemia and intense pressure… If you are interested in comics this is an absolutely fascinating look at a new generation of artists/writers, …but even if you are only a casual fan of the medium it gives a human face to an artist’s passion and desire to connect with others via storytelling, highlighting the hard work and dedication involved in this oft overlooked art form.”

Ad from www.cartoonstudies.org
Ad from http://www.cartoonstudies.org for CCS Summer School 2013

In case you are wondering, tuition is north of $17,000 a year for the two-year Cartoon College MFA program. Cartoon College, the movie, is FREE  for the entire Kutztown U community, courtesy of the KU Communication Design Dept. and our student AIGA chapter. Be there: 3/28 @ 7:30pm, Sharadin Art Building. Movie trailer can be seen here.

From Cartoon College: The Movie, by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray
From Cartoon College: The Movie by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray

Kutztown Illustration students who are making zines for the upcoming MOCCAfest will share their work at a table in the lobby after the show!

Special thanks to CCS grad Joseph Lambert for permission to use his art on this page. He’ll be at MOCCAfest, too. His latest comics and illustrations can be found at www.submarinesubmarine.com.

Comics MFA? There is an alternative… No Joke.

Back in the ’80’s, when I told my pal Putka I was getting an MFA in illustration, he laughed, “What’s next?  -a Phd in Wallpaper Hanging?” What’s Next? Looks like the answer is Advanced Comics…

The SAW campus © SAW 2012
The SAW campus © SAW 2012

Stanford is a great university with one respected graphic novel class. But suddenly, universities across the country are offering complete advanced degrees in comics. CCS, the Center for Cartoon Studies, in Vermont has offered a Comics MFA for several years. CCS is not to be confused with CCA, California College of the Arts in San Francisco which is launching a new low-residency MFA in Comics in 2013.

A curious new educational option has sprung up in Florida. It is called SAW for Sequential Art Workshop. Cartoonist Tom Hart who taught for a decade at SVA in NYC has relocated to a storefront on So. Main St. in Gainesville. There, with a group of dedicated faculty and students, he has begun an intensive comics course. SAW’s one-year intensive program is not an accredited MFA, but it cost far less, $3600.

Student show at Saw, August, 2012, used with permission.
Student show at Saw, August, 2012, used with permission.

A student told me this, “Another reason I chose SAW over a degree program is that SAW is very inexpensive, but provides the opportunity to work with really amazing faculty. And though there’s no degree, I believe that in the art world your portfolio is more important than having a degree. So the quality of the education is more important than the diploma.”

Any advice for young artists interested in making zines and comics?
Same student, who now wishes to be anonymous: “Do just that – make zines and comics! Make them and get them out into the world. Trade them with other creators, go to conventions, put them online – get your work out there. And, even more importantly, keep making work. It can get discouraging when it feels like no one is listening, but you just have to keep on going. Don’t get too hung up on your early work, either – your first comics probably won’t be great, so finish them and move on. Set goals by the project. If you make a mistake or don’t like the way it’s turning out, finish the project and then try not to make that mistake in your next one – but don’t get discouraged. Also, even if you think you are going to draw in the most flat, cartoony style, still take the time to learn traditional art skills because your drawing can always benefit from them. If you don’t want to go to a traditional art school, look for local figure drawing sessions or evening classes taught by local artists. Or, better yet, apply to SAW! “

Indie alternatives to institutional higher education in the arts deserve support. Non-credit, off-the-grid, DIY art education centers are popping up all over. Tom Huck’s Woodcut Bootcamp in St. Louis, Maine’s Beehive Design Collective and Pittsburgh’s Cyberpunk Apocalypse are a few examples I’ve seen. I hope to see more. SAW has a fundraising Etsy page with original art by Vanessa DavisDash Shaw, John Porcellino and other important comics artists. Check it out.

Russ Spitkovsky: The Pigeon Has Landed

Rostislav “Russ” Spitkovsky by Kevin McCloskey 2012

Russ Spitkovsky makes things happen. He came to Kutztown as one of the 9 artists in the 2012 Print Invitational at the Miller Gallery.  The founder of the cutting edge art magazine Carrier Pigeon hung artwork from the latest issue at the Eckhaus Gallery on Main St. He circled back this week as a visiting artist to spend time with students.

oil monotype illustration by Russ Spitkovsky for “Hall of Mirrors”

Carrier Pigeon is an artist-driven publication. Russ and friends began it after grad school at SVA’s Illustration as Visual Essay MFA Program. Each issue has works by six fine artists, plus six writers, and six illustrators.

Carrier Pigeon cover by Cannonball Press, Martin Mazorra & Mike Houston

The magazine has included original etchings and woodcuts by Russ and guest artists including Marshall Arisman, Bruce Waldman and Frances Jetter. KU Prof. Evan Summer has contributed to several issues.

Russ speaking to overflow crowd in KU Print studio. Photo by Evan Summer

Russ shared some mind-boggling stories. Like the one about a meth addict who tells his wife he’s spending their life savings importing alpacas, but the alpacas are being held up in customs. There are no alpacas; he’s building a giant meth factory. The factory bursts into flames and meth maker gets encased in glass and, well, I don’t want to ruin the ending. The full story by Ryan Scamehorn called “Hall of Mirrors” can be found in Carrier Pigeon #3. It is fiction; I hope.

Illustration by Marshall Arisman for “Good Dog” by Erin Browne, Carrier Pigeon #7

Digression: Many years ago I sent a book idea to Lawrence Ferlenghetti’s City Lights Press. A few weeks later I got the best rejection letter ever. It said, ‘Your project is so interesting, you should publish it yourself. We are swamped publishing our own friends. Start your own press. Here are some resources…‘  Russ Spitkovsky never got that memo from City Lights, but certainly he embodies the D.I.Y. publishing spirit.

Kevin McCloskey, Moe Tierney, Russ Spitkovsky. Photo by Evan Summer

Russ was born in the Ukraine. Why do so many amazing printmakers come from Eastern Europe?  KU’s Print Invitational includes Michael Goro from Russia, Ivanco Talevski from Macedonia, Endi Poskovic from Sarajevo, and Russ. It occurred to me perhaps these artists find core concepts difficult to express in English and are therefore driven to excel at graphic communication. Russ provided a better insight into why so many extraordinary artists come from places once under the Soviet sphere of influence. Growing up in the Ukraine he showed a precocious talent for art. He was plucked from preschool and put in an art academy. He was drawing the human figure from plaster casts at the age of four.

Illustration by Russ Spitkovsky from Central Booking, his self-published visual essay.

On the night of January 3, 2009, Russ was walking down a Brooklyn street. The police stopped and searched him and found he was carrying a knife. It was an ordinary knife purchased at Home Depot. The NYPD decided it was a lethal weapon, “a gravity knife,” and threw him in jail. He spent the next 32 hours in an overcrowded holding cell at Brooklyn’s Central Booking. Charges were dropped, but Russ made art from the experience. Upon his release, drawing from memory, he transformed that grotesque night into a visual essay in book form. He published “Central Booking” via the print-on-demand publisher Blurb. The book was not a financial success, but led him to explore other self-publishing options.

Russ loves working with the likes of Martin Mazorra and Mike Houston of Brooklyn’s Cannonball Press. Russ calls Cannonball Press the pioneers of the indy press and affordable art movements. Russ advises art and illustration students not to hole up in their studios after graduation. “Find a co-op print shop; work among other artists.” He said the community of Robert Blackburn’s  NYC printmaking studio saved his sanity. He was able to get instant feedback on his art and stay in a creative loop.

Today, Russ works not only with graphic artists, but an ever-expanding community of playwrights, jugglers, Coney Island sideshow performers and puppeteers. Strange doors keep opening for Russ. Recently someone gifted Carrier Pigeon with a building in Gutenberg, NJ. To keep up with Carrier Pigeon news and events visit their Facebook page.

Justin Sanz, Eckhaus workers Nicole and Megan, Russ. Photo from http://www.eckhausgallery.org/

If you are fortunate enough to be in Kutztown, PA, get to Eckhaus to see the original art from Carrier Pigeon. There are copies of the latest issues for sale. Each issue costs $25. Twenty-five bucks is a lot of money for a magazine, but not a lot for a work of art.

Rare Birds of Lore

Out of the blue I got a note about Ryan and Audrey Durney’s Birds of Lore” Kickstarter project. I was impressed enough by this couple’s fantasy illustration project to become a low-level backer. I emailed them a few questions and asked to share some of their art here. 

Q. Other than Leo and Diane Dillon I can’t think of many husband/wife illustration teams.  What are the rewards of this creative partnership?

Ryan: My favorite thing about it, is that we speak the same language, even if we don’t always agree on things about the field. And, we sit right beside each other, sipping coffee and sketching and riffing off of each other’s direction and discovered influences. Sometimes, critiques get precarious-they can be given too early, or too late! But, it’s really rewarding to be in the same boat.  …we’ve rarely ever gotten to work on a complete idea together, which is one reason for the Kickstarter.

Mexican CU bird sketch © 2012 Audrey Durney

Q: Where did you two meet, the Kickstarter video says art school, but what art school?

Ryan: We met and fell in love at Columbus College of Art & Design. Back then CCAD  was like “military art school” they purposely overloaded you-so I don’t know how we even had time to date!? CCAD did a lot to prepare me for a career as an illustrator. However, at the time about half of the staff was anti-digital art, and I have a lot of bitter memories of instructors knocking my grade down just because I did assignments on the computer-meanwhile, I had been up all night at KINKOS trying to get one stupid final to print correctly!

Q: Can you tell me something about the CCAD illustration program, maybe a favorite prof, or most important class?

Ryan: Mr. Stewart McKissick was probably the most influential instructor for me. He really cared about preparing us for the real world, and he even forged a class where we competed against each other for real, paying assignments. I remember winning 2 of the 3. That was the kind of confidence boost I sorely needed so near to graduation. Audrey’s favorite was Ms. Tam Peterson for her energy and enthusiasm.

Q. Have you had some success freelancing illustration?

Ryan: Both Audry and I have won some awards and earned some respectable commissions. I make a modest living, with some good years -feast and famine, I suppose, but I’ve been happy doing it for over a decade. It’s really true that you just keep getting better and evolving. Audrey has taken a more stable road, working as a technical illustrator by day and freelancing via an agency at night, -tough but way more practical. My one complaint about making a living this way is the level at which freelancers are taxed. Also, illustration agents take the highest % of any creative endeavor, including music, acting, etc. at 25%, and art is one of the lowest in compensation. 

Q. Why Kickstarter vs. traditional publishing?

We can keep and manage the rights to our own work, and we get to finish a creative endeavor without corporate edits. I believe this brings the book much closer to an actual work of art. It’s being written and illustrated by unfettered artists, from start to finish. This is what the storytellers of olde did.

The Wila, or Vila, or Veela of Polish folklore. © 2012 Ryan Durney

Q. Who drew the Harpy (top image) and the Wila?

Ryan:  I did both the “Captive Harpy” and the “Wila.” I’m pleased with both. The Harpy is the more popular of those two (based on viewer feedback.) With the Wila, I tried to integrate pen-and-ink within the 3D. Sometimes that meant actually sculpting “ink-like” lines into the mesh, and sometimes that meant adding ink touches. That’s why you can see me using pens in the video. I’m 3D, but definitely experimental. I love mixing hand and digital media. The other thing about the Wila is that I was completely taken by an old etching. The Wila is homage to a very old engraving by Anton Eisenhoit (see below). Before anyone thinks it, yes-I agree that his original is better!

Q. Who did the little yellow bird blowing the horn, the Hercina?

Ryan: Audrey did the “Hercinia” bird, which is equally enjoyed by all. She  is a master of vector work and using Painter with vectors. Audrey and I are tilting our illustration styles in a few different directions, depending on what there is to say about each bird. The Hercinia is a direct homage to medieval bestiary art.

Note: As always: all art © the original artists. See a more Birds of Lore on the Kickstarter site. I have a hunch this project will fly.

Invite to Type Book Launch

Kutztown University Prof. Denise Bosler wrote our most popular guest post, Making it as an Illustrator.  She also knows a heck of a lot about typography and wrote the new book, Mastering Type, published by How. How is hosting her webinar, a virtual book launch, for Mastering Type on Tuesday, June 19 at 3pm. It is free, just register here.

I got an advance copy of the book. It is profusely illustrated with great work from designers around the world. For me it is exciting to see the inclusion of so many fine designs by Kutztown grads. There are award-winning works by star graduates: Jason Santa MariaSean CostikRoss Moody; and Amanda Geisinger.

Award-winning Middletown Lumber logo by Sean Costik

There is also art by recent grads including Cheryl Sheeler. The image below is from Cheryl’s visual essay on a most unusual wedding present – a pair fainting goats. This image was used in the book to demonstrate how hand-lettering can be an intrinsic part of an illustration.

Artwork © 2011 Cheryl Geiger Sheeler

If you can’t make virtual book talk, well, get the book, Mastering Type: The Essential Guide to Typography for Print and Web Design. There is a free online excerpt here.

Elizabeth Catlett 1915-2012

Mother and child, terra-cotta, approx. 14 inch tall. Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett died last week. She was an African-American artist and member of the Taller Grafica Popular, the famed Mexico City printmaking collective. Her Mexico City friends included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The U.S. obituaries generally referred to Ms. Catlett as a sculptor. In fact, the NY Times headline is Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96.

I was familiar with Catlett’s graphic work, but I’d never seen her sculpture. Oddly enough, I came across this one, above, when I went to MOMA to see the Diego Rivera show. The terra-cotta Mother and Child is small but has a monumental feel.

MOMA museum label for the print below.

I’ve written about my  2009 pilgrimage to the Taller Grafica Popular. I was struck then by how many international artists had produced work there, Elizabeth Catlett included. Art Historian Melanie Herzog wrote the book about Catlett, and a fine essay by Herzog on Catlett’s TGP work that can be found here.  This is a brief excerpt in which Catlett talks about her TGP experience:

“The criticism in the Taller was always positive, like somebody would say, “I think that you have a very good design, and it’s very clear, but why did you hide the hands?” And so they would say, “I can’t draw hands.” “Well, I’ll help you, or I’ll draw the hands.” Or they would say, “This symbolism has been used over and over, it’s time we had something new,” and so then they would have a general discussion of what you could use. . . . And it didn’t matter how many people worked on something, as long as it came out the best we could make it.”

Sharecropper, Elizabeth Catlett, printed with Jose Sanchez, TGP, Mexico City.

Sharecropper is one of Catlett’s master works. The safety-pin holding the coat together is a nice detail; I only noticed it now. Every deliberate mark Catlett made on this print adds up to a portrait of dignity.

Update: View a larger sampling of Catlett’s artistic output in all its diversity at Ourstorian.

The two Elizabeth Catlett works on view at the MOMA.