Sunday, December 11, 2011

Finding inspiration where you least expect it

Seeking inspiration: Take the “Work of Art” challenge
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 3, 2011

“La Fille aux Yeux Verts” by Henri Matisse
There are things about Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” that really annoy me—like mentor Simon de Pury’s forced enthusiasm (Be bold! Be amazing! Go for it!), host China Chow’s icy goodbye send-offs (“It’s time for you to go.”), and petty clashes between the contestants. But, on the whole, I’m fascinated by the weekly challenge to create museum-quality pieces in a relatively limited amount of time and space.

Typically the hosts take the remaining group of young artists somewhere in New York City, to a location or experience that will generate inspiration for their work of art. This season, their inspiration has come from some pretty diverse sources: kitsch, creative movement called Parkour, children’s art, pop art, newspaper headlines, a brick wall in Brooklyn, and a disassembled Fiat 500.

Although the source of artistic inspiration can be just about anything, I’m intrigued by the notion of an imposed source of inspiration. A group of artists are actually playing along each week with “Work of Art,” taking the same challenges and posting their results at (What will these metal artists do with a brick wall in Brooklyn?)

In the same spirit, I decided to seek my own artistic inspiration from some unlikely sources. I chose three new books as my point of departure, and created three crafty projects. Here are the books—all of which I highly recommend—and the results:

Book #1: PARIS PORTRAITS by Harriet Lane Levy
When she died in 1950, Levy left the San Francisco Museum
 of Modern Art a trove of art, including La Fille aux Yeux
 Verts (The Girl with Green Eyes) which she bought from
 Matisse in 1908. I used Web images of this painting and several
 others to create Matisse-inspired pendants on Scrabble tiles
or in small frames.
My favorite movie of 2011 is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in which Owen Wilson’s character is magically transported back 100 years to a romanticized Paris where he meets and hangs out with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Dali and many other artistic giants of the era. San Francisco native Harriet Lane Levy had her own real-life close encounters with Matisse, Picasso and other legendary artists when she and Alice B. Toklas, joined their friend Sarah Stein in Paris in the summer of 1908. Levy recalls her 2-year Paris adventure in, “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle,” a beautiful little memoir that has not been published in its entirety until now. In it, she recalls the eccentricities of her Paris friends, her regret at not buying a $50 Picasso from Sarah Stein, and learning to love modern art—Henri Matisse’s paintings in particular. Like Woody Allen’s movie, “Paris Portraits” is an enchanted portal to a time of unequaled charm and luminosity

Project #1: An audacious pendant
When Harriet Lane Levy died in 1950, she left the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a trove of art, including “La Fille aux Yeux Verts” (The Girl with Green Eyes) which, when her friends declined it, she bought from Matisse in 1908 while in Paris. Like Harriet Levy, I didn’t initially take to Matisse’s modernist style; but the joyous, audacious color in his portraits of women gradually won me over. So, I made pendants using printed images from Matisse and Matisse-inspired paintings, reduced to a size tiny enough to fit on the back of a Scrabble tile. There are several websites and YouTube tutorials that show you how. Just Google “Scrabble tile pendant” or “resin jewelry” for instructions.

Book #2: JUST MY TYPE: A BOOK ABOUT FONTS by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield likes to tackle topics that make people wrinkle up their nose and ask, “How could that be a good book?” Among other historical topics, he’s written about postage stamp collecting and the color mauve. Reading his latest book “Just My Type: A Book About Fonts,” I found myself unexpectedly absorbed in the history and evolution of the ampersand, the controversial switch by Ikea from Futura to Verdana, and a typeface called Gotham, that has been embraced by both President Obama and Sarah Palin. Fonts carry a wide range of subliminal messages that go way beyond mere words, and Garfield has wisely included lots of visual examples to demonstrate the subtle powers of type.

“Retrofonts” by Gregory Stawinski is a good follow-up that allows you to simply bask in the lovely inventiveness of over 400 classic 19th and 20th century fonts. It includes a CD with 222 featured fonts, although many of these can be downloaded for free from the internet.

I used “Retrofonts” to find the distinctive font “Renold Art Deco”
 which had great Fs, Is, Es and Ss, and downloaded it onto my
 computer using I then created stencils so I could
 spray-paint the letters for my address along the driveway fence.
Project #2: A distinctive address
To make your address more distinctive, spell out your numbers with letters in a distinctive font. Flip through “Retrofonts” to find fonts with good capitalized letters occurring in your address. Use to downloaded your font, then enlarge and print to the desired size, taping pieces of paper together if necessary.

Create a stencil by taping each large letter to poster board and cutting through paper and board using a craft knife. (If you have an “O” or “R” or any other letter with an island in the middle, leave narrow connecting bridges to hold the center of the “O” or “R” in place.) Tape or tack the letters to your fence or wall and add newsprint extensions to catch any overspray. Apply three layers of spray paint for good coverage.

After an afternoon of cutting and folding two
 2011 calendars, I had created three sets of
 origami earrings and several origami gift boxes. 

Origami can be complex and intimidating at times, but the projects in this book are refreshingly simple and practical. The authors show you how to make useful objects such as boxes, checkers sets, photo cubes, bowls and envelopes out of found papers. At a time of year when calendars, catalogs, gift wrap and greeting cards are quickly filling up your recycling bin, Trash Origami offers these paper products—and just about any other kind of waste paper—a great second life.

Project #3: The gift is origami
Use the instructions in “Trash Origami” or search to make gift boxes with lids from 2011 calendars, used gift wrap, or other colorful, not-too-thick source of paper. Take “Trash Origami” one step further by also folding a gift to go inside the box. Search the Web for instructions on making an origami pendant or earrings. Use shredded paper as fluff inside the box and fold an origami decoration for the top and you’ll have a completely upcycled, handmade gift.

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