Thursday, December 13, 2012

CD Package: Christ is Our Cornerstone

I was recently privileged to provide the packaging art for this collection of wonderful and inspiring psalms, hymns and service music by my friend and composer-extraordinaire, Gregory Wilbur. You (whoever you are) should get a copy!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dave Brubeck: 1920-2012

Such a talented, genial man will be sorely missed, but fondly remembered. Take a few minutes to watch this truly magical moment.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Computer Repair AND Graphic Design…

I was confronted with this yesterday, while stopped at a traffic light during a family excursion to Chattanooga. There are so many levels of messed-up here—not the least of which is a hand-rendered version of a logo (at bottom) that I actually illustrated (in one of its many iterations) a number of years ago.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Raft, The River, and the Robot

Here’s another book cover—prominently featuring illustration this time!—that I recently finished for L. B. Graham. Quite obviously, I hope, The Raft, the River, and the Robot is a dystopian take on Huckleberry Finn. Lots of fun, this one was!

Monday, October 8, 2012


Though it has received decidedly less notoriety and far fewer accolades, Anonymous is nonetheless for lovers of Shakespeare what Amadeus is for lovers of Mozart. That is to say, its strength lies not in historical or biographical accuracy, but rather in the delightful way that it highlights the wonder and fascination that are evoked by the subject’s body of work.

Utilizing the foundational premise (a rather hotly contested minority position within the academic community) that the historical William Shakespeare did not produce (indeed, could not have produced) the works that have been attributed to his name and that they come to us instead from the pen of his contemporary, Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, this film layers on a good deal of highly-conjectured though artfully contrived what-if-ing to present one possible (to use the term liberally) scenario that might account for this mother of all literary misattributions. Is the proposed scenario a plausible one? On the whole, hardly—no more so than the assertion that it was Salieri who commissioned Mozart’s Requiem Mass, or that he actually murdered (or at least attempted to murder) his infinitely more talented rival. But let’s remember first of all that Shakespeare himself (whoever he was) took a good deal of historical license in his own plays, for the sake of—shall we call it—“dramatic enhancement”, so why should any cinematic treatment of his life necessarily be judged by a higher standard?

Let me get just a few caveats out of the way at the beginning:

If you’re not freshly read-up on all the movers and shakers of the day, both literary and political—and possibly even if you are—the rather constant flash-back/flash-forward interplay that is the film’s dominant modus operandi will likely prove to be somewhat bewildering.

The Puritans are typically and rather unnecessarily slandered, maligned, and misrepresented. Others have set that record straight quite effectively, so I won’t bother to get into it here. (Although I do have to point out that, ironically, while it would be a stretch to classify the historical Cecils as Puritans, a Puritan connection of some sorts between Shakespeare/de Vere has been proposed.)

The licenses taken with reality occasionally approach the absurd. These would include the presentation of the Tudor Rose as an actual flower (the simultaneously red and white rose is a purely heraldic device), and the idea the Queen Elizabeth’s funeral procession took place on the frozen Thames River. (No doubt the latter was contrived by director Roland Emmerich simply because it would provide opportunity for a few seconds of some way-cool CGI footage. And, admittedly, it does, but he should have saved that for a much-needed screen adaptation of Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates, which I read for the first time just this past summer. After seeing this film I think he might be a really good candidate to pull that off, but I digress…) And then of course, there’s the big whopper of a “revelation” towards the end—the most brazen conjecture of them all in a film packed full of them. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say it will definitely color any subsequent re-viewings.

But those flaws duly noted, the strengths of this film are considerable: There are some really fine performances by just about everyone involved. The sets and costumes are superb. (De Vere's study is a source of fascination in itself.) The footage is generously but tastefully interspersed (in my opinion) with some really beautiful and convincing CGI depictions of Elizabethan London. We are treated to some extraordinary and compelling re-creations of Shakespearean theatre as imagined in the intimacy of its original setting. Several of The Bard’s plays are given this treatment, most prominently Henry V, one of my personal faves, and the presentations are quite stirring.

And this last point leads me to say that, if at any point the film approaches genius, it is in allowing all of the intrigue to serve as a decorative frame for the art itself. It is the plays and poems themselves, as well as the emotions they inevitably conjure up in others—wonder, delight, awe, rapture, jealousy—that assume and retain center stage, leaving all questions as to their authorship to fade silently into the wings. And most importantly, this film provides potent affirmation that art and artistry vastly overshadow politics as long-term molders of human society, the latter fading to mere incidental importance with the passing of time. As this film’s version of Ben Jonson so memorably reminds us:

“My lady, you, your family, even I, even Queen Elizabeth herself will be remembered solely because we had the honor to live whilst your husband put ink to paper.”

Monday, September 17, 2012

America's Bloodiest Day

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Union and Confederate forces clashed just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the Antietam Creek, in what marked the bloodiest single day in American military history. (The day’s casualties on both sides totaled around 23,000, which, to put that number in perspective, is roughly double the Allied casualties suffered in the D-Day Invasion eighty-two years later.) The battle was effectively a draw, but it did put an end to the Confederates’ first attempted invasion of northern territory. Although the Battle of Gettysburg, fought almost a year later, is generally regarded as the turning point of the War, a strong case can be made, as here, that Antietam’s significance was perhaps even greater. And the fact that the entire campaign turned upon the “accidental” loss and discovery (by hapless Union soldiers) of a detailed copy of Lee’s plan of battle provides a profound lesson in how the the inscrutable operations of Divine Providence should never be dismissed or discounted, whether in relation to the most mean and humble or to the most grandiose of human affairs.

The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) also holds the distinction of being the first battle whose aftermath was extensively recorded and displayed in photographic form, to jarring effect in an era which still clung to a highly romanticized view of warfare. Alexander Gardner’s images of dead and decomposing corpses were displayed a month later at colleague Matthew Brady’s gallery in New York City. One review famously noted: “We recognized the battlefield as a reality, but a remote one, like a funeral next door. Mr. Brady has brought home the terrible earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards, he has done something very like it.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

CD Package: Jamie Soles, Giants & Wanderers

Jamie Soles is simply in a class all by himself. If I were to say something like “he’s the best children’s Bible-song artist I know of, bar none”, true as that might be, it would fall woefully short. While the majority of his repertoire is slanted toward the younger end of the spectrum, where it has undeniable appeal, the depth and maturity of his lyrics, as well as his musical craftsmanship, guarantee that listeners of all ages will find plenty to delight in.

Drawing inspiration from the likes of James Jordan and Peter Leithart, Jamie’s songs avoid the trite moralisms and rather superficial sentimentality that are all too prevalent within the genre in favor of an approach that revels in typology and narrative. There’s moral instruction to be gained for sure, but just as in Scripture, the moral lessons (which are often, however well we might think we know our Bibles, not exactly the ones we assume are there or the ones expect to find) are woven into a tapestry of richly ornamented symbolism, and stories—within stories, within Story—of breathtaking beauty, featuring characters of achingly familiar humanity.

So I was of course deeply honored when Jamie asked me to design and illustrate his latest album package, Giants and Wanderers. There’s even a very moving song about Bezalel featured in the mix, so need I say any more?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Book Cover: Avalon Falls

Whew! As should be evident from the frequency of my posts for the last 2-3 months, I’ve been fairly inundated with work, which is a great problem to have, so I’m not complaining! But now that I’m at least out in front of the wave (for now, anyway) I should have a steady stream of new work to show off in the coming days. Here’s one to kick things off: author L. B. Graham contacted me back in the spring to do covers for a couple of his upcoming titles. Avalon Falls is a crime novel, which represents something of a new departure for L. B., who has built a solid reputation heretofore as a fantasy author. Set in a fictional small town in Colorado, the story incorporates elements of murder, suspense, and psychological angst—all or most of which you can hopefully infer from the cover art.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The "Soap Opera Effect" and the Tenacious Power of Associations

I’m sure this is really old news for all of my friends involved in film or video production, and I'm pretty sure that I had read or heard about it somewhere myself previously, but I had my first-ever first-hand experience with it this afternoon, and it was pretty startling.

We were visiting my in-laws, who just got a new HDTV (my own family is still stuck in the 20th century in this regard), and one of the Harry Potter movies was being broadcast on network TV. After maybe 60 seconds of viewing I began saying out loud “Why do I feel like I’m watching a soap opera?” I pulled out my iPhone and started to Google, and, sure enough, the string “new tv soap opera effect” popped up by the time I had keyed in the first three words. This article explains what’s going on quite effectively. Long story short, for at least the past 40 years or so, most made-for-TV productions have, for reasons of cost-effectiveness, been shot on video rather than film. The effective frames-per-second rate for video is typically twice that of the long-established standard for film: 60fps for video vs. 30fps for film. (Actually, the standard is 24fps for film, but without getting too technical, a fairly insignificant conversion up to an effective rate of 30fps has been standard practice for decades when converting celluloid for TV/video presentation.) Modern HDTVs typically come with a default setting (which can usually be tweaked or disabled altogether via a little bit of digging through the menu options) which impose an effective rate of 60fps (or even greater in some cases) on everything.

These facts make for a fascinating case study of technological irony and the durability, for better or for worse — in this case almost certainly worse, of subliminal associations. The irony stems from the fact that, while objectively it’s an undisputed fact that 60fps results in much more fluid and life-like moving imagery (especially great for sports viewing), the overall cheaper production values generally associated with TV/video as compared to film are likely to cause a viscerally negative reaction from viewers when they encounter something that they know is supposed to be in the latter category but which has been translated into the former. It just immediately looks and feels wrong. Really wrong.

I would hypothesize (someone’s probably done a doctoral dissertation on the subject already, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to read online, but I haven’t bothered to delve any further yet) that the above holds true for folks who are roughly my age and older, who grew up with a sharp line of demarcation between TV and film, but falls off rapidly among younger viewers. Indeed, my thirteen-year-old son was able to acknowledge the difference, but still favored the 60fps/120hz setting anyway. And with the transition of the film industry to digital technology really picking up steam in recent years, it’s a sure bet that directors and producers will be less and less willing to be tied down to an arbitrarily lower standard of visual quality, imposed only by the expectations of “old fogey” viewers like myself — nor am I necessarily arguing that they should be, various factors being more-or-less equal. But the transition is definitely going to take some getting used to for us old-timers. Case in point: all you Tolkien fans better brace yourselves, because this will factor into Peter Jackson’s production of The Hobbit, set for release this coming December, in a big way.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ab-solutely Shocking!

But looking on the bright side, the price of being suckered (adjusted for inflation) has gone down dramatically!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Way back when I was a graphic design student in college, my classmates and I would frequently speak with chagrin of being “Kinkoed”. Now, in similar fashion, I guess one has to increasingly guard against the possibility of being “Googled”, although I think it’s probably fair to say that anyone who opts to weed the garden in such a state of (dis)attire probably has it coming.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Venus Kisses the Sun: a Happy Marriage of Science and Art

Yesterday’s transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun, a rare astronomical event, prompted me to break out my old telescope (a Christmas gift from when I was around twelve). It’s a pretty cheap refractor, but even so, it provided a remarkably good viewing experience for my family and I. Here are a few shots.

Despite the fact that Venus’ interior orbit to the Earth’s brings it between us and the sun fairly often (once every 584 days), the slight difference in the angle of the two planets’ orbital planes makes the exact alignment needed to produce a transit a much more rare occurrence than one would expect. They occur in a curious rhythm of 8 year pairs, separated by alternating gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years, making a complete cycle of 243 years. (The previous pair was in 1874 and 1882. There was one in 2004, the first of this pair, but there won’t be another until 2117-2125.) The transit of Venus was first observed by the English astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639. The parishioners of St. Michael’s church, in Horrock’s home village of Hoole, paid tribute to him and to his discoveries in the dedication of two stained glass window roundels.

The first, located most prominently in the central position behind the altar, shows the symbol for Venus within the sun’s yellow sphere. The surrounding Latin phrase is translated, quite predictably, as Venus seen in the midst of the sun, along with the Latin date of the 1639 transit. (VIII [Ante Diem] Kalendas Decembres = 8 Days before the Kalends of December = November 24; MDCXXXIX = 1639)

The other window, along the aisle, sports a rather romanticized (and inaccurate - he projected the sun’s image quite precisely onto a piece of paper, rather than a sheet) depiction of Horrocks’ observation of the event. The Latin phrase below, Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem, translates as Behold! What a marvelous spectacle, and the answer to so many prayers! (Horrocks, on the conviction that his own detailed observations of the planet’s motions were more accurate and reliable, had defied Kepler by predicting that 1639 would produce an actual, rather than a near-miss transit, as the venerable astronomer had foretold, and was proved correct.)

It’s a real shame that art and science are routinely set at odds in our own day, and more specifically that “science” so often takes a myopic approach to the exclusion of the bigger picture. The mechanics behind an astronomical event like a Venus transit are certainly fascinating in their own right, but the wonder of it is multiplied when you realize that such an event is merely one step of a rapturously beautiful and intricately choreographed series of musical dances that are spinning around us and over us all the time. If you want to learn to appreciate it more, this delightful little volume is a great place to start.

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
Psalm 19:1-4a

…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:7  

Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise him in the heights. Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts. Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
Psalm 148:1-3

Friday, May 11, 2012

Forbes Advocates the Essentiality of Good Design

Adam Swann recently published an article for Forbes entitled “Welcome to the Era of Design”. In summary, today’s consumers expect sharp, well-thought-out design, and anyone who wants to cultivate any substantial degree of positive consumer awareness has to be willing to make the investment.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Casey Jones' Last Ride

The most famous train wreck in U. S. history occurred in the early morning hours of April 30, 1900, when a passenger express piloted by John Luther “Casey” Jones plowed into the tail end of a disabled freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi. A resident of Jackson, Tennessee, the 6' 4" Jones had already achieved near-legendary status during nine years as an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad. Bold and brave, perhaps almost to the point of recklessness, he once climbed out onto the very tip of the “cowcatcher” of his moving locomotive to snatch up a young girl who had frozen in fear on the tracks. In what might be taken as an additional touch of vanity (though it was fairly common practice for engineers of the period) he possessed a custom-built whistle, a six-fluted calliope that produced a distinctive, mournful, “whip-poor-will” call, which he would have mounted to his assigned locomotive. But it was his relentless commitment to punctuality—making up for lost time under nearly impossible circumstances had become a particular specialty of his—that really made him the darling of his superiors at the I.C.R.R., and which sealed his fate on that dark, foggy night.

At the throttle of the northbound Chicago & New Orleans Limited, Casey pulled into Memphis, Tennessee, per his usual m. o., exactly on time, which was just before midnight, on Sunday, April 29. Though his shift for the evening was supposed to be over at that point, upon discovering that the scheduled engineer for the corresponding southbound run was ill, Jones volunteered to double-back with it as far as Canton, Mississippi, 188 miles away. After delays associated with the switch (including mounting Casey's “Whip-poor-will” whistle atop assigned Engine No. 382, a powerful locomotive with 6' driving wheels), the “Cannonball”, as it was popularly called, pulled out of Memphis 95 minutes behind schedule. Running at top speeds of around 80 mph, Casey and fireman Sim Webb had shaved 55 minutes off the delay by the time they made a stop for water in Grenada, Mississippi, 102 miles into the run. As they neared Vaughan, Mississippi, just ten miles from their destination, the delay had been whittled down to a mere handful of minutes, and, with nothing but “fast track” (i.e. no speed-restricted curves) ahead, Casey bragged to Webb that they would make it into Canton “on the advertised” time of 4:05 AM after all.

But unexpectedly, a complicated “saw-by” procedure involving two overly-long freight trains on a siding at Vaughan went awry when a bursted air hose left several cars and the caboose of the southbound freight sticking out onto the main line. As “Ole 382” rounded a gentle left hand curve, fireman Webb was the first to discern the lights of the freight’s caboose through the thick fog ahead, and he frantically alerted the engineer of the impending disaster. Casey immediately threw the wheels in reverse, applied the emergency airbrakes, laid on the whistle, and ordered his fireman to jump. With 300' left between the two trains and closing fast, Webb reluctantly obeyed. The engine plowed through the caboose, one freight car of baled hay, and another of shelled corn before leaving the track, rolling onto its side, and expiring in a sickening carnage of twisted metal, splintered wood, and escaping steam. Through self-sacrificial bravery that was the hallmark of his era, Casey, in his final moments, slowed the train from an estimated 75 mph down to about 35 mph at the point of collision, ensuring that his own would be the only fatality. (His mangled corpse was pulled from the wreckage shortly thereafter. Sim Webb was knocked unconscious and suffered a dislocated shoulder as as result of his leap, and a few other passengers and crew members sustained non-life-threatening injuries.)

The wreck and Jones’ bravery in particular have been commemorated in numerous ballads and songs throughout the intervening century (some with scarcely more than nominal connection to the actual events), making the name of “Casey Jones” a genuine American folk icon. Casey Jones Village, featuring a fine restaurant, country store, and railroad museum, right next to Casey’s old home in Jackson, Tennessee, is definitely worth a stop if you’re ever traveling I-40 between Memphis and Nashville.

The above artwork was done by yours truly as a companion piece (obviously) to the one of the locomotive General covered in my previous post.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Great Locomotive Chase

A century-and-a-half ago this fine spring day (Saturday, April 12, 1862), an early morning passenger train pulled out of Atlanta, Georgia, bound northward for Chattanooga, Tennessee. After making several stops just north of Atlanta, including Marietta, where a somewhat curious party of about twenty men boarded, the train rolled into Big Shanty (Kennesaw) at about 6AM for a scheduled 20 minute breakfast stop (for crew members as well as passengers) at a hotel adjacent to the tracks. The sumptuous southern fare had barely been served when the train’s conductor, William A. Fuller, happened to glance out the window, and then cried out in disbelief as he saw the locomotive, manned by some of the strangers who had boarded at Marietta, speed away, carrying with it three empty freight cars that were coupled behind the tender, and leaving the rest of the train behind.

Conductor Fuller, along with the engineer and another railroad official, at first believing the thieves were likely deserters from a nearby Confederate training encampment, set off in pursuit on foot. In fact, the score of men who had hijacked the General, as the engine was called (locomotives in the romantic, early days of steam typically had names in addition to mere numbers), were Yankee spies whose audacious design was to tear up track, burn bridges and cut telegraph wires all the way to Chattanooga, in coordination with a planned surprise attack toward that city from the west, along the Tennessee-Alabama border, by a modest-sized Union force. With the railroad severely disabled, it was supposed, the Confederates at Chattanooga would be unable to receive vital supplies and reinforcements from Atlanta, and the city would readily fall into Federal hands.

And the scheme almost worked. James J. Andrews, the charismatic leader of the raid, managed to connive and sweet-talk his way through and around every difficulty and every suspicious objector they met along the way. But despite this, several key factors began to work against the raiders. The recent rainy weather hampered their attempts to set fire to the bridges and trestles. The track was also jammed by a series of unscheduled freight trains being rushed south from Chattanooga, which caused significant and unexpected delays. (The raid actually occurred a day behind that which had originally been coordinated, and the Confederates at Chattanooga had already been spooked by the Union force's capture of Huntsville, Alabama the day before.) But perhaps most significantly, the tenacity of the pursuing railroad crew had been wholly unanticipated. Having started the chase on foot, Fuller and company soon commandeered a pole car, then a series of locomotives, and steadily gained on the raiders throughout the day. As the afternoon wore on, the pursuers, now aboard the locomotive Texas, which they were obliged to run in reverse, began to draw within whistle shot, and finally within sight of the fleeing raiders. But the General was running critically low on fuel and, with the pursuers hot on their heels, the raiders were forced to abandon it a few miles short of the Tennessee line and scatter to the woods, “every man for himself”. All 22 of the conspirators were eventually captured and eight of them, including Andrews, were hanged as spies.

The General, after repairs for minor damage sustained during the course of the raid, went promptly back into service for the Western & Atlantic Railroad. It sustained heavy damage during the conflagration of Atlanta in 1864, as can be seen in this photograph, which shows it (or what is left of it) parked on the tracks close to an exploded ammunition depot. After extensive rebuilding, it continued active service for a couple more decades, and then, over the next eighty years, underwent at least two refurbishings, touring the country for various Civil War commemorations. Today it rests in The Southern Musem, in Kennesaw, just beside the tracks and only yards away from the spot where Andrews and his fellow raiders made off with it on that April morn long ago. (The Texas, following a somewhat parallel fate, now resides inside Atlanta’s Cyclorama.)

The illustration at top was done by myself a number of years ago to hang in my sons’ bedroom.

One of the greatest films of the silent era, Buster Keaton’s The General was inspired by and (very) loosely based on the events of the Andrews Raid. That film in turn inspired the iconic 1972 poster art shown above, by master designer/illustrator David Lance Goines. Disney’s 1956 film version of the adventure is quite faithful to the actual events, and also a must-see. Here’s a great clip, featuring Slim Pickens as Texas engineer Peter Bracken. (Note the bacon frying on the the firebox door.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Allegri's Miserere from Memory

1770 A.D. Rome. The Sistine Chapel. It is Wednesday in Holy Week. Several hours before dawn, worshippers assemble in the famous chapel, adorned with the legendary frescoes of Michelangelo, for the Tenebrae service. Among them are an Austrian gentleman (the unique nature of this particular service draws visitors from all over Europe) and his teenage son. The service itself consists of a ritual extinguishing of candles, accompanied by readings, prayers, and musical settings of appointed texts. Most notable among these latter is a setting of Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus - Have mercy upon me, O God) composed a century-and-a-half prior by Gregorio Allegri. An aura of mystique surrounds this musical work, reported to be an exceptionally beautiful and intricately polyphonic interplay between two choirs, totaling nine separate voices. So highly is it prized by the Roman Church, that transcribing or performing the music elsewhere is forbidden under the threat of excommunication.

The service proceeds. The glorious Miserere is sung, to the enraptured delight of all present, especially those guests who are hearing it for the first time. As the service concludes, a final lit candle is briefly hidden away under the altar and then reproduced, providing just enough light for the worshippers to find the exit. As they file out silently, the Austrian gentleman looks down with upraised eyebrows toward his son. In the dim light, the son returns his father's questioning glance with a precocious grin and a wink of the eye. Later in the day, back in their quarters elsewhere in the city, the boy takes pen to paper and transcribes, from memory, Allegri’s Miserere from beginning to end. The pair return again to the chapel for the Good Friday Tenebrae Service, the only other time in the whole year when the piece is performed. This second hearing furnishes opportunity for the boy to make the few additional mental notes he needs in order to perfect the transcription.

The father and son are, of course, Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was fourteen at the time. During their subsequent travels, they shared the transcription with a British historian, who took a copy home with him to London and published it the following year. When it became known who was responsible, the Pope, rather than excommunicating Mozart, instead heaped laudations upon the boy for his impish genius. The ban was lifted, and today Allegri’s Miserere is among the most highly regarded of a cappella choral works.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Secret of Kells

Today being St. Patrick’s Day, I’m reminded of a plug I meant to give for a movie I saw for the first time a few weeks ago. The Secret of Kells is a delightfully animated film which involves a fictional story (populated by some quasi-historical characters) about the creation (and preservation) of the famed Book of Kells. The animation style is refreshingly and uniquely stylized in a way that pays homage to the artistry of the text around which it revolves.

As a rather interesting aside which I was unaware of prior to watching the film, a tall central siege tower, as is prominently featured in the movie, was indeed a feature of the Abbey of Kells, and possibly of other Celtic monasteries of the period. As my pastor pointed out to me in a conversation about the film, this fact lends a new dimension to these lines from the well-known Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision.

Be thou my breastplate, sword for the fight;
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight;
Thou my soul’s shelter, thou my high tower:
Raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Antonio Gotto: A Centenary Tribute

One hundred years ago today my great-great grandfather Antonio Gotto passed away, at age 103. Aside from a few additional family anecdotes that have been handed down, his obituary provides virtually all of the knowledge that my family has retained about our fascinating ancestor and his apparently colorful life and experiences. (Due to his extreme old age, his death was a matter of significant local interest, and his obituary, given below, appeared on the front page of the evening paper.)

The Nashville Banner, Wednesday Evening, March 13, 1912

Antonio Gotto, a stone mason by trade, and probably the oldest citizen of Davidson County, died at 9:45 o’clock this morning near Una [then a suburb of Nashville, today a community east of Murfreesboro Road, just south of Nashville Int’l Airport].

Mr. Gotto was a man of wide information and experience and he stood high among those who knew him, having the respect of all. He came to the United States from his native town, Genoa, Italy, while a young man, and entered upon his trade in this country. He was one of the skilled workmen employed on the present State Capitol, and he also worked on all the culverts and other similar work on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. He continued active work until about ten years ago, when he was forced to retire because of his advanced age and the ailments resulting therefrom.

Mr. Gotto had traveled not alone in this country but in Central America as well. While in the latter country in 1860 he witnessed the execution of William Walker by the Honduran Government.

January 8, 1912, Mr. Gotto was 103 years of age. His wife preceded him to the grave four or five years ago. Several children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Gotto, the sons being Willard, George, Ed, Nathan, and Joe
[my great-grandfather], and the daughters, Alice Mrs. Eugene Gresham, Mary, Mrs. George Fox, Maggie and Mrs. Arthur Ridley.

Mr. Gotto was a citizen of Davidson Country for more than half a century, living at the home place near Una for fifty years. As an evidence of his activity even during his latter years, it is of interest to note the fact that Mr. Gotto, at the age of 94 walked from his home to Nashville and on to Belle Meade, and then back home.
[That distance would be well over 30 miles, altogether.]

Mr. Gotto’s last illness lasted about two or three weeks, during which time those who watched at his bedside feared he would never survive his final illness. The death of this well-known citizen this morning showed that their fears were well founded.

In addition to a couple of photographic portraits of Antonio, my mother has a large (about 18" x 12") photograph of the old “Gotto home place” which was apparently taken sometime around the turn of the 20th century. The house was demolished in 1999, but I got permission to retrieve a few relics, including a couple of the smaller logs from the cabin portion, and two of the unique stained-glass window frames that can be seen here. I turned one into a mirror for my grandmother, and the other hangs in the front foyer of my home.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The King of Western Swing and the Duke of Lancaster

Today we celebrate the legacies of two vastly different men, born on the same date, centuries apart.

Bob Wills was born on this day in 1905, in rural Texas. (His birthday, incidentally, falls on the anniversary of the Fall of the Alamo, an association of which he was no doubt especially proud.) As the fiddle-playing, cigar-chomping, jive-talking frontman for his group The Texas Playboys, Bob pioneered what was eventually dubbed Western Swing: an innovative combination of country and western and big band jazz. The group was not only exceedingly popular, at times out-selling more mainstream acts such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey as they performed at large dance events all across the southern and western U.S., they were ahead of their time in a number of respects as well, most notably for their prominent use of amplified electric guitars (and mandolins). (The group’s sole appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, in 1944, caused a legendary scandal when they defied that organization’s ban on drum kits.) Some of the band’s greatest hits include: Maiden’s Prayer, New San Antonio Rose, Take Me Back to Tulsa, Home in San Antone, Faded Love, Bubbles in My Beer, and Basin Street Blues.

John of Gaunt was born March 6, 1340, the third surviving son of powerful British monarch Edward III. Though he never wore the crown himself, he nonetheless cast a very long shadow (literally as well as figuratively: the man was apparently about 6' 7" tall) over England and her subsequent history. His vast holdings made him the richest man in England during his time, and his colorful life included 3 marriages, an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the thrones of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon (claimed through his second wife), prosecution of several military campaigns in France, de facto leadership of England for several years (during a time when both his father and older brother, Edward, The Black Prince, were too ill to rule), patronage of Geoffrey Chaucer, and support for the proto-Reformer John Wycliffe. After his death, his son, Henry Bolingbroke deposed (and possibly murdered) John’s nephew Richard II to become King Henry IV. All subsequent English monarchs, down to the present day, are descendants of John of Gaunt.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard II, the dying John of Gaunt speaks these lines in an oft-quoted patriotic tribute to England:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,. . .

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Downton Abbey Paper Dolls from Vulture

Dang, I wish I had thought of this. Of course, I've only managed to see the first episode from Season One, but these are hilarious!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lugete, O Veneres . . . Catullus Postcard No. 2

On a day already populated by so many “Venuses and Cupids”, it seems fitting to unveil this self-promotional postcard design, the second of a series of such inspired by the work of the classical Latin poet Catullus. (More background on both the project and on Catullus can be found here.)

This poem is a classic example of melodrama, though without any real hint of sarcasm: Catullus manages to convey genuine sympathy for the loss of the sparrow and the distress that it causes for his lady love, while at the same time, the reader can detect at least a faint curl of the lip and a wink of the eye that would seem to say: “Oh come on, already! Seriously?!”

For those familiar with the Scottish poet Robert Burns, Catullus has frequently been compared with him. The works of both, though nearly two millennia apart, display a correspondingly gentle (though playful) sensitivity, combined with a devotion to the quaint colloquialisms of everyday speech and conversation that the average person in their respective cultures could readily identify with. (This poem, by Burns, serves as a fine parallel example.)

Below is the full text of Catullus’ poem in Latin, followed by an English rendering in the style of Robert Burns by G. S. Davies, taken from A First Book of Latin Poetry (which is a really delightful volume, if you can manage to get your hands on a used copy).

Lugete, O Veneres Cupidinesque,

Et quantum est hominum venustiorum:

Passer mortuus est meae puellae,

Passer, deliciae meae puellae,

Quem plus illa oculis suis amabat.

Nam mellitus erat suamque norat

Ipsam tam bene quam puella matrem,

Nec sese a gremio illius movebat,

Sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc

Ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.

Qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum

Illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.

At vobis male sit, male tenebrae

Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:

Tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis

O factum male! O miselle passer!

Tua nunc opera meae puellae

Flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled in her breast,
As ony bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never travelled back ony:
Out on ye, Shades! ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve gar’d my lassie’s een grown red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grievin’.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The New JCPenney Catalogs Are Here!!!

When I was growing up, JCPenney was the go-to retailer of my dear grandmother. The arrival of their tome-like seasonal catalogs tended to get her rather, shall we say, worked up. And the Christmas catalog—well, its appearance always caused a stir amongst the entire household, especially the younger members, as we pored over its pages, each individual dog-earing, initialing, and notating items of particular interest, confidently hoping to stake out our claim on a small-but-generous share of the unfathomable bounty displayed therein.

But alas, that was decades ago. Never in a zillion years would I have expected to be even mildly excited again about a JCPenny catalog. But when I saw the newly redesigned look sported by their February “book” on my parents’ coffee table this weekend, it was the Death Star, and I was the Millennium Falcon.

While not quite the debacle that Gap hurled itself into back in 2010, when they made an abortive attempt at re-branding via a logo redesign that relied heavily on crowdsourcing, JCP drew corresponding ire from the design community last year for using similar methods which yielded, if not quite so ghastly, undeniably mediocre results. But rather than slinking off, tail between legs, back to the familiar same-old-same-old (as its aforementioned competitor has done, for the most part) JCP clearly managed to regroup and press forward (not backward) with much better results, no doubt owing to much sounder methods (i.e. hiring some real designers to tackle the problem with proven craftsmanship).

The new logo is certainly very smartly iconic: the company’s initials, placed within an arrangement of red, (white), and blue squares, which unmistakably but not too heavy handedly evokes the U.S. flag. That’s clever enough, but what really impresses me is the comprehensive re-brand considered as a total package. Of course, the classic motif of the logo-derived square weaves itself into the overall design readily enough. But beyond that, I really enjoy the way this design pulls off the clean, uncluttered, sans-serif-dominated look without the cold, uninviting, and antiseptic blah! that contemporary devotion to that particular canon so often engenders. The strategic interspersing of ample white space with splashes of bright color, the inventive but radically economical use of a single typeface (Gotham!) in contrasting weights and sizes, and the thoughtfully balanced implementation of models, clipped-out objects, and product beauty shots, all combine to create an atmosphere that is both sharply clean and warmly inviting, reassuring in its lack of complexity and yet alluringly playful. And there’s just the right amount of friskiness, where it seems called for, without the crass, voyeuristic enticements that other major brands have aspired (or rather, de-spired) to.

A comparison of the print catalog and the website leads me to believe that the former was definitely driving the latter and received more attention. That’s not just a print vs. web sideswipe (though I am admittedly somewhat biased): I think the translation onto the web could have been better (rather too much white, and rather too caged-in, it seems to me), and there’s no reason why it couldn’t have worked in the other direction with equal success. We’ll see, maybe that angle will improve.

Apparently we don’t yet know who to credit for this handsome effort, but one thing is clear: as some companies continue to experiment with the notion of placing their brand’s direction in the hands of technology-spawned fads such as crowdsourcing and other on-the-cheap gimmicks, the results produced by an individual designer, or team of individual designers, with eyes trained carefully on the bigger picture as well as the details, continues to stand out, even amidst a consumer culture that all too often seems to have lost whatever ability it may have once had to distinguish between a thoughtfully executed master design and a hacked-up mish-mash. And they always will.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Is That Really Reggie Jackson?!

I was thumbing through an old (August, 2010) issue of Print today, looking for inspiration on a project, and ran across this short but laugh-out-loud hilarious article on the history of baseball card design, from the adept pen of Drew Dernavich, who also posted a follow-up here. Take a laugh break from whatever you're doing and enjoy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pencil Illustrations: Yosemite and San Francisco

Last month, I did a number of 5" x 7" pencil sketches based on photographs I took during my trip to California back in the summer of 2010. I gave the originals, matted and framed, out to my "Top Ten" clients as Christmas gifts. (Wanna be on my list next time around? Better send me lots of good work in 2012!) Here are some samples - the cream of the crop, if you will.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Typographical Reading of Revelation

I just had to vent. I feel a little better now. Thanks for indulging me.
Carry on.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cartographic Near-Perfection

Okay, I confess to being something of a map nerd. I have quite a few hanging on the wall of my basement/office-space. In fact, one of the highlights of my holiday season was that I finally got around to framing and hanging my 1979 National Geographic map of Medieval England, which I think is one of the best they've ever done.

A good map is rich in both visual interest and information. The cartographic tradition, at its best, weaves together a number of different strands that have always interested me greatly: illustration, design, history, the allure of the distant and exotic, and storytelling, to name a few. (I would have added “geography”, but suppose that would be rather redundant. And if your talking about celestial maps, which is a favored sub-category of mine, you could also throw in “astronomy”.) A map tells a story about the region it depicts—and I don't just mean the ones with all kinds of extra tidbits crammed into the marginalia, although, if handled expertly, that can be a nice approach (as with the England map, again). No, even a more “straight-forward” map tells a story, and tells it well, poorly, or (most frequently) just so-so, based on how it handles the information conveyed within the map itself: which features and details it emphasizes and which it downplays, and the methods it employs for doing so.

Solo cartographer David Imus painstakingly created a new map of the United States which was recently awarded Best of Show at a very prestigious cartographic exhibition. The map, as well as the creative process behind its creation, is a real testimony to the time-honored values of craftsmanship, careful—even loving—attention to detail, and profoundly thoughtful and insightful artistry.

Indeed, from a design standpoint, I am absolutely blown away by this map. Just like a painting by a great master, it’s obvious that it was meant to be appreciated both from far away and very close-up. I’ve also never seen a map that struck such a delightful balance between the natural and the man-contrived, celebrating both with equitable and complementary enthusiasm. Hats off indeed to David Imus, and also to Slate author Seth Stevenson, both of whom offer encouragement to me, quasi-Luddite that I am, as I plug along at my own ponderous pace, in my own quaint way, with my own little projects, occasionally asking myself how hard I really want to (or should want to) continue trying to keep pace with the contemporary world and its rather obsessive predilection for gussied-up novelty and bespangled gee-whizzery. (Not that it’s all bad, now—I fessed up to being a quasi-Luddite, but that is all. Case in point on this topic: I really do like interactive maps, and it’s only rigidly imposed self-discipline that keeps me from becoming a total Google Earth junkie.)

Anyway, I hope to acquire a hard-copy of Imus’ map for myself soon, which apparently can be done here. (At least on a good day, one hopes. As of this posting, the link wasn’t working, but I trust that will get ironed out soon.)

(Closing hint to my wife: Christmas is over, but my birthday is coming before too long!)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chesterton and Calvinism

Having posted on G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy here before, I thought this insight from John Piper to be right on the money and worth sharing. No doubt there were folks who went by the appellation of “Calvinist” in Chesteron’s own day who were cranks, just as there are today. Notwithstanding, failure to distinguish the straw man or the caricature from the genuine article is a fault that even the most brilliant of men can commit. In Chesterton’s case, it is a most forgivable one.