27 June 2011

Vancouver Maker Faire 2011

This past weekend I attended the first ever Vancouver Maker Faire, which was a ton of fun! It was a gathering of creative artsy/techy/geeky types, all showing off their work and inspiring others. Here's my photo album from the event: Maker Faire Vancouver 2011.

A "maker" is anyone who puts things together, blending art and technology, for the sheer fun of it and/or for aesthetic or utilitarian purposes. "Makers" are generally counter-cultural, even anti-establishment, often kind of social misfits or nerdy. The "maker" concept goes beyond putting paint on canvas, and also doesn't seem to include literary arts as far as I can tell (sorry, you painters, poets and novelists). Pure computer programming without any messing around with hardware is also not really part of it. Think DIY home projects, Popular Mechanics, arts & crafts, installation art, robot hobbyists, even guerilla knitting and guerilla gardening, and you're on the right track.

The Maker movement grew out of such predecessors as the Burning Man festival in Nevada. The flagship publication of the "maker" movement is Make Magazine.

Some of the highlights of the festival included the Panterragaffe, a pedal-powered walking machine,

and Mondo Spider, an electric walking vehicle.

I was inspired by all the cool things people had invented. There are times when I feel that doing/creating something with technology just because we can or because it's cool is not enough reason, but that it has to have some purpose, to make the world a better place (and most definitely not to allow it to become a worse place). But there is truly something fundamentally human and joyful about creating things for the sheer wonder of it. After spending the afternoon enthralled by the exuberance of the atmosphere at Maker Faire, I'm leaning more towards the Existential Pleasures of Engineering side of the balance.

22 June 2011

Concert Invitation

You are invited to attend a Schubertiade!

The Soiree Society of the Arts’ Carnegie Room Concerts presents
Part II of their Schubertiade series:
Die schöne Müllerin with
Nadine Kulberg, mezzo-soprano
Yoni Levyatov, piano

Saturday, June 25 · 7:30pm - 8:30pm
Nyack Library 59 South Broadway Nyack, NY

General admission: $25
young adults ages 35 and under: $15 for!
Tickets are available at the door

Nadine Kulberg, mezzo, recently completed a Master of Music in Opera at SUNY Purchase, where she performed six opera roles. She has collaborated with Berkshire Opera Company as a chorus member, Lake George Opera as a Studio Artist and as pianist for their “Opera-to-Go” touring season, and with the Fanfare Consort as alto soloist in Handel’s Messiah. Ms. Kulberg holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from Nyack College, where she sang the title role of Carmen and Maddelena in Rigoletto. She has presented concerts of art songs and staged opera scenes in various venues from Vermont to North Carolina. Currently, she teaches piano and voice lessons throughout Westchester County and is a frequent soloist at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Rye, NY.

Medieval conference report

The college where I teach is helping me out financially with the expenses of my recent trip to Kalamazoo, and I wrote a little summary of the trip upon my return. Here are some bits of that report; I hope to write a more detailed report of each paper, etc., but we'll see. Sorry this is a bit self-absorbed; I had to prove that this trip was worth the college paying for, which it was!

My recent travels to Kalamazoo were centered around the 46th International Congress of Medieval Studies. This conference ran for four days and included panels of papers read by scholars, a plenary session by a pre-eminent expert on Byzantine art, a concert of music on reconstructed historical instruments, and fellowship with other teachers and academics. Here are some benefits I gained from attending this conference:

1. Improving personal scholarship: I presented a paper entitled “Double Affirmation: Medieval Chronology, Geography, and Devotion in the Arthuriad of Charles Williams.” Because I spent three days researching at the Marion Wade archives in Chicago in preparation for this paper, it is by far the most rigorous (from a scholarly point of view) paper I have yet written. I know that preparing it honed my skills as a writer, researcher, and communicator. Reading it out loud was good practice in public speaking/lecturing. I have already seen, in the summer course I am teaching, that I continue to learn how to teach organized writing, honest research, and clear communication. This also added to my ease at speaking in front of a group.

2. Adding to my professional resume: The organizer of my panel, Dr. Cory Grewell of Thiel College, is co-editing a volume to contain all of the papers from our panel, as well as others on the topic of “Medievalist Fantasies of Christendom”; my chapter in this book will be my first official academic publication (although I have published many reviews and short articles on arts and culture).

3. Increasing my awareness of contemporary cultural and academic trends: I attended a panel on 21st-Century Medievalism, which discussed films, novels, and video games in light of Medieval scholarship. This added to my growing study of contemporary movements in the arts. I wrote an article upon my return that reflected on some aspects of this knowledge; it will be published soon in the Curator online journal, so keep your eyes open there. All the knowledge I can gain about current trends helps me to understand my younger students and their generation and to connect learning to the wider culture.

4. Adding to my knowledge of the Inklings: I believe that the timeless value communicated through the Arthurian story and the writers of the Inklings, as well as a knowledge of history, can help to transform the lives of students. The panel in which I participated was called “Medievalism as a Christian Apologetic in the works of the Inklings.” The Oxford “Inklings” are a group of writers particularly relevant to today’s young people, enamoured as they are of fantasy literature and film. I find that references to The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia ring true for many of my students. I also attended two panels on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and one on the work of C. S. Lewis, all of which added to my growing knowledge of this group of writers.

5. Inspiring further work: Moving about among over 3,000 scholars and over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances, and listening to presenters talk about their methodology and discoveries was challening and inspiring. I was encouraged to continue my studies of the work of Charles Williams and received information about how to begin preparing for a PhD programs.

I would LOVE to teach an elective course on the Inklings or Arthurian Legends in Litearture and Film on the college level sometime! Maybe I can approach my department with this suggestion…

Church Patronage of the Arts - a follow-up

As you know, I had a little article about church patronage of the arts published in Comment a short while ago. In preparation for that article, I contacted many artists and churches to ask about their experiences. Some replies are still coming in, so (with permission) I'll be posting those responses here. Your comments are welcome either here or over at Comment. This response is from:
Paul LeFeber
Associate Director of Worship Arts
Blackhawk Church

You will notice how his advice ties in with the suggestions I received from many other sources.

PLF: Every year we do a project called "The Artist Showcase." Artists are invited to create a new work around a given theme. This last year our theme was "Love Where You Live." The types of works range from visual art, music, dance, and spoken word. The event centers around a one night gallery showing and performance. The visual works stay up through Sunday services.

IA: Who initiated the project, the church or the artist?

PLF: The project is initiated by our worship arts staff. None of us are visual artists, but we feel the visual arts are an important and often underrepresented medium in our churches, so we've worked to bring them to the forefront. All of us are songwriters, so the music side comes more naturally to us.

IA: How much creative control did the church have over the project?

PLF: We give all creative control to the artists. Meaning they do their work entirely on their own. However, we do have a jury process where we ask to see the work ahead of time and not everyone is guaranteed a spot in the show. We rarely turn people away though. We also help with the hanging of the works to ensure that everything hangs well together in our space. In the case of music we did spend some time with individual songwriters to coach them through some potentially weak parts of their composition. We also put together a house band to accompany the artists on their songs.

IA: How was the show used; in a worship service, in the church building, or in some other way? Did the pastor announce or discuss it from the pulpit; did he incorporate its themes into his sermon?

PLF: The theme "Love Where You Live" was picked because it a big theme that we've used in our teaching all year long. So there was a strong connection to the pulpit in that way. It was also talked about and announced from up front. We've found it's important for the speaking pastor to endorse the event and cast some vision.

IA: Were the artists paid for their pieces or performances? If so, just for time/materials, or the going sale value of the work?

PLF: The artists are not paid for this event. It's entirely volunteer.

IA: What advice would you give to artists seeking church commissions?

PLF: I'm not sure I have any advice here. Perhaps maintain a servant heart. If you can develop an attitude of wanting to serve the church and what the church needs or desire that will go a long way. Also, start with your home church. That's going to be the most natural connection.

IA: What advice would you give to churches looking to work with artists?

PLF: I would encourage churches to give artists lots of time. Often artists work better if they've got the time to really develop their work. I would also encourage churches to have a compelling theology of the arts. Meaning they should take the time to discuss and study why it's important and what value it has to a community of Christ followers and to people's spiritual lives. I would encourage churches to remain open to artists. Often times artist feel as though they're not welcome in church. Perhaps the biggest thing is that I would encourage churches to no simply think about what artists can "do" for them. How can they "use" the artists. Rather I would encourage churches to think about how they can disciple and develop artists, how they can create a creating environment for artists to flourish.

21 June 2011

Form & Content

I've had a little article about form and content published on the blog of the BioLogos Forum. There's a place at the bottom for comments, so yours would be much appreciated. I also thought about starting up a conversation here about the BioLogos Forum itself and its ideas -- it exists to try to bridge the apparent gap between faith and science by using the arts -- but first of all I have no time, and secondly people so rarely comment here that it wouldn't be much of a conversation anyway! So, read the article if you like, leave a comment if you are moved to do so, and have a lovely day.

~ Sorina

16 June 2011

Ekphrasis report #9

Last Tuesday, a few Ekphrasians and some others gathered in a lovely little gallery space in the lower level of the Re-Wired Café in Bethlehem to read from John Alexanderson's 2006 poetry chapbook, When Least Expected: Poems From Faith. People came and went, with a total attendance of only about eight, but the small number allowed for a more intimate and casual event, with good conversations about each poem. So, John read about the first five poems in the book, then I read several, then Ruth Green read, and then John finished up. We read right through the entire chapbook, discussing each poem. We asked John about the inspiration of some pieces, talked about the concepts and techniques of several, and generally enjoyed giving intense attention to a book in a way that rarely happens.

John’s chapbook is excellent. It is well structured and each poem is carefully crafted. The book moves from poems that are explicitly Christian to ones that are more obviously personal, exploring life-long love, father-daughter relationships, friendship, and love for a pet. Each poem is poignant and clear.

One of the poems in the book is dedicated to John’s sister, who just recently passed away, a victim of Alzheimer’s. John is selling copies of his book as a fundraiser for an Alzheimer’s foundation. If you would like to purchase a copy of the book, please email alexjt4 at comcast dot net

Here is a sample poem from the book:

by John Alexanderson
   This cup is … my blood,
 which is shed for you. [Luke 22:20]
It’s far too real.
He bled, a slit heifer.
And, for me?
Well, I think blood
is sticky, gross, and ghastly.
It spooks me, like a sparrow
I might startle in my backyard.
Lord, please.
Take it easy.
Let’s just be spiritual.
I‘ll pawn my prayers, 
my worship wan, even as it
bloats and swoons upon the pew
from which it tries to rise. 
Yet, the nub remains:
Might I have to bleed myself?
Great Friend, Only God,
your life, which flowed in love,
fill, at last, 
your child’s Sundae heart.
Melt it deep into your cup,

that we might drink as one.

13 June 2011

Interview with Carl Sprague, Art Director

location shot for the upcoming film "Summer"

This is the forty-eighth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Carl Sprague, film art director, film director
Edited from our phone conversation on 24 March 2011

IA: Would you like to start out by taking about the Edith Wharton project, Summer?

CS: I would love to talk about that. It’s very much in my mind right now because I’m getting ready for a reading in New York City next Thursday, which is designed to be a bit of a big deal, and hopefully it will turn out to be. We’ve got a very cool cast of some incredibly gifted theater and film and TV actors coming together to read through the script.

Summer is a kind of neglected, almost overlooked, classic. It’s got some very difficult subject-matter, which at the time that Wharton was writing was almost scandalous. It remains kind of hot. She actually herself called it “the hot Ethan Frome.” It was only one of two books that she wrote that weren’t set in the international NY high society milieu that she knew. She is writing about the country people out in hilltown New England—a world that she got to know, but more as an observer than as a participant. And at the same time, she’s such a keen observer that I think she saw more in that world than many people who are part of it. It’s a great project, and I’ve been working on it for three years now, boiling down the novel into a screen adaptation, and it’s been really fascinating.

IA: Are you directing the film as well?

CS: That’s the plan. This is the kind of project, a period drama, that Hollywood and film financing and distribution in general are kind of leery of. We import these projects, such as The King’s Speech – the British crank this stuff out all the time and they have some incredible skills in terms of turning amazing literature into screen entertainment.

But I’ve one of the reasons I latched on to Summer was that it seems so feasible. Where I live in Western Massachusetts, so much of this work hasn’t changed. It’s still there; you just have to point a camera at it.

I am deeply enamored of the historical part of what I do; the research and the our attempts to reconstruct the past or recreate an atmosphere or make sense of what people’s lives were like at other times in history. That kind of feeling is just like it’s all over the architecture of the place.

IA: I was thrilled to look at the production stills of locations, because I grew up in western Massachusetts and actually lived in Tyringham for one year. I was thrilled to see your pictures.

Tyringham Union Church--location shot for "Summer"

CS: One of the best things that happened lately in our research was when this incredibly gifted, smart, wonderful girl named Nannina Gilder

IA: her sister Louisa Gilder is one of my best friends—

CS: Oh, all right; you know everybody. So obviously the Gilders are in Tyringham, and I think that Wharton was thinking hard about Tyringham; it was one of the places that she knew. Nannina was, marvelously, doing some research, poking around, because she’s been a big supporter of this project, and she has an amazing amount to bring to it. One of the crucial big moments in the story of Summer is a homecoming celebration, Old Home Week. New England was in such a huge depression in Wharton’s time that these little towns were becoming depopulated. So the idea was to have some kind of gathering in the summer and get people to come up from the City and remember their old home. And so there was one of these events in Tyringham and the Gilders invited Mrs. Wharton to come to it, and there are photographs of the Union Church decorated for the 1902 or 1903 Old Home Week Celebration!

I met with Janet McKinstry who’s the pastor there now, and talked to her about using the church as a location—we know just where to put the bunting!

IA: That’s wonderful.

CS: That kind of thing is really sort of exciting.

IA: I have a couple other questions relating to the topic of historical films that you touched on a little bit. I want to make sure I understand about period film. It looks from the trailers and the stills that you’re really doing your research, you’re really setting it period, but are you saying that Americans don’t make period films as much as the British do?

CS: Look at the things at the multiplex. It’s raunchy comedies and action films. Those are the things that make money. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expended on making these things.

To make a movie like this, which is period, scares producers, because they’re more expensive. And it scares the art department and production design and so forth. Then, too, it’s a drama but these characters lived a hundred years ago, and who does that speak to? Of necessity, even if something like that completely hits all its marks and is a terrific box office success, it’s not going to make millions and millions of dollars. This project is going to be modest.

Part of the reason that I’m thinking that I would direct this—beyond my own chutzpah and feeling brilliant!—is that it’s a way to afford to do it. I’m just another hired gun. Since I’m writing the screen play, I didn’t feel like there was much point in hiring someone to argue with.

So that’s where I’m coming from, and I feel like I’ve been working in production for a couple of decades now by the standards of an old gray-haired dinosaur and I feel like I have a lot of experience in terms of how to put the project together. There are certainly things I haven’t done before that I’m going to be trying on, so, why not?

IA: That sounds brave and fantastic.

CS: Well, we’ll see. I still do need someone to come along and feel that way too! But there’s some definite encouragement from that side. It’s a little premature to talk about, no promises yet, but there’s some definite possibilities!

IA: Well, I do want to go back and talk about some of your other achievements, but I have one more question on Summer first. In spite of the fact that these period dramas don’t make the big money, they do seem to be still extremely appealing and extremely popular.

CS: Well, there’s an audience for that.

IA: We never get tired of them.

CS: It’s totally overlooked, well, not totally, but it’s underserved. It goes back even to a very old argument, which is like 100 years old, about American literature vs. English literature. Wharton was still of a generation when to be a serious writer in the English language, she and James and others all ended up being expatriates. Even Fitzgerald and Hemingway went off to Europe to be in the more “real world.” That is of course completely exploded now. But the fact of the matter is that in England you still have a population that is literate, reads books, and cares about literature in a way that only a fraction of American society does.

But I don’t want to say its just a literary project. It’s about love and lust and romance and beauty and nature and life and death and cute young people! And a lot of things that are valid even without a literary pedigree.

IA: That’s right. And there seems to be something about these films made from novels by Austen and the Bröntes and Wharton that has a timeless appeal. Something about well-dressed, beautiful people in a world of etiquette and about these powerful, in-control women in a beautiful world; something about those kinds of films that continue to appeal to us.

CS: Well, there’s a really interesting discussion, this goes back to stuff that I was doing in college: I was really fortunate to have as my thesis adviser Stanley Cavell, who is a great film critic and philosopher, and he’s written about films of the 1930s as political documents. About women’s rights, about social contracts, about political realities, about revolutions…. He has incredible things to say about It Happened One Night or The Philadelphia Story that go way beyond what people generally get out of watching them. Cavell points this stuff out and digs deep into literature and it makes you alive to the possibility of what these stories mean.

Summer is a story about young Americans and about America coming into the first World War and stepping onto the international stage. Of course, it’s also a story about a very disadvantaged, traumatized young girl who ends up getting jilted in a sad, hideous way and ending up compromising in an almost abusive, older sort of father-figure. It’s like Woody Allen and Soon-Yi. That’s a toxic, difficult kind of compromise to be in, and yet, it’s not a tragedy. I get a lot of different reactions from people who have read the book and the most surprising one to me was from some readers who came away from it feeling that it had a happy ending, which it doesn’t: the ending is ambiguous, but it’s not a tragedy. It’s a compromise. Wharton writes these novels again and again—typically a classical tragedy ends in death. Wharton’s tragedies end in marriage. They are tragedies that end with weddings. It’s a double-edged sword and it has a lot to say about how the world has changed but is still a part of our social roles and constructs.

IA: Do you have a timeline for when this film might be released?

CS: It’s seasonal, it’s really seasonal, this thing. It’s complicated because a lot of the season is actually not summer, there’s a good chunk of winter in it and spring and fall. It’s all about cycles, it’s all about circularity. But obviously summer is the most important part. If I’m lucky, if my stars align correctly and my producers are forthcoming, we could definitely be shooting by August. If that doesn't happen this year, then it’s going to be something that gets pushed until at least this time next year. I guess three years is pretty speedy for moving one of these projects along. I’ve worked on many things that came together incredibly fast. You just need someone with a million dollars to say “Go!” And that’s—I think everything will happen rather quickly. Meanwhile, I’m sticking with my day job.

IA: Why don’t we shift gears a little bit and talk about some of your past projects, some of your work as art director. You have a pretty impressive résumé. But before we talk about specific movies, can you just tell us exactly what the art director does?

CS: It’s a funny title. In the old days, the art director was responsible for everything about the “look” of a movie that wasn’t the actors. William Cameron Menzies did such an amazing job on Gone with the Wind that he invented himself a grander title: Production Designer. So now there’s a hierarchy of Production Designer and Art Director. The Art Director has become the dogsbody who deals with the budget and all the technicalities and the hiring and the firing and scheduling, while the Designer gets to talk to the director and choose what color it is. I’ve done a lot of art directing with some wonderful designers and those have been really tremendous experiences.

Right now, I’m working on a Wes Anderson project called “Moonrise Kingdom,” and my title is Assistant Art Director, which means that I’m constantly drawing, sketching, drafting up scenery, and the fact of the matter is that while I have no responsibility in terms of the overall artistic aspect of the film—if you’re holding the pencil, you have more input than a lot of people who might have higher titles!

So I’ve had kind of two careers. I’ve had one in movies: art directing and set designing, and the other is really being the designer. It’s all the same thing. I’ve designed a bunch of relatively low budget movies, some more interesting than others: some completely silly and some totally desperate! I’ve worked as an art director and set designer on some immense, big again overplayed or silly Hollywood movies! It’s been a nice way to find out about the whole spectrum.

Note: Here is a list of films on which Carl has worked as Art Director or Assistant Art Director:

Another Harvest Moon
Hatteras Hotel
In Dreams
Long Distance
Satie and Suzanne
State and Main
The Age of Innocence
The Buccaneers
The Love Letter
The Pleasure of Your Company
The Royal Tenenbaums

IA: For some of those big-name blockbuster movies: which of them did you enjoy the most? Which of your projects are you really proud of, or were really fun experiences?

production shot from "The Royal Tenenbaums"

CS: Just by association, I was really proud to be the Art Director on The Royal Tenenbaums. And although it was a hellacious job, I think we did fairly well with it.

production shot from "The Royal Tenenbaums"

With Wes Anderson’s movies, he’s really the designer. Anyone who’s designing for Wes is doing whatever they can to give Wes exactly what he wants; and he knows what he wants and he has a very specific and particular eye and a really incredible graphic ability, idiosyncratic sense of humor, original style that is his. It’s a treat to be of service to that. Different designers, different people interpreting that, helping that.

production shot from "The Age of Innocence"

My first job in the big movie business was as Art Director on Age of Innocence. That was a crazy, wonderful project! There was a big New York roll out with Martin Scorsese, who is a total visionary and has amazing ideas, and Dante Ferretti, who I don’t know how many times he’s won the Oscar!

I worked on Amistad with Steven Spielberg. Sometimes it’s just amazing to be in the same room with these icons and see what works and what doesn’t and what happens because of careful planning and what happens on the fly. You’d be surprised, sometimes!

I’ve been really lucky to have gotten some of the breaks that I’ve gotten and not being in L.A., working in the east Coast, not even really living in New York—I’ve been really lucky to get some wonderful projects over the years.

One thing is that while I did go to grad school briefly and took some wonderful classes that were in set design independently in the City after I graduated from college, there isn’t a school that you can attend to become a film designer. There’s theater design in college and grad school tends to be focused more towards theater and opera and maybe ballet. But the reality of making a movie and what the requirements for that are is such a peculiar self-invented animal that you really end up learning by doing. I’m sure there are programs now where you can go and study this stuff, but I learned by doing in some tricky situations. Learning on the job can be a very stressful experience for all involved! But now I have done it, and I feel like what’s good about this kind of work is that you’re always learning. There are things I have learned in the last couple of years. There are things I’m learning on this job right now. That’s great. How many kinds of paying jobs can you say that about?

IA: Now, you have also done the design for theater productions and operas and ballet as well?

CS: A little bit. A little bit. Not as much as I’d like. It’s all about networks and who you know. I’ve been very lucky in terms of plugging in with the film world—that was intentional; I really chased after it like crazy, and like I said, I was lucky enough to have people give me breaks whether I deserved them or not. But now I’m sort of in, and I’m on people’s lists, and the lists tend to be short, so if your name is on the list, people call you up!

Note: here is a list of the stage productions for which Carl has done design work:
A Christmas Carol
American Buffalo
Antony and Cleopatra
Damn Yankees
Glass Menagerie
Hansel and Gretel
Mrs. Warrens Profession
Night of the Iguana
Retreat from Moscow
Rough Crossing
Talleys Folly
The Grass is Greener
The Ladies Man
The Misanthrope
The Nutcracker

Scene from "A Christmas Carol"

IA: Well, your work is beautiful. I haven’t seen every film you’ve worked on, but I’ve also been looking at some of the stills online, and I know you said you’re not really responsible for the “look,” but each of these has a very distinctive look, whether it’s historical or a distinctive color palette. I really appreciated that.

CS: Well, thank you. What’s great about this sort of work, designing in theater and film, is that you’re in the service of something bigger than yourself: the script, the community of people who are putting on the show, the director, the audience—you’re trying to find a way to do your piece of that job as well as you can.

My wife is a painter, and I have such respect for her ability to go into her studio, all by herself, take a blank piece of canvas, and with all the infinite possibilities, to come out with something that is hers. I’m not saying I can’t do that, but I don’t do that. To take an interesting project and figure out what it’s about and why it’s worth doing and what would make it great is why I’ve been working.

scene from "The Nutcracker"

IA: That’s a great lead-in to what I wanted to ask next. When you work on a play or a show that’s really popular and has been produced many times, such as A Christmas Carol, Glass Menagerie, The Nutcracker, and so forth, when you design for that, do you go for a classic look, or do you try to find some new twist?

CS: Well, I think I am probably a little bit more of a classicist, if you will, because I feel that there’s a lot of truth in what people have done before. However, I think that’s more because I try really hard to think about these projects. I come at this whole world from a much more intellectual point of view than maybe a lot of my colleagues? A lot of them have natural gifts of visual perspectives that I can be envious of. I really feel strongly that there’s always an idea. Something like The Nutcracker, which I did as a complete labor of love for our little scrappy, marvelous local ballet company: The Nutcracker is a variety show that Tchaikovsky whipped up for some imperial entertainment and probably didn’t think about much, wrote this incredible score for, and it’s become this war horse. But The Nutcracker is about something; there’s a reason people go to see that. I’ve thought long and hard about what it’s about. There are elements of a girl’s coming-of-age story, there’s a few politics thrown in, there’s things that are just joyful moments of color and texture and so forth. Telling a coherent story, having an idea, I think makes a huge difference in terms of an audience’s experience of any kind of show, and also in terms of the validity of working on something. Certainly the projects I respect always have some kind of idea, some kind of angle, some kind of “take” on their material. That’s absent a lot in big-time movie making. A great deal of work gets done because you need the hospital, you need the civil war, you need the teenage girl’s bedroom—just ticking things off the list without thinking about the Why. I wouldn’t go into the theater with $500 without an idea of what the scenery and the show was about. And people spend millions on movie sets and television shows without doing anything other than automatically recreating something or saying “Oh, that looks pretty,” and that is the extent of it.

IA: So you think there’s a lack of an intellectual underpinning or of a thoughtful rationale for what’s happening in movies?

CS: Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. It’s always traditional. When people break away from that, they create something memorable. That usually comes from a director, but sometimes it can come from the people who do what I do. The design never saved a bad project, but it can make it less painful. And a good project that has a wonderful design will mean something that’s worth doing.

IA: Who are some of the more important directors working right now who have a holistic vision, and what are they doing that really sets they above the general money-making crowd?

CS: The hot and interesting directors each have their own personality cults involving their rules and stuff that works and doesn’t work. I’m kind of too close to it. I talked about Wes Anderson, obviously, he’s a very generous kind of guy.

The little glimpse I got of David Fincher when I was working on The Social Network was interesting.

Spielberg, I tell you, his process was like total muddy chaos. He has scattered locations, he kind of helicoptered into this elaborate period film in the actual moments of the day of—I couldn’t believe what was going on. And yet the camera gets trained on the scene and suddenly it’s coming together, and as if by magic, it’s like, Oh, it’s a Spielberg picture! Incredibly clear and illustrative.

There are reason why these people are called, for instance, Spielberg is called Rockwell. Because he has this power of illustrating and of conveying emotion in a very clear, staged, formal, illustrational way. You can take exception to that; there’s wonderful film work that breaks away from the very designed and controlled and illustrative technique. In college our whole emphasis was on a documentary style. It was a great education in the value of the found moment and the reality, the truth of that. It’s quite different from a lot of these elaborate, fictional constructs that I end up getting involved in.

With Summer, I’m hoping to approach that project in a way that is a little more of a documentary style, but possibly breaking away from an overly self-consciousness with formalism and visual structures. Although, frankly, I think it calls for just that. Even with Photoshop and CGI, there’s still an amazing power in photography and in live performance and in the way photography captures the feeling that it’s happening, it’s alive, it’s real. That questing after some sort of reality is one of the big motors of all of art.

IA: Very nicely said. I like that.

09 June 2011

Two recommended sites

I'd like to recommend to you two faith-and-the-arts websites.

1. Church and Art Network, which is "a gathering of arts leaders who are extending our capacity to serve God in our creative work, by sharing resources, making connections, and advocating together for the importance of our work to the church and the world." You can become a member of the network, receive an email newsletter, network with other arts leaders in churches, read the blog, and join in conversations. Here is a conversation in response to my article about church patronage of the arts. Please join in!

2. ArtWay, which "seeks to open up the world of the visual arts to the interested lay man and woman. Our goal is to hand people a key to this world that is rich and fascinating yet sometimes hard to enter." This site offers advice to churches on art-related topics; maintains information about exhibitions, events, artists, and books; and offers innumerable recommendations and online resources. I especially like the list of North American organizations and websites on Christianity and art.


08 June 2011

Ekphrasis report #8

Although my workshop/critique group "Ekphrasis: Fellowship of Christians in the Arts" has been meeting monthly all year long, I have not made the time to write up reports of the meetings. First of all, I've had more than I can do keeping up with the interview series, my writing for Curator, my teaching, and the million other wonderful projects that keep a semi-freelancer busy; secondly, summaries of workshops are probably pretty boring to read. However, Ekphrasis meetings have been and are going to be quite different this summer. We're dedicating each session to one person's large-scale work. The upcoming meeting is advertised here; please come if you are in the area! What follows is a report of our most recent meeting. Enjoy!

On Tuesday, May 31, from 3-6pm, members of Ekphrasis and the general public gathered for a reading of “The Jesus Story” by Elizabeth S. This was a collection of oral meditations on the excellencies of Jesus. Each section, or meditation, began with “Once upon a time, there was a man named Jesus, and He was beautiful.” It then proceeded to mention an attribute of Christ’s, and then riff off of that attribute to show His beauties of character and action. Some of the attributes were typical: nearness, righteousness, servanthood, love, and peace. There were also roles, such as husband and brother. And there were sections whose themes were surprising: ugliness, danger, and shame, for instance. In each section, Elizabeth strove to offer images that were fresh, original, and memorable, sometimes delivering an unexpected twist on the nature or expression of an attribute.

During the reading (for the first 8 sections, until our technology failed), we also recorded each section onto audio CD. Indeed, this piece originated as a kind of bedtime-story meditation, designed more for listening than for reading.

As Elizabeth and I talked about genre (“What do we call this piece?”) and as her father spoke about the similarity of this work to some of Jonathan Edwards’s meditations on the nature and work of Christ, I thought of something remarkable. We had been wondering whether Elizabeth had inadvertently invented a new genre with this work. Well, in a way. But I think she’s actually revived a very ancient and long-neglected genre: the Medieval mystical meditation. Her work seemed to have distant echoes of the writings of Julian of Norwich, or others of her ilk, who spent years and years, pages and pages, just meditating on the excellencies of Christ. Their work often sounds strange and uncomfortable to our 21st-century, post-Enlightenment ears. The ecstasy of these saints is often expressed in semi-sexual language, or with a vivid earthiness and sense of embodiment outside our comfort zone. Elizabeth’s work did a little of this, forcing us to ponder how Jesus’ body looked on the cross, what love of Him really entails, and how sacrifice might operate on a daily basis.

07 June 2011

Man the easels!

"Beauty is a salve for a wounded culture"
"we cannot dine on the dust of the past"
"Art must come to grips with the tragedy of life in a fallen world"
" 'All truth is God's truth,' says Augustine, and the same goes for beauty"
"go knee-deep into the messiness of God's world and make beauty of it"

"we seem to be in the midst of a renaissance of Christian humanism"
writes Brian Dijkema in his review of two new (well, one new and one new-ish) books on faith and culture:

1. Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, by Gregory Wolfe (a recent "Where Are We Now?" interviewee)

2. Making the Best Of It: Following Christ in the Real World, by John G. Stackhouse.

As Brian explains, Stackhouse's book is basically a new look at Reinhold Niebuhr's classic Christ and Culture, whose categories can still, with some modifications in their application, help structure and guide Christians' thoughts about engaging with the larger world of art and all those human products collectively known as "culture."

In his comparison of the two writers, Brian also asks a question relevant to my recent article about church patronage of the arts, in which I advise arts not to compromise theological truth for originality. Brian writes that Wolfe implicitly raises: "the question of whether or not it is easier for [Roman] Catholics—for whom theological orthodoxy is given from on high and communally—to exercise the freedom necessary to grapple with the messiness of human life, than for the Protestant who must work with art individually while also being concerned with doctrinal rightness is something worthy of further exploration. Perhaps it is not just a latent sense of Puritan pragmatism or iconoclasm which plagues Protestant artists—perhaps ecclesiology also matters?"

As a side note, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Brian discusses, is also President of the Charles Williams society--so there's another interesting connection to my perennial interests.

I've put all three books in my shopping cart and plan to purchase, read, and review them as soon as I can scramble up the $$ and time from other projects. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you read them yourself, I'd love to know your thoughts.

06 June 2011

invitation to a Poetry Reading

my treasure in the stones
and shoots gathered at your feet...

You are invited
to attend a poetry event:

“Ekphrasis” will read from
John Alexanderson's 2006 poetry chapbook,
When Least Expected: Poems From Faith
on June 14, at Wired Café,
520 Main Street, Bethlehem, PA.
We begin at 4pm, wrap up by 6pm.

Join the artists and writers of
“Ekphrasis: Fellowship of Christians in the Arts”
to explore some epiphanies that can render
our earthly lives both fun and fulfilling.

Copies of John’s chapbook will be available for purchase,
and all proceeds will be donated to a charitable cause.
For more info, please contact
Sørina Higgins: 484.866.2147

(image by Kirstin Winters)