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No Throwing Coals: Learning from the Past to Have a Present

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal meaning to throw it at someone else; you’re the one who gets burned.

–Buddha

I look at my daughter on the first anniversary of her birth and feel nothing but gratitude to the people – all of them – who were instrumental in my finding my way to her, my wife, and our present life. Without knowing these folks I’d never have gotten here at all, although it’s taken me ages to see this clearly. My life’s trajectory altered radically a few years ago when I finally realized that no matter what others did to or for me, I was the only person who actually chose my path; nobody else could have done it for me. I chose to act, to react, to judge or not; I chose it all, though in some cases I didn’t know any better. I am so deeply thankful I know a little better now.

In the past, I blamed a few people for many things. I thought some particular woes were all their fault – that I was completely innocent, a victim of their undeserved villainy. I cut entire swaths of people out of my life to avoid them, moved, hid… Ugh. It’s hard to admit it now. The only way I can bear the thought of all that time and energy I burned is that it is what I had to do to grow up. For whatever reason, I had to lead myself down to the rocky bottom and back up the other side. I stand here, dazzled by the new day and I have a choice: I can lament the time I toiled in my personal ravine or I can let the beauty of my new vista lift me up. I have decided to learn from my past so I can live today as a better person. I no longer choose to drape a veil of woes over my shoulders to grieve for dusty wounds I myself kept open.

What I have learned is this: whenever you have a choice, choose love over fear. I’m not telling anyone to subscribe to any new religion, just saying what experience has finally gotten through my thick skull: love not fear. Fear begets anger and hate, so see your rage for what it is: the slime trail left over by your own personal terror. I have always dreaded to find I was unlovable, not good enough, or all alone. When some crap went down that seemed to confirm all of this, I got angry, chose badly for a long time, and eventually made these bogeys into realities. I was only a victim for a moment in time, but then I embraced the role of hired mourner at my own private requiem. I’m not saying we should go limp, either: if someone is an asshole, remove him (or her, or them) from your life as honorably as possible. When you can, find some compassion for all involved, especially yourself. Some people have certainly done me wrong, but if I’d chosen love once I’d survived the initial shock, they would have had very little negative effect on my life. I clung to fear and keened over old pain until I had no remaining option but to try another way. It was messy, painful, and costly as hell. Maybe you can avoid that.

About a week ago, one of the people I’d once decided was so awful to me died, far too soon. I had not seen or spoken to her for years, had not really thought about her for a long time. She was an amazing, bright, intriguing person, though we had not ended on good terms in the past. When I heard she was ill, the first pang I felt was empathy. Some of the old crap burbled up a little while after like heartburn, but what stayed was tenderness and care. When I got the text saying she’d passed, I wept. I would much rather be in a world with her in it, though I’d not yet thought of becoming friends again. She’d lived a good life, loved well, had a beautiful child. She should still be here.

There is nothing to be done but to go on, and the only way to honor bygone lives and loves is to learn and do better. If I am very lucky, my own child will bury me decades from now. She will hopefully be a strong, self-actualized person, loving and living contentedly. Maybe I will get to meet her children, should she choose that path. I also pray she will say goodbye to me with an underlying joy due to our long and loving relationship. There is no guarantee of this dream coming true at all, so I must be grateful for every day I get to see her grow and do the work I have to to change. I hope to take what I’ve learned from everyone I’ve known and distill it into a little wisdom my daughter can absorb before she chooses fear. Some of the most valuable lessons come directly from those I once considered my tormentors, and for that I wish them good lives, each and every one.

A Bargain No More: Raising the Price on My Life’s (Art) Work

Sweet friends, I am raising the prices on all of my art work as of 12:01 am, October 19th, 2013. That day is my 42nd birthday and it marks a fine time to grow up a little in terms of my art career. This is not a decision I am making lightly, but maybe my reasoning is helpful to others out there struggling to assign value to their work as well.

Quick edit: here is a link to one store of my work, and here is the link to Ennui Free, my last project. Get it while it’s cheap!

My updated art-making standards

  • I will not give away work unless I get a grant to pay for the entire production. I cannot pay for it out of pocket.
  • The Valentine will be a subscription from here on out. I will send out word when one is being produced to a few hundred people who will be given the opportunity to order the work at a reduced price. Everyone else who orders one will be charged full price.
  • I will be producing work more suited for galleries in addition to the products. I’m not saying it will comprise the lion’s share of work, but it will be there as well.
  • I will use higher-end materials for physical work, and I will consider making one-of-a-kind pieces more frequently.
  • I will no longer treat my art as something I do on the sidelines. I’ve had to work day job after day job, trying to fit in my art when I could scrape together time, money, and space to do it. I have slowly drifted into a position of treating my work as little more than a hobby. An all-consuming, terribly expensive hobby.

Why the change?

Starting out back in 1996, I wanted to make a difference for everyone, especially people with no money. I grew up rather poor so I felt compelled to make art I myself could afford. To that end, I chose printmaking–with its glorious heritage of the multiple–as my principle means of conveying some light into the lives of my fellow wo/man. I have given away thousands of prints and objects over the years to let people know I cared. In the end, I was just giving work away to my friends, rarely did the circle expand beyond that. For all my highfalutin ideals, I didn’t get out enough to really start a movement.

I wanted to be for the people, my people–the poor, the uninsured, the artistically inclined and badly financed. To this end, I have actively priced my work as cheaply as possible and have never made enough to pay for the print run of even one of my pieces. I have actively sought poverty and obscurity, thinking that it would somehow lead to credibility and acclaim. It doesn’t, I assure you. I also had a little bit of a beef with gallery-friendly work: I didn’t want to alienate the crowds of people who don’t attend art shows. I stuck to mail art, hand-held objects, products for some imagined utopian department store. I ditched loads of ideas over the years as being too gallery-friendly.

This way of operating made sense for nearly 15 years, although I admit the last few years I have been getting a little resentful that all those prints I sent out never led to a huge retrospective at the Whitney (never mind that whole gallery embargo). Hell, I was getting pretty sore that so few of the people I sent work to ever managed to say thanks. My motives had gotten a little cloudy, to say the least. I need to seriously engage the art world in an informed way as I want to be a professional artist with a body of consistently well-developed work.

Another quick edit: I did get invited last year to be in a group show called Tomorrowland, curated by Sam Fields. I was flown out to LA to do workshops and an artist talk and everything. It was tremendous in terms of validation and recognition. I am sorry I did not mention it in my original article, it was a huge moment in my career so far. It made me keenly aware that I had been operating outside of the gallery system for way too long.

I launched into becoming an artist with absolutely no training as to the business of art, or to the art of making a living doing what I love. I did not know how to account for overhead or how to make a profit. I thought that would all just… happen. It does not. I have to educate myself and cultivate an art practice that actually makes enough money to pay for itself at the very least. I have to redress my working ethos as what I thought would work when I was in grad school can only get me so far.

Here is what I am working to learn:

  1. To treat my art-making as a way to earn a living.
  2. To earn this living using workable business practices: time-management, sustainable spending, and project management.
  3. To promote my work with the vigor it deserves: I cannot rely on my personal network of friends. I have to take a stand professionally. No one is going to discover my work in the proverbial soda shop, I have to hustle to get it seen.
  4. To make my art-making my top priority over any day jobs because it is my life’s work. (Luckily, teaching has proven to be a lovely compliment to making art.)

Looking back, I unwittingly shortchanged myself and my artwork in the name of a few youthful ideals. There is more than enough working against us as we start out as artists in this world, I just made my path harder for the first decade or so. The experience will probably work to serve me well in the end, but I cannot afford to make myself or my artwork a bargain anymore. I am lucky to have realized that it is my responsibility to change things instead of getting bitter and giving up entirely.

Now, I just have to find out how to do all of this. I’m lucky that I’ve worked as a freelancer for so long as there are a lot of good habits that I can transfer. I just have to get over feeling dirty: there is no sin in making work that sells for a good price and I am not a sell-out for expecting people to pay for my work. I deserve to make a living doing what I love to do, if I do it well enough.

Asking (with Class) for Recommendation Letters

This summer, I was asked by several students for recommendation letters for jobs and other such opportunities. Each request resulted in a slightly different journey and I learned a lot from them all. I realized I need to come up with a policy for writing them, so I sent out word to all of my professor friends and did some research: there were a lot of horror stories and funny anecdotes. I could easily illustrate this essay with lots of eye-roll-inducing tales of badly mannered students and lazy professors, but I am taking a more positive approach: I am writing this essay for all of my former, current, and prospective students in hopes that I help you make better choices in this area. You are worth the effort, to a one.

One thing: I mention “class” in the title. I am simply referring to the fact that you can, right here and now, choose to treat the people around you with respect and thereby slowly sculpt your life’s trajectory. You can be circumspect and polite, convey how lovely a person you actually are, and pave the way to connect meaningfully with those who surround you. It is all too easy to be presumptuous or inadvertently rude if you only rush towards goals and forget that relationships are far more important in life. The job you seek today is fine and dandy, but honestly, the community you build around yourself will take care of you far better in the long run. Possessions and money are one thing–but to have a little class? Priceless.

The Value of a Recommendation Letter

Why do I write them?

Writing well-earned and beautifully crafted recommendation letters is part of how I work to create the world I want to live in. I want to be in the universe where you succeed for all the right reasons. This is not for my health or your glory, this is for the greater good. This is also why you need to help me do the very best job I can for you: it’s is bigger than the both of us.

Why do you need them?

You are not an isolated little meteor out in the ether: you have a history, a present, and a future. You affect others with your choices and actions and are a vital part of the communities you inhabit. The only true and meaningful relic of your swath though life is the impact you make in relation to other people. We references are here to convey your true quality for others who may be able to then take a chance on you. You need our testimonials to fill in the gaps in your resume that grades, purported achievements, and degrees just cannot cover.

What are they to an employer, anyway?

When an employer (or coordinator, or committee) puts out word of an opportunity, she may very well be deluged by applications. These will vary wildly in quality, but should provide enough information to do the initial sort and cull. Rec letters help identify the best candidates in later phases of selection: they will either distinguish you in a field of equally worthy competitors or take you down entirely. They are of subtle importance, but in times like this when there are a lot of people competing for the gig, that influence can tip the balance just enough to get you the job. 

The Ground Rules
for Asking Me for a Recommendation Letter

RULE ONE:
Please do not assume that a rec from me is a given

A recommendation is not a right but a privilege—that we both earn, by the way.

Did I earn the privilege to write this letter?

  1. Did I make a difference in your learning of the subject? Did I help strengthen your resolve to dig deeper and excel?
  2. Was I a good teacher for you in that I was consistent, fair, and tough?
  3. Am I doing good work in the field you want to enter?
  4. Am I an appropriate choice to write this letter? Would my word be valuable to the people receiving it?
  5. Am I responsive and trustworthy? Will I actually get it done on time?

If I pass muster with the questions listed above, then I may be a good choice to write you a rec letter.

Did you earn the privilege to receive this letter?

  • Did you make a B or higher in my class? Did you make qualitative strides in my class that indicate deep learning?
    Grades are not always indicative of the progress you make. Let’s say you end up in a class in which you fail for a bit, but you make a heroic effort and bring that grade up to a C by the end of the semester. If you have really connected with the professor, you may have a relationship that would allow for a glowing rec. If you didn’t care enough to try in my class, do not waste your time or mine by asking for a rec I could not possibly give.
  • Have you maintained a professional relationship with me beyond the class(es) you took with me?
    That would ensure a much richer letter, filled with the small and telling details for which employers and selection committees really look. Besides, you really need to network with people doing quality work in your chosen field. I am one of those people, hopefully.
  • Have you kept me up-to-date on your research in a meaningful way?
    Please enlighten me if not, I will use this information gladly.

Be polite and thorough when you ask me to be a reference. Be the person you want me to think you are! The more you practice, the more of a reality it will become, I promise. When you realize that I may be a good candidate to write recs for you in the future, pull me aside and ask me if I’ll be willing to be your advocate well before you need one. Follow up at the end of the semester, check in every once in a while. Maintain a relationship with me, it makes the letter all the more meaningful. Do not ask me for a letter if you have given me little reason to recommend you heartily. I cannot lie about your abilities or accomplishments, that would render my word worthless.

RULE TWO:
One month’s notice is seriously preferred

I want to write a good letter, but I have many things on my plate. In order to slot in time to craft a worthy one, I need fair notice. Certainly, there will be times when an opportunity falls into your lap unexpectedly and you need a quick turnaround, but you need to be on top of the process 99% of the time.

RULE THREE:
Please do not use me as a reference without letting me know

I’d like to know each time I am to be a reference. If you give someone my name without telling me, I have no way of prepping. If he sends me a form to fill out with no warning and a tight deadline, I will not be able to say much of value on the fly. That will result in a low quality rec, and I may refuse the next time one of these surprises occur.

RULE FOUR:
Do the footwork because I can’t do it for you

  • Send me the job description. It is also helpful if you can send information about the hiring institution: culture, any relevant details that I can use to craft my writing about you working there
  • Research the person the letter is going to if at all possible: name, title, relationship with the role for which you are applying. Bonus points if you can look up their specialty or history as it is applicable to the situation.
  • Send me your peripherals: the letters you wrote, your portfolio, your resume–BEFORE you send them to the potential employer. I will do a quick read and alert you to any errors or possible issues. I want you to look the best you can so I don’t look like a chump recommending you, frankly.

I will not track this information down for you. Send it and I will absolutely use it for good.

RULE FIVE:
Do not expect to see the letter after it’s done

I need to be able to speak my mind. I will not send you a copy of what I write for your records. I will only send my letters directly to the employer or give you a sealed copy to send in your package. If it is to be a digital submission, I will only send non-editable PDFs of my letters (with my actual signature), unless there is another way I can send my letter directly to the employer. Remember, I do not write generic letters, they must be crafted each time for the specific purpose at hand so there is no use in your having one on file to use whenever.

I actually had one student try to “update” a rec letter I had sent to her inadvertently as a word doc. Never again. Another one decided I needed to really pump up my praise once he saw what I wrote. It made me unwilling to write him another… Actually, I haven’t, now that I think about it.

After the Letter Goes Out

Suggestion One:
Say Thank You

Your success is a part of my success and I am investing in our collective future with every word I write. I am working very hard to do all of this. Say thank you–in person if possible, or in a well-written email at the very least. Make some effort, have a little of the aforementioned class this world is so often lacking.

Suggestion Two:
Send an update so I know how your quest ended

If you get the job, great! Let me know! If you don’t, send word. Maybe we can do a quick postmortem and help you improve your materials and approach for the next go.

Beyond the Letter, There is You

Consider writing rec letters for your professors’ professional files as you go through your student career

Your words have power as well. If a professor has impressed you or made a difference in your life, offer to write a rec letter for his/her professional file. Having evidence of our impact as instructors and mentors is essential to our continued ascension in the academic ranks. This is not about you kissing butt, by the way–a fawning, ridiculous letter will be easy to spot (and will be worthless).  This is also not about writing a letter in exchange for a rec for you, either. If a prof ever makes that proposition, report him/her to the nearest authority as that is seriously bad behavior. When someone shows he has some class in how he treats you, take steps to make sure that person is able to continue doing so. This is about helping good people when the time is right, helping to build the world in which YOU want to live.


I am going to continue to refine this essay and policy into a downloadable checklist you may find useful. I would so appreciate your feedback, whether you are a student or a fellow educator. I am still developing my approach, so I will gladly consider your advise so I can make this the best it can be.

An open letter to my newborn daughter

Dear M,

You will read this when you are much, much older and able to understand. I just thought it all needed to be said in the meantime.

I am home alone, waiting until tomorrow morning when I can go see you and your other Mom, Jen, in the hospital. You are both to stay there until Sunday, when Jen’s incision has healed enough for her to come home. It’s been a rough couple of days for all three of us and I am so tired. At the same time, I have never been happier.

You were born 24 hours ago after a hellacious induced labor and eventual c-section. Jen and I were holding hands in fearful anticipation; suddenly, you drew your first breath and let loose a gorgeous angry cry from behind a thicket of medical attendants. Although Jen was in a cloud of painkillers on the operating table, she immediately started crying tears of joy. I had been crying already, so I just sobbed harder. So happy.

The fact that I’d ended up here was a miracle: I had long ago given up the idea of ever becoming a mother.

When I was in my twenties, I imagined myself having a few kids once I’d become world-famous and rich. I never managed to actually date (except for that one crazy lady) and besides, I dreamt the decade away. In my thirties, bad choices, bad relationships, and a stout case of self-absorption all contributed to one incredibly lonely little lifelette. I thought I had it made, free from all those silly dreams; meeting Jen revealed the error in my thinking. I was so wrapped up in my tiny world that it actually took me a couple of months to realize we were going out on dates. I’ll spare you all the gory details, but suffice it to say I had never been head over heels in love before I met your Mom.

Jen and I have been anticipating your arrival in our own ways: she has been cleaning every inch of the apartment and freezing homemade food. I have been waking up several times during the night to snack on said food for months–hence the 12 pounds I gained in honor of Jen’s pregnancy. I have to admit I’ve been a little scared. I never spent much time around babies, what if I break you? And will my life and career be forever altered like everyone, and I do mean everyone, has been telling me? Oh God, what the hell was I thinking??

After your cry in the operating room, an attendant hurriedly congratulated me and handed you over. Your eyes were open, although obscured somewhat by the ointment that had been applied for some reason I should have read about during the last 9 months. You craned your little head towards me when I spoke and you looked me right in the eye. My heart, my heart had no idea what hit it, actually. I’d say it melted, but that would just not really give you due credit: it vaporized and reformed, it evolved after a short trip to another time/space continuum, it got bigger, better, stronger. In one bright and seamless moment, my love for you became the most exceptional thing about me…

You? You blinked twice and looked towards Jen’s cooing, demonstrating your precocious curiosity and charm.

Although I am two subway stops away from both of you on this starless December evening, I can feel myself stepping up to the task, hand-in-hand with Jen. All my fears dribble away like so much rain water and I am left resolved and firm with this lovely, shining new purpose. Around us are the other thousands of new parents in Brooklyn: we are all joining in a silent paean of welcome and awe: whatever it takes, little one. Whatever it takes to get you started safely on your path, we will do.

I love you,
Mama

Designing and printing protest posters with CSUN students

 I am just back from Los Angeles, having spent an amazing week there working with some incredibly bright students at California State University Northridge (CSUN). I was able to lead 2 groups (about 40 people each) through the history of protest posters and printmaking, and then we designed and printed our own using screen printing. I was invited there by Professor Samantha Fields, who had selected my work to be in a group show called Tomorrowland.

Monstress LA Printmaking Workshop, Day One

Day One: One group developed an idea about giving up crap TV

Before each workshop, I gave a short lecture on the history of protest posters and its relationship to different forms of printmaking, going through the last several hundred years and then focusing back on the 1968 student protests of Paris. That era was particularly well-documented, and the students were able to organize themselves into an efficient propaganda machine, all because they learned how to screen print. This method of printing enabled them to produce and hang posters that had been conceived only that morning. Of course there were other centers of student protest, but I have a certain fondness for the Paris uprising in particular.

Monstress LA Workshop, Day Three

The students took to printing beautifully

Once we had discussed the history a little, we went over to the Printmaking studio and I taught them the basics of screen printing. Professor Michelle Rozic welcomed us graciously into the studio, and was even able to come and help me run the Monday-Wednesday workshop. I broke the students up into groups that would then have to work together to design their posters–I wanted to model the workshop on the Paris model, wherein each design was voted upon by the entire group.

Monstress LA Workshop, Day Three

There were some lovely results

The students took to the medium quite effortlessly, and were able to design some great posters by the end of the first day. On the second day, we dove into printing. Once again, I was pleased with how easily everyone found screen printing: it is one of my favorite ways of making art, and hopefully I was able to get some of the students excited about it as well. 

Here are some student reactions to the workshop:

I’ll be posting more photos as they come in from all the people who took them.

 

How to prime the idea pump with ease and aplomb

I am having fewer ideas, but they seem to be of better quality than the flood of ideas I used to get when I was younger. How can I take advantage of this? 

I am 40 this year and I have to say, things look a lot different than when I was 25. I used to be a babbling brook of ideas for my art work: I filled sketchbooks and journals with odd thoughts over the years. A lot of them were crap, but still, it felt great. I do have to admit, life was a lot simpler then… I did not have nearly the amount of responsibilities or cares that I have now, but I think my brain has changed. In fact, I know it has: the Seattle Longitudinal Study showed that we get way more efficient at processing information as we get older. We can’t work as fast or as long as we could when we were young – but we shouldn’t need to, since we are working better.

So I am better at thinking of ideas, but how can I get in to a state of flow? Turns out, plenty, and those things apply to people of any age:

Have a regular time to get work done

I try to work every day on my personal projects, though sometimes it’s impossible. I  have been training myself to get up earlier so I have some really productive time to myself. So far, it’s been alright although I still go to bed too late. Losing sleep is not the answer, so I have to work on getting my 8 hours of sleep. More on sleep in a moment. 

Set goals and establish strong motivations

I have to know where I am going before I start the journey, so I set a clear goal for the time when I work. I also try to keep my motivation for achieving the goal clear in my mind. It is always so much easier to do Monstress work than all the stuff I am supposed to be doing, so I use that work as a reward. For instance, today, I needed to write a syllabus for a course we are voting on this week. I worked for 5 hours, so I get to work on this essay until dinner. 

Make the problem compelling to solve

I try to split the problem at hand into smaller bits, but those bits can’t be so small as to be meaningless. I like to leave a little meat on their bones, if you get what I mean. If I break a problem too far down, the tasks can become mindless, and that is precisely what I have to avoid. I do not respond well to mindless tasks unless they are gesture based, like pulling a 100 silkscreen prints. And if I don’t break a problem down enough, it is overwhelming. You have to strive to achieve some balance. the problem needs to be doable, but not too easy.

Take breaks and play 

Not only do I need to get away from the screen of my computer periodically, I need to get off my butt and do something amusing or restful or otherwise refreshing activity. I try to not get sucked into Facebook, but I do let myself get momentarily distracted by my cats, or by a lovely passing thought. It’s okay to look up from what we are doing every once in a while as long as we don’t lose our core momentum.

Get enough sleep (naps included)

I find that I work best when I have had a full 8 hours’ sleep. That is hard to get, however, so I take naps whenever I can. Catnaps do nothing for me: I need to pass out for at least an hour to feel rejuvenated. This differs from person to person, however, so do what feels right for you. I require full-on nappage, complete with scattered pets and softly playing  radio. Love it love it love it.

Think of others

I work best when I am doing something that will benefit other people and myself. Just working to make my life better is not as fulfilling or as compelling. There have also been studies showing that people are more creative when they literally distance themselves from a problem and imagine other people having it instead. It’s just too visceral to think of yourself all the time – you can’t lift yourself above the fray into the abstract realm. Thinking of others not only stirs up altruistic feelings and motivations, it allows us to get some perspective on a problem.

Change your perspective

I have slowly learned that I choose how I see the world around me. This is not what I thought when I was 25 – I figured the world was just how I saw it. The fact of the matter is that my assumptions completely color what I see, so I have to take responsibility for those assumptions. I have to work to bolster my ability to make them, strengthen my power to observe and draw conclusions. I have to learn to perceive my own perception, if you get my meaning. I have to be able to examine my seeing of the world as being dependent upon the lens through which I look, and I have to be willing to change that lens from time to time. 


Articles used to write this essay:
Best Rest Practices for Optimal Productivity and Creativity 
Psychology Today, Jeffrey Davis, M.A, April 30, 2012
Boost Creativity: 7 Unusual Psychological Techniques 
Psy Blog,  Jeremy Dean 
Why Thinking of Others Improves Our Creativity
Creativity Post, David Burkus, Jul 26, 2012 
Change the Way You Look at Things and the Things You Look at Change
Creativity Post, Michael Michalko, Jul 11, 2012

Learning typography by making typography!

A note: In the third photo, the n is actually an upside down u. We didn’t have an n.

I am teaching Typography 1 and I have to say, I love this class. The students are eager and willing to take risks, the material is unfolding at a good clip, and things are just generally really rewarding. I have decided to take a more haptic approach to teaching the basic tenets of typography, which I will describe here for your perusal and evaluation.

What is Typography?

Robert Bringhurst says it best:

Typography is the craft of endowing human language  with a durable visual form, and thus an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy – the dance, on a tiny stage, of the living, speaking hand _ and its roots reach into living soil, though its branches may be hung each year with new machines. So long as the root lives, typography remains a source of true delight, true knowledge, true surprise.

From The Elements of Typographic Style, pp. 11

Essentially, what I am trying to teach is the history and practice of type, of printed letters (not directly wrought by the human hand) on paper. In order for the student to gain an appreciation for this art and some skill in its application, I need to make it come alive for her.

What is my bias?

I did not learn typography in any class – I went to art school, and did not have to take a single design course. Nope, I had to learn it the direct way: through letterpress printing. Before I encountered that technology and art, I only had my gut to rely upon. My hand lettering was okay, but my typesetting was just crappy. I had no rhythm, no style. In letterpress, you physically select the type letter by letter and place it in line: there is no escape from the concepts of letter spacing, kerning, and leading. You literally have to construct your text, a letter at a time. That makes a person care quite a bit about the text, its meaning, and its final conveyance. Once I had gotten my sea legs (typographically speaking), I started to give a damn about the work set before me, and I became a better designer.

The basic tenets of typography that I need to get across

History

The students need to learn the origins and evolution of type. It’s not enough to have them memorize the five families of type, which is a great but necessarily simplified introduction. They need to realize the role technology has played in its formation in as visceral a way as is possible.

Anatomy

I want my students to go beyond just memorizing the 10 or so basic parts of the letter and its space. Hopefully, they will get a sense of type as being a living, breathing creature, with tails and eyes and arms. Here is the type anatomy handout I prepared and gave them to show them as many of the terms as I could muster. I hope they keep it over the next few years as a reference at the very least.

The Usage of Space

Typography is all about the play of light and dark, of white space and letterform. If my students get to know the white space around a few letters intimately, it may make them more aware of it in general. Once you get a handle on the area in and around your letters, you can start modifying the kerning (space between certain pairs of letters), the tracking (the spacing between all letters in general on a line of type), and the leading (the spacing between lines of type).

The methods I am using to teach these ideas

Drawing of the letters

One traditional way of teaching the actual form of the letter is by having students trace letters over and over. I tried this in one class I was teaching and was met with resounding failure: the students found it boring and uninspiring. Also, they had no confidence in their drawing, so they never took risks. I was completely stumped until I went home and saw this woodcut by Albrect Dürer: 

It made me realize that what they needed was a grid to help them see the letter’s component parts. I hastily laid out a worksheet: 

 

The students were to translate the letter from one grid to the next as accurately as possible. I handed these out, anxious to see how they went over. The class set to work reluctantly (after all, the tracing had been so boring), but to my relief, they tucked in and ripped through the exercise with actual interest. The fact was, they were no longer trying to draw what they thought they saw, they were able to draw what they actually saw. The grid allowed them to split the letter up into parts, and that they could completely deal with.

In order to keep them from becoming too dependent upon the grids, I slowly reduced the number of grid lines in the grid. I also made the model letter smaller than the drawn one so the student would be forced to translate the letter entirely. Eventually, they had to draw the letters freehand.

In this way, I introduced them to the five major families of type and the parts of the letters, giving them a first-hand experience of the forms of each. They have done this work happily, for the most part, and their overall sensitivity for the letters has grown enormously.

Movable type the hard way

 As they worked on their drawn letters, I also needed to get them thinking about the white space around and between letters. To this end, I decided to use an old favorite: relief printing. I had the students carve their letters on blocks of soft eraser material, ink them up, and press them to their paper. I made sure to ask them to carve their letters inside the block, modeling the bounding box in some typesetting programs:

One week, they carved the letter, the next, they laid them out in words or nonsense words, which enabled them to work on their kerning. Next week, they will print two or more lines of words, working on their leading and kerning altogether. 

So far, the class has been so much fun. They seem to be really enjoying the exercises, and I have started to work these ideas into a tablet app that I hope to design this semester.

 

Getting off my butt for other people is a good thing!

So after the drama of last week, my friend Nina mentioned that maybe, just maybe, I would feel better if I did something for someone else. What a concept! In my turmoil, I absolutely forgot that there are other people  out in the world, perhaps in need of some help. 

Here are some resources to help find opportunities for service:

New York Cares

The 7 Best Places To Volunteer In NYC

 There are measurable benefits for people who do service, actually. Or, at least, there seems to be:

Is Altruism Good for the Altruistic Giver?

For myself, I have to say that altruistic acts are the direct opposite of and cure for unmitigated self-absorption. It breaks the spell instantly, frees me from my fascination with myself, and humbles me back into sane behavior. So I am looking around my community and looking for opportunities to help my fellow man, no matter how menial the task at hand. I’ll let you know what I find.