Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bart, Bart… er, Bark, Bark

Tonight’s art class project was the most nerve wracking, as just the very act of beginning it set a tone of trepidation swirling through all of my fellow students. “Here I go,” “Wish me luck,” and my personal favorite epitaph of the night, “There’s no going back now,” were words spoken by almost everyone before starting.

There was no eraser, no do-over, and no second chance. If you made a mistake, you had to fix it creatively or live with the error. Of course, I’m referring to scratch sketching, the time honored tradition of not adding a material to a piece of paper to create a picture but the act of taking away material from the picture.

The paper is specially coated with India Ink and our job was to scratch away that layer of ink to expose the white paper below. In doing so, a picture would form. The subject matter was our pets, and even though we had a whole two days to obtain a picture of our pet—the instructor would have settled for a picture of any sort of living animal—there were five people who couldn’t bother themselves with finding an appropriate image. Instead, they had to scrounge through the magazine pile for something. Such deadbeats; why are artists such flakes? Do they not have the same purpose and outlook on society as the rest of us?

At any rate, snapping a shot of Elsa is as easy as snapping your fingers. As you can tell by the above photograph, she is quite photogenic and very happy to sit for me, provided nothing else is going on in her life that day. She sat and panted, panted and sat while I snapped away a half-dozen possible shots (I went with the last one, as I usually do, because it is always the shot that satisfies me enough to stop shooting pictures—and sometimes I nail that feeling on the first spring of the shutter).

As luck would have it, having a mostly black dog made my job that much easier, as there was little material to remove from the page, unlike a few of my classmates with the white dogs (the guy next to me had a ferret).

The hardest part of the whole project was the first few scratches. Our tools looked like miniature trowels, with a pointed part that sloped down to wider scoops on the sides for scraping. But where do you start. Before me was a black sheet of semi-shiny paper and a color picture of Elsa, with the idea that I have to make one look like the other.

The only thing you can do is just take the plunge, dive right in and hope you don’t screw it up. I started in the center, with Elsa’s left eye and scratched away everything else in relation to that one eye. The results were pretty cool, and once everyone got into it, the whole room was silent (it helped that the girl that doesn't shut up was, once again, absent) and enthralled by our work.

Frankly, I’m impressed with the results, surprised really, as if someone else had done it and not me. It actually looks like Elsa, which is the first step in producing art, that your projects look like the subject. Thought it isn't perfect, I'm especially pleased with her left eye, how it looks pensive and somewhat forlorn.

In projects past, I seemed to have always forgotten that important step...which is why I have eggs that look like balls.

The ironic part—or coincidental if you don’t believe in the currently accepted definition of irony, thank you Alanis Morissette for screwing that up—is that while I was pining over the picture of Elsa for three solid hours in class tonight, apparently she was running around the yard, tripped and twisted her ankle. She’s been limping around here all night, but after watching all the young pups melt the snow in the Iditarod on the Discovery Channel tonight, she seemed to pep up a bit.
After all, she’s only 50… and she has a nice portrait of her too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Putting the Art in Dartboard

Just when you thought you’ve run out of quality one-of-a-kind artwork to help your aim at the dartboard, included below is a new batch of art projects in the continuing saga of my art class. So, print them out, put them up and happy darting!

Just to keep you generally updated on my progress in my art class, it appears as though the art is getting more difficult. At least it seems that way, as the projects are taking longer and they are becoming more complex. I’m not sure if there is a progression of styles we’re following or if there is a system to our learning, but now we seem to be spending a great deal of time on shading, something I’ve always enjoyed.

And, as the weeks go by, my status of being the guy in class that doesn’t most suck at art is being challenged, as more and more people just fade away. It’s amazing. At the beginning of class, on the first few nights, you couldn’t wrestle away from anyone an available chair to sit in. Now, here we are several weeks into the course, and I can spread my paper out on two desks, kick my feet up on three stools and knock over a couple more just for sport…and nobody has to sit on the floor. There are maybe 10 people in class, which means that they are all serious art students; translation: they’re pretty good at art, even that girl that won’t shut up and the kid that keeps texting his girlfriend in Hawaii every 30 seconds. This means that, as more and more people drop the class (one woman confessed that she couldn’t take the class anymore because her was being foreclosed on and her whole family was living in a Motel 6), the likelihood of me being the worst artist in the room increases. Soon, I’m sure, I will take the top honors; lucky the instructor grades on effort, and I think she likes me. I usually get there early and we commiserate on the deadbeats in class that have comprehension difficulties. Why would she have to explain the same thing three times because people don’t get it. And don't get her started on the guy whose girlfriend did an art project for him... during another art class, as if the instructors don't talk to each other and know what the others are doing.

Oh well, on with the masterpieces.

This first one is, of course, an egg. You knew that, right? What? You thought it was a ball. That was my trouble too, but it is clearly an egg. Before us, the instructor placed a handful of eggs on white sheets, and they were placed rather haphazardly, so lucky me, all of the eggs on my side of the room, the pointy parts that is, were facing away, looking rather like balls instead of eggs. This one was shaded with charcoal and newsprint, and you can call it a ball if you’d like. On the back of this page we drew three eggs in a cut-in-half egg carton, but mine turned out looking more like three bald men standing in line at the bank so I won't show it to you. Consider yourself fortunate that you won't feel compelled to send me an obligatory "nice art" platitudes.

The next one I was rather proud of. It is a charcoal contour line drawing of my truck’s dashboard. It was pretty fun to do and relatively easy. Instead of sitting in the backseat of my truck for a couple of hours, I snatched a shot of a Ford interior (this is the XLT Lariat interior, for you sticklers), printed it out and drew it up. I enjoyed doing the details of the radio, and notice it is set to my station of choice…that or it’s twenty to seven in the morning. What I enjoyed most was the little A the instructor printed on the back.

What nightmare did this drawing fall out of? Where on earth would anyone collect all of these things together for hapless students to draw? It is almost one of those drawings in those old-timey magazines that have you search for certain items, like find the clothes pin, etc. What we had to do was incorporate a new item into our drawing as they were brought out before us. One of them was a piñata (it's the red and yellow wedding cake thing in the middle), so it made perfect sense to me to have all of these items coming out of the piñata, and the whisk is acting like the bat. I was shocked that no other student made this connection; I figured there would be 20 pinatas with junk blowing out of them. There’s an inflatable bird, a bottle with a leaf sticking out of it, an ornament, some sort of detergent box. My favorite element is the lamp lying on the table, and of course, it goes without saying, the A on the back was nice too. She even pinned it to the board and took a picture of it; now, whether that picture is going in the “good” pile or the “don’t draw like this guy” pile is not readily known, but you can draw your own conclusions. The drawing was done with Sharpies and pastel chalks.

This drawing came as a result of a class I missed because of a meeting I needed to attend. Since I wasn’t there to draw it, I had to assemble a bunch of variously shaped items of differing heights and draw them. The point was to make lines all over the page, marking the widths and heights of each item so it can be compared with all of the other items. This helps us with perspective, placement and point of view (the three Ps of art, I guess… don’t quote me, I just made that up, considering perspective and point of view are the same thing). My friend Brian will be happy to see that I drink Arrowhead water, and my sister in law will be pleased that the wine is from Weins, and my folks will be pleased that I’m reading a book they bought me for Christmas one year… but what exactly is Del Monte plastic cups? Why are they cherry flavored and why only 16? I don’t know, folks, but I can tell you that I got tired of lettering the boxes. The teacup was the most difficult thing to do as it was round. When I become an architect, I will only design rectangular buildings, so the Guggenheim is completely out of the question. This was graphite pencils of various hardness (I’m partial to 3B, which is a pretty soft lead).

The last two I did this last Monday night, a rose and some dying daisies or mums. I’m not sure, they were wilted and curly, but it was clear that they hadn’t been watered in a while. They’re both pencil base, but the rose is shaded with charcoal while the daisies are shaded with pencil (5B). I enjoyed playing with the shades to give the illusion of light, but on the rose I was disappointed with the fact that I think the outer pedals are rounded up too early, giving the impression that they are fanned out more than they should be. However, I especially like the daisy on the left. I did that one last, so I had a better idea as to what I was doing with the light.

On Wednesday we are delving into drawing our pets with a method called scratch… something-er-rather. I don’t remember. Essentially, we are taking these special ink boards and scratching them with a metal pins (picture a fancy nail) until they look like a dog. Equate it to this Elephant Joke: How do you carve an elephant? Easy, take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant!

That killed me as a kid.

Oh, but the real punch line to the joke is that I didn’t even have to take this class! Yeah. It’s not funny, well, a little bit, but I wasn’t paying too close attention to my course requirements when I registered this fall. This art class is part of a list of electives, on which are classes more geared toward my major like Civil Engineering Drafting, Three-Dimensional Design, Materials of Construction, etc. I only need three units to satisfy my elective requirement and ART-17 is it. Oh well. It’s been fun. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Insulator Collection

I’m not sure what attracts me to old insulators, but I've always had a fondness for them. They’re easy to obtain and plentiful, but up until today, I’ve only had one, an emerald Hemingray Jason and I found while climbing the mountain behind my parent’s house. I used it as a door stop when I lived at home, and I’ve always had it somewhere in my office; right now, it sits upon my bookshelf, where I can not only admire it for what it is, but it is a relic of my childhood, when finding some strange glass object was like diving on a sunken ship and discovering a treasure chest full of gold.

There’s something about them that attracts me to them. Maybe it’s the combination of the beauty of craftsmanship and the evolution of commerce, or perhaps they are a reminder of progress, a tribute to industry, something that harkens back to a time when connecting the country, joining the two coasts in voice, information and electricity was paramount. In the age of cell phones and underground power conduits, they’re an obsolete artifact of a forgotten time. I doubt the average person on the street would know what they are… but then again, the average person on the street is a moron who doesn’t know much of anything.

Either way, I have about 150 of them now, ranging from small brown porcelain ones up to a five-foot monster, all bought from CraigsList from a woman in El Mirage. Until this morning, I didn’t know where that was, but if you go as far as possible away from all civilization, water, stores, paved roads, sewer systems and the conveniences we take for granted (like houses with foundations and without wheels), then you’ll be in El Mirage. Her directions said it was near Phelan, as if that was helpful; where’s Phelan?

My journey began last week when I noticed a large insulator collection on CraigsList, and since I’ve been trying to no longer be impulsive (you know, with the recession and all), I shelved the link and waited that little cooling off period, figuring that if they were still available in a week, then perhaps I was destined to own them. The listing said “High Desert” which could be anywhere over the hills, and that probably kept a lot of people from taking advantage of the deal. I talked the lady down roughly 50 percent of the original asking price, putting the price around 75 cents each, which is well worth it, given the prices of these things that I’ve seen on eBay and other insulator collector sites. They have been going for about $5.00 each if you come across a small collection, but people think that just because they’re old, they’re worth something.
It took 70 minutes to find El Mirage, and once you get out that far from the “big city,” I guess they no longer feel the need to use street signs, so I had to guess, to feel my way up through the Joshua Trees, sand and expansive horizons.

The house was exactly like I pictured it would be, a double wide set out on the sand and surrounded by what was probably large weeds that resembled trees. There were seven cars in the yard, no plants, a barn of some sort and an old tractor. I pulled into the dirt driveway and parked next to the front fence, which turned out to be the main fence that surrounds the inner yard, which was dirt too. In the sand lay a pit bull, which didn’t look entirely thrilled that I was near him, especially since I had to stand there and figure out how to get from the driveway to the house, since the gate to the front door was not only locked but “sealed” with a red leash tied around the posts.

The pit bull, who looked like he only had one eye, gave me the stink eye as I allowed him a wide birth as I picked my way through the cars to the back fence, which hung open. That’s when I was greeted by the flies, hoards of them. There was no direct source, but once I stepped up on the porch, there was a bowl filled with dog food, the surface of which seemed to move when I came near. The backyard beyond the porch was littered with rocks, bricks, broken bottles (old ones too), an alarming number of cow skulls and a variety of lawn furniture, all slowly sinking into the sand along with the weeds and a smattering of pavers.

I knocked. The metal door was partially open and beyond it heard a baby cry and someone’s voice yell something unprintable. I wished I had brought something to defend myself, as it seemed that at any moment a banjo would start up and someone behind me would inform me that I had a pretty mouth and I should start squealing like a pig. Instead, another dog, a black mutt that looked part Sheppard and part “other” snuck up on me and started sniffing my leg. When I turned to see what it was—half expecting the pit bull looking to which part he was going to chew on first—the poor dog ducked his head and skittered off of the porch with his tail between his legs. I held out my hand to regain his trust and he hesitated before slowly investigating my outstretched fist (I never hold my fingers out to a strange dog—I’m partial to them).

I knocked again, this time on the aluminum door frame, and much louder. A chesty Hispanic girl of about 18 answered with a baby on her hip and a disgruntled look on her face, probably wishing she had put on the rest of her shirt before she answered the door. I asked for who I came for—still not sure that I even had the right house as there were no numbers on it—and she told me, “yeah, sure, hold on,” and then disappeared into the house.

When the woman that was selling the insulators came to the door, she was exactly as I expected her to be: About 50, with black hair framed in gray, face deeply wrinkled and wearing too much eye makeup. An unlit cigarette dangled from her tightly pursed lips, and after her greeting she said something I had hoped she wouldn’t: “Come on in.” I desperately wanted to say no thanks, I’ll wait out here, where someone can hear me scream, but I followed her through the door, not sure if I should close it behind me or leave it open as an escape route.

She apologized for the mess and I excused her with a “that’s okay.” There was a kitchen to the left with a blonde girl in too-short shorts doing dishes, who didn’t care to bother turning her head to regard a stranger in her house. On the right was a darkened family room. The TV was on too loudly and a man was sitting in a lounge chair watching some kind of wrestling; he too disregarded me. Finally two other men, both about 25-years old, appeared and the one with the tattoos and glasses said “howya doin?” in that manner that suggested he’d sooner kill me than ask me if I’d like something to drink.

Through the kitchen/family room and around the corner to the front of the house and near the front door was a room that would be the living room, but it was about the size of a guest bathroom and filled with clutter. She explained that she was going to start an antique shop but “that didn’t work out too, as you can see.” I couldn’t.

In the center was a wagon filled to the brim with the insulators. There were no boxes and I didn’t bring them, assuming that they’d be in boxes already. The woman said it was her step-father’s collection and that he had died in February… so why no sell off some of his stuff. There were no boxes because all of the insulators had been scattered around the yard, and she had collected them up like Easter eggs one afternoon. The story goes that her step-dad was a fireman who would pick up these insulators while he was on duty fighting fires in the area, and had done so for the 50 years of his career.

She asked the blonde in the kitchen to go find some boxes and the tattooed son with glasses came into the room, saying, “There sure is a f-word load of them, ain’t there ma?” She agreed, apparently not fazed at her son’s flagrant use of the f-word, then asked, “Where are your smokes?”

Once the boxes came, I couldn’t load them quickly enough. I carted them to the back of the truck, and the woman asked, “Do you want the big one out back?”


“You must not have seen it when you came in, as there’s a cow skull on it, but you can have it if you’d like.”

Turns out, the one she was speaking about was some sort of electrical insulator from those high-tension towers. It was made of porcelain but probably weighed 75 pounds. Hey, growing up my family had a series of mantras, one of which is: “If someone’s going to give it to you for free, take it and then figure out what to do with it.” So, I strained myself first prying it out of the sand (as it was set up like a monolith in the middle of the debris) and then hobbling it to the back of my truck.

With sand in my sandals—I should have worn better shoes—and dirty hands, I drove the 80 miles back home with three boxes spilling over with insulators of all descriptions. Once home Natalie and I went through them all, segregating them into piles of completely broken ones (about 12), significantly chipped ones (about 20) and ones in perfect condition or with very slight damage (about 100). Most were dusty, some were dirty, some caked on soot from forest fires while most of them were in excellent condition, gleaming as if new.

I took pictures of the individual ones that were unique and grouped them by manufacturer and then by color (at Natalie’s insistence). The majority of them are Hemingray and Whitall Tatum, which I’m guessing were popular manufacturers, but there were a bunch that I had never heard of before: McLaughlin, Armstrong’s, Brookfield, Maydwell, H.C., LAPP, Superior, PP, Joslyn, Locke, Chance, REN, Continental Rubber Works, Amtel & Tel, Richard Ginori…and three of them were made by Pyrex. The colors are amazing, from crystal clear glass to amber, blue, green, yellow, red and two are even purple (Gnat’s favorite, of course). Some are glazed with a brown that makes them look almost artsy, and one is made of Bakelite and two others of rubber. There are two large ones, like big glass bowls, one glazed brown and the other a clear glass (though the base on the clear one is broken).

So, now what?

Well, I’m genetically predisposed to display them somehow. I’ll work on that, but in the meantime, I’m going to do my research and see what I have. Who knows, I might have in my new collection the rarest insulator ever, something worth a small fortune. I doubt it, but I’m sure the collection is worth much more than I paid for it.

Before I left, the lady that sold them to me asked, “Do you have a lot in your collection?”

My reply: “I do now.”

Next, I’m looking for a barbed wire collection and I think my life might just be nearing complete… so if anyone knows of any…

I think I just heard Kara groan…

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