My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Thu, 31 Jan, 2008

Waiting for the Birds

In the dead of winter not a tweet is to be heard. Instead, even on a clear day, the cold wind whooshes noisily at the window. I have often wondered why the wind hitting the window and screen makes that moaning sound only in winter. The wind still blows in the summer, and from many different directions too. But it doesn't make the noise. Why would that be? My would-be but impotent scientific mind wants to know. What's the main difference between summer and winter? It's hot or cold, duh. So something in the cold temperature makes the wind make that noise. Either it's because the wind is colder or the screen and glass are colder, or both. My hypothesis about this winter wind sound is that because things contract in the cold, the screen and the glass are at a higher tension in their frames. Thus the wind will make an audible vibration, like a sort of stringed instrument, when the tension is tight enough. In the summer, when the tension is less, the wind doesn't make the same sound. I may be completely wrong about this, but that's my offering of rationality for the day.

When I was at university, a millennium ago, I took some creative writing classes. (Interestingly, I never took a studio art course there. I later studied briefly at another university's art school.) I practiced writing prose but mainly poetry. The prevailing ethos there, as in many schools in the intellectual Northeast, was that fantasy, especially of the "genre" sort such as science fiction, Tolkien-style fantasy, mythology, or horror, was something you had to leave behind to be a "true" writer. All of the creative writing teachers insisted that you should only write about things in your own experience. As one of the creative writing professors said to his class, "Write about sex. Write about your dead grandmother. Write about your life. Write about sex." So we got a lot of stories about sex, and dead grandmothers, and bouts of depression in which the writer cut herself just to "feel something." I didn't write about any of these things. I think I decided to quit that class.

All I wanted to write was fantasy, whether in prose or poetry. I secretly harbored (and still do) an extensively plotted inner world which had loads of stories and characters in it, but no sex (happened "offstage") or dead grandmothers, or suicidally depressed college students. I didn't talk too much about this fantasy world, because the general rule was that once you became an adult, a responsible and productive adult, your creative life would be spent writing about REAL things. The writing professors, in fact, would not accept stories written about fantasy worlds. It was not writing. Fantasy characters were not acceptable, only characters based on people who were living right around you. The superheroes and unicorns must fade away, replaced by leftist demonstrators and bewildered and sometimes violent ethnic minorities.

The same went for art. If you wanted to learn art, you painted real stuff. Models, still lifes, interiors, fruit, a landscape or two. Abstractions were OK, as long as you followed the rules of composition. But dragons, unicorns, and hobbits were verboten. You are a real artist, and you are expressing real thoughts and emotions, not third-hand cliches from some neo-Wagnerian pastiche. Professional fine artists of that era for decades depicted lawn chairs, children's toys, swimming pools, city and road scenes along with sophisticatedly casual interiors in the style of American artist Fairfield Porter.

Fast forward from the 1970s to 2008. There now exist entire schools devoted to the production of fantasy art and scripting, which is called "entertainment design" and can be highly lucrative for the few who can stand the intense pace and the competition. Our media culture is saturated with fantasy and science fiction, to the point where you cannot turn on the TV or look at a magazine without seeing something related to it. Popular culture has even become a subject for university studies, though more traditionalist thinkers regard such studies as an abomination. Art professors are faced with students whose only artistic output is copies of copies of copies of Japanese anime cartoons. What ever happened to the dead grandmothers? There's still plenty of sex, but the lawn chairs have disappeared.

I have an embarrassing craving for fantasy art that has never gone away. I still maintain a comic book collection. I am not an "entertainment designer," nor do I have the energy to try to become one. I have tried to stay away from fantasy in the last few years because I want to be a "real" artist the way those university art teachers were. But I feel more and more remote from artistic inspiration, the more I try to fulfill the "paint real things" diktat. If I paint barbarians and unicorns and wizards, then I must forfeit the chance to be a Serious Artist. I have limited time to make art of any kind. I am stuck between two very different aesthetic eras. Meanwhile, I wait patiently for the birds to start singing again.

Posted at 2:37 am | link

Mon, 28 Jan, 2008

Art Pastorale

Many artists insist that landscapes be done directly on site, known as "plein air" painting as the French Impressionists did it. You must take your oil or acrylic paints in a box easel, or nowadays Photoshop on your laptop running on battery power, and sit out there having a direct experience with your subject matter. I have tried this many times, with varying results. It is no coincidence that most of the famous "plein air" painters of the nineteenth and twentieth century lived in mild climates such as California or the South of France. And if your painter had the misfortune to live in a chilly climate, it is equally interesting that most of his "plein air" efforts depict summer or tropical scenes.

In other words, art outside is a luxury of the climate and a favorable place to sit. I have tried to do art in the blazing sun, and also in chilly fall dampness, and I just don't see the worth of roasting or being bitten by bugs or freezing my creative butt. There is also the problem of painting outside in the twenty-first century: your lovely landscape or picturesque street is filled with traffic and you are at risk of being rendered non-artistic by a speeding car.

Therefore I, like most other artists who want to depict things outdoors, snap pictures with a little camera, of course a digital one nowadays, and download them into my computer. I have always felt guilty about doing this, traditionalist that I am, because photographs are supposed to destroy the freshness and immediacy of a scene. But for me it's either take a photo or not get the picture at all. All I can hope for is that I can use the photo combined with memories of the scene to compose something which could have been painted outdoors, if it weren't so bloody cold.

"Shenandoah Winter," Acrylic on board, 8" x 10"

I could paint any number of these, since I took lots of photos not only on my recent tour but on previous tours of the same area. I could put cows in if someone asked for them. I could paint pastoral scenes and little houses with porches, and barns, and then go out for real in the summer and paint green trees and soft meadows. I could move to a quaint town in the hills and disappear from the urban world, selling nostalgic scenes to tourists at craft fairs and local galleries. I'd forget about hard stuff like trigonometry, calculus, and physics, and sit in a rocking chair on the porch, fading away in homely obscurity. Is this what I want?….WHOA! Watch out for that pickup truck!

Posted at 3:00 am | link

Sat, 26 Jan, 2008

Burning the Name

I must have over three thousand of them now, after years of receiving them. I'm talking about the decorative name-and-address labels, on their folded backing in groups of anywhere from twenty to eighty individual strips, which charities send me because I made the mistake, in my weakness, of sending one or two of them some money. I saw the pictures of the pathetic children, abused dogs and starving kittens and I couldn't resist. I think the money goes to printing these labels rather than helping people or animals. The extent, the interconnectedness, and the outright waste of the charity industry appalls me.

I've written about these things before. They come in clusters around holidays, and I often get multiple editions from a single charity whose label list has been activated more than once by citations from its fellow machines. The graphics of these things are usually ugly, garish, and primitive. There is no way to get off these lists, since they are not "commercial" and thus not subject to any restrictions. I am indifferent to commercial junk mail; it's just another way to try to sell me something and does not play on my emotions. But the charity junk mail makes me angry, because it is so manipulative and insidious. And its frequency makes it more like e-mail spams than postal ads.

It also makes me angry for personal reasons. Every name-tag has on it my mundane name, the name that pays bills and is on the driver's license and social security roster and voting lists. It is not my real name, which is Pyracantha. Every folder full of labels that appears whispers my mundane name, the name that took tests in school and signs checks and reluctantly pays taxes. The mundane name is the weight of the dreary world, repeated to me three thousand times by the exploiters of the wretched plucking at my sleeve.

Someday soon, when I am able to find a proper fireplace, I am going to throw all of these name labels into the fire. I will burn them and keep burning them as I get more. I might keep a few of the better-designed ones for putting on envelopes, but the others will go into the late winter fire, purifying my existence, at least for a while, from the grey leaden weight of the hopeless world.

Posted at 2:45 am | link

Wed, 23 Jan, 2008

Three Dimensional Vectors, part 2

So far, the physicists have not actually proven that there are more than the three dimensions of space and one of time. They desperately hope that the new Large Hadron Collider which is about to start up at CERN in Geneva will generate some particles that will go through the looking-glass into one or more of these other dimensions. String theory and other calculations predict that these other dimensions exist, however ultramicroscopic they might be. Next year, we might know for sure. Science can prove things! Philosophy or art cannot.

In the entry previous to this one, I described the passage of my Orangemobile through the Appalachian mountains as a journey through three dimensions of vectors. But that is not by any means the whole story of the motion of my car. That only describes its motion on planet Earth. Let us consider the Honda Element as an Element-ary particle. I proved in my posting of 4 December 2006 that the Orangemobile is not a positron. It may be a meson of some kind, but I am not about to smash it into something else to find out. The Honda particle is traveling in its own local set of vectors, but so is planet Earth.

Not only is Earth rotating on its axis, but it is on its way around the sun in its yearly orbit. In turn, the Sun, its attendant solar system and its population of car parts (asteroids and comets) is part of a great rotating disc which is the "Milky Way" (or Galactic Beltway) galaxy. At this point I don't know whether the disc of our Solar System is parallel to the disc of the Milky Way or whether it is at an angle to it. This would make quite a difference in how the Earth travels along its route.

The path of the Earth as it follows the Sun along its Galactic commute would form some sort of helix, which rotates around another path, which is taken by the whole Solar System as it moves around the galaxy. But there is yet another source of motion there, which is the motion of the Galaxy itself as it proceeds down the Intergalactic Interstate towards its neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. Astronomers promise us that within a few billion years, if the Milky Way doesn't drive carefully, it will smash into Andromeda and probably cause a major backup on that crowded highway.

By this time there is no way to truly plot all the vectors and forces which apply to our Earth in space. We seem to be moving in a modern version of the ancient astronomy of cycles and epicycles, not to mention the added factor of relativistic distortions of space and time which make a perfectly accurate plotting of our path impossible, no matter how many cosmic GPS devices we employ.

Posted at 4:10 am | link

Sun, 20 Jan, 2008

Three Dimensional Vectors

While I was driving around in the Appalachian mountains, I realized that I was traveling in a three-dimensional vector system, in which direction and speed were joined by height. I suppose I could more simply describe the changes in my position as moving in three-dimensional coordinates, but that doesn't take into account my changing speed. I was able to start reviewing trigonometry while traveling, and I hope to continue my review this year and get mathematical again. I have come to realize that mathematics is a spiritual path that does not concentrate on emotion, which makes it attractive to me rather than the anti-intellectualism of most contemporary religions.

I recently had a dream about Asheville, North Carolina. I dreamed that I had moved there and had a nice apartment in an old building filled with antiques. But in the dream, I had forgotten where I lived, and though I had a bright shiny new key, I couldn't find my home or the door. I walked up the stairs and found nothing but a ceiling above me, not another floor. A rational person would say, "This is because you really don't have an apartment in Asheville." There is no Trader Joe's in Asheville, so I am unlikely to move there.

I have had the "trapped in a building" dream more times than I can count. I also have dreams about being lost in a big city, either one I know (like Boston) or one I do not recognize. Sometimes, as in the aforementioned dream, it is a combination of being trapped and lost at the same time. I keep running through corridors, up and down stairs, entering into rooms and leaving them, then down through other corridors that lead nowhere, or into more rooms which lead into smaller and smaller chambers, until I reach a dead end. I can look out of windows sometimes and see open areas, but there is no way to get to them.

Tradition says that dreams mean something, but current scientific opinions state that they mean nothing, and are just some kind of mental re-shuffling that goes on while you are asleep. If that is so, then I wonder why I so often dream about being trapped in a building with no way out, rather than the more usual dreamish material people experience. If I have sweet dreams, I never remember them. All my dreams are unpleasant. I would rather have dreams about trigonometry, which does offer a way out as long as you have the proper angles.

Posted at 2:19 am | link

Wed, 16 Jan, 2008

Home from the Hills

I'm not feeling very communicative these days, having returned from the quiet of the forest hills of Tennessee and North Carolina. I have to tell everyone who welcomed me back how good a time I had, and it becomes a pre-packaged soundbite. Not that I didn't have a good time, but I somehow wish I could do the verbal equivalent of a mass e-mail so that I didn't have to repeat myself. At least they noticed at work that I had been absent.

I'm back in the noisy city with the helicopters roaring overhead bearing their dignitaries and military brass and police to their important destinations. I'm back at work hearing howling pop singers rather than Appalachian bluegrass. I'm back to struggling with a high-fiber, low-fat, low-calorie diet rather than greasy salty delicious Southern food. And my dwelling is now strewn with stuff that I brought with me or brought back with me, that I haven't put away yet. And it's still winter.

I also brought back with me some art opportunities. My friends in Staunton introduced me to some people who are about to start an art gallery next to their frame shop downtown. They were eager for me to contribute some Virginia-themed art for the new space. I won't be doing a show on the scale of my 2007 show in Falls Church, but they have asked for a few medium and small-sized pictures. The gallery opens in March so I have a month or so to produce them. I wish I could just go back to the Blue Ridge and spend time in a quiet cabin making art, this time without Internet access. But at this point my studio is still buried in STUFF from the trip or from two weeks of mail that I have just retrieved.

Posted at 3:56 am | link

Wed, 09 Jan, 2008

The Woods are Wired

Tonight's Electron comes to you from Asheville, North Carolina, a town renowned for its social freedom, quirky shops and restaurants, and artsy atmosphere. I can now state for a fact that I have never seen so many Asian fabrics and trinkets, colorful handmade ceramics, sequined scarves, South American weavings, jazzy baubles, and, uh, specialty smoking equipment….since the Sixties. Asheville reminds me of what Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village in New York were like forty years ago in 1968. I spent many hours of my youth in Cambridge, and I felt, walking along the streets of Asheville, that I was in a time warp.

Not that it was a bad time warp, it brought back fond memories. All that was missing was the sound of Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe and the Fish. Not only that, I got to meet fellow blogger Jennifer Saylor in "real life." She isn't just pixels any more! And I suppose the same is true for me, from Jennifer's viewpoint. Write on, Jennifer! I enjoyed the local cuisine (trendy international) and went into a lot of gift shops. But January isn't a very lively time in Asheville, when it is usually wintry weather and people stay home. I hope to return at another time when it is spring or summer, the street is more active, and the hills and mountains are green.

I have been traveling through the Appalachians now for more than a week. I have enjoyed mountain vistas from the Shenandoah to the Great Smokies. There are majestic forests, deep gorges, rugged rock outcrops, rushing rivers, and cell phone towers. I have seen weathered barns, grazing cattle, country cottages, and more cell phone towers and satellite dishes. Hunters in muddy camouflage talk on their cell phones. Rustics in overalls talk about accessing Web pages. Even little roadside craft shops have websites. I noticed this the last time I was down South, in 2004, and the cyberization of rural America has progressed steadily since then. I may be traveling in the back woods, but the woods are wired.

I didn't expect to be so much in communication during my vacation days. With my laptop, and wireless internet available in most hotel rooms (even the cheap motels now advertise that they have it) and my own cell phone, I might hardly notice that I am away from home. I chat online with my usual friends, e-mail and blog as if I had never left my studio. I am not sure whether this is good or bad. Would I voluntarily go offline and blog-silent during my next roadtrip? I'm not sure. Some people like to hear from me while I'm away from home having adventures. I am taking plenty of photographs. Some of these will be used as references for later art work. But I will omit the cell phone towers (and possibly the electrical wires and poles as well) when I paint my idealized Appalachian scenes.

This view has no cell phone towers in it.

Posted at 11:50 pm | link

Sun, 06 Jan, 2008

High Places in Winter

There are few places in East Tennessee that are flat and level. Most of this part of the state is made of steep mountain ridges, and the city of Chattanooga is arrayed among them. Most folk in the city live in houses perched on wooded hillsides, and many other people live high up along the tops of the long hills. "Signal Mountain" is an alpine town adjacent to Chattanooga city, and I visited this place when my host took me to visit her parents who live there. Signal Mountain got its name not only from the Indians who would post signals there for long-distance communication, but from Civil War fighters who used the high vantages to send visual messages to their far-off cohorts. They didn't have radio communication back then. After the parental visit, my friend and I visited the historic site of Signal Point, overlooking the spectacular Tennessee Gorge. This photo depicts the site, with its informational plaque.

As I looked down into the blue vast air of the Tennessee Gorge, I wished that I had the wings of an eagle to fly into the open space above the rushing river, riding on buoyant currents of clear mountain air. I often daydream that I am flying like a bird, or gliding in some magic airboat, over majestic landscapes and cities. There towards the horizon was the scene of what was once the American Promised Land, as inviting as the romantic painters of that era could depict it.

I'm currently in Nashville, staying with more friends, touring around and shopping. One of our destinations was Nashville Used Music, where I looked at synthesizers and software, and where we picked up a MIDI connector for one of the friends' new keyboard. Then we went downtown and had a splendid Southern diner feast at Rotiers Restaurant near Vanderbilt University.

Soon I will be setting off towards the east, where my next destination is Asheville, North Carolina. I've never been there before, but it is a town about which I have heard only good things.

Posted at 3:47 am | link

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