The Creative Process in Eight Stages

April 7, 2014

I made a great big canvas. For three weeks it sat in the center of the studio like Jack’s massive desk in The Shining. No matter how many “painting miles” I’ve earned, there’s really nothing more terrifying. Of course, I have some ideas, a subject, a palette in my mind. Several in fact. But I’ve encircled it, ignored it, worked on smaller paintings instead. Finally, today, I took six different shades of pink. Some cadmium red light, rose and violet, and I just attacked it. It’s okay, I wasn’t totally committed because I knew it was just the ground of probably ten layers that will live above it. But it was a start.

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Like Kubler-Ross’ five stages of death—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—I divide the creative process into eight stages. The first two are (1) Vision and (2) Hope. I don’t care who you are or what the medium, whether writer, filmmaker, musician, or lithographer or lawyer, or postman, every person goes through these two phases when they get struck by an idea. Vision tends to come in a flash. Then Hope makes the heart swoon and the mind swell around it. Being a great daydreamer helps. Everyone is an artist.

But the difference between artists who create and artists who walk around pregnant with ideas is the third stage which I call (3) Diving In. That’s the scary one. That’s the one I had to deal with in the studio with the pink paint. My father is a surgeon and I used to watch him operate a lot when I was a kid. I’ll never forget that singular moment, in the theatre of the operating room, when he had to press the scalpel into the flesh and make the cut. That’s a surgeon’s “Diving In”. Mine just had less blood.

The next four stages are (4) Excitement (5) Suspicion (6) Clarity and (7) Obsession. Often I bounce between Excitement and Suspicion—suspicion that perhaps my instincts are wrong; that I’m heading in the wrong direction — (Anxiety! Despair!) Finally I move on to Clarity. Clarity, like Vision, often happens in a moment— when the sky opens and I can hear the angels sing. Then my favorite part is the tireless consuming fever of Obsession, the life force of every artist. The entire sequence can tend to form an infinite loop. Some artists just barely or never get out of this mobius strip, like the San Francisco Female Painter (whose name I can’t remember) who added paint to the same canvas her entire career with a nervous pack of cigarettes until she died. Although Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was supposedly actually finished, James Joyce apparently couldn’t help but to add pages every time he edited Ulysess and it almost never made it to the publisher. Then there’s the perhaps sixty percent of you, dear readers, who have an unfinished draft of the next Great American Novel rotting in your desk drawer or hard drive.

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Jerry Belson
Photo credit: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press
A year ago, I attended the funeral of the well-known and beloved TV Writer Jerry Belson (“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Odd Couple”, etc.) whose wife Jo Ann is also an artist. During the eulogy by one of his writer friends, he said that whenever he had massive writer’s block he would call Jerry, exasperated. Jerry would say, “Just lay down shit, babe. Just lay down shit.” What a liberating mantra! Don’t worry if it sucks. Don’t worry about ruining it. Just lay it down and get on with it. Making art is risky. Making art takes work. The mortar of all these stages is Discipline and Faith. Then listen, feel and see what’s going on. All art works, are living organisms — if you get out of the way they’ll tell you the next move.

The last stage is (8) Resolution. Very elusive. The composer Aaron Copland said he didn’t finish compositions so much as abandon them. When it’s finally over, it feels like a whole relationship has ended. And then the anticipated rush of doing it all over begins again.

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If I Were Queen, Kids and Screens

October 24, 2012

If I were Queen, I would make everyone repeat after me:

“Technology is addictive and allowing children to attempt to regulate themselves is akin to helping them regulate their use of cocaine or alcohol.”

I started to have the desire to be Queen when smartphones invaded my children’s elementary school. The first time I noticed it was when a third grader with divorced parents was discovered to be showing video porn to classmates and a few second graders during recess. When some horrified mothers found out and alerted the boy’s mother, a nurse, she put the iPhone on the kitchen counter and smashed it with a hammer. In fifth grade, another boy took a picture of some girls doing cartwheels that showed their underwear and then regularly threatened to post it on his Facebook page. It was weeks until the girls’ mothers, seeing their children visibly upset and suddenly not wanting to go to school anymore, got to the bottom of what was bothering them and had to get the principal and the mother involved before the boy deleted the pictures from his iPhone.

What’s going on here? A Cambrian explosion in “smartphones” after the iPhone was introduced in 2007 combined with a killer deal by Apple in 2010 when the iPhone 4 was introduced and the once pricey earlier model was reduced to $49. The device was now either so cheap or their parents got an upgrade and just gave it to their kids as a hand-me-down. Here’s what I saw: In 2007 about 70 percent of the fourth-grade students in my kids’ elementary school had mostly non-smartphones (I like to call them “Bat Phones”— only for emergencies) that they brought to school. By 2010 everything had changed. A majority of kids now have smartphones or Internet-connected devices that they carry around with them at all times.

We all do. This has led to everyone of every age being connected all the time, and the Internet has seeped into the crevasses of every waking minute of each day — in between class, waiting for a ride, at a stoplight, recess, etc. Everyone’s tweeting, Instagraming, YouTubeing, Facebooking, gaming, all the time. Ugh, this is boring. In fact, we have this we’re-connected-all-the-time conversation so often that I’m just giving it a number. Let’s call it Conversation 42B.

Okay, onto middle school where the problems get even more exciting. Young able-bodied boys, their enthusiasm seemingly intensified by the onset of puberty, will spend endless hours in front of computer without eating, drinking or going to the bathroom. It’s so sad to see them with their eyes aglow and their lips white with dehydration while they sit side by side. Unless you unplug them, kids will not naturally play outside anymore almost ever. I had to start to asking my son’s friends’ parents to refrain from allowing Johnny to bring his laptop every time they came over lest they spend the entire night playing side by side in their violent, enthralling parallel universes where they play with and kill strangers. Of course, we hypocritical parents can’t monitor everything because they’re too sitting at our desks on our computers because “We have to work!”

Social networking is another jungle altogether. I know one 12-year-old who can see her friend’s older brother’s pictures of him rolling joints and get high on his Instagram feed. There has been a recent discussion in our middle school to discourage tween girls from posting “selfies” (pictures of themselves in various poses and outfits — thank you, Kim Kardashian) because of how they monitor how many likes their iTouch or iPhone has received on Instagram like a diabetic checking their blood sugar.

Schools, IMHO, are equally as confused as parents. Kids are encouraged to bring computers to school, and schools will often boast to incoming parents that it has Wi-Fi and encourages the latest technology. (Oooh, Conversation 42B.) Many elementary school kids are being taught “keyboarding” in lieu of cursive. Handwriting and spelling (thanks to spell-check) are just not that important anymore. Thanks to in-class Wi-Fi, some middle school kids on laptops are really playing Minecraft during social studies and can press a single key on their desktop to make their class assignment appear when the teacher walks by. Every night when kids come home (hopefully after sports), they walk in the door and say, “I need to use the computer to check and do homework.” I once heard a sixth grader innocently lament that she wished there were a Starbucks near the ocean so that she could write her thoughts while watching a sunset. Writing original thoughts or ideas on paper is often a completely foreign concept.

There is no doubt that technology as a tool has incredible uses such as learning. Learn to use a graphing program in math! Show what a planet in retrograde looks like on YouTube! In fact, YouTube has finally a created a comment-free channel with just educational videos, including Khan Academy and TED videos. Hooray! Should teachers be allowed to show these videos so that our children can benefit from great minds and ideas all over the world? Absolutely! But, blah blah blah Conversation 42B.

Back to me being Queen. If I were Queen, I would climb down a very tall mountain in an amazing outfit (flowing, probably YSL) and present the following commandments.

Commandment #1: All Children Shall Learn This Amazing Technology Called WRITING ON PAPER.
Writing by hand should be elevated as a technological tool in its own right for its known benefits in mark-making, memory and left-brain/right-brain integration. (You may interrupt this article right now to read this piece about the importance of drawing and doing things by hand by Michael Graves.) On an airplane I recently sat next to a college student who admitted that he doesn’t know how to write, that his penmanship is illegible and atrocious, and that he takes his class notes on his iPhone. (Imagine being a teacher sitting in front of a classroom where everyone is furiously typing on their phones.) Yet, he says that the only time he can prepare for the test is to write a version of his notes (which he can’t read) so that it stays in his mind. Writing is uploading. Writing is beautiful. Writing is important. As an artist I make my living mark-making so I have a passion for the subject, but this is my Queendom and I get to decide. Enough said.

Commandment #2. All Kids Shall Receive a Limited Weekly Online Allowance
A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that most youth say they have no rules about how much time they can spend with TV, video games, or computers and that the average was 7 hours and 38 minutes a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). Make your kids agree to a diet of a certain number of hours a week that they will spend online. Adding up the hours will make parents more aware of how obnoxious the total is. When one is on a device, one is not playing basketball or running or getting any physical exercise. An extensive study of what activities and types of stimulation positively affect the brain, it was determined that no matter how stimulating the visual, sensual and tactile input, the way the brain “grows” and adds new cells is through physical exercise. Parents in my Queendom should want their kids’ brains to grow.

Commandment #3. Every Child Needs to Receive Online Behavior Awareness Training (OBAT) and Pass a Test Before Downloading an App or Going Online
Like a driver’s test, the OBAT test will determine whether or not the user is prepared and will address all issues ranging from privacy (there is none) and cyber-bullying, email etiquette, textiquette, Instagramiquette, what information should not be given to apps or networks, etc. It will be emphasized that every text message, email, status update, Gchat is a public document and can be read by everyone and are never private EVER. Case studies should include for Tiger Woods-gate, Anthony Weiner-gate, kids-not-getting-into-college-because-of-stupid-pictures gate, etc. All passwords should be submitted to the parents for all devices and social networks so they can be accessed at anytime. If kids want privacy, then they should keep a journal or write a letter, which they will learn how to do thanks to Commandment #1.

Commandment #4. Every School Should Implement a One-Month-Long Technology Hiatus.
For one month all schools will not require any online work, including the checking homework on calendars or to research or write online. Everything will be done offline in the course of everyday life, not just trips where you have to unplug them and take them to the mountains. Just because. Sigh. I just love being Queen.

Commandment #5. If They Must, Elementary and Middle School Kids Should Carry Bat Phones Only.
Any kids who carry smartphones or devices should relinquish them at the front office for elementary and middle school (maybe high school, I’m not there yet). In addition to not wanting these devices near their growing reproductive organs and thin skulls (physiological effects of smart devices on children shall be addressed in future blog titled Conversation 42C), lunchtime and recess should be an Internet- and social-networking-free-zone, and kids who feel too socially awkward can find refuge in either a book or a musical instrument. Conversation 42B.

Commandment #6. No Screens in the Car Unless During Road Trips or at Night.
When riding in a car, which we do too often in LA, there should be no devices if there is any opportunity to see views and far distances. Seeing distances is critical for brain development and listening to music together is bonding. Bitchy Bitchy Queen, I know.

Commandment #7. No Laptops on Playdate
s.
(See above rant, Paragraph 4)

Commandment #8. No Social Networking Until 13, No Facebook At All Until 16, Preferably 18.
And only if they kids have passed the OBAT.

Commandment #9. No Screens Until Noon or “Wake and Bake” on the Weekends.
I call it “Wake and Bake” — kids sneaking in the kitchen to the communal computer to go online because their parents don’t allow them to charge their devices in their rooms (that’s not a commandment because that’s just common sense). In fact, I’d rather have Saturday-morning cartoons over YouTube videos for breakfast any day. I don’t consider a TV the same kind of screen. But you can better believe this queen has rules like no TV during the week (except for one or two great shows).

Commandment #10. Parents Are Allowed to Be Occasional Hypocrites and Still Enforce All the Commandments.
“We have to work!”

And then, after I handed them my ten commandments, I would shower my subjects with fragrant rose petals and burn a giant golden iPhone.

This post is a part of Screen Sense, a place for parents to discuss what it’s like to raise the digital generation.

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Welcome to the New Huffington Post Arts Page

August 10, 2012

About four years ago, Arianna Huffington asked me to blog about my paintings and process as I made them. At first I demurred, saying that it would be impossible for me to expose myself or my work that way. The real truth was that the proposition terrified me. A few days later, I thought to myself, well, perhaps I could interview other artists about their work and start a conversation.

Since then, I have had the privilege of interviewing and writing about over seventy eight artists for a column I started here called First Person Artist. Featuring my own and other artists’ work, I covered range of topics including politics, photography, fashion, the last election, climate change, war, feminism, facebook to my own creative process. I made writing and having a conversation with other artists an integral part of my art practice. The act alone gave me courage. And unless you subscribe to the Emily Dickinson model of posthumous discovery, a huge part of making art requires courage, oxygen and getting it “out there.” We are encouraging artists, curators and critics alike to write about their work, review others’ work, curate their own online exhibitions, and write about newsworthy items that inspire further thought or a strong opinion.

In the coming weeks look out for reviews, musings and interviews by contributing bloggers Patricia Zohn, Peter Frank, Suzanne Booth, James Scarborough, Lisa Adams, Joshua Elias, David Coggins, Dorothy Spears, Peter Clothier, Allison Gibson and many others. Discover new artists in our “Artist Spotlight” series and about events happening around the country in “The Skinny.” When we’re done reading, we can watch the second installment of Bravo’s latest Reality Show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist”, throwing the doors open to the art-making sausage factory. Love it or hate it, (love it, can’t take my eyes off it!) these artists are full of guts and mischief, and the show is inciting a riot of reactions from the art world even more entertaining than the show itself.

As I said in my first column, no matter how beautiful, clever, or cynical the message, the driving force of all artists— be they painters, musicians, writers, actors— is to share, to evoke, to move something significant within the viewer. Until only a decade ago, most artists were often confined to a relatively monastic existence where all but a lucky few reached a large segment of the population far and beyond their studios and geographic location. Thank God for the Internet and its “Long Tail,” and certainly the Huffington Post for providing us with a platform for writing about our experiences of making, viewing and reacting to art.

The Arts Section will cover the full range of arts and culture — from painting to music to theater. By engaging artists, critics and arts writers with all the other Huffington Post conversations — politics, media, style and more — I hope to ignite even more sparks among readers and hopefully set the place on fire. I look forward to seeing you here on the arts page, hearing your voices and continuing to expand the conversation.

The Magnificent Merger of Arts & Culture

August 10, 2012

I’m lucky enough to have caught on video the exact moment when I was running along side my daughter’s bicycle as she was learning how to ride for the first time and I let her free. As soon as she was balancing on her own, I had this huge beaming smile on my face as I watched her circle back towards me in a wide loop and then did it again. I feel no different today as the beloved “Arts” vertical, something that I created from scratch, merges with Culture and to become a “Super Vertical”, “Arts & Culture”, which is exactly how it should be.

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The Merging of Arts & Culture. Illustration by Priscilla Frank

When I launched the Arts Page two years ago there was no real special place for Arts & Culture on the Huffington Post. I had been writing essays and interviewing artists every week for over a year but then stopped because I didn’t want the pieces to be under “Dieting Tips” in “Living” anymore and “Entertainment”, however addictive, was more about celebrities. When Arianna offered me the chance to launch an “Arts” section, I dove headfirst into what would become a magnificent platform for artists to broadcast their work in addition to a wild career adventure that I’m convinced caused my brain to grow a third hemisphere. As we expanded our coverage to include all the arts and our fan base delighted in our fantastic bloggers, our unique combination of gravity and whimsy on the news side as well as our penchant for featuring emerging artists, filmmakers, musicians alongside giants in their respective fields, our fan base also grew.

Then there was The Merger. What would it mean for “Arts”? AOL had “Film”, “Music” and “Television”. Would we stay? Would we get eaten? I remember asking the question: Should “Arts” solely focus on fine arts? We were told to stay the course, but we definitely emphasized fine arts and there became swaths of subjects we deferred to other “verticals”. (Isn’t vertical a funny word? It sounds so masculine. I’d rather rename it “idea reservoir” or “meme cluster” or even a “horizontal fractal imagination elaboration”, but I digress.)

Initially after the merger, “Arts” moved under “Style”. Now I love style more than anyone (seriously, I *love* it) but felt it should have been the other way around— that “Style” should have been under “Arts”. I suspected that many of these decisions occurred in dimly lit rooms and with cigars, scotch and long ruminations regarding where each different “vertical” should live. Despite our handy url (bookmark it now! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arts), I could never fully shake the fear that we might be too difficult to find for the average reader. And because I fervently believe that art should be for everyone, I wanted to reach the widest audience possible. I often sent colorful emails to members of the design team, once threatening to drop an imaginary bag of adorable squealing puppies into the Pacific Ocean if they didn’t elevate the “Arts” placement on the coveted Nav Bar— whatever it took.

A few months after the merger last year, “Culture” was born and became an umbrella vertical over “Music”, “Books”, “Film”, “Arts” etc, and that made sense. It certainly made more sense than having “Arts” under “Style”. And yet having different pages for “Arts” and “Culture” often created a subtle competition of who should cover what. We often let culture focus on performing while we focused on fine and visual but the overlap caused us to inadvertently siphon away topics that would no doubt be of interest to both sets of readers.

In December, on the eve of my launching the “Science” Vertical (which is under “Tech”, ahem..), “Arts”, which had heretofore been run by a wonderful team mostly in Los Angeles, had really grown up and was ready to be taken to the next level by someone seasoned, thoughtful, tech savvy and who would work full time in the New York office as Arts Editor. I conducted a series of interviews via Skype (and met some truly fascinating people) and this is how I met Kathleen Massara, the former literary editor of Flavorwire, a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at NYU and an avid student of art history. We had an instant connection and in the last seven months, she has proved herself to be an extraordinary editor in every way— thoughtful, funny and smart, all with a touch as light as falling snow. Kathleen is the perfect person to see our growth and reincarnation into the Super Vertical of Arts & Culture. I am also so grateful to have Michael Hogan, who presides Zeus-like over Arts and Entertainment, along with our crack team of Priscilla Frank, Katherine Brooks, Mallika Rao, Lucas Kavner and Hallie Seykoff. And most of all, to Arianna, who gave us the platform in the first place. If we were videotaping this moment, I’d be clapping and smiling all over again. Behold “Arts & Culture”! Look at her go!

Art & Physics and Me

January 5, 2012

“The artist, with little or no awareness of what is going on in the field of physics, manages to conjur up images and metaphors that are strikingly appropriate when superimposed upon the conceptual framework of the physicist’s later revisions of our ideas about physical reality. Repeatedly throughout history, the artist introduces symbols and icons that in retrospect prove to have been an avant garde for the thought patters of a scientific age not yet born. “
Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics” Chapter One: Illusion/Reality

This was the huge meme that grew inside my late father’s head throughout my childhood. It spilled forth onto our dining room table, on walks along the beach during family outings, on napkins where he diagrammed what it would look like to sit astride a beam of light and how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity corresponded with, say, Cubism and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircaise’ and it spilled forth within the reams of paper that I edited, chapter by chapter of what would become his first best-selling book, throughout high school in and college.

Still in the chrysalis of his first career as a prominent surgeon, he started to give multimedia presentations about his ideas around the country. He always told the story of how I, his budding artist, would constantly tug on his sleeve during modern art museum visits while he flashed, to my horror, a slide of a 7th grade picture of me with a Dorothy Hamill haircut along with images for Cezanne, Einstein, Picasso and Bohr. He said my thousand questions about why modern art was great when coupled with his own questions about his understanding of the new physics is what spawned the idea for the book.

Lecture of Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain

Some lives are long and winding roads. When it comes to Art and Science, mine has been more like a Mobius strip or Escher’s staircases or hands drawing themselves. Or perhaps more fittingly, the Magritte image on the Art and Physics paperback edition of a man looking at an egg and painting a bird.

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Science and art were woven like DNA strands through my upbringing. While my father appreciated and encouraged my passion and talent as a child, a common saying around the house was “You can be anything you want, as long as you’re a doctor first.” In middle and high school, along with art classes, I often attended Sunday morning rounds and an occasional operation. But in college, I also took Chemistry, Biology, Physics “just in case”.

As a practicing artist I see a lot in common with my scientific counterparts. My studio is my laboratory where I’m constantly experimenting with new materials and subjects. I wear a really messy version of a lab coat splattered with paint. I ‘publish’ my findings in the form of exhibitions. I even conducted an experiment on myself while painting to dissect the the creative process, which I determined to have eight stages, in one my earliest essays for HuffPost. Of course whether or not my art is predicting the next major breakthrough in physics remains to be seen.

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Eighteen months ago, when Arianna approached me to create the Arts Page, I took it on as I would any art project and still see it as a daily canvas, always wet and malleable, always a laboratory of ideas to share with others. But the fact that the medium is photons instead of oil paint and courtesy of the World Wide Web, which, lest we forget, was created so that Physicists at CERN could communicate with each other, was never lost on me either.

When Arianna surprised me by asking me to help launch science section too, with Cara Santa Maria and senior science editor David Freeman, my mouth at first fell open but then my eyes welled with how much it made perfect sense. My father’s greatest gift with Art and Physics was to make both subjects accessible to the everyone. I know that I, along with Arianna and the incredible science team including Neil Katz, David Flumenbaum, Travis Korte, Emily Cohn and Tavish Nanda, feel the same way. I will continue my involvement here by regularly featuring artists standing at the intersection of art and science, illuminating science thought art, opening with “Dark Matters”. I’m equally thrilled and honored to have some of the greatest thinkers, inventors and adventurers of our time blogging for us right out of the gate, including Dean Kamen, Physicists Lisa Randall, and Nobel Laureates Saul Perlmutter and George Smoot, III, Robert Branson and Buzz Aldrin.

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In 1991, my father handed me the first hard copy edition of his first book, Art and Physics with the following enscription. In the act itself, he had become, or transformed from scientist to an artist. Today, I hold a mirror to that act or paint a bird and present it to you.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/science

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The Gap Logo, New Coke and the Legendary Walter Landor

October 21, 2010

The introduction and subsequent rescinding of The Gap Logo unleashed a series memories of my younger self and the visionary designer Walter Landor.

I was a freshman at UC Berkeley. Being the always drawing-painting-coloring-designing “creative-type” kid, my father thought I might enjoy a lecture at SFMOMA by the legendary designer Milton Glaser who was introduced by his West Coast Counterpart, Walter Landor of Landor Associates. I was raised in Mill Valley so my university, my hometown and the glittering lights of San Francisco were all only a bridge away.

Although I am an artist today, when I was eighteen, my path was not so clear. My first generation American father was still in the chrysalis of his first career as a prominent surgeon (he would then go on to become a best-selling author). In middle and high school, I often attended Sunday morning rounds and an occasional operation with my him before he picked up bagels and lox for Sunday brunch. I received the book “The Makings of a Woman Surgeon” four Chanukas in a row. Whenever I brought home a report card in high school it was often met with “What?? A ‘B’ in Chemistry? How are you going to get into medical school with a B in Chemistry?!” During our talks about what I wanted to do with my life, he would stroke my hair and say “Honey, you can be anything you want as long as you’re a doctor first. Then worry about the rest.”

The prospect of enrolling in art school was as likely as visiting on a distant galaxy via jet pack. So getting an internship at one of the premiere design firms in the world while in college seemed like a great way to expose myself to a creative field and one that my father might (*might*) take seriously enough to justify not going to medical school.

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This is how I found myself, at the tender age of eighteen, wearing panty hose, my mother’s silk blouse and fake pearls, smack in the middle of a boardroom on a Ferry Boat called The Klammath at Pier Five as Landor Associates was about to launch “New Coke”. Like the Gap Logo fiasco, the introduction of New Coke, which has now become a source of lore amidst business schools and popular culture, was also met with outrage by a public which was just fine with their existing coke, thank you very much. Even though it had nothing to do with the design itself, the logo, too, which had shed it’s seraphs from “Coca-Cola” and abbreviated itself with to “New Coke”, also seemed like a fraud. Phrases like “Brand Loyalty” and “Brand Equity” were coined shortly thereafter.

Here is a video of a younger Walter Landor “The Decanter,” a promotional film produced by Walter Landor and Associates in the 1960s. It shows the start-to-finish process of several of Landor’s designs for Old Fitzgerald whiskey, narrated by Walter himself.

Design story: The Decanter from Landor Associates on Vimeo.

But that’s not the exciting part of the story. The exciting part was the environment and the laboratory feeling Landor Associates had at the same time. This was the set of Mad Men. All the women were *gorgeous* and the men were tall and white and would swagger in and dictate a letter to their secretaries and then walk into their offices, light up a cigarette and call London. Landor had about eight hundred people and 16 offices around the world. The headquarters was on a huge ferry boat. But it was also like being inside a brain. They had a word department where people would make up the names for the juices would appear on a Dole Pineapple container. The design department was filled with designers, photographers and architects working on the latest airlines (British Airways, JAL, NorthWest) or gas stations. In the main conference room there would regularly be a twenty foot shoji screen filled with logos for a new client. One summer I spent a majority in a small room archiving Walter’s collection of glass bottles for the Smithsonian Institute. Another I worked with the architects who were creating a new look for Shell Oil. I squirted syringes of soap bubbles to help photographers photograph glasses of wine. I remember one of the designers, Elaine, working on the milk Carton for Lucerne with mock up milk cartons and logos of cows everywhere. She had a picture of herself with Andy Warhol above her desk.

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Where I spent one summer archiving Walter’s collection of glass bottles for the Smithsonian

I interned at Landor Associates throughout college and full-time during the summers. I wrote all Walter’s speeches and Walter, then in his seventies, became my mentor and was more of a figurehead to the company and industry that he helped pioneer. He had silver hair and a bright light around him that drew everybody in like an artistic yet mischievious Obi-Wan Kenobi, always telling me and everyone around him how to really see. He would hold up his hands towards a tree outside his office and make a cropping shape all the time and say “Look through there. Now See? That is art. Art is everywhere. You just have to see it.” One of the projects I worked on was the business plan for the “Walter Landor Center for Creativity Research”. He taught me to see at the seagull in the B of A symbol or the Yin Yang symbol within the old Safeway supermaket logo. His imprint on the world of design is felt every time you look at an airplane, walk into a supermarket or anything to with brand or logo design has Walter’s and Landor Associates imprint written all over it.

Artists at designers are separated at birth. Much of the problem solving and creative thinking at the genesis of every project are no different. And much of what I learned from Walter and Landor Associates has informed every part of my career afterwards. Walter passed away in 1995 at 82 and I think about him all the time and smile and *see*.

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Walter Landor at my graduation.

Painting Evolution: Interview with Artist Liat Yossifor

July 4, 2010

“Falling Into Ends” New Paintings by Liat Yossifor. June 11- August 30 Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt Germany | Frankenallee 74 | D-60327 Frankfurt a. M.

Powerful art and extreme nature have a lot in common. This spring when the Icelandic volcano grounded all European planes and the most arresting images cascaded through my internet browsers – so much so that I had to catch my breath – my mind immediately went toward the work of painter Liat Yossifor.

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Smoke erupting from Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Getty Images 2010

The last time I wrote about Yossifor’s work was 2007. Southern California was engulfed in smoke from the wildfires and the palette of the sky has descended into a muted orange grey — the entire region was thrown into an altered state. At the same time, the daily casualties of the war in Iraq streamed through our televisions and for those of us not in the military— it was all perfectly the abstract. It was through Liat’s paintings of battle scenes in her exhibition “The Tender Among Us” — with the twisted bodies below a similarly muted atmosphere — that I started to feel a connection to the war.

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“The Tender Among Us” 62 x 72 in. Oil on Panel 2007. Liat Yossifor

Yossifor has created a technique where she paints portions very thickly but moves the paint around with a fine sturdy brush which renders the surface more like sculpture. The reflecting light and the painting itself change with each step as you walk toward and around it. While some artists’ work stay within the same series of notes, Yossifor’s work steadily transforms and each exhibition captures a state of that evolution. That her latest body of work has figures emerging from black as thick as the tar washing up in beaches off the Gulf of Mexico is surely a coincidence, (or is it? one never knows), in person she is not dark at all, but a bright, fiery burst of energy and intellect — a painter’s painter. I caught up with her while she was finishing a three month residency at a Kunstverein in Frankfurt and just opened her solo show at Anita Becker Gallery in Frankfurt.

KB: You have been a recent resident at the Deutsche Borse Residency Program at the Frankfurter Kunstverein for three months. What was the program about and what was it like for you?
LY: The residency program hosts two residents at a time: an artist and an art historian, a writer, or a curator. My experience here has been a rich one — from the people I met to the collections in the museum row in Frankfurt to the Kunstverein’s own programming to much more. For example, I finally saw Beckmann’s The Night at the k21 museum in an exhibition entitled Silent Revolution, and I completely lost myself in front of the most beautiful blue and black Rothko. The Städel Museum, just minutes from the residency, has a room with all my favorites: early Baselitz, Kirchner, and Dubuffet. I also love that this particular Kunstverein in Frankfurt exhibited works by Max Beckmann when he was still unknown.

KB: How has this experience affected your new work?
LY: Before coming to Germany, I felt that a shift in my work was coming, and in my mind, I saw the new paintings, but I also felt a little crippled in my LA studio, going back and forth between old and new processes. Then, I came to Frankfurt and encountered the new studio, new light, new experiences, and new materials (I began working on rough linen). All of these changes contributed to the shift in the work.

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“Falling into Ends” 71 x 63 inches. Oil on Linen. Liat Yossifor Courtesy Gallerie Anita Beckers

LY: In some ways I believe that, in Los Angeles, I was making black paint surfaces on panels that were condensed and object-like, while in my stay here I became more interested in pictorial space. The heavy black texture element in my new work is done in layers that are on top of thin layers on linen; whereas before, the thick layer of paint was done at once and all over, sealing the surface tightly. I am not crossing out the heavy object-like “walls” that collapse inward from before for the new thin layers on linen; rather I am imagining them together. There just seems to be more possibilities now.

KB: How would you describe the new work compared to “Tender Among Us” or your other work?
LY: I am using a lot more symbols than in my previous work. I have a large collection of images at this point of statue-like national monuments, of soldiers from various wars, and of paintings of soldiers (specifically from post war I German painting). I think of these references as documents and archetypes and also as ideas that are nostalgic and broken, like painting itself. I see painting as a medium that abstracts and confuses the “subject” — nothing is specific or hierarchal; a shape is a shape. Also, in painting, the idea of a return is not linear because history is always present. My attraction to these qualities in painting is how nothing stays fixed, so the most stubborn symbol or idea falls apart. When I decided to work with old strategies (such as post-World War I German painting), I was not aware of how troubling a relationship it would be. In a way, it made me very aware of today’s post-war reaction in art (or the lack thereof), and things came around to full circle, which was interesting — to be connecting identities (mine and German) across time.

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“The Monument” 180 x 160 cm Oil on Linen. Liat Yossifor. Courtesy Galerie Anita Beckers

LY: (cont.) Ideas flip in my head; for example, the monument is not just a failed idea, but also a shape that still impresses me. I’m working with thin cadmium red lines that separate large black shapes in the paintings. One tiny red mark in a black painting changes the whole composition. Then, when I insist on repeating a small red line, it becomes a “thing” too, not just a guide or a line. It’s fascinating for me at the moment, to allow these symbolic color combinations – often used for propaganda – to mess with me, to let them manipulate the way I see space, and to see the red mark gaining more and more power compositionally as I repeat it and see it deepen. I am painting the soldiers freely in the sense that their medallions, uniforms, hats, and flags are a mixture of various styles and origins. I find myself making a mass of bodies, where the soldiers melt into each other, and are grouped together for the sake of the overall structure of the painting. They seem to me to be celebrating an end of a war, or its beginning; moreover, they seem to be gathering but it is not clear for what. For me, their state of becoming “one” is both heroic and pathetic.

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“Falling Into Ends” Detail 1

KB: I think of your work as one that requires a slow viewing. Has that changed? How do you approach the viewing of your own work now?
LY: I am thinking right now about two experiences when viewing the work: one that is immediate and structured, such as bright red lines separating black space, ultramarine blue peeking through black shapes; and the other that is the experience of making up the slight differentiation between one black shape next to another and of the figures that are trapped in there. The bright red and blue lines work like a quick grid and an armature — they get the eye moving fast. I have been resisting the quick viewing of art for a while now because I wanted to slow down the act of seeing and to challenge myself to accept information in layers. This reminds me that I was just looking at a black Ad Reinhardt at the Falkwang Museum. It was so quite to slowly see the grid, and I felt like the surface was very flexible still, maybe even still wet, because it was changing so much while I was looking at it. But over time, for my own work, that has begun to be less interesting for me, and maybe even a little stubborn of me to continue to focus on slowing down time when seeing can happen in many ways and tempos at once. What’s wrong with fast? Or more accurately, why not have multiple (simultaneous) tempos to view the painting?

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“The Lovers (Soldier and Mask) 70 x 35” Oil on Linen. Liat Yossifor Courtesy Galerie Anita Beckers

KB: What’s next for you?
LY: My next show will be at Angles Gallery in Los Angeles, January 2011

“Falling Into Ends” New Paintings by Liat Yossifor. June 11- August 30 Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt Germany | Frankenallee 74 | D-60327 Frankfurt a. M.