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Colors / Shapes / Lines: Project Zero Artful Thinking Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
A Project Zero "Artful Thinking" routine for exploring forms in an artwork. This routine helps students make detailed observations by drawing their attention to the forms in an artwork and giving them specific categories of things to look for. Uses the questions: “What colors do you see?”, “What shapes do you see?”, and “What lines do you see?”

COLORS / SHAPES / LINES

A routine for exploring forms in an artwork

1. What colors do you see?

2. What shapes do you see?

3. What lines do you see?

Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?

The routine helps students make detailed observations by drawing their attention to the forms in an artwork –its formal aspects–and giving them specific categories of things to look for.

Application: When and where can it be used?

The routine can be used with any kind of visual art. It can also be used with other visually rich images or objects.

Launch: What are some tips for starting and using this routine?

Ask students to look at the artwork or object for a moment before asking them the questions in the routine. Like the Looking: Ten Times Two routine, students can use the routine on its own, or prior to having a discussion about an artwork with another routine. It is especially useful before a writing activity because it helps students develop descriptive language.

Looking: Ten Times Two: Project Zero Artful Thinking Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
A Project Zero "Artful Thinking" routine for slow, detailed observation. This routine helps students slow down and make careful, detailed observations by encouraging them to push beyond first impressions or obvious features. After asking students to “Look at the image” quietly for at least 30 seconds, students are asked to “List 10 words or phrases,” and then “Repeat Steps 1 and 2.”

LOOKING: TEN TIMES TWO

A routine for slow, detailed observation

1. Look at the image.

2. List 10 words or phrases.

3. Repeat Steps 1 and 2.

Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?

This routine helps students slow down and make careful, detailed observations by encouraging them to push beyond first impressions and obvious features.

Application: When and where can it be used?

This routine can be used with any type of visual art. It can also be used with other images or objects.

Launch: What are some tips for starting and using this routine?

Ask students to look at the image quietly for at least 30 seconds, letting their eyes wander. Then, ask them to list 10 words or phrases about any aspect of the image. Ask students to repeat Steps 1 and 2 and try to add 10 more words or phrases to their list. This routine can be used on its own, or to deepen the observation step of another routine. It is especially useful before a writing activity because it helps students develop descriptive language.

Headlines: Project Zero Visible Thinking Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
A Project Zero "Visible Thinking" routine for capturing the essence of a topic or issue. This routine can also involve students summing things up and coming to tentative conclusions. Asks students to “Write a headline that captures the most important aspect of this [topic/issue],” and to answer “How does your headline differ from what you would have said yesterday?”

HEADLINES

A routine for capturing the essence of a topic or issue

1. Write a headline that captures the most important aspect of this [topic/issue].

2. How does your headline differ from what you would have said yesterday? How has your headline changed based on today’s discussion?

Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?

This routine helps students capture the core or heart of the matter being studied or discussed. It also can involve them in summing things up and coming to tentative conclusions.

Application: When and where can it be used?

This routine works especially well at the end of a class discussion or session in which students have explored a topic and gathered a fair amount of new information or opinions about it.

Launch: What are some tips for starting and using this routine?

This routine can be used effectively with Think / Pair / Share. For example, at the end of a class, a teacher might ask, "Think about all that we have been talking about today in class. If you were to write a headline for this topic or issue right now that captured the most important aspect that should be remembered, what would that headline be?" Next, the teacher tells students, "Share your headline with your neighbor." The teacher might close the class by asking, "Who heard a headline from someone else that they thought was particularly good at getting to the core of things?" Student responses to the routine can be written down and recorded so that a class list of headlines is created. These could be reviewed and updated from time to time as the class learns more about the topic. The follow-up question, "How has your headline changed or how does it differ from what you would have said?” can be used to help students reflect on changes in their thinking.

Claim / Support / Question: Project Zero Visible Thinking Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
A Project Zero "Visible Thinking" routine for clarifying truth claims. This routine helps students develop thoughtful interpretations by encouraging them to reason with evidence. Asks students to: “Make a claim [explanation/interpretation] about the topic,” “Identify support [things you can see, feel, know] for your claim,” and “Ask a question related to your claim. What isn’t explained?”

CLAIM / SUPPORT / QUESTION

A routine for clarifying truth claims

1. Make a claim [explanation/interpretation] about the topic.

2. Identify support [things you can see, feel, know] for your claim.

3. Ask a question related to your claim. What isn’t explained?

Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?

This routine helps students develop thoughtful interpretations by encouraging them to reason with evidence. Students learn to identify truth claims and explore strategies for uncovering truth.

Application: When and where can it be used?

Use this routine with topics in the curriculum that invite explanation or are open to interpretation.

Launch: What are some tips for starting and using this routine?

The routine works well for individuals, small groups, and for whole group discussions. Begin by modeling the routine: Identify a claim and explore support and questions in a whole group discussion. On the board make one column for SUPPORT and one column for QUESTIONS. Ask the class for evidence that either supports a claim, or questions the claim and write it in the appropriate column. Take turns using the routine so that each student makes a claim, identifies support, and asks a question. Following each person's report, take a moment as a group to discuss the topic in relation to the claim before moving on to the next person. Be patient as students take a few moments to think. You may need to probe further by asking: “What are some other questions you might want to ask about this statement?” or “Can you think of reasons why this may be true?” Encourage friendly disagreement—once a student comes up with an alternative perspective about a claim, encourage other students to follow. The questions can challenge the plausibility of the claim, and often lead to a deeper understanding of the reasoning process. Let students know it is fine to disagree with one another's reasons and encourage them to come up with creative suggestions for support and questioning. After everyone has had a turn, reflect on the activity. What new thoughts do students have about the topic?

The Plate as Palette

Smithsonian Magazine

Ralph Fabri holiday card to Dale Pontius

Archives of American Art
1 Christmas card : ill. ; 14 x 19 cm

Card features an etching by Fabri showing a painter's palette with the words "Ralph Fabri wishes you" etched within it, then beneath that are images of a car, a plane, a house, a boat, a sack of money, a woman's face and a man's face with a heart in between them, and then the words "or whatever else you may think of."

New Video Game Parodies What it Means to Be an Art World Star

Smithsonian Magazine

The art world can be unforgiving. Just ask Vincent van Gogh: His masterful self-portraits and landscapes adorn the walls of world-class galleries but received little acclaim during his lifetime. On the other hand, there's Damien Hirst, a contemporary art giant whose success derives from bedazzled skulls and animal carcasses. One thing is for sure—the formula for art world success is unpredictable, but thanks to the new video game Passpartout: The Starving Artist, users can envision their artistic careers without taking real-world risks.

Passpartout, released by Flamebait Games last month, features a Microsoft Paint-esque toolbox, an aspiring artist and a persnickety group of collectors. You play the game’s titular character, a painter who dreams of conquering the art world. Armed with a basic round brush and palette (you’ll need to make some sales before unlocking advanced tools, including a spray paint brush), you are free to fill canvases with as many subjects and artistic styles as you please. Potential collectors stop by to offer critique and, if all goes well, pay you enough to cover your monthly expenses—in true starving artist fashion, the funds go toward wine and baguettes.

Passpartout was developed by five Swedish developers who were interested in producing experimental games. Mattias Lindblad, CEO of Flamebait, tells GameSauce's David Radd, “We’re trying to convey a message about the art scene and the struggle of creative work in general, and we believe this is best done through satire.” That's clear enough when you read the team's tongue-and-cheek press release, which asks: "What is art? Are games art? Tackle the big questions in Passpartout! You might think you can’t draw, which is probably true. However, that hasn’t stopped people from becoming renowned artists before!"

Since its release on Steam and Gamejolt, the game has been downloaded more than 70,000 times.

Passpartout gleefully revels in and parodies art's seemingly arbitrary, volatile nature. As critics of modern and contemporary art like to argue, anyone can divide a canvas into color blocks à la Mark Rothko or draw a solitary shape equivalent to Kazimir Malevich's "Black Square." So, what makes one set of abstract brushstrokes better than another for the virtual critics deciding your fate in the game?

Gustav Rosberg, a graphic artist at Flamebait, declined to tell Artsy the game’s exact formula for evaluating art. He explained that factors such as number of brushstrokes, range of colors and time spent on a work all go into Passpartout's algorithm, but denies the game employs sophisticated A.I., adding, “You don’t need something incredibly complicated to give the feeling that people in the game have different preferences.”

Rather the game makes it so there's no satisfying answer as to why virtual collectors responded well to Isaac Kaplan of Artsy’s version of a Hirst spot painting but were less entranced by his urban nightscape. Or how come one buyer loved Christopher Livingston of PC Gamer's paintings of trees, despite their resemblance to amorphous blobs of green and brown. (Conversly, Livingston reports his more avant-garde works, including a blank canvas and series of multi-colored circles, were met with widespread jeers.)

But that's likely the point. Agree or disagree with the algorithm's judgements, the game's patrons are the individuals who fund your career and determine your commercial fate at the end of the three-act game. Some users find themselves catapulted to stardom (Kaplan notes that hipsters stopped buying his work after he became too successful for their tastes), while others fade into obscurity. In a game where subjectivity determines success, players must choose between following their creative instincts and ceding to buyers' demands. Sure, victory in the game might taste like baguettes, but it also likely comes with the aftertaste of artistic compromise.

Painting With Penicillin: Alexander Fleming's Germ Art

Smithsonian Magazine

Even to scientists, the question of where great discoveries come from is a bit of a mystery. Young biologists learn technique. They learn to sequence DNA, extract sediment cores or distinguish chemical compounds. But how to make a big breakthrough, well, that is equal parts chance and voodoo. Scientists who have a great insight one day (and implicitly, at least in that moment, understand discovery) are as likely to fade into anonymity the next as to make more big discoveries.

Among the classic examples of the unpredictable nature of discovery is that of the Scottish son of a pig farmer, Alexander Fleming. As you may have learned in school, Fleming kept a messy lab. He left petri dishes, microbes and nearly everything else higgledy-piggledy on his lab benches, untended. One day in September of 1928, Fleming returned from a trip and found a goop of some sort growing into a stack of abandoned bacterial cultures and killing them. The circle of goop was a fungus. In that chance moment, Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, properties that would change the world.

Because of Fleming and the scientists who elaborated on his discovery, millions of lives were saved. Some of you are alive to read this because of Fleming. Even if you were not saved by penicillin or some other antibiotic yourself, one of your ancestors likely was. That much about Fleming’s legacy is true. He was an ordinary man who had an extraordinary impact. What is wrong is the idea that his discoveries were simply happenstance. There is more to the story.

In addition to working as a scientist, and well before his discovery of antibiotics, Fleming painted. He was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, where he created amateurish watercolors. Less well known is that he also painted in another medium, living organisms. Fleming painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria. He produced these paintings by growing microbes with different natural pigments in the places where he wanted different colors. He would fill a petri dish with agar, a gelatin-like substance, and then use a wire lab tool called a loop to inoculate sections of the plate with different species. The paintings were technically very difficult to make. Fleming had to find microbes with different pigments and then time his inoculations such that the different species all matured at the same time. These works existed only as long as it took one species to grow into the others. When that happened, the lines between, say, a hat and a face were blurred; so too were the lines between art and science.

It is not clear why Fleming started painting microbes; perhaps he picked up a brush one day and noticed that it felt like the loop he used for his bacteria. Or maybe it was due to the promiscuous sexual predilections of artists. Fleming worked at St. Mary’s hospital in London, where he treated syphilis cases. Many of his patients were painters, and those painters sometimes gave Fleming paintings and perhaps even lessons in return for treatment. Fleming's palette grew richer with time as he found bacteria with the colors he needed. He found joy in discovering a strange new strain of bacteria, in the way that a field biologist might feel the same in happening upon some new and wondrous bird. He collected unusual life forms in the hope that one of them might someday prove useful.

Fleming was a self-taught artist; he had no real artistic training and so he painted what occurred to him. The paintings had little in the way of dimension or nuance and yet still had a vigor, heightened by the reality that they in fact were alive. As one breathed on the paintings, they breathed back.

Image by Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum (Imperial College Healthcare NHs Trust). Alexander Fleming's microbial art paintings were technically very difficult to make. He had to find microbes with different pigments and then time his inoculation such that the different species all matured at the same time. (original image)

Image by Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum (Imperial College Healthcare NHs Trust). It is not clear why Fleming started painting microbes. He was a self-taught artist and painted what occurred to him. (original image)

Image by Corbis. Well before his discovery of penicillin, Fleming was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club. (original image)

One could view these paintings as just another manifestation of the strange ways in which scientists become obsessed (biologists have more than a fair share of quirky hobbies—miniature trains, headstone photography, broken glass collections). But as scientists have begun to reconsider Fleming’s story, it has become clear that these little paintings were more than art.

On that fateful morning, what Fleming actually discovered was, in a way, a version of one of his paintings. Each of the colonies of Staphylococci bacteria that he had inoculated on the plate had grown into a small shape resembling a planet or a star in a night sky. But there among his wild planets was something else, a larger, lighter body at the top of the dish, the Penicillium fungus. Around it the sky was dark, where the bacteria were dying. It was his masterpiece, his “rising sun,” the painting that would save more lives than any other discovery.

Fleming’s discovery of the effects of penicillin, the compound produced by the fungus, was a function of his eye for the rare, an artist’s eye. Other scientists had undoubtedly seen Penicillium growing on their petri dishes before Fleming, but they had thrown those dishes away as failures (In fact, both Chinese and Greek medicine had used fungus topically to treat bacterial infections for several thousand years). Not so for Fleming, who spent his life searching for outliers and the situations that favored them. The outliers were not lucky accidents. They were instead, for Fleming, the living art of discovery.

Nor was his discovery of penicillin an exception. His other discoveries accumulated as he collected other odd observations. Fleming one day hung his nose over a petri dish so to allow his mucus to drip on to the plate. He wanted to see what would happen, what observation would grow out of that strange planting. A new color? A new life form? What he found instead was that his mucus killed bacteria. He had discovered, or he would go on to anyway, lysozyme, a common natural antibiotic that most bodies produce in great quantities. Fleming leapt on the unusual like a weasel on a vole and in doing so discovered what others had walked right past or even thrown, disgusted, into the trash.

Fleming’s bacteria paintings have many descendants. A group of modern painters is using bacteria to produce all sorts of images. Glowing bacteria are used as a scientific tool. The most important descendant of Fleming’s artistic methods, though, are the thousands of modern scientists who, like Fleming, make discoveries by looking for the unusual. You will find them with their messy labs and eyes for oddities. They are bored by experiments that work and prefer those that do not, those whose results make no sense at all. In those moments, they think sometimes that they have found something truly important. Usually they are wrong, but every so often they are right, and our understanding of the world leaps forward. In such moments, the prepared mind favors chance rather than the other way around.

From Obscurity, Hilma af Klint Is Finally Being Recognized as a Pioneer of Abstract Art

Smithsonian Magazine

The arrival of artistic abstraction has long been attributed to a triumvirate of male painters: Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian Expressionist whose improvisational creations translated musical compositions into cacophonies of color; Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist who pioneered the concept of complete non-representation with his 1915 “Black Square,” a literal block of black painted onto a white canvas; and Piet Mondrian, co-founder of the Netherlands-based De Stijl movement, which advocated pure, universal beauty in the form of simple grids of primary colors.

But an elusive female figure actually beat these art world giants to the punch. As Roberta Smith reports for the New York Times, a new Guggenheim exhibition is putting the spotlight on the pioneering Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, whose work has only emerged from obscurity in recent decades. Af Klint not only began dabbling in abstraction in 1906—nearly a decade before Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian first defied traditional representation—but managed to do so at a time when her peers were largely constrained to painting flowers, animals and domestic scenes.

Af Klint saw herself as a “holy transcriptionist, a technician of the unknown” whose work was simply a stepping stone in the pursuit of knowledge (David Heald)

Born in 1862 to a middle-class Swedish family, af Klint graduated with honors from the Stockholm Royal Academy of Fine Arts. As a scholar, she showed herself to be an “eager botanist, well read in natural sciences and in world religions,” according to the non-profit Art Story. While her early works were typical of the period, it was her growing interest in spiritualism—which in the late Victorian era was stoked by new scientific discoveries of the "invisible world," including cathode rays, X-rays and the electron—that triggered a dramatic change in her style. As Caitlin Dover notes for the Guggenheim’s blog, beginning in 1896, af Klint and a group of women collectively dubbed the Five met regularly for sessions filled with prayer, meditation, sermons and séances. The Five believed they were in contact with spirits who would outline tasks for them to complete back on Earth, such as building a temple or creating artwork. On January 1, 1906, af Klint claimed a spirit known as Amaliel addressed her directly, asking her to create the paintings that would line the proposed temple’s walls.

“Amaliel offered me a work and I answered immediately Yes,” af Klint wrote in one of her many spiritually focused notebooks. “This was the large work, that I was to perform in my life.”

According to a separate Guggenheim blog post by Johan af Klint, the artist’s grand-nephew, and Hedvig Ersman, a member of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, af Klint readily followed the spirit’s instructions, completing 111 works in a series entitled “Paintings for the Temple” between November 1906 and April 1908—a staggering rate of one every few days.

Af Klint’s monumental canvases are characterized by her free-wheeling swirls, pastel curlicues and almost psychedelic vocabulary of unrestrained movement. The art is designed to overwhelm—which is exactly what it does in the Guggenheim show, entitled Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.

The rousing retrospective, which features 170 works by the woman who may well deserve the title of Europe’s first abstract artist, is, in fact, af Klint’s first in the United States. Part of the reason for her lack of name recognition up until this point stems from an event that occurred in 1908. That year, af Klint invited famed spiritualist Rudolf Steiner to assess her creations. Rather than celebrate her paintings, he told her that no one must see the work for 50 years. Af Klint took this advice to heart, Kate Kellaway writes for the Observer, halting her work for the next four years and shifting focus to caring for her blind mother.

Following a second burst of inspiration that concluded in 1915, af Klint completed a total of 193 “Paintings for the Temple.” A selection of these canvases, fittingly dubbed “The Ten Largest,” dominate the Guggenheim’s High Gallery, providing a whimsical journey through the human life cycle. As the New York Times’ Smith explains, these works measure up to 10 feet by 9 feet and feature a pastel palette of curved shapes, symbols and even words.

“Evoking the passage of life, they combine depictions of lilies and roses with forms suggestive of male and female gonads, spermatozoa, breasts and a somewhat labial layering of curves,” Hettie Judah writes for the Independent.

Upon her death in 1944, Hilma af Klint stipulated that her paintings remain unseen for the next 20 years (Wikimedia Commons)

Frieze’s Anya Ventura believes that af Klint saw herself as a “holy transcriptionist, a technician of the unknown” whose work was simply a stepping stone in the pursuit of knowledge. And, after completing her “Paintings for the Temple,” the Swedish painter began the heady task of interpreting them, making annotations and edits aimed at decoding what Ventura calls a “new language delivered by the divine.”

Af Klint died penniless in 1944. Rather than bequeathing her creations to the world, she stipulated that they remain unseen for the next 20 years. This wish was fulfilled, albeit belatedly, with the first display of her work in 1986 and subsequent shows in the following decades. Now, thanks to renewed interest in her body of work, including the new Guggenheim exhibition, af Klint's place as one of the first pioneers of abstract art is being affirmed.

“The art history canon wasn’t ready to accept Hilma af Klint at the time of her death in 1944,” curator Tracey Bashkoff tells the Guggenheim’s Dover. “Now, hopefully, we’re pushing those boundaries enough that there is a willingness to see things differently, and to embrace work that was done by a woman, and was done outside of the normal mechanisms of the art world of her time. I think she understood that her work was really for a future audience."

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future is on view at the Guggenheim through April 23, 2019.

Take A Trip Through 300 Years of Men's Fashion

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s easy to think that men’s fashion is less exciting than women’s. “Most people’s idea of menswear is the standard business suit in a blue-black-brown palette,” says Sharon Takeda. But a new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) begs to differ. 

Takeda, head of the costume and textiles department, and curators Kaye Spilker and Clarissa Esguerra mostly plumbed the museum’s permanent collection of more than 35,000 objects for notable trends in the past three centuries of men’s fashion. They turned up court dresses for 18th century noblemen, an ultraconservative bathing suit from 1900, and a striped zoot suit, and selected 200 looks to feature in “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015,” opening April 10.

The exhibition offers a far-ranging and eye-opening perspective on how cultural zeitgeists and political climates affect men’s fashion. LACMA’s curators examine how political movements, cultural exchange, uniform styles and desires to manipulate the male figure (think stockings with padded calves and waist-cinching underpants) all influenced the ensembles. Though the exhibition showcases historical clothing styles that draw from Eastern influences and works by contemporary Japanese designers, it primarily focuses on menswear popularized in Europe and the Americas.

“The show features surprising colors, embellishment and silhouette changes in men’s fashion,” says Takeda. “It’s filled with a lot of wonderful stories.” The meticulously assembled exhibition also shows visitors that fashion has always been an outlet for expression and thus an art form in its own right. 

Photographer Matt Henry's Obsession With the 1960s Led to These Amazing Images

Smithsonian Magazine

Glance/gaze at images above from photographer Matt Henry’s first monograph, Short Stories, and it’s easy to imagine they’re still frames from a movie never made.  But why would a Welsh photographer in his late 30s be so obsessed about recreating elaborately staged images of 1960s and ’70s America?

Matt Henry got his first taste of life in the United States by renting movies on VHS as a child at the local post office; he was hooked. Hollywood provided the ultimate escape from the monotony of small–town life in Wales. “No one tells stories like the Americans,” Henry says admiringly. “And whenever I used to dream up a world, automatically they would be about America, because it would be what I watched.”

The United States of the ’60s and ’70s struck a chord with him the most. As a politics student he developed a fascination with the counter-culture movement and utopian spirit of the era. “Perhaps I was there in a past life,” he suggests, wryly. Henry embraced visual influences of movies of the period, like Easy Rider and Psych Out, along with photographers of that time such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. But while Henry’s lens looks toward the past, he still maintains a foot planted in the modern world. “I wouldn’t describe my work as a recreation of the 60s, because I wasn’t there, and the color palette’s different,” he considers. “And the way I approach things is from a post-modern perspective. I bring many things–I always think of it as this limbo space.”

While Henry stages his photographs in a cinematic fashion similar to Gregory Crewdson, he does so with less budget and production. “By offering up a moment that has a future and a past,” says Henry on the ambiguity of his imagery, “the audience is free to interpret the story in a myriad of ways.”

Those moments he selects to re-imagine are usually the ones that speak most to his political interests. “The ’60s were a very divided time, between the right and the left, and that fascinates me–that real split down the middle. It could have gone one way; it could have gone the other. In the end [the U.S.] ended up with Nixon–and you kind of went the wrong way,” says Henry, chuckling.

Most individual shoots for the Short Stories series lasted anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. The majority of shooting took place in the United Kingdom, save for a series shot on a movie set Henry found in the California desert. Complete with 1960s motel, diner, gas station and period cars, the location was ideal. “The place was like gold dust to me!” says Henry. 

Photo subjects were into dressing up, especially with the popularity of the television show “Mad Men.” And before photo shoots, he’d instill his “cast” with a “sense of the magic of the ’60s” by showing movies from that era. “Nostalgia’s a very powerful thing,” says Henry. “There’s something about looking at old things. It enables you to reflect on your own world as well.”

Mégalithe

National Museum of African Art
Large vertical sculpture of painted papier mâché with three sides with a head painted at the top and smaller figures painted on the body's surface. On the front side, the body is red with a band of blue across the upper register on which the face is painted. The nuanced palette consists of bold, primary colors throughout.

The Smithsonian Gets Experimental and Field-Tests a New Forum for Bringing Artists to the Public

Smithsonian Magazine

Prior to Memorial Day weekend, media consultant Frank Chi had never shown his digital work in an exhibition. And when he had visited museums, it felt more like sitting in a lecture in school than having an interactive conversation. “CrossLines: A Culture Lab of Intersectionality,” hosted by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center at the historic Arts & Industries Building, was wholly new; and Chi and his video “Letters From Camp” were a part of it.

“I’ve never viewed myself as an artist,” Chi says. In the video, young Muslim Americans ages 7 to 13 read letters that young Japanese Americans wrote from World War II incarceration camps to Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego. The youngsters are reading the historic letters to the now aged survivors of Japanese American camps.

“As a first experience, this is incredible,” Chi says. “Museums aren’t interactive in the way that a lot of these projects are.” He witnessed event visitors reacting emotionally to his work, like parents clutching their children. The parallel experience between the young Muslim Americans and the authors of the letters was hard to miss. “You can tell that they knew there were people in this country who did not want them to be here,” Chi says.

That kind of encounter between artist and the public, in which the venue works as facilitator rather than traditional gatekeeper, is part of the point of “CrossLines,” says Lawrence-Minh Búi Davis, a curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

“We are crafting and framing this event as a new kind of museum experience. People have been responding really well to that and saying they like the interactivity, the participatory and cross-cultural nature of it, and the intersectional nature speaks to them,” he says. “It’s the kind of stuff they want to see in museums.”

Watch this video in the original article

Despite the timing of the event, which overlapped with the large annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums, with Memorial Day weekend, and with the 2016 Rolling Thunder Run, 11,606 were in attendance, according to Búi Davis. Having a conversation between the public and the artists was paramount.

“We don’t have a museum space. Rather than looking to create exhibitions that will travel, and rather than trying to schedule time in another museum, we’ve been thinking about what kind of museum do we want to be,” Búi Davis says. “We create experiences that are mobile and nimble.”

Timing the event around the AAM conference presented the opportunity to allow museum officials and staff members to see “the art of D.C. that speaks to D.C. issues,” he says. “Most of the D.C. artists we are showing have never shown at the Smithsonian, and are showing in smaller festival spaces. Some of them are working street artists.”

Visitors appreciated the close encounters with those artists.

Malachi Williams, age 10, was one such cognoscente. Clutching a freshly inked screen print designed by artist Matt Corrado, depicting a skull, wearing a broken army helmet bearing the words “Love Life,” Williams had selected that design for his keepsake from four other options. A bullet lies in front of the face just beneath some foliage. Asked by a reporter why, Williams says: “I like the skull head, the feathers, the cursive on the army helmet, and that the skeleton has no nose but has eyes, that’s confusing.”

The work was destined to hang on his door at home, and he appreciated getting to talk to the staff from Soul & Ink, a Silver Spring, Md.-based collective, as they live printed his souvenir. “First they made it. Then they printed it. And then they put it under this heating, electric thing to warm it, so that it can dry,” Williams says.

Soul & Ink was among 40 artists and scholars on hand at the Crosslines event “doing their thing,” per an event brochure.

Anida Yoeu, a Cambodia-born and Chicago-raised performer, wore red, sparkly clothing, fashioned like traditional Islamic feminine garb, and stood on a platform surrounded by American flags and small white flags bearing the Arabic word “peace.” The performance, in which she was silent, questioned the degree to which Muslim women can be accepted as patriotic Americans.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s multimedia installation “The Virtual Immigrant” examined the people behind the disembodied voices at call centers. “When you call a 1-800 number, a lot of times you are speaking to an Indian, who pretends to be an American for the work day,” the artist says. “When they go back home, they become Indian again, and so they virtually immigrate for the work day.”

She conceived of the project after becoming a U.S. citizen, when she learned that an Indian man, whose American mannerisms she admired, had developed that comfort with English at a call center in India.

Gregg Deal’s performance piece entitled, “The Indian Voice Removal Act of 1879-2016” poses the question: “Whom do you trust to tell your story?”

Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, created a tipi in the exhibition space, and invited visitors in, where they found the artist in traditional attire. When asked a question, though, Deal turned to a colleague, who acted as interpreter. The latter intentionally did a lousy job of translating, and a game of broken telephone ensued. If a visitor asked Deal why he painted red ex marks over the portraits adorning the tipi, the artist might tell his “translator” that it was about disenfranchised indigenous voices. The latter would improvise and tell the questioner that Deal’s favorite color was red.

“We don’t get to tell our own story,” Deal says of his performance piece, where his indigenous voice gets distorted through a white voice. “We are deliberately messing with people, and messing with that communication, but because he’s saying it, they take what he’s saying at value, and they don’t question if there’s a problem.”

It is “dehumanizing” to be treated as an object because of how he is dressed, Deal adds, noting that some people were snapping photographs of him without permission.

David Skorton, the Smithsonian secretary, had just come out of Deal’s tipi, where he found the paintings “compelling.” He also enjoyed “Kitchen Remedies,” created by the People’s Kitchen Collective, which invited visitors to share memories of foods that they grew up with, which helped make them feel better. Visitors then tasted remedy recipes in a “pop up pharmacy.”

“As a doc, and someone who has been interested in alternative medicine, I find two things about it fascinating,” Skorton says, who is a board-certified cardiologist. “The first is that they have this communal table. And second, that it’s packed.” Skorton called the overall event a “very important experiment” in bridging conversations between the public and the Smithsonian.

“I’m not calling it an experiment not to be off-putting. I really think that’s what it is so far,” he says. “I think chances for the public to interact with us are needed. … I’m going to take it all in and see what I can find out.”

That encounter between the public and artists is at the core of the People’s Kitchen, said co-founder and chef Saqib Keval, who was serving three “remedies” from co-founders’ childhood: raw fennel (to settle the stomach and cleanse the palette), tangawizi concentrate (a honey, ginger, and spicy dish from Kenya) which the group was calling the “People’s Kitchen cure-all,” and a Japanese dish, which had been aged for over a year. Another remedy on hand was a cure for heartbreak.

Sitting at a table at one of the entrances to “Crosslines,” Maryland-based painter Jawara Blake was drawing with colored pencil on graph paper to add to Wooden Wave’s “Imagine Your Community” treehouse mural. The medium was “not my typical,” he says, but noted of his design, “Everybody needs abstract art.”

“I love the idea of people feeling drawn to artistic endeavors who are or are not artistic themselves. It reminds me of home,” he says. “Art and community are the same thing.”

The Colors of Childhood

Smithsonian Magazine

Bother, no pen. deep at the bottom of my purse, I snag a purple crayon. Hey, I'm a mom, and I scrawl big waxy letters on the back of an envelope. Thank heaven for the ubiquitous crayon.

The object at hand is one of only a few known to exist. It is an original box of 64 Crayola crayons from 1958. It's the rare baby boomer who doesn't remember one like it — the first box with the built-in sharpener. It was given to the National Museum of American History (NMAH) last year at a celebration in Manhattan's Rainbow Room to honor the 40th anniversary of the package. Bob Keeshan — Captain Kangaroo — was there, and press accounts appeared for days. Reporters waxed nostalgic over the box with its classic green and yellow chevrons.

"Can a brand-new crayon color, Boomer Gray, be far behind?" asked a New York Times headline. We boomers: like everything else, we think we own the crayon. But the truth is, nearly everybody alive today probably made their first colorful squiggles with a Binney & Smith Crayola.

It was 1903 when the crayon made its debut. Before that a child's crayon was just a stick of colored clay or chalk. It looked nice but when put to paper, nothing much happened — not a pretty picture. Binney & Smith was a small, 21-year-old firm, owned by Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. They were already in the business of making color. They owned the rights to a line of red oxides of iron for the red paint used by most farmers on their barns. And they were also sellers of lamp black and white chalk.

They had been among the first to solve the centuries-old problem of how to manufacture a really black black. The answer was expensive carbon black. Binney & Smith likes to credit itself for figuring out how to make it inexpensively. At the 1900 Paris Exposition, the company won a gold medal for its carbon black display.

In 1902, they cleared the dust from America's classrooms with the invention of the then-famous An-Du-Septic Dustless Blackboard Chalk. The new chalk won Binney & Smith another gold medal, at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

By this time, they were doing a brisk business selling their products in America's classrooms. Besides chalk, they made slate pencils. But schools couldn't afford artist's crayons. The Easton, Pennsylvania, plant was already making an inexpensive industrial marking crayon out of carbon black and a durable paraffin.

Well, the rest is history. Color came to the classroom. It was Alice Binney, a former schoolteacher, who came up with the name Crayola. She combined the French word craie, meaning "chalk" with "ola," derived from "oleaginous," or "oily."

One of the first customers was the United States government, which began shipping crayons to schools on Indian reservations. Today the formulation of the nontoxic pigments and the wax, as well as how they give the crayons their distinctive smell, is a closely guarded secret. But some basics are clear.

Pigments, produced from natural sources — slate yields gray; metals, such as iron, yield reds; various types of earth yield yellows and browns — start off as powders that are pounded, ground, sieved, then refined and heated. The temperature determines the shade of color. Since 1903, more than 600 shades of Crayola crayons have been produced.

In June 1990 Binney & Smith decided to retire eight of its old colors to make some of the more modern, brighter colors that children seemed to be searching for in their artistic palettes. Not so fast, said a few of Crayola's veteran fans. One morning, a few weeks later, Binney & Smith executives arrived at their headquarters to find picketers protesting the decision. The RUMPs, or Raw Umber and Maise Preservation Society, and the CRAYONs, or Committee to Reestablish All Your Old Norms, had quickly mobilized their constituents. When the old colors were re-released later that year in a special holiday commemorative collection, the groups were mollified. Not too long ago, "indian red" became the third Crayola color ever to be renamed, when Binney & Smith decided that even though the name referred to the pigment from India, sensitivity required a new name. The new name, "chestnut," selected by Crayola customers, seems rather dull when you compare it with the names that came in as close seconds — "baseball-mitt brown" and "the crayon formerly known as indian red." In 1958 "Prussian blue" was renamed "midnight blue," since most children had never heard of Prussia. And in 1962, "flesh" was renamed "peach."

Back at the National Museum of American History, a large storage-room drawer reveals the museum's extensive crayon collection, ranging from the very old to some of the more recent, even including fruit-scented versions. There's a box, dated 1912, with a picture of Peter Paul Rubens. "Unequaled for outdoor sketching," it says on the side, reflecting Impressionism's emerging popularity. Binney & Smith first marketed in two directions: to artists and to schoolchildren. Here's the schoolroom version: "Good in any climate, certified non-toxic."

Here is a beautiful round wooden container that looks like a toothpick holder, full of crayons. And here is a beautifully crafted wooden box, its dovetail construction giving it the look of a treasure chest. The curator says that it is a treasure. It's filled with the 1941-57 factory standards — the master crayons, if you will. And there next to the standards is a box of today's "Multicultural My World Colors Crayons." The smell of paraffin bombards me. The olfactory system engages. The hypothalamus clicks on. Look out! Here they come — childhood memories!

That familiar smell — a Yale University study on scent recognition once ranked crayons as number 18 of the 20 most recognizable scents to American adults. When I visit Binney & Smith's seven-acre plant in Fork's Township, near Easton, that smell is making me feel like I'm 8 years old again. The plant is running full tilt to produce for the back-to-school season. Three billion crayons are made here each year. Wooden pallets, each piled with cases of crayons waiting to be packaged, line the walls. Outside the factory is a row of two-story storage tanks holding liquid paraffin, which will be pumped into vats and mixed with colored powdery pigment.

Crayon molder Michael Hunt, from Bangor, Pennsylvania, is showing me how it's been done since the very early days. Besides the paraffin and the pigment, Hunt tells me, the crayon also contains talc. "It's like the flour in a cake mix, gives it texture." His leather workman's boots are mottled with orange wax. Both of us are wearing protective goggles because the wax that he is pumping from his vat into a 40-pound pail is at 240 degrees Fahrenheit. "Sometimes a little of it splashes onto my face," he tells me. "Stings a little, but it cools off pretty quickly." He deftly lifts the bucket out from under the vat and spills the wax out across the cooling table, a gentle wave rolling across the top as the wax settles into the molds — 74 rows of eight. We're making the giant "My First Crayons" that fit easily into the hands of preschoolers.

We wait the 7 1/2 minutes for the wax to cool. When a timer chimes, Hunt announces the crayons are ready. He runs a cutting device over the top of the molding table and shaves away the extra wax. Then he lays the collecting tray carefully over the top, lining up the holes. He touches a button, activating a press from below, and the crayons gently rise up into the collecting tray. With ease, Hunt hoists the 31/2-foot-long tray of crayons around to the sorting table behind him and dumps the crayons there. On inspection, he pulls a couple of pointless runts from the rows and, with a wooden paddle, starts moving crayons from the table to a wrapping device. The whole old-fashioned process takes about 15 minutes.

Not too far away, a more modern, continuous-production operation is under way as a rotary molding table does all of Hunt's handwork mechanically. The machine is making the standard-size crayons. Materials go in one end, and operator Elizabeth Kimminour receives dozens of the thin, paper-wrapped products at the other end. She lays them neatly into cartons to be sent to the packaging plant. And that's where I get a glimpse of the celebrated box of 64 being produced. Clicking and whirring, factory machines are endlessly fascinating for those of us who rarely see them in action. Grabbers mysteriously turn flat sheets of printed cardboard into boxes while plastic sharpeners, lined up like soldiers on parade, drop precisely onto a wheel that injects them into passing boxes, which somehow along the way end up with crayons in them.

Binney & Smith is owned today by Hallmark Cards. And that company closely guards the Crayola trademark. (Ms. Crayola Walker of Bellow Falls, Vermont, and Ms. Crayola Collins of Pulaski County, Virginia, however, were graciously allowed to "borrow" the name.) Many companies, particularly foreign ones, would like to capitalize on the Crayola fame, and copycatters try to steal all the time. In the NMAH collection, there's an example of one such attempt — a party bag made to look very Crayola, but it isn't. Licensing of the trademark is common, however, with products ranging from software videos, sheets and bedding, to backpacks, wallpaper and wall paints, and even shoes that look like a box of crayons.

Back home again with my kids and a neighbor's child, I announce that we are going to color. I pull three boxes of 64 from a bag and hand one to each child. In no time at all, their industrious minds — their entire bodies — are completely engrossed in their work.

I remember reading in the Binney & Smith literature a claim that as a youngster, Grant Wood, who later painted the iconic American Gothic, entered a Crayola coloring contest in the early 1900s and won. The sunlight pours in through the window, translating color to vision. Claire is making a rainbow. She picks up a crayon. "This is ‘thistle.' It's what Eeyore eats." Next she chooses "dandelion," "forest green," "sky blue wisteria" and "tickle me pink." Patsy is drawing a portrait of Jessie, and Jessie is drawing the flower vase on the teacart. I try to imagine the inner workings of their creativity. Optical images register on the tiny retinas at the backs of their eyes, electronic signals travel the optic nerves to their brains, the signals are interpreted and messages sent back. Suddenly I snap out of my reverie as Jessie, pondering the red crayon in her hand, says, "I wonder who decided red should be 'red,' anyway?" And then she thinks a minute and says, "Do you think it was George Washington?"

Sanjay Patel: A Hipster’s Guide to Hinduism

Smithsonian Magazine

Sanjay Patel arrives at the entrance of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, breathless. His vahana, or vehicle, is a silver mountain bike; his white helmet is festooned with multicolored stickers of bugs and goddesses.

Though we’ve barely met, Patel takes my arm. He propels me through dimly lit halls, past austere displays of Korean vases and Japanese armor, until we arrive at a brightly lit gallery. This room is as colorful as a candy store, its walls plastered with vivid, playful graphics of Hindu gods, demons and fantastic beasts.

“This is awesome.” Patel spins through the gallery, as giddy as a first-time tourist in Times Square. “It’s a dream come true. I mean, who gets the opportunity to be in a freakin’ major museum while they still have like all their hair? Let alone their hair still being black? To have created this pop-culture interpretation of South Asian mythology—and to have it championed by a major museum—is insane.”

The name of the show—Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches—is as quirky and upbeat as the 36-year-old artist himself. It’s a lighthearted foil to the museum’s current exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts. Patel, who created the bold banners and graphics for Maharaja, was given this one-room fiefdom to showcase his own career: a varied thali (plate) of the animated arts.

“I’ve known of Sanjay’s work for a while,” says Qamar Adamjee, the museum’s associate curator of South Asian Art, ducking briefly into the gallery. At first, she wanted to scatter examples of Patel’s work throughout the museum; the notion of giving him a solo show evolved later.

“[Hindu] stories are parts of a living tradition, and change with each retelling,” Adamjee observes. “Sanjay tells these stories with a vibrant visual style—it’s so sweet and so charming, yet very respectful. He’s inspired by the past, but has reformulated it in the visual language of the present.”

For those unfamiliar with Hindu iconography, the pantheon can be overwhelming. In Patel’s show, and in his illustrated books—The Little Book of Hindu Deities (2006) and Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010)—he distills the gods and goddesses down to their essentials. Now he wheels through the room, pointing to the cartoon-like images and offering clipped descriptions: There’s Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, with his cherished stash of sweets; Saraswati, the goddess of learning and music, strumming on a vina; the fearsome Shiva, whose cosmic dance simultaneously creates and destroys the universe.

“And Vishnu,” Patel adds, indicating a huge blue-and-yellow figure. His multiple hands hold a flaming wheel, a conch shell, a flowering lotus and a mace. “Vishnu is, like, the cosmic referee. He makes sure that everything is in harmony.”

Vishnu, I’m familiar with. He’s one of the main Hindu deities, and often comes up in Patel’s work. Vishnu is the great preserver. According to the ancient Vedic texts, he will reappear throughout history to save the world from menace. Each time, he returns as an “avatar,” a word that derives from the Sanskrit avatara, meaning “descent.”

“An avatar is a reincarnation of a deity,” Patel explains, “taking human form here on earth. Vishnu, for instance, has ten avatars. Whenever something’s wrong in the universe, some imbalance, he returns to preserve the order of the universe.”

One might think, from Patel’s enthusiasm, that he grew up steeped in Hindu celebrations.

“Never. Not one.” We’ve relocated to Patel’s sunny apartment, on a hill overlooking Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theater. He reclines in an easy chair; his hands are wrapped around a mug created by his partner Emily Haynes, a potter. “Growing up in L.A., we went to run-down little temples for certain festivals. But the kids would just play in the parking lot while our parents chanted inside. I learned about Hinduism much later.”

Patel, 36, was born in England. When he was a boy his family relocated to southern California. His parents have run the Lido Motel, along Route 66, for more than 30 years. They never had much money, but through the perseverance of a devoted high-school art teacher—Julie Tabler, whom Sanjay considers almost a surrogate mother—Patel won scholarships first to the Cleveland Institute of Art and then to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Image by © 2011 Sanjay Patel, gheehappy.com. "Vishnu is, like, the cosmic referee. He makes sure that everything is in harmony," says pop artist Sanjay Patel. (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. In his illustrated books, Patel distills the gods and goddesses down to their essentials as shown in this illustration from Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by © 2011 Sanjay Patel, gheehappy.com. For Patel, to have a show featured in a major museum is a dream come true. (original image)

Image by © 2011 Sanjay Patel, gheehappy.com. Patel created bold banners and graphics for Maharaja and was given a one-room fiefdom to showcase his own career. (original image)

Image by © 2011 Sanjay Patel, gheehappy.com. Patel didn't grow up enthralled with Hindu imagery, but the seeds were always there. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Six years into his Pixar career, Patel opened an art book and came across paintings from India. "The more I read," he recalls, "the more I was drawn into a world of imagery that had always surrounded me." (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. The name of the show at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum is titled, Deities, Demons and Dudes with 'Staches—which is a lighthearted foil to the museum's current exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts. (original image)

Image by © 2011 Sanjay Patel, gheehappy.com. An illustration of Patel on his vahana, or vehicle, a silver mountain bike. (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

Image by From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books. An illustration from Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (original image)

It was while Patel was at CalArts that representatives from Pixar, which has a close relationship with the prestigious school, saw Patel’s animated student film, Cactus Cooler.

“It’s about a cactus going through puberty,” explains Patel. “At a certain point, his needles start coming in—but because of the needles, he inadvertently chases away his only friend.

“Pixar loved it, and they recruited me.” Patel was hesitant at first. “I was in love with hand drawing, and the job involved a computer. But after getting some good advice, I did join the studio.” Despite his initial misgivings, taking classes at “Pixar University” gave him a real respect for CAD (computer assisted design). “The computer is just a great big box of pens, pencils and colors,” he concedes. “It’s another fantastic tool.”

Patel has been at Pixar since 1996. He’s done art and animation for A Bug's LifeMonsters, Inc.The IncrediblesCars and the Toy Story films. The relationship works both ways. Pixar’s luminous palette and engaging, heroic characters ultimately inspired his own artwork.

Patel didn’t grow up enthralled with Hindu imagery, but the seeds were there. Six years into his Pixar career, he opened an art book and came across paintings from India. “The more I read,” he recalls, “the more I was drawn into a world of imagery that had always surrounded me. Before, it was just part of my family’s daily routine. Now I saw it in the realm of art.”

While Pixar is a team effort, Patel’s books are his personal passion. In The Little Book of Hindu Deities, he unpacks the mythic universe of ancient South Asia with bold, vibrant illustrations. A computer program massages his sketches into clean, geometric figures. It’s a cunning blend of East meets West, at a time when both cultures venerate the microprocessor.

Patel’s most ambitious book, so far, is Ramayana: Divine Loophole. A five-year effort, it’s a colorful retelling of India’s most beloved epic.

“Can you sum up the Ramayana,” I ask, “in an elevator pitch?”

Patel furrows his brow. “OK. Vishnu reincarnates himself as a blue prince named Rama. He’s sent to earth and marries the beautiful princess Sita. Through some drama in the kingdom, Rama, Sita and his brother are exiled to the jungle. While in the jungle, Sita is kidnapped by the ten-headed demon Ravana—and Rama embarks on a quest to find her. Along the way he befriends a tribe of monkeys and a tribe of bears, and with this animal army they march to Lanka, defeat the demons and free Sita.”

Just how popular is the Ramayana? “It would be safe to say,” Patel muses, “that almost every child in the Indian subcontinent would recognize the main characters—especially Hanuman, the loyal monkey god.”

In 2012, Chronicle will publish Patel’s first children’s book, written with Haynes. Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth tells the story of what happened when Brahma asked Ganesha—the elephant-headed god—to record another great Hindu epic, the voluminous Mahabharata. Ganesha broke off his own tusk to use as a stylus; the book imagines his various attempts to reattach it. (The Mahabharata’s plot, unfortunately, won’t fit in an elevator pitch.)

Among Patel’s many inspirations is Nina Paley, a New York-based animator whose 2009 film, Sita Sings the Blues, tells the story of the Ramayana from a feminist perspective. Patel credits Paley with giving him the inspiration to create his own version of the epic.

“Religion, like all culture, needs to be constantly reinterpreted to remain alive,” says Paley. “Sanjay’s work is not only beautiful—it updates and freshens history, tradition and myth.”

But interpreting religious themes can be risky, and Paley and Patel sometimes provoke the ire of devotees. Last summer, for example, a screening of Sita Sings the Blues was protested by a small fundamentalist group who felt the film demeaned the Hindu myths.

“It makes me sad,” Patel reflects. “I want to believe that these stories can withstand interpretation and adaptation. I want to believe that one person might have a pious belief in the legends and the faith, while another could abstract them in a way that’s personally reverent. I want to believe that both can exist simultaneously.”

A more immediate issue, at least for Patel, is the challenge of fame. Traditionally, Indian and Buddhist artworks have been anonymous. They arise from a culture where the artist is merely a vehicle, and the work an expression of the sacred.

“These characters have existed for thousands of years, and have been illustrated and re-enacted by thousands of artists,” he reminds me. “I'm just part of this continuum. So whenever the spotlight’s on me, I make a point of telling people: If you’re interested in these stories, the sources go pretty deep. I have nowhere near plumbed their depths.”

In the process of illustrating these deities and legends, though, Patel has been exploring his own roots. One thing he’s discovered is that the Hindu stories put many faces on the divine: some valiant, and some mischievous.

“One of the neat things my aunt told me,” Patel recalls, “was that the Ramayana is a tragedy, because Rama always put everybody else's happiness ahead of his own. But what’s interesting is that Vishnu’s next avatar—after Rama—is Krishna, the hero of the Mahabharata. Krishna is all about devotion through breaking the rules. He steals butter, has multiple lovers and puts his needs above everybody else’s.

“I was struck by the fact that—if you’re a follower of Hindu philosophy—there’s a time to be both. A time to follow the rules, and a time to let go, explore your own happiness, and be playful. That you can win devotion that way, as well.” The notion fills Patel with glee. “I think that’s really neat, actually,” he says. “It’s not just black and white.”

With this artist holding the brush, it could hardly be more colorful.

Artist on the Rise

Smithsonian Magazine

At around 3 feet by 5 feet, the canvases of contemporary artist Maggie Michael are not particularly imposing. But they can electrify a room. Lime green, pale peach, metallic blue—Michael's abstract paintings offer color combinations that clash as well as complement in a variegated apocalypse. Like sculptural skin, the latex paint favored by the artist bunches, folds, tears and bubbles as if it has a mind—or body—of its own. Funky tags of spray paint and whipcord strokes of ink call to mind preternatural blossoms and futuristic worlds suspended in midair.

A young painter working in Washington, D.C., Michael has put a new spin, splatter and drip on the abstract expressionism pioneered by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning in the 1950s. "Maggie makes abstraction look and feel new and fresh. She is pushing it to the limits," says Stacey Schmidt, former associate curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Within months of finishing her Master of Fine Arts in 2002, Michael had her first solo exhibition, which met with rave reviews. The show featured her Clone series, paintings created without the artist ever picking up a brush. Instead, Michael poured two puddles of latex paint onto Plexiglas, and then dipped and tilted the entire piece until the paint oozed into the desired shapes. Her intention was for the amorphous pools to look like natural replicas, belying the "hyper-controlled" manipulations that went into making them.

To Michael, these works are a kind of anti-action painting, a contrast to the active, unpredictable and somewhat aggressive motions typified by abstract expressionists. Joe Shannon of Art in America hailed the installation as "perfect, intensifying the riveting presence of the minimally varied shapes." Since the debut, Michael has received several grants and shown her work in a number of exhibitions around the country.

Image by Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Applying ink to a work in progress, abstract artist Maggie Michael paints with her canvases literally at her feet: "I enjoy being on the ground and moving around my canvas, looking and seeing from all the different directions." (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Maggie Michael. Tempered chaos is key for painter Maggie Michael (in her Washington, D.C. studio). "In control or out of control; loved or loving; sexual or violent; my work relates to different aspects of our humanness," she says. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of G Fine Art. Maggie Michael is not a street artist, but she is inspired by graffiti and uses spray paint in her own work. "For me, spray paint is like air and wind and breath being put onto a canvas," she says. (Cradle, 2006) (original image)

Image by Courtesy of G Fine Art. Maggie Michael's paintings incorporate cast-off house paints. The intense shades and startling color combinations are the result of spending quality time at Home Depot and Benjamin Moore. (Hunter (mass), 2006) (original image)

Image by Courtesy of G Fine Art. Of all Maggie Michael's most recent works, Icon: Sweep Under is the painting she enjoyed painting the most: "It was an escape for me. I worked on it over a period of a few months. I don't usually talk about spirituality in my work, but that painting was spiritual and intimate to me." (Icon: Sweep Under, 2006) (original image)

Image by Courtesy of G Fine Art. Maggie Michael's works often feature elementsrivers, waterfalls, mountains and valleyssimilar to those found in Chinese landscape paintings. (Valley, 2006) (original image)

Image by Courtesy of G Fine Art. The use of latex paint gives Maggie Michael's works a bodily quality. Like skin, the build up of paint can bunch, pull, bubble and tear. (Valley: bat, 2006) (original image)

Michael decided she was going to become a painter when she was a junior in high school, but her interest in art began when she was just a child wandering the art section of her hometown public library. Michael's creative inspirations reflect this life-long devotion, reading like a list of art's greatest hits. She has a penchant for the work of many Italian Renaissance men—Duccio, Fra Angelico, Leonardo and Tintoretto. She has also been strongly affected by the works of her fellow female artists, including Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. A close study of Valley and Throw, two paintings Michael created in 2006, reveals a resonance with Chinese landscape paintings and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints that depict "pictures of the floating world." But as Olga Viso, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, points out, "Maggie pushes the possibilities of painting" by fusing the tradition of abstract painting with a potent artistic sensibility all her own.

Michael started incorporating latex paint into her palette in 2001, giving up sumptuous, though noxiously fumed, oil paints with alluring names like cadmium red and cerulean blue. It wasn't a switch she went into happily: "I was appalled. But I got pregnant and I had to." Almost immediately, however, Michael found that the challenge of using water-based paint invigorated her art. "Out of the frustration of having to change, I found that I was able to work in a way that was enjoyable and satisfying," she says.

Using latex paints bought by the gallon has meant Michael spends a good deal of quality time at Home Depot and Benjamin Moore. Initially she toiled over paint chips, spending time and money at her local paint store on specially mixed colors. "I realized that was really unnecessary when I could look through the mistint pile," Michael says. House paints that decorators buy and return ("this color just wasn't quite right") usually end up marked down as mistints at home supply stores. Many of these orphaned pigments have found refuge with Michael, who has over 300 cans of ready-made rejected paint in her studio. "I felt like I was giving them a second chance," she says. "And I don't care what color it is. It can be the most disgusting brownish-green, whatever, it'll look great in a painting somewhere."

The titles of Michael's works—ReignCradleWind, to name a few—sustain as many meanings as the paintings themselves. To create pieces that are sensual as well as violent, body-conscious and at times grotesque, Michael offers control and chance an equal place in her art: "Whatever I think of, no matter what it could be, will be made to work together. Anything can be resolved. It is just a matter of how you approach it."

Andy Warhol

National Portrait Gallery
Created at the Factory, Andy Warhol's studio, during an intense three-month collaboration, Jamie Wyeth's portrait of Andy Warhol is not flattering. Wyeth accentuates the older artist's blemishes and rumpled clothing, compressing his slim frame into the lower half of the composition. He used "palette, brush, fingers, everything-and a lot of white paint"-evident in his subject's hair and skin tones. As the two worked side by side, Wyeth absorbed Warhol's idiosyncrasies, producing brutally honest images of him. Yet the representation is fitting for Warhol, who advocated flaunting one's physical flaws.

Warhol and Wyeth found their collaboration mutually satisfying. As Wyeth later recalled: "I think he was fascinated by the way I paint because it's so alien to the way he works." Warhol told one critic, "I wasn't concerned about how he would paint me. I love his work."

Explore 250 Years of What Makes Fashion "Trendy" at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology

Smithsonian Magazine

Fashion changes every season, but the concept of "trendy" always remains. Comfortable knitwear was the preferred trend for women in the 1920s, just as black-and-white contrast pieces flew off the shelves last season. And changes in fashion's whims can be quite dramatic: in Europe, for example, the color yellow used to be associated with heretics—no one would be caught dead wearing it. Then, in the 18th century, growing interest in Chinese culture suddenly made yellow—a color associated with the Emperor—en vogue.

But what makes something popular, and how do trends emerge? Visitors to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York can ponder these questions while examining the evolution of trends through 250 years in a new exhibit, "Trend-ology." The show features over 100 objects, including glamorous ensembles by Oscar de la Renta, Chanel, Rodarte, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior.

"You can think of trends like physics," Emma McClendon, one of the exhibit curators told the New York Daily News. "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." The bold colors, jewelry and exaggerated shapes of the 1980s evolved into the minimalist silhouettes and color palettes of the '90s. The straightforward dresses of the early 1940s were succeeded by the overtly feminine shapes of Dior's post-war "New Look." The exhibit, organized in reverse chronology, guides visitors through these shifts, asking fashionistas to contemplate how the trends of today were influenced by fashions from decades before. 

"Trend-ology" will be on view through April 30, 2014, in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery at The Museum at FIT.

This Is How You Live Paint an Event

Smithsonian Magazine

“I’ve got my dance shoes,” said San Francisco artist Jeremy Sutton minutes before ascending a riser to draw a three-hour, live digital painting of the musicians, booths and mingling guests in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Kogod Courtyard.

Eyeing Sutton’s black-and-white wingtips, trumpet player Carey Rayburn, who leads the Seattle-based Good Co. electro swing band, agreed. “Yes,” he said. “Those are spanky.”

The June 27 event, spotlighting innovation in art, was the last in a three-part “America Now” series, organized by the National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History and the American Art Museum. As Sutton painted, his real-time depiction of the party loomed on a big screen.

Sutton and girlfriend Peggy Gyulai (herself an artist) were among the dozens who danced during Good Co.’s and DJ Eliazar’s (Eli Hason) performances. The wingtips also echoed the white “swirl” of a huge balloon that architect Nathalie Pozzi designed for the courtyard as part of video-game designer Eric Zimmerman’s “Starry Heavens” game. In the game, whose name derives from a quote on Immanuel Kant’s tombstone, silent players try to overthrow a ruler.

The Seattle-based electro swing band Good Co. performed at the event. (Renaud Kasma)

Sutton’s painting, in a way, bound together all of the many parts of the event: the musicians, the “Starry Heaven” players and the stations where visitors could play virtual-reality, Oculus Rift games and immerse themselves in other digital worlds. Everything, after all, was fair game for his brush, or more accurately, his Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus 2 and his Pencil by FiftyThree. But everyone in the lot also had something in common—they all straddled the border between art and technology.

Take Sutton’s iPad stand. A palette that he bought at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (based on the size and shape of Vincent’s palette), it bears paint from times when Sutton used old-fashioned brushes and paint to work atop a digital painting printed onto canvas. Sutton has rigged the palette so that he has two places to connect an HDMI cable to his iPad.

Programmer and game designer Greg Aring brought his Oculus Rift “experiences,” or games, “Hellicott City”—a haunted wagon ride whose name, presumably, derives from Aring’s hometown Ellicott City, Md., and which he spent about 120 hours making for a Halloween art show—and “Vrolleyball,” which he said is a combination of volleyball, baseball, karate and pong.

“Games have come a long way as an art form in the eye of the public,” Aring said. “There’s always been a debate about whether games are art, which I think is a silly question. Just the fact the Smithsonian would put on an event like this is really encouraging. It’s a good sign for supporting local, game developers—people who do art and like technology like myself.”

The American Art Museum hosted “The Art of Video Games” in 2012, an exhibition that celebrated 40 years of the medium with vintage gaming systems, filmed interviews with game designers and opportunities to play groundbreaking games. In 2013, the museum acquired two video games, “Flower” and “Halo 2600,” for its permanent collection, noted chief of external affairs Jo Ann Gillula.

A nine-year-old named Gabriel, who played “Hellicott City” and whose mother requested be identified only by his first name, said the game was “not really that scary,” despite the appearance of “ghosts and stuff like that, and witches.” The best part, he said, was a very speedy roller coaster scene. “It’s very nice, exciting,” he said.

Other visitors chose, in between sipping “Starry Heavens cocktails” of Limoncello di Capri and a fruit juice concoction, to play the “Starry Heavens” game.

Architect Nathalie Pozzi, who designed the balloons, admitted that at first blush, her work seemed the least technological. There were two big balloons, a very large spherical yellow one (like a stylized sun) and an enormous "swirl" that floated above, and a board below where the players stood. The "ruler” spoke from a microphone, and the other players tried to maneuver about to overthrow him or her. “Although the game isn’t digital, the construction wouldn’t be possible without it,” she said, noting that she began sketching with pencil and paper, but that the construction got quite complicated with fans keeping the balloons inflated and 3D printing involved.

And, as one would expect, the musicians too had plenty to say about the intersection of art and technology. DJ Eliazar makes a point of leaving his laptop behind when he performs, he said, so that he can appreciate what he called his art’s psychological and sociological aspects, of interacting with and reading the audience. If the crowd looks exhausted, for example, he might play something mellow to calm them down.

“There are too many options inside the computer and you get sucked into the screen and you’re not interacting,” he said. Still, he added, technology is vital to deejaying. “I couldn’t do what I’m doing without it,” he said.

Sasha Nollman, a Good Co. vocalist, noted that the band has a really strong attachment to traditional jazz, but also a deep love for electronic music. “It’s very exciting to us that we do mix those two things together,” she said. “Being invited to an event where it’s all about doing that, about innovating these older traditional forms of music, that’s very exciting.”

“Jazz is America’s music. It’s our national art form,” added trombonist Colin Pulkrabek. “We have a definite ownership of it. For that reason, we need to keep it alive and constantly reinterpret it as we see fit, and try and keep it relevant to ourselves.”

The musicians—both of Good Co. and DJ Eliazar—agreed that it was pretty exciting to be painted in real time. Good Co.’s bandleader Rayburn recalled a guy at a prior concert in Eugene, Oregon, coming up after the show and drawing caricatures of the musicians. “That was awesome,” he said. Asked if the drawings were flattering, he volunteered, “Mostly. One of them kind of looks like a wizard.”

DJ Eliazar has performed at art openings before, where the artist was sketching him. He enjoyed watching his music influence the artist. “You play something and all of a sudden it goes into their piece of art,” he said, recalling some Middle Eastern music he played at a prior event. “All of a sudden a camel appeared in his painting.”

Artist Jeremy Sutton avoids the "undo" button when he paints using digital media. He adds layers of color, instead of subtracting them. (Shalom Gibly)

Sutton, the digital painter, said he has been creating art at live events pretty much from when he first picked up a computer. A 1991 party changed his life in more ways than he could have known, the London native who studied physics at Oxford University said. Sutton had been living in Palo Alto since 1988, where he was selling superconducting magnets, when, as he was wont to do, he found himself sketching people at the party. Someone looking over his shoulder liked what she saw and offered to introduce him to a friend who made painting software.

“I had no idea what they were talking about but I said, ‘Of course. I’d love to,’” said Sutton, who was soon learning the program PixelPaint Pro. “That changed my life. I fell in love with this whole medium,” he said. “I felt at home with it right away.”

Despite working in a physics studio, he admitted embarrassedly he had hardly ever used a computer before being introduced to digital paint. But soon he was taking time off work to travel to Las Vegas to demonstrate how he was using painting software at the creator’s booth at the graphics show Siggraph. After losing his job, he became a full-time artist, something one doesn’t do, he says, unless you has a certain blend of complete naivete, obsessiveness and a bit of craziness.

“It’s not a recipe for any of the things that provide security,” he said.

While painting at the “America Now” event, as he always does, Sutton had his feet firmly planted in both the technological and aesthetic worlds, appearing to share things in common with both the purists who eschew digital brushes and the technology evangelists who see great promise in digital art-making.

He avoids using the “undo” button, instead adding layers of color rather than subtracting. And he doesn’t use the “eyedropper” tool, which would allow him to replicate exact colors he used earlier in his paintings. Instead, he adjusts the hue, saturation and tone afresh each time. While talking to a reporter the day before the event, he demonstrated how quickly he could match the red color on a coffee cup on his drawing program; it took a matter of seconds.

“I treat my media as a very malleable, transformative media,” he said. “It’s not correcting; it’s always transforming.”

Watch this video in the original article

In the painting he created on June 27, Sutton built upon a background that he composed from three works from the American Art Museum’s collection: Malcah Zeldis’ “Miss Liberty Celebration” (1987), Marvin Beerbohm’s “Automotive Industry” (1940) and Romare Bearden’s “Empress of the Blues” (1974). Several of the musicians from Bearden’s piece appear prominently in Sutton’s final painting, as do Good Co.’s Sasha Nollman (in a distinct blue dress), Pulkrabek’s trombone, DJ Eliazar’s hat, the balloon swirl and the courtyard ceiling. Sutton often took breaks from the work, which he created with the app Sketch Club, to talk to visitors of all ages about his work, the classes he teaches mostly at his San Francisco studio and his techniques. Interacting with the public in this way, girlfriend Gyulai confirmed, is something he enjoys very much.

Perhaps more emblematic of the intersection of technology and art than even his iPad easel is the way Sutton draws on his physics training in his artmaking. Both approaches to viewing the world, he said, have a great deal to do with seeking patterns, structure and rhythm, and then being critical about what appears on the surface.

“It’s about seeing things beyond what you at first see,” he said.

Artist Chakaia Booker Gives Tires a Powerful Retread

Smithsonian Magazine

The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s a bit industrial, but also, maybe a tiny bit pleasant.

The odor encapsulates Chakaia Booker’s latest massive sculptural work, displayed as part of the “Wonder” exhibition at the recently reopened Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The piece, like its smell, might be at home on a factory floor. It is a bit dark and threatening. But, there’s also something inviting about both the odor and the artwork. It draws you into the room, to stroll between the sculpture’s three undulating walls, and to touch their seemingly animated shreds.

From a distance, the sculpture recalls a school of swimming fish, or an orderly grouping of fall leaves. But these forms are constructed of tires that have been shredded and diced and sliced and then wrapped around stainless steel.

Proudly and fiercely displayed; waste made into beauty, with a material that may fade, but almost never completely degrades or disappears. It’s a repurposing of a product that is so difficult to get rid of that America is filled with mountains of them, pyramids of black Spaghetti-Os hidden behind green privacy fences.

Booker does not want to belabor her process or the meaning of her work. At various times over her four-decade career, she’s said her abstractions speak to the environment and ecology, the diversity of humanity and African Americans in particular, the slavery experience, the industrial world and communication.

She says she does not pre-ordain values or expectations—the products of her labor are there for the public to enjoy or not, to make their own interpretations, or to take them simply for what they are: giant assemblages of rubber and steel. “My intention is to translate materials into imagery that will stimulate people to consider themselves as a part of their environment, as one piece of a larger whole,” Booker told Sculpture magazine in 2003, in a rare lengthy interview.

“My intention is to translate materials into imagery that will stimulate people to consider themselves as a part of their environment, as one piece of a larger whole,” Booker has said. (Nelson Tejada)

“Whether I use an architectural format or something to look at, I believe art should dialog with viewers,” she added. She says she feels the same about Anonymous Donor, her piece at the Renwick. Though the title refers to what she calls “the lack of inclusion,” it is up to the viewer to decide what it is telling them, says Booker.

It’s an approach that the show’s curator Nicholas Bell endorses. “I don’t want to be telling people what they may be seeing,” he says. “I really just want people to try and spend some time figuring out what they’re reacting to, and what that means for them.”

Booker’s art fit in perfectly with what Bell envisioned for “Wonder.” She has always worked on an architectural scale and was sensitive to space, he says. That was important, as Booker, along with the other artists, had to tailor their pieces to their assigned room in the Gallery. The artists also had to be “passionate about materials and making things,” he says.

“I’ve thought of [Booker] as almost aggressively interested in the materiality and the shape and the sense of tires,” says Bell. “She has a profound relationship with that material.”

He was also looking for people who made art that was very much about the visitor’s response, to remind the viewer why going to a museum is more rewarding than seeing something on paper or on-line. “A museum is a place that helps you see the rest of the world differently,” he says. “You engage with things that are extraordinary or perhaps ordinary, but put in extraordinary circumstances.”

“I’ve thought of [Booker] as almost aggressively interested in the materiality and the shape and the sense of tires,” says the show's curator Nicholas Bell. (Ron Blunt/ Renwick Gallery/ SAAM)

Booker takes the ordinary—tires—and renders them into the extraordinary. “When do you think of a car tire? Probably only when you buy one or it goes flat,” Bell writes in the exhibition catalog. Booker has commandeered the unseen, unconscious item and “turned it into something that is strange and fearful,” he says.

Anonymous Donor looms, at more than ten feet tall. “As you are walking through it you’re just engulfed by the object,” says Bell.

Booker also says she loves that interactive experience. She gives her sculptures—a majority of them monumental pieces displayed outdoors—life and shape through shearing and bending and folding of the tires.

Shearing, nipping, cutting, and re-arranging: Booker, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, acquired those skills as a teenager, when she began making her own clothing, following in the footsteps of her aunt and sister.

Ever since, Booker has been creating wearable art. She likes to say that she sculpts herself every morning and then follows her muse into the studio.

As a young woman, art was not her primary pursuit, however. She studied sociology at Rutgers University, receiving her BA in 1976. Booker took up ceramics, participating in several apprenticeships in Manhattan, and also basket weaving, all the while making wearable sculptures, incorporating found items like pieces of wood or broken dishes.

Chakaia Booker gives her sculptures—a majority of them monumental pieces displayed outdoors—life and shape through shearing and bending and folding of the tires. (Ron Blunt/ Renwick Gallery/ SAAM)

Her interest in rubber was sparked in large part by her environment. In the 1980s, downtown Manhattan’s East Village—where she still lives—was a graffiti-riddled, chaotic, dirty and high-crime area, like much of the city. Booker walked the streets, and combed the empty lots, picking up the detritus of the era. Shredded tires and pooled rubber—the result of frequently raging car fires—became her material of choice.

Using discarded, trashed items, Booker remade them into statements. She sheared the rubber into strips, with the tread displayed or the underbelly exposed, rendering different colors, surfaces and patterns. Slick, smooth inner tubes gave another look. “Like a painter having a palette, my palette is the textures of the treads, the fibers from discarded materials, and tires that I use to create varied effects,” Booker told Sculpture magazine in 2003.

Art became a central purpose in her life. Booker had her first group exhibition in 1984 and her first solo show in 1991. She acquired a masters of fine arts from the City College of New York in 1993.

The soft-spoken, retiring artist has become a well-exhibited and much-celebrated sculptor. In 1996, her Repugnant Rapunzel was part of a multi-year exhibition of 20th century sculpture at the White House, organized by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Booker’s It’s So Hard to Be Green, was part of the Whitney Biennial in 2000—a major show held every two years since 1973 at one of New York’s most storied contemporary art museums. In 2002, she received the Pollock-Krasner Grant, an award given by the foundation that was established by Lee Krasner’s estate. Krasner, an artist, was also painter Jackson Pollock’s widow. Booker also received a prestigious fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 2005.

Her sculptures and other works are in the collections of the Newark Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Booker has had solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York and the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.

Booker is in high demand these days. She’s often working on multiple shows at once—a Herculean feat, given the rigors of procuring and hauling tires, coaxing and cutting them into her desired designs and then erecting them in various spaces, indoors and out.

It took two weeks and eight people, including Booker, to erect Anonymous Donor at the Renwick. Booker was simultaneously overseeing the installment of a work to be displayed as part of “The 606,” a new recreation area in Chicago that is similar to New York’s High Line park.

She is the first to say that making the pieces is extremely taxing. A daily Tai Chi practice helps to keep her in peak physical and mental balance, she says. Despite the demands, the artist has given no thought to stopping, and said that as long as she is breathing, she will continue to manipulate rubber.

“I enjoy my work very much and I have no plans to retire,” Booker says.

Chakaia Booker is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the exhibition “Wonder,” on view November 13, 2015 through July 10, 2016, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Booker's installation closes on May 8, 2016.

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Forty Years of Philadelphia Sound

Smithsonian Magazine

When Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble would huddle to write songs, they’d each bring a long, yellow legal pad of potential titles, sometimes 200 or 300 each. Huff would sit at the upright piano in his office with a tape recorder rolling. He would start playing and Gamble would riff lyrics. “Sometimes [the songs] would take 15 minutes to write and sometimes they’d take all day,” Gamble recalls. “The best ones came in ten, fifteen minutes.”

The two first ran into each other in an elevator in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building, where they were working as songwriters on separate floors. Soon after, they met at Huff’s Camden, New Jersey home on a Saturday and wrote six or seven songs the first day. “It was an easy, easy fit,” Gamble recalls.

During the 60s, they had moderate success with hits like “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors, “Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders and “Only the Strong Survive” by Jerry Butler.

But they wanted to be more than writers and producers of regional hits who occasionally made a national mark. The opportunity came 40 years ago in 1971 when Columbia Records, hoping to finally break into the black music market, gave them a $75,000 advance to record singles and another $25,000 for a small number of albums. With the money, Gamble and Huff opened their own label, Philadelphia International Records (PIR).

As they sat down to compose following the deal, the Vietnam War raged on, conflicts over desegregation spread across the country and civil war ravaged Pakistan. “We were talking about the world and why people really can’t work together. All this confusion going on in the world,” Gamble says. “So we were talking about how you need something to bring people together.”

One of the titles on a legal pad had promise: “Love Train.” Huff fingered the piano. Gamble, the words guy, began singing, “People all over the world, join hands, form a love train.”

Within 15 minutes, he recalls, they had a song for the O’Jays, a group from Canton, Ohio, that had considered calling it quits after a couple of minor chart successes. Gamble and Huff had spotted them three years earlier opening a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. While Eddie Levert had been singing lead for the trio, they liked the interplay between Levert and Walter Williams they saw onstage. So for the first singles on PIR, they wrote songs featuring the two trading vocals. “I knew once we put our leads on Back Stabbers it had the potential to be something special, but I didn’t know to what magnitude,” Williams says.

“Love Train” was the third single released from their album Back Stabbers, issued in August 1972. By January 1973, the song was number one on the Pop and R&B charts and on the way to selling a million singles, just the kind of crossover hit Columbia envisioned when it invested in Gamble and Huff.

A little more than a year after forming PIR, they also had produced hits with Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Clive Davis, then chief operating officer of Columbia, wrote in his memoir that Gamble and Huff sold ten million singles. Just as important, they were Columbia’s foray into the market for albums by black artists. Back Stabbers sold more than 700,000 copies that first year.

They’d created the Sound of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love joined Detroit, the home of Motown, and Memphis, the home of Stax Records, as sanctuaries of soul.

Their sound bridged sixties soul and the arrival of funk and disco. Gamble once said someone told him they’d “put the bow tie on funk.” During the 1970s, they arguably dethroned Motown as the kings of R&B, selling millions of records, and in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“They found a way to marry the Motown machine with the Stax grit,” says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. “So you get this sound on one level that is glossy and smooth, but at the same time it kind of burns the way we think about Stax.”

Image by Redferns / Getty Images. Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff first met in an elevator in Philadelphia's Schubert Building, where they were working as songwriters on separate floors. (original image)

Image by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images. Gamble and Huff's record label, Philadelphia International Records, produced Billy Paul's hit, "Me and Mrs. Jones." (original image)

Image by Fotos International / Getty Images. PIR also produced the Spinners' "I'll be Around." (original image)

Image by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images. "If You Don't Know Me By Now" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes was produced by PIR as well. (original image)

Image by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images. Gamble and Huff set up a house studio band, MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), like Motown's Funk Brothers. (original image)

Gamble admired Motown, which he calls “the greatest record company that’s ever been in the business.” He and Huff set up a house studio band, MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), like Motown’s Funk Brothers. The band featured the rhythm section from the Romeos, a band Huff, Gamble and producer and writer Thom Bell played with on weekends, a group of horns they saw playing a local theater, and a string section composed of retirees from the Philadelphia Orchestra. MFSB’s palette was broader, more ambitious. Mono sound and a focus on hit singles had given way to stereo and the album format. “Stereo was worlds away,” Gamble says. “The music sounds so much better.”

They found seasoned artists and transformed them into national acts. The O’Jays had been around for a decade. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had been singing for 15 years. Billy Paul was a star only in the Philadelphia-New York corridor. “They knew how to package certain kinds of artists in certain ways,” Neal says. “One of their really big early hits was Billy Paul’s ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’ What’s more mainstream than a tale about infidelity?”

Like Berry Gordy at Motown, Gamble and Huff set up competing teams of writers. Walter Williams of the O’Jays recalls going to Philadelphia to record (two albums per year in those days) and listening to 40 or 50 songs auditioning for an album. They’d narrow them to 15 or 20 to rehearse extensively and cut in the studio, and then 8, 9 or 10 would make the record.

How involved were Gamble and Huff? “Like they might have been the fourth and fifth member of the group,” Williams recalls. “If Kenny wanted it sung a certain way, he would actually sing it for you. I would always try to outdo him. I’d sing it better and put more into it.”

There was a formula to the albums, Gamble says. “We would pick three or four songs with social messages and three or four songs that were nothing but dance, party songs, then we’d have three or four that were lush ballads, love songs. We tried to write songs that people would relate to for years to come.”

While the business model was based on Motown, the message was different. “This is a black-owned company, but unlike Motown this is a black-owned company that is going to put its politics into the music,” Neal says.

The songs had titles like “For the Love of Money,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “Am I Black Enough for You,” “Wake Up Everybody” and “Love Is the Message.” Neal is partial to “Be for Real,” a Harold Melvin cut that opens with singer Teddy Pendergrass lecturing a girlfriend about her desire for empty possessions. Gamble likes “Ship Ahoy,” a tune about African captives being transported during the slave trade that opens with the sound of whips cracking. Neal says PIR’s songs and artists endure because Gamble and Huff focused on making timeless music, not just making money.

“You cannot explain how you write a song,” Gamble says. “It comes from within your soul. You just pour out your feelings, whether it’s something you personally have gone through or a friend of yours has gone through or someone you didn’t even know.”

The duo still occasionally gets together to write. And advertisers keep knocking to use their songs, as exemplified by the ubiquitous Coors Light spots using “Love Train”. Hip-hop artists are fond of sampling PIR tunes, keeping the royalties flowing. (Sony Legacy and PIR released a four-disc boxed set, Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia in 2008).

Gamble notes there’s still conflict raging in some of the countries listed in “Love Train” nearly 40 years ago. “I think it’s even more relevant today than it was then,” he says. “Those songs turned out to be anthems. We were talking about our feelings, but evidently they were the feelings of millions of people all over the world.”

What 200 Years of African-American Cookbooks Reveal About How We Stereotype Food

Smithsonian Magazine

Aunt Jemima’s warm smile, pearl earrings and perfectly coiffed hair are easily recognizable in the breakfast foods aisle in grocery stores. But her initial stereotypical “mammy” look—obese, bandana-wearing, asexual—conceived by a pancake mix company in 1889, was just one of the many ways that American food culture misrepresented and coopted African American culinary traditions.

After collecting more than 300 cookbooks written by African American authors, award-winning food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin challenges those “mammy” characteristics that stigmatized African American cooks for hundreds of years in her new book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.

Tipton-Martin presents a new look at the influence of black chefs and their recipes on American food culture. Her goals are two-fold: to expand the broader community’s perception of African-American culinary traditions and to inspire African Americans to embrace their culinary history.

The earliest cookbooks featured in The Jemima Code date to the mid-19th century when free African Americans in the North sought avenues for entrepreneurial independence. In 1866, Malinda Russell self-published the first complete African-American cookbook, , which included 250 recipes for everything from medical remedies to pound cake.

Recipe books of the early to mid-20th century catered to the multicultural, European-inspired palette of the white and black middle class. Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book, for instance, includes recipes such as shrimp remoulade and pain perdu that “put the culinary art within the reach of every housewife and homemaker.”

And many cookbooks featured recipes developed by African-American servants for the tastes of their white employers. Mammy’s Cook Book, which was self-published in 1927 by a white woman who credits all of the recipes to the black caretaker of her childhood, includes recipes for egg custards and Roquefort and tomato salad.

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The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks

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Cookbooks of the 1950s reflected the passionate spirit for social change; Civil Rights Movement activists used food as a way to promote pride in African-American identity. The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro of 1958 from the National Council of Negro Women, for example, paid homage to George Washington Carver with a section of peanut inspired recipes that included peanut ice cream.

As affection for black pride grew in the 1960s, soul food that had come to urban areas during the Great Migration a generation earlier rose in the culinary esteem as chefs called on those traditions for their own menus. Recipes for collard greens, buttermilk biscuits and hushpuppies were staples in Bob Jeffries’ Soul Food Cook Book.  In later years, soul food revived itself by extending its black pride to the culinary customs of the African diaspora in cookbooks like the 1982 West African Cooking for Black American Families, which included recipes for gumbo and sweet potato pie. 

We spoke with Tipton-Martin about her new book and the cookbooks that her research uncovered. (The following has been edited for length.)

Why are cookbooks important to understanding a culture?

Scholars have begun to consider cookbooks an important resource because in some communities, that was the only voice that women had; the only place to record names, activities, their own personal file. And especially for African Americans, who had few other outlets for creative energy, the cookbook has provided their own word without the need for interpretation.

In the introduction to the book you refer to yourself as a casualty of the “Jemima Code.” What do you mean by that?

I was a victim of the idea that my food history was not important. And so I had no interest in practicing it, preserving it. I didn’t even really see its value. Let’s start from there. It’s not that I was actively disregarding it, it’s just that subconsciously I had bought into the system that said your cooks weren’t important and they don’t matter.

You write about cookbook authors and cooks who embodied Civil Rights principles. What role did cooks and food have in the Civil Rights movement?

When we think about the conveniences that we have today with food on every street corner, it’s hard to imagine traveling in the rural south for miles [as Civil Rights workers did] and finding nothing to eat. And then when you do encounter a place where you can get a bite to eat, you’re forbidden to eat there. So cooks made sandwiches and provided food in a sort of Underground Railroad way, where there were outposts where people provided meals to Civil Rights workers. There were women who would work all day on a job and then would come in and whatever meager ingredients she had to share with her family she would also share those with the broader community. And so it’s just part of the selflessness of who they were and who they had always been as nurturers and caretakers.

How do you think African American food culture is changing?

I’m not sure that it’s changing at all. What is changing is the perception of African-American food culture. The broader community has narrowly defined what it means to cook African-American food and so modern chefs are not doing anything different than we see The Jemima Code chefs did, which is interpreting classical technique with whatever the local ingredients are.

What did you learn about yourself and your own history through the writing of this book?

It unlocked memories and mysteries for me that I had not really come to grips with or shared in our food history. So I learned about family members that were restaurateurs or had worked in the food industry as chefs. But that conversation hadn’t come up under other circumstances because again I was part of that generation of people whose parents wanted us to move into areas with more upward mobility and less stigma than the service industry. So it was a good tool.

My experience is what I hope to have happen in the broader community after reading The Jemima Code. More revelations of who we really are so we can treat one another as individuals rather than as an entire group that all African Americans look like this and act like this and cook like this. That food is just one way to communicate what political messengers or educators or other institutions have not been able to accomplish.

Which of these cookbooks impacted you the most?

Even though Malinda Russell is not the first book in the series, she is the first woman in the series in 1866. And she was a single mother, she understood her purpose and what she was accomplishing through her food and at the table. And she left us enough tools in her material that we can write in multiple directions from just the little introduction that she left us. We know that she was an apprentice, which is not a term we use to refer to these people. So I guess if I had to articulate why one sticks out, she would be it.

What is your next book?

It’s called The Joy of African American Cooking and it’s 500 recipes adapted from the books of The Jemima Code. It’s projected to be published in 2016.

Of all of those recipes, which are your favorites or which are the ones you frequently cook yourself?

I love to bake, and so I would have to say that a lot of the biscuits and of course all of the delicious sweets are my favorite. I recently posted some biscuits that were made into a pinwheel that were filled with cinnamon and sugar, like a cinnamon roll but they’re made with biscuit dough and they were—we ate the whole pan!

What do you hope the general public gets out of the book?

I hope that people will take the time to get to know a new story for African-American cooks and develop a respect and appreciation that enables people to open businesses that will be visited, patronized. I hope it expands our thinking so that more people can buy and sell cookbooks. I hope that changing the image will make it possible for African Americans to participate and for other nationalities to participate with them, whether it’s tasting the food, buying the books, eating at the restaurants or just cooking it at home.

When we spoke earlier, you told me you hope that the book can be catalyst for racial reconciliation. What do you mean by that?

What the book demonstrates is that there is diversity among African-American cooks in terms of who they were, how they work, where they work. And part of the problem with prejudice and stereotyping is we see a person or a particular group based on one encounter. And that changes how we see a whole community.

My hope is that when people see this group differently than they had ever thought of them then they’ll also be able to apply that knowledge to other parts of other communities. I want to undo racism one experience at a time and cooking is a way to do that. We all share the common ground of cooking. The table has always been a place where people can find common ground.

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