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Activity from Pixar: The Design of Story - Squiggly Character Animation

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Can you use a squiggle to create a unique character design? Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar THIS VIDEO HAS NO SOUND.

Pixar - The Incredibles Credits Design

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Hear from Character Designer Teddy Newton and Director of Photography Andrew Jimenez on how The Incredibles End Credits came together. Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

Pixar - Luxo Jr.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
“Luxo Jr. sent shock waves through the entire industry—to all corners of computer and traditional animation. At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer. They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist's kit but instead perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs. Luckily, this attitude changed dramatically in the early ’80s with the use of personal computers in the home. The release of our Luxo Jr. . . .reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community.” —Edwin Catmull, Computer Animation: A Whole New World, 1998 Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

Activity from Pixar: The Design of Story - Draw Your Emotions Animation

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Can you combine a simple shape, color and emotion to create a unique character design? This video was on view at Cooper Hewitt as part of the exhibition 'Pixar: The Design of Story'. Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar THIS VIDEO HAS NO SOUND.

Pixar - The Incredibles Set Design

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
In the years following World War II, modern design flourished in homes and public spaces, fueled by new manufacturing techniques and a rising, optimistic middle class. The sleek, comfortable, and informal style arose defined by clean lines, organic forms, and large, open floor plans. New materials—such as molded plywood and plastics—were used for everything from home furnishings to office equipment. Midcentury modern design is revered today for its simplicity and versatility. In Pixar's The Incredibles an ordinary family with extraordinary abilities lived in a classic midcentury home surrounded by period furniture and products. Cooper Hewitt's own collection contains many designs from the mid-twentieth century, which are similar to those in the film. Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

Pixar - The Incredibles End Credits

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
At the end of the Incredibles, Brad [Bird] wanted to do something really special with the titles. He had this very graphic idea in mind." —Teddy Newton, Character Designer, The Incredibles "The end credits are basically at two-dimensional expression of the three dimensions that are in the actual film." —Andrew Jimenez, Director of Photography, The Incredibles Curious about the design of The Incredibles End Credits? Hear from Character Designer Teddy Newton and Director of Photography Andrew Jimenez on how The Incredibles End Credits came together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLJd2mP9zAw Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

Pixar - Brave Character Design

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
This video showcases the complex virtual model created for the character Merida, featured in the Pixar animated feature Brave (2012). Technical artists use the model packets as a blueprint for creating a virtual 3D model. They collaborate with concept artists and the director to refine or enhance the look of the character in the digital world. For example, technical artists were able to improve the look of Merida’s hair through new technologies, allowing for a greater variety of curls that reacted to each other in motion. THIS VIDEO HAS NO SOUND. Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

Pixar - Luxo Jr. Pencil Test

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Luxo Jr. is a short film directed by John Lasseter in 1986, during the early days of Pixar. The film made its debut at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference that year. It was the first computer–generated animated film to receive an Academy Award® nomination, and was so instrumental to the foundation of Pixar that the bouncing lamp became its logo. The film was seminal not only in establishing Pixar’s design principles and tools, but also inspiring an entire industry of computer animation. Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

The Art and Design Behind Pixar’s Animation

Smithsonian Magazine

New York City has a new destination for animation aficionados: the Process Lab of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The lab, housed in Andrew Carnegie’s grand old office suite, is the museum’s interactive space where visitors of all ages can participate in the design process, visually, digitally and manually.

The lab just opened “Pixar: the Design of Story,” (on view through August 7, 2016) a show that examines the chemistry of an animated picture. It tracks the arduous five-year process required to make a full-length film at Pixar Animation Studios, from initial idea through development of stories, characters, mood, music, color scripts and settings.

The walls are mounted with rarely seen original hand-drawn pencil and ink “concept” sketches—most Pixar directors started out as animators—architectural drawings, paintings, clay sculptures and digitally created images of such popular Pixar characters as Sadness from Inside Out, cowboy Woody from Toy Story and the redheaded archer Merida from Brave.

“Our films are not about stories but about storytelling,” says Elyse Klaidman, the longtime director of Pixar University (the in-house school for employees) and the Archives at Pixar Animation Studios in California. “It starts with wanting to tell a story. We strive to create appealing characters in a believable world. Who are the characters? How do they change? What do they learn?”

“Our directors come up with ideas they share with [CEO] John Lasseter and our Brain Trust, a team of directors that decides what story is the one that resonates,” Klaidman explains. “These are people who have this passion to tell stories that make us feel wonderful, stories that have deep meaning to them. The stories come from life.”

Consider Inside Out, the 2015 Pixar film that depicts the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s brain, as it is alternatively dominated by conflicting emotions.

“It’s about what happens to the brain of a little girl as she transitions to middle school,” Klaidman says.

In fact, the story for Inside Out came from Pixar director Pete Docter, who was struck by the emotional changes he saw his daughter experiencing as she went from carefree little girl to withdrawn preteen. He decided to make a film that would show the girl’s “outside” life at school and home while illustrating the turmoil inside her brain, especially her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger.

Each is given its own color and personality.

So Joy is a sparky yellow “it” girl. Sadness is a shy blue bookworm. Disgust is a green snarky, mean girl. Fear is a purple goofball. Anger is a squat trapezoidal hunk. In Inside Out, emotions are full-blown characters.

“Design is at the heart and center of everything we do,” Klaidman says.

In the Cooper Hewitt's lab we see the Pixar process of research and collaboration in drawings of Toy Story's Woody as first conceived, as he evolves, even as a sculpted clay head. We see how Pixar’s computer programmers “map” the way the long red curls on Merida’s head swing as she prepares to shoot an arrow.

We see Cars compete and The Incredibles in action.

Then there is the lab’s interactive part: On an 84-inch touch-screen table, one can access 650 examples of Pixar artwork and compare each one to works in the museum’s collection. (For example, looking at the décor of a modern house in a Pixar film, you could drag an image of an Eames chair to it, to learn all about the chair.)

“Our intent in the lab was to create a participatory space that is very much the intersection of education and digital,” says curator Cara McCarty. “The underlying goal is to encourage and inspire our public to start thinking about design and the world around them. Design is all about connections.”

Why Pixar?

“We look at the design processes of different industries, and this time it’s film. Pixar came to mind because the films are so highly designed,” says McCarty.

To further that idea, Pixar and the Cooper Hewitt have produced a children’s “work book” to accompany the exhibition. Designing with Pixar: 45 Activities to Create Your Own Characters, Worlds, and Stories (Chronicle Books) has pages encouraging children to draw their own stories, expanding on various Pixar themes.

A different room in the lab serves as a theater to show Luxo Jr.—a groundbreaking short film directed by John Lasseter in 1986. It was the first three-dimensional computer-animated film and the first to receive an Academy Award nomination. It is a short story about a desk lamp (Dad) and his rambunctious son, a mini desk lamp, on a play date that has its ups and downs. (The mini is crestfallen as he bounces on a ball and squashes it, but he recovers when he finds an even bigger ball. Dad merely shakes his head, knowing what’s coming next.)

The film was so important to Pixar’s foundation that the lamp became the studio’s logo.

Lassater, who had been fired from Disney’s animation studio, created it to showcase computer technology and prove it could tell stories with universally appealing characters.

“At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer,” Edwin Catmull, the president of Pixar, is quoted in the wall text. “They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist’s kit but instead perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs…The release of ‘Luxo Jr.’…reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community.”

And how.

Seeing the film, the original lamp sketches, the storyboards, even Lassater’s list of lamp-bouncing “actions” on a yellow legal pad lets visitors fully understand Pixar’s design processes—without losing any of the magic.

"Pixar: The Design of Story" is on view through August 7, 2016 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

Design Imitates Life - Andrew Jimenez of Pixar

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Andrew Jimenez is Director of Short groups at Pixar Animation Studios. Together with Brad Bird, Andy developed the use of pre-visualization 2D and 3d storyboard animatics, a technique utilized on both films.

On-stage conversation with Pixar's Coco artists

Smithsonian Latino Center
On-stage Conversation with Ana Ramirez and Alonso Martinez from Pixar Animation Studios. 2018 Hispanic Heritage Month Family Festival at the National Museum of American History.

To Infinity and Beyond: Buzz Lightyear's Journey to the Smithsonian

National Air and Space Museum
This presentation was recorded on Thursday, March 29, 2012 in the "Moving Beyond Earth" gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The Museum hosted Pixar Animation Studios and NASA for a ceremonial donation of the Buzz Lightyear action figure that flew on Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station. Buzz Lightyear became famous in Pixar's animated Toy Story franchise. Chief creative officer of Pixar John Lasseter presented the action figure to the Museum and took questions from the audience afterward.

Steve Jobs

National Portrait Gallery
Born San Francisco, California

The visionary co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs was today’s version of an earlier era’s Thomas Edison: beginning with the MacIntosh computer, his innovations generated a cultural revolution in everyday life. In 1976 he and Steve Wozniak founded Apple and began producing personal computers. After losing a power struggle in 1985, Jobs left Apple and later acquired Pixar Animation Studios, where he produced a string of films such as Toy Story. He returned to Apple in 1996 and launched an era of extraordinary inventiveness. With spellbinding showmanship, Jobs set out to “make a dent in the universe,” and over the next several years introduced the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad—products that transformed the consumer electronics industry. His entrepreneurship stressed design, and Apple products are known for their functional elegance.

Jobs once said: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. . . . Design is how it works.”

Pixar's John Lasseter in Conversation with Michael Bierut (2 of 2)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Recorded live on November 12, 2015 at El Teatro in El Museo del Barrio. Second half of conversation. In this Design by Hand series talk John Lasseter discusses his career as an animator for the Walt Disney Studios, where he first experimented with the then radical new medium of computer-generated imagery (CGI). With moderator Michael Bierut, Lasseter recounts how in 1984 he joined the Lucasfilm Computer Division, where he animated one of the very first CGI films: The Adventures of André & Wally B. After the division was bought by Steve Jobs and renamed Pixar, Lasseter wrote, directed, and animated Pixar’s first short films, including Luxo Jr., now screening at Cooper Hewitt. Michael Bierut is a graphic designer, author, design critic, author, and educator. A partner in the international design consultancy Pentagram, Bierut was the recipient of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s Design Mind Award in 2008. The Design by Hand Series is made possible by the generous support of Van Cleef & Arpels. This talk given in conjunction with the Cooper Hewitt exhibition Pixar: The Design of Story: http://www.cooperhewitt.org/events/current-exhibitions/pixar-the-design-of-story-4/

Pixar's John Lasseter in Conversation with Michael Bierut (1 of 2)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Recorded live on November 12, 2015 at El Teatro in El Museo del Barrio. First half of conversation. In this Design by Hand series talk John Lasseter discusses his career as an animator for the Walt Disney Studios, where he first experimented with the then radical new medium of computer-generated imagery (CGI). With moderator Michael Bierut, Lasseter recounts how in 1984 he joined the Lucasfilm Computer Division, where he animated one of the very first CGI films: The Adventures of André & Wally B. After the division was bought by Steve Jobs and renamed Pixar, Lasseter wrote, directed, and animated Pixar’s first short films, including Luxo Jr., now screening at Cooper Hewitt. Michael Bierut is a graphic designer, author, design critic, author, and educator. A partner in the international design consultancy Pentagram, Bierut was the recipient of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s Design Mind Award in 2008. The Design by Hand Series is made possible by the generous support of Van Cleef & Arpels. This talk given in conjunction with the Cooper Hewitt exhibition Pixar: The Design of Story: http://www.cooperhewitt.org/events/current-exhibitions/pixar-the-design-of-story-4/

Doctors Can Study 3D Printed Models of Your Organs Before Surgery

Smithsonian Magazine

Beth Ripley ran down the hallway toward the cardiologist with a fresh heart in her hands.

Showing it to him, he took it and began to turn it over, inspecting and probing it. The cardiologist recognized immediately that months of planning had to be cast aside. Back to the drawing board.

The heart in question was a full-sized 3D model of the patient’s actual ticker, hot off the presses at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Ripley, a radiologist, along with attending radiologist Mike Steigner, had created the model for the cardiology team after digital models had proved ineffective for visualizing the surgical approach. Once the cardiologist got his hands on a mockup based on the data from the CT scans, the problem was clear as day.

Just by looking at the model, he realized that the approach to the procedure would probably have to change from a minimally invasive catheterization to a full-blown open heart surgery. In effect, his team had dodged a potential complication that was unforeseeable without the physical model.

Ripley and Tatiana Kelil, another Brigham and Women’s radiologist, are part of a new effort called 3D Print For Health, started only five months ago. It’s a labor of love, conducted in their spare time in an effort to stimulate discussions within the biomedical 3D printing community. They are also working with multiple surgeons and radiologists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, studying how detailed 3D models of patients’ real anatomies can help reduce complications from surgery and treatment, and also improve patients’ ability to be their own best advocates.

“We wanted to build a place for patients and researchers to share ideas about how we can best use 3D printing in medicine,” Ripley says. “In the hands of the right people, it can be an extremely powerful tool.” 

Image by 3D Print For Health. 3D scan of a heart (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. 3D scan of a stroke in the brain (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. 3D scan of a kidney (original image)

The team is motivated by their patients, and the desire to make a real difference for them. Sometimes that means helping the patient better understand their disease or pathology; sometimes it’s helping a surgeon develop a tightly choreographed play-by-play for an upcoming procedure.

“We asked surgeons what kept them up at night,” Kelil says. “Did they need help visualizing a patient’s anatomy, or communicating a procedure to a patient? We don’t want to print a model just because it’s printable—it has to have utility.”

Brigham and Women’s isn’t the first medical institution to use 3D printing in this way. Medical supply companies are using 3D printed anatomical models to design better prototypes of devices, including heart valves and prosthetics; the National Institutes of Health maintains a print exchange where models are freely available for download. What makes the Brigham and Women’s Hospital efforts different is that they’re designing and running studies of how pre-procedure printed models make a difference in reducing surgery time and complications.

The team is focusing on two procedures in conjunction with other physicians at Brigham and Women's Hospital—a minimally invasive aortic valve replacement and a robotic-assisted kidney tumor resection where every second counts after the vessels are clamped. Having a 3D model of a patient’s aorta prior to surgery allows doctors to choose a valve that fits exactly; for a kidney, the model gives surgeons better visualization of tumor location, minimizing tissue damage from reduced blood flow to the organ during surgery.

“With minimally invasive valve replacement, interventionalists don’t get to open your chest and physically measure the valve to make sure it fits,” Ripley says. “Currently, the only way to measure that is with a 2D image, but even with the best images it’s not always easy.”

Working closely with James Weaver and Ahmed Hosny, experts in high-resolution 3D printing at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the team is investigating how accurately the digital data translates into physical models, as well as how to make the best use of existing scans to reduce patients’ exposure to unnecessary additional radiation.

Dentists have been doing it for years. When you lose the crown of a tooth, they fabricate a replacement; anything less than a perfect fit can damage the surrounding teeth and underlying bone. With 3D printing, the team sees personalized medicine taking off in the mainstream.

“We’re really interested in creating patient-specific treatments,” Hosny says. “We want to create the most appropriate solution for you, and ideally that means taking measurements, sending them off to a medical device manufacturer and getting back something that’s an exact fit for each patient.”

And, the group thinks that medical 3D models have applications in common ailments, not just for rare or complicated procedures. 

Image by 3D Print For Health. Beth Ripley (left) and Tatiana Kelil (right) explain the process of 3D printing anatomical models to attendees at the National Maker Faire last weekend in Washington, D.C. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. (original image)

Image by 3D Print For Health. Kelil (far left) and Ripley (second from left) were joined by teammates James Weaver (second from right) and Ahmed Hosny (far right), from Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. (original image)

They’ve created an array of models showing effects of the “Top 10 Killers” to demonstrate how 3D printing would be useful for approaching cardiovascular disease, cancer, COPD, trauma, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pneumonia and flu, kidney disease and suicide. At the recent National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C., attendees milled around the display table, picking up brains and feet and hearts, while Ripley, Kelil, Hosny and Weaver took turns explaining the process of producing models and their potential benefits for healthcare.

The team hopes their efforts will lead to patient-specific treatment. As a case in point, they refer to Steven Keating, a researcher at MIT, who in 2014 was diagnosed with a large brain tumor. Keating was active in working with Weaver and Hosny to visualize the tumor in 3D, while his surgeon, Ennio Chiocca, asked them to print a specially textured replica.

The 3D models were incredibly helpful in helping Keating to better understand the scope of the tumor and provided powerful visual aids for communicating his diagnosis to his family, friends and fellow scientists. His experience has also helped raise awareness within the general public as to the educational power of biomedical 3D printing.

Ideally, the group envisions a patient being able to take scan data to a doctor and have a model made of that organ or tissue—for any procedure. At the moment, most insurance plans don’t cover the cost of producing models, but Kelil says if we continue to prove its utilities in diagnosis, treatment, and cost reduction, that might change in the near future. The heart Ripley produced cost about $200 in materials and labor.

At a minimum, if a patient is interested in obtaining a 3D printed model, they should ask for the digital images right away, Ripley advises. Those images may come in handy down the road.

“Patients should have access to their own data,” Kelil says. “It’s their own anatomy.”

Joseph Madsen, associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and the director of the epilepsy surgery program at Boston Children’s Hospital, also recently took advantage of a physical model of a patient’s brain he would operate on. He was able to do a dry run of the surgery, which was a complicated follow-up procedure, on the model.

“We’re not quite there yet for routine use in surgery, but we have to keep working on it every day,” Madsen says. He thinks it will take some time for the practice to mature.

Madsen has a special understanding of the 3D modeling world: As a high schooler, his very first lab advisor was a computer science graduate student in Utah who was experimenting with computer animation. At the time, in the early 70s, this was a profound new use of computing power, in a time when computers were still slow behemoths. Nearly two decades later, Madsen’s advisor, Ed Catmull, co-founded Pixar Animation Studios.

“Ed had the vision of 3D objects that could be used in entertainment, and it still took 20 years between that and the production of Toy Story,” Madsen says. “What’s important is the vision for how the application [of 3D printing] is going to be made. It’s what you do with it, how you manipulate it. I’m very much in favor of the extension of the technology, but it’ll require a lot of really thoughtful evaluation and utility from surgeons.”

What's Up, Doc? Check Out the Work of Famed Animator Chuck Jones

Smithsonian Magazine

You may not recognize his face, but you'd certainly recognize the face of his creations—Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, the Roadrunner, all born from the mind of Chuck Jones, the animator, cartoonist and director of animated films.

Jones' timeless characters are center stage in "What's Up, Doc? The Animation of Chuck Jones," a new traveling exhibition created through a first-time collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and the Museum of the Moving Image. The exhibition opened at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City on July 19, and will run for six months before moving to its next location, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Technology. All told, the exhibit will travel to 13 different locations before concluding its run in 2019.

In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences featured an exhibit, curated by Ellen Harrington, of 125 of Chuck Jones' original works of art that spanned his entire career. After seeing the show, the Smithsonian's Deborah Macanic teamed up with Harrington, as well as members of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity and the Museum of the Moving Image, to bring an in-depth look at Jones' prolific career to life. "His base was in drawing and paintings, and that comes through very clearly in the way he directed animated films," says Macanic, noting that the exhibit took care to look at Jones' career from all angles: as an animated director, as an artist and as a writer. "All of that comes together to support the career of Chuck Jones in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen done before," she adds.

Chuck Jones was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1912. Building upon a childhood love of art, Jones graduated from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and immediately went to work in Hollywood's studios, logging experience at two before becoming the youngest director at Warner Brothers Studios in 1939, where he remained until 1962, when the animation department was shut down. It was there that some of his most iconic characters—Bugs Bunny to Wile E. Coyote—were developed.

"It’s hard to imagine an America without Bugs Bunny," says Barbara Miller, one of the co-curators for the exhibition from the Museum of the Moving Image. "It’s not just a character in a cartoon, it’s a character that’s out there in the American imagination."

But Jones was more than an animator: he drew his characters in a way that gave them movement and life. "Chuck always said you should be able to turn the sound off of a cartoon and have a sense of what was going on," Miller says, noting that for Jones, any animated character would have to be able to perform in the same way as a live actor—using the same richness of movement or twinkle in the eye. It was more than Jones' pen that brought these characters to life in such a timeless way—his skills as an animation director were crucial to his work's lasting appeal. "I think it’s really important that we explain what an animation director does and doesn’t do," says Miller of the exhibit. "They don’t sit down and do all the drawings, they orchestrate a team of talented people to do this amazing work."

"People might come expecting to see the cartoons and have a fun time sharing the memories of the cartoons, but I think one of the things the exhibition does really well is help people understand how much specific decision making goes into making those seven-minute cartoons," Harrington adds. The exhibition, in addition to Jones' drawings, showcases the nuts-and-bolts of the animation process, from pencil tests (early versions of animated scenes) to character model sheets (drawings used to depict the movements and appearance of characters). "People can really learn how a script is broken down and how the timing is organized," Harrington says. Jones' famous comedic timing, for instance, was broken down to a frame-by-frame level; he knew the exact number of frames between when Wile E. Coyote fell and when he hit the ground to get a laugh. "It was literally a one frame difference," Harrington explains.

Even in today's world, where box office hits sport booming CGI and 3-D versions, Jones' comedic timing and attention to detail live on. The exhibit features a series of recorded interviews with John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and the imagination behind animated classics like Toy Story—in his interviews, Lasseter underscores what a profound influence Jones had on the media world. "It was very important for us, in creating this show, to address the subject of Chuck Jones’ legacy," Miller says. "People aren’t creating cartoons, mostly, using pencils anymore, but what was made very clear is that his influence is still very much being felt."

"What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones" will be on display at the Museum of the Moving Image, in New York City, through January, 2015, before moving on to 13 other cities across America, including Seattle and Fort Worth.

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.

Is Paris Still a Haven for Black Americans?

Smithsonian Magazine

My father, a bookish black man old enough to be my grandfather, grew up in Texas while it was still a segregated state. As soon as he could, he got himself far enough away from there to cover the walls of his study with photographs of his travels to destinations as exotic as Poland and Mali. As far back as I can remember, he was insistent that the one place in the world truly worth going was Paris. Being a child, I accepted the assertion at face value—mostly because of the way his eyes lit up when he spoke of this city that was nothing but two syllables for me—I assumed he must have lived there once or been very close to someone who had. But it turned out this wasn’t the case. Later, when I was older, and when he was finished teaching for the day, he would often throw on a loose gray Université de Paris Sorbonne sweatshirt with dark blue lettering, a gift from his dearest student, who had studied abroad there. From my father, then, I grew up with the sense that the capital of France was less a physical place than an invigorating idea that stood for many things, not least of which were wonder, sophistication, and even freedom. “Son, you have to go to Paris,” he used to tell me, out of nowhere, a smile rising at the thought of it, and I would roll my eyes because I had aspirations of my own then, which seldom ventured beyond our small New Jersey town. “You’ll see,” he’d say, and chuckle.

And he was right. My wife, a second generation Parisian from Montparnasse, and I moved from Brooklyn to a gently sloping neighborhood in the 9th arrondissement, just below the neon glare of Pigalle, in 2011. It was my second time living in France, and by then I was fully aware of the pull this city had exercised throughout the years, not just on my father but also on the hearts and minds of so many black Americans. One of the first things I noticed in our apartment was that, from the eastfacing living room, if I threw open the windows and stared out over the Place Gustave Toudouze, I could see 3 Rue Clauzel, where Chez Haynes, a soul food institution and until recently the oldest American restaurant in Paris, served New Orleans shrimp gumbo, fatback, and collard greens to six decades of luminous visitors, black expats, and curious locals. It fills me with pangs of nostalgia to imagine that not so long ago, if I’d squinted hard enough, I would have spotted Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, or even a young James Baldwin—perhaps with the manuscript for Another Country under his arm—slipping through Haynes’s odd log cabin exterior to fortify themselves with familiar chatter and the larded taste of home.

In many ways, the trajectory of Chez Haynes, which finally shuttered in 2009, mirrors the bestknown narrative of the black expat tradition in Paris. It begins in World War II, when Leroy “Roughhouse” Haynes, a strapping Morehouse man and ex-football player, like so many African Americans initially stationed in Germany, made his way to the City of Lights once fighting had concluded. Here he found the freedom to love whomever he wanted, and married a Frenchwoman named Gabrielle Lecarbonnier. In 1949, the two opened Gabby and Haynes on the Rue Manuel. Though later he would tell journalists that “chitterlings and soul food” were a tough sell for the French, the restaurant immediately thrived on the business of fellow black GIs banging around the bars and clubs of Montmartre and Pigalle—early adopters whose presence lured the writers, jazzmen, and hangers-on. After splitting with Gabrielle, the thrice-wed Haynes spent another stint in Germany before returning to Paris and opening his eponymous solo venture, just across the Rue des Martyrs, at the site of a former brothel. The centrality of this new establishment to the era’s black demimonde can be summed up in a single, vivid image: an original Beauford Delaney portrait of James Baldwin that Haynes hung casually above the kitchen doorway.

By the time Leroy Haynes died in 1986, the legendary postwar black culture his restaurant had for decades come to epitomize and concentrate— like the relevance of jazz music itself in black life—had largely dissipated. Most of the GIs had long since gone home, where civil rights legislation had been in place for nearly a generation. And it was no longer clear to what extent even artists still looked to Europe in the manner of the author of Native Son, Richard Wright, who famously told interviewers in 1946 that he’d “felt more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America.” Though Haynes’s Portuguese widow, Maria dos Santos, kept the restaurant running—for some 23 more years by infusing the menu with Brazilian spice—it functioned more like a mausoleum than like any vital part of the contemporary city. What I remind myself now as I push my daughter’s stroller past the hollowed-out shell at 3 Rue Clauzel, offering up a silent salut to the ghosts of a previous generation, is that even if I’d arrived here sooner, the magic had long since disappeared.

Or had it? A few years ago, at the home of a young French trader I’d known in New York who’d moved back to Paris and developed the habit of throwing large, polyglot dinners with guests from all over, I met the esteemed black Renaissance man Saul Williams, a poet, singer, and actor of considerable talents. As we got to talking over red wine and Billie Holiday’s voice warbling in the background, it occurred to me that Williams—who was at the time living with his daughter in a spacious apartment near the Gare du Nord, recording new music and acting in French cinema—was in fact the genuine article, a modern-day Josephine Baker or Langston Hughes. The thought struck me too that, at least on that evening, I was his witness and therefore a part of some still-extant tradition. It was the first time I had seen my own life in Paris in such terms.

A while after that, Saul moved back to New York, and I continued to toil away on a novel I’d brought with me from Brooklyn—solitary work that doesn’t provide much occasion to mingle—but the thought stuck. Was Paris in any meaningful way still a capital of the black American imagination? It’s a question I recently set out to try to answer. After all, though there was a singular explosion of blacks here during and after the two World Wars, the African-American romance with Paris dates back even further. It begins in antebellum Louisiana, where members of the mulatto elite—often wealthy land and even slave owners who were discriminated against by Southern custom—began sending their free, French-speaking sons to France to finish their schooling and live on a socially equal footing. Bizarre as it seems, that pattern continues right up to this day with the semi-expatriation of the superstar rapper Kanye West, who has planted something more than mere international-rich-person roots here, flourished creatively, and made serious headway in the local music and fashion industries. (It is to West’s not unrequited love of all things Gallic that we may credit the surreal vision of presidential candidate François Hollande’s youth-inspired campaign commercial set to “Niggas in Paris,” West and Jay Z’s exuberantly ribald anthem.)

Certainly, such a durable, centuries-old tradition must still manifest itself in any number of quotidian ways that I simply hadn’t been noticing. In fact, I knew this to be true when several months earlier I had become friendly with Mike Ladd, a 44-year-old hip-hop artist from Boston by way of the Bronx, who turned out also to be my neighbor. Like me, Ladd is of mixed-race heritage but selfdefines as black; he’s also married to a Parisian, and is often incorrectly perceived in France, his striking blue eyes leading people to mistake him for a Berber. Talking with Mike and then with my friend Joel Dreyfuss, the Haitian-American former editor of The Root who splits time between New York and an apartment in the 17th arrondissement, I explained that I was searching for today’s black scene, whatever that might be. Both men immediately pointed me in the direction of the novelist and playwright Jake Lamar, a Harvard graduate who has been living here since 1992.

Over pints of Leffe at the Hotel Amour, a hive of fashionable social activity just one block uphill from the old Chez Haynes (and also reputedly in the space of a former brothel), Jake, who is bespectacled and disarmingly friendly, explains that he first came to Paris as a young writer on a Lyndhurst Fellowship (a precursor to the MacArthur “Genius” grant) and stayed, like almost everyone you encounter from abroad in this town, for love. He and his wife, Dorli, a Swiss stage actor, have made their adopted home together on the far side of Montmartre. Though his coming to Paris was not explicitly a choice against the United States, as Wright’s and Baldwin’s had been, “I was happy to get out of America,” he concedes. “I was angry about Rodney King and also about the little things: It’s a relief to get in an elevator and no one’s clutching her purse!”

Is there still a bona fide black community in Paris? I ask him. “The ’90s were a moment of community,” he explains, “but a lot of the old generation has passed away.” There is no longer, for example, anyone quite like Tannie Stovall, the prosperous physicist whose “first Friday” dinners for “brothers”—inspired by the spirit of the Million Man March—became a rite of passage for scores of African Americans passing through or moving to Paris. But Jake’s generation of black expats—men now mostly in their 50s and 60s, many of whom first made each other’s acquaintance at Stovall’s apartment years ago—continue the tradition as best they can.

A week after meeting him, I tag along with Jake to the group’s next improvised gathering, a dinner held in a large-by-Paris-standards rezde- chaussée loft on the Rue du Faubourg Saint- Denis. The host, a native Chicagoan named Norman Powell with an authentic twang, sent out an email invitation that seems to affirm Jake’s assessment: “Hey my brothers … Our Friday meetings have become a thing of the past. Certainly it’s not possible for anyone to host them like Tannie did, but I’m for trying to get together a couple of times a year.” When I arrive, I’m welcomed cordially and told I’ve just missed the author and Cal Berkeley professor Tyler Stovall (no relation to Tannie), as well as Randy Garrett, a man whose name seems to bring a smile to everyone’s face when it’s mentioned. Garrett, I quickly gather, is the jokesterraconteur of the group. Originally from Seattle, he once, I’m told, owned and operated a sensational rib joint on the Left Bank, just off the Rue Mouffetard, and now gets by as a bricoleur (handyman) and on his wits. Still drinking wine in the living room are a young singer recently arrived in Europe whose name I do not catch, a longtime expat named Zach Miller from Akron, Ohio, who is married to a Frenchwoman and runs his own media production company, and Richard Allen, an elegant Harlemite of nearly 70 with immaculately brushed silver hair. Allen, who confesses that his love affair with French began as a personal rebellion against the Spanish he’d heard all his life Uptown, has a small point-and-shoot camera with him and occasionally snaps pictures of the group. He has been in Paris since 1972, having, among many other things, worked as a fashion photographer for Kenzo, Givenchy, and Dior.

Superstar rapper Kanye West, seen here at a Givenchy fashion show, has planted something more than mere international-rich-person roots in Paris. (KCS Presse/Splash News/Corbis)

Before long, we all have relocated into the kitchen, where, even though it is well past dinnertime, Norm graciously serves us latecomers generous portions of chili and rice, doused in hot sauce and sprinkled with Comté instead of cheddar. The conversation shifts from introductions to the protests that are raging across America in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island, and in no time, we are boisterously debating the interminable deluge of allegations ravaging Bill Cosby’s legacy. Then, on a tangent, Norm brings up the fact that he recently discovered WorldStarHipHop.com and describes the preposterous website to this room full of expats. “Now the thing is to make a viral video of yourself just acting a fool,” he explains. “You just have to shout ‘WorldStar!’ into the camera.” Most of the guys have been out of the States so long, they don’t know what he’s talking about. I describe an infamous video I recently encountered of Houston teens queuing at a mall for the latest Air Jordan reissue, and suddenly realize that I am crying tears of laughter—laughing in such a way, it occurs to me then, I have not quite experienced in Paris before.

Tannie Stovall is gone, but if there is a centripetal black Parisian today, that distinction must go to Lamar, a modern-day, well-adjusted Chester Himes. Like Himes, Jake is adept in multiple literary forms, from memoir to literary fiction to, most recently, a crime novel entitled Postérité, which like Himes’s own policiers, was published first in French. But unlike Himes—whose stint in France alongside Baldwin and Wright Lamar has recently dramatized for the stage in a trenchant play called Brothers in Exile—Lamar speaks the language fluently. “In that regard, I’m more integrated into French life than he was,” he clarifies over email. And it’s true: Jake is a part of this city’s fabric. He knows everyone, it seems. It is at his suggestion that I find myself one Métro stop into the suburb of Bagnolet. I’m here to meet Camille Rich, a former Next agency model and Brown alumna who lives in a handsome, black-painted house with her three children by the African-American fashion designer Earl Pickens. I have the feeling that I’ve been transported inside an adaptation of The Royal Tenenbaums. Camille’s kids, Cassius, 12, Cain, 17, and Calyn, 21, immediately reveal themselves to be unusually gifted, eccentric, and self-directed. While Calyn lays out a brunch of tarte aux courgettes, soup and scrambled eggs, I learn that Cassius, a self-taught ventriloquist, in addition to being his school’s class president and bilingual in French and English, is picking up German and Arabic for fun. Meanwhile, Cain, whose ambition is to be an animator at Pixar, is in his bedroom painting an intricate canvas. He smiles warmly at me, apologizing for being so distracted, and then continues working. Calyn, for her part, along with being a solid cook and a hobbyist computer programmer, is a highly skilled and already published illustrator with a wry and nuanced sense of humor.

After lunch, I join Camille by the fireplace and watch Rocksand, the family’s 14-year-old West African tortoise, inch his prehistoric carapace across the floor. She lights a cigarette and puts on Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle,” explaining that Paris has always held a significant place in the family’s mythology. Her father—a Temple University mathematician— and uncle came as GIs and stayed on playing jazz and carousing in Pigalle. Camille, tall and beautiful with glasses and an Afro, grew up in Philadelphia, where alongside her more standard black roots, she traces her ancestry to the Melungeon Creoles of Appalachia. “I’ve always been so busy with the kids,” she explains when I ask about the community here, “that I never really had time for anything else.” But to her knowledge, there are no other fully African-American families like hers with native-born children still living in Paris. It’s been an experience of freedom that she feels her kids could not have had in the United States. “There’s no way a child in today’s America can grow without the idea of race as core to their identity,” she says, whereas in Paris it often seems as if they have been spared that straitjacket.

The subtext of this conversation, of course, of which we must both be aware, is also one of the great ironies of living in France as a black American: This traditional extension of human dignity to black expatriates is not the function of some magical fairness and lack of racism inherent in the French people. Rather, it stems in large part from the interrelated facts of general French anti-Americanism, which often plays out as a contrarian reflex to thumb the nose at crude white-American norms, along with the tendency to encounter American blacks—as opposed to their African and Caribbean counterparts—first and foremost as Americans and not as blacks. This of course can present its own problems for the psyche (as the shattering essays of James Baldwin attest), putting the African American in Paris in the odd new position of witnessing— and escaping—the systemic mistreatment of other lower castes in the city.

Beyond that, it also never hurts that the black Americans found in Paris over the years have tended to be creative types, natural allies of the sophisticated, art-loving French. Jake Lamar put it to me best: “”There are lots of reasons why,” he said, “but a big one is the respect the French have for artists in general and writers in particular. In America, people only really care about rich and famous writers, whereas in France, it doesn’t matter if you’re a best-selling author or not. The vocation of writing in and of itself is respected.” And so it is this default reverence—in turn extended to the GIs and others who hung around, dabbling in jazz or cooking soul food—that has done a lot to insulate American blacks from the harsher sociopolitical realities most immigrant groups must face. But none of this is what I say to Camille and her wonderful kids that evening. What I say to them, before leaving, is the truth: They inspire me to want to have more children and to raise them here in France.

Right before Christmas, I meet up with Mike Ladd, the hip-hop artist who lives down the street from me. We’re going to see the acclaimed American rap outfit Run The Jewels perform at La REcyclerie, a disused train station cum performance space in the predominantly working- class African and Arab outskirts of the 18th arrondissement. Mike is old friends with El-P, the white half of Run The Jewels, and we go backstage to find the duo eating paprika-flavored Pringles and drinking Grey Goose and sodas before the show. I immediately fall into conversation with El-P’s partner, Killer Mike, a physically gargantuan man and militantly conscious lyricist from Atlanta who once attended a book reading of mine at the Decatur Public Library (and vigorously debated me from the audience) but who may or may not remember having done this. In any event, we can’t avoid talking about Eric Garner, the Staten Island man choked to death on camera by an NYPD officer who has just been cleared of all wrongdoing. “Our lives aren’t worth very much in America,” Killer Mike remarks at one point, with a sadness in his voice that surprises me.

The performance that night is suffused with a mood of righteous protest. The Parisian crowd swells and seems ready to march and swim all the way to Ferguson, Missouri, by the end of it. Mike Ladd and I linger and are joined at the bar by some other black expats, including Maurice “Sayyid” Greene, a buoyantly good-natured rapper formerly of the group Antipop Consortium. I ask Ladd if he finds Paris to be a black man’s haven. “I feel France, and the rest of continental Europe even more so, is behind the curve in understanding diversity,” he answers sincerely. “They were very good at celebrating difference in small quantities—a handful of black American expats, a smattering of colonials— but as is widely seen now, France is having a difficult time understanding how to integrate other cultures within their own.”

For Sayyid, a six-foot-four-inch, dark-skinned man of 44 who spends 17 and a half hours a week taking intensive French lessons provided by the government, the supposed preferential treatment reserved for American blacks has sometimes proved elusive. “I had just had my little boy,” he tells me about the time a group of French cops swarmed and accused him of trying to break into his own car. “He was three days old, and I was in the hospital with my wife. I parked my car and ended up locking the keys inside. I was with my mother-inlaw, who’s actually white French, and was trying to get them out. Time went by, a white guy from the neighborhood came and helped me, and it started to get dark. The guy left, and I was still out there. A cop rolled up, and suddenly there were six more cops all around on motorcycles. They didn’t believe that my mother-in-law was who I said she was. She tried to talk to them. Finally, they accepted my ID and passed on, but my mother-in-law was like, ‘Whoa!’ Her first reaction had been to just comply, but then her second reaction was like, ‘Wait a minute, why is this happening?’”

Is Paris a haven for African Americans, or is it not? Has it truly ever been? “The Paris of our generation is not Paris; it’s Mumbai, it’s Lagos, it’s São Paulo,” says Ladd. Which is part of the reason he keeps a recording studio in Saint-Denis, the banlieue to the north whose popular diversity, in contrast to central Paris, reminds him why in his New York days he preferred the Bronx to Manhattan. What made Paris so compelling to artists of all types in the early and mid-20th century, he maintains, was the collision of old traditions with what was truly avant-garde thinking. “That electrifying discord happens in other cities now,” he stresses. This is something I have also suspected during my travels, though I am no longer so certain it’s true. I am not sure that the electrifying discord we have grown up hearing about is gone from Paris or if it only feels this way now because everywhere is increasingly the same. The Internet, cheap flights, the very globalization of American black culture through television, sports, and hip-hop that has Paris-born Africans and Arabs dressing like mall rats from New Jersey—wherever one happens to be, the truth is there are very few secrets left for any of us. When I put the same question to Sayyid, he turns philosophical: “You can only really be in one place at a time,” he says. “If I do 20 push-ups in New York or 20 push-ups here, it’s the same 20 push-ups.”

A week after the Charlie Hebdo massacre that decimated this city’s false sense of serenity and ethnic coexistence, Jake Lamar has organized a brothers’ outing. The acclaimed African-American writer and Francophile Ta-Nehisi Coates is giving a talk about “The Case for Reparations,” his highly influential Atlantic magazine cover story, at the American Library. Richard Allen, the sharp expat with the camera, and I arrive late after a drink at a nearby café. We pull up chairs in the back and find Coates in mid-lecture to a full, predominantly white house. In the Q&A, an elderly white man asks if in Paris Coates has encountered any racism. Coates hesitates before conceding that, yes, in fact a white woman once approached him shouting, “Quelle horreur, un nègre!” before throwing a dirty napkin at him. No one in the audience, least of all the man who posed the question, seems to know what to say to that, and Coates helpfully chalks up the encounter to this particular lady’s evident madness and not to the workings of the entire French society.

(Later over email, I ask him whether he sees himself as part of the black tradition here. He tells me that although he has consciously sought to avoid being lumped with other black writers in Paris, “I’m not really sure why I even feel that way. I love Baldwin. ADORE Baldwin … [but] it feels claustrophobic, like there’s no room for you to be yourself … All of that said, it does strike me as too much to write off the black expatriate experience here as a mere coincidence.”)

As Richard and I gather with the other brothers and their wives who are now preparing to leave, Jake invites Coates to have a drink with us, but he politely rain checks. We make our way out of the library and into the damp Rue du Général Camou, eventually crossing back to the Right Bank via the Pont de l’Alma, the Eiffel Tower glowing orange over our heads, the Seine flowing fast beneath our feet. The city feels strangely back to normal, except for the occasional presence of submachine gun-wielding cops and military personnel, and black-and-white “Je Suis Charlie” placards affixed to the windows of all the cafés. Our group is made up of Jake and Dorli; Joel Dreyfuss and his wife, Veronica, a striking cocoacomplexioned woman with blue eyes, from St. Louis; Randy Garrett, the raconteur-bricoleur; the filmmaker Zach Miller; Richard Allen; and a dapper English professor from Columbia named Bob O’Meally. We slide into a large table at a café on the Avenue George V and order a round of drinks. I immediately grasp what makes Randy so much fun when in no time he’s bought Dorli and Veronica loose roses from the Bangladeshi man peddling flowers table to table.

Everyone seems in very good spirits, and I feel for a moment as if I am actually in another era. Our drinks arrive. We toast, and I ask Richard if in fact there is still really such a thing as black Paris. “It’s off and on,” he shrugs, taking a sip of wine. “It all depends on who is here and when.” Right now, Bob O’Meally is here, and the table feels fuller for it. He has organized an exhibition of Romare Bearden’s paintings and collages at Reid Hall, Columbia University’s outpost near Montparnasse. I tell him I’m excited to see it, and maybe because these older men remind me so much of him, my thoughts turn back around to my father.

One of the great enigmas of my childhood was that when he did finally get his chance to come here in the early ’90s, after a fortnight of beating the pavement and seeing all that he could, my father returned home as though nothing at all had happened. I waited and waited for him to fill me with stories about this magical city but was met only with silence. In fact, I don’t think he ever spoke euphorically about Paris again. I have always suspected it had something to do with the reason that, in the scariest movies, the audience should never be allowed to look directly at the monster. In either circumstance, the reality, however great, can only dissolve before the richness of our own imagination—and before the lore we carry inside us.