Sunday, March 12, 2023

the offense of telling the same thing twice

Alan Fletcher
Above Alan Fletcher [British designer], model of one of twelve proposals for outdoor drinking fountains (made in stone, one meter high), in which each fountain is shaped to form the silhouette of a famous cultural figure, through reversible figure-ground. This one is the silhouette of Albert Einstein. As reproduced in Fletcher, Picturing and Poeting. London: Phaidon, 2006, p. 103.


Vyvyan Beresford Holland [the second son of Oscar Wilde], An Evergreen Garland. London: Cassell 1968, Page 156-157—

My next case [of how to deal with boring people] is that of the horrible habit of repetition, often known as "twicing." This is the offense of telling the same person the same thing twice. Unfortunately, everyone over the age of forty is to some extent a "twicer," because he refuses to remember to whom he has told his stock stories, and he is apt to forget any new stories he has heard. He is also apt to be much too interested in his past life to care very much whether his victim has heard his stories, so long as he can get someone to listen to them once more, particularly if they happen to be true, or were true before they were embroidered out of all recognition. And it is almost worse if he says, "Do stop me if I’ve told you this before," because one should never run the slightest risk of repeating oneself to other people. On the whole, it is far better not to tell stories at all unless either you invited them yourself or they are very short.

The remedy for "twicing" is contained in: 

Rule VI.—As soon as one is certain that a case of "twicing" is about to occur, one should interrupt the "twicer" roughly by telling him that his story reminds you of another one, and then proceed to tell him his own story, with added detail. That is, if he will let you.

Friday, March 10, 2023

familiar american icons / artifacts made strange

Above Dust jacket for Brooke L. Blower and Mark Philip Bradley, eds., The Familiar Made Strange: American Icons and Artifacts After the Transnational Turn. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.  Available online at Internet Archive.


In browsing, I was struck by the power and appropriateness of this book cover (annoyingly, the cover designer goes unmentioned). The contents of the book are equally interesting, such as “William Howard Taft’s Drawers” by Andrew J. Rotter, and “Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt” by Matthew Pratt Guterl. As noted in an earlier blog post, it was a Nebraska expatriate playwright named Virgil Geddes whose job it was to assist Josephine Baker in donning her famous scanty banana attire at the Folies Bergere.

The often-quoted phrase “to make the familiar strange” can be traced to an essay titled “Art as Technique" by Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky, first published in 1917. His term for the process was defamilarization or ostranenie. I myself prefer this translation of what he wrote—

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, ones wife, and the fear of war…And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an esthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object, the object is not important.

In The Novel of the Future (1968), the writer Anaïs Nin rephrased Shklovsky’s concept in a brief (and perhaps too familiar) form as follows—

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

As I have written elsewhere, I became acquainted with Victor Shklosky’s ideas during years of corresponding with American writer Guy Davenport. It eventually occurred to me that there is a reciprocal process, of equal value in the innovation process, which might be called “making the strange familiar.”

Monday, March 6, 2023

Versluis and Behrens working out the Iowa bugs

Iowa Insect Series, David Versluis and Roy R. Behrens
More than ten years ago (if you can believe it), my good friend and fellow designer David Versluis (we have both since retired from university teaching) decided to collaborate. Actually, he came up with a plan, and asked if I were up to it.

Over the years, he had amassed an assortment of (kaput) Iowa insects. His proposal was to scan those, at high resolution, and to send me the scans by email, one at a time. I had free rein. After receiving the scanned image, I had to alter it someway—major or minor—for the purpose of making a digital montage, using Adobe Photoshop. I would then send it back to him, and he in turn would make a move—and pass it back to me again.

We did this fairly rapidly, and after five or six back-and-forth sessions, we soon mutually came to suspect that the work was finished. The ones that I especially recall are a beetle, a cicada, a dragon fly, and a hornet (above, in a cropped version) that was eventually found to be not a hornet but a yellow jacket wasp. In a few short weeks we ended up with a substantial, original cluster, titled the Iowa Insect Series.

After finishing the series, it was David’s initiative to print them at large scale, and to be watchful of competitions or exhibitions which they could be submitted to. For almost a decade, they were exhibited multiple times (through his efforts) at various galleries and museums around the country. The most recent one that I recall was an exhibition last year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called Evolving Graphic Design.

However, I have just now learned from David that two of the pieces have recently been accepted for an upcoming exhibition—called Awake! Printmaking in Action, at the Ann Arbor Art Center in Michigan, which will run from April 14 through May 28, 2023.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

graphic design / indispensable tools of the trade

Above and below Still frame excerpts from a video talk, titled Art Design and Gestalt Theory: the film version (2023), about the organizing principles that are fundamental to human vision, including accents (above), unit-forming factors, and closure (below). Nothing is more indispensable to design-based organizing skills, including graphic design

Monday, February 20, 2023

novelist jerzy kosinski / visage of a painted bird

The Embellished Bird
James Park Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski. New York: Dutton, 1996, pp. 336-337—

On weekends he [the novelist Jerzy Kosinski] sometimes went with George and Freddie Plimpton and their crowd to Pimpton’s mother’s place in West Hills, where parlor games were the order of the day. They playing hiding games like “murder” and “sardines”…To Plimpton’s surprise, after all his talk about hiding, in his apartment and during the war, Kosinski was not particularly good at the hiding games…
On the other hand, he demonstrated his ability to fold himself neatly into a bureau drawer, and when the situation was under his control, he played his usual pranks. 


Gabrielle Selz, UnStill Life. W.W. Norton, 2014, p. 145—

In between her crying jags [in response to her husband’s departure], she [the author’s mother] dated. Once a man with thick black hair and the large beaked nose of a bird came to the front door to pick her up. He was introduced as Jerzy Kosinski, the author of a controversial book my mother had on her shelf, The Painted Bird, about a boy surviving the Holocaust. They didn’t go out for long. Kosinski was an eccentric who liked to disappear. Mom once discovered him curled up and hiding in a large bureau drawer. He was too strange for her tastes.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Dessau Bauhaus

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City

One often hears people asking about the flow of influence between the German Bauhaus and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Pertaining to that, it was interesting this morning to run across this passage from the memoir of an eyewitness who was present then—


Matthew Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962—

In Germany [in 1927]…I had been deeply impressed by my visit to the school of the Bauhaus-Dessau where Walter Gropius, [Laszlo] Moholy-Nagy, and their confreres carried on a movement for the teaching and propagation of modern industrial design. These people had been frank to tell me that much of their inspiration was derived from an American artist whom Americans scarcely knew: Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright and Design


Thursday, February 16, 2023

historical scholars / Gould in them there pillows

Joe Gould's Secret
Matthew Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962, p. 273—

Just when the troubles of Broom [magazine] were at their height, the eccentric little Joe Gould [aka Professor Seagull] fell upon me with demands for money—providing Shakespearean comic relief against the tension of our literary tragedy. We had published a few pages of his so-called History [An Oral History of our Time] in one of our last issues, but had announced at the same time that our magazine had no money to pay for contributions. Greatly excited at being put into print at last, Joe Gould refused to believe that he would not be paid an honorarium of some kind, and kept telephoning me at all hours. Beside myself with exasperation, I swore at him; whereupon this tiniest and most impecunious of historical scholars began to address me in a tone of severe formality, declaring that I had grossly insulted him and he was obliged to challenge me to a “duel”—a duel, with the midget Gould! Since it was he who issued the challenge, he requested that I name the weapons to be used.

“Pillows!” I roared into the telephone. “I’ll meet you with pillows at sunset tomorrow.” But he never came.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

age-old Japanese motif in Kamerick Art Building

I became interested in the design of the Kamerick Art Building (on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa) on the first day I saw it in 1990. As a job applicant, I had been invited to speak in the auditorium that day, and, while giving that talk, I recognized the logo-like pattern with which it complies. In my most recent online video talk, I conclude by telling about my realization that day, and how it would later contribute to the experience of teaching design in that building for the next three decades (from 1990-2018). I say 38 years in the film, but it was only 28 years (further confirmation that I have never been good at math).

I was never certain who designed the building (the firm was credited but not the designer). But later, around 2015, while giving a Humanities Iowa talk in a library in Des Moines, I shared that story with the audience. After the talk, a man came up from the audience and introduced himself as the building’s architect. I was delighted when he told me that all my suspicions were accurate. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

the essential link between humor and creativity

According to Arthur Koestler (in The Act of Creation), humor in all its various forms is rooted in mock confusions of two or more usually different components, which may then result in so-called bisociative acts. In one form or another, it is often delivered through bait-and-switch. The audience is “baited,” or led to believe that a particular train of thought is in play. And then, abruptly, as a result of the punch line, a disarming switch of attention occurs, and a momentary confusion erupts. The effect is a double awareness in which A is A, while, at the same time, A is also not-A.

In performing bait-and-switch routines, it is customary to feature a pair of comedians, one of whom, known as the straight man, is the person who sets up the pattern—the bait—for the audience. The second person ignites the laughter in the process of airing the punch line. In Abbott and Costello, Bud Abbott is the straight man, while Lou Costello makes the pretended confusions. In Burns and Allen, George Burns is the straight man, while his partner, Gracie Allen, is the sort-crosser. Sancho Panza is the straight man in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In Mister Magoo cartoons, Magoo’s impoverished eyesight leads him to mistakenly think that A is not-A, while Waldo provides the conventional view. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, it is the insightful detective whose cleverness takes us by surprise, while Watson underscores the norm. more>>>

the timely accidental death of actor james dean

James Dean / publicity photo / public domain
Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise. Pleasantville NY: Akadine Press, 2001, pp. 34-35—

When we got there [at an Italian bistro in Los Angeles]…there was no table available. As we walked disconsolately away I said, “I don’t care where we eat or what. Just something, somewhere.” I became aware of running, sneakered feet behind us and turned to face a fair young man in sweat shirt and blue jeans. “You want a table?” he asked. “Join me. My name is James Dean.” We followed him gratefully, but on the way back to the restaurant he turned into a car park, saying, “I’d like to show you something.” Among the other cars there was what looked like a large, shiny, silver parcel wrapped in cellophane and tied with ribbon. “It’s just been delivered,” he said, with bursting pride. “I haven’t even driven it yet.” The sports car looked sinister to me, although it had a large bunch of red carnations resting on the bonnet. “How fast is it?” I asked. “She’ll do a hundred and fifty,” he replied. Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, “Please, never get in it.” I looked at my watch.”It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” He laughed. “Oh, shucks! Don’t be so mean!” I apologized for what I had said, explaining it was lack of sleep and food. Thelma Moss and I joined him at his table and he proved an agreeable, generous host, and was very funny about Lee Strasberg, the Actors’ Studio and the Method. We parted an hour later, full of smiles. No further reference was made to the wrapped-up car. Thelma was relieved by the outcome of the evening and rather impressed. In my heart I was uneasy—with myself. At four o’clock in the afternoon of the following Friday James Dean was dead, killed while driving the car.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Robert Frost, Georges De Mestral, and Velcro

In a video that we recently produced on the nature of the creative process (titled How to Win Kings and Influence Cabbages), we mentioned the invention of the fastener called Velcro by Swiss engineer Georges De Mestral, introduced in 1955. The legend of its origin is that the idea came to De Mestral as he was walking in the woods with his dog. 

When they returned home, De Menstral was at first dismayed by the efficiency with which burrs from burdock plants had become attached to his dog’s fur as well as to his clothing. Being an engineer, he made good of the situation. When he examined the plant burrs under a microscope, he discovered the ingenuity of their hook-and-loop effectiveness. Voila!

Since posting that film, we were pleased to run across a passage by American poet Robert Frost. He compares the process of literary innovation to the fortuitous attachment of burrs to ones clothing, while taking a walk—a wonderful concurrence with the experience of De Mestral. The excerpt follows.


Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes” in Complete Poems. New York: Henry Holt, 1949—

[Scholars get their knowledge] with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields…

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Art, Design and Gestalt Theory: Video Version

Recently completed: Our most popular video talk, titled Art, Design and Gestalt Theory: The Film Version (40 mins). It traces the emergence of Gestalt psychology (c1910), as well as its connections to holism, Taoism, yin and yang, displacements of attention, contrast illusions, color, camouflage, graphic design, and architecture. Ideal for classroom screenings, and library discussion events. Non-monetized, free full online access for anyone at YouTube.

Friday, January 6, 2023

monumental replicas / complex and complete

students at Peet Junior High School
Roy R. Behrens, "Looming Large: the outdoor megasculpture student projects of Bill Close" in The Iowa Source. Vol 40 No 1. January 2023, pp. 6-7—

In the spring of 1994, when I was in my 40s and had moved back to Iowa to teach, I was walking near a shopping mall and came within sight of a bicycle shop. There, propped up in front of the building, was a gigantic mountain bike, so large that it was taller than the building it stood beside. Even from a nearer view, it appeared to be an enormous, functioning bicycle, complex and complete in every detail. It was breathtaking and delightful, a flashback to my childhood days.

That enormous bicycle, as I soon found out, was a trompe l’oeil work of art, a “fool the eye” construction, like the large-scale sculptures of Swedish-born American artist Claes Oldenburg. As a pop artist, Oldenburg made monumental replicas of mundane familiar objects, such as bowling pins, binoculars, and a garden trowel. But the giant bicycle that I had suddenly come upon was not created by Oldenburg. The sculpture had been built from scratch as an art project by ninth-grade students at Peet Junior High School in Cedar Falls. The person who initiated the project and supervised the students was an art teacher named William F. (Bill) Close. more>>>

book cover


Sunday, January 1, 2023

when reading his poems he performed them

book cover
In 1976, I was fortunate to be asked to design a paperbound edition of Joseph Langland’s The Sacrifice Poems for the North American Review, at the University of Northern Iowa. I was a young designer / teacher, and I am no longer happy with how I handled the page layout. But I remain very pleased with the cover, which is shown above.

Soon after I designed that book, I moved to a teaching position at another university, and moved elsewhere after that. But I rejoined the UNI faculty in 1990, where I taught graphic design and illustration, including book design. More than a decade later, Joseph Langland retired from teaching and he too moved back to Iowa. In 2004, near the end of his life, Langland talked to a class of my students at the UNI about the role of rhythmic sound and the music of the voice in the recitation of verse.

I think it would be fair to say that my students were astonished by Joe Langland’s presentation that day. One could say they were taken aback, because whenever Langland read his poems, it was more that he “performed” them—and in fact he often ”sang” the lines. The session was filmed, and having recently been edited, it can be accessed free online, and freely shared with others..

He also talked about his past, not knowing that his life would end a few years later. He recalled how he was drawn to literature at a very young age, and thereafter used poetry as a way to try to understand his life, such as growing up on a family farm, his rich Norwegian heritage, the death of his younger brother, and his lingering memories of having been an officer in the US Army infantry in Europe during World War II.

His talk took place on Veterans Day, on November 11, 2004. He died in 2007.

hot water fed by volcanic underground springs

how shifts of attention enable innovation
In so many, all but countless ways, let us hope that our fortunes are better this year.

Casey Clabough, Elements: The Novels of James Dickey. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2002, pp. 93-94—

In a memorable description of Adolph Hitler and fascism, Arthur Koestler declares: “Half of Hitler’s genius consisted in hitting the right unconscious chords [aka "dog whistles"]. The other half was his alert eclecticism, his flair for hyper-modern avant-garde methods in Economy, Architecture, Technique, Propaganda and Warfare. The secret of Fascism is the revival of archaic beliefs in an ultra-modern setting. The Nazi edifice was a skyscraper fitted with hot water pipes which drew on underground springs of volcanic origin.”

Saturday, December 31, 2022

hide that typewriter and you go into the closet

Totoya Hokkei / Japanese Print
Henry Miller, in Robert Snyder, This is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1974—

[When he was married but, as a writer, without an income] now and then my wife wasn't working maybe and, of course, I wasn’t selling anything—we’d have to separate, and I’d go home to live with my parents and she with her parents. That was frightful. When I’d go home to live with my parents my mother would say, “If anybody comes, a neighbor or one of our friends, y’know, hide that typewriter and you go in the closet, don’t let them know you’re here.” I used to stay in that closet sometimes over an hour, the camphor ball smell choking me to death, hidden among the clothes, hidden y’know, so that she wouldn’t have to tell her neighbors or relatives that her son is a writer. All her life she hated this, that I’m a writer. She wanted me to be a tailor and take over the tailor shop, y’know. It was a frightful thing—this is like a crime I'm committing. I’m a criminal, y’know. This standing in the closet… I'll never forget the smell of camphor, do y‘know. We used it plentifully.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

the process by which creativity works / video

Just posted: HOW TO WIN KINGS AND INFLUENCE CABBAGES: The Process By Which Creativity Works

mammoth flyer / elephantine mastodon hybrid

Before I became a university professor, I taught briefly in a public school. One day, in a class of seventh grade students, I came prepared to talk about usually unnoticed connections between familiar objects, and in particular, about skeletal structures. I brought with me to school that day various examples of medical x-rays, a plastic model of the skeleton of a mastodon, and the balsa wood wings of an unassembled model airplane. I displayed these on a table top in preparation for my talk. But I was then distracted by some other event in the classroom, and I briefly turned aside.

When I returned to the table, I found, to my surprise and great delight, that one of the students had spontaneously attached the airplane wings to the skeleton of the mastodon. I was so pleased by this invention that I permanently mounted the wings, added a wooden base, and painted the hybrid construction. Obviously, a new idea had taken flight, and the title I later chose for it was the Mammoth Flyer. It appealed to a wide range of people, as was confirmed, a few years later, when it was stolen from an art exhibition.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

teaching dogs olde tricks all the way to the bank

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022)
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.  

when the evening is spread out against the sky

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022) with William H. Edwards image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.  

Shaker wisdom of restraint and understatement

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022) with Alois E. Urich image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.  

Sancho Panza says Don Quixote off his rocker

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022) with John Davis image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art

feline gargoyle with fabulous embellishments

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022), with John Davis image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.  

disarranged bandbox of a mad hatter's top hat

Poster design © Roy R. Behrens (2022), with Gilbert Sackerman image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art

set off for India but arrive in America somehow

Poster © Roy R, Behrens, with Ingrid Selmer Larsen image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

Ben Franklin's preference of turkey as symbol

Poster design© Roy R. Behrens 2022
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

remarkable from the Index of American Design

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022) from Betty Fuerst image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

astonishing from the Index of American Design

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022), artist unknown
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

a favorite from the Index of American Design

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022) with Mina Lowry image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

Monday, November 28, 2022

selection from the index of american design

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2022) with Mina Lowry image
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

exquisite image / the index of american design

Poster design © Roy R. Behrens (2022)
Roy R. Behrens, poster from a series that pays tribute to the Index of American Design (1935-1942). This particular painting, by Daniel Marshack, documents a woman's gymnasium outfit. The original watercolor painting is in public domain at the National Gallery of Art.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Don Quixote / lunatics, lovers, and poets alike

Don Quixote
Above William Lake Price, Don Quixote in his Study (Photograph, 1857), National Gallery of Art.


Roy R. Behrens, “Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets: On madness and creativity" in Journal of Creative Behavior Vol 8 No 4 (1975), pp 228ff—

Don Quixote has tunnel vision, by which he sees through the tunnel of love. Everything he sees relates to chivalry. It is as if he wore blinders, like Rocinante his “steed.”

He calls his neighbor a “squire.” He dons armored armour, with a cardboard visor top. He sees prostitutes as ladies. His unbridled imagination has left us with phantoms of windmills, whch are in turn synonymous with Quixote and quixotic. When he hears the “neighing of steeds, the sound of trumpets, and the rattling of drums,” his sidekick  Sancho Panza sees “nothing but the bleating of sheep and lambs.” 

Sancho Panza is conventional, while the knight-errant is errant. The “visionary gentleman” is either poetic or crazy. He confuses similarity with identity, whether by purpose or fault. A is not not-A, but inside Quixote’s mind, A and not-A merge as one. His five-and-dime descendant is the nearsighted cartoon character Mister Magoo, who (in Magoo Goes Shopping) sees and treats a rib cage (A) as if it were a xylophone (not-A), implying that musical pitch is related to the length of the ribs.…

In Magoo cartoons, Sancho Panza is Waldo. He is Watson in Sherlock Holmes. Sancho, Waldo and Watson represent unexceptional views. They know that A is A, that A is not not-A. “Look, sir,” Sancho calls out to the knight-errant, “those which appear yonder are not giants, but windmills; and what seem to be arms are sails…” more>>  


Below An interpretation of Don Quixote by José Guadalupe Posada, c1908.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Worm Runner's Digest meets the Unabomber

Roy R. Behrens (1972)
Above Cover of the Journal of Biological Psychology (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan) Vol 14 No 1 (July 1972). Designed by Roy R. Behrens.


How strange it is to run across an artwork, design, essay, or whatever, that dates from earlier in life, in this case fifty years ago. I can barely remember the brief time period during which I worked (remotely) with a then well-known (albeit controversial) scientist, a biologist and animal psychologist named James V. McConnell (1925-1990). In 1972, he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan, and had become “famous” for his claims of memory transfer in planeria, also known as “flat worms.” In 1962, he published a research paper in which he reported that when flatworms were conditioned to certain stimuli, and their body parts fed to other flatworms, the subsequent group appeared to learn more quickly. He concluded that this was evidence of a chemical transfer of memory, which he called Memory RNA. Eventually, other scientists failed to arrive at the same results as his experiments, and his findings were dismissed.

I think I became aware of McConnell, not just because of his flatworm research, but because he had founded an amusing double-purpose journal. One half of it was a serious scientific periodical called the Journal of Biological Psychology. The other half (printed topsy turvy to that, but bound with it, each bearing a separate cover) was a science humor journal, titled The Worm Runner’s Digest, in which he published satirical take-offs that looked like research papers, but were not.

Initially, when McConnell began this tandem periodical in 1959, the combined halves together were known as the Worm Runner’s Digest. But in 1966, he adopted two separate titles. On the JBP side of the journal, he published serious scientific articles such as his own research about “Memory transfer through cannibalism in planaria”; while, on the humorous WRD side, he published satirical articles, such as “A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown.” Predictably, there were readers who objected, some of them claiming that it was sometimes too difficult to sort out the jokes from the science.

In 1972, I was a first-year university professor, just out of graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, and had just begun to teach at the University of Northern Iowa. I don’t now recall how I became affiliated with McConnell and his journal. Surely I must have written to him, and I presumably sent him submissions, one of which he published in the JBP. It was a serious essay about anamorphic distortion in art in comparison to the diagrams in On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the celebrated Scottish biologist. I also submitted a humorous collaged narrative (structured like pages of a comic book) that is not in the least bit funny now—but he kindly published it nevertheless in the WRD. 

Our collaboration went on from there. In the early 1970s, McConnell published several of my illustrations as covers (my favorites are the two pen-and-ink drawings shown here). I also submitted a series of single-image comic collages (none of which are amusing today). These were heavily influenced by the collage-illustrated short stories of Donald Barthelme (who I had learned about in graduate school), using bits and pieces of antique steel engravings. 

McConnell was in Michigan and I was in Iowa. We never met in person, and I don’t think we even spoke on the phone. But we did exchange letters, and his—if I’m not mistaken—were a lot longer than mine. I still have them somewhere. In the mid-70s, I moved to Wisconsin, and our exchanges slowed, then totally stopped.

There is a bizarre ending to this, which I did not learn about until a few years ago. In 1985, James McConnell was one of the people who were targeted by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. A package (which appeared to be a manuscript) was mailed to his house, where it was opened by a research assistant. When the bomb exploded, McConnell was in the same room. He escaped life-threatening injury, but he ended up with a substantial hearing loss. He retired three years later, and died in 1990. 

Roy R. Behrens (1972)

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Joseph Langland / life, literature, ethnic origins

Newly edited Joseph Langland video

Willi Baumeister cartoon / Hitler in electric chair

Schlemmer (left) and Baumeister
Above Margrit Baumeister, Oskar Schlemmer and Willi Baumeister 1929 in Frankfurt am Main.

Willi Baumeister, in Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, Art under a dictatorship. New York: Octagon Books, 1973, page 87—

My friends in Wuppertal, Oskar Schlemmer among them, sent me humorous letters and postcards from time to time, with paste-up pictures and surrealist texts. I sent them, rather naively, a cartoon, cut from a US newspaper, of an electric chair with Hitler on it. Suddenly I was summoned to Gestapo Headquarters. I was confronted by the Gestapo censor with my entire correspondence for the last year and a half. Thank God, Hitler in the electric chair was not among the intercepted letters. I extricated myself by writing a long report to the Gestapo, explaining that these were plans for a book dealing with color modulation and patina, in connection with an especially resistant paint for the camouflaging of tanks and pill boxes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

today I bought a dress that is made out of wood

Where is the fifth pig?
Ione Robinson, A Wall to Paint On. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1946, p. 373-374, while visiting Berlin, from a letter dated November 8, 1938 (less than a year in advance of the start of World War II) —

Today I bought a dress that is made out of wood. I still can't believe it. In fact, there was not one “natural” item in this department store; everything was synthetic. In an arcade on Unter den Linden, I spent a long time looking at photographs of Hitler and I bought a series of tiny "flap” [flip book] photos which, when you riffle them fast, make him come to life like a miniature movie. The one I have shows him making a speech and if you riffle the pages slowly the gestures are so calculated and ridiculous they make you laugh—although that is one thing I have not seen people do in this city. 

The people in the streets [of Berlin] look worn and tired. Life is completely regulated. There are signs every few feet, telling one what to eat and believe. Money is controlled. Four dollars a day is about all you can spend. In a certain sense, this makes life very simple—you know exactly what you can and cannot do. Even though certain things could be achieved through such a system, I don't see how anyone could be happy. I begin to feel as though I were living in a well-run jail. There is the same security of a bed at night, something to eat, and a few hours of “forced” recreation. But the realization that one must constantly yield to the will of a single man takes all the incentive and moral force from a human being.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

always in the throes of a long drinking bout

photograph of Amedeo Modigliani
Anon, H. HODIGLIENI in New York Tribune, February 7, 1920, p. 4—

PARIS, Feb. 6—H. Hodglieni [sic] [Amedeo Modigliani], an artist, who claimed to have invented cubist painting, was found dead in a hovel in the Latin Quarter. He used to frequent Paris cafés dressed in trousers with legs of different colored materials.


Ilya Ehrenburg, People and Life: memoirs of 1891-1917. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1961, p.143—

…no one now can give an exact description of how [artist Amedeo] Modigliani used to dress: when times were good he wore a coat of light velvet with a red silk scarf round his neck, but when he was in the throes of a long drinking bout, ill and penniless, he was enveloped in brightly colored rags.

gestalt theory, attention, and problem-solving

Thinking Outside the Box (2022)

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Armitage as impressario and aristocrat of art

Above I have written about the American graphic designer Merle Armitage because he was, undoubtedly, an accomplished book designer, whose primary income came from his activities as a "booking agent" or "impressario" for prominent performing artists, among them Anna Pavlova, Amelita Galli-Curci, Rosa Ponselle, and the Diaghilev Ballet. He wrote books about these and other artists because, as he once explained to Henry Miller, it provided him with the opportunity to design books, which is what he most enjoyed. My long essay on his life is online here. At the same time, I have also known that some of his personal qualities were less than admirable. I was reminded of that as I recently read this passage in Ione Robinson's autobiography (below).


Ione Robinson, A Wall to Paint On. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1946, page 79—

The heat is stifling, and I have spent most of the day sitting [in Los Angeles] in the Plaza waiting to meet the Mexican Consul. I tried to forget the heat by reading something Merle Armitage gave me as I was leaving: a copy of his address before the California Art Club's Open Forum. It didn't help me bear the heat; in fact, it really frightened me, because Mr. Armitage seems to want to be the Lorenzo de Medici of Los Angeles. Already everyone listens to him, and the younger artists at home are under his thumb, simply because he can afford to buy a canvas when he wants to (although he never spends over a certain amount on any canvas, which is so small that in the end it does not really help a poor painter). But in this speech he is trying to prove that there is an “aristocracy in art”: he carefully quotes Webster on the definition of Aristocrat and Common, and then tries to twist a special meaning out of these words that will justify his right to judge esthetics. I really believe that he would like to feel that he is the arbiter of greatness in the art of our time. He believes that the masses of people have nothing to contribute to art, nor is their judgment to be relied upon, and argues that without people like himself there would never have been artists and writers like El Greco and Voltaire. What he forgets is that El Greco and Voltaire painted and wrote for the people, and not just for men like Merle Armitage. He actually wrote this: “How can the really common people have anything in common with, anything of sympathy for, as aloof and aristocratic a thing as art? If left to the common people, and I use the word ‘common’ as I have previously defined it, there would be no art.” The reason this frightens me is because Mr. Armitage is already the manager of the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association, and now seems on the verge of being the impresario of painters in California. I am glad I'm going to Mexico.

Ione Robinson (source)


Saturday, November 5, 2022

tobacco road / the story of a boy who smoked

EVOLUTION OF A BOY WHO SMOKED, in The Journal (Huntsville AL), February 28, 1907, p. 2. Reprinted from the Chicago Daily News. Artist unidentified—

Do you know any little boy that [sic] smokes cigarettes? If you do, just show him this picture. It is the sad story of Dick Sillypate. He saw another boy smoking a cigarette, and thought it looked so manly that he would try it himself. The picture shows what happened to him at the end of five months.

Friday, October 28, 2022

having a whale of a time on Nantucket Island

J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer. UK: Davies and Davis, 1782—

A singular custom prevails here [on Nantucket Island] among the women, at which I was greatly surprised, and am really at a loss to account for the original cause that has introduced in this primitive society so remarkable a fashion, or so extraordinary a want. They have adopted these many years the Asiastic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning; and so deeply rooted is it, that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence; they would rather be derprived of any necessary than forego their favorite luxury. This is much more prevailing among the women than the men…though the sheriff…has for many years submitted to this custom. He takes three grains of it every day after breakfast, without the effects of which, he often told me, he was not able to transact any business.