Sunday, November 26, 2023

newly revised site map for ballast / camoupedia

At long last. We have finally succeeded in cleaning house on our website—or at least on the site directory. Essays, design and art portfolio, blog links, online video talks: all in one location.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

she spent half her life in a pink chenille robe

Above Image sequence from a talk I once presented on the history of chair design, called Sitting Down with Frank Lloyd Wright.


Richard Critchfield, Those Days: An American Album. New York: Dell, 1986, pp. 376—

In one corner of the dining room, by the hot-air register, was a big old Morris chair, where Betty, when she still worked at the bakery, would sit and fall asleep, she was so tired. Billy used to say, "Betty's spent half her waking life in a pink chenille robe." The stairwell to the attic was always loaded with things left there by somebody intending to take them up later: books, clothes, tennis rackets, skates, Tinker Toys, little trucks that always seemed to have a wheel missing. Like the road to hell, the stairs were paved with good intentions. 

we do not first see, we define first and then see

related online video talks
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922, p. 81—

[In Art as Experience, John Dewey] gives an example of how differently an experienced layman and a chemist might define the word metal. "Smoothness, hardness, glossiness, and brilliancy, heavy weight for its size…the serviceable properties of capacity for being hammered and pulled without breaking, of being softened by heat and hardened by cold, of retaining the shape and form given, of resistance to pressure and decay, would be included" in the layman's definition. But the chemist would likely as not ignore these esthetic and utilitarian qualities, and define a metal as "any chemical element that enters into combination with oxygen so as to form a base."

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

regarding montages and vision


the extraordinary visions of Joseph Podlesnik

Above The photographs of Joseph Podlesnik are simply astonishing. A large selection are on sale through December 8, 2023, online here.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

PBS gift / Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City

I couldn't be more delighted to see that my recent book, titled Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie, is currently being offered as a free donation bonus in the fundraising campaign on Iowa PBS. It is featured in two donation options online here and here

I think it's a pretty good overview of the influence of European and Japanese traditions on Wright's architectural style (and vice versa), as well as an explanation of why Mason City's architecture is of genuine significance. There is a shortage of serious writing about the importance of things that surround us.

Friday, November 3, 2023

a meeting of midwestern minds? one gets nasty

The lives of Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and Iowa-born artist Grant Wood (1891-1942) overlapped for a half-century. For a dozen or so of their mutual years, they were both celebrities within their respective professions. Surely, they were well aware of each other's work—but did the two men ever meet?

Wood was greatly interested in architecture, as is apparent in the subject matter of his paintings. But what did he think of Wright's architecture? And, in turn, what was Wright's opinion of the Regionalist paintings of Grant Wood and others? Based on evidence from the time, this essay surmises the answer.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

the process by which creativity works / koestler

Roy R. Behrens, from the film narration in HOW TO WIN KINGS AND INFLUENCE CABBAGES: The Process by Which Creativity Works (2022), free to watch online on YouTube here

As a college student, I was required to read for a humanities class Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Albert CamusThe Stranger, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Years later, I found out that, amusingly, all three of these literary titans had been drinking companions in postwar Paris, and that on one unforgettable evening in 1949 a greatly intoxicated Koestler (who was small and reputedly scrappy) had thrown a glass at Sartre and given Camus a black eye.

My favorite photograph of Koestler was made in the same year as that famous brawl by Dmitri Kessel for Life magazine [see above]. A double portrait of the Hungarian-born British writer and his magnificent boxer Sabby, it is memorable in part because of the uncanny resemblance between dog and master—boxer meets boxer, they seem deliberately to be imitating one another.

It is also, as might be said, a “self-exemplifying” image because that portrait is a superb example of what Koestler identified as the key ingredient throughout all creative activity: “The discovery of hidden similarities” or bisociation (perceiving things “in two self-consistent but incompatible frames of reference at the same time”).

Friday, October 27, 2023

newly published book on Blanche Ames Ames

Above I’ve been writing about the Ames family for more than 50 years. I myself don’t know of a family that is more colorful or complex. I refer to those descended from the marriage of Union General Adelbert Ames (Reconstruction governor of Mississippi) and Blanche Butler, who was the daughter of the notorious General Benjamin F. Butler.

One of their sons was Adelbert (Del) Ames, Jr., an artist and optical scientist who devised the well-known Ames Demonstrations in psychology (such as his Distorted Room). One of their daughters was an artist and equal rights proponent named Blanche Ames Ames. She has that double name because she married Harvard orchid expert Oakes Ames, whose ancestors had made their fortune providing shovels to those who went west to pan for gold or who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad.

Ames, Iowa, is named for a prominent family member. George Plimpton’s mother was an Ames, and it appears there is also a link to Aldrich Ames, the famous spy. My main interest has usually been the artist and scientist Del Ames, about whom I have published various essays over the years and, more recently, have produced a series of three short online videos.

But I’ve also always been intrigued by Del’s sister, Blanche, in part because he and she worked in tandem on art and science research in the years before the outbreak of World War I. In recent years, there have been various efforts to unearth and celebrate the achievements of Blanche Ames Ames, whose magnificent self-designed mansion is now Borderland State Park in Massachusetts, just south of Boston, a site that is well-worth the visit.

Last year, a 55-minute film was produced, titled Borderland: The Life and Times of Blanche Ames Ames. And now, most recently, a new book has just been published about the shared lives of Blanche Ames and her husband. Titled Blanche Ames Ames (1878-1969) and Oakes Ames (1874-1950): Cultivating That Mutual Ground (Eugene OR: Resource Publications), it was written by Elizabeth F. Fideler, a Harvard scholar who has published earlier books about aging, retirement and related concerns. Especially for those who are interested in the Ames family, women’s studies, and the chemistry of married life, it is a praiseworthy overview of the accomplishments of an amazing American woman. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

John C. Lofton / his astonishing miniature rooms

John C. Lofton, Abandoned Nest in an Empty Room (1976). Wood and other materials. Interior 28h x 16w x 22d. Exterior (on sturdy mounted tripod stand) 90h. Lighted inside through window with shade. 

I’m not sure when I purchased this. It must have been in the 1980s. I was teaching in Milwaukee, and became interested in a series of constructions that consisted of mysterious room interiors. They were miniaturized of course, but enclosed in a box and mounted on a wooden pole-like stand (including the stand, the height of this one is 90 inches). 

Lofton was a local artist who was especially skilled at woodworking. I was drawn to this particular work, because it reminded me of the bleakness of an empty room in (let's say) an apartment at the moment one is moving in—or moving out.

There is a detailed hardwood floor, exactly proportioned moulding, and replicas of a wooden chair, a telephone, an ashtray, and a window on the facing wall. The detail which completes its persuasiveness is the simulated outdoor light that appears to flow in from beyond the window shade.

I can’t recall how much I paid for this. Not a terrible lot, I’m sure. But the amount was sufficient that the artist joked I’d “lost my shirt” in acquiring it. As a result, he graciously threw in a second miniature work of his (see below), a hand-carved balsa wood shirt, with appropriate metal buttons and a wire clothes hanger.

I remember another Lofton work, a second room interior, which I saw but, regrettably, did not buy. Fortunately, I still have a full-color photograph of it (also below). He titled it Bird Cage (1976), a name that surely does not “spoil” or give away its range of interpretative possibilities. 

Is that a toucan on the pole?

These two artworks (the empty room and wooden shirt) have traveled with us everywhere in the years since 1985, as we repeatedly moved from state to state. They have survived unscathed, as have so many other wonderful works which remain in our collection. As we age, of course, we wonder what will become of them. It's not unlike finding a home for a cat. So many questions, so many concerns. 

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Josiah Royce's mother walks west from Iowa

read more>>
Just published in The Iowa Source. Sarah Royce, the mother of American philosopher Josiah Royce (a colleague of William James at Harvard), was a "forty-niner," one of those hell-bent American souls, who walked with their families from the Midwest to the West Coast in 1849. Read the entire article here.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

peach brandy / couldn't get drunk until sundown

Above Historic clay jug, as rendered in a painting by American illustrator Bisby Finley, for the Index of American Design (1939).


Stark Young, The Pavilion: Of People and Times Remembered, of Stories and Places. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, p. 77—

Micajah McGhee had many acres in peaches for making brandy. His constitution was such, the history says solemnly, that drink as he might he was unable to be drunk till sundown, once a day; but as the infirmities of age crept on him he was able to be drunk twice a day. The Methodist exhortations converted him to some of sort of reform by which he agreed to limit himself to a daily quart of brandy. In a fortnight he returned to say that he could not endure it, and his advisors said, very well, they would pray for him and he should what he could; the matter was between him and God.

the family chair in which one customarily dies

Above Armchair designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow (1898).


Stark Young, The Pavilion: Of People and Times Remembered, of Stories and Places. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, p. 78—

…in another branch of [his father's] family, nine Douglass men had gone from a single household to [serve in] the [American] Revolution. It was in this Douglass family that they had what was known as the Douglass chair. The custom was for every man in the house, when the moment came for him to die, to rise from his bed and go, or else be carried, to meet his death sitting in this chair. 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

new poetry book with Mary Snyder Behrens art

It has been a pleasure to learn today about the upcoming publication of a new book of poetry by American poet J.D. Schraffenberger, titled American Sad. Its projected publication date is February 2024, but copies can be pre-ordered now, at an advance sale discount price. The author is editor of the North American Review and professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. More book information, examples of the author's poems, and ordering information can be found here.

Full disclosure: Personally, I am especially pleased that a major artwork by my wife, Mary Snyder Behrens, as been chosen by the author for use on the cover. I live with this work, since it has been on view in our dining room for years, and I pass it multiple times in the course of a day. It is large, for the scale of a dining room wall (48h x 30w x 4d), encased in a plexiglas cover, and so multi-faceted and visually provocative that one cannot help but be drawn in. Titled American Canvas II, it is one of several comparable-sized, related works that she completed in 2002 (can it really have been 21 years ago?).  All of them are mixed media, dimensional compositions of cast-off detritus from our farm, bits of junk that farmers buried years ago (in the manner of amateur landfills), and which, during heavy rains, rise up again to the surface—and, in some cases, cause us harm. 

I for one could not be more delighted that the writer J.D. Schraffenberger has found some strand of common ground between the art he makes with words, and the visual verse that Mary constructs.

novelist Ruth Suckow / a celebration of her life

Suckow exhibition banner (2023)
On Saturday (two days from now), there is a gathering of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association. Suckow (pronounced Soo-Co), who lived from 1892-1960, was a once highly-acclaimed novelist and short story writer from Iowa, whose work was resoundingly praised by the famous literary critic H.L. Mencken. Much more information about her can be found on an online Wikipedia biography site, including a list of her books, and a link to the Suckow Memorial Association, which was founded in 1966.

The association's annual gathering will take place this weekend at the Hearst Center for the Arts at 304 West Seerley Boulevard (a few blocks east of the University of Northern Iowa campus) in Cedar Falls IA on August 26. Beginning at 1:00 pm that day, there is a one-hour session that is free and open to the public. One of her novels, titled Country People, will be the primary focus of that afternoon session, in which a discussion will follow a series of short presentations by four association members, Bill Douglas, Jim O'Loughlin, Julie Husband, and Cherie Dargan.

I have a particular interest in this event because earlier this year I was asked by Barbara Lounsberry, the association's president, to design a six-panel exhibition about Ruth Suckow's life, along with a banner for posting (as shown above) as it travels to libraries throughout the state. The panels and banner, which were made possible by a grant from Humanities Iowa, will premiere this weekend at the RSMA gathering. 

I have an additional interest because one of the communities where Ruth Suckow lived was the city of Manchester IA, at a time when my maternal ancestors, the family of John J. Pentony, also lived there. Suckow attended high school with my grandmother and several great aunts.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Walter Hamady // book artist and paper maker

Above (and below) Title frame and other single frames from a new 20-minute video talk about Walter Hamady (1940-2019), prominent book artist, paper-maker, and collagist, who was well-known as a teacher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

Having earlier taught in Milwaukee for ten years, I had become aware of his work in the 1970s. Because of his liking for Ballast Quarterly Review (which I had founded in 1985), he and I began to exchange spirited letters (along with a mix of enclosures), once or twice or more a month. 

This led to collaborations of one kind or another, eventually resulting in exhibitions, published essays, and an archive of his artist’s books. I saved everything, even all the envelopes and mailing containers, in part because they were always addressed to mutilations of my name, such as Corps du Roy, Rhoidamoto, Trompe L’Roi at Labbast, Royatolla, and so on. This continued for more than a decade, perhaps to the mailman’s amusement.

Looking back on what I have, I have now produced a video talk (a brief memoir-like tribute) titled BOOK ART: Walter Hamady’s Books, Collages and Assemblages, which can be accessed free online on my YouTube channel.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

exquisite gestural movement / the ballets russes

Above Ballets Russes poster design (©2023) Roy R. Behrens

The Ballets Russes was an itinerant ballet company begun in Paris that performed between 1909 and 1929 throughout Europe and on tours to North and South America. The company never performed in Russia, where the Revolution disrupted society. It is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century, in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their several fields.…more>>>

Dancers pictured are Mikhail Fokine and Vera Fokina in the ballet Scheherazade.

Related Links

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Del Ames / David Chelsea's book on perspective

I recently ran across a book (a comic book) which I highly recommend. Titled Perspective in Action: Creative Exercises for Depicting Spatial Representation from the Renaissance to the Digital Age, it was both drawn and written by a Portland-based illustrator named David Chelsea. I regret not knowing about this earlier, since it was published back in 2017 (six years ago!) by New York: Watson-Guptill. ISBN 978-1-60774-946-2. Fortunately, it is still available online, and I now own a copy.

There are various reasons why I recommend this book (the cover isn’t one of them). The interior comic-style images are beautifully rendered and colorized, and the page layout is very smart. It interweaves a well-written and reliable text, both historical and technical, with clear and thoughtful instructions on how to make physical models of the demonstrations in the text.

That would be enough to recommend it. But I am also drawn to it because it covers so many of the vision-related topics that I myself have researched and written about since the 1960s, of which the history of perspective is one. But there is also the use of the camera obscura as a drawing aid. Anamorphoses or “forced perspective” imagery, including street art illusions. Dutch perspective cabinets. The Ames Demonstrations, devised by American optical physiologist Adelbert Ames II, including the Ames Distorted Room (there are instructions on how to make a model, in exacting detail). Six-Point Perspective. Various kinds of stereoscopic (3-D) imagery, and even stereo collage (which I thought I invented back in c1984). And zoetrope (flip book) animations. Wow! What more could you want.

So look for this book! It’s well worth it. And you might also take a look at my own recent video trilogy on the life and work of Ames, since it touches on many of the same subjects. The videos are found online at my YouTube Channel. They are completely free to view and to share with others. See two screen grabs below.

Monday, June 19, 2023

if Vincent Van Gogh had been a dentist instead

Woody Allen, “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists” in Without Feathers. New York: Random House, 1975, p. 199— 

Dear Theo—

Will life never treat me decently? I am wracked by despair! My head is pounding! Mrs. Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth! That’s right!… I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing, with wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won’t fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her! I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew! What do I care whether she can chew or not! Theo, I can’t go on like this much longer! . . .


a new practical guide to art in relation to seeing

coming soon
There’s a new book in the works—it isn't out yet, but it's coming. Issued by the University of Chicago Press, it will soon be available in hardbound, paperback, and E-book formats. The title peaks my interest: STUDIO SEEING: A practical guide to drawing, painting, and perception. It is due out in September. The author is Michael Torlen, a painter, printmaker and writer who retired from teaching in 2012, and now resides in Maine. A graduate of Ohio State University and Cranbrook Academy, he taught courses in visual arts for many years at the University of Georgia at Athens, and at Purchase College in New York.

How do I know him? I don’t, or at least we've never met in person. But we are well-acquainted “online,” as they say, because about ten years ago, by chance we discovered that we have a common interest in, not just art and vision, but in the writings and teaching practices of an artist / teacher (in the 1940s and thereafter) named Hoyt Sherman. At OSU, Sherman was the teacher of Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein. But he was also the teacher of one of my most influential teachers, a man named David Delafield. Torlen’s link to Sherman is far more direct: he earned an MFA at OSU and actually worked closely with Sherman.

My additional interest in Sherman is through his connection to artist and optical physiologist Adelbert Ames II, who invented the Ames Demonstrations, about whom I have written, and more recently made a three-part documentary video on.

At OSU, Sherman reconstructed many of the Ames Demonstrations. But the achievement for which he was famous (or, as his detractors would probably say, “infamous”) was his attempt to teach drawing in the dark. He devised a method of teaching drawing in a pitch dark studio (called a “flash lab”) in which his students drew from abstract images that he projected on a screen, using a tachistoscope, for a fraction of a second. His students included members of the OSU football team, who (it was claimed) improved their passing accuracy by wearing a hooded contraption called a “flash helmet.”

Judging from its table of contents (as well as the title), the key concern in Torlen’s book is perception in relation to art, from the view of a long-experienced teacher. You can learn much more about him as well as updates on his book at <>.

Friday, June 9, 2023

reality lacks solidity when compared to illusions

Del Ames, The Man Who Made Distorted Rooms, Part 1
Stark Young, The Pavilion: Of People and Times Remembered, of Stories and Places. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, p. 187—

Art’s function is to extend life into dream; since reality, for all its being so close at hand, is beyond us; it is actually far more incapable of definition than the maddest vision. For us the actuality of real things has no solidity as compared to the reality of our illusions and the precision of our emotions. We know only too well the truth of that line in French that man who can create countless gods cannot create even a flea.

See also

Adelbert Ames, Fritz Heider, and the Chair Demonstration

The Artistic and Scientific Collaboration of Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II

Adelbert Ames and the Cockeyed Room

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

hoop and holler when little pig got under skirt

Stark Young, The Pavilion: Of People and Times Remembered, of Stories and Places. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, p. 106—

My father had a brother-in-law, Uncle Henry Hargis, who had married my Aunt Elizabeth. She had been long since dead and the only thing remembered about her was that she went on wearing hoopskirts years after they were given up, because her legs were too weak for skirts pressuring against them, and that a little pig had got under the hoop one day and the more she kicked and screamed the higher he jumped.

wheel collapsed, heart pierced by bicycle spoke

Above Harry G. Aberdeen, graphite and watercolor (1936), from the Index of American Design. Collection of the National Gallery of Art. Public domain.


Stark Young, The Pavilion: Of People and Times Remembered, of Stories and Places. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, pp. 155-156—

When I was a child I had seen a traveling medicine show where the climax was that a comedian should lie on the floor while some villainous character trampled on his middle and a stream of milk spurted up most comically out of his mouth. It was on that occasion that the star performer on a the bicycle, which at that time was a huge wheel with a small wheel at the rear, chose one of my little cousins and me to be carried in his arms, the right and the left, in thrilling figurations around the room, with danger stalking his tracks, or so we were supposed to believe; it was only a week later in some nearby town that he essayed to ride down a stairway and his wheel collapsed, and one of the spokes pierced his heart.

Friday, May 26, 2023

eyewitness account / the night of broken glass

Poster [detail] © Roy R. Behrens
Among the most despicable events in modern history is what is known as Kristallnacht (German for “Crystal Night”), or, as more commonly translated, “the Night of Broken Glass.” It refers to massive overnight rioting (a pogrom), instigated by the Nazi Party on November 9-10, 1938. It was carried out against Jewish synagogues, businesses, homes, schools, hospitals, as well as people on the street, and is said to have been triggered by the murder of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a 17-year-old assassin of Jewish ethnicity. It is estimated that 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and 267 synagogues were destroyed, at least 90 citizens killed, and 30,000 Jewish males arrested. It was a foreboding of the insidious (and all but successful) attempts by Adolf Hitler and his many devotees to—in essence—recover from the humiliation of World War I, and to "make Deutschland great again." Visiting in Berlin that night was an American artist and writer named Ione Robinson (1910-1989). Eight years later, in an autobiography, she recalled what happened that horrible night, in the passages below.


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

There is still a feeling of suspense that something will happen in Berlin. We saw large groups of Storm Troopers about the city, but Freddie [a journalist friend] said they were probably ordered out to clap at some meeting.

Berlin, November 10, 1938 [the following day]
This morning the telephone rang at four o'clock. I could hear Freddie speaking quietly, and knowing something about the lives of newspapermen, I paid little attention to being awakened at such an early hour.

Later at breakfast I found Freddie sitting over his coffee, staring at the wall in from of him. Dorothy [his wife] was still in her dressing gown. There was a frightful silence when I entered thc room. I thought that someone must have died during the night.

Finally Freddie said, “Well, it has started and God only knows where it will end.” When I asked what had started, he told me calmly, “Another Jewish pogrom–because of vom Rath.”

Coming from a war, one’s nerves are atuned to violence, and I was surprised to find myself turning to Dorothy like a scared rabbit. She seemed to accept the thing that was about to happen like a trained nurse accustomed to caring for a lunatic.

Later in the morning I drove through the city with her. Everything was quiet, and the morning was so cold and damp after an hour of this cruising around that Dorothy decided the whole thing had been called off. I wanted to buy a Contax camera. I asked her to take me to a camera store. While I was examining the Contax I heard a splitting crash, followed by the noise of breaking glass. I started to run for the door of this shop but the salesman held my arm. He begged me not to look and said, “You are an American. I don’t want you to look at this Germany—these aren’t the people of my country doing this thing!”

In the furniture store across the street there was a group of young boys like our American college students. They had hatchets and crowbars in their hands and they were singing while they went about the most vicious piece of wrecking I have ever seen. They were not content just to smash an object—they methodically ground every conceivable thing to pieces; not even the walls of the store were left untouched. Long splinters of wood were left hanging like icicles. When this gang, which was comparatively small, and which any group of able-bodied men could have beaten to smithereens, had finished this store, they went singing down the street unmolested, searching out another victim.

By the time we had reached the Unter den Linden, every Jewish shop was being hacked to pieces. I was amazed at the coolness with which a wrecker would swing his ax into large plateglass window without the slightest fear of being cut by the falling glass. These people were like cold demons. They were wild with a sadistic kind of delirium. The pavements began to look as if an earthquake had struck Berlin. Objects of every description were strewn over the pavements. But the people just stood there; their faces looked dead. No one spoke a word and the police made no attempt to stop the wrecking or the looting…

I walked over to the Kurfurstendamm, which is one of the fashionable shopping streets…the same thing was happening there. I stood in front of one shop and watched the owner—an old Jewish man—being forced to pick up, piece by piece, the broken debris in front of his store. While he was doing this, the wreckers grabbed the only object that had not been torn to bits, a family photograph, and hung it on a wire in front of the doorway. And then they all took turns spitting on this picture! A baby started to cry in the arms of a young woman onlooker. She scolded the baby for crying and held it high in the air to have a better look at this “national glory!”

Towards evening, clouds of smoke curled over Berlin. The synagogues had been set on fire. I drove with Dorothy across the city to find the wife of a Jewish newspaperman working for the UPI [United Press International]. While I waited in the street I saw a man being chased by fifteen Storm Troopers. He didn't have a chance. They closed in on him like hounds after a fox. When they grabbed him he was thrown to the pavement and his skull bashed until he lay there completely unconscious. The Troopers walked calmly away, brushing off their uniforms. I stood by the car, numb with fear, and hating myself for having watched such a ghastly scene; then I realized what could happen to the hearts of men if they permitted themselves not only to indulge in such sadism, but to become passive spectators of such hideous crimes.


Thursday, May 25, 2023

window for first fifty exhibition at hearst center

A few weeks ago, I designed the exhibition mailing card (shown below at end of post) for an upcoming exhibition at the Hearst Center for the Arts (Cedar Falls IA). It is a non-juried public event that provides an opportunity for anyone—amateur and non-practicing artists included—to have their work exhibited at an art center. The theme of the annual event this year is FIRST FIFTY 2023: PATTERNS. The exhibition is on view from June 15 to August 6.

Having designed the card, I was subsequently asked to produce a six-panel window design, to promote the same exhibition. Shown above is a diagram of the window installation scheme, and below is a view of how the front of the building looked earlier this week.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Vladimir Tatlin's Tower of the Third International

Above Photograph of Russian Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin (second from left) and three of his associates in the process of constructing a model of his now famous Tower of the Third International (aka Tatlin's Tower).


George Grosz, An Autobiography. Translated by Nora Hodges. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pp. 178-180—

Constructivism had many followers in Russia. [Among the most prominent] was a certain [Vladimir] Tatlin, a peculiar Russian child of nature. Tatlin came from a wealthy family and had traveled in Germany before the First World War. At that time he had been a member of a famous balalaika band [in which he played the bandura] and choir [which sang in Ukrainian], which had played before Kaiser Wilhelm at court. He then became a painter and also studied at a school of technology. He got known when he exhibited his big project for a monument in Moscow [intended for construction near the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul] …he himself would never have called it a monument, that word was too old-fashioned and romantic, he called it the “Tower of the Third International” [at full scale, it would have been one third taller than the Eiffel Tower]. The [initial] model of this whole powerful construction was about ten feet high, consisting of all sorts of rods and bars put together at odd angles.…

…[Sometime later] I went to see Tatlin once more. He lived in a small, old, dilapidated apartment. Some of the chickens that he kept slept in his bed. They laid eggs in one corner. We drank tea, and Tatlin chatted about Berlin, Wertheim's department store, and his performance at court. There was a completely rusted wire mattress leaning on the wall behind him with a few sleeping chickens sitting on it, their heads tucked under their wings. They furnished the perfect frame to dear Tatlin as he started to play his homemade balalaika. Darkness appeared through the curtainless window; most panes had been replaced with little squares of wood. We suddenly seemed surrounded by the melancholy humor of a book by [Russian writer Nikolai] Gogol. Tatlin was no longer the ultramodern constructivist; he was a piece of genuine, old Russia. I never saw him again, nor did I ever hear of him or the formerly much discussed “Tatlinism.” He is said to have died alone, and forgotten [in 1953].•

 • According to a Wikipedia biographical text, “In 1948 he was heavily criticized for his allegedly anti-communist stance and lost his job, but was not repressed.”


George Grosz, An Autobiography. Translated by Nora Hodges. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998—

I remember [American literary critic] Edmund Wilson best coming down the steps in his beach coat; like all fat people, he looked most impressive viewed from below…Wilson is more a lobster person than a fish person: you have to use a nut cracker to get to the meat. (p. 305)

Below Vladimir Tatlin, Counter-relief (1916). Photo: Shakko, Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

impromptu gymnastics strengthens muscularity

flag waving / anon
A.A. Milne, Autobiography. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1939, pp. 52-53—

The only occasion on which I spoke in the Debating Society was at what was called an “Impromptu Debate.” The names of the members were put into one hat, the subjects for speech into another. In an agony of nervousness I waited for my name to be called. It came at last, “Milne Three.” Milne III tottered up and drew his fate; not that it mattered, for one subject was as fatal to him as another. He tottered back to his desk and opened the paper. The subject on which he had to speak was “Gymnastics.”

I stood there dumbly. I could think of nothing. The boy next to me, misapprehending the meaning of the word “impromptu,” whispered to me: “Gymnastics strengthens the muscles.” I swallowed and said, “Gymnasthicth thtrengthenth the muthelth.” Then I sat down. This is the shortest speech I have ever made, and possibly, for that reason, the best.

• See also this great story about the “shotgun seminars” at Princeton, as well as this video essay about the nature of humor.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

the democratization of the art of brain surgery

A.A. Milne [author of Winnie the Pooh], Autobiography. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1939, pp. 310-311—

…the modern eagerness to lower standards and abolish “form” [is distressing]. It is as if democracy had said, not “[Art] shall be open to aII,” as it has every right to say, but [rather] “Achievement in [art] shall be the [assured for everyone]; which is nice for all of us, but not so good for [art]. Sometimes I think it is a pity that, having gone so far, we do not go further, and say: “Achievement in sports shall be [assured for everyone].” As a golfer I should like to be able to look contemptuously down upon the old-fashioned practice of raising the golf ball in the air, and to abolish the old-fashioned rule which says, how foolishly, that the player who does the hole in the lean number of shots shall be the winner. It is more in keeping with modern ideals (and it is also easier) to go from one point to another in a straight line rather than in a parabola, and the playing of eight shots expresses your personality, which is really all that matters, much more completely than the playing of one. But alas! in sport you can only feel superior to the champions of the past by beating them at their own game and under their own rules. In the arts you can denounce the target, change the rules, aim in a different direction, hit nothing, and receive the assurances of your friends that you are the better man.

Also see Art, Design, and Brain Research: Non-Scientific Thoughts about Neuroesthetics

Friday, May 12, 2023

social media acronyms as practiced by victorians

Above A three-panel caricature, The Pair of Skaters (1873), by one of history's finest comic illustrators (often featured in Simplicissimus), the Norwegian artist Olaf Gulbransson. His command of movement and gestural line has never been equaled.


A.A. Milne, Autobiography. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1939, pp. 131-132—

One way and another we [the author and his brother Kenneth John Milne] got a good deal of happiness out of it [preparatory school], if not always in the way expected of us. We sat together now, never to be separated, in the Mathematical Sixth, which meant that we occupied one corner of a room in which some lowly mathmatical set was being taught. Since we could not talk wthout disturbing the master-in-charge we wrote letters to each other: long letters detailing our plans for the next holidays. Interest was added to these letters by our custom of omitting every other word, leaving blanks which the addressee had to fill in. Our minds were sufficiently in tune for this to be possible without being easy; one could get the general sense without being certain of the exact word. As in my old French set, we then changed papers and marked each other's mistakes. Sometimes our communications were in initial letters only. During “second school,” for instance, it was certain that one of us would ask the other “SWGUSIB?” This clearly meant “Shall we go up-Sutts in break?” a question which expected the answer “Yes” and got it. Ken would feel in his pockets and decide that, since we already owed Father 15/6, we might as well owe him sixteen shillings. We did.

Monday, May 8, 2023

the lash of the tongue of teacher Henry Tonks

Above Roy R. Behrens, exhibition card design, 2023.


Bernard Leach, Beyond East and West: memoirs, portraits, and essays. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1978—

[As an art student at the Slade School of Art, he endured] the lash of the tongue of [his drawing teacher] Henry Tonks—Tonks with his gritty eye and tomahawk nose, tall in shiny blue serge, who had given up his job as house surgeon at Bart's Hospital to use his scalpel on us at the Slade; Tonks who became a second-class artist in the Impressionist manner, but a good draughtsman and perhaps the best teacher in all England. Often we saw some girl cowering in tears behind a plaster cast. He spared none; his bitter tongue was fearless and true. Here is tribute and thanks to him. His surgery changed our skins—saved our lives maybe. Tonks, who enunciated “action, construction, proportion” as the flaming guardians of the paradise of art; who, sitting on one of the student’s “donkeys” [drawing benches], after a glance at his drawing, buried his face in his hands, paused long, and then asked, “Why do you do it?”; and who once said to me grudgingly, “You may be able to draw one day.” I remember on one occasion he flung open the studio door, stood there in deadly silence, then burst out: “I want to know whether a day will come when I shall see a sign of art in this room,” and slammed the door behind him.

Monday, April 24, 2023

the absurd continuing access to weapons of war

Without hesitation, I can say that one of my favorite artists is the German printmaker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). I became acquainted with her work in 1964, when I was 18 and a freshman art student in undergraduate school. In the university’s art collection was one of Kollwitz’s finest lithographs, titled Death and the Woman (1934), reproduced below. 

Many of her most powerful works are self-portraits. One reason that they are so powerful is that her own appearance was so dignified, yet strikingly sad and remorseful, a quality that is equally true of photographs of her. Reproduced above is the commemorative relief profile that was issued as a German coin in 1967. And at the bottom of this blog post is surely one of her most unforgettable self-portraits, an etching titled Self-Portrait with Hand on Forehead (1910). In 1914, her sadness was intensified when her youngest son Peter was killed in World War I, only two days after arriving at the battlefield. 

The awful grief of losing her son remained with her until her own death, a sorrow that she tried to assuage by designing a gravesite memorial to him (and other soldiers), now at the Vladslo German war cemetery in Belgium. At that gravesite, she installed two mourning figures, she and her husband, side by side, known as The Grieving Parents

I was reminded of this lately when my friend, the distinguished German psychologist and neuroscientist Lothar Spillman, brought up her name, and recalled what she said at the time of her loss: “Where do those women find the courage to send their dear ones to the front to face the guns when they watched over them all their lives with loving care?” Today, not only do those mothers face the “weapons of war” on the battlefields of Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere—but, in our own country, on the formerly innocuous neighborhood streets.

In 1996, PBS broadcast an eight-part video series on The Great War. In the final episode is a brief but memorable section about Käthe Kollwitz, the death of Peter, and the gravesite memorial. It can be accessed free online on YouTube. The portion that pertains to Käthe Kollwitz begins around 21 minutes into the film. I strongly recommend it. Do take a look, at a time when we too face—increasingly and every day—the needless killing of people with war-grade weapons.


Sunday, April 23, 2023

tao te ching / the space within defines the pot

Above One of a series of posters (2023) intended to commemorate the Index of American Design, a Depression-era US government program, which commissioned unemployed graphic designers / illustrators to make detailed renderings of historic craft and folk art. The original paintings, now in public domain, can be accessed on the website of the National Gallery of Art.

I was first introduced to Lao-Tse’s famous sayings from the Tao Te Ching in the summer of 1964 when, at age seventeen, I studied for the summer in California at Pond Farm with Marguerite Wildenhain. In 1919, she had been among the first students at the Weimar Bauhaus, where Itten was one of her teachers. A few days ago, I found the passage noted below.


Jack Pritchard, “Gropius, the Bauhaus and the Future” in Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. Vol 117 No 5150 (January 1969), pp. 75-94—

When discussing problems of space, Johannes Itten [head of the Bauhaus foundations course] was fond of quoting from Lao-Tse, who in the sixth century BC wrote [in revised wording]:

Thirty spokes converge at the hub,
But it is the space between the spokes that forms the essence of the wheel.

The walls of a vessel are made of clay, but its essence is determined by the space within the pot.…

• This saying is also referred to in a recent video on ART, DESIGN AND GESTALT THEORY: The Film Version.