Monday, December 17, 2012

Versluis | Behrens Cicada Montage

Cicada Digital Collage (2012) © David Versluis & Roy R. Behrens
Above In an earlier post, I talked about a series of digital collages (or montages) in which graphic designer David Versluis and I collaborated (exchanging files by email) during a period of several weeks in the winter of 2011-2012. I can't remember how many works were in the series (probably ten). Each work progressed through stages. Often, an earlier stage might be just as compelling as a later one. I think this is the final stage of one of my favorites. It began when David emailed me a scan of a cicada from his Iowa insect collection.


From R.V. Jones, “The theory of practical joking—its relevance to physics,” in R.L. Weber, compiler, A Random Walk in Science. London: Institute of Physics, 1973, pp. 10-11—

[American physicist] R.W. Wood is said to have spent some time in a flat in Paris where he discovered that the lady in the flat below kept a tortoise in a window pen. Wood fashioned a collecting device from a broom-handle,and bought a supply of tortoises of dispersed sizes. While the lady was out shopping, Wood replaced her tortoise by one slightly larger. He repeated this operation each day until the growth of the tortoise became so obvious to its owner that she consulted Wood who, having first played a subsidiary joke by sending her to consult a professor at the Sorbonne whom he considered to be devoid of humor, advised her to write the press. When the tortoise had grown to such a size that several pressmen were taking a daily interest, Wood then reversed the process, and in a week or so the tortoise mysteriously contracted to its original dimensions.
From Roy Paul Nelson, The Cartoonist. Eugene OR: Seven Gables Press, 1994, pp. 57-58—

Combining frequent spraying with baby talk, Margaret [a co-worker at a newspaper] worked hard to keep a bevy of plants alive in her work area. She paid special attention to a demagnetized cactus plant she kept next to her computer. This prompted a newsroom prank.
A.L. (Al) Blackerby’s wife ran the Cacti City store in New Camden. With her cooperation, Al and I sneaked back to the office each Friday night to substitute a slightly larger cactus for the one Margaret had grown used to that week. As someone with an art background, I drew the job of finding a cactus that matched the shape of the one to be replaced. The intervention of the weekend helped mask any inconsistencies. The growth change was just enough to catch her attention each Monday. She even wrote a feature, “Computer Nearness Spurs Cactus Growth,” about the phenomenon.
Then, of course, we reversed the process, making the plant grow smaller each week. Eventually we made the changes so dramatic and erratic that she couldn’t help but catch on. She traced the prank to Al and me, and, for a time, she wouldn’t speak to either of us.

One day, after we became friends again, she came to me to ask if I would teach her to drive. It was something I didn’t particularly want to do.

"What about your husband?" I asked.

"Oh, he already knows how."

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book Review | Graphic Design Process

Cover of Graphic Design Process (2012)

Graphic Design Process: From Problem to Solution
by Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell
Laurence King Publishing, London, UK, 2012
192 pp., illus. Paper, £19.95
ISBN: 978-1-85669-826-9.

A solution to a design problem (a poster, book or web design) is a noun: it is a tangible, knowable thing. But the process it develops from is closer to a verb. It is made up of constantly flowing events (like William James’ “stream of consciousness”) and is typically so faint, non-linear, and elusive that we hardly know it’s going on, much less how to grasp and define it.

While its authors admit to the challenge, this book makes a valiant attempt to shed light on the perpetually “moving target” of problem solving in design (a subject that’s closely related, of course, to innovation in any discipline), and it does so in a clever way. It does it by purposely looking aside, not unlike how stars appear more clearly at times by looking at them indirectly. It introduces 20 case studies, by discussing the widely varying work of design teams and designers from throughout the world, by talking with those designers (about their influences, work strategies and beliefs), and by looking for evidence of the process itself, however that might be discernible from thumbnail sketches, experimental studies, preparatory models, and revision proofs.

The works in the book are highly diverse, in part because graphic design is no longer as tightly defined as it was. Today, as the authors remind us, it “spans many media, offers exposure to endless subject material, and reaches into countless other disciplines for inspiration.” Even more distinctions arise because “there is no single way to conduct a design practice” and “every project demands its own way of working.”

The structure of this book reflects the often-bewildering manner in which problems progress toward solutions, sometimes by loopy, meandering routes. The book begins by focusing on two widely shared initial concerns, “research” and “inspiration” (which can and do take many forms), and concludes with “collaboration.” Propped up by these structural bookends are four other sections that deal with more specific means for exploring potential solutions: “drawing,” “narrative,” “abstraction,” and “development.”

What struck the authors (they are teachers as well as designers) is how seemingly little agreement they found among the 23 designers, whose primary zones of concurrence were three: “[T]he busier a designer is, the more ideas mix in the mind for inventive solutions; ideas usually come when a designer least expects them; and exposure to visual art at a young age, through a relative, teacher, or friend, opened a path to design.” more…

Book Review | Nostaglia

Emir of Bukhara in Bukhara (1911), from Nostalgia

Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II. The Russia of Czar Nicholas II in laboriously restored historical color photographs by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii; Robert Klanten, Editor
Gestalten, Berlin, 2012

In 1914 the Russian Empire was among the Allied Powers who went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Central Powers. Three years later, in the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, Czar Nicholas II abdicated, Russia withdrew from the conflict, and in 1918, the czar and his family were murdered.

That same year, among the native Russians who left the country, was a chemist and pioneering photographer named Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). He was wise to leave because his family had ties to the aristocracy and the military, and in recent years, he had been working for the czar. Beginning in 1909, he had been given financial support, a mobile darkroom, and unusually lenient permission to travel, for the purpose of documenting the people, architecture, landmarks and natural surroundings of what was then the largest, most diverse empire in history. That achievement in itself is amazing, but there is another dimension that makes it more extraordinary—Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs were made in color, at a time when color photography was rudimentary. Indeed, it would not be widely available for another 25 years.

This impressive volume is a large-sized “coffee table book” in which are collected (in maximum page size) more than 300 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs. There are also informative essays about the purpose and range of his travels. Many of these photographs can only be said to be stunning, because of their richness of color, of course, but also because they provide us with eyewitness views of what it was like to be alive under the rule of Nicholas II, as distinct from the later infamous regimes of the Communists. more>>>

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Walt Whitman | Sarah Hedeen

Portrait of Walt Whitman (2012) © Sarah Hedeen

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. Sarah Hedeen chose to portray American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the so-called "father of free verse."


Roy Paul Nelson, The Cartoonist: An Illustrated Story. Eugene OR: Seven Gables Press, 1994, p. 55—

Suddenly he got up, walked to the door, looked out, closed the door, bolted it, and came back in conspiratorial silence. He unfolded a worn sheet to reveal an elaborate but poorly drawn diagram of the male reproduction system with lots of marginal notes.

"This is for an idea I have for a new contraceptive to be taken by men the morning after," he explained. "Don't say anything about this to Mrs. Griffith."

Amelia Earhart | Megan Lehman

Portrait of Amelia Earhart (2012) © Megan Lehman

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. Megan Lehman chose American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), who died when she was 39.


Roy Paul Nelson, The Cartoonist: An Illustrated Story. Eugene OR: Seven Gables Press, 1994, pp. 66-67—

At the time a graduate student in engineering, Ryan had once worked for an American automaker, but he was fired for installing the steering wheels on the right sides of the dashboards. That was his first inkling that he had dyslexia. Fortunately, he got a job with an automaker in England, where he did quite well.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Film Review | Herbert Matter

The Visual Language of Herbert Matter
by Reto Caduff, Director and Writer
PiXiu Films, Zurich, Switzerland, 2011
DVD. 79 mins. Sales, $29.95
Distributor’s website:


In 1927, a twenty-five-year-old American aviator named Charles Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic in a single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Flying non-stop from New York to Paris, Lindbergh was met on his arrival by 150,000 spectators. As revealed in this film biography, in the enormous, frenzied crowd that day was a young Swiss graphic designer (five years younger than Lindbergh) named Herbert Matter.

Matter (1907-1984) was born and raised in Engelberg, Switzerland, an Alpine village and mountain resort where his family owned a bakery and tearoom. Initially, he studied art in Geneva, but in 1927 (the year of Lindbergh’s famous flight) he moved to Paris, where he studied with French artists Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, and worked with architect Le Corbusier (who was Ozenfant’s associate in their quasi-cubist movement called Purism).

Of greater consequence, Matter also worked with graphic designer A.M. Cassandre. It was during those same years in Paris that he was lastingly influenced by Russian Constructivism, DeStijl, the Bauhaus, and Surrealism. To some extent, his later achievements as a designer, illustrator, photographer and filmmaker can be seen as an individualized blend of selected aspects and attitudes from these earlier, once precarious styles. more>>>

Film Review | Linotype: The Film

Linotype type casting machine

Linotype: The Film
by Douglas Wilson, Director and Producer
Onpaperwings Productions
Springfield, MO, 2012
 DVD, 1 hours 17 mins.
Distributor's website:


I have had “printing” in my blood since I was ten or eleven. One summer at about that age, having read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I sped downtown on my 20-inch Hiawatha bicycle, strolled into the local “job printing” firm, and inquired of the aging (and greatly amused) owner if he might be willing to take me on as a “printer’s devil.” Kindly, he responded “no” (I was far too young) but he did talk to me for awhile and gave me a tour of the “tools of the trade.” This was about fifty-five years ago, yet, even now, I still remember the moment that day when I saw a linotype type casting machine for the first time. 

I myself don’t know a way to describe how it feels to stand next to a functioning linotype (much less to actually operate one, which can be hazardous at times because of the hot molten metal it spurts). In general, one could simply say that it is a huge complex mechanism for casting metal type that was invented in 1884 by Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899), a U.S. German immigrant. Amazingly, it revolutionized printing to such an extent that its inventor is sometimes said to have been “the second Gutenberg.” But that is at best an inadequate way to convey the feeling of standing in the presence of this clackety, stinky, hot, intimidating, almost room-sized monster that casts lines of hot lead type—one line at a time, hence its quaint historic name “line-o’-type.” more>>>

Al Capone | Jenni Lehmann

Portrait of Al Capone (2012) © Jenni Lehmann

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung, heroic or not. Jenni Lehmann chose Chicago gangster Al Capone.


Saul Steinberg—

People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think automatically that it's funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum, they think it is artistic; and if they find it in a fortune cookie, they think it is a prediction.



At a local auction, he bought an antique writing desk. When he got home, he opened it up, and a dozen people fell out. It was a missing persons bureau.

Frank Lloyd Wright | Benjamin Uhl

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright (2012) © Benjamin Uhl

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. This is Ben Uhl's provocative portrayal of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).


Henry Miller, quoted in Robert Snyder, ed., This is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1974, p. 25—

My mother did the first terrible thing for which I never forgave her, y'know…my mother…She says to me, "Henry, I have a wart." I'm only four years old and I'm sitting in this little chair and she says, "Henry, what shall I do with this?" And I say, "Cut it off. With a scissors." Two days later she got blood poisoning and she says, "And you told me to cut it off!" and bang bang bang she slaps me, for telling her to do this. How do you like a mother who'd do that?

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).   

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Versluis | Behrens Collaborative Bugs

Yellow Jacket Digital Collage (2012) © David Versluis & Roy R. Behrens
Many months ago, coincident with the New Year 2012, my fine friend David Versluis (a Dutch Master) and I decided to try something. He has a collection of Iowa bugs (dead ones) of which he made exquisite scans at high resolution. He began to send me the scan files, one at a time, with the challenge that I should respond to them by beginning to build a digital montage, using Adobe Photoshop. I could do whatever I liked. Then I would pass that back to him, in response to which he'd make a move—and pass it back to me again. And so on, usually with five or six back-and-forth turns, until we mutually came to suspect that the work was finished. So that's how we proceeded—with a beetle, a cicada, a dragon fly, and other creatures, including (here) a hornet (which, in the end, was discovered to be not a hornet but a yellow jacket wasp). I can't recall how many of these montages we made, but in a few short weeks we ended up with a substantial and interesting series. Posted above is a gif (pronounced jiff) animation of the stages in our process for the collaborative yellow jacket (the stages are not in the order, I think, in which the piece evolved). The final stage for this montage (which was recently selected for a national juried exhibition) is posted here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Animated Currency | Dusty Kriegel

Animated Self-Portrait Currency (2012) © Dusty Kriegel

Above Teaching is so unbelievably difficult. I suppose it doesn't have to be, if you only pretend to do it (an ever present temptation), if you don't put your heart into it. If you do, there is nothing quite as devastating emotionally (when it fails) nor any greater source of joy (when it succeeds). This semester, I've been working with two groups of especially wonderful students in a beginning course in graphic design in the Department of Art at the University of Northern Iowa. When the semester started in late August, many of them had little or no experience with Adobe Photoshop or other bewildering software (increasingly bewildering with each, more frequent, update). There were some who could only do email. Now they are soaring at perilous heights that I can barely imagine at times. Most recently, for example, I asked them to design the front and back of a hypothetical banknote (paper money). To complicate the problem, I told them that it had to be "self-portrait currency." I also threw in a subsequent stage: Having designed the banknote as such, they were then required to animate the face side of it (which they did in Photoshop, using the gif animation technique). We critiqued the initial results yesterday, and a number of their pieces were utterly amazing. I was especially taken aback by this extraordinary solution (above) by Dusty Kreigel. Delights like this restore my faith in a world that I find so disturbing, in education—and in a baffling human race.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Clara Barton | Kenneth Meisner

Portrait of Clara Barton (2012) © Kenneth Meisner

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. Kenneth Meisner chose to celebrate the achievements of teacher, nurse and humanitarian Clara Barton (1821-1912).


Clara Barton, The Story of My Childhood

I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.

P.G. Wodehouse | Benjamin Rendall

Portrait of P.G. Wodehouse (2012) © Benjamin Rendall

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. It's not often these days that I find a student who is familiar with (much less a devoté of) British humorist Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975). But Benjamin Rendall is one of those, and this is his portrait of P.G. Wodehouse.


Sean O'Casey, Letter to the editor. The Daily Telegraph, July 1941 [referring to Wodehouse]—

If England has any dignity left in the way of literature, she will forget for ever the pitiful antics of English literature's performing flea.


P.G. Wodehouse—

There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.


P.G. Wodehouse—

The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.


P.G. Wodehouse—

It's a funny thing about looking for things. If you hunt for a needle in a haystack you don't find it. If you don't give a darn whether you ever see the needle or not it runs into you the first time you lean against the stack.

Emigré Online Index | Jessica Barness

Emigré Magazine Index | designed by Jessica Barness

Many years ago (okay, maybe it wasn't that many years ago), my graphic design colleagues and I at the University of Northern Iowa had the distinct pleasure of working with a young student named Jessica Barness. She earned a BA in 1999 and an MA in 2001, in the process of which she accomplished a substantial body of amazing and unforgettable work (I can still vividly picture those stark Ingmar Bergman film posters). Following graduation, she worked as a designer in Chicago, and then applied to the MFA program at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. She embarked this year on a new career as an Assistant Professor of Visual Communication Design at Kent State University, one of the country's leading design programs.

Above In 2011, while still in graduate school, Jessica was awarded the Joss Internship by the Goldstein Museum of Design. In completion of that, she designed an Emigré Magazine Index, an extraordinary online interface that enables us all to have access to the Goldstein Museum's collection of the full set of 69 issues (between 1984 and 2005) of that celebrated publication, a magazine that "assisted in elevating typography and graphic design to a serious and respected field of study." More >>>

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thomas Edison | Jessica Libberton

Portrait of Thomas Edison (2012) © Jessica Libberton

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. This is a portrayal of genius and inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) by Jessica Libberton.


Thomas Edison—

Great music and art are earthly wonders, but I think cubist songs and paintings are hideous.


Richard Armour, It All Started with Columbus

Since Edison suffered from insomnia, he invented the electric light, so he could read at night.


Keith Ellis, Thomas Edison: Genius of Electricity

Edison was a giant. He had gigantic successes and gigantic failures. He had a giant's zest, a giant's power of recuperation, and a giant's vision.

Jesse James | Beau Heyenga

Portrait of Jesse James (2012) © Beau Heyenga

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung, heroic or not. Beau Heyenga chose the notorious desperado Jesse James (1847-1882).


Anon, The Ballad of Jesse James

Jesse had a wife to mourn all her life.
Two children they were brave.
'Twas a dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
And laid Jesse James in his grave.

Susan B. Anthony | Morgan Johnson

Portrait of Susan B. Anthony (2012) © Morgan Johnson

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. A number of the students chose historic civil rights leaders, as in this portrayal of suffragette Susan B. Anthony by Morgan Johnson.


Anon, in Ida Husted Harper, Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony (originally published in the Denver News)—

The press sneers at Miss Anthony, men tell her she is out of her proper sphere, people call her a scold, good women call her masculine, a monstrosity in petticoats; but if one half of her sex possessed one half of her acquirements, her intellectual culture, her self-reliance and independence of character, the world would be better for it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Charlie Chaplin | Derek Miller

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. I didn't know who they would choose, since our generations are increasingly familiar with vastly different views of the past, the present and the future. Most of the time, I don't think they get my jokes (these days, even my obvious humor is dry), and, likewise, I sometimes don't have a clue about what they're alluding to. So, it is reassuring when someone in the class chooses a subject, in this case the British-born American film comedian Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), whom we both know and admire. This zingy and fittingly colorful portrait of Chaplin was designed by Derek Miller.


Robert Hatch, in the Reporter (November 25, 1939)—

There were two sides to Charlie [Chaplin's film character], as there are to most clowns. The first was Charlie the fantastic cock of the walk who kidded our sacred institutions ans solemn paraphernalia with merciless acumen. He kept a slop bucket in a safe and investigated a clock with a can opener. He slapped bankers on the back, and pinched a pretty cheek when he saw one. He had nothing but wit, grace, and agility with which to oppose the awful strength of custom and authority, but his weapons were a good deal more than sufficient.

The other Charlie was a beggar for sympathy and an apostle of pity. He pitied everything that stumbled or whimpered or wagged a tail, particularly he pitied himself. There has never been a portrait of self-pity so vivid or so shocking as Charlie with a rose in his hand.

Victoria Woodhull | Megan Vande Lune

Portrait of Victoria Woodhull (2012) © Megan Vande Lune

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. I thought I knew quite a bit about the struggle for American women's civil rights, but I had never heard of Victoria Woodhull (1938-1927), an important leader of the suffrage movement, and the first woman to run for US President. This is a provocative portrait of her by Megan Vande Lune.

George A. Custer | Margo Niemeyer

Portrait of George A. Custer (2012) © Margo Niemeyer

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. In recent months, I've been reading about the dreadful so-called "Indian Wars" in this country, and I was especially struck by this powerful, beautifully designed portrait of US General George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), created by Margo Niemeyer.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Amelia Earhart | Danielle Firkins

Portrait of Amelia Earhart (2012) © Danielle Firkins

Above Recently, in a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. One of my favorite results is this complex, astonishing portrait of American woman aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), designed by Danielle Firkins.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Walt Whitman | Maggie Reifert

Portrait of Walt Whitman (2012) © Maggie Reifert

Above A few weeks ago, in a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. One of the most interesting results was this image of American writer (poet, essayist, journalist) Walt Whitman (1819-1892), designed by Maggie Reifert.


Algernon C. Swinburne—

…he [Whitman] is a writer of something occasionally like English, and a man of something occasionally like genius.


John Jay Chapman—

In Whitman's works the elemental parts of a man's mind and the fragments of imperfect education may be seen merging together, floating and sinking in a sea of insensate egotism and rhapsody, repellent, divine, disgusting, extraordinary.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Norbert Wiener Warning System

Above A portrait photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of Norbert Wiener in his MIT classroom, first published in Life magazine in 1956.


Recently I have been reading about the tortured life of the founder of cybernetics, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), in Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age (New York: Basic Books, 2005). A famous child prodigy referred to in news reports as "the most remarkable boy in the world" (he knew the alphabet at eighteen months, began reading at three, and could recite in Greek and Latin at age five), he made momentous discoveries in his later life (the authors describe him as "the father of the information age") but he paid an agonizing price in social maladjustment and neurosis. In this biography, the authors recount the reactions of some of his colleagues to the adult Professor Wiener—

Wiener walked tirelessly around Tech [MIT] during those eventful years, and his unannounced drop-ins evoked a mixed response from his colleagues. [One of them] Jerome Wiesner…remembered Wiener's "daily visits around the Institute from office to office and his conversation that always began with 'How's it going?' He never waited for the answer before sailing into his latest idea."…

[Some people dreaded his visits.] One group of engineers resented Wiener's intrusions and devised an extreme countermeasure they called their "Wiener Early Warning System." [Steve J.] Heims reported that "they would contrive to place a man where he could see Wiener coming. He would alert the others, who would then scatter in all directions, even hiding in the men's room." Fagi Levinson knew of one colleague who hid under his desk when he saw Wiener coming.…"

I suspect that Wiener as a child prodigy was the inspiration for the encounter with the "boy genius" and his parents in Woody Allen's film Radio Days.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Les Coleman Meets Jessica Helfand

© Les Coleman, Imperfect Sense vovelle

Above A few years ago (2005 to be precise), British artist and aphorist Les Coleman sent me this adaptation of an "information wheel" or "wheel chart" (produced by Colin Sackett for In House Publishing), in which each turn of the wheel produces a Coleman aphorism. I was reminded of one of my favorite books, published a few years earlier, by Winterhouse graphic designer Jessica Helfand, titled Reinventing the Wheel (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003) (see cover below). It is an immensely rich collection of the widest variety of vintage information wheels (more formally known as volvelles), pertaining to all sorts of subjects, among them Enemy Airplane and Yank Spotters, Color Blindness Chart, and Handy Nail Calculator. There must be at least several hundred, reproduced in color and in fine detail. As it turns out, Les Coleman's "dial an aphorism" is a take-off on a British Translation Wheel that came out c1960 (see p. 136). When I saw the Helfand book, I immediately challenged my graphic design students to design and build their own vovelles, using unexpected subject matter. One student built a pizza wheel, in which the wheel was part of a circular pizza cutter.

Cover, Jessica Helfand, Reinventing the Wheel (2003)


That said, here is more from Les Coleman—

Model wears clothes at nudist camp life drawing class.

A wig so convincing it had its own dandruff.

The life of a mouse is a rat race.

 Terror struck at the very heart of his epiglottis.

The vacation was certainly no holiday.

The temerity to be audacious.

Please refrain from prohibiting.

The cowboy put on his dark glasses and rode off into the sunset.

The sundial had stopped.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a whoopee cushion.

Propaganda helps us make up our minds.

To make guinea pigs of guinea pigs.

If I could be a fly on the wall I would not be sitting in this chair.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Apache Child

Design copyright © Roy R. Behrens, from Edward Curtis photograph.

Shane Connaughton
Jesus must have been an Irishman. After all, he was unmarried, thirty-two years old, lived at home, and his mother thought he was God.

Randall Jarrell
She was so thin you could have recognized her skeleton.

Woody Allen
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Jack Handey
I hope if dogs ever take over the world, and they choose a king, they don’t just go by size, because I bet there are some chihuahuas with some good ideas.

John Berger
Every city has a sex and age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine…London is a teenager and urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.

A.J. Ayer
[William] James was being teased by a theological colleague who said to him: “A philosopher is like a blind man in a dark cellar, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” “Yes,” said William James, “and the difference between philosophy and theology is that theology finds the cat.”

St Ambrose Exhibition

Fred Allen
A fool and his money are soon parted, but nobody can part a two-dollar toupée.

James Thurber
Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.

Carol Leifer
He tricked me into marrying him. He told me I was pregnant.

Joe E. Lewis
Show me a man with both feet on the ground, and I'll show you a man who can't put his pants on.

Tommy Sledge
I was in a convenience store. Somebody has blown a hole through every one of the Cheerios. They think it was a cereal killer.

Herb Sargent
A fool has no business inside a balloon.

John Kenneth Gailbraith
Trickle down theory: the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.

Keith Waterhouse
I wonder what it’s like to be a tortoise. You can’t be frivolous or facetious if you’re a tortoise, can you?… But you do have a home to go to.

Leonard Cohen
If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Wright or Wrong But Always Frank

© Roy R. Behrens

The following story, told by Bauhaus painter Josef Albers, is quoted in Achim Borchardt-Hume, ed., Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 109—

I remember when the Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened [in 1938]: very late, 11 or 12 when all were gone except a few from the Bauhaus. [Walter] Gropius, [Herbert] Bayer, [Albers' wife] Anni, me. Appeared Frank Lloyd Wright. In a Havelock [a cloth covering the back of the neck] and Wagnerian velvet cap (with a challenging older lady) telling us very loud, "You are all wrong." And who was it later saying: "Frank Lloyd Wright?—he is always frank, and not always right."


From Edgar Tafel, About Wright: An Album of Recollections by Those Who Knew Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: John Wiley, 1993, p. 89—

[In the late 1940s] When he arrived at the foot of a hill, which was the proposed site [for a home about 30 miles from New York City, in Usonia], Wright emerged briskly from the car and led us up the steep hillside—the client, the Usonian development member, an ex-apprentice, and myself [a young builder named Robert Chuckrow] following. Wright pronounced the site fine for the house. He then proceeded some 50 feet farther, relieved his bladder, and came back to the group. There was a silence, nobody knowing just what to say. Then Wright pointed his cane at the spot where he had been and said, "Something meaningful will grow there."


Also from the Tafel book is this story about a similar incident a few years later, on p. 68—

In the 1950s [American playwright] Arthur Miller and his then wife, Marilyn Monroe invited Wright to Connecticut to look at land they'd bought for a house. As the playwright recalls, "It was Marilyn's idea to bring Wright up, and one day the three of us drove up. Wright went to sleep in the back seat. I got a speeding ticket for going 48 in a 45 mph zone. It was a gray afternoon by the time we got up there. We had smoked salmon and a few cold things. Wright warned me against pepper but I had a little anyway. He and I walked up to the high ground where there was an old orchard above a pasture, which faces north but has an endless view over the hills. He took one look and then peed and said, 'Good spot,' and we walked down."

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016). 


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thomas Wolfe's Father

Above Les Coleman, Candle Salesman (1995). Photograph by Nancy Fouts. Courtesy the artist.


The following is an entry from Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves, eds., The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe. Vol 2. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970, p. 430—

You should have known Daddy. He was the only person I have ever known who was as grand as you. He had the wild thing in him, that's what killed him. He had the most beautiful smile, the corners of his mouth and his whole face seemed to turn up and it was just as if someone had turned on a light. He was always making a joke to make people feel good: he said the funniest things, you never knew anything like it in your life; I know one time when Jessie Huge and I were going to art school together she got awfully blue because she couldn't finish the drawing she was working on. She came home with me one day and cried as if her heart would break. Daddy came in and put his arms about her and said "What's the matter?" Jessie said "I can't draw." Daddy said "Ah, my dear but you can attract." I remember he got us both to laughing so we forgot all about the drawing. He was always doing things like that.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ping Pong and Indian Haircuts

Above Illustrations of Native American boys' haircuts, according to designated clan, from Francis La Flesche, "The Osage Tribe: Child Naming Rite" in 45th Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology (1925-26), Washington DC, 1928. Top row (left to right): Head and tail of elk; head, horns and tail of bison; tuft of hair on bison's back. Second row: Head, body and tail of small birds; head, wings and tail of eagle; turtle shell, with head, feet and tail. Third row: Reptile teeth;  a compass, showing four directional points; shaggy side of the wolf. Bottom row: Horns and tail of bison; head and tail of deer; and head, tail and immature horns of a young bison.


Until recently, I had no idea that the Lakota Indians who performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show enjoyed playing ping pong. For more about this, check out the online photos of one of their games at the Denver Public Library's website. The spectators are other Wild West performers, including Mexican vaqueros, Russian Cossacks, US cavalrymen, cowboys, a Rough Rider, and other Native Americans. Seated in the center behind the table is a man in a suit who is holding up paper money, so presumably there was some gambling involved.


In 1893, concurrent with the Columbian Exposition or the Chicago World's Fair (but not officially part of it), the Wild West played in Chicago from May through October. There is a detailed account of what happened during the show's single most profitable season in L.C. Moses, Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians 1883-1933 (Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996). Here's an excerpt (p. 140)—

That season, Cody's Show Indians made good money, toured Chicago, took boat rides on Lake Michigan, ate peanuts and popcorn until they could eat no more, bought boutonnieres and funny coconut-fiber hats and wore them proudly, and on one occasion rode the merry-go-round [a carousel with wooden horses] by the hour. One evening in the high summer of Chicago's White City, fifteen Lakota led by Rocky Bear and No Neck mounted the painted ponies. As the carousel picked up speed, No Neck, holding the reins in both hands, gave a full-throated yell. Others in his party joined him. The News-Record placed the scene in its proper context. The Show Indians, observed the Record, "seem to like being jerked around on a carousel. They prefer it to the art galleries, and some people who are not Indians feel the same way." In all, about twenty-seven million people, a few hundred Indians among them, visited the fair. Most, Indians and non-Indians alike, probably had a glorious time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Georges Braque's Pesky Squirrel

Above © Les Coleman, Touch. Felt pen, toilet paper roll (2006). Photographed by Nancy Fouts. As published in Les Coleman, Dirt and Other Works. Coracle Press, 2009. Courtesy the artist.


The following is a story told by Pablo Picasso, as quoted in Francoise Gilot (his former wife) and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, pp. 76-77—

I remember one evening I arrived at [Georges] Braque's studio. He was working on a large oval still life with a package of tobacco, a pipe, and all the usual paraphernalia of Cubism. I looked at it, drew back and said, "My poor friend, this is dreadful. I see a squirrel in your canvas." Braque said, "That's not possible." I said, "Yes, I know, it's paranoiac vision, but it so happens that I see a squirrel. That canvas is made to be a painting, not an optical illusion. Since people need to see something in it, you want them to see a package of tobacco, a pipe, and the other things you're putting in. But for God's sake, get rid of that squirrel." Braque stepped back a few feet and looked carefully and sure enough, he too saw the squirrel, because that kind of paranoiac vision is extremely communicable. Day after day Braque fought that squirrel. He changed the structure, the light, the composition, but the squirrel always came back, because once it was in our minds it was almost impossible to get it out. However different the forms became, the squirrel somehow always managed to return. Finally, after eight or ten days, Braque was able to turn the trick and the canvas again became a package of tobacco, a pipe, a deck of cards, and above all a Cubist painting.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why Sitting Bull Wore Goggles

O.S. Goff, Sitting Bull (1881). Courtesy Library of Congress.
This is a curious photograph of Sitting Bull (1831-1890), holding a pipe and wearing what seem to be goggles. You can find the original photo file online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs website. It was taken by Orlando Scott Goff on July 31, 1881, only about twelve days after the great Indian leader had returned to the US from Canada with his followers, in order to surrender.

But why is he wearing these goggles? As explained by James Welch in Killing Custer (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, p. 258), he had a terrible eye infection at the time—

Sitting Bull certainly did not look well. He and his people had not eaten properly for three years. He was dressed in rags. He had a severe eye infection. He was demoralized.…[He was wearing] dirty pants and shirt, red paint on his face and a pair of smoked goggles shielding his infected eye…

Other people who were contemporaries with Sitting Bull also mention that he was wearing goggles when they met him. For example, this is a passage from Judson Elliot Walker, Campaigns of General Custer in the Northwest (Jenkins and Thomas, 1881, p. 90)—

He [Sitting Bull] wore a pair of green wire goggles, so we could not see his naked eyes, but it is said that he has a pair of as keen eagle eyes as ever was set between two high cheek bones on any red man in the aboriginal tribes.

And this is from J.W. Reading, "A Short Biography of Sitting Bull" in Locomotive Engineers Journal (1911), p. 219—

He [Sitting Bull] wore a pair of colored goggles, which served to partly hide the expression on his face, a thing that I regretted very much.

But maybe that isn't the (only) answer. I suggest that because it's just as easy to find eyewitness references to other Lakota Indians wearing colored goggles. When Laura Winthrop Johnson met a group of Lakota as early as 1875 (six years before this photograph of Sitting Bull), she reported that—

Several wore blue goggles—we knew not whether for use or beauty.

In addition, there are at least two photographs of the Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud (1822-1909) in which he too is wearing goggles ("to protect his sensitive eyes"). Taken c.1891 by Clarence G. Morledge, those photographs are reproduced in Frank Henry Goodyear, Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Joseph Podlesnik | Marksman Par Excellence

© Joseph Podlesnik, Self-Portrait

In the early 1980s, Joseph Podlesnik and I were both living in Milwaukee. He was a student, and I was a teacher. Out of kindness, he likes to say that I was his teacher, but I don't think I taught him much, if anything. For one thing, I was a graphic designer, a collagist who had more or less given up drawing a few years earlier. But I have always loved strong drawing, and Joe, even as an undergraduate, was an extraordinary drawing-based artist (I hesitate to say "draftsman" because that doesn't quite describe his work), admired by teachers and students alike. Now he himself is a teacher, and he teaches drawing in a way that is based on intensified seeing. I continue to be amazed by his drawings, as well as his knowledge of vision. Above, for example, is a magnificent self-portrait he did about 8 or 10 years ago, using only a ballpoint pen. What impresses me so much is that every mark is both dead-on accurate and alive. I am reminded of what Hungarian-born artist-designer Gyorgy Kepes wrote in The New Landscape in Art and Science (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1956)—

There are two basic morphological archetypes—expression of order, coherence, discipline, stability on the one hand; expression of chaos, movement, vitality, change on the other.

It is common enough to see drawings that adhere too much to one of those polarities, while all but ignoring the other extreme. Joe Podlesnik (in his films as well as his drawings) achieves a masterful mixture of both.

Wild West, Hot Dogs and Gertrude Kasebier

Gertrude Kasebier, Portrait of Charging Thunder (1898)

Above A studio portrait of a Native American (Lakota) named Charging Thunder, as photographed by Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934) at her Fifth Avenue Studio in New York.

Kasebier had studied with Arthur Wesley Dow (whose theory of composition also influenced Georgia O'Keeffe), and was associated with O'Keeffe's partner Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. After attending the Wild West show in Brooklyn, she secured permission from Buffalo Bill to photograph a group of the Wild West show Indians in her studio.

The photography session took place on Sunday, April 24, 1898. It lasted for three hours, during which the guests were served with tea and hot dogs ("hot frankfurters between unbuttered bread"). It isn't certain, but apparently one of Kasebier's guests was Charging Thunder (shown in the Kasebier portrait above). Details about the session and a selection of the portraits can be found in Michelle Delaney, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Warriors: A Photographic History by Gertrude Kasebier (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).

There seems some confusion about whether there might have been two performers named Charging Thunder. The person in this photograph appears in another photograph (also taken by Kasebier) with his Native American wife. However, elsewhere online, we have found a story (with photos) of another Lakota Indian named Charging Thunder (they certainly don't look like the same person), who was part of the Wild West troupe when they performed in Salford, England, in 1903. This second Charging Thunder, who was 26 years old at the time, had fallen in love with one of the show's horse trainers, a woman named Josephine, and when the Wild West left town, the two of them remained in the UK, married and raised a family. For the rest of their lives, they lived in the vicinity of Manchester. Charging Thunder changed his name to George Edward Williams, registered as an immigrant, and worked for many years at the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, where he took care of the elephants. According to BBC Manchester, two of his grandchildren have recently been located in the UK.

It's nice to see the Kasebier photo of the first Charging Thunder with his dog. Back then, it was commonly rumored that some of the Native Americans considered dog meat a delicacy. Here for example is a paragraph from the New York Times (Thursday, June 28, 1888, p. 2)—

WHERE DOGS ARE DISAPPEARING: The refining influence of civilization has not lessened the strong taste that Buffalo Bill's Wild West Indians have for dog flesh, and the canine population of Staten Island is rapidly diminishing. New Shirt yesterday devoured with apparent relish an expensive poodle that had been used to much better treatment than it received at the hands of the fighting warrior. The show is still drawing large crowds.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wild West Indians in Paris

© Roy R. Behrens, Indigenous Nativity (2004). Purchase online.

I've been reading about Native Americans in connection with a talk I give for Humanities Iowa on Iowa-born Wild West showman William F. Cody. It seems clear that throughout his life, the convivial scout had a propensity for the pleasantries of "firewater" in large amounts. Earlier in the 19th century, according to James Welch in Killing Custer (NY: Norton, 1994), "the white man's water" was a brew of "tobacco, capsicum, molasses, peppers, and alcohol mixed with river water and whatever else could produce a fire in the belly" (p. 26).

In 1889, Cody took his Wild West show (including a number of Native Americans) on a performance tour of Europe, concurrent with the World's Fair in Paris. It was the Eiffel Tower's premiere, and all sorts of celebrities attended, as is vividly described by Jill Jonnes in Eiffel's Tower (NY: Penguin, 2009). The Native Americans enjoyed enormous popularity with the French public. According to Jonnes, their performances were so well known in Paris that—

the clowns at the Cirque d'Été [summer circus] had worked up a parody called Kachalo-Ball. The real Wild West Indians instantly gave it cachet by attending the show in groups each night, cheering wildly as the French clowns satirized their riding and their wars and attacks. When the clowns took to dancing their version of Sioux war dances, the visiting Native Americans laughed so hard they had tears running down their faces.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

More Morsels from Les

Above Those clever Victorians. This turn-of-the-century drawing, published in the Strand Magazine (c1907), is made entirely of shorthand notations.


Meanwhile, Les Coleman shares his latest thunks—

Overnight intruders broke into the clay pigeon factory and shot all the pigeons.

Ping: Pong's friend.

Blind, Deaf and Dumb came to their senses.

He sold his soul, and a second-hand car, to the Devil.

There was no conversation to speak of.

The lead balloon was proving impossible to blow up.

Nudity: the height of fashion.

Cold weather caused the skull's teeth to chatter.

Parachute complaint forms need to be filled out in

A face-off ensued between the two cuckoo clocks.

The deaf piano tuner lived in the same street as the
blind art critic.

Eve went to the greengrocers to buy some apples.

A leaking sieve only added to their problems.

Copyright © Les Coleman