Native Pennsylvania: A Wild Flower Walk

Hunt Institute’s collection of plants and watercolors takes viewers on visual tour

There are few things in life more delicate than wildflower blossoms and the soft splashes of watercolor on vellum.

Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk, the newest exhibit at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, pairs the two wonders together to celebrate the historical intersection between the sciences and art in the world of botany.

A collaborative exhibition between the Hunt Institute and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s botany department, Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk presents visitors with a painstakingly collected selection of plants and watercolors. The exhibition features the pairing of 36 watercolors by Richard Crist (CIT ’28) from the Hunt Institute’s collection with a significant selection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s herbarium specimens.

In addition to Crist’s watercolors and the botany department’s herbarium selections, the exhibit also features watercolors by painter Lyn Hayden and entomologist and painter Andrey Avinoff, which underscore the importance of herbaria in botanical research, education, and conservation.

The concept behind the exhibit is to create a visual wildflower walk through Pennsylvania’s blooming seasons. A special emphasis is placed on endangered and rare species. Given Pittsburgh’s historically gray winters, visitors will surely welcome this early celebration of nature’s ephemeral splashes of color.

At Carnegie Mellon, an environment in which most undergraduate students have a hard time taking a break, let alone going outside,Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk provides a convenient look at the delicate unfolding of Pennsylvania’s natural world. Located in the often-overlooked Hunt Institute, on the fifth floor of Hunt Library, the exhibit provides a quiet space for serene contemplation. The unfolding of the seasons lends the exhibit a gentle, logical progression that is sure to please those in need of a respite.

In the exhibit, visitors can explore the intersection between the arts and natural sciences by viewing the juxtaposition of botanists’ tools and artists’ documentation on display. For those uninitiated in the traditional practices of botanical collection, the exhibit thoroughly describes common tools and their uses.

The inclusion of Crist’s work alongside the herbarium selections provides a new perspective on the artist, given that historians remember Crist primarily as an abstract painter. Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk adds another dimension to the public’s understanding of his work as an artist.

Along with his painting and printmaking, Crist was also an amateur botanist, author, and book illustrator. He wrote and illustrated several children’s books, including The Mystery of Broken Horse Chimneys, published in 1960 with his wife, Eda Szecskay Crist. He also provided hundreds of watercolor illustrations for the “Herbs” and “Vegetables and Fruits” volumes of The Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening in 1977. His work is in the collections of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

For those interested in expanding their knowledge of the botanical world, The Hunt Institute for Documentation will be holding lectures through mid-June that will focus on Pennsylvania’s native plants.

Pets Reign at Warhol Exhibit

Thanks to a recent partnership between the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, fans of cats, dogs, and Andy Warhol can experience Warhol’s 1976 ode to man’s faithful companions: the Dogs and Cats print series.

Together, the museums have dedicated the space just preceding the Benedum Hall of Geology in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to exhibiting Warhol’s varied print work. Dogs and Cats is the second exhibit to be held in this space. It follows another exhibit that displayed Warhol’s prints of endangered species. The collaborative effort to put together Dogs and Cats was organized by Natural History director Sam Taylor and Warhol director Eric Shiner.

In a press release, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History expressed the significance of exhibiting these portraits: “These works remind us of the complex relationships between humans and domesticated animals.” Although the museum claims that examples of this long and intertwined history can be found throughout the museum — in exhibits like the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt’s cat mummies and the Polar World’s depiction of Inuit reliance on dogs for transportation — the justification is weak.

There simply isn’t a lot in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History that deeply explores the relationship of man and domestic animals. While it may not meet the expressed purpose, Dogs and Cats does provide a colorful passage for museum patrons.

The Dogs and Cats series is among Warhol’s lesser-known works. The eight silk-screened painting set features common house cats and dog breeds such as the Great Dane, West Highland Terrier, and Dachshund. The series began in 1976, when art collector Peter Brant commissioned Warhol to paint his Cocker Spaniel named Ginger. Warhol made two paintings of Ginger, as well as numerous drawings. Brant liked these works and encouraged Warhol to do a whole series of cat and dog drawings.

When viewed, a juxtaposition of eeriness and vibrant personality comes forth from the depicted pets. This eeriness is likely due to Warhol’s decision to use stuffed animals for his first cat and dog photos. He took this approach because of the difficulty he initially faced when staging the pets. The subsequent paintings Warhol completed were done from photographs of cats and dogs and, given his predisposition to work from photographs as an illustrator, it is easy to understand why the later pets are so vibrant and infused with personality.

Dogs and Cats’ vibrant colors and energetic swatches of paint contrast the rigid tension created by the exhibit’s wallpaper. The backdrop of the current exhibit, a three-color wallpaper print on sand-colored paper, is actually a reproduction of the fish wallpaper that was created as a backdrop for Warhol’s exhibition Painting for Children at the Bruno Bischofberger Gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1983. Like much of his art, this backdrop was visually engaging because of its hypnotic repetition.

Despite the interesting background, the mundane subject matter of domestic pets does not create as much excitement as the previous exhibit’s endangered species prints did. As such, the fish backdrop is an essential element of the curated exhibit that prevents the room from feeling too sparse.

Despite Dogs and Cats’ small size as an exhibit and its seemingly lofty mission, the exhibit is a pleasantly whimsical contemporary experience that will add to patrons’ museum visits.

(This article appeared in the Tartan’s arts and culture digest, Pillbox.)

Can dead men die again?

Thanks to Phantom of The Attic Comics in Pittsburgh, I’ve gotten the pleasure to experience the 1986 mini-series put together by Andrew Helfer and Jose Luís García-López. They were kind enough to bundle the 4 part series and to sell it at the ever reasonable cover price of 75cents a pop.

If you’ve read this blog, you’ve probably picked up that I’m not too huge a superhero fan. Nevertheless, these Deadman stories have really caught my fancy. They’re fun, extremely well drawn and have a great sense of page design. I’ll scan some pages to show you what I mean real soon.

For the uninitiated, this was at a time when DC was reinventing its characters. The story is intended to follow directly on the heels of the events in original series (at that point just recently reprinted in a 7 issue mini-series)…thereby ignoring and negating most of the other Deadman stories published in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Helfer’s Letter in the first issue was interesting and particularly helpful in contextualizing the 4 part story arc in the history of the Deadman character. It’s a weird story that evidences the narrative puzzles that the idea of continuity poses to the hundreds of different illustrators and writers playing together in the DC and Marvel sandbox. This aspect of the DC and Marvel Universe is one that is odd, and that Grant Morrison rightly expands upon in his Animal Man series.

I’ll keep you posted on more of my reading and how the editorial shift of Deadman’s character evolves away from mystery towards a consistent style and reality of essentially no more than a superhero.

Lively jazz nights rekindle flame in Pittsburgh

A recent article that I wrote for CMU’s newspaper, The Tartan:

Interval Mondays and Space Exchange promise vivacious weekly performances

A city that used to be a veritable hotbed of American Jazz, Pittsburgh has seen what could be described as a process of jazz atrophy. Cultural institutions like the August Wilson Center and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild feed off a legacy of jazz, not a vibrant scene.

Traditional venues, like CJ’s in the Strip District, have strict age restrictions (CJ’s is closed to patrons younger than 30) and prevent jazz from being experienced across generations. Additionally, WDUQ, formerly Pittsburgh’s only jazz radio station, changed to an NPR news station last year. There are simply not enough lively hubs for the cultivation of an innovative jazz scene in Pittsburgh.

In light of this seemingly atrophied jazz environment, two events in Pittsburgh reveal that the local contemporary jazz scene is rekindling: On Mondays, AVA Lounge in East Liberty hosts Interval Monday, and the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville hosts Space Exchange on Tuesdays.

On what is considered the week’s dead night for entertainment in Pittsburgh, AVA Lounge offers one of the hottest jazz jams, incorporating silent film projections and an open stage. The weekly session was founded by pianist Howie Alexander in July 2007, and is now known as the premier event for jazz music in Pittsburgh due to the local and nationally recognized talent it attracts.

Typically, the sessions consist of two sets. The first set belongs to the Interval Trio (Alexander, Paul Thompson, and James Johnson III), while the second set opens up the stage to musicians in the audience. The jam session features both jazz standards and original compositions, and resident DJ J. Malls (also known as Jason Molyneaux) spins classic jazz vinyl during breaks. A documentary-style web series, called The Interval Trio & Friends, is currently being produced that focuses on the lives and sessions of the musicians.

In contrast to the Interval Monday jam sessions, Space Exchange at the Thunderbird Cafe is marked by an approach that resembles a New York City artist residency, something rarely seen in Pittsburgh. Saxophonist Ben Opie, drummer Dave Throckmorton, guitarist Colter Harper, bassist Matt Booth, and guitarist/drummer Chris Parker are the core members of Space Exchange, and they collectively oversee the programming for the evenings.

In 2011, the group decided to approach Thunderbird Cafe owner John Pergal for a shot at a weekly residency. Because Pergal has supported the group’s past efforts, this collaboration seemed natural. However, the group has actively argued that Space Exchange neither be billed as a jazz event nor as a jam session. As a result, patrons won’t find musicians casually strolling in to display their skills in a specific genre. Rather, they will find a variety of ensembles associated with the core members, rotating in and out of the Thunderbird Cafe, waltzing across the boundaries of styles.

Aiming to develop a lasting presence in Pittsburgh, the group draws on the public interest in some of the collective’s established bands like Opie and Throckmorton’s Thoth Trio, Harper’s Rusted Root, and Opie’s audacious free jazz orchestra, Opek.

Given the history of Pittsburgh’s local jazz scene, events like Interval Monday and Space Exchange give hope for a playful and innovative scene in the future. As it stands, jazz enthusiasts need not fear a continued atrophy of the local scene. Jazz is happening; now it is up to the audiences to continue sharing the experience.

Future performances at Space Exchange will feature Opie performing the works of American composers Thelonius Monk, Anthony Braxton, and Ornette Coleman, alongside bassist Jeff Grubbs and Throckmorton’s “Book Exchange.”


Love and Comics

On Valentine’s Day, people everywhere shell out all sorts of denominations on flowers, candy and gifts. In honor of that most glorious consumer holiday, it would be seem to be most appropriate to highlight comics that are perfect for Valentine’s Day. Nevertheless, there are enough exhortations to purchase gifts at this time of the year, as such this column will not address what books to buy loved ones. Rather, the focus will be to examine how the traditional ideas espoused by Valentine’s Day manifest themselves in the cartooning work of three different authors, Charles Schulz, Jordan Crane and Chester Brown.

It’s important to start with Charles Schulz, the cartoonist responsible for Peanuts created the epitome of the comics Valentine in the little book, Love is Walking Hand in Hand. It was created as part of a series of Peanuts gift books that Hallmark Cards released in the early sixties. In creating this little book, Charles Schulz, the accidental king of all that is marketable,  birthed the  perfect comic for Valentine’s Day.

Love is Walking Hand in Hand contains illustrated minimalist aphorisms that express the vibrance of love in the mundane. The book displays an astoundingly bold usage of orange red, black and pink color plates. One would argue that given it’s boldness of color and visual simplicity, this book would likely not do very well in today’s world of print comics and picture books.

The color combination would seem to put the reader on edge, forcing them to struggle without much visual breathing room. Nevertheless, by carefully balancing them and letting the black ink rest quietly among the buzzing pinks and oranges, Schulz creates a warm and coherent space for the reader to inhabit for a short while.
At its heart, Love is walking hand in Hand is a celebration of the little moments in which love reassures its presence in our lives. The beautiful thing about this book is that Schulz preaches an all encompassing notion of love. Love is when someone takes a moment out of their day to do something nice for someone else, but is best summed up by his assertion that “Love is the whole world.”

What a perfectly reasonable message to be sending on Valentine’s Day.

One issue that Love is Walking Hand in Hand simply does not broach is loss. It’s crushing, but the truth is that everyone deals with it.

In most contemporary stories told in cinema and television, romantic love goes hand in hand with loss. Nevertheless, the sadness of the loss of a loved one is portrayed as a loss so utterly bleak that it ends everything. There is no life possible after that love. The truth is that, after great loss, one must face the absence of a loved one daily. 

Jordan Crane’s comic, The Last Lonely Saturday, explores the trials of and release from life after loss. Crane beautifully captures the delicate beats of the reverence that a husband pays the spirit of his wife. The story follows the ritualized trip that a husband makes weekly to pay respect to his wife and within no more than a couple of pages, Crane’s story retells a husband and wife’s entire history.

From the comic’s meticulous book design, its quaint size and the roundness of the hand lettered type in the first pages, a reader can definitely expect the story to be heart warming. Nevertheless, what the reader can’t expect is the grace with which Crane pulls at a reader’s heartstrings. While the story is rooted in the traditional American cliché of a pair of lover reunited in the afterlife, the story is told deftly. Without spoiling too much, Crane’s narration of the reunion of spirits is truly gripping.

Similar to Love is Walking Hand in HandThe Last Lonely Saturday is the kind of book that elicits an unparalleled delicately visceral warmth, even on the seventh read.

Now, those that may dismiss the works of Schulz and Crane for their seemingly hokey notions towards the idea of love might think they’re out of luck in terms of Valentine’s Day comics. Fortunately, though, they’re not.

Chester Brown’s Paying for It : A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John is the perfect reading material for the reader disillusioned with romantic love and its inherent possessive monogamy. In this book, Brown sorts through all the legal, moral and emotional arguments against prostitution. It is a sober and intense look at the moral and cerebral aspects of prostitution, both from the perspectives of prostitutes and the clients.

The book begins with a record of Brown’s slow disillusionment with the concept of romantic love. It then follows his carefully planned and budgeted forays into the world of being a john. Despite the documentary impulse that transcribes the minutiae of Brown’s experiences, however, Brown’s real concerns lie beyond mere observation. Throughout, he uses his own experiences to make the case for decriminalizing prostitution. In a boldly direct style, Brown expounds on his reading material, inquires after his friends’ stance on the morality of sex work, and, in one sequence, simply sits around in his underwear thinking.

In a conversation with fellow cartoonist, Seth, Brown reveals he is of the mind that, “the romantic ideal is actually evil.” At heart, it causes “more misery than happiness” and causes people to bind themselves for life to the wrong person simply to satisfy society’s dictates.

For the reader that wishes to dismiss this book as nothing more than a series of anecdotes geared towards rationalizing an often persecuted personal choice, Brown presents a series of appendices along with a girthy bibliography that address the full spectrum of issues involved with reforming the way in which Western culture thinks about the relationship between, sex, love and romance.

From Brown’s vantage point, the very moral pillars upon which Valentine’s day stands are inherently destructive and not worth indulging in if a society is to be deemed rational and understanding. In the end, though, Brown’s arguments will need a lot of time to catch on. Simply put, the instincts towards monogamy are part and parcel of Western society.

With so many different perspectives on love, it’s certainly hard to know which is the right one, Fortunately, though, there are plenty of cartoonists to aid in the exploration of the vast emotional territory of love.

The Collected Doug Wright: Seth’s Design Process

Holy moley macaroley! A recent article on the Comics Journal shares Seth’s design process on the beautiful The Collected Doug Wright. If you’re interested in a book designer’s process work, check it out. 

The book is a gem and that reads effortlessly and exudes a bold Canadiana. As an American interested in contemporary Canadian culture, I would say that in that department, Seth really hits it out of the ballpark.

Andy Bleck: Check ‘im out

I discovered Andy Bleck’s abstract comics 2 years ago, bumbling through the internet via Bill Boichel’s aggregated links on Copacetic Comics. The moment I saw them, I knew that there was something special. I saved a couple of files on my computer, not knowing that a year down the line, I’d be using them to explore the concept of abstract narration and drawing as the filtering of moving form.

Here are two examples of his work. take your time and then breeze by the comics to get a satisfying picture of the form. Can you feel the transition between panels? Does your world feel a bit more solid, piece by piece, each time a new figure appears in the second comic or is its delicate balance thrown out of place? You tell me. Learn more about Andy Bleck. Or simply check out many of his works.

A tasty treat can be found here: The drawings are of the Angouleme Festival of 2003. Frank Santoro had some links up on Comics Comics, but the links are no longer valid. I’ve never been to Angouleme, so I can’t make any judements on the validity of Frank’s comment regarding the ability of Bleck to capture the amount of time and focus that is spent during these festivals n the often unglamorous act of drawing. No costumes, just artists doing their thing. For me, Bleck’s line and the sheer amount of drawings show an emotional and tonal transparency. The energy felt makes its way on paper…


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