Artists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Here are a few images from Artists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a 1974 exhibition catalog of botanical illustration.  I’ll be honest.  In another era, not that long ago, I’d have found this book of black and white portraits and botanical plates a bit of a snooze.  But . . .

Cover, Artists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

“Artists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew” published in 1974 by the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation presents the work of 39 artists “whose work and lives span the period from the beginnings of Kew to the present.”


Today I’m finding the Hunt Institute’s effort charming because its portraits of artists – visual and written – suggest a care for art and the humanities that is in short supply these days.


Behold the story of Mordecai Cubitt Cooke.


M.C. Cooke’s early interest in botany derived from his mother, with whom he spent many hours collecting flowers.  An early interest in botany did not turn toward a specialization in fungi until 1847.  Before gaining recognition as a mycologist, he had served as an assistant in a drapery firm, taught for some time in a national school, and was a lawyers clerk.  In 1861, he became an assistant in the India Museum.  In 1880, the museum was dissolved and the collections were sent to the Royal Gardens at Kew . . .

Novelistic, right?


Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, born in Horning, Norfolk, England, 12 July 1825, died in Southsea, England, 12 November 1914


Here’s another profile, short but sweet, about Victoria Gordon.  “Her media, in order of preference, include pencil, water color, oil, and pen and ink.”

Victoria Gordon

Victoria Gordon, born in London, England, 1938


But my favorite image is this dust jacket design by John Hutchinson, below.  Jumbled, asymmetric compositions almost always appeal to me.  But it’s the nugget of white space at the top of the page that makes the whole piece sing.


Dr. Hutchinson served the Royal Botanic Gardens from 1907 until his retirement in 1948.  Initially an apprentice, in 1936 he ws appointed Keeper of the Musuem of Botany.  His reputation as a botanist, monographer of the genus Rhododendron, and a specialist on African flora is international . . .


Dust jacket design, pen and ink and watercolor

Chaotic times call for calm enjoyment.  I’m hooked on Gilmore Girls this week, in part because of this bit on This American Life, Just What I Wanted, and am finding it just my speed.


How about you?  What are you enjoying these days?





The Role of Art in Rebellion

I know it seems dark, but I’ve taken to reading Chris Hedges in the last year.  Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and activist.  His views about the future are apocalyptic.  I like him because he writes about things that interest me – the environment, the absence of the sacred in modern life, and women’s rights – in a sober voice that doesn’t sugar-coat.  Why are people so angry?  His take, as I see it, is that there’s a spiritual crisis at the heart of American discontent.  The old Horatio-Alger-type stories people have told about the U.S. for generations no longer ring true, and a coherent, new story about who we are has yet to form.  This idea excites me because it acknowledges spirit.  And because it points to art and culture as a possible way forward.  If you’re just getting started with Hedges I recommend Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt illustrated by Joe Sacco.  Here is a preview.



Here’s a short bite from Hedges on the role of art in rebellion.


There is a ton of Chris Hedges stuff on YouTube and he has a regular column at TruthDig.  If you’re like me (left-leaning with an interest in storytelling) some of it will inspire you.  Alas, some of it will probably also drive you nuts.  I take it in because his words sound real to me in an era when a lot of communication feels manipulative or superficial.


 “We are going to need those transcendent disciplines that remind us of who we are, why we are struggling, and what life is ultimately about.”

– Chris Hedges


How about you?  What have you read or watched in the last week that made sense to you?

Artists Living with Art

Artists Living with Art by Stacey Georgen and Amanda Benchley is one of those books you just enjoy having around.  (I am bummed about having to return they copy I’m reading to the library and may just have to spluge on one of my own.)  A picture book for adults, it presents photographs of art in artists’ homes alongside stories about their collections.



Cover image, Artists Living with Art


Like the illustrated books I remember from my childhood with detailed interior scenes,  this is one you can pick up and browse and re-browse and continually discover something new.



A two-page glimpse of photographer Cindy Sherman’s living room in Artists Living with Art.


Featured artists are: Tauba Auerbach, Francesco Clemente, Chuck Close, Will Cotton, John Currin/Rachel Feinstein, E.V. Day, Carroll Dunham/Laurie Simmons, Eric Fischl/April Gornick, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Mary Heilmann, Rashid Johnson, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Helen Marden/Brice Marden, Marilyn Minter, Michele Oka Doner, Roxy Paine, Ellen Phelan/Joel Shapiro, Ugo Rondinone, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Pat Steir, Mickalene Thomas, Leo Villareal and Ursula Von Rydingsvard.


Photographed by Oberto Gili whose work has appeared in popular home design and fashion magazines like Architectural Digest and Vogue, each piece has the look and feel of an art-themed magazine spread.  Bound together the essays have a diversity and a creative field that is exciting to engage with.



Only Lovers Left Alive and Big Magic

Over the weekend I finally got to watch Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 vampire flick, Only Lovers Left Alive and wholeheartedly recommend.  It’s fun to watch these two beautifully attired vampire lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston speed reading, listening to records, lounging around and basking in each other’s company.


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Alas, Big Magic in its beautiful dust jacket failed to conjure much for me.

I only mention Only Lovers because my experience watching it put me so much more in the mood to consider art than Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2015 creativity book, Big Magic.  I started Big Magic last week, am still reading, and frankly finding it depressing because of all the tough-love advice nuggets like, “Get a job!” “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?” and, “Please try to relax.”  Anyhoo, while I like art and creativity books in general, and am one of those people who loved Gilbert’s bestseller, Eat Pray Love, Big Magic isn’t speaking my language.  That’s OK.  Plenty of other books do.  People seeking constructive advice geared toward helping you move forward with creative work in the face of fear, procrastination and perfectionism, I recommend Sam Bennett’s, Get It Done.

Why you make art?

Have you thought lately about why you make art?  What you’re in it for?  Here’s another quote I like a lot from Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City.


People make things – make art or things that are akin to art – as a way of expressing their need to for contact, or their fear of it; people make objects as a way of coming to terms with shame, with grief. People make objects to strip themselves down, to survey their scars, and people make objects to resist oppression, to create a space in which they can move freely . . .


She goes on to explain that while art doesn’t have to be reparative, just like it doesn’t have to be beautiful, it very often is.  I like the quote because it’s gritty.  There’s an urgency to it that in-it-for-the-long-haul artists can lose touch with.


The Lonely City

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The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Every now and then I read a book that so wholly absorbs me I want to share it with everyone with whom I think it might connect. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is one of those books. Part memoir, part art history, and part criticism, The Lonely City chronicles Laing’s experience living in New York after moving there from London to live with a lover who subsequently abandons her. A writer and critic, Laing trains her lens on the art that moved her most deeply, the paintings, photographs, videos and stories that comforted and pricked during her lonely stint in New York.


“Almost the only thing I found consoling was watching music videos on YouTube, curled on the sofa with my headphones on, listening again and again to the same voices finding the register for their distress . . . It was during this period that I first came across Klaus Nomi, mutant chantant, who made an art of being an alien, like no one else on earth . . . The film I liked best was of his very first appearance, at Irving Plaza on 15th Street in 1978, performing at a night called New Wave Vaudeville.  He appears on stage in a see-through plastic cape, with wings painted around his eyes.  A science-fiction figure, gender indeterminate, he opens his mouth and out comes ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’, my heart opens to your voice.”


Dishy and deeply researched, Laing opens each chapter with a personal anecdote that blossoms into an essay about a particular artist’s work, explaining how and why she connected with it, and making it newly relevant to contemporary viewers awash in digital culture.


“Warhol is often thought of as being completely subsumed by the glossy carapace of his own celebrity, of having successfully transformed himself into an instantly recognizable avatar . . . But one of the interesting things about his work, once you stop to look, is the way the real, vulnerable, human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.”


If ever a book called out for hypertext, it’s this one.  Containing just a few images, mainly photographed portraits of the artists she writes about: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi, and a still from a documentary about Josh Harris’ project, We Live in Public, each chapter bubbles with alluring descriptions of visual art, the people who made it and their happenings.



By blending anecdotes with insights and thoughtful writing about art, The Lonely City challenges the creepy paradox of the internet, the way it simultaneously isolates and connects, in a way that feels personal rather than analytical.  While Laing cites several other excellent, recent books about how devices are changing culture, like Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, The Lonely City doesn’t follow their lead.  It’s not a warning bolstered by cognitive science.  Nor does it offer advice. But rather the author offers her vulnerability, her experience feeling lonely in a connected-all-the-time culture, as a gift to the reader in a fascinating read that places art and people rather than science and data at its center.


To Feel Like the Art Has Chosen You


My favorite kind of musical experience is to feel afterward that your heart is filled up and transformed, like it is pumping a whole new kind of blood in your veins.  This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like the art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.

– Carrie Brownstein


Hunger Makes Me a Modern Gril, Carrie Brownstein

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein

Get It Done with Fierce Medicine

In 2015 I read two books in conjunction with each other that had a powerful effect on me.  If you’ve struggled in the last year to prioritize multiple, complex projects; if you feel pulled; if you have the sense that your actions are out of whack with what matters most but you’re not sure exactly how, then it’s my pleasure to recommend Fierce Medicine by Ana Forrest, and Get It Done by Sam Bennett to you.  Individually, they’re both interesting books in the self-help vein.  Together they have a synergistic quality that may help you renew your sense of purpose.

Fierce Medicine by Ana Forrest

Part memoir, part yoga manual and part self-help guide, Fierce Medicine is made potent by author and yoga teacher Ana Forrest’s willingness to lay her flaws bare.  Forrest, the survivor of a youthful suicide attempt that proved a watershed moment on her path to becoming a yoga guru, tells her story of enduring terrible pain, emotional and physical, before learning to “stand straight.” At the emotional heart of Fierce Medicine is a writing exercise called the Death Meditation.  I know it sounds depressing, but it is not!  I did it and found it deeply moving.  There’s something about Forrest’s writing, her rawness and openness, that can open the reader to her teaching, fierce as it is.  After doing the Death Meditation, false priorities, things I thought were important but really weren’t, fell away.  And a renewed commitment to specific aspects of my work and life as an artist emerged. Highly recommended.


Get It Done by Sam Bennett

A light, playful read, Get It Done by Sam Bennett is the tonal opposite of Fierce Medicineand a wonderful complement to it. In a method that reminds me of the one David Allen outlines in his excellent book, Getting Things Done, Sam Bennett coaches readers through overwhelm with a series of exercises that aim to help prioritize and break ambitious projects into doable, 15-minute chunks.  Bennett’s writing voice is casual, friendly and fun.  A creative person herself, she gets what it’s like to have many projects in various stages of undo.  If you struggle to get projects across the finish line because perfectionism and/or procrastination, then is the book for you.  I found it grounding to read at the same time I was working through Fierce Medicine.


May you find joy and readiness during this week between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s a special one!  My favorite of the year.  While I’m not much of a resolutions person I do take it in earnest as a time to rest, enjoy and prepare.