August often surprises with some beautiful, low-humidity days in this area. The beauty of nature never ceases to be awe-inspiring and, these days, a source of healing from a recent extraordinary loss and its ongoing shock waves. So, out walking the dog earlier in the week, I took out a sketchbook again to try to capture the wonderful scene in front of me. My personal goals included leaving some white on the page, and letting colors blend on the page even as I tried to keep them separate on the palette. This is a neighborhood scene rich with weeping willows and even lily pad gardens. Enormous pond reeds framed part of the view as I sat on top of an over-turned rowboat on the shore. There’s something satisfying about plein air watercolor painting! Sitting around this lake–never busy with visitors–is always soothing.
For those arriving in Colmar, France by car, it can be a big surprise to see a huge replica of the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to the city in the middle of a busy traffic circle. And never more so, I imagine, for the unsuspecting arriving on the 4th of July, for that was the case for me recently.
Thus it was that the next day I headed to the former home of the creator of the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi ( 2 August 1834 – 4 October 1904). Now a museum, the Bartholdi home was not yet open for the day
so I spent some time in the shade of the courtyard sketching the sculpture in the middle, which is known as “Les Grand Soutiens du Monde” of “The World’s Great Bases”) representing “Justice, Labour and the Motherland” which was exhibited at the ‘Salon de Paris’ in 1902. Unsurprisingly, there were other sketchers present in parks and leaning against fountains around the town.
Back out on the streets of Colmar, there was so much to see and do–and taste! No
wonder there were so many tourists there, mostly from elsewhere in Europe and from Asia, it seemed. We were on our way to new places much too soon, but so glad to have the experience of visiting Colmar, and knowing that if the opportunity arises, we’ll be back.
While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand. But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…
In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late. According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die. (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently. I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).
This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word. It seems related to another one rarely heard: “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.” (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)
With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.
People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now. And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.
So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle. It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.
Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as frogs. So back to the drawing board…
Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately. Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity. The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.
This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below. Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….
Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one. While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:
Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…
On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach. Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.
Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward. I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently. People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role
to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future. And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.
It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.
We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present. Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead? These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded. As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.
As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog, who opened up this blog two years ago this month. There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues. It’s surprising but true. It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise. This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.
One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.” In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:
“a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”
As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time. (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)
This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.) Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way. This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood. Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.
Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone. It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world. I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon. Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes. Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!
But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017! Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!
Painting in the outdoors, or “plein air,” is a popular past-time for artists and great practice for everyone who wants to learn to appreciate their surroundings with new eyes. I am most likely to be found doing this on weekends when I have painting pals who want to be outdoors. But a few (most, actually) of the people with whom I correspond do not have much time to paint whether in or out of doors, so I thought I’d write a post about what art is teaching me about readiness for the unexpected.
The other day, I found myself in a setting devoted to sustainable gardening and wild meadows where my subject turned out to be a small garden statue of the ancient Greek god of the wilds, fields, and flocks, Pan, with his man-like body and a goat’s hind legs. The word “panic” is derived, I’ve since learned, from Pan’s name.
This subject promised to be challenging, especially given changing circumstances. Sunlight vied with overcast skies, changing the shadows on the figure every few minutes. In addition, a wedding was scheduled for these very grounds in a short time, so planning ahead was of the essence. First off was a quick sketch to familiarize myself with this scene, and gain some idea of lights and darks.
Such a sketch can boost confidence for the next step, though it is true that you never know how a sketch is going to turn out and many sketchbooks, like diaries, are private partly for this reason. Nor, increasingly, do we know what we will face, so sketching (or a rehearsal or a “scenario”of any kind) is a way to increase our readiness for the unexpected, a subject that received more attention in the early days of this blog.
Seeing Things Differently and Avoiding Panic Learning how to see in different ways, sometimes very quickly–including connecting with others who see things differently–is fundamental to survival, not only for the artist. It has been called various things including cognitive agility, mindfulness, and “rapid reflection.” But I’ve observed that it often doesn’t get the attention you’d expect for something so critical. In fact, in too many places, people are incentivized to ignore the unfamiliar and to treat it as irrelevant until an altogether too-obvious change in the status quo forces (some of) them to reconsider…and sometimes that is too late. (Even in the absence of crisis, such a disinterest in the world can harden into a lack of curiosity which calcifies one’s situational awareness at a dangerously low level. This has proven in the past to be particularly bad for living species of all kinds–not to mention modern-age businesses–and is especially risky in today’s world where we–and all our things, such as watches, cars, and phones–are more interconnected than ever before.)
Topping off this day of plein air painting was the opportunity to see the movie, “Sully,” on the inspirational pilot and the first responders on that incredible day when a fully-loaded passenger plan had to land on the Hudson River. From painting Pan in the wilds, I was confronted with wild scenes that would leave most of us panic-stricken if we were in the midst of them.
But this is a film of human strength and prowess, strong team work, and genuine leadership. From the pilot and his co-pilot, to the crew, the ferryboat operators, air traffic control, and many other responders, the rapid response to this unprecedented event demonstrated the value of consciously preparing (across disciplines, stovepipes, and other boundaries) for the unexpected. In this case, one imagines that such pre-crisis teamwork contributed to enhancing preparedness for an unprecedented situation. Remembering the importance of the “human factor”, as per Sully when he explains himself to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), is the critical difference. His performance seems to be an example of “rapid reflection” crisis management in action; this film carefully adheres to the facts of the crisis as it actually unfolded and, therefore, truly is a “must-see” for all those in top management, whatever the field.
I’ve been reminded regularly that true artists respect unintended consequences whereas experts of other stripes too often don’t. Artists regularly experiment with techniques and materials, and absorb others’ approaches like sponges; many experts of other stripes too often don’t. There is seemingly an important paradox in this.
In an age when many clearly believe it is more acceptable to bash experts than to emulate them, the aspiring artist knows that study of others’ solidly perfected techniques–and, beyond this, historical appreciation as to what has been humanly possible and achieved over time–leads to greater consciousness of our individual shortcomings and more rapid recognition of the truly exceptional (as the film, Sully, also reminds us). Recognizing these gaps can inspire us to be more curious and to learn more. At the same time, experts themselves must prepare for circumstances never before seen (and, thus, for which there is no sketch, textbook or field of expertise). Indeed, a certain cognitive and doctrinal flexibility seems necessary, at a minimum, lest very deep expertise lead us to think that everything can be scripted, measured, and predicted ahead of time–as the differences between the NTSB and Sully demonstrated in the film.
The artist with skill in applying paint (or ink or any other medium) to paper or canvas–and expertise such as pilot Sully’s extraordinary tacit knowledge of the limits of his airplane, his ability to derive quickly from different inputs the most sensible course of action, as well as his abiding awareness of the value of human life–demonstrate human capacities that total reliance on computers, for instance, or checklists can never achieve.
So, while it is true that you generally don’t want the pilot of your commercial jet to be creative in getting you from point A to B, the movie, Sully, does show us that adaptation in the face of the unexpected requires a degree of mindfulness (and openness to ongoing learning) that cannot be assumed. At their best, therefore, artists and experts of all types, whether commercially successful or not, seem to combine deep knowledge with a degree of cognitive flexibility that is hard to sustain from deep within “stovepipes” of all types, from academia to industry. Dealing effectively with this conundrum seems to me to one of the most important things we could do these days.
Getting away from it all is pretty easy in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a little bubble of old world charm, at least in the historic center.
This is a city with strong traditions and connections to the arts–all of them from weaving to dancing, music to painting–and a place where there is some sort of fiesta, complete with parades, moving around the central “Jardin,” nearly every day.
The downtown area features cobblestone streets, narrow stone sidewalks, little shops, and beautiful architectural details, as well as some fascinating trees in the “Jardin”–central square– which are regularly clipped to maintain their squarish umbrella-like covering over the benches. A main “activity” in this town is people-watching here in this square, and listening to the the mariachi bands playing for paying customers.
There is so much to sketch and record here that it’s probably going to take more than one post. Nearby, of course, are more attractions, such as the former silver-mining center of Guanajuato, a gorgeous city built into a canyon, and south of here is Mexico City. So I will post a few more sketches in the days ahead…