living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

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:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…

vangogh

Illustration: Watercolor sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

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

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

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.

 

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

The Path Ahead

Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were.  People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.

old-town-alexandria

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “The Path Ahead,” on Fluid Cold Press 4″ x 6″ watercolor paper by the Black Elephant Blog author

At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week,  we will be facing a most consequential election .

And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead  couldn’t be more clear.  As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who  hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.”  Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing.  There is no other path ahead.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Wax-Resist & Creative Intelligence

A recent two-day artists’ workshop in “wax-resist techniques” provided loads of food for thought not just about this artistic process but also about the importance of thinking ahead to what you are trying to achieve…and how to get there.

Tulum wax resist 4

Illustration: Tulum, Yucatan Mayan structure in ink wash (Higgins waterproof black India ink) with wax marks, charcoal, Conte crayon, and Char-koal pastels by Black Elephant Blog author

It is normal to fall back too readily on what we think we know and on what we expect to see, and this blocks our ability to learn new things and see things in new ways–  which is so fundamental to art, innovation, business success, and progress.  As Ed Catmull, the author of Creativity, Inc. (Random House, New York, 2014) writes, “the best managers make room for what they do not know… not just because humility is a virtue but because until we adopt that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.”

As a newcomer to the wax resist technique, however, I found myself falling back onto old habits and ways of thinking.   Without a doubt, these were blocking my ability to internalize and apply these new approaches.   The wax resist approach, like any other truly artistic approach, benefits from taking a great deal of time studying the subject first.

“This process insists that you have a goal or else you get into trouble,” warned the instructor. “The wax is not forgiving,” he said.  “Everything you don’t plan” comes back to bite you.

The process involves repeated washes, first with plain water, and then ink washes, and a lot of intervals of drying the paper.

Drying art

Illustration: Drying the paper after one of the ink washes (after an initial waxing of the image)

This activity needs a large workspace that is forgiving of water drips and ink splashes!  The stipulated paper dimensions in this workshop were large too, so as to better capture details with the wax.  This paper  takes a beating, with multiple washes, and being hung to dry on a line after each wash (often after some time on the floor so that still wet ink wouldn’t run down the page.)

What is difficult to realize ahead of time is the repeated and gradual nature of the process of building up the darks and the clever use (not over-use as in the example here) of the wax.  This is not about painting or “rendering”, but it takes a while for the novice wax resist-user to grasp this.

Materials for Wax Resist

Illustration: Photo of some of the materials used in the ink wash and wax resist project

Now that class is out, there’s so much to practice.  Fortunately, the necessary supplies are readily available–such as Gulf Wax which can generally be found in a grocery store.  It’s the thought process that is more difficult to acquire.  It takes time and guidance, persistence, and, for the best results as demonstrated by our instructor, clearly some enormous talent that few of us can assume.

This workshop was an extraordinary learning experience relevant to much more than art. It underscored the huge gaps in our thinking processes when it comes to learning how to re-perceive what is right in front of us.  Such ability to reframe the obvious in new lights (and darks) is key  to achieving anything artistic, let alone the sort of breakthrough innovations we increasingly acknowledge are needed for (nothing less than) the future of the planet.   Strategic and design thinking come together in use of wax resist in this process, as well probably in other applications, such as watercolor painting.

Tulum watercolor sketch

Illutration: Watercolor and pen and ink sketch of Mayan structure at Tulum in Quintanaa Roo, Yucatan by Black Elephant Blog author

For goals of still larger scale, such as enabling a global transition to a low-carbon economy, how to create environments that can accelerate our ability to grasp these ways of thinking will be the subject of future posts.  The experienced artist who also is an effective teacher has a crucial role to play in the transition to the needed new thinking.

 

 

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Uncategorized

Hippo Paradoxes

We return to the book, How We Got to Now,  (discussed in “The Hummingbird Effect” blog post) sooner than expected!   A reader of the last post asked if Johnson addressed at all in his book whether the “hummingbird effect” ever led to negative consequences.  Well, he did, as a matter of fact, and this leads straight to the topic of today’s blog.  But first, by way of explanation, a bit more on How We Got to Now.

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

At the outset of his latest book, Johnson maintains that this book will be “resolutely agnostic on these questions of value”; i.e., whether the ripple effects of innovations represent change for the better or worse.  For instance, the invention of air-conditioning allows us to live in deserts, “but at what cost to our water supplies?,” he writes.  He explains that his emphasis in writing the book is primarily to gain insights into how changes come about in the first place.  While acknowledging that we need a value system to decide which “strains” of innovation to encourage, he says he has tried to spell out the range of consequences, good and bad, in his book.  He cites, for instance, the fact that the invention of the vacuum tube helped bring jazz to a mass audience, [but] “it also helped amplify the Nuremberg rallies.”  How one considers the values of different innovations depends on “your own belief systems about politics and social change,” he writes.

Thus, in his chapter on the evolution of the concept of “clean,” which traces the creation of the first comprehensive sewer system in America, Johnson highlights the fact that the idea of bathing at all is a relatively modern idea. Attitudes began to shift in the U.S. and in England early in the 19th century, he said, as the availability of soap and showers helped lay the groundwork for a new paradigm:  the “germ theory of disease.”   With the cleaning business today worth about $80 billion, according to Johnson, another ripple effect of the discovery of clean technologies was the creation of an advertising industry to promote the benefits of cleaning products, such as chlorox.

But all this happened in the short span of the last two centuries and has had many unanticipated consequences, including  booming rates of urbanization. (An article in the December 6 issue of The Economist magazine refers to this phenomenon as “suburbanization.”) From a world of cities of no more than two million people, cities grew to accommodate tens of millions of residents, including the “megacities” of today.  In some cities, the benefits of the paradigm shift embracing cleanliness are evident in lower mortality rates and nearly nonexistent epidemic disease, Johnson writes. But around the world, there are still more than three billion people who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems: “in absolute numbers, [therefore], we have gone backward as a species.”

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

Johnson asks whether there has not yet been sufficient innovation to enable the developing world to bypass the big-engineering phase of the developed world that involved building massive public infrastructure to filter and pump water.  So, in this chapter, it’s clear that acceptance of the concept of “clean” has led to benefits even as it has enabled urban sprawl in countries where there are inadequate sanitation facilitations and access to potable water.  Such tensions and paradoxes lead to new requirements for innovation.

  • To step back for a moment from the book, it is clear today that failures to adapt in the largest, poorest of cities–even if they are a half a world away from us–can bring us full-circle, paradoxically: back to dealing with viruses and bacteria against which we have little or no defense.  We need look no further than the front pages of any major newspaper to see that this is the case.  Which brings us to:

“HIPPO Paradoxes”

Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most prominent naturalists and biologists, addresses the concept of “HIPPO” (actually an mnemonic, rather than a metaphor) in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence.  In order of relative importance, the letters in this acronym (which is one well-known to those in Wilson’s fields but was new to me) represent aspects of the human impact on biodiversity, as in:

H = “Habitat loss”, which he defines as the reduction of habitable area by deforestation, conversion of grassland, and climate change.

I =   “Invasive species,” which refers to alien animals, plants, and even fungi that cause damage to humans or the environment or both when they travel, or are transported, into areas where they are not native.

P =  “Pollution,” which Wilson writes has inflicted most of its damage on fish and other life in freshwater systems but also is the cause of more than four hundred anoxic “dead zones” in marine waters “that receive contaminated water from upstream agricultural land.”

P = “Population growth,” which Wilson writes is “actually a catalytic force of all the other factors.”  He continues:  “Damage will not be so much from the growth itself, which is expected to peak by the end of the century, but rather from the rapid and unstoppable ascent in per capita consumption worldwide as economies improve.”

O = “Overharvesting,” which, Wilson writes, “is best illustrated by the percentage of global decline in the catch of various species of marine pelagic fishes such as tuna and swordfish from the mid-1850s to the present: 96 to 99 percent.  Not only are these species scarcer, but the individual fish caught are on average also smaller.”

In this latest book, Wilson reissues his warning (familiar but no less sobering to readers of his earlier work) that the “remainder of the century will be a bottleneck of growing human impact on the environment and diminishment of biodiversity.”  Wilson is a scientist.  He writes that science “builds and tests competitive hypotheses from partial evidence and imagination in order to generate real knowledge about the world.”  “It is totally committed to fact…[and] cuts paths through the fever swamp of human existence,” he writes.

But, this book is a warning about the limitations of science and technology-driven paths to the future.  Wilson calls for reuniting the humanities with the sciences as the way forward.  He envisions a future where science and technology will be the same almost everywhere–“for every civilized culture, subculture, and person.”  But, “what will continue to evolve and diversify most definitely are the humanities.”  And only by fusing science and the humanities, Wilson suggests, can mankind deal with the coming onslaught of biology-based and technologically-enabled challenges to the “human nature we have inherited.”

Current technological and biological trends create “a dilemma of volitional evolution,” he writes.  In Wilson’s view, the choices ahead require nothing less than re-visting what it means to be human.  “Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technologies by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior?”   More knowledge doesn’t always equal more understanding or situational awareness; for boosting the latter, Wilson states that the humanities are “all-important.”  This is a powerful (if also controversial–can something be powerful without controversy?) book from a lifelong and keen observer of natural life from its most microscopic to (potentially) galactic scales.  It is rich with reminders of the many creative paradoxes of human and natural existence.  We are simply bound to be surprised.

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