living in truth, Risk, Uncategorized, Watercolor Painting

Mother Nature and the “Art of the Deal”

Planet

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

This week we are supposedly going to learn if the United States will stay in the Paris Climate Agreement alongside nearly 200 other countries which, like the United States, are already parties to the deal.  By the end of this week, we may learn that the United States has decided to join the two countries, Syria and Nicaragua, on the sidelines.

It is unclear why this latter course would make sense. It makes no sense to a whole range of major multinational corporations, however, such as:

Adobe, Allianz, Apple, BP, Chevron, DuPont, eBay, Exxon Mobile, Gap, General Mills, Google, Hilton, Intel, Johnson&Johnson, Kellogg Company, L’Oreal, Microsoft, Monsanto, Nike, Royal Dutch Shell, Salesforce, Staples, Starbucks, Symantec, Tesla, Dow Chemical Company, Tiffany&Co., and Unilever.

It makes good economic sense, it turns out, to embrace reality.  Who knew?  (That reality is something which, to be fair, has been ignored for a long time, in the sense that civilization itself depends on a stable climate and healthy ecosystems.)

Just last month, the planet’s atmosphere breached the 410 ppm (parts per million) threshold for carbon dioxide concentration, a height not reached in millions of years. This means our atmosphere is trapping more heat and accelerating changes in our climate.  Scientists say we’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century.*

So it’s hard to see what kind of “deal” would be worth taking that kind of risk.  In fact, Mother Nature doesn’t care a whit about the “art of the deal” and she has the upper hand for sure.

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Innovation, living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Scams, Shams, and (Body) Slams

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).

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

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.

WhereDoWeGoFromHere?

Illustration: Color study, Watercolor, acrylic and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

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…

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living in truth, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Half-Truths and Lies

Events recently reminded me of sketches done while wandering in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. not so long ago.  This is an inspiring place which often is missed by visitors to the capital because it is not on the Mall. It is is a bit off the beaten path.  But in this Gallery is so much history, so much art, and so much that is astonishing.  It is a relaxing place too with lots of places to sit, including in a covered light- and plant-filled atrium.

tennyson

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson Illustraton: Pencil sketch by Black Elephant Blog author of a bronze bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson sculpted by William Ordway Partridge and located in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Co-joined with the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art (which is where I came across an intriguing bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson), this entire city block is devoted to the proud history and artistic accomplishments of the people of the United States, and visitors to the United States, right up to the present time.  Like the National Constitution Center and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, these two museums present powerful evidence of the fact that this nation is built on a pretty solid foundation, if only we would bother to understand and protect it.

With so much to keep up with these days, it’s more likely than not that we will pay inadequate attention to the requirements for this solid foundation–which is a huge risk that has been with us at least since the onset of the digital revolution.

In our social media-saturated world, we are more likely to be guilty of rushing to judgment than pausing long enough to try to understand what’s going on.  That’s why taking some time out to sit in the National Portrait Gallery can be helpful!  Sketching has a way of concentrating the mind at the same time that it opens us up to new perspectives.  At the National Portrait Gallery, you can bring your drawing tools right inside, and the atrium/courtyard is a perfect place to practice drawing people in motion too.

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acrylic painting, living in truth, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching, Watercolor Painting

Marching for Science

Illustration: “Marching for Science on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.” (2017), acrylic on 12″ x 16″ canvas by Black Elephant Blog author

On a rain-slicked Saturday afternoon this past weekend–on Earth Day and March for Science Day–tens of thousands of people walked patiently and enthusiastically down Constitution Avenue holding up signs affirming the importance of science and facts. It was a scene that would have been impossible to imagine (especially:  to imagine even as necessary) only a year or so ago. The spirit of the people seemed high, despite the constant drizzle and occasionally stronger rain. It was a sea of umbrellas; and the biggest challenge for me was to keep my umbrella out of other people’s way.  All around us, scientists, teachers, doctors, and children made their way towards the U.S. Capitol on an otherwise mild Spring day.

The colors and atmosphere of this historic event seemed to call for an effort in the new acrylic paints I’ve just started trying out.  Using several photos of groups of people passing in front of the National Archives afterwards, I found that trying to capture the reflections on the wet pavement was a fun challenge.  In some ways, the scene seemed easier to capture in acrylic than in the more familiar (for me) watercolor.  I’ll now have another medium to choose from in the future.

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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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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

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

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.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

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!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

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!

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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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