October 1, 2014

Patronage Package 9 of Duly Discovered



Apps

Cloverpop

Pixate

Books

“How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World”
by Steve Johnson

“Size-specific adjustments to type designs: An investigation of the principles guiding the design of optical sizes”
by Shoko Mugikura and Tim Ahrens

“My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War”
by Anne Sinclair

“Learning Responsive Web Design” 
by Clarissa Peterson

“Firebird”
by Ballerina Misty Copeland

“Book Typography: A Designer’s Manual”
published by Libanus Press

Craft

Rings and Earrings by Hikaru Furuhashi

Education

Harmony Project

Sewing Classes by Amy Alan

Girl Develop It

Exhibits

“Into the Flatland” by Kathleen Robbins

Illustrations

Lynda Barry, pioneering Cartoonist, by Summer Pierre

Sketches by April Soetarman

“Letterpress Llama” by Katie Gavenda

Watercolour bicycle by Serena Olivieri

Charleston, South Carolina by Kristen Solecki

Music

Soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “Gone Girl”

“Rips” by Ex Hex

“Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams

“Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” by Lucinda Williams

“Sukierae” by Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, and his son, Spencer

Nile Project

Photography

“Bread” by Joerg Metzner

“Faint Light” and “A new chapter” by Emily Van Ness

Places

ADX, Portland, Oregon

Science House, New York City

Stories

“A Doctor Unlocks Mysteries of the Brain By Talking and Watching”
by Jon Hamilton

“A Man Who Knew The Value Of The Human Voice”
by Scott Simon

“Never Truly Over: Discussing Deployment A Challenge Of Its Own”
by StoryCorps

“Rethinking The Relationship Between Civilization And Nature”
by Audie Cornish

“Media Group Evolves from Covering Vice to War Zones”
by Steve Inskeep

“iPhone 6 Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy S5”
by The Onion

“Be stubborn”
by Sarah Selecky

“Carl Newman And Neko Case On What Makes a Pop Song Work”
by NPR Music

“Best To Not Sweat The Small Stuff, Because It Could Kill You”
by Patti Neighmond

“Becoming a Writer: But not looking for my dream job”
by Alissa Walker

“Minecraft’s Business Model: A Video Game That Leaves You Alone”
by Stephen Henn

“Kate Bush Sells Out 22 Shows In Less Than 15 Minutes”
by Christopher Werth

“At 60 Tons, This Dinosaur Feared Nothing”
by Lynn Neary

“Deborah Rutter Becomes Kennedy Center’s First Female President”
by Susan Stamberg

“Our Use Of Little Words Can, Uh, Reveal Hidden Interests”
by Alix Spiegel

“These 5 Crops Are Still Hand-Harvested, And It’s Hard Work”
by Eliza Barclay

• • •

See my series of tweeted food for thought.

September 30, 2014

Andrew & Kelsey McClellan, the Heart & Bone of Sign Painting


Andrew and Kelsey McClellan are the couple behind Heart & Bone Signs, a traditional sign-painting and gold-leafing company in Chicago, Illinois. At the Renegade Craft Fair, Andrew happened to overhear me mention sign painter, Ches Perry, who also works in Chicago and has been designing and hand-painting signs since the 1970s.

The introduction by Andrew to Heart & Bone Signs, and their dedication to historic techniques affiliated with one of the oldest craft-disciplines in the United States, led to this interview. Here, they share their strong enthusiasm for sign painting, keenly done by hand.

On being sign painters

How did you arrive at being a sign painter? Was there an initial encounter of work, related to sign painting, that played a role in what you do for a living?
We moved to Chicago, in 2011, to attend the graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for painting. Prior to moving, we lived in Denver, Colorado, where we met each other at the University of Colorado. In Denver, we were both painters, and had been asked on different occasions to paint signs or produce chalkboard signs. Once we graduated from SAIC, Kelsey was working at the Museum of Contemporary Art and came across the “Sign Painters” book by Levine and Macon. This really spurred a strong interest, and correlated to a lot of the work we were producing in the Fine-Arts realm. We reached out to a local sign painter, Stephen Reynolds, who was instrumental in showing us how to approach materials and techniques, specifically how to hold the quill and produce clean and uniform strokes, which is such an important part of this craft. From there, we came into contact with other local sign painters and began producing signs almost immediately. Fortunately, our mutual backgrounds in painting have provided us with a strong sense of paint and how to use it in various applications.

More recently, we have been apprenticing under Robert Frese, who is a local guilder. This has been a great experience, and we have fallen in love with the art of gold gilding, it’s almost magical at first. Like with everything, there is a learning process, in sign painting this is a constant: what’s most interesting, after a while, is how physical the act becomes, and how your reflexes are ignited when using the quill in contact with the surface of what you are painting. Understanding this, which was what we first gathered from Reynolds, really informs all of our work now—the pursuit of accuracy and speed. If you look at the history of sign painting, back when everything was painted, these attributes were the most desired in a good painter, we would both agree that is not far from what we seek to constantly achieve.



Who were your teachers and mentors in sign painting? 
How did you discover them, and vice versa, 
how did they discover you?
Stephen Reynolds was our first teacher, and more recently, we have been working with Robert Frese, although we have been fortunate to come into contact with a huge community of sign painters, whom we admire greatly, and are always learning from, based on the work they create and post. To name a few: New Bohemian Signs, Andrew Lawrence of Gentleman Scholars (both San Francisco), Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs (Boston), Ken Davis of Coolhandken (California), and David Smith (England). This list really does not do justice to all of the artists who inspire us, but it’s a good place to start.



Sign painting is growing as a cultural phenomenon. 
What are your takes on why this is happening?
It’s great! Most likely, there is a direct correlation with the inevitable deterioration of vinyl that is visible across the country. Sign Painting for a business not only reflects an overall aesthetic of craft and handiwork that seems to be popular at the moment, but also expresses, to the audience/consumer/community, that this establishment is here to stay. The paint we use and techniques we utilize are meant to withstand the elements and last forever—that’s why you can see, throughout the country, amazing ghost signs of work produced from the turn of the century. Basically, with a hand-painted sign, you are saying this place is meant to be here and stay here.



When did you find your business Heart & Bone Signs?
We’ve been sign painting under Heart & Bone Signs for about two years, in mid-October.

A common desire and questions is: How to start? How did you start? What was the first thing you did? What were essential activities/steps taken to start and establish your company, and why were these activities/steps important?
We just jumped in, knowing we would probably mess up along the way, but not too worried to fail. In regards to running a small company, we are still learning and growing, always reaching out for new opportunities, and testing the boundaries of what we already do. The hardest part right now is finding time to push our creativity, since we most often are working on client projects.

From the documentary “Sign Painters,” the convenience of printing technology decreased sign painting’s prominence. How do you cope with technology as a competitor in the sign-painting world? And how do you put it into context in promoting your work to people with needs for signage?
We’ve only heard on a few occasions that a project would be cheaper to do in vinyl, which were learning experiences, and in some cases, only a few dollars short from a vinyl producer’s quote. Technology is frustrating at times to compete with, but it seems to work within a specific realm of consumerism that is large and way beyond our capacity as a two-person team. We like the intimacy of sign painting, knowing our clients, and being approached by passersby when doing our work. There is something very community-oriented about the process that other forms of sign production just do not have. This being said, we are the first to suggest another avenue that is better for the job than us, sometimes relief signage or vinyl is the way to go, and we are happy to work with our clients to establish what is best for their company.





Can you give a tour of how an idea, for a sign painting, gets real? For example, what were the steps and tools used to materialize the your sign for Jerry’s in Andersonville, Chicago (above)?
Often it starts with talking to the client, going on site, and really getting a feel for what they want. The Jerry’s piece is a great example, we met with the owners (who are awesome), and they described a piece that looked new, yet had been there for a while, and most importantly, would age well over time. We took their existing logo and reworked some areas of it, so that it would look timeless and easily readable amongst Chicago’s sign work. We formatted the lettering to work with the verbiage they chose, then we produced patterns, by hand, in the studio that we then bring to the site and transfer onto the building. In this case, the work was solid black, but often we do multi-colored pieces with outlines and shadows.





In your sign-painting toolkit, what is your frequently-used tool?
Other than quills and paint, it would be razor blades. Mainly used for cleaning lines, cutting tape, and everything in-between, it’s our form of a Swiss-army knife. If we show up on site and are missing a razor blade, we get pretty bummed out.

In between work for clients, how do you keep 
your sign-painting skills sharp?
Practicing lines and alphabets. We like to get a little competitive with one another and push new styles. Also reading is helpful, we’ve been lucky enough to come across some great resourceful books that we frequently go back to, as we develop as sign painters, including “Lettering Made Easy: How to Paint Signs and Show Cards” (1940) by E. C. Matthews and Phillip Albaum, and “Gold leaf techniques” (1980) by Raymond LeBlanc.




Hand-painting signs for Currency Exchange Café, Chicago. View more.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going to keep 
Heart & Bone Signs going?
Clients and other sign painters. There are some artists, throughout the country, who are really producing some amazing work. David Smith is someone we admire tremendously, he makes beautiful glass-gilded work. Colt Bowden is also doing really great work and produces a line of sign-painting zines, which are awesome to pick up. Josh Luke, of Best Dressed Signs, is also a favorite, his designs are amazing, and he utilizes color in a very fresh way.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?
It’s great to see financial growth, and could easily choose this as a signifier of growth, but honestly feel that becoming stronger sign painters—better with the brush, more intuitive design and color choices—is always the best sign (no pun intended) of growth for us.

How do you get the word out about Heart & Bone Signs? 
How do you attract customers?
We try to stay on top of social media, but are, overall, pretty bad at the Twitter game. We’ve found the best way to find new clients is through customer recommendations and word-of mouth.

I like your company’s name. How did you arrive at this?
Kelsey: Heart & Bone is a reference from Coxen Dodd, speaking about his house band at Studio One in Jamaica. The heart of reggae music is the bass, and the bones are the drums. These constitute the foundation of the musical style. Andrew played drums for a traditional reggae band in Denver, Colorado, called The Dendrites, for nine years. After moving to Chicago, we both missed the music scene so much, we bought a bass with our last few dollars after grad school and started playing music together. Once we started our Sign Painting Company, it fit perfectly with our collaborative style, the Heart & Bone of Sign Painting. We were slightly worried that it might be too visceral of a name, or not come across as a sign-painting name, but people have responded well to it, and oddly enough, we get a lot of musical references, specifically Neil Young, which we are totally OK with.

Is there a city where sign painting is most visible?
Definitely San Francisco! It’s amazing there, New Bohemia Signs specifically has done a great job as a shop to promote Hand-Painted Signs for the city. On the other spectrum would be New York, there are many talented Sign Painters there, but also Colossal Media produces large-scale advertisements that are placed on the sides of buildings, typically over 100-feet in height. They are crazy good, and it comes across so well in that environment. It would be cool to have a mixture of these two take place in Chicago.

On creativity and working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
Andrew: My wife is always right. But in all seriousness, communication is incredibly important, we go back and forth with ideas non-stop, and if we question anything we are working on, we ask for one another’s thoughts. We also are not afraid to speak our opinion if something looks off, this can always cause some conflict, but the end-product is our main concern.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?
Balance is hard, finding time in between projects to practice work creatively. It’s also hard wanting to expand, but being not knowing how or if it’s the right time. We also work out of a work/live space, this would fall into the expanding problem, and it is hard to separate home life from work life. Luckily, these are things we’ve struggled with as artists for a long time, so we have the skills to think about them constructively.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
Our workspace is in a room in our loft space in Pilsen. Ideally more space would be great, but honestly, the majority of what we do is onsite, so more space would not necessarily be the best option. Having our studio space at home is great, as we often work through the night, so the bed is never too far away.

What tools do you use and recommend to work: 
for collaborating, getting things done, and running your practice?
An important tool for our trade is the Electro Pounce. This is an indispensable tool for us. It is also hard to come by, as it is no longer produced. What it does is create perforated patterns in paper by means of an electronic stylus. It actually burns perfect dots into paper that are brought onsite and transferred onto the surface to be painted. You have to be careful when using it, however, it is easy to accidentally electrocute yourself with it.

It’s important to not put things off, always push through tough spots and aim to continue to produce work. This helps when collaborating, because we can hand projects off to one another, depending on our individual schedules and how busy we are. If you truly enjoy what you do, it seems like there is a moment, amidst the process, in which you find happiness or pleasure—this is true for both of us. Ultimately, the reward is shaking a client’s hand who is fulfilled with the end-result and hearing their appreciation for your work—this type of affirmation really keeps us going.



What kind of sign painting appeals to you? 
Who or what are your creative influences?
We were both influenced early on by graffiti. Later got really into renaissance style figurative painting, now focused primarily on sign painters/gold leafing as inspiration. We are pretty analog in our approach, but there is some amazing digital design work that is being produced, and it’s nice to stay on top of the trends there. 1960s Swiss design is also a favorite, in regards to its clean lines and approach to realism in depicting products. It’s also interesting to look at art movements like Dada or Futurism that employ design on a broader scale to communicate ideas. But if you were to look at who we follow, say Instagram, it’s mostly sign painters, graffiti writers, and tattoo artists—there is something to be said about the hand-drawn line.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
It’s everything. You can follow a book as much as you like, but sometimes, you have to go with your gut and use your own intuition to figure things out. Training your eye to see a certain way, depict color, see things evenly and level, mixing paints and solvents, all of this we employ on a daily basis, and it has to become instinctual or else your going to waste your time and the client’s.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to be a sign painter. 
How do I become one?”, what’s your response?
This happened a couple of times at Renegade, and we’ve been in contact with them since. Really, we suggest picking up some quills and start to familiarize yourself with the quill and your strokes. You really learn a lot through these simple gestures. Eventually begin practicing Egyptian and Script styles of lettering, but take your time, and get used to using the quill and the consistency of your paint. We always encourage people to find a mentor, or at least a peer group, to gain feedback from on your work, it’s really amazing the insight you can gain by just talking to other painters.


Chicago neighborhoods

How does the city of Chicago, Illinois, contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
Chicago is affordable. Not sure how people manage it in other large cities, but for any artistic person out there looking for a good start, Chicago comes highly regarded. Chicago also has a strong history of sign painting and gold leaf, of which is paralleled to the city’s amazing architectural history. You can see this all over town in various incarnations, there is also a huge group of show card/grocery store painters, in each neighborhood, who have intense style, and it’s been like that for generations. All of this spurs our interest, that on top of long winters, in which you get a chance to hone your craft and strengthen your brush skills.

• • •

Images courtesy of Andrew and Kelsey McClellan, Heart & Bone Signs.

• • •

Related: Read my interview with Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, who celebrate the American tradition of handcrafted signs in their documentary “Sign Painters.” See step-by-step photos of Ches Perry’s live demonstration of sign painting at 32nd gathering of CreativeMornings’ Chicago chapter—my write-up.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

September 29, 2014

Seize the Hidden: Bob Boilen, Host of All Songs Considered, at 11th gathering of CreativeMornings/Washington, DC


CreativeMorning’s global theme for March 2014 was “Hidden.” Speaking for the Washington, DC, chapter was Bob Boilen, founder of the National Public Radio show “All Songs Considered.” He spoke of a practice he exercises in his life: To look for hidden qualities in people—potentially good qualities. As the beneficiary of this action at a young age, he set the course of his career.

After college and a few jobs related to music, Boilen formed a band called Tiny Desk Unit(1). Their time in a recording studio was limited, but during this narrow slice of time, he was given the keys by a recording-studio owner to access the space after regular work-day hours. The keys came with this instruction:
“Here. These are the keys to my studio. You can come in here any night, when nobody is here. Not going to teach you how to use it. You have to figure that out.”
This wasn’t a superficial gesture of kindness, it’s a bet of trust.

Boilen took both responsibility and advantage of the recording toolkit—the studio became his learning lab. He worked alone, hidden. The recording studio seeded his development as an eventual radio-show director, primarily “All Things Considered,” which staged his creation of “All Songs Considered,” which staged his creation of its companion show “Tiny Desk Concert.” These major beats of Boilen’s career can be traced to the instant when that music-industry owner offered him entrance to his recording studio. To Boilen, this moment gradually revealed where to direct and focus his energies—love of music, all kinds, especially that which challenged the mainstream grain.

Being the recipient of someone’s gesture to see—within another—something wonderful, even extraordinary, can be surprising. This is the unsuspecting twist of giving someone a chance, choosing to avoid feeling oblivious to a person’s dormant interests, which have yet to get turned toward a way of life. The popular all-desirable convention here is purpose.

Back then, Boilen accepted the keys to play in the recording studio. It ultimately took hard work and persistence to advance these circumstances into a well-obsessed (albeit once hidden) path on which his appreciation of music became a daily reality. Boilen may have judged himself as an unlikely focus of the owner, who gave him access to his recording studio. But the owner saw something hidden within Boilen, who, in turn, saw a number of things hidden in himself—broadcasting, collaborating, composing, directing, promoting—and, instead of keeping them hidden beneath layers of reluctance and doubt, he brought them to fulfilling display.

As the lead shaper of National Public Radio’s presence in the world music scene through the shows he established and sustains, he emphasized uncovering and cascading the recognition on the many who independently make music—best put by Boilen as “somebody’s sacrifice and dream.”

Boilen concluded his talk with “Go forward. Find the hidden.” Hidden within this encouragement is an urgency to accommodate and recognize the creativity—aspiring, brewing, forming—of our (to borrow another precise wording from Boilen) “fellow human beings.”

It’s fortuitous that Boilen encountered someone, a recording-studio owner, who happened to give him the keys, which opened more than a room. The advantage of this particular time echoes this sentiment by Sandee Kastrul, who co-founded nonprofit i.c.stars, and whom I had the privilege to interview:
“In those moments when somebody acknowledges that they see you for who you are, for what your superpowers are, or for what you may be struggling with—it’s as if they give you an object made of thought, or a mirror that shows you aren’t alone.”
Belief in hidden treasures within people can yield magic.


(1) Boilen’s band, Tiny Desk Unit, influenced the name of his series, Tiny Desk Concerts, showcasing intimate video performances, recorded live at the workspace of All Songs Considered.

• • •

Photograph by Kate Warren of CreativeMornings/Washington, DC. See the Flickr Album of Bob Boilen’s talk at the Washington, DC, chapter of CreativeMornings.

• • •

Big thanks: to SoundExchangeNPR Music (who also hosted) for sponsoring CreativeMornings/Washington, DC, #11; to the CreativeMornings/Washington, DC, chapter Team for their volunteer work in making CreativeMornings happen in their city.

• • •

Read more CreativeMornings coverage.

September 20, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Marielle Schmidt’s growth of ParentsWork



What are you working on—on the side?

I am on the board of ParentsWork, a grassroots Illinois parents’ network, dedicated to creating more family-friendly communities, schools and workplaces. Our primary online presence is currently Facebook, with a revamped website in the works.

It’s actually a funny story how I came about joining ParentsWork. I was a part-time working mother of three kids, under four, pursuing a new career in life coaching. I was getting some pastries at Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston and happened to overhear some grown-ups talking to a middle-school-aged girl, asking about her mother. The girl said, “Oh yeah, my mom is great, she’s doing this parents organization thing… it’s called ParentsWork.” At this time in my life, I also happened to be devouring every piece of literature on motherhood available—about the mask of motherhood, the zen of motherhood, the price of motherhood, the mojo of motherhood, the myth of motherhood, and the madness of it—so I was intrigued to hear that there was a local organization dedicated to working parents. I had also started a mommy blog where I shared my passion with the world.

At home I promptly googled ParentsWork, found the website, and then emailed the founder, Rhonda Present, to express my interest and admiration and pay my $10 membership dues to join. She personally wrote back the same day, and we met in person a few weeks later. She was seeking support in growing her organization, so she became my first official coaching client. After working together for a year, I switched gears and became a board member.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

Rhonda and I work closely together on our Facebook page, and other ongoing and budding efforts related to ParentsWork’s virtual and local presence. We communicate regularly via text, email and face-to-face, to keep the momentum going. I publish to our Facebook page, and help prioritize tactics for growing and forwarding the organization.

ParentsWork is a nonprofit organization currently sustained by volunteers like myself, and we are actively seeking funds to expand the organization’s reach and impact. We would love to grow our leadership group to include volunteers that can help with outreach, fundraising, advocacy and marketing. Please spread the word and visit our Facebook page for contact information.

Why have side projects?

Having a side project is not necessarily an intentional act, but an act of passion. As soon as I became a parent, I became passionate about the role of parenting in our modern society, and the choices parents have to make on a daily basis, while reconciling their work and home lives. I firmly believe in the economic value of caring labor—that parenthood is just as valuable a job as any other, if not more—and closely follow the debate around work, life and family balance. As a board member of ParentsWork, I have the chance to share my views, educate others and hopefully affect future policies through our grassroots organizing efforts. It is a hot topic in this country, and I’m optimistic that a seismic shift is upon us towards more family-friendly policies.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Marielle Schmidt.


This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

September 15, 2014

Anna Rascouët-Paz’s Call for Curiosity at 5th CreativeMornings in San Francisco


The author Dorothy Parker(1) said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” With her global upbringing, international work, and multidisciplinary zeal, it’s safe to say that for journalist Anna Rascouët-Paz, there’s never a dull moment. Paz spoke at the fifth gathering of the San Francisco chapter of CreativeMornings on August 26, 2011. To Paz, the world is not a stage, nor a canvas. Rather, the world is a cultural salon. She encouraged the audience to cultivate their curiosity and “gather the dots.” It’s easy to pronounce a quality that is already emphasized (to the level of fatigue on the Web). Instead of leaving the insistent message of “Be curious” as a flat platitude, Paz identified ways to stimulate the act of being curious:

Argument

Paz spoke of a friend she has, who will genuinely listen and be open to debate. Paz advised the audience to find a trusted person with whom you don’t feel vulnerable arguing. Management Thinker Margaret Heffernan prescribed this in her TED Talk “Dare to disagree”: To find a “thinking partner, not an echo chamber.” A solid argument, to Heffernen, is “constructive conflict” that requires “people who are very different from ourselves.” Furthermore, from Heffernen: “…we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.” Complementing Heffernen’s last requirement, Paz made it clear about the challenges involved when achieving a curiosity-charged life: “It’s fucking hard.”

Travel

Channeling the mathematician and computer-science pioneer Alan Turing, curiosity is a “differential equation,” not a “boundary condition.” Paz’s passport is a vehicle to the ultimate destination—an “international mindset.” This is an entity that lawyer-turned-world-traveler Jodi Ettenberg keeps molding. In my Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire), Ettenberg shares: “The quirks of a new place, the overwhelming sight of a field full of ruined temples, the pristine beauty of a deserted island in a turquoise sea—I’m never at a loss for inspiration!”

Stories

A former financial reporter, Paz does not see quantitative data as an opaque wall, but rather a narrative construct. She looks for stories dwelling in the numbers. Paz is aligned with researcher-storyteller Brené Brown, who, in her TED Talk about vulnerability, proclaimed, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

A type of story that Paz admires is tragedy. In his TED Talk “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success,” co-founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton, also looks to this unfolding form of drama as a source of humanizing relevance: “Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.” The cycle of ‘reversal of fortunes’ plays out in many shapes, sizes, and speeds, from the Great Depression to pay-it-forward moments. Transactions are stories where there is an exchange of awareness.

Generalists and Specialists

The overarching point that Paz poses in her presentation is the ratio between specialists and generalists—in financial-reporting speak, there is a deep deficit of the latter. To address this lop-sided reality, more generalists are needed. This is Paz’s preference.

I’m curious what the evolutionary effect would be if Paz’s ideal scenario of more generalists (than specialists) came to pass. Though an argument can be made that one type of thinker-and-doer is more advantageous than the other, I believe that the world needs both.

Paz equated generalists to polymaths of previous eras. This was a romantic gesture that I found appealing, because human effort to proactively learn and understand a variety of subjects and skills—without prejudice—is motivational. Her examples were legend: Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Blaise Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. To her list, I’d like to add Nellie Bly, Grace Hopper, Gertrude Stein, Alan Turing(2), among many others.

Compared to the intellectual range engaged by generalists, specialists may be narrow in their disciplinary focus, but this singular attention does not narrow their influence. Among the specialists that were highlighted in the TV series “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey,” one very notable example was Clair Patterson. Immersed in his specialty of geochemistry, Patterson’s long-term and worldwide measurements of lead in the environment, including his conducting of lead-free experiments, resulted in the validation of lead as fatal to humans, that greatly informed legal restrictions on using lead in products by industries.

To me, Paz’s CreativeMornings talk sharpened the collective adventure of curiosity, shared and carried by people who either seize the creative charge of a generalist or that of a specialist. Or perhaps, the two directions interact and overlap along the way, sometimes subtly, other times in plain sight. Perhaps, a generalist is an open-minded specialist—and a specialist is a focused generalist. Whatever the creative discipline—whatever the intellectual leaning (generalist or specialist) she or he happens to adopt, everyone is invited to be, as paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey put it, “compelled by curiosity.”


(1) Dorothy Parker and Anna Rascouët-Paz are alike: writers, travelers, founders, and, most of all, curious.

(2) Being “Father of Theoretical Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence,” Alan Turing may have found appeal in Paz’s description of the brain as “a sophisticated piece of machinery.”


• • •

Photograph by the Team of CreativeMornings/San Francisco. See the Flickr Album of Anna Rascouët-Paz’s talk at the San Francisco chapter of CreativeMornings.

• • •

Big thanks: to Chapter Three, Razorfish, Typekit (who also hosted) for sponsoring CreativeMornings/San Francisco #5; to the CreativeMornings/San Francisco chapter Team for their volunteer work in making CreativeMornings happen in San Francisco.

• • •

Read more CreativeMornings coverage.

September 13, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Amy Marquez’s Improvisational Comedy



What are you working on—on the side?

I work with a long-lived improvisational comedy troupe in San Antonio, TX, called The Oxymorons. They’ve been around since 1989. I actually “interned” with them during the summers when I was working on my undergraduate degree.

I began performing improv when I was 19. I co-founded the Texas A&M University improv troupe, Freudian Slip, in 1992, and studied at ImprovOlympic in Santa Monica, CA, in 2000. When I moved back to San Antonio in 2007, I met back up with The Oxys. They remembered me and asked me to come back and “play.” I’ve been performing with them since then.

My other side projects are writing articles and posts for user experience (UX) publications, and working on a book along the same lines as the articles I write.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

My career is really time and energy consuming. I’m very passionate about UX, and have to remind myself to step away from it to spend much needed time with my children and husband. But I also need to feed that part of me that is unfiltered and can let the ideas fly. So I make time for improv. I love theater, I love performing, and although improv is very physically and emotionally demanding, it’s also the lowest time commitment form of performing. By nature, there’s no rehearsal. And I can perform with the troupe on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on what I’m able to fit into my schedule.

With writing, I’m finding it harder recently to focus much time on it. I really enjoy writing, but lately my work has been so intense and mentally draining that the energy I usually have to write is sapped by the end of each day. I’m working on that, though.

Why have side projects?

Even though my career is very creative, I need an outlet for the performance side of creativity. My brain literally feels like it operates more slowly the longer I go in between improv performances. There’s just something about improv that makes every decision faster and easier to make. I feel like I can filter through ideas, dismiss the ones that don’t work, and accept the ones that do work, much more quickly when I am actively involved in improv. It’s also very cathartic. Think of all the emotions the average person has to hold in or modify on a daily basis in order to be socially acceptable. You can let all of that go in improv.

As for the writing, having been in the design profession for over 15 years, I feel like I have valuable insights to offer. If I can help other designers who are newer to the profession learn from my mistakes or experiences, then I’ve passed along something that, hopefully, they will pass on.

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Diptych courtesy of Amy Marquez.


This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

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Read too my Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire) answered by Amy Marquez and her Interview about family, improv, and empathy.

September 8, 2014

Freelance Illustrator Lucy Engelmann, Inspired by Nature and Drawing


Working on my latest book “BROKEN: Navigating the ups and downs of the circus called work” yielded the opportunities to have illustrations and work with an illustrator. With the latter, it was hard seeking an illustrator—not because there is a shortage, but there are so many illustrators, with different styles, making distinct work. It was the drawing aesthetic of Lucy Engelmann, that captivated me toward her visual compositions. Her pictures complement BROKEN’s prose and helps enhance its meaning. Here, she elaborates on her attitude toward illustrating—her passion for this world and her efforts in it.

On being an illustrator

What drew (verb surely intended) to your work 
was the exquisite quality of your line work. 
How do you achieve texture?
I have always loved detail, and I find in life that I get easily distracted by the details of everyday things. It’s exciting to me to discover something new about you’ve experienced many times. That element of time and discovery is something that I like to come across in my work. I achieve texture through many different patterns. I love discovering new patterns and seeing how I can fit them into different textures.



Your drawings of animals also impressed me, 
assuming that nature is a part of your attitude 
and practice as an artist. True?
Yes, absolutely. I love nature. It is definitely where I go to relax, explore, and just be. So it made a lot of sense to spend my time creating work about it. I love everything about animals. They impress me so much, and I love watching them problem-solve. To me, they seem like children, open to the possibilities of trying new things without fear. It inspires me.

How did you arrive at wanting to become an illustrator?
I actually always wanted to be an illustrator. I just took a bit of a round-about-way admitting it to myself. I entered art school at the University of Michigan, thinking I was going to be an illustrator, then spent all of my time doing everything but, and ended my education returning to that which made me feel confident. I challenged myself to take something that I felt was easy for me and figuring out ways in which it could be difficult. I’ve always been very independent and self-motivated, so I worked incredibly hard to get to where I am today professionally, and have enjoyed every minute of it.


One of forty-two illustrations for book BROKEN

Can you give a tour of how an idea, for illustration, gets real? 
For example, please pick one of your favorite illustrations you made for BROKEN.
I really enjoyed the letter-plant illustration “Relationships take time.” It was fun to imagine the words as letters, growing individually having to be cared for and harvested to make the words. Reminds me of something that would exist in “Alice in Wonderland” or “Dr. Seuss.” I always sketch things first, even if it’s just very rough, then go to ink, and sketch more if I need to. Finally, I scan the images into my computer and touch up the levels, then send them off.



How do you practice drawing in order to feel competent 
and confident at realizing this skill?
I find that it’s important to feel confident, even when you’re not, with art. A confident line has always been something I’ve subconsciously made a point to do. I don’t practice really, I tend to try things and see how they work, and not worry if they don’t.

What is your vision of growth, as it relates to your career?
What I love about what I do is I never really know what’s coming next. I absolutely love doing editorial work. The collaboration and speed is so exhilarating to me, and I love the feeling of seeing my work in print. I look forward to working with new people, and hope my work can reach a wider audience. I also love doing books, and hope to, someday, do several of my own. Someday in the future, I’d also like to art-direct. I’m great at imagining creative images, and I’d love to help someone create them.


Rabbit Island, Michigan


Beaver Brook, New York

I noticed your “Field notes” where you state, “I absolutely love creative work based on experiencing new places.” 
Where do you go to experience new places? How does traveling influence your work?
I always feel very inspired when I go somewhere new, especially because there are no expectations. I love to travel for work, and I hope to do more of that soon. When I travel, the work pours out of me. I am a very visual learner, so I take it all in, and cannot wait to get it out on paper.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going as an illustrator?
Trying and completing new things I am excited about. I never feel stuck where I am, because being freelance is so ever-changing, that there is no time to be bored.

How do you get the word out about what you do? 
How do you attract people to your work?
I’ve been very lucky, in that the bulk of my work is published in come capacity, so it advertises itself. I also have a blog and a website, and do interviews from time to time.

On creativity, illustrating, working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
When a disagreement comes up, I find it’s most helpful to find out what part of the disagreement is negotiable and what cannot be changed. From there, compromise is always good, or sometimes simply walking away is the only solution. Compromise is so important to working with others, since most of the time, you will not have the exact same vision for a project.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?
I have trouble sometimes when a client wants something and feels so strongly about it, and I know that it’s in bad taste. I remember that it is their project, and if they are so sold on their own idea, I let them have it. I remove myself mentally from the project, but still work to create the work to the best of my ability. It is so hard to be motivated with these types of projects, but I always remember all things do come to an end.

I also find that, on the other hand, when I am excited about a project and the client is pressuring me to hurry, I end up rushing and not creating as strong of a piece as I’m capable of or I start to hate it. It can be really difficult, but I always power through. My work ethic never wavers.





What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
I rent a room (above) on the floor above my apartment and work alone (sometimes my dog comes). Even though it’s so close to my living quarters, I have this mental separation where I know that when I close the door, I am at work. I have two tables, just so I can change things up, if need be. They’re pretty big, because even though my work is typically very detailed, I feel the need to have a lot of space around me, so I don’t bump into anything.



What tools do you use and recommend to work: 
for collaborating, getting things done, and running your practice?
Spreadsheets are so great for finances. I have an accountant, but do all the legwork for her, so when taxes come around, they’re at the ready. I am a big fan of WeTransfer and use it whenever my files are too big to email. I also use Dropbox and Google Docs, from time to time, for branding projects.

What kind of art/illustration appeals to you? 
Who and/or what are your creative influences?
I love hand-done work, no matter what the medium. The fact that an artist decided to do that, even in a time when technology is so prevalent and almost expected, when the integrity of maintaining their process of making work won out—I love that. I love looking at the work of my peers, obviously, and especially illustrators. I love magazines so much, so I spend a lot of time reading them.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
Integrity and trusting myself is my top priority in work and life. I always try to go with my gut and make a point to stand my ground, whenever I give my two cents. This is a part of my personality that I took time to strengthen when I started working, and it’s definitely bled into my everyday life.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to illustrate,” 
what’s your response?
If they don’t already know how to draw, that should be the first step. Take the important building blocks at a university near you. They probably have a continuing education or pre-college program. Figure drawing, spacial relationships, perspective, design drawing—there are so many important things that you need to understand before you can start to express yourself properly. It helps you understand how things exist in space, even if you don’t necessarily want to represent them realistically.

If you already draw, decide how you want to apply yourself. Explore different avenues of illustration and see which is the best fit for you. Then jump in. No one is holding you back, but you.

How does the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 
contribute to your work? And what makes it special 
for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
Grand Rapids has an incredibly nurturing and supportive creative community. While it hasn’t always directly contributed to my work, it’s always been a great environment to be creative and professional. There are so many things that make it special for new young companies and individuals—I’ll give you a few, and for the rest, those who are interested will just have to come here and investigate. It’s incredibly affordable. Rent is very doable and their are several organizations that provide live/work spaces for small businesses and creatives who are starting out. There are so many events around town that encompass both local and international art. There are a few internationally recognized companies that want nothing more than to see startups survive and provide grants, loans, and advisors to help them do so. There are so many more benefits, I could go on forever. You’ll just have to come see for yourself!

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All images courtesy of Lucy Engelman.

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See more illustrations by Lucy Engelman for my book “BROKEN: Navigating the ups and downs of the circus called work” in this feature by The Bold Italic.

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Read more about how BROKEN was made: its writingediting, and design.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.