Notes from the Digital Lab

28, May 2010 § 1 Comment

Tonight the breeze has kicked up. With the chill in the air you wouldn’t know that it was late April in Greece. From the harbor I hear the rumbling of a ferry coming in to port, the hydraulic ramp lowers and the announcement to disembark echoes through the winding streets of Paroikia: “Kyríes kai Kyrioi…” It will be sunny tomorrow, and while warm in the sunshine, the shadows will retain a cold element unrelated to the bright light of day. I have been here on Paros since early March studying photography, my photographic journey having taken me through the world and back several times. Throughout this time I have been documenting my life and travels with my camera and, if French surrealist Jean Cocteau is correct and my camera is an extension of my mind’s eye, then the images have been indicative of my state of being.

Since 2004 I have taken my photography more seriously. This has been an enlightening path and I have sought out mentors and peers in a quest for more knowledge and community. Like any journey, I have gleaned myriad experiences and mixed results. In the summer of 2009, for instance, I took part in three workshop weekends hosted by the Woodstock Center for Photography, near where I live. Although educational, I found the celebrity quality of some of these sessions disturbing, as they focused more on some vague notion of artistry and industry connections rather than skills or craft. But I still came away understanding more than when I arrived, if only to avoid the fad-driven sycophantic consumerism that feeds stardom.

Through a close friend I had been introduced to a small fine arts center on the island of Paros, in the Cycladis Archipelago. I had visited the school in late May 2009 and filled out the on-line application a few days later at a cyber-café 25 meters from the front doors. By November 2009 I had been accepted to the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts. My head swam with possibilities and options. As my departure drew closer, I became more nervous. What if I don’t measure up? What if it doesn’t work out? Indeed, what if…

When I arrived on Paros I was thrilled but terrified. There were painters, writers, photographers and vocalists-19 students in all and about half returning for a second or even third term. The majority were half my age. School began on March 8th and for the first time in many years I felt like the new kid, awkward and obvious. My first class would be Silver Photography, a black and white darkroom course taught by Liz Carson. I had had a fair amount of instruction in that genre and during the past year had been working in my own darkroom at home. This course would smooth off my rough edges and introduce me to the communal darkroom concept, a daunting prospect for a late-night loner such as myself. The second avenue was the reason I had initially applied. Digital Printing, taught by John Pack, the school’s director, would become, in the next few weeks, the most rewarding, demanding and emotionally painful experience I had experienced in many years.

City by: John Masters

John is a gentle taskmaster. He is a bright soul. He wants us all to succeed, to love artistic creation, growing continuously, both inwardly and outwardly. He wants us all to be poets. I use that term in the broader sense for I feel that his Weltanschauung applies to the whole of the student body, not just those interested in photography or the digital process. With this in mind he began by giving us a basic digital toolbox. This made us all hungry for more but he pulled us back, guiding us rather than letting us run wild. His first koan was “To play-just play”, he said. “Practice. Make mistakes.” His academic philosophy is perceptive and passionate, namely that too many colleges and universities worldwide push students through an academic meat-grinder, producing uniform post-modern drones. He hopes to introduce us to a life-long artistic substance that will have meaning and value beyond the commercial or popular. This is an enriching and painful experience, a satori from which I shall never return. But I digress. First came the pain.

When I arrived here on Paros and began to use my digital camera, I was dismayed to realize that for years I had been taking the same type of picture. My old images failed to excite me. There was no life in their shadows, no warmth in their light. I tried the old ways of seeing, but my eyes, it seemed, had dimmed. Thankfully my silver work did not suffer this dilemma, in part due to the complex ritual and practical restraints inherent in that particular format. My mood became despondent. I searched for answers, but there were none, or perhaps my ears didn’t hear them. I spoke openly with other students about this and other feelings. My psyche was in turmoil and as the days turned into weeks, my inner crisis grew.    This sense of failure intensified as spring break approached. All I could envision were my empty portfolios at the end of the term and the lonely ferry ride back to Athens. One day John took me aside and said, “I have an assignment for you. I don’t know what it is yet, but I will tell you soon…” I waited expectantly. A few days later he had my answer. “I want you to take pictures of negative space. Take only 36 images. Pretend you have a roll of film in your digital camera, not a card that holds hundreds.” I felt a weight lifting. In a deep part of my being lies the need for direction, for tight structure within which I find the freedom for work. Without this architecture my conception becomes formless and vague. He had given me a task. So I rented a little car and spent the day driving around the island. I came back and showed him my work. I was happy, but he was happier. He showed me something I had never seen in my work or myself. For years I had always been taking pictures of what drew me, but always from a distance, or at least disconnected in isolated empty space. He said, “You are good at this, but you are also in a very safe photographic place. I am pushing you out of that.” My new assignment was to find what I loved and then discover in that larger space what initially drew me to the image. “Get in close”, he said. “As close as your lens will allow. Take that picture, then come back and show me what you’ve done.” The fog lifted and my eyes cleared. Fear had kept me safely at a distance all these years but fear of what? Personal expression? Art? Myself the artist? Intimacy?

Adam & Eve by: John Masters

He wants us to be poets. He wants us to find in the visual world not just our voice, but the means of expressing it as well. He wants us to know the craft and the machinery, and then we can make our own decisions and use the best of what any tool has to offer. He wants us to play and practice. The guitarist Robert Fripp speaks of ‘the craft of guitar playing’. After almost 45 years of innovative musicianship, all of it professionally, he still sits down every day and plays scales for at least an hour. He must practice the craft of guitar playing, just as I must practice my craft of seeing and working with light and shadow. The more I practice, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I want to practice with different tools. Only then can my vision flourish.

I am not the same person who arrived here in March. I have left that man behind me, like a snake leaving its skin on a shadowy forest floor. The results of my punabbhava, my “becoming again”, are new to me and exciting and not always comfortable. A vision calls to me, a need to see light, shape, texture and movement as a single event. There is no need for explanation. My work sings and focus measures time in meters. The shadows are bright. The light is warm.

–John D. C. Masters Paros, Spring 2010

Student Post: Stephanie Dissette on Adrianne Kalfopoulou

24, May 2010 § Leave a comment

On Friday, May 14th, the Aegean Center hosted another poetry reading by Adrianne Kalfopoulou. She read poems from her newest book, Passion Maps, which explores a variety of themes, including nostalgia and biculturalism.

After the reading, Adrianne met with the poets in the creative writing class for a special workshop. She had suggested we each bring two poems, which she then took us through, line by line, analyzing as she went.

She made a point of urging all of us to work within as many forms as possible, stating that “learning form is like learning a language; it gives you more options.” Adrianne is mostly a free-verse poet herself, but still practices within form as much as possible. More often than not, she would cut out pieces of our poems, in hopes to add to the “immediacy” of our work. She suggests that all poets try removing all the prepositional phrases in their poems as a way to improve that sense of immediacy, even if you end up putting them back in. It’s a good exercise, and all of us felt its impact on our poems.

Adrianne also helped explain the role of the title in poetry, something we were all struggling with. She said that the title is “the extra line that you get in your poem.” If you choose to leave a poem untitled it means “either it’s beyond you, or a title would limit the poem because it has so many options.” Titling prose and poetry is still one of the hardest things for all of the members of our workshop to do.

We all found Ms. Kalfopoulou to be very relatable, a helpful editor and a wonderful writer. It was special to all of us to meet with her for some workshop time, and I think it’s safe to say the Center will be happy to have her back again to read in future semesters.

Student Post: Jessica Freedman

24, May 2010 § Leave a comment

photo by Caroline Sost

“Of all things which wisdom provides to make life entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.”

– Epicurus

At the Aegean Center there is this great feeling of acceptance; acceptance of your work, abilities, talents and just an overall feeling of finally fitting in. It really is like one big family. I didn’t have siblings growing up and now I have more than I can count on my hands! Making friends is not easy for everyone. Especially when you are in a new country, far away from home, not sure of yourself. I have never really had this problem, but I feel that I can say  the Aegean Center makes it easier.

This is the first time in my life where I actually feel compelled to stay in touch with the friends I have made. This is just my personal experience, but I like to think that everyone else comes here and feels this way. I am so glad I came back. Yes, it is great to be working harder and developing my painting, but I was almost in tears when I saw everyone from last semester. It is wonderful knowing that I will always have these amazing people as my friends.

15, May 2010 § Leave a comment

The Aegean Center has been featured in the Summer Issue of Creo Magazine. The author, Silvia Viñas, wanted to highlight a student’s firsthand experience at the Center and chose Shanoor Seervai, a student fall 2009 Italy-Greece Session, to interview. (Shanoor, we miss you!)

Creo Mag Online (go to page 24)

Creo Magazine Aegean PDF Download (10.8 MB)

Student Post: Maia Bull on Figure Drawing

10, May 2010 § 1 Comment

The first subject that Jane discussed in Figure Drawing was that drawing is communicating your thought process. Drawing is representation, not depiction. My experience in the class has been forgetting my verbal identification with the figure, and learning to see it as formal elements.

The first three processes we learned were mass, energy lines, and constellations. Mass gives the figure weight and proportion. Energy lines illustrate the envelope of space around the figure, movement, and placement on the page. Constellations help to translate the figure from 3D into 2D, by giving you the placement of the figure on the picture plane. When warming up, or in the beginning of a longer drawing, these three processes serve as my initial map for the figure, and usually take only a minute or two. From the beginning I had a tendency to be timid, tight, and small with my lines. This first map of the figure has given me the initial looseness, immediacy, and accuracy vital to making my drawing come alive.

The next process was putting the figure into three dimensional boxes, and finding landmarks on the figure, such as the C of the ear, neck, shoulder girdle, cut-away of the ribs, sacral triangle, and pubic triangle. The boxes illustrate the plane change in the body, making it easy to construct figures in imagined positions with a realistic sense of light and shadow. Once we began to study the skeleton, I found I could also give the figure a feeling of perspective simply by projecting the pelvis, ribcage and skull into boxes.

In the beginning of the course I was overwhelmed and unsure of what to put on my paper. What small bit of light is important to describing the figure? What shadow confuses rather than clarifies? Where should I put a line? As I studied the underlying structure of bones and muscles I began to see the figure as geometric shapes, and understand how best to describe them using light and shadow. The studies we have done in Basic Drawing of spheres, cones, cylinders, and cubes have proved extraordinarily helpful. I began to forget my verbal identification with the figure, and to draw exactly what I was seeing, and more importantly, how to make the figure read on the page.

Usually after the initial stage of the drawing, I move to negative shape. I take my eyes off the figure, and draw the shape between arms and torso, between the legs, between the fingers. In concentrating on these shapes I trick my mind into forgetting any verbal identification I have with the figure, and any preconceived ideas of what an arm, or a leg is supposed to look like. The result is that I get the exact position and peculiarities of the pose.

We have done various other exercises with line quality and expression, but these processes serve as the foundation for more complex ideas such as cross contour shading. It would also be impossible to draw light and shadow without first understanding bone structure, muscles etc. Figure drawing is not only complex technically, but mentally, and the more time I spend on the foundation the more imbedded into my unconscious it becomes, so I no longer have to think about everything at all times. When I look at my drawings I realize that I am not just looking at a half an hour, or an hour of work, but two semesters of learning to see the figure in different ways.

In the last couple weeks my drawings have become, almost unconsciously, about what it is I am communicating through the drawing. Am I seeing the loneliness, or the exuberance of the figure? The heaviness, or the sensuality? Often what I draw startles me in the accuracy of its expression of what I am thinking or feeling. I am constantly confronted with myself through drawing the figure. And for me the beauty of the class is in learning how to communicate my thought process.

Ansel Adams @ the Benaki

2, May 2010 § Leave a comment

Marking the end of a week-long break from classes was a visit, last Saturday, to the Ansel Adams exhibit currently on display at the Benaki Museum in Athens. After a few introductory remarks by John, who worked with Ansel before coming to the Aegean Center, we began to make our way around the barn-like room whose floors creaked noisily beneath us.

Though I have been John’s assistant these past three years I knew little of Ansel Adams and his work, an astounding feat considering the world-wide popularity of his images. I was properly blown away, first by the beauty of the wilderness he photographed, and then by the care with which he consigned his images to paper. I immediately appreciated the degree to which he retained, in the printed image, the sublimity of the original. It is this that makes Ansel Adams a great photographer, the ability to shorten the distance between original intent and final product.

This ability depends entirely on discipline and careful attention to craft. It is a lesson many of our students learn at the Aegean Center and one I also learned when, two semesters ago, I prepared for a solo concert with singing student Chelsey Ternes. My goal was to move an audience the way I myself am moved by my favorite performers and so often by  fellow singers of the ensemble. I embarked on a months long practice schedule during which I sought to correct the vocal problems that impeded my way. I cannot determine the degree to which I achieved my original aim, but I performed the concert confident that I had done my best  and determined, at its conclusion, to continue in pursuit of my goals. I believe that Ansel served a similar if not greater compulsion. (Incidentally, Ansel was originally trained as a classical pianist. In materials presented to his workshop in August of 1983, he writes “I was trained as a pianist and I know the meaning and the fruits of discipline. Without it, I would have progressed slowly, if at all, in photography.”)

As we circled the exhibit a second and third time, students would stop to discuss the elements in Ansel’s photographs that informed their own work as painters, writers and photographers. Fielding questions were Jane, Jun and John, who, at one point, referred to Ansel’s work as poetry.

I think he’s right. Ansel’s photographs, like the writings of Emerson, are the result of long hours spent in nature, in introspective solitude. To capture, for instance, the Clearing Winter Storm, Ansel had to have been there for the storm itself. I pictured him, alone in that vast wilderness, moving through the falling snow. I felt the coolness of his reddened cheeks and the air that filled his lungs. I then saw in the sharpness of his prints an attempt to recreate the clarity of mind which only nature can bestow.

Alongside a brief biographical timeline was a picture, taken in 1930, of a young Ansel in his darkroom. At the tail-end of the exhibit was another, of a much older Ansel. Before us was evidence of a life filled with good work, the result of a dogged dedication to craft. I envied him this and left, wanting to dedicate my own life to something so beautiful. I suspect the students were likewise motivated, as they hurried to catch the afternoon ferry back to their studios and to our pretty little island.


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