Friday, November 21, 2014

Mystical K

William Penn and Benjamin Franklin have dominated Pennsylvania's historical airwaves. Their no-nonsense Protestant ethic served well the ideology of the nation as it developed into a capitalist empire. It is particularly interesting how the majority of Philadelphia Quakers became Episcopalians in the 19th century, suggesting that Quaker spirituality became increasingly incompatible with the industrial state and its needs for material representations. The Quakers mistrusted the visual arts and discouraged their practice.

The Quaker monopoly over how we construct Pennsylvania's identity has eclipsed a parallel tradition that, in contrast, embraced the visual arts as a vehicle for revelation. It grew out of radical Pietism in Germany, which established itself in Lancaster County in the 1730s. Its best known experimental community was Ephrata Cloisters. Susanna Hübner was one of the mystics residing in the Ephrata convent. Like Benjamin Franklin, she produced a book of ABCs, a collection of spiritual poetry. Hübner's letters become visual exercises of meditation as the reader is incapable of ever capturing a calligraphic whole. I have been thinking about Hübner's calligraphy, as I prepare my course on Islamic art, noting a similar spiritual strategy. Above, I have copied the letter K and imagined how Susanna would write my name, in delayed and apophatic silence.

My own college is integrally connected to Ephrata Cloister and German mysticism through Marshall College. Although its founders chose to honor John Marshall, the supreme court justice has very little to do with the college. Similarly, Franklin College honors Benjamin Franklin, who sent a financial donation for its establishment. Franklin's interests were in making sure that the Germans did not secede. The establishment of an Anglo college in the heart of a German county was a measure of realpolitik. Benjamin Franklin and John Marshall take center stage in all of my college's public relations. Lately, I have become a little annoying in trying to highlight the other tradition that has deeper organic roots to our college. I also feel that without an understanding of 18th-century German mysticism within a Baroque vocabulary, Pennsylvania arts become totally incomprehensible. Like the persona of Franklin & Marshall, the mystical art of the German tradition becomes fodder for a shallow consumption of primitivistic Christian tourism.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Deserted Greek Villages: Hackman Research Fellowship Report

This summer, I received a Hackman Research Fellowship grant from Franklin and Marshall College, which paid for my air-fare and car-rental in Greece. What follows is my report submitted to the Committee on Grants. The report offers a nice opportunity to enumerate the various activities of the two-week research and to thank Lucille and William Hackman for their support of over 55 collaborations between faculty and undergraduate students.

During my Hackman Research Fellowship (June 2014), I initiated a new project on the architecture and archaeology of abandoned 19th-century villages in Greece. Joel Naiman ('15) accompanied me on a Hackman Student Fellowship for the duration of the project, and Joanna Radov ('16) joined us for part of the project on a Summer Research Fellowship. The objective of the project was to design a long-term research methodology, while also collecting as much data as possible for a short-term publication. Radov (an Anthropology major) had completed an Independent Study on the sociology of Greek villages the previous semester, and Naiman pursued an Independent Study on historic preservation the following (current) semester. After our return from Greece, Naiman processed the data from one case-study, on the Parhhasian Cultural Heritage Park. He presented a poster "Preserving Greece’s Past: Managing the Architectural Heritage of an Arcadian Village" at the Fall Research Fair and in early-December we will coauthor a formal report to be included in the annual research publication of the Park. In Spring 2016, we hope to submit an article for review in Building and Landscapes, the national journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Naiman’s experiences in Greece are informing his plans to enroll in a Master’s of Science program in Historic Preservation with a future interest in cultural heritage law.

Overshadowed by neighboring temples of antiquity, the medieval and early modern villages of Greece are its most neglected archaeological heritage. Returning to fieldwork that I conducted for my PhD thesis, I revisit the archaeology of deserted villages. Much has changed since the pioneering University of Minnesota Morea Project, my introduction to vernacular architectures studies in the 1990s, where 150 Greek villages and over 3,000 houses were surveyed. Having inherited the archive of this decade-long collaborative project, I revisit the architectural data that was partially published in Houses of the Morea: Vernacular Architecture in the Northwestern Peloponnesos (1205-1950) and the villages themselves. In order to collect new data on villages, we collaborate with ongoing archaeological projects that have already established research centers in Greece. Archaeology in Greece is strictly regulated by the Ministry of Culture, which awards only three excavation and five survey permits to American scholars. Without the financial resources or infrastructure to request one of these coveted permits, we chose to collaborate with projects that have already been granted such permits. Over the course of two weeks, we visited five ongoing archaeological projects that hosted us for 1-5 days. The projects were the Athenian Agora Excavations, the Mount Lykaion Excavations and Parrhasian Cultural Heritage Park, the Eastern Argolid Archaeological Project, the Ancient Corinth Excavations and the Lidoriki Project.

At each of these sites, we collected new data on domestic architecture. This scheme fulfills two simultaneous objectives; it contributes scholarly insights to each project's unique publication agenda, while it also creates a synthetic study among all the projects collectively. Given the increasingly limited resources, this collaborative approach seems fundamental. The pooling of resources and expertise allowed us to innovate in the field of digital humanities. Flying a drone over a number of villages, we created a new and efficient methodology to map villages and reconstruct them in 3D. The drone was brought by our collaborator Todd Brenningmeyer, professor of Art History at Maryville University. At the end of our fieldwork, we participated in a workshop at the Polytechnic Institute of Athens, among a group of digital archaeologists who are experimenting with drones, balloons, and photogrammetry at other sites. The audience of Greek students and academics underscored the vitality of digital mapping. This cutting-edge technology puts our work at new pedagogical thresholds at F&M, too. Having tested it in Greece, we are drafting a set of procedures that could be applied to future case studies in Lancaster County or other regions. Building on our experiences this summer, we are creating a digital mapping lab at F&M's Innovation Zone. A dedicated computer with mapping and photogrammetric software (Agisoft, QGIS) has just been installed (November 2014) and is connected with the 3D printer. In the next year, we hope to fundraise for the purchase of a drone to be used by the faculty widely.

For the remainder of the report, I will describe the specific activities that we carried out in each of the six sites.

1. Athenian Agora Excavations. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens has been excavating the ancient Agora since 1932. In order to reveal the coveted ancient layers buried below the modern city, the American School has had to demolish an entire historical neighborhood consisting of 18th- and 19th-century houses. Before demolition, the excavators produced a detailed photographic record of the house exteriors. Using 3D visualizing software, it is theoretically possible to rebuild those traditional houses in a digital environment. We spent one day at the archives of the Athenian Agora trying out this possibility in a single residential block that contained 12 properties. We combined data from the excavation notebooks, the architectural drawings, and the black-and-white photographs and assembled all the available 2D data (ground plans and facade elevations). We did not want to waste valuable fieldwork time in the digital reconstruction, so we left the processing for a future date. The Athenian Agora Excavations is a research center that brings together American faculty and students. While at the project, we had the opportunity to interact with scholars in residence, including F&M Classics professor Ann Steiner, who had spent her sabbatical year at the Agora. Our project in the Agora was supervised by the archivist Sylvie DuMont, who has just completed a book manuscript on the houses that were torn down for the excavation. I was a reviewer for that manuscript and was encouraged by the publisher to work with DuMont in the publication process. If completed in time for the publication, our digital reconstruction of the residential block could be included in DuMont's images.

2. The Mount Lykaion Project and the Parrhasian Cultural Heritage Park. One of the chief American excavations in Greece during the last five years has been the excavations at Mount Lykaion, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. While focusing on the altar of Zeus and the athletic site as the epicenter of excavation, the Mount Lykaion project has proposed the creation of culturla heritage park that includes a large area surrounding the mountain. Contained in the park zone are a number of villages that have received little scholarly attention. A team from the University of Arizona hosted us for two days at Mount Lykaion. We photographed and drew houses from two 19th-century villages, Ano Karyes and Neda. I had visited Neda four years ago (with a 2010 Hackman Fellow) and had compiled a preliminary overview of the most important old houses. I had targeted one house to be surveyed this summer, only to discover that it had been demolished. Our 2010 photographs of the building are sadly the only record of that structure. At Mount Lykaion we were hosted by project director David G. Romano. We lived in the village of Ano Karyes along with a team of three architecture students from the University of Arizona. 

3. The Western Argolid Project. This summer was the first season of a new archaeological survey and a combined field school for the University of Toronto and the University of Colorado. The project is a pedestrian survey, which systematically collects surface pottery and models the chronological profiles of the agrarian landscape. The research area is concentrated around village Lyrkia and contains a variety of standing structures. Focused on refining the surface survey methodology for its first season, the project did not target standing architecture. We prospected the village of Lyrkia for a future work. More importantly, we prospected a peculiar domestic arrangement built on the cliffs of the surrounding mountain. Dating to the 18th or early-19th century, this rugged installation most likely served as refuge to brigands engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Ottoman feudal overlords who administered the fertile lands below. Hiking to this location and rock-climbing to the top was the hardest part of the fieldwork. We spent one day in the project. At the end of the day, we visited the town of Myloi, a railroad depot during the late 19th-century. Built by French engineers in the 1880s, the train station and warehouses of Myloi contain European architectural elements that -- we believe -- trickled down to the vernacular architecture of the period. Our day in the Argolid was directed by William R. Caraher and Demetris Nakassis. It coincided with the visit of Rebecca Seifried, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is writing her thesis on the deserted villages of the Mani, a region in the southwest corner of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Her insights in computer mapping and digital methodologies were invaluable.

4. Ancient Corinth Excavations. The site of Ancient Corinth has been excavated by the American School of Classical Studies since 1896. Whereas the ancient city has been the primary target of excavations, the project has also been innovating in the field of post-classical studies. The village of Ancient Corinth was itself a late-medieval settlement, which became largely depopulated after a series of earthquakes. Project director Guy Sanders, and project architect James Herbst have been promoting the integrative study of ancient and modern structures. The village of Penteskouphi was slowly abandoned in the 20th century. Constructed out of stone and mud brick, a group of eight houses are slowly deteriorating. The village has been used to train archaeologists in site formation processes, or in illustrating how buildings deteriorate. We were given a tour of Penteskouphi abandoned villages, as well as other 19th-century houses that survive within the excavation site. We spent one day in Corinth and did not collect any data. We simply took stock of the houses and photographed. The village of Penteskouphi, however, will be the next village that we hope to survey in future seasons.

5. The Lidoriki Project. The first week of our fieldwork was spent in the Peloponnese, traveling to three current projects for one or two days. The second week of our fieldwork was spent entirely in central Greece at the municipality of Lidoriki, in the region of Phocis, not far from Ancient Delphi. During the past four years, I have served as co-director of the Lidoriki Project, a collaboration with two colleagues of differing expertise. Miltos Katsaros, professor of architecture in the Athens Polytechnic Institute, brings his students to survey the region's architecture. Todd Brenningmeyer, professor of art history at Maryville University, oversees the digital mapping. The first season of our collaboration coincided with my last Hackman scholar four years ago. Back in 2010, we brought kites and helium balloons to help us document the cultural landscape and extensive rural architecture. This year, we brought a drone that supplemented the kites. The objective of the project is to provide a complete regional picture of agrarian life in this mountainous region. This summer, we surveyed three sites, corresponding two three different chronological periods, ancient Fyskos, medieval Kallion, and early-modern Aigition. The surveying procedure involved placing large targets on the ground and surveying their coordinates. These targets are visible from the drone and can be discerned in the photographs. The drone flies for about 20 minutes over the study area and captures close to 1,000 images. The images are then run through a photogrammetry software, which combines the raster data with the coordinate data and produces a 3D model. These high resolution models can be combined with the measured drawings of individual walls that the Greek architecture students are carrying out with traditional methods (paper, pencil, measuring tape).

Most of our five days in Lidoriki were spent in surveying with the drone. We also had the opportunity to test a couple of related projects, on the diaspora and on folk arts. The mountainous villages of Lidoriki flourished in the late 19th century. An economic crisis (similar to the one experienced by Greece today) lead to a mass emigration to the United States in the 1900s. Interestingly enough, the bulk of the diaspora ended up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they transferred their pastoral skills to the industrial stockyards. In the 1970s, the Greek government built a dam to collect water that would feed the booming city of Athens, 100 miles to the east. The artificial lake submerged villages and farmland and it disrupted traditional networks, further exacerbating the rate of abandonment. The deserted village of Aigition that we surveyed by drone must be correlated to this immigration to the U.S. Using the Ellis Island archives, we have begun to correlate individuals who left their villages and moved to America. During our fieldwork, we met an elderly Greek-American on his annual summer visit to Lidoriki from Milwaukee. This personal link, we hope, will bring forth further connections between Milwaukee's current Greek community and the deserted villages they once occupied.

Finally, we had the opportunity to witness two cultural events in Lidoriki, a concert of traditional chamber music and a festival of folk dancing. Both experiences brought to life the vacant old homes. On our last day, we were also given an inside tour of a folk arts archive and museum. Our collaborators Sofia Klosa and Nikos Lakafosis, who reside in the village full time, have been collecting old agricultural tools, textiles, and handicrafts. They have remodeled an old house to store this material heritage with the hope of one day opening a Folklore Museum. WE applied the same photogrammetric methodology we used on villages to produce 3D models of the museum artifacts. We only had a few hours with the collection and photographed one wool spindle. In the future, we hope to bring a group of art historians that can survey the whole collection and produce a virtual music with 3D-images of the objects. Lidoriiki's remoteness means that, even if it opens, the Folk Museum will not be visited by too many people. A complementing website will assure the dissemination of these crafted objects. Once we have a large set of 3D-modeled objects and 3D modeled architectural spaces, we will be able to digitally reposition those domestic arts back into their original context.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Free Sketching the Geographical Unconsciousness

What happens when you start reading the introduction of a new book and you like it so much, you want to start telling everyone about it? You can play it all academic and start composing a formal review (a genre that you've become fond of) or you can start shouting. Blogging for me is either a form of shouting or a form of whispering, a paradox that has cursed the medium. So, I would like to shout-out that ARGYRO LOUKAKI's new book, The GEOGRAPHICAL UNCONSCIOUS seems absolutely fabulous. The book is not for the meek, a tour-de-force of 400-Ashage-pages, nor for the disciplinary square. It's a collection of SNAPSHOTS that cuts through geography, art history, philosophy, and cultural studies. What makes ME particularly excited is its art-historical ambitions, a field generally weak in the hyper-textual field of Modern Greek Studies. It's a book not limited to the ideological critique of ancient art history but spans from Piero della Francesco to Gustave Eiffel and from Peter Behrens to El Greco. I became aware of Loukaki's work through her last book, Living Ruins, Value Conflicts (2008), and I immediately placed her in a company of what might be called "the new Hellenist historiography" that has revised many of the tired notions about Greek visual and material culture (Yannis Hamilakis, Dimitris Plantzos, etc.) Thanks to scholars like Loukaki, anyone interested in the relationship between archaeology, art, and modernity more broadly must pay serious attention to Greek scholarship. Their breadth and sophistication takes modern Greek studies outside of its "area studies" box.

Since I have only skimmed the book and only read the introduction, I'll hold off for more substantive posts yet to come. But let me say one thing. The author uses a great visual strategy of "free sketches." Compared to the ambitions of the whole book, this will seem rather minor, but I think its important. Loukaki's free sketches are scattered through the book to make visual arguments. In bridges the subjective and the analytical, the visual and textual in a way that "academic writing" that has neglected. Free sketches (engravings, perspectives, etc.) were part of visual discourse before photographic reproduction created the illusion of objectivity -- what  Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison's have called the second "epistemic ideal," see  Objectivity (2010). Loukaki's first free sketch of Piero's Flagellation of Christ (above) immediately captured me. This is the painting that I use in my introduction to Renaissance architecture. Unlike Masachio's Trinity, most commonly used for its simplicity and setting in S Maria Novella (see Trachtenberg textbook, etc.), the Flaggelation better communicates to students the weirdness of perspective. It's the best painting to show how perspective is an epistemic construction and very far from the real (and hence a good entry point for a socio-contextual Renaissance, via Michael Baxandall, etc.) So, I ask my students to sketch for themselves a caricature of the painting. Loukaki has redeemed me classroom tricks.

As Loukaki points out, the Marxist intellectual tradition had been traditionally weary of art (as either too bourgeoisie--which it is--or to be used only as a canvas for social messaging--which sometimes makes for bad art). Visual note-taking in whatever form it takes has been generally distrusted as a critical practice. Archaeologists and art historians have grown to distrust their visual notes, as the "objective" options of CAD drawings or photography gained legitimacy. The "free sketches" encourage a general re-entry into visual thinking through the hand. OK. Still a minor point, but these are the kind of things that matter.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Deserted Greek Villages

Paul Oliver, a foundational figures in the study of vernacular architecture globally, wrote in 1974, "the shelter of Greece has claimed more attention than that of any other country." In 1964, Bernard Rudofsky's exhibition "Architecture Without Architects" at the Museum of Modern Art ushered vernacular architecture into the American mainstream. Greek houses were highly represented in the exhibition. Rudofsky discovered Greek villages in 1929 for his PhD thesis on the vaulted houses of Santorini. The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for the study of the Greek house leading to the major publication of Greek Traditional Architecture in 1983.

The Greek house played a prominent role in modernism because of its simplicity and material honesty. But without Le Corbusier, Brutalism, minimalism and the modernist orientation towards essential aesthetic paradigms, the Greek house loses its prominence. Postmodernism has ridiculed the reductivism of this modernist lens and, in the process, has pushed the study of vernacular architecture to the margins.

During the 1990s, when the Greek economic bubble started to get inflated, Greeks re-invested into their rural origins. Cheap labor -- unskilled Albanian stonemasons -- fueled and explosion of reconstruction projects. This was the decade of the Morea Project, when we documented the rapid destruction of the vernacular fabric under this rural "renewal" manifest in millions of Albanian walls made out of indigenous stone and concrete mortar. Interviewing villagers in the 1990s, we would ask "who has rebuilt your traditional house?" and they would say "northern Epirots," the euphemism for new emigrating Albanians. The stone-masonry traditions of continental Greece have deep roots in Epirus, who made up itinerant groups during the mid-18th-century agricultural boom that created most of the villages that we see today.

Now that the boom has busted, the Greek villages are becoming increasingly re-abandoned. The mad craze of rebuilding has slowed down. A new property tax is beginning to penalize real estate ownership. Abandoned at two previous economic crisis 1890s, 1960s, the Greek villages the rate of abandonment is evident again. Of course, many Athenians are returning to villages and rediscovering traditional ways of agriculture and economic independence, but they are not investing in architecture. From the perspective of historic preservation, a recession has positive effects in warding unchecked development.

A short season of fieldwork this summer made me realize that the preservation and documentation of Greek villages is under a new moment of crisis. Dwindling archaeological resources are applied to the touristically profitable and nationally sacred ancient sites, leaving the early modern village in further disarray. As archaeologists, we are well equipped in methods of studying deserted landscapes. We have developed surveying tools (photogrammetry, Google Earth, drones, etc.) to create a record. This will be invaluable to future scholars. A research agenda focused on deserted villages, moreover, will force us to confront heady ideological issues, such as the anxieties of devaluation. At the height of its 1960s abandonment, certain sections of the southeastern Peloponnese were acquired cheaply by German philhellenes. Something similar is happening in Spain this year, where British investors are buying up deserted houses. See, for instance, "Spain: Deserted Medieval Villages Available 'Free'" (BBC, Mar. 10, 2014). Studying deserted villages helps us think through moments of crisis facilitated by political or economic conflict. Asia Minor and Cappadocia are full of villages forcefully deserted by the expulsion of the Greek population in 1923. Once again, note how British tourists intersect with that heritage, in "Turkey's Religious Ghost Town" (BBC Travel, Aug. 5, 2014). Those deserted Greek villages have seen the most interesting Greek-Turkish collaborations in cultural heritage. The experiences of Detroit and "ruin porn" have also pushed forward the conversation over the pitfalls of aestheticizing someone else's real estate pain.

Without modernism's primitivist fantasy, the Greek house has lost its popular appeal. The Greek house continues to sell itself iconically, as a place form which to experience the Mediterranean's triple S's (sex, sun, sea). The brand was created as a national export by the National Organization of Tourism in the 1960s and it continues to replicate itself. Greek houses continue to be touristically marketed and consumed forming an important component of the economy. But the cultural capital expended is built on notions half a century old. Tourism is still riding on the golden age of  Greek vernacular architecture studies. I think that the time has come to revisit the Greek house though an archaeological rather than an architectural lens. A golden age of Greek vernacular studies might be in the horizon. We must de-essentialize the Greek house as a beautiful topos of man's coexistence with pure nature. Rather, we should essentialize it (for better or for worse) with an acute perspective of decomposition, abjection, loss.


Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Craft: High/Low-Brow Conspiracy

Bill Caraher has proposed a new blog series on Archaeology and Craft. I have spent some of my summer fieldwork documenting craft collaboration in Greek vernacular architecture. Consider the beautiful iron pin here, inserted between two limestone blocks, and pinned into the wooden sash of the door invisible behind the wall. In this tiny construction detail, we have a masterful collaboration between a mason, a carpenter, and a metalworker, masters of three mutually exclusive material. At the same time, I have been looking at American archaeologists of the 1930s. Raised in an Arts-and-Crafts pedagogy, a circle of progressive archaeologists began a scientific inquiry on Greek vernacular crafts. The physical and historiographic research, two sides of the same quoin, bring craft into focus. So, I am excited to engage in the conversation over the craft of archaeology at two levels.

But I'm not ready yet. What I'd like to note instead is this weekend's conversation in the New York Times. A. O. Scott's "The Squeeze on the Middlebrow" relates class stratification to cultural taste. Inspired by Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century," Scott considers Piketty's ramifications of class inequality in cultural production. One way by which the middle class has been squeezed out into a high and low class is by the eradication of the middlebrow. The notion of middlebrow as an American mid-century phenomenon was first articulated by Russell Lynes in "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow" (1949) and elaborated on by Dwight Macdonald in "Masscult and Midcult" (1960). In addition to Scott's essay, the New York Times book review invited two prominent thinkers Pankaj Mishra and Thomas Mallon to elaborate on Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow: Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore? This is a huge topic of discussion of course and it assumes a clear understanding of the unique character of cultural production in mid-century America.

The conversation reminded me that the CRAFT gets implicated into the cultural typology in that it is shared by the lowbrow (who produces it) and the highbrow (who worships it) as a mode of eradicating the middlebrow who gives it a much lower cultural value. In Lynes words, "The highbrows would like to eliminate the middlebrows and devise a society that would approximate an intellectual feudal system, in which the lowbrows do the work to create folk arts and the highbrows do the thinking and create fine arts." The passage also reminded me of Thorstein Veblen's similar analysis in his 1899 "Theory of the Leisure Class," where he considered the upper class's embrace of premodern habits, like candlelit dinners, to distinguish themselves from the middle class (who uses electricity at dinner).

This post is just an open question. The avant-garde of the early 20th century loved folk culture for its purity and preindustrial authenticity. Modern art began to look increasingly primitive and non-western, as a strategy to critique mass production. The study of craft contains an inevitable tension between the academy (which Veblen argues get a special entry into the upper class) and the lower class. In the late 19th century, theorists of the Arts and Crafts built on a model of socialist utopia that bypassed the middlebrow problem. Any investment in craft at some fundamental level is an act of resistance to mass production and capitalist exploitation. But at the same time, the discourse of craft hides a strange alliance between high and low. Not sure what to make of this paradox yet, if only to throw it in the conversation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jesse Vital's Lancaster Mural


The American urban landscape contains hand-painted images that are often drawn by unknown artists and illustrators. Lancaster is such a place. Benjamin Leech and I have noted the need to somehow document the city's vernacular heritage. One of my favorite Lancaster murals is at White's Auto Sales and Services located on 4 East McGovern Avenue. So, one day, I decided to walk into the automotive repair store and talk to the owner, who gave me the name of the artist who did the mural, Jesse Vital. The next step was astounding. Through some initial research, I learned that Jesse Vital is currently a successful illustrator for Hollywood. The mural was one of his earliest projects. He painted the mural in return for some auto work on a van he had just bought, which would become his ticket out to California.

The story was amazing enough that I had to talk to Jesse, who generously granted me a telephone interview on May 24, 2014. What follows is the transcription of that conversation. 

KK I wanted to get a bit of the history of the mural and the circumstances about your life in Lancaster. I’ve seen you are a pretty accomplished illustrator in the West Coast, and it’s exciting that you’ve had some time in our neck of the woods.

JV I’ll try to hit the major points. I was born in Lancaster and my dad, my family still lives there. I had moved around a little bit with my mom when I was a kid and wound up in art school in North Carolina, in the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then in Baltimore at Maryland Institute College of Art, I went there for a couple of years, too. At one point I just wound up moving to Lancaster, I didn’t really know what to do and that was around Y2K. I moved back to town, and I had a little bit of experience waiting tables, so I started to do that for a while. I was still pretty young, I’d say probably 23-24, and I had quite a fine art background. I did a lot of figurative work and painting, but it was more classical style than abstract.

KK I can see from your website that you’re pretty amazing realistic classical representation.

JV The website is reflective of the kind of commercial work that’s really popular out here in Hollywood, which is a very fast illustration, a lot of sketching. It’s very heavily figuratively based, so it suits me. It’s fast, it’s all done on the computer, it’s done with a screen tablet, so I draw right into the computer. It allows me to manipulate textures and brushes really fast. That style was something that was kind of new. At the when I was in Lancaster, I was doing a lot of oil painting and drawing, and I hadn’t done any illustration per se. When I was working at one of the restaurants, Symposium Restaurant actually, which is out on Columbia Avenue, I want to say. They needed a mural. They came to me because they knew I was an artist, and where like “will you do a mural in our new addition to the building?” So I took it on, and it was very, you know, it was kind of a big deal for me, but looking back it was like 1,000 dollars. You know, it was just fortuitous. Who else was going to do it?

KK Do you know if it’s still up?

JV I think it is. I wouldn’t testify to the quality because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I never had done this kind of thing before. So I was trying to scale up the painting I was doing to a mural. I really didn’t have any training on how to do murals or a good business model. I had no apprenticeship per se. So I just kind of jumped in because that’s the kind of person I am. So I did that one. I did a few others. From that I got quite known for doing murals because there was a small article in the paper, in the Life Style Section. It’s in the Lancaster Newspaper, I want to say it’s in the Sunday edition. I think I have the article if you need me to, I can scan it and send it off to you. I did a few projects. And I would always be working as a waiter. I also worked at Lancaster Galleries then for a little bit in the frame shop, and I was doing frame restoration with them. At the same time, I was also really into music, so I was playing a lot of gigs as a musician. And through my gigs as a musician, I got hooked up with this guy that was opening up a garage. He was like, “hey, I need somebody to help me create a logo and maybe a sign for my garage.” I guess, instead of him going to just a regular sign shop, he wanted something special, and I guess somebody told him that I could something a little special. I believe my friend Brett Stabley who is my dad’s friend hooked us up because he was a little bit older than me.

KK Is it the guy that’s there now because he is the one that gave me your name when I inquired?

JV This guy was named White, I can’t remember his first name. It was White’s, and it was his own personal garage. So, I said to him, “look,” this is the funny part of the story, I said “I just bought a Volkswagen bus, a 1976 Volkswagen Camper bus and it needed a lot of work.” I had actually bought a second Volkswagen bus that was in the process of being restored, so it had all the windows out, it was really just for parts. So I had these two buses, and I said, “I want to take the engine out of one and put it in the other, but I do not know how to do that. So if you guys can do that for me, I’ll do all your signage and your business cards and all your logo stuff.” And they were like, “OK.” So it was really a handshake deal. No official contract. It was just a trade, like a real down and dirty. I had the bus towed into his shop. I came up with some sketches. I said I want to paint a mural on the side of the building. Because he wanted to compete, there were a lot of car places in that area and he wanted his to stand out. And I said, you know, we should do something where we put the logo on the side of the building. And he kind of was like said, “OK, do whatever you want to do. Just do it.” There was no creative direction from him. He liked the sketches of the little logo I designed, which I had drawn by hand but scanned in the computer and finished off in the computer. So it had a real crisp graphic look to it. And then, what I did for the mural is, I printed it out and then I had a projector. I believe I borrowed a projector, and we projected it on to the wall and aligned it. Because I was so worried, I hadn’t done an outdoor mural, so I used Rust-Oleum paint, like in a can. I just bought the appropriate colors. Some of them I had to mix to get the colors right and I believe it held up pretty well because I think it’s still there.

KK Yeah. I don’t know how bright the original was but it looks very very clear.

JV I think it’s just. If it’s dulled anything, I think it’s just the white has maybe dulled just from dirt. I think that Rust-Oleum paint is pretty indestructible. I was very careful about it because it was more of a transfer. When I painted it on it was very precise. And then, he, I don’t know if it’s still there, but he had some signs out front, on the front side, above the garage doors which I painted. His logo that I designed across “White’s Automotive” and the phone number.

KK And the wrench, right?

JV Yeah, it has the wrench. Well the idea was that the wrench was just the simple logo and the other guy was the more complex logo. And again, I should emphasize, I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t something, you know, it wasn’t like you hired an advertising company and I was subcontracted. I was just trying to do what I thought was appropriate if I owned the garage. You know, this is what I would do. It was very simple. It was a learning experience because I had to learn how to use the computer to make art. It was one of the first times I had done that. Also, I think, around the same time, I did a mural on the side of the Alley Kat, which is I believe on Prince Street, or Duke Street, I can’t remember, it’s down there. It’s not far, in fact, I think I met the White guy from playing in the Alley Kat. I had painted some little cats on the doors in the Alley Kat, where there are these little cartoon cats are peeing. So, like the little cartoon cat man is peeing in the urinal and there is a little cartoon cat girl, she’s like a Siamese cat, and she’s sitting on the toilet. And they are fun and innocent, cute, little paintings because again, I knew the guys, and they were “well, what would you do?” And then they had that side of the wall and they wanted to just do something bigger and I painted the logo. But that logo on the Alley Kat I did not design. So the White’s one was much closer to my heart, I was personally invested in that one. And that’s one of the reasons why I was so anxious to actually have this interview because it was something that I really enjoyed doing.

KK …. Your mural is my favorite and I wanted to start with that one.

JV Yeah, I do know there is a woman who’s really known for it [Karen Hunt]. I can give you a little bit of background from what I knew from working because the art scene in Lancaster, if you were a struggling artist, was actually quite small, people that were handing out jobs to do, for example murals or a portrait. And I did a lot of informal portraits for people. For some reason I got known for painting a lot of people that had recently died. So, I did about half a dozen paintings from these old photographs of a dead grandmother or grandfather. But I knew a bunch of people that were struggling artists. One of the things that Lancaster has that not too many people know about is that there is a big sound stage company called Clair Brothers. And Clair Brothers, I believe are in the county, near the airport, I’ve never been there. But right next door is a separate company, kind of a sister company, a little bit smaller, it’s its own company, but I don’t remember the name of it, but they do stages, they do backdrops for the stages. [see Atomic Design] So Clair Brothers builds the stage, and they’ll build stages for Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stone because there is a lot of space up there, it’s wide open, they just make these mobile stages, the ones that they brake down and put in like ten tractor trailer trucks. Then the sister company will make the backdrops and they will paint the logo of the band or they’ll design something specific for the set piece; they work with the art director. And that company has, … they’re doing these large large paintings, I’d say, you know, 30 feet across some of them, no canvas, that they roll up. They also work a lot with MTV. And I knew a guy that used to work there, and he worked at the Lancaster Gallery with me. And he knew a woman that also used to work there. She did a lot of the murals around town because she learned how to do murals by painting these backdrops. And she did the one that’s, I want to say, I’m really bad with my street names. She did one around town that’s on the side of the building, it’s on basically, if you were at Franklin and Marshall and kind of drove down towards closer to town, to Queen Street, you might run by it. [West End, Karen Hunt]. When I was living there, there was a tiny little bird store. It’s on the side of a block of row houses and it’s a scene of row houses. And it’s one that the mayor, I think commissioned her, and the neighborhood got some funding together. I don’t remember her name, but if you were to contact Lancaster Galleries they definitely would now, because they are much more closer related to the art scene in Lancaster. That would actually be a good place to do some research, too, because a lot of artists go through there…. There is not a whole lot of money to be had in Lancaster, if you are an artist. You can pickup a mural, you can pickup certain things, it’s kind of like, a portrait here or there. I would make a little bit of money, but I don’t think I ever, you know, made enough to definitely do it fulltime. Now being a commercial artist in Hollywood, I moved out here in 2006, and I was lucky enough to break into the scene. There is a lot more availability for illustrators and artists working in entertainment, but what I know now about how things are done, if I were to go back to Lancaster, you have to sell to tourists. You can’t just do things that people are asking you to do, you basically have to be a businessman, if you want to be successful. That’s my opinion.

KK If I may ask, how did you, did you already have a job and then move to the West Coast?

JV Oh no. It was my dream to move out here. So I spent from 2000 to 2006 in Lancaster and the whole time I would tell everybody, “well, I’m moving to California next year.”

KK You had the bus, right?

JV I bought the bus to move to California, that was the whole point. But then as it turns out, I ended up moving right to the middle of Hollywood. And the more I researched it and talked to people that had had some history and some experience with California, they said, “well, if you are an artist, you have to move to Hollywood.” That was the thing I heard over and over again. I didn’t necessarily want to move to Hollywood, it’s not the nicest part of California, it’s not as beautiful as San Diego, or some of the other beach towns, or San Francisco, but it was actually a very good decision because there is a lot of opportunity for artists in this town in all kinds of respects. But there is so many jobs working in movies, special effects, storyboarding, commercials, a lot of storyboarding jobs. In fact, that’s what I was doing last night. All the stuff you se on TV, every commercial you see on TV, every action scene in every TV show. I knew artists that were storyboarding on Jonas Brothers. They would go to the Disney lot every day and just draw with the director, for the Jonas Brothers TV show, which is kind of like a very low ranked TV show. They still need storyboards, they still need to show everybody what they’re going to be shooting for the day. And then I worked mostly on advertising, so I do a lot of the movie poster stuff, which suits me really well, and it’s kid of like a dream come true because for a while I was very much interested in movie posters as a kid. The West Coast is an image place so drawing, art in general, visual things really suits this place. New York, I have a friend there that does storyboards, and he can find work working for advertising companies and stuff, but it is even harder. It’s harder than here, where I get sometimes four calls a day. I’ve been very busy, very busy….

KK Would you come to F&M and talk to our studio art students about your experiences?

JV Oh totally. I really want people to know that if you really strive and this is really your passion, you can preserver. There is a lot of opportunity. It’s different kind of opportunity. Like I said, if I were to be in Lancaster and that’s where I’d have to make it, I would be much more along the lines of Tom Hermansader, are you familiar with him? He would paint local scenes, like the square, or the opera house, and then he would sell them at the mall, you know. You basically create a commodity, a product, and then everybody in town would end up buying one for very cheap, you know, 20, 30, 40 dollars, just a print, a framed print. I worked with him just a little bit, but he did very well. He was very successful as an artist and he owns two Victorian mansions in Columbia that are just gorgeous, restored, beautiful homes. I mean, he owns two of them, that’s not bad for an artist.

KK Is he like a local Thomas Kinkade?

JV Yeah, basically a local Thomas Kinkade, Yeah, exactly, almost the same kind of feeling, too. You know, it’s art that makes you feel good about the place that you live. And that’s certainly an opportunity that is available to anybody, but a lot of people. I always like to stress the point that creative people can sometimes be incredibly uncreative when it comes to making money. [laugh] You have to basically take the creativity, the creative spirit, and apply it to every aspect of your life because otherwise you’re dead in the water. As soon as you get boxed in with your thinking, “oh, well, if I don’t get another mural, you know, then I’m gonna go broke; let’s give up being an artist.” That’s not how it works. Sometimes you have to take that portrait job or learn calligraphy, or do whatever the market wants or needs and right now, even in my career, which is quite lucrative and very successful at the moment, I constantly have to stay ahead of the game, otherwise I’ll just get bored. So even when you are successful, I fell like you still have to be creative. Constantly. I don’t even like to do the same thing for too long. As soon as it gets easy for me, I get kind of bored.

KK Great. This has been very interesting to hear your trajectory and make the connection with the mural that I see everyday and you probably haven’t seen in years.

JV You know, it’s funny, every time we go back, I try to drive by it, I love it. You picked the one that I am really truly, I feel like it’s my baby. I’m glad to know that someone is interested in Lancaster’s artistic heritage. I do suggest that you go by and talk to the people at Lancaster Gallery. They are very much in, they carry the flame, so to speak, and they are very community oriented, and they know everybody. If you needed a mural, they would tell you ten artists that you can call, you know? They are that type of company.

KK What do you think makes Lancaster so unique in its art scene, is it because of PCAD and Millersville? Is it because it’s close to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York?

JV I knew a lot of the guys. My mother was divorces when I was very young and one of her friends was an artist. I believe he went to Millersville. He was very very good and I knew that he was, ever since I was a little kid. He would bring me comic books that his friend illustrated, people like Timothy Truman, who lives in Lancaster. Now all these guys, all the best artists in town, the really good draftsmen, the really classically oriented guys, guys like the one I’m speaking of, Jeff Guide, they all eventually coalesced around PCAD and became teachers there. I believe in the 80s, from what I’ve heard, the art scene in the 80s in Lancaster was very good. As far as a small town goes, people had a lot of money, the rich people were buying a lot of original art, it was a sort of Renaissance in Lancaster. And then, PCAD kept it going, when that started up, and kept all these guys with food on their tables. And then lately, it’s had another rebirth because of the whole Queen Street scene. So, I think form what I understand, as far as being an artist in Lancaster, the best times were in the 80s because you could have an art show and you would sell most of your paintings. Now you’re lucky to sell a few. But some of the best artists, some of the really popular ones that have collectible stuff, and have a little fan base, they’ll still do very well. In Lancaster Galleries they would have art shows once a month, once every six weeks and about two or three times a year they would have somebody in that would just sell out. All their work was very lucrative and very collectible. But most of the time, they were just doing it because they were supporting the artist. You know, they would sell enough to break even to make up for the advertising. But Lancaster, I think, I can’t speak of it now because I left in 2006, but my feeling is that in general people like art, they want it, they seem to now maybe need permission, you know, whereas back in the 80s it was much more of a competitive thing. Oh, you know, how successful your office is and how nice your art is on the walls. Everybody kind of knew and it was like a game. I remember going into my dentist’s office and it had these beautiful paintings by David Brumbach, I believe is his name, beautiful watercolors, they were done in the 80s. It was just amazing, large, city scenes, rainy wet Lancaster streets, but beautifully painted and they were all originals. And I found out later that that was his dentist [laugh]. They were just traded. The dentist would spend a lot framing them, making them look really beautiful and it would create an atmosphere of affluence, you know. And I didn’t see that kind of work in the 2000s, but I’m sure it’s coming back, whereas you are creating that vibe of affluence by having really nice art. I would be happy to talk to the students, and make sure that they know that there are possibilities and opportunities out there. Like I said, you have to be creative and you have to be really really stubborn, and incredibly determined. It’s definitely there. It may not be there in the way that they imagined in their heads, because I know I had imagined this fantasy about being this famous artist when I was a kid. Believe me, I don’t know anybody that has that fantasy. The ones that are the most successful are the ones that just work, 24-7. I can tell you a few friends that haven’t had a vacation in several years, but they are very successful artists.

KK Good, I think I got enough to get me going. I will definitely keep in touch with you.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mapping Greek Villages: Neda

I am returning to the villages of Greece, continuing with fieldwork on vernacular architecture. Earlier plans of reviving the Morea Project had been thwarted by the sad death of project director Fred Cooper. In 2010, I visited David Romano's Mount Lykaion Project to brainstorm ways of integrate our old data from the Morea Project with the new data from Parrhasian Heritage Park. The two projects geographically overlap. We prospected the village Neda as one of the villages to be connected with the new path system. Unfortunately, it was not one of the villages that the Morea Project mapped, so we don't have the benefit of archival data from the 1990s. On the Parrhasian Park, see here.

The broader agenda for the summer is to explore the Greek house through multiple case studies. We will reconstruct 19th-century houses torn down in Athens in the 1930s (but well recorded by the Agora excavations), we will survey the town of Lidoriki in Central Greece (part of the ongoing FandM Lidoriki), we will visit the first season of the Western Argolid Survey, and we will explore the digital archives of Ancient Corinth. I will be accompanied by my student Joel Naiman, who will be working on this material all summer as part of a Hackman Scholarship at F&M. 

Lots have changed since I last surveyed Greek villages. Maps are not secretly guarded by the Greek state as treasures of military security. The proliferation of satellite mapping by Bing or Google have made any attempt by nation-states to control information obsolete. But the availability of free and ample data can be misleading. One has the feeling that all is actually available, since village plans are discernible in those satellite images and the human cartographer is obsolete. Google and Bing maps create a challenge in our field methods. I have thought about how to incorporate them in the survey this summer. It seems to me that a blend of high and low tech skills is necessary. Bringing a satellite image into the field does not actually assist the brain in making decisions about urban or architectural value about what is important and what is not.

This summer, I will test the following method. Although we'll be bringing drones, kites, and high-tech visual instruments, I will be maintaining quality control through hand drawings. Before leaving for Greece, I have created simply hand-drawn maps based on what is visible on Google Earth. The process is time-consuming because it requires careful looking and keeping of measurements without any tool other than the eye. So, I've taken my iPad to my favorite cafe with an internet connection; I've signed onto Google Earth; and with an 11 x 24 in drawing pad, I have tried to produce a set of simple black-and-white plan showing visible structures. The process follows producing three different site-plans. 

Part I: NEIGHBORHOODS



The first drawing takes the outer-most zoom of the settlement and moving back-and-forth between "map" and "satellite" determines what Google considers to be the major streets and boundaries of the settlement. The limits of the settlement Google denotes in gray, and here I have translated them into steeples. This proves useful in dealing with large settlements (which Neda is not) in subdividing the total area in smaller units that can receive a numerical system. In Neda, for example, you can see a dozen zones. In larger villages (like Lidoriki) we have 50.

II. BUILDINGS



Google and Bing images have enough resolution that one can discern roofs and building shadows, enough so that one can discern structures. Sliding through and zooming in-and-out of the Google satellite image, one can start placing buildings on the map. I do this first with a pencil, so that I an erase mistakes. Once I am sure I have all the structures accounted for, I just darken them is. So, these will become the objects of study. With this drawing in hand, we will visit each building and collect specific information.

III. SPACE



The final pass involves zooming further into Google and extracting finer information about the buildings, including how they relate to one another, roof types, etc.

So this is what I have prepared before the field. In a couple of weeks, I will join the Parrhasian Heritage Part team and see if this system works. There I will reunite with Mark Davison (Park Services) and David Romano (now at Arizona), who were my hosts two years ago. Wish us luck. I look forward to revisiting the house shown above that is one of the black fields in my drawings. The limited information from Google makes believe, however, that the house has greatly collapsed since 2010. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Argo and Bloomsbury Tents

The 21st edition of George Theotokas' Αργώ, recently reprinted by Estia has ugly typography and an even uglier cover (and why was it split into two volumes, I don't know). Gone is the beautiful font from the original (1936) edition. Van Pelt Library has a copy of the 3rd edition (1957), which I copied above.

Browsing through Richard Stone's Bloomsbury Portraits (1976; rev'D 1993), I was captivated by a set of drawings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell from 1913. They document camping trips at Thetford Forest, Norfolk. The tents are no different from the type used by the French Expedition in Greece in 1829 (see here). Grant's painting (above) is in a private collection. It speaks of a social indeterminacy and a bohemian attempt for ecological immersion. It seems that friends set up tents even when visiting the house in Charleston. Bell's work (below) is a screen that folds into three, now at the Victoria and Albert. Unlike Grant's painting that looks at the trio from the outside, Bell populates the folding triangular space with erotic figures, bending, turning, exposing breasts, thighs, faces. The same year, Grant hang out with Picasso in Paris, where they discussed ripping wallpaper to use in collages. I find an interesting resonance between ripping the paper of 19th-century interiors while also exploring the thinness of tent dwelling.

Zirwat Chowdhoury (Reed College) and William Tronzo (UC San Diego) are chairing a panel on "The Tent: One of Architecture's Many Guises" at the next annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians (see here). The bohemian expansion into tent space ca. 1913 would make an interesting topic. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Andy Upright & Ann Klicka


At GO WEST! Craft Fest, I met two incredible craftsmen, the master Andy Upright and his apprentice Ann Klicka, who were illustrating the production of metalworks. The rhythmic beating of the molten iron on the anvil and a most interesting conversation made me realize the uniqueness of metalwork in the general spectrum of DIY craft revivals. It dawned on me that today's popular crafts, whether it be knitting, food, or vaudeville, exist in a zone of individual self-actualization. They fit comfortably into the edges of non-offensive and isolated social activities and they are rather shy of tackling the architectural environment. The art of the metalsmith, on the other hand, links other crafts together, it communicates and creates a material continuum. It has to bind stone (building structures) to wood (human softness), it intercedes between the mason and the carpenter. Stone is too hard and wood is too soft, making it extremely difficult to set wood into stone without a metal hinge. 

Andy Upright and Ann Klicka are excellent metal artists on their own right. Although raised in Minnesota and Massachusetts, respectively, their work made me celebrate the continuity of a Philadelphia tradition that goes back to Samuel Yellin. I remember the impact Yellin's workshop had on me when I visited it with my high school class. And Ann tells me that the Yellin Workshop is still managed by Clare Yellin, Samuel's grand-daughter but is not going as strong as it did during my high-school days.

When I picked up Andy's and Ann's cards, I thought of contacting them with ideas of historian-craftsman partnerships, like documenting Philadelphia's architectural iron. But first, I needed to do something appropriate with their actual cards. What you see above was my intuitive reaction to the magic they shared with an adoring audience at Go WEST! Craft Fest (including the undivided attention of two five-year old ones). Later that day, a craft beer specialist at The Local 44 Bottle Shop recommended a Gose, a crazily medieval beer that takes like salt and lemon and is still made in Leipzig. So, I had to remove the label from the bottle and paste it next to the metalwork Andy's and Ann's cards. Both experiences made me incredibly humbled to be living in a neighborhood where craft conversations are exerting a force of resistance.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Ruskin's Favorite Tomb


Followers of this blog may remember tracing one particular type of late-19th-century American funerary monument (Hand Monument, Hartman Monument, Brady Monument, etc.) This week, I was reading about World War I monuments in J. S. Curl's Death and Architecture (2002) and came across the origin of this funerary type in the chapter on medieval monuments. More exciting (but not surprising) was to learn that Ruskin was the figure who discovered this medieval type in the monument of Can Grande I della Scala in Verona (1355). In The Stones of Venice, he called it "the consummate form of the Gothic tomb"(Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 87).  See a beautiful drawing from John Ruskin's Teaching Collection at Oxford. A similar Scaliger Tomb, of San Signorio della Scala (1365), served as the model for Prince Albert's memorial at Kensington Gardens (1872) by G. G. Scott. The image above is from my notebook (and --clearly-- not Ruskin's).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

R7L17 Introductory

R7L17 is a guide to the Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture for seventeen-year old readers. The following annotations refer to Ruskin's "Introductory."  See earlier posts that explain the intentions.

The key argument in the Introduction is the need to have clear objectives. Making good judgments, argues Ruskin, is less a problem of execution but more a problem of defining clear goals. ,

[par. 01] This paragraph might be entitled "the right versus the possible." Ruskin introduces this work by referring back to a conversation he had some years ago, as if the conversation still plays out in his mind, and as if the conversation is now extended to us, who enter the scene. The conversation, interestingly enough, is not with a theologian or a philosopher, but with a painter, in fact, the best painter of his age. The interlocutor is distinguished simply for his ability to combine perfection in drawing (the formal qualities of line and composition) with "resplendence" in color. What is "resplendence." It's only the third line into 7L and we encounter an unfamiliar word. "Resplendence" means shining brilliantly. That this particular painter combines those two skills suggests that they are different and, in fact, difficult to combine. Indeed, formal composition, i.e. the making of form (lines, shapes, volumes) is quite different from the coloristic quality of the painted surface. If the former is rational and abstract, the latter is sensual and almost tactile. Good art for Ruskin needs both. It's not particularly important, but the artist that Ruskin is valorizing is William Mulready (1786-1863), a painter best known for his rural scenes. [LESSON: Show an image that illustrates the tensions between forma and color]
The moral of the conversation is encapsulated in Mulready's statement "Know what you have to do, and do it." This directive seems to simple to be useful. It is useful in as far as it points attention to the foreknowledge of what is right as a necessary prerequisite for a successful execution. Ruskin here develops an ethics of action hinged on clarifying objectives and executing on them. Failure comes less from the actuality that resists completion, but more from the inability to hold clear goals. This leads into Aphorism 1: "We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible." With the help of our conscience, our moral self, and our divine self, we can always ascertain what is right. In contrast, we might not always have the necessary data to assess what is possible. Since the possible is indeterminate, we should not use it as a guide. In other words, we should not base what we should do in what we perceive at that particular moment of time as doable. We are better off, basing our actions on what we know is right. Making decisions from the bottom up rather than the top down allows the muddled understanding of what is possible to interfere with the absolutely desirable. So, decide what is right first and execute regardless of the instrumental efficacy. [EXERCISE: Think of a good example in ethical judgement or political choice, where we make a decision made on efficacy; but then something changes and our initial calculation proves to be mistake; in contrast a choice base on principle does not waver or change]

[Par 02] Consideration of architecture need not be different from considerations of actions or politics because architecture is a "distinctively political art." This is an interesting assertion. Ruskin doesn't clarify what he means, but we can think of some possibilities. Since architecture is created by communal resources, then it should be considered a product of "the polity." 
Ruskin acknowledges that history has given us a confusing set of traditions regarding architecture. Those might have arisen from constricted situations. Ruskin wants to consider the basis of architecture without tradition. He starts with simple observations of opposites: imagination is different from technicalities; the soul is different from the body. Architecture's job is to unite those extremes, it balances the lower bodily parts of human existence with the simplicity and purity of the higher spiritual elements. If too much attention is given to considerations of material and construction, "the interference of the constructive," then architecture loses the purity and simplicity of its essential character. Ruskin accuses the architects of his time for giving materiality too much attention, obsessing over new material, and suggesting that material alone determines form. In this paragraph, Ruskin associates material/construction with the circumstantial constraints of moral action, hoping to place some primary essence in par with the pure moral right. In other words, just as we need an ethical "right" before we execute any action; we need an architectural "right" before we put it in a material form. The laws of architecture that we come up with will, thus, be pure of material contingencies. They will be universal and always applicable (like the absolutes of morality). The ethical rule "thou shall not kill" should not be contingent on the circumstances of the killing.

[Par 03] Against situational ethics. If we are looking for a universal law, it should not vary according to the kind of art we practice. Whatever holds true for painting should hold true for architecture or music. It should hold "for the horizon of man's action." Interesting how Ruskin uses a landscape metaphor -- the horizon (like "resplendent" color) -- to drive his point. Ruskin makes an interesting sub-point in this paragraph. Even though the situational principal takes its power from the universal, this does not mean that there is any loss, degeneration, or diminution. Principals are not quantitative units that are subdivided into domains; neither are they forces that lose force as they trickle down the metaphysical ladder. This is an important point for the following paragraph, where Ruskin will argue that every action, even menial actions (like the condition of slavery) can theoretically participate in universal redemption.

[Par 04] Finally, Ruskin tells us why he called his principals "Lamps" and not "laws" or "axioms" or "rules." A lamp illuminates us through the dark. A lamp also has potential energy; it can burn. Light cannot be distorted, it will always be light. Even if a light is faint, it is still a light; it has the potential to enlighten and to guide. What are the actual seven lamps? Ruskin hasn't listed them yet beyond the table of contents: 1. Sacrifice, 2. Truth, 3. Power, 4. Beauty, 5. Life, 6. Memory, 7. Obedience. Wow!!! This seems like a list of arbitrary concepts. Why these lamps and not others, and why seven (and not five or nine? Ruskin tells us that his list is not systematic or exhaustive. He chose seven because it was most "convenient" and not out of some master system. Ruskin does not claim to be some systematic philosopher. His lamps are not like laws of nature that could be tested with experiments. He even suggests that there could be more than seven. Thus, the enterprise of talking about lamps, is a process of talking about energy, and discovering about that energy through the process of reading and looking. In Ruskin' own admission, the arrangement is "arbitrary," so we could easily switch the order and the nomenclature is "illogical." Twentieth-century scholars have found Ruskin to be highly inconsistent himself, even between one work and another. 

[Par 05] Aphorism 2. Here Ruskin makes the important assertion that all practical laws are exponents of moral laws. In other words, what he had in mind about universal laws, was really all about moral laws. We know right away, that Ruskin must have a much richer notion of morality than a set of rules or laws, an explicit legislation. In the breath of "morality" he is really thinking aspirational "virtues" or the kind of things that spiritual beings possess. And the trickiest part of Ruskin's idea of virtue is that it cuts across all levels of existence from "the works of the hand" (things we make), "the movements of the frame" (what we do with our bodies), and "the action of the intellect" (what we think). Ruskin is not a philosopher, so he will not try to give us exhaustive and complicated arguments about the veracity of his claims. Let's just accept his notion of "fellowship," that what we do in the banal world of our bodies and actions may have some "fellowship," or friendly interaction with spiritual things, like God.

[Par 06] Ruskin will further deepen his notion of fellowship with the divine by showing the most unlikely actions or works can have virtue. This is a crazy idea, right? "the drawing of a line or utterance of a syllable" are capable of dignity. Ruskin thinks that a single sound (a syllable does not even make up a word) can have dignity. Similarly, a simple line that you draw on a white sheet (before it even makes a shape) can also be full of dignity. We'll have to do a couple of exercises in class to really capture this. Basically, Ruskin asserts here that there is no hierarchy or moral ladder. Intellectual pursuits at the top of the moral ladder are no different that banal physical things at the bottom of the moral ladder. Even the worst possible situation, slavery or drudgery, participates in the divine. 
For the time being, let's proceed to Ruskin's two quotations that show a further extreme of how something horrible can be in "fellowship" with virtue. Ruskin quotes George Herbert (1593-1633) and his poem "Elixir." Ruskin does not give us this information because he assumes we already know it. Elixir, in Ancient Greek, is a medical powder that literally dries out wounds. Metaphorically, it came to mean the cure for life, with alchemic connotation. The elixir is then a transformative ingredient. In this poem, Herbert argues that there is some ingredient that can transform the drudgery of labor (even of a slave) into a pleasurable thing. Hard work done for good ends becomes tolerable. Thus sweeping the room, the most brainless and demoralizing activity contains some fellowship with the divine.
The second reference in this paragraph is to John Knox (1514-1572). Knox was a leading figure of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church. You can find an image of Knox in the stained glass windows of the Lancaster Theological Seminary across the street. When the French attacked Saint Andrews in 1547, Knox was captured and forced to row in the galleys of the French ships. In this case, slave labor was drudgery but had divine ends.

[Par 07] In the last paragraph and Aphorism 3, Ruskin lights up some fire under us, awakening us to some highly immoral historical era. Keep in mind that Ruskin is writing from the perspective of modernity, witnessing the Industrial Revolution, seeing in front of his eyes the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of human beings in the factory. He is not sheltered in some suburban liberal arts college. He is at the heart of the inner city, at the heart of industrial production. He witnessed evil first hand (as we do when we watch The Wire, or House of Cards).
What is the crux of Aphrism 3? Ruskin basically tells us of two common alternatives that we can witness current even today. One alternative is to tackle the problem from a most theoretical perspective. We can just philosophize endlessly and argue ourselves through all the possibilities, kind of like what you are supposed to be doing in a liberal arts college, turning every "foundational" problem over and over, seeing all its facets through the comfortable distance of a privileged education. The second alternative is to just amuse ourselves, simply make the best of a bad situation by trying to have as much fun as we can. We can party hard and luxuriated in the material pleasure that modernity has made so easy for us. Both alternatives, the common solutions, are a problem for Ruskin. Both are avoidance strategies. The future is full of mystery and must be tackled through direct engagement. Whatever is happening today is exponentially getting worse, "like letting out of water."
Ruskin said a lot of things in the last seven paragraphs. Even if we are not convinced by anything he has said so far, we have at least been introduced to his style of writing and of making his points. To fully immerse in Ruskin's ideas, we will do the following three physical exercises.

EXERCISE 1. I have brought a bucket of water and 12 sponges. I want you to take one sponge and for five minutes to clean one particular part of the classroom. You cannot do this in groups or talk to each other. At the end of this menial activity, I will ask you to make two lists enumerating how this activity was 1) totally worthless, and 2) of some moral value. We will compare our lists and discuss how our action may have been virtuous.

EXERCISE 2. You have been handed a white piece of paper and a Sharpie. Make a line. We will put all our lines up on the wall and compare them. How could our lines have virtue? We can only figure this out if we tackle some actual lines and compare them to each other.

EXERCISE 3. In Par. 06, Ruskin tells us that elements in nature, "the snow, the vapour, and the stormy wind" are somehow magical. We will go outside for five minutes. You must disperse as far away from each other and try to capture one element (sound, sight, object) that is entirely natural, entirely created by nature. Try to capture it. We will return to class, and you'll be asked to explain how your natural observation possesses some kind of mystery, some kind of sense that goes beyond the physical explanation of nature (according to molecules, natural forces, chemical reactions)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

R7L17 Preliminaries

John Ruskin
Seven Lamps of Architecture
Preliminaries


You have in your hands a paperback reprint of a book published in 1880. The book is light with a brown cover, it fits comfortably in your backpack, and at a price of $14.95 has not broken your wallet. The book's fonts and layout seems clearly antiquated, but the physical artifact does not. Although seemingly old, the book in your hands was published by Dover Books, a company founded in 1947 with the explicit purpose of making classic works from the 18th and 19th century available to American readers at a cheap price. Why did the publishers not change the format of the text to make it look more modern? After all, many 19th century books have been reprinted and they don't look weirdly old. Dover, instead, publishes a photographic facsimile of the  original editions in order to replicate the authentic experience that the original reader would have had. Since 1989, when this Dover facsimile was printed, new digital formats of old books have been made available. Google, for instance, has sought to scan every book in every library in the world. When copyright laws allow, they make that book available. If you go into Google Books right now, for instance, you'll find various PDF versions of the first edition available for free. The Kindle has free versions, as well. But in our seminar we want to replicate the intentional readership of this book, which would have been through a bound book.

The Dover book in your hand should trigger a couple of thoughts before you even set no reading it. First, you know it is a classic work tested through time. Second, you know that this classic ceased being published by a major house. And third, that someone in 1989 (when your Dover edition was first published) thought there existed a need to reprint the book. We will return on some of these issues of how a classic book that everyone read at a certain point in history becomes so undesirable that nobody buys it anymore. Its original publisher withdraws it from their catalog, but someone in the late 20th century reprints for a niche market of students and antiquarians.

Reading John Ruskin's Preface from February 25, 1880, we also realize that this is not the first but the second edition of the work. The first edition was published in 1848. The author tells us as a bit about the differences: he used a cheaper method of reproducing engravings, he removed some "pieces of rabid and utterly false Protestantism," and he added a few footnotes. The second edition was printed at the height of Ruskin's popularity at a lower cost, thanks to a cheaper way of printing drawings. We are thus privy to the work as most readers would have experienced it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After understanding the physical history of the object in our hands, we flip through the pages to size up the character of this work. We note that the book is very different than most books we have read. First, it is organized around chapters that are called "lamps" rather than chapters. Second, full-page plates are interspersed in the text without captions, or any obvious suggestion of where they should fit in the text (there are no figure numbers). And third, the font seems to change in the middle of the text associated with subheadings that pop up on the side of the text called "aphorisms." What a curious book with an algorithmic structure of 7-14-33 that overlays what will be a linear reading sequence. Thus, the truth lies somewhere between seven lamps, 14 plates and 33 aphorisms. This structure offers alternative ways of reading the book. Should we read the aphorisms first? Three years before Ruskin's publication, Karl Marx experimented with aphoristic writing in Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and Friedrich Nietzsche perfected the form in Human, All Too Human (1878). There is obviously something at stake here beyond an organizational scheme. The fragmentary sequence of theses seemed to reflect some of modernity's expressive needs.

The time has come to figure the book out from the inside out rather than from the outside in. We start with the Introduction.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

R7L17

R7L17 is a collaborative project hoping to bring John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture to a contemporary audience of young readers. Why would a 17-year old read the 7 Lamps? That's the argument that the project participants want to make.

The idea for the project came when I decided to use The Seven Lamps of Architecture as a primary text for my Freshman seminar in Fall 2014. Feeling proud of myself to immerse students in the classics of architectural theory, I soon realized how difficult the text is to contemporary readers (both young and old).  Most people know Ruskin through "The Nature of Gothic," which William Morris and the Arts and Crafts extracted from The Stones of Venice and spread like a gospel. Ruskin was so ubiquitous in the formation of the late 19th-century that most people understand him by simply following the cultural debates of the century.

The only way that I can assign Ruskin to my students with a clear conscience is if I prepare an annotated edition of the work. But I wanted to open up this question to other friends and colleagues who love Ruskin. My erudite art historians that love Ruskin themselves admit that they have never read a substantial body of his work, and most have not read The Seven Lamps cover to cover. Everybody gets Ruskin these days by never reading Ruskin, just by comprehending the cultural discussions of late-19th-century England in which he is already so pervasive. 

There is a trend in colleges these days to have reading groups, seminars, and conversations. The trend began with the Mellon Foundation, which about five years ago lavishly endowed such "Conversation" projects to any college that was willing to organize it. Ruskin would be horrified if he knew that people were getting monetary benefits for reading his Lamps. Having participated in Mellon Conversations, I'd like this project to be a little less institutionalized, more open-ended. So, this summer, I am embarking on a conversation with Ruskin and my friends hoping to produce a conversation. I can't quite make an argument of why anyone should participate in such an exercise without reading the book first.

Contributors will tackle the text over the next four months and individually submit a page-by-page commentary or general reflections. It can be as simple as brainstorming, explicating, free-associating, or offering a personal insight. At the end of the summer, I will collect all thoughts and commentaries and take the conversation further. I will also test those commentaries on my students and get their own feedback. 

John Ruskin is the single most important aesthetic theorist of 19th century Britain and the founder of American art education through his friend Charles Eliot Norton. His two great works on architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848) and The Stones of Venice (1850), set in motion aestheticism, modernism, Arts and Crafts movement, socialist architectural discourse and new ways to relate art with life. When his writings were collected in the first decade of the 20th century, they filled 39 volumes, and became a fundamental source for Anglo-American intellectual life. In the first decades of the 21st century, however, Ruskin has disappeared from the curriculum. He seems to be read in graduate seminars in English aestheticism or architectural history, but has entirely disappeared from the undergraduate curriculum or general readership. Sadly, only three of his 39 volumes of writing even remain in print.

There are at least five reasons why Ruskin has disappeared from the general readership, 1) his Victorian prose is too wordy and difficult to understand, 2) his Christian and Socialist values are out of fashion, 3) his style of art appreciation has been supplanted by art history as social history, 4) his view of art is too moralistic, 5) his text is filled with antiquated cultural references that are no longer part of public culture, 6) formalist modernism has made historical conscience irrelevant to pure experience, 7) he is inconsistent and difficult to pin down.

When students stop reading Ruskin in the 21st century, they miss one of the most important cultural episodes in western culture. More importantly, they miss a way of looking at the world around them. Ruskin helps us make connections in contemporary cultural debates. I cannot just give the text to my students and expect them to make any sense of it. I must give them an annotated edition, which of course does not exist. Then, I realized that teaching, after all, is all about creating an annotating edition. So, this summer, I am embarking on a conversation with Ruskin and my friends of producing a commentary for the Seven Lamps. This reading group will tackle the text over the next four months and individually contribute a page-by-page commentary. It can be as simple as brainstorming, explicating, free-associating, or offering a personal insight. At the end of the summer, I will collect all thoughts and commentaries and take the conversation further. I will also test those commentaries on my students and get their own feedback.

THE STRUCTURE

This is what you have to do, if you are interested in joining the conversation. The objective is to read every one of the seven Lamps over the months of May-August. This means a Lamp for every two weeks.

I. The Lamp of Sacrifice (May 1-15)
II. The Lamp of Truth (May 15-30)
III. The Lamp of Power (June 1-15
IV. The Lamp of Beauty (June 15-30)
V. The Lamp of Life (July 1-15)
VI. The Lamp of Memory (July 15-30)
VII. The Lamp of Obedience (August 1-15)

If you're interested in participating, send me a note. I have no idea what the final outcome of this will be. I know that my commentary will be rather bookish and academic and it will actually be handed out to the students as a reading crutch.

Readers should use the Dover reprint of the text (which is the second, 1880 edition) first printed in 1989. It costs only $14.95. There are only two bookstores in a 100 mile radius of where I live that regularly carry it, Joseph Fox and Penn Book Center. They are currently out of stock, however, because my buddied have cleaned them out. I encourage you to order it through your local bookstore (that's what Ruskin would want you to do) or buy it from Amazon (that's what Ruskin would not want you to do).

My copy of the Seven Lamps is pictured above visiting a very Ruskinian place, Mercersburg Academy in central Pennsylvania. You see the capital of the mantle in the Edwards Room in Keil Hall, completed in 1900.


Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States

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