island of the dolls

When I read about The Island of the Dolls in a Mexico tour guidebook, I knew it was a must-see for me. I thought it would be cool and creepy. I was really wrong.

To get to the island, you take a boat through the canals of Xochimico (which is near Mexico City). The canals are strikingly beautiful; lush plants attract all sorts of birds and the water is completely silent. People live along the canals and though poverty is obvious, I was jealous of their lifestyle along the water. Eventually, the small shacks and sounds of radio fade away as the canals continue. Up ahead, one of the small islands seems strange.

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Don Julian Santana was this island’s only resident. Sadly, over half a century ago he came across the body of young girl floating in the canal. Understandable traumatized, he hung from a tree a discard doll he found in the canals as a tribute to the little girl and in hopes of appeasing her spirit and protecting it from evil. Either because a single doll was not enough or Santana found comfort in the act, he continued to collect dolls, doll parts, and other toys he found throughout the canal’s waters. Apparently, as his obsession grew Santana began digging in the tow’s trash for toys and accepting dolls in exchange for his garden’s vegetables.

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Santana died in 2001. Some say he drowned in the canal and others that he had a heart attack (maybe then fell in the canal?). The official website goes with drowning. His family maintains the island, his shrine to the little girl who haunted him.

Many people consider The Island of the Dolls undeniably creepy or terrifying. It isn’t (though I wouldn’t go after dark).

Instead I felt embarrassingly sad. Sad that a little girl lost her life so unexpectedly and sad that a quiet, lonely man had to discover her body. I was sad to witness Santana’s obsessive mourning. I was sad that all these toys once belonged to children, many of whom are as poor and lonely as Santana.

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It was a silent boat ride back to Xochimico.

carnegie international 2013

For the first time ever I was able to visit the Carnegie International held at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (also first time in the city!). The 2013 International is an exhibit of 35 artists from 19 countries. About half the artists are women, which already makes the International unique among prominent museum exhibitions.

Olowska, Cake (2010)
Olowska, Cake (2010)

Paulina Olowska is a Polish artist who had paintings that appealed to my textile background. Cake, shown here, is from her series Applied Fantastic, based on images of home-knitting patterns from the 1980s. One of the artist collectives in the exhibition is the Bidoun Library. As an librarian, I was intrigued by the collection – printed materials, without regard for quality or intended audience, that depict the Middle East. For this exhibit, the

Bidoun Library installation
Bidoun Library installation

library selected materials around three themes: Home Theatre (pulp fiction, comics, romance), The Natural Order (corporate works), and Margin of Error (Cold War propaganda, Egyptian revolution ephemera). Check out the Library’s website to find out more about the collection, their magazine, and publishing initiatives.

Pedro Reyes, Disarm (2013)
Pedro Reyes, Disarm (2013)

Pedro Reyes is a Mexican artist who exhibited works made from weapons confiscated during Juarez’s drug war. Shown here is one of the pieces in Disarm (Double Psaltery), an instrument made of the weapons.   Though I love Joel Sternfeld‘s work, I’m going to go with Zanele Muholi as my favorite photographer for this exhibit. She is a South African artist who is an activist for the black LGBTI community. The portraits are well-executed, refreshingly honest in their simplicity.

installation view of Muholi's photography
installation view of Muholi’s photography

My favorite piece in the show was by Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le. In Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War, Le arranged 100 drawings and paintings made by Vietnamese who served as artist-soldiers during the war. They are sketches, brief moments that, from a distance, could read as landscapes or family photos. But in the brevity is the exhaustion, anxiety, and fragility of war.

Le's Light and Belief (2012)
Le’s Light and Belief (2012)
installation views of Le’s Light and Belief (2012)
Light and Belief (2012)

brain activity in dead salmon and wine in a blender: or, what i learned at AAAS 2013

In mid-February I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. The theme of the five-day meeting was The Beauty and Benefits of Science. This theme supports the movement from STEM education to STEAM, adding Art to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Many of the panels focused on the use of visualizations and creative practices in the lab. Some of the panels I attended were very engaging to visual and performing artists. Here are some brief notes from those speakers.

Artful Science (3 of 5 lectures)
The Herbarium as Muse: Plant Specimens as Inspiration
Maura Flannery (Biology, St. John’s University, NY) provided a visual history of herbariums. While she differentiated on the more scientific views of botanists to those of artists and curiosity collectors, Flannery also emphasized that the field would not have been able to move forward without  artists’ illustrations of specimens. She also commented on contemporary artists inspired by plants including John Sarra, Amy Youngs, and Michele Oka Doner.

Dimension of Time in Strange Attractors
Robert Krawczyk (College of Architecture, IIT) created software to generate algorithms. His artwork is an outcome of these equations.  The images embody movement and dimensionality, suggesting new ways to consider space.

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Bends Through I by Krawczyk

Sand Dollars, Echinodermata, and Radiolaria: Sculptural Forms from Hyperbolic Tessellations
George Hart uses mathematical applications to create sculpture and video. Many of his sculptures are made of small, simple shapes that can be connected into large, complex forms. Hart is now exploring 3D printing to make models of his pieces and to create more fragile tessellations.

Echinodermania (detail) by Hart
Echinodermania (detail) by Hart

Evidence from Music, Fiction, and the Visual Arts: Transfer of Learning from the Arts? (3 of 5 lectures)
This was an interesting set of presentations about the transferability of art skills to other (specifically science and math) domains. What surprised me was the intense focus of the research, selecting one tangible skill (ie drawing) and seeing if it directly applies to one specific field (ie geometry). While I am certain that technical training in the arts can enhance learning and understanding in other disciplines, I was hoping to see a panel of psychologists consider the cognitive aspect of art appreciation. These three lectures touched on this aspect.

What Does it Mean to be Musical? On the Genetics of Music Ability
Daniel J. Levitin (psychology, McGill University) uses music as a model for understanding “gene by environment” interactions. Music is multi-modal because the components of discipline can be seen as variations in expertise; and, components of expertise may not be directly related to music (physicality, memory, attention). Though his research is still inconclusive, Levitin’s work shows the depth of the arts as comprised of both field-specific skill sets and broad elements of nature/nurture.

Visual Art as Non-Artificial – and thus Transferable? – Domain of Expertise
Aaron Kozbelt (psychology, CUNY) studies drawing as a flexible skill set that may transfer to other domains that also require that skill set. He has done extensive research on artists and concludes that the arts is a domain that is robust and easily adaptable. Because artists see the world differently, studying the arts may transfer skills of perception, contrast sensitivity, and object recognition, among others.

Effects of Literature
Keith Oatley (psychology, University of Toronto) considered the cognitive benefits of reading fiction and other forms of creative writing. His research has demonstrated that people who read fiction “engage in social simulations and get better at understanding selves” while those who read non-fiction “get better at the subject matter” of what they are reading. Reading fiction not only increases an understanding of self but also increases empathy and teaches skill sets applicable to social interaction.

Benefits Beyond Beauty: Integration of Art and Design into STEM Education and Research
Instead of individual presentations, these panelist elected to briefly introduce themselves and then break the session attendees into groups for conversation. The panelists were Gunalan Nadarajan (Dean of School of Art & Design, University of Michigan), Brian K. Smith (RISD), J.D. Talasek (National Academy of Sciences), and Marina McDougall (Exploratorium, San Francisco). All of these panelists’ work focus on bridging art and science in education at their respective institutions. The outcome of the session demonstrated that, while the two disciplines are beginning an important conversation, there are questions, uncertainties, misconceptions, and above all, fear.

The other lectures I attended made me acutely aware of this disconnect between science and art. Many of the scientists seemed unfamiliar with contemporary art and appeared uncomfortable with works in mediums other than traditional painting or drawing. Most of the scientists did not explore art beyond the visuals necessary for their own work.

One scientist did, however. Tom Kirchhausen of Harvard Medical exclusively studies clathrin coats which are how cells eat (and spit). Working at the molecular level, Kirchhausen realized he needed strong visuals to demonstrate his work and teach cellular structure to his students. Clathrin coats take about a minute to form and then go away. Because there is the element of time in clathrin lifecycles, Kirchhausen has selected video over still images. More importantly, he sets music to these videos. I asked him about his choice in adding sound. He said that he felt the music provided a narrative to that lifecycle that was easy for his students (and others) to miss otherwise. Kirchhausen’s work was one of the few lectures I attended where a scientist used art and technology to not only complement but enhance his research.

from Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine cookbook. He gave a Plenary Lecture at AAAS 2013.
from Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine cookbook. He gave a Plenary Lecture at AAAS 2013. Photo credit Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine, LLC

At the AAAS science librarians session, Denison’s Natural Sciences Librarian Moriana Garcia and I presented The Library as Bridge Between Science and Art. We introduced the history of the disciplines in relationship to Snow’s The Two Cultures and the latest news about the STEAM initiative. We also discussed contemporary studies on creativity in the research process. From here we demonstrated examples of interdisciplinarity at Dension’s library, mentioning collection development and exhibitions. We finished by framing the trend for makerspaces in libraries as part of the STEAM campaign, teaching creativity and inviting serendipitous discovery in the library. Learn more on our Science and Art guide.

Attending the AAAS meeting as an artist and as a librarian was an excellent opportunity for me to gain an understanding of how other disciplines view the arts. The arts are often marginalized in education and while STEAM intends to change that, exploring new pedagogy without artists’ insight could be damaging. Likewise, as I move forward with my research in creativity, talking with those in the STEM disciplines will provide me with a richer understanding of how the library as service and space can support innovation in STEM.

radical ephemeral

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Denison University, Studio Art professor and photographer Sheilah Wilson took the courage and struggle of King to new heights.

She calls it radical ephemeral – “that which becomes itself through disappearance.”

Sheilah said “the ephemeral is contrary to what we are taught to believe, that we are supposed to be working hard at producing tangible results and that effort is rewarded by things we can hold and touch.” I’ve been waiting for my tangible reward.

“But what if there is a new kind of being or becoming that is born through that which is ephemeral — that which dares to ignore the established order of creation and become  through disappearance.”

The urgency and excess of radical ephemeral takes courage and risk. I will agree to live in “a heightened perception of the present” and accept that “the act that has happened in the present tense does not make sense in the present, and before it can become assimilated into the present it disappears.”

Radical ephemeral is believing in the unknown simply because the known isn’t acceptable. This could be an act of courage.

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miss peregrine’s home for peculiar children

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Riggs, Ransom. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011.

Ransom Riggs’ first novel blends fantasy prose, simple yet descriptive, with vintage photographs, the type of developed film mistakes we quickly and easily delete with today’s digital cameras. The photos are not compliments to the text; they are necessities for Riggs’ ultimate goal – that the reader believe every word is real.

Riggs has created a C. S. Lewis wardrobe for the 21st century – loopholes which lead to seemingly otherworlds that are really manifestations of our own. And, while Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children are not lions or witches, their supernatural talents only help to enhance their humanness. Easy to read, elements such as time travel, freak show oddities, and a lonely, bored teenage protagonist will appeal to young adult readers. Historical fiction, moral and ethical overtones, and a coming of age protagonist will keep more advanced readers interested. Some adults many feel bored by Jacob and his sixteen-year-old point of view, but I ask them to remember that the book was written for teens and didn’t we all feel like life was one long out-of-body experience at that age?

Regardless of age, all readers will be coming back to Miss Peregrine’s home for much, much more.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review.)

erica baum – visual poet

For photographer Erica Baum “the act of information retrieval is turned into a journey” (Josefine Raab). The library card catalogue and the book are both physically and contextually animated, juxtaposing text and imagery to create new meaning. Baum’s work can be considered an original hyperlink; by carefully arranging a book’s pages of words and images, she allows the audience simultaneous points of view.

Images of people often appear in her photographs of books. In an interview with Mousse magazine Baum states,

Towel (2009)

“I want the expressions on the figures to suggest the contents of the book as imagined by the figure, or as the viewer imagines it to be. It’s as though the abstract lines and fragments of text represent the thoughts of the figure caught inside the book. So the visual abstraction represents this conceptual abstraction.”

Her work with card catalogues and dog-eared book pages are visual poetry. Lemon Hound’s recent blog posting on Baum’s book Dog Ear describes the process of reading an image from this series. Of the project, Baum says “I’m reauthoring the text in this simple act of folding the paper which creates a new view.”

Examined (2009)

The cards in the library (pre-digital) catalogue are in a predetermined order and fixed in place within the drawer, within the cabinet. Yet Baum is able to manipulate this rigidity and develop an image that is ambiguous and suggests continuity.

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Alemani, Cecelia. (February 2010). “Dog Ear Poems.” Mousse Magazine.

Filreis, Al. (13 September 2007). “Erica Baum Photographs the Card Catalogue.” Al Filreis.

Hynes, Ben. (14 November 2011). “Erica Baum’s Dog Ear.” Lemon Hound.

See more of Baum’s work at ubuweb and Bureau.

the secret life of the lonely doll

What made me pick up a second-hand copy of Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll I can’t recall. But, after reading the prologue, I stopped at the local library branch and checked out four of Dare Wright’s children’s books.

As a child, I had never read the stories of Edith, a doll who is lonely until the arrival of Mr. Bear and Little Bear. Edith and Little Bear pursue mischief and adventure that often finishes with Edith’s rear-end over Mr. Bear’s knee. The text is simple, but the photographs are not. Dare diligently posed Edith, often in hand-made clothes, and her teddy bear friend in complex environments that were both fantasy and real. To look at Edith, with her blonde hair and heavy bangs, sideways glance, and absent smile, you might think of a classic girls’ toy. But once you know the life of her owner, you see Dare Wright in plastic and felt – her anxiety, childhood absences, and sexual hesitation finally manifested.

Edith gets spanked by Mr. Bear (while Little Bear watches) in The Lonely Doll
Edith gets spanked by Mr. Bear (while Little Bear watches) in The Lonely Doll

Nathan’s fascinatingly rich biography brings intimacy between Dare and the reader. To highlight Dare’s life in a few sentences will leave out the emotional tenderness and bizarre passions that Nathan captures. However, an overview will reveal new meanings in Dare’s strangely dark children’s stories.

Her mother was Edie Stevenson Wright, a famous portrait painter who was serious about her ego and more serious about her looks. Dare had an older brother Blaine, who disappeared from her and her mother’s life when Dare was just 3. As a child with few friends, Dare proved herself to be as artistic as her mother, and even more beautiful. More than anything in life, Dare wanted to please her mother, a goal she would maintain until Edie’s death.

In her twenties, Dare dabbled in theater and modeling, but with little success and certainly without passion. Longing for family, Dare set out to find her brother. When the two reconnected, Dare’s passion was ignited. Their love was both familial and romantic; Nathan’s elaboration of their relationship leaves the reader uncomfortable. Dare became engaged to a friend of Blaine’s, though never went through with the wedding and never made any effort at relationships outside of those with her brother and mother.

Dare finally found career comfort behind the camera, as a fashion photographer and then as a children’s book author. Her first book, The Lonely Doll, was a huge success, though the spanking scene made some wonder. In all, Dare wrote and photographed 19 children’s books, most of them with doll Edith as the main character. In these books, she also found friendship – particularly in Edith and Little Bear. Dare seemed to participate in the real world of adults through her children’s toys’ staged escapades.

playing dress-up in Edith and Little Bear Lend a Hand
playing dress-up in Edith and Little Bear Lend a Hand

Common themes in Dare’s fantasy books parallel her real life paranoia and anxieties. Edith, named for Dare’s mother, is lonely and desperate for a friend. When she finally finds one, it’s not another doll, but a teddy bear, adorable but masculine, kind-hearted but stubborn. Their friendship echos Dare’s relationship with her brother. Edith and Little Bear often play dress up, an enjoyable past-time for Dare and her mother, who often photographed these play sessions. As a consequence of misbehaving, Edith often ended up angering Mr. Bear – the father she never knew. Mr. Bear would threaten leaving and Edith would beg forgiveness with an almost sadomasochistic tinge. A good spanking and some stern words to behave, or else, are followed by tears and hugs that end the story.

Edith gets an unwanted hair cut in The Lonely Dolls Learns a Lesson
Edith gets an unwanted hair cut in The Lonely Dolls Learns a Lesson