Tag Archives: art

The Discovery of Vanadu

I believe that sometimes we like to think of our lives as simple lines, paths we can chart out with precision for weeks and years in advance. It is all too easy to forget the proverb that life is about the journey and not the destination. But from time to time we are reminded that it is not in the things we plan, but the things which catch us by surprise that true wonder is found. And like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings even the smallest things can change our paths in weird and amazing ways. Tiny things. Inconsequential things. Things like a pregnant woman’s nervous bladder.

Let me explain. My wife and I just returned from a vacation of sorts during which we went to Knoxville, Tennessee with my parents to witness my sister’s college graduation. When we weren’t driving back and forth along winding mountain roads (my Florida-flatland-accustomed stomach has still not completely settled) we spent our time resting in a rustic cabin at the Big Ridge State Park and hiking various mountain trails. (The “we” in this case only includes me and my father, as my rather pregnant wife elected not to go traipsing through tick-infested woods.)

When at last the time came to return home we all piled into my father’s van and started the nine-hour drive from Tennessee to Florida. It might not have taken so long, except for the fact that my wife, being pregnant, has to stop fairly often to, *ahem* “visit Mrs. Murphy” on account of the fact that the tiny human currently residing in her belly won’t stop karate-kicking her bladder.

This means that we became well-acquainted with nearly every rest area in Alabama. And for that fact I am eternally grateful. Because if it hadn’t been for my wife’s endless bathroom breaks I might have never have seen Vanadu.

What is Vanadu? you may ask. Let me set the scene for you. You’re sitting in the back seat of a car barreling down the interstate, still feeling slightly sick from all the swerving, swaying, squiggling mountain roads you’ve left behind you. Up ahead you see a sign that says, “Rest Stop: One Mile”. Even before the question is asked you know the answer. Of course you’re going to need to stop. You lean back in your seat silently weighing the benefits of getting to stretch your legs against the disadvantage of arriving home nearly an hour later than usual. Then, suddenly, appearing around the bend up ahead, you see this:

This my friends is Vanadu. The size of the image I’m able to fit in this post doesn’t fully do it justice, but having seen thing in person, let me just tell ya’ll this thing is freaking awesome.

It’s got bits and pieces from all kinds of things, car parts, washing machine parts, moose antlers, sculptures and knickknacks, and some stuff you’re just not sure what it is.

You start snapping pictures. Because something this amazing, something this perfectly bizarre…it isn’t enough to see it and walk away. You have to document, you have to share. You have to be able to say, “I was there.”

I got to meet the guy who put the whole thing together. He was more than happy to tell me a little about who he was and where he was going in this grotesquely beautiful piece of motorized art. His name was Clarke Bedford and he was driving all the way from Maryland to Houston, Texas to participate in an art car parade taking place there. Yes, you read correctly. Driving. Clarke Bedford’s art car isn’t just awesome, it’s also fully functional (and, I assume, mostly legal) motor vehicle. In fact from reading information on Clarke’s website, the only vehicles he owns are art cars. Exhibiting his work is as simple an act as driving to the grocery store.

And as if creating amazing vehicle art wasn’t enough, turns out Mr. Bedford has even more artistic wonderment up his sleeve having worked as a sculptor, photographer and creator of faux art history. That last one may need some explanation. Basically he creates satirical works of art in the styles of various periods and movements, while building a story them. For instance, his essay “A brief description of the Argyle Sock and other Laundry Imagery in Modern Art” and the accompanying works of art that accompany said essay are both brilliant and hilarious. I highly recommend visiting his website for more information.

The reason I’m talking about this guy (other than the fact that he’s totally awesome) is that I think often we tend to think of art in the past tense. At least I do. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Dali and Dore, Escher and Warhol, they’re all gone, done with, their body of work forever frozen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, death comes to all of us eventually, but its nice to be reminded that there are still people today pushing the limits of creativity, doing things that make the world just a little weirder and just a shade more beautiful.

I don’t know if history will remember Clarke Bedford for his efforts, I can’t predict whether adoring crowds will throng to see his amazing vehicles and crazy collection of sock art in years far in the future. But for me to drive up and see the wonder of Vanadu parked at a lowly interstate rest area sparked a moment of pure joy. Seeing his work, even for a few short minutes made me scratch my head while it spoke to my heart. It forced me rethink my assumptions about things I thought I understood perfectly. And if that isn’t art, then I don’t know what is.

Evil is a Bad Thing

Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know about Walmart: people steal condoms. You wouldn’t expect shoplifters to be socially conscious enough to worry about birth control, but it must pretty high on their list of priorities because nearly every day, you can find a partially empty box of condoms sitting on the shelf in the Toy Department (apparently there’s no security coverage back there or something, but it’s still really unsettling to see a box of Trojans sitting next to Sleepy Time baby dolls.)

Note that I said the box was only partially empty. That part used to bother me a lot. I couldn’t figure out why people wouldn’t just take the whole pack. It’s not like you’re going to get into any more trouble for stealing the whole box instead of just taking three.

But then it finally dawned on me: the reason people don’t empty out the whole box is because somewhere in the back of their minds they are trying to justify what they’re doing. They’re thinking to themselves, “Well yes, it’s wrong to steal, but this isn’t really stealing because I’m not taking the whole box.”

This realization helped me to understand something broader about the human condition: people do not like to think of themselves as “bad people.” They almost always construct some kind of rationalization for why what they’re doing isn’t really that bad. Often they’ve even convince themselves that ultimately the crime they’re committing is in the interest of the greater good.

For instance, take Adolph Hitler. No seriously, please take him. He’s been haunting my blender for far too long. But while he was alive he did horrible things, unspeakable things. And yet even Hitler the man who has become the very image of the clichéd villain had to justify himself, had to convince himself that the people he was trying to wipe off the face of the earth were somehow less than human, that they were evil conspirators,  responsible for keeping the real people down.

People in fiction don’t often think this way. People in fiction to bad things because they’re EVIL. Kids movies and fantasy are particularly bad about this sort of lack of characterization. They throw some guy in a black cloak and give him glowing red eyes and suddenly that character is the VILLAIN, a person completely without scruples or sympathy.

And all the time I’m asking myself, why? Why does this character hate the hero so much? Why does he want to murder tiny unicorns and take over the world? How did he go so far wrong?

And that's all the motivation you need!

In my opinion the best stories are the ones in which all the characters have convinced themselves that on some level they’re doing the right thing. I’m not just talking about giving the antagonist some tacked-on motivation for what he’s doing and then going on to portray him as utterly unsympathetic. I’m talking about crafting characters that people can genuinely empathize with on some level.

I know that there are plenty of good stories out there that don’t follow this rule. In Lord of the Rings no one really cares what Sauron’s deeper reasons for trying to rule the world are. But for my part, I always get more enjoyment out of reading a tale where you can understand where all the characters are coming from.

It may be more difficult to craft this kind of story, but I believe that creating villains who are not simply doing bad things FOR TEH EVULZ will serve to make the kind of story that speaks to readers on a far deeper and more meaningful level.

The Beauty of the Blank Page: Tips for Defeating Digital Diversions

I have a lot of respect for the writers of the past. It’s not so much their style that impresses me, because, let’s face it, people in the old days produced plenty of crap too. But when I think about the fact that for thousands of years writers had to actually physically write down their words onto paper it makes me a little awestruck.

Can you imagine the editing process? Or worse yet, the rewrites? Having to physically re-copy the entirety of a manuscript by hand? Can you imagine the day when “cut and paste” involved actual scissors and actual glue?

So yeah, computers are awesome. But like most awesome modern things they come with a price.

Because in a way, computers are too awesome. Not only do they come with wonderful word processing tools to help you make your writing the best it can be, but they also can connect to a million different diversions and distractions through the internet.

Maybe you’re stronger than me. Maybe when you sit down to write your words for the morning, it never occurs to you that Linkara should have posted a new comic review today, and it’s only like, thirty minutes long, so you’ve got time to bop over there and see what’s going on with that. Okay, so that one probably hasn’t happened to you, but you get the idea.

Distractions are the curse of the internet.

So what do you do? Well of course there’s always good old self-control. You can tell yourself to wait for that reward until you’ve finished writing. You can even switch off your computer’s internet connections for a while. But maybe you need a little extra layer of protection from all those temptations. Wouldn’t it be great if you could shut out all the rest of that stuff and focus on the page?

If that’s your dilemma then it’s time for you to meet my good friend Dark Room.  Dark Room is a fantastic little program that completely fills your screen with nothing but the empty page, waiting for you to fill it with your words. Of course it’s still possible to minimize it and get to other stuff on your computer if you need to, but I’ve found that often, with the visual distractions removed I’ve been able to focus more on the words I’m writing.

Dark Room is a fairly minimalist program. It has no spell check function. In a way it’s like installing a typewriter on your computer. What you type is what you see and nothing else.

The color scheme is adjustable so if neon green letters on a black screen aren’t your thing you can change it to something a little different. You can even change the font to Courier New to give it a real typewriter look.

Overall this has been a fantastic tool for me. I don’t use it all the time, but when I hear the siren song of digital distractions I open it up and indulge myself in the decadence of a truly blank page.

If any of you struggle with the endless distractions of the internet I highly recommend you try this little program. It’s free and simple to use. And it may just help you accomplish something wonderful.

The Dark Room program can be downloaded here.

Ghosts in the Myst

A while back (a few months in the real world, eons in internet time) a certain famous movie critic made the claim that “video games can never be art.” This resulted in the internet doing what the internet does (other than looking at porn), and getting all riled up about it and posting angry retorts on his blog.
I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir here, but I’m not just here to say that I disagree. I’m here to tell you that I got into video games because they were art.When I was younger my family did not have a computer. We had a stone age metal box that ran something called DOS, but that doesn’t count. However my next-door neighbor and best friend at the time did have a computer. And on his computer he had the Greatest Game Ever Made. Myst.
I would go over to his house as often as I could and pester him to let me play this game on his computer. I think he started to get annoyed with the whole thing after a while, but…I couldn’t help it. That game was freaking beautiful. I mean every single frame had something interesting to see, something that pulled you even further into the story of the game.
I begged my dad to get us a new computer so that I could experience the joy of playing this game for myself, but he said no. We just didn’t have the money. But he saw how much I wanted this so he compromised.
He bought me a lawnmower.
He told me if I wanted a computer I would have to earn it for myself. Now at the time I hated cutting grass, but I knew this was my only chance to have a computer of my own, so I sucked it up and knocked doors around the neighborhood asking people if I could mow their lawns. It was terrifying for me to have to face the rejection of strangers, but I kept myself focussed on what was at stake and kept going.
Eventually I built up a pretty good clientèle, and all that spring and summer and pushed the lawnmower my dad had bought for me through sweltering heat and sickening humidity. By the time the fall came around I had about six hundred dollars to my name. I dragged my parents to the computer store and spent nearly all of it on the computer I had been so longing for. There wasn’t even enough left to buy the game which had started this obsession in the first place, but my mom took pity on my and shelled out the fifteen bucks that I lacked.
And then, almost unbelievably, I had the thing in my hands, and I was walking out of the store, and it was mine. I got it home and put the disc in with my heart pounding in my throat, and then…I was in another world. I’ve never experienced anything like that since then. I became obsessed with that game. It wasn’t so much about the puzzles to be solved so much as it was about the world that I was exploring. I believed in that world. I knew that somewhere, somehow, that place had to exist. In my young mind I was sure God could not be so cruel as to let a thing of such beauty be nothing more than fiction.
Of course I’ve mellowed on that position somewhat, but I’m still in awe of that game and how it made me feel. Myst was art in the purest form of the word, and no matter how far forward technology progresses, the things in that game will always be beautiful.
Maybe you’re asking yourself “So why now? Nobody cares about Myst anymore.” Which is sadly very likely to be true. But something I saw yesterday reminded me of the awe I felt when I first saw Myst. It was Forge World in Halo: Reach. I don’t even own an Xbox, so the only bits and snippets I saw of it were in the Bungie video introducing the map and telling about its creation. But the snippets I saw were stunning. It almost made me want to go out and knock doors, so that I could mow some lawns, so that I could buy an Xbox and a copy of Reach, just so that I could walk around in that world for a while. Almost.
But that is art my friends. That is the ultimate definition of art. It’s a world apart that speaks to the human soul, that exists purely for the sheer beauty of the thing. Sure, they may have stuck in the ability to slaughter your friends with a rocket launcher in that world, but that isn’t the point. The point is beauty.
For me, it always has been.