Leonardo’s Approval


This from my friends and co-conspirators Daniel and Tamara:

Daniel says that Leonardo would approve;
that all you need for inspiration
is to look at cracks on walls.

I decided to hunt down the background to that excellent precis, and found two nice versions as extracted from Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting:

Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose pealing you can find every name and word that you can imagine.
(from Goodreads)


Leonardo da Vinci advised the budding artist with creative block to leave behind his blank canvas and stare at the stains on walls: ‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.’ Leonardo’s technique, which encouraged the viewer to search for meaning in chaos, referred back to myths about the origin of art in accidental shapes.

(from Tate-etc Christopher Turner ‘The deliberate accident in art’)


on the Whimsy account

As I begin to work on my Artist Statement for the mid-September Joint Show, I find myself trying to account for the whimsicality of most of my images. So here’s an preliminary summary of my take on Whimsy:

Whimsy lives in the irreverent and allusive zones of the Imagination,
where things are built that cock snooks at
conventional boundaries of the factual.

The whimsical rests upon
risible analogies,
and a fine sense for the absurd.

Visible manifestations of the whimsical
are frequently paredoliac (“…it looks like…”),
often grandiose (what can I conjure out of this rock?),
and are generally calculated to amuse
(think Grandville)
or sometimes to warn and admonish
(think Gargoyles).

The whimsical is likelier to elicit a snort than a guffaw.

But it is wise to remember
that some folk are annoyed by the whimsical,
and that the most literal-minded are often simply baffled.

So choose your audience mindfully
and avoid poking the bear.

Before July gets away from us


July has been busy with summer stuff, including the arrival of [really quite magnificent] metal prints for our Joint Show in September. I’ve added a link to some other images from Flowers Cove to the page summarizing my part of the show.

A Convivium Question about Myth led to another exploration of the Twelfth Imam.

And there’s been the usual daily pleasure of eclectic reading in the barn, and the garden is burgeoning. A visit from John and Laura and Kian will round out the month!

Marshall Point evening

Yesterday the rain ended in the afternoon but the fog hung on until almost sundown. We made a quick trip (3 miles, practically the back yard) to the rocks at Marshall Point, hoping that the light would be magical.


By the time we got there the fog was lifting, but I wandered the ever-so-familiar rocks for half an hour or so and found lots of new beings to photograph, and as usual I learned new things about a place that I’ve visited scores of times. It’s truly inexhaustible as a photographic venue. A few examples:
This pair is the same rock, but displays two very different personages:


and these are always cropping up:



and here’s a shark I never noticed before:

…and a Goreyesque bat-like fellow:

(the full set is available)

Metaphors Made Flesh

Wednesday evening Convivium discussions often start hares that occupy me for hours or days. And of course each hare draws one to any number of interesting rabbit holes, and so it goes. Last night, the Question was, essentially, How’s It Going?. There was much talk of disappointments and rampant commodifications, so perhaps there’s an underlying Question: Can It Be Fixed?. The answer is (generally, and often resoundingly) No. And yet we keep wanting the answer to be Yes, <== granting us efficacy in the world, having our efforts and energies mean something, and not to have been somehow in vain… and so evoking rueful reflection on naïvetes of the past…

Or perhaps (I thought to myself) it’s a matter of thinking about which windmills we’ve chosen to tilt against. That Quixotic image keeps coming up, ever since Cervantes 1604, and wants looking into as a prevailing recurrent trope. It begins in a Tale of

…attacking imaginary enemies…
…striving for visionary ideals…

It didn’t take too long (just 40 years) for the windmill-tilting trope to find its way into English as a fully-fledged metaphor. A bit of googlement discovered the first occurrence, in John Cleveland “The Character of London Diurnall” (1644), in which we find

The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne heads; quell Monsters of their owne Creation; make Plots, and then discover them; as who fitter to unkennel the Fox, than the Tarryer, that is part of him.

The Windmills now stand for

…to waste time fighting enemies or trying to resolve issues that are imaginary, unimportant, or impossible to overcome…

…the pursuit of “an unrealistic, impractical or impossible goal”…

…an exercise in futility…

See also Lehua Parker’s take

rediscovering Montaigne

After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:

  1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
  2. Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
  3. Q. How to live? A. Be born
  4. Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  5. Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
  6. Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
  7. Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
  8. Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
  9. Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
  10. Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
  11. Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
  12. Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
  13. Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
  14. Q. How to live? A. See the world
  15. Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
  16. Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
  17. Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing: Je ne regrette rien
  18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control (Daughter and disciple; The editing wars Montaigne remixed and embabooned)
  19. Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
  20. Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer

And those 20 questions are potential fodder for many Convivium Questions.

The iPad Notebook of my highlightings of passages in the Kindle version captures the excitement of this reading, though any number of other stretches of the text could have been included—it’s that provocative a text.

And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:

Wikipedia on The Essays

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile (Sept 7, 2009 and I recall reading it at the time)

Cotton/Hazlitt 1685/1877 translation of the Essays

from the Preface:
He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.

Audible reading of Essays

LibriVox reading of Essays

Essays in the Frame translation (1957)

Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).

and so Buxtehude

One of the pleasures/trials/challenges of advancing age is the occasional experience of finding oneself faintly ridiculous. Sometimes it’s a consequence of some quest or quixotrie one has embarked upon, some exercise in futility or overweening bumptiousness which has turned out to be vastly more complicated and complex than one initially anticipated. That’s OK, nobody is watching the clock or running a performance review on your ass, or not yet anyway. Today’s case in point reaches back 20 years, or maybe 75 years.

When brother David (16 years older than myself) was dying, he wanted to hear a particular piece by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1702) that he had somewhere on 78… a turntable that could handle 78s was quarried and hooked up to bedside amp and speakers, and the 11″ disk was played. David had thousands of records (he was an acoustic engineer, founder of DBX, builder of Earthworks speakers and microphones, audio perfectionist, but not the most orderly of folk), so just finding that one was an adventure in itself.

Lately I’ve been curating my own mountain of vinyl and figuring out how to make the collection(s) more accessible. My solution has been to stick numbers on the albums (around 2500) and photograph their covers, then make web pages with pictures of albums belonging to the (very) various categories, so that I can leaf through the visual catalog and find, for example, a particular obscure Persian ney album, or specific gamelan performance, or Bach chorale, or… and put that prize onto a turntable and step back in time to remember former encounters with the music.

And so the barn now has glorious sound capabilities, analog and Bluetooth digital, downstairs in the Museum and the Shop (Cambridge Soundworks speakers) and upstairs in the Auxiliary Library (Earthworks speakers). I’ve been figuring out how to access and move amongst the various media, including cassette tapes, CDs, mp3s, and streaming Bluetooth services, as well as vinyl and shellac. And while I was sorting and cataloging and tagging, I came across that Buxtehude 78. This morning I woke up wondering if I could play the record through the amps and speakers, and sure enough I exhumed that 78-capable turntable (complete with 78-specific stylus) and the record was playable after 20 years of hibernation.

Next question: could I sort out a pathway from the 78 to a digital recording? In effect, an analog to digital conversion, should be easy. And probably is, if you know what you’re doing or are willing to try a lot of solutions that ought to work …play into a CD writer, or make a cassette tape, or perhaps run the signal from the turntable and through a preamp and then somehow pass that through USB to Audacity editing software on the laptop… It all sounds feasible, given the right connectors and the proper curses to make bits of hardware accessible to one another. But for a lot of good reasons it doesn’t quite work as well as it seems that it should… and that’s what I spent most of the day messing with, learning a lot about paths that didn’t connect and might work if I had the right bit of equipment.

By 4 PM I was at an impasse with connectors and jacks, and was figuring to do other things for a while, and attack the problem again in the morning. I thought maybe I should just see if the interwebs could tell me anything about the 78 record recorded in 1946… so I searched for title and performer (Axel Schiǿtz) and mirabile dictu up came a YouTube video of the exact precise very recording, with none of the surface noise and pops and clicks of the shellac original. I could actually hear the words, and thus have some idea of what brother David heard all those years ago (before there even was vinyl) and kept in his memory all his life. Here it is:

Aperite mihi portas justitiae
Open to Me, Gates of Justice

So the faintly ridiculous part of this was that I didn’t ask Google first, I who generally pride myself on knowing my way around the worlds of Information that I’ve inhabited all my life, and that I’ve kept up with pretty well. I was stuck on the realia of that 78, on the story from David’s last days. But now I have a slightly better understanding of where he was at (Gates of Justice indeed…), what he thought about, and how he responded to the intricately structured sound of a rather obscure Danish/German mid-Baroque musical eminence, as interpreted by an even more obscure Danish singer.

Our UPS dude said to Kate today, “What does your dad do up there in the barn?”. Her answer: “Who the hell knows…”

photos keep surfacing

Organizing stuff in the barn always means finding things of Significance that have been hiding for years. Some of them connect to stories and Stories.

This one ended 60 years ago. The tall person was David Lyon, my Chadwick roommate in 1958-59, after which he went to Paris for two years (long story there), before returning to Chadwick for his senior year, which was my first year at Harvard. He’d just been accepted to Harvard himself when he died in a car accident. The old people in the photo are Commander and Mrs. Chadwick, the grandparents of the three at the back and great aunt/uncle to the rest. Mrs. C. was a huge presence in my Chadwick life.

Margaret and Joe Chadwick with grandchildren and grandniblings

Here we see Betsy’s sister Caroline and her first husband Steve Butterfield, in 1973. Shame it’s not color — Steve’s hair was a magnificent red. He worked for Bolt, Beranek, and Newman when the internet was being born, and was the first person we ever saw use email. When we were at Stanford in the 1979-1980 sabbatical, Steve was at Xerox PARC. He gave me a tour of the Future just when the personal computer was being invented…

Caroline and Steve 1973

Broot took this one in summer 1963, the young guitarist clipping fingernails.

HAB 1963

And this is Larry Fredericks, taken sometime in the 1980s. He was a colleague/friend in the first few years at Acadia, an enthusiastic member of CPC/M-L (Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist). He had a marvelous International Harvester Scout, red in colour, which at one point he traded in for a bronze-hued Impala with electric windows. He took me for a ride on the Big Road, getting it up to 90 or so, and zipped the windows up and down… I said “Lar, what you got here is a Bronze Pig”. He thought that characterization was funny until I wrote a rather mocking song about it. I learned the power of music and lost a friend… but then one day maybe 10 years later he turned up… he was doing something in banking or was it stock-broking in Toronto, and had rented the white Cadillac convertible at the airport.

Larry Fredericks

The Genealogy of thusly

I’ve just had this image printed 20 x 30 on metal, for the September gallery show we’re now planning:

I was inspired to name it “thusly” without quite knowing why, but then I realized that it all began with Jan Broek, seen here during a photographic expedition in Boston in the spring of 1965:

Jan Broek 1965

Here’s Jan and myself about 3 years later:
Pogo and Jan, chez Laura de la TB

…and then some 50 years later, while visiting Jan in Bolinas CA:

Jan Broek declaims Jan Broek reading

and one more of Jan in 1965:
Jan Broek