Summer Photography (2)

Last week I discussed the camera obscura and promised a profile of an artist who turns everyday objects into cameras. He creates pinhole cameras, a basic technology based on the camera obscura. Here is the post from 2015. 

From Train Toilets to Laundromats: The Inventive Mind

Steven Pippin, photo made with pinhole camera

Last week I wrote about the magic of the camera obscura. While writing that post I was reminded of the work of artist Steven Pippin who constructs unique camera obscura/pinhole cameras out of unexpected materials. He has converted refrigerators, washing machines, toilets, closets and other common objects into pinhole cameras that use film and paper.

What strikes me about Pippin’s work is his ability to take a simple process and let it be the leaping off point for a wild ride into a world where anything is possible. Everything he encounters he views through a creative filter – he sees what the thing can be, rather than what it is. To me this is the essence of the inventive mind all artists need.

The process of exploration is as important to Pippin as the finished photographs. He usually documents the making of the cameras, often displaying the altered camera-objects with the completed photographs. There is also a connection between the camera and the thing photographed: a converted refrigerator used to photograph the food on its shelves; a closet used to photograph the clothes inside; a bathtub for bathers on a beach.

Steven Pippin, toilet turned into camera

In one of his projects, “The Continued Saga of an Amateur Photographer,”  Pippin traveled on a train from London to Brighton. The trip took 55 minutes, and it took him 50 minutes to complete a photograph. He converted the toilet into an analog camera. The toilet also became a photographic darkroom – he processed the film with developer and fixer in the toilet bowl.

Steven Pippin converted washing machines into pinhole cameras

His most famous project, “Laundromat-Locomotion,” used a row of twelve washing machines in a laundromat. He turned each of them into a camera and photographic darkroom – taking the picture and then processing it during the rinse cycles of the machine. He rigged up a trip wire so that the cameras would take timed sequential pictures. In a homage to the 19th century photographer-scientist Eadweard Muybridge, Pippin photographed a variety of subjects moving through the laundromat, even bringing in a horse. If you aren’t familiar with Muybridge’s locomotion studies here is a link.

Of his work Pippin writes, “The future of photography seems to rely on the progress of the camera and its ability to be continually refined, to a point whereby images will be indistinguishable from reality. Working in the opposite direction to this mentality I have become fascinated with the idea of constructing a camera whose view point is not some external subject, but instead one having the capability of looking back in on itself toward its own darkness. An instrument designed with the intention of recording its own mechanism and features. A singular entity bearing no relationship to anything other than its own intricate and elaborate operation.

To read more about Steven Pippin click here.

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Summer Photography

Summer is officially here and we will be spending our time experiencing new places and new ideas. Every artist needs to mix things up and that is what we intend to do. During this time we’ll highlight posts from our archives.

If you are traveling I’m sure you’ve brought your cell phone and possibly a stand-alone camera but what other technologies are available? How about a portable camera obscura, possibly a purse or backpack that’s been appropriately altered to become a camera. If you’ve never heard of a camera obscura this post from 2015 should clear things up. Next week we’ll profile an artist who turns unexpected objects into cameras.

The Magic of a Dark Charmer: The Camera Obscura

camera obscura image by Abelardo Morell

#1 Abelardo Morell “Camera Obscura: Manhattan View Looking South in Large Room,” 1996

I find myself drawn to artists who direct their attention to very early technologies, such as the camera obscura.

drawing of a camera obscure

An antique diagram of a camera obscura.

A camera obscura is basically a room, or box, that has a small hole on one wall. Light from the outside enters this hole, and projects an upside down image on the opposite wall. Think of the hole as the pupil of an eye, the principle is the same. 

As early as 470 BCE there were written observations about the optical principles used by this device. The Chinese philosopher Mo Ti referred to it as “a locked treasure room,” which seems like an appropriate description.

Artists and scientists have worked with the camera obscure for centuries. Leonard da Vinci published an extensive study in 1502. Some claim that the development of linear perspective during the Renaissance was dependent on the use of a camera obscura.

drawing of a goblet camera obscure

A diagram of a camera obscura designed in a goblet.

As an artist I’m fascinated by the quirky and the “treasure room aspects” of the technology. One early example from the 1600s was constructed inside of a specially designed goblet. There was a lens and mirror in the stem that projected an image into the glass when it was filled with white wine. You could pretend to drink your wine while actually watching an image of the person sitting opposite you.

Photograph by Robyn Stacey taken with a camera obscura.

Robyn Stacey “Room 2015 Pullman Hyde Park, Brielle,” 2013 from “Guest Relations”

I suppose this is what I love about this basic technology. It creates magic. Even today, walk into a room that’s been converted into a camera obscura and you’ll forget about all the complex technology you use everyday.

The camera obscura is the precursor of what we call a camera. You can easily make your own. Darken a room, you may need to stuff a towel under the door to prevent light from entering. Cover all the windows to block out the light. One of the windows should be covered with thick black paper, cardboard or poster board that has a circle cut out of it – start with a 3” diameter. This circle will be the support for your lens. Cut out several squares of aluminum foil that are large enough to cover this circle. Make a small circle/hole in the center of each – the holes should all be a different size. These will work as the lens of your camera obscura. Now tape them one at a time over the hole you left in the window until you find the one that gives you the best image. The smaller the hole the sharper the image, but it will also be dimmer. (If you want a sharper image you can use the lens from a flashlight. Tape it in place over the hole in your cardboard, then use your aluminum foil lenses on top of it.)

Abelardo Morell “Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Summer,” 2008

Abelardo Morell “Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Summer,” 2008

Whatever is outside of your window will be projected onto the opposite wall upside down. A strong wind in the trees? Then the trees on your wall will also blow in the wind. People on the street? They’ll walk across your walls too.

I feel like there is less and less that surprises and amazes me today, I guess I’ve seen it all – everyday a new gotta-have-it device or technology. How great to be reminded that there are still simple pleasures.

To see more of Abelardo Morell’s work click here.

You can see Robyn Stacey’s work here.

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Design Exercise: Imaginary Places (again)

Today is the first day of summer and I’m ready to celebrate. I’m off on an adventure and so there will be no new post today. But I have found a post for you from last year, a design exercise that lets you imagine a perfect vacation. 

I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live,” Francoise Sagan, playwright and novelist. Live life and make art, they depend on each other.

Design Exercise:

The weather is beautiful here in California. Perfect blue skies and just the right amount of heat. It’s hard to sit inside and get work done. I’d rather be anywhere but at my desk. Perhaps you feel this way too. Where would you be if you had no responsibilities and anything was possible? Does such a place even exist?

The greatest vacation may occur in your imagination, where there are no limits, not even those imposed by gravity. My proposal is that you create your perfect vacation spot, one that you can revisit no matter where your body resides physically, and regardless of the time of year. 

I suggest you begin by deciding what type of vacation you’d want – adventure, natural beauty, exposure to foreign cultures, extreme relaxation, sensory indulgence, adrenaline inducing exploits, educational pursuits, out-of-body experiences, a dystopian nightmare (a weird vacation indeed), etc.

I’m one of those people who loves lists and that’s what I’m going to suggest you make next – a list of what that ideal vacation would contain. If you want a vacation of adrenaline inducing exploits ask yourself where this would occur (remember, anything is possible, forget about the laws of physics), who would be there, what would you do, how would you get there, even what would be your emotional state of mind. 

If you need help generating ideas try searching online for images. You can start with obvious search categories but see what you can find by following link upon link – in other words, let yourself get a little lost, thus discovering what you didn’t know existed. Move past the easy answers.

What visual form will best represent this fantasy vacation? A map? A collage? A diorama? A sculptural installation? A film? An ad campaign? A board game? A video game? A garment? A series of souvenirs?

The effectiveness of your response to this exercise is dependent on your successful use of the elements and principles of design, the inventiveness of your idea, and your handling and crafting of materials. Use our book, “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook” as a resource. In addition Youtube offers many how-to videos that can help you with the pragmatics of fabrication. 

Please share your projects with us on our Facebook page.

Here are a few images I found online that I thought fit with this theme.

manipulated photograph of boats floating in the air

bpkelsey, manipulated photograph

antique map Bartholomaeus Anglicus

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, antique map

three illustrations by Whooli Chen of imaginary places

Whooli Chen, three illustrations

outdoor installation by London Fieldworks

London Fieldworks, outdoor installation

Boat art installation by Yudi Sulistyo


Bonsai treehouse sculptures by Takanori Aiba

Takanori Aiba, bonsai treehouses

Painting by Suad Al Attar

Suad Al Attar, “A Thousand And One Nights”

Painting by Rae HicksRae Hicks, “Sometimes I Forget That You’re Gone”

Urban Dreaming installation by the Bouroullec Brothers

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, “Urban Daydreaming”

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Biennale Architettura 2018: Responding To The Space Around Us

The Biennale Architettura 2018 is currently being held in Venice. It opened in May and runs until November. As with previous biennials this year’s event focuses on “…examples, proposals, elements – built or unbuilt – of work that exemplifies essential qualities of architecture.”

The exhibition was curated by the Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, co-founders of Grafton Architects in Dublin. 

This year’s theme is FREESPACE and the curators have encouraged a generous interpretation of that term. Starting from the premise that architecture is “…thinking applied to the space where we live, that we inhabit…” they have chosen projects that explore the “…question of space, the quality of space, open and free space.”

To get a better understanding of the range and scope of the exhibits let’s look a a few of the biennial’s pavilions…

The Swiss Pavilion features an installation titled House Tour that focuses on the physical similarities of nearly all contemporary apartments and rental properties…items such as blank white walls, box-like rooms, plastic window frames and generic door handles. 

As visitors move through House Tour they are gradually introduced to exaggerated versions of commonly used (even overused) architectural elements. By radically altering scale and spaces the architects encourage a dialog about the qualities of those elements as they appear in the real world of temporary housing.

Here is a short video about House Tour created by the folks at Dezeen, an online architecture and design magazine.

For those of you reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

The Nordic Pavilion contains enormous inflated balloons that constantly monitor, and respond to, the atmospheric conditions outside the pavilion. They expand or contract based on the carbon-dioxide levels and humidity in the air. They also change color in response to the temperature.

Biennale Architettura 2018 Nordic Pavilion with inflatable objects

Although they are not permanent structural elements these soft inflatables dominate the space that houses them. The fact that they “breath” and respond to natural elements make the forms seem life-like and the entire space becomes more engaging. They introduce a “living” organic presence to an otherwise sterile rectilinear environment.

The architects who designed these inflatables wanted “…to try to think of what architecture could be in a more symbiotic relationship with its environment.”

The Australian Pavilion focuses on the relationship between architecture and its surrounding natural spaces in yet another way. Their installation titled Grasslands Repair is a statement about the loss of native plant life over the years, architecture’s roll in that loss, and possibilities for architecture that can help reverse this trend.

Biennale Architettura 2018 Australian Pavilion with indoor meadow

Commemorating the loss to urbanization and development of more than 90% of the grasslands in southeast Victoria, these architects brought in lighting, irrigation and over 10,000 plants to create a garden inside and around the pavilion. They also project more than a dozen videos on the pavilion’s walls that feature architectural projects focused on restoring the landscape. 

The Australian architects note that ”…there is a role for architecture to actively engage with the repair of the places it is part of: the soil, hydrology, habitat, connections, overland water flow, microorganisms, vegetation and so on.”

As you can tell, this biennial exhibition is showcasing a wide range of formal, conceptual and political responses to the notion of how architecture engages space. You can find additional examples and read more about Biennale Architettura 2018 here.

Photos in this post are courtesy of the online magazine Dezeen.

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Anxiety and Nostalgia: The Art of Aida Muluneh

We exist between the anxiety of the unknown future and the nostalgia of the familiar past. We bear the burden of our duality.”

Aida Muluneh two part photographic portrait

Photographer Aida Muluneh has spent most of her life without a place to call home. At a young age she left Ethiopia with her mother, settling for short amounts of time in Yemen, England, Cyprus and Canada – a nomadic life that left her yearning for a country she barely remembered. Her imagination was fueled by her mother’s stories of their homeland, and like most stories, this vision of the land was part fact and part fiction. She found herself balanced between a barely remembered past and a hard to imagine future.

In high school she was exposed to the art of photography, eventually becoming a photojournalist and working professionally for groups such as the Washington Post. Of this time she says, “I began questioning depictions of Africans and African Americans in the mass media. It dawned on me how the supposedly neutral form of photography was a tool that had helped perpetuate stereotypical images of black people globally and erased a complex past and future.

Aida Muluneh photographic portrait with basket imagery

Muluneh began to investigate traditional art forms, especially ones native to Ethiopia such as face painting, masks, fabric printing, and basketry. These have become a core part of her photographs. The primary colors and shapes she employs mimic tribal markings. Her works merge the contemporary and the traditional, creating a hybrid form. She states that this is part of “my belief that as Africans we must be part of the creation of images that tell the story of a continent in transition between past, present and future through our own authentic voices and lenses.

Aida Muluneh photographic portraits with black and white drawn background

A decade ago Muluneh moved back to Ethiopia, where she had to reconcile the reality of the country with the fantasy she constructed while in exile. Since her return she has become socially active, working as the founder of an African photography expo and as the managing director of DESTA – Developing and Educating Society Through Art for Africa.

Aida Muluneh photographic portrait with blue face painting

The form of Muluneh’s photographs is rooted in tradition and a specific history but it also resonates across culture boundaries. Working mainly with primary colors and basic shapes she makes powerful images. I encourage you to look at these photographs through the lens of the elements and principles of design. Notice how she uses positive/negative shape relationships, color, line, balance, and pattern. There is a simplicity and straightforwardness to their use that heightens the effectiveness of these design components. 

Aida Muluneh portrait based on the grid

Aida Muluneh photograph of woman lying on ground in billowing red garmentAida Muluneh photographic portrait in staged environment


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Day For Night: Public Art Atop the San Francisco Skyline

Salesforce is a giant international company that provides computer applications for sales, service, marketing and more. Like many other large hi-tech companies, their headquarters is located here in San Francisco. 

In 2014 they became the primary tenant of an impressive new skyscraper under construction. That building was then rechristened the Salesforce Tower. 

Today, at 1,070 feet (326 m), the recently completed Salesforce Tower is the tallest building in San Francisco. In fact it’s the tallest building on the West Coast of the United States. The tower dominates its neighborhood as well as the city’s skyline and is visible from much of the Bay Area.

Salesforce Tower in San Francisco

Although the building is impressive in many ways and quite elegant in its understated form, I want to focus this blog post on the public artwork that covers the exterior of the entire top nine floors. The artwork is an LED light installation by Jim Campbell titled Day for Night.

Jim Campbell is a contemporary artist based in San Francisco. He has a degree in electrical engineering and mathematics from MIT. For 25 years Campbell designed micro chips and as of today he holds more than a dozen patents for digital image processing and television technology. For the past several decades he has also worked in film/video and electronic sculpture. 

Campbell is particularly well-known for his video installations built around footage of common scenes (sometimes old home movies or videos he purchases on eBay). These recordings of random and mundane activities are digitally processed until they become highly stylized and simplified. 

Jim Campbell video sculpture of running man

When these modified video images are played back on monitors or grids of lights Campbell often adds yet another layer of visual manipulation. For example, when he uses grids of lights hanging in front of a wall, Campbell sometimes turns the lights toward the wall so viewers see the moving images as soft reflections bouncing off the flat blank surface. 

Jim Campbell video art

Viewers looking at a Jim Campbell installation in a gallery see a video recording that has been modified by processing and presentation until the objects in it are only simple fuzzy shapes or silhouettes.  

These extremely low-resolution images are, however, quite magical. In them the mundane subject matter becomes mysterious, universal and poetic.

And that brings us to Day for Night

In his installation at the top of the Salesforce Tower, Campbell has affixed 11,000 LEDs to flexible rods extending out from large panels of perforated aluminum that are attached to the building. The lights shine back on the aluminum panels and it is the reflected glow off this surface that viewers see when they look up at the gigantic video images.

Even though there are thousands of LEDs casting light all over the top of the building the installation uses only as much electricity as five toaster ovens.

Jim Campbell video installation atop Salesforce Tower

The images projected on the tower are low-resolution scenes taken from vantage points all over San Francisco – ocean waves at the beach, clouds, flocks of birds, dancers, people in a city park. What’s recorded during the day is displayed at night. 

Here is a brief video showing the piece during one of its early test runs.

For those of you reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

Because the videos have a limited amount of detail they capture the spirit and flavor of the city without being overly specific. These are not surveillance videos or jumbotron promotions created by the Chamber of Commerce. 

The installation came into being as the result of efforts by the San Francisco Art Commission, and the Commission promises that the piece will never contain advertising or promotional messages. Campbell has emphatically stated that “I’m not going to do a bulletin board, ever. I’m not going to do red-and-green Christmas lights.” 

Day for Night is the tallest piece of public art in the country. It rests atop the most prominent building in San Francisco and it is visible, on a clear night, from as far away as 20 miles.

This is an adventurous commitment on the part of the private sector. It’s also totally appropriate for a city known as the tech capital of the world. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of bringing more art and technology into public spaces in bold new ways. 

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Design Exercise: Poignant Repairs

This design exercise is based on a recent blog post called Poignant Repairs. Please read it before proceeding with this project. I also suggest you review our book, Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

Somewhere hidden in your home – in the back of a closet or stuffed into that junk drawer in the kitchen – you’ll undoubtedly find a broken item that you just couldn’t part with. If you’re like me you have plans for its resurrection. Well, this assignment is your chance to give it a new life, while adding a little love and a lot of design thinking.

Design is essentially about finding an answer to a problem. Visual design includes solving a problem and incorporating the elements and principles of design into the solution.

Look at all the work I highlighted in the blog post I’ve asked you to read, but pay particular attention to the pieces by Jan Vormann, the design group Droog, and Bouke De Vries. The works by these artists/designers go beyond the obvious and are also great examples of using the elements and principles of design to both repair and transform objects/materials.

I am asking you to repair a broken and neglected item. Before you begin remember the context for this repair – an exploration of the elements and principles of design. This is no ordinary repair, but one that is about both form and function.

Start by considering the function of the object and what is needed to make it work again. Then ask yourself whether you want to restore this function or create a new one. For this assignment both are acceptable responses.

Remember that you are repairing something that someone else already designed. Identify how they used the elements and principles of design in the creation of that original object. How can you expand on what they started? What is your feeling about this original object? Do you think it is useful? Is it too complicated, or perhaps, too simple? Is it an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist? Is it cheaply made, or too lavish? Does the surface of the object add to it’s functionality or is it purely decorative? Does it’s form contradict its function? 

After asking and answering these questions decide if you want your repair to continue with the original designer’s ideas or contradict them. If you think the piece is pretentious you could come up with a solution that is even more absurd and over-the-top. If you love the simplicity you might reduce it further. If it’s an ordinary object but it contains a history and memories that are important to you can you find a way to have this history become part of the repaired object? 

Decide on several of the elements and principles of design that you want to integrate into your repair and then make sure that their use adds to the transformation of your object. Pay careful attention to craft – unless of course you want to make a statement by intentionally making a sloppy version of a sleek object, but be careful with this, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

We’d love to have you share your repairs with us on our Facebook page.

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Augmented Reality: Designing The Future Of Daily Life

One of the most interesting new arenas for inventive visual design, one that has enormous potential, is the field of augmented reality (AR). 

If you’re not familiar with that term let me explain… 

Augmented reality presents a real time direct view of the physical world around us seamlessly combined with computer generated imagery. 

Simple versions of AR have been creeping into our visual media for years. A common example we see here in the United States is the artificial first down line that appears when we’re watching American football on television. 

With technology’s advance AR has moved from the realm of professional special effects into the every day world. Our current consumer electronics now have the processing power to bring complex, interactive AR to everyone’s fingertips. And today the most common way to experience these hybrid blended visuals is by using an AR app on a smartphone or tablet. 

Let’s look at a few examples…

This past year Pokemon Go, an AR based game, was an international viral sensation. Players with the app installed on their phone or tablet could scan the streets and public spaces around them in search of Pokemon characters only they could see. Other popular apps with a similar focus put dinosaurs or zombies in the viewer’s real world space.

augmented reality on a smart phone

augmented reality with a dinosaur

Tourists and travelers often need assistance when navigating the unfamiliar world around them. AR apps can help make that space much more accessible by guiding users through an unfamiliar airport, directing them to shops and cafes, and by translating street signs.

augmented reality on a smart phone

augmented reality on a smart phone

augmented reality on a smart phone

Smartify is an AR app that transforms a smartphone into an art museum docent. With this app viewers get a sophisticated tour of the collections in some of the most prestigious museums around the world. Here’s a brief video showing what that looks like.

For those of you reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

The Swedish furniture store IKEA has an AR app that allows customers who are browsing the company’s website to see what select pieces of furniture will look like in their home before they make the purchase.

augmented reality on a smart phone

As you can see there is a nearly limitless range of possibilities for this emerging technology. School textbooks, user manuals, retail fashion sales, architectural and urban planning, medical training… The list just goes on and on.

It’s an exciting new arena for designers. And because so much of the action takes place on smartphones and tablets, both Apple and Google have taken the initiative in creating AR developer kits specific to their operating systems. They have also published best practice guidelines that encourage developers to create the most effective apps possible. You can see their introductions to AR here and here.

On a final note, the following is a short video prepared by Dent Reality, a London based AR developer. It shows how AR could become a regular feature to help with your everyday routines such as grocery shopping.

For those of you reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.


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Looking Again At The Paintings Of Domenico Gnoli

This week’s blog entry is one of our favorites first posted in October, 2015…

I recently rediscovered the work of the late Domenico Gnoli and I fell in love, all over again, with his wonderful paintings. Let me share some of my thoughts about his work.

The first thing that comes to mind when viewing Gnoli’s paintings is their intimacy. His viewpoint is a very tight close up – way past the borders of conventional personal space. It’s what you would see if you were a child being hugged in your parent’s arms, a lover embracing their sweetheart, a tailor examining the detail of a seam or button hole, or a hairdresser making final adjustments on a client’s new hairstyle. It’s not an alien point of view but it is a special one, something we don’t experience routinely.

Painting of a necktie knot by Domino Gnoli

At the same time Gnoli’s compositions seem monumental. For all their intimacy they also look like massive forms approaching the scale of Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. It’s true that some of his paintings are large (six feet tall or more) but even those paintings seem like they are only hinting at the real size. Sometimes the looming shape of the main object nearly fills the rectangle of the canvas leaving just a sliver of empty space along an edge. At other times the object totally fills the rectangle and seems to extend way beyond its borders. In both instances it makes the scene appear huge, like a land form too large to accurately capture in a single painting.

Painting of an overstuffed chair by Domenico Gnoli

Gnoli’s compositions are very formal and calculated. Precise shapes – each with their own perfectly tuned color or texture – lock together like pieces in some sort of high-stakes jigsaw puzzle. Even a casual viewer can see that nothing in these paintings has been left to chance.

Painting of a button hole and button by Domenico Gnoli

Another thing that stands out when viewing one of Gnoli’s paintings – particularly when you see one life size – is his patient and painstaking attention to detail. His paintings are not as obsessive as the photo realist painters but because he chose such a small detail of a larger scene he needed to lavish attention on subtle nuances such as light falling on strands of hair or the translucent surface of pearl buttons. In some of his paintings the three-dimensional texture of a fabric’s weave mixes with the cloth’s printed pattern and both texture and pattern extend over the entire surface of the painting. It’s an unrelenting attention to detail that gives his paintings tremendous authenticity.

Painting of hair and dress by Domenico Gnoli

Apart from all these physical characteristics there is a pronounced but intangible “feeling” about Gnoli’s paintings. They seem eerie and magical in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the surrealist painters Magritte and de Chirico. Yet, there is nothing overtly manipulative in Gnoli’s images. Time, space and objects are very normal here. There are no improbable juxtapositions. It is obviously just the unusual close up point of view and the carefully arranged compositions that create this psychological edge to the scenes.

Painting of braided hair by Domencio Gnoli

Domenico Gnoli was born in Italy in1933. His father was an art historian and his mother was a ceramics artist. He was trained as a theater set designer but soon became an illustrator and then a painter. Gnoli moved to the United States in the 1950s where he worked for Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and other magazines. In 1969 he had his first major exhibition at the prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City. The next year, at age 36, he died from cancer.

In his brief career Gnoli produced a modest number of paintings but his vision was so focused – and each painting reinforced that vision so strongly – that he left the art world a sublime and easily recognizable legacy.

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Poignant Repairs

Several weeks ago I wrote about the Japanese art of Kintsugi, the process of repairing damaged ceramics with seams of gold. The idea of a repair transforming an object into something of even greater value has stayed with me. 

Recently, while reading the novel “The Gargoyle Hunters” by John Freeman Gill, I came across a passage that I want to share with you:

…On its white grillwork shelves stood a number of unusual, very old objects. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that every one of them had something wrong with it.

‘I call these Poignant Repairs,’ he said. “They’re antique objects, some of them completely unremarkable to begin with, that broke at some point in the past but whose owners were so fond of them that they went to extraordinary lengths to fix them. In doing that, they transformed the object, by their ingenuity and affection, into something completely new and singular.’” 

Gill then goes on to describe some of these repaired objects – an earthenware pitcher with a broken handle that was replaced with a hand hammered one in tin that even contained a tiny brass plate for the name of the man who made the repair; a glass goblet whose base was replaced with a marble foot; a tortoiseshell comb with a break repaired with small silver reinforcements engraved with fine floral designs. A character in the book goes on to say “The damage was the opportunity, you see. Without damage, there’s no discovery… It was a pretty nice comb to begin with, you know, like a lot of pretty nice combs…But now it’s the only one like it in the world. Now it’s perfectly itself.”

So, is this what artists do, make something that is perfectly itself?

Gill seems to have been influenced by Marilynn Gelfman Karp, author of “In Flagrante Collecto (Caught in the Act of Collecting),” who coined the phrase poignant repairs and who has a large collection of these humble objects. Another influence is Andrew Baseman who collects and then profiles these objects on his website. 

So let’s look at a few of these poignant repairs. What can they tell us about the act of creation and transformation?

ceramics repaired with metal staples

These broken ceramic pieces were repaired with metal staples. According to legend it’s just such a repair that caused Japanese craftsmen to develop the art of Kintsugi as an aesthetically pleasing alternative. Photos courtesy of Andrew Baseman.

pin cushion from found materials

Talk about wacky. A broken ceramic lid has been used to make a pin cushion, with hand embroidered red feathers. Photos courtesy of Andrew Baseman.

small cast dog with broken leg

This little dog makes me cry. Some one loved it enough to fashion a new leg from a nail and wire. Photo courtesy of Andrew Baseman.

toy dog that lost its fur

This dog lost its fur and so an inventive owner used cotton tape to make a new coat. Photos courtesy of Andrew Baseman.

If the above repairs were made out of practicality combined with love then the following ones add in a more conscious attempt at a design solution to a problem. The online site Platform 21 organized a contest, Remarkable Repairs, for the best repair. Many solutions are funny and some play on visual puns.

staircase baluster repaired with an umbrella

Repaired baluster by Any-One.

broken drainpipe repaired with plastic bottle

Repaired drainpipe by Jaap van der Feer.

too small sweater altered with tiny slits

This piece started out as a sweater that had shrunk and no longer fit. Calypso Schuijt expanded the sweater with a series of small cuts, creating a perfect fit.

broken microwave keypad replaced with arty alternative

Gerald Tros had a microwave with a non-responsive keypad. With some minor rewiring and a custom designed wooden keypad he now has a one-of-a-kind microwave (and he later made a very “arty” one for a friend).

All of the pieces I’ve shown so far have one thing in common, they’ve retained their functional use, and that has been the main impetus behind their creation. The following works are by artists/designers whose work straddles the line between “poignant repairs” and the larger tradition of artists working with repurposed materials.

Jan Vormann repair of old stone walls with plastic lego blocks

Jan Vormann, lego block repairs

Droog rag chair and chest of drawers

Droog, rag chair and chest of drawers

Bouke De Vries ceramic art

Bouke De Vries, ceramics

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