Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

01 DECEMBER, 2014

Our Fraught Relationship with Time, in Clever Minimalist Illustrations

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A witty visual meditation on our comical control strategies, the predictability of modern life, and our constant tussle with productivity and presence.

“I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular essay on time and language. “As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it.” And yet ever since Galileo invented modern timekeeping, the tyranny of the clock has not only bound but shackled us to the invisible dimension in everything from our internal rhythms to our ideal creative routines. Meanwhile, time, with its remarkable elasticity, continues to mystify us — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the capacity to imagine it made us human.

In About Time: A Visual Memoir Around the Clock (public library | IndieBound), French-Armenian graphic designer Vahram Muratyan — who gave us the 2012 delight Paris vs. New York — builds on humanity’s long history of visualizing time, exploring its enduring mesmerism with great humor, sensitivity, and insight into modern life.

From the predictable cycles of our routines, relationships, and our fashions to our psychological tussles with the flow of life, Muratyan captures the profound anticipatory anxiety that defines our relationship with time — the expectation that there is always something more, or more important, to do, that the next moment must bring what this one lacks. He pokes gentle fun at our preoccupation with productivity at the expense of presence and at the chronic civilizational busyness making us forget that, in the unforgettable words of Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

One can almost hear Alan Watts’s voice booming from Muratyan’s minimalist vignettes, admonishing once more that “hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

There is also a meta-element commenting on the cyclical nature of time and our resistance to its flow — Muratyan’s visual sensibility is intentionally reminiscent of mid-century graphic design, vintage children’s books, and the aesthetic of the Mad Men era, as if to remind us that nostalgia is our most stubborn and wistful hedge against time’s merciless forward motion.

Although his project is undeniably intended to delight with visual humor, Muratyan rewards those willing to attend to what remains after the initial chuckle — a number of his vignettes explore the darker reaches of our relationship with time, reminding us that despite all of our efforts to control and constrain it, time itself inevitably has the upper hand in that play-pretend power dynamic.

In our recent conversation at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, Muratyan and I dove deeper into the heart of the project by discussing how the tyranny of the clock has enslaved our capacity for spontaneity and presence, why the a-ha! moments of creative breakthrough arrive when we least expect them, the relationship between motion and meditative contemplation, and how life’s most challenging experiences demolish all of our defenses and control strategies, leaving time as our only master. Please enjoy.

Complement About Time with Alan Watts on the art of timing, a visual history of mapping time and the psychology of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped while we vacation, then counter the frantic modern rhythms Muratyan teases with a lesson in stillness from Leonard Cohen.

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10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Artist Andrea Dezsö’s Enchanting Black-and-White Illustrations for the Little-Known Original Edition of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

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“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully.”

In December of 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, then in their twenties, published the first volume of what would become the world’s most enduring and beloved fairy tales, which have raised generations of children and inspired endless reimaginings, most recently by Neil Gaiman. But what most of us know today — the most commonly known Grimm tales, those most continually reprinted, widely translated, and even more widely celebrated — is the 1857 edition, which has very little to do with the original. Over the forty-five years and six editions in between, the Grimm brothers refined, revised, and wholly rewrote the tales beyond recognition. But in the preface to the magnificent The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), translator and Grimm scholar Jack Zipes argues that “the first edition is just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”

The original tales were pioneering examples of elements of creative culture we celebrate today as modern inventions — desk-bound scholars and philologists, the brothers were visionary crowdsourcers and deft remixers of folktales they collected from oral storytelling traditions. To that end, the tales also bespeak the central but unsung role of women in literary traditions — several well-educated young women from two local families played a significant role in gathering the tales and reciting them for the Grimm brothers to record; but the most significant contribution came from a tailor’s wife named Dorothea Viehmann, who lived in a nearby village and told the brothers more than forty tales.

'The Frog King, or Iron Henry'

Most significantly, the tales as originally envisioned were beautifully blunt and unaffected, not moralistic or didactic — as Christian and puritanical ideology would later censor them into being — but celebratory of the ennobling effect of poetry itself. The Grimms capture this beautifully in the preface to the 1812 edition, where they also speak with great elegance to the notion — shared by Tolkien and echoed by Neil Gaiman — that children shouldn’t be shielded from the dark:

In publishing our collection we wanted to do more than just perform a service for the history of [poetry]. We intended at the same time to enable [poetry] itself, which is alive in the collection, to have an effect: it was to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it, and therefore, our collection was also to become an intrinsic educational primer. Some people have complained about this latter intention and asserted that there are things here and there [in our collection] that cause embarrassment and are unsuitable for children or offensive (such as the references to certain incidents and conditions, and they also think children should not hear about the devil and anything evil). Accordingly, parents should not offer the collection to children. In individual cases this concern may be correct, and thus one can easily choose which tales are to be read. On the whole it is certainly not necessary. Nothing can better defend us than nature itself, which has let certain flowers and leaves grow in a particular color and shape. People who do not find them beneficial, suitable for their special needs, which cannot be known, can easily walk right by them. But they cannot demand that the flowers and leaves be colored and cut in another way.

'The Three Sisters'

But what makes this newly released original volume especially enchanting are the breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

'The Wild Man'

'The Elves'

'The Godfather'

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dezsö about her creative process, the enduring enchantment of fairy tales, the singular allure of papercraft, the relationship between horror and whimsy, and the joy of making art at a public library.

MARIA POPOVA: Your artwork is so intricate, so delicately detailed. Where does each piece begin, both in your mind and on the paper?

ANDREA DEZSÖ: Images can arrive fully-formed as I read the text, if it comes this way then it just pops out. Images that don’t come to mind fully-formed begin vague and undetailed, like something seen from a distance at night. In those cases, I sketch on the margins of the text or in a small notebook using a thick, blunt pencil that does not allow for precision. Through the act of drawing the image gets clearer and clearer. I start from marking what I know, what I can already see taking shape.

I made most of the Grimm sketches at a public library in New Jersey that had sturdy tables, great light, lots of books, people reading — a quiet and uplifted environment that made it easy to focus. I love to work outside of the studio — at libraries, in meetings, on the subway, while waiting around. Since you’re not expected to create great artwork in those places, it’s easy to relax and let the mind wander and find unexpected images.

A lot of the creative work and visual thinking happen up front, in the sketch phase. Loose sketch, detailed sketch. I typically show clients only highly detailed sketches that very closely resemble the finished illustrations — that’s the first they see of how I’ve translated the text into imagery.

'The Twelve Brothers'

'Hans My Hedgehog'

MP: How did you choose which fairy tales and which particular scenes to illustrate?

AD: Jack Zipes asked that I illustrate the first and last tales (“The Frog King” and “The Golden Key”), and also suggested a group of other tales to consider, so I started by reading those. If I liked his suggestion, I illustrated it; if not, I picked another one. I chose tales to illustrate that gave me immediate, strong, clear mental images as I read them. The scenes to be illustrated popped into my mind, often fully formed — like the whale rearing from the water with a man sitting in a tiny boat in front of it. I love tales that feature the devil or other nonhuman creatures, so that influenced my choices, too.

'The Devil in the Green Coat'

MP: How long did each piece take, on average — both the mental incubation period and the physical crafting?

AD: This was a fast-paced project — I made the 20 illustrations and the cover over three months, working intensively. Each image took several days to complete. Some images took days just to conceptualize, while others popped into mind ready to be put on paper. Some of the sketch sheets are heavily worked-up, while others contain a single drawing which looks pretty much the same as the final image. Sketching takes hours, sometimes much longer. Once the publisher was happy with the direction of the sketches, I re-drew them from scratch, regardless of how detailed the sketch was, in order to get it perfect.

'Okerlo'

MP: Papercraft seems like a medium particularly well-suited to fairy tales — it is magical in and of itself. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Hans Christian Andersen was a paper-cutter himself.) Do you find that the magic of papercraft comes from the medium itself, or does the quality of immersive, patient attention imbue any medium upon which it is bestowed with magic? Or is it some combination of the two?

AD: I like the tension that arises from using a medium in a way that it’s not typically used. In the case of the Grimm book, these are ink drawings that I made to look like cut paper. This drawing technique presents a unique set of challenges, like solving a puzzle, so I didn’t simply cut paper to make these illustrations.

There’s an instinctive compatibility between folk and fairy tales and paper cutting, as you mention. When I first began cutting paper years ago, I cut and arranged detailed scenes into multi-layered tunnel books — cut paper sculptures of fantastical scenes from my imagination and nightmares in the guise of fairy tales. The initial impression of beauty conveyed by a delicate, lacy cut paper piece is challenged the moment the viewer realizes what’s actually taking place in the scene. The experience moves back and forth between the beauty of the medium and the edginess of the message.

This extends to media beyond paper, too. For example, I like to embroider images and words that subvert the notion of the feminine and domestic. These embroideries are decidedly outside the traditional sense of craft, though a superficial glance might signal quaint samplers.

'The Singing Bone'

MP: What drew you to papercraft in the first place?

AD: To me the perfect situation is when life and work are seamlessly integrated. I love the idea of working with everyday materials like pencils, papers, knives, thread and fabric, because those materials are always available, so nothing can prevent me from working. Paper is also just a perfect material in that way: ubiquitous, affordable and easy to work with. It’s versatile, physical, light yet strong, it folds flat but can also be made to pop up or built into three dimensional environments. It can be used large or small, cut, sewn, used as-is or painted, printed or glued, new or recycled, hand or machine made. A nice piece of paper never fails to inspire me.

My first notion of paper cutting came from Victorian toy theaters. From the start, I was interested in cut paper beyond its conveyance of narrative, and began experimenting with the possibilities of light and shadow and movement. After the initial tunnel book sculptures, I was invited to create gallery-sized cut paper installations and found it necessary to transition to laser-cutting in order to avoid destroying my hand from the repetitious act of cutting thousands of minutely-detailed figures. Making laser cuts involves drawing an image and digitizing it to send to the laser cutter; at that point the whole question of drawing and cutting has come full-circle. I started to play with that challenge.

'Herr Fix-It-Up'

MP: You, like myself, grew up in Eastern Europe, where the Grimm fairy tales weren’t sterilized out of their grimness. Many Western storytellers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, Neil Gaiman, and Sophie Blackall, have argued that shielding children from the dark is a selfish act on behalf of grownups and that there isn’t really such a thing as writing “for children.” How do you, both as an artist and as someone with one foot in each culture of fairy tales, feel about the childhood/adulthood polarization and about the element of the dark in “children’s” storytelling?

AD: I don’t believe my grandmother, mother, or aunt left out any of the grimmer elements of the fairy tales they read to us as children. I guess there was a respect for the integrity of a tale — this idea that every story had a wholeness that should not be tampered with when it was told. I thought it entirely normal that scary things happened in fairy tales because scary things happened in the real world as well. Romania had serious food shortages when I was growing up and I remember thinking that my sister and I still had it pretty good compared to all those children in the fairy tales whose parents sent them off to the forest with a stale slice of bread when they could not feed them anymore.

The publishing industry has its conventions, but children like to be taken seriously sometimes. A few years ago I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Mamushka, that appeared in Hungary. The book is a series of whimsical episodes, but is ultimately about a child working through her grief and finding consolation after the death of her grandmother. The illustrations are black-and-white graphite drawings. It’s an unconventional children’s book for Hungary, both because of the subject matter and the lack of color. Some readers indicated that they were ambivalent about giving the book to their children at first, but when they did the kids really took to the book and wanted it read over and over.

I guess it always depends on the individual child — some children may find some stories or characters disturbing, while others might find them relatable, and we as adults should be sensitive to that. There might be a cultural component at play — children raised in Eastern Europe might be expected to handle emotions provoked by folktales about betrayal and death, whereas in America maybe that’s considered challenging — though these same American kids see plenty of violence and death in popular culture, so there you have it. I think the right tale at the right time can be tremendously helpful, but tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully.

'The Golden Key'

You can see more of Dezsö’s enchanting work on her site. Complement The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition with the best illustrations from two centuries of Grimm tales, then revisit Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel.

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21 OCTOBER, 2014

Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark on Trust, Integrity, Human Nature, and Why a Steady Moral Compass Is the Best Investment

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“What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good.”

In 2007, Y Combinator founding partner Jessica Livingston set out “to establish a fund of experience that everyone can learn from” by interviewing some of the most successful entrepreneurs at the time — the founders and first employees of such celebrated companies as Apple, PayPal, Flickr, Adobe, and Firefox. The resulting conversations were published in the now-classic volume Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days (public library), titled after the Paris Review’s iconic Writers at Work.

Today, in a culture that talks a great deal about “creating value” but seems to care very little about upholding values, and writes history with the same bias, I keep coming back to the most heartening interview in the volume — Livingston’s conversation with craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whose beloved lo-fi website began in 1994 as a hunch, became a humble side-project email list in 1995 highlighting interesting events in the San Francisco area, and turned into Newmark’s full-time labor-of-love business in 1999. In 2004, eBay purchased a 25% stake in the company from a former employee, but craigslist remains independent and privately owned, helping millions of people in several hundred cities around the world find everything from used couches to true love. Underpinning the site’s success is Newmark’s own idealism, his adamant refusal to surrender to cynicism or succumb to commercialism, and his unflinching faith in the human spirit.

Newmark’s most powerful tool as an entrepreneur and a human being is the very thing Kurt Vonnegut believed was the key to happiness — the knowledge that one has enough. Recounting a pivotal point at which advertisers began approaching him about running banner ads on his free site, Newmark gets to the heart of the values question:

I thought about my own values and I was thinking, “Hey, how much money do I need?” … So I figured I would just not do that.

At that point, I got the first inkling of what I now call my “moral compass.” I better understood it later—particularly since the presidential elections, because then I realized that people were claiming a moral high ground who actually didn’t practice what they preached, and it’s about time for people of goodwill to reassert their idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Newmark was able to stay true to his own values by making very deliberate choices about not letting outside interests interfere with his vision — specifically investors, who invariably bring their own financial interests and thus begin to warp values in favor of narrowly defined “value.” Newmark tells Livingston:

I’ve stepped away from a huge amount of money, and I’m following through.

[…]

I coasted on savings for several months… I funded it with my own time. In no form did we ever take investment money… For the most part, for the first few years, it was just putting my own time and energy into it. If I was billing for my own hours, it would have been a great deal of money.

And that energy was considerable — when Livingston asks whether craigslist garnered “a positive response pretty quickly,” Newmark speaking to the idea that one should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time” and responds:

Our traffic has always been slow but sure. We’re the tortoise, not the hare. Now and then we’ll get a surge of growth, but it’s been slow but steady.

At this intersection of firm values and steadfast dedication lies Newmark’s most essential insight. While “follow your gut” is a common platitude often dismissed with a scoff, especially in our culture of great impatience for any semblance of earnestness, there is something to be said for the difference between a throwaway aphorism and an ideal enacted in one’s own life as a “quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Newmark’s greatest learning is very much the latter:

The biggest entrepreneurial lesson I’ve learned has been that you really do need to follow your instincts.

[…]

Trust your instincts and your moral compass… The deal is: we’re not pious about this. We try hard not to be sanctimonious. This is the way people really live; we just don’t talk about it. I’d prefer to be cynical and not talk about it, and yet, that’s real life.

Therein lies his most heartening conviction — the same one Isaac Asimov shared in his spectacular short meditation on cynicism and the human spirit. Newmark, like Asimov, speaks from a place of resolute humanism, echoing legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s memorable perspective on the universe. He tells Livingston:

What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good. There are problems, and sometimes people bicker, which is a pain in the ass, but people are good. No matter what your religious background, we share pretty much the same values. There are some minor differences that we disagree on, but the differences are at the 5 percent level. That’s pretty good.

Artwork from Sophie Blackall's illustrated craigslist missed connections. Click image for more.

After noting that the two most important factors in his company culture were an atmosphere of trust and a keen moral compass, Newmark considers how that reverberates throughout the craigslist community itself. When Livingston asks whether he ever worried about spammers and other ill-willed people trying to take advantage of the site, he answers:

We have a really good culture of trust on the site — of goodwill. You know, we’re finding that pretty much everyone out there shares, more or less, the same moral compass as we do and as my personal one. People are good. There are some bad guys out there, but they are a very tiny minority and our community is self-policing. People want other people to play fair, and that works… It works great in all sorts of ways, and it’s also an expression of our values. Mutual trust. This is kind of democracy in real life. Everyone wins, except for the bad guys.

Founders at Work is a trove of wisdom in its entirety, from Paul Graham’s characteristically contrarian and inspiring introduction to the remaining interviews with legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Wozniak, Caterina Fake, and Brewster Kahle.

Complement this particular excerpt with the question posed by Alan Watts — what would you do if money was no object? — which should underpin every entrepreneurial pursuit, then revisit this field guide to finding your purpose.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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