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Mysterious Street Photographer Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits

How a remarkable woman, at once mythical and legendary, saw herself.

In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.

Maloof writes in the foreword:

As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.

There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.

It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.

The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood. Complement it with this fascinating 600-year history of the self-portrait, from Galileo to the selfie.

Photographs via Maloof Collection HT Colossal

BP

Beneath the Rainbow: Enchanting Stories and Poems from Kenya, Illustrated by African Artists

Lovely modern-day fables based on African mythology.

Although some of the world’s most influential storytelling was created in eras before “the West” as we know it even existed — from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set in Ancient Greece to Arabian Nights representing the Middle East — the vast majority of modern storytelling permeating popular culture today, especially when it comes to children’s books, has a decidedly Western bias.

Enter Beneath the Rainbow — an enchanting collection of mystical children’s stories and poems from Kenya, published by Kenya’s Jacaranda Design and distributed by global literacy nonprofit Worldreader as the first in an ongoing series, featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by modern-day writers and brought to life with expressive illustrations by African artists.

Sun, Wind, and Cloud, written by Kariuki Gakuo and illustrated by Phyllis Koinange and John Okello, tells the story of an ancient quarrel the Sun and the Wind had over who was stronger, which only a tiny white Cloud floating overhead is able to settle.

When each element tries to prove its supremacy, fire and drought ensue — the Sun burns the land and the Wind blows the smoke into the little Cloud’s eyes. But as she begins to cry, she restores balance and safety to the animals, who had begun to flee in horror, and helps the Sun and Wind realize that strength only matters if it is a life-giving force, not a destructive one.

In the sky, Sun and Wind agreed that Cloud was stronger than either of them.

Even to this day, when the animals see the clouds growing dark and heavy with rain, they stop what they are doing to give thanks and praise to Ngai, the god of all living things, who saved them from both drought and fire.

It is a parable about ego and selflessness, construction and destruction, vanity and valor — an African version of the familiar Aesop’s Fables.

In “Run,” poet Sam Mbure and illustrator Pat Keay explore the gentler face of the elements with a beautiful celebration of private everyday happiness:

Come down sweet rain;
Come rain on me
Like you rain on the tree,
The maize and the grass;
And they grow and grow.

Come down sweet rain,
End famine and thirst.
Soon the market will overflow;
Vegetables and fruits, maize and beans;
And I’ll grow and grow and grow.

Come down sweet rain
Wash away dust and dirt
Fill our drum with sweet rain water
So that tomorrow I can sleep till nine.
And I’ll be happy, happy to rest.

Come down sweet rain
Shut out drought and heat
Swell rivers, ponds and seas
Then as I swim naked in the pool
I’ll join the frogs singing for you.

The Ostrich and the Wizard, written by Kariuki Gakuo and illustrated by Sironka Averdung and John Okello, tells the prehistoric tale of young Earth and creatures first began to populate it. The Ostrich, unsure of whether she was a bird or an animal, struggles with her quest for identity — heartened by laying a large white egg, she decides she’s a bird; but when the other birds realize she can’t fly, they ostracize her with scorn. She runs and runs, unable to find where she belongs.

The ostrich ran faster and faster and the cloud of dust whirled thicker and thicker. The giant eyes of the crocodile were red and swollen with the dust, while the salty tears of the elephants and hippos formed great pools around their feet. In the hot sun the pools of tears dried up and formed deep salt licks.

But the ostrich did not stop running. Faster and faster she ran while behind her the cloud of dust whirled thicker and thicker.

Gorgeously illustrated and beautifully written, like all the stories and poems in the collection, it’s an allegory about the essence of home and belonging.

Complement Beneath the Rainbow with The Night Life of Trees and Waterlife — two equally wonderful children’s stories from another part of the world, based on traditional Indian mythology.

BP

The Dark: An Illustrated Meditation on Overcoming Fear from Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

A heart-warming allegory about what it means to make peace with our demons.

Daniel Handler — beloved author, timelessly heartening literary jukeboxer — is perhaps better-known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, under which he pens his endlessly delightful children’s books. In fact, they owe much of their charisma to the remarkable creative collaborations Snicket spawns, from 13 Words illustrated by the inimitable Maira Kalman to Who Could It Be At This Hour? with artwork by celebrated cartoonist Seth. The latest Snicket gem is at least as exciting — a minimalist yet magnificently expressive story about a universal childhood fear, titled The Dark (public library) and illustrated by none other than Jon Klassen.

In a conversation with NPR, Handler echoes Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear and articulates the deeper, more universal essence of the book’s message:

I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we’re trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.

The Dark is part My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, part Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, but mostly the kind of singular treat only Snicket can deliver.

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Brian Eno on Art, Confidence, and How Attention Creates Value

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.”

“Make good art,” Neil Gaiman advised in his endlessly heartening counsel on the creative life. But what, exactly, is “good” art?

English musician and visual artist Brian Eno, born on May 15, 1948, is celebrated as a pioneer of ambient music and one of the most influential artists in modern musical sensibility. But he is also an insightful observer of contemporary culture, his ideas having populated the pages of various magazines as well as John Brockman’s fantastic Edge Question series. Nowhere does his dimensional mind shine more brilliantly than in A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary (public library) — a curious dual tome, originally published in 1996, featuring a year’s worth of Eno’s diary entries during 1995 and thirty-six short essays on various aspects of culture, from music-sharing to pretension to the Duchamp Fountain. Gathered here are his most timeless insights on art, a wonderful addition to history’s finest meditations on what art is and does.

In an entry dated April 23, nearly twenty years before our present-day fame factory of manufactured attention, Eno makes a prescient observation:

Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’

The question is: ‘Is the act of getting attention a sufficient act for an artist? Or is that in fact the job description?’

Perhaps the art of the future will be indistinguishable.

In a related meditation, he considers confidence as the conferring mechanism of value:

The term “confidence trick” has a bad meaning, but it shouldn’t. In culture, confidence is the currency of value. Once you surrender the idea of intrinsic, objective value, you start asking the question “if the value isn’t in there, where does it come from?” It’s obviously from the transaction: it’s the product of the quality of a relationship between me, the observer, and something else. So how is that relationship stimulated, enriched, given value? By creating an atmosphere of confidence where I am ready to engage with and perhaps surrender to the world it suggests.

Gene Davis: Night Rider (public domain via The Smithsonian Institution)

In one of the micro-essays, titled “Miraculous cures and the canonization of Basquiat,” Eno revisits the subject with a sentiment Greil Marcus would come to echo in his fantastic recent SVA commencement address on “high” vs. “low” art. Eno writes:

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. (Roy Ascott’s phrase.) That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andrew Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.

This notion of “inside” and “outside” is in fact central to Eno’s conception of culture and something he notes on multiple occasions in the diary. He explores it at length in another essay titled “On being an artist,” where he ponders:

Where do you work?

Do you work ‘inside’ or ‘outside’?

To work inside is to deal with the internal conditions of the work — the melodies, the rhythms, the textures, the lyrics, the images: all the normal day-to-day things one imagines an artist does.

To work outside is to deal with the world surrounding the work — the thoughts, assumptions, expectations, legends, histories, economic structures, critical responses, legal issues and so on and on. You might think of these things as the frame of the work.

A frame is a way of creating a little world round something.

[…]

Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?

William H. Johnson: Nude Seated — Front View (public domain via The Smithsonian Institution)

In a diary entry from February of 1995, Eno considers the essential role of evolving the tools of creativity by way of iteration, even if implicit to which is the frowned-upon notion of unoriginality:

How determined people seem to be to aim for exactly the same target again and again. A charitable interpretation: by doing so they evolve better tools for everyone else, creating vocabulary out of metaphor. Like those pathetic computer artists who are so thrilled when they’ve finally produced a picture of a daffodil with a drop of dew upon it — indistinguishable from a real photo. To me this would represent a total failure, but it’s probably those people who propel the evolution of tools.

Gene Davis: Davy’s Locker (public domain via The Smithsonian Institution)

But beneath the tools and the iterative nature of much of what passes for the experience of art, Eno suggest, lies an existential longing for its opposite — for profound change, for transcendence. In the Basquiat essay, he writes:

Changing ourselves. Surely that must be what we’re after when we look at pictures and watch movies and listen to music. It sounds more Californian than it really is. Changing ourselves includes switching on the radio when we’re bored — to change from being someone who’s bored to someone who’s being less bored, or bored in a different way. But of course we would prefer to think that the art we venerate does more than feed us sensations to keep us from the gloom of everyday existence. (Why would I prefer that? What’s wrong with the opposite? I remember someone saying that all human creativity is a desperate attempt to occupy the brief space or endless gap between birth and death.) We would like to think that art remakes us in some way, deepens us, makes us ‘better’ people.

Pair A Year With Swollen Appendices with Brian Eno’s reading list and his strategies for overcoming creative block, then revisit Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on art, culled from her published diaries.

BP

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