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David Byrne’s Hand-Drawn Pencil Diagrams of the Human Condition

“Science’s job is to map our ignorance.”

David Byrne may have authored both one of last year’s best albums and best music books, but he is also one of the sharpest thinkers of our time and a kind of visual philosopher. About a decade ago, Byrne began making “mental maps of imaginary territory” in a little notebook based on self-directed instructions to draw anything from a Venn diagram about relationships to an evolutionary tree of pleasure — part Wendy MacNaughton, part Julian Hibbard, yet wholly unlike anything else. In 2006, Byrne released Arboretum (UK; public library), a collection of these thoughtful, funny, cynical, poetic, and altogether brilliant pencil sketches — some very abstract, some very concrete — drawn in the style of evolutionary diagrams and mapping everything from the roots of philosophy to the tangles of romantic destiny to the ecosystem of the performing arts.

Möbius Structure of Relationships

Writing in the introductory essay simply titled “Why?,” Byrne considers our remarkable capacity for rationalization and the role of the non-rational in science:

Maybe it was a sort of self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.

Irrational logic — I’ve heard it called that. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense with a a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense.

But how can nonsense ever emerge as sense? No matter how convoluted or folded, it will still always be nonsense, won’t it?

I happen to believe that a lot of scientific and rational premises are irrational to begin with — that the work of much science and academic inquiry is, deep down, merely the elaborate justification of desire, bias, whim, and glory. I sense that to some extent the rational ‘thinking’ areas of our brains are superrationalization engines. They provide us with means and justifications for our more animal impulses. They allow us to justify them both to ourselves and then, when that has been accomplished, to others.

Social Information Flow
Human Content
Hidden Roots

More than half a century after Vannevar Bush’s timeless meditation on the value of connections in the knowledge economy, Byrne echoes Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky and contributes a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of science:

If you can draw a relationship, it can exist. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed — to be a sealed sensible box — it shows us something completely surprising. In fact, the result and possibly unacknowledged aim of science may be to know how much it is that we don’t know, rather than what we do think we know. What we think we know we probably aren’t really sure of anyway. At least if can get a sense of what we don’t know, we don’t be guilty of the hubris of thinking we know any of it. Science’s job is to map our ignorance.

The Legacy of Good Habits
Morally Repugnant
Gustatory Rainbow
Imaginary Social Relationships
Christian Subcultures
Yes Means No
Psychological History

One of the diagrams from Arboretum, Roots of War in Popular Song (forest of no return), appears in the Art Pickings pop-up gallery and is available from 20×200. (In fact, it graces the wall I wake up to every morning.)

Thanks, Wendy


Bob Dylan’s 1974 Classic “Forever Young,” Illustrated

“May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true… May you stay forever young.”

On January 18, 1974, the world welcomed Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves album. On it was “Forever Young” — one of Dylan’s most beloved songs, inspired by his four-year-old son Jakob.

In 2008, Dylan asked award-winning illustrator Paul Rogers, whose stunning covers for Hemingway classics you may have encountered and admired, to apply his signature mid-century aesthetic in reimagining the lyrics of the iconic anthem as a series of illustrated vignettes for young readers. Forever Young (public library) was born — a charming children’s book about a little boy who embodies the heart of the Dylan classic: adventurousness, doing the right thing, and the eternal spirit of youth.

Rogers writes in the Illustrator’s Notes, before offering a page-by-page breakdown of some of the hidden stories in the drawings:

Listening to nearly every Dylan album while creating the illustrations for this book gave me time to think about the people who inspired him and how his music has inspired so many. These drawings include images from Dylan’s life and lyrics from his songs. Some are obvious and others are meant to be a bit of a mystery.

Forever Young is at once refreshingly unexpected and somehow completely natural — the lyrics, after all, are the perfect life-advice to youngsters:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

Complement with Dylan on sacrifice, the unconscious mind, and how to cultivate the perfect environment for creative work.

Open Culture


The Art of Richard Feynman: The Great Physicist’s Little-Known Sketches and Drawings, Collected by His Daughter

“I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world…this feeling about the glories of the universe.”

Just like Sylvia Plath and Queen Victoria, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations, bongo player — was a surprisingly gifted semi-secret artist. He started drawing at the age of 44 in 1962, shortly after developing the visual language for his famous Feynman diagrams, after a series of amicable arguments about art vs. science with his artist-friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian — the same friend to whom Feynman’s timeless ode to a flower was in response. Eventually, the two agreed that they’d exchange lessons in art and science on alternate Sundays. Feynman went on to draw — everything from portraits of other prominent physicists and his children to sketches of strippers and very, very many female nudes — until the end of his life.

The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character (public library) collects a quarter century of Feynman’s drawings, curated by his daughter Michelle, beginning with his first sketches of the human figure in 1962 and ending in 1987, the year before his death.

Dancer at Gianonni’s Bar (1968)

In an introductory essay titled “But Is It Art?,” Feynman recounts his arrangement with Jerry and observes the intersection of art and science:

I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.

Female Posing (1968)
Equations and Sketches (1985)
Martha Bridges (1965)
Hans Bethe (date N/A)
Michelle Feynman (1981)
Sketch with Last Line by Carl Feynman, age 2 (1962)

Once Feynman decided to sell the drawings upon a friend’s suggestion, he was cautious of people fetishizing them because of his academic prominence and the sheer curiosity of a distinguished scientist who dabbles in art, so he decided to adopt a pseudonym: Ofey. Feynman explains the origin:

My friend Dudley Wright suggested ‘Au Fait,’ which means ‘It is done’ in French. I spelled it O-f-e-y, which turned out to be a name the blacks used for ‘whitey.’ But after all, I was whitey, so it was all right.

From Behind (1985)
Jirayr Zorthian (date N/A)
Nude from the Rear (1979)
Nude Sleeping (1975)
Portrait of a Stripper (1969)

In the introductory essay, Feynman also considers the differences in teaching art and teaching science, a disconnect Isaac Asimov has famously addressed in his passionate case for creativity in science education. Feynman writes:

I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques—so many mathematical methods—that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy.” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.

1 Minute Line Drawing (1985)
Portrait of a Woman (1983)
Sheet of Studies (date N/A)
Rufus (1985)
Richard Feynman’s First Drawing (1962)

Though The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character is sadly long out of print and thus a collector’s item, you can find the essay “But Is It Art” in the fantastic 1985 anthology Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

It’s Okay To Be Smart; images courtesy Museum Syndicate


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