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drawing some things

April 4, 2011 at 8:08 am

Spring is almost here (though for some reason snow is still falling on our heads occasionally?!)… so now that it’s time to ride bikes and go outside a lot, I find myself working on three poster commissions. I was not really accepting poster commissions for a while, but these are all a) awesome, b) meaningful within my community, and c) planned *way* in advance, so they meet the criteria!

Here is the initial pencil sketch for the 2011 Plant Sale poster, from sometime last week:

and where the drawing stood, pretty much done, in its full-scale version last night a couple of nights ago:

I figured out the secret to doing these things fast: if you choose a plant whose elements are relatively larger, they take up more space on the page, and you have to draw exponentially fewer of them! As opposed to the snap peas or cherry tomatoes of the two previous years’ posters… Strategy, Cozzens, strategy.

I traded some prints to Shawn G. for a new camera with the capacity to shoot time-lapse stuff, so here’s a first experimental video in that vein. What is mostly noticeable from this is a) how many times I erase and re-draw things just to move them over a sixteenth of an inch, and b) how jankily I hold my pencil! Look at that squinched-up finger, eek. Other things that might be of interest to fellow nerds are the development of the tiny serifs as I draw the word “Plant”, figuring out the angle of the letter A and its cross-bar, and re-drawing the S over & over again to make it curve around the curve of the banner…..

The pencil is a 2mm H lead (I know, pretty soft) in a Staedtler Mars 780 architect’s lead-holder; the eraser is a Sanford Peel-off Magic Rub #1960: new indispensable tool, crucial for erasing on vellum, excellent on everything else as well. Periodic pauses denote sharpening of the pencil.

I’m also drawing a cool cutaway building, secret-headquarters-style, for a punk show on April 28th (yeah, way in advance!). I was working on it yesterday last week at “drawing day” at Ada Books, in the storefront window next to Tom Bubul‘s feet:

The tools here are: a regular pencil (B, really soft!), the trusty Peel-Off Magic Rub, Olfa knife for sharpening, and COFFEE.

The bands are: Grass Widow, Broken Water, Songs For Moms, Jacob The Terrible, and Static Era a.k.a. Natalja Kent‘s New America (that last link is slightly NSFW, sorry…). This show is gonna rule. April 28th. Thursday nite. BLDG 16. Don’t skip it…

I have a couple of small handmade books, including my hand-printed-&-bound calendar/planners from 2004-2006 (memories!), in the Magic Child Repository, a group show at Craftland that opens on Thursday, April 7th! Curated by Art Middleton of Tiny Hawks, Arcing, and other local awesomeness.

Okay I think that’s it for now. See you at a dance party or a show or a coffee shop or in my (or possibly your) kitchen in the near future!

reading: Loose Space: Possibility & Diversity in Urban Life, ed. Karen A. Franck & Quentin Stevens; The Screwball Asses, by Guy Hocquenghem; Lyonel Feininger’s collected comic strips from 1906…


July 16, 2009 at 6:07 pm

drafting desk setup

At the moment, I am transferring my ideas from a sketchy house plan to a dimensioned, scaled drawing. The original drawing was on graph paper, for two reasons (since Meg asked):

  1. to make it easier to keep lines roughly at right angles to each other, without having to use a straight-edge and a triangle all the time
  2. and

  3. to hold myself to a uniform notion of the square footage and measurements across the drawing, without having to use a scale all the time.

Staying away from rulers simplifies and streamlines the drawing process, and keeps ideas flowing, not weighed down by details. Also, drawing freehand (even on graph paper) allows me to retain the sense of the building as a not-yet-completed design: once lines start getting sharp and precise, they start to feel like they are fixed and permanent, a construction document as opposed to an idea. With a ruler-drawn line, you tend to start thinking, “Okay, that’s where the 2x4s go!” as opposed to, “This is roughly where the structural wall is going to be.”

(This, to my mind, is the main problem with computer drafting — which Sketchup now seems to be offering a remedy for — it makes sloppy, badly-thought-out drawings look finished — even to the people who drew them, who should know better than anybody else how unfinished they are!)

As I sketched into and modified the drawing, I would tape on sheets of tracing paper, so I could change things without totally destroying what had come before, and try out new ideas on a clean slate while still keeping the underlying dimensions the same. As I added layers of tracing paper, the exact measurement laid down by the graph paper’s grid would get a little fuzzy and vague. So, now that I have a pretty good idea of what the layout is going to be, I’m drawing the plan again, with rulers, a scale, and specific dimensions.

I’ll write more about this house plan in a future update, but here is a hallways of varying widths, with a built in couch of some kind and lots of shelves.

hallway drawing

One thing that putting a specific dimension to things lets me do is see where things do *not* work: in the detail below, the shelves in the hallway, where you walk in from the living room area (center left of the photo) make it too narrow to pass through. … Erase! Erase!

brroken hallway

My big drafting desk is up in the 3rd floor studio; here’s the kit of essentials:

3rd floor work setup

from top to bottom:

  • graph paper / tracing paper drawing (attached to drawing board)
  • adjustable triangle (for drawing angles)
  • circle template (door swings)
  • scale (the fancy one, that I can use now that I have soft floor pads under my drafting desk & am not worried about it breaking, since I drop it all the time!)
  • wallpaper-wrapped brick (to keep the propped-up drawing board in place)
  • toilet paper (to wipe lead dust off after sharpening)
  • lead holder (aka pencil)
  • non-smudging eraser-pencil (this is a great thing that I recently got, it totally solves the smudgy problems that beset me on previous vellum drawings)
  • random ballpoint pen (I’m not using this, not sure why it is on the table)
  • lead pointer (aka pencil sharpener)
  • paper scale (made out of folded graph paper, I’m using it to take approximate measurements off the sketchy drawing)
  • water cup
  • compass
  • two more lead holders (they all have different hardnesses of lead in them, though for this drawing at the moment I’m only using 2H)
  • small piece of chocolate!

[This drawing is actually done now, and I’ve started a new one based on it, dealing with walls & doorways — this was mostly written, and the pictures were taken, a couple of days ago.]

Reading & reference:

  • short comics from Will Krause, a new friend who is about to leave town… :(
  • Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi (again)
  • Understanding Structures by Fuller Moore, a basic architecture school textbook (again)
  • Tomorrow’s House by George Nelson & Henry Wright, 1945: book for the layperson proselytizing modern architecture in home design. Sample quote, emphasis theirs:

    There is no possible way to turn the clock back. In designing houses today we have to be ourselves — twentieth-century people with our own problems and our own technical facilities. There is no other way to get a good house. No other way at all.


  • Ninja by Brian Chippendale: this is a huge graphic epic that I had read parts of in mini-comic form; it was published in a giant (12″x18″) edition a couple of years ago. I finally read the whole thing, in a concentrated manner, over the course of three or four nights, a week or so ago. I’m re-reading it now again, going slowly, trying to sort it all out and make all the connections… In some ways it’s a narrative of Providence, of a time that I also lived through, and it brings back to me very strongly the anger, emotion, and outrage of that time. Disjointed, hilarious, disturbing, and inspiring…

Okay, speaking of pencil-lead hardness, I’ve also been doing some just plain old observed drawings, which are really grounding and exciting, in a calm way. (That might make sense, or not.) Using a 4B (super soft) pencil is really fun, because it calls for a lightness of hand as you lay things out, but allows for real darkness if that is what is needed. The only problem is that if you are keeping the pencil sharp, it gets shorter real fast!

soft pencil drawing

It is a view from the 3rd floor of our house, looking out over the Woonasquatucket valley… and will be in a drawing show at Stairwell Gallery that opens on Sunday.

The neighbors who live behind us have been playing the same romantic dance song over and over again, for a number of hours each afternoon, for the past couple weeks. Possibly they are rehearsing for a dance of some kind, or else they just really like this song. My housemates are slowly being driven crazy, I think, but for me, it’s not that bad: sometimes I barely recognize the song, then other times it brings the slow acknowledgment of half-recalled memories, of a distant past that might or might not be my own. The song, combined with the faintly heard ice-cream tunes that cross and re-cross the neighborhood at intervals, gives the audible atmosphere of our house a nostalgic familiarity. . . . . I’ll be sad when the rehearsals are over.

Summer is awesome by the way.

“we are not frightened by ruins”

March 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

The deadline was here, so I paused on other work and wrote this short essay about my Buenaventura Durruti poster, Providence, and the 2002-2003 mill demolitions in Eagle Square. The print is being included in a book of/about anarchist art, which will be published by the UK Anarchist Federation. They asked for some writing to go along with it: specifically looking for artists to articulate their visions for a post-revolutionary society, and the connections that they see between art and anarchism… in this case, between building (or architecture, though not formal “architecture”) and anarchism.

I wrote & re-wrote and, finally, in a last-ditch attempt to get it all to make sense, wrangled everything I was trying to say through an actual outline. Writing outlines has always been extremely difficult from me — this one was no different, but it proved essential to organizing my ideas and presenting them logically.

Here it is! I posted an edited & improved version March 26th. If you have thoughts, please comment below, or email me, if you prefer: secretdoor.projects (at) gmail.com. Thank you!

durruti poster

We Are Not Frightened By Ruins

an essay for a half-demolished textile mill, a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, and a world that is constantly changing.

Jean G. Cozzens

I made the drawing for this print in 2002, in response to the demolition of old factory buildings that I loved. The Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, to which I had recently moved, was dense with massive brick structures that had once housed the operations of the textile industry. The buildings had been crowded and active from the early 1800s to the 1940s, during the time when Providence was a center of industrial production and innovation. In the 1960s and 70s, that era sputtered to an end as fabric manufacturers fled the Northeast, first to the Southern states, then overseas.

The mills that the textile companies left behind, built huge and super-sturdy to hold vast arrays of weaving, spinning, and knitting machines, offered flexible spaces that could serve almost any purpose. Though no longer featured on the letterheads of the companies whose names they still bore, they remained heavily utilized, since their rough and un-precious state meant that anything could happen within them. Their interiors were divided up to provide an inexpensive, versatile home for local businesses and workshops, the few light industries and production facilities that still remained in the city, and the creative studios – and cheap, illegal residences – of artists and musicians.

In order to inhabit this space, the tenants had built lofts, ceilings, kitchens, bed-nooks, studio corners and work tables, practice rooms, recording enclosures, skate ramps, bathrooms, libraries. Some areas had been left open and spacious, in order to host the crowd that would attend a rock show, or just to let light flood in through the high windows. Even in the adaptations that were purely utilitarian, built by the secondary industries that had replaced the departed textile companies, self-construction and customization had accumulated, sub-dividing the spaces and providing creatively for storage, offices, work areas, and break rooms.

The buildings had been transformed from a scale meant for the mass-production of a commodity to a variety of scales that were uniquely human. They had been customized to the users’ individual needs by a purposeful combination of construction and sculpture, guided by whimsy as well as by necessity.

 *  *  *

In 2001, I was living in an old mill that was being painstakingly renovated by a group of artist-developers, across the street from a 14-acre tract of factories that were slated to be torn down to make way for a shopping plaza. Around the city, many other factory buildings were being demolished as well, due to neglect, arson, or the desire to make space for new buildings, parking lots, or highways.

I had always been fascinated by old buildings. At the time, in my third year of architecture school, I was becoming more and more frustrated with contemporary attitudes towards construction, and more and more interested in old ways of building. To me, the demolition of the mills was senseless and wasteful: it seemed that it would never again be possible to create buildings that had the quality, aesthetics, and strength of the old factories. I knew of no new buildings that were designed with such conscious care, or constructed with materials that were as simple and well-crafted. The mills were a valuable and severely limited resource. Why would you destroy something that could never be built again, something that was locally relevant and specific to our city – in favor of making a cheap cookie-cutter replication of a shopping center that could be found anywhere across the country?

I started getting involved in the activist struggle to try to save the buildings that were slated for demolition – the first ‘activist’ project I had felt strongly enough about to really jump into. I got to know some of the artists who were living in the buildings, and little by little became a part of the communities that had grown up there. Fostered by the cheap rent and endless possibilities offered by the giant, rough spaces, a shared life was flourishing, vibrant and creative, and as I began to participate in it my outrage and anger only grew stronger. Not only were the shopping plaza’s developers destroying the physical structures, they were displacing my friends and dismantling the culture and the structure of our community, as well as other communities that were supported, in different ways, by the small businesses and workshops harbored in the mill buildings.

 *  *  *

A fellow activist pointed me in the direction of some reading that was new to me, and I began to find global parallels for the dynamics at work in my neighborhood. I became aware that the issue went far beyond this group of mill buildings and their tenants, and that we were yet another iteration of the way that global capital tended to deal with local uniqueness and variation. Slick-looking, centrally-controlled chain stores being promoted over less-polished, homegrown businesses and projects; the replacement of the ‘light industries’ and production-based businesses with ‘service industries’ and consumer-based shopping; the destruction of complicated historic landscapes to create flattened, simplified new ground; the privileging of the marketable over the un-marketable, the new over the old, the safe over the quirky, the branded over the local… it had all happened before, was still happening everywhere.

The campaign to ‘save the mills’ progressed, with setbacks, accomplishments, and frustrations. After much heated debate, a certain amount of political art, and many impassioned City Council meetings, the company conceded to re-designing their development with ‘mill-style’ brick facades, creating a bike path, and preserving four of the fourteen original buildings. The rest would be demolished, and all the existing tenants would be, of course, evicted. Our high-profile protest had raised awareness of the contribution of arts and industry to the city, and had probably pushed the developers to do a little bit better than their banal norm. The group I had worked with claimed at least a partial victory.

As the weeks passed and work on the site began, however, what we had achieved seemed more and more symbolic and hollow. A feeling crept over me that the most crucial element had been left out: we had not been able to protect any of the messy, useful, inexpensive possibilities that the mills had offered. I began to wonder about the love I had initially felt for the old mills – by focusing on their physical structures, had I been missing what was really important about them?

 *  *  *

Even if the mills were saved and restored, even if the rebuilding was carried out by well-intentioned developers, there would still be limits on who could rent there, on what could happen inside. If the renovations were done with care, skilled labor, and quality materials, a certain amount of preciousness would result: the desire to protect the newly pristine structure from inadvertent abuse by working artists or production facilities. Even if the buildings could find owners who were excited to harbor a creative mess, the financial and legal demands that would be placed on them – to keep the investors, the lender banks, the city inspectors and code officials all satisfied – would inevitably tamp down much of the possibilities that the owners might have originally envisioned. In any case, the freedom that comes directly from living or working in a somewhat neglected rough-and-tumble structure would vanish. Whether demolished or converted, the mills would cease to provide space for industry, productive businesses, small entrepreneurship, and creative work. Renovation would cast the buildings in amber, preserving them while also freezing their ability to transform, to harbor activity, life, innovation, production, to be messy and changeable.

In one of the books I was reading, I had come across this quotation:

We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts, and that world is growing this minute.

It was printed in a large ‘inspiring’ typeface, and was attributed to Buenaventura Durruti. Who? There was little explanation or context in that book, and the only further research I did at that time was to figure out that he had been in an anarchist militia in Spain, fighting against the fascists in the 1930s. Durruti’s words seemed to speak directly to me, comforting and encouraging me in the face of the piles of ruins that, by that point, were indeed growing at a steady clip across the street from my living space. He reminded me that buildings aren’t relics, they are not irreplaceable, they don’t need to be regarded as precious. They had been built, after all, by people like us, creative and inventive and hard-working. They were useful, yes – but we will be able to build useful things again, if we decide that that’s what we want to do. The quotation also reinforced my growing awareness that what was important wasn’t the physical structure, as much as the life that happened within it; and that that life could carry on in the hearts of humans even if the world was destroyed around them.

These sentences from Durruti offered me hope for the re-creation of possibilities, the re-opening of the world of action even after this destruction of space for freedom. I had been wanting to make a poster about the mill demolitions, to share my sadness about their loss, and it became clear that the Durruti quote – and the hope it spoke of – belonged on that poster. In February of 2002, on a sunny-but-still-cold day, I found myself sitting outside on a pile of rubble to draw one of the mills in the middle of its destruction… and a couple of days later, realized that I had made the drawing that would go along with Durruti’s words.

 *  *  *

It took me a long time to make that poster. I had other commitments, to school and to work; and I wanted the print to be really coherent, not just hastily dashed off. I decided that I wanted to dig up more of what Durruti had said to include on the poster, because I felt that the quote as I had first read it wasn’t connected clearly enough to history and labor struggles, and that “building a new world” might be able to be interpreted as justification or encouragement for renovating the old mills into fancy new apartments. Finally, in the fall of 2006, during a break between other projects, I started researching a little bit more about the Spanish Civil War, and found a couple of versions, in Spanish, of an extended excerpt of Pierre Van Passen’s interview with Durruti, from which the quote I had found had been taken. Using my basic Spanish and recruiting the help of some friends, I was able to make a more accurate translation of the passage.

I worked on the poster off and on through 2007, then printed it in January of 2008 – six years after I had begun it. My thoughts have continued to develop and change, but I find that the quote still speaks to me very strongly in March 2009, as I print a second run of the posters, a little more than a year later. I continued to live in Providence after I finished architecture school, and watched my city continue along the same paths that had led to the demolition of the mills. The city’s marketing team focused its ‘re-birth’ efforts on promoting what a great hub it was for creative people – at the same time as it had its workers shut down independent show spaces, kick artists out of their studios, and scrape screenprinted posters off of walls and streetlight poles. Destruction was not only carried out by bulldozers: I saw ‘upscale’ mill renovations continue to push industries and workshops out of their buildings, watched the housing market become absurdly inflated by investors’ speculation, then witnessed the bubble burst, my neighborhood hit hard by foreclosures in a flurry of board-ups. All the supposedly constructive strategies of modern capitalism – actions based on the logic of profit – seemed intent on ‘blasting and ruining’ the world that we live in.

 *  *  *

In the years since making the original drawing for this poster, up to the present moment, I have thought constantly about buildings and spaces, measuring them and drawing them, observing (formally as well as informally) how people live in them, and of course, experiencing built spaces myself every day. All of the places I’ve lived were shared with groups of people: sometimes under headings such as “collective” or “cooperative”, sometimes taking on no title, but just living together, respecting and supporting each other, giving each other time and space to be alone while sharing other aspects of our lives.

I’ve also been part of various group projects, among them a community garden, a shared shop for sculpture and woodworking, a horizontally-organized afterschool arts program, and the collaborative designing and construction of a collective-house kitchen. In each of these situations, I’ve seen different models of interaction play out. People choose different ways to use, share, or refuse power; give each other freedom to experiment, take risks, and fail; challenge each other to learn new skills; figure out ways of communicating their needs, sharing space, re-thinking their expectations, building new alliances… all to be able to accomplish more than they could have on their own.

Over time, these spaces – the project spaces as well as the living spaces – have changed, and changed, and changed again, to fit the lives of the people who are using them. Some of the changes are repeated or adjusted on an hourly or daily basis, such as moving chairs into the right arrangement for a conversation, or setting up a big table to work on a project. Less frequently, there’s an opportunity to nail together shelves, re-organize a room, or re-position office dividers, in order to store tools better, change up the space, or get some privacy. Once in a long while, it’s possible to tear down some of the walls and re-think how the whole place could be organized, starting from an open floor plan.

Even in apartments or commercial offices that were originally intended for humans, the inhabitants actively modify them as much as they are able to, just as the artists and other tenants modified their spaces in the giant mills. Very few of these modifications have any input from professional architects – yet these are the crucial actions that make our spaces inhabitable and useful for our daily lives. The ‘architecture’ I had learned about in school – in which buildings were designed by architects, built by construction crews, and then lived in, passively, by ordinary people – was very different from this model of ongoing, incremental change.

Just as we practice new ways of relating to each other, trying to create new models for non-hierarchical interaction, we are also testing out our relationships with the space around us. Sometimes we slip into habits, getting stuck in patterns of social interaction that we find hard to change. Sometimes our space hems us in, restricts us from doing what we’d like with it, doesn’t allow the kind of interactions that we want to have. Occasionally, however, we are able to actually create a space that fits us; we are able to succeed in changing our frustrating ways of interacting. Just as we modify the way the spaces we inhabit are set up, we are able to build new networks of exchange, learning, and mutual support.

 *  *  *

This understanding offers me new insight on the quotation from Durruti. I wonder if the new structures that we carry in our hearts are not just physical spaces, but are the relationships we build and practice among ourselves.

Implicit in Durruti’s thought is the conviction that we are building this new structure now, already, at this very moment, as we creatively practice living together every day. We are not waiting for society to collapse or for centralized power to wither away before we begin living the lives we want to live. Risking, learning, and growing can happen at any moment, before the ‘revolution’ as well as after the disaster. These attempts, our continual practices of listening to and understanding each other, working and living together in co-operation, are already becoming the the materials from which we are building our new world.

The former textile mills remain an inspiration to me, for the flexibility of their spaces and the way that they can harbor a growing creative and productive life within them. I have also been inspired by the communities that we continue to create in the rest of our city, in small apartments and in garages and basements, in garden plots and backyards, in mill spaces where we still have them, in kitchens, on sidewalks, and in the streets. All of these places, constructed by the profit-focused mechanisms of our current society, are problematic and barely functioning: they have already been left to us in ruins. However ill-suited or restrictive they might be, they are our raw material, and they have a lot to teach us.

Instead of nostalgically re-creating old building types, though, we will need to imagine new spaces and develop new methods of construction that will fit us better, that will help foster our changing lives. The right forms for buildings, and the right structures for society, cannot come from the drafting table of a single, radically enlightened architect or anarchist. We will figure them out together, beginning with how we are living together now, starting from the skills and materials we already know.

The vitality of our lives together, and of whatever new society we build, will depend on the fact that our structures and relationships will not ever be fixed into a ‘perfect’ form, will never be completely known or fully understood. We will always be making new experiments, trying, failing often, succeeding occasionally, learning from our experience, and trying again. At times, we will have to ruin even the structures we create ourselves, whether they are societal or physical, so they do not become petrified and immovable. What I ultimately take from Buenaventura Durruti’s words is that we cannot be afraid to dismantle our lives – we must continually un-build and re-build the various frameworks of our own existence – to keep them flexible, to allow us and our communities to continue to change and grow.

Pierre Van Passen (a journalist):

And even if you win – you do know, don’t you, that you’re going to inherit piles of ruins?

Buenaventura Durruti:

…We have always lived in misery, and we will accommodate ourselves to it for some time yet. Don’t forget, though, that the workers are the only producers of wealth – we, the workers, run the machines in the factories, we extract coal and minerals from the mines, we built the cities… Why shouldn’t we rebuild them – new and better – to replace that which is destroyed?

Ruins do not scare us. We know that we will inherit nothing more than ruins, because the bourgeoisie will try to destroy the world in the last phase of their history. But, I repeat, we are not frightened by ruins, because we carry a new world in our hearts, murmuring forcefully – a world which is growing this very instant.



brief note of some influences / further reading ::

  • Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia
  • Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn
  • New Urban Arts‘ philosophy, practice, and existence
  • Nabeel Hamdi: Housing Without Houses
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper
  • John McPhee: The Control of Nature
  • Ursula K. LeGuin: The Dispossessed
  • CrimethInc Collective: the Harbinger newsletter, and other writings
  • Christopher Alexander and others: A Pattern Language
  • plus lots of ongoing conversations with awesome folks…

oh man it’s finally done

February 20, 2009 at 6:25 am

drying rack #2 !!!!!!!

It’s two years later and my drying rack design is so much improved. The second rack works much better, and is actually simpler in its construction, than the first one which you can see to its left!

improved print drying rack

(the same side of the studio, april 2008.)

Here’s the how the top & side connect:


Yes, I like cutting things precisely, even when working with medium-quality plywood and drywall screws… and yes, I finally bought a dado blade set, it does beautiful work…! (It may only be hilarious to me that the same week, I bought a food processor: two things I had felt the severe lack of for a long time, both potentially dangerous, high-precision, specific-purpose, well-made cutting tools… at opposite ends of the classic gender binary!)

The whole thing, without the shelves — it’s on wheels (or else it would be totally immobile: it’s bulky, about 3’x3’x4′, and when the shelves are in, it’s pretty heavy).

exterior structure

I don’t know why this took me sooo long to finish, it’s what I’ve been working on, or at least, putting as my first priority, for the past two weeks. Initial guesses: some difficulty with logistics like transporting wood and tools from my house to the shop (requires a car, which I don’t have); being restricted in how late I could work in the shop, since people with ‘normal’ schedules live and sleep above it (and I usually work late at night); needing to recruit a helper for cutting large pieces of plywood on the table saw (a problem I partially solved by finally, yesterday!, setting up a run-out table to catch wood coming through the saw); and really, a lot of ‘being scared’ of the project and getting overwhelmed by the thought processes necessary to figure out the numbers precisely and actually finish it. I don’t know why that is scary, because it is also the fun part! But there is a feeling that I got to know quite well during the process of making this rack, that would stop me, when it would get late or I would be tired or cold, that would just say in my ear: “Man, go to bed, this is too complicated to figure out when you are [tired/cold/sleepy], just work on it in the morning!” and my thought processes would stop dead.

Oh, also the fact that for a lot of the past two months, the temperatures in the woodshop have been BELOW FREEZING — that might have had something to do with the long time this project has taken me. (This is a recent realization: till a couple of days ago, I thought it was just really, really cold in there, then one of my fellow shop-mates pointed out that the sprinkler system must be a dry one, because otherwise its pipes would have burst…) Mostly I wear fingerless gloves down there; but because I’m not an idiot, I take them off to run stuff through the tablesaw… plus the square and ruler I use are both made of metal… ow ow ow. Looking forward seriously to SPRING.

Building this second drying-rack is a precursor to cleaning up my studio & sorting out the long-unsorted piles, which is a precursor to printing. Which I have to do, to finish up old stuff, before I can really draw any more new stuff. All in all, that means: I will be working on posters and prints soon. !!!

Books and magazines have been piling up in my bed-loft: the other day I counted 17 and took a picture.

pile of books in bed!

(subject matter, generally: architecture, japanese art, dystopian futures, radical art & politics, gender identity and theory, photography, feminism, utopia… plus a couple of national geographics from 1988.)

palimpsest, fiction, utopia

January 4, 2009 at 6:17 am

colors over each other

I use a thick piece of transparent plastic to align the different color layers as I print them. It’s taped down along one side, so I can print on it, line up the paper underneath it, then fold it back out of the way to print on the paper. If I do everything right, I only have to do this once for each color layer: I mark the table with tape at the corners of the paper, then just line each sheet up to the tape. Usually, I have to do it a couple of times, and adjust the marks somewhat after they are down, to get the color in the right place. The worst case scenario, and what happens for prints with tricky alignment or lots of colors: lining up the paper under the plastic every time. (not as bad as it sounds!)

more color layers

The transparent plastic sheet gets many different layers and colors printed over it, and ends up looking awesome, making me wish I could make a print that would be as good as all the layers randomly laid down over each other. I used to stop using the alignment sheets when they got to a particularly nice state; at some point I got tired of buying new plastic, and I’ve been using the same sheet now for more than a year. Where I want to see through the sheet to check the alignment, I scrub off the old ink, down to the clear plastic; everywhere else I let be. The different layers of ink have different thicknesses and hardnesses, sometimes there’s clear tape on the sheet, protecting some of the colors… This time, as I scrubbed some of the ink off, these remnants of text and image appeared:

palimpsest 1

palimpsest 2

My cousin asked me for fiction reading recommendations. Oh boy! Whenever I am in Philadelphia, I go to the stupendous “Walk A Crooked Mile” bookstore, which is in my parents’ neighborhood (but would be worth a trip even if it weren’t). Here are two super-high recommendations, both from that source:

This christmas-time, I found the book Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, which I had been wanting to read for years and years. I bought it as a present for my brother, then promptly borrowed it and read it. The only thing that’s possible to say about it without creating all kinds of spoilers is that it uses language in a way that no other book I’ve ever read does. The language not only creates the atmosphere and setting, but also disorients and disturbs the reader, shocking them out of their ordinary mind-set and typical approach to reading itself… terrifying and magical. Don’t read anything about it on the internet, just go to the library and get it and read it!

Last christmas-time, I found Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I had never read anything by him, but I’d been impressed by an interview I’d come across, so I bought the book for my father, since it seemed like it would line up with his interests in climate change and environmental technology.

In the late fall of this year, I read Robinson’s Red Mars, was totally blown away, and actually went back and read almost all of it over again right after finishing it. (Kevin, I still have it! it will be coming your way shortly…) I was offered the loan of the sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars, but refused, because I had to get work done, and I knew that I would get nothing accomplished if those books were anywhere near my desk. I did find Robinson’s Pacific Edge at a bookstore in Providence, and read that… but! it was short, so it didn’t hold me up too much work-wise, and! then I loaned it immediately to somebody else, so I couldn’t read it again.

Just now, over the christmas holiday, I stole Antarctica from my dad and read it, and while it might not be as finely tuned as Red Mars in its overall sequence and structure, I was thrilled, delighted, and challenged, and would probably have gone back and re-read most of it again if my brother hadn’t stolen it from me in turn.

I feel like my brain is not in the right place right now to describe what is great about these KSR books, but I’m going to try. They bring together a lot of disparate elements: combining landscape writing, science-fiction technology, earth-centric mysticism, anti-capitalist revolution, anarchist ideas about organization and cooperation, the local food movement, humanist theories of architecture, mountain-climbing adventures, actual research and scientific knowledge, very real and sympathetic characters (even the unfriendly ones), and utopian social structures. The theories don’t overwhelm the action, and the narratives subtly but clearly underline the philosophical and political ideas he’s working with. The stories are darn good stories, too, with action, suspense, romance, danger, cliff-hangers, etc, but that would not be enough to make the books excellent…

Ultimately I think what makes Robinson’s writing great for me is that he understands the connection between the personal and the political, the individual and the wider world, the physical body and the philosophical idea — that these things are inevitably intertwined, that they are what we all have to deal with in our lives, and that that is where the greatest adventure lies. He’s smart, he thinks about the world, he gets it, and he writes it in poetic metaphors and incredibly page-turney stories. He isn’t afraid to build utopias — in science fiction, sure, but in a world very close to ours — and to say, straight out to his readers, that yes, this could be real, you could make it real right now, what are you waiting for?

Along related lines, I’m also reading or looking at:

  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More (the original one!)
  • Open Marriage by Nena and George O’Neill (1971, not about sleeping around but about emotional freedom and individual identity: this book is making me think super hard)
  • Posters for the People: Art of the WPA edited/curated by Ennis Carter. (This book just came out, I am very excited to own it!)

… upcoming in the queue (and also from Walk A Crooked Mile) are some books by Martin Buber, which also fall into the utopian category probably…

notes from the internet:

  • Glenn Abanilla, a fellow Providence drawer-of-buildings, keeps this great record of the tools he rescues and repairs!
  • My brother Rich is currently living in Damascus, Syria. His writing about his experiences there, as a tall blond Arabic-speaking north american, provides a different perspective from the suspicious and generalizing attitude that all of the U.S. news media seems to cling to, if you’re interested in what’s happening in that part of the world.
  • My cousin Jonathan rides his bike around a secret city.
  • I’ve been working my way through these essays by Paul Graham; they’re nominally about technology, but are relevant to wider questions of innovation and creativity, and how to work as a creative person.

and yes, I am feeling better! still avoiding coffee and alcohol till everything is totally cleared up… drinking lots of tea, though, staying warm in the snowy cold.

distraction? or project?

August 3, 2008 at 3:32 am

Well, the New Urban Arts zine swap is approaching, and I sideswiped myself into working on a zine about how to make bread. So I’ve been doing that for the last little while. I’ve never laid out a document consisting mainly of blocks of text before, so I’ve been constantly referring to Robert Bringhurst‘s Elements of Typographic Style, which Andrew lent me a while ago. It’s great — if I’d gone to school for graphic design I probably would have found out about it years ago — but I am delighted now to discover the many opportunities for distraction and nerding-out that exist within its covers…

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the computer, which is all right, but I am pretty ready to go back to actually drawing. The bread zine is going to be photocopied on good paper, possibly with a screenprint of some kind on the cover: 24 small pages of just one recipe for delicious homemade bread, that you can vary and adjust to your own taste, usable even by someone who’s never baked anything before. If you want a copy, let me know!

Additionally, I got a large fan, making summer a little sweeter:

(which happens to be the same model fan that inspired this project… hmm, I just realized I never put up any images of how that turned out…)

. . . Andrew brought me a giant jar of the burdock-root kimchi we started earlier in the spring. He and I made some more drawings, including, just yesterday, this one:

(a detail)

. . . and, I picked hundreds of green beans from my garden and made dilly beans, about which I can only say, home canning, though complicated, is easier than it looks, try it, try it, try it!

geographical expansion news: If you’re in or around Portland, Maine, you can now go look at and caress some of my posters and postcards at Eli Phant, a ‘handmade stuff store’ run by old friends, that just opened on the eastern end of Congress St!

I’ve been reading Lilah’s blog

…and I’ve been really psyched about Mickey’s comics. All right!

new pinboard

April 9, 2008 at 5:04 am

A trip with Scøtt in the van to a creepily perfect still-almost-brand-new shopping plaza in Smithfield RI, a visit to the giant chain home improvement store, twenty-three dollars spent, some cutting with the knife, and a little time with the white paint =

new homasote boards for pinning stuff up on!

I have been making notes on small cards and laying them out to think about how things are related. This probably traces back somehow to witnessing some of my friend James McShane‘s comic-making practice, in which he works on narrative sequences the same way, as a deck of card/pages that can be ordered & re-ordered.

Laid out on my desk, whatever arrangement the cards are in is bound to get destroyed in less than a day (since I’m also using the computer, reading & taking notes on books, trying to do my taxes, organizing stuff I pull out of my backpack when I come home, etc, all on the same desk). The pinboard solves that problem. Also it lets me look at many things at once, keep many ideas up in front of my eyes, and thus in front of my ever-distractable mind.

Having more pinboards also makes my room into even more of an art-making nest. It’s pretty tiny (about 8 feet by 10 feet), with flatfile storage, bed, clothes, giant 4 foot by 4 foot drawing desk, many shelves, cat litterbox, etc. fitted in on multiple levels. The pin-up boards definitely are kind of tipping the scales towards “work” and away from “other life”. wait, is there such a thing as “other life”?

More cards, with images instead of text, are probably going to be in evidence soon. There’s a drawing of them already, but I need to be able to move them around & rearrange. The second print looks like it’s going to be some kind of catalog or chart of various different ways doors, walls, corridors, windows, stairs etc. can create different degrees of privacy between personal spaces and shared spaces. At least that will be one of the things that is happening in it… My tenuous prediction/hope is that it will be some kind of cross between the rigor of an Edward Tufte diagram, and the nonsense-within-order of a Bernard Tschumi drawing for the Parc De La Villette in Paris. Plus some perspective drawings. In awesome colors. WHO KNOWS.

This stuff happened about a week ago, it just takes me a while to record things and write about them. The non-internet comes first.


  • The Social Psychology of Privacy, a 1968 essay by Barry Schwartz, which was a standout in Robert Gutman’s 1972 anthology People and Buildings, dealing with the implications of sociology on architecture. In general, pretty interesting and relevant, even in its datedness.
  • Architecture and the Burdens of Linearity, by Catherine Ingraham, 1998.
  • A Hut of One’s Own: Life Outside the Circle of Architecture, by Ann Cline, also 1998.

The late-90s critical theory and the late-60s sociology provide a really good counterpoint to each other. Like Fanta and cheap red wine. I mean it!

kitchen kit part 1

March 21, 2008 at 6:12 am

I printed a whole bunch of these “kitchen kits” over the past week. The kitchen in question is, of course, the kitchen at Forbes St. — and these were made specifically for the residents of that house to cut apart and put back together as they choose. (The prints will also be a ‘bonus print’ for print series subscribers, and some will be floating around at my show ! in May.) Making a screenprint with parts that you can cut out & paste together (definitely inspired/spurred on by Jung Il Hong & Brian Chippendale’s silkscreen work in this realm, as well as Meredith Stern’s linocuts) was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, and this doesn’t totally fulfill that need, but it’s a start.

It’s also a start in experimenting with how to give people the tools to make drawings, without making them go through 5 years of architecture school training. An architectural drawing is a great way to communicate and transmit information, and even to facilitate a conversation about ideas for space, but access to that medium has always been limited by technology or specialized skills (even in the pre-computer era). How to communicate about design? How to make a tool that people can both use in group discussions, and take back to their rooms and mess around with on their own? How can we have a conversation that will produce a physical artifact that everyone present has had a chance to modify, that can be referred to in the future as evidence of the process or the decision? How to avoid being, once again, the one in the middle of the room holding the only pencil?

So, the kitchen kits are in the classic poster tradition of ‘large expendable multiples’, as well as in the classic dungeons & dragons tradition of ‘a gridded space over which creatures can move and adventures are had, facilitated by the imagination’. After getting done with the printing (and then sleeping) I kind of couldn’t keep my hands off of it and spent yesterday cutting them up & making a couple of different versions of the Forbes kitchen (past, present, possible future). It was a lot of fun. I had had doubts about the grid (which is 6" squares at the 1/2 inch = 1 foot scale), but in the end it functions pretty well as both a ground to denote what is the interior space of the kitchen, and as a instant measurement device: “wait, only 2 feet between this counter and the wall…. that’s not enough for someone to walk through!”, etc. (To all my architecture professors: Yes, it has the scale on it… you can also cut out the graphic scale and use it to measure things on the drawing!)

This, and hopefully more playful, game-like print/building projects to come, are inspired both by game designers like Jane McGonigal (whose work I barely understand but am pretty excited about), and by the book Housing Without Houses, by Nabeel Hamdi.

Here Hamdi talks about trying to make buildings which involve the users in their creation:

If the setting these buildings provided was to be an invitation to users to participate in creating an architecture of cooperation &#8212 a concept only primitively explored in the days of flexible buildings — then the size, position, and organization of space and materials would also have to perform in more than technically rational ways. They had to reference the choices available, promoting spontaneity and discovery, albeit within the constraints of the materials and systems employed and the legal and regulatory structure. The architecture of possibilities, in other words, would need to be legible and opportunistic, and yet remain technically rational.

Housing Without Houses, p.73

“Okay, roll the 20-sided die to see how much resistance you get from Code Enforcement….”

The Forbes kids get their hands on the kits this weekend, we’ll see what they do with them…

sticky-paper sheets printed from the same screens will also become coffee-cup stickers for my friend’s travelling espresso machine coffee shop…. yeah!

in the laundromat…

February 29, 2008 at 11:26 pm

colorful tshirts, folded up
…reading Edward Tufte‘s explanation of the C.J. Minard diagram of theFrench invasion of (and retreat from) Russia, 1812-1813, which he uses to give examples of the principles of good analytical design…

…then making notes on a couple of things, then folding clothing as it came out of the dryers…

…good enough.

nothing as promised

December 28, 2007 at 2:50 am

Well, a lot got done, but nothing got finished, so there was nothing of mine at the Millcraft sale, which was probably okay. Now I’m in another city (holiday and family time), not drawing or printing anything, but reading:

  • The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (I finished The Golden Compass/Northern Lights in 2.5 days)
  • Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
  • Anarchy and Order by Herbert Read, who also wrote a book called Art and Alienation which I obviously need to track down so I don’t re-write it
  • old issues of Wired magazine (1994-1995, 1999) which I saved ‘for some reason’ when I was in high school

Everything is pretty great, and the His Dark Materials series has me fast in its relentless grip, but the old copies of Wired are really the standout. In 1999 there was already ebay, and Wired had already become more consumer-oriented and easy-to-read. In ’94 and ’95, though, it’s like a publication aimed at people involved in a specific trade…. which it was.

The magazine’s graphic design is combative and challenging (but interesting!), each section and article uses a totally different graphic language, the ads are either laid out like those you would see in any other trade magazine (then or today), or are trying to employ something like cutting-edge (ie. really bad and illegible) design. Almost all the ads are for computer or internet related things, jobs, machines, software, etc (notably unlike the Wired magazine of today). Internet service providers are offering Mosaic for looking at images on the World Wide Web, many many interactive CD-ROMs are for sale (the ones made by the Residents get really good reviews), and Disney is putting in quarter-page ads for programmers and computer-type people to come work for them.

It’s fascinating, in the relaxing-in-a-time-warp way that coming back to this house at Christmastime is all about. I’ll put up some pictures tomorrow.

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