Off the wall


Detail

It’s been a whirlwind day that started with the usual chores before dawn, followed by teaching on one campus, hurrying home to pick up Groucho for a vet visit, then ferrying Groucho home before dashing off to an evening event at the other campus: one day that’s felt like three. As I get ready to do my evening chores before starting the roller coaster ride all over tomorrow, it feels like several lifetimes ago when I went to the Zen Center last night and took a few spare moments to shoot photos of graffiti after dark: a moment of quiet calm before the start of another whirlwind week.

Facing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between words and images. I share a lot of words and photos here on my blog, and I produce a lot of words and images that never get posted here. I consider myself a writer who also takes pictures, the “taking pictures” always taking second place to the “writing.” But although I consider myself more a shutterbug than a serious photographer, I have to admit how reliant upon images my writing has become. Although I certainly can describe things without an accompanying photo to illustrate, whenever I find myself at a loss for words, it’s often because I haven’t been looking at (or photographing) much.

Overhead

I’m coming to realize that looking at things–particularly new or interesting things–is an important part of my composition process, even if what I’m writing has nothing to do with what I’ve been looking at. I guess you could say I’m a visual thinker: whereas some people are inspired by ideas or sounds or even smells, my personal muse seems have big, wide-open eyes. When I’m in search of inspiration, looking is more fruitful than thinking: thinking just leads me in circles, but looking at something interesting perks me up in a way that few other things can.

Through leaves

Last weekend while I was at Northeastern University for the BRAWN Summer Institute, I went to a session on place-based pedagogy. I’ve always described Hoarded Ordinaries as being a blog about place, and when I taught a first-year writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College, I encouraged my students to choose research topics that similarly close-to-home: “topics they could touch” was how I described it. Now that I divide my days between two different campuses, I’ve struggled to incorporate place into my teaching: it’s hard to feel rooted when your teaching is neither here nor there.

Signature

During that session on place-based pedagogy, however, something remarkable happened: we took a field trip. Half of the participants went to examine the Student Center food court, and my half of the session went outside, walking over to a brick wall where Los Angeles-based street artist El Mac recently painted a mural representing the union of arts and sciences. Our official assignment was simply to look at the mural, and when we reunited with the other half of the group, we discussed the various uses of these two spaces: indoor and outdoor. But what fascinated me most wasn’t that ensuing discussion but the simple act of looking an an interesting image.

Leafy

Having taken so many photos of the Wall at Central Square, I’ve developed a certain fondness for the look of spray paint on brick. And having once had an office inside Holmes and then Nightingale Halls–two of the academic buildings housed in the re-purposed factory where El Mac’s mural is situated–I love the look of the neighborhood these days. A brick wall can be a frustrating obstacle–something that blocks the sky and gets in the way of forward progress–or it can be a canvas of opportunity, a window into a world you can envision only with your inner eye.

Click here for more photos of El Mac’s new mural at Northeastern. “Just looking” is a title I’ve used for two other blog posts: one describing a summer walk around my neighborhood here in Newton, and the other featuring one of my favorite photos.

The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Watch City Festival

On Sunday, J and I went to Waltham to check out the Watch City Festival, an annual celebration of steampunk culture.

Watch City Festival

Before Sunday, neither J nor I was hugely familiar with steampunk, which is a curious blend of Victorian-era style and industrial-age gadgetry: picture men in top hats and aviator goggles, women in long skirts and leather corsets, or members of both sexes wearing prosthetic limbs fashioned out of pistons. Despite our general unfamiliarity with the genre, however, J and I were curious to see what kind of steampunkery might erupt in a town with a long industrial history, and we figured (quite rightly) that the festival and its attendees would make for lots of interesting photos.

Watch City Festival

Waltham sits on the banks of the Charles River, and it once was a factory town, the site of an enormous textile mill established by Francis Cabot Lowell as well as a clock factory that inspired the nickname “Watch City.” The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation now sits on the site of Lowell’s textile mill, and they organize the annual Watch City Festival as a way of celebrating the city’s industrial heritage while attracting folks of all ages to come to Waltham, either to show off their steampunk costumes or to gawk and take photos of same.

Watch City Festival

Although neither J nor I was very familiar with steampunk culture, we’d read enough about it to want to learn more. Steampunk is a bookish genre, inspired by both sci-fi and the fantastical fiction of classic authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Although I’m not an expert in Victorian literature, science fiction, or fantasy, I’ve had plenty of colleagues over the years who are, so the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the era aren’t entirely foreign to me. J first heard the term “steampunk” on an episode of “Oddities,” which is one of our favorite TV shows, and when he researched the term, he realized that one of his favorite childhood TV shows, “The Wild Wild West, is considered by many to be a prototypical example of steampunk culture with its curious coupling of Western adventure and fantastical gadgetry.

Watch City Festival

You might say, in other words, that both J and I were primed to be steampunk’d.

Watch City Festival

Walking around a historical mill town in the company of people wearing Victorian-era costumes is more than a bit surreal…and I say that in a good way. Watching men in silk vests and top hats strolling with women in full skirts and tailored shirtwaists felt a bit like being transported into an antique postcard showing gentlemen and ladies taking a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park, as urban Victorians were wont to do.

Watch City Festival

More than anything, J and I were impressed by the ingenuity of the various costumes and creations we saw, which obviously entailed hours of planning, antique-shopping, assembly, and upkeep. How exactly, for instance, did one fellow’s top hat feature moving gears and puffs of steam…

Watch City Festival

…or where exactly did another chap find not just one but two enormous, industrial-sized wrenches (one on his shoulder, and another on his tool-belt) to accessorize his working-man’s outfit?

Watch City Festival

In addition to wearable art, J and I admired the steampunk gadgetry of a Victorian-inspired (and fully functional) computer fashioned out of an antique typewriter, desk, and picture frame…

Watch City Festival

…and who wouldn’t adore an otherwise ordinary pooch who had been transformed into a high-flying steampup with wings, jetpack, and goggles?

Steampup!

J and I had so much fun admiring the creative costumes and gadgets we saw, we decided to attend the Watch City Festival next year, and already we’re wondering whether we’re brave enough to cobble together some costumes of our own between now and then.

Watch City Festival

Although I can’t imagine being entirely comfortable squeezing myself into in full steampunk regalia…

Watch City Festival

…it might be fun to experiment with odd accessories.

Watch City Festival

What would happen, for instance, if J tricked out one of his cameras with gears and pistons to transform himself into a steampunk photographer, or if I coupled a khaki safari dress with antique brass binoculars to transform myself into a Victorian ornithologist? With a full year between now and the next Watch City Festival, you never know what curious combinations we might devise.

Click here for more photos from this year’s Watch City Festival. Enjoy!

Will finish on Sunday

Painters know that before you get down to work, you have to prepare your canvas. If you’re a street artist, this means painting over the work of those who preceded you, creating an empty space for your own design. Although graffiti might seem to be a hurried medium, creating a multicolored design takes time. Each layer of paint has to dry before you apply the next, so you can’t hurry the process. First you have to prepare your canvas, then you have to work through each stage to complete your work-in-progress.

The Wall at Central Square

This week is finals week at Framingham State, so I’m busy with end-term grading. I have two classes’ worth of essay portfolios and final exams to read along with quiz averages and participation grades to calculate. Every term, I tell myself I’ll finish these grading tasks early, keeping well ahead of my paper-piles, and every term, things go more slowly than I’d anticipated. It takes a while for layers of paint to dry, and it takes a while to read through a thick paper-pile.

Open door - May 7 / Day 127

Every finals week, I find myself checking off a whole list of tasks before I get settled down to the business of grading. On Monday, I balanced the checkbook and paid bills; yesterday, I went grocery-shopping and led practice at the Zen Center; today, I did laundry and caught up with my two online classes, which are at the start and middle-point of their respective terms. Just because I have a huge grading pile doesn’t mean the other aspects of my life grind to a halt: the dogs still need to go out, the dishes still need to be washed, and I still need (or at least prefer) to wear clean clothes.

The Wall at Central Square

When I first started teaching, I thought this urge to check off tasks before settling down to grade was pure procrastination: surely I was looking to keep myself busing doing anything but grading. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Just as it’s easier to paint a new work if you start with a fresh, empty canvas, it’s easier to focus on grading if you aren’t wondering whether the bills are overdue, the refrigerator is empty, or your students are filling your email inbox with confused queries.

The Wall at Central Square

These last few days, in other words, I’ve been preparing my canvas, creating a clean, clear space where I can concentrate on the task at hand. Today, I had a long to-do list; tomorrow, all that’s on my list is “grade.” Now that I can scratch “Feed the blog” off today’s list, I can focus without distraction on that looming paper-pile. Like the street artist who signed his work-in-progress “Will finish on Sunday,” I know the task at hand will be done in due time.

Be back manana

Any new project deserves a clean slate…or a freshly painted wall, in the case of street art.

Graffiti forest

For years I’ve been photographing the ever-changing assortment of street art on the Wall at Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen an urban forest of graffiti trees there. Usually, the trees I see outlined on brick walls are painted by shadows, not by spray cans.

Tree shadow

An urban wall of bricks is a bit like a forest of trees, each individual fitting among its fellows to create a larger, stronger structure. A quick walk around Central Square on a brisk Sunday morning reveals more than a few trees finding shelter in the city, undeterred by walls and fences.

Callery pear against blue sky

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