Changing Old Habits

Today’s post is one I wrote about a year ago, shortly before the pandemic started affecting my daily life in a substantial way, but it remains relevant. Better yet, I haven’t lapsed back into the old habits I describe here, so if anything I feel even more proud of it now than I did when I wrote it, given all that’s happened within the past year.

Here you go:

One of the advantages of reading for comps when you don’t have any other obligations like TAing is that you get a lot of time to reflect on yourself. A lot of this time is spent thinking about what interests you intellectually and why, but you also start to notice and question your more mundane habits. And sometimes, once you become aware of them, you realize it’s time for a change.

That’s the story behind my hands, and more specifically, my recent effort to stop picking at them.

I don’t consider my hands especially attractive, but that’s never been a priority for me because I’m far more interested in what they can do, like play music, type, or draw. That said, however, one major reason why I never found my hands particularly good-looking was because of what I did to them. I bit my nails until my mid-20s, and until a couple of months ago, I picked at the skin around my fingers to the point of bleeding. I’ve always been very self-conscious about both of these habits and what they do to my hands, but for a long time, I didn’t feel capable of stopping on my own.

Until I did. I stopped biting my nails during the second semester of my final year at Williams. Not unlike now, I was going through a period where I didn’t have any classes and had whole days to myself to write my Qualifying Paper. With all the time to myself, I started paying attention to my nail-biting. I always figured I bit them out of anxiety, but what I discovered was that it was just a mindless habit, something I did without thinking. As a result, I started calling myself out on it, and stopped within a few weeks.

Skin picking proved a lot more difficult, and I would continue doing that for another ten years. The nails themselves looked okay, but the skin beds around them were usually covered in scabs or reddened with new flesh. In other words, they weren’t pretty.

But a few months ago, I started paying more attention to my skin-picking. Whereas in the past I always just focused on how badly I felt about doing it, this time I started noting when I would do it to figure out any patterns. Not surprisingly, I noticed I picked my skin a lot in class since that was where I was spending a lot of my time. I had always figured it was because of performance anxiety or nerves, until I realized I wasn’t actually feeling anxious at all. Compared to when I was getting my Master’s, I felt a lot more relaxed and comfortable in seminars, knowing that I could and did participate in a meaningful way.

If skin-picking didn’t provide stress relief, I thought, then why the hell was I doing it?

That’s when I realized that skin-picking for me is a form of fidgeting. Whenever I need to sit for a long period of time, like in a meeting, my hands start fiddling around so that I’m less antsy. In the worst-case scenario, that means literally picking at themselves. Reading for exams confirmed my hypothesis. Without having to participate in class discussions or complete other assignments, my anxiety is very low these days, yet I still found myself picking. Like my nail-biting, then, I started paying attention to what I was doing, and within a few weeks, I stopped altogether.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I acknowledge that I fidget, but I’m going to express that behavior through means other than skin picking.
  2. Whenever I settle down to read for the day, I make sure I keep pens, objects with fun textures, and other things lying around that my hands can play with when they started to get bored.
  3. If my fingers start touching the areas around my nailbeds looking for skin to pick, I’ll acknowledge what I’m doing, but tell myself that I don’t need to pick. Instead, I’ll look at my hands and tell myself how nice they look now that I’m not tearing at them.
  4. If I do see a piece of skin that looks like it needs to be picked off, I use clippers so that I don’t begin a picking spiral.
  5. If I’m going out in public where playing with pens or toys can be distracting, I wear long necklaces or rings that let me fidget in a more subtle manner. This is what I did for the conference with the Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium.
  6. Above all, I remain self-aware. If I find myself slipping, I acknowledge what I’m doing, stop, and move on to something else.

For the first time in my adult life, my hands aren’t covered in scabs, and I don’t mind showing them in a photograph:

Of all things I’ve accomplished since being at William and Mary, this is one of my proudest. Sure, it may not yield the same productive results as passing exams or publishing an article, but overcoming an old, deeply-ingrained habit that made me feel embarrassed and self-conscious? That’s a hell of an accomplishment in my opinion.

Do you skin-pick? Sometimes we need help when we’re trying to change old behaviors, and skin-picking is no exception. If you’re looking for resources, try this site:

https://www.bfrb.org/learn-about-bfrbs/treatment/self-help/127-rs-list-of-strategies-for-skin-picking-49-im-using-42-i-could-try

Or this site:

Artwork, February Update

Last month I talked about how I had revamped my sketching practice so that I could spend the weekends working on more ambitious projects. Today I’ll share what I’ve been working on so far.

The skull as I initially found it.

One afternoon in November I was walking on one of the many forest trails around my apartment when I found a deer skeleton partially covered with fallen leaves. The bones had become disarticulated but were still intact, including the skull. I left the bones there for the time being, but I pondered different series I could potentially make involving the skull, whether as paintings, prints, or drawings. The next day, I returned to the site, brought home the skull in a bag, and set about cleaning it. Fortunately the elements had already done a thorough job, but I still soaked it in soap and water for a few weeks, followed by a 24-hour session in a hydrogen peroxide mixture, just to be sure. At the start of the new year, I began making regular studies of the skull. drawing it from different angles.

What I’ve been planning is a series of drawings featuring the skull in the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. The plan is to draw the skull with various local flora and fauna throughout the year. I initially imagined using the same frontal view of the skull for all the drawings, much like the photograph above, but in my latest studies, I have it rotating. Most of these have been drawn in a watercolor sketchbook, but occasionally I’ll challenge myself to use more unconventional materials, as I did with a recent drawing made on scrap fibrous paper I found in the woods.

Since I want to pair the skull with other objects to denote the different seasons, I’ve also been making other studies. A few weeks ago I gathered some dried grasses during a walk and sketched those. A few days after that, I drew some leaves I found on my back patio. And after seeing all the activity at my birdfeeder, I’ve decided to include birds as well to remind viewers that winter isn’t an entirely dormant season.

Most recently I’ve been planning the actual composition. I was originally going to buy new paper, but after finding a stash of unused BFK Rives paper among my supplies, I’ll probably use that, at least initially. Over the next week, I’ll sketch in the composition and add the linework with pen and ink. From there, I’ll continue building up the scene, with layers of ink wash, pen and ink, and paint creating the composition.

The composition I have in mind for the winter scene, synthesizing various studies and sketches into a single scene.

As an artist I converse with art history through my own works, and this project is no exception. The whole concept is essentially a localized version of a vanitas, a genre of still life painting painting from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reminding viewers of the transience of existence and the omnipresence of death. They were especially popular in the Netherlandish regions, where artists would pair dazzling renditions of flowers and other sumptuous objects with insects, skulls, and other reminders of decay.

20th-century moderns have also influenced my work. Naturally, the compositions of Georgia O’Keeffe come to mind, as her presence is so ubiquitous in the visual culture at this point that it’d be difficult to deny any influence. Most immediately though, I’ve been recalling the egg tempera paintings of Barbara Latham, particularly a group of surrealistic works she did in the 1940s that paired flowers, driftwood, lace, and other objects. These were some of my personal favorites in the Roswell Museum collection (one of them was even called Life and Death), and I spent a lot of time looking at them when I had the chance.

Yet these drawings and sketches aren’t only about engaging art history. About a week ago, I realized they were also about Covid, and more specifically my experiences with it. I consider myself lucky: I haven’t had the virus myself so far, nor have any of my immediate family or close friends had it. Brandon and I are both safe and both still get paid. But we’ve been affected nonetheless. For the past year, I’ve essentially lived my life within a 2-square mile radius. Beyond the grocery store or the W&M Library to drop off books, the only time I usually leave the house is to go for walks along the many forest trails around here. My social life has been restricted to phone calls, Brandon, and the cats. Every morning I’ve read the NYT update and learned about the latest infection rates or death tolls, noting how it ebbed and flowed according to the seasons and human behavior. My anxiety, while not unmanageable, has increased. I have not had the virus, and I don’t want to, but it’s nonetheless affected my life.

For me then, these drawings aren’t just about sketching my local environs but reflecting on this past year. When the pandemic first started, I didn’t have the interest or energy in drawing for several months. And yet it was also the pandemic that got me drawing again, when I started sketching the facemasks in our house. In some ways, I see this series as a continuation of the sketches I started then, but whereas those drawings documented the pandemic’s most immediate effects on my life in a literal way, this series is more allegorical. The year goes by, but death, the pandemic, remains, as dynamic and changing as the seasons themselves.

Now to actually get going with these drawings.

Exhibition Work, February Update

Last month I talked about my ongoing readings about the Uncanny Valley and other broad themes relating to robots. Today I’ll share what I’ve been up to since January 1st, and more specifically my explorations into the more nuanced aspects of human-robot interactions.

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolis_(1927_film)

Most likely it’s my art historical background speaking, but I’ve been considering robots, particularly anthropomorphic ones, through the lens of spectacle. Since antiquity, after all, automata and other moving statues have been important displays of wealth and power among the aristocracy, with the movements of the machines themselves, as well as their sumptuous materials, suggesting their owners’ abilities to harness different natural and mechanical resources for their own amusement. Robots have also been an important source of spectacle throughout the 20th century. Just think about all the iconic robots that have manifested in film, from Maria’s evil counterpart in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, to the seeming indestructibility of The Terminator. Even more recent films like Ex Machina emphasize the sense of deceit and fraud we often attribute to robots, with Ava’s ultimate proof of her humanity manifesting through her willingness to lie and kill to ensure her survival.

Nor are spectacular, anthropomorphic robots limited to fiction. Department stores featured electrical automata at the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, with electric power enabling them to run all day as opposed to a few minutes. During the first half of the twentieth century, many manufacturers created working robots for display at world’ s fairs, with the machines serving as potent and memorable advertisements. In 1927, Westinghouse created Herbert Televox. while Britain’s first robot, Eric, debuted at the Exibition of the Society of Model Engineers at London’s Royal Horticultural Hall in 1928. A replica of Eric now resides at the London Science Museum.

And then there’s Elektro, a 7-foot robot that could walk, talk, count, and even smoke thanks to a set of bellows, hearkening back to the smoking automata of the 19th century. He first appeared at the Westinghouse display for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, where he makes a memorable appearance in the film The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. He proved so popular that he would reappear at the 1940 Fair with a robot dog named Sparko. Following World War II, he’d go on tour, and even appeared in the B-movie Sex Kittens Go To College with Mamie Van Doren. He now lives at the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.

Engineer Joseph Barnett with his creations Elektro and Sparko. Image courtesy of https://history-computer.com/the-history-of-elektro-of-westinghouse/.

All of these spectacular displays underscore both the anxiety and optimism we experience regarding robots. Examples such as evil Maria underscore the threatening presence we often attribute to robots, and their destructive potential regarding human society, whether through ensuing outright chaos, or rendering us obsolete. Conversely, robots such as Elektro, with humorous personalities and impressive but ultimately non-threatening counting or talking capabilities, suggest the potential for robots as helpers or companions, supplementing rather than supplanting human life. Both of these extremes position robots as the other. They act either for or against us, but rarely work with us.

Yet many contemporary artists have been exploring a third, collaborative option, and to me, this is some of the most interesting work out there right now with respect to robots. Instead of viewing these machines as existential threats or helpers lacking agency, some artists instead approach them as collaborators, and integrate robots into their artistic practice in order to expand the creative possibilities of their work. An early example includes Polish artist Edward Ihnatowicz’s work from the 1960s and 1970s, considered seminal in the field of cybernetics.

For a lot of artists though, it’s not just about programming robots to paint. Instead, they explore the creative potential of robots by forming meaningful collaborations that extend beyond simply programming the performance of rote tasks. Such inquiries delve into AI and its potential for both humans and robots regarding creative expression, as opposed to pessimistic, dystopian visions of human obsolescence or overly-simplistic presentations of robots as helpful servants. Artists such as Sougwen Chung and Pindar Van Arman both explore these ideas through their robot partnerships. Chung builds robots and then collaborates on painting-based performances with them, responding spontaneously and organically to the mark-making of the machines. Pindar van Arman, in turn, builds robots capable of making creative decisions via the use of neural networks and AI.

What all of these different forays underscore for me is the variety of emotional responses we experience to robots. Some of us may fear them, others may be merely curious, still others may be eager to work with them on new projects. Yet all of these responses deserve consideration.

Dissertation Work, February Update

Last month I shared some of the big ideas I’ve been thinking about regarding the dissertation. Today I’ll talk about how I’ve been exploring different topics within those bigger ideas to render them more manageable.

I started January’s work by taking a closer look at the idea of federal art funding. While attending an online webinar on Green New Deal posters, hosted by the Living New Deal, I learned about the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a law enacted in the 1970s that benefitted artists on a national scale until its termination in the 1980s. Unlike the FAP, which was centrally operated through Washington offices, CETA was a decentralized program, with local cultural organizations deciding how best to use the money they received. Additionally, since the emphasis was on training as well as employment, many of these organizations required a service element, which meant that artists spent as much time teaching classes or providing public cultural enrichment as they did making art. Some organizations that benefitted from this funding include the Painted Bride Art Center and Brandywine Workshop and Archives, among many others. Compared to the FAP, CETA’s creative legacy is more difficult to trace because it emphasized service over making public art. Yet in a lot of ways it was arguablly more successful than the FAP because it provided a lot more agency to local communities in terms of assessing what they needed in terms of cultural enrichment. As an art historian, I also find CETA’s more obscure legacy indicative of the discipline’s bias toward objects, with the production and circulation of art objects receiving more scholarly attention than teaching efforts. I started thinking it could be interesting to compare the CACP with CETA-funded organizations to see how they interacted with their respective communities and whether they had any long-term impacts on their respective cultural landscapes.

Before Bob Ross, Jon Gnagy assured audiences that they could learn to draw. You check watch his videos on Youtube, which are all around 10-15 minutes each. Image courtesy of JON GNAGY | EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU | SUSAN MORGAN (allanmccollum.net).

Then I started considering the more commercial aspects of art access by learning about televised art programs, the commodities associated with those programs, and correspondence schools. Before Bob Ross encouraged viewers to paint happy little trees, Jon Gnagy helped viewers tap into their creative side with a television program launched in the 1940s. Working in chalk rather than paint, he’d guide viewers through landscapes, genre scenes, and other subject matter while teaching them how the basic forms of spheres, rectangles, cones, and cylinders could enable them to draw any picture they’d like. He also sold his own drawing kits and books, and offered promotions for programs like the Famous Artists School, one of the art correspondence schools active during the mid-twentieth century. Founded by illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, correspondence schools would have students buy a series of classes. Students would mail in drawing assignments, and instructors would comment on them. These schools took a firmly commercial bent to their teaching philosophy, such as promising a rewarding career in illustration, and as such were derided by critics and educators (indeed, the intersections between democracy, capitalism, and ehat constitutes good art in American culture merits further exploration). Yet they’ve left an indelible mark on American art. Thousand of students received their first serious instruction through these programs, some of which, like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, would go on to have seminal careers. Grant it, the vast majority of students didn’t transition into the professional art world, but the connection between correspondence schools and other commercial forms of art education and the art world merits deeper consideration.

Students from Theodore Roosevelt High School, the Bronx, visiting the exhibition Arms and Armor, 1939. Image courtesy of Stephanie Post, “Caravans of Art”: The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibition Series, 1933–42 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org).

Then I turned back to the idea of traveling exhibitions. Focusing on the twentieth century, I learned about initiatives that larger museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art explored during the 1930s and 1940s. In the case of the Art Institute, the museum launched an experimental extension gallery program in Garfield Park, with the museum regularly rotating works from the permanent collection. As Sylvia Rohr explains in an article on the Art Institute’s education history, the museum had explored opening other galleries, but ultimately shut down the program in 1938, possibly due to the Community Art Center Project already filling that role. Meanwhile, the Met, as Stephanie Post describes in a blog post, launched a traveling exhibition program focused on serving the different boroughs of New York City by sending exhibitions of materials from the permanent collection to area schools and libraries. This program ran until 1943 before closing due to its expense. Conveniently, the Met is currently doing a retrospective on this program as part of its 150th anniversary exhibition cycle, and if we ever get out of the pandemic I might go check it out. I’ve also been reading about artmobiles and other forms of portable exhibitions, including the VMFA’s own Artmobile, in action from the 1950s to the 1990s and recently revived in 2018.

Art on a truck: VMFA on the Road, launched in 2018. Image courtesy of VMFA on the Road: An Artmobile for the 21st Century – Exhibitions.

The most exciting facet has been the information I’ve been finding for federal community art centers. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been in conservation with several different museums that, like Roswell, were federal art centers at some point in their history. These include the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Middlesex County Museum in Saluda, Virginia, and the Greenville Museum of Art in North Carolina. While the Walker Art Center is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic, their wonderful archival staff has been helping me with questions and sharing online resources and finding aids. I’ve also been exploring the materials available at the Middlesex County Museum and Greenville Museum, and the materials I’ve been finding have been intriguing, especially when it comes to exhibitions. When I was looking through the Greenville materials, for example, I recognized several of the shows, from “The Making of a Mosaic,” to “The Industrial Scene,” as exhibitions that had been shown in Roswell, usually a year or two earlier. To me, it’s absolutely fascinating to know that audiences in New Mexico and North Carolina were seeing the same materials within the same few years. It makes me all the more eager to want to reconstruct the travel routes of these shows and get a better sense of the FAP’s mobility as rendered through the Exhibition Section.

Daumier Exhibition at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, 1939. Thanks to the exhibition schedules at the Greenville Museum of Art, I know that shows like this traveled to North Carolina as well as New Mexico, as opposed to being assigned strictly to the Southwest. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

From an archival standpoint, these institutions also raise important questions about what get saved, what doesn’t, and how that affects the historical narrative of each organization. Of the three archives I’ve seen in person, Middlesex was the most consistent in terms of keeping monthly reports, offering a good overview of museum activities. Greenville didn’t have the same monthly reports, but it did maintain exhibition schedules for all the North Carolina art centers, along with exhibition descriptions for each show, providing a more thorough overview of the circuit for that state. Roswell, on the other hand, has the most extensive correspondence, offering insight into not only what the museum was doing, but the challenges it encountered, from lack of money to technical difficulties to staff disagreements. Yet all three lean strongly toward the federal side of the community art center’s operation, with little to no primary documentation from the people who founded these institutions or the visitors who attended their exhibitions and programs, an omission that seems pretty glaring considering that these centers were designed to benefit these very populations. Indeed, just discussing the nature of these archives, and their collective assumption that these programs didn’t need local perspectives beyond newspaper write-ups to verify their efficacy, could be a chapter unto itself.

Traveling exhibitions are where I’m leaning the most right now. Not that these other topics won’t come into play, but in terms of focus, based on my own interests and experiences, this is where my questions are coalescing. Why? Because as a form of communication and art education I think they should be looked at more critically. There’s plenty of critique about blockbusters as profit-driven, vapid, entertainment-focused spectacles, but the ecosystem of traveling exhibits is far more complex and varied, with the big, attention-getting shows comprising only one aspect of what’s out there. There are exhibitions that museums put together and travel on their own, as well as exhibitions curated by organizations like the American Federation of Arts or Guest Curator, with museums as their primary clients. There are shows that travel to schools or libraries, and even shows that travel on their own bus. And then there are the shows that especially interest me: art exhibitions designed specifically for regions that don’t have their own museums.

Throughout these different forms, however, there’s an ongoing message about these exhibitions being inherently good. That by putting art on a bus or taking it to the local neighborhood (and providing free admission in the case of outreach exhibitions), museums and related cultural institutions are automatically doing a good thing for the communities they claim to serve. But what kinds of narratives are these traveling exhibitions espousing? Do they challenge the canon or reify it? Which neighborhoods within a county do they specifically visit? Do these communities have any say in what kind of art gets selected, or is the museum the one who decides? Finally, who performs the actual labor of implementing these exhibitions, and does their work get recognized?

These are the kinds of questions that I’ve been thinking about. The next step is to narrow down my potential case studies and assemble my proposal.