In Which I Feel Sorry For Myself: Confessions of an Art Student

I’ve been feeling sorry for myself lately, so I decided to take stock of my artistic progress since first attending the Academy of Realist art in 2012.IMG_20171117_190511

In 2012, I didn’t know the difference between comparative and one-to-one measurement. I stood in front of the human figure like a dunce. I drew lines and promptly erased them. A teacher had to literally take my hand and show me how to make what’s called an airplane stroke with a pencil across my paper.

It was clear to me that being the best artist in the room my whole life didn’t mean much when put in a class full of realist masters. There were times in isolation when I’d cry due to my frustration.

So now it’s 2018. I’ve done four drawings in graphite after the style of Charles Bargue. I’ve learned what shadow shapes are, how to find and key in the darkest dark of the shadows before progressing. I know how to turn the form, i.e, to make it look like it isn’t defined by a flat, cartoonish line. I can spot a bedbug line and blend it into the receding midtones. I know that reflected light is always darker than it seems, and to render it last.

I can make a value scale.

I painted my first still life this past summer. I know how to transfer a drawing to a canvas, how to isolate color and match it in paint. I started my first charcoal cast this year. It’s slow going, but I am learning a new medium and there are some curves.

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I haven’t won any awards. I haven’t sold anything (yet?) and I’m not featured in art magazines. I haven’t gone to art shows or tried to get work put up in galleries. I haven’t painted a cover to a Science Fiction novel (personal goal!), or done anyone’s portrait. Looking ahead is good for direction, but it can also be daunting. I have so much more to do.

If my measuring stick is my own progress, then I’ve come quite a way. It’s like climbing a hill: look down, and see how small the road is. 2012 Becky is there, and she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. 2018 Becky is a like a hiker that wouldn’t die in the woods right away.

The thing about art is that you’re never done learning. So I’ll cry if I need to. I’ll break more pencils, drop a palette face-down, bump the charcoal drawing and watch in horror as the darks dust off. Excellence is important, and the rules point to it. A blunder isn’t a revolution, so this is about internalizing the rules so that they become innate. How else will I paint what I want to?

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Follow my toil @devendrastudio (instagram)

I picked up a poem by Sappho in the original Greek the other day. I found that I couldn’t read it very smoothly. I’d forgotten, you see, some very important grammatical constructions. So I’ve been doing some grammar drills to get that knowledge back.

How else will I enjoy the poetry?

Rendezvous with Rama: The Limits of Human Arrogance

SPACE
The POV of a novel always sets the tone, and the omniscient All Knowing Voice of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (RwR) is of the liberal enlightenment. Before you read on, know this: I use “liberal” as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative, and certainly not in reference to American Democrats. A liberal is merely someone who believes in rights.

Rights-based philosophy has its troubles. It erases the cultural lines that differentiate us in the hope of avoiding greater evils (violence). The characters of RwR aren’t real people, they’re bundles of attributes and peculiarities that are all subsumed into the greater mission of science and discovery. It’s possible that Clarke is just not good at characterization, so maybe this impersonal voice says more about him as a writer. The exchanges between Commander Norton and Laura Ernst, for instance, are painfully awkward and terrible. Readers are shown what Norton thinks of lady astronauts: they’re too distracting, on account of their boobs floating about in low gravity. (Go ahead, giggle like a 13 year old.) It’s perhaps a blessing that for the rest of the book, Clarke doesn’t feel the need to make the reader privy to Norton’s other thoughts.

The big idea carries the narrative, not the people in it. People are ants in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is constantly befuddled by the wonder of the cosmos and plagued by questions that go unanswered. The ship dubbed Rama doesn’t appear to be altered by human presence. It’s just passing through, defying Newtonian physics in a tantalizing way.

So what do I think? Well, I won’t read the sequels. I’ve heard that they’re terrible anyway. I don’t really want to read on, since the stakes aren’t personal enough. I don’t much care to know where all of those characters end up. The book ends without answering big questions, because sometimes there aren’t answers. I am ok with that. The limits of human understanding are mystery enough. Science is better off when it passively observes in order to learn, but our enlightenment mode of thinking can make us arrogant. Rights-based language has given us much, but it’s fundamentally a language of power. We’re more likely to ask, What power do I have over things in nature? instead of What should I do to preserve things in nature? 

The All Knowing Voice seems to think, with some certainty, that contact with intelligent life outside of Earth is inevitable. It lacks humility. The act of study only illuminates our ignorance, and so we ought to remain optimistic yet humble. The real question to ask is this: Are we stewards of or mere subjects of the universe? Clarke might be uncomfortable with the responsibility of stewardship.

What would have happened, for instance, if the Raman’s in this book were refugees? I think the story would have been more bleak. But Clarke makes it clear that they are wise and advanced, almost godlike, and that therefore they could care less for humanity. Our solar system is their gas station. Humans are off the hook: in this book, we aren’t the adults in the room.

Will we only respect an alien race if it’s more powerful than we are?

I’m a Book Club Leader: All Shall Love Me and Despair!

October went by in a flash, so here are some personal updates!

NESFA

I was put in charge of the New England Science Fiction Association’s (NESFA) Reading Group, which is a monthly book club that meets in Somerville MA. I’ll be organizing the schedule and leading discussions (really, just asking questions to get readers talking).

I’m excited! I joined NESFA to get exposed to new SF books/ get to know the industry better, so I’m glad to give back.

This November 30th (7pm) we’re reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.

This January we’re doing a throwback and reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

If you’re in the area, feel free to join!

Other Stuff:
As for writing, I’m nose-deep in NaNoWriMo, and it’s going sorta well. I keep resisting the urge to edit/worldbuild. Hoping to get to that 50k mark! I have some short works I’m editing, and one of them is a rewrite + resubmit request from an editor I really want to work with, so here’s hoping I can succeed!

Also, my baby and I were awesome this Halloween:

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The tiniest officer in Star Fleet

Excelsior!

Star Trek Discovery!

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The JJ Abrams aesthetic has overridden the classic campy look, but I’m hopeful for a character driven show that packs a punch. Star Trek has always been at its best when it focuses on the individuals that make up Star Fleet.

Star Trek has the charm of a stage play: soaring rhetoric, grand visions, and character dilemmas that carry the show. This is because each series only uses three major reoccurring sets: the bridge, the mess, and crew quarters. These setups serve to emphasize the claustrophobia of space.

I know Kirk’s love interests, and Spock’s inner struggles. I learned how principled Picard became when he was tortured.  Sisko learned that being a father was probably more important than being a good commander. Worf showed me what it’s like to be caught between two cultures.

The ship is also a character. This is something the JJ Abrams shiny reboots don’t get: it’s not a prop to blow up.

Discovery started off with lots of explosions.  That’s sort of thrilling and eyeball-punching to be sure, but as viewers, we have no attachment to a ship yet. Sensational explosions can be a way for shows to distract from plot issues.

For instance, the crew of the Shenzhou beams a bomb onto a fallen Klingon warrior being retrieved by his commander. The body blows when it gets back on the Klingon ship, which makes for a clever move of sabotage by Star Fleet. However, directly after, Captain Georgiou and First Officer Burnham are beamed onto the Klingon ship to take prisoners. Why not just do that with the bomb in the first place?

Perhaps there was some hand-waving to explain this away, but I missed it, because BOOM goes the Klingon ship! Fight scene! Don’t think about it!

This is my worry, going forward. I don’t want a show that tries to build tension off of bad or questionable decisions made by the characters.  Discovery is going to be slick, shiny, and it’s going to show off its budget. I contend that this is not the show’s strength.

So, what’s working for this show? Burnham’s character, for one: a human raised by Vulcans because her parents were killed by Klingons. While I think Sonequa Martin-Green needs to grow into the character a bit, I think she’s up to the task, and that Burnham has the potential to move viewers by showing us the inner conflicts of her heart. (A few lofty lines delivered by Martin-Green fell a bit flat for me, but I think she’ll get there. For instance the whole, “Sculpture is spirituality given form” might look nice on paper but the delivery was so-so.)

Burnham’s mutiny carried the dramatic punch it should have, and I hope the show dwells on her betraying Georgiou, because I want this to be more emotionally devastating for the viewer as the show progresses. Georgiou cannot merely be collateral damage, like the rest of the blown-to-smithereens Federation fleet that we’ll forget about in a week.

Now, a note on the Klingons: I’m wondering if we’ll see more human looking tribes with less brow-ridges? There’s a frustrating scene in Deep Space Nine where the crew goes back in time to the Enterprise. Worf looks very different than the Klingons on the Enterprise, and his crew-mates ask him why.

“We don’t talk about it,” he says cryptically, signaling to the viewers that the writers don’t care about continuity, or are unwilling to bridge the gaps. What a missed opportunity!

Discovery’s Klingons are cool. I really like them. They look like dark elves with the convictions of Spartans. But if I were writing this, I’d take Worf’s hand-wave dismissal as a challenge, and definitely go there. We’ll see?

I have high hopes. Let’s see what the show can do.

I’ve Figured Out Why Game Of Thrones Bothers Me

A Song of Ice and Fire is a soap opera with Dragons and Ice Zombies. I’m not trying to besmirch the soap opera (we tend to revile things women like, so while soaps aren’t my thing, that’s just a matter of taste), but George Martin’s books, like some soaps, have a tendency to revel in the baser things of life. Sometimes it hinders my enjoyment of the epic world he’s built. I feel like I’ve been entranced by a snake-charmer, and should pull free.

Why am I reading this stuff?

I’m not afraid of reading about hard truths, about the things people can do to one another. George Martin has obviously studied medieval history. Tales of war are full of violence, rape and political intrigue. Mythology, of course, is full of sex. So what’s my problem?

In the last published book (A Dance With Dragons), we are treated to Princess Asha submitting to a rape, because as it turns out, she likes it after all! The ideal woman likes it rough, right boys? (I will not be reproducing that passage here.)*

Here’s my problem: was it really necessary for me to read a rape fantasy? I’ve seen authors joke that they don’t know what “plot-relevant sex” is anyway, so readers should stop being such prudes. But I feel compelled to point out that many speculative fiction authors deal with gritty subjects, and many do it with a great deal more class than Martin does. Louis McMaster Bujold, for example, in Shards of Honor (one of my favorite books) writes about the difficulties a woman protagonist faces in a militarized society. Cordelia Naismith is captured by the enemy and threatened with rape in a very tense scene, where we see her would-be-rapist prodded toward her like an animal. Bujold does not mince words, but she also doesn’t rub the reader’s face in in. In fact, even though we are treated to images of this naked, barbaric man, Bujold’s Cordelia pities him.

I read fiction so that the world in which I live can be recast in a new light. I should have an insight into human nature. That insight does not have to be accompanied with flowers and roses, or packaged in shiny Disney animation with talking animals. Oedipus has sex with his mother. Orpheus, the idiot, looks back. (Honey, you had ONE JOB.) Psyche looks at Cupid’s face. Lot, in the Bible, is intoxicated by his daughters and raped by them.

I could go on.

My point is that the hero does not always win, and I don’t need that to be the case for a story to possess verisimilitude, to have an insight into some deep truth about human action. I am not, therefore, upset that Martin kills his heroes. His storytelling has surprised me, even delighted me at times.

And yet, I still, at the same time, think that something smells. Martin gave an interview to Time Magazine recently, and he said something that I think nailed down what it is about his fantasy that bothers me. Here is the passage:

Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?

Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.

And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, “Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.” That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.

Understanding Tolkien requires an understanding of Christianity. This does not mean possessing a fundamentalist view of sex or an inability to cope with gritty, ugly things. (Lot in the Bible, remember.) It requires a different understanding of death. To die for one’s friends is worthy of reward. That is why Gandalf comes back more powerful than before. That’s why it’s not a cheat.

In Martin’s view, Ned Stark is a probably fool. In my Christian view, he is a martyr. If Ned Stark’s death isn’t any different than Joffrey’s, then what the hell is the point? Am I really supposed to believe that they both end up in the same place?

Martin’s books like to show readers how hard it is to be a hero. That being good might not come with material rewards or power. In that respect, I understand the project.

But I’m afraid that we’re not going to get the eucatastrophe, the good that comes from the bad, that Tolkien so effectively delivered in his own stories. I don’t think readers will get that from Martin’s mind. Maybe it’s not fair to accuse Martin of not being Tolkien, but it helps me see why I have major problems with his his narrative decisions.

 I’m too Catholic.

*Theon Greyjoy’s sister, as she’s named in the books.