Category Archives: Theory

The Unplayable Piano

“..all of us, from time to time, need to sit down and try and play the unplayable piano.” -Tim Hartford

On the long flight home from Rome this summer I found myself watching TED Talks on the aircraft’s entertainment system. Already thinking about the beginning of a new semester, one talk in particular caught my attention. Tim Hartford, an economist and journalist, gave a brilliant talk about frustration and how it can actually help us overcome obstacles and discover unforeseen possibilities in any creative process, whether it’s the design of a jet engine, the design of a musical composition, or the creation of a work of art. Weaving in examples from cognitive and social psychology, complexity science, and rock and roll, Hartford’s bottom line is simple. What we need in order to tap our highest creative potential is, in his words, “a dash of mess.”

Listen to the full Koln Concert of Keith Jarrett

Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies

David Bowie’s “Lodger” album (1979)

Carlos Alomar (Bowie’s guitarist, discusses working with Bowie, inspiration and motivation)

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Shifting Ground

Figure-Ground Metamorphosis Spatial perception is a continuous, cognitive process of inferring three-dimensional sense from the constantly shifting pattern of retinal sensation in which we are daily immersed. For everyone except visual artists the process is almost completely unconscious; something we have picked up from birth, along with our native language. The central mission of the visual sense is to identify “things” and distinguish them from the empty space that surrounds them. Graham Collier, in his book, Form, Space & Vision states, “…to perceive space… there must be a figure on a ground. For then a visual tension is created between the physical presence of something that intrudes, and the… apparent emptiness which surrounds it…” Naturally people take more interest in actual things than they do in empty space, but for an artist this isn’t necessarily so. Over time, working with the two-dimensional language of art trains the artist to be acutely aware of both object and space as two co-equal entities. In the student work below, working with one of Collier’s classic exercises, the co-dependence of figure and ground, and the capacity of each one to shift or reverse, is beautifully demonstrated.

Students employed the subtractive process of block printing to create a sequence of individual rectangular designs that, together, configure a larger rectangle. The unifying element of repetition works to break down the perception of each print’s individual design, and the recognition of metamorphic change propels the eye forward. The  whole enterprise is fraught with instructive ironies regarding the nature of figure-ground interactions. First, the initial figure is produced by an absence – removing the solid material of the block with a cutter – but in the print it appears as a presence, a white figure on a dark ground. The white mark reads unequivocally as figure due to the relative smallness of its area with respect to the larger black rectangle, and also because our eye can surround it. After each printing, students “add” another mark, or several marks, before printing again. Some students worked out their cuts in advance from a master plan while others, like jazz musicians, improvised by responding intuitively to the developing image. In the process of subtraction marks are added to the design.  Somewhere along the march of progress an interesting thing happens. First, the ratio of white figure elements to black ground equalizes. Figure and ground become ambiguous and interchangeable. Then, as cutting continues, the figure-ground relationship reverses. The black ground has become the figure and the white has become the ground. The total design consists of twenty stages arranged in a flowing pattern from left to right and top to bottom. Students are challenged to select the states from 30 to 40 printings  that best create an integrated whole with smooth transitions and without abrupt changes that interrupt the flow or that create undue emphasis.

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The Space of Play

More on the relationship of art to play, thanks to artist Julie Heyward, from her blog, Unreal Nature:

From A Philosophy of Sport by Steven Connor (2011):

… The space of play is carefully patrolled, to the millimetre. For there can be no mind-space, no space between secular space and the space of play. Either the ball has wholly crossed the line, and it is a goal, or it has not, and play will continue from where it left off. If a lace from the cricket fielder’s boot is in contact with the boundary rope when he takes the lofted catch, it will be four runs; if not, the batsman is dismissed. If the ball is deemed to have clipped the line — betrayed by the puff of chalk or detected by the automatic sensor — there may be a new grand slam champion; if it misses, the player’s chance may have receded forever. In this sense at least, in its implacable abhorrence of the middle way, its intolerance of any tertium quid, there seems to be no room for play in the space of play.

… The stadium effects the opening, the admission without access, to this arbitrary and absolute space of irrevocable arbitrations. In play: that is to say, in crisis.

Yet it is for precisely this reason that the crisis of play runs quietly and cleanly through the middle of it, that, in the space of play, space is neither given nor fixed. Instead, it is absolutely in play, which is to say, the subject of continuous contention.

… In thinking of the space of play, we will repeatedly have to cope with the following contortion. The space of play is set off, by an act of pure decision, by the simple decision to mark out a space in which to decide the matter. In this space of play, space is decidedly in play, in a way that it is not in spaces not so marked off.

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Thoughts on the Process of Collage: Kevin Brady

“One day I came to work to find that part of a city block had been demolished. Hills of dirt were trucked away and plywood forms appeared. Foundations took shape, walls arose, and a new building began to emerge. Space, everyone’s space, was being reconfigured. The event of building reveals the essential plasticity of space: the way we divide it up, build structures into it, and sweep it clean again. Building and growth, demolition and decay are strangely commingled. Architecture, that most enduring of cultural forms, is reassigned to natural processes. You may try to expel nature with a pitchfork, said Horace, but it will come back running.


Like a building site, collage, for me, is exhilarating. It encourages swift, decisive modifications; it is constructive and destructive almost simultaneously. Structures come into being, and turn away from what they had been. Disparate spaces are sampled, juxtaposed, and reconfigured. Unlike working from plans, collage is open and improvisatory. It establishes a site for the reception of unforeseen changes. It invites and responds to the unplanned.

As an artist, I try to situate myself at the center of form- and meaning-complexes that seem most capable of producing these sorts of symbols: landscape, excavation, foundation, house, room, annex, well. A true symbol, C.G. Jung tells us, is inexhaustible; it is a living, regenerative thing. The generative activity of the studio is vital in this regard: the rhythmic, almost ritual process of collage, the surprise discoveries that occur when unlike pieces meet and mate. I seek a poetics of construction. I do so through an interplay of geometric structure and expressive abstraction, a syntax of interruption and relocation, and a language of color interaction and boundaries.

Like art itself, collage is a layered, cumulative thing, a site at which the boundary between cultural achievement and natural occurrence is sometimes, mysteriously, dissolved.”

Kevin Brady, 2006




What is given is incomparably richer than what we can invent.   

Aldous Huxley, “Variations on El Greco,” On Art and Artists

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.   

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

“I like the deliberative processes of collage – the heightened awareness of elements in play, and surprises that occur when unlike pieces meet and mate. Like drawing, collage is a very direct form of visualizing onto a surface. It is not just a language of accumulation – of stuff added to stuff – but a restless exchange of figure and ground. Structures come into being, and turn away from what they had been. Boundaries are fixed and erode. Identities appear and shift shape. A collage can go through hundreds of adjustments before it arrives at its final state, and even then, it is – to quote Wallace Stevens – “form gulping after formlessness.” The destructive and constructive principles exist side by side in the most intimate kinds of decisions here. Found materials, for me, impose a discipline of responding to what is given. To some extent, I have to resist the impulse to design and control, even as this may be what is most needed. In the end, the collages are aimed at producing a symbolic, if provisional, unity.”

Kevin Brady, December 2007



Kevin Brady’s website.

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I first encountered Flatland, an imaginary world of only two dimensions, in my eighth-grade math class. (Cool teacher, Mrs. Peek; we also watched a film on the geometry of the game of billiards.) I often think of Flatland when talking to students about design, drawing, and painting, which are, by nature, essentially flat. To design with two-dimensions entails a different way of thinking, a different way of seeing. The design space is a place where overlapping volumes don’t really go back in space. With that third dimension missing they become shapes that abut. They can still appear to go back in space. This contradiction between virtual appearance and actual fact is the fundamental tension and dynamic in two-dimensional art. The designer is one who can hold these two contradictory perceptions in mind at the same time and draw from them whatever is needed to make the design “work.”


The original text of Flatland, by Edwin Abbott (1838-1926.)


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The Process of Design: The FedEx Logo Story

Logos are perhaps the most familiar and ubiquitous form of applied 2-D design. The best logos encode and convey the identity, purpose, and spirit of a company through an astute manipulation of visual forms and type. Here’s an interview with the designer of the award-winning FedEx logo, Lindon Leader, on the evolution of his design, from the blog,  The Sneeze.

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The Serious Work of Playing

As a young aspiring artist seeking to legitimize myself and my career path in the eyes of parents and other “adults,” I insisted that what I did was work! After all, the products of artistic creation are called art “work.” We typically dismiss the dilettante as one who merely plays at art instead of working seriously. As I’ve grown older, and wiser (perhaps), I’ve become more comfortable with the notion of art as a rarefied form of play. Society thinks of play as something adults should outgrow with childhood, but most animals, humans excepted, continue to play until the day they die. The problem is that the nature of play is misunderstood. There’s more to play than meets the eye it would seem.

In a segment titled Play, Spirit & Character, on National Public Radio’s program On Being, Krista Tippett interviews Stuart Brown, physician, founder and director of the National Institute for Play. NPR has this to say about the interview:

“Stuart Brown, a physician and director of the National Institute for Play, says that pleasurable, purposeless activity prevents violence and promotes trust, empathy, and adaptability to life’s complication. He promotes cutting-edge science on human play, and draws on a rich universe of study of intelligent social animals.”

The interview is an audio recording. Listen to it while you’re working (playing):  Play, Spirit & Character

Other links on play and creativity:

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The Geometry of Music

Art is a non-verbal language. Finding precise words to describe non-verbal processes can be challenging. We fall back on metaphors and analogies to help us out sometimes. My analogies often come from music and poetry, where elements like rhythm or crescendo find plausible visual corollaries in the design principles of repetition and emphasis. A painter friend and colleague at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, Scott Noel, told me that he puts artistic concepts and techniques to students, and to himself, in terms of food! I also remember him once saying about a painting, “That shape is a real verb in that painting!”

In light of our first week’s experiences in class, and the copious musical analogies of our discussions, I share the following article:

The Geometry of Music, by  Michael D. Lemonick, Time Magazine, 1-06-0 7.

Additional links: Dmitri Tymoczko, musician/composer featured in the article.

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“What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education?”

2-D Design at Ohio Wesleyan University is, for many students, the first contact with the world of art and art making. For many it’s a strange new world, not at all like some of the other disciplines in the liberal arts where there is a definite right and wrong. This can be unsettling for those experiencing the act of creating art for the first time. Art is a realm in which the highest value is placed on qualitative experience as opposed to quantitative, where judgments are subjective, not objective, and where there are no hard and fast rules, except those generated by the work at hand. In fact, the artist, as an archetype, is one who breaks the rules, or plays by rules only he or she can feel, thus teaching the world new ways of seeing, thinking and experiencing.

Leading off this new blog for my 2-D Design classes at Ohio Wesleyan is Stanford Professor, Elliot Eisner’s lecture “What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education.” I post the lecture for students who are new to the arts, as a brilliant introduction to how the artistic mind differs from the more familiar quantitative reasoning we use in daily life. It is also for those students already experienced in art to some degree, who may be majoring, or leaning toward majoring in art, or aspiring to teach someday, who may need ammunition in explaining to parents, or school boards, why art is as crucial to society as the “3 R’s.” (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic.) It is also for those students in between, experienced but not majoring in art, who want a more rounded understanding of their own intelligence and capabilities as human beings.

“What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education,” by Elliot Eisner.

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