Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

From my collection

There's a particular art project I do with students every year. Art Cards are small (2½" x 3½") cards, each of which bears an original work of art -- these ones shown here are in crayon, ink, and pencil. I've been doing this with students for over a decade now and it always amazes me what remarkable results they can attain in such a restricted compass.

Children's art famously has a number of common features wherever it is found, but on a small scale their instincts are often uncannily keen and their accomplishments deeply moving; particularly, for me, their non-representational designs. Many of these works, if executed on a scale of feet or meters instead of inches, would at the very least be comparable to any piece of hotel room art I've seen. Frequently they could hang beside Braque, Kandinsky, Pollock, or Rothko.

Shifting up by a factor a 12 does not, of course, make us graduate from little kid to grown-up. Any good gallery or museum ought to be able to show you some examples from masters of the miniature. But a 2½ x 3½ meter canvas dominates a visual field in a way that a playing-card sized piece does not. It's not the difference between maturity and childhood; it's the difference between outer and inner.

While the students who made these pieces -- all between five and eleven years old at the time -- had doubtless been exposed to such art, the art cards were never a result of an assignment ("look at this Picasso, this Mondrian. What do you notice? Now try something yourself!") All I do is put the materials in front of them and encourage them to make things they like. They take some inspiration from each other, and over the years I've learned a few techniques I pass on to them, but the designs are theirs alone.

Inevitably some students are immediately excited by the project, and others are blasé. I long ago stopped requiring participation in something like this, so it sometimes happens that a student is slow to take it up. But even those who seem uninterested at first often try it, because the initial investment is so small -- after all, it doesn't take much to scrawl with some colored pencil on a playing-card sized bit of card stock.

What makes the project take off, however, is a further dimension. I cannot take credit for it; as far as I know, it was the stroke of genius of Swiss artist Vänçi Stirnemann. The cards are trading cards; they are swapped, one-for-one. This means students rarely stay at that initial level of minimal effort. To build up a stock of tradeable work, they have to devote serious effort -- not hours per card, but enough that they feel they are parting with something that has cost them creative labor, when they are asking for a card they desire made by someone else -- a card that presumably also cost effort and attention, or it wouldn't have caught their eye.

In some ways this use of the art itself as a medium of exchange is an even more revolutionary element than the small and portable size. It jump-starts the circulation of the art and generates the magic which desire and possible attainability can confer upon it. Students experience the strange spell of wanting something just because it is beautiful, and also the delight of having made something that someone else is willing to trade for.

Some of these cards shown here were made this week. Some are over ten years old. I of course have some sentimental investment in them as well -- they are each signed on the back, and I can remember each artist, and sometimes even the occasion of the work -- but I still find that each one summons up a kind of world, an aesthetic unity, which is independent of whatever accidents of biography attach to them for me. Needless to say, I traded for each of them myself.


  1. Wonderful! I love "design by constraint," and these are gorgeous examples. The trading-card element is super smart.

    1. Yes, the constraint does wind up being freeing, of course. And the way they function as cards also means that they take on other associations of cards as well. I've known students to act as if they were intentionally "building their deck," and laying out spreads as if they were Tarot. Not actually reading fortunes, but enjoying the aesthetic, sensory luxury of arranging these small units in different ways, allowing the overall set of connotations to emerge.

    2. ... And thereby creating larger works of art, no? Anyway, these are wonderful.