Thursday, March 21, 2013

Notes From the Field -- Reboot

When I started my 30 year career as a commercial photo tech in the big city, it was in the company of veteran lab rats intimately acquainted with the vicissitudes of professional craft as applied on a time critical basis.

Appropriately, these were called "craftsmen".

During that 30 years the Digital Age dawned.

The earth shook and the skies grew wild as old ways disappeared into the whirlwind of progress, from which there's no return for the past.

Then the day came when decades of high level performance got paid off with casual insult and I'd seen enough to know it'd only ever get worse and there'd be no better end, so I said screw it and walked away.

Out of a job and flat out of career prospects, later that day only one thought dominated:

I'll never again work under crushing deadline except by choice.

And more than a decade later here I am, having spent the last 19 months producing comprehensive, cross-discipline product from scratch and just as fine as I can make it, considering the running Digital Age deadline of 'live'.

Maybe one can't teach an old dog new tricks after all, despite new fields of play...

This is a job traditionally done in isolation.

Had I engaged this fieldwork even a few short years ago, I'd have spent as much time, traveled as many miles, shot the same film at the same locations and not talked much about any of it along the way.

After which I'd have poured over the images and sifted through accumulated stacks of notes & prose, encouraging each to carry me back to a moment captured with purpose upon a highly specific landscape.

Then in order to fashion this pile of gathered stuff into a coherent body of work possessed of cogent context, I'd consider everything about it and at my own pace would make it all into a new thing. Maybe another year or so of concentrated effort, or at any rate until satisfied.

Only then would I let it loose upon the wind.

This being now not then, blogging changed everything. Except I still have on my hands this pile of gathered stuff and already partly formed, too.

In order to do something with it, I'll first have to not juggle quite so much. Me spitting into the digital wind and trusting to faith won't cut it because while I like being able to juggle, I set out to do much more and don't trust the void one bit.

Giving this work its best chance to last requires I revise the workflow and again shrug off deadline pressure, so I can revisit old ways in order to craft something new and more tangible than ether.

From the beginning of this Odyssey and throughout, I've worked from a list of subjects. That list grew as our travels assumed a narrative that gained definition mile by mile, through an organic process of exploration & discovery intrinsic to quality time spent on the road.

There's more yet to come, both of list and exploration, but a good bit of it requires surpassing effort on my part, as some nuts are just plain tough to crack.

To accommodate that as well as my backstage efforts to make what I intended of this gig, we'll slow things down a bit. From here on I'll post new material at least once a month, which means we're likely to remain on this digital journey together for a good deal longer than was originally planned.

Of all the images gathered during our travels, the two used here today have become emblematic for me of where we've been and where we're headed. This narrative promises to only deepen and grow richer as we go.

It's a distinctly American story. I hope and trust you'll stick around to see this project through.

So with that in mind, please drop in on Thursday April 4th, when we'll relax the pace and complete this current trek through the Porcupine Mountains with a story so unlikely you might think I've made it up.

But it's true, all the same...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Creative Conversation

Many people act like they expect to live forever, but they won't.

Creatives spend their lives crafting things that might, but they can never tell.

So artists offer their song to the wind and the wind carries the best part of them to an unknown place where echo is the currency of trade and whether or not their offering lasts, they'll not know it either way.

What's true is that art informs us, whether for a moment or forever.

It shows us who our neighbors are, how they see their lives and culture and their neighbors too, so that we might better understand them and better define our own place in the cosmos, having shared.

Creativity is an ongoing conversation as essential to human wellbeing as are earth, air, water and sky. Without its saving graces, we'd be a poor race indeed.

And from the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness of Michigan, a diverse group of dedicated folk devote their best efforts to assure that conversation thrives.

For two weeks last October I reveled in my residency at Dan's Cabin, courtesy of the Artists in Residence Program sponsored by the Friends of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness

So extraordinary was the personal experience, so gracious the hosts and splendid the accommodations, upon leaving the place I promised myself to promote the work done at the Park by those who stand among its very best friends.

While there I led the ideal artist's life -- near the only time in my life I've been at liberty to do that, for whatever length of time. As direct result I accomplished some my best work ever.

And as is true of most of this Odyssey, where I've gone you can too.

Burdened by cultural noise and myriad sundry demands, tempted too much by handy distractions like T.V., Facebook and blogs, many artists yearn for an opportunity to submerse themselves in their work.

That opportunity is here.

Yeah, it's in the wilderness and maybe that's wholly outside your experience much less comfort level, I get that.

So here's the gig:

Nestled in a splendid grove of hemlock a mere quarter mile from the road, your fellow creatives have built a comfortable, sturdy cabin just for you.

Outside, the real world rules and a creek runs by. Inside there's a comfy bed, a well equipped kitchen, ample working space, a wood burning stove for warmth with everything framed by a wide expanse of windows that let the real world shine in, day and night.

And you're welcome to bring someone along whether for companionship or courage, should that suit you.

What the place lacks is phone, Internet, T.V., radio and all the distractions of contemporary life. I know of resorts that charge big money to rent that sort of liberty for even a single night.

On that table is a journal kept by a succession of residents for the benefit of those to follow. It's quite the thing to read. Artists use their stay at Dan's Cabin for everything from relaxation to adventure, from quiet contemplation to life altering self-discovery.

While there, they also accomplish fundamental work.

Out your door is a well maintained trail system cut more than 87 miles through 60,000 acres of wildness and offering prospects that range from remote waterfalls to accessible vistas. Then there're the pristine beaches of Superior, where folk hunt agates or swim or simply spend a contemplative afternoon beneath a warming sun. After which you might choose to bathe in the wonder of twilight as seen from the edge of the world's greatest inland sea, then marvel as the Milky Way blankets the sky one star at a time, an exquisite filigree undimmed by light pollution.

And being a creative, you will work, as the spirit moves.

Maybe you're thinking it all still seems too daunting. That you're too utterly urban to risk the real world or it's too distant or maybe you're too old to engage it or that your particular creative effort is an unlikely fit for the program.

What's true is that artists grow excuses like an untended garden grows weeds.

The Residency's hosted a rich array of artists whose work runs the gamut. Writers. Photographers. Poets. A filmmaker. Sculptors, painters, composers, graphic artists and musicians. Ceramicists and a glass artist. Printmakers and more.

That includes an octogenarian painter, a ceramicist in from Australia and an installation sculptor who traveled from Tokyo. So there's that.

What these folk share is a commitment to creative effort and the rewards earned when willing to take a leap of faith in oneself.

Did I mention the built in audience?

In return for Residency, your obligation is to donate a piece of work inspired by your stay and to give a public presentation during it -- the audience for which is involved, informed and friendly.

Can a working artist ask for more?

Yeah, the deadline for 2013 entry is April 1st and I've left you little time to prepare. I apologize for that, but the organic workflow of this Odyssey combined with the vicissitudes of life and here we are.

All the same, most working artists have their best work compiled and at hand. So putting together a proper presentation takes at most a bit of contemplation and just a few hours time. I'm here to tell you that a modest if well considered effort expended late last winter paid off for me in spades come autumn...

These last couple years of fieldwork sparked by specific creative purpose then informed across a magnificent landscape populated by a diverse, indomitable people have indelibly informed me.

And with that, whatever light I possess is edged closer to lastingly perfect. A proper source of warmth for blood run thin once my day's grown long.

Of all the miles over all the months across country grand & hard, of the people, places, sights, sounds and smells, of the incredible history freely mixed with triumph and misery and truth and lies and glimpses of a regional future with promise unlimited -- even considering all that and more -- it's likely that my two weeks spent as a guest at Dan's Cabin will be the time I treasure most through the years.

So do yourself a favor -- consider applying for an artist's residency  at the Porcupine Mountains. Do it for your work. Do it for yourself.

Put your very best effort on the line for something uncommon.

Click here, to stop procrastinating and get started.

And by all means please share this link with other creatives of all inclination everywhere, whether via Google or Twitter or Facebook or good old fashioned word of mouth.

Because creative conversation is the name of the game and you never can tell where that'll lead...

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Porkies -- People & Their Government at Work

In the arena of contemporary public discourse, American government and government workers are routinely disrespected. How and why that happened doesn't much concern us here.

What's true is that a constituency exists for each taxpayer's penny spent, for everything the government spends those on. From warheads and surveillance to corporate welfare. From education and environmental remediation to the critical research necessary when trying to transition an entire civilization over to sustainable and against a fast ticking clock.

Our inability to make government function more wisely and at optimal efficiency leads us to a conversation where government itself seems rendered unsustainable. Save that almost everyone who yells "Cut!" is yelling about cutting yours not theirs -- so there'll always be some form of government left to deliver theirs, if not yours.

When fueled by irate righteousness the democratization of all media has unleashed in us, the nuance of real life is too often obscured and our public conversation fails.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a landscape eminently suited to the restoration of healthy human perspective.

It's prudent to remember that your liberty to visit was first secured through direct government response to local citizen advocacy, while today an ongoing and robust public/private partnership smooths your way.

Without government & government workers, it'd be just you alone against nearly a hundred square miles of undifferentiated, cut over northern wilds. It's unlikely you'd ever think to go there or even guess this exists, much less be able to launch a boat on it or snap a picture when someone does:

From a 120mm transparency

The real world stays open 24/7, so folk wander the Porkies day and night through the seasons. It's impossible to tell exactly how many people visit the place during any given year.

Something upwards of 300,000, best guess.

These include day trippers, trekkers, skiers and kayakers. Families on beach blankets next to picnic baskets. Fishermen and other dreamers. Hunters, bird watchers and gatherers of berries. Collectors of solitude, busloads of school kids, devoted world travelers and casual tourists alike.

And during a few short weeks in autumn, the Porkies play host to flocks of migrating photographers who descend on the landscape like hundreds of busy starlings, only to flee south when leaves fall to a wet north wind.

So the Park employs 35 workers to provide for the education, amusement, comfort and safety of all comers.

That's 12 full time paid staff and 23 part time paid staff to ride herd on better than 300,000 of us let loose over 60,000 acres of otherwise inaccessible wildness, open to us 360 days a year.

These 35 government workers maintain 87 miles of mostly backcountry trail. They clean toilets, cut grass, respond courteously to every inquiry and rescue the careless. They fix what we break, replace what can't be fixed as budget allows and otherwise faithfully serve the needs of everyone who visits.

They do all this and oversee the natural health of the place too.

Being so near the Visitor Center during my October stay offered an opportunity to interact with Park staff far more than is usual for me, as my home turf of the Presque Isle is something of a lonely outpost by comparison. Near the end of the residency, I took advantage of one of the fine interpretive programs regularly offered by the Park.

Which is how I came to spend a bit of quality time with Lynette Score, government worker:

When traveling the Northwoods, many people hope to see a bear. The Porkies are a good place for that, as bears roam throughout the Park. But most times, bears know you're there before you do and any easy way to turn the odds of a sighting in your favor invariably courts disaster for both you and them.

Near the end a damp, chill afternoon, Lynette greeted me and two other travelers at a trailhead, then led us into the woods to get up close and personal with the next best thing:

That's a split trunk Birch and one-time winter home to a bear. It's located not far from the road, but you'd never know it's there and in all my years bustering 'round the woods, I'd not stumbled across the like or I might've tried sleeping there myself during some mystic summer's night of my youth.

In command of her subject and thoroughly engaging, Lynnette said this was likely the den of a mother bear, as those need approach winter's rest with far greater care than do their male counterparts. After all, it's the female bear that carries the considerable burden of ursine reproduction, a truly extraordinary process that Lynette explained in terms easily understood.

On the other hand, guys being guys whatever the species, male bears sleep pretty much wherever. They might fall asleep up in the branches of a tree or just lay down atop a depression in the earth  and nod off, only later to be covered by a blanket of snow.

Take this little guy, who made his den smack dab in the middle of what in full winter becomes a groomed, cross-country ski trail and for a while at least, slept right through all the traffic that passed over him. With the discovery of the den, Park staff ceased grooming and rerouted the ski trail, though a trail cam later captured the bear's early emergence on a too warm day in March -- mighty wet but apparently none the worse for wear.

Image Courtesy of Bob Wild and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

And while I know a bit about bears, it was Lynette who clued me in to the disagreement over whether or not they're true hibernators, because bears confound our scientific criteria for that by occasionally waking up.

Like when some hapless intern is sent into a den and checks the hibernation temperature of a bear via insertion of an anal thermometer...

Lynette offered the opinion that whether bears aren't true hibernators or are the most adept practitioners of it, the bear shows us that the wonder of Nature resists efforts at reduction.

Of course, she was right.

During these hard times and especially considering her expertise, young Lynette Score might well have accepted full time employment downstate. Instead she chose to take her chances and work part time in the Porkies, hoping to make a home and build a career serving people and a landscape better suited to bears than to most humans.

Would that more of us had that kind of moxie or shared that level of commitment.

And from now on, whenever some cackling demagogue appropriates government workers as excuse to constrain a people's government down to the narrowest of proprietary purpose, Lynette and her co-workers who've chosen tough careers in public service at publically funded Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park will be among the folk I think of.


Significantly, the Porkies benefits greatly from a working public/private partnership through which citizens and their government together put shoulders to the load and achieve common goals.

Having worked my way right through my residency, I was well & truly done and it was only on the last full day when finally I took all things easy.

Late that morning I stopped by the Folk School for a bit of business, but mostly for the warmth of friendly company. There I chatted while everyone else in the room busily made for themselves pretty much from scratch a traditional Finnish stringed instrument, called the kantele.

Later, they'd learn to play it.

Friends of the Porkies thrives on a deep loam of citizen advocacy and appropriate government response. As the Artist's Residency is one result of that, I came to know this fine organization far better than I had.

It's like a big old backwoods Hemlock. The landscape might be hard but the Hemlock rises tall and sturdy just the same, with roots spread wide and the whole of the thing essential to the forest's continuing health, as new life invariably springs from old.

From a 120mm transparency

First there's the famous Porcupine Mountains Folk School from which the artist's program, Dan's Cabin and a host of other good things stem.

Like the annual Porcupine Mountains Music Festival that attracts both talent and audience from far and wide.

Then, should you care to see what a top drawer workshop overseen by a diverse cooperative of dedicated creatives looks like, go here.

Across all the miles we've traveled together on this Odyssey, I've kept a special watch for things sustainable because it's only those that'll ever allow the region to escape the historically destructive cycle of boom & bust.

We've found enough of those to be encouraged.

Prime amongst them is the personal partnership forged over time between concerned private citizens and their government, to advocate for ancient Kag wadjiw. That's a distinctly American relationship that assures a unique landscape and the people who live on it not merely survive but thrive, so that all of us are the better for it.

I'm the better for that partnership.

And if you're a working creative, please stop by this coming Thursday and see how you might be too...