Anticipating the snow…

11 January 2011

I missed the last blizzard, so the forecast title “Major Winter Storm Set to Clobber Northeast” holds a certain kind of poetry for me. I’ve written at length on the joys of snow in the past, from my own personal memories to its more universal attractions, so I’ll try not to be repetitive this morning. I love snow for the very reasons practical people dislike it – it slows things down, confounds our rhythms, accumulates without regard to all the Very Important Things we have to do. It creates new patterns. It opens spaces for indolence, daydreaming, and rediscovery. Yes, it will get wet and grey, it will slosh into your boots, it will calcify into unmelting, inconvenient drifts. But before it does that, it will fall pure and light from cold clouds, and it will be perfect.

Anyway, it’s coming, so you may as well find a way to enjoy it! I’ve been wanting to share this piece for awhile. Called Snow, it is an installation made from feathers by Tokujin Yoshioka exhibited at the Mori Art Museum in Japan. It amazes me how beautifully the feathers reflect the movements of snow, and how deep the simple sensory pleasure of those textures and movements feels. There’s also a video, here. I hope it stirs up some joyful anticipation for the slow, snowy days to come…

Joyful craft: Quilts of Gee’s Bend

29 September 2009

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Today I’m in the studio working on models for the product component of my thesis. I’m surrounded by color and fabric and it reminded me of the distinctive color blocks in the quilts of Gee’s Bend, which I’ve loved since I discovered them on a set of U.S. stamps a few years back.

Gee’s Bend has a great history. You can read about the quiltmakers here and see a catalog of some of the most famous quilts here. There are also a number of books available as well. It’s very inspiring to see a historically modest women’s craft elevated to the level of art by a community of talented craftspeople.

Quilting is a joyful art form. Not just the color and the softness of the textiles, but also the integration of memory in tangible form. Quilts often use fabric from special occasions or the clothing of children after they’ve grown up. They’re traditionally made by hand and often given as gifts. The quilters of Gee’s Bend take this rich history and unselfconsciously interpret it in a very bold and modern way.

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Joyful weekend: schmancy ice cream carts

4 September 2009

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My best friend is in town from London this weekend, and we have a whole day to ourselves and a whole city to explore. I’m pretty sure ice cream will be on the agenda.

I’ve known Annie longer than I’ve known ice cream, even. We’ve been best friends since we met in nursery school, at the age of two. Once we got driver’s licenses we would regularly bounce between Ben & Jerry’s and Friendly’s, thanking our metabolisms all the way. At Friendly’s we had standard orders: a peanut butter cup sundae for me, a mint chip sundae with butterscotch sauce and gummy bears for Anne. (Which I still think is gross.) Last time she came to town we had a wild goose chase across Manhattan looking for a mythical Friendly’s (save yourself some time, Manhattanites — there isn’t one). It’s one thing we can count on in our ever-changing lives; we will both always be up for a cone, anytime, anywhere.

So this NYT review of the city’s gourmet ice cream carts is perfectly timed. I think 87 flavors is a bit excessive even for us, so it’s nice to be able to cut to the chase. I’d say that Cookshop’s strawberry would go perfectly with a visit to the High Line…

Happy long weekend — enjoy the last taste of summer!

NYT: 87 Scoops Later, A Sweet Meltdown

Rediscovering The Red Balloon

8 July 2009

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Being interested as I am in joyful objects, it’s only natural that I’ve become obsessed with all things bubble, ball, and balloon. So when the dvd of The Red Balloon caught my eye in the local video store, I couldn’t resist bringing it home.

It must be more than 20 years since I’d seen it, but the film has a way of turning you back into a child. This happens so subtly that you don’t even notice, and the joy you feel at Pascal’s discovery of the balloon is as unfiltered and real as it would be if it were you climbing that Paris lamppost, seeking out that enormous floating treasure. And the pain at its eventual fate is just as real, just as sharp as a child’s.

In childhood we feel these emotions for the first time, and for this reason they remain at their peak of intensity in our memory. Perhaps this is why coveted objects from our childhood, like balloons, become so deeply symbolic of joy later in our lives. But there is still the question of why we are attracted to them so intensely in the first place, and I think this points to intrinsic qualities that entice us no matter how far we are from childhood.

In a 2007 review, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote:

The timeless magic of Albert Lamorisse’s mostly wordless 34-minute 1956 fable. . . begins with the balloon itself, which looks like no other balloon you’ve ever seen. It’s so shiny and tactile, so luscious in its utter balloon-ness, that it’s like some wondrous spherical lollipop.

Joy begins with aesthetics, with our sensory experience of the world, with qualities like shininess, redness, roundness, and lusciousness. The aesthetics, and their contrast with the muted surrounds, capture our attention, the beam of conscious awareness that causes us to then notice all the other joyful aspects of the object, which are also communicated aesthetically. Aspects such as its magical movements — hovering inexplicably outside a window when it is cast outside, and taking off after an attractive blue balloon in the hands of a pretty girl encountered on the street — its surprising personality, and the story it tells.

Of course, the red balloon is not just an example of the aesthetics of joy. It is joy itself, and I was struck most of all by the purity of the allegory in the nearly-wordless narrative.

Joy is often found when you are not looking for it, and in unexpected places. It rewards the observant and those willing to make an effort to attain it. Joy has a mind of its own — you cannot predict where it will pop up or how long it will stay.

Joy is not welcome in school, a sad statement that is all too often true in contemporary education. And it is not welcome in church, though it should thrive there too. It isn’t really welcome in much of the adult world, and some adults are impervious to joy, but fortunately the child’s world is a much nicer place to dwell. Yet there are also adults whose inner children are alive and well — those who will gladly shield your joy from a stormy day under their umbrella or smile just to see it go by.

You cannot take joy by force, no matter how hard you try. You can kill it, though, but only for a moment. Because real joy is abundant and irrepressible, and always available to those who are open to it.

The film is online in its entirety here, but I can’t tell you how much I hope you don’t watch this version. There is so much pleasure in the details of this film, details lost in this low-quality upload. Put it in your Netflix queue and wait for the real thing, and let me know if it brings you as much joy as it did to me.

Counter-aesthetics of joy

7 July 2009

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I have a post in draft form (that I hope, eventually, will see the light of day) about universal vs. individual aesthetics of joy. Of course everyone has different things that bring them joy, but they don’t necessarily conform to what would be defined culturally as joyful aesthetics.

My project generally focuses on the more general, more universal aesthetic patterns because it makes it easier to draw lessons that can be applied broadly to design. But occasionally I come across what I would call a “counter-aesthetic” of joy: an object or space that on the surface looks to be the very opposite of joy, yet someone has managed to wring delight from it.

The trigger nearly always has to do with personal experience, as is the case here, with these photographs of the Gowanus Canal by José Gaytan. Gaytan, a Brooklynite who grew up in Juarez, Mexico, was attracted to the canal by a familiar smell. “That aroma is embedded in my brain,” he says, “a mix of sewage, kerosene and oil.” Which doesn’t sound so appealing, except that it reminds Gaytan of his handyman grandfather, and the junkyards he used to play in while he was alongside him on jobs.

This illuminates one of the true marvels of emotions in the brain. Aromas, colors, textures, sounds — all of these things can become associated with positive or negative feelings through experience and memory. Especially aroma. Current research suggests that smell is processed differently in the brain from the other senses, and may therefore have a stronger link to long-term emotional memories. So a smell (stench?) that for most of us might connote filth in need of a Superfund cleanup, for someone else evokes the joy of childhood.

Where this gets interesting is art. To feel joy where others don’t is wonderful, yet limited. But to try to shine a light on your joy and share it with the world, especially when it involves overcoming preconceived notions, is a powerfully transformative act and deserves a place in the schema of aesthetics of joy. A success in this regard is to make us see a place with fresh eyes. As Barbara Wing, curator of the Brooklyn Public Library’s exhibit of Gaytan’s photographs, says, “He really looks at details we don’t notice. The colors are fantastic, almost painterly.” Just as long as they don’t come with the smells. . .

Thanks for the tip, Dad!

Exhibit, at the Brooklyn Public Library, now through August 29th
NYT story

Differences between happiness and joy

25 May 2009

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A friend sent me this fascinating article from June’s Atlantic on the Grant Study, a 60+ year exploration into what makes people live happy and fulfilled lives. In some ways, this long-term macro focus is the opposite of my work, which looks at the micro, the momentary flashes of delight in our lives. But there’s a common goal, to understand the underpinnings of positive emotion, and to understand how to create more of it.

The most interesting aspect of the article to me is how the writer and the scientist grapple with the inconsistencies in the data, the people who had every reason to be happy but turned miserable, or the people who led underwhelming lives but looked back on them with beatific satisfaction. These paradoxes recall others in the study of happiness, namely this oft-cited one also mentioned in the article: “How is it that children are often found to be a source of “negative affect” (sadness, anger)—yet people identify children as their greatest source of pleasure?”

I wonder if the answer lies in the moment to moment nature of life, and of joy. Children bring moments of joy, even if they also bring other effects (like less time for other passions, tiredness from keeping up with them, and certain relationship stresses and conflicts) and the intensity of those moments outweighs longer periods of feeling other emotions. Certain experiences occupy disproportionate amounts of space in our memories, such that 2 weeks of vacation a year holds more emotional memory value than 50 weeks of work.

I’d go further to speculate that the pleasurable experiences that constitute joy tend to be richer in sensory value than our everyday experiences, both because of their natural intensity and because of the relative difference between them and the sensations to which we’ve become habituated. So perhaps in storage and on recall they activate more brain regions than normal memories? I don’t know, I’m not an authority in this area, but it’s a question for the neuroscientists…