Alison Garwood Jones

Sunrise, sunset

June 27, 2016

Sunrise 2Sunset

Sunrise, sunset. Then sunrise again.

In a roundabout way, this art project involving paint, foam board and a my new butcher block desk as a background, was inspired by an essay by the writer-turned-broadcaster, Hanna Rosin. Her resonant piece talks about giving up mastery and dropping back down to zero. But, really, it’s about a skills pivot and a rebirth.

Rosin’s essay appeared this week in Lenny Letter. Here is the full piece.

SCREW MASTERY
By Hanna Rosin

I realize that leaving a job you love and do well can be construed as an act of pointless rebellion, like wearing flip-flops to a wedding or smoking in an airplane bathroom. Who are you making uncomfortable but yourself? But last year, I did exactly that. I’d been a working writer for 20 years. Hundreds of bylines plus two books easily gets me my 10,000 hours of practice. I had achieved mastery, at least by the Gladwell clock. And then, I gave it up. I dropped back to zero.

The person to blame is my friend Alix, who hosts the NPR show Invisibilia. One night late last summer, we went to see a movie together. Afterward, I mentioned a crazy experiment involving an oil rig where they trained the big men to cry and share their feelings and basically behave more like women. Alix said it would be perfect for one of her shows. Then she said: “Leave your job and come work with me.”

The movie we’d just seen was Straight Outta Compton. For a moment, standing by the inky, moonlit Potomac, I thought, If Cube and Dre, why not us? I had loved the first season of Invisibilia. And maybe I was restless and needed something new to do. Whatever it was, pretty soon I had an NPR badge and was present at “listening sessions” critiquing radio stories and pretending I knew what to say.

In his new book Late to the Ball, about learning to play serious tennis in his 60s, former New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati asks: “When is the last time you improved at anything?” Let me reframe that for my purposes as: “When is the last time you sucked at something you had to finish on deadline?” When I started, my grasp of basic radio skills was weaker than the average NPR intern’s. True, I couldn’t hold a microphone properly, but I also didn’t know how to write a script, or record narration, or choose music, or pretty much any necessary thing.

Early on, we all sat in a room listening to a taped interview about an old lady and a lion. When the lady said certain things, my colleagues would all light up and write stuff down. It seemed little to do with the content of her words — I had no idea what they were hearing. Sometimes I’d ask the closest person for help, and they would laugh nervously. I think this is because by your 40s, you’re supposed to know things. But what else could I do?

Giving up mastery involves a series of humiliations, some of which hit you when you think you’re on solid ground. For my first reporting trip, Alix and I went out together to interview some oil men. She showed me how to hold a mic, and I took it from there. I know how to extract information from people. I’ve been doing it for years. We sat down with a guy who’d worked on the rig. I got the guy to talk and talk and tell us some of the outrageous things the men had done on the job (teaser: foot massages). For me it was a proof-positive interview, the kind that confirms that yes, the story is true. As soon as we got into the rental car, I turned to Alix so we could squeal in mutual victory. “Well,” I asked, “how’d I do in my first interview?” “Honestly,” she said, “B-.”

Worse than losing competence is losing the ability to even tell if you are competent or not. If you give me a draft of a magazine story, I’m pretty sure I can tell you what’s wrong with it — if it’s too long or too short or underreported or overwritten or if the third paragraph needs to be switched with the 17th. But with radio, my judgment was off. I’d feel delighted with an interview or a draft and then look over and see Alix with her head in her hands. Perhaps I should have been sympathetic, but instead I was cranky and defensive. When Alix said that about the interview with the oil guy, I had no idea what she meant. I told her she was crazy and then listened obsessively to the interview to figure out what was wrong.

When I was feeling especially incompetent, I tried to remind myself of what they say in the books: You will gain inner grit! Reimagine your life! Autopilot is death! And some evenings, as I was walking home from work, I could feel that these things were true. Every day I was exhausted, the way you are when you visit a foreign country. You don’t speak the language and everything takes too much time and the people don’t act the way you expect them to and you are functionally a child. But the days go by fast, because novelty is a kind of drug.

I learned a ton of new things about myself, in the way you can only do if you are fucking up daily. I learned that I am defensive but trainable. That I have capacity for patience but that my immediate default is speed, bluntness, and ironic distance. That although I am used to working alone, I will happily collaborate. And that I really like working with women, even if they cry more during the day.

And I remembered a really nice thing: how to be goofily, absurdly proud of myself for figuring something out, a kind of pride I usually reserve for my children. This is the best part of dropping back to zero. The list of things you have to master is endless. And when you get one right — even a little, tiny one — everyone notices and gives you an adult version of an extra candy in your lunchbox. I got a lot of help. The people I work with taught me things the way you teach a kid to ride a bicycle — they were right on top of me, day after day. Still, nine months later I listen to the shows we produced and I can completely recognize them as my own.

Alix likes to say she gave me a mountain to climb, and that’s true. I get bored easily, and she probably saw a crisis coming and saved me from it. For that I am grateful. But that way of thinking makes me tired. Who wants to spend 10,000 more hours climbing another mountain? Instead I like to focus on another gift Alix gave me, which became clear to me once I’d figured out why I got the B-. Turns out that despite two decades of interviewing people, I’m not as good as I thought I was.

I’ve been told more than once that I have a machine-gun style of conversation. I do it in work interviews, but also with friends, and strangers at parties: Where did you grow up? Who is your mother? Do you like her? So, hate? Why are you cutting up your meat like that, in small bits? A therapist I saw, who was a beautiful Jungian witch, suggested that perhaps this drilling was my way of preventing any real confessional moments from slipping in. I didn’t believe her, until I watched Alix interview people.

In radio, information is not your goal. Someone can talk and talk and talk, but unless they talk in the right way the tape is useless to you. If they are distracted, or overly theatrical, it won’t work. (That was the problem with the first oil guy we interviewed: he was always putting on a show.) The aim is to get them to relive all the emotions they felt at the time, which will translate in their voice. This can be achieved only if you are patient and open, and take the time to establish a real connection.

I made fun of Alix for how slowly she talked in interviews, how she would stretch out the word “eee-mooo-shun-a-lll-eeee” until it had 24 syllables. But secretly I studied her methods. She sat very close to people. She cocked her head when she listened. She made herself inarticulate and vulnerable and told stories about herself that were models for how she wanted stories to be told. It looked like an imitation of a slightly inappropriate life coach, but it was magical. When she started to talk, she changed the air in the room. People were present, and their words became little freight cars of feeling.

After nine months, I learned to talk to people differently, at work and in life. I try not to jackhammer questions. I try not to give off the air that I need to get somewhere else. (An hour into a recent slow, meandering conversation, my friend asked if I’d taken Tylenol PM by mistake.) I try not to clock my hours, because screw mastery. Not knowing is its own kind of perverse pleasure.

Recently Alix and I did another interview together. I sat down very close to the guy (which was weird, because he was distractingly good-looking). I cocked my head. I spoke slowly. I had ten pages of questions to ask him that I needed to get through, but I didn’t let that speed up the clock. After an hour I looked over at Alix in the corner, and she had a tear in her eye like the little Jewish mother she is, because she was proud of me. She squeezed my knee under the table, relieved that she would not have to spend the rest of her days trailing me around and could finally work on her own stories. And then we both looked down and noticed the cute technical glitch: I had forgotten to press record.

Hanna Rosin is a co-host of the NPR show Invisibilia.

 

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A Toronto State of Mind

June 27, 2016

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Poolside

June 21, 2016

pool umbrella and beachballPool Tiles by Alison Garwood-Jones

Los Angelenos have never waited for nature’s ice block to melt. Their blue horizons dance and sparkle all year round.

Torontonians watch, stare and tentatively strip to expose their chicken skin the moment the city pools drop down their Open signs. Lineups form around the block. Every body type joins the parade.

Here come the breasts like beach balls, the Ashkenazic chest pelts,* the melting hourglasses, the afros that hold at least two cups of pool water and the kids with their slippery dolphin skin.

The kidlets dive bomb. The adults, being Canadian, test the water first (even though it’s temperature-controlled). We can’t escape nature’s grip on our psychology.

Try telling L.A. in the front seat of her convertible that everything is not possible, and expect a toothier grin, a narrowing of the eyes behind her aviators and foot press on the accelerator.

Tell that to a Torontonian and he’ll say, Well, duh.

But for the next three months, everything is possible. So long as it’s not too hot.

*I didn’t come up with the term, “Ashkenazic chest pelt.” That was Martin Short describing Eugene Levy’s bare chest in the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell. It frightened the children in the audience, so Levy agreed to put on an undershirt. 

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Canoe series

June 20, 2016

Gouache painting of water
Gouache painting of water

Gouache painting of water.

Gouache painting of water

Gouache painting of water

 

Gouache painting of water.

Gouache on paper.

Hat tip to Marion Denchars and her amazing creative exercises in Draw Paint Print like the Great Artists.

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The Champ

June 15, 2016

I briefly experienced Muhammad Ali’s dynamism and generous personality.

It was 1986, my high school prom, and word spread on the dance floor that Muhammad Ali was staying in a room at the hotel we had booked. A group of boys said, Let’s go up and meet him. I think I was the only girl who joined them.

Ali’s hotel door was open and he waved us in. He graciously shook my hand and then started play boxing with each of the boys, giving them his signature Ali smack talk.

Ali moved the culture forward. Black Superman, indeed.

No,  just Superman.

Muhammad Ali with my classmatesThe Champ with Mark, Ian and Bill. I should have got in the picture!

 

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In Conversation with Anita Kunz

May 19, 2016

When Anita Kunz was a five-year old growing up in Kitchener, Ontario in the early 1960s, she practiced drawing the usual kid stuff: horses, flowers, fluffy clouds. But making Crayola masterpieces for the fridge wasn’t enough. Anita drew with a stronger sense of purpose learned from her uncle, the artist and environmentalist Robert Kunz. His editorial illustrations for the “The Children’s Corner,” a weekly full-page section in the Toronto Telegram, introduced youngsters like Anita to a range of current affairs and delightfully drawn explanations of the world around them (things like, “where honey comes from”). “Uncle Robert taught me that an artist’s work could actually play a meaningful role in society and in culture, whether as education or journalism,” says Kunz. “That focus in me came very early on.”

Robert Kunz, artistAnita Kunz’s uncle, artist Robert Kunz.

But whereas Robert Kunz’s cast of characters were dwarves and chatty forest creatures, like Mayor Rob Rabbit of Acorn Valley, his niece would eventually take on real political animals whose strange habits and questionable tactics were recast in her hard-won signature style: an off-kilter hyperrealism with elements of fantasy and surrealism. A naked and exposed portrait of President Bill Clinton for a 1998 cover of the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine is typical of Kunz giving her point of view as a feminist and democratic citizen. The same goes for her recent depiction of Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, whom Kunz depicts as a big baby playing in his sandbox with some new toy nuclear missiles. “I have to admit,” says Kunz, “with that cover I had a few moments where I thought, ‘Oh, shit, are there going to be repercussions on the Internet?’” Like most of her illustrations, the idea was self-generated and pitched to The New Yorker, who put it on a cover this past January.

 

New Toys, New Yorker cover by Anita Kunz

“New Toys,” North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for The New Yorker, Jan 18. 2016. “As an artist, this whole idea that we can be so incredibly smart and technologically-savvy—with space travel, mapping the genome, etc.—and then be such idiots, at the same time. I can’t believe there’s this paradox! Talk about inspiration for an illustrator’s work,” Kunz says. She installed a wall-mounted TV opposite her drawing board and has CNN streaming while she works. Knowing what’s happening in the world and with different cultures is central to her concept-driven art.

To students and competitors, Kunz is known for having scaled every mountain in publishing, multiple times, with her covers and editorial drawings for Time magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Monthly, Toronto Life and The New York Times (the paper and magazine). For the first five years of her career, however, this OCAD grad (class of ’78, when it was still OCA) fielded one rejection letter after another. “I wish I’d kept them all,” she says. “People told me I wasn’t in the same league as some of the male artists.” Somehow, she blotted out the sexist insults and got back to work filling her “box of ideas” with funny and mournful sketched observations of human nature, while feeding off the socially and politically charged works of illustrators she admired, like Sue Coe, Brad Holland and Marshall Arisman.

Golden AACE Image winner Anita Kunz looks back on her 35-year career and how she developed a knack for sharp editorial commentary

Given the widespread pressure to brand ourselves, Kunz likes to remind the curious and ambitious that she didn’t spring from the classrooms of OCAD fully formed (remember those rejections). “Everyone talks about a style and I know students just graduating especially feel pressure to settle on one, but my style evolved naturally.” It developed the way it did largely because she didn’t rely too heavily on references. “I drew from my head and that’s why my work has always seemed a bit wonky.” And she drew constantly. “The more you practice, the more you’ll get a look that’s uniquely yours.”

Her first significant assignment came in 1982 when Saturday Night art director Louis Fishauf, known for creating the brand identities for Roots, Molson and Toronto Life magazine, called on Kunz to render German war criminal Helmut Rauca. Rauca, a former SS Master Sergeant charged with killing over 11,000 Jews, was living freely in Toronto by the early ’80s. Kunz showed him as a skeleton twisted in the shape of a swastika and balancing the scales of justice filled with hands reaching up for help. More work from Fishauf and additional praise from New York artist Marshall Arisman in a Communication Arts article soon opened the doors to so many assignments from Canadian and American publications that, until two years ago, Kunz maintained an apartment in New York in addition to her home base in Toronto.

Anita Kunz in her Toronto studio, Applied Arts MagazinePhotographed in her studio in Cabbagetown, Toronto, March 2016. While she’s still a sought-after artist, Kunz says she’s had to adapt her strategies when it comes to getting new work. “There are a lot of great artists out there; there just isn’t the work that there used to be,” she says. “I wish I had the jobs that I used to turn down. There was so much work and so many fewer artists.” Right opposite her drawing board, Kunz installed a wall-mounted TV set to stream CNN. Some artists would consider that a distraction. For Kunz, it’s food for thought.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Kunz rode the celebrity culture wave doing portraits of Hollywood actors and monthly end papers on the history of rock and roll for Rolling Stone. She also drew over 50 book jacket covers and took on the occasional advertising assignment for beer brands and chocolate companies, although working in advertising was never her goal, even if the money was amazing.

September 11, 2001 changed everything, but for illustrators it hit the tone and volume of their assignments. Before that, you could be more biting and controversial in print, says Kunz. “Darker work was being widely published.” She points to the moment President George W. Bush declared, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” as the turning point when political commentary and satire practically evaporated, with The New Yorker being the only exception.

Since then, the aftershocks of 9/11 have been replaced in publishing by the pain of a broken advertising model that has drastically reduced the power of print, scattered readers across the Internet and forever changed the way all commercial illustrators must work. “In the old days, we would enter the awards annuals or buy a page in Workbook or Showcase and sit back and wait for an art director to phone us. But very few of us rely on commissioned work anymore,” says Kunz. “That strategy is obsolete.” Instead, everyone now is focused on self-generated work. Kunz has even taken to calling herself a “content provider” for the print publications that are left.

With a wall of awards to her credit—including Officer of the Order of Canada, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, honorary doctorates from OCAD University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and now a Golden AACE Image Award—the biggest highlight of Kunz’s career is still the opportunity to travel the world, including a jaunt to Spain last fall where she met up with her pal, Ralph Steadman. “I never saw travel as being part of my job. I thought I’d just be in my studio working away,” she says—but Kunz gives workshops, lectures around the world and regularly attends international cartoon conferences. “Just being able to see how artists work in other countries [is really eye-opening]. Through my travels, I’ve met artists from Iran, China and Cuba and they’re so amazed by our [autonomy and] freedom of speech. It’s something most of us take completely for granted.” But not Kunz.

Anita Kunz and Ralph SteadmanAnita Kunz and Ralph Steadman overwhelmed by the beauty of Spain.

Feminist

New Yorker cover, "Girls Will Be Girls," by Anita Kunz“Girls Will Be Girls,” The New Yorker, July 30th, 2007. “The covers editor at The New Yorker is Francoise Mouly,” says Kunz, “and she’s married to the artist, Art Spiegelman [of Maus fame]. Mouly is amazing to work with. Like most French people, she loves comics, cartoons and all kinds of art, and she makes sure that she uses a lot of women illustrators. Diversity with her artists is a big deal. I’ve sent her all kinds of stuff that I know will never make the cover, but she’s really open to pretty much everything. And she never censors me at all.”

Canadian

Time Magazine cover, How Canada Sees America, by Anita Kunz“How Canada Sees America,” Time (Canadian Edition) Nov 1, 2004: “It used to be that there was a hierarchy of magazines and if you did a Time cover you were the best artist. But now, with the Internet, it just works in so many different ways to get your work out there and it isn’t as binary. That’s one of the biggest changes from 20, even 10 years ago.”

Book Covers

Gravity's Rainbow book cover by Thomas Pynchon. Art by Anita Kunz.Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, 1984, Picador Books: “This was one of the most complicated books I ever read, and really hard to get the germ of the idea. Pynchon kept going off in tangents. I mixed up the art the same way the writer did and made an image that can be read in all directions.”

Allegories

Conrad Black Toronto Life cover by Anita Kunz

“The Fall of Conrad Black,” Toronto Life, Fall 2007: Kunz often uses word associations and lateral thinking to find ways to visually explain events in the news. She especially likes to refer back to older works in literature or art history to give these events a context. To wit: Conrad Black as Humpty Dumpty having a great fall, Lance Armstrong as Pinocchio riding a bike and Trayvon Martin as Munch’s Screamer in a hoodie.

First Big Break

Helmut Rauca by Anita KunzHelmut Rauca, Saturday Night, 1982: “The Rauca piece was one of [my first significant] assignments. The angle of the article was, there’s a monster living among us and no one has ever done anything about it.” Rauca was an S.S. Master Sergeant during the Second World War who moved on to a quiet life in Canada.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Applied Arts Magazine.
Drop cap by Jessica Hische, courtesy of Daily DropCap.

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Productivity is not creativity

May 17, 2016

It’s easy to confuse productivity with creativity. In my latest animated video, I “asked” Maria Popova and Pearl Buck to explain the difference.

 

Sources
Maria Popova, “Creatively Juiced,” The New York Times Book Review (April 10, 2016).
Pearl Buck, 1938 Nobel Prize Speech.
Music: “Layback” by Alan Jones (purchased on Shutterstock.com)

Built on the awesome Wideo.co platform.

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May 7, 2016

A pen brush drawing of a falling feather.

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Play time

April 30, 2016

Alison Garwood-Jones painting designs on a windowDoing more of what I love at The Merchant Tavern in Toronto. (Photo: Greg Garson)

 

Window Art at The Merchant Tavern by Alison Garwood-JonesThe results!

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April 14, 2016

Pen brush drawing of a French man in a beret.

That moment before your espresso arrives.

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