Thursday, November 17, 2016

Wagging the Dog: Vincent Pidone Melds Technology, Mechanics and Art

While in residence at VCCA, Vincent Pidone built an automatic drawing machine that he hopes to program to draw using animation software. Normally, with stop motion animation, you would make drawings and then photograph those drawings individually putting them together to form an animation. Its a laborious process when you consider that Vincents animations are composed of 300-400 individual drawings on file cards to yield about thirty seconds of animation. Thats why Vincent is attempting to get the animation software to do the drawing for him. Ideally, he will end up with a short animated film and a stack of physical drawings that are essentially one-offs.

“Im basically grabbing the tail and wagging the dog instead of doing it the way its typically done,” says Vincent. “What Im doing is very challenging. If it were easy, someone else would have done it by now. This is why I need a few weeks to work on this stuff.” The VCCA residency funded by the NEA for military veteran artists finally made it possible for him to do something hes wanted to do for a couple of years, but never had the dedicated time and space to do it. Vincent works full time at R & F Handmade Paints in Kingston, NY. They were very supportive of his taking the time off to come to VCCA.

Vincent came to drawing as an adult. “Im self taught, but not naive. Ive spent a lot of time looking at art, so Ive got a pretty good idea of what works.” This explains his sophisticated minimalist style. He uses silverpoint, which he discovered years ago while working in a factory where silver rod was used for welding. The shop floor was littered with little pieces of the silver rod. One day, he happened to pinch one between the machine he was moving and the melamine top of a table leaving a mark, which he found interesting. He started drawing on the plastic tabletop with the rod fragments and then researched how to translate the medium to paper.

Unlike drawing in graphite or ink, the silverpoint mark is very faint. Pressing down on it doesnt make it any darker, but repeated trips over the same line, darkens it. Thats where the automatic drawing machine comes in. “The computer is much better at this than I am; it doesnt care how many times it does it.

“I want to get me out of the process. The mechanical elements are pretty well under control, but Im banging my head against the level of coding thats necessary to get the software to work like I want it to. Eventually, it will make a little bit of a drawing, stop, pull the drawing arm out of the way, take a picture, bring the drawing arm back, do more of the drawing and then, repeat.”

The path the silverpoint follows is not programmed; its shape is dictated by the shape of the drawing arm, which holds the silverpoint stylus. However, Vincent tells the motor to turn this way and that at a particular moment. When he moves the motor, the pattern changes just slightly.

Vincent has made the machine intentionally loose. “If I made it tighter and more precise, the drawings would be a lot less interesting. You need that wobble in there. If everything were made like a German machinist had made it, the drawings would be dull. Part of what Im doing is to get computer results without a computerized look.”

Once Vincents gotten all the various parts integrated to work, his plan is to find a drawing he likes, teach the animation software to make that particular shape, altering it ever so slightly between photographs so that he ends up with an animated film. It will start with a white screen and then the drawing will start to appear out of nowhere, becoming progressively darker until it is fully realized.

In a bit of synchronicity, an animation he created recalls a murmuration of starlings darkening the sky. During his residency he experienced the phenomenon. Every evening hundreds of birds flocked outside the Studio Barn around 5:30. There would be 500 to 1,000 of them chirping en mass. Suddenly they would all stop and fly off creating those distinctive swirling patterns in the air. The dotted line in this animation, which suggests individual birds, is achieved by speeding up the machine so that the line becomes choppy. Vincent was determined to record the birds for the soundtrack on the animation. This proved challenging as the birds didnt flock in the same place or at the same time each evening. Eventually, he was able to assemble three minutes of useable track from nearly four hours he recorded. He also plans to incorporate into the soundtrack, the high-pitched tone the drawing arm makes.

Vincent uses the same animation software as Tim Burton. The software is not expensive—its the hardware that is. But this isnt an issue for Vincent as he knows how to make it himself. Motors have interested him since he was a child and as a member of the military during the Vietnam War, Vincents training was in electronics.

“I applied to VCCAs NEA supported veterans fellowship on the promise of what I might do, not, okay heres my work and Im going to make more of it. My feeling is, I can paint at home. Coming to VCCA, I wanted to do something I hadnt done before. And it is better than nice to have gotten the support to try something new that I might not have been able to deliver on.”


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Guest Blog: Kelley Swain

I have the great fortune to be a Fellow at the VCCA for twelve days at the beginning of November. This is only 14 miles from Randolph College, my alma mater, but I’ve never been to the VCCA. So, I’m particularly happy to be back in Virginia, surrounded by amazing autumn foliage, expressly for dedicated writing time.
Perhaps it is because I laid the foundations of my writing career in this very setting – the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains – but it is both familiar and sweet to be sitting out in the morning sunlight with my laptop (fortunately, not the same laptop,) breathing fresh mountain air and the smells of dry, sun-baked grass.
The colors here astonish me. I’ve just come from Bath, that oat-biscuit-coloured city of seamless beauty. But to drive through fall leaves in every color of the spice cupboard – paprika, saffron, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon – brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges – makes me feel at home. Even the birds are bright: when I first drove up the winding road towards the VCCA, the flash of a red cardinal, and, moments later, a clamorous blue jay, startled me. Everything is bright, even the browns, so it is fitting that I’m here to work on a writing project that has to do with colors.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Apply for a VCCA residency in Southwest France!

VCCA offers an opportunity for VCCA Fellows to work in the beautiful village of Auvillar in Southwest France at its Moulin à Nef Studio Center.  This residency program provides a private studio, a private bedroom and one meal each week for four Fellows at a time.  

VCCA Fellow and poet Susan Gubernat was in residence in Auvillar  just last month. Of her residency, she says, "I had a wonderful experience at Moulin à Nef–not only were the serenity and many beauties of this lovely little village conducive to the solitary work of poetry, but also, whenever I needed to come up for air, so to speak, there was such a sustaining community both of VCCA staff and fellows and of the villagers of Auvillar themselves. It's a magic place."

In 2017, residencies of any length of time are available from April 10 - May 10; from June 14 - June 21; and from July 10 - December 15.

Apply for this wonderful international opportunity.  The application deadline is December 1.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Guest Blog: Christina Laurel

As I ramble down the one-lane road toward Highway 29 in Amherst, Virginia, it is impossible to miss the sign "the real world" - simple lettering on a blue cloud background, perhaps painted by one of the many artists-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. This is my third artist residency in three years, the previous two in Kentucky and Georgia; each a unique experience. How so?

Here at VCCA there are an average of 30 artists-in-residence at a time; private rooms with shared bath are in a 1970s-era dormitory that also houses communal spaces and the dining room where two of three meals are served. Lunch is conveyed to a kitchen in the Normandy-style barn that has numerous studios so that fellows - as the artists-in-residence are referred to - barely need to interrupt the day's work. Each studio is outfitted with a bed for naps or overnight sleeping or creative musing. To say that I am spoiled after 10 days here is an understatement.

What is common to each residency is the tradition of leaving one's autograph on a studio wall or door frame. Here at VCCA, I overhear one fellow effusing about her assignment to the studio where Cheryl Strayed once sat and wrote. In my studio, VA9, it appears that installation artist Bryant Holsenbeck was the latest occupant in July 2016, but I count no less than 58 names dating to 2010 on the door frame. Later, I discover a wall ledge in the back of the studio where I glimpse behind a section of peeling white paper yet more autographs. The accretion of artistic energy is palpable in all 500 square feet, from the skylight to the paint-dappled floor, and as of October 4, 2016, there are now 59 signatures on the door frame of VA9.

Writers and visual artists alike make each studio their own: moving furniture, orienting a desk toward the east or west, taping protective plastic to the walls. For VA9, it is an uncluttering in order to create space for a new Japanese-paper immersive installation, "Refugium: lily pad." But it is premature to assign a title to this work. I have come here to explore the lily pad, to see where it takes me. Long hours in the studio behind closed doors - fellows may only enter upon invitation - without daily distractions and with the support of the VCCA staff, are the perfect ingredients for a productive and insightful experience.

And then there are the evenings. On the night of the first presidential debate, all of the fellows gather around the sole TV set. On Monday night two poets, Lara Payne and Hilde Weisert, give a reading in the studio of visual artist Miriam Morsel Nathan. On Tuesday night a hallway is transformed into a salon with readings by two fiction writers, followed by a performance by a music theorist. Wednesday evening is an unplanned event - a tornado warning forcing the fellows and staff to congregate in the dormitory's basement, followed with another reading by two fiction writers and a poet. I am introduced to new terminology: conflation, and epigenetics. With the ebb and flow of artists-in-residence arriving and departing (some from as far away as Germany and Austria), there is no lack of stimulation.

By week's end, my one-layer lily pads are now two-layered and suspended cloud-like from the overhead fishnet armature. Other suspended lily pads hover above the floor in small clusters. The open studio windows provide just the right amount of subtle air movement; the lily pads rotate in constant slow motion. During the afternoon hours on Monday, October 3, there is a steady flow of fellows and VCCA staff arriving at VA9 (at my invitation) to experience the installation. Down the hall in VA7, painter Janet Burke has also opened wide her studio doors. Among the responses to "Refugium: lily pad" are: "It's like being under water and on top of the water," "It's like walking a labyrinth," and "It's like being in a dream." Perhaps my favorite response is from a German artist (in his language the lily pad is called a "sea rose") who purses his lips and throws an air kiss toward the installation: "The aesthetic is just right."

My artist residency at VCCA is just right. The bucolic Virginia countryside, the artistic camaraderie, and the lily pad have all taken me to a new place. On Tuesday morning, October 4, with a gentle sigh, I prepare to re-enter the "real world" as my car rattles over the cow grate - the sound signaling a return to life as I knew it before entering the grounds of VCCA. And yet anew.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lauren Kay Halloran's Memoir Explores her Mother's and her Military Experiences

An Afghanistan veteran and former military public affairs officer, Lauren Kay Halloran was in residence in August working on a memoir that intertwines her experiences with that of her mother, a nurse in the Army Reserve who served in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, including a deployment to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm.

For most of her childhood, Lauren’s mother’s military commitment was two weeks a year, plus one weekend a month. “It didn’t really impact our family; it was just part of our routine. Then, all of a sudden this 700-person hospital unit that no one ever thought would be activated because it was so expensive to deploy, was activated.” She was gone for four months. Lauren was seven, her older sister turned nine while their mother was away; her younger brother was just two. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom thought it was a suicide mission because of the threat of chemical warfare and because the unit made them such a big target. The original deployment was for up to two years and she thought, I’m either going to get killed, or I’m going to be gone for two years and my kids won’t recognize me when I return.”

And then, ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, Lauren accepted an ROTC scholarship to college. Financial motivation was a big part of her decision. Even Lauren herself is somewhat mystified that after such a wrenching chapter in their family’s history, she ended up in the Air Force. “Part of my writing journey has been to try and understand why I joined up after my Mom’s experience. As a family, we actually all made a vow that nobody else would take that route because it had been so traumatic for my family. I’ve come to realize that my Mom was a big factor in that decision; I was following in her footsteps more or less. I always revered her—she’s my hero.”

When Lauren joined ROTC, she had no idea that we would engage in two wars lasting a decade plus. At the time, ROTC was very much stuck in a peaceful training mode. “We played volleyball and marched and learned the ins and outs of being an officer, but nothing that would prepare us for what was in store.”

A public affairs officer in the Air Force, Lauren “Flew a desk. You figure it’s the Air Force, I’m not going to be a pilot, I’ll be safe. My first couple years I was at a special operations base and people were deploying around me all the time. It was like a constant coming and going, people were being deployed three or four times a year in flying squadrons and I was watching this and kind of in awe of the dedication they all had. I thought they were all super badass as I sat in my air-conditioned office and watched them run around the base in the Florida heat carrying logs.”

It got to the point where Lauren wanted to do her part and so eventually she volunteered for deployment with a Provincial Reconstruction Team. “It sounded much more fulfilling than a typical public affairs gig behind a desk sending out press releases.” Charged with mentoring government officials, Afghan tribal leaders and religious leaders, Lauren’s team was assigned to Paktia province in Afghanistan. While she was there, military and security forces mentorship was assuming a more important role as was the building up of the local infrastructure. “So we helped fund the building of schools, medical clinics, vocational training and civics training programs to educate women on their constitutional rights—even if they could read, many people didn’t have access to the documents. It seemed like a very noble mission, and it was. It was rewarding and also incredibly frustrating.”

Lauren was in a more traditional area in Southeast Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. Women wore burkas when outside and in more private spaces, they wore headscarves. There were seven women on Lauren’s team out of 80. They all wore headscarves when off base as a cultural gesture. “It was really interesting how the Afghan men received me. I represented the U.S. military so there was an element of power and financial promise that came with my uniform, and some men were really excited about that. Some, as they approached me, going down the line shaking everyone’s hand, and they noticed I had a bun sticking out at the back of my helmet and was more feminine. So they would pass right by without acknowledging me. Others warily extended their hand, their attitude was: I’ve got to respect you because you’re here helping us. And some people were excited to meet me as an anomaly—a woman of power. We actually ended up on the news a lot, we women, even if it had nothing to do with what was going on. Often, I’d be in the background taking pictures, documenting events and I‘d end up on the news. They were fascinated by us; it was kind of unsettling.”

The danger level is largely dependent on specific areas and specific times. When Lauren was there things were heating up. That particular region in Afghanistan was a hotbed for specific groups tied with the insurgency, so they knew it was going to be precarious when they got there. Historically, the area had been an insurgent stronghold because it shares a border with Pakistan. There were certain places within the province where American troops hadn’t been in a couple of years because they were too inaccessible and too dangerous. In 2009-2010 with the presidential election there was an uptick in violence countrywide as groups tried to disrupt that process. “Around the same time, the initial ground troop surge brought in a big influx of Marines, particularly in Helmed, who were involved in rooting out activity there. As a result people were pushed into Pakistan. Increased drone strikes pushed them back into our region, so a lot of factors conspired to make it a particularly interesting time to be deployed in that area.” Lauren who turned 26 while in Afghanistan, was there for nine months.

“I don’t regret my decision to go,” she says. “I think maybe when I first got back, I might have. That’s part of why I write, to more fully understand the experience and how it affected me. Maybe it’s delusions of grandeur, but I think my story is important. It’s not a typical combat story. For the most part, I was a bureaucrat. As a communications official, I was working with the local communications structure, meager though it was. I went on convoys fairly regularly. That was not my main job, but I still had a lot of issues readjusting when I got home. And I think it’s impossible not to. Even being here [at VCCA] in this gorgeous place isolated for two weeks with other artists, I’m sure there’s going to be an adjustment period. When you’re in an environment where you’re exposed to so much stress and so much danger for an extended period of time, it changes the way your body works, the way your brain works, and it’s impossible to not need a period to come down from that. That’s not really something that’s discussed outside the more traditional PTSD-inducing experiences—which are very important to talk about and I’m glad that’s become more of the public conversation. But the narrative focuses only on  that extreme end of the spectrum.. I felt very isolated when I got home because I wasn’t checking the PTSD boxes, but I still felt off and unsettled and I dealt with a lot of moral complications on the communications side. I was basically the filter between what was happening and what was being broadcast as happening.

“I was very idealistic going over, I’ve always been a positive, look-on-the-bright-side-of-things kind of person. It hit me really hard when I realized how complicated things were. We weren’t going to be changing the world in nine months, which I realize now is a totally unrealistic thing to expect. But I just didn’t anticipate the bureaucratic process, for one, following me out there. And it is just so difficult, even at the very basic boots on the ground level, to institute change without going up the chain of command and having that ripple back down in some kind of altered way. There’s all that and then dealing with the bureaucracy and vast corruption on the Afghan side. People in positions to help the greater community historically haven’t been able to do that. It’s an every man for himself environment out there. Most people are focused on where their next meal’s coming from as opposed to what can this new government do for us going forward. There was a huge disconnect between our good intentions and what was actually feasible or sustainable.”

Lauren had nine months left on her military contract by the time she got back from Afghanistan. It was a very tumultuous time. She was adjusting to being home on top of dealing with the death of her grandfather and the death of a couple of friends—one while deployed to Afghanistan, one soon after her return from an Afghanistan deployment. “I didn’t give myself enough credit for coping when I had all these things going on. I was talking to my parents a little bit, and my Mom was of course understanding. They were in Seattle, I was in Florida, so phone conversations were all we could do at that point.”

When she got out of the Air Force Lauren moved back to Seattle for a while as she figured out her next step and applied to graduate school. It was then that she began to have in depth talks with her mother. “As a seven-year-old when my Mom got home, I wasn’t privy to her adjustment struggles. When she came back as a mother of three and wife to a man who had been amazing as a single dad for four months, she was expected to slip right back into those roles. Because she was in the Army Reserves, there wasn’t the inherent support system of a base, or the people who’d been through the same experience. Basically she came back to the same spot she had left. We’d all been spinning our wheels waiting for her to get back there and as soon as she did we just took off running and she got caught up in it. She came to our school and did Veteran’s Day presentations. She brought back traditional Saudi Arabian clothing and my sister and I modeled it before the school, and I just remember feeling very proud. She talked about the things she’d done, her patients in the hospital and working with the Iraqis who came to the hospital to help, and I was just so awestruck by her and I had no way of seeing what a difficult transition it was for her. And so when I got back that was kind of the model in my mind of how things were supposed to work. That plus seeing all these people on base who’d deployed 15 times and seemed totally fine. In my mind that became ‘they’re strong and I’m not,’ and I just wanted to hole up in a room and eat candy and watch chick flicks and cry. I felt like there was something wrong with me. It took finally acknowledging that this is not healthy and self-referring to the base mental health clinic, talking to a counselor there who then ultimately got me to open up to my parents. Talking with my mother was kind of a process of us both opening ourselves up.

“A critical piece to my healing was opening up to her. During our talks, she shared things she hadn’t told anyone in 20 years. We both cried and started to uncover a lot of commonalities in our experiences. Different eras, different countries, different jobs, different services but a lot of those feelings are going to be the same.”

Writing was always part of Lauren’s life to some degree. “I was that weird kid in high school who liked writing essays. I wrote many, many essays about my Mom and her deployment. I realize now looking backthat of course it affected me in very tangible ways. It was that thing I always found my way back to.” An English major in college, Lauren was drawn to her military public affairs job because it had a journalism aspect. “I loved that part of it. My first exposure to non-fiction writing was talking to other people in the military and telling their stories, translating them to a way that could be received by a wider audience. I really felt a pull to do that.”

Lauren earned her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston where she now lives. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Cobalt Review, Mason's Road, Spry Literary Journal, 20 Something Magazine, several military-themed anthologies, and the November 2013 issue of Glamour as the winner of their national "Real Life Story" essay contest. To promote understanding of post-9/11 veterans, Lauren gives lectures and readings around the country, including the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference, the Boston Book Festival, and the University of Iowa's Examined Life Conference. Her writing and interviews have been used in the creation of dance and theater productions.

The Military writing community is fairly small though it is getting bigger. I met Maurice Decaul (in residence at VCCA this summer) at AWP and that’s become a kind of a reunion for us. We started three years ago with a dinner for military writers and also nonveterans who write about military matters. The first year there were just seven or eight; last year there were more than 30. We’re geographically separated, but we tend to find each other in whatever city we’re in and rally together.”

While at the VCCA, Lauren finished a complete draft of her memoir manuscript. “I wrote 22,000 words, 72 pages, in two weeks, which is kind of mind-boggling. I think it was just what I needed, having the time and space and a supportive community to gut through it. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”