Friday, July 29, 2011

Roadside America

On the way from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, Interstate 76 runs through a long stretch of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Rolling hills, farmlands and old tumbled down barns dot the landscape. Here you can find some of the easternmost outposts of the Amish, and most everyone else is of German or Scots-Irish descent. Driving through here you will find a great deal of PA Dutch kitsch - billboards with ye olde timey font, hex signs, and Amish-themed restaurants. You'll also find a large amount of tourist attractions, mostly caves, each with their own claim to fame. "See it by boat!" "Genuine Indian Artifacts!" "See the Colossal Stalactite Gallery!"

But perhaps the greatest attraction in Eastern PA, and possibly one of the best things ever created, may be found right on I-76 in Shartlesville. Next to an Amish-themed gift shop and a dicey-looking restaurant sits Roadside America, the world's largest miniature village. The sign on the building makes several claims of its own to the potential visitor:
"Worlds Greatest Indoor MINIATURE VILLAGE"

I cannot argue with any of those claims. It is amazing.

It's too much to take in with one massive picture, so I took plenty. You're going to want to click and enlarge all of these pictures to get an idea of the detail and scale.

A view from the upper level, with real live Mennonites for scale.

Roadside America was built by Laurence Gieringer, a carpenter and painter, from the early 1930s through 1963, the year he died. He had a lifelong love of models, driven by views of local towns from atop a mountain. The models haven't been altered or moved since his death, and apparently aren't touched apart from cleaning and small bits of maintenance. Gieringer really should be a patron saint of sorts for makers the world over. He made so many things, mostly by hand, for no other reason than he loved doing it and sharing with others. He was consistently building for decades and, in the end, made something amazing. I mean, it's incredibly impressive now but can you imagine how mind-blowing this was during the Roosevelt administration? These trains have been running since before the World War 2, before the civil rights act, possibly before your grandparents were born. The official site for Roadside America has more information on the history, including some incredible pictures and video that detail how all of this was made.

Multiple eras exist in different areas, and sometimes right on top of one another.

The aforementioned caves are viewable in cross-section down two steps and under a curtain. One of the best things about Roadside America is finding little dramas and situations like this woman in a yellow dress, all alone, admiring a cavern.

Or this couple, hanging back from the group.

It's a lost world, right under Pennsylvania!

A couple and their dachshund watch the roadwork.

One very full playground.

Shoppers at Kaufmann's, a baseball game in progress.

A nun, a bus, a horse-drawn carriage and the most patriotic garden ever.

It's move-in day and Kaufmann's is there too. Just look at the detail on that house. The shingles!

A lot could be written about the version of America painted by Roadside America. It was an idealized portrait, even in its time. It's a self-sustaining countryside of happy farms, non-polluting factories with fulfilled workers, and pleasantly rustic coal mines. There is a car in every driveway and every suburban development is pristine and populated with friendly people. Every small town bustles with growth and activity. There is a church in every hamlet, and God himself looks over his creation alongside the Statue of Liberty and the flag. No, really. Every 20 minutes or so, the bulbs dim and the visitor is treated to a night-time pageant. The lights grow pink, then blue, and then go out. The windows in the towns below light up. And then Jesus appears.

Like countless other displays of this uniquely American mythology, it rides the lines between "Wait, are they serious?"-level kitschyness, liturgical observance, and honest to goodness inspiration. If you want to see the past (and indeed, the ideal future) through the minds of American cultural conservatives, you need look no further. A large part of my country fetishizes this very specific ideal time and place. To this day you can readily hear talk of "small town" or "traditional" values, as if rural areas of a specific period had access to some great secret store of goodness. History tells a far more complicated story, but then history is rarely what we want it to be.

That isn't to say that Roadside America is itself politicized in any meaningful way - I honestly don't think it is. It merely reflects the ideas of its time, and the issues of today were not the issues of Gieringer's time. The way in which native Americans are treated is a prime example of this.

True to early 20th century culture, Indians are depicted as wise, noble savage forebears who were the custodians of the land (until we were ready to have it, of course). Also true to the times, they are simultaneously depicted as regular, non-noble savages in thrilling combat with settlers and cowboys.

The native American portions of the exhibit are crammed into the back corners, with strangely out of place life-sized statues kneeling, solemnly looking out over an America rendered painstakingly in miniature. Like all of the other life-sized people who now peer over this smaller vision of the country, they have no place there.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Potential WIP #3

I have to be careful, of course, but the structure of this short is such that I can share a decent amount of shots without really spoiling any of it. It's also more or less melting my brain right now.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My wife is awesome.

She just is. She's smart, she's lovely, she's funny, she's curious, and she's always always always making things.

This is a picture of her, with the things she makes.

She's also a somewhat prolific blogger. She posts about her work, her process, the ins and outs of running your own traveling art business, cute pictures in general, and the central Penna countryside which gave her birth. Go check her out and check back often - she posts multiple times a week. And since our cat, Ico, is attached to her at the hip and always up in her business, you'll often be treated to pictures like this.

If you're interested in me and the stuff that I make, you should know that she has some hand in everything I do, be it ideas, a sounding board, or making sure things don't fall apart when I get sucked into a project so completely that she has to remind me to sleep. I can't count how many times I've worked myself to the point where I am quite literally delirious and she's guided me off of the computer and into bed. And then there are the times when I'm convinced that I am a talentless hack throwing ideas out into the void, and she reminds me that I'm and idiot for thinking so.

Her business, Cleo Dee's, is also a bit of my business as well. I do all of the signage, graphic designy stuff, and the lifting of heavy objects. And of course Tadly is our baby. From September to Christmas we are on the road almost every weekend, all over the east coast and midwest doing indie craft shows. Check in from time to time on her page, as you might catch the both of us in a city near you this year. We'd love to say hello, chat and sell you a squid.

Oh, and while we're at it, here's a picture of me that pairs with the image at the top.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Men's Fashion Blogs Are Officially Screwing With Us Now.

The momentarily-all-important trends. The awful colors. The disdain for anyone who looks poor, or at least like they are dressed for work. The indignation toward people who "don't care what we think of them". The obsession with class. These are all things that turn me off to the world of men's fashion.

I'm going to lapse into a bit of cultural criticism here, so please indulge me.

I've no problem at all with people wanting to wear whatever they'd like, and whatever they think looks best on them. Indeed, I very much applaud a personal sense of style, or someone who can just dress well. I come out of the whole punk scene, so I really do respect people who can convincingly wear something outlandish and make it their own. I'm almost 30 and still have a facial piercing. So no judgements here.

That having been said, my main issue with the growing body of blogging about men's fashion is this obsession with what "being a man" is all about. There's this constant, just-below-the-surface message in men's sartorial writing, and it is this: "If you dress this way, you will finally be an adult". It's as if a generation of men entering their 30s have no idea if they have really made it. Instead of judging one's adulthood (whatever that means) on things such as choices, they instead have looked at Mad Men and said "Here are some men who dress sharply and they seemed to be on top of things and be cool adults. I need to do just that." Back then, wealthy white men were indeed on top of things. We've come a long way since the early 60s, and that's not a bad thing. At all. There's a fetish here for control and the trappings of control. And it belies a massive insecurity and a childish obsession with "dressing like a grown-up". This nostalgia for a time when "men knew how to be men" reminds me, in spirit, of something Evelyn Waugh once wrote about the time during the second World War in which he wrote Brideshead Revisited:

"It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster... and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."

If you'd like to dress "better", than by all means - go and do it. I myself am planning on sprucing up the old wardrobe (once I lose about 30 pounds) with some sharper-looking button-down shirts and pants. But don't do it just so that you can wear a costume of established masculinity. This assumes that there is some baseline uber-form of maleness. If that is true, does it follow that some women are more true to femaleness than others? Is there some ideal femininity to which all women must adhere? See where I'm going with this?

You can try to dress, shave, and carry yourself like your father/grandfather/greatgrandfather/your idealized vision of real manhood all you like, but really you're just playing around with the aesthetics. Aesthetics are important, but they will not make you anything. Time and time again I come back to my old standby adage - everyone wants to be something, but no one wants to do anything. Take care of others. Take care of your responsibilities. Do something. People will take notice. And we might compliment you on your salmon and turquoise blazer when we do it.

Oh, this was inspired by looking at the GQ website for 30 minutes today. I mean this as respectfully as possible, but they can fuck the fuck off.

Also - I know that the world of women's fashion is like 1000 times worse.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

Friday, July 08, 2011

Making Things: The Workspace

I spend most of my day, and year, and therefore life at my desk. I make everything I make there. It's where I watch movies and TV. It's usually the first place I listen to an album. I do a huge amount of reading there. I'm also an avid gamer.

Now, before you start worrying about a sedentary life, I also walk or hike several miles almost every day. More on that in another post.

I am not the sort of artist who makes loads and loads of money. We obviously do just fine, but our habitation options are limited to medium-sized, older apartments. We generally pick a place in halfway-decent shape and then do a massive amount of fixing up. If we ever were to move into a place that needed little to make it habitable, I think we wouldn't feel it was ours. That said, I often find myself gazing longingly at the Lifehacker workspace features.

When we moved last month, it became clear both that my old desk would not fit into the new space, and that we could not afford to get me a nice new one. Thankfully, the previous tenants left their kitchen table (along with much of their dust and cigarette butts). We got some risers and shelves from Ikea and I set about making a new workspace.

I need to get some cable ties and clean up the wires. Someday, perhaps when I replace my workstation in 4 or 5 years, all of this will be wireless out of the box. Fingers crossed. I don't like to keep a cluttered desk, but it happens without my noticing. There is also rarely a time during a work session that a Coke Zero isn't on the desk somewhere. Oh, you probably noticed I don't use a Mac. That is for two reasons. 1: I like the open nature of having a PC. I like tinkering with it and using it for a wide variety of things. 2: It would have cost almost twice as much money to get a Mac workstation with slower processors and graphics card. Not worth it.

I find that I must have books around. I've got the typical books you'd expect an animator to have - some Preston Blair, Eric Goldberg, and the amazing Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams. Along with reference books, I also tend to keep things that are just fun or cool to look at - my collections of Mike Mignola and Chris ware, along with the 1990-91 issues of Nintendo Power I got off of Ebay to replace the ones I lost since my youth. I also keep a few books of folklore and other things that are good to flip through when the ideas aren't coming. Oh, on the far left you can see a ceramic Slowpoke my sister made me when she was younger. He was always my favorite Pokemon.

Fun story: Back in 1998 I was at the mall with my friends. We were your typical teen mall-rat punks of the day. I was in a Wizards of The Coast store looking at miniatures or something when I spotted the brand-new Pokemon card section. I walked over to check them out. Some 10 year old was rifling through the cards.
"Pokemon is COOL", he said.
"Yessir, it is", I said. "What's your favorite Pokemon?"
"Charmander is my favorite", he replied. "What's yours?"
"Slowpoke!", I answered.
The 10 year old looked at me with a mix of confusion and scorn. He loudly scolded me.
"Slowpoke's the dumbest because HE'S THE SLOWPOKE-IEST!"
"Hey kid, how 'bout I throw you down the escalator?" I replied.
That ended the conversation.
Note : I have not threatened a child since. I did not actually pitch him down the escalator. He probably deserved it, though.

Thankfully, our bookshelves are in our office/living room in the new place. This shelf is directly to my left. I was a devout christian for most of my life, but have in the not-so-distant past publicly "come out" as an atheist. As such, my shelves are full of books I collected during both eras of my life. Some for study, and others for comfort. I still have a massive English/Hebrew/Greek Keyword Bible from my years as a weekly speaker, so if anyone ever brings up a word like koinonia, I'm totally ready. I also have the edition of Candide with the Chris Ware cover, and that's just a match made in heaven for me.

Also on my desk, my current reading slate. The book on the left is extremely quick, enjoyable reading. The book on the right I will be starting on Monday. I'm not a comics artist, but I often feel I have more in common with this kind of cartoonist than I do with the vast majority of animators who write helpful books. Or maybe I'm just not a very good animator. It's one of the two.

Behind me is stacked the growing pile of storyboards for Potential. I got about a minute into it and realized that I needed to get far more organized because it was getting too complicated. So enjoy this EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEAK!

Finally, here's the little ideas book I carry around with me. Here's the initial sketch and idea for Man and Cat At The End Of The World. I think I drew these during Tiny Canary, an annual craft show in Ohio that we usually do.

Here's some ideas for Ghost Pilgrims that I jotted down during a craft show in Atlanta last November.

So that's a small tour of where it is that I make things. Someday I'll have some amazing, esthetically perfect and super-conducive-to-work alternate-zen-dimension of a workspace. For now, though, this will do.

And, while I had the camera out, I took some cat pictures in the kitchen:
Ico Benson : Best Cat.

Monday, July 04, 2011