Monday, September 7, 2015

Lost Things: Camaraderie

I’m starting to realize that my quest to revive the Lost Art of Letter Writing was actually a way of rediscovering the camaraderie that seems to have slipped between the cracks amidst the crush of High Technology. The number of people who bother to write back (of the hundreds of pieces I’ve sent out) can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. More often than not I get an e-mail or a message on Facebook thanking me for sending them something. Sometimes with excuses for why they can’t write back. At least I’m not to blame for the extinction of letter writing and it isn’t just the lack of teaching cursive writing that has done it in. Technology has made people lazy.

So I’m going to go back in time to discover where things went horribly wrong. I won’t bother with my early childhood in England. My memory of those years is shaky at best.

Don Mills … Here are three things I remember doing with other people: (a) science experiments (we actually thought we’d discovered a new way of producing plastic at one point); (b) baseball … softball with the kids at my school and hardball with an organized team; (c) met Tony Quarrington in grade six and it wasn’t long before we were producing small magazines (in four colours sometimes … not process colours though) on his father’s Gestetner printer and pedaling them from door to door to the apartment dwellers of Don Mills. Tony mostly did the writing and I mostly made the pictures. Alas nothing has surfaced from this period. Apart from this with others we explored the Don Valley (the parkway hadn’t been built yet) and a deserted barn on Lawrence Avenue. Tony and I also entertained the neighbourhood children (including Dan Hill apparently) with puppets and our wide array of voices.

Scarborough … This suburb seemed to be just getting rolling when we arrived in 1959 or 1960. It didn’t take long to find boys to play ice and road hockey with (I was better at the latter because I was less scared of being hit with a tennis ball than with a rock hard puck … besides I wasn’t all that great as a skater having come to it at a much later age than my contemporaries. At some point the folk music period kicked in and I bought a used guitar and learned some chords … then the Beatles and Stones happened and my father took me downtown to a pawn shop where I bought my first electric guitar. Didn’t take me long to find kindred spirits and I became a bass player (never actually owned a bass) for a series of bands (Clintstones, Sunsets, A-Go Go Set) playing in basements, youth centres and strip mall dance studios. Somewhere in there I used to play war games with Robert Dick and Richard Percy (usually with plastic model ships which we’d built and painted ourselves). Was Arts & Crafts head at Camp Ogama for a couple of summers and formed a band with Myles Cohen and a couple of other senior boys. Phil Ennis and I got into all kinds of trouble though Phil probably took the cake when he brought a Nazi flag to a Jewish camp and placed it over his bed. But that’s another blog or chapter in my memoir. By 1965 I had started at the Ontario College of Art. This also coincided with my weekendly trips to Yorkville Village to catch people like Gordie Lightfoot, Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin. Met many good friends at OCA including my wife-to-be and my last year was spent working with a number of other students (including some from third year) on the school yearbook (aka The 1969 OCA Bag) which was actually a box containing a game (board, money, dice, markers, etc), some posters (including a horoscope chart), a record(!), and (a near afterthought!) a yearbook.

North Toronto … Got married and my first (post-OCA) job at McClelland and Stewart. Always felt M&S spoiled one from working anywhere else. We had too much fun. Somehow we got the annual list done despite parties, department listening sessions (Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was a favourite) and even at least one musical session in a field (Don Fernley, David Berry and me) … and then there was the Group of Fifty Eight with its Olympic Chair Race, Simulated Motorcycle Experience and Ashley Collective. This all ground to a halt when I became Art Director with just three people working with me (the department had seven people back in 1969) — Bob, Jim and Rene. We didn’t have time to party. I started my own company in 1977 and did a ton of work for Edmonton’s Mel Hurtig which culminated in The Canadian Encyclopedia in 1985 (done with just two assistants — Harrison Shannon and Martha Staigys). Also did the Alberta Heritage Learning Resources Project for the Alberta Government in 1979. I continued to work with Hurtig Publishers until Mel sold the company to … McClelland and Stewart. In the early 1980s we started what became Don Vallee and the Parkways … a mostly seven piece band though sometimes a quartet (The Partial Parkways). We practiced much more than we ever played and one day a band member asked the leading question, “What exactly are we practicing for?” Didn’t really have an answer so the Parkways disbanded. One time we even had a three piece horn section playing in our drummer’s furnace room. Once work became few and far between I got involved with a church drama group … apart from painting sets, designing programs, tickets and posters I was usually in the plays … even played Bill Sykes in Oliver and in 2000 Clive Mason and I actually wrote a play (you’ll have to read the memoir for details). I illustrated a few books in the 90s (including astrology guides for dogs and cats).

The Internets … I wonder how much of the preceding would never have happened if we’d had access to the Internet and social media? I designed a series of textbooks all on my own in the first couple of years of the new millennium but extricated myself from that and worked on some personal projects (none of which have yet to be published). I found the camaraderie was pretty good on a couple of message boards I was on but all good things have to come to an end. Facebook. What can I say? Have met some friends who like the same kind of music that I do. Including folks from those two defunct message boards. But there are too many trolls and unsavory types waiting to pounce on you if you offer an opinion that deviates from their way of thinking. I’ve even had to block a few people … something I never came close to doing until Facebook. Instead of job offers I now get people phishing for bank information and ladies offering to send me photographs of themselves (because they liked my Facebook profile). Uh huh. I don’t think so. Enough of this blather….

Monday, March 23, 2015

Meditation on Fountain Pens (some disposable and others less so)

I have never really cottoned to ballpoint pens. Even in high school I tended towards cheap fountain pens (and turquoise ink for some strange reason). In my final year at art college (1969) I created a large B&W poster for our student annual (aka The 1969 OCA Bag) using straight pens and India ink. I believed that technical pens (like the Rapidograph) were somehow tantamount to cheating. Besides I was a fan of Aubrey Beardsley and he certainly didn’t take any shortcuts.

My first job after OCA was in the design department of book publisher McClelland and Stewart. I arrived there to find that everyone else in the department had wonderful Italic scripts and I did not. So I set about to figure out how it was done and I started with an Osmiroid fountain pen. My boss, Frank Newfeld (possessor of a fabulous style of writing!), used to get letter from fellow designer Allan Fleming — who had a better hand than any of the M&S designers and he always used red ink. I never read any of this correspondence but I absorbed the aura of these letters in every pore. Eventually I wrote to the editor of Graphis (a Swiss art magazine) and he wrote back saying it was good to see that I was a follower of Fairbank? Huh? Fairbank? I went to a book shop (this was long before things like Google existed) and found a lettering text by Alfred Fairbank. So I bought it. At M&S I also used the fountain pen for illustrating books … sometimes on paper towel for blotty effects.

I did capitulate and started using Rapidographs, Letraset, Letratone and all kinds of shortcuts which would have curled Beardsley’s toenails.

Moving along to the 1990s … I developed my El Whacko© style which consisted of base drawings in fountain pen embellished and refined on both sides of the line with a fairly fine Rapidograph plus lots of cross-hatching and stippling. There was a fundamental problem using this technique for colour because my one and only Rapidograph fountain pen had seized up and Kohinoor had stopped manufacturing them back in the 1970s — they used waterproof ink whereas regular fountain pens weren’t waterproof in the least. I worked out a way to get around this but won’t bother explaining it at this juncture.

My wife bought me a Mont Blanc Meisterstück so I have at least one really good fountain pen (which I always keep stocked with burgundy red ink). Still use this one a lot.

Somewhere along the way I discovered the Pilot V-pen disposable fountain pen. It was prefect for B&W El Whacko© drawings and any written missives I felt like sending. By now (post 1999) I was computerized but I was never much of a typist and much preferred writing letters by hand to firing off e-mails. My source for V-pens was Staples (formerly known as the Business Depot) and I tended to pick up one of two every time I went there for office supplies. And then one fateful day I couldn’t find V-pens … instead there was a BIC substitute. Let’s see … you got two BICs for the price of a single V-pen ($5.00), they wrote about the same but I soon found that they had a Fatal Flaw. The caps showed a distinct tendency to jettison themselves away into the abyss — sometimes the very first time they were used. This made them very dangerous objects to carry upon one’s person — coat, jacket or man purse.

So after a long period of annoyance I descended Google’s rabbit hole [cue Grace Slick] and raced past the wide assortment of dodos, walruses, carpenters and a stray Jabberwock until I found what I was looking for: both eBay and Amazon claimed to have V-pens on sale. I thought it prudent to throw my lot in with the statuesque beauties of the rainforest rather than enter a bidding war with like-minded lunatics at the other place. So I ordered two (2) V-pens which cost me $20 by the time their (ahem!) services and snake handling had been factored in. And then I waited…

Three weeks later one of the plaint maidens sent me an e-mail suggesting I write a glowing review of my purchase. But there was a problem. My purchase hadn’t arrived yet. But it did later that week and I was as happy as the proverbial clam. But then I became concerned … if it was going to take the better part of a month to get reinforcements my writing wrist might atrophy and fade away. What could I do?

I scurried back into that rabbit hole and VOILÀ — there were at least two local purveyors of art supplies who still stocked the V-pen. So I went to the first (Curry’s) and purchased their last two (2) V-pens from a ravishing tattooed sales lady (no snakes were harmed or handled in this transaction) at a cost of $10. But I’d have to check on the other place next time I was downtown.

I did and Above Ground (hmmmm … they too seemed to be into my rabbit hole metaphor?) had a veritable motherlode of V-pens. I bought five and noted where I needed to go when these pens ran dry.

Along the way I discovered The Fountain Pen Network. Proof that I’m not the last person on the planet who still uses these archaic writing instruments.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Many Waters Revisited

A letter to my daughter from 27 September 1998 (a year or so before I purchased my first computer)

Hurricane season on the home front / All the weak of heart are leavin’ town / Baby an’ me ain’t up to goin’ just yet / Maybe we’ll just drink until we drown / Me I freshen up a pot of coffee / Baby puts the chain across the door / And pretty soon she’s seein’ things that I don’t see / Like alligators on the bathroom floor…
Tom Russell, Hurricane Season

With news of the worst gangin’ up of tropical storms since ’92 (that’s 1892 so they said) — and frenchies à that: GEORGES, HENRI, ISIDORE, JULES ET JIM (the last possessing two eyes!) — we lashed our possessions to the faithful Avalon & took the Back Route to the Northland with Holly & Cam sleepin’ off the previous night’s carousin’ while blasting back subliminal doses of Smashed Pumpkins & Dar Williams on disc & walk men…
            We arrived…had an uneventful lunch…and started a new cycle of activities when Momma spotted some Eyres clearing brush suspiciously close to our property line & went out to casually question them about their intent…when that mighty oracle- Ann Eyres herself — came out modeling her latest bathing suit and announcing that a TORNEDO WARNING was in effect (& had nothing to do with the beef Tournedos she planned to serve her brood that night before returning to practice her puts on the green that was being clear cut even as she spoke…
            Momma switch’d to immediate PANIC BUTTON PUSHIN’ MODE & commanded that I cook dinner before the inevitable power outage (she being somewhat of an oracle herself)…I sprang into action, don’d my chef’s hat & apron & rushed the Shaken’n’Bake white trash ’taties into the oven. As I cooked, the sky became ominously dark & the power began to waver…SUDDENLY! The power was out and Momma screamed “OVER TO WENAWAE’S!”
            I have to backtrack. Momma’s second reaction after sending me to cook dinner (a scant 1 ½ hours after that uneventful lunch) was to start phonin’ around (whilst she still could!)…Grandaddy suggested we get back to Toronto pronto (I pointed out that I didn’t feature a 3 hour drive through lightning, tornados & whatever else Ma Nature had up her voluminous sleeves…this being hurricane season an’ all)…Rita the Rockette spoke of her plans to spend the night in her basement with her red slippers and her little dog, Toto…I mean, GINGER… Momma finally called Wenawae (on Wen’s own phone!) to see if we could shelter in the crawl space which Michael (who had also been phoned) had let slip existed next door.
            So now we had fantastic winds (the likes of which hadn’t been seen since that Prout’s Neck holiday above the post office). Momma rushed about gathering all the candles. I gathered up all the puppies as the power went off & lightning thundered fast & furiously…
We didn’t stay in the crawl space all that long (tho’ long enuff for Pippa the claustrophobic puppy) as the wild breeze calmed down somewhat and I went over to bring over the food. We dug in & I braved the outrageous bolts of lightning one more in order to get the chocolate pudds that I’d missed in the darkness.
            The power never came back on so we slept at Wen’s…Momma slept with one eye open ready to shepherd us all back underground if things got really bad…we were awakened briefly by a bolt that seemed to be in our (make that Wen’s) bedroom. My theory was that since Wen’s place had already been wasted once (page 5) Momma figured we were safer there than at our own place. Next morning…still no power…I cooked a vestigial breakfast on the barbecue and then started lugging buckets of water from the lake in homage to days gone by…we had twice as much cleaning to do as a result of spending time in two domiciles…we left at around noon (lunching at McDonald’s to avoid dirty dishes!) & drove home wondering why we had bothered to go to the cottage at all…maybe it was just to supply a theme for this little letter.

P.S. The number motifs are snapshots from Momma’s mind of the fate that inevitably awaited us!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Now that I've Deep Sixed all the book publishers I used to work for and illustration has fizzled out thanks to masterstrokes like Stock Images … I find myself with a new quest: reviving the lost art of letter writing. This is not going to be easy as I've already encountered some serious resistance. Somebody told me that their 80 year old parent communicated with them via Skype while another snapped that he went digital 16 years ago and wasn't about to turn the clocks back just because some lunatic considers letter writing to be both vital and a (puleeeeeez) "lost art" … well, I won't be sending any letters their way. It figures that no sooner do I hit upon this concept that our wonderful government decides to end home delivery and prohibitively increase our local postage. Some people seem intimidated … the idea of actually writing a letter, finding an envelope and stamp, and a mail box puts them on edge. Fortunately I kept all my pens and esoteric writing materials (remember ink?) when I finally allowed a computer into my presence. Some designers threw out pens and pencils figuring they'd never have to do anything manual again. I recently threw out my unused drawing pad and electronic pencil … I'm much happier using my inimitable El Whacko© techniques.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

End of an Era (Part Two)

One of my longtime illustrator friends was somewhat taken aback upon receiving one of my End of an Era-themed dragon cards. Seems I’d forgotten to mention that the end of one era could herald the start of a new one … sort of like that overused metaphor about a half empty/half full glass of liquid.
            I’m not really depressed about my book design career crash diving into oblivion … if anything I’m more relieved that I no longer have to feel like I’m wasting away on behalf of the thoughtless, giddy creatures who seem to have hijacked the publishing industry with little concept at how to operate such an animal. Better to just let them stew in their own juices as e-books sound their own death knells.
            Now I have more time to devote to things that really matter. Things like what three generations of us did on Christmas Eve when we attended the annual “live nativity” at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair Avenue West. The shepherds arrived with live sheep. There was a live goat in the stable that Mary and Joseph arrived at with a real donkey. But the piece de résistance were two cameo appearances by a full grown camel. Plus there must have been around 100 humans (including a live Christ child!). There was an amazing phalanx of angels (one of the angels in the foreground was haranguing her neighbouring seraphim about the states of their halos, wings or other angelic gear … fortunately the microphones did not pick up this chatter. King Herod put in a stellar turn with an amped up acoustic guitar and a talking blues about the threat to his monarchy of the baby Jesus. The culmination (after a quintet of angels sang from a cloud high up above the marvelling congregation) were three fellows (with silent assistants) creditably sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Then we all sang Joy to the World and were dismissed but we weren’t fast enough to catch the grazing camel like we did last year. Guess we stayed too long with the goat and sheep.
            This is likely to become an annual tradition now that we no longer inevitably spend Christmas in Montreal.

            My friend seemed most disturbed by my NOW WHAT? gauntlet which was more me thinking out loud about what tack to take when I’ve finally exhausted the dragon theme. Still working on that.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Blog Rolling

Deep in the doldrums drawing dragons as an END OF AN ERA remedy. Hand wrought cards for the unsuspecting. Lots of cross hatching and ElWhacko© filigrees. Offers a good escape from Facebook Frenzy and assorted other Troughs of Time. Plus (as usual) it's all Good Practice. For what? Well END OF AN ERA is now slated as a closing chapter for my magnum opus HOKORI. With an even more ornate dragon guarding the chapter opening. I think I come by my obsession with dragons honestly ... as a child I visited the Schweppes Grotto in Battersea Park and apparently one of the sights was a fire breathing dragon with suitable incense pumped in. Some of my dragon studies are to be found over at my art website....

Monday, August 19, 2013

Duvi’s Trifecta of Death

One Tuesday in August I chanced upon a program on CBC radio while driving to the dump and going on a hunter/gathering mission to Robinson’s Country Store in Dorset. The guest was talking about the evils of using a language in the workplace but others might not be able to understand. When I looked at the day’s Globe and Mail obituaries I discovered that M— S— had died. The only person who had ever tried that other language trick on me back in the 1980s when I was working on a book project for him. One down.
         Then I spotted that C— J— had died. The insurance agent who persuaded me to get a disability policy back in the 1980s which had magically vanished into thin air upon my reaching my 65th birthday … and now that I was 65 my agent had just as magically disappeared. Two down.
         Everyone knows that things like this come in syrupy threesomes so I wasn’t all that surprised for what came next. When I logged into Facebook I saw that there were three people having birthdays that day. Only two actually as two were the same person with two profiles. I had trouble wishing my first candidate a happy birthday … FB glitchery or dat ol’ debbil Mercury acting up again? … so I cut to the chase and went to one of the other people’s pages only to find that his friends were wishing him a “happy birthday in Heaven” or lamenting about how much they missed his ugly mug … E— C— had up and died on me. Three down. Or four if you count that he had two profiles.
         Problem with Cyberspace: it encourages bluster and keeps you away from whatever you should be working on!

PS When I got back to home base I found I had some poking possibilities. E— was now on offer. Along with two other long dead FB friends. Does the all knowing Facebook not know that these people are dead or are they sending me a subtle message. There is no reason to poke the dead … they are not likely going to return your pokes. BTW Holly feels I need a session of Facebook rehab.