Friday, March 20, 2009

Costume Delays on the Western Line

Just a quick note to say: I haven't forgotten the blog. I've just been off on a costume binge.

Years ago, when I was sixteen or seventeen and just beginning college, my desire in life was to be a costume designer. I loved costume, and still do. However, when I took classes in the subject there were two things that deterred me:

1. The emphasis seemed to be on sewing, to the detriment of anything else (mask-making, fabric painting, etc.). The people in costume seemed to be people obsessed with extremely perfect and detailed reproductions of ancient seam techniques. I'm much more of a make-something-that-looks-good type, using whatever materials come to hand.

2. In order to do costume design as a college course of study, you had to major in theater. This meant acting. If there is anything I hate more than performing in front of people, I can't imagine what it could be, so I dropped the idea. Later, I went on to design school and learned clothes patternmaking and design (thus my sojourn in the garment industry... and I wanted to get away from sewing??).

Now, of course, with the advent of people like Julie Taymor (director and costume designer of the Broadway production of The Lion King), this has all changed. Ms. Taymor has a background in mask and puppet design and studied in Japan, where puppetry and the use of masks are an integral part of traditional theater. So costume isn't just sewing anymore, and I look back on my easily-intimidated younger self and wish I had pushed a little harder for my own vision. Perhaps the acting part could have been easier; perhaps I could have got by with working backstage most of the time.

To be honest, I was too easily swayed by the kind of people I found in the different groups working in the theater department. I liked the work the stage techs did: hands-on building, painting, and hanging things. I didn't particularly like the girly-ness of the costume people, either the older, harder ones or the younger, more obsessive ones; and I was too inexperienced and shy to know that this was only a sampling of people, that this might be the product of a small town's college theater department. Lacking in social skills, I didn't know how to make myself liked by the tough stage hands or the hardened costume designers. I think I probably came across as too quiet, too young and blonde, and possibly helpless in my naivete. In any case, I gave up and went into a slightly less flamboyant career - the garment industry, which was dull and repetitive and very hard to get a leg up in. Which only proves that the choices we make out of anxiety aren't always the best ones: I have regretted the loss of the costume design, but never regretted leaving the garment industry.

In any case, to bring a long-winded and roundabout monologue to the actual point: I have had a chance to be the costume designer for the local elementary school's production of The Lion King. So that's where I've been: following my early dream on a small scale, and immersing myself totally in the Making of Wonderful Illusions. Julie Taymor's book on the production, its planning and implementation, is so luscious, so incredibly beautiful, that I've gotten carried away. I've hardly slept in the last few weeks, and I've been so insanely focused that things like grocery shopping, laundry, writing, and loved ones have kind of gone by the wayside. It's been interesting, because it's making me re-examine some of the choices I've made about my life. If I love the making of things so much, why aren't I doing more of it?

It's been fascinating figuring out how to do a high-quality production for under a hundred dollars. I've built lioness masks from plaster, papier mache, and plastic gallon milk jugs, and hyena masks from milk jugs, old burlap sacks, and newspaper. I found a roll of jute twine somewhere and made all the lion's manes out of that. And so on. It's amazing what you can do with found stuff and a little ingenuity (and hot glue). I'm thinking of doing a couple of Youtube demos on some of the stuff I've discovered.

So my apologies for ignoring the blog. I'll be posting more in the next week or so. And I'll post pictures soon, I promise.

Friday, March 13, 2009

News: My Voice on the Radio

Just FYI, I'm going to be on Make's new Make:Talk radio show today at 12:20. You can tune in later via the blog if you want to hear me talk about whatever they think of to ask me. Hopefully I'll make sense; I'm much better in writing than in realtime, but it could get interesting.

Wish me luck.

News: Museums as Social Network

I just got an email this morning about a new social networking place called Creative Spaces, which looks like it's going be a really splendid and inspiring. Nine British museums have banded together to create a sort of Facebook/Flickr type of place where you create an account and then build collections of your own from the collections of some of the most famous museums in Britain. You can add comments, network with other people and start groups - and upload your own pictures and videos to your notebooks.

So, in a sense, you can become a virtual curator.

The project is part of the UK's National Museums Online Learning Project:

"The project aims to get partner museum websites better used, engage new audiences and transform the way they think about and use existing digital collections. We are developing a range of innovative and exciting online learning resources across the nine websites for pupils, teachers, and lifelong learners. These resources will provide greater access and usage of the museum partners' online collections, and utilise new technologies to encourage and support user participation."

The NY MOMA has something similar, but it's small and not very well worked out, and you can't add your own stuff. Plus it's just one museum. This one is much more well-thought-out and proves the British are, once and for all, no longer the hidebound Empiricist nation that they once were.

The project is still in serious beta, and it's apparent that a great deal of things are not quite there yet. The Search feature, for example, is not all it should be, and a great deal of the online collections are not quite as accessible as I would like. And I don't see a system for simply browsing as of yet. I do dearly wish the Science Museum were part of the list.

Still, it pleases me. It pleases me that I could have an online place to collect my favorite images, where I can see other people's choices; and I can download from the Mutter Museum, say, and then mingle them with the many things I find here, to share them with other like-minded people. Keep an eye on it, and wait: at some point, it will be less fledgling, and we can all get together and share.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mr. Bowditch: Brilliance and Populism

I was looking through something the other day and I came across a reference to someone named Bowditch. Immediately, my mind was flooded with images from the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, a mathematical and navigational savant in the late 1700's and early 1800's, whom I read about at age 12 or so in a wonderful biographical novel for middle-graders called Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.

Bowditch was the son of a cooper in Salem, Massachusetts who left school at the age of ten to work for his father. At twelve he was indentured for nine years as a bookkeeping apprentice to a ship chandler. They were kind to him there and he was given access to the library; being immersed all day in numbers, and having a sharp brain, he became interested in some of the more complex ideas surrounding math, spending his days learning all about what it takes to outfit a ship and his nights studying.

"In 1787, aged fourteen, Bowditch began to study algebra and two years later he taught himself calculus. He also taught himself Latin in 1790 and French in 1792 so he was able to read mathematical works such as Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. At seventeen, he wrote a letter to a Harvard University professor pointing out an error in the Principia... Serendipity aided Bowditch's self-directed study in as much as he found himself able to use the eminent Irish chemist Richard Kirwan's library: a privateer from Salem had intercepted the ship carrying the library between Ireland and England and brought the library back to Salem in June 1791." [wiki]

When he was twenty-two, Mr.Bowditch went to sea as a ship's clerk and captain's writer. Working from the error-prone navigational books of the day was so frustrating to him that by his fifth voyage, of which he was master and part owner of the ship, he "decided to write his own book, and to 'put down in the book nothing I can't teach the crew.' On that trip, it is said that every man of the crew of 12, including the ship's cook, became competent to take and calculate lunar observations and to plot the correct position of the ship." So in 1802 The American Practical Navigator, was published. It was such an accurate and useful book that it immediately revolutionized navigation, and is still carried onboard every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel today. The first edition of Bowditch's American Practical Navigator, which became the western hemisphere shipping industry standard for the next century and a half, and in 1866, the United States Hydrographic Office purchased the copyright. Since then the book, with appropriate revisions, has been in continuous publication, and to this day it is simply known as Bowditch.

Reading about him when I was a young person, I was struck mostly by the variety and extraordinariness of his experiences, and the fascinating idea that math had such concrete applications. It had never occurred to me to think of math the way Mr. Bowditch did, as a conceptual thing and a way of looking at the world. I never thought of myself as someone who was good at math, even though later in life I became adept at pattern-making (making 3D objects from 2D patterns) and had a keen mechanical understanding of math-related concepts, based more on intuition than education, which allowed me to do well in all sorts of arenas.

Nowadays, of course, children learn the beginnings of algebra in third and fourth grade. The more conceptual elements of math begin much earlier, and along with the usual times tables school children are taught to see math as a schema, a place to play around with numbers; the basic elements of math's abstractions are set in place in more malleable brains. Add to this the basic tenets of binary and hexidecimal systems, and you get some seriously young minds working on much more abstract levels than of old. ...At least, for those minds who are actually getting an education.

Which brings me to another point: this Bowditch person was pretty much self-taught. Remember, too, that calculus as a systemic study had only been fully developed a hundred years before, so when Mr. Bowditch found an error in Newton's masterpiece only three years into his study of higher math, it showed considerable brainpower. This is something I have only come to appreciate as an adult: both in terms of Isaac Newton and in terms of understanding Bowditch's learning rate. These, and the fact that such a brilliant man should go on to become an insurance actuary, a job which he kept until his death at the age of sixty-three, strike me strongly now that I have some perspective on them.

But what strikes me particularly, and what endears me most to the man, is his deep-seated belief that every man on a ship can and should be able to navigate, despite the mores of the day which would have it that men on a ship are expendable, and only the navigator has the knowledge (and only he should have the knowledge) to find the ship on a map - to navigate. His stubbornness on this point is legendary, and his willingness to prove it comes not only from a man who taught himself to be who he was, but from a time and a place: Massachussetts, in post-Revolutionary America. Best of all, he put his belief to work in writing, too - which is why his book is still relevant today, and why we have such people as Dee Caffari out there on the seas.

Well done, Mr. Bowditch.