An Arts Revolution & the Documentary “Press Pause Play”

We all know that technology has changed things. New technologies have changed how we cook, how we heat our houses, how we make clothing, how we grow vegetables, and even how we go to the bathroom.

But this recent influx of technological changes in our global culture has been unique. We are connected to people thousands of miles away from us through the Internet, people who we might never have met, and we can stay connected to them at a lower cost than ever before. In the last seven days, this humble blog has gotten hits from 22 different countries around the world. (Actually my brain started smoking when I thought about that fact too hard.)

In the past ten years, arts technologies have also taken major leaps forward. It used to be far too expensive for an ordinary person to own a professional quality camera; today, most people can take HD video and photos on their phones. It used to be too complicated for anyone outside the industries to use graphic design or movie editing programs; today, they are cheaper and simpler, and they’re taught as high school electives. Musicians had to go to a studio in order to record and produce tapes and CDs that sounded professional; today, anyone can record and mix an EP in a home studio.

Of course with technological change comes cultural change. As technologies become cheaper, easier to use, and more widespread, the number of artists experimenting with the new technologies grows. The arts have experienced a democratization. Anyone can do it, right? Just look at Etsy: anyone with a paint brush and yarn are now able to sell their paintings and scarves online.

But the question remains: does more art mean better art? The documentry that we’re featuring today, “Press Pause Play,” asks this question. Both Jeremy and I found it fascinating and it provoked a lot of discussion for us about what makes art ART (if you know what we mean), and also how this new cultural movement allows for truly good artists to rise to the top, as mastery of craft and focus on one medium becomes more important in distinguishing true art from mere experimentation (we hope).

The whole documentary is online at Vimeo, and features interviews and commentary from such notable people as Moby and Seth Godin. We hope it makes you think. You can also download the film for free here. They have a Paypal “donate” button and I’m sure they would appreciate a few bucks if you download the film.

Advertisements

Five Iron Frenzy: A Musician’s Guide to Staying Alive

.

“If you help us raise $30,000 we will record a new album.”

Let’s be honest, that strategy doesn’t work for most bands. Why did it work for Denver based ska-band Five Iron Frenzy?
There’s been a lot written recently about Five Iron’s rise from the grave via Kickstarter. Their incredibly loyal fans are responsible for shattering a “help-us-record-a-new-album goal” of $30K. “Shattered” is not an exaggeration. In the first day they raised $60,000. They finished fundraising with over $200,000.

What inspires this kind of rabid loyalty in fans? To help answer that, come back in time with me to 1999 and let me tell you a personal story.

As a youth-group going, punk-rock listening teen I have two favorites: Jesus and Five Iron Frenzy. I wear thrift-store corduroys and a wallet-chain. I spike my hair and keep a bible in my backpack. My first “real concert” is at City Auditorium, where I see Five Iron Frenzy open for P.O.D. in some sort of stylistically schizophrenic show where the only common thread is that all of the bands are “Christian bands.”

Jeremy Circa 1999

I have carefully studied all of Five Iron Frenzy’s album art, learning every lyric, all the band member’s names and what they play. Because of this, I am able to shout all the words along with the other sweat-covered high-schoolers jumping in time to the pounding music.

When their newest album comes out, I am nervous with anticipation. I tear the packaging off Five Iron Frenzy’s LIVE! Album, and push the CD into my stereo. I lean back, lick my lips and close my eyes, head bobbing. This is “sweet.” I turn it up. Suddenly Reese Roper, the lead singer, screams, “To hell with the devil!”

My face pales. I nervously laugh. I look around to see if my parents heard the loudly screamed profanity. “Well, technically that IS where Satan is destined to go…” I say to no-one in particular.

It shouldn’t have bothered me, but I am a good rule-follower at this age, and it seems to me that it’s wrong to swear. There is no grey area, either you’re saying something positive, or you’re swearing. So, I decide to write them a letter.

Dear Five Iron Frenzy,

You are my favorite band. I have all of your albums so far, and listen to them all the time. Your music is really great.

I was a little concerned, however, when I listened to your live album during the part where Reese yells “to hell with the devil.” I think we need to be careful about words we say. It says in Jude 1:9 that when Michael the Archangel fought with Satan, he did not “pronounce the blasphemous judgment, but said ‘the Lord rebuke you.’”

Anyway, just wanted to let you know, and see what your thoughts were about saying that.

You guys are still my favorite band.

Sincerely,

Jeremy Grant

I push my glasses up my nose, lick the envelope, flip it over and wrote “to: FIF” (with one backwards F) on the front. “That should do it.”

A month or two later, I receive a hand-written response.

Dear Jeremy,

Thanks for writing!

Yeah, sometimes Reese gets a little carried away on stage.

[…]

We appreciate your thoughts. Keep reading and thinking about this kind of stuff.

We’re definitely not perfect. Thanks for sticking with us!

Leanor “Jeff the Girl”

So, why does Five Iron Frenzy have such a loyal following?

-The Act of Listening

Five Iron Frenzy started in a time when listening to music was still “an activity” and music was still “a product.” Growing up listening to music, I had tapes and CDs. There was a different kind of consumption of music, it was about an experience, not just background noise. I would sit down and listen to music; it was an activity. Now I think most of us put on music while we do something else. We keep music on our iPods and computers, we buy it digitally, and there are no lyric sheets.

In a time when the physical product of music is no longer popular, how can you, as a musician, develop a personal connection with your audience? Here are some ways I’ve seen artists build loyalty with their fans:

-Releasing special editions, on tape or vinyl only.

-Creating an experience that goes beyond listening: Derek Webb created an experience with a collaborative album featuring work by a photographer and painter. You could choose to buy their art along with Webb’s physical CD.

-Making engaging music videos: This is a classic way (also collaborative) to keep people engaged in your music. If they cannot do something else while listening, they are more involved in your music.

-Personal Connection

Five Iron Frenzy recently announced that they were reinstating their P.O. box, so that fans could write them. They have always made an intentional effort to connect personally with their fans, as evidenced by Leanor’s gracious and humble response to a self-righteous teen.

To keep from being white-noise in today’s saturated market, you have to make a personal connection with fans. Time, place, and experience are becoming much, much more important. If fans can connect with a band, not just online but in person, like no one else can, they will develop a loyalty that won’t be easily broken.

-Create an amazing concert experience, and you will win loyal fans.

-Write a personal blog: Band members from Mumford and Sons are a great example of this. They each have a different blog that they regularly post to. Their subjects are photography, food, band news and a book club, all things the band members love, and they’re great ways to connect with their fans beyond their music.

-Create one of a kind events: House concerts or impromptu shows are great ways to make fans feel special. And with social media platforms like twitter, it’s really easy to spread the word about an impromptu show. (Incidentally, Five Iron did an impromptu surprise show after a recent Switchfoot concert outside of Denver)

Five Iron Frenzy has really set an example in many of these things, in particular through being intentional with their fans. And those fans have responded, stepping up in a big way to fund a new album. Love it. Good luck Five Iron!

—–

To download Five Iron Frenzy’s new single for free, visit their website here.

Our A to Z Artistic Inspiration

At the start of every new year comes a fresh start, and as practicing artists, we need to take advantage of it!

Resolve to muster your courage and try something new. Or submit your work to a contest or magazine. Or just keep trudging along in writing that manuscript. (Are these examples hitting close to home for anyone else or just me?) And if you have no resolve to keep creating, read this excellent article by Kendall Ruth, published on The Curator entitled “Listening Past Writer’s Block” (don’t worry, it does apply to other mediums as well)

To push you along, here’s part 2 to our earlier inspiration post. From A to Z, here are some of our favorite ways to stay inspired in our art and some of the things and people who inspire us most.

A to Z Inspiration

 Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

This is THE BEST book we know of that will help stuck and fearful artists move forward. The only thing it lacks is the gospel, but its depth astounds us. Five stars and two thumbs up!

..
Bake Something New

The idea is to try a new recipe, which will hopefully be a flaming success (so to speak), which will give you confidence (and snacks) to try something new artistically. Try baking bread from the cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day (one of Liz’s favorite cookbooks!).

.

Critiques

When was the last time another artist (particularly one in your medium) critiqued your work? Critique is essential for the growing artist. If you want to create your best work, you need to seek out other artists who can give you honest feedback about your art.
.

DesignSponge

Get inspired to make your house a work of art by checking out DesignSponge‘s daily design and DIY posts.
.

.

Eavesdrop

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, was famous for eavesdropping. He’d sit behind couples on a train and write down their conversation verbatim to study what makes good dialogue (and it’s possible their words would end up in the mouths of his characters). You never know what you might overhear that would give you an idea for a new direction on a project.

.

Host a Film Night

Popcorn, friends, and a thoughtful movie are all you need to have a great discussion at the end of the night. Consider seeing “Tree of Life” (at Redbox), “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (in select theaters), or an old classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” or Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.

.

Get out and About

Everyone needs a change of scenery. Take a sketchbook to the park or your computer to a coffee shop. Or just go for a walk in your neighborhood — the fresh air and exercise will do your right brain cells good.

.

Go to a House Concert (or play one!)

This recent trend of house concerts is a lot of fun. Musicians get an intimate stage and the chance to connect with fans more personally. Plus the publicity they get is authentic and relationally-based — the best kind of marketing. Local to Colorado Springs, Fuel Friends music blog hosts house concerts with musicians like David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion) and Joe Pug.

.

Invest in your Art

How you spend your money tells you what you value. Is your art worth spending money on, in your mind? That should tell you how important you feel your art is. Treat yourself this January, and stop by Dick Blick or Hobby Lobby and pick up a new set of pens and brushes or just go ahead and buy that letterpress set with your Christmas money. Maybe buying a new desk is in order, or a new chair, one you want to sit in. Investing in good supplies makes you want to make art with them and helps you (and others in your life) place value in your art-making.

.

Keep Junk out of your Workspace

Unless you’re a found-object artist, you have no excuse for keeping junk in your art-making space. Do NOT pile bills, books, dishes or anything else on the desk you use for writing or painting. If you designate a clutter-free space for you to work on your art, and you’re more likely to sit down and get to work

.

Kill Perfectionism!!

Can you tell we struggle with this? Perfectionism kills artists. It keeps you from being able to keep producing lots of work because you are afraid you won’t produce your BEST work. So pull out your ninja sword, and let this monster die a quick death… daily.

.

Listen and Subscribe to Podcasts

We love podcasts because they fill otherwise empty, brainless time (for example, when Jeremy’s searching for the perfect iStock image or when Liz is chopping vegetables or folding laundry). Our favorites include The Moth (live storytelling), the Acts 29 Network (a Christian church planting network), Car Talk (hilarious car advice on NPR), and the New Yorker’s Fiction readings (authors reading short stories).

.

Collaborate Across Mediums

Seriously, this is so encouraging for us. When we get stuck, it helps to have someone else speaking into your work, owning your work as half theirs. Our parables book came out of us collaborating in writing and sculpture, and we’re now approaching editors about publishing it. You never know where a collaboration will take you!

.

The Library’s New Releases Section

Our library (and probably yours too) has a section for all new books they’ve acquired, which are often books hot off the presses. We have made a habit of stopping by and browsing titles and covers to look for books that pique our interest – and we’re never disappointed. We always come away with arm loads.

.

Open a Book

Reading is so inspirational, whether you’re reading a book to learn new art-making techniques or to study master artists or just to immerse yourself in a good story. Get a library card, or buy great (read: cheap) used books on Abe Books (Liz’s fave online bookstore).

.

Pinterest

Pinterest is an online bookmarking community (a pin board) of interesting ideas, arranged by photographs. They have every category you can think of, from artwork to recipes to DIY ideas to book recommendations, and I (Liz) could spend hours browsing.

.

Be Quiet

It is essential for artists to have quiet so they can remove themselves from the hectic hum of postmodernity and reflect from a broader vantage point. Turn off all your electronic devices for a day so you can get some thinking time.

.

Establish an Art-making Routine

We hate to tell you this, but art won’t happen on its own. You need to spend regular time in your studio or at your desk pounding out art. Establishing a routine is the best way to make sure this happens. Jeremy has “art night” on Thursdays, and he used to make himself a pot of coffee each Thursday to prepare himself for the work ahead of him. Liz aims to write at least 500 words every day during the work week, and sometimes she’ll begin by reading another book or article to get her mind going.

.

Steal Shamelessly

Picasso once said (supposedly), “Bad artists copy; good artists steal.” We’re not advocating copyright violations. Rather, the point is to study others’ art so that you can master their techniques and incorporate them into your own work and your unique style.

.

Make a Spot of Tea (or Coffee)

Who’s to say it’s a bad thing to use caffeine to jumpstart creativity? Give it a go, chaps.

.

Use Noisetrade!

Founded by Derek Webb and a few other Nashville-based musicians, Noisetrade is our favorite free LEGAL music downloading website. The musicians post their music themselves, and in exchange for downloading their music for free (or for a tip), you give them your email address and/or post their CD on Facebook — free marketing for the musicians and free music for you. Doesn’t get any better!

.

Visit an Art Museum or Gallery

Seeing visual art in person can help spark new ideas. We often bring a camera and take photos of our favorite pieces. We also write down the artists’ names and look them up online later. Jeremy has folders and folders filled with photographs of visual art that inspires him, and when he’s experiencing a creative dry spell, he turns to these photographs for that extra burst of inspiration. And if you need extra incentive, both the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs and the Denver Art Museum have free days (and all the local galleries we know of have absolutely free admission)!

Worship (& Enter the Worship Circle)

For me (Liz), singing is freeing. It helps me relax, and I find that when I spend time worshipping God through song, ideas abound! My favorite group for this BY FAR is Enter the Worship Circle‘s folksy community worship. They also have a Chair and Microphone series where individual band members record intimate worship – just them and God. There’s nothing else like it!

Re-eXamine Old Notebooks

The assumption here is that you’re already carrying around a notebook or sketchbook with you everywhere you go, so you can catch new ideas as they come to you (you can’t put eavesdropping into practice quite as well without a notebook handy!). The second step is to go through old notebooks when your creativity has run dry. Often a brilliant idea you thought of on the bus ride home won’t be helpful until months (or years) later.

Take a Lesson from the YMCA

I (Liz) love the YMCA. I love my membership, which makes me get out and about AND exercise semi-regularly. I love how community-minded the Y is, which is not such a bad idea for us artists to consider. Let’s ask ourselves, how can we serve our local communities with our art? I love that I can take yoga classes, a separate hobby from my writing, and that I can meet a truly diverse set of people doing it, which means I have a chance to interact with non-artists and not get stuck in an art bubble, so to speak. Connect the dots and take a lesson from the Y!

Zoo Photography Adventure

Okay, we admit it, we were reaching for a Z here, but the point remains: photography adventures are tons of fun! Maybe decide to take photographs of found letters and make a collage to spell a word when you get home. Or maybe just go on a hike and take a photo of everything that takes your breath away. You’ll get outside, and you’ll be training your eye at the same time. (They also make for great dates, guys)

So get out there and make some great art, friends!

Paint a Community: Lessons Learned from Scott Erickson

Crumbling buildings crowded with graffiti passed by as he stared out the window. Ever thickening layers of paint cracked to reveal bits of history. Inspiration often comes unexpectedly. For Scott Erickson, it came when he saw a some graffiti out the window on a public transit ride in Argentina.

Liz and I recently purchased a collaborative project called Feedback. It is centered on The Lord’s Prayer, the famous prayer Jesus taught his disciples. There are nine lines in the prayer. Derek Webb aspired to create a project to capture the beauty of this prayer. He wrote nine abstract songs and then conscripted a painter, Scott Erickson, and a photographer, Jeremy Cowart, to create nine abstract paintings and nine photographs also based on the Lord’s prayer and Webb’s musical interpretation of the prayer. There are no literal works in Feedback: the songs have no words, the photographs and paintings are abstract.

I’ve heard this project described as “a soundtrack to prayer.” Using description as  directive, Liz and I took an afternoon and listened to the cd, studying the corresponding paintings and photos to guide us in meditation on each line of the prayer. Our experience was positive and the time felt prayer-full. The project is well done, perhaps not mind-blowingly so, but engaging enough that I’ve returned to it a few times since my initial interaction.

In particular, I have returned to the abstract paintings of Scott Erickson. They are hands-down my favorite part of this project. When I did a quick google search on Erickson I found that he is not primarily an abstract painter; this surprised me.

Scott’s primary art form is live painting! He paints as a part of church services, responding to the message and the community. Scott’s art is directly at the service of his community. Fascinating. Now some of these paintings are very good and I’ve posted a few above, but none of them moved me quite the same way the Feedback series did.

“Four of these are great. Five need to be re-worked.” Those were the words Scott Erickson heard when he thought he had completed his nine paintings for the Feedback project. Ouch! Take a few minutes and watch this video in which Scott talks about his process and the few key moments that brought his art from good to great.

The Making of the “Feedback” Paintings from scott erickson on Vimeo.

Because Scott is heavily involved in community, because he paints FOR REAL PEOPLE, because his art is focused on giving rather than taking: he was able to accept some extremely difficult advice.

Scott had cultivated a teachable spirit. He was able to accept the hard truth that took his art from good to galleries.

He was able to find inspiration in totally different cultures in a different art forms, namely graffiti, and use it to communicate an important idea. I am learning from Scott, and taking notes.

Thank you Scott. We love this series.

-Jeremy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“For me, the layers of these paintings represent the history of the Lord’s prayer itself. Just as we continue to build up and layer over the foundations of our society, so has the journey of entering into the prayer of God. It’s written throughout our history. Though it may at times seem covered up, it’s still amidst all the glitter and decay… speaking to us, telling us about something ancient yet resonating with our life today. The graffiti is less about words (although there are meanings to all of them) and more about the emotions and textures we find throughout our modern society. Just as we see traces of creative life throughout our cities, so too we see symbols and signs of the Lord’s prayer throughout our world. To me the music and the images forged together in this project are a modern urban meditation on an ancient contemplative pathway to the Almighty.”

-Scott Erickson, Painter

The Sufjan Experience

How do you feel about the apocalypse? What if it were heralded by dancers in nineteen-nineties, neon Nike shirts?

Well, I’ve seen it, and it was awesome.

On Tuesday Nov. 2, Sufjan Stevens came to Denver, Colorado.  Two full drum kits, a 3-piece horn section, two piano players, a DJ, synthesizers, back-up dancers, guitars, bass and lots of costumes accompanied him. On a screen behind the stage huge videos of trippy visual effects flickered in time to the music. The entire spectacle was… well, a spectacle! Walking out of the theatre after the show, I was fully convinced that Sufjan is a genius (and perhaps mentally unstable).

Liz and I talked about it later, and here are few of my thoughts:

The Proximity of Genius and Insanity

Okay, maybe insanity is too strong a word. But could it be coincidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh and Beethoven are all thought to have suffered from various mental disorders, depression or substance abuses? Some of my favorite living musical and visual artists are bi-polar. In his song Vesuvius, Sufjan talks about giving in to something bigger than himself. I think most artists, in the act of creating, feel like they are giving themselves to the process. And that can be scary, as if you are losing yourself.

Getting Lost in Your Art

“Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” Madeleine L’Engle.

To write his newest album, Sufjan explained to the audience, he gave up all previous notions of what a song is and how to write one. He blocked all history and culture, as well as he could, from his process. Literally recording raw noises, he started to build the album by running his recordings through effect pedals and arranging them on the computer. He let himself get completely lost in the creative process, ignoring all outside influence.

His music teeters on the edge of losing control. The lyrics are simple, cryptic and rushing up from some deep part of his adolescent id.

Sufjan seems to have been wrestling with a dark angel. In between songs he opened his soul and poured out disjointed thoughts about the universe being in all of us. What a difference from the poetic depths of his album Seven Swans! The bright angel of creativity is still there however; and Sufjan began and ended his concert with some of the most meaningful and literary songs of his career.

Inspiration and Innovation

Any innovation in any discipline involves a re-evaluation of methods and ideologies. Picasso was a classically trained painter, but he intentionally questioned the classical methodology of color, shape and perspective. In letting go, he was able to innovate. It is appallingly easy to get “in a rut,” creating the same sorts of things over and over. Often it helps to get “outside” of one’s self and test your limits.

Primarily, I gain inspiration through other artist’s work. I intake a LOT of creative work, even stuff that is totally unrelated to my own disciplines. And I am most inspired when I can dialogue with an artist and get inside their head. That being the case, I create better art when I am in community.

Community

One of the best ways to make sure you come back to reality is a strong community. I’m talking about people you love and trust, who are not afraid to be honest with you, to call you out when you’re being self-absorbed, and your art makes no sense at all.  We need each other, we need people from different backgrounds, trades and walks of life, and most of all, people that care about us.

This is just speculation, but I think that Sufjan Stevens, in his search for creativity, inspiration and innovation has left behind his community and lost those valuable voices of truth in his life.

Let us hope in his continued search he finds community, re-discovers the foundations of his rich literary training and the very source of creativity, Jesus Christ, who created the heavens and earth.

We’re rooting for you Sufjan!

-Jeremy

Digital Storytelling: “Joie de Vivre (Joy of Life)”

A couple of months ago, I (Liz) took a digital storytelling workshop through Digital Storytelling Asia, which is made up of Angeline Koh and Aurelia L. Castro, two women who love to tell stories! I really like digital storytelling as a medium because it is a unique way to tell a story visually. Basically there are three elements to digital storytelling: spoken words + visual images (video or photographs) + music and/or sound effects, and all of those components go into telling a compelling, personal, true story.

This was the result of the workshop for me. I created a story about my mother. I hope you enjoy it.

-Liz