Thursday, January 11, 2018


Illusionism and Entertainment

Recently a friend and past student sent me a drawing that amazed her, and reminded me of how seeing something astonishing, made with skillful illusionistic trickery, has been a source of entertainment throughout history. Several things converge at this particular enjoyment. Neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde wrote a book with Sandra Blakeslee on magic and the brain that includes a section on Trompe l’oeil, art that fools the eye. Like in performance magic, the unexpected and seemingly impossible induces a childlike delight and the desire to share the experience with others.

Basically, when you fool people about reality you get their attention. While everything meets our expectations, we stay inside our heads, but when it deviates from what we expect, it demands notice. The level of focus and concentration is facilitated by the increased dopamine that comes with surprise. The brain encourages attention. The pleasure at being fooled in a non-threatening way is why illusionism has maintained a level of popularity since ancient times when there were actually artists’ competitions to see who could do the most realistic work. Not so unlike sports, mastery is appreciated.

The skill necessary to create illusions is another part of the attraction. Denis Dutton emphasized the innate response to virtuosity. We are attracted to the beauty of something well done. I’ve read that the brain made a big jump in size when we started using tools, and again when we started polishing them. The brain encourages what improves it. The admiration of skill is a feel-good emotion meant to stimulate our own wish to excel.

Fooling the eye is not about personal taste, the physical body reacts to what it deems real, so when I go to sweep the paper off the top of my drawing and discover I’ve drawn it, I can’t help but laugh at fooling myself. Ira Glass, talking about practicing a magic trick, said you’ve got the trick when you fool yourself.

Response to illusion is often laughter. And laughter is demonstrated to be good for us. Studies at the University of Maryland say it’s good for blood vessels and boosts certain antibodies that build the immune system. In an article at the Mayo Clinic website they emphasized the stimulation of organs, intake of oxygen and release of endorphins.
Laughter is known to build flexibility in thinking, loosening the mind by defying expectations. To release the clutch of a particular way of seeing is to open the edges of the mind and let in more perspective. Illusion is a playful reminder of the limits of our perceptions and the wisdom of uncertainty. Understanding that you are often wrong pushes perception deeper and extends self-awareness.

Today’s entertainment extends the possibilities for illusion as 3D movies and virtual reality grow in popularity. The power of computer graphics to envision whatever can be imagined as a whole world may open the mind to new ways of thinking. It’s entertainment that stimulates the mind and opens the possibility of evolving our thinking in a visual spatial way.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bookmark 2017

Here is this years's bookmark,
my favorite so far because my gargoyle is sitting on the first room I ever
taught in at MICA.

The instructions for how I put them together is on the
Bookmark 2015.

Giving Pictures

When my friend Jordan sent me this picture, it was a gift of imagery that now lives in my head, laced with interconnections from “Angry Kitten” and the tilt of a certain mood I was feeling at the time. 
I appreciated the resonance that connected me and the stone, easily as memorable as a physical gift.

I like sending favorite pictures I’ve discovered, on-line or in magazines, as birthday greetings. Recently I was particularly gratified when my 3-year-old grand-niece Rhian wanted this picture I’d sent of a David Czerny sculpture printed out for her room. It feels good to hit an image that resonates and I feel like I know her better.

From a chuckle or a smile to a nod of understanding, the range of connections offered to another in the form of pictures is endless. It signifies appreciation, one specific individual to another. To hunt through the world of art and nature for the right picture to send someone stretches out to another’s uniqueness, not cluttering the world with more objects while still offering the thought that went into the choosing. Not limited to the world of manufactured things and their sameness a picture can be more complex in its ability to trigger thoughts and ideas that arise from the feeling of the picture. This is the one I send the most because I can’t look at it without smiling, feeling their pleasure.

In a culture that sends so many pictures this could be an antidote to the narcissism spawned by having the self as most easily available subject. To actively look and choose is revelatory in a variety of ways. I’m always on the lookout for images that make me smile and keep them in a folder of favorites to draw on when the occasion turns up. The surprises of illusionistic humor abound in public art so I have a treasure of murals and sculpture that have been documented. The unexpected stimulates dopamine and pulls attention away from the self. I also save pictures that touch me in some way, particularly if they pull me across species boundaries.

It’s never been easier to send pictures and there are sources of amazement and wonder at sites like or any image search on a subject that inspires curiosity. Choosing pictures for your personal library shows you more about who you are inside as you follow your preferences deeper and see what they bring to mind. It’s way to develop visual sensitivity letting the sense of beauty provide guidance.

Finding pictures that show more of what matters is pleasurable enrichment. The more you look, the more you are able to see.
Happy Solstice.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Primitive Emotions

Angry Kitten 2016-17...

I may go back to this painting after the first of the year when I have some concentrated time, so any input is welcome.


The way our location shapes us is profound. We grow into the space of our lives in a network of relationships. Our actions and behaviors develop around its requirements of us. People are affected by the overall state of the location they are part of, an interaction of multiple systems at work in the area. The patterns of living are structured within these systems and adaptive to them. We don’t choose our starting locations but do carry them around in the circuits of our brain where we can return and search the spaces of memory for strategies to apply to new places. The first homes and the social relationships within them create the conditioned patterns that later overlay other homes and surroundings. Our relationships in our first home create expectations for how they are structured later. If they are difficult, we may seek out those who provide the same difficulties to try to heal old wounds.

In the effort to understand who we are, more attention might usefully be given to where we’ve been and its influence on our present way of being. Those that argue that we don't have free will because activity happens in the brain before we are conscious of having the thought aren't considering that the Where circuit in the brain is faster than the What. We realize what we feel by the adjustment within to where we are. It is the stage for how we are, the setting for further action in relation to it. Each of us is a center of awareness at a particular point in spacetime, a perspective for consciousness. What we come to understand from the accumulated locations of our lives is the foundation of what we have to offer. It’s different for everyone but the pattern of human needs, enacted wherever we are, is universal, so while the perspective is different, we share a responsive core.

We understand the meaning of a place by its relationship to us which at first we feel as a sense of safety or uncertainty, so the essence of visual intelligence is in the ability to read the meaning in what we see. That is why looking at art makes such good education. Its emphasis is meaningful relationships, in the distillation of what is significant. As the world of information becomes more complex, seeing the relations in the whole will be essential.

Spending more time with screens has sensitized people to the power of imagery and using visual language. A picture says more than a text, gets further inside your head. Even with the simulation of being somewhere else than the body in virtual reality, you know you put on the goggles. Your consciousness recognizes the layers of reality. This extension of imagery to immersion could build intelligence and be therapeutic. Because the actual dangers are neutralized it could be an effective way to face fears and develop empathy, to feel what it is like to inhabit another’s world. It could open new ways to think about consciousness. The accumulation of imagery from the locations in a life creates a symphonic worldview that encompasses the complexity of experience and is the perspective we offer the world. It is time to imagine new levels of mind.