Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Strange Spells

Note: This post is about three weeks old, and was begun as the U.S. Olympic Trials were getting underway in late June in Omaha. Hence the swimming references. It took until now to wrap up the rest of the material. Be warned: this is one meandering post, going from bits of memoir to design talk to cultural reflections, from 19th century German illustrated allegories to Instagram.

I have always enjoyed working on design + illustration projects for clothing. Tee shirts & hats, etc. There's something so tangible about a garment! Seeing one's work walking around in the world on somebody's back is always fun. I'm in no hurry to launch a clothing brand, mind you; my work on these projects is a sort of hobby.

Once upon a time, I was a college student at Kenyon, in central Ohio. Upon my arrival as a freshman, I vaguely intended to swim for Kenyon, a totally dominant power in Division III. (The men won 31 consecutive national titles until Denison broke the streak in 2011.) Of course I figured out almost immediately that a) I was slow by these people's standards and b) I was probably sick of the sport anyway, and it was time to move on.

The image above is from Gerlach's Allegories–on that, more presently–and is captioned wassersport, or water sports; offered as an illustration of Kenyon's natatorial exploits, and a celebration of the 2012 Olympic Trials in swimming, which began today in Omaha.

My discouragement was a blessing. On the day I got cut from the water polo team, I resolved to audition for a play, and later witnessed an a capella concert by twelve guys in blue blazers, and decided to audition for that group, too.

As it happened, I got cast in the play–The Good Person of Szechuan, by Bertold Brecht–and within a week had stumbled into that singing group. Although I took art courses at Kenyon, my experience in drama and music dominated my college years. (Meanwhile, I majored in history.) The men's a capella group was known colloquially as the Kokes, short for Kokosingers, named after the Kokosing river that snakes through that part of Ohio. (The accent is on the second syllable of Kokosing.) Touring was a cultural education, to understate the case. 

No more memoir needed, but that much is required to set up the discussion of the tee shirt I worked up for a reunion event back at Kenyon over the Memorial Day weekend. It's a beautiful place, perched on a hill surrounded by verdant swells that run to the horizon–though the county in which the college sits–Knox County–has been the state's poorest.

I sought to capture something of that pastoral quality while also honoring the rollicking musicianship and rakish humor that go with such groups (which are, of course, pretty conventional affairs).

Four years ago I designed a baseball cap for a similar event, shown at the top of this post. The owl references Kokosing, reportedly an Indian word meaning "owl creek." The bracketing date makes a connection to the year the group was founded. Many have passed through it since, of course. It said Kokosingers on the back, in a blackletter face.

This time we settled on a long-sleeve black tee.

For some reason, I had been looking at a suite of prints that my wife wisely scooped up at an estate sale a few years back. Gerlach's Allegories–a turn-of-the-20th-century German enterprise–relies on personification to create high-minded yet silly and grandiloquent representations of the arts, etc. Just the sort of thing that drove insurgent modernists batty. What claptrap!

Consider this:

on its face, a goofy cultural product. Mostly draped women, posing with musical instruments, offered as embodiments of the arts, echoing the tradition of the classical Muses. But when you think about it, the level of artifice is fairly modest by postmodern standards.

Here are several figures from these allegorical plates:

The first, above, is a detail of the left panel in Plate No. 1, shown in toto above. She's L'amour, natch.

A second, from another ensemble set. Plate 5. Animato: lively music.

And finally, the introduction of a Satyr, a half-man half goat associated with Pan, and pipe-playing. The Satyrs were Dionysian fellows, friends of song as well as grape. The Satyr here does his allegorical bit in Plate 43.

Cut to tee shirt design problem: pastoral setting, musical content. 

There is a college song set to a traditional hymn tune that goes:

Old Kenyon, we are like Kokosing,
Obedient to some strange spell,
Which urges us from all reposing,
Farewell Old Kenyon, Fare thee well.

Every Kokes concert finishes with this song. At the very beginning of the project I'd zeroed in on "some strange spell" as an opportunity. Now, I thought, Satyrs + Nymphs would give me music and  mischief. Through Dionysian inference, drinking and sex might also be involved. A sort of Midsummer Night's Dream, with an emphasis on the Roman. Plus Pan's pipes could easily stand in for a pitchpipe, a staple of a capella singing.

So I went to work on some figures. I based my Satyr on the Gerlach's print. (Immediately I wondered: what was he doing with his right hand? Is he listening for the melody?) I also worked up a Nymph, based loosely on the L'amour figure above, particularly her weight and her left arm.

Because the pencil came right off a sketchbook page, I didn't have the luxury of adding extra paper and working out the scale and spacing relationships in the pencil. (I also redrew both figures about ten times, so the paper was beginning to give out.) So I made a few notes to myself and scanned the page. I made adjustments in Photoshop, creating an implied space that puts the Satyr closer to the viewer, with the Nymph further back.

Ultimately I discarded the Satyr's upstage "listening" gesture, and let him brace his weight with that hand instead.

Next I inked the pencil to create more graphic forms. (No scan of that.) Then I rebuilt the forms in Illustrator, working with two-color logic. I kept the contrast low in the workfile, knowing that the image would have to work as a mid-value positive and a light value negative, all floating on a black field.

A working version:

Ultimately, I got the result I wanted: my Satyr may have less than honorable motives, but the Nymph on whom his sights are fixed will more than hold her own. Some on the reunion committee were confounded (Who's the Devil guy? That's weird.) but others were supportive. (It should be a little naughty and a bit weird. That's who we are, or at least were.)

So the picture went on the back of the shirt, pretty large, with the type as shown above. (That's Girard Slab Narrow Bold, from House Industries.)

This type went on the left breast. I supplied the accent because I hate hearing the word mispronounced, as in Koko the Clown.

Which is no knock on him, personally. 

Finally I have been looking at these allegorical women, utterly on display, high-minded and alluring, and I have been struck by how incredibly contemporary they are. I recently confessed via a tweet that I have become transfixed by the cultural slot machine that is Instagram. Refresh! And again! waiting on the next fix of visual data. An empirical bonanza, rapid fire evidence.

In addition to pets, hair braiding and frantically colored manicures (among many others), sultry self-advertising women make up an unmistakable subcategory of Instagram images.

Truly, all Gerlach's 19th century allegorical women are missing are iPhones and bathroom mirrors. Who needs all the grandiloquent costuming and the illustrator? Go straight to the source.

Then and now. Or now and then.

The above right image is from the Instagram feed of Ashley Nichole King, whose twitter name is @Karamelbombshel. And the color video still about halfway up is from Katy Perry's California Gurls, 2010. Directed by Matthew Cullen; Artistic Direction by Will Cotton.

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