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Students of the Open Road: Alec Soth’s Winnebago Workshop

A few weeks ago I found myself in the parking lot behind a small industrial building. It was raining, I was in St. Paul, and I was lost. I knew I was in the right place, though, when I saw a giant RV parked in the corner—even more so when I noticed a cheerful man […]

The pilot program's culminating show. Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

The Winnebago Workshop’s culminating show. Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

A few weeks ago I found myself in the parking lot behind a small industrial building. It was raining, I was in St. Paul, and I was lost. I knew I was in the right place, though, when I saw a giant RV parked in the corner—even more so when I noticed a cheerful man waving enthusiastically at me from the window: Alec Soth. The photographer and his studio, Little Brown Mushroom, have been hard at work on a new project called the Winnebago Workshop, an educational program for teens. In the past, Little Brown Mushroom focused primarily on publishing, while dabbling in educational projects through experiments like the Camp For Socially Awkward Storytellers, a program for mid-career artists that serves as the Winnebago Workshop’s spiritual sister.

Winnebago Workshop is a seemingly straightforward concept: a group of young people are invited to take part in a workshop with Soth that focuses on the art of storytelling. The catch? The workshop lasts a week and takes place on a moving RV. What’s more: the RV is traveling to a destination determined by throwing a dart at a map. Oh, and also: the RV picks up teaching artists along the way. The humble Winnebago RV is essential to the success of the project because, as Soth tells me, photography and writing are “so often best when you’re forced into the world and you’re not behind a screen, sitting in your office.” As he puts it, Winnebago Workshop strives to “give that experience so it’s not in a classroom, it’s out in the world.”

"Is Life a Random Walk?" Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

“Is Life a Random Walk?” Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

The six teenagers who participated in the pilot Winnebago Workshop. Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

The six teenagers who participated in the pilot Winnebago Workshop. Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

During the summer of 2015, Little Brown Mushroom experimented with a precursor program, a weeklong project that consisted of six teenagers and two teaching artists. LBM staffers had thrown around the idea of the Winnebago Workshop for many months and, motivated by the feeling that “we have to do something just to stop talking about it and see what really happens,” Soth launched this pilot program. The group traveled around Minnesota taking photos, telling stories, and discussing ideas. At one stop, as Minneapolis-based artist Andy Sturdevant talked to the teenagers, Soth had his ah-ha moment, realizing that the Winnebago Workshop would indeed work: “The intimacy of being in a vehicle with a visiting artist is so different. And to have an artist talking with students while you’re moving. It was just like, it worked. I felt the goosebumps.”

The focus isn’t on teaching students how to use a camera or how to create good composition. “I don’t care if people use their smartphones,” says Soth, as long as “we can really cut to the meat of the subject matter and of engagement with the world.” A story from Soth about this summer’s Winnebago Workshop encapsulated his goal for students to interact with their surroundings in a real and meaningful way. He recounts:

So we traveled around in the RV. I mean, we would literally throw a dart at a map and go to that place. In one case, the dart hit this rural area, and we thought, you know there’s not going to be anything there. But let’s just go and see what the nearest thing is. And right there is this farm house, and so we were like, “Well, we’re here, we’ve gotta approach.” It ended up being this 75-year-old couple who farms this enormous acreage just by themselves, without their children, without migrant workers, any of it. And the wife takes us down to the basement and shows us her canning system, and the husband takes us and shows us his tractors, and the wife did this little dance for us.

Alec Soth in action. Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

Soth in action. Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

The Winnebago Workshop culminated in a pop-up show projected on the side of the eponymous vehicle in a parking lot in south Minneapolis. There were slideshows and performances by the teenagers, all at a location that was—of course—decided by a dart thrown at a map.

After the success of this summer’s test run, Little Brown Mushroom has decided to go ahead with its plans and officially launch the Winnebago Workshop program. There may be some changes when it does, however, such as encouraging collaboration between participants who are interested in diverse art forms. Soth would like young writers, comedians, and journalists to be part of the Winnebago Workshop and be in dialogue with teenage illustrators, filmmakers, or photographers. “Those lines can be blurred,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

To fund the project’s future, Little Brown Mushroom launched a Kickstarter campaign  in late October (which has already surpassed its fundraising goal). Soth’s aim is to keep the Winnebago Workshop free for all teenagers who participate in the project: much of the funds earned from the Kickstarter will go towards this goal.

After Soth told me about the elderly farmers inviting him and a handful of kids into their home, I asked incredulously if the couple was happy about the situation. “They were!” he responded. “It was a miracle, but it’s the miracle I realize as a photographer all the time. If you go out there, stuff happens, and stuff doesn’t happen if you just sit around thinking about it.” In this age of technophilia, Soth strives to teach teens to leave their computer, get outside, and live—an important lesson that we can all learn, regardless of our age.

Photos displayed on the side of the infamous RV. Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

Photos displayed on the side of the infamous RV. Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.

Photo courtesy Little Brown Mushroom

Inspired by Whitten: Painting with Ed and Jeremy

Ed Charbonneau picked at a layer of plastic wrapped along the edge of a large canvas. Leaning forward, he delicately pulled upwards, raising the Saran wrap away from the painting and lifting up a thick layer of wet paint. A large group of college students who had dropped into this Target Free Thursday Nights program clustered […]

Jeremy in front of one of the three paintings. Photo of Angela Lundberg.Ed Charbonneau picked at a layer of plastic wrapped along the edge of a large canvas. Leaning forward, he delicately pulled upwards, raising the Saran wrap away from the painting and lifting up a thick layer of wet paint. A large group of college students who had dropped into this Target Free Thursday Nights program clustered around the paintings, enjoying the close-up view.  

Standing at a nearby table topped with tubes of oil paint and linseed oil, Jeremy Szopinski demonstrated to a six-year old how to mix oil paint with a palette knife. Jeremy held up a homemade tool that he and Ed created in their St. Paul studio—a giant apparatus composed of twenty hardware store paintbrushes hammered together—and dipped it in paint. Gingerly at first, a teenager picked up the mega-paintbrush. Gaining confidence, he spread it onto the canvas in a curving motion, adding a swathe of bright, textural paint onto the abstract composition of red and orange streaks.  

In another part of the building, a public tour listened to curator Eric Crosby discuss the work of Jack Whitten, a contemporary artist who is the focus of the Walker’s new exhibition, Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting. When looking at Untitled (1970), Crosby explained that Whitten swept everyday objects—in this case, a carpenter’s saw—across layers of wet acrylic paint to create the textured surface.

One can’t help but draw similarities between the ways that Ed, Jeremy, and Whitten used tools—ranging from squeegees, to carpenter saws, house painting tools, and Afro picks—to create texture. And while many museum educators might shy away from oil paint—a medium that takes days to dry, stains clothing, and prompts many complaints about odor—it was clear that people enjoyed rolling up their sleeves and wearing a painter’s smock. Experiencing the creation of a painting from beginning to end allowed visitors to place themselves in Whitten’s studio for the evening.

Jeremy and Ed tearing plastic wrap off their painting. Photo by Angela Lundberg.

Jeremy and Ed tearing plastic wrap off their painting. All photos by Angela Lundberg unless otherwise noted

Participants painting. Photo by Angela Lundberg.

Participants working together. 

Photo by Angela Lundberg.

Two sisters paint together. 

Jeremy explaining the process. Photo by Angela Lundberg.

Jeremy explaining the process. 

Ed mixing oil paint. Photo by Angela Lundberg.

Ed mixing oil paint. 

Photo by Angela Lundberg.

The tools that Jeremy and Ed used included a squeegee and a house painting trim guide , all purchased at a local hardware store. Photo by Angela Lundberg.

The tools that Jeremy and Ed used included a squeegee and a house painting trim guide purchased from a local hardware store. 

Mixing paint. Photo by Angela Lundberg.

Mixing paint. 

Jeremy and Ed at the end of the night, in front of the finished products. Photo by Julia Anderson.

Jeremy and Ed at the end of the night, in front of the finished products. Photo: Julia Anderson

I Love That Photo! Or, An Ode to Solitude

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as the coordinator of Coffee House Press’s In The Stacks program, which places writers and artists into residencies in libraries and archives around the country, it’s that you always start your visit to an archive by looking for the familiar. So, when asked to contribute to the Walker People’s Archive‘s series on the photos we love, […]

<i>Rothko and me</i>.  Submitted by Eric Mueller.

Rothko and Me. Submitted by Eric Mueller

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as the coordinator of Coffee House Press’s In The Stacks program, which places writers and artists into residencies in libraries and archives around the country, it’s that you always start your visit to an archive by looking for the familiar.

So, when asked to contribute to the Walker People’s Archive‘s series on the photos we love, I immediately went looking for museum-goers who, like me, prefer to visit the galleries alone. I found several photos of visitors (including many feral children) who appear to be alone, but who clearly had an unseen companion (the person behind the lens).

<i>Bluuue</i>.  Submitted by Amy Thompson

Bluuue. Submitted by Amy Thompson

Cora<i>Cora in Amazement</i> (2014).  Submitted by Robbie LaFleur

Cora in Amazement (2014). Submitted by Robbie LaFleur

Then I found Alycia Anderson’s submission, Blue BOOM! It’s impossible to tell for sure, but it appears that the young lady found herself a little alone time with the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. And, I have to say, I’m a bit jealous that she (a fellow Scandinavian, perhaps?) was able to enjoy Klein’s signature “fluid” and “consistent” blue unhindered by the visual clutter of other museum-goers, with their jackets and their hair and their purses and their brightly colored Walker pins.

<i>“Blue” BOOM!</i> (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson

“Blue” BOOM! (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson

In 2009, I was living three blocks from the Walker when light/space artist Robert Irwin recreated the scrim piece Slant/Light/Volume (1971) that was first installed at the opening of the Barnes Building in 1971. I tried several times to not only visit the museum alone, but to get the entire Irwin room to myself, as this lucky visitor did. But it never worked out. What would I have done there all alone? Dunno. But I was convinced the experience would be transformative. I had just read Lawrence Weschler’s engrossing biography of Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (University of California Press, 2009), and I was completely taken with his work.

Those of us who visit galleries alone, are we truly looking for solitude? A bustling gallery on a Saturday afternoon rarely provides peace and quiet. But a Thursday morning at, say, 11am? Now you’re talking.

Or are we maybe just looking for love? My friend “T” was visiting the Walker alone recently and found the man of her dreams just waltzing through the galleries.

I think, rather, that we’re just not all equipped, in the moment at least, to fully process what’s before us and form an opinion of it. Especially with artists such as Yves Klein and Robert Irwin.

Against personal protocol, I recently visited both the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with others. Technically, I arrived at Chris Schlichting’s dance performance Stripe Tease alonebut shortly before the program began, a friend arrived (also solo) and plopped down next to me. As the piece wrapped up and we walked toward the cafe for a cup of coffee, she turned to me and said: “You know, someday I hope to have the vocabulary to discuss dance. But right now, I’ve got absolutely nothing to say about that. Nothing!”

A short while later, I visited the MIA with a newish acquaintance to see the MAEP show of a mutual friend. As we passed through the various regional and period rooms en route to the exhibit, she paused, turned to me, and said: “Just so you know, I’m not ready to talk about art with you just yet.”

In both instances, I was happy to comply, happy to talk of simpler things. I was happy to have a companion, but happier yet to be alone with my thoughts, like Alycia in Klein’s sea of blue.

We’re asking folks to pick a favorite photo from the Walker People’s Archive and tell us what they love about it. Want to tell us about your favorite?  Contact WPA Project Manager Jennifer Stampe.

Walker People’s Archive: WPA Revue in Review

In October of last year, the Walker invited me to produce a stage companion to the Walker People’s Archive, the crowd-sourced photographic and anecdotal history launched on the museum’s website earlier that month. After looking over the archive, I met with Jennifer Stampe, project manager for the WPA, and Ashley Duffalo, coordinator of Public and […]

WPA3In October of last year, the Walker invited me to produce a stage companion to the Walker People’s Archive, the crowd-sourced photographic and anecdotal history launched on the museum’s website earlier that month. After looking over the archive, I met with Jennifer Stampe, project manager for the WPA, and Ashley Duffalo, coordinator of Public and Community Programs for the Walker, and we discussed our incipient ideas and settled on a performance date in mid-January. The commission was appealingly open-ended. Ideally, the show would represent, recontextualize, and have fun with the archive, but the means by which it did so was unfixed.

Imagining a variety show that would blend the authentic WPA material with a modest fictional element, I started working on scenes and songs and reached to out to a group of collaborators: actors and codirectors Lara Blackwood Avery, Jenny Adams Salmela, and Bill Schoppert; singer Jayanthi Kyle; and bassist Jeffrey Sugerman. In the end, “The WPA Revue” was composed of three interlaced parts: an emceed slide show of WPA photos and their accompanying text; a lounge act of sorts in which Jayanthi, Jeffrey, and I performed original songs and thematically apt covers while photos flashed by without commentary; and a playlet centered on a fictional Twin Cities family, the Heitkes, Walker patrons and barons of the typewriter industry who fell into embarrassed circumstances with the rise of the personal computer.

The archive itself is a mix of tones: some of the submissions are goofy, others poignant; some are snapshots, others carefully composed. My hope was that the show would echo this tonal mix, that it would be funny but sometimes openly sentimental, loose but considered, and that it would casually treat some of the ideas suggested by the photos.

For instance, the Walker owns or has displayed many pieces made up in part or entirely of reflective surfaces, sometimes both reflective and distorting ones. Not surprisingly, WPA submissions often take advantage of these surfaces toward a kind of funhouse metaphotography. The archive includes selfies taken in one of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, Three Girls on a Balcony, in sculptor Dan Graham’s Two-Way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, in a Morris Graves set piece for Merce Cunningham’s Inlets. These submissions in particular spurred thoughts about memory, photography, distortion, and point of view.

<i>Walker Reflections</i> (2014). Submitted by Marti Gudmundson.

Walker Reflections (2014). Submitted by Marti Gudmundson

<i>DiNino Father and Son Portrait in a Jim Hodges Piece </i>(2014). Submitted by Ben DiNino.

DiNino Father and Son Portrait in a Jim Hodges Piece (2014). Submitted by Ben DiNino

In the show, Lara played Jessica Heitke, an aspiring artist who’s working with a group of photographs found in an alley by her friend Emily. The project has led Jessica to research what psychologists have to say about memory perspective. “In field perspective,” she summarizes to Emily, “you picture the memory more or less as you actually experienced it: through your eyes, watching your hand shake someone else’s hand—you’re the subject. In observer perspective, you see your whole body in the scene, right? As if you’re in a movie or a photo.” (Maybe the vantage of every era and place resembles its signature entertainments: Don Quixote is the hero of novel who believes he’s the hero of a novel; we create online personas and sometimes feel as if we’re the stars of our own biopics.) Emily answers that all of her childhood memories are like photos. “But sometimes that’s because they are photos,” she says. “I don’t know whether I’m remembering the moment or the photo.”

Probably most of us have memories like this; they’re conflations of lived experience, photographic documentation, and the stories that attend the photos. The raw and the cooked blur: the photo might seem to provide evidence for a memory, which we understand to be fallible; or the photo might seem to have altered or created the memory. Now that many of us can easily photograph everything—our parking spaces, our children, our lunches, our outfits, our kegger antics—regular and photographed life are presumably blurring still further. It’s currently conventional to worry that our lives are so mediated that only documented and publicized personal events feel real. The ironies aren’t subtle. On holidays we take a break from our families to post on social media about the importance of spending time with one’s family. We use our phones to post a TV clip of Louis C.K. talking about how estranging current technology is, how it’s a defense against underlying sadness, and how he found an antidote when he stopped to weep over a Bruce Springsteen recording playing on his car radio. In other words, we see new technology as phony, impoverishing, defensive; old technology as authentic, enriching, cathartic. (I mean, I’m with the comedian to a point: I love the Boss and have resisted getting a cell phone, which is how I know how easy it is to get sentimental over this stuff.)

The last time I went to the Getty Museum, another visitor stepped in front of me to get an obstructed photo of—I don’t know, some painting. I kept an eye on this ludicrous man for a while and found that he was swiftly moving though the galleries, apparently photographing every piece of art the Getty then had on view. (If only I’d had a camera, I could have photographed him photographing art, à la Thomas Struth.) As I’ve already let on, I felt superior to this man shooting rather than seeing art, art that had already been professionally photographed and could in most cases be viewed on the Getty’s fine website. Then again, it wasn’t as if my viewing that day was terribly deep or concentrated: I can’t remember the painting the man stepped in front of, after all, and for several minutes he interested me far more than the art did. Who knows, maybe he’s not a compulsive collector of photographic souvenirs, but rather a postmodern aesthete who can only enjoy art at one remove. I count as favorites many paintings that I’ve only seen in reproduction, or that first caught my eye through a photo. Case in point: I had stood in front of Günther Uecker’s White Field before seeing Alycia Anderson’s WPA photo of it, but only her close-up made me a fan.

<i>Wondering at White Field</i> (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson.

Wondering at White Field (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson

When my mother-in-law was in hospice a few years ago, my wife posted a few old family photographs to Facebook. The moment I saw these photos (alone at my computer), I started to cry, more than I did, it turned out, at the funeral a week or so later. Partly I was responding to the outpouring of support for my wife and her sisters in the comments section, but also there was something about how the images looked on the screen. I thought immediately of the photos that turn up with the closing credits for based-on-a-true-story movies, those yellowing snapshots of the actual person whose life has just been dramatized. Those photos tend to prod tears as well, and I found myself in an ambivalent spot: I was having a profound, genuine emotional experience that was triggered in part by its association with kitschy, manipulative TV movies. To get to the real, I had to summon the fake.

Our show ended with Jessica and Emily sitting and talking in James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, a piece Jessica was originally wary of because she suspected, at second hand, “a certain coercive spirituality.” Her view has changed by the last scene, though, and she and Emily have a tender, perhaps transcendent, moment inside the piece, a moment of tenderness and transcendence that they self-consciously decide to preserve with simultaneous cell-phone snapshots. Then—I suppose I was thinking again of those TV movies—the selfies were projected on the Walker Cinema’s screen and (a recorded) Robert Smith, of the Cure, started singing, “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you / that I almost believe that they’re real.”

Cat is Art Spelled Wrong: Making a Book About Cat Videos

pileofcats2

There are plenty of cat books out there in the world.

book-cats-collages

Clockwise: Fashion Cats, Why Paint Cats, The Big New Yorker Book of Cats, Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book

But of all the cat books out there, there is no book quite like the book that Coffee House Press (with help from the Walker Art Center) aims to publish next fall. Using the Internet Cat Video Festival (#catvidfest) as inspiration,we’re currently working on a book that is all about cat videos: why we love them, why we hate them, and why we are powerless to resist them. There’s just something about cat videos.

Substantial research on our end helps confirm that statement:

catvidfest3years

The Internet Cat Video Festival in (top-bottom) 2012, 2013, 2014

In order to fund this book, and the many moving parts that an effort of this size entails, Coffee House Press has launched Catstarter – a Kickstarter that’s cat-themed. For all intents and purposes, it acts as a way for you to pre-order your copy of the book, titled Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, get it shipped directly to you, and, oh yeah, get your name printed in it as a token of appreciation.

The book will take the form of a collection of essays – thoughtful, varied, and by a roster of some of our favorite writers and friends, including Matthea Harvey, Alexis Madrigal, Rhonda Lieberman, Elena Passarello, Stephen Burt, Jillian Steinhauer, Kevin Nguyen, Sasha Archibald, Will Braden, Joanne McNeil, and Carl Wilson. (Fun fact: Wilson’s book about Celine Dion for the 33 1/3 series, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Bad Taste, was a huge source of inspiration for the project for Coffee House Press’ Caroline Casey. Although it seems odd to mention Celine Dion and cat videos in the same sentence… is it really?)

Already the book has gotten some love from Cool HuntingThe Washington Post, and ARTINFO.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. Take it from Henri, le Chat Noir:

Read more about the project and  support Catstarter today! 

As we’re sure you’re aware, with Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing. The project must be funded in full by Saturday, September 13 or it will see exactly $0 of the pledged funds.

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