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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Maybe ReThink London should Remember Detroit

Recently I read a very positive take on a new building in town — a four story condo. According to the author, the new units are selling very well — so well that the developer has applied to the city council’s planning committee for permission to begin construction of the second phase. This is ahead of schedule.

The Nuvo Condos promise luxury living.
I drove by the building to have a closer look. It is actually quite nice. I think it looks much better in the flesh than in pictures. Yet, I still didn't like it. It is not the building itself that turns me off but the company it keeps. The new structure is sitting on the edge of an absolutely massive highrise housing development, possibly the largest, densest grouping of tall apartment buildings in all of the London area. When seen from some angles I call it a taste of Hong Kong.

This is the neighbourhood Nuvo in which Nuvo finds itself.
Please don't misunderstand, I am not against highrises. I loved the highrise in which I lived forty years ago in Toronto. That building was sitting in a neighbourhood of private homes, near parks, near the Danforth, near the subway. Almost all parking was underground.

For the most part, these tall London buildings sit apart, divorced from the surrounding city. Walk out the front door of one of these monoliths and walk into a parking lot — acres of asphalt cover the neighbourhood. Cars are parked around the buildings, in low-level parking garages nearby and probably underneath as well.

It is all very practical. Truth is folk prefer to park above ground that brave an underground parking garage. But that fact doesn't make all the acres of parking visually pleasing. But, I must begrudgingly admit, these buildings do seem to work. The do a yeomanlike job of providing a roof over people's heads.

I can't fault critics for saying these look like "the projects."
Some folks see these and see what are known as "the projects" in the States. These are not the disgraced projects. Furthermore, the projects did not fail because of architecture despite the prevailing mythology.

I do not like these buildings, successful or not. One must be careful not to equate success with good. People for the most part are good and good people need affordable housing. Clump a lot of these good people together in decent, clean, practical housing and you may well have a successful development. But, and it is a big but, this does not mean it could not be done better.

To learn how this is done, one need look no further than Detroit and its Palmer Park Heritage Apartment District. This was an area I knew well as a young man back when I was going to art school in Motown back in the mid '60s. This was one cool place to live. It was a stigma free high density neighbourhood

Palmer Park Apartment District: Photo by Andrew Jameson
I used to visit friends living in Palmer Park. The neighbourhood was very walkable with ice cream stores, hamburger joints and beer and wine stores nearby. Every thing a student could want.

Actually, the walk could be a little long, depending upon where in the area one lived, but the area was just so interesting: Moorish arches, art deco buildings, lots of stained glass. As an art student I was in heaven.

And when one tired of strolling the apartment lined streets, there was Palmer Park itself, with its fountain, tennis courts, miles of biking trails and Palmer Pond for ice skating in the winter. And Woodward Avenue was right there. It was a quick trip to some of the best shopping in the world.

 Read what the United States National Park Service says:

From 1925 to 1965, 40 buildings were constructed, with the majority built in the 1920s and 1930s, to accommodate middle-class and upper middle-class tenants. The Palmer Park Apartment Buildings reflect the latest concepts and technology in multiple-family housing unit design from the time and are excellent examples of various exotic architectural styles such as the Egyptian, Spanish, Mediterranean, Venetian, Tudor, and Moorish Revival styles. 

Today, sadly, the district has fallen on tough times. This is no surprise as this is Detroit. Detroit has lost tens of thousands of high-paying jobs and hundreds of thousands of residents. Detroit's neighbourhoods are deserted and decaying not because they were bad but because there were no people left to live in them. The exodus of jobs and of people left no one to buy the homes offered for sale, even when the asking price was but a fraction of their former value.

Keeping the above in mind, let's take a Google Street Views tour of the Palmer Park Historic Apartment District.

The entrance to the district off Woodward Avenue at Merton Road.
Proceeding down Merton Road but still close to Woodward Avenue. 
As interesting inside as out: Cool doors, hallways, lots of wood, stained glass.
Porches on this Manderson Road apartment were popular gathering places.

Not all the apartments were massive. Note the two on the right.
Covington Drive apartment faces Palmer Park itself. Note good condition.
Parkview Apartment on Covington Drive is simple but still stylish.
The district had more than apartments: Churches, stores, parkland, schools . . .
The Woodward streetcar line may be long gone but there are plans to bring it back, bigger and better. The U.S. Department of Transport has announced a planned $137 million dollar M-1 Rail project to revitalize the Woodward Avenue Corridor.

The J.L. Hudson flagship store is gone and closer to Palmer Park the rows of business which once lined Woodward are also just memories. On the plus side, the Fox Theatre and the new home of the Detroit Tigers are both on Woodward Avenue. Even Palmer Park has had a revival of sorts. I've seen pictures of the fountain in the park, forgotten and sprouting trees in its empty pool. Today the fountain has been cleaned up and looks rather welcoming.

Palmer Park, not as grand as it once was, but still a very nice urban space.

 If you found this interesting, you might like to mark this date on your calendar: Friday, October 4, 2013. This is when the Third Annual People for Palmer Park Historic Architecture Tour will be held. You can visit Detroit and view the work of some of Detroit’s finest architects. For tickets and more information, click on the following link: Tour.

I just wish I could interest the London planning department and the London city council to visit the Palmer Park Historical Apartment District. We don't have to build Moorish style or art deco looking apartments but surely we don't have to build so many filing cabinets for people either.

Maybe ReThink London should remember Detroit.

An apartment complex even Le Corbusier might hate.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Prophets, by definition, are ahead of their time

Recently I had reason to think about Phil McLeod. He was one of the editor-in-chiefs at The London Free Press while I worked there. McLeod is famous, or infamous depending upon whom you talk to, for the cluster system that was put in place in the newsroom about two decades ago.

On a personal level, I liked Phil and so did my wife. She met Phil at a Free Press event and found him to be a pleasant fellow, very congenial. A man who knew how to put one at ease in a social setting. He seemed to be a "nice guy" with a "nice smile," my wife said. She found him warm.

Her observations fly in the face of some of the stuff that one can find on the Net. The quotes on the Net are from staff who worked with Phil during the redesign period and these remarks are often harsh.

It is interesting to look back on the cluster experiment and the extreme reaction it elicited in the newsroom. As I recall, I could check as I still have a lot of my cluster instructions in a box in my basement, Phil wanted us all to tackle more stuff. To expand our interests and break out of the traditional mold that we each found ourselves in. He wanted us to get creative.

The following is from a journalism article in a 1994 Ryerson publication:

The bold experiment that the article described was the cluster system, a radically different approach to the way stories are developed, reported, and presented. In the conventional newsroom one assignment editor directs 40 or so reporters. By contrast, under the cluster system, editorial employees belong to one of a half-dozen or so small groups, each of which generates stories under broad themes: "work/wealth," for example, or "applause." The theory is that working collaboratively leads to better story ideas and better stories. In the case of the Free Press, there were other goals too: according to Mcleod, these were a happier, more flexible staff and a "more responsive, attractive, and useful paper."

It should have been a huge break with the traditional newsroom of the past. It wasn't. Almost everyone dug in their heels: reporters, editors and photographers. The cluster system limped along at first, then slowly ground to a halt — stymied by the resistance of the newsroom staff and others. In the end, the cluster system only existed on paper. The truth is the cluster system was never given a fair trial.

At least, it failed to get a fair trial then. Now, it may be different. You see, after two decades of cutbacks, layoffs and buyouts, the newspaper newsroom is running awfully thin. I have heard from reporters who tell me that they come into work and are asked to write an editorial as the editorial department of old is gone. Then they are asked to cover a story and file both written copy for tomorrow's paper and a short stand-up report for an online video. The reporter may also be asked to supply the photo that accompanies their story in the paper and online. Oh for the days of the cluster and not today's almost one-man-band.

The Ryerson article mentioned earlier also quoted Phil McLeod as saying that the new system was providing "flashes of what tomorrow might look like." You know, he was right. And in retrospect the cluster system looks awfully good.

Keep your nose out of my snout nose neighbourhood

Phil McLeod, the former editor-in-chief of The London Free Press and one of those behind The Londoner, is a rather influential fellow in town. When he writes something, a lot of folk listen.

Therefore, it was with some dismay that I read his recent post on turning London, Ontario, into a smart city. It's going to "require visionary leadership," he tells us. I say, "Maybe. But go heavy on the leadership and light on the visionary."

It seems Phil McLeod lives in the Greater Oakridge area of London, an area of mostly traditional suburban housing according to McLeod. He insultingly refers to his area's homes as being snout nose homes.

My narrower definition of snout nose housing excludes many of the Oakridge homes. In Toronto, I've come across whole streets where the line of garages obliterated the lawns and hid the front doors. In some cases, the wide garages built on narrow lots pushed the front doors to the sides of the homes. Those are snout nose homes.

McLeod says about his neighbourhood, "there is also a depressing sameness about the homes." Which causes me to wonder why he even lives in the area. If he isn't a senior, he soon will be. He has enough money to live in an area that he doesn't find depressing. Why does he live in Greater Oakridge?

But, I am wandering away from the point I'd like to make and that is for many years in many places we had what is now known as smart housing. It was common and in many cases it is now gone. Until folk like Phil McLeod understand why, to a great extent, smart housing disappeared, they will not understand how to bring it back.

In a future post, I'll look at why many older smart housing neighbourhoods disappeared. There are a number of clear causes. For now, I'd like to leave you with a picture of some smart housing that is still in use in Detroit, Michigan.

Still a fine looking residential building. Good materials last a long time.

Stores below, apartment above. My aunt in Brantford, ON, lived above a store.

Is it good design that has kept some areas of Detroit vibrant?
These examples, all from the Detroit of today, look good in these frame grabs from Google Street Views. What cities in the recent past, like Detroit, Windsor, Toronto, Montreal, etc., had back in the mid part of the last century is what we should be striving for today in our all too rapidly expanding cities.

London leaders, like Phil McLeod, should forget the futurist jargon. The answers to many of our urban density problems are as near as the not so distant past.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Science and Technology Knowlege Quiz online

There is an interesting Science and Technology Knowledge Quiz posted online by the Pew Research Center. If you are going to take it, read no farther. If not, read on.

I thought the questions were incredibly easy. Are electrons smaller than atoms? (Of course they are, electrons are building blocks of atoms.) Which natural resource is extracted in a process known as “fracking”? (Surprisingly, only half the senior taking the test got this right and answered natural gas. I'd have thought anyone who was retired would be following the growth of fracking and the subsequent drop in price of natural gas. Some of my nicest dividend paying stocks wilted thanks to fracking.)

The test is fun to take, especially if you do well, I did. But reading the results is an eye opener. My age group, those over 65, did just about the worst of all age groups on most questions.

College grads led with the number of right answers; there was only one question I noted where the college grads didn't lead the pack.

If you are wondering how men did compared to women, I'm not answering that sexist question; You'll have to look up the answer for yourself.

The results of those who only had a high school education or less were so close to the numbers attained by the seniors that I have to believe there was a lot of overlap between the two groups.

Take the test; See how you do.

Sun News: 100% Canadian? Not really, and not always news

Sun News claims to be 100% Canadian.
Blogger Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen made an  interesting observation: The video that Sun News showed the CRTC to argue the news network uses all Canadian content contained a segment using American actors portraying "older Canadians."

The footage in question can be found on the iStockphoto site, licensed from Morgan Lane Studios of Oregon.

Sun News CRTC Video Presentation with U.S. actors portraying Canadians.

The footage originated with iStockphoto, an online stock photo agency.

"Canadian broadcasting should be Canadian . . . Canadian content matters . . . " according to the Sun News video. The cable network claims to be your 100% Canadian source for news.

Sleazy stock photo and news story.
Using stock photography to illustrate news stories is cheap, and all too common, but it's the Sun Media/Quebecor approach to covering the news. The London Free Press, where I once worked, now part of the Sun Media/Quebecor chain, often uses stock photos to illustrate news stories. Sad. (In the paper's defence, the stories using the cheesy art often originate with QMI.)

What is wrong with using off-the-shelf art to illustrate news stories? Well, it reinforces clichéd, stereotypical thinking and, worse, it may not depict the truth. Sadly, it is the next logical step in the Sun Media/Quebecor approach to news.

Do you recall the uproar when a Canadian court ruled women in Canada could legally go bare-breasted in public? Sun Media went wild. When the Ottawa Sun couldn't find a woman baring her breasts on the local beach, a couple of models were hired. Sun Media wasn't going to let reality get in the way of a good story.

The models had limits for news shoot.
The really sad part of the Sun stunt was that the paper moved the phony images on the wire. CP carried the picture and their partner in the States, AP, picked it up. The New York Times ran one of the pictures to illustrate a story on topless beaches. The picture was used to support the claim that bare breasted women were common on beaches near the Canadian capital. Common if they are paid models, modest Canadian models.

Presenting the news in an objective, accurate manner has always been hard — good journalism is tough — but under the rule of Sun Media/Quebecor journalism in Canada has suffered.

This is not to say the CBC is not without its flaws. It has 'em, too. One need look no farther than CBC morning anchor Heather Hiscox and her frequent discussions with Kevin O'Leary. When he's finished ranting, Hiscox graciously thanks O'Leary for his great insights, saying they are always appreciated.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being polite, with being gracious. But, we all know that O'Leary is not always right nor insightful. Surely Hiscox could unsheathe her once formidable journalistic skills to engage the braggart and buffoon when the need arises. Journalism is about getting at the truth; The Hiscox-O'Leary discussions are about show business.

I know Hiscox from her UWO days when she was earning a masters degree in journalism and I wonder if treating O'Leary like a respected business journalist doesn't grate on her journalistic sensibilities. The CBC itself says online about O'Leary:

"O’Leary’s presence is unique in CBC news and information programming. . . . He is employed not to be a journalist . . . he is not positioned as a journalist. Nor does he present news content as a journalist would."

Yes, it is not just Sun Media/Quebecor that are guilty of shoddy journalism, but the Quebecor group plays the tune and the CBC is all too ready to dance to it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Manufacturing in London, ON: Lots of reasons for decline

This post has been attracting a lot of attention, but not from Londoners, from people surfing the net searching for information on why Southwest Ontario cities, and others, are fighting stubborn unemployment numbers. Here are the threats to employment noted in the following blog post:

  • outsourcing
  • obsolete technologies
  • business mergers
  • automation
  • reshoring

For more details, read the rambling post.

There was an interesting article in The London Free Press on the 9.6 percent unemployment rate in my Southwest Ontario city. To understand this distressing number, the article instructs us, "Look at your shoes." I did. Well actually, I looked at my granddaughter's — at her Crocs.

My granddaughter's Crocs cost $36.35. Why can't these be made in Canada?

The collapse of the shoe making industry, both locally and across the region, was being used by the writer to illustrate the implosion of local industry under the continuing pressure of outsourcing, the moving of jobs offshore. "Globalization happens," we're told.

The writer justifies the outsourcing, telling us, "Check out the rows of stitching . . . " Making shoes is labour-intensive piecework requiring workers to cut, stitch and glue materials.

Made in China. Why?
I looked again at my granddaughter's Crocs. I found them to be mainly one piece of molded, soft, pink plastic carrying a Disney fairy tale motif on the toes and a simple, white strap at the heel. Could this shoe not be made in Canada, I wondered.

I found the answer in The Free Press article itself, and the answer is yes. The writer tells us injection-molded footwear is a Canadian success story. Think of Kamik brand boots by Genfoot or the Kodiak brand boots under the control of Williamson-Dickie, Fort Worth, Texas. Some lines of both the Kamik and the Kodiak boot brands are made in Canada.

Made in China, full price of $39.99 only drops to $36.35 online. Incredible!

Did you notice an American company owns the Kodiak brand today? Buy a Canadian made Kodiak boot and support a company in Texas. Makes you think.

I started this post to investigate outsourcing. Globalization may happen but should it? We're told companies outsource to stay competitive. The resulting globalization keeps prices low, making products cheaper to buy by those consumers who still have jobs.

I think of my granddaughter's Crocs again: $40. And I think the argument that outsourcing is done to help the consumer may also be a crock.

There are, of course, more examples of stuff made offshore but still selling at a premium price. I am sure you, the reader, can think of some. We're all familiar with stuff like shirts, pants and sweaters now made in China or Bangladesh or Mauritius which seem to cost just about what they did when they were made in Canada.

I googled the idea that globalization is not all it is cracked up to be. I discovered Yunchuan "Frank" Liu, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois. Liu says consumers are paying artificially higher prices for many goods thanks to outsourcing. Liu was quoted by the university News Bureau:

"Outsourcing is a topic that affects just about everyone, and the general consensus is that it's bad because American workers will lose jobs because of it," he said. "Most people only focus on the job-displacement angle, but very few people have questioned how it affects consumers and competition in the marketplace."

Liu discovered some firms "are unwilling to pass along the savings they've reaped from outsourcing production and labor . . . " If you want to know more, click the link: Study.

While outsourcing may not always provide the promised benefits, it always delivers the promised pain. And outsourcing does not always mean moving jobs offshore. Sometimes it can mean moving jobs from say London to another place in the province.

For instance, there was a time when a subscriber calling The London Free Press to report a missed paper reached a circulation employee working out of the York St. building. I believe London lost more than a dozen jobs when the paper outsourced that work to a group in Ottawa.

The newspaper graphics department didn't go as far when it was outsourced. The in-house department was closed, the work moved to Woodstock and the staff offered their old jobs back but at a reduced wage with reduced benefits.

Sometimes outsourcing can be done simply by firing staff and finding others willing to perform the same work for less. At one time The London Free Press owned a fleet of trucks for delivering the paper. The drivers were all Free Press staff, the trucks were maintained on site by company mechanics working in The Free Press garage. Today, the trucks and their drivers are outsourced, the company garage is closed and all the mechanics are gone. Again, high paid jobs have been eliminated and the jobs that remain are poorly paid in comparison with the past.

But outsourcing, be it local or global, is not the only thing killing jobs in London. To outsourcing, we can add the following:
  • obsolete technologies
  • business mergers
  • automation
  • reshoring

The Free Press can be used to illustrate the next two job killers.

When I started in the newspaper business a huge back shop brimming with staff was required to put out a daily paper. For instance, there were Linotype operators tapping out stories in molten lead. The computer made the Linotype machines obsolete and then, almost overnight, made almost every other job in the back shop obsolete. Today you can count on your fingers the people left working in The Free Press back shop. Dozens of jobs have been lost and they won't be coming back; They're obsolete — gone like the buggy whip.

The next job killer is the company take-over. This merging of businesses, often competitors, is always claimed to offer the benefit of synergies. The Free Press was taken over by Sun Media. The Free Press suffered a layoff. Sun Media was absorbed by Quebecor. The Free Press and Sun Media suffered layoffs. Sometimes I think synergy is just a fancy name for job cutbacks, layoffs.

Then there is automation. More and more robots are showing up on the factory floor. They paint, they weld, they lift, move and mix. These jobs are also gone for good. Some were dangerous, many were tedious, all are done better by machine. A robot now wields the spray-gun in electro-static spray booths and even some old-time painters are glad to see that job taken over by a machine.

Reshoring is the last cause of job loss and it is especially prevalent in London. Electro-Motive Diesel is a prime example of reshoring. EMD moved a lot of jobs from La Grange, Illinois, to London in the about two decades back. To the thousands and thousands of La Grange workers left unemployed by the move, London represented an outsourcing destination. With the U.S. in the midst of a "Buy American" movement, and with the Canadian dollar trading at par with the greenback, the time was right for the reshoring of EMD.

London wants to attract new businesses to the community. To this end, depending upon whose numbers you believe, up to $19 million in taxpayer money has been used to entice Dr. Oetker into setting up shop in London.

Funny, isn't it? Dr. Oetker, with reported revenue of €7.7 billion and with 23,000 employees worldwide, needed $19 million to be coaxed into locating in London. I recall a time when London businesses located in London because the business owners lived here. They didn't have to be paid to build their plant in their hometown; they just did it. It as logical. And they didn't demand to be paid to locate here but they gave, and gave generously, in support of their hometown.

The closed McCormick biscuit and candy factory in London.
Think of Thomas McCormick, founder of McCormick's Biscuits and Cookies. The word philanthropist comes to mind as one recalls the McCormick Home also founded by Thomas McCormick.

Now, think of Marc Leder, the fellow many claim closed the McCormick plant leaving the remaining staff unpaid, their pensions unhonoured. The word philanthropist, at least here in London, does not come to mind.

Many Londoners don't realize McCormicks brand candy is now made in Brazil.

The McCormick plant is closed, damaged by fire a few months ago it may well be demolished. But the McCormick brand of candies is still going; The candies are made in Brazil and imported into Canada by a company in Laval, Quebec. Some bags show a picture of the old London plant and others carry a write-up detailing the McCormick history.

London's biscuit and candy factory died from changes in ownership and the resulting supposed synergies. It died from outsourcing. And there are those who would argue one more cause must be added to the list: greed.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The CBC is right; Canadian hospitals are dirty.

Blood smeared toilet, St. Joe's hospital, London, ON. St. Joe's rated A+ by CBC.

According to the CBC, dirty hospital rooms are a top concern for Canadians. It seems the fifth estate conducted an online survey looking into, among other things, the perceived cleanliness of Canadian hospitals.

"Nearly a third of respondents, who included patients, health care workers and relatives and friends of patients, said hospital rooms and bathrooms were not kept clean."

I'm a big booster of the Canadian health care system. My family and I have benefited greatly from the system but that doesn't mean the system is above criticism. As much as I consider myself lucky to be living in Canada, I must confess that there is a rundown feel to many of our hospitals.

When my youngest daughter gave birth, the room was immaculate and all went smoothing. The doctors and nurses were wonderful, very professional. That said, it is lucky she never had to use the birthing room washroom. It was soiled with blood, both on the floor and the toilet seat. A nurse was informed but nothing was ever done. Without protective gloves, I wasn't eager to clean the room. It was left blood smeared.

Last spring when my wife had to visit the same hospital to receive the results of some medical tests, I went to use the public restroom and found smeared blood on the toilet and the room generally soiled with mystery gunk. I told a nurse about the filthy condition of the restroom but there was no indication anything would be done any time soon.

According to a World Health Organization report, Clean Care is Safer Care, the prevalence of health care-associated infection in Canada is 11.6 percent. I'm sure American Obamacare foes will quickly blame "Canada's socialized health care" for the problem — even though Canada does not have socialized health care. Canada has a single payer system. France, which does have a socialized system, has a rate that is only 38 percent of Canada's — 4.4 percent.

And a country doesn't have to be rich to have a better rate than Canada: Slovenia has a 4.6 percent rate. Heck, the rate in Mongolia is less than half that of Canada's. Mongolia comes in at 5.4 percent.

The rate of health care-associated infection (HCAI) in Canada is one of the highest among high income-countries. The figures used are from 1995 through 2010.

HCAI is an expensive drain on health care systems. According to a report from the ECDC, these infections account for approximately €7 billion per year in direct costs. The story is somewhat similar in the U.S. where $6 billion was expended in 2004. The cost in lost trust in the health care system may be as serious as financial cost.

Champions of the free market may be uncomfortable with one of the CBC findings: privatization of housekeeping may be behind some of the decline in hospital cleanliness. The CBC is not alone in advancing this theory. The Tyee in British Columbia agrees.

"Since the privatization of cleaning services in B.C.'s hospitals, health care workers say they've seen a sharp increase in "health care-associated infections" -- diseases contracted by patients and staff within the hospitals themselves.

"The infections are serious: Methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA). Norovirus. Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE). Clostridium difficile. Once established in a hospital, they're tough to get rid of. Established in a patient, they can be fatal."

The hospital where I have encountered the most filth was one of the London, Ontario, facilities that was involved in the handing out $4.1 million in payouts and perks to hospital executives in the five year period from 2007 to 2012. According to The London Free Press, even Ontario Health Minister Deb Mathers was offended by these payments.

"I'm outraged . . . How much health care could we have bought for that money?"

 . . . and now much cleaning?

Despite the filth I found there, St. Joe's in London, ON, rated A+ by CBC.

I got a shock when I checked the grades received by the Canadian hospitals which were part of the Rate My Hospital CBC survey. The hospital leading the pack was St. Joseph's Health Care London. This is the hospital where I found blood in a birthing room washroom and some months later in a public restroom.

Shot at St. Joe's in London: A+ facility.
This apparent anomaly agrees with one of the claims made by hospital administrators: Dirty hallways, stairwells, and other public areas does not mean surfaces that patients commonly come in contact with are also dirty. The claim is that hospitals, short of funds, put their money and their cleaning where it does the most good.

There may be some truth to the claim.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Children: Artists not craftsmen

Search for the Real: Hans Hofmann
I love my granddaughter's art. And make no mistake, it is art. It is pure art. Craft is beyond her reach. Art, as the term is used here, is creativity, while craft refers to skill.

Think of Hans Hofmann, the well respected artist and teacher who wrote a small but important book on art: The Search for the Real, or think of R.G. Collingwood, the British philosopher who wrote The Principles of Art — click the links and buy the books.

Hofmann is a quick read. Collingwood is a struggle. Clearly, go with Hofmann first.

At the age of ten I took my first art class at what was then the Willistead Art Gallery in Windsor. The classes were held in the coach house of a former estate designed by Albert Kahn, the famous Detroit, Michigan, architect.

The place had great atmosphere. Art and craft were melded together in the amazing home commissioned by the second son of whisky baron Hiram Walker.

As a student, I was far more craftsman than artist. I had good control for a young boy but I prostituted my skill. I used my skill to make quick sketches of Mickey Mouse to sell for a nickle to other students.

Drawing Mickey is easy. Just think circles. I would have taught the other kids how to draw good Mickeys but the art instructor shut down my budding business. Drawing Mickey was not art, at least he was not my art. I was told to leave Mickey to Walt Disney and his cartoon-making factory.

At that time I understood that drawing Mickey was not art. What I failed to understand was that drawing a real mouse was also not art. As long as I was a slave to reality, I was not an artist but a craftsman.

Hans Hofmann tells us: 
  • "Nature’s purpose in relation to the visual arts is to provide stimulus – not imitation. . . . "
  • "The creative process lies not in imitating . . . "

The camera has removed the tyranny of imitation from art but not the pressures of reality. Ink on a page is real. If you question this statement, try and wash the inks stains from a kid's clothing.

When a child puts crayon to paper, the result is real. No one should look at a child's work and say dismissively, "It's all scribbles."

Truth be told, a child's scribbles are more "real" than some very popular "art." I'm thinking here of the work of Thomas Kinkade. Although I admit Kinkade was both artist and craftsman, I think of him more as an entertainer than artist, more magician than painter.

The Treachery of Images: This is not a pipe.
Rene Magrite painted a pipe and declared, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe": This is not a pipe. No, it's not; It's a painting of a pipe. No one can take a child's art and declare, "This is not a scribble."

Fiona, 3, dips her largest brush into a pot of purple paint and declares, "This is a large colour. It needs a large space." I watch in amazement as she proceeds to dominate the white paper with broad, wavy strokes of purple.

When she puts a dab of green at the bottom, I ask her why that colour and why there. She tells me her painting needs something right there and a small green circle is "perstick." Fiona's way of saying "perfect."

Scribbles? Yes — thoughtful scribbles. These are real scribbles not like, I must confess, my scribbles. I only paint imitation scribbles. My scribbles are not honest scribbles like those done by little children.

C'est un griffonnage. Vraiment: It is a scribble. Really. And art.

Why is this important? Does any of this having any bearing on the everyday world? As a matter of fact it does.

Recalls Clement Greenberg and the David Smith's sculptures.
I stumbled on a post on the usually excellent blog Couturier Mommy. The author worked out a method of commandeering her children's art and corrupting it with her own preference for straight-edge design. She sticks masking tape to her children's work surfaces before they begin. When they are finished, she peels away the tape and peels away some of their work. "My kids make Real Art!!" she exclaims.

Yes, they do. And mom destroys it. Ceci n'est pas un griffonnage. (The blogger behind Couturier Mommy has commented on my criticism. I've pasted her polite remarks in the comments area below this post.)

"Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc. . . . "

— Clement Greenberg

If you must have realism, there are still lots of artists working in the realistic vein, although few artists are slaves to realism today. As Fiona told me, and I am sure Hans Hofmann would have agreed, strawberries may be red in the field but they can be purple in a painting.

Grampa Bill hams it up for Fiona.
For realism, why not get an inexpensive digital camera. Satisfy your craving for realism by making your own art. I'm sure there's lots of stuff to be found in the world to excite your artistic sense.

And don't be too frightened to let a child use your point and shoot. Teach them to keep the camera strap wrapped around a wrist or arm for a little insurance against dropping, and you'll be amazed at their photography. Fiona, 3, regularly borrows my small camera.

I've encouraged a friend, who loves both realism in art and orchids, to blend his two loves and shoot pictures of his beautiful flowers. Doing this is a great way to learn to appreciate colour, form and perspective on a flat surface. It may even open one's eyes to the wonders of abstract art.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Scavenger hunt sweetens Easter

Fiona has found another paper Easter egg clue.

Andrea is a fine aunt. She knows how to entertain her niece. She pulls out all the stops when it comes to three-year-old Fiona. Sunday Andrea staged an Easter egg scavenger hunt that kept the little girl, forgive me, hopping.

Another egg clue: This one under the fish bowl.
The big problem with the more traditional Easter egg hunts are the eggs: All chocolate, sugar and fat. Watching excited children find the treats is fun but watching them munching through that mountain of chocolate, sugar and fat is a horror show.

Andrea had a solution: A scavenger hunt. All the excitement without all the junk food.

Andrea hid a dozen or so brightly coloured, egg-shaped pieces of paper around the home. She placed one on the fireplace mantle and hid another in the guest bedroom, Fiona's when she sleeps over.

Each paper egg carried a clue as to the location of the next paper egg. One egg had a picture of a barbecue pasted to it. One look and Fiona was off to the patio barbecue. Finding an image of a fish had Fiona inspecting the bowl holding Phoebe her pet Guppy.

Finding the paper egg clues takes time and thinking. The scavenger hunt delivers lots of fun and creates wonderful memories to savour in the future. The Easter basket found at the end of the hunt can be a rich mix of stuff and not overly heavy on the chocolate eggs.

It wasn't a room where I'd have hidden a clue but it worked. Glad the egg is paper.