A Whispering Medium

Silverpoint is relatively rarely seen nowadays, but it remains a delicate medium for drawing. Putting a point of real silver onto gessoed paper allows the same kind of fine detail and fragility to be expressed that are characteristic of harder graphite pencils’ work. The effect is of pale and careful imagery, a wisp of smoke, a mist, a whisper.Drawing: Silverpoint Apples

There’s an appealing air of the arcane to a medium that’s old and seldom used nowadays, and silverpoint qualifies on both counts. It’s also effective, as I found in my little experiments, on a black background to create gently ghostly drawings, but as ghosts seem wont to do, has a tendency to disappear at the slightest whiff of air, since oxidation darkens silver and it becomes less and less visible against the dark ground. Of course, that very ephemeral quality might be a further attraction, an encouragement to see the medium as a passing fancy best appreciated ‘fresh’ and gone in the blink of an eye.

Drawing: Silverpoint Blueberries

This is, after all, an age in which change comes at an ever-increasing speed and in growing quantities, and we become accustomed to nearly everything having the shelf life of a mayfly at best. We adapt, we move on. Yet we crave the sense of permanence and connection, so here I am marking in graphite over the top of the silverpoint as it fades, or scanning the images to enhance the contrast while it can still be seen. And while I still love the sense of tactile attachment and involvement that writing longhand, pencil on paper, gives me even when I’m up to my elbows in graphite dust, not to mention hoping that the neural connections such physical action reinforces better than keyboard manipulations will stay with me longer somehow, what do I do with my writings? Transcribe the scribbles to the electronic medium by sitting at my keyboard afterward anyway.

So passes our world; we labor with new tools to speed things up, revisit and relish the old methodology and tools to slow down and remember, and then run back to catch up with the new again. We, too, are ephemeral as faint images, as ghosts, and we feel our mortality even as we strive to make our marks on the world while passing through it. Our tiny voices and messages may be lost in the ether forever, and that, almost at the instant of their making, but the urge to tell our tales remains. Our little silver trails will fade, but we will have moved on elsewhere as well.

The Power of Being Well Behaved

When I was teaching, I thought it useful to devote a bit of the informational materials I handed out at the beginning of every term to basic issues of classroom decorum. The idea that so-called common courtesy has to be taught, not just to children but to all ages, is no less ridiculous than understanding constant the need for training and refreshing what is called common knowledge or common sense. Generations have passed since people saw a need to comment on or complain about the uncommonness of all of these virtues.

More significantly, as a teacher I knew that if I didn’t encourage, if not demand, attention to such virtues in my classroom there was little hope of any other sort of learning happening in there. I’m old-fashioned that way. The silly thing is probably that it was only after leaving teaching that I thought very clearly about how much these attitudes mattered in any and every kind of cooperative venture, not only in the classroom but in the boardroom, the living room, and certainly in the places where politics, religion, health care, social activities and civic progress are in progress. At least, if we want actual progress to occur.

And that’s how my two cents came out as a personalized set of ten ‘commandments’. Ah, well. I’m kind of a megalomaniac, and I did feel the need to keep my eyes on what was happening.pen & ink


for getting along with Kathryn

I   Come to class unless you are dead.

II   Show up on time. Lectures don’t always begin on the dot of the class-starting time, but if a deadline is stated as “beginning of class, 18 March” and you  arrive one minute late, technically I can tell you that you missed the deadline and so your project is rejected. Flunked. That’s harsh. But trust me, it’s fair. Besides, it’s a safe bet that if the lecture does start on time and you miss part of it, I’m not going to be terribly enthusiastic about repeating myself and your classmates who have just heard the stuff will definitely not be amused to have it reiterated. Be in place, cell phone and watch alarms and headsets off and fully participating in class, and we’ll all get along famously. Hurray for good manners!

III   Bring all assigned materials and have them in ready-to-use position when class starts. Written tests, especially pop quizzes, are uncommon in my classes (they do exist), but notes and written critiques can be required at any time. Be ready. Write down everything, and date it. Even if I don’t say you have to. Then you have documentation of what I told you (and when) if I should change plans inexplicably or you have a question. Also, it makes you look attentive and enthusiastic whether you are or not.

IV   Flattery will get you places. Forget that baloney about it getting you nowhere. You lose nothing by Making Nice with people and attempting to impress them with your admirable and outstanding qualities; they might even enjoy buying into the whole idea. It’s an excellent tool for impressing others, this making them think you find them worthwhile and fabulous. Conversely, the quickest way to turn a potential ally into a pain in the neck is to belittle, ignore, challenge the primacy of, argue with or antagonize her. Diplomacy and tact mean that you can frankly say, “I disagree,” or “what do you think of _____,” and get a respectful hearing. We are only human (if we’re lucky).

V   By the way, if your death prevents your attending class, call and let me know in advance.

VI   If you have big plans, talk to me. It’s possible that your previous experience with and knowledge of this topic mean you can quickly “test out” of the class requirements and go forward into a more challenging and personally fulfilling independent project. If so, let’s work together to get maximum use out of your time and energies.

VII   If you feel out of your depth, it’s okay to swim over to the shallow end and meet with me privately by appointment. Probably all you need is a bit of individual coaching beyond what’s available or comfortable in class time. Of course, if you’ll kindly risk asking the question in class, there are always others who benefit by having their identical question answered, and probably your learning it together will make it simpler.

VIII   Ignorance shouldn’t embarrass you. Holding on to ignorance should. You’re in class, presumably,because you don’t know Everything yet, same as the rest of us.  So ask your “stupid question,” please. Real stupidity is avoiding or refusing to try or doing something wrong because fear of lowering yourself prevented your asking the question that would’ve resolved the problem.

IX   Be patient. Spend the time. Attempt the highest levels of craftsmanship and professionalism. Pay attention to the tiniest detail.

X   Be bold and adventurous. Climb out of ruts. Seek a new perspective on the familiar and become familiar with the alien. Look for connections. Expect the infinite.