Sketchbook Skool, P1
New York based artist, best-selling author, and former advertising executive Danny Gregory is the charming, humorous, and thoughtful co-founder of SketchbookSkool.com - an online art school that provides six-week video “art kourses” to aspiring and experienced artists for a flat-fee of $99.
Danny launched the innovative new start-up in March 2014 together with co-founder, Dutch artist Koosje Koene. Danny and Koosje have designed a flexible learning program that allows students to learn what they want, when they want, without the hassles of strict schedules and boring year-long lectures. Instead, Danny and Koosje propose to create high-quality inspirational video instruction focused entirely on sketchbook illustration and journaling, with each “klass” taught by six different artists. Now in its second semester, Sketchbook Skool, which is completely self-funded, has already attracted over 4,500 students, and is quickly attracting many more.
Danny’s career path has been an intriguing one. After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in Politics, Danny worked as an advertising copywriter. He later became Chief Creative Officer of one agency, and then Executive Creative Director and Managing Partner of another. After his wife Patti was paralyzed in a tragic subway accident, Danny started drawing in an attempt to come to terms with his grief, and in so doing, rediscovered his love for art.
Inspired by the influence that sketchbooking had on his life, he created an illustrated memoir entitled “Everyday Matters.” In his memoir, he wrote about his wife’s accident:
“One hot and busy morning, Patti left Jack with a babysitter and walked to the subway station near our house; she was headed to a chic uptown bakery to get a cake for a photo shoot. While waiting for the train, she fell off the platform and onto the tracks just as the #9 train pulled into the station. The engineer slammed on the brakes but too late. Three subway cars rolled over Patti’s body, crushing her spinal cord and paralyzing her from the waist down. Everybody we knew was stunned. Patti was vivacious, cute, stylish, and a new mom. This sort of thing just didn’t happen to people like us.”
In his book, Danny explained why he wrote Everyday Matters: “I only started drawing fairly recently. But I’ve found it has a power to change my life and the world around me so profoundly and I’d like to share it with you.”
Danny followed up Everyday Matters with “The Creative License,” in which he urged readers to give themselves “permission to be the artist you truly are,” and two other books “An Illustrated Life,” and “An Illustrated Journey,” which are compilations of artists’ voices, complete with excerpts from their own art journals. Finally, in 2012, Danny decided to publish the illustrated journals that chronicled his grief and recovery after his wife’s accident and eventual death. Entitled “A Kiss Before You Go,” this book provides a glimpse into Danny’s “year of magical drawing,” and reminds us that art, in itself, can provide its own kind of comfort and solace.
These days, Danny spends most of his time developing and expanding Sketchbook Skool, but he always makes time to work on his art. He is currently completing two new books “art Before Breakfast” and “Shut Your Monkey!” both of which are scheduled for release in the next year.
In the following interview, Danny talks to us about Sketchbook Skool, and discusses his life, his art, his work, and his aspirations for the future.
Q. Can you give me a brief description of Sketchbook Skool?
Sketchbook Skool is an online, video-based school dedicated to getting people to discover their creativity, to start to draw and paint again, and to explore the world of illustrated journaling. Each kourse features six different teachers, one each week. Our goals are to inspire, educate, entertain and form a creative community of supportive artists. Our motto is "art for all."
Q. What inspired you to start this project?
My partner Dutch artist Koosje Koene and I were looking for a new way to teach art online. We wanted to share the work and lives of our many artist friends with people who want to give themselves permission to explore and develop their creativity. We combined Koosje's experience in online teaching and illustration with my experience producing TV commercials and writing about creativity.
Q. Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges along the way?
We have been surprised by the response to the Skool and had to deal with scaling the concept right away. Our platform was not developed for such large 'klasses' so working out the technology bugs has been one of our challenges and we have been collaborating with our platform host, Ruzuku.com, to make improvements. We had to develop systems for producing video content around the world. We have assembled shoots in Sydney, Amsterdam, LA, NYC, Stockholm, Paris and across India, and we had to hire a Dean of Students to help us handle our communication needs.
Q. Can you describe the roles that you and Koosje play in Sketchbook Skool?
Koosje and I met online, sharing our work, and when I happened to be visiting Amsterdam to speak at a conference, we spent some time together and developed this idea. Koosje and I are equal partners and collaborate on most things. We both teach a klass each semester. We divide responsibilities for production, each of us overseeing the efforts of half the teachers. We handle social media, marketing, publicity and merchandising.
Q. What city are you based out of?
I spent most of the year in LA but am now back in New York. Koosje is in Amsterdam. Our newest addition, Morgan Green, Dean of Students, is based in Columbus, OH. Our teachers are located across four continents.
Q. What role has art played in your life?
‘art’ is my life. I like to distinguish between ‘Art’ which fills museums and galleries and auction houses, and 'art' which is made by people for people, everyday, not framed or entered in shows, but just made for the making. Ever since I discovered this distinction and made drawing and painting in a book my everyday habit, it focused my mind, it defined the value in the everyday things around me, it introduced me to likeminded people, it filled my hours, and it gave me a purpose that was beyond a paycheck and an obligation.
Q. Was there a time when art was a less important part of your life? If so, why did it become important again?
Like most people, I stopped drawing when I was a kid. When I was in my mid-thirties, my wife was run over by a NYC subway train. She was left paraplegic, in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Our son was nine months old. This experience shook me to the core and I felt that life had lost all meaning.
After my wife's accident, we had to get on with our lives. We had a baby, we had rent, we had to pick up the pieces and move forward. My wife, who was a person of real passion and optimism, reinvented herself. She got back to work, she figured out how to raise Jack from her wheelchair and she became wiser and wiser each year, helping so many people with insightful advice and love.
I found it harder. I felt like our perfect, on-track life made no sense to me anymore. What had I been working for if it could all be destroyed in a blink? I found I was living in my head, in a horrible, fictional future of death and destruction. I spoke to ministers, priests, rabbis, Buddhist monks, but nothing they said really clicked.
After a long time of searching for a purpose and a way to see the world, one day, I was moved to draw. My sudden decision to start drawing was the only thing that brought me peace. One night I sat down and drew the contents of my bathroom cabinet and that one experience anchored me in reality. I saw the here and now for what it was: complex, beautiful and without animosity. When I finished drawing, my brain felt cleaned and rinsed, free and relaxed for the first time since this ordeal had begun. The simple act of connecting in a concentrated way to something in front of me, of a certain objectivity, of a slowing down, of an activity that wasn't cerebral, all showed me how artificial and exaggerated my woeful imaginings had become.
That first drawing led me to the art of illustrated journaling, to filling a book with drawings and writing about my life, my world, the beauty I was discovering all around me. When my book was published, I discovered that this idea appealed to others too, and soon I began exploring it in lots of ways. Eventually, this idea led to Sketchbook Skool.
Q. Can you tell me about your childhood experience with art? And did you continue drawing throughout your teen and adult years?
I loved to draw as a kid. I wrote illustrated books, drew made up creatures, painted, sculpted, wrote songs, poems, you name it. In my teen years, as I became more self-conscious and judgmental, I lost the impulse to make stuff.
When you hit a certain age, tweens probably, you discover the penalties of being wrong. This awareness replaces the boundless curiosity that guides us when we are small, the creative response to all that life offers. You start to judge others more harshly. And you judge yourself most harshly of all. The unbounded creativity, the willingness to just make stuff, cast it aside and keep making, is replaced by caution. You discover that art making is no longer applauded but is the domain of the weird, and that other skills, like athleticism and sociability, are far more valued.
Most children stop making art, stop singing, stop exploring when they are teenagers. Art becomes an academic subject. Your work is no longer applauded and tacked to the fridge. It's judged and graded and compared with the work of others. And even if you have an obvious ability to make art, you will be cautioned against going down a creative path because it is not practical, not a good way to make a living. This was my experience, and from what I have seen from my readers and students, a pretty common one.
I stopped drawing when I was in high school, just doodling occasionally in the margins, and then when I was in my late thirties I started drawing again. I didn't miss it because I didn't know what it was. The experience I have now when I draw is close to what it was when I was four or five, and has little to do with the self-consciousness of my teen years.
Q. What are the things you love to draw?
Everything. I draw dogs, cups of tea, buildings, flowers, the views out plane windows, my reflection, toilets, friends, lunch. It's all beautiful.
Q. Can you describe your creative process?
I try to expose myself to lots of influences, visiting museums and galleries, reading books, filling my well as much and as diversely as possible. I suspend judgment for as long as possible, preferring to just write and draw and turn the page, only coming back to what I've made later when my critical faculties have been given some distance. I work every day, seven days a week. I write, I draw, I note down ideas.
I tend to aim for more rather than better. If I am really productive or, as in the case of this interview, long-winded, there will be glimmers of goodness in the pile, and the bigger the pile, the more the unpolished diamonds. I did about sixty cover designs for my new book. I liked some of the early ones but I love where I ended up. If I hadn't kept pushing, I wouldn't have found that love. I trust my inner faculties to come up with something, eventually. I have been coming up with ideas for a living for a long time and I rarely have nothing when the deadline approaches. No need to panic.
Q. What materials do you usually work with when you draw?
I draw with a pen. I write with a dip pen. I paint with watercolors, occasionally gouache or colored pencils.
Q. Can you tell me about your two new books "art Before Breakfast" and "Shut Your Monkey"? What inspired you to write these books?
"art Before Breakfast" is a sequel of sorts to one of my books, "The Creative License." It's basically a book about how, no matter how busy you are, it's possible to make room for art making and it's important to do so. It shows you how to find time and how to use it. I believe that everyone can and should make art, whether or not they think they are “talented.” I think 'talent' is a myth and an excuse. “art Before Breakfast” will be published by Chronicle Books next spring.
"Shut Your Monkey" is about that voice in your head that tries to talk you out of doing things, especially creative things. The book explains what that voice is, where it comes from, what it can do to your life, how to deal with it, and how to get past it. It will be published by HOW Books next fall.
Q. Sketchbook Skool's objectives are all about educating people about art. Why is this important?
I think we live in a time of distraction and disassociation. People seem further and further removed from the reality they live in, constantly leaping between virtual experiences in the palms of their hands. So I think it's crucial to find a way to spend some time in the here and now, the actual reality we inhabit, not filtered through Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and YouTube. I love technology but I worry that if we spend too much time in unfiltered reality, we will lose touch with what matters, we'll care less about the consequences of our actions, we'll become utterly plugged-in and tuned out.
I also think we live in a time in which meaning is harder to find. We have lost faith in the institutions and rituals that once anchored us, that gave us perspective and reassurance. We need to understand what all the small things we do add up to because that's all there is in life, a series of moments ending in the grave. If we don't make those moments matter, we will end up feeling we wasted our time here on earth.
Making and sharing drawings and paintings in a book has helped me to be here, to live in the moment, to slow down and focus on an object in front of me and overcome my preconceptions and buzzing brain to actually see what is here. Unlike meditation, it's not about shutting off stimulus. It's about really tuning into what my senses are showing me, making the world brighter and more in focus. By living less in the realm of my imagination and anxieties, I am happier, more realistic, more aware. And art has connected me with wonderful people who I can share these experiences with, people who can tap into their creativity without being dependent on technology and on commerce to do it.
‘art’ has helped me to see the beauty in what surrounds me, to see that my life does have a point, that I play an active role in it, that there are synergies between my experiences, that my life is valuable because it fills pages and books and shelves. Those illustrated journals are not just Art for its own sake. They are the road map of my experience, the sum total of what I have done and seen, and I think it's good and valuable to me and others.
(To be continued…)
To read Part Two of this interview, please go to http://thepeopleproject.com/art-people/category/business/sketchbook-skool-p2
Danny Gregory. “Everyday Matters” New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003
For more information about Danny’s work, please go to: http://dannygregorysblog.com/
For more information about Sketchbook Skool, please go to: http://www.sketchbookskool.com/
Image Credit: Danny Gregory
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Summer on Tubbs Hill
by J.D. Coburn
In 1966, my late best friend, Phil Dickenson and I spent the summer living on Tubbs Hill near downtown Coeur d'Alene. Tubbs‚ as it is known locally, is a knoll about 400 feet high situated on the North Shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene. There’s a nice two mile hiking trail that winds around the hill adjacent to the shoreline with spurs leading up and down along the way, a wide creek to cross, boulders of basalt and cliffs of granite ideal for diving, a smattering of private beaches, a couple of caves, and just about anything a kid would want in the way of a forested playground.
No shirts, no shoes, no problem. In the city by the lake, there was one rule: Don’t track in the sand for someone else to clean up. So clothing was kept to a minimum. A pair of cut-offs with your tighty whities peeking out over the top was plenty for us boys.
In the summer, we kids were either swimming, or riding our bikes to other places where we could go swimming. The Hayden, Fernan, and Coeur d’Alene lakes, and the Spokane River were all within biking distance. Some of my best memories are of the little bubbles squishing out of the wrinkles and creases in my wet cut-off jeans as I pumped my twenty-six inch Schwinn from one beach to another, the sun baking the trails, streets, and my bare skin equally.
Phil and I were fourteen years old. Phil's older sister, who was sixteen, had just run away from home because she was tired of her father’s daily rampages, which we referred to as ‘the beatin’s.’ That left Phil as the eldest kid in the family, which meant he would now bear the brunt of his father’s rage. So, for respite, for his sanity, we camped out on Tubbs that summer.
‘The beatin’s’ always started after dinner. So, on most days, I'd show up at Phil's around dinner time. We’d walk to the coffee shop where we'd meet up with the other members of our clique, aka The MOB. One of our junior high teachers had named us as such, and the name had stuck. In school, we were defined less by who we were than by the numbers we represented, so for ease of reference, the teachers referred to us simply as The MOB. We weren’t jocks or nerds, and we were too cool to be popular. We smoked cigarettes and played in a band. We listened to The Stones, thank you, and The Doors. If we had a Beatles album among us, that meant that one of us had stolen it from a party we had crashed.
Phil would take a few thumps from the old man, Jerry, before he left the house, but with Phil out for the evening and his older sister gone that summer, it meant that his little brother and sister took more than their share of ‘the beatin’s.’
Phil's mom, Joanne, took the worst of it. I'm sure that their fifth child was stillborn because Jerry beat the baby out of her. I remember that a little white coffin was buried at Forest Cemetery over on Government Way. Only the family was in attendance for the services, but three or four of The MOB looked on through the fence surrounding the grounds. We were ready in case Phil’s dad decided to start punishing Joanne or the kids for the death of the baby.
After dinner, Phil was safe, at least for the time being, so we went to the coffee shop where we could smoke and talk about what we'd all be doing for the rest of our lives when we managed to get to anywhere but Coeur d'Alene.
That summer, the summer of 1966, Phil and I lived in a small outcropping of rocks on the eastern edge of Tubbs. We were only a couple of blocks from Sanders Beach and maybe a couple hundred feet from the home of a fellow MOB member we called Mouse. His real name was Kevin Anderson, but from the moment we first saw him coming out of the water looking like a drowned rat, he was Mouse.
Mouse's dad worked for the city water works and part of the deal was a free house next to the reservoir on Tubbs. He'd get really pissed when we'd break into the reservoir for a swim. It wasn't just the fact that we had the whole damn lake to swim in that got him so upset. It was because he'd have to drain the reservoir and refill it after our escapades. He suspected that we were the perpetrators, I'm sure, but there was no evidence, just some whispers and stifled laughter.
Sanders Beach was next door to Mouse's place. It was a smaller beach than City Beach where all the tourists went and it was cleaner, so it was the beach of choice for the fourteen and fifteen year old girls with their bikinis, golden hair and tan lines.
Phil and I, living on the hill without parental supervision, were very, very attractive to the girls. Two or four of them would follow us to our campsite where we would giggle and tease, and grope crotches and budding breasts. Away from the prying eyes of adults, our mischief was gleeful and harmless.
For some reason, I was the funny guy that summer. I’d always tried hard to be liked by others, and that was made clear by my litany of bawdy vaudevillian jokes that had been handed down from my theatrical family. Mostly, my neediness was looked upon as obnoxious, but that summer, maybe because we were all fourteen, all of my jokes seemed hysterically funny.
During the day, from sunrise on, we were at the beach. In retrospect, it was strange that no one ever looked for us or reported us missing. We sure didn't tell our parents we'd be living on Tubbs Hill that summer, but no inquiry was ever made as to our whereabouts. In fact, I have no recollection of ever being hungry. I don’t even remember eating.
Of course, Mom knew I was at the theater most nights. I was doing repertory with the Montana State University Red Door Players and we were staging a melodrama on the pier over the lake that summer with our local theater group.
After the shows though, I was gone. I’d meet up with Phil backstage and we were off on whatever adventure was planned for the night. Usually our late evening activities involved getting girls to sneak out and hang with us. If we were very lucky we might get the girls involved in kissing practice. It was just what it sounds like, practice only, nothing serious.
After exhausting the girls with laughter and play, Phil and I would peruse the streets until the wee hours. We'd break into cars to steal cigarettes that had been left on the dashboards and whatever else that hadn’t been bolted down. We had all these trails and pathways around town that allowed us to steer clear of the local constabulary.
I think there was a Debbie or a Rhonda who made my heart go pitter-pat that summer. I don't recall. But I do remember that it was late in the summer, in August, when one of Mom's friends gave me a car.
A two-tone, 1957 Studebaker Commander V8 in oxidized purple and sky blue, three speeds on the column, four doors, three of which worked, and a full complement of three spare tires and three gallons of oil in the trunk. We called it the X-15 because the speedometer went sideways and always indicated a speed that was much faster than the car could go. If the speedometer had gone around about three times you knew you were doing fifty-five miles per hour. At fifty-five, the car started to shake violently, so I would say that was its top speed.
Since we lived in a tourist community, there were always activities for teens on summer nights. The Slab, near the entrance of City Park was determined to be a safe place for local and visiting teens to meet and carouse, and a band was hired to set up there on Saturday nights. The events were known as Slab Dances and they were well attended.
At the last Slab Dance of the summer, I finally came into my own. A hint of a mustache had sprung up over the summer, and there was muscle tone where there had previously been only gangly limb. After a long summer of swimming, hiking and camping out, I was fit.
It was a Saturday night and I had a rare night off from the theater. The Slab was a huge piece of concrete that accommodated four half-court basketball areas surrounded by a fence made of logging chain. Put a live band on one end and old Joe Whitley at the entrance to collect two dollars a head, and you had an enterprise.
I had not seen a barber or a shoe all summer so my hair was long, wind blown and sun bleached. My tan was perfect. I could put out a cigarette with my bare foot. My soles were like leather.
I wore a baby blue pinstriped muscle shirt and a pair of hip hugger wide wale cords the same color. It all fit like a second skin, which was very cool at the time.
I showed up at the dance alone. It was already dark. I had to walk clear across town because I couldn't drive at night yet, but things were just starting to hop when I got there. I was very existential in those days and was therefore convinced that if I wasn't there, the party didn't exist anyway.
Well, Pam, Debbie, Carla – I don’t remember their names exactly - took one look at me and got all squishy. They were quite literally hanging all over me. By the time Phil showed up at the dance, I was feeling very secure about my immediate future as a spelunker.
But, nothing happened. We danced outside the chain fence. The music didn’t seem to recognize the fence as a barrier, and neither did we, but at the end of the night, everyone just went home.
School started a couple of days later. Phil and I were back living at home with new shoes that hurt like hell and clothes you couldn't swim in.
Phil and I spoke infrequently about that summer in the following years, but when we did, we both acknowledged that we’d never laughed so hard or so much before or after.
For Phil, that summer was the first time in his life that he had not been beaten on a daily basis and that he’d felt free. I was just glad to be along.
As soon as the abuse at home had resumed, Phil had started taking it out on me again, just as he had our entire lives. My best friend for life, my BFF, in the vernacular, was the living definition of the cycle of abuse.
A year or so later I casually mentioned ‘the beatin's’ to the mother of a mutual friend. She quickly attacked me for telling lies, insisting that Phil’s father, Jerry, would never raise a hand to those kids. I didn’t argue. I didn’t say another word.
I guess she must have said something to Phil's mom, because two days later the whole family moved out of the house, leaving Jerry alone. A couple of days after that, Jerry moved out and the family moved back in.
And that’s the way it stayed.
The nightmare was over.
Image Credit: Istockphoto/AlpamayaPhoto
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One Trick Dog
Monique Witt, founder and owner of NYC-based independent music production company One Trick Dog Records, is a retired international finance attorney, former Yale University English professor, and Hollywood ghostwriter who has devoted herself to the creation of music, film, and visual art. An accomplished artist in her own right, Monique has worked with many musicians, including Alida Rohr, Nando Michelin, Roy Assaf, Adres Boiyarski, Esperanza Spalding, Pedro Ito, Tom Larsen and David Rosenblatt. She also works closely with her two sons, jazz pianist Ben Rosenblum and fusion artist Dev Avidon.
Recently, Monique has written and produced an off-Broadway play entitled “Splitscreen,” and has since directed a variety of short films, including “Ease of Access” and several music videos. In the following interview, Monique talks about her career, her films, her comic book art, and most importantly, about the incredible music she helps create at One Trick Dog Records:
Q. Can you tell me a little about your background?
I originally thought I would be a graphic artist. My father is a well known painter, a magical realist who was Jackson Pollock's only protegé, and he was involved with the original Bauhaus. While I was at college, a family tragedy made it important for me to make a steadier income, so I went to Yale Graduate School, studied with Harold Bloom and the linguistic phenomenologists, and then spent several years training at Western New England Psychoanalytic Institute. Unfortunately, the market for professors in the humanities collapsed, so I went to Yale Law School, and finished my Ph.D. in 1980 and my J.D. in 1982.
I practiced law for a number of years in the fields of project finance and sovereign debt restructuring. The latter involved working with the World Bank and the IMF and to some extent the U.S. State Department. My expertise was primarily in Latin America in what were at that time termed "lesser developing countries." I loved my work. It was a combination of diplomacy and complex math as well as market analysis. We helped to build the wine industry in Chile.
This helped my family, but it meant I had to leave drawing, writing and reading behind for a while. I did begin making jazz recordings as a kind of hobby because my sister, Alida Rohr, was heavily involved in the jazz scene and I wanted to help her with her career. But, I had always wanted to return to the creative arts. When my older son Dev was born, my husband and I were working very long days, seven days a week, and I never saw my son. So I took this opportunity to retire from the law.
I returned to ghostwriting and cartooning, because cartoons are the form of graphic art I like the best. They skirt the edge of ‘dangerous’ while beguiling us into believing they are harmless. And I think that the best popular art populates that edge - sweet yet sinister - like Frank Frazetta, who is skilled like Titian, but who worked on "Little Annie Fanny" for Playboy.
My graphic art, in the form of adult comics, continues to have something of an underground following. I have never restricted the use of my drawings so they have made their way onto the net and around the world. I received a picture from Japan some years ago with one of my girls on the nose of a jet plane. This is the way I think popular art should spread.
When I retired from the law, I began running a small production company with family and friends called One Trick Dog Records. Essentially, everyone does everything, because we're on a small budget. I don't take anything from the artists. This is why it’s me singing "Mary Mack" in "Ease of Access.” I was the only female voice in the room.
Two years ago, we were making and recording jazz, jazz fusion, Brazilian, and blues when a group of friends convinced me to put on an off-Broadway play. The result was a play called “Splitscreen,” which was about a young man who is gravely injured in a climbing accident, and who is waiting in an ER to be admitted to rehab. To promote the play, I directed a short video. It was hugely successful, and we began getting video work.
Since then, we have been approached to turn one of my longer works into a pilot for a potential "Netflix" type story arc, but that is very much in its early stages. Our next two projects are a theatrical work called "The Walking Man Monologues," and a four piano musical concert entitled "Piano Conversations." In addition, we have four discs coming out soon: "Urban Griot" (the second series of works by the Roy Assaf Trio which has already been released in Europe), a blues album by People v. Larsen, and archived work from two jazz legends Manny Williams and Alida Rohr. We will also release a remix of "Tears of Men" and a new album by pianist Ben Rosenblum.
Q. What was your childhood experience with art?
My sister and I were raised in a house where everyone we met was an artist of some kind. We were surrounded primarily by visual artists, but by some musicians as well, as my Italian mother loved opera and my father loved Bach. In addition to being an extraordinary painter, my father had a beautiful baritone voice, and one of my earliest memories was of him singing "Wachet Auf." I can still hear him humming it as he painted.
I remember when my father was working as the art director for the 1964 World's Fair. I must have been nine or ten and he was doing the architectural drawings for the Unisphere, which is the huge steel globe that sits in Flushing Meadow by the tennis courts. His drawing table was separated from the living room by an open divider and I would sit on one side for hours watching him draw. I would draw next to him on my own pile of scratch paper which was kept on the lower shelf of the divider. My first drawings were very similar to the cartoons I draw now.
My only formal training was an undergraduate photography course. I was trained primarily by watching my father and by absorbing his aesthetics from his paintings. I also learned from the way he constructed his environment. My father gave me two pieces of advice that I try to live by. He told me that successful art will inspire animosity and admiration, but never complacency, and that I should not be afraid of controversy, because it means that I am challenging accepted notions and that is the cultural mandate of art. He also said that every artist must be the sole and final arbiter of whether he has succeeded at what he has set out to do.
Q. What city are you based out of?
We're based out of New York. We run the production company from Roosevelt Island where we have offices, mix and master facilities, and space for drawing and artwork production. But we also have affiliations with artists in Boston. We are basically a family enterprise supported by our friends, and everyone involved has multiple skills.
Q. What are the things that interest you?
I guess I'd have to say everything interests me. People particularly. I'm deeply committed to my boys, Dev and Ben, and to the arts.
Q. Your short film entitled “Ease of Access” is based on Jeff Musillo’s novel about a male prostitute who is hired out to service reality TV celebrities. Can you tell me how this film came about?
Jeff saw the promotional short film for Splitscreen. He contacted us through our publicist, Michael Martinez, to see if we were interested in doing a promotional video for his book “The Ease of Access.” I loved the fact that all we had to work with was a monologue. In essence, we had complete freedom to create and map and explore the landscape of this young man's isolation.
If you think about it, sex is about intimacy. When we pay for it, we make it about power and control, and one of the most important and ratifying aspects of our lives, our intimate relations to ourselves and to others, becomes a floating signifier, stripped, as Chang-rae Lee would say, of its native voice and its emotional content. This creates an unnatural vertigo that keeps demanding an explanation. I love monologues for the question they ask: “What fills the pregnant emptiness when we are alone in the company of our thoughts?”
The actors in the film Alex Montaldo and Adam Rashad Glenn were amazing. Directing them is a dream. I directed them in Splitscreen, and their acting was effortless, because they have inhabited many of the same psychic landscapes that we are attempting to convey in that work.
My son Dev was the engineer on the audio for "Ease of Access." His studio is called Avidon Audio Labs. Most of the comments we have gotten back have been about how amazing the sound track is. The children’s rhyme and voice over parts are balanced beautifully with the jazz piano and the effects. And the clarity of these is exceptional. Dev designed and recorded the sound track and it is very strong.
The cinematographer, Kahleem Poole-Tejada, is quite extraordinary. I talk to him about what I see, and more often than not he gets it the first try. I think his work is beautiful, and he is a permanent member of our production team. He has a rare sense of balance, color, narrative, and he brings so much to each project. He is such an intuitive filmmaker.
Alex and I talked a little about why "Ease of Access" was so interesting. I think it’s because of the edge I was telling you about, between the sexual, the sweet and the sinister. I like J-pop because of what I like to call its "empowered vapidity." As a culture we are fascinated by this. It's what sells Lindsay Lohan even when she's a total train wreck. It's what Tennyson understood and referred to when he wrote the Dappled Partridge Sonnet. Love and death are first cousins.
Alex and I were talking about the image of the ghost lover in "Ease of Access." The kanji on the pianist's hand says "ghost lover," and was meant to suggest that the interlocutor who frames many of the scenes, played by Adam, may not be real at all, that something about selling sex has caused such a primal break in the speaker's relation to himself that he is watching himself through the eyes of another.
Q. Can you tell me about "Splitscreen"? Why did you decide to write this play?
This is kind of a funny story. I have known the lead actor, Alex Montaldo, for a few years. As well as being a gifted actor, he is also a professional fitness trainer who works off the island. I have trained my whole life, so he and I began to work out together. One day, in the gym, he remarked that he was at a transitional point in his career. He told me that he couldn’t find a theater role he liked, and that he was looking for a one-act play. In a moment of foolishness, I said, "How difficult can it be to write you a challenging role? I'll write you a one-act play."
Having said that, I was committed. I had been ghosting for thirty years, working on everything from Hollywood scripts to legal works to medical texts as well as children's books. I find it easier when I write in someone else’s voice, so I figured I'd just treat it as if it were someone else's work, not my own. I wrote "Splitscreen," and gave it to Alex a week later. He loved it and showed it to a director who was also excited about working on the play. We did a short run at the Helen Mills Theater in the fall of 2013 to packed houses. I have since written it up to a full length script at the request of a second director who was interested in it, and we are doing a pilot treatment of the work on which "Splitscreen" was based, at the request of a third director.
I loved doing "Splitscreen" for the challenge it posed in having the lead character in a wheelchair the whole time, but the video was really the first time I directed seriously, and it led almost immediately to several music videos. There is one I particularly like. It’s the music video for "Second Row Behind the Painter,” an album by the Roy Assaf Trio.
Q. Can you tell me more about One Trick Dog Records? What kind of music do you produce?
One Trick Dog has been around in some incarnation or another since the early 80's. We do primarily jazz and have worked with artists from around the world, including American jazz musician Esperanza Spalding, and a legendary line up of Brazilian artists, but we also do blues every so often. I favor melodic jazz. Close to my own heart is minimalism - Philip Glass, Keith Jarrett, Eric Dolphy - but we record trios and quartets, and do some acid jazz as well.
Q. Have you always been interested in music production? Are you a musician?
Yes, I've always been interested in jazz, though I am not a musician. I always wanted to be Keith Jarrett but wasn't blessed with his gift. When my young son announced at four that he was going to be a professional pianist, it meant the world to me. His name is Ben Rosenblum and at 21, he is a well-respected professional jazz pianist. My older son Dev Avidon, 27, is a jazz-rock fusion composer, singer, engineer and producer. My sister, Alida Rohr, is a jazz singer, and has worked with some of the heaviest cats of the last two generations. She has one of the most exceptional instruments I have ever heard. Like my sons, she can play almost any instrument, and she has perfect relative pitch.
I produced my first record in the early 80's and have been involved in music in some way ever since. I have a natural instrument but it is wholly untrained and I don't pretend to be able to do what my sons and sister can do. I sing only when we can't find someone else who has the right range.
Q. Please describe a typical day in your life. How do music and filmmaking fit into your day?
Yesterday, I began writing early. I worked on the first draft of the narrative for a rap video we are going to shoot this week. When I write I try to rough out something, then sleep on it and see what happens. Cadence is always the most important, because if the voice isn't authentic, there's no point in trying to pass it off as real. The reason James Blunt did so well with "You're Beautiful" was not because of his voice but because of the nakedness and truthfulness of his story, the manner in which his voice conveyed how exposed he felt at the time. Glenn Campbell, Michael Bolton, Neil Diamond, it's the same raw authentic emotion. It is why we are drawn to music.
I then set about responding to inquiries at One Trick Dog. Because we still sponsor the tracking, mixing, mastering and pressing of our artists, we bring in a number of new jazz artists each year. Right now, I have three albums in the pipeline. I particularly wanted to review the first mixes of one and the final mixes of another - one jazz piano trio and one fusion. I had already heard the roughs, but we had just installed an SSL console in the mastering space and I had not yet heard the sound of the new board. Each piece of pro audio equipment has a sonic "signature," and the role of a great audio engineer is to make these play well together. Any time I go into the studio I end up helping to rewire, because the engineers are forever optimizing their toys. Yesterday was no different.
My days are broken into two shifts, because I play two hours of tennis everyday and box or run with Alex afterward. So the second shift involved a re-write and reformat of a pilot for a new series that is going out to LA in a week. The primary writing responsibility is mine. Alex formats and Dev - my older son and chief engineer - edits. We then met with the director and the videographer to go over the stock footage. By stock, I mean what my videographer has shot for his own projects, to see what we wanted to use. The day ended with two hours of Cannonball Adderley. This is listening time, when we share and explore older artists or brand new ones, what anyone has found that seems cool or different.
Q. What kind of advice would you give to musicians and artists who are just starting out?
My advice to musicians and artists in general is to try to find your own path. The business is very exploitative and does not provide real opportunities for success. People will always suggest that artists should work for free to get exposure. Exposure is a myth. Artists should not give away their work. They should value it so that the culture does. Right now, the Internet encourages people to believe they have a right to get music for free, but if musicians aren't paid, they won't be able to support themselves by creating.
I try to encourage people to understand that what makes us human is twofold: our ability to create and appreciate objects of beauty and our desire to believe in something, some order, that is larger than ourselves. The anthropologist, Arjun Apadurai, observed that when a culture commercializes its sacred objects it destroys meaning. I believe this. I believe that art sanctifies life. It preserves what is greatest in a culture.
So I would encourage young artists to stay true to their art, not to compromise their vision for commercial success, not to give away their art, and, finally, always to have a day gig, so they don't have to shill their work.
For more information about Monique’s work, please go to: http://www.onetrickdogrecords.com/ or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
To view "Ease of Access," please go to http://goo.gl/6IAcFx
Cover Image Credit: Kahleem Poole-Tejada/One Trick Dog Records
Image Credit: Monique Witt
Description: One Trick Dog Records, Production Crew on site at Avidon Audio Labs, Clockwise from upper left: Dev Avidon (sound design, audio engineering, voice over, and writing/arranging/composing), Ben Rosenblum (musical composition, arranging, and recording), Kahleem Poole-Tejada, (cinematography and video editing), and Alex Montaldo (acting, editing, tech support).
Music copyrighted to One Trick Dog Records
Featured Piece: "Lilian," written and performed by Ben Rosenblum (2012), recorded and mixed by Dev Avidon at Avidon Audio Labs for One Trick Dog Records.
at The Music People
Spread The Fear
by Bree Marie
This July 4th weekend at Florida Supercon, I sat down with Robert Massetti, President of Fear Film Motion Pictures - a production company for independent horror films - and the company’s Vice President and Managing Partner, Matt Reynolds.
Massetti and Reynolds met thanks to a mutual friend, Pete Mongelli, who is the CEO of one of the largest cons in the United States, Spooky Empire’s Ultimate Horror Weekend, which takes place every October in Orlando, Florida. Several years ago, Massetti was looking for a new artist for a project, and Mongelli suggested Reynolds, who was away on a camping trip. Reynolds took the call, and around the campfire that same night, came up with a series of designs to show Massetti. As they say, the rest is history.
Reynolds was a well-known artist in the horror industry before entering the motion picture scene, and his designs are extremely unique. I asked him how he got into the world of illustration: “I love to draw, but I was really bad at proportions and was mocked a lot… Then, I started drawing monsters. There are no rules with monsters, no proportions. People started saying things like, ‘Wow man, that’s awesome!’ I kept drawing more and more, and I wasn’t getting mocked. I knew then that I was on to something.”
Reynolds, who had several designs on display at SuperCon, everything from a one-of–a-kind Walking Dead comic book cover to zombified Sesame Street art said, “I like doing what others have not done. As soon as others jump on the bandwagon, I move on to something else.”
Along with running the studio, Massetti and Reynolds operate the popular Freak Show Film Festival – an indie festival that is part of Ultimate Horror Weekend. Massetti credited the festival in part again, to Pete Mongelli. “Pete had the convention going for a little while and he was showing movies on the side. I can’t remember if he approached me or I approached him, but he was looking to expand instead of just showing indie films arbitrarily on the side. I said ‘why don’t we just turn it into a full blown film festival?’ Pete said to run with it.”
Massetti continued: “I wanted to help independent filmmakers show their work. I thought it was a great outlet for me to meet other independent filmmakers, and for them to get their work out there. Now, we get entries from all over the world. I’ve had some from Singapore. I had a filmmaker fly in for the festival from Ireland. I always think that’s a great honor – that people would fly out from other countries to be at our film festival.”
The festival boasts a Lifetime Achievement in Horror Award, and has been given to legends such as John Carpenter and Robert Englund. The award was designed by SFX Makeup Artist Barry Anderson, the artist behind Day of the Dead and Jeepers Creepers. Massetti told me, “We approached Barry, looking for a unique award. I’d seen Barry’s work, and Pete said we should see if he would be interested. Barry said, ‘absolutely.’ He came up with this design… this awesome design, and we thought, ‘yeah, its perfect!’ It was unique. Something no other film festival was giving away. He came through with flying colors.”
Fear Film has released a number of successful short films including CREEPY CRAWLY, a thriller involving spiders - that could make anyone’s skin crawl.
Massetti shared a little about his creative process: “I delve into fears that I have… I find things interesting, and try to create things that would scare an audience, or that a horror fan would appreciate. I try to find stories that they would like to see; a movie I would like to see that I couldn’t find anywhere. You really can’t do an original idea anymore, but I approach things differently than I see other people doing it… “
“Things don’t always work out sometimes, either because of budget limitations or something else. We always have to compromise. You may not be able to get this location, or that actor, so it’s always a challenge doing independent films with limited money. But, not necessarily all the time do you need the big budget. Trying to come up with a way to do a film without a lot of money sometimes makes it better; it forces you to be more creative.”
When it came to the classic debate over the use of practical effects vs. CGI in horror, Massetti didn’t hold back: “Always practical. I like practical effects. I think they’re more realistic. I have seen blending of practical effects with CGI that works really well. If there is a CGI effect, I would rather it be subtle – like they did with Jurassic Park, where they mixed practical dinosaurs with the CGI. That came out really well.”
Massetti collaborated with filmmaker Jason Daly on Creepy Crawly and called it, “one of the most wonderful experiences that I’ve done so far. Working with Jason Daly was like [being with] my alter ego. I would come up with an idea, and he would go ‘oh, we could do this’ and then I’d think ‘oh, then we could do that!’ We just kept building off each other and bouncing ideas, and it kept growing and growing into this completely different thing that on my own I never would have thought of.”
For Massetti, co-directing Creepy Crawly was a new experience: “It was my first time co-directing. I’ve always directed the films myself. At first I didn’t know how that was going to work. We didn’t even discuss it. It was just like ‘hey, we’ll co-direct it’. [Daly] was directing actors and I was taking care of the camera work, and then we’d switch, and it worked. We shot two different films, an English version and a Spanish version, and so we had to move quickly. It worked out better having two directors with the same vision. We knew what [the other person] was thinking, and how it would be put together.”
Massetti told me that filmmaking has always been an interest of his, but that it was something he didn’t really have access to as a teenager: “In high school, there was no film program. Basically, we had a class where they taught entertainment and television. I went to the teacher and said, “Hey, I’m interested in filmmaking. For my final project, can I make a movie instead?’ She said, “sure.” That was the first film I made. We made this slasher movie. It was point of view type stuff, like Halloween.” He laughed, “My teacher didn’t like it.”
Like many horror enthusiasts, Massetti looks to the classics for inspiration. “…Dracula, Frankenstein. I grew up on those. I like atmosphere, and all those films had atmosphere to them. As I got older and went to film school, Alfred Hitchcock was a great influence, the way he built suspense in films. And Brian DePalma was a great influence with the way he handled his vision – his camera movement, building tension in scenes. That’s what I thought a horror film should be. Atmosphere, suspense – scare your audience. I’ll have gore in my films, but I’m not a ‘gore horror’ fan, you know. I like suspense and building tension, instead of just using gore and decapitations.”
Fear Film is currently working on a new short entitled IT WAITS – another collaboration with Jason Daly. Massetti couldn’t give a lot of information away, but he did share some insight into his first distribution deal: “I was working awhile with Tim Ritter. Tim did the original Truth or Dare movie back in 1986. He made a lot of movies. He actually discovered me when I made my first short films. …He got us our first distribution deal. I asked him to write some stuff and we started collaborating.”
One thing both Massetti and Reynolds seem to share is love for their fans. Massetti said, “Horror fans are really supportive. They will take chances on our work. If you disappoint them, they’ll give you a second chance, but if you disappoint them consistently, they WILL let you go. What’s great about the horror community is the willingness to take chances when they see something interesting and different. If you continue to do good work, they will be right back supporting you every time. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Reynolds added, “For anybody that comes out to our shows, the fans that show support, even if it’s stopping by the table just to say hello – we put our passion into this, and we’re truly honored and grateful to have you in our lives. You give us a reason to continue doing what we love. I don’t think any other company will ever be as grateful as we are. Even the simple things like ‘hey guys, I have to go but I just wanted to say hello,’ is more important than anything. … Each and every one of our fans is extremely important to us. They become our family.”
Image Credit: Used with permission of Fear Film Motion Pictures
at The Filmmakers
by Bree Marie
Brandon Jay McLaren, co-star of USA Networks’ hit TV series GRACELAND is easily one of the most charismatic actors I’ve had the pleasure to work with, and Florida SuperCon in sunny Miami – where the show is filmed - was the perfect place to chat. The convention was packed to the brim with fans. Brandon said, “I started doing conventions last year, so I’m kind of new. This is maybe the fourth convention I’ve been to. I love them. They’re so much fun. I like to meet the fans… It’s great.”
Praised for its edgy realism, Graceland follows the stories of six DEA, FBI, and Customs undercover agents who live together in a confiscated beach house in Southern California, known as “Graceland.” While the show is only loosely based on actual events, writer and executive producer Jeff Eastin did track down the DEA agent who created the U.S. federal program that currently places agents in previously seized properties, checked out a few of these properties, and interviewed some real-life agents. (A. Cheney, WSJ.com) The facts behind the seizure of the Graceland property itself are true. In 1992, the federal government seized a beachfront property, and converted it into a residence for undercover officers from three different law enforcement agencies. (A. Stanley, NYTimes.com)
Brandon’s character, an Immigration and Customs agent known as ‘Jakes,’ has a particularly tough time, as he has to be away from his child for the duration of his investigations. I was curious about whether Brandon felt any extra pressure with this role, knowing that certain aspects of the show may be based on the real lives and experiences of federal agents: “I don’t think there’s any more pressure – you always put pressure on yourself to sort of give the realest, most truthful performance you can.”
Everyone went to considerable lengths to deliver a sense of realism to the show’s viewers, and Brandon confirmed that this added to his experience as an actor. He told me about a letter he had received from a former government undercover op: “A fan [of the show] found me on LinkedIn, and he was an actual undercover agent, and lived in a house similar to Graceland. He wrote me a beautiful letter about how he was actually in a very similar situation that ‘Jakes’ was [in], with not being able to see his son and having to leave because of his job, and so those kinds of emails are great because you know that people who have actually experienced that, are being affected by it. That’s the biggest compliment I think we can get.”
He continued: “They write so well for me on the show. Jeff Eastin gives me a lot of really great material. The cast all really enjoy each other. It’s just an amazing opportunity. I’m very grateful.” The star, originally from Vancouver, now resides in Miami for production. I asked him to share a favorite behind-the-scenes moment from the show. “So much. So many. I think the most fun I have is like when we’re all together doing the kitchen scenes, with the whole cast. We get to mess around and play around, so that’s always fun. A lot of it is improv – and they let us do that, which is cool.”
Before Graceland, fans recognized Brandon as one of the iconic Power Rangers in “Power Ranger S.P.D.,” a series that Brandon recalls as “…one of the best life experiences I’ve ever had.” Referring to the making of the show, Brandon said, “We shot for nine months in New Zealand. It was amazing. I was twenty-five. It was great… We all got along, we’re all still really good friends to this day.”
Each Power Rangers episode is creatively based on a battle scene, and Brandon shared that there were so many stunts in each episode that two crews/sets were always running. “We had two shooting units simultaneously, so while we’re doing our acting thing, there was a whole other unit doing the stunts, so there just wasn’t enough time to shuttle us all back and forth.” Brandon did, however, finally get to do the stunts he loves so much in the final moments of the show, which he remembers fondly: “I got to do a great fighting scene the last episode, which was really cool. They kind of like let me do it because it was the last episode, ‘so they said ‘We’re going to let you do the whole one by yourself.’ I was excited.”
While many actors major in theater or film during their school years, Brandon originally started his career path in a very different field. “I wasn’t a drama student. I was a human biology major… In my senior year of university, I got a lead in one of the university plays, but I didn’t get a theater major.” He added, “I did a couple commercials when I was like, thirteen, and I loved it. And, I had a really great theater program in high school. So, I always knew I loved it, and I just never knew it was a viable career option.”
Brandon has a natural athletic ability, which may explain his frequent action packed roles. He told me, “I went to university on a full soccer scholarship. On Graceland, we get to do a lot of the stunts. I like to be involved as much as I can. Obviously, there’s some stuff that requires a little extra, and I like to let the pros do their job – I mean, that’s what they train for and what they do, so if they’re going to be better at it than I am, then I’ll let them do it… but I like to be involved.”
Brandon was also a cast member of the sensational crime drama, “The Killing,” which earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Male in a Drama Series at the LEO Awards. “It’s always nice to be recognized for your work. I didn’t win - and I wanted to win.” He smiled and said, “I’m a very competitive guy. But, it was still an honor to be nominated.”
Outside of his secret agent life on television, Brandon is also a writer, and has even tried his hand at producing. “I finished writing a screenplay, and think I have a director attached. I just executive produced and starred in an indie film last week. We just finished up. So yeah, I’m busy. The indie film is called ‘Milwaukee.’ It’s about seven friends who go up to this cabin for a weekend, and one person gets the idea to kind of have this Burning Man night, you know, one night in the house with like NO rules, and things kind of go awry. It was pretty cool. It’s drama. There’s comedy, but there’s a lot of heavy drama in it. We just wrapped filming it four days ago. That will be out next year sometime… We’ll probably do the film festival circuit.”
Season Two of Graceland, which released in June 2014, is leaving fans on the edge of their seats. I tried to pry for a little insight into the future for the agents of Graceland, but Brandon was careful not to give me any spoilers. Laughing, he replied: “Absolutely not. What I can tell you is that it gets worse for ‘Jakes’ before it gets better.”
Alexandra Cheney, “The Real Story Behind Graceland.” Published by Speakeasy, The Wall Street Journal on June 6, 2013. Retrieved on July 14, 2014 at http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/06/06/the-real-story-behind-graceland/
Alessandra Stanley, “The New Guy (With a Gun) at a Dream Beach House.” Published by The New York Times on June 5, 2013. Retrieved on July 14, 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/arts/television/daniel-sunjata-and-aaron-tveit-in-graceland-on-usa.html
Image Credit: Joe DeAngelis
at The Movie People