Nursing Home Residents Replace Famous Rock Stars on Iconic Album Covers

Deservedly or not, British care homes have acquired a reputation as especially dreary places, from Victorian novels to dystopian fiction to the flat affect of BBC documentaries. Martin Parr gave the world an especially moving example of the care home documentary in his 1972 photo series on Prestwich Asylum, outside Manchester. The compelling portraits humanize people who were neglected and ignored, yet their lives still look bleak in that austerely post-war British institution kind of way.

One cannot say anything of the kind of the photo series represented here, which casts residents of Sydmar Lodge Care Home in Edgeware, England as rock stars, digitally recreating some of the most famous album covers of all time. This is not, obviously, a candid look at residents’ day-to-day existence. But it suggests a pretty cheerful place. “The main aim was to show that care homes need not be a sad environment, even during this pandemic,” says the photos’ creator Robert Speker, the home’s activities manager.

“Speker tweeted side-by-side photos of the original covers and the Sydmar Lodge residents’ new takes, and the tweets quickly took off,” NPR’s Laurel Wamsley writes. He’s made it clear that the primary audience for the recreated covers is the residents themselves: Isolated in lockdown for the past four months; cut off from visits and outings; suffering from an indefinite suspension of familiar routines.




Speker does not deny the grim reality behind the inspiring images. “Elderly people will remain in lockdown for a long time,” he writes on a GoFundMe page he created to help support the home. “It could be months before the situation changes for them.”

But he is optimistic about his abilities to “make their time as happy and full of enjoyment and interest as possible.” Would that all nursing homes had such a dedicated, award-winning coordinator. Residents themselves, he wrote on Twitter, were “enthused and perhaps a bit bemused by the idea, but happy to participate.” When they saw the results—stunning Roma Cohen as Aladdin Sane, defiant Sheila Solomons as Elvis and The Clash’s Paul Simenon, casual Martin Steinberg as a “Born in England” Springsteen—they were delighted. Four of the home’s carers got their own cover, too, posed as Queen.

Residents, Speker said, were really “having a good giggle about it.” And we can too, as we bear in mind the many elderly people around us who have been locked in for months, with maybe many more months of isolation ahead. Not everyone is as talented as Robert Speker, who did the models’ makeup and tattoos himself (with hair by a care home manager), as well as taking all the photographs and editing the images to convincingly mimic the poses, composition, lighting, font, and color schemes of the originals. But let’s hope his work is a spark that lights up nursing homes and care facilities with all sorts of creative ideas to keep spirits up. See several more covers below and the rest on Twitter.

via the BBC/NPR

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bisa Butler’s Beautiful Quilted Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat & More

Fiber artist Bisa Butler’s quilted portraits of Black Americans gain extra power from their medium.

Each work is comprised of many scraps, carefully cut and positioned after hours of research and preliminary sketches.

Velvet and silk nestle against bits of vintage flour sacks, West African wax print fabric, denim and, occasionally, hand-me-downs from the sitter’s own collection.




In The Warmth of Other Sons, a 12-foot, life-sized portrait of an African American family who migrated north in search of economic opportunity, a wary-looking young girl clutches a purse to her chest. The purse is constructed from a commercial wax cotton print titled Michelle Obama’s Bag, which commemorates one of the former First Lady’s trips to Africa.

As anthropologist Nina Sylvanus writes in Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa:

To wear this pattern…is both to honor and aspire to be ravishingly beautiful and powerful like Michele Obama; It is considered a must-have fashion piece in the wardrobe of stylish women in Abidjan, Lomé, and Lagos.

The vibrant colors of Butler’s materials also inform her portraits, particularly those inspired by historical figures whose images are most familiar in black-and-white.

She is also deeply influenced by her undergraduate years at Howard University, where many of her professors were part of the AfriCOBRA artists’ collective. They encouraged students to think of blank canvases as black, rather than white, and to throw out the Beaux Arts palette in favor of West African fabric’s Kool-Aid colors—“bright orange, bright yellow, crimson red, intense blue.”

As she describes in the above video:

The initial start is who’s it gonna be? Then after you choose that person, choose your color scheme. The color scheme is based on what you feel about that person. People have color around them, in them, that is not evidently visible to the naked eye.

The Storm, the Whirlwind, and The Earthquake, her recently completed full-length portrait of a 30-year old Frederick Douglass, reimagines the abolitionist’s 19th-century garb as something akin to a modern day Harlem dandy’s bold embrace of color, pattern, and style, deliberately challenging the status quo. The rich color scheme extends to his skin and the homey background fabric.

Butler, who was raised in an art-filled New Jersey home by a Black American mother and a Ghanian father, also credits her grandmother, the subject of her first quilted portrait, with helping her find her aesthetic.

An early attempt to paint a portrait of her beloved relative (and childhood sewing instructor) resulted in disappointment on both sides. The crestfallen artist’s aunt tipped her off that the older lady’s mental self-picture was that of someone 30 years younger.

Inspired by the collaged work of Romare Bearden, Butler gave it another go, this time in quilted form, taking care to represent her grandmother as an attractive woman in the prime of life. This time her efforts were met with enthusiasm. “I could feel an energy in the room that something new was happening,” Butler recalls.

Whether her subjects are living or dead, Butler strives to bring the same sense of “dignity and regal opulence” to unsung citizens that she does when creating portraits of such famous Americans as Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Jackie Robinson, Lauren Hill, Josephine Baker, and Jean-Michel Basquiat:

African Americans have been quilting since we were brought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scraps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being. Some enslaved peoples were so talented that they were tasked for creating beautiful quilts that adorned their enslavers beds. My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century, I want them to have their African Ancestry back, I want them to take their place in American History. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them. 

Explore the work of Bisa Butler on the artist’s Instagram, or MyModernmet and Colossal.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Artificial Intelligence Brings to Life Figures from 7 Famous Paintings: The Mona Lisa, Birth of Venus & More

Denis Shiryaev is an AI wizard who has liberally applied his magic to old film—upscaling, colorizing, and otherwise modernizing scenes from Victorian England, late Tsarist Russia, and Belle Époque Paris. He trained machines to restore the earliest known motion picture, 1888’s Roundhay Garden Scene and one of the most mythologized works of early cinema, the Lumière Brothers 50-second Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station.

Shiryaev’s casual distribution of these efforts on YouTube can make us take for granted just how extraordinary they are. Such recreations would have been impossible just a decade or so ago. But we should not see these as historic restorations. The software Shiryaev uses fills in gaps between the frames, allowing him to upscale the frame rate and make more naturistic-looking images. This often comes at a cost. As Ted Mills wrote in an earlier Open Culture post on Shiryaev’s methods, “there are a lot of artifacts, squooshy, morphing moments where the neural network can’t figure things out.”




But it’s an evolving technology. Unlike wizards of old, Shiryaev happily reveals his trade secrets so enterprising coders can give it a try themselves, if they’ve got the budget. In his latest video, above, he plugs the NVIDIA Quadro RTX 6000, a $4,000 graphics card (and does some griping about rights issues), before getting to the fun stuff. Rather than make old film look new, he’s “applied a bunch of different neural networks in an attempt to generate realistic faces of people from famous paintings.”

These are, Shiryaev emphasizes, “estimations,” not historical recreations of the faces behind Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Lady with an Ermine, Botticelli’s model for The Birth of Venus, Vermeer’s for Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. In the case of American Gothic, we have a photo of the model, artist Grant Wood’s sister, to compare to the AI’s version. Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird gets the treatment. She left perhaps a few hundred photographs and some films that probably look more like her than the AI version.

The GIF-like “transformations,” as they might be called, may remind us of a less fun use of such technology: AI’s ability to create realistic faces of people who don’t exist for devious purposes and to make “deep fake” videos of those who do. But that needn’t take away from the fact that it’s pretty cool to see Botticelli’s Venus, or a simulation of her anyway, smile and blink at us from a distance of over 500 years.

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The Earliest Known Motion Picture, 1888’s Roundhay Garden Scene, Restored with Artificial Intelligence

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Write Only 500 Words Per Day and Publish 50+ Books: Graham Greene’s Writing Method

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Nobody can write a book. That is, nobody can write a book at a stroke — unless aided by aggressively mind-invigorating substances, and even then they seldom pull it off. As professional writers know all too well, composing just one passable chapter at a sitting demands a Stakhanovite fortitude (or more commonly, a threateningly close deadline). Books are written less one chapter at a time than one section at a time, less one section at a time than one paragraph at a time, less one paragraph at a time than one sentence at a time, and less one sentence at a time than one word at a time. Graham Greene wrote his formidable body of work, more than 50 books, including novels, poetry and short fiction collections, memoirs, and children’s stories, 500 words at a time.

In one of his most beloved novels, 1951’s The End of the Affair, Greene has his writer protagonist Maurice Bendrix describe a working method much like his own:

Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764.

In his youth, Bendrix notes, “not even a love affair would alter my schedule,” nor could one interrupt the nightly phase of his process: “However late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it.”




Much of a novelist’s writing, he believes, “takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.” Greene, too, set enough store by the unconscious to keep a dream journal. A few year after The End of the Affair, writesThe New Yorker‘s Maria Konnikova, “he faced a creative ‘blockage,’ as he called it, that prevented him from seeing the development of a story or even, at times, its start. The dream journal proved to be his savior.”

All of us who write, whatever we write, can learn from Greene’s methods; Michael Korda got to witness them first-hand. In the summer of 1950 he was invited by his uncle, the film producer Alexander Korda, to come along on a French-Riviera cruise with a variety of major industry figures, Greene included. By that point Greene had already written a fair few screenplays, including adaptations of his own novels Brighton Rock and The Third Man. But each morning on the yacht he worked on a more personal project, as the sixteen-year-old Korda watched:

An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?” I did not, of course, know that he was completing The End of the Affair.

This working ritual, a Korda describes it, suits the sensibilities of the writer, a convert to Catholicism who dealt with themes of religious practice in his work:

Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute. Whatever else was going on, his daily writing, like a religious devotion, was sacred and complete. Once the daily penance of five hundred words was achieved, he put the notebook away and didn’t think about it again until the next morning.

Just as Greene’s adherence to Catholicism lost some of its rigor in his later years (he claimed to have been converted by arguments, then forgotten the arguments), his daily word count decreased. “In the old days, at the beginning of a book, I’d set myself 500 words a day, but now I’d put the mark to about 300 words,” a 66-year-old Greene told the New York Times in 1971. But such are the wages of the novelist’s art, in which Greene felt a demand to “know — even if I’m not writing it — where my character’s sitting, what his movements are. It’s this focusing, even though it’s not focusing on the page, that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close.”

Greene wasn’t alone in writing a certain number of words each day. According to a post at Word Counter, Ernest Hemingway got started on his own 500 daily words at first light. Ian McEwan says he aims “for about six hundred words a day and hope for at least a thousand when I’m on a roll.” For the more prolific J.G. Ballard, a thousand was the minimum, “even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.” The near-inhumanly prolific Stephen King doubles that: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words,” he says in his memoir On Writing. “On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon.”

John Updike, no slouch when it came to productivity, recommended writing for a length of time rather than to a number of words. “Even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say — or more — a day to write,” he says in an interview clip previously featured here on Open Culture. “Some very good things have been written on an hour a day.” At The Guardian, novelist Neil Griffiths discusses his apostasy from the thousand-words-a-day method: “I’m writing a novel — an artistic enterprise, one hopes — but I was measuring my working day by a number.” Switching to the “finish the bit you’re working on” method, he writes, means he doesn’t have “half an eye on what is going to happen in the next bit because without it I’ll never make the day’s 1000. My sole concern is the words before me, however many or few they are, and getting them right before moving on.” And so, it seems, those of us trying to get our life’s work written have two options: do what Graham Greene did, or do the opposite.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch 270+ Short Documentaries of Artists at Work, and Let Them Inspire Your Creative Process

Imagine if comedian Amy Sedaris were self-isolating with artists Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon.

Perhaps they’d barricade themselves into separate rooms, hunched over their individual screens, cursing their roommates for slowing down their livestreams, but we prefer to think they’d busy themselves with projects such as Dzama’s short film, “Dance Floor Dracula, Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.”




Enjoy a glimpse into the friends’ collaborative creative process, above, compliments of Art21’s Extended Play, a short documentary series offering backstage access to living, working artists, from established to emerging.

Much of the content seems germane to the world we find ourselves in now, when the creative playing field feels remarkably open to our participation, thanks to crowdsourced projects like the ongoing photo challenge wherein ordinary citizens are using their phones and household objects to recreate famous artworks at home.

Painter Tala Madani takes viewers through her sketchbook and talks about its value as a method of capturing ideas and as the “most immediate record of the thinking process.” The cartoonish quality of her sketches may help those who’d let a lack of confidence in their artistic ability stop them from attempting to document their observations of our changed reality visually. A sketchbook is also a great place for the seeds of future projects to germinate.

The preparations for Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center’s annual fashion show, Beyond Trend, could send you scuttling to your closet or recycling bin, inspired by William Scott’s papier-mâché Frankenstein mask—a five day effort—or the patches Christine Szeto embroiders with titles of favorite Taylor Swift songs, then sews to her jeans in orderly columns.

This sort of wearable art doesn’t require advanced needle skills or knowledge of how garments are put together, making it perfectly tailored to those open to exploring new sides of themselves in isolation.

That said, we are sure the featured designers are anxiously awaiting the reopening of Creative Growth, which serves artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities.

Community and creativity are showing themselves to be equally essential to our wellbeing.

Watch all 270+ episodes of Art21’s Extended Play here, or right below:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Art Gallery for Gerbils: Two Quarantined Londoners Create a Mini Museum Complete with Gerbil-Themed Art

London-based couple Filippo and Marianna‘s self-isolation project calls to mind artist (and museum curator) Bill Scanga’s At the Met, exhibited nearly 20 years ago as part of the group show Almost Warm and Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now known as MoMA PS1).

Scanga’s installation involved hanging mini-replicas of works from the Metropolitan Museum’s American collection on extremely long wires that traveled from under-ceiling picture rail to the baseboard, where a collection of art-loving taxidermied mice waited expectantly. One rested on a familiar-looking, black vinyl upholstered bench, a tiny blue shopping bag from the Met’s gift store parked near its dainty, shoeless feet.

Filippo and Marianna’s art-loving rodents are gerbils, and unlike Scanga’s artfully stuffed models, theirs—9-month-old brothers Pandoro and Tiramisù—are very much alive, as Tiramisù proved when he gnawed the unseen gallery assistant’s painstakingly assembled cardboard stool to bits under the watchful eye of the tiny Girl with a Pearl Earring facsimile Marianna crafted for his cultural enrichment.




A video the couple published on Reddit, above, shows the furry museum goers scampering under the benches to the tune of “The Blue Danube” and placing their paws on the artwork, including an expert, gerbil-themed forgery of Gustav Klimt’s gold-flecked Symbolist masterpiece, The Kiss.

Not to be vulgar, but if this museum has a restroom, Pandoro and Tiramisù seem to have given it a miss, an impropriety surpassing any waged by the titular characters of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Two Bad Mice.

Filippo and Marianna accepted the destruction of their exquisitely staged set with a cheer that suggests they’re not shut up for the duration with a small child… just gerbils, who can be deposited back into their Habitrail when the fun’s over.

The attention to detail—the gallery tags! The laminated cards in multiple languages in a wall-mounted holder!—captured the imagination of Reddit. Users jumped Marianna’s original post—(Quarantine, day 14. Me and my boyfriend spent the whole day setting up an art gallery for our gerbil)—with suggestions of other famous works to recreate in miniature and add to the collection. Rest assured no groan-worthy, pun-based, gerbil-centric title was left unexpressed.

With cultural institutions temporarily shuttered for the good of public health, many viewers also shared their yearning to get back inside favorite museums. (Marianna reports that Filippo is a museum worker.)

For now, we must be patient, and live vicariously through gerbils ’til the long wait is over.


Via Hyperallergic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Like Choir! Choir! Choir!, she has been crowdsourcing art in isolation, most recently a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ingenious Improvised Recreations of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Using Materials Found Around the House

One can only tolerate so many educational videos in self-isolation before the brain begins to rebel.

Hands-on learning. That’s what we’re craving.

And ultimately, that’s what the Getty provides with an addictive challenge to captive audiences on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram to re-create iconic artworks using three household objects.

Participants are encouraged to look at the Getty’s downloadable, digitized collection and beyond for a piece that speaks to them, possibly because of their ability to match it by dint of hair color, physique or  perfect prop.)




Certain works quickly emerged as favorites, with Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) the clear front runner.

The Mauritshuis, where Girl with a Pearl Earring is quarantined, along with other Hague-dwellers such as Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, describes it thusly:

Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. It is not a portrait, but a ‘tronie’ – a painting of an imaginary figure. Tronies depict a certain type or character; in this case a girl in exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear.

Johannes Vermeer was the master of light. This is shown here in the softness of the girl’s face and the glimmers of light on her moist lips. And of course, the shining pearl.

Let’s have a look, shall we?

 

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Vermeer’s extraordinary application of light and shadow is a tall order for most amateurs, but it’s wonderful to see how much careful consideration has been given to the original subject’s expression, the cant of her head, the arrangement of her garments.

It seems the best way to study a work of art is to become that work of art… especially when one is trapped at home, seeking distraction, and forced to improvise with available objects.

Let us pray we’ll be set loose long before Halloween, but also that the challenge takers won’t forget how ingenious, easily sourced, and cost-effective their costumes were: a pillowcase, a button, an inverted party dress, the hem of a sibling’s blue t-shirt, rescued from the rag bag still smelling faintly of vinegar from pre-coronavirus household cleaning.

That off-the-rack “sexy cat” won’t stand a chance.

 

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No one’s disqualified if the number of items used in service of these recreations exceeds the originally stiuplated 3. As long as the participants are having (educational!) fun, this is one of those challenges where everybody wins… especially the baby, the dog, the guy with the mustache and the lady with the turkey on her head, even though the baby and the guy with the mustache forgot their earrings.

 

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Some tips for participants accompany a handful of memorable entries on the Getty’s behind-the-scenes blog, The Iris. We’ve got links to a number of world class museums’ and libraries’ digital collections here  and can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Meanwhile, enjoy even more recreations by searching for #gettychallenge or having a look at the Instagram of Tussen Kunst & Quarantaine, whose attempt to conjure Girl With A Pearl Earring using a placemat, a towel and a garlic bulb, launched the project that prompted the Getty and the Rijksmuseum to follow suit.

Extra points if you accept the #neckruffchallenge inspired by our history-loving artist friend, Tyler Gunther’s take on the #gettychallenge, below.

 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She has been crowdsourcing art in isolation, most recently a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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