Watch the “Greatest Juggler of the Ages,” Frances Brunn, Perform His “Painfully Exciting” Juggling Routine (1969)

When John Ringling North, then president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, saw a pair of German  jugglers and acrobats perform in Spain, he immediately invited them to join “the Greatest Show on Earth.” A brother and sister team, Francis and Lottie Brunn would astonish audiences. In 1950, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called Francis “the greatest juggler of the ages. Not many people in the world are as perfectly adjusted as Mr. Brunn is. He will never have to visit a psychiatrist.” If physical grace and balance are reflective of one’s state of mind, maybe he was right.

When Lottie left the act in 1951, Francis went on to popular fame and even more hyperbolic acclaim. “After he performed before the queen of England in 1963, The Evening Standard called his show ‘almost painfully exciting,’” Douglas Martin writes at The New York Times.




“Trying to describe Brunn’s act is like trying to describe the flight of a swallow,” writes Francisco Alvarez in Juggling: Its History and Greatest Performers. He became a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, “played the Palace with Judy Garland,” notes Martin, “and went twice to the White House, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed him the best juggler he had ever seen.”

None of this should bias you toward the television performance, above, of course. (How many jugglers could Eisenhower have seen, anyway?) Judge for yourself. By way of further context, we should note that Brunn was known for perfecting “an austere but demanding minimalism. He was fascinated by controlling just one ball, and virtually compelled audiences to share this fascination.” Or as Brunn put it, “it sounds like nothing, but it is quite difficult to do properly.” As anyone (or virtually everyone) who has tried and failed to juggle can attest, this description fits the art of juggling in general all too well.

Brunn made it look laughably easy: “Large numbers of objects posed scant problem. He was believed to be the first juggler in the world to put up 10 hoops,” Martin writes. He also liked to incorporate flamenco into his act to compound the difficulty and the grace. “I do not consider myself doing tricks,” he said in 1983. “There is one movement for eight minutes. It’s supposed to be, let’s say, like a ballet…. I would love if the audience is so fascinated that nobody applauds in the end.” Brunn, I suspect, never got to hear the sound of stunned silence after his act.

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

Artist Makes Micro-Miniature Sculptures So Small They Fit on the Head of a Pin

The jury remains out as to the number of angels that can dance on a pin, but self-taught artist Flor Carvajal is amassing some data regarding the number of itty bitty sculptures that can be installed on the tips of matchsticks, pencil points, and — thanks to a rude encounter with a local reporter — in the eye of a needle.

According to Tucson’s Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, where her work is on display through June, The Vanguardia Liberal was considering running an interview in conjunction with an exhibit of her Christmas-themed miniatures. When she wouldn’t go on record as to whether any of the itty-bitty nativity scenes she’d been crafting for over a decade could be described as the world’s smallest, the reporter hung up on her.




Rather than stew, she immediately started experimenting, switching from Styrofoam to synthetic resin in the pursuit of increasingly miniscule manger scenes.

By sunrise, she’d managed to place the Holy Family atop a lentil, a grain of rice, the head of a nail, and the head of a pin.

These days, most of her micro-miniature sculptures require between 2 and 14 days of work, though she has been laboring on a model of Apollo 11 for over a year, using only a magnifying glass and a needle, which doubles as brush and carving tool.

In a virtual artist’s chat last month, she emphasizes that a calm mind, steady hands, and breath control are important things to bring to her workbench.

Open windows can lead to natural disaster. The odds of recovering a work-in-progress that’s been knocked to the floor are close to nil, when said piece is rendered in 1/4” scale or smaller.

Religious themes provide ongoing inspiration – a recent achievement is a 26 x 20 millimeter recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — but she’s also drawn to subjects relating to her native Columbia, like Goranchacha, the son the Muisca Civilization’s Sun God, and Juan Valdez, the fictional representative of the national coffee growers federation.

See more of  Flor Carvajal’s micro-miniatures on her Instagram.

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

Watch Cartoonist Lynda Barry’s Two-Hour Drawing Workshop

We know you’re Zoomed out, but might you make an exception for the pre-recorded drawing and writing session above with legendary cartoonist and illustrator Lynda Barry?

Under the auspices of Graphic Medicine’s participatory online series, Drawing Together, the notoriously playful Barry led participants through a series of exercises from her book, Making Comics, and seemed genuinely pleased to be back in teaching mode. (All of her in-person classes at the University of Wisconsin have been cancelled until further notice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as has her usual summer stint at the Omega Institute.)




Barry endeavored to loosen her students up right away, brandishing toys and dancing to an amazing playlist in a friend’s borrowed attic, confiding that the wifi situation here was far superior to that in her old farmhouse.

Teacher divided the large group in half by birthdays, as a way to organize viewing each other’s work after each timed exercise.

This couldn’t quite replicate the experience of the live classroom, where students have the opportunity to handle each other’s work, and more time to take it in, but still fun to see the incredible diversity—and in the case of closed-eye exercises—thrilling similarities on display.

Barry’s delight extended beyond the confines of the page, imitating the way some students beam like swaying sunflowers throughout the 60-second closed eye sessions, while others knit their brows, lower their chins and power through.

A series of self-portraits followed, with prompts designed to tap into the sort of imaginative powers that frequently seep away in adolescence—draw yourself as an animal, an astronaut, a member of a marching band, any fruit that’s not a banana…

Longer exercises involved turning random squiggles into monsters, with an extra minute granted after the timer went off to add whatever missing things the artist felt each drawing needed, then choosing one of those monsters to star in a family album of sorts.

Barry, who has, over the course of her career, filled a number of panels with hilariously out-of-touch teachers making life a hell for child characters, is audibly appreciative of her students’ efforts, frequently congratulating them for bringing something into the world that didn’t exist a few minutes prior:

This is the thing about comics! They come intact, they come all together and the most important thing you need to do is just make time to draw them, the uninterrupted time, even if it’s just 2 minutes.

Truth!

The final exercise of the day drew on some of the writing techniques Barry featured in Syllabus, with participants, quickly jotting down memories after a prompt, then choosing one  to explore more deeply, with special attention devoted to sensory recall.

To play along from home after the fact, you’ll need a couple of hours, ten or so sheets of paper, a pencil or pen (Barry favors black felt tips), and your “original digital devices” (hint: they’re attached to the ends of your arms).

Find information on how to participate in upcoming free Drawing Together sessions here.

All drawings used with the permission of participant Ayun Halliday.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Exquisite, Ephemeral Paper Cuttings of Hans Christian Andersen

Quick, name a melancholy Dane.

For most of us, the choice comes down to Hamlet or Hans Christian Andersen, author of such bittersweet tales as “The Little Match Girl,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and “The Little Mermaid.”

Andersen’s personal life remains a matter of both speculation and fascination.

Was he gayAsexualA virgin with a propensity for massive crushes on unattainable women, who engaged prostitutes solely for conversation?

No one can say for sure.




What we know definitively is that he was a jolly and talented paper cutter.

He enchanted party guests of all ages with improvised stories as he snipped away, unfolding the sheet at tale’s end, a souvenir for some lucky young listener.

“You can imagine how many of them must have got torn or creased,” says art historian Detlef Klein, who co-curated the 2018 exhibition Hans Christian Andersen, Poet with Pen and Scissors. “You could often bend the figures a little, blow at them and then move them across the tabletop.”

Amazingly, 400 some survive, primarily in the Odense City Museums’ large collection.

Pierrots, dancers, and swans were frequent subjects. Spraddle-legged creature’s bellies served as proscenium theaters. Even the simplest feature some tricky, spindly bits—tightropes, umbrellas, delicate shoes….

The most intricate pieces, like Fantasy Cutting for Dorothea Melchior below, were thoughtful homemade presents for close friends. (The Melchiors hosted Andersen’s 70th birthday party and he died during an extended visit to their country home.)

The cuttings bring fairy tales to mind, but they are not specific to the published work of Andersen. No Thumbelina. No Ugly Duckling. Not a mermaid in sight.

As Moy McCrory, senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Derby, writes:

Andersen knew that his written work would outlast him: he was famous and successful, as were his tales. Yet he continued to work in these transient materials, their cheapness and availability making them of no value apart from their appeal to sentiment…Why work in a form that ought to have left no traces? I suggest that this showed how Andersen reacted to his fame, and to his own sense of being forever on the margins of the lived life. He moved amongst the educated and the famous, was friendly with Dickens, was patronized by nobles, but was outside those circles. His education was gained at some pains to himself, years after the usual dates for these activities (he would not even pass nowadays as a “mature student”, since his completion of elementary school only took place when he was a young adult). He was always placed outside the normal bounds of the society he kept.

Readers, we challenge you to play Pygmalion and release a fairy tale based on the images below.

All images, with the exception of The Royal Library Copenhagen’s The Botanist, directly above, are used with the permission of Odense City Museums, in accordance with a Creative Commons License.

Explore the Odense City Museums‘ collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s papercuts here.

Bonus reading for those in need of a laugh: “The Saddest Endings of Hans Christian Andersen Stories” by the Toast’s Daniel M. Lavery.

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

Witness the Birth of Kermit the Frog in Jim Henson’s Live TV Show, Sam and Friends (1955)

Long before “green” became synonymous with eco-friendly products and production, an 18-year-old Jim Henson created a puppet who would go on to become the color’s most celebrated face from his mother’s cast-off green felt coat and a single ping pong ball.

Kermit debuted in black and white in the spring of 1955 as an ensemble member of Sam and Friendsa live television show comprised of five-minute episodes that the talented Henson had been tapped to write and perform, following some earlier success as a teen puppeteer.




Airing on the Washington DC-area NBC affiliate between the evening news and The Tonight ShowSam and Friends was an immediate hit with viewers, even if they ranked Kermit, originally more lizard than frog, fourth in terms of popularity. (Top spot went to a skull puppet named Yorick.)

Watching the surviving clips of Sam and Friends, it’s easy to catch glimpses of where both Kermit and Henson were headed.

While Henson voiced Sam and all of his puppet friends, Kermit wound up sounding the closest to Henson himself.

Kermit’s signature face-crumpling reactions were by design. Whereas other puppets of the period, like the titular Sam, had stiff heads with the occasional moving jaw, Kermit’s was as soft as a footless sock, allowing for far greater expressiveness.

Henson honed Kermit’s expressions by placing live feed monitors on the floor so he and his puppeteer bride-to-be Jane, could see the puppets from the audience perspective.

Unlike previously televised puppet performances, which preserved the existing prosceniums of the theaters to which the players had always been confined, Henson considered the TV set frame enough. Liberating the puppets thusly gave more of a sketch comedy feel to the proceedings, something that would carry over to Sesame Street and later, The Muppet Show.

By the 12th episode, Kermit has found a niche as wry straight man for wackier characters like jazz aficionado Harry the Hipster who introduced an element of musical notation to the animated letters and numbers that would become a Sesame Street staple.

And surely we’re not the only ones who think the Muppets’ recent appearance in a Super Bowl ad pales in comparison to Kermit and Harry’s live commercial for Sam and Friends’ sponsor, a regional brand of bacon and lunch meat.

Sam and Friends ran from 1955 to 1961, but Kermit’s first performance on The Tonight Show in 1956, lip syncing to Rosemary Clooney’s recording of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” and mugging in a blonde braided wig, hinted that he and Henson would soon outgrow the local television pond.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, current issue #63. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hokusai’s Iconic Print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” Recreated with 50,000 LEGO Bricks

For those with the time, skill, and drive, LEGO is the perfect medium for wildly impressive recreations of iconic structures, like the Taj MahalEiffel Tower, the Titanic and now the Roman Colosseum.

But water? A wave?

And not just any wave, but Katsushika Hokusai‘s celebrated 19th-century woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.




As Open Culture’s Colin Marshall pointed out earlier, you might not know the title, but the image is instantly recognizable.

Artist Jumpei Mitsui, the world’s youngest LEGO Certified Professional, was undeterred by the thought of tackling such a dynamic and well known subject.

While other LEGO enthusiasts have created excellent facsimiles of famous artworks, doing justice to the curves and implied motion of The Great Wave seems a nearly impossible feat.

Having spent his childhood in a house by the sea, waves are a familiar presence to Mitsui. To get a better sense of how they work, he read several scientific papers and spent four hours studying wave videos on YouTube.

He made only one preparatory sketch before beginning the build, an effort that required 50,000 some LEGO pieces.

His biggest hurdle was choosing which color bricks to use in the area indicated by the red arrow in the photo below. Hokusai had taken advantage of the newly affordable Berlin blue pigment in the original.

Mitsui tweeted:

I tried a total of 7 colors including transparent parts, but in the end, I adopted the same blue color as the waves. If you use other colors, the lines will be overemphasized and unnatural, but if you use blue, the shade will be created just by adjusting the light, and the natural lines will appear nicely. It can be said that it was possible because it was made three-dimensional.

Jumpei Mitsui’s wave is now on permanent view at Osaka’s Hankyu Brick Museum.

via Spoon and Tamago and Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Courses on Art, Creativity & Storytelling for MasterClass

If MasterClass comes calling, you know you’ve made it. In the five years since its launch, the online learning platform has brought on such instructors as Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Annie Leibovitz, and Malcolm Gladwell, all of whom bring not just knowledge and experience of a craft, but the glow of high-profile success as well. Though MasterClass’ lineup has expanded to include more writers, filmmakers, and performers (as well as chefs, designers, CEOs, and poker players) it’s long been light on visual artists. But it may signal a change that the site has just released a course taught by Jeff Koons, promoted by its trailer as the most original and controversial American artist — as well as the most expensive one.

Just last year, Koons’ sculpture Rabbit set a new record auction price for a work by a living artist: $91.1 million, which breaks the previous record of $58.4 million that happened to be held by another Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange). This came as the culmination of a career that began, writes critic Blake Gopnik, with “taking store-bought vacuum cleaners and presenting them as sculpture,” then creating  “full-size replicas of rubber dinghies and aqualungs, cast in Old Master-ish bronze” and later “giant hard-core photos of himself having sex with his wife, the famous Italian porn star known as La Cicciolina (“Chubby Chick”)” and “simulacra of shiny blow-up toys and Christmas ornaments and gems, enlarged to monumental size in gleaming stainless steel.”

With such work, Gopnik argues, Koons has “rewritten all the rules of art — all the traditions and conventions that usually give art order and meaning”; his elevation of kitsch allows us to “see our world, and art, as profoundly other than it usually is.” Not that the artist himself puts it in quite those words. In his well-known manner — “like a space alien who has spent long years studying how to be the perfect, harmless Earthling, but can’t quite get it right” — Koons uses his MasterClass to tell the story of his artistic development, which began in the showroom of his father’s Pennsylvania furniture store and continued into a reverence for the avant-garde in general and Salvador Dalí in particular. From his life he draws lessons on turning everyday objects into art, using size and scale, and living life with “the confidence in yourself to follow your interests.”

Also new for this holiday season is a MasterClass on storytelling and writing taught by no less renowned a storyteller and writer than Salman Rushdie. The author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses thus joins on the site a group of novelists as varied as Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, and Judy Blume, but he brings with him a much different body of work and life story. “I’ve been writing, now, for over 50 years,” he says in the course‘s trailer just above. “There’s all this stuff about three-act structure, exactly how you must allow a story to unfold. My view is it’s all nonsense.” Indeed, by this point in his celebrated career, Rushdie has narrowed the rules of his craft down to just one: Be interesting.

Easier said than done, of course, which is why Rushdie’s MasterClass comes structured in nineteen practically themed lessons. In these he deals with such lessons as building a story’s structure, opening with powerful lines, drawing from old storytelling traditions, and rewriting — which, he argues, all writing is. To make these fiction-writing concepts concrete, Rushdie offers exercises for you, the student, to work through, and he also takes a critical look back at the failed work he produced in his early twenties. But though his techniques and process have greatly improved since then, his resolve to create, and to do so using his own distinctive sets of interests and experiences, has wavered no less than Koons’. At the moment you can learn from both of them (and MasterClass’ 100+ other instructors) if you take advantage of MasterClass’ holiday 2-for-1 deal. For $180, you can buy an annual subscription for yourself, and give one to a friend/family member for free. Sign up here.

Note: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

The Eden Project Built a Rainforest Ecosystem Inside Buckminster Fuller-Inspired Geodesic Domes

Buckminster Fuller had a difficult time as an inventor in his early years. “Having been expelled from Harvard for irresponsible conduct,” notes The Guardian, “he struggled to find a job and provide a living for his young family in his early 30s.” Despite later successes, and a later reputation as legendary as Nikola Tesla’s, he was often, like Tesla, seen by critics as a utopian visionary, whose visions were too impractical to really change the world.

But his body of work remains a testament to an imagination that rises above the trends of industrial design and engineering. After a period of decline, for example, Fuller’s geodesic domes experienced a revival in the early 2000’s when “aging baby-boomers across America” began “building dream homes in the shape of geodesic domes.” Meanwhile in Cornwall, England, a few years ahead of the curve, Dutch-born businessman and archaeologist-turned-successful-music-producer Sir Timothy Smit broke ground on what would become a far more British use of Fullerist principles.




In the late 90s, Smit started work on an enormous complex of geodesic biomes called the Eden Project, a facility “akin to a quintessentially Victorian creation: the English greenhouse,” which reached its apex in the famed “Crystal Palace” built for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. These were buildings “born out of a playful, decadent imagination—yet in their architecture and design they often opened new pathways for the future.” So too do Fuller’s designs, in an application melding Victorian and Fullerist ideas about curatorship and sustainability.

Looking like “clusters of soap bubbles” the Eden Project slowly rose above an exhausted clay pit and opened in 2001 (see a short time-lapse film of the construction above). Each of the two huge central domes recreates an ecosystem. The Rainforest Biome allows visitors to get lost in nearly 4 acres of tropical forest and includes banana, coffee, and rubber plants. The Mediterranean Biome houses an acre and a half of olives and grape vines. Smaller adjoining domes house thousands of additional plant species. There is a performance space and a yearly music festival; sculptures and art exhibitions in both the indoor and outdoor gardens. The facility has hosted well over a million visitors each year.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2016, the Eden Project began planting redwoods, introducing a forest of the North American trees to Europe for the first time. Next year, it will begin drilling for a geothermal energy project to turn heat from the granite underground into power, an undertaking that, unlike fracking, will not release contaminants into the water supply or additional fossil fuels into the air and could power and heat the facility and 5000 additional homes. In 2018, the project began construction on Eden Project North, in Morecambe, Lancashire, with buildings designed to look like giant mussels and a focus on marine environments.

Eden Project International aims to build unique facilities all around the world, “to create new attractions with a message of environmental, social and economic regeneration” and “to protect and rejuvenate natural landscapes.” None of these ambitious expansions use the geodesic domes of the original Eden Project, but that is not a reflection on the domes’ structural soundness. Many other transparent uses of Fuller’s design have encountered difficulties with water tightness and heat flow. The Eden Project’s domes use innovative inflatable, triangular panels instead of glass to solve those problems. Fuller surely would have approved.

The project also represents a poignant personal vindication for the Fuller family. Fuller “vowed to dedicate his life to improving standards of living through good design,” The Guardian writes, after his daughter Alexandra died in 1922. In 2009, his only surviving child, Allegra Fuller Snyder, then 82 and Chairwoman of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, visited the Eden Project. “Of all the projects related to my father’s work,” she remarked afterward, “I would say that this is the one I am most aware of as being a powerful, comprehensive project…. My father would have been just thrilled. He would feel that it is a marvellous application of his thinking.”

Learn more about the Eden Project, which reopens December 3, here. And learn how to “create Eden wherever you are” with the project’s free resources for gardeners at home.

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

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