Guess Who?

In the years I have worked in the ANC, I have had a lot of people tell me about their favorite pieces of the center—the Build A Bird interactive, the Wrenchophone, the harbor seal that hung out in the mammals case during Eye Spy.  I’ve also harbored a few secret favorites of my own, like the trio of eastern screech owls peering beadily from their crooked branch, or the scrimshaw piece that depicts Ben Franklin.  (Why would you make a scrimshaw portrait of Ben Franklin? These are the stories I want to know!)

Eastern Screech Owls, with an artist intervention during Eye Spy

Eastern Screech Owls, with an artist intervention during Eye Spy

In that time, however, the other ANC staff and I have also heard a lot about things people have loved in the past, and things they wish we could bring back, or do more of, or explore in a different way.  We’ve kept track, and considered all those assorted ideas and favorites in addition to the prototyping and surveying that I mentioned in my last post.  We then worked all of that into our plans for the re-envisioning of the Art & Nature Center’s ongoing exhibition.  Over the last year we’ve been mixing and matching, adding and rearranging, inventing and tweaking, until we were all really happy with the new plans.

Toucan origami folded by Michael LaFosse

Toucan origami folded by Michael LaFosse

So now, the checklist is set, the floor plans are shaping up, and the artworks are rattling their boxes, eager to leap onto walls and into drawers to be seen and admired by all.

(Okay, so that last part is a little bit of an exaggeration, but only because I can’t prove it’s true.)  In that spirit, here are three sneak peeks at some new wonders to see when the ANC opens in October. 

Take a good look, and make a guess in the comments below.  Do you recognize any materials?  Shapes?  Artistic techniques?  (Go wild, and I’ll post the answers in a few days.)

Mystery Object 1:

bc cropped

Mystery Object 2:

cwq cropped

Mystery Object 3:

pme cropped

Surfing, Tumbling, and Pinning

I run across a lot of fun stuff surfing the wilds of the internet, much of which I stash away to share with you here in an eventual Brain Popcorn post.  Sometimes it’s from an article on my reader (and blessings on the day I decided to invest in upkeeping my RSS feeds, or I’d miss so much cool and wacky content!), and sometimes it’s a neat link on Twitter, but recently there’s been a fair amount of it on tumblr and Pinterest.  I initially resisted both sites because I need more ways to fritter away time on the internet like I need a ten-ton elephant standing on my head, but between a few influential articles and blog posts from people I admire, not to mention a few sessions at the recent National Art Educators Association conference in NYC, I decided to jump straight in.

art & nature center pinboard

Museums on Pinterest

If you search Pinterest users for ‘museum’ you get a fairly large number of results, which I initially found surprising, especially the heavy concentration of children’s museums, though in a lot of ways the art museums are a perfect fit.  I haven’t looked at all their boards, but here are a few folks doing interesting things on Pinterest:

SFMOMA – Thematic collections of elements of their collection, and one cool and self-referential board that highlights where they turn up in the press.

Metropolitan Museum of Art – More thematic collections, and I’m particularly fond of the way they used a quote in the description section of their ‘cat’ board.  (also a great resource to get to other cool museum boards: check out the list of who the Met’s following! I’m particularly keen to see what ends up on the crowdsourced Future of Museums board.)

Met Teens – The museum’s teen advisory group runs this set of boards, which they use to highlight student work (both written and visual) especially in response to museum collections, draw correlations between historical fashions and modern, and advertise upcoming teen-focused events at the museum.  Very cool!

Not convinced?  Right before I was putting this post out into the world, fellow museum enthusiast Colleen Dilenschneider over on Know Your Own Bone wrote a fantastically well-researched set of arguments about why Pinterest is a useful investment for the extended museum community: 5 Reasons for Museums to get on Pinterest right now.

Museums on Tumblr

This is a bit more of a stretch: I don’t actually find Tumblr to be as easy a site to navigate or search.  Simply tracking the ‘museum’ tag gets you interesting photos from people’s vacations, but locating specific museum projects on Tumblr is harder.

Eye Spy: Fake or Real? – This was actually the project that introduced me to Tumblr, which was a game we designed to go with our “Playing with Perception” show at PEM last year.  I really liked the format that our team put together, and I haven’t seen any similar game-style Tumblr projects out there.  (But I’d love to, so if you know of any, do tell!)

SFMOMA (again) – Their general feed is interesting, but I particularly like their ArtGameLab tag, where they share visitor photos etc. from their visitor-designed game projects accessible online and in the galleries.

Have you run across any cool organizational projects on Tumblr or Pinterest?  Share them here! 

Or, of course, you could just come find me there! (fair warning, what you see there is often what happens in my brain before it makes it into a coherent Popcorn post)

Brain Popcorn on Tumblr
Brain Popcorn on Pinterest

Holograms, Impossible Objects, and Floating Furniture

An impossible shape, the Penrose triangle, in Gotschuchen, Austria, erected in 2008 by the "physics meeting" association as part of the project "Physics on Spielplatz" Used with a creative commons license. Click for source.

Impossible Objects

In one of my recent posts I mentioned that studies have shown that we start recognizing impossible objects when very young.  Fortunately, they continue to be fascinating, and have led to amazing art, interior design, and stories like DB Johnson’s Escher-inspired Palazzo Inverso.  (I’m still holding out for a closet that’s either Narnia or a TARDIS, but while they are working on making tractor beams a reality, pocket dimensions to increase the size of my apartment are not on next year’s Christmas list.)

…Though I might want to talk to this guy: Jerry Andrus’s Illusions.  The warping clouds are enough to give you a headache, but the bolt-through-the-impossible-nuts is pretty impressive.  Even after seeing it repeatedly my brain still gets tricked.

Check out other life-sized impossible sculptures like the one above from Austria here.  Almost all of them are the sort that require you to look at them from one particular perfect vantage point: if you’re feeling inspired, there are directions on creating your own impossible triangle sculpture at Cool Optical Illusions: Penrose Triangle.


If they’re working on tractor beams, surely holodecks aren’t far behind.  Eye Spy featured artist Betsy Connors is a holographer here in Boston, and likes to work with whole-room holographic installations, though her works currently showing at the Peabody Essex Museum are discrete elements instead of a single larger piece.  Her route to holographic creations includes lasers, a giant sand table, mirrors, film, and a multi-step developing process (see the PEM interview with her here).

If you’d like to try a similar effect without the heavy-duty equipment, William Beatty’s got detailed instructions and a lot of related links on creating what he calls a “Scratch” or “Abrasion” hologram.

Through the Looking Glass

Optical illusions are a great inspiration for unusual decoration.  These designers have gone beyond painting the roses red, however, to create chairs and couches that seem to (or maybe even will) float, exploding bureaus, room-lengthening curtains (aha!  there’s my pocket dimension after all!) and invisible tables.

Still here? After all those cool ideas?  Fine, have a book trailer for the aforementioned Palazzo Inverso, a very entertaining story you read front to back, and then upside down back to front.  And when you’re done with that, go read Mirror Mirror, which is a set of fairy tale poetry from two points of view, read down the page and then up it again.

Prowling Jaguars, Funhouse Mirrors, and Magic Shows

June 19, 2010 was a beautiful day for the Eye Spy opening!  Though I sadly couldn’t take anywhere near as many photos as I would have liked (the perils of being programming specialist!), here are a few highlights from the day that I did capture:

Before the museum opens, chalk artist Mike Macaulay wins some new fans as he creates a ‘teaser’ image for his anamorphic drawing inside.

All day, his jungle grows out of the floor and into the Atrium…

And elsewhere in the Atrium, magician Mike Bent entertains the crowds as others make funny faces in the warped mirrors and draw their portraits reflected in spoons.

Though their presentations were too light-sensitive for photography, artists Rufus Butler Seder and ron labbe also had full-house crowds for their discussions of the magic of motion in art and 3D photography.  Check out the Eye Spy page (linked at the top of this post) to see a video of ron labbe in his studio, discussing how he got into the world of 3D imaging.

Light, Shadow, and Trees

It’s been blinking hot, which means that everyone I know has been in search of and grateful for even a tiny scrap of shade when forced to be outside the last few days.

One of the things I love about shade on a sunny day is looking up through the leaves to see the patterns and variations of green that you get from the overlapping leaves.

Photo credit to chamberlain_tim

One of the artists featured in Eye Spy clearly feels the same way.  Mary Temple is an artist who works primarily with concepts of light and shadow — tree shadows falling on buildings, through windows, across floors, etc. Many of her works are either photocollage or painted to the sharpness of a black-and-white photograph, but one of my absolute favorites of hers is neither.

Corner Light (Grape Arbor), 2006 by Mary Temple

In Corner Light (Grape Arbor), the image you see is actually part of the paper–sections of it have been washed or scratched away to create a translucent window within the paper which the light then shines through.  Though this piece is a lot less in-your-face whiz-bang-wow than a lot of the works in Eye Spy, in the early mornings when the Art & Nature Center is quiet it’s one of my favorite pieces to just savor for a little while.

If you’d like to make your own light garden piece, try out my Layered Light Quilts activity.  It’s creation by addition instead of subtraction to make it easier for kids and also easier to find the supplies–but if you hang one in your window you’ll get some of that same dappled-leaf glow.

Download the pdf directions here:  Layered Light Quilts directions

Raise (detail) from the series "Light Installations, 2002-present", 2008 by Mary Temple at Western Bridge, Seattle WA

Developing a Critical Eye: Why Media Literacy Matters

In Conjunction with the Peabody Essex Museum exhibition:
Eye Spy, Playing with Perception

June 19, 2010 to May 1, 2011

In this age of digital imaging, we’re comfortable adjusting contrast, tweaking color, or even adding an absent uncle to a family photo. Advertisers also alter or enhance images to get our attention. But what level of alteration is acceptable for the media? Are standards the same for fashion or entertainment magazines as for news outlets? Should they be? How aware are you of our world’s altered realities?

In popular magazines, altering images has become standard practice. To expose the extent of retouching, the women’s-issues blog Jezebel published the before-and-after photos of a Redbook cover featuring musician Faith Hill. Redbook’s editor-in-chief responded, “The retouching we did on Faith Hill’s photo for the July cover of Redbook is completely in line with industry standards.”

Retouching alterations included changing Hill’s neck, earlobe, back, arms, lines and shadows around the face, hair, and skin tone.

Many organizations have criticized the widespread practice of excessive retouching in  magazines, raising concerns about setting unreasonable expectations that can lead to self-esteem issues and behavioral disorders. Similar concerns surround advertisements whose altered images create misleading impressions about a product’s effectiveness.

And the pursuit of the “ideal” image isn’t confined to advertising and popular culture. In 2006, news media giant Reuters fired photojournalist Adnan Hajj when it was discovered that he had altered his photos of smoke rising above a bombed city in Lebanon to intensify the effect. Further investigation revealed that this was not the only photograph Hajj had altered, and Reuters ultimately removed all his work from its archives. Hajj is just one example among many.

Altered photo on left, original photo on right

Why does “a little cosmetic alteration” matter? Not only does this violate established rules of journalistic ethics, but altered images have been shown to affect people’s memories of public events. According to a study by Italian researchers, viewing digitally altered images of protests and rallies can change our perception of the emotions involved, including the size of the crowd and even perceived violence.

Blatant or subtle, examples of “altered reality” abound in today’s culture, so it’s important to become media savvy! Below are resources to help develop a critical media eye and to raise awareness in children about image manipulation in the media at large.

Further Resources

For Adults
Dove: Evolution Watch the dramatic transformation of an ordinary woman into a billboard model through use of make-up and digital manipulation.

Digital Forensics: 5 Ways to Spot a Fake Photo from Scientific American Tips for analyzing photos for evidence of manipulation.

American Photography: A Century of Images from PBS A short essay on ‘Digital Truth’ examining the historical record of photo tampering and the possible ramifications for justice and memory.

For Kids
This step-by-step site uses a fake magazine cover featuring a 14-year-old girl to show
the impact of retouching.
Get an ‘ad-ucational’ look at who creates ads, how, and why through this video-game
style site.

Don’t Buy It! Get Media Smart from PBS Kids
Explores advertising tricks and techniques across many themes, including food, clothing, and entertainment, with “behind-the-scenes” elements and interactives.

Source Articles

Carmon, Irin. “Losing Faith.” WWD 17 Jul 2007: n. pag. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

Moe. “Here’s Our Winner! ‘Redbook’ Shatters Our ‘Faith’ In Well, Not Publishing, But Maybe God.” Jezebel 16 Jul 2007: n. pag. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

“Picture editors shocked by doctored Reuters photos.” Press Gazette: Journalism Today
11 Aug 2006: n. pag. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

University of California – Irvine. “Memory Can Be Manipulated By Photos.” ScienceDaily
21 November 2007. 10 June 2010 <

Hunting Reflective Surfaces: Eye Spy Opening Day Preparations

As some of you may have realized, my longer-than-usual break between posts has been occasioned by the looming approach of Saturday’s opening day for the Art & Nature Center’s new exhibition, Eye Spy, Playing with Perception.  This show features a variety of artists, techniques, and ways of thinking about how and why we see and perceive the world the way we do.  As this is a year-long show, I’m going to limit myself today to talking about some of the very cool pieces that use mirrors, and one of the activities I have planned for opening day.

One artist featured in Eye Spy whom I’ve mentioned before is Devorah Sperber, who does remarkable things with thread.  We have three of her works in Eye Spy, one of which is not only pixellated into thread spools and hung upside down, but is also an anamorphic distortion, meaning that it is warped to a very particular angle so that it can only be deciphered through looking at a half-spherical mirror.

Sperber's anamorphic Spock

Sperber's Spock 2 (anamorphic), 2007, *1,702 spools of thread. Not the anamorphic work we have in the show, but awesome in its own right. Click to see more of Sperber's "Mirror Universe" works.

Another artist who does remarkable things with mirrors is Daniel Rozin, whose pieces Self-Centered Mirror and Mirror Number 5 are featured in Eye Spy.  (You can see a shot of Self-Centered Mirror on the PEM Eye Spy exhibition page linked above.)

Therefore, one of the activities we’ve planned for Saturday involves sketching your own anamorphic portrait.  Not only will we have two funhouse mirrors to play with your reflection, but we also wanted smaller, cool ‘shiny’ stuff that you could hold and examine your reflection while sketching your warped self.  (No judgment in that adjective, merely a comment on the convex and concave!)

Photo credit to "Brendan Alexander's Perplexing Times." Click for link.

Here’s the question…where do you find shiny stuff that will give you those cool reflections, clearly enough that you have a prayer of sketching the result?  The secondary question is…how do you do that without spending oodles of money?

Having discovered to my dismay that not all spoons are anywhere near reflective enough, I embarked on a shiny-surface hunt, accompanied by one of the most creative people I know, who prefers to remain anonymous.  Our first stop was the local dollar store, which was not as helpful as I hoped–however, we did locate some reasonably shiny spoons, 4 for a dollar, a kid’s pair of mirrored sunglasses, and two cosmetic mirrors that had a normal side and a magnifying side.  Total output, about 8 bucks.  Not bad, but not anywhere near enough.

Next stop, thanks to my creative consultant, was the local hardware store.  Two women walking into a hardware store is a perfect opening for any number of well-meaning and only occasionally condescending offers of assistance from the folks who work there, and this trip was no exception.   Imagine, if you please, my utter delight in telling the clerk who offered his assistance that I was looking for ‘shiny stuff.’  He looked at me like I had three heads–and when I went on to explain what I needed it for, he continued to look at me like I had three heads, and had also hit him over the head with a 2×4.  (I love getting reactions like that.)  Meanwhile, while he was telling me that they were really more ‘focused on practical stuff’ and that he doubted I’d find anything, my creative consultant was peering around into the next aisle and beginning to call out all kinds of cool stuff she was finding.

Score one for the educators.

Final haul from the hardware store (after regretfully passing over some very cool and very expensive chromed faucets and other fascinating bits and pieces) included concave drawer handles, stovetop reflectors of a few different sizes, and a few lengths of chromed pipe, including one that is shaped like a U.  (I’m looking forward to handing that to some kid and saying ‘look, you’re on U-tube!’ tomorrow.)  So now I have a basket of stuff–come and sketch tomorrow!

…And if you’re not feeling up to that, check out our custom-made anamorphic puzzles, in which you can’t assemble the warped puzzle pieces and make sense of the image that results without using a cylindrical mirror.

One of the historical anamorphic sketches that was the inspiration for our Anamorphic Puzzlers!