Jul 312013
 

betsy

Betsy Taylor is one of my favorite writers. Her introverted curiosity comes through in everything she does, a watchful sense of intrigue about other people and what they do in their own private worlds, and she shows you things only quiet people would shut up long enough to notice.

Months ago she started approaching people who were doing things she wanted to know more about, and the interviews, which are wonderfully obsessive and attentive, appear on her blog, My Favorite Memphis People. She’s interviewed an organ deliveryman, a defense lawyer, a stand-up comedian, a social club impresario… Some of these subjects are people you might not think you’d hear anything new about – mainly because you’re used to hearing about them in specific ways. I’m fascinated by Betsy’s ability to make everyone she interviews seem like the most fascinating person you’ve ever met. And I appreciate that she commits to them long enough to really see and hear them.

The interviews are really personal – Betsy doesn’t hide behind some bogus journalistic impartiality fantasy – so who she is and why she’s interested is a big part of the process, though she never takes center stage. I was curious about the how and why of doing an enterprise like this and wanted to keep up with what she’s doing, so I sent her some questions:

Evelyn Avenue: Why did you start doing this?

Betsy: It was a combinations of things. I became a foster mom of mostly newborn babies, so I couldn’t go out for several months, and I started feeling isolated. I thought a blog could be a nice way to make a connection to a few people, but I didn’t want to write a mommy blog, and I didn’t much want to write in a breezy, bloggy style about myself. I wanted to write long stuff, which is what I really like to read. And I wanted to write about those Memphis people like Kate Biefuss who aren’t well known but are cool as hell. Of course, I haven’t written about Kate yet… I have this wish list of people I’d like to approach. I’d love to write about Chris Davis and his wife Charlotte. They live in a terrific old house on Looney, which is still kind of in the hood even though that area is more gentrified now. They’re both great storytellers, and their young twin daughters make these terrific videos. I could write about them for days if they’d let me.

SocialClubGroup

The Five-in-One Social Club socializing

Evelyn Avenue: How do you choose a subject? What interests you about someone enough to spend this length of time kind of ‘courting’ them?

Betsy: I typically pick people from Memphis who are already in my orbit. They’re people I admire, but may not know well. Casey Hendry fits that description. I’ve known him for years, but only as an acquaintance, but I’m always delighted in his company because he’s completely himself – just very funny and odd and artistic, I guess. And once he started doing nighttime delivery driving in his old sedan and posting Facebook updates from the road, I knew I really wanted to write about him. Here’s a post by Casey from just last night: “Inside is full of Cronenberg scenes outside is lightning without thunder or rain and legions of big bad ass bugs the size of hummingbirds smacking my windshield like hailstones.its a steamy primordial Mesozoic summer night in the maze!” See what I mean? Also, he does organ delivery driving. I think of organ transplantation as being fraught with drama, but Casey is a laid-back guy who follows the rules of the road. During that period of time the organ is in Casey’s car, that drama is suspended for a while.

Evelyn Avenue: Are your subjects generally comfortable or self conscious about this kind of interest? Often they seem to be people who don’t talk a lot about what they do or aren’t used to people taking this kind of interest in it. How do you negotiate that personal space?

Betsy: Mostly they’re a little self conscious unless they have a product or experience they’re already marketing. Like Alice Laskey-Castle and her boyfriend have this great creative workshop space called Five-In-One, and it’s a public thing. They want people to come. So I think she was more comfortable than others about being approached. But definitely it can be awkward to ask someone to submit to the process. I get a lot of, “Well, I’m not very interesting…but OK.” Jeff Lee (the defense lawyer) was all about it from the beginning. We’ve been friends for years, and he’s a really entertaining storyteller with a fascinating job. He may never get written about in the popular local press because there’s no news hook, but on a day-to-day basis, his life is super fascinating. The trick for us with his posts was how was to tell good defense lawyer stories without violating the confidentiality of his clients. So we talked about his defense techniques instead.

Evelyn Avenue: When you spend this time getting to know someone through the interview process, what are you looking for? What do you hope to record or learn about them?

Betsy: Different things for different people. With you, I just knew I wanted to be in your space for a while. I’m an introvert who doesn’t much love small talk, and you seem the same mostly. I thought if I didn’t get to really sit down and talk with you, I wouldn’t ever get to know you at all. And I wanted to know you – I admire your work! And of course, I was fascinated by the fact that you were so interested in perfume that you tracked down a well-known perfumer in Europe to create your own fragrance line as a tie-in with your films. Who does that?

lee

Defense lawyer and Betsy Taylor subject Jeff Lee in his office

Evelyn Avenue: What do you think is maybe different about focusing on someone the way you do?

Betsy: Well, it’s not very marketable for one thing. I hope the blog encourages people who read it to slow down and stay with a topic for a while and notice some of the details about the person I’m profiling. If I’m doing a good job, then when you put the posts together, you’ll feel like you’ve read a good short story. And you’ll know a little bit more about that person, about Memphis and maybe about me too.

(All photos by Betsy Taylor, from her blog, except the picture of Betsy herself, which was taken by filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox on the set of ONLY CHILD. Betsy was type-cast as a quiet maid.)

 Posted by on July 31, 2013
Jul 252013
 
grace_zabriskie

Grace Zabriskie is such a memorable presence in so many of the films she’s been in that it can be surprising to discover she’s a talented sculptor and carpenter and writer and many other things too, if only because it’s hard to get your mind around Laura Palmer’s mother in a wood shop.

The basement of her home in LA is its own special pocket of time and space. You walk down the stairs and emerge, past a wall of stacked wood, into her studio, surrounded by works in progress, rows of machinery, tools and instruments organized according to the private logic of the room and her process.

grace 4

Her work is hard to describe, but the way she talks about wood – finding it, thinking about it, using it – gives some indication of what emerges. You look at things she’s done – cabinets, boxes, lamps, bedside tables, sculptural tableau – and try to figure out what series of decisions wrought them. They’re like something out of nature in a way, the result of years put through soil and wind and water, the unseen and unknown. You want to ask her where this all comes from, so I’ve started.

Brian Pera: “Where do you find the wood?”

Grace Zabriskie: The wood comes from lots of places. I have gotten quite a lot from piles put out for trash day. My friend Vivian worked for a high end furniture maker and frequently brought me offcuts that were trash to them but precious wood to me.

grace 6

I have bought wood from time to time, but aside from plywood that has to be pristine (which it very much doesn’t always have to be) I prefer not to buy it.  I like to bring a piece of wood into the shop and place it where I will see it and think about it all the time without even thinking about it.  Eventually it will acquire a sort of resonance, it will become part of the environment, and, if it was, for example, originally an old table or chair or cabinet that I brought home and carefully took apart, I will now see each part for the shape it is and not  be concerned about conscious associations.The unconscious ones are there, I can’t do anything about them, and I trust them.

grace 9

 

Other woodworkers bring me their scraps that they might have been saving but  after they see what I do, they realize that I will probably use the scrap and they probably never will. I  see the wood as energy in some temporary form, just as I am.  Eventually I have come to understand that there is no such thing as “used” wood vs “new” wood.  People know they can give me what they don’t need without my feeling condescended to. People, neighbors, bring me things from their garages, things they find on the street.

I have pretty much gone through the many loads of wood that I used to spot in the huge dumpsters outside the scenery shops at the studios. After my audition was over, I would find some likely young scene builders and get them to jump in and hand out whatever I wanted and load it into my car.  Or if I wasn’t in high heels, I would jump in myself. Sometimes one of them would ride along with me to the gate and tell the guy there that it was cool to let me out with their trash.

I prefer to work from the material. The material  stands around and tells me what it want to be. Or at least how it wants to be it.

grace 1

 

Something that I admired, that inspired me about Japanese craftsmen, is their understanding of things like this that is greater than mine can ever be. Look up at the ceilings of  certain temples. You will see curved beams supporting the arched roof and realize that each beam is an entire tree that was selected for its particular lack of straightness. The  strength of a curve like that surpasses the strength of any laminated curve, or any curve that was cut from a much wider piece of wood. Needless to say, the result of all these different curves contributing to the whole is more organically beautiful than anything contrived in “the other way.” “One way” is to accept that huge amounts of work hours will go into accommodating what nature hath wrought. “The other way” is to spend that time making nature accommodate.

grace_zabriskie

(First photo, and above, by Glenn Shadix. Other photos by Brian Pera. Second and Fourth photos: tools in the shop. Third photo: wood stored along the stairs into the shop. The sign in the fourth photo reads: ‘Things that make me want to smoke… 1. Everything 2. Having to take a measurement 3. Writing down numbers or figuring out numbers or designs 4. Thinking about a tool – a bit that I think I have, that would do the job – and looking for it.’)

 Posted by on July 25, 2013
Jul 202013
 

gelati

Perfumer Andy Tauer makes incredible perfumes. Over the past year, traveling back and forth from Zurich to Italy (and Paris, and Russia, and LA) he’s sketched the various things he sees along the way into his virtual sketchbook, an i-Pad he bought a few years ago. Each month, starting now, Evelyn Avenue asks him to pick one of these sketches and to describe the circumstances behind drawing it:

It was a Friday in Rome, a hot and humid day. I was told that the weather in Rome this summer was odd: Lots of thunderstorms in the afternoon due to the humidity, very unusual for this time of the year. I had a hotel near the Stazione Termini, the main rail station, affordable but not super close to the historic center of town where I wanted to visit a perfumery. I walked from my hotel towards the historic center of Rome, had a cappuccino on my way, in a little side street, enjoying the good coffee and watching tourists trying to find their way through the labyrinth of medieval Rome. As often, I woke up early and I ended up being too early on my way, with the shops still being closed.

I ended up at the perfumery, but it was still closed. I know the area a bit, and being 10 minutes from the park of the Villa Borghese, I decided to walk up there. It was eleven in the morning, but already pretty hot, and thus I was looking for a place in the shadow. And I wanted to take a moment to sketch, and to think about Thursday. Thursday, I visited my future distribution partner for Italy. A family owned business. Nice and decent people. A very Italian enterprise, with nephews and mothers and nieces working in this family venture. We discussed my brand, my vision, my wishes and smelled my creations. For a lot of reasons I had to search a new partner who can help me bring my products to this great perfume market. It is one of the most advanced, most mature markets for “niche” perfumery, and Italians love artisanal products. Thus, it is important for me.

The discussions with the distribution partner were nice – on one hand, personal; on the other hand we had to find a deal: How to operate together. Who gets what share. Tough business stuff. I need a partner in Italy as I cannot simply ship perfumes there. Back then, on Friday noon in Rome, I had not decided with whom I want to collaborate and I did not have a full picture of whether the conditions discussed were viable for me and my products.

In a sense, I had a very important decision to make. For me, for my Italian perfume loving fans, for the potential partner, and – although not worried – I was in a state of insecurity. And I felt very sorry for my former distributor from whom I had to part. In a sense, it was a feeling of being cast adrift, the thrownness of a creative mind who has to deal with business, a prerequisite for continuing work as creator. It is this business framework that enables it all, my perfume creation fun time, my talking to perfume lovers worldwide, my salary at the end of the month, my freedom as creator. Yet, this perfume business comes with its obligations and rules that are not always easy to meet.

I had a lot to digest, and was imaging a future that was and still is very uncertain.

I was also very tired.

When entering the park I was looking for a moment of peace, and tranquility before talking to the perfumery owner hoping to learn more about the perfume market in these difficult days in southern Europe. I know this park with its uncounted pine trees pretty well as I go jogging there whenever possible when in Rome, and I wanted to hide somewhere in the middle. But then I got a bottle of water from one of the Gelati carts that offer all sorts of things, for a reasonable price. I sat next to it on a bench, on the left side of the cart, overlooking a good part of the park. To the left was the entry area with the busy street and the cars passing by, in bright sunlight, in front of me another bench on the other side of the alley, with an exhausted couple, tourists, like me enjoying the shadow and the ice cold water, with bits of ice dancing on the surface. Behind them was a little hill, still very green for the season, topped by a statue of a guy on a horse, like you see everywhere in Rome. On the right the Gelati outlet, and further down an area of pine trees, like dark arthritic old fingers pointing to the blue sky, hiding the villa Borghese.

Looking to my right, I observed the markings on the tree’s bark, cut there years ago by lovers or friends. The tree was hiding most of the Gelati cart, and I wondered whether those who left these marks still remember them. Probably the A’s and D’s will still be visible in the bark, attesting eternal love, when the lovers have left this world. Quite likely that the love will end before that. I was witnessing an argument between a French couple, jumping into a big fight, with loud French arguments, a back and forth, physically as well as vocally; both were tired by the heat, and the cause of their argument seemed much smaller than the dark universe that they were jumping into.

There were a lot of tourists strolling by, many watching me closely when I started sketching on my ipad what I saw to my right. Especially children, with their curiosity of minds that haven’t seen it all yet, were approaching me, shy but determined to get a glimpse of what I did there. I started with some contours, main lines of the cart, the line of cobblestones leading to it, bringing in the perspective, together with the shape of the tree. I loved the contrast between the straight, dark metal lantern bar, and the inclined, twisted trash bin behind it. When doing an illustration, I always look for elements that bring in an element of queerness. An asymmetry.  I wanted to bring the attention in the illustration there, by rendering it dark (as it was in reality). Then I started with some details on the cart: Potatoes chip packed tightly, flower decorations on the cart’s front, bottles neatly arranged on a board, the reflection in the cart’s side mirror. I added more details and a bit more perspective by another trash can in the background and two of the many pine trees. Leaving things off is important when drawing, and often, there is a moment when you have to end it, because adding more will not help but takes out the tension of an illustration. I guess this is true for many other crafts. For sure it is true for perfumery: Adding more lines might just lead to confusion. It is important to know when to stop.

I cannot really pinpoint why I chose to illustrate this particular view to my right, but I know what it did to me: I left  the worries and my thinking about the business and started to flow on a different wave. Seeing, observing, trying to find the contrasts in dark areas, looking for parallel lines, searching for patterns that repeat themselves. Sketching is also cutting reality into little pieces. Often, when looking at a scene somewhere, like in this park, there is so much that you think: I can never come up with an illustration. There is too much going on. I learned (or I am learning) to look behind the things I see. Sketching is surgical work: Cutting off, cutting into what you see. And it is a lesson in seeing: Things are not how we seem them, often. Our mind interprets and brings in things, shapes, contrasts, colors that aren’t there. Thus, in a sense, sketching is looking behind the surreality that is produced by our brain when interpreting the light collected in our eyes, transformed into electronic signal sent towards the brain. It is a meditation. A state of the mind that – although intensely focused – has a relaxing effect.

When I got up it was past 2, and I strolled down into the flow of people and cars again. And I realized that I had made up my mind.

Jul 162013
 

The other day, I visited potter Melissa Bridgman to watch her work in her home studio.

I think going over to focus on people this way is the closest I get to what reading a book used to feel like. It’s just me and the subject and the shifting space of perception between us. I have no delusions about the prospect of capturing someone unmediated. I’m there with my camera. I don’t think I’m trying to show what my subject looks like when she’s alone. My eye is moving all over the place, reminding you I’m there, looking around. I think I’m just trying to get at what it feels like to be alone with someone, one on one, without Facebook, twitter, a cell phone, or a laptop to clutter the empty spaces.

I let the camera go in and out of focus. I like the way it encourages the viewing eye to wander. And I like the blur. There’s a lot of texture to something that hasn’t declared itself worth zeroing in on yet.

 Posted by on July 16, 2013