Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 9 (May 11-May 17, 2020)

Painting No. 4 - 5/13/20-5/15/20 - Mark Pfeiffer
The painting challenge this week was to make something that represents your culture. But what if you don’t really think of one having a culture? Sure, I’m aware of the heritage of ancestors who immigrated to the United States (whenever that was), but that’s never been something that had any particular importance in my family. At best it’s been a “fun fact” rather than a part of identity. I have two guesses as to why this is. First, while I’m uncertain when my great-grandparents came to this country, I’m going to estimate this happened somewhere between 1900-1915, which strikes me as a time when there would have been more social pressure to integrate and lose one’s heritage. Second, I imagine a German heritage was something one didn’t want to play up around World War I, so that, whether on its own or combined with the other factor, seems like a reasonable conclusion.

I’ve known my father’s side of the family better because we lived close to them, so I painted the farm where my paternal grandmother was raised and where three of her siblings lived (and where one of them still resides) for their entire lives. My dad and his mom ran the grain elevator, the family business that his dad built as physical structures and as a company, so farming and agriculture-related things are a significant part of my background. I worked at the grain elevator after school in junior high and high school. We didn’t live on a farm, although a corn field bordered our backyard. I’ve lived more time away from this area than I did in it, but as this was what I grew up around and what probably informs more of who I am than I might realize, it seemed fitting to depict this part of me.

"The farm" - 8/1/15 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Before starting the painting I knew that I wanted to use a photo as a reference. The only one I could find was not taken from an ideal angle, but you use what you have. I also wanted to figure out how I could get something house-like on the canvas rather than slopping paint onto it and attempting to correct for all the mistakes. I know I placed the house too high vertically and didn’t leave much room for other buildings on the same plane. I added a cornfield, which is on the property but not in relation to the way I’ve painted it, because I thought there was too much empty space at the bottom.

Does it work? Well enough, I think, considering my lack of training. Unprompted, my mom asked if this was the farm I was attempting to paint, so I must have done something right for it to seem familiar. My friends in the painting group were supportive and complimentary, which is really what the group is about, and made me feel better about the finished result than I did in the immediate aftermath of completing it.

One thing I was reminded of from blindly jumping into painting is that making art, even works with competent-at-best or (in kinder terms) less technically accomplished results, is challenging. My fourth painting may not look like I put a lot of effort into it, but this wasn’t something haphazardly created. I fussed over how the grass looked for much longer than you would assume. (Never mind that I proceeded to cover a lot of it.)
Of course I already knew plenty of time and energy go into creative efforts even if they may widely be viewed as unsuccessful. After all, a bad film still requires a lot of work to bring it to life. I’m not suggesting the attention and care put into making something renders criticisms irrelevant. Rather, the lesson for me is that the struggle to get that ideal version out of one’s head and into a consumable form is where masterful artistry is found. I can envision a better version of what I produced. Right now I’m not equipped to transfer my vision into a painting others can see as I fully intend. Maybe I will never reach that point. For me painting is primarily a process-driven endeavor. I would like for the finished pieces to be assessed as good--who creates something and desires otherwise?--but for me the fun comes in making them and, more often than not, being able to appreciate the good qualities despite aspects that didn’t turn out as I hoped.


Painting is supposed to be a relaxing activity, so that calls for chilled out music. Air’s Talkie Walkie and Pocket Symphony proved to be the right soundtrack, even as a French duo’s electronica is quite unlike the subject I was working on. It does occur to me, though, as I write this that Air has collaborated multiple times with Sofia Coppola, whose films often study characters in isolation. My situation isn’t dire or tragic like they can be for characters in her movies, but I am amused by the synchronicity that could be read into listening to music with those associations at a time of social distancing. (As an aside, the live version of “Cherry Blossom Girl” embedded above really misses the flute on the album, but if you’re unfamiliar with the band, this is representative of what they sound like.)


Intense chocolate brownies - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Intense chocolate brownies were the big baking undertaking this week. Come to think of it, this might be the first time I’ve made brownies from scratch. Box mixes were a staple growing up, and when I’ve made them since then, that’s what I’ve used. This does take more effort, especially with chopping the chocolate and melting it per the recipe, but I can safely say they’re the best brownies I’ve ever made. 


At the tail end of this week I managed to squeeze in one film in preparation for podcast recording. The Half of It slots very comfortably among Netflix’s original content aimed at young adults. I don’t say that to be particularly critical. This version of Cyrano de Bergerac, which turns the tale into a high school movie with an LGBT twist, has a big heart, can be wise about the loneliness and longing many feel, and develops a sweet friendship between the letter writer for-hire and the second string football player paying her to give a more eloquent voice to his feelings. The film also makes some missteps, especially later on, but I’ll leave those comments for the upcoming episode.

Anyway, going by an admittedly small sample size in my viewing, The Half of It’s Netflix-y essence comes in being more thoughtful and contemplative about teenagers’ insecurities and fears while also having an Instagram sheen and, I hypothesize, a subdued directorial voice. (I mean no offense to writer-director Alice Wu, whose only other feature film I saw fifteen years ago and have essentially no memory of. I’ll reiterate. I liked The Half of It.) Like other Netflix originals that aren’t prestige titles, the film has a prefab quality that doesn’t diminish it as a narrative delivery vehicle but also doesn’t distinguish it. The industry has a history of cranking out product, so this isn’t anything new. In general, these films tend to be good enough. It’s just funny that one of The Half of It characters mentions that what separates great paintings from the rest is five bold strokes, which is exactly what many of these Netflix films lack.

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