Thursday, June 25, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Make Mobiles

I didn't realize until I started to research mobiles that one individual is generally acknowledged as the inventor of the art form: Alexander Calder. I was certainly aware that Calder's fame rested largely on mobiles and I've seen a number of them, but I'd assumed that the mobile's origin as an art form was hidden in the misty recesses of time.

Turns out that's not really true, although one can make the argument that the common American weathervane, responding to air currents by pointing into the wind, has the necessary elements to comprise a mobile. Including, in some cases, a certain artistic sensibility. (By the way, Belarus also lays claim to pre-Calder mobiles.) But Calder not only transported the concept embodied by the folk-art weather vane into the abstract art movement and, thus, the museum, but even gave it its name: mobile. He also invented "stabile" to describe those boring inanimate sculptures which, by the way, was the medium of choice for both his father and grandfather. He had quite an artistic pedigree and one of his earliest experiences with sculpture was modeling in the nude for his father at age 4. I have a feeling that might be frowned on today.

Regardless of origin, the fact is that mobiles can be fascinating pieces of art. Unlike most other forms, they're three-dimensional rather than two, and unlike all other forms, they're built to move in response to air currents. This makes a mobile with even a few independent parts an object of infinite views, and to me can elicit the same fascination and infinite musings as watching a real log fire on a cold winter night. No matter how long you look, you never want to look away for fear that you will miss whatever unique composition will appear next.

Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that all mobiles are either installed in museums, chiming in vaguely Oriental scales on back porches, or hanging over baby's cribs. This would seem to leave a tremendous gap that is begging to be filled. I suggest that you use a HarvilleQuarter to make a beginning.

Mobiles have many aspects to recommend them, including the possibility of making one entirely out of found objects, i.e., you can build a mobile without spending a cent. Even if you're a bit more fastidious about your raw materials, you can create a mobile for a few bucks. In addition, mobiles can be sized to fit a corner of your desktop or a corner of your backyard. You can create quite a spectacle --- neighbors will watch your progress with interest, and possibly awe.

It also appears that an interesting, even artistic, mobile can be designed and constructed by those without the ability to draw a decent stickman. A mobile can comprise a few abstract shapes hung on a few wires from horizontal struts to stay roughly balanced, with perhaps an interesting texture, color, gloss or timbre to catch the light or create a few pleasant musical riffs. Your library or bookseller can certainly locate a few books (some more oriented for children, but who cares --- you're in your second childhood) that will explain the basics, suggest some materials, and include some designs that you can copy. Of course, the Web is another resource, where you can even procure kits for making mobiles.

No one else has to know that you didn't design your particular mobile in a burst of artistic creativity as you teetered on the border between genius and madness.

If you do decide to create your own mobiles to hang over a baby's crib - say your grandchild's or a favorite neighbor's - please do exercise caution to ensure there is no chance of parts falling into the crib where baby will choke on them or gash himself. Common sense paired with an abundance of caution is definitely called for. Also bear in mind that the baby will be gazing at the mobile on his or her back, from underneath, so make sure that there are interesting things to see from that vantage point.

The Calder mobile at the top of this post is titled National Gallery III [maquette], 1972 and hangs in the Washington National Gallery. The image was taken from, the Web site of the Calder Foundation. The birds mobile is included, with detailed instructions for its construction, in the book Magnificent Mobiles by Melanie Williams, (c) 1994, Quintet Publishing Limited.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Learn to Play the Harmonica

I don't use the word "evocative" often, maybe once a year at most, but it comes to mind when I think about a harmonica. It just plain evokes some sort of nostalgia for a time and place where I've never been in real life - around a campfire on the Great Plains after the horses have been bedded down for the night, in a Southern blues bar on a dusty side road, in a hobo encampment alongside the railroad tracks with the sounds of train whistles in the background.

My one real-life association with the harmonica was attending a concert by Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats when I was a delegate to the National 4-H Club Congress in Chicago as a high schooler. The Harmonicats' hit song, Peg o' My Heart, had recently scored big on the charts so we farm kids were pretty impressed to have them as our entertainment after one of our banquets.

Having never learned to play the plastic harmonica I owned as a child, I recently started wondering whether it was something I could pick up as an adult. A trip to the local library uncovered a couple of slim instruction books with lots of photographs and songs and only a few pages here and there of actual instruction. Which gave me hope --- if playing the harmonica, including several styles and variations, can be described in such few words, it ought to be something I can learn in a HarvilleQuarter.

How well I could learn the instrument in three months remains to be seen, but I'm really tempted to start now, well before my official retirement. Perusing these books raised my awareness of the many possibilities the "lowly" harmonica offers. A quick search of the Internet revealed that perfectly respectable, quality harmonicas can be purchased for under $50, in fact under $25. And an absolute beginner's model (not necessarily recommended, but an option for the truly cash-strapped) can be found for $10 or less.

Not only that, but instruction is available - including free instruction - on the Web, with harmonica enthusiasts, eager to share their knowledge, demonstrating how to get started in home videos that are short on production values, but long on sincerity. Of course, "how to play the harmonica" manuals, DVDs and subscription Web sites can be easily located as well.

I recommend taking a look at these sites yourself and picking one that seems to call to your inner "harmonicat", or harp player, as some term it. Buy a harmonica if you don't already own one (a diatonic harmonica in the key of C seems to be the universal recommendation) and get going.

I have no idea how proficient one can become in three months, but considering the starting point, the progress should be exponential. And how cool would it be to play the harmonica for your grandkids, sitting out on the front porch on a sultry summer night, the sound of your blues wafting out amongst the fireflies and honeysuckle, accompanied by the distant, mournful wail of a freight and the much closer baying of hounds. It positively sends chills up one's spine. Before long, you could be one of the guys on YouTube demonstrating your technique for the next crop of beginners.

I'll finish this post by quoting none other than John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Press):

A harmonica is easy to carry. Take it out of your hip pocket, knock it against your palm to shake out the dirt and pocket fuzz and bits of tobacco. Now it's ready. You can do anything with a harmonica: thin reedy single tones, or chords, or melody with rhythm chords. You can mold the music with curved hands, making it wail and cry like bagpipes, making it full and round like an organ, making it as sharp and bitter as the reed pipes of the hills. And you can play and put it back in your pocket. And as you play, you learn new tricks, new ways to mold the tone with your hands, to pinch the tone with your lips, and no one teaches you. You feel around --- sometimes alone in the shade at noon, sometimes in the tent door after supper when the women are washing up. Your foot taps gently on the ground. Your eyebrows rise and fall in rhythm. And if you lose or break it, why it's no great loss. You can buy another for a quarter.

The photograph was located at

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Create a Local TED Event

If you're not familiar with the TED Conference, go immediately to its Web site,, and watch a few videos to get the flavor of it. Of course, I'm risking that you will become hooked and never come back to my blog, but it's a chance I'll have to take.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, although since its founding in 1984, the subject matter has spread well beyond those categories. TED's tag line is "Ideas Worth Spreading" and that pretty much sums up the requirements to be considered as a TED presenter - having an inspired idea and an energetic delivery style. The ideas involved can cover just about anything and probably have in the 25 years since its inception.

The TED Conference takes place once a year over a four-day period in which dozens of thought leaders - some famous, many not - give 18-minute or less presentations on an intriguing idea. Some use technologically-advanced graphics, some basic PowerPoint slides, and some simply stand on stage and talk (or more likely, pace back and forth and talk). When they finish, the next one steps on stage without audience Q&A.

I've never attended a TED Conference but I can imagine that one's brain is both exhilarated and exhausted by the end of a day. If you followed my suggestion in the first paragraph and checked out its Website, you very likely watched a few of the videos while you were there, so you know what I mean.

How does this relate to a HarvilleQuarter? Clearly, we can't all troop off to California for the annual conference, but why not create a local version? I think there's an audience almost anywhere for TED-type presentations and you can probably find a few people who would make outstanding presenters.

I wouldn't suggest trying to set up a four-day conference. But how about series of once-a-week TED evenings for, say, four weeks in a row. Each evening might feature three speakers, and, unlike TED, I would allow for ten minutes of Q&A after each one, so the evening in total would last about an hour and a half, with some refreshments and informal audience member interactions with presenters and each other afterwards.

Where could you find presenters? A local college or university would be a good starting point - it may already have a Speakers Bureau established with a list of faculty members and topics. Organizations that have regular programs, such as Rotary Clubs, could provide names of their best speakers. Not-for-profit organizations and newspaper feature editors and columnists could be another source, as well as music schools or live music venues. And just plain word of mouth.

You're going to want a venue that is the right size, already has or can accommodate decent technology to display presentation materials, is cheap and has sufficient parking. Churches are an option, as well as high school or college auditoriums, senior citizen centers (some retirement communities have small auditoriums), meeting halls, hotel ballrooms, convention centers, or even bars. (I'm intrigued by the thought that a bar could attract an off-night patronage by offering TED speakers.)

I'd find a few friends to help with all the arrangements, including locating and signing up presenters, securing the venue, publicizing the series and creating buzz, rehearsing the speakers, setting up the room and AV equipment, organizing refreshments and performing the myriad other tasks that go into an event like this.

You may be able to find a business to sponsor each evening, allowing for free admittance for audience members. If not, it should be possible to make the cost very nominal. TED does not pay its speakers and you shouldn't either.

Rehearsing speakers will be a key to success. It's important that they understand the time limitation (18 minutes), are well-organized, easily audible (especially if your venue is a senior center) and that the AV works flawlessly. You may or may not feel comfortable giving more substantive feedback during rehearsals, and speakers may or may not be appreciative of constructive criticism. Ideally, you have vetted speakers sufficiently before issuing an invitation to be confident of their audience appeal.

And, if an occasional presenter is less than riveting, the beauty of a TED evening is that the audience is stuck for only 18 minutes at most and can then turn their attention to the next speaker. Who, one hopes, will be both dazzlingly brilliant and falling-down-and-rolling-in-the-aisles hilarious.

Besides the three 18-minutes speakers plus Q&A, I'd consider short entertaining interludes between the speakers - five minutes or so - sort of a palate-cleanser, you might say. A deftly executed Chopin etude or Bach prelude and fugue, an aria, a theatrical monologue, a juggling act - all would be candidates. If there's a music school in your community, a faculty member or advanced student could fill the bill nicely.

That's about as far as I've got in my thinking on a local TED event, but I'm hoping to receive lots of comments and suggestions from all of you. See that "comments" link right under this posting?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Grow Vegetables in a Community Garden

Over the last few years, I've watched a community garden develop in a corner of the playing field of Midvale Elementary School a few blocks from my house. Initially, some plots were tilled up for use by the school kids as part of learning projects as well as for use by local residents. Last fall a communal orchard was added with 70 fruiting trees and bushes. It continues to develop each year and the progress has been quite remarkable. A local retiree built a wonderful tool shed this spring and an artist/welder created a set of beautiful and imaginative metal gates.

Gardening has traditionally been viewed as a fine activity for seniors - it gets us outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight, provides physical activity without being terribly taxing, boosts our spirits (except when the slugs and aphids strike), and furnishes a variety of low-cost, nutritious fruits and vegetables for our dinner tables. On the downside, it tends to be a solitary activity - and many seniors live in apartments or condos where land for gardening is not available.

Enter the community garden. Community gardens can take several forms, but many provide garden plots - from 8X10 feet to 20X20 or larger - for a small rental. For example, some in my home town of Madison charge $10 to $65 annually per plot based on the gardener's income. There may also be a requirement to donate a few hours of labor during the growing season if you are able.

Low-cost space, however, is just the beginning of the benefits. Plots may be tilled up for the gardener in spring, water and hoses provided on site, free compost delivered, and seeds and plants available at no or little cost. Many gardens also have tools and expert advice for sharing and garden sites accessible by those using wheelchairs. In a lot of ways, a nearby community garden plot is even better than having a garden in your own backyard.

Community gardening also provides an opportunity to interact with new friends. You will recall that one criteron for a great HarvilleQuarter is engagement with people you would not otherwise have met. While it would be possible to stay on your own 400 square feet without visiting with your neighboring gardeners, it's unlikely. Eventually, you are going to want to share suggestions and experiences and even produce ("I'll trade you some zucchini for an acorn squash.")

Madison's largest garden, Troy Community Gardens, has over 300 20 by 20 plots in an area of the city with a sizable H'mong population. At least half of the names on the plot assignments are clearly H'mong, who tend to group themselves together. However, at the margins, one can find some interesting juxtapositions - Diane Schmidt is next to Lee Thao and the Thomas family adjoins the Chavezes, who are across the walking path from Lamngern Paborriboon, who is next to the Williamses. These folks will probably start with the occasional "hi, neighbor" wave but by the end of the season will have progressed to more substantive interactions, even if their common vocabulary is limited.

So, if you have a green thumb, or even if you firmly believe you don't, check out the community garden scene in your town. If there is no community garden, consider dedicating a HarvilleQuarter to starting the first one in your area.

There are resources available on the Web like the one sponsored by the American Community Garden Association (ACGA). Gardens don't have to be large; in fact, some are created out of a vacant lot or the corner of a small park. As pointed out by the ACGA, a single community garden can bring many benefits to a neighborhood, including reduced crime, more interaction among neighbors and a more attractive community.

This could point you to one of my other HarvilleQuarters - spearheading the restoration of a habitat, vacant lot, or city park. That will be the subject of another "One Idea in Detail" posting.

By the way, the photograph is from my local community garden. You can find others on its Website,

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Learn to Rosemal

I'll understand if you find the title of this posting a bit confusing. Did I misspell "Rosemal?" (No.) Does that word have two syllables or three? (Two.) Shouldn't there be an umlaut over one of the vowels or a diagonal line through the "o"? (No.) You're not Norwegian, are you?

Neither am I. I remember distinctly the first time I encountered this word. I was a first-year teacher in a small school district in Wisconsin and Marge, a fourth-grade teacher, mentioned one afternoon that she was leaving for her rosemaling class. I envisioned Marge and her Nordic compatriots running amok in a local greenhouse, grinning maniacally as they wielded sledgehammers.

In fact, I may have audibly chortled.

Marge did not understand my amusement, even after I described the image I had conjured based on the word "rosemaling." In a tone similar, I'm sure, to the one she employed with her slower fourth-graders, she explained that rosemaling was a Norwegian decorative art with a long and distinguished history. She also spelled the word for me so I could stop seeing "rose-mauling" in my head.

After that not-so-auspicious introduction to the concept of rosemaling, I began to notice rosemaled pieces in Scandinavian-themed stores and the homes of friends. We even received a rosemaled plate as a wedding present. And, although I have yet to personally pick up a rosemaling brush, it recently struck me that it could make a fine HarvilleQuarter.

To validate this impression, I ordered all the books on rosemaling available through our regional library system - at least, all those written in English. (There were actually a half dozen or so available in Norwegian.) Interestingly, these books do not all offer the same translation for the word - I've seen "rose painting," "flower painting," "rose designing," and "decoration painting," the latter source declaring that the "rose" part of "rosemal" does NOT mean "rose" in Norwegian.

Several books, including one geared to children, show step-by-step instructions. (Please raise your hand if your children have been begging for rosemaling lessons. . . . I thought so.) On the other hand, one source warns, and I quote, " usually has to be born with the talent for it. It most definitely is not acquired." Although I hesitate to continue, I should note the same source says, "The art of rosemaling is tedious and it is difficult to find those who will take the time the intricate work demands."

Have I discouraged you yet? Maybe the idea of building a tree house doesn't sound so bad now, does it? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb, not to build a tree house, but to suggest that basic rosemaling is not that difficult and it can be learned. In fact, one expert explains that rosemaling consists of combinations of only 6 brush strokes: a C, a Reverse C, an S (which is really a combination of a C and a Reverse C), plus circles, dots, curved lines and straight lines. Now really, how hard can this be? It sounds like a good HarvilleQuarter activity to me. I'm guessing most of us can turn out rosemaled wall plaques, wooden trays and jewelry boxes that will elicit much oohing and aahing when our families unwrap them on Christmas morning.

In addition to several how-to books with lots of photographs, there are of course DVD's - beginning, intermediate and advanced rosemaling, along with kits, paints, brushes, patterns and everything else one might need to get started, all available on the Internet. There are even a surprising number of hands-on classes for the aspiring rosemaler, not all of them in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Norway. So your options are many.

I will warn you that there is a well-defined color palette for rosemaling and it is not a cheery one. Although it includes yellows, reds and blues, the old Norwegians seemed to have found only the most subdued and darkest shades. This probably stems from a national Seasonal Affective Disorder brought about by months of 20-hour nights. However, I will admit that rosemaled objects can be quite lovely and, even after all my snide remarks, I'm ready to sign up for a class to see what this artistically challenged guy can do. How hard can C strokes and Reverse C strokes be, after all?

And this comes from a guy who finds nothing more terrifying than being confronted with a blank sheet of paper and commanded to draw something. I break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of Pictionary. But, rosemaling - that doesn't scare me.

(Note: the photograph of the rosemaled dish at the beginning of this post is from the Website It was created by the artist Unni Marie Lien. Hopefully, including this attribution will prevent me from getting sued for unauthorized use. Unni Marie appears to be a perfectly lovely woman in her photograph and I'm sure she would never consider taking me to court.)