Thursday, November 14, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #7

There is an old saying:  "There are lies, and then there are damn lies."  Last week's post quoted Machiavelli, writing, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  If presented with artful deception, charts and graphs can also veil the facts.  Recently I found an interesting paper on the ways statistics and other information can be presented in such a way as to mislead, while remaining arguably accurate.  "Five Ways Writers Use Misleading Graphs to Manipulate You," Ryan McCready, September 11, 2018.  .

The graphs I am using in this blog come from Mr. McCready's paper, and I strongly recommend that you go to his site to explore his full paper.  So much information is presented to us in charts and graphs, and we need to be able to recognize when it has been presented in a intentional way to mislead.

The two bar graphs above present the same statistics, but can you see what has been done to manipulate your reaction to the numbers?  Which one gives you the more accurate impression of the information?  Notice where the bottom of the graph begins.  The one on the left begins at 50, and using that manipulation of the numbers, it appears to exaggerate the differences between Group A and the other two groups.  As Machiavelli would have said, 'the facts have been veiled.'

Again, the same statistics are presented in these two graphs, but notice the numbers on the left side on the charts.  The chart on the left goes from 0 to 40, producing a flatter climb, while the chart on the right goes from 0 to 15, creating an abrupt climb between 2019 to 2020.



This time the trickery appears at the bottom of the charts shown above.  The chart on the left shows monthly changes, while the chart on the right shows yearly changes.  If the text or title make clear what the chart represents, there might be no trickery, but if the user has cherry picked data only from the period that reinforces his argument, the data can mislead.



 Author Ryan McCready has included this chart to show that to convey accurate or easily read information, one type of chart may be better than another.  He suggests that bar graphs are better for showing differences between groups.  In the graph on the right, Team B stands out, while Team C lags behind both other teams.  Yet, if you look at the round graph on the left, the differences are less apparent.

McCready also points out that sometimes using different colors can confuse, especially if one color is commonly used to represent particular information.  Thanks to Ryan McCready's paper, examples of how abuses through the presentation of information may be as deceptive as words can be, in other words, examples of ways to 'lie without lying'.  (See 11- 6 -2019 blog below.)

Battling Abuses by the manner in which graphs present information may be more difficult for muckrakers to expose, but I hope this week's blog has made you more wary about accepting information contained in charts and graphs.  Next week the Series concludes, and if you have not been reading the full series, you may wish to scroll through earlier posts.    

Remember, you can click on the charts to enlarge them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #6

Muckraking is generally applied to searching out the truth about individuals and events, but can the importance of muckraking be applied to exposing the misuse of words?  In Isaac Werner's time people were hungry for education.  Farmers and businessmen spent evenings together reading Shakespeare.  Populist gatherings included study, and as scarce as cash was, they pooled resources to buy books.  Populists experimented with phonetic spelling to assist those who were illiterate or who did not speak English in being able to read.  School terms were short for farm children, but building a school in every community was a top priority, and the difficulty of student tests from the period show that despite the shortened school terms, children were expected to be scholars.  Knowledge and words mattered.

From my high school English text book
As a former high school English teacher and a writer, I have great interest in and respect for words.  I am not referring to grammar, although I also consider that very important.  Rather, I want to confine this post to the abuse of words, intentionally or negligently misused.

In my classroom I focused on words in several ways--developing vocabulary to enhance the ability to choose the right word to express a thought, choosing the right word grammatically, and understanding informal and formal word choices among others.  However, I also taught students how to recognize words being used to mislead.  In that sense, perhaps I was doing a bit of muckraking.

With my students, I often used television ads to illustrate how words can be manipulated to mislead, since my students were familiar with the ads they saw on tv.  A student once asked me whether I watched the programs or flipped channels to watch only ads, perplexed by my familiarity with so many  advertisements.  Even today I am guilty of correcting grammar, word choice, and pronunciation of people on the television, as if the speaker could hear me, when only my poor, suffering husband can.

Portrait of Niccoli Machiavelli
Sadly, perhaps no profession practices the art of using words to mislead and deflect more often than politicians.  An adviser to a former British Prime Minister claimed to have mastered the art of "lying without lying," confessing that he had a "talent for avoiding the truth without lying."  (BBC article by David Edmunds, 12-1-2015)  The article pointed out that politicians that want to get elected and re-elected are more likely to succeed by telling voters what they want to hear than by "confronting them with miserable realities."

Researcher Dan Ariely told CBS newsman Brian Montopoli that his research found that "Americans have a high tolerance for dishonesty when it comes from their own candidate."  In the August 3, 2012 interview, Ariely said, "Many voters have become so cynical that they really don't expect candidates to speak the verifiable truth, and they accept these exaggerations, these mild falsifications, as just part of the game."

You may have noticed that the articles I am citing are not current.  I do not intend this blog to be a comment on specific current politicians but rather an exploration of how words can be abused in marketing and politics to mislead us.  The practice isn't new.  Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  Distant past, recent past, or current comments, misleading and outright lying exist.  The BBC article from 2015 concluded, "modern politicians mislead every day of their lives [which] is directly 'connected to the fact that trust in politicians has been corroded over the last 40 years.'"  I fear that corrosion has not improved since then.

Portrait of Edmund Burke
News men and women may attempt to draw attention to falsehoods, but too often readers, listeners, and viewers simply go in search of a source more sympathetic to their point of view, rather than appreciating having been alerted to the falsehoods of someone they like.

Probably the closest thing we have to word muckrakers are our modern day fact checkers.  One has even taken that name for their site:  Factcheck.org .  They are a nonprofit website that describes themselves as a "consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in American politics."  Two other sources that might be considered muckrakers for words are Politifact and Snopes.com.  Snopes does not confine themselves to political fact checking but checks all sorts of rumors and myths.

Unfortunately, with the internet assisting, lies and half- truths can outrun fact checkers before the absolute truth that Teddy Roosevelt demanded can be determined.  As a consequence, the words of Edmund Burke from 1796 that "Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever..." may no longer be a social norm.  However, what is certainly true is Burke's conclusion:  "But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth."

The muckraking series continues next week.

   

 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #5

This post will share what brought me to the idea of exploring the history of muckraking and its current status.  You will probably be surprised to learn that it was a picture of a mural by British artist Jules Muck.

She describes herself as a Mural and Graffiti Painter, whose current work was inspired by meeting a mural artist whom Muck refers to as the "legendary" Lady Pink.  Their meeting resulted in an apprenticeship with Pink in New York, and Muck was inspired to paint on street walls.

Jule Muck's Larry Bird mural after tattoos removed
I learned about Jule Muck when I happened to see a mural she painted of former NBA player Larry Bird.  She had worked from a photograph taken when Bird was a young college player for Indiana, using it to paint an accurate portrait--EXCEPT, she had covered his exposed skin with tattoos.  Bird had no tattoos when he played college ball nor has he had any tattoos since.  When he saw her depiction of him, he asked her to remove the tattoos.

As an attorney, I was interested in the legality of a famous person's right to his own image.  Muck's comments about his request seemed to indicate that she didn't believe he could demand changes to her art, although she did remove all of the tattoos except the "Indiana" on Bird's arm.  Among the other tattoos that were removed were a large black spider's web on Bird's right shoulder and a pair of mating rabbits on his left arm.

Larry Bird was clear to state that he had nothing against tattoos.  Many of his friends have tattoos, as anyone who watches pro-basketball already knows, and that is fine with him.  However, he felt a depiction of him should not make it appear that he has tattoos that he has never had.

Their dispute caused me to wonder about her unusual last name.  Is it her actual surname or is it a name she chose to use as an artist?  Her website doesn't say.  The dictionary defines "muck" as "soft moist farmyard manure; slimy dirt or filth; and defamatory remarks or writings."  Looking at examples of her murals at her website, I noticed that her name is often a prominent part of  her work.
Investigative reporters often disliked being described as muckrakers, and I could not help but wonder whether Jules Muck chose her professional name or simply accepted the surname with which she was born.

But, back to Larry Bird and his request that she remove the offending tattoos...

We are living in a world where the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" doesn't always apply.  Recently a video appeared on the internet which had been altered to make it seem that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words drunkenly.  In fact, an authentic video had been altered to make a false impression.  In that case, no fancy technology was involved.  The culprit had simply reduced the speed of the video and tweaked the pitch of her voice in the slowed version.  People continued to post and watch it even after it had been debunked.

Perhaps even worse are examples of realistic face-swaps.  The technology works by using a computer program to find common points on two different faces, and if enough common points are used, the face of the victim can be "stitched" over the source to create a faked image capable of fooling viewers.  This has already been done to embarrass celebrities by face-swapping them into pornography.  Imagine the harm that could be done to politicians by their political enemies through face-swapping them to appear to be saying things or being places that were false.

Perhaps you have seen examples of using facial recognition for security purposes, in which a person's face is used to gain entry rather than using a key or a card that might be lost or stolen for someone else to enter secured areas.  This facial recognition works by mapping faces for 'landmark' points, like the corners of eyes and mouth, nostrils, and jaw line contour.

President Theodore Roosevelt
These technologies are rushing forward, spurred by positive uses but surely likely to be abused for reasons less acceptable.  How could most of us even begin to recognize such abuses?  If a mural could make us believe that a basketball player known for his positive character had tattoos of spiders and mating rabbits that he didn't have, what sort of muck is ahead to mislead us?

This technology, it seems to me, calls for a new generation of muckrakers to be our watchdogs against a world increasingly unable to recognize the truth amidst the fakery.  As President Roosevelt said, "There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them.  There should be relentless exposure of and attacks upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.  I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."



Thursday, October 24, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #4

From the late 1800s and the early 1900s, muckraking journalists deserve credit for exposing many social wrongs--political, corporate, coal mining, unsafe working conditions, meat packing cruelties and others.  Some muckrakers embraced the name, but many found it demeaning.  The fact that the name was affixed to them by President Roosevelt was particularly disturbing to them, as they felt they had treated him fairly in the press.  In fact, however, Roosevelt did support the need for "relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or social life."  He encouraged writers, speakers, and publications that called the guilty out, but included this admonishment:  "...provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

Edward R. Murrow
The tradition of investigative journalism continues today, although the term "muckrakers" has largely disappeared.  Who might be considered muckrakers among commentators and journalists during the last one hundred years?

Edward R. Murrow, 1908-1965, would probably be on most lists, and his March 9, 1954 See It Now special titled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy," if nothing else, earned him a place in broadcasting history.  Ironically, the Senator himself knew that Murrow was one of the best, for in his statement attacking the criticism, he acknowledged Murrow's reputation in his own condemnation of the program, saying:  "...Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors."  The show exposed McCarthy for what he was and marked the end of McCarthy's popularity.  Murrow's last major show on CBS Reports, "Harvest of Shame," was broadcast in November of 1960 and was in keeping with his reputation to expose controversial issues, focusing on the plight of migrant farm workers.

Rachel Carson, 1907-1964, did her muckraking in books like the sea trilogy:  The Sea Around Us,  The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind.  But, her book that brought the greatest changes in Americans' thinking was Silent Spring.  It changed the way we regard pesticides, inspired the environmental movement, and lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  What might she be writing if she were still living today?

Rachel Carson
The reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post in connection with the Watergate break-in in 1972 certainly placed them in the ranks of political muckrakers.  Because many of their sources were anonymous, including William Mark Felt, Sr., their key source who was  identified only 33 years later as being "Deep Throat," The Washington Post put great trust in the young reporters.  Initially, they, and the New York Times, were nearly alone in recognizing the importance of  the events that eventually brought down a president.

The New York Times broke another story more recently that has had significant social ramifications beyond the original events they reported.  On October 5, 2017, reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey appeared under the headline, "Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades."  That accusation not only brought forth more women willing to accuse Weinstein but also fueled the #MeToo movement, with accusations against other men.  A report by the Women's Media Center in 2018 pointed to the increase in articles on sexual assault since the Weinstein article was published.  Weinstein continues to deny the allegations.

The role of being a muckraker, breaking news of misdeeds by powerful people, can be dangerous, and on October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.  Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident, author, columnist for The Washington Post, and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel.  His newspaper articles critical of the Saudi government earned him powerful enemies.  Postumously,  Time Magazine named him its "Person of the Year" for his journalism, referring to Khashoggi as a "Guardian of the Truth."  Along with their recognition of Khashoggi the magazine recognized other journalists who face political persecution for their work.

As Roosevelt said, the need for men and women willing to expose evil presents an "...urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them."  For our democracy to survive we need these "Guardian[s] of the Truth."  Whether they like the name or not, we need Muckraking journalists and commentators, and newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters courageous enough to bring their reporting to the public.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #3

Reform-minded journalist had existed during earlier years of the 1800s, but as the century drew to a close a new crop of journalists known as Muckrakers appeared.  The earlier journalists had been more likely to write their articles for newspapers, but in the late 1800s magazines gained popularity, and longer, well-written stories had a place for publication.  McClure's was one of these magazines, willing to give journalists space to develop thorough examinations of business, political and social abuses in need of reform.  These magazines became known as muckraking magazines, and the journalists, and occasional fiction authors whose stories exposed abuses, were called muckrakers.

The term is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, who borrowed the term from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In that classic, the Interpreter shows Christiana a man who can "look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand...[raking] to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust on the floor."  Christiana understands what she is being shown, for the man is so focused on the muck that he is ignoring the Celestial crown being offered to him.  She says, "I know somewhat the meaning of this, for this is a figure of a man of this world, is it not..."

Although most of us have not read Pilgrim's Progress, it would have been familiar to his listeners in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt used a reference to the book to criticize journalists who took their investigative writing too far.  The President said, "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."
In oposition to Muckrakers were other Newspapers


The issue with investigative reporting was then, and continues today, to be judged by whether journalists are an essential check on a free society or are a disruptive nuisance.  The founding fathers understood the importance of freedom of the press to enlighten an informed citizenry.  Unfortunately, the professionalism of members of the press has always varied, from those who speak and write with a commitment to accuracy versus those who distort the truth to intentionally mislead readers or to slander public figures for readers' amusement.  

At the same time ethical journalists were producing reform articles, other writers published in so-called yellow journals, hawked stories of scandal, crime, and sensationalism for entertainment and malice rather than purposeful information.  Those publishing motivations continue today.

That is not to say that legitimate journalists should never write stories involving scandal, crime, and sensational facts, whether they were writing in the 1800s and early 1900s or today.  The distinction is that yellow journalism (or what we refer to today as tabloid stories) invent and exaggerate stories with little regard for accuracy, to titillate, shock and amuse readers, in contrast to ethical journalists who seek to report information in an objective, impartial way.  While the facts may still be sensational, reputable journalists rely on accurate sources and avoid exaggeration.  Or, as Roosevelt said, ethical journalists "know when to stop raking the muck."

The subjects reported by professional journalists in the late 1800s and early 1900s have similarities with what journalists cover today, although news today is more likely to be seen on television than in newspapers.  Today's news still includes subjects reported in Isaac Werner's era, such as: Lincoln Steffens "Tweed Days in St. Louis exposing political corruption; Ida Tarbell, exposing ruthless business tactics and influence; and Samuel Hopkins Adams, revealing false claims by pharmaceutical companies.

In Isaac Werner's times, U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote but rather were chosen by the various elected state senators.  The enactment of the 17th Amendment, which allows the voters in each state to elect their two U.S. senators, had been one of the key demands of the People's Party.  A series of articles written by muckraker David Graham Phillips and published in "Cosmopolitan" magazine in February of 1906 is given significant credit toward the passage of the amendment allowing the people to directly choose their senators rather than having their elected state senators make the choices for them.

The importance that the press has played in digging through the muck of American Society is shown in these few examples, as is the criticism journalists must confront when presidents and other powerful people don't like the muck they uncover.

Next week the series continues.



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series #2

Nelly Bly
Wealth had great power and influence in America in the 1800s, not terribly unlike today.  While farmers struggled to survive, in the cities there was a growing middle class, and they began to focus on issues beyond their personal needs.  Middle class urban women tended to focus on prohibition and suffrage, but other issues caught the attention of the middle class.  With more leisure time for reading, their newspapers and magazines began including articles about things outside the lives of their readers.  There was curiosity about the extravagant lives of the wealthy--their mansions, their social events, their clothing, and their power.  Wherever there is excessive wealth and power, there is likely to be abuse, and reform-minded journalists began to write about those abuses.

Newspapers began to report their scandals, sometimes exposing wrongdoing as much for increasing readership as for seeking a correction of the abuses.  Gradually, however, certain writers began investigating social abuses with the intention of reform. Most of these reporters were male, but the beautiful young Nelly Bly was among them.  Her work was even covered in the St. John County Capital where Isaac would have seen it.  In 1887 she focused on the scandal of placing 'troublesome' women in mental hospitals.

She set out to determine whether women were sometimes admitted to these hospitals because they were unconventional or inconvenient rather than being mentally ill.  Further, even if there was mental illness, Nelly wanted to see how these women were treated.  With the approval of her editor, she faked mental illness and was admitted to Bellevue Mental Hospital, where she personally observed and endured the cruelties suffered by women who had been admitted to get them out of the way.  It was a daring way to investigate actual conditions, but she gained release and published a series of articles in The World newspaper that brought public attention to the abuses.  Later, her information was published as a book, and her reporting made a difference in correcting the mistreatment of women.

Also in Isaac's time, Henry Demarest Lloyd published Wealth Against Commonwealth, an expose revealing the corruption of the Standard Oil Company.  A few years later, but prior to Isaac's death, McClure's Magazine was formed, and in addition to articles about general topics, they became a leading publication for exposing social abuses.  Later, Willa Cather joined McClure's to cover the arts.

The early 1900s were the highpoint of what came to be known as muckraking journalism.  Next week's blog will include some of the familiar names known for their exposure of abuses in American business and society.   

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #1

One of Isaac's favorite authors
Among the first things that appealed to me about Isaac was his love for books.  I have written about that in this blog before, but this series goes beyond prior posts.  A good place to start is to understand Isaac's (and the populist movement's) belief that education was essential.  

As a young druggist Isaac had read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but when he read the book as a homesteader trying to make a living breaking sod for farming, he realized that what he had learned from reading Smith as a merchant had been interpreted differently from his reading as a struggling farmer. 

I have discovered from observing quotes posted online that words I interpreted to mean one thing are sometimes construed to mean just the opposite by someone else.  We all respond to information based on our own experience and the bias we have.  As  Carlow Ruiz Zafon wrote in The Shadows of the Wind, "Books are mirrors:  You only see in them what you already have inside you."

Isaac was a serious scholar and own this title
Another book that Isaac read was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the story of a wealthy young man struggling with insomnia, who is hypnotized to help him sleep, but like Rip VanWinkle, the young man awakens years later to a completely different world.  I had read the book years ago because it remains on many reading lists as a classic.  At that time, I read superficially, seeing it simply as an interesting tale about awakening in a changed society.  However, when it was originally published, people struggling to survive economically read it as a sort of guide to what could be a more equitable society if social changes were made.  The book was so popular during Isaac's time that Bellamy Clubs were formed around the world to encourage the sort of changes represented in the novel.

Edward Bellamy, author
Isaac also read Henry George, most famous for writing Progress and Poverty, which advocated Land Rents rather than taxes on land.  It would have eliminated owning land for speculation or investment, prohibiting the wealthy from acquiring and holding land to manipulate prices.  Collecting the land rents would, according to George, have been simpler than collecting taxes on production from the land, and would not have penalize successful farmers.

Farmers believed in the importance of learning, and they pooled their money to buy books.  Isaac gifted many of his books to their common library and built a cupboard at the school house where their books were stored.  I agree with Zafon that we see in books what we have inside us, but I also believe reading lets new light into our minds.  If we only read books and other material that reinforce what we already believe, we shut out the illumination of new perspectives.

Next week's blog will look at other books of that period with a different focus more aligned with urban issues.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

State Fair Ahs! and Wows!

Photo Credit:  Cindy Moore
I cannot begin to tell you how many "Ohs!" and "Wows!" I heard over my shoulder at the 2019 Kansas State Fair.  As I drew, people crowded around me.  But, I was not the one who drew the crowds nor were the "Ohs!" and "Wows!" for me.  They were for the oversized pumpkins and watermelons!

Last year for the Plein Aire at the Kansas State Fair, I had chosen what I thought would be a quiet corner near the giant melons where I could be out of the way when the doors opened for people to enter the Pride of Kansas building.  It is a popular building, especially because everyone wants to watch the butter sculpting.  But, I had no idea how popular the giant produce would be.

Photo credit:  Larry Fenwick
Last year taught me better.  People love to see the huge pumpkins and melons, and although I wanted to draw the scarecrows, I knew to expect crowds of people eager to see the pumpkins and melons.  This year's display was especially attractive, with the entries resting on straw rather than the stark concrete and wooden pallets of prior years.  The scare crows in the background completed the setting, although there were only three entries in 2019.

Last year I had done a quick portrait of one of the scarecrows, but I had not chosen that drawing to enter in the competition.  I had enjoyed drawing him and had decided to draw a more complex interpretation of the scarecrows at the 2019 fair.  I was a little disappointed to find only three entries but stuck to my plan.
Drawing from 2018

I chose a corner between the honey display and the melons, and I did not set up my table and easel, instead using only my lap and a drawing board to reduce my presence to as small a space as possible, and it worked fairly well.

I chose to imagine a composition with the scarecrow on the hay bail and the scarecrow behind her as a couple.  One young girl studying my drawing was confused that it didn't look like the actual exhibition.  When I told her that the scarecrows snuggled at night, after all the people were gone and the building was locked, she was only more confused, and I admitted that I was only teasing.  She was not satisfied and told me that nice girls don't tell lies.  Her grandmother leaned over to assure her that I only meant a joke, but the girl was very displeased with me.  Oops!

Scarecrows and Watermelons
The pumpkins and melons weigh hundreds of pounds and definitely fascinate people.  Aside from the "Ahs" and "Wows" the most frequent comments were questions about whether the fruit inside would be good to eat, imagining what a feast they could have, and wondering how they were grown.  One man told his son, "We could just eat the heart of that melon and not have to fool with the seeds!"

I must confess that one lady standing behind me said a soft "Wow."  I ignored her, assuming she was referring to the melons.  Again, I heard "Wow," this time a little louder, and I glanced back at her and was told, "You are doing a wonderful job."  I replied, "Thank you.  I though you meant the melons."  She assured me that she was impressed with my scarecrows.  I decided that single "wow" was quite enough for a days work, competing against the giants around me!

You can Google 'Giant Pumpkins' and 'Giant Watermelons' to learn more about the size, seeds, and cultivation of these giants.  One of my favorite children's book illustrators, Wendell Minor, has written a children's book titled "How Big Could Your Pumpkin Grow?" for younger children.  Although it was published in 2013, you may still be able to find a copy if your youngster was excited by the giants at the fair.  An adult book you might enjoy is Susan Warren's Backyard Giants, The Passionate, Heartbreaking Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, published in 2007, in which she writes about a passion she calls "...a charming corner of American life, as quirky and delightful as the big pumpkins themselves."

If you would like to see my drawing of the 2019 Kansas State Fair Scarecrows, you can continue scrolling down to last week's blog.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.  






Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Why I Enjoy Plein Aire Painting at the Fair

Photo Credit:  Cindy Moore
Many people at the State Fair are surprised to see an artist painting or drawing, or even this year at the 2019 Kansas State Fair, an artist sculpting in stone.  Among the subjects artists depicted were ducks at the lake, merry-go-round  horses, midway scenes, fountains, all sorts of livestock, crops, and even scarecrows.  The scarecrows were my selection, along with a white rabbit.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
Neither of my pencil drawings received an award, but the judge, Naomi Ullum, was wonderful, taking the time to comment on every piece entered for judging, and finding positives in her critiques, as well as pointing out specific ways to improve the work.  I believe I benefited from her comments, as I'm sure that others did as well.
Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick

However, the critiques and contact with other artists, even the possibility of winning a prize, are not the primary reason I enjoy Plein Aire Painting at the Kansas State Fair enough to confront the challenge of limited time, heat, (or last year's rain), transporting my supplies and equipment, listening to the squawking, crowing, and (to be polite) unpleasant odor of some of my models, (such as Miss Lucy the pig that I sketched this year) or other inconveniences of Plein Aire Painting.  Such things are simply the anticipated challenges of the plein aire experience.

I am sharing the photographs in this blog to explain why I look forward to participating.  It's the children who stop to watch and ask questions.

Photo Credit: Larry Fenwick
(c) Lyn Fenwick, work in progress
Once, I was a volunteer at some now forgotten fund raiser where my assignment was a booth with  white plates that could be decorated.  I don't remember if the plates had designs to complete or what materials were used to decorate them, but I have never forgotten one little girl.  She was with her grandmother, and she had walked by my booth more than once, asking her grandmother to buy a ticket for her to decorate a plate.  Finally the grandmother agreed, and the little girl began her decoration with such excitement.  Her grandmother watched the child's eager beginning, but quickly spoke up.  "Now, dear.  You can draw better than that!  Stay within the lines."  The child's happy face crumpled, and slowly, with little interest, she colored in a few areas and announced that she had finished.  Even that did not please her grandmother.  "But you aren't finished," she said.  "You haven't colored in all the spaces."  The little girl said she didn't want to do any more, and they left my booth with a plate that had pleased neither of them.

Photo credit:  Cindy Moore
I hope I never again see a child, eager to draw a picture or paint a plate, being told to stay within the lines.  I participate in Plein Aire at the fair for the children.  To answer their questions.  To praise them when their parents say how they love to draw.  To explain when they ask 'why I did this' or 'how I did that.'  To say 'Of couse you can' when anyone says "I can't draw," whether it is a child or an adult--but especially if it is a child.  So many adults say, "I can't draw a straight line," but aren't straight lines irrelevant in most drawings!

This year at the fair, one little boy had been standing quietly beside me, watching me draw for quite a while, so finally I stopped and turned to him.  He still couldn't find his words, so eventually his mother leaned over and said, "He wants to know if you can tell him how to learn to do that."  He nodded his head.

Photo Credit:  Cindy Moore
Immediately, I replied, "Yes, I can," thinking quickly what to tell him.  I said, "When you get home, take a plain piece of paper and draw something.  Do the very best you can, and when you finish, get another piece of paper and draw something again.  Whenever you can, keep doing that, and each time you will learn something.  You will keep getting better each time, because as you draw you will be learning."  He listened and nodded as I spoke to him.  "Can you do that?" I asked when I had finished my impromptu advice.  He was smiling and nodding with such enthusiasm that I was sure he would sit down with a clean piece of paper soon after he got home.

His mother asked if he would like for her to photograph the scarecrows he had watched me draw, so he could do a drawing of them for himself.  He nodded.  As they were about to leave, I asked, "If I come to the fair next year, will you find me and tell me what you've been drawing?"  He was beaming as he nodded.

Photo credit:  Larry Fenwick
There are more stories I could share, but never will you hear me tell a child to stay within the lines.  That little boy, the children in the photographs in this blog, and the many others who stopped to watch as I worked, are why I go to the fair to participate in the Plein Aire competition.  It's why I hope to go next year and more years after that.  If I can inspire one child to be curious about art or if I can encourage one child to feel good about what they draw, then I will have my blue ribbon from the State Fair.  And next year, I will be watching for that little boy.

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

State Fair Jelly

After three straight years of late frosts spoiling the sand hill plum crop, 2019 had a surprise for me...and for a lot of others!  There had been a late, light frost, and I assumed it would be another year without plums, but I was wrong.  Was I ever!!

Our pasture, which is unplowed prairie, has not been grazed since my father's death, and the sand hill plums have nearly taken it over.  I picked from the road one morning, where bushes have grown through the wire fence, but the next day my husband and I drove into the pasture to an area of abundant bushes with especially large, ripe plums. My husband had been scouting for the best plums, and without needing to push our way into the bushes amidst all the thorns, we were able to pick enough plums before the morning sun became oppressive.  Since protection from the thorns requires long sleeves and jeans, it gets very hot to pick later in the day.

I made six batches in order to have jelly of our own for a few months and jelly to share with friends. I was the Production Chief, but my husband was the Chief of Shipment and Delivery.  We shared not only with local friends but also with out-of-state friends who had never tasted sand hill plum jelly, and  I used every jelly jar I owned.

We let local friends know that our pasture had abundant plums to share, but this season plums could be seen in pastures and along many roadsides, and only one couple took us up on our invitation to pick.  I heard that some of the local grocery stores had run out of pectin because so many customers were making jelly.


State Fair Jelly still on the drawing board  (c) Lyn Fenwick
But, this blog is not really about making jelly to enter in the state fair.  The title of this blog post, "My State Fair Jelly" does not refer to entering a jar of my jelly in the Kansas State Fair.  Rather, my jelly entry was made on paper.  Last year I entered a pastel painting in the Professional Artist competition, and I enjoyed the experience so much I decided to do that again.  When I draw or paint I must have a reference, either an actual model or still life arrangement or various photographs from which to work.  Sometimes a single photograph is sufficient, if I know the subject(s) well enough to capture more than the photograph shows.

I began going through my reference images for ideas, and I came across a photograph I had taken a few years ago of canning supplies ready to make sand hill plum jelly.  I decided to create a still life painting using an arrangement of canning supplies.  Unfortunately, I had already discovered that, after my last canning using my Mother's beautiful 1940s canning equipment, I had put her equipment away somewhere that I can't remember.  My own 2019 jelly was made using modern, less picturesque equipment, so I had to rely on several photographs of Mother's equipment, with variations and additions that included a jar of my own jelly, mugs from my collection, and a 'church ladies' cookbook, altered by my imagination but representative of the type of local cookbooks produced during the past mid-century.

State Fair Jelly framed (c) Lyn Fenwick
I finished with time to get my pastel painting framed, and off to the 2019 Kansas State fair it went, the name for my entry suggested by my husband.

No prize for my work, but I still enjoy the experience of having a goal, showing my work, and participating with other artists.  I confess, it was rather disheartening to hear the judge declare strongly, "I hate still lifes," during the critique of his selections for awards.  One of those winners was a still life, so obviously he was willing to override his "hatred."  There were many wonderful  works by talented artists, and what appeals to all of us is subjective.  I didn't make it back to the Fine Arts exhibit to observe the reactions of visitors, but I'm sure that many of the paintings were appreciated by those who toured the exhibit, and that is, after all, the pleasure we artists enjoy having given others.

Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A New Location for Art at the Kansas State Fair

(c) Lyn Fenwick,  Title:  Fresh Yellow Squash
This week the 2019 Kansas State Fair opens, and once again I have an entry in the Professional Artists display and competition.  Last year was my first year to participate in that category, and the pastel at the top of this page was my entry.  I didn't bring home a prize but I had fun entering.

In the meantime, my six portraits of characters from Willa Cather's My Antonia were selected for publication in the Willa Cather Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring 2019, together with my essay describing how I searched Cather's novel for descriptions of each character to be sure that my imagined portraits were consistent with Cather's descriptions of each of the six characters.  I have a dislike of illustrations done for books that do not honor the descriptions of the author whose book is being illustrated, and I did not want to commit the same disrespect by straying from Cather's descriptions.  I gifted a copy of the Spring Willa Cather Review titled "After Antonia" to the Filley Art Museum in Pratt, Kansas, and I have been delighted when visitors to the museum have told me they enjoyed my portraits and essay.  I am particularly pleased when they tell me it has encouraged them to read My Antonia, either for the first time or to reread it after several years.  I was especially delighted to learn that Mrs. Filley is a long-time Cather fan and had received her copy of the Spring Cather Review with my portraits inside!

Lyn's "models" at the 2017 Plein Aire
The success of my acceptance for publication in the Cather Review encouraged me to enter the Kansas State Fair Professional Artists Show again.  Many of you who follow this blog are also fans and collectors of  a water color artist with ties to Pratt, and Darren Parker has shared with me his intention to enter the State Fair Professional Artists Show with one, or possibly two, of his watercolors.

I am writing this blog before the judging for the particular purpose of letting readers know that the Professional Artists' works have been moved to a different building.  You will not  find the Professional Artists work nor the Plein Aire art displayed in the Oz Building as it has been in the past.  (This change also moves the photography display.)  

Lyn drawing at the 2018 Plein Aire at the Fair


To view the art, go to Lake Talbot East/West located on 23rd Avenue, between Fort Hays Blvd. and Fort Leavenworth Blvd.  For some of you with 4-Hers,  you may identify the two buildings as being across from the 4-H Centennial Hall, the two buildings formerly the Boy and Girl Scout Buildings.  The Professional Art will be in the former Boy Scout building and the Plein Aire (and photography) will be in the former Girl Scout building.  The announcement of prizes for the Plein Aire will be at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, and will remain on display through the remainder of the fair.

The Plein Aire competition requires artists to create their work on the fairgrounds, inspired by subjects they can view at the Fair.  They must do the work only at the Fair and within the hours specified--on Friday noon to 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Visitors to the Fair are encouraged to watch for artists at work and to pause for a visit if they wish.  Children in particular seem to enjoy watching and asking questions.  Artists work in a variety of media, from acrylics and watercolor to pencils and pastels to paper mosaics or any other creative medium they wish.  No more than two entries can be submitted for judging by any one artist, although an artist my wish to complete additional work from which to select their two entries.  

Maybe I will see some of you at the Fair, and I hope you visit the new location in the former Boys and Girls Scout buildings to view the art on display.

Remember, the images can be enlarged by clicking on them.  Look closely for the cat and mouse in my "Fresh Yellow Squash" pastel painting.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Threshing Machines

Although we have often visited Red Cloud, Nebraska for the Willa Cather gatherings, we have always been too busy with the Cather events to take the time to visit the local Museum  in Red Cloud.  During the 2019 visit we decided to correct that omission.

I am always on the lookout for information related to the era of the Populist Movement, and while the Thrashing Machine pictured in this blog is a bit later than Isaac's time, it is an example of the advances in farming equipment occurring during Isaac's lifetime.  In the late 1800s, wheat was being harvested by machine in Isaac's community.

You may see the verb thresh as well as thrash  used in reference to the process of harvesting, and Thrashing Machine as used in the label shown above is actually the less common spelling, although both are used.

The process of threshing removes the seeds from the stalks and husks by beating the plant to make the seeds fall.  Isaac mentions using a buffalo wallow (apparently with some kind of canvas over the sandy soil) and walking his horses over the stalks to  remove the grain he raised.



At the museum in Red Cloud we had the opportunity to stand beside the giant thrasher in these photographs, so massive it dwarfed everything around it.

With the early threshing machines of the 1880s the grain had to be harvested separately, by hand or machine, and then fed into the thresher.  Isaac described the mowers that might have been used to cut the wheat.  Until threshing machines were invented, the threshing process was primitive.


The equipment was a simple flail, a stick with a shorter stick attached to the end which was capable of flexing or flailing about as the laborer beat the grain out of the stalks.

Threshing Flail
Obviously, the process was very strenuous for the laborers.  However hard the work was, and despite the low wages and high taxes workers paid, the arrival of the mechanized threshing machines led farm workers to strike.  Thousands of men who had been employed as farm laborers were put out of work, which put these former workers on the brink of starvation, resulting in what was called the Swing Riots.  Despite the obvious suffering of the laborers, the English government dealt harshly with the strikers, hanging nine of them and transporting 450 to Australia.

As with many new inventions, what was seen as a welcome mechanical advance for humanity was for others the end of their means of livelihood.  The improvements to the early threshing machines led to steam powered machines that could harvest the crops in the fields, and the threshing process advanced from a pile of grain, straw and chaff to belts and blowers that separated the waste from the grain.  

Now the monster machines that harvest the crop can pour the cleaned grain into a bin pulled along beside the combine, while men in air conditioned cabs move around the field, the harvesting guided by GPS.  Although far fewer farm laborers are needed, hiring those workers capable of managing the technology can be a challenge.  So far, humans are still needed in our technologically advancing world!  


Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.  








Thursday, August 22, 2019

A Lost Lady's Husband

Among my favorite places when we travel are the homes of authors.  Our road trip may have a different ultimate destination, but I will check to see if our route passes near the former home of a writer I admire.  Many of the homes of America's greatest authors have been preserved for visitors, and it is fun to see how they lived and where they wrote.

But perhaps no place is more interesting than the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa Cather spent her youth and to which she often returned for visits as an adult.  This blog has shared pictures of the many buildings in Red Cloud that have a direct relationship with her stories and novels.  For serious Cather fans, however, there is also the opportunity to learn about the actual residents of her time that Cather used as inspiration for her characters.  An obvious example is Annie Pavelka, the model for Antonia.

Our most recent trip allowed me to focus on the character of Captain Daniel Forrester in A Lost Lady, described in the novel as a contractor of railroad construction for Burlington.  Rather than describing the plot of the novel, I will use details about Forrester and his lovely younger wife as examples of how Cather built characters and plots from actual residents and events in her home town. Items displayed in the Webster County Museum provide direct references to Cather's practice.

Chapter three describes the arrival at the Episcopal Church of Mrs. Forrester:  "...a low carriage drove up to the door.  Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper."

Cather's local inspiration for Captain Forrester was Captain Silas Garber, and the carriage pictured above is the carriage that once belonged to Garber.  How easy it was for me to imagine Mrs. Forrester stepping gracefully from this carriage just a Cather wrote.  "She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church."

Her husband was described by Cather as looking like "the pictures of Grover Cleveland.  His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with.  His repose was like that of a mountain.  When he laid his fleshy, thick-fingered hand upon a frantic horse, an hysterical woman, an Irish workman out for blood, he brought them peace; something they could not resist.  His sanity asked nothing, claimed nothing; it was so simple that it brought a hush over distracted creatures."  The portrait at right is of Capt. Silas Garber, Cather's inspiration for Forrester and one of the founders of Red Cloud.  When Webster County celebrated its 80th year, he was among those men honored as past and present leaders.  (See the framed newspaper page displayed below.)

Although it is generally accepted that Garber was Cather's inspiration, his is a good example to illustrate that her depictions were not direct portraits.  Silas Garber served in the Union Army, following which he moved to California and engaged in livestock trading.  He arrived in Webster County, Nebraska in 1870 as a homesteader and general store proprietor, quickly becoming involved in politics.  In 1871 he became Webster's first Probate Judge, and the next year he was elected to the Nebraska House of Representatives.   In 1873 he was named Registrar of the United States Land Office in Lincoln, a powerful position.  In 1875 he was elected as a Republican to the first of his two terms as Governor.  A distinguished man, but never a contractor building railroads for Burlington as his fictional counterpart was.

The novel is titled A Lost Lady, and while Mrs. Forrester is the central character, the relationship she had with Capt. Forrester is pivotal to the story.  "Curiously enough, it was as Captain Forrester's wife that she most interested Niel, and it was in her relation to her husband that he most admired her.  Given her other charming attributes, her comprehension of a man like the railroad-builder, her loyalty to him, stamped her more than anything else.  That, he felt, was quality; something that could never become worn or shabby; steel of Damascus.  His admiration of Mrs. Forrester went back to that, just as, he felt, she herself went back to it." (Conclusion of Ch. VI)

Although I have sometimes referred to Red Cloud as a Cather fan's Disneyland, it is not a false place of artificial reality.  It is a real town that nurtured the development of Willa Cather as a great American author and that gave her memories of real people and places around which to craft her stories, not to write in a historically accurate depiction but rather to capture the time and place using her memories but employing her imagination and her gift for writing to create something greater.  The sources for her imagination are what remain for visitors to explore in Red Cloud today.  

If you haven't read A Lost Lady, I recommend it.  And if you have read it in the past, I recommend reading it again.  The thing about great writing is that it remains fresh and reveals something new each time you read it.  
(Sword belonging to Capt. Silas Garber, Union Soldier, and inspiration for Capt. Forrester in A Lost Lady.)   Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.