A Mix with Room for Cream

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Dark Roast: Scrubbles.net Winter 15 Mix came about as a result of listening to a lot of stimulating yet unobtrusive music while writing reviews. Finding the perfect music for that situation entails lots of things – either no singing or non-English vocals, strong melodies, upbeat vibes, jazz modulations that don’t often delve into indulgent noodling. Most often than not it leads to ’60s Brazilian music and Bossa Nova-inspired stuff, whether it’s American lounge or groovy Italian soundtracks. The 61-minute program on Dark Roast reminds me of waking up with a nice cup of coffee, ready to get to work.

Listen to Dark Roast at Mixcloud, or via the handy player below:

Dark Roast: Scrubbles.net Winter 2015 Mix by 4colorcowboy on Mixcloud

Discovering John Alcorn: Evolution by Design

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As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a coffee table book titled John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. This is one time when it’s appropriate to call it a gift, since this tribute to possibly the most prolific ’50s-to-’80s-era illustrator shares Alcorn’s gifts with the world – corny, yet true!

Co-authored by Alcorn’s son, Stephen, and design historian Marta Sironi, Evolution by Design succeeds as both a comprehensive career overview and a personal remembrance (Alcorn died in 1992). Packed full of beautifully reproduced original art, this volume was an eye-opener. For someone like me who knew Alcorn from his groovy late ’60s commercial peak (e.g., The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs), the breadth and sheer talent displayed within these pages is nothing short of revelatory. This man was a true artist, always searching for the next horizon to explore. Alcorn started out with New York’s legendary Pushpin Studios, branched out on his own to incredible success in the ’60s, then helped shape America’s visual zeitgeist with a vocabulary of sinuous shapes, natural forms, and wild colors. He wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, however. In the early ’70s, Alcorn and his family uprooted to Italy, where he studied the country’s master painters and craftsmen. He remained astonishingly prolific during this time – becoming a favorite of the iconic film director Federico Fellini, among others – although most of this period’s output never made it to the U.S. Returning to these shores in the late ’70s, Alcorn continued to thrive with a gorgeous, mature style highlighted by a thoughtful attention to detail that never appeared fussy. The book closes out with a chapter devoted to one of the artist’s recurring visual motifs, the blooming flower.

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design was published by Moleskine, the notebook company, in 2013. It can be purchased at the Moleskine website or at Amazon.com.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-'50s.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-’50s.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Children's book illustrations, 1969.

Children’s book illustrations, 1969.

Various book jacket designs from the late '60s and early '70s.

Various book jacket designs from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Frank Redlinger’s Jazz-Age West

Frank Redlinger - Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, which bills itself as “The West’s Most Western Town.” Although most of my childhood was epitomized by breezy walks to school (half a block from the house!) and being glued to the TV with a box of Cheerios, the town’s quirky fake-Western character also played a part in my development. Scottsdale was still a fairly small town back in the ’70s, with a main drag characterized by wooden-slatted souvenir shops done up like the set of Gunsmoke and a cutout figure of a lasso-toting cowboy. Back then it was just there, but that filtered, sanitized version of history still influences my work – especially the 4 Color Cowboy tumblr.

While outright kitsch definitely has a place at 4 Color Cowboy, I wanted to use it to find artists, movies, music and other projects that use that iconic Western stuff in a different, thought-provoking way. One such discovery was an artist named Frank Redlinger. After coming across his stuff while browsing through the Heritage Auctions site (fantastic place, by the way), I fell in love with his crude, beautiful landscapes, cowboys and other subjects rendered in wood-block prints. The artist maintained studios in two different places (Abilene, Texas and Los Angeles). The only pieces of his I’ve found date from about 1930-35, when he was in his forties. Simple and bold, they look to be inspired by the California Impressionists and Western movie posters from the silent era. He died in Los Angeles, a few days shy of his 66th birthday, in 1951.

Enjoy this little gallery of Frank Redlinger’s work. More can be seen at Heritage Auctions.

Frank Redlinger - Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger – On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger - Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Look What I Found: Two from Helen Borten

Little Don Pedro (1965) and What Makes Day and Night (1961), illustrated by Helen Borten.

Little Don Pedro (1965) and What Makes Day and Night (1961), illustrated by Helen Borten.

In the annals of vintage kiddie books, the name of Helen Borten is a lesser-known yet beloved one. The Philadelphia-based artist remains well-regarded for the beautifully composed, deceptively simple visuals she made for a series of science-instructional books in the 1960s. Franklyn M. Branley’s What Makes Day and Night is a typically lovely example. While Branley’s text teaches children about the earth’s rotation around the sun in a fun, accessible way, Borten’s illustrations visualize the concepts perfectly. Working with a limited color palette of black, red, and yellow, Borten does fantastic things with composition and texture – parts of it are rendered in a primitive-modern lines, while others have a tactile, woodblock feel. It’s wonderful.

In addition to science books, Ms. Borten illustrated across a wide swath of subjects. I wasn’t aware of this, however, which made it a special delight when coming across the story of Little Don Pedro by Helen Holland Graham. This 1965 effort revolves around a timid Mexican boy who bravely faces off against an escaped bull in his tiny village. Four years on from What Makes Day and Night, we find Borten continuing the clever use of limited colors (here, green joins the solid red-yellow-black family), while the subject matter brings out a looser style. I love this stuff! In 1968, she authored and illustrated a lovely looking book on animals, The Jungle, which is on my to-get list.

As far as I can tell, Ms. Borten is still active. Although she apparently left illustration behind for a successful career change into producing radio documentaries, hopefully she has some awareness of how well-regarded her art continues to be.

Source: Fishink – Helen Borten A Creative And Illustrative Genius. (July 5, 2012)

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Look What I Found: The Fairest One of All

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With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney took a gamble that audiences would sit still for a feature-length animated film – he won, magnificently. What showed up on screen as a sweet, pleasant fairy tale involved massive amounts of labor, second-guessing, fine-tuning, and pruning away of excess story. All of this is detailed by Disney historian J. B. Kaufman in his 2012 book The Fairest One of All, which satisfies as both a thorough production history and a lovely, large-format tribute to this still-influential animated icon.

Snow White certainly had a huge impact on my young mind when I saw a reissue screening in the ’70s (maybe the earliest movie I remember seeing?). In that darkened theater, I swooned to Snow White’s untouched beauty, cowered in terror at the Wicked Witch, and laughed along with Dopey and the other dwarfs. Being a little kid, when it was over I wanted more. Later on, my mother indulged me with the Disney storybook record album (the one with the purple cover), which got heavy play on the family turntable. To this day, the sound of Adriana Caselotti’s trilling makes me smile. The movie pretty much turned me into an artist, an old movie buff, and a full-on Disney freak – three in one!

Since Snow is so personally dear to me, I had extremely high expectations for The Fairest One of All. Surprisingly, the book ended up outdoing those high expectations – Kaufman truly knows his Snow White history, and it’s efficiently laid out in this beautifully designed volume. After a few chapters detailing the history of the Grimm Brothers’ source tale and the various pre-Disney stage and film renditions, Kaufman comprehensively goes through the film, scene-by-scene, explaining how they came to be. As a straightforward chronological history, having it arranged in the order the story is told reveals a ton of fascinating episodes which might have been lost the other way. It may even be too detailed for all but die-hard Snow White buffs. Kaufman’s research is so incredible, however, and it’s written in an accessible style. I devoured sections discussing scenes that were significantly tweaked (such as the prince’s introduction), painstakingly re-animated (the dwarfs coming home from the mine), or eliminated entirely (scenes with the dwarfs eating soup and building a bed for Snow White; a dream sequence meant to accompany “Someday My Prince Will Come”). Every single frame in this film got analyzed to a degree that’s never been attempted before or since. If anything, this book is a tribute to Walt Disney’s high standards and attention to detail.

J. B. Kaufman recently published another, similar comprehensive history on Disney’s follow-up film, Pinocchio. You can bet it’s on my wish list. The Fairest One of All was published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press in 2012. It can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

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Scrubbles.net Is Fifteen Years Old

Scrubbles.net screen shot, March 2001 (Via The Wayback Machine).

Scrubbles.net screen shot, March 2001 (Via The Wayback Machine).

In the midst of filing Blu Ray reviews and preparing Christopher‘s next novel for publication, it crept up on me that the Scrubbles.net weblog has been in existence for fifteen years. Can you believe it? I can’t.

Back in July 2000, I was an itchy music reviewer and wannabe cultural critic with a limited web presence (basically a portfolio, a rudimentary “about me” page with a few links, and a monthly roundup of albums I was enjoying at the time). Weblogs were just getting started – Blogger had been in place for just a year at that point – and most of the existing blogs were tech-oriented or online diaries. Inspired by sites like Boing Boing, Pop Culture Junk Mail and Robot Wisdom, I signed up with Blogger and used it to set up a daily log of links, observations and ephemera to be housed at an address on my local ISP’s server (I think it was blue.psn.com). Using a rudimentary knowledge of HTML and CSS and the Blogger engine, the simple, Twitter-esque blog shown in the above screen shot came about. In those days, I remember hand-coding each month’s entries and manually including the archived pages on the blog’s sidebar. Blogger also lacked a commenting system (!), so I used a script authored by the fabulous Kris Howard at Web-Goddess.org. Blogging was that much of an isolated, fringy interest – but not for long.

The earliest topics at Scrubbles included things like obviously doctored publicity photos, the singing career of actress Tuesday Weld, and a strange hand-painted folk art sign hanging in my neighborhood. To my gobsmacked surprise, these ruminations started attracting an audience. Just a few months after Scrubbles launched, Matt Kingston of Hit Or Miss added Scrubbles to a directory of gay male bloggers. This introduced me to a whole bunch of great guys, many of whom I still consider friends. After the Scrubbles.net domain was secured that autumn, it started a flurry of posts, links, reading and reacting – I totally threw myself into this blogging thing and loved it.

As improbable as it seemed that the early Scrubbles.net actually had a readership, things really took off in 2001-03. In September 2001, my idols at Boing Boing added Scrubbles.net to their “Best Blogs” sidebar, an honor shared by just a dozen-odd others. The band Weezer added a link to Scrubbles on their official website. People started visiting daily by the hundreds, drawn in by links from other weblogs. I kept things fun, kitschy, thought-provoking, concise, interesting. Snarky, pop culture-oriented blogs were becoming more common at this point, yet Scrubbles.net stood out enough to even appear on several year-end Best-Of lists (yeah, that shocks me, too).

Scrubbles.net screen shot, June 2004 (via The Wayback Machine).

Scrubbles.net screen shot, June 2004 (via The Wayback Machine).

As fantastic as the heyday of Scrubbles.net was, I could already feel the buzz waning as soon as Spring 2004, when some of my entries were published in a book on blogs. Ironically, this came as I quit my job in late 2003 and was able to devote time to longer, more thoughtfully written pieces. It wasn’t from a lack of trying on my part. People were moving on to the next thing, however – post 9/11, the so-called “War Bloggers” had crashed the scene like a bunch of frat boys at a nerd party. Weblogs were no longer idiosyncratic musings on random ancient-history crap like mine – they had to be about something, dammit! Hey, the nice thing about blogging was that there was room for everyone. In short time, the new blogging paradigm was set – hyper-specific on topics, smoothed-out, preferably endorsed by a mainstream news outlet and maintained by a group of office drones. I did my best to adjust, but ultimately these changes left me out in the cold.

Although readership dwindled in the mid-2000s, I went out of my way to make Scrubbles.net my own quirky corner of the net. An update on the blogging service Movable Type completely hosed the archives up through mid-2005. The ensuing migration to WordPress served as an excuse for a slight reinvention. It ultimately didn’t amount to much in terms of resonating with an audience, yet this space was finally solidifying into what I originally envisioned it to be. Posts were devoted to vintage magazines and illustration, scans of printed ephemera, sharing goofy songs from the past, communicating joy at coming across something cool on YouTube.

Scrubbles.net screen shot, February 2010 (via The Wayback Machine).

Scrubbles.net screen shot, February 2010 (via The Wayback Machine).

Blogging still serves a fantastic opportunity for individuals to have a voice on the internet. Scrubbles.net flailed a bit during 2008-12, a time when most bloggers were abandoning the format in favor of quick, easy social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. I kept soldiering on, posting weekly Scrubbles.net updates on movies, television, music and books that captured by fancy. Nobody cared, which only made me frustrated and depressed. I took to Twitter and Facebook, shocked and surprised that some of the people with whom I was friendly with during Scrubbles’ heyday wouldn’t give me a second look. Many others were accepting, however, and for that I’m grateful – plus, I’ve made several new friends on each new platform. Because I have many thoughts that don’t fit elegantly in a status update or tweet, Scrubbles.net is still here. Perhaps it’s not updated as frequently as I’d like to (once a month, basically), but I’m happy with the obscure-book-sharing mojo it has now.

As for the blogging world in general, it’s less visible yet active as ever – industrious, clique-y, yet not too engaging (my opinion, of course). Occasionally I’ll come across an utterly fantastic, awe-inspiring weblog like Codex 99, but those are few and far between. For the most part, the scene has become something of a pissing contest to see who could out-geek each other the most. There’s enough goodness in the chaff to keep me going, however. See you for the next anniversary.