Thursday, June 22, 2017

How to Create and Manage a Creative Culture: Lessons from the Pixar Experience

When I first saw the silhouette on the cover of Creativity, Inc. I was stymied. It bore a resemblance to the familiar conductor who appears in Disney's Fantasia, but was not, yet it had a familiar look. It's like that puzzle with the vase and the face, or a number of similar optical illusions. Once you see it, you generally don't un-see. It was Buzz Lightyear, or rather a hybrid of these two iconic images, standing in as symbol for the phenomenal business hybrid of Disney and Pixar.

It was Brent Schlender's Becoming Steve Jobs that cued me in to the role Steve Jobs played in saving Pixar Animation Studios from the ash heap of stories that might have been, keeping the company on life support till all the pieces could be pulled together for the Hollywood supernova called Toy Story. Upon completion of this Jobs career and character development story, I felt impelled to read Ed Catmull's insider account of Pixar. The big achievement there, and the basic storyline in this book, was not Toy Story, or its various other superhits. Rather, Catmull's aim is to share a lifetime of insights about management in general, and managing creative people specifically.

How does a company create a creative culture where excellence flourishes, where ideas actually come to fruition and become earth-shaking events? Catmull shares everything, including all the lessons learned through their various failures, and the miracles that rose from those ashes.

The amazing thing is that despite the various mis-steps, Pixar never had a single film that bombed.

The book's subtitle tells the real story of what made Pixar such a superstar: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration. Unseen forces means forces can refer to forces that are invisible, like the ice below the surface that sunk the Titanic, or it can mean forces that are in plain sight, like Poe's Purloined Letter, but we do not see them. Catmull states that the management team had to be perpetually vigilant. What they were vigilant about was very different from most organizations.

At the end of the book Catmull does a summing up of his "Thoughts For Managing A Creative Culture." If you Google that title, you'll find that numerous writers have begun sharing these. Though Ed Catmull's stories make it such a rewarding read, his distilled thoughts at the end are well worth deeper reflection. Here's a small collection of notes from this five page reiteration of the book's themes.

--Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they'll get the ideas right.

--It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.

--There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them.

--Likewise, if someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Our first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusions. Further, if there is fear in an organization, there is a reason for it— our job is (a) to find what’s causing it, (b) to understand it, and (c) to try to root it out.

--There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.

--In general, people are hesitant to say things that might rock the boat. Braintrust meetings, dailies, postmortems, and Notes Day are all efforts to reinforce the idea that it is okay to express yourself. All are mechanisms of self-assessment that seek to uncover what’s real.

--If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.

You can find more of these here or if you go ahead and purchase the book here.

* * * *
Healthy organisms and healthy organizations will grow naturally if given the right nourishment and environment. In the case of institutions, there have been plenty of books written about how they fail. Ed Catmull's insider perspective on Pixar's achievements has applications for all types of organizations. But it would be especially valuable for companies working in creative fields like ad agencies, theater, Hollywood, arts communities, new product development, communications and more.

More can be said, but we'll end with this: Read the book.

“Achieving enormous success while holding fast to the highest artistic standards is a nice trick—and Pixar, with its creative leadership and persistent commitment to innovation, has pulled it off. This book should be required reading for any manager.”
—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Local Art Seen -- Eris Vafias at the Red Mug

You can see these and more work by Eris Vafias 
at the Red Mug Coffehouse in Superior 
through the end of June. 
There may be a closing reception announced at 
Twin Ports Arts Align on Faceook. Stay tuned.

* * * * 
Meantime, life goes on all around you.
Get into it.

Wordless Wednesday: More Than A Marathon -- It's A Convention for Runners


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Scott Warmuth Weighs In On Dylan's Latest Appropriations

Early example of Dylanesque obfuscation.
When accusations of plagiarism began emerging after Dylan's Nobel Prize lecture was released two weeks ago, I headed to Scott Warmuth's Goon Talk blog to see whether he had published anything yet. Nothing. That is, nothing on this topic. A few years back I began following his Pinterest page devoted to revealing the sources of lines and word imagery appropriated into Chronicles: Volume 1, Masked and Anonymous, Time Out of Mind, Modern Times, Together Through Life, Tempest and "Love and Theft" and what an interesting undertaking he's immersed himself in, noteworthy enough to have received inclusion in David Kinney's The Dylanologists.

In a article by Marc Hogan, Kinney calls Warmuth the Internet sleuth "who deciphered Dylan’s own Da Vinci Code." Rather than wait however long before getting his take I took the initiative and was rewarded with the following interview.

EN: The initial response to Dylan's speech, most writers took it as straightforward, calling it "Extraordinary", revealing and a work of art. But a few days went by and the questions began, focusing primarily on the Moby Dick section. You would add that this (Moby Dick) is only the beginning. What are some of the other sources you've observed so far in this speech?

SW: The Charlie Poole verse from "You Ain't Talkin' to Me" that doesn’t appear in Poole’s version was a topic of discussion and news articles. bobschool on suggests that it is likely a contemporary verse written by a fellow named Jim Krause.

There’s material that appears to be crafted from the CliffsNotes to All Quiet on The Western Front and The Odyssey. Below are a couple of examples.

Dylan: This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals.    This generation is one that has lost its childhood, its dreams, its faith in a meaningful world, and its concern for the individual.

Dylan: All around you, your comrades are dying. Dying from abdominal wounds, double amputations, shattered hipbones, and you think, "I'm only twenty years old, but I'm capable of killing anybody. Even my father if he came at me."   Only twenty years old, he is already a grim mercenary capable of killing all adversaries, even if his "own father came over with them."

EN: What was the first trigger event that inspired you to dig this deeply into Dylan's appropriations?

SW: During that awful September of 2001 I tossed Dylan's "Love And Theft" in my cart on a whim while shopping at a big box store, not expecting anything. It became my favorite album of all time, and I am a record collector with thousands of albums. I became captivated by it, and with thoughts of Dylan’s writing process.

A trigger event beyond just loving the record was an article in The Wall Street Journal in 2003 that discussed how a fellow named Chris Johnson discovered some parallels between some of the lyrics on "Love And Theft" and an oral history of a Japanese gangster. I was fascinated with that story, but not because it was a case of “gotcha” or anything like that. It was the serendipity strikes component tied with learning about some of the moving parts of a work that I love that captivated me.

In 2006 I appeared on NPR's All Things Considered and I told Robert Siegel that I wanted to know what was on Bob Dylan's bookshelf ( I had some basic questions: I wonder what Bob Dylan reads? I wonder what’s in his record collection? I also had questions about his creative process. I tried to create fortunate happenstance and look in the right places. The works I was initially most interested in were “Love And Theft,” Chronicles: Volume One and the Masked And Anonymous script. More recently I’ve been spending time considering his paintings. I've learned that he reads a lot of books and listens to a lot of records.

EN: Dylan has always played cat and mouse with the media, hasn't he? What do you surmise with regard to this latest set of appropriations? He seems too smart for this to be just a faux pas. He has to know "people are paying attention." What's your take on Dylan's motivations? And since nothing ever remains the same, how have your views changed over the two decades you've been doing this?

SW: In the lecture Dylan states, “If a song moves you, that's all that's important. I don't have to know what a song means. I've written all kinds of things into my songs. And I'm not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don't think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.”

So, there’s that aspect, which I get – just enjoy it for what it is. There is another side to that as well. In my essay “Vive le Vol: Bob Dylan and the Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway” I suggest that Dylan aligns himself with German music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825 – 1904), who argued for the active listener, one who listens to music with the intent of discovering the method of composition, over the passive listener, for whom music is merely sound to float in. I argue that Dylan does this via the use of bits from Hanslick’s 1854 book On the Musically Beautiful in Chronicles: Volume One.

If Dylan has written all kinds of things into his songs, as he states, it is incumbent on the dedicated student to consider these things.

I’m not interested in the “Bob Dylan is a plagiarist” angle at all. There’s nothing more boring. I am taken with the notion of Dylan positioning himself as outlaw appropriation artist. Dylan writes about meeting "Robyn Whitlaw, the outlaw artist" - a fictional character - in Chronicles: Volume One. His interactions with Richard Prince play into this as well.

I like outlaw appropriation art, especially if it pisses people off. I love that there aren’t any rules and that everything goes. The Cramps have a wonderful song that asks, "How far can too far go?" What matters is if an artist has anything to say. Bob Neuwirth makes this point in No Direction Home. He says, "Basically, the way people were rated you know, they'd say 'Have you seen Ornette Coleman? Does he have anything to say?' And it was the same with, like with Bob or anybody else. Do they have anything to say or not?"

Bob Dylan has plenty to say and I dig that he isn’t interested in articulating his subversiveness as doctrine. On an episode of Theme Time Radio Dylan stated, “I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.”

When Dylan’s outlaw appropriation artist persona is firing on all cylinders it is nuanced and fascinating. He combines language from a New Orleans travel guide and Hemingway to deliver a telescoped version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, creating a subtext about his unattended, neglected muse that lies hidden behind a shaggy dog story about a hand injury in Chronicles: Volume One.

He crafted "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," using found lines and musical source material, to function as a response to the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band."

Those things went unnoticed for years, and it's the type of outlaw appropriation art I can get behind. It takes time to recognize some of these things. Slow is the new fast. The Nobel lecture has only been around for a couple of days. You must consider the possibility there are things going in in that lecture that we don't recognize yet. All sorts of things could bubble up.

Perhaps it's not the type of work that some want from Bob Dylan, but it's the kind of work he's been doing and it's apropos to explore these themes and approaches.

There’s the push and pull between finding what is there (such as the low hanging fruit in the Nobel lecture) and considering why it is there. I argue that in his essay in The Beaten Path catalog Dylan has incorporated a bit from a John Greenleaf Whittier short story called “The Fish I Didn’t Catch.”

That story ends with, “When I hear people boasting of a work as yet undone, and trying to anticipate the credit which belongs only to actual achievement, I call to mind that scene by the brookside, and the wise caution of my uncle in that particular instance takes the form of a proverb universal application: ‘Never brag of your fish before you catch him.’”

Locating a few of the moving parts in the Nobel lecture is not catching the fish.

EN: You stated in one post that you were already delving into Together Through Life before it was released. How did you acquire your copy so you could be so quick on the draw?

SW: It was leaked on the Internet. Nothing special – a lot of people had the recordings before the release date.

EN: And since nothing ever remains the same, how have your views changed over the two decades you've been doing this?

SW: That small window into his artistic process has freed me in terms of making my own art. Learning about how Bob Dylan goes about creating some of his work has been liberating. I had great respect and admiration for his work before I ever started looking into with any type of real focus, and now I have even more respect and admiration.

Check out my Instagram feed if you haven't already.

My 3rd Richard Prince/Bob Dylan book. 8x10" (20x25cm), matte hardcover, standard paper 60lb/90gr, 34 pages. Edition of 2. (2017) NFS. From The Richard Prince/Bob Dylan Series

My 1st Richard Prince/Bob Dylan book. 8"x10" (20x25cm), matte hardcover, standard paper 90gr, 26 pages (2015) NFS. From The Richard

Prince/Bob Dylan Series

* * * *

In Closing

For more on Love and Theft, check out the source material where some of the tunes themselves originated.

And finally, my previous blog post about Mr. Warmuth.

* * * *

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Open your eyes. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Important Twin Ports Arts Events and Reminders

Louis Guillaume by Paul Cezanne, Natl Gallery
"Everything good, everything magical happens between the months of June and August."
— Jenny Han, The Summer I Turned Pretty

Summer Solstice is June 21, the longest day of the year. Woo hoo. Or is it June 20? Hmmm. Depends on which Oracle you ask, perhaps.

I am guessing that Grandma's is intentional in selecting for its marathon the nearest weekend to this period when the earth's rotational tilt is most slanted toward the sun. Perhaps, too the Park Point Art Fair has the same criteria in mind for holding its annual ritual the following weekend. A big welcome to artists and art lovers! Next weekend is only days away now.

In between we have a few events to draw attention to.

Tonight from 5-7 p.m. is the Stephanie Wilcox Art Show and Reception at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Community Room, 425 W. Superior St., Suite 1060.  "Join Stephanie for an artist reception featuring a one night pop-up of her handmade jewelry and other small works in addition to the show." This is a venue I've not yet seen. Refreshments provided and everyone is welcome. Show runs through July 17.

On Wednesday, June 21, 6:30-9:00 p.m., Zentangle (R) & Wine with Esther Piszczek, CZT, at the Master Framing Gallery, 1431 London Road. Come experience the fun and relaxation of drawing simple, repetitive line patterns with pen and ink and pencil shading. No previous drawing experience necessary. Class Cost: $35; Supplies: $10 (or use supplies provided without additional cost). RSVP to Seats are limited.

Thursday there will be a celebration of the life and art of recently departed painter Russell V. Gran through an art exhibition at Washington Studios Artist Co-op, a.k.a. 315 Gallery here in Duluth. Russell V. Gran: A Life's Retrospective will run three hours on the evening of June 22nd, 2017, 5-8, with remarks at 6:00 p.m. The following is from Eric Dubnicka's invitation:

Only your presence in good-humored remembrance is required. In heroic fashion Russell overcame many near life-ending experiences, yet it's with a heavy heart we share that Russell has moved on to his next great adventure. After a life lived full in Boston, MA, West Duluth native Russell Gran returned home in 1992 to follow his true passion in life, his art making, and to be near his beloved mother Mary (d.2006). After successfully completing the studio art program at UMD he was a charter member of Washington Studios Artist Cooperative where he was an ardent advocate of common sense cooperative living. It was there he became an influential force and mentor to a generation of Duluth artists of all genres. He went on to create and exhibit an expansive array of energetically charged, intensely colorful paintings which are collected throughout the Twin Ports region and beyond. He longed for his artwork to be front and center and this final solo exhibition of mostly unseen artworks from the last 25 years will be the capstone to his long and illustrious career.

Saturday & Sunday, June 24 & 25, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Park Point Art Fair 2017, Park Point Public Beach House, 5000 Minnesota Ave. "The 47th annual Park Point Art Fair will feature the juried fine art and crafts of over 120 artists from the upper Midwest and beyond. In addition to the outdoor gallery, there will be a food court, demonstration areas, a stage with live music and more — all at the Park Point Recreation Area.

"Each year, an estimated 10,000+ visitors attend the weekend festival as artists display and sell work in media such as ceramics, glass, jewelry, painting, photography, woodwork and sculpture. With artist tents lining a paved path that extends through the park, the show allows people with physical disabilities the chance to fully experience the event."

Our family has been going to the Park Point Art Fair since the kids were little. It's been a great tradition and we own a number of things in our home that were acquired there.

Also on Saturday is the Chum Rhubarb Festival 2017 out on London Road circa 11th Avenue East, from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. The Chum’s 13th annual Rhubarb Festival promises plenty of rhubarb, "including hundreds of pies, muffins and crisps, as well as rhubarb brats and burritos. There will also be live music, games, crafts, auctions and stage shows." Duluth has it all!

* * * *


Unplugged, 1994*
The big story this past week was that a concept and location for a Dylan monument in Hibbing has been approved. This is a pretty big deal as many ideas have been swirling about nothing really taking shape. This article from yesterday's Star Tribune provides details. Big Shout Out to Craig Hattam and the Hibbing Dylan Project for making this happen.

Finally, Saturday night Cowboy Angel Blue will be back in the Twin Ports at  Vintage Italian Pizza, V.I.P. in Superior. Here are the details.

Oh, and one more thing. Check out this Jimmy Fallon clip where he talks about the recent Dylan show he went to at Port Chester, New York. It's fun. Makes me want to see another Dylan concert.

* * * *

"Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly."
--Pablo Neruda

*Photo, MTV Studio, Frank Micelotta; courtesy William Pagel

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Pocketful of Points to Ponder by Socrates

Bust of Socrates
My current drive-time accompaniment has been a lecture series on Ethics by Peter Kreeft. One quickly observes that a learned man has distilled a lot of material into a clear summation of the great ideas of history. It feels like I should be taking notes and re-listening to what I have already heard.

Socrates is one of the foundation stones of Western philosophy. Kreeft shows early on how all of the main historical positions of ethical scholars were presented, or refuted, by Socrates 500 years B.C. and that in one form or another these schools of thinking continue to be lived out today.

How many times we hear Socrates' most famous quote, "The unexamined life is not worth living." It's repeated so often that it ceases to impress us. Like most of the billboards we drive past on our daily commutes it gets lost in the landscape of our lives. As oft as we hear it, it can almost seem like that was the only thing he ever said, since we so seldom hear any of his other ideas. For this reason, it seemed a good day to share some of his other observations about life. I've placed a little space between each line to help you pause and reflect before moving to the next.

I am a Citizen of the World, and my Nationality is Goodwill.

Silence is a profound melody, for those who can hear it above all the noise.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

Be the kind of person that you want people to think you are.

Prefer knowledge to wealth, for the one is transitory, the other perpetual.

Understanding a question is half an answer.

He is the richest who is content with the least.*

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.

To find yourself, think for yourself.

The years wrinkle our skin, but lack of enthusiasm wrinkles our soul.

* * * *

It is noteworthy that neither of the two most influential men in the history of Western civilization, Socrates and Jesus, wrote books. How their influence extends to us today is quite remarkable, especially when one considers the absence of printing presses and technology. I can't help but wonder who, if anyone, from our generation will be cited as significant 2500 years from now.

* * * *

*Antidote to our tendency toward hoarding?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Marathoners Making Memories at Grandma's

"Running allows me to set my mind free. Nothing seems impossible. Nothing unattainable."
--Kara Goucher

If you're going to run a marathon, you can't pick a more beautiful setting, 26 miles alongside the largest freshwater lake in the world. It's Grandma's Marathon weekend here in Duluth, the biggest spectacle of the year in this port town on the tip of Lake Superior.

For many years I have avoided the congestion produced by massive quantities of runners, friends, families and fans by staying outside of town for the weekend. But having tackled my first 5K last night, and feeling somewhat greater kinship to the packs of runners assaulting our streets, I decided to head down to Mile 23 (Mile 10 for the half marathoners) on London Road (Valentini's) to be a part of the Bob Dylan contingent led by KUMD's Highway 61 Revisited host John Bushey. After all, this is the historic Highway 61 here that all these runners are tramping upon, so the speakers are all set up and blaring even before the first runners arrive.

The weather couldn't be better, an overcast sky for the early part of the race keeps the sun from taking its toll, and not too chilly, perfect for running.

The first wave features the Garry Bjorklund half marathoners, their starting point begin just south of the New Scenic Cafe. Someone said there were 8,000 of them, and when they begin coming by it's like a bell curve with the outliers leading the way. Eventually its the masses, and since we're ten miles into this thing you can see who is and is not having an easy go of it. Before we reach the tail of the half marathoners a car clears the way for the wheelchair racers, men wearing bulging biceps and helmets, flying fast in their specially designed equipment. These troopers began the race in Two Harbors.

After a little while, while straggling half marathoners continue their parade, the pace car for the full marathon comes into view, breaking over the rim of Lemon Drop Hill. As the car glides past we find that a lone Kenyan is running in its wake. A little further back a second, then a bit further till we have two more and another. I overhear someone saying they run like gazelles, smooth and effortless, and I agree, the leaders seem to glide.

The Dylan music blares on, with a lot of live versions of familiar songs. Crowds cheer on these live concert tapes, and at times it sounds like a crowd cheering for the runners, many of whom smile and acknowledge the presence of our Dylan contingent.

Here are a few more photos that might help give a feel for the event and the weekend.

"I will get by... I will survive."
(EdNote: Did not run marathon... only the 5K)

See you next year?