Monday, July 30, 2012

Tea Cups in the Window

Anyone who passes by Castle in the Air this month has the chance to peer through not only a window into the store but also a window into my own history as an artist. To the casual observer, the admittedly mad tea-party spread might just look like a lively arrangement of familiar objects from our shop and classes, but a closer look reveals tiny fairy revelers flitting here and there among a collection of dainty teapots, cups, and creamers.
The fairies and their tea sets are the work of Charlleis Lovett, a local doll maker I first met as a young girl. When I was seven years old I took classes from Charlleis in her home studio, learning how to make the world around me look a little bit more like the world I dreamed of in my imagination.
In fact, not long ago I nearly convinced myself that I’d dreamed up Charlleis, too, those days with her were so long ago. But a look at all the fairy dolls crowding my own home studio made me realize that the dolls—and the skills and confidence to make them—hadn’t come from nowhere. And so when my beloved teacher walked through the door at Castle in the Air earlier this year, I knew I had to do something to recognize her part in helping me become who I am today. What better way to celebrate than with a tea party?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Paper Model Tools and Techniques: Cutting

Paper model builder at-large Thomas Garbutt returns with the second lesson in his series on tools and techniques. This time he outlines best practices for cutting out the sometimes intricate pieces found in Pellerin paper models.

Cutting Remarks
by Thomas Garbutt
During my sophomore year in high school, my class was assigned a novel to read—Little Britches, by Ralph Moody. The title smacks of something from the 19th century, but the book instilled in me a timeless piece of advice: “Measure twice, cut once.” This rule has served me well over the years, and has helped me realize that even seemingly simple tasks like cutting paper deserve proper attention and equipment if we hope to do a good job.
The right tools make all the difference. I’ll go over the uses and merits of several cutting tools in this article, but there are some useful pieces of cutting equipment that aren’t even sharp. A good cutting mat is one of them, and is essential when using an X-Acto blade. Without it, you’ll slice lines into your tabletop or end up shredding whatever old newspapers or magazines you place beneath your model sheet. An 11x14-inch cutting mat should be adequate. They usually come in green and are sold alongside the rest of the cutting tools at the craft or hobby store. Look for one with gridlines and other guiding marks printed on it, as they will help when you need to line up long cuts along a straight line or at right angles.
Not everyone thinks to prepare for the cutting stage. After you’ve decided what to make, why not just pick up a pair of scissors and start cutting? But a bit of thought before you make your first incision will help you avoid frustrating mistakes later on.
It’s best to look at the intact model sheet and make a mental note of which pieces will need what sort of work. Certain types of lines show where the pieces are to be cut, and other lines indicate folds. You don’t want to confuse the two, as that can lead to avoidable “field surgery” on your model. Use scissors to cut up the large sheets into several pieces, each one about the size of your open hand, perhaps, leaving margins as wide as possible around the individual parts of the model. You’ll find these pieces easier to handle than trying to wrestle with the full sheet while you cut out the smaller bits.
Scoring the fold lines before you even cut out the individual pieces will make your folds much easier and cleaner. All papers have a nearly imperceptible “grain” which allows them to be folded more cleanly in one direction than the other. It’s usually impossible to tell in which direction a particular paper’s grain runs until you actually fold it. And because paper models have fold lines running in every direction, the act of scoring—using a dull instrument to break the paper fibers—will give your model’s folds more uniformity. I’ve found that wooden tools usually used in clay sculpting work very well. You can also try the smooth edge of an old kitchen knife, the kind you would spread butter with. It is always better to score the long pieces first, then fold while the scrap side (the portion of the paper which will eventually be cut off) is still intact. After you have created the fold, make your final cuts to the piece.
The actual cutting out of the individual model pieces can be a fairly straightforward task, but there are a few caveats. The most important of these is to always use a sharp blade. Of course, one can opt for using scissors, but for my money nothing beats the X-Acto knife with #11 blade combination. If you keep a very sharp blade, then you are less likely to bear down hard when cutting. For cutting along lines, I use a straight metal edge. These are usually nothing more than thick steel rulers. Keep away from wooden rulers when choosing a straight edge—even wooden rulers with a metal edge tend to lose their straightness over time.
Count your fingers before you begin. You should try to end up with the same number once your model is finished. Sharp blades cut fewer fingers than dull ones, because the less pressure required to make a cut, the less likely you are to slip. I speak from experience when I say that even dull blades are plenty sharp enough to take off a piece of a fingertip. One of the more creative moments in a model builder’s life is coming up with things to say when that happens.
Some model makers I know like to use disposable scalpels. I find that these blades, although very sharp, tend to snap in two because they are thinner than the #11 X-Acto blades. It is also a good idea to get one of those triangular plastic caps that fit over the end of your blade. (Many X-Acto knives come with one.) This protects you from cutting yourself when you reach to pick up the blade or rifle around in a pencil cup which also holds a knife, and the cap keeps the knife from rolling around on the table. Uncapped X-Acto knives tend to roll very easily. Because of the way they are weighted, if one should roll off your workspace it will fall point down. Speaking again from experience, it really hurts when one happens to land on the top of your foot.
When using a blade to cut something thick like mat board, corrugated cardboard, or foam core, it is advisable to make several lighter passes with the knife rather than trying to make the cut in one go. Foam core can be particularly difficult to cut cleanly with a dull knife, so always use a new blade when working with it.
Scissors are a good choice for cutting smaller curved pieces. Really small scissors such as those used for manicures can help you get into tight places. Another cutting device that works very well on small pieces is a pair of toenail clippers. Curved and straight styles are available, and they are powerful enough to make small cuts in thick modeling material such as mat board. You’ll find yourself using this tool more and more for delicate work. A pair of pinking shears is also convenient to have, especially when cutting along edges with a great number of glue tabs. And hole punches in various diameters are also helpful. Your basic 1/4-inch punch is useful for making clean, small holes, and a 1/8-inch punch is also good if you can find it.
If your model sheets came in a plastic bag, you can use it to keep the pieces together once they’re cut out. If your model has lots of small parts to keep track of, you might want to use more than one bag, especially if it is a multi-day project.
That wraps it up as far as tools and techniques for this stage of paper model building. The only question left now is, “Can you cut it?”
Read Thomas Garbutt’s tips on glues and adhesives. Our interview with Thomas on his experience working with paper models can be read here.
Browse Castle in the Air’s selection of more than 
300 vintage French paper model reproductions. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Paul Alborough on Making the Leap

British-based rapper Paul Alborough achieved international acclaim when the video for his humorous ode to tea-drinking, “Cup of Brown Joy,” became popular on YouTube. In this interview with Castle in the Air, Paul shares with us how perseverance and finding his own style (notably in the form of his quintessentially eccentric alter-ego Professor Elemental) prepared him to make the leap to becoming a full-time professional artist.

Castle in the Air: Who do you see now as some of the early influences on your artistic career?
Paul Alborough: It’s a lovely, if very eclectic mix. I’d credit Isaac Hayes, Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, Vivian Stanshall, my dad, Chuck Jones, Neil Gaiman, Oliver Postgate, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Pryor, and the early works of Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince with creating much of the Professor’s makeup.
Was there a particular moment when you realized that you could be an artist rather than only a consumer?
It was ever so early on that I started rapping—when I was about 13 years old. But I was led to believe that the idea was so very ludicrous that I kept it to myself.
How did you go about getting started? How did you figure out how to make your first songs, your first performances? And was there anything about your home life that helped you in this?
Because of a lack of confidence, my first shows didn’t really come about until I was 22. In some ways I wish I had started earlier, but then getting a good grounding in (yawn) getting a day job and learning to be a teacher—these things certainly helped me appreciate the joys of creativity and provide a bit of a safety net, so I am not stuck with relying on music forever.
My home life was a happy one, so I was blessed with the time and support to begin doing nice creative things—but the thought of doing it for a living was completely out of the question. I think it’s a rather British conceit, not to reach too far and to settle for something modest in life.
The Internet has changed much about how artists work and communicate. What’s changed since you began?
It’s everything to me—YouTube launched my career with a single video. Facebook and Twitter have become essential tools for any solo artist and I use them as best I can. I love it! When I first started doing music, you either had to find a record deal (next to impossible) or remain very local—now there is no reason not to be ambitious without limits. I feel particularly lucky in how many great people that it allows me to meet, too, both professionally and in terms of making new friends.
What sort of day job did you have while you worked up your Professor Elemental character?
After a series of mind-numbing sales jobs, I eventually settled on being a teacher in a special school in Sussex. It was a fantastic job and very funny—working with young people keeps you young, I think, and I learned a lot from them. But it’s tiring, too, and I was glad of the change.
How have self-confidence and self-consciousness factored into your work?
One thing I learnt is that it’s very important to speak about yourself confidently and in the present tense. Never apologise for creative things, even when you can see they are flawed. And always say “I am...” rather than “I am thinking about…” or “One day, I’m going to…” I remember the first time someone asked me if I was any good as a rapper. It was the first time I said, “Yeah, I’m great,” that it all started to happen.
That is not to say that you should go around being an arse about it, though. It’s a thin line between being confident and just being a bit of a twat.
You had a breakthrough with the “Cup of Brown Joy” video. When did you think to yourself, “I can make this into a living”?
It was about a year ago. Gigs were flooding in and I found myself asking everyone who had “made the leap” about what the secret was, and how to go about it. I really recommend that as a good starting point. Find people who inspire you and copy/learn from them. I also read a couple of amazing books by Tom Hodgkinson called The Idle Parent and How to Be Idle. I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially to you American fellows who always seem to work too bloody hard…
At Castle in the Air, we compare bold steps in an artistic career to jumping off a cliff while wearing Icarus’s wings. Did your situation stir up similar feelings?
Yes, exactly that. Except for me, my wings were made of oak and brass and powered by a small steam engine.
What are the differences you see between being a professional artist in Britain versus in the United States?
I’ve talked about this a lot onstage—I think Americans are happier to celebrate success and live their dreams. On the other hand, I have encountered some insincerity and flakiness on the part of Americans who make promises. It can be a case of “all talk and no trousers,” as we might say.
Whereas over here it’s much more down to earth, but also more pessimistic. I have lost count of the number of people who say, “But what are you going to do when you can’t do the Professor any more?” like this is some kind of happy fluke and is bound to end shortly.
 What things are most important to you as both an artist and a person?
Oh, I think the same things that anyone needs—friends, family, my children, my lady. Money is low on the list, although I do realise the need to obtain enough to be comfortable. Oh, and comics, Hip Hop, cartoons, comedy, and horror films to keep my imagination nice and sharp.
One thing about doing this full-time is that you need to make the effort not to do it all the time. It’s not healthy to obsess about it and it hurts your creativity eventually. It’s good to remind yourself of the things you like outside of your creative stuff.
What has surprised you most about the transition into full-time art?
The amount of admin that is involved in being a rapper. I never really thought of Method Man or Nas sitting down to go through their receipts and invoices, but it seems 70% of being a rapper is admin.
What do you think you’d do differently if you knew then what you know now?
Not much. I might have got certain aspects of my business life sorted a bit sooner. But the only reason I didn’t do that was because I spent my 20s having the time of my life, and I can’t regret that one bit.
Please share a piece of advice particularly for rappers who would like to “make the leap,” as well as a piece of advice for artists in any medium.
For rappers, the old cliché of “be yourself” is particularly vital in Hip Hop. It wasn’t until I abandoned any pretense of being a “normal” rapper that I found any success. And there are too many emcees who make up all sorts of rubbish about killing people and drug-dealing in order to sell records. We don’t need any more.
The only other more general advice I’d give is to make the leap; set a date, prepare financially, work out whether you need to remain working part-time and what other changes you might need to make in your life to accommodate a life of creativity—then do it. No excuses. Life will be so much better.
How can people keep up with your projects and career?
I’m all over the place—on Twitter as @prof_elemental and the website are the main spots. But I am on Facebook as Paul Alborough, too, so come and say hello!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Paper Model Tools and Techniques: Glue

Longtime paper model builder Thomas Garbutt first contacted Castle in the Air late last year, inquiring about our collection of 1800s Pellerin paper model reproductions. He has since become our “paper-modeler-at-large,” constructing our models at his home in New York City and sending them back for display in our gallery. If you haven’t yet read our interview with Thomas about model-making, you can do so here.

Equal parts enthusiast and educator, Thomas is preparing a series of “guest lectures” for the Castle in the Air blog. Each of these lessons will introduce beginners to the various tools and techniques of paper modeling. Even if you have some experience working with these delightfully absorbing models, you may learn a thing or two from Thomas.

Thomas’s first lesson deals with modeling glue and its varieties and uses.

Sticky Situations
by Thomas Garbutt

When I began kindergarten in the mid-1950s we had something called paste. It came in bulk in a big jar. My classmates and I simply stuck our fingers in and each removed a glob, then spread them on small pieces of cardstock provided by our teacher, Miss Roselee. The paste had the consistency of margarine, and it smelled very minty. Being only five years old at the time, I thought it was either toothpaste or the stuff they put in the center of Oreo cookies. It didn’t take long for me to want to taste it, and I quickly learned that it was neither.

I left paste behind in kindergarten, but my love of paper crafts stuck with me, so to speak. Like all beginning paper model builders, I found the variety of available glues to be a bit confusing. Finding the best adhesive for the job sometimes comes down to basic trial and error. Here are a few thoughts on products I’ve had success with over the years.

When working with paper models, the first adhesive that comes to mind is white glue, also known as PVA (polyvinyl acetate) or by the brand name “Elmer’s Glue-All” after its bull mascot, who happens to be the husband of Borden’s Elsie the Cow. Despite the association, neither of these glues contains any animal products.

White glue is not my first choice for paper model building, simply because it has too much water in it. The excess water is absorbed into the paper, causing the fibers to expand and your model to wrinkle. If you want to glue down paper already wet all the way through, though, white glue is a great choice. The expanded fibers will shrink evenly and the paper will become very taut. This is how the paper on the back of framed pictures is applied. Generally speaking, though, white glue is not terribly useful to us.

My everyday glue for paper model building is either Sobo Premium Craft Glue by Delta or Aleene’s Tacky Glue. Both have low moisture content, set up quickly, dry clear, and create a strong bond. Either of these two can be your basic “workhorse” glue you will use most of the time. They can be applied to large areas with brushes or cardboard scraps. Flat toothpicks make for excellent tools to spread the glue onto small parts.

For gluing down larger areas—such as laminating a sheet of paper to a backing stock such as mat board or heavy stock—I use spray adhesive. This kind of glue allows the pieces to bond very smoothly. Simply spray both surfaces and let them dry for a few minutes before pressing them together. Spray adhesive bonds on contact, so it is very important to line things up correctly the first time. There are no “do-overs” or second chances. And unlike white glue or tacky glue, spray glue allows no margin for slight adjustment. It does have a rather strong chemical smell as well, so it is best used in a ventilated area. Spray glue works equally well on porous and nonporous surfaces.

A spreadable version of spray glue that also bonds on contact is rubber cement. This, too, has a strong chemical smell. Rubber cement comes in a jar with a spreading brush built into the cap. Use the brush to apply glue to both surfaces to be joined, let them dry a bit, and then press the pieces together.

Glue sticks seem to be another useful adhesive at times. The glue has no odor, is water soluble, and has some give to it before drying, which allows for small adjustments. The house-brand glue sticks sold at Staples seem to be a good choice as they work well and are relatively inexpensive. I have noticed that glue sticks can cause some paper wrinkling, so it’s best to use them on small surface areas.

Aside from the actual gluing technique, the critical task is keeping the excess glue off your fingers so you don’t spoil parts of your model where no glue is meant to be. This for me continues to be a constant annoyance which I have overcome with limited results. No one can ever attain perfection, so we all just keep trying.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer School of Flowers

We recently stumbled upon this gorgeous paper flower bouquet on the Hello! Lucky blog. The brave use of color in this bouquet takes full advantage of our bright and brilliant selection of crepe paper.

We pass this along to help you with technique as you make your own treasure to enjoy and share during the lazy days of Summer. Thank you Hello! Lucky!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Little Blue Moon Theatre Rises in the Castle

It is with great enthusiasm that we announce the upcoming production of Little Blue Moon Theatre at Castle in the Air. Join us for an enchanting evening of miniature paper theatre as our guests perform Mutiny on the Bounty. One can expect a slew of surprises and visual treats in this lively tale of mutiny out at sea such as mermaids, tattoos, native women, and a lush, tropical paradise. 
Castle in the Air Presents
A Little Blue Moon Theatre Production of:
Mutiny on the Bounty
Sunday, July 22nd, 5 pm
Castle in the Air
1805 Fourth Street, Berkeley
$10, adults only
The performance will be located in our upstairs gallery.  Please call to make arrangements if you have concerns about access.

Bay Area based puppet theater extraordinaires Michael and Valerie Nelson founded Magical Moonshine Theatre together in 1979, and formed Little Blue Moon Theatre as a means of performing more intimate pieces for adult audiences. Using miniature theatre forms such as Victorian paper theatre and shadow puppetry, Little Blue Moon Theatre presents intimate vignettes with themes of love, sex, romance, and adventure to audiences across the country and abroad. 
The twenty five minute performance will be followed by a forum of the art of paper theatres, and light refreshments will be provided. Seating is extremely limited for this special event, and your ticket purchase will secure your seat for the show. Call Castle in the Air at (510)204-9801 to purchase your ticket. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Art of Pajaki

Are you afraid of Spiders? Pajaki, the Polish straw folk art inspires a new class given by John McRae here at Castle this July 14th. The "spiders of straw" are translated into unique chandeliers made with crepe flowers, paper cut outs and embellishments from the store. 

Original 19th century Pajaki made by women and girls from small villages can be found in museums near Warsaw. Modern day Poland has seen this craft decline but not here at Castle in the Air. This day long class will provide students with materials to create your own splendid spider.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Seeing Art as a Gift

Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure of being reacquainted with an old friend. This friend is actually a book, not a person, but whenever I read it I get the same sense of talking with a wise companion who really understands me.

The book is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, and its premise is simple but revolutionary—art is a gift. It is a gift we give ourselves when we create, and it is a gift we give to others once we make it. In Hyde’s book there is plenty of room for a person to make a living as an artist, but the entire process is still seen through the lens of “the gift.”

As a painter, writer, and book publisher who gives away far more of my work than I sell, I feel a great sense of freedom knowing that art is a gift. And why shouldn’t I? Making books is in my blood, it’s in my bones. It’s something I have to do. Dromedary Press is a calling, not a commodity. I’d felt frustrated by rejection and indifference to my art for so long—what was I doing wrong following my dream and giving it all away? As it turns out, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. According to The Gift, I was doing everything right.

I ordered dozens of copies of The Gift and began sending them to friends far and wide. I wanted to share this new perspective with as many people as possible. And because I knew that I couldn’t be the only artist frustrated by the book publishing process, I decided to turn my newfound insight into a class and accompanying workbook. I’d heard from so many people who had a dream of publishing a children’s book that I designed the class specifically for children’s book publishing, but the lessons in it can be applied to any book project.

Seats filled quickly, and I donated the class fees to a local children’s literacy program. Each of the artists and writers in attendance left with a firm sense of how to guide their own gift—in some cases little more than a wisp of a story—through the long process of becoming a real book they can hold in their hands and give to someone else.

Of course a class can only seat so many people, so until I can teach it again I’m offering copies of the workbook to anyone who dreams of sharing their own gift in book form. Publishing a Children’s Book was developed with Clint Marsh, a published author and my partner at Dromedary Press. The workbook covers the process for making any kind of book you can imagine—hardcover, paperback, pamphlet, even an e-book—whether you want to put it out yourself or send it to another publisher. Every step includes worksheets for personalizing the process to your particular book. As you move through each chapter in the 32-page guide you’ll see your own dream—a real book—coming to fruition.

There is no reason we should feel anything but joy and acceptance when it comes to our art. I believe that each of us innately knows that our artistic life is a gift. It’s easy to deny ourselves this truth, but thankfully a confident reminder from a wise friend is all we need to set us back on our path.

More about Lewis Hyde’s The Gift