News and Features

Do Your Shopping; Help The Writer's Garret

Today is the last day to take part in The Writer’s Garret’s Winter Wonder Auction. The event raises money for The Writer’s Garret and includes some fun items, such as:

  • A trip for two to Kennedy Space Station, lunch with an astronaut, airfare and four-night stay.
  • 14 tickets to A Burl-ES-Q Nutcracker
  • One-on-one manuscript consultation with novelist and CNF expert Lisa Lenard-Cook or with acclaimed poet Ralph Angel

There’s lots of other cool stuff available; click here to look through the catalog.

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Texas Toy Story, Too

small edwardEdward Ruiz with Cymon the monkey and Reggie the raccoon

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Avenue Arts Venue is hardly Santa’s Toy Shop, but it does have colorful toys on display in its window. Avenue Arts is a funky storefront just a block away from Fair Park, and it’s where Edward Ruiz makes and sells what are called “art toys” or “designer toys.” The storefront is the 36-year-old’s art gallery, studio – and home.

WEEKS: [footsteps] “This is the studio space?

RUIZ: “This is the studio space, and there’s a lot of little projects going on in various corners of the room. If you go past the dinosaur and take a quick right you’ll start getting into my apartment.”

The dinosaur looming in the corner is a nine-foot-tall Allosaurus. It’s from the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park. Ruiz worked there helping to replace outdated science displays, and he learned how to cast figures in resin. That’s what his 5-to-7-inch-tall toys are made of. Laid out on his work table in his studio space are the green, rubbery, silicon molds that are used to hand-cast the figurines.

outside2Avenue Arts’ current exhibition is called “Toy Show” and it features toy designs from half-a-dozen artists – including several from North Texas, such as Jason Ice and Scott Higgins (a.k.a Monster Bot). They’re all part of an elaborate toy sub-culture that spans the globe, yet you won’t find their toys at Target or Gamestop. Designer toys are hand-painted, custom-made, limited-editions. They’re oddball monsters, cartoony creatures or humanoids shaped like big-headed babies. Some are political or celebrity caricatures. And they can sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

The market for designer toys began in Hong Kong in the ’80s and ’90s when artists started radically reconfiguring GI Joes and Star Wars figurines — and they found that art galleries were interested in them. But it was in Japan where the toys really took off. They became part of what the Japanese call “otaku” or “geek culture.” (Otaku refers derisively to a “homebody” — implying the typical teenager still living with his parents.) Otaku is the term for the entire, obsessive, collectible mix of comic books, animated movies and video games that has infiltrated American popular entertainment the past decade.

Ruiz explains the adult appeal of designer toys as a more sophisticated version of playtime.

RUIZ: “When you’re a child and you’re restricted to your home and all that kind of stuff, when you take a toy, you can be or go anywhere. That playfulness still exists in these figures. You can put all that imagination and all that art into something like one of these toys.”

In fact, many designer toys expressly channel childhood fears, fantasies and favorites (like food or fur). Those toys that embody huggable innocence the Japanese call kawaii – meaning “cute” — which encompasses everything from the whimsical to the outright kitschy, especially when it comes to “plush” or stuffed-fabric toys. But many artists take the childlike and give it a strong shot of monster-movie grotesquerie or adolescent sarcasm. Think of the hot rod “car – toons” from the ’60s — by artists like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, creator of Rat Fink.

For his part, Ruiz’ most successful effort so far is a pair of figures, Cymon the monkey and Reggie the raccoon, who recall classic Warner Brothers characters like Bugs Bunny. They also have a sleepy-eyed sense of threat. Dressed in black and wearing a beret, Cymon can appear Gallic and bohemian, even as he hefts a monkey wrench, looking as if he just mugged someone with it. [See a sampler of designer toys in the slideshow, below.]

Nowadays, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has designer toys in its collection. Art Basel, the international art fair in Miami, has devoted galleries to them.

small paulBUDNITZ: “The thing is that it’s artwork, you know?”

Paul Budnitz (right) founded Kidrobot seven years ago to sell designer toys, apparel and accessories. Kidrobot now has five stores around the country, including the newest one which opened in July in Dallas at Mockingbird Station (below left).

BUDNITZ: “I honestly think it’s good design. It’s sort of like new pop art sculpture, really.”

Budnitz says the constant question of whether designer toys should be considered artworks or playthings has driven him a little crazy. His own toy designs, for instance, are some of the ones accepted into MOMA’s permanent design collection. Yet in conversation, even Budnitz shifts between ‘art’ and ‘toy.’

BUDNITZ: “The thing is that some of the stuff we sell really are just toys. I know for a fact that a lot of kids play with them because my daughter’s friends play with them.”

Historically, artworks have often served different functions. Consider the many portraits of saints, which were intended as both spiritual and aesthetic experiences. It’s only in the past 150 years or so that art has been admired because — as Oscar Wilde declared — it was “useless.” But if pop art has taught us anything since the ’50s, it’s the difficulty in distinguishing between art for sale and commercial products for sale — especially when the artwork and the commercial product look exactly the same.

small frontDesigner toys, then, can be both art and toy, although Budnitz notes that it’s the less expensive items that generally get put to work as toys — for obvious reasons. Edward Ruiz makes a related distinction: With figures like his own — hand-cast from resin — the material doesn’t stand up to much abuse. That automatically makes them more likely to be admired on a shelf than bounced around a playroom. In contrast, most toys sold by outlets like Kidrobot — or Hasbro or Mattel — are made of the more durable polyvinyl chloride (usually shortened to ‘vinyl’). Vinyl toys are tougher,and they’re easier to mass-produce via rotocasting. Most toys are rotocast in China.

Art and toy, art or toy: The fact is that designer toys are still not sold in most art galleries. And because designer toys are usually limited to small, exclusive runs, major chain stores don’t carry them, either. This means that, at least when it comes to marketing and distribution, designer toys are neither toy nor art. They remain an “in-between” sub-culture or specialty market. Which is where Kidrobot comes in – along with such websites as Toy2R, Delicious Drips and Tenacious Toys. They can target (and respond to) a smaller, faddish, fast-changing market.

But while designer toys may remain a specialty item, they’ve begun to influence Hollywood cartoons and TV shows. Kidrobot, for instance, was bought last year by Wildbrain, Inc., which produces Nickelodeon series like Yo Gabba Gabba!

And they’ve begun to influence young artist’s ideas of a career, of making a living. Just as the designer toy phenomenon began with American models that were utterly transformed by Japan and then sold back to America, so, too, has the role of the designer toy artist. Major Japanese artists such as Takashi Murakami have followed Andy Warhol as their pop-art role model, crossing boundaries between high culture and hard-nosed business. They’re international artists — and they’re commercial entrepreneurs, spinning off merchandise like books, clothing, wallpapers, handbags, prints, toys.

small reazonSo is it selling out or self-empowerment? Vanessa Velasquez is a 25-year-old artist from The Colony. She’s created her own brand name, Nreazon. Nreazon has sold designer toys for $800 apiece — her specialty are hand-painted versions of “blanks” (white, unpainted models that encourage do-it-yourself customizing). Her cuddly-with-a-kick styles include a smiling hand grenade and skulls on ice cream cones. She’s sold them through Kidrobot, Delicious Drips and Avenue Arts. But Nreazon also makes and markets t-shirts, jewelry, graphic art, zipper pulls — out of her home and via her website. It’s how she earns a living.

NREAZON: “Oh, I stay busy [laughs].”

Nreazon’s idea of success isn’t a museum show or gallery exhibition. She’s had gallery exhibitions. What she’d like are new markets. She’d like her own shop, cranking out works with other artists. And she ‘d like to visit China to develop her own product lines.

NREAZON: “If you want to make a living as an artist, you have to learn to expand yourself — especially if, you know, you don’t want a 9 to 5. [chuckles]”

Nreazon doesn’t play around with her toys.

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Monday Morning Roundup

QUOTABLE I: “He, more than anyone else I know, had the humor and the wit and the experience and the point of view of life on the road. He had the greatest, most realistic, bitterly funny version of life on the road. I definitely wanted him to come in and write the songs and just be there for Jeff to watch. A little bit of Stephen lives on in the character.”

– T Bone Burnett, on picking fellow Fort Worth musician Stephen Bruton to co-write the songs for the movie Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges. Read more from Burnett on dfw.com.

QUOTABLE II: “A lot of times sports is better on television — instant replay, the comfort of your chair, the close-ups. An arts experience is essentially a live experience, and it’s an intimate experience. I think that’s helping to keep people going.”

– Steven Wolff, principal of AMS Planning & Research, a company that advises large performing arts centers, in a Los Angeles Times story explaining why the fine arts have held their audiences more firmly than sports and movies.

SITTING THIS ONE OUT: Jaap van Zweden will miss the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day concerts due to a sore shoulder. The conductor’s doctor says Van Zweden needs several weeks of rest. Scott Cantrell has the details on his replacement for next week’s concerts.

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Track by Track with Paul Slavens: Daniel Folmer

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“Track By Track” appears every other week on Art&Seek. During the podcast, Texas musicians play their new albums and discuss what went into making them with Paul Slavens, host of The Paul Slavens Show Sunday nights at 8 on KXT, 91.7 FM.

You can download and subscribe to the podcast right here.

Paul’s previous podcast featured Denton’s Sleep Whale talking about the band’s new album, Houseboat. This week, Paul talks with Denton’s Daniel Folmer about his new album, The Roaring Twenties.

Click the player below to listen to the podcast:

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Also, be sure to check the Art&Seek blog during The Paul Slavens Show this Sunday as Paul blogs live during the broadcast.

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The Paul Slavens Show Live Blog: Dec. 22, 2009

Hello, and let’s listen to music and hear from you about what you think and what you would like to hear.
As always, leave a link to whatever music you suggest, if possible.
Remember, this show operates largely on your input.
Hey, ho, lets go!

The setlist:

Akron Family, “Many Ghost,” Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free
The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion,” Motown’s Greatest Hits
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, “Doctor Blind,” Knives Don’t Have Your Back

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Leonard Cohen, “Tower of Song,” I’m Your Man
Grace Jones, “Well Well Well,” Hurricane
Kenny Burrell, “Dead Heat,” 2 Guitars

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The Magnetic Fields, “I Don’t Want To Get Over You,” 69 Love Songs Volume 1
Yma Sumac, “Wimoweh,” Ultimate Collection
Latin Bitman, “The Instrumento,” Colour
Joni Mitchell, “California,” Blue

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Lee Fields & The Expressions, “Do You Love Me (Like You Say You Do),” My World
Diana Krall, “Pick Yourself Up,” The Very Best Of Diana Krall
C.W. Stoneking, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” Hiram and Huddie Vol. 1 Hiram

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Killing Joke, “Wardance (John Peel – 17/10/79),” The Peel Sessions 79 – 81
Ravel/Alban Berg Quartet, “String Quartet in F (1903) / IV – Vif et agite,” Debussy and Ravel String Quartets
Pink Floyd, “Bike,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

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Daniel Folmer, “Rescue Squad,” The Roaring Twenties
Cookin’ on 3, “Burners Cars,” Cars
Patrick Watson, “Beijing,” Wooden Arms
PJ Harvey, “The Slow Drug,” Uh Huh Her

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Talking Heads, “The Great Curve,” Remain In Light
The Books, “If Not Now, Whenever,” Lost And Safe
Atmosphere, “Sunshine Sad Clown,” Bad Summer Number 9

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Hendrick, “City Lights,” Exhale
Jaco Pastorius, “Forgotten Love,” Jaco Pastorius
Left Banke, “Walk Away Renee,” Rolling Stone Magazines 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time

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Saturday Spotlight: The Nutcracker

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Categorized Under: Dance, Local Events

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In the Saturday Spotlight, we’re getting into the holiday spirit. Few things say Christmas more than The Nutcracker. And on Saturday, you’ve got six chances to see it. Metropolitan Classical Ballet performs the piece at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at UTA. The Tuzer Ballet performs at the Eisemann Center at 2 and 6 p.m. And Texas Ballet Theater rounds out your options with performances at Bass Hall at 2 and 8 p.m.

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This Week in Texas Music History: David Guion

Art&Seek presents This Week in Texas Music History. Every week, we’ll spotlight a different moment and the musician who made it. This week, Texas music scholar Gary Hartman celebrates a Texas songwriter who helped re-write some of the country’s best-loved songs.

You can also hear This Week in Texas Music History on Friday on KXT and Saturday on KERA radio. But subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. And our thanks to KUT public radio in Austin for helping us bring this segment to you.

And if you’re a music lover, be sure to check out Track by Track, the bi-weekly podcast from Paul Slavens, host of KERA radio’s 90.1 at Night.

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David Guion was born in Ballinger, Texas, on Dec. 15, 1892. He showed a keen interest in music as a child and went on to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Vienna, Austria. Although he was classically trained, Guion often composed, arranged and performed songs that were rooted in the folk music of his native state. During the 1920s and 1930s, he rewrote several older tunes, including “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “A Home on the Range,” “Turkey in the Straw” and “Arkansas Traveler” and helped popularize them around the world. Guion also composed his own music, which included full orchestral works, as well as smaller pieces for piano and ballet. Guion’s pioneering work in collecting and transcribing folk music from a variety of ethnic genres earned him acclaim from the academic community. In recognition of his skills as a composer, arranger, historian and educator, David Guion was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Howard Payne University in 1950.

Next time on This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll meet a woman who became the youngest singer to score a number one hit on the R&B charts.

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Breaking Down Cultural Barriers Through Dance

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Categorized Under: Culture, Dance

The performance season for ballet and modern has been a hit so far, with Texas Ballet Theatre moving into the Winspear Opera House and TITAS bringing in Parsons Dance, who rocked out at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium. Complexions Contemporary Ballet also gave a soul-wrenching performance at the Winspear. Smaller companies and individual dancers have also been having an outstanding beginning of the year.

Michele Hanlon, co-director of Elledanceworks, presented her new piece The Guitarist/Outside-In at the Dallas Museum of Art as a part of the exhibit “All the World’s a Stage: Celebrating Performance in the Visual Arts.” Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth also premiered a new work, A Muse Was Here, as part of the DMA’s “All the World’s a Stage” exhibition. And I personally had the opportunity through the University of Texas at Dallas to work with guest artist Renana Raz and the UTD dancers.

Raz, an Israeli-based choreographer, came to UTD as part of the Artist in Residency program offered through Centraltrack, and with the support of the Schusterman Family Foundation. Much of her work deals with Israeli subject matter, but she frames it in a contemporary concert dance format. And even though her works feature Israeli characters, situations and symbols, they are not explicitly just about the Israeli experience. You can related to the subject whether you are from Israel, have been to Israel or are Jewish.

Renana RAz

Renana Raz

I was extremely excited to work with Raz, first because I immediately connected with her work, and secondly, because, as a Greek South African who grew up in America, I can relate to the Diaspora ideas she presents. My family lived through a similar situation during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, my father’s abrupt move to Cyprus from South Africa as my grandfather worked to bring about the end of Apartheid with many other South Africans, and my family’s own movement to America. Much of my cultural experiences influence my work, and it was fascinating and inspiring to work with a choreographer who is not afraid to address cultural phenomena, historical elements and gender issues.

The cabaret gender bending “Mustache” – in which I performed alongside two UTD dancers – was part of a new piece of work Raz set on the UTD dancers entitled Bach, Britney, Bigger, Banjo that was influenced by her brief time in Texas. “Mustache” pushed me and the other two dancers to embrace our femininity and love our facial hair! Playing a transgendered cabaret dancer was a role I never thought I would fulfill, but give me that mustache again and I’ll be set! It was so liberating to play a role that was so absolutely foreign yet comfortable. Every woman has that part of her that is just a little bit manly. Rough, seductive, real. But we tend to hide it, especially in American culture. But why? Why not love the curves and love the fact that a woman has a lot more power than a man – a bigger set if you will. Especially in Texas, where bigger is better.

Aside from creating new work, Raz also set established pieces from her repertoire such as Motel (set on Southern Methodist University graduate dance students) and a section, “Hands,” from Kazuaria, which was inspired by and incorporated elements from the Druze debka dance. In this piece, Raz blurred the line between the masculine and feminine binary that exists in many cultures, specifically when it comes to folk dances. Many folk dances are performed exclusively by men or women, and are specifically designed that way. A man would never dance the “Tsifteteli” – a Greek belly dance; and women would never dance the debka. But Raz says why not? Why can’t a woman dance the debka? And she allows them to in Kazuaria, allowing the UTD dancers to experience that cultural element and emotion.

Ultimately, the best part about this experience was getting to know the person behind the choreographer. Renana has a beautiful and welcoming spirit that’s not a façade. Working in the arts and critiquing, I have gotten to meet many dancers and choreographers who are just looking for a good review or a contact, but Renana wasn’t. She was here to work, to teach and to dance. To experience a new life in a new city, and all she really cared about was getting to know each of us. I really appreciate that. She took the time to work with each of us individually as dancers and to help make us better dancers.

In other residencies I have taken part in, or master class or intensives, the choreographers generally do not spend one-on-one time with each dancer, mainly due to the time crunch they are in. But we were lucky to have an entire semester with Renana. We were able to spend three days a week with her, learning her aesthetic; not just learning it, living it. She walked us through her choreographic process and, at times, let us choreograph with her. We were able to infuse our style and movement quality into her technique. It was truly a unique and unforgettable experience.

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Think Audio: Holiday Movies

The second hour of Thursday’s episode of Think featured a panel of local movie writers discussing the highs and lows of the holiday movie schedule. Chris Vognar of The Dallas Morning News, Chris Kelly of the Fort Worth Star Telegram and Stephen Becker of Art&Seek and KERA picked apart Avatar, It’s Complicated, Crazy Heart, Sherlock Holmes and a slew of other titles.

Click the audio player below to listen to the discussion:

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Friday Morning Roundup

JINGLE ALL THE WAY: The Fort Worth Opera is asking you to help stop bad singing by supporting the opera. To make sure you know how dire the situation is, the Opera has put together the above video of local celebs singing “Jingle Bells.” Keep an eye out for KERA’s Krys Boyd (who as it turns out, doesn’t sound half bad).

THE REVIEWS ARE IN: It appears that Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific currently playing at the Winspear Opera House has lived up to the hype. “All performers exist vibrantly in the moment, whether wooing a potential sweetheart, dancing in a USO-style girlie revue, lounging about the island’s “seashore” or atop the WWII fighter plane that rolls onstage in Act I to the audience’s amazement and delight,” writes Alexandra Bonifield in her review. “Dreamy, dazzling, pure stage magic.” Lawson Taitte wasn’t quite as breathless on dallasnews.com, but it’s safe to say he was impressed. “This is one of the better ones – certainly the best-sung – though it doesn’t banish memories of past productions,” he writes. I was at Wednesday night’s performance, and I will say that Oak Cliff native Michael Yeargan’s sets are some of the best I’ve ever seen. And Yeargan isn’t the only local involved in the show – click here for my interview with Keala Seattle, who perfectly balances the comedic and tender elements of Bloody Mary.

MUSIC BITS: The Flaming Lips are all but confirmed to play the NX35 music conferette this spring (DC9 at Night) … Quick gathered some familiar local music faces to re-create some classic holiday movie scenes. Once again, the great Jason Janik delivers (quickdfw.com) … Fort Worth musician Matt Skates’ influence reaches deep into the Cowtown music scene (pegasusnews.com).

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