All in Their Heads
- Mark Mothersbaugh’s sustained a life in art far removed from his band Devo.
- Much of haute couture feeds off Liz Casella’s creativity.
- In illustrating the human brain’s complexity, Greg Dunn creates great beauty.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, Mark Mothersbaugh has sustained a life in art that’s far removed from his beginnings as the frontman of the 1980s cult band Devo.
Mark Mothersbaugh: I was so self-centered about my art, and I was so focused on it that I would have been a crummy dad, and now I got two kids that are 12 and 15. And, it’s been really enjoyable for me, and I think I’m a good dad.
Liz Casella designs for a part of the fashion industry that few people know exists, but much about couture feeds off her creativity.
Liz Casella: I was very naughty, very young, and I really got it out of my system, because once I went to college, that was it. And I’ve just been so committed ever since.
And trying to illustrate the complexity of the human brain, Greg Dunn has created great beauty.
Greg Dunn: The technique was always the servant to the idea, which was how do we depict the brain in its full complexity?
And, the art of cartoonist Lauren Weinstein is omnipresent in her life, even in how she lays out her garden.
Lauren Weinstein: It has squares, kind of like comic book panels, and I think about each panel has a little bit of drama.
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
In the 40 years since Mark Mothersbaugh sought safety from historic violence happening outside his Kent State dorm room, his impact on popular culture has been extraordinary—first, as frontman of the 1980s art-pop band Devo, whose synth-heavy songs remain powerfully catchy four decades later.
Mothersbaugh had long been drawn to the idea that every era must create its own musical identity. He believed that the synthesizer was rife to become the sound of his generation, just the way the guitar had defined the 1960s.
Mark Mothersbaugh: I looked at people like Jimi Hendrix, and he did these amazing things with a guitar that nobody’s…that set the standards for everybody. And it was pretty incredible, and I thought, “I wanna do that with a synth,” you know? “How do you do that?”
He did it by putting himself on the radar of the now-iconic instrument maker, Robert Moog, who gave Mothersbaugh his own personal prototype of the ground-breaking Minimoog—a tool that would help define Devo’s sound, and which Mothersbaugh still uses today.
Mothersbaugh: For better or for worse, that was kind of a big part of my contribution, was trying to bring electronics, more abstract electronics into the pop vernacular.
When Devo stopped being the center of his creative universe, Mothersbaugh wasn’t done. He became more focused on visual art, and began composing for film and TV.
Mothersbaugh: I got into it because I’d been in a band where you wrote 12 songs, rehearsed ’em, went into a recording studio, did a live show, and toured. And a year later, you came back and you did it again. And then, when my friend Paul Reubens said, “Would you score my TV show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse?”, he gave me a tape on a Monday, I wrote 12 songs worth of music on Tuesday, and recorded them on Wednesday, and then mailed them to him, as he mixed them into the show on Friday. And Saturday we watched it on TV, and Monday he gave me another tape, and it started all over again. And I said, “I love this job.”
Mark Mothersbaugh estimates he’s now scored close to 175 projects, and he says he enjoys the transformative nature of his creative input.
Mothersbaugh: And mostly, since I’m at the last, I’m the guy that’s, like, cleanup crew. So whatever they couldn’t do in other areas, I’m the last place they can come to, to try and make a chase scene not look like it’s two rickety cars driving 20 miles an hour down the road, you know? It’s…maybe the music can help us move the cars to 70 miles an hour, or something.
Mothersbaugh believes that film scoring is much more about craftsmanship than artistry. He indulges other facets of his creativity in more personal projects, like these orchestrions, made with organ pipes and bird calls.
Mothersbaugh: These beautiful, 150-year-old organ pipes of wood or metal, that were being turned into bird houses and spice racks, and it was freaking me out. So I have a collection. I started building these instruments. There’s a fellow up north who repairs calliopes for amusement parks, who helped me figure out how to make the different bird calls play, so I could play them through a keyboard, so I could program. ‘Cause at first, I was thinking “Alright, I’ll write music for 60 people to all sit there with bird calls.” But that seemed really overly expensive and difficult to execute. The idea of making machines that would do that for you was really intriguing to me. And, as I started making them, I realized… I knew it as I was doing them, but these things, they have both limited melodic, and certain kinds of rhythmic elements that you can use to your advantage, that make you more creative. And giving yourself certain areas of sonic limitation, kind of was freeing.
The orchestrions are part of a traveling retrospective of all of Mothersbaugh’s work, called Myopia.
Mothersbaugh: I’m legally blind without my glasses. And I managed to make it through seven years before I found that out—which was actually quite a treat, because the day that I first saw things was the most amazing day of my life.
And Mark Mothersbaugh has had some pretty spectacular days since then.
Mothersbaugh: I remember being invincible for a long period of time. And I knew that I could jump as far as I wanted into an audience, and land, and hit, and bounce back up, and keep singing. Or somebody could get me in a headlock and throw me down, and I could still come back up singing, even without my glasses or my shirt, or something. And I felt invincible. And now, I don’t have that same feeling, but I think, like, in other ways, I’m a lot different than I was then, you know? There’s some things that stay the same, but I think I would have been a terrible dad, for instance, when I was younger. I think I was so self-centered about my art, and I was so focused on it, that I would have been a crummy dad. And now, I got two kids, who are 12 and 15, and it’s been really enjoyable for me. And I think I’m a good dad.
If he sounds a bit surprised, it’s because, in ways, Mothersbaugh still can’t quite believe that he’s a father at all.
Mothersbaugh: I grew up at a time that, when I went to school, I remember being told that humans overpopulating the planet will be the demise of the planet. And I just thought, “Oh, there’s too many people. I’m never gonna have kids.” And I never had an interest, ever, to have kids. When I finally, my wife and I got married, she said, “Well I know you’re really against adding more humans to the planet, but what if we adopted?” She said, “That wouldn’t go against what you’re talking about, if we took care of somebody that was already here.” And I was like, “Darn her.” I was still in denial, until we got to China, and we saw these eight nurses, all in blue outfits, matching, and they were each holding a baby. And I’m looking, and I go, “That’s my baby. I’m a dad.” And it was like, I know nobody remembers ever taking LSD, but when LSD was dropped on me the first time, I remember something happened where I felt like, “Oh, I didn’t know I had this part of my brain.” And it was exactly that kind of an extreme experience, where, all of a sudden, I became a dad, and seeing her for the first time. And my wife went from being the craziest person I knew to being the smartest person I ever met.
But for all that life has given Mark Mothersbaugh, personally and professionally, he says that he can be completely happy with just a little space to create.
Mothersbaugh: If I was on an airplane that was hijacked, and they took me and put me in a little room the size of this area here you got me in, if I had some paper and a pencil, I could stay okay.
Mothersbaugh: And I could maybe thrive.
Liz Casella works in a part of the fashion industry few people know exists. She’s been designing textiles for the past 15 years, and, in that time, she estimates she’s had her hands on tens of thousands of prints. And, remarkably, she says she still recognizes them all.
Liz Casella: Terrible memory for everything else, but for prints, pretty good.
Casella now heads her own eponymous brand, based in Los Angeles—something of a dream come true for this lass from the remote Australian city of Perth.
Casella: It did feel incredibly isolating. And both my parents are European, and I’d experienced going overseas from a young age. And I just wanted out, and I wanted fashion. And fashion was always…it’s always been a way that I’ve been able to express myself. I’m not the most confident person walking into a room, and I don’t wanna just strike up conversation with anyone. So I think the way that I dress is almost like a way of trying to project a confidence.
AJC: What were your parents thinking as you were committed to the idea of becoming a fashion designer? What did they think about what little Liz was doing as she was growing up?
Casella: I missed a lot of school. I was very naughty, very young, and I really got it out of my system, because once I went to college, that was it. And I’ve just been so committed ever since, and I think my dad’s pretty happy with the way things have gone.
Not that things turned out exactly as young Liz had planned. She originally wanted to become a clothing designer. But once she got to college, discovered she had other strengths.
Casella: I didn’t get great grades in my pattern making and my actual clothing designs, and I think that also meant, like, I was less confident because I didn’t have the support of my lecturers and that. Whereas my textile lecturers were just so encouraging and supportive. One of my lecturers at college, he had a side business where he owned a print studio, and he would ask his top students to design prints. So I was 18, and he would fly to New York and sell designs. I can’t remember what I got paid, but I don’t think it was very much. But it was an incredible foot into the industry.
Today, Liz Casella is one of only a couple of hundred textile designers in the world. She says her greatest strength is her use of color. Handy, given how much emotion a single hue can convey.
Casella: Color is a hard thing to teach. I think you kind of have it or you don’t. I will always go for what visually pleases me. You might hear from a client that a print is angry, that’s a very common term in our world.
AJC: And what does angry look like?
Casella: It’s more certain flowers can be angry. Again, it’s like shape and angle. If something’s too pointed, it can be angry. We often talk about wanting to make prints happy, because we can often make prints a little…our color tends to go a little more muted, which I would say is more feminine. So softer colors, more feminine, but brighter colors are happy. So for us, we’re always looking to go brighter.
AJC: Are there sad patterns?
Casella: Sad doesn’t really come into play, it’s more angry that you need to steer clear of.
AJC: What do you feel when you see somebody wearing your print, out in the world? Does it happen often?
Casella: Yeah, it does. You get a little buzz inside. And obviously we all look a lot online, and we look at the brands, and we collect all the imagery, and we’ll buy pieces and wear them.
AJC: So you will actually go to the website or the person that you sell the fabric to, and buy the finished thing?
Casella: Yeah, sometimes we end up paying more for the clothes than what we got paid for the print. But we also have clients that are really generous, that either give us pieces or give it to us at wholesale. So, it’s a bit of everything.
And through the years, there’s one piece in particular that still stands out.
Casella: One of the first prints I ever designed, it was hand-drawn onto silk, and it was really detailed. And it sold to Sass and Bide, who are a really big Australian brand, and it opened their New York Fashion Week show. And that was, I think I was like 24, and my mum and my nana actually pitched in, and bought me that dress. And, I could still wear that dress now if I wanted to. It hasn’t really dated, and it’s a beautiful piece. So that, you know, it stood out for multiple reasons.
But for every finished piece that Casella collects, hundreds more of her designs never see the light of day.
Casella: Probably 40% of what sells never gets used, or something could get used, and it gets changed so much that you may not recognize it.
AJC: It’s all work for hire.
Casella: Mmm-hmm. So, basically, someone comes to us, they like a print, they buy it, they take it that day, and they can do whatever they want with it.
AJC: Really? Does that not annoy you? I mean, a lot of people would be very upset about that.
Casella: We produce a hundred prints a week, so we can’t—
AJC: You don’t have time to get upset.
Casella: No, no.
AJC: Any sense of regret about the fact that all of those people are creating beautiful work off your artistry, but had you been better at pattern-cutting, you wouldn’t have needed them?
Casella: Had I gone down that path, life could have been so different. I could still be in Italy right now, working for a high-end fashion house, and probably have no life. I’m feeling pretty good and pretty grateful for the position that we’re in right now. I think we have a lot of creative freedom, and that’s the best thing about what we do.
Most artists don’t start out by getting a PhD in neuroscience, but Greg Dunn did.
Greg Dunn: Everything that I’ve done up to this point in my life has been focused down into this moment.
This moment, and all the minutes, hours, and days that he’s so far spent as a full-time artist, have been focused on helping create greater understanding of what he calls the most complex object in the known universe: the human brain.
Dunn: To communicate that sense of vastness, was something that was very—just like, had to get out. So viscerally important to me, so important for me to help people to understand the most fundamental aspect of themselves. You know, our brains, we don’t do anything without our brains. And I think that the average person’s basic working vocabulary for what it is, is pretty poor.
One of Dunn’s early projects combined his obsession with the brain and his love of Japanese sumi-e painting traditions.
Dunn: It made sense that neurons fit into that context, so I inserted this world into the familiar aesthetic kind of motif of Asian art, using gold leaf and scrolls. And when I first started painting neurons, one of the things that immediately became apparent to me is that your brain is terrible at generating randomness and spontaneity. A technique that I developed in order to get around this, is that I blow the ink around on non-absorbent papers. And what that does is it’s…nature is organized into these fractal-like shapes, and it wants to be able to make these shapes. So, when you have the mode of force of the air blowing the ink droplet over the paper, the turbulence of the air causes the droplet to split up into these random tendrils. And the process is never the same twice. You can develop some degree of control over it, but, at its heart, it’s a spontaneous and random process. In this type of work, it’s about allowing nature to unfold in the way that it wants to unfold, and just getting out of the way.
But Dunn wasn’t ready to stop there. Committed to finding a way to illustrate the brain’s full complexity, he teamed up with applied physicist Brian Edwards.
Brian Edwards: I think that that specific title, though, is kind of secondary. All of a sudden, the skills that you need for the day are in chemical engineering, and you’re gonna be like, “Okay, I’m gonna do that.” Or, you need to program, and you’re like “Okay, I’m gonna do that.” And so, I would say that I am not an expert in anything. I do a little bit of everything, and amazingly, that is often times enough.
Dunn: I’m very privileged and lucky to be able to work with Brian, because he’s…I don’t toss this term around lightly, but Brian is an everyday kind of genius.
Together, Dunn and Edwards invented hand-made lithographs that manipulate light on a microscopic scale, to control the reflectivity of metallic surfaces. The result, the most sophisticated renderings of the human brain that any human has ever seen.
Dunn: Because you’re making a reflective template, which is essentially just millions of tiny little etches in a metallic surface, there’s no color inherent to it at all. So, if you have a structure which is etched at this angle, if you have a light source which is perpendicular to it over here—
AJC: And it happens to be purple, then everything that’s at that angle would be purple.
Dunn: Exactly right, yup. And so, you can put whatever color of light you want there. You can move the lights around, and as you move your head around it, everything changes, too. So there’s a flexibility in perspective, but the technique was always the servant to the idea, which was: how do we depict the brain in its full complexity? Because if you were to try to paint an image of the brain, in full complexity, with black ink, you’d have a black square.
AJC: If you’re trying to do a coloring of a big lump of brown.
Dunn: Exactly. Even if you colored all the neurons different colors, it’s just…wow, like, makes no sense. It’s just too complicated. So micro-etching was us breaking up that very complex image into reflective channels, so that, as you walked around it, or as the lights were moved around it, that you could get a more gradual idea of what the depth of complexity of it is.
But as unique as this work is, Dunn and Edwards are actually part of a larger movement called neo-naturalism. Naturalism was a 19th Century movement that sought to accurately depict nature’s inherent beauty. Neo-naturalism applies the same principles, while making use of modern technology.
Edwards: We now can see things that were totally inaccessible before, right? Georgia O’Keeffe painting a sunflower, everybody had access to the sunflower, but what about the electron density surrounding atoms, on a plate? That also has beauty. It’s just not easily seen by many people. So, Greg and I are trying to mine the things that are on the edge of what people naturally see, in their day-to-day existence, for our inspiration.
AJC: It’s also very lovely. I mean, I hate to just bring this down the aesthetic part of it, but I can look at your etchings and think, “wow!” Is that okay?
Dunn: Oh, God, it is more than okay. It’s the point. It’s important to me that my work have something instantaneously accessible about it. It’s absolutely deliberate that a technique which is aesthetically pleasing was invented specifically for this method. We wanted something that would give you that emotional shot of surprise, that dopamine burst when you see the thing, you’re like, “What the heck is this? I’ve never seen anything like that before.” So that you might be inspired to ask some of the deeper questions about what the content of it is.
AJC: There seems to be an inherent bias now, against creative expression as a worthy pursuit, versus science and technology.
Dunn: Yeah. That’s too bad. In my own path, I got a PhD in neuroscience before I decided to take the risk to be a full-time artist. If that says anything about the societal hum of “don’t be an artist, don’t be an artist, don’t be an artist, you’re not gonna be able to support yourself.” Even though that was never directed specifically at me as I was growing up, I had never even considered that I would be doing this. It was a part of my unconscious decision-making process in going through the scientific path, and then realizing, well, you know, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can, by taking baby steps into that world, realizing that no, this is a viable path, as long as you have something to say and you do it well.