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Eye Candy Like a Raised Fist

A manifesto that reacts to the prejudices against art and the poor sense of visual style that plague too many word-loving leftists.
Mike Mosher
With illustrations by the author

Issue #27, September 1996

Prologue: On Paper

This piece is about the importance of art and graphics for political activism. In a way, it's a manifesto that reacts to the prejudices against art and the poor sense of visual style that plague too many word-loving leftists, the people who work on Bad Subjects included. In writing this, I have two goals. The first is to explain how political arguments can benefit from innovative use of graphics, using Bad Subjects as an example. The second is to provide a crash course in the different artistic traditions from which today's leftists can draw in order to give their political work a multi-dimensional feel with more mass appeal. I will assume all subjective visual innovation ("art") can do service through mechanical reproduction as "graphics", even when created for other purposes. Names will be dropped along the way, not to overwhelm you, but in order to give you some of the tools you'll need to do real research on what these traditions have to offer. In other words, I want to teach you how art can help teach, and how "political education for everyday life" involves a lot more than text.

When my friend Joe Lockard first introduced me to a paper copy of Bad Subjects in 1994 I groaned, for it resembled nothing so much as the smokestack-sincere socialist polemics I remember seeing on UC-Berkeley and San Francisco State campuses in the Reaganist 1980s. These grimly gray tracts looked like something published clandestinely during wartime on old mimeograph machines in a basement. While these dour documents were being circulated on campus, the San Francisco Bay Area was full of exciting art and design. Diverse examples of radical visual culture flourished in the streets, sometimes slyly appropriated in cutting-edge advertisements for the products of corporate culture. Community murals, punk music flyers, comix and graffiti mingled with posters and banners promoting political rallies for such causes as the Sandinistas, the anti-nuclear movement, or organized labor. Compared to this outpouring of artistic energy, the political pamphlets I saw were dull indeed.

So my initial attraction to the content of Bad Subjects was darkened by my displeasure with its lack of graphic interest. The only non-text element in the first Bad Subjects I was given was an overused goofy little dingbat of a pistol. Luckily, not long afterward Ana Marie Cox arrived to teach Bad Subjects' Berkeley-based Production Team the fundamentals of desktop publishing with PageMaker. The improvement was notable, especially upon the cover. Inside, essays were distinguished from on-line communications (the Bad Discussion List) with different typefaces. Yet the conscious development of a visual strategy of graphic artwork supporting each text contribution, understood and nourished by all the Bad Production Team and all contributors, remains an unrealized goal. What follows are some directions to consider.

Drawing and Printmaking Traditions

image — block printThe first tradition I'll talk about is the one with the most legitimacy in the academic "art world", although this legitimacy was hard-won and is still challenged by some. In the past all prints were based upon careful drawing from the hand of the artist. While illustrated, calligraphed block prints originated in China, it was not until some 500 years ago, around the time when moveable type was invented, that printmaking began to flourish in Europe. As printmaking technology became more affordable over the next 250 years, cheap popular prints and broadsides with polemical texts developed into a form of everyday communication analogous to today's newspapers in economy and popularity. Artists like Hogarth and William Blake straddled the line between so-called high art and popular forms of communication by working within the printmaking tradition. Often a print was merely a reproduced drawing of a large painting.

The late nineteenth century saw renewed interest in printmaking with the influx of woodblock prints from Japan, so plentiful that they were used as packing material in shipments of ceramics. These colorful prints depicting everyday life inspired Parisian artists to turn their attention to the here-and-now. Daumier satirized role-locked professionals and the injustices they perpetuate. Conservative Edouard Manet etched a curious theatrical depiction of the execution of Maximillian of Mexico. In London Aubrey Beardsley's sinuous penwork played to discerning sexual aesthetes.

As the century turned, artists, although continuing to respond to contemporary issues, felt freed from conventionally realistic portrayals. Ninety years ago continental Expressionists reintroduced soulful woodblock prints, while Cubists took forms apart and put them back together in unconventional ways. Futurists in Italy and Constructivists in Russia were radically fueled into formal and geometric graphic experiments by revolutionary optimism.

Unfortunately, in the 1920s their experimentation became more and more integrated with the program of totalitarian governments. Some Futurists and Constructivists willingly worked for their increasingly repressive and stylistically conservative masters. Those who did not were persecuted or merely stopped working in the disapproved styles. But the impulse to make politics aesthetic lived on — it's no accident that the Italian and German fascists had such powerful uniforms and graphic style. In the 1930s, the sworn enemies of these powers — and of Stalin's Soviet Union as well — in England, France and the United States produced graphic design of a similar stamp. With the proliferation of radio, cinema and photographic magazines, this was the beginning of the era of mass communications. Whether artists worked for a "progressive" cause like the Spanish Republic, the liberal goals of the book and mural projects of the U.S. government-funded Works Progress Administration, or commercial posters for Cynar liqueur and Gauloise cigarettes, they all discovered that mass propaganda worked best with disturbingly similar styles of simplicity and strength.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol and other Pop artists conquered the art market by producing paintings and prints that self-consciously borrowed from advertising, industrial design, and commercial line art. Though on the surface it seemed to upset the relationship between the elite art world and mass consumption, the style unfortunately failed to truly undermine any distinction between fine art and mass-produced culture, for the art works they created remained limited by the economics and system of their distribution to expensive galleries and museums. Few could afford a Warhol painting of a Campbell's soup can, while nearly anyone could afford the model.

Often it appears that visual art of the ensuing Postmodern era seems to be more about the work of the camera than of the hand-practitioners of even its least-commodified performance or installation forms still looking over their shoulders to see if it's being documented for the art press. There may even be radical possibilities in the Bay Area-based Pop Art offshoot, Photorealism, where meticulous hand drawing or painting provides the human touch for a photo-based image, or for the print that is then further reproduced mechanically. It was stylistically promising that Warhol's young friend in the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat, painted with expressive graffiti-like gestures (when he wasn't leaving tags on the street as Samo), as did his contemporary Keith Haring...yet access to most of their work was sadly restricted to those who could pay.

What remained of optimistic movements of the early 20th century such as Constructivism dissipated into decor, the nonrepresentational painted steel sculpture in front of a bank. In his 1969 essay "The Moment of Cubism," John Berger proposed leftist artists return to pick up and develop the unfinished revolutionary formal innovations of that promising and optimistic era, while depicting this still-unjust, unfinished world in which we live. The best way to depict in ink a Food Not Bombs breadline, a Richmond oil refinery's airborne toxic plume, Madonna or the Macarena, might still be derived from Picasso's.

The Cartoon Tradition

image — cartoonWhen Picasso met Gertrude Stein around 1905, he supposedly said "An American! Can you get me some American funny papers?!" Graphic tales of that streetcorner Celt the Yellow Kid, hayseed Mutt and Jeff, Irish nouveau riches Jiggs and Maggie or WASPs from Buster Brown to Blondie and Dagwood, have filled newspapers for a century. Mainstream dailies like those owned by William Randolph Hearst maintained stables of cartoonists who doubled as illustrators for other sections of the newspaper. One of them, Windsor McKay, also created the first animated cartoon.

Mainstream print cartoons have always had a tendency to support the status quo. As cartooning developed into a tradition, dissent became more visible, however subtly it was expressed, often in comic books intended for an audience of kids, teenagers and even college students. Horror comics in the early 1950s were created by artists still smelling the lingering stench of Hiroshima and Dachau. Many then went on to create Mad. In the 1960s, the richly detailed and erudite Marvel comics universe of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee was exuberantly muscular and pyrotechnic as the moon landing, yet as tormented by doubt as the United States in the era of the Vietnam War. Coverage of Andy Warhol and Peter Max in Life, visually stylized television shows like Batman or The Monkees, and the burgeoning world of children's toys all played a role in shaping the era's visual consciousness. And for adult intellectuals, there were also the urbane political and literary caricatures of David Levine, Art Director at The New York Review of Books. These cartoony images may have helped sow the seeds of a radical approach to culture, or at least for a greediness of sensory experience.

The 1960s also witnessed the development of an underground press partial to unusual comics. Robert Crumb and the Haight Ashbury gang of ZAP cartoonists resurrected the goofus innocence of earlier cartoon forms for subversive or sexy ends. Meanwhile, to middle-American youth, the west-coast hippies of that LSD-powered scene seemed to have it all: the best clothes, tunes, and loud, brassy daylight visuals of a color-saturated style perfectly suited to the drugs of the moment. Underground comics captured the spirit of this place and time. But it wasn't just the groovin' counterculture that found inspiration in this anti-establishment medium.

The 60s left sometimes appropriated Crumb for its own ends, especially his cartoons of pondering, despairing intellectuals. The Oakland-based Black Panther party newspaper published cartoons by Emory Douglas showing newly-conscious urban blacks blasting away porcine police with smiles on their faces. Distribution networks like the Youth Liberation News Service spread this spate of political visuals across the nation, from university campuses to junior-high schools. In San Francisco a simplified Cuban style of silk-screen graphics was promulgated by Rupert Garcia and La Raza Graphics. Maoists of the vociferous, often disruptive Revolutionary Communist Party graced local walls with powerful oppositional stencils and the woodcuts of Rachel Romero, their light areas electrified with liberal use of neon or day-glo colored inks contrasting with the imagery's strong black outlines. Somewhat later, political exiles of the Brigada Letelier brought to the diverse community-murals scene a simplified style of political graphics style perfected in late-night painting actions in Santiago protesting the Pinochet regime, revealing the Incan roots of their artistic sensibility.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most artists involved in political activism produced different variations on the styles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But there were some noteworthy developments. In 1981 the editor of the journal Radical America, Paul Buhle, devoted a special issue to examining a range of early-20th century American popular culture, celebrating early comic strips and the Three Stooges as moments of anti-bourgeois clarity. This unprecedentedly radical grass-roots reexamination of the popular culture of the readership's grandparents led to Buhle being promptly removed from the publication's editorship. Unsurprisingly, subsequent issues seemed more aligned with the expectations of contemporary college-educated leftists. In the same early Reagan years the Richmond, California printmaker Doug Minkler developed a style of clunky, savvy leftist art suitable to depict corporate oppressors — though he toned it down considerably in his poster most popular with the Berkeley left, the one supporting the Nicaraguan Coffee Harvest.

Cartoonists of the mainstream press top the lists of highest-paid entertainers each year, and some of the biggest cartoon fans are the biggest conservatives — like President Gerald Ford, who cheerfully collected all cartoons of himself, however scathing. Panel cartoons too often exemplify irony's usefulness as a tool of the Ruling Class. They usually promote the kind of laughs that don't really challenge anything, which is why a skilled humorist like Matt Groening can go so easily from alternative status to a mainstream television candy commercial where his Bart Simpson tells us "Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger" in a painful example of his creator's acceptability. This is akin to the trivializaton of content in much university-trained contemporary artwork (the whimpering whiteboy Pathetic Aesthetic), and parallels the burgeoning of comedy in the 1980s which was rarely adventuresome in its derision.

While the problematic phenomenon of the panel cartoon showcased college or urban wits' singular asides, a radical cartoon tradition gamely plugged along in left publications. Leftist political cartoonists have ranged from William Gropper and Rollin Kirby to recent labor-press stalwarts Konpacki and Bülbül to such San Francisco Bay Area figures as Lloyd Dangle, Keith Knight, Nina Paley, Norman Dog, Rigo, Ace Backwards and "Cartoon History of the Universe" creator Larry Gonick.

The Collage/Appropriation Tradition

image Collage may be the most distinctly twentieth-century artistic medium. The era's modern and postmodern citizens have exhibited a previously unimaginable capacity to cope with discontinuous aesthetic experience, particularly when it involves images. It's worth remembering that the impetus behind collage came from technology used for mass communications. Newspapers would juxtapose blocks of body text with hand-drawn graphics ranging from battlefield sketches to patent medicine bottles, topping this complicated mix off with a variety of ornate headline fonts and other flourishes. Soon cheap postcards appeared featuring weird photocollages on romantic or novelty subjects. A generation later, Dadaists made anti-art by combining collage and unconventional typography. They also appropriated freely from industrial imagery and used their work to accompany such new forms as confrontational performance poetry. The innovations of Dadaism were echoed in other artistic developments of the 1910s and 1920s that celebrated simultaneity, embracing the experience of multiple and coincident events that characterizes the modern age. Poets like Apollinaire and Cendrars made collages out of words. The Surrealists of the 1930s cut up the old newspapers of the late nineteenth century that had inspired collage in the first place. As the century progressed, the influence of Cubists, Constructivists, Dadaists and Surrealists made their presence powerfully felt in the Mexican Muralists, Madison Avenue advertising design, and eventually MTV.

If collage made up of multiple images represents a new aesthetic, then appropriation of one or more found visuals is that technique's ethic. In the France of the 1950s, the Situationists promulgated the theory and strategy of detournment, of taking those everyday manifestations of social control that formed what their theorist Guy Debord called the 'Spectacle' and turning them into subversive statements about mass-mediated society. One tactic they frequently used was to take a comic, especially one with a romantic or cowboy theme, white out all its speech balloons, and fill them with their own text critical of mainstream society.

Broader and more mainstream satire can also make deft use of appropriation, often lambasting an institution by the use of its own visual style. When animators at Walt Disney Studios went on strike in the 1940s, many of their picket signs and flyers had the same look as the Disney characters, most infuriating to Unca Walt. Mad magazine satirized first mainstream comics and then the world of advertising (about the same time Marshall McLuhan was the first to attentively criticize it in The Mechanical Bride) by appropriating the graphic design style of the Madison Avenue originals. These satires were done by many of the same creators who had fed anguish at the atrocities of the Third Reich and World War into the production of comic books like Tales of the Crypt and the grim Frontline Combat, but now they were merely dismayed at the middlebrow mediocrity of American postwar life. The Harvard-born National Lampoon used the same visual tactic of stealing graphic style in the early 1970s to jeer at the counterculture, proving that appropriation is useful for subverting even subversive movements.

From the beginning, the collage and appropriation tradition has been heavily influenced by innovations in mass-media technology. But the invention of the photocopy machine has had special importance, making it possible for ordinary people to experiment with size and shape. Photocopiers have also become tools of professional artists, first making their presence felt outside the New York gallery world of the 1970s, as in Sonia Sheridan's "Generative Systems" program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, many of whose alumni went on to explore the artmaking potential of the computer. In Michigan a leading practitioner of xerography was Jim Shaw (a founder of the artists' Punk band Destroy All Monsters), mastermind of the rich installation at the UC Berkeley museum in 1993 that appropriated and adopted much of the childhood cultural baggage of his demographic, such as Mad, Famous Monsters of Filmland, etc. In San Francisco's Galeria de La Raza, René Yanez celebrated Latino culture in suave color photocopies juxtaposing popular Mexican imagery like loteria game cards and nortéño musicians with blazing red peppers.

In his book Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus sees the Situationists, like the Dadaists before them, as a precursor to Punk. While Joel Schalit and others have criticized Punk's transformative limitations, in the mid-to late-1970s the culture surrounding Punk Rock witnessed a renewal of the collage and appropriation tradition parallel to Punk's do-it-yourself musical ethic. This visual style continues to be exemplified to this day in the basement-murky dark graphics of Maximum Rock N' Roll Magazine. This publication has carried on unflaggingly since long before the current mainstream fascination with (and mainstreaming of!) Punk, its look as nocturnal and spittingly crusty as the music it documents. One particularly pure instance of Punk style around 1980 was a gig flyer with a single image from the San Francisco Chronicle showing the director of the state's medfly-spraying program making a blank-eyed tongue-lolling dead guy face after drinking a mouthful of the insecticide Malathion to prove its safety. From Les "The Mad" Peck in the late 1960s to Frank Kozik today, graphic designers have long realized the efficacy of wry appropriation-based styles, laughing at the squares who run the world and advertise every bit of it for purchase, copping the visuals that were first created on the donors' dime. But doing this does not guarantee subversion. Nowadays, Punk's discontinuous packrat mix of text and graphics informs the world of self-published 'zines, but has also been absorbed safely into the skateboard culture of preteens in the 'burbs.

Other forms of politically-minded appropriation have also flourished in the last two decades. One of the most prominent picks up where the Situationists left off, using Eisenhower-era images of American normalcy to fashion pointed critique of the status quo. The characters of cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, which found an early outlet in Processed World, and the chilling and often apocalyptic work by the Ukiah, California collagist Winston Smith (including numerous Dead Kennedys and Jello Biafra record covers) are good examples. Illustrating the effectiveness of collage as a political tool, Ron Henggler, an artist employed as a waiter, created about a hundred variegated collages he ran off on a copier for the San Francisco Waiters' Union strike in 1984. In a similar sticky-fingered progressive spirit the cartoon expressions of Thomas Nast's nineteenth-century righteous civic indignation, the nervous linework of Weimar Germany's Heinrich Kley, and the ornate 1950s sci-fi pulp visions of illustrator Virgil Finlay are often given new purpose in the muckraking San Francisco neighborhood paper The New Mission News, illuminating present-day housing exploitations and governmental scandals closer to home and in our own time. While these and other appropriation strategies make all visual culture fair game, my own sensibility as an artist urges everybody to credit old masters like Nast or Kley when they're dusted off for display. It's also a good idea to avoid appropriating from living artists in most cases...unless the artists in question are downright reactionary and need their message set straight.

Vitalis Digitalis: Design in the Computer Age

image — cyberspace Much as digital technology has simplified and popularized the sampling of music and sound (a harbinger of later political use of cut-up found audio was Doug Kahn's "Ronald Reagan Speaks for Himself", SubPop anthology tape #6, 1981), digital scanners have greatly simplified the process of appropriation of imagery since the 1980s. The personal computer has resulted in more collaged imagery surround us than ever before, becoming a mainstream style through popularity of the desktop editing program Adobe PhotoShop. The personal computer, especially the Apple Macintosh sparked "desktop" publishing and the proliferation of functions formerly left to skilled professionals. Within a couple years designer Michael Green's Zen and the Art of the Macintosh celebrated the bit-mapped aesthetic. April Grieman sent to numerous Los Angeles Art Directors a life-sized 72-dots-per-inch black and white digitized nude self-portrait to attract corporate design commissions.

Though it is so closely tied to a certain era of technology, I persist in thinking there's still room for exploration of the 1985 bitmapped, B&W early Mac feel, and many of my own narrative artworks in HyperCard (created since 1990 in largely 1987 software technology) have this archaic and frugal look. All imagery is democratized — or leveled — under the scanner's unwavering gaze; the rare DaVinci drawing (perhaps from a codex for which Bill Gates paid millions), the hardware store catalog illustration, a child's drawing, a photo of Dennis Rodman, a "Far Side" cartoon, a shriveled pepper. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Walter Benjamin used the metaphor of prying "an object from its shell" to destroy its unique aura. If alive today, he would clean the pixels off his glasses in amazement, for nothing more than the scanner embodies exactly that mass media-sown perception of "a universal equality of things" of which he wrote.

Conclusion: Like a Raised Fist

As I noted at the beginning, my purpose in providing the histories of these different artistic tradition was to provoke the readers of Bad Subjects and other leftist publications to realize the power of graphics. Activists still frequently dismiss art as a luxury, perhaps even wondering what these short histories I've provided have to do with political action. The answer lies in the history of twentieth-century politics. Art histories, whether of public monuments or private canvases, are always a negotiation with power. The society of the status-quo will do its best to present art history without any progressive historical context, a pageant of primarily unique objects owned by distant individuals or hands-off institutions. But this doesn't mean we have to. It is our task to provide the kind of education in history, especially in the form of alternative or counter-histories, that gives birth and depth to strategies of resistance. A step in doing this is to accept all imagery, all products of art history — those of the past and yet to be created — as our own and existing for our pragmatic (and pleasurable!) use. As graphics they are all adaptable, flexible and readily at hand.

Face it, art and politics have become inseparable in the twentieth century. Every revolutionary movement in this century, from the Bolsheviks, to the Nazis, to the Sandinistas, have relied heavily on visuals to reinforce their messages. In the 1870s Boss Tweed protested to cartoonist Thomas Nast's editor "My constituents can't read, but oh those damn pictures!" Recently Peter Supar has been investigating wordless political graphic novels, a media last attempted in the 1930s by Franz Masareel and Lynd Ward. There's an undeniable power to imagery that political forces can tap. But, as the troubled history of revolutionary movements suggests, education through images alone can be dangerous. It's easy for it to be incomplete, unsophisticated, visceral and easily manipulated. As leftists who realize where and how these revolutionary movements went wrong, our task is complicated. We need to develop strategies for taking back imagery consigned by tradition into a distant "Art World". But we also must remember where that imagery came from, why it was produced in the first place, and how it has been used, misused and abused in the years since its creation.

image — heads

Leftists who reject art because they are rejecting its pompous, privileged coterie of collectors today are making a mistake. The text-only leftist publications of our time end up reaching solely an academic market or those few individuals willing to slog through the dull and dingy tracts I saw in the 1980s. The point is not that leftists should give up words for graphics, but that they should try to avoid acting as if the two were mutually exclusive. Images and thoughtful graphic design give text an impact it would otherwise lack. The right illustration can provide a single-glance summary of a complex topic, provoking the person who sees it to read the text it supports. Multiple or sequenced graphics help provide a rhythm that carries a reader through a text. Or they can be a digression from it. A reviewer for London City Limits magazine astutely pointed out my cartoons in the book Orwell for Beginners provided a lighter counterpoint to David Smith's heavier words.

What I would like to see on the left is a more concerted attempt to convey messages with what you might call 'multi-channel' reinforcement. Taking our lessons where we find them, the reason there's so much white space in corporate annual reports is to call attention to the text, but also to create a quiet, elegant environment for the reader, perhaps alluding to the corporate headquarters or boardroom. What kind of equally (nay, more!) powerful leftist environment could appropriate graphics create? How might Bad Subjects' graphic design best reflect fun-lovingly conscious immersion in pop culture while simultaneously maintaining critical distance from it? How would we balance clarity and complexity? A young operation like Bad Subjects with the opportunity to innovate should give more attention to the idea of creating not just a publication, but as total an environment as possible. The Bad website is one solid start. But there's so much more it could do, particularly if it moves beyond the technical restrictions of the photocopied Bad Subjects hard-copy publication. In an on-line Bad list discussion Steven Rubio pondered in passing the question of what a leftist (MUD) Multi-User Dungeon game might be. One answer, in an all-text environment, would be to use different cases — all capitals, mixed caps and lowercase, all lowercase — to convey thought, speech or description in a social — and hence political — environment. But this logic could be extended, radically and to remarkable effect, through new Web bandwidth capabilities and programming, tools like the programming language Java and Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML), the visual challenges of virtual 3-dimensional real-time on-line critico-political worlds. It is imperative that these tools be developed for more than entertainment and distraction. Yet always the desire for greater collaboration, like the impulse for wider access of our ideas and communication with readers, necessitates the trial-and-error building of new flexible structures, "ad hoc institutions" to give form to an otherwise merely sentimental and powerless impulse.

Until the day when this multi-channel environment is achieved, however, I want to see Bad Subjects and other forward-looking publications strive for the fullest possible scope of graphic experience, within whatever technical limits. That scope should be open to the handmade personal commitment of drawings and prints, to the exaggeration and swagger of the cartoon, to the radical decentering that appropriated and collaged imagery can bring about, as well as open to the underexplored possibilities of the digital tools at hand and the new realms of interactive publication and communication that technology enables. As a community of writers and readers we deserve every kind of sparkling graphic jewels whose gleams and glints illuminate the politics of everyday life. Prejudices against art or particular kinds of art should be abandoned.

My hope is to get writers for Bad Subjects and similar publications saying "I want my piece about my hometown's steel mills polluting the river to be accompanied by a weeping figure, perhaps like Picasso or something by one of the German Expressionists. Should we draw one? Reprint one from a book? Manipulate a photo on a copy machine until it looks like a drawing?" And I don't just want them to do it because they want their piece to look professional or provocative. I want them to do it because they see that graphics and text must be integral parts of a common political project. In other words, I want them to be as engaged in that part of the text's presentation as they are in the words that compose it. Activists most of all must learn media skills in order to communicate in ways that attract attention, in order to avoid being sectarian sophists who talk only to themselves. We don't stand a chance against the well-funded hegemonic culture industries, more than willing to sell us an endless stream of hobbled or polluted imagery, if we don't cultivate more empowering sources of our own.

The author thanks Charlie Bertsch for editorial suggestions and help on this piece.

Mike Mosher is a Silicon Valley-based artist and design educator.

Copyright © 1996 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.