Archive for category: Artistic Tendencies

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15 Jan 2012
January 15, 2012

A new poster from the Chamomile Tea Party.

In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Turley, Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University, discusses 10 reasons why the U.S. is no longer the land of the free. It’s a sobering account of the slow and sometimes transparent erosion of American’s rights after 9/11.

In addition, to our political rights, our economic wellbeing sits on a precipice. The disparity between the rich and the poor is one of the widest in the history of our country. Why aren’t people protesting? Well, they are. Occupy Wall Street and others are pointing their collective fingers at a number of issues: corporate greed, the fallacy of trickle down economics (which states the top 1% are job creators), and the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision by the Supreme Court which stated, essentially, that corporations could be treated like individuals with no limits on the amount they could contribute to a political campaign.

Put simply, money is the most important issue in our country today. Money brings influence and political victories while it keeps the middle class and poor separate from that power.

In my guise as the Chamomile Tea Party, I’ve created a new poster that conveys this issue. It’s free for the download in high resolution. Print it out, pass it around, and discuss within your communities.

The Story of a Photograph That Changed Over Time

10 Dec 2011
December 10, 2011

I used to say by the time one sees an artist’s work the creative process has long ended. What the viewer sees are the vestiges of that process—the skeletal remains. Yes, there is beauty, horror, and all sorts of emotions that can be reflected in the work. But the joy of creating or of telling a story has passed and the artist is on to his next idea. Yet, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that sometimes the story continues. And, if an artist is lucky years later he is reunited with the piece on a completely different level.

The first time that happened to me was in November 2009 on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In anticipation of that momentous event I went searching my photo archives for a photograph I’d taken at the Wall in 1974. It was a family reunion with the Wall in between. In the decades since I snapped that picture and experienced that Cold War divide in such a personal way, the details of just where I took that photo were fuzzy. I remembered the event and I remembered what occurred during that visit but I couldn’t quite remember where I took that picture. I thought it was at Checkpoint Charlie and posted the image on Flickr as such. But immediately, people from around the world began to question the location. A popup community looked for visual documentation that would place the image. And as we searched historical photographs my memory slowly began to come back. The picture was actually taken one block east of the checkpoint at Charlottenstrasse. Through crowdsourcing by a group of strangers another chapter was added to the photograph (be sure to read the comments under the Flickr photograph). Images showing the same corner now showed the transformation of a united Berlin in those intervening years. The story, written as comments and questions from strangers, added a new context to the image.

Last week this happened to me again. I got a voicemail at work from a stranger. She wanted to know if I was the Jeff Gates who had taken a photograph of a storefront in Baltimore in the mid 1980s. I returned her call.

“I had a hard time tracking you down,” she said. “And I hope you don’t think I’m stalking you. But did you take a photograph of a store called Nomenclatures?” I certainly had but that was decades ago. It had been a junk store and its name seemed out of character with its wares and its working class neighborhood. I was intrigued by that discrepancy and took the photograph. But, once again, my memory of the details surrounding the image was fuzzy.


This was the original version of this photograph from 1986.

“My father owned that store,” she said. He died a few years ago but last week I was cleaning out some of his things and found a news clipping from the Baltimore Sun with your image in a drawer.”

At the time I was doing a series of photographs with stories on them. Sometimes they were a paragraph; sometimes they were just a sentence; and sometimes there was a text within the image. I had been intrigued by how words could add to our interpretation and change the context of photographs. As she spoke I tried to remember the story I’d put to that image. When I got home I went back to my archives to look.

About a year after taking the initial photograph I had passed the store again and saw it was going out of business. So I took a final photograph. Soon the store and its hand-stenciled sign would no longer exist. I used both the earlier and the later pictures to make a triptych about the value of a photograph over time. Since the place would soon no longer be there the monetary value of my photograph, I thought, should increase. The three photographs indicated each’s place in time. And over time the market value of the image increased. The pure artist in me was making commentary on the entirely different world of the art market.

The passage of time is the very thing that makes the most mundane historical images more valuable, on a personal as well as a market level. These images represent people, places, and events that no longer are there. And, as such, their meaning changes. They may originally have been made to document a family event or home but to us in the future, it becomes a slice of time no longer available to us. People are gone and places have been demolished. As we hold these artifacts of memory dear to us their value increase. Because the period in which these images is long gone and we can’t take any more pictures of these scenes, the market treats them as valuable commodities. I was commenting on monetary value but the photo I had taken was a reminder to this woman of her father and his life. I created a digital version of the triptych and sent it to her.

She wrote back her thanks but, she told me, the text on these images wasn’t the same as the one in the newspaper. “When you took the newspaper image my brother was working at the store and came out to see what you were doing. The text on the photograph was a conversation between both of you. ‘Where’d you get the name?’ you had asked. My brother replied ‘Oh that. My sister named it. She went to college.'”

“I was the sister who went to college,” she continued. “My boyfriend and I painted that sign. My father hated my boyfriend and, of course, I married him. We later got divorced but it was the two of us who named the store and made the sign.” She sent me a copy of the newspaper article and it all came back to me. I had actually done an initial version of this piece with the dialogue between her brother and me. But I had only shown this early rendition one time and that article in her her father’s drawer was for the show it had been in.

Once again, a stranger had added a new chapter to my work. The image takes on greater meaning to me now. Yes, in part because it was part of my history. But more importantly, I now knew it was someone else’s history too. I remade the digital image with the original text and sent it to her.

She wrote back thanking me and added “We talked about you at Thanksgiving.” My ears were burning. All of this because of a store she named and the photograph I took of it. Twenty-five years later I wanted to know the rest of her story.

Two New Posters from the Chamomile Tea Party

17 Jul 2011
July 17, 2011
I Lost My Job PosterLet's Talk Ideology Poster

Two new posters from the Chamomile Tea Party. Click on each of them for a close-up view.

It’s been pretty steamy here in Washington. But I’m not talking about the weather. Here in DC, we seem to live and breathe politics. It’s not always our choice. Sometimes our jobs literally depend on what’s going on on Capitol Hill. And, the rancor you might pick up out there is magnified over here.

Political wrangling and rhetoric is pretty high right now as the Republicans and Democrats are jockeying for position. But it seems like they’re jockeying more for the 2012 election than anything else.

This has been a boon to my creative energy. Finding my voice amongst the flotsam and jetsam of American politics these days is empowering. And this week I’ve come out with two new posters for the Chamomile Tea Party. As always, feel free to “Like” this post on your Facebook page, leave a comment here, or just peruse all the posters I’ve worked on in the last year.

The Birth of an Idea: the Chamomile Tea Party’s 1st Birthday

02 Jul 2011
July 2, 2011
Poster: Bipartisan Reform: DOA

Today marks the first anniversary of an idea. One year ago today, as I was walking home from work, my brain gave birth to the Chamomile Tea Party. More specifically, I decided to take World War II-era propaganda posters and remix their words with commentary about the caustic state of contemporary American discourse.

I remember exactly how it happened and exactly where I was when the idea hit me. I was let out of work early for the July 4th weekend. I took the Metro home and was walking the last mile to my house. Listening to NPR’s All Things Considered, Melissa Bloch was discussing the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and David Brooks from the New York Times. Just as I got right here the idea just happened.

Here’s the story I’ve told of that moment for the last year:

As I was walking home from work, listening to NPR, they were reporting that every Republican was going to vote the Party line against Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court and it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was so incensed that party politics would trump what I thought was the good of the country I came up with the idea to take propaganda posters from World War II to comment on today’s political rancor.

But memory is a funny thing. Yesterday, as I walked that exact path home I stopped to take a picture of where I was at that moment and to reflect on what the commentators had said. When I got home I went to the NPR archives to look for a transcript of that report. And much to my chagrin I found out they didn’t say that at all. Yes, they discussed Kagan and her nomination but there is no mention of the Republican voting party lines. But I was sure they had. Funny how your mind works.

Ideas don’t just happen. They aren’t pulled out of a magic hat. Often disparate interests sit someplace in our brains just waiting to be put together to create something new. I’d always been interested in propaganda posters from the 1940s. I liked their stylized illustrations paired with often sparse but efficient calls to action. Both were hallmarks of great graphic design. In addition, despite many Americans notions that we enjoy the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, is that really true? Is our government free of subterfuge? Are we really an open society where new ideas are openly embraced? And, finally, I’d been stewing for many months over the hubris politicians and candidates spouted as they calculated the huge payoff from their niche bases. The whole process disgusted me. It seems all of these thoughts were percolating when they decided to band together for the greater good one year ago today.

Angry, I replied in the best way I could. These separate pieces “suddenly” came together. Using my skills as a designer and my opinion as a citizen, I spent the 4th of July weekend creating the first six posters from the Chamomile Tea Party. I did six more the next weekend. Once my brain completed the connections I was possessed. The Chamomile Tea Party moniker had come to me about six months before all of this –such a wonderful play on words with the Tea Party’s “take no prisoners” attitude. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with the name but like a good netizen I registered the domain right away. These posters would be my perfect foil.

The series continues to be a work-in-progress. I’ve done 19 posters in the last year and I’m working on new ones (I’ve got one about financial reform I’m mulling over now). It’s not easy finding just the right twist to go with each original image. The more I do the easier it is to go off on tangents. The process of coming up with the right phrases is not easy. Culling a complicated idea into its most efficient form is an art. From the beginning I’ve had a group of friends debating my initial concepts. I love the input and the work is much better for it. This is part of the fun and the challenge of this project.

I’ve gotten some great publicity along the way. BoingBoing did two pieces and the Huffington Post did an article in their Politics section. Over 750 people commented! These discussions and debates also informed my work. They helped me fine tune my message. It’s a constant learning process. And I’ve connected with others who feel as I do. I’ve connected with the Coffee Party, a large grassroots organization who are working towards the same goal: cut the political posturing to work together to get our country back on the right track.

Most importantly, I want these posters to be used by others who are interested in these ideas. I’ve encouraged people to download the high res versions I’ve put online. And, at the Rally for Sanity last October on the National Mall, others actually printed them large to voice their own opinions. Good work, we the people!

The Rally for Sanity? It Was Insane!

31 Oct 2010
October 31, 2010
Standing at the rally with my poster

I positioned us at the Rally for a good photo op of the Capitol.

At the last minute I decided to bring one of my Chamomile Tea Party posters to the Rally for Sanity here on the National Mall yesterday. So Friday afternoon I got it printed BIG. You might wonder why this wasn’t on my radar weeks ago. After all, procrastination is not my usual style. Let’s see, there’s work, soccer games, work, grocery shopping, exhaustion, and work –well, you get the picture. The Chamomile Tea Party is my “side” biz. Promotion is key to any success but my methodology doesn’t normally include rallies. And my volunteer base is, shall we say, minimal. All I needed, though, was a kick in the pants. And that came from a coworker.

On Friday she said “favorited” my latest poster on Flickr. And when I wrote to thank her she said “You’re bringing it to the rally, right?” And, suddenly, my über promotional skills kicked in (I knew they were in there somewhere). I downloaded the poster from my own Flickr stream, had someone print it 30″ x 40″, rolled it up and brought it home. When I arrived at the house my chief volunteer (my wife) greeted me at the door with a huge piece of Foam Core and double-sided tape. Team Chamomile mounted it to the board and I was set.

As a rally veteran of the National Mall (you might remember my sojourn to the Inauguration) I like to have a plan. I survey the details of the event and then decide which stop on the Metro to exit and just where to find the choicest place to stand. But I have to balance that with realities: did I want to get up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to rouse my 14 year old (she’s a veteran too but needs her sleep)? A balanced approach is key. Staking out a spot in the front row is usually not part of my strategy.

The Rally began at noon but we got there at 10. My sign was a bit unwieldy but light. My first reaction to the poster came as we sat down in the subway car. A smile and then “Great poster!” from the family sitting across from us. The day was beginning just right. As we exited the Metro I headed towards a meet up with The Coffee Party, a large group whose “dial-it-down” philosophy matches my own. Along the way, I wanted to stop off at the meeting area for GovLoop, a social media site for local, state, and federal government workers I’ve contributed to. As I walked down the street, I held my sign facing forward and the poster love really commenced. Knowing smiles and pointing as we passed. I felt like I was on stage. No longer the behind-the-scenes creative I was walking my walk.

When my daughter and I got to the Coffee Party meet up point no one was to be found. And, suddenly, I could see why. There were people who DID get up at 5 a.m. to get to the Mall. Thousands of them. And if we didn’t get our place soon, we would be pushed to the hinterlands. The Coffee Party must have staked out their spot and we needed to do the same. So we got as close to the stage as we could and I positioned us as close to the middle of the Mall to get the Capitol centered in any pic I took (what I lack in organizational skills I make up for in photographic composition). Yet, I realized as we watched the large video screens on the sides that the organizers had roving cameras looking for interesting signs and costumes and we were too far away for any of that free publicity.

And this brings me to the root of my dilemma. I think hard and I work hard –even on these posters. I love getting my work out there. But there was part of me that just wanted to enjoy the day with my daughter and the hundreds of thousands of others who were tired of the political positioning, the elections, and the dogma. Promotion of my posters –yes I did some of that. People all around me wanted to take a photo of it. And I always “pressed the flesh” with my signature “You can download them yourself at” During the rally, I would often hold it up high and make a 360. And when the rally was over, I held it above my head on the slow trek out of the area. But I didn’t want to forget why we were there in the first place.

The front page of the Huffington Post

Others had brought their Chamomile Tea Party posters to the Rally! Click on image for larger view.

This morning, as I surveyed the online world, I suddenly discovered that I had more volunteers at the Rally than I thought. This photo of some of my other posters made it to the front page of the Huffington Post! I’d been promoting my “download and bring to the rally” approach for weeks. And some good people actually did it. It’s gratifying to see others take up your efforts and turn it into their own.

The best part of the day? On a packed subway ride home, my daughter and I finally got a seat near the end of the line. It was the first time we had sat down all day. I put my arm around her and said “What’cha think?” “I liked it,” she said, “but I didn’t understand all the words they used.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like liberal. I know I should know that but I don’t.” “Well, you see,” I replied, “there are liberals and conservatives. Sort of like Democrats and Republicans but a bit different…”

The Genesis of a Message

26 Sep 2010
September 26, 2010
Careless Talk

The latest poster by the Chamomile Tea Party (click image for larger view).

Posters distill the essence of ideas or messages to their most economical form. You glance at a poster as you walk by the wood barricades of a construction site or, these days, as you peruse the walls of the Internet. When remixing someone else’s poster as I’ve been doing with World War II-era propaganda posters for the Chamomile Tea Party, I’m initially attracted to the design and then to its message. Simple and direct is best. Then the real thinking begins.

What do I want to say? What’s my message? In order to recontextualize the image I need to break the poster down and look at each element to see how it functions. In the original 1944 poster by Stevan Dohanos, there is the award –the medal, what this medal was being given for (Careless Talk) and why. And, finally, who was awarding this “honor” (in Dohanos’ design it was the Nazis as evidenced by the ring on the hand of the person holding the medal). I would have to consider each of these parts in order to rework the image and its message.

The keystone in this poster was “For Careless Talk.” That drew me in. While the original poster referred to divulging sensitive data on troop movements and other war efforts, I immediately connected it to the rhetoric we were hearing in contemporary political discourse today. Healthy and respectable debate is good but it’s clear the “talk” has gone way beyond that. Inciting spin has taken precedence over insightful information and discussion. So who deserved to be given a medal for this most egregious tactic and who would this honor come from?

My initial thought was the American people should award this medal to Fox News. The ring would sport an American flag and in an early version of the poster the medallion was the Fox News logo. “For Careless Talk” would remain and underneath I listed all of the issues I felt Fox News was guilty of skewing. But after some vigorous discussion with friends I realized those who believed in Fox would be more than honored to receive that award. And that wasn’t my intent at all. I returned to the drawing board.

I changed the list of issues to a group of Fox commentators who should rightfully be awarded this medal. And I tried on a few different medallions to replace the Fox logo. The most interesting was a picture of a wind-up toy of chattering false teeth. I was getting closer (the medal was becoming a source of biting commentary) but it still wasn’t quite right. I created a drop shadow underneath “For Careless Talk” that was an amorphous “Fair and Balanced,” the tagline for Fox News. Underneath that notion of irresponsibility was the idea that the deeds of these commentators were being touted in just the opposite fashion.

It took me a while but I finally made the connection to the Tea Party and placed a tea bag in the role of the medallion. But it still came across as an award Glenn Beck and company would be proud to wear. The original tea bag image I used had a big drip at the bottom. And that led me on the right path: turn the tea bag symbol “upside down” by making it a sopping wet mess. I made a bigger drip in Photoshop and then showed its effects on the commentators’ names below. Stains and drips turned the tea bag and all it’s come to stand for into a symbol of something gone awry. My commentary was complete.

Related: See all the posters from the Chamomile Tea Party and friend us on Facebook.

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