Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

Jump In

About this same time last year, NAI’s National workshop was hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada. Paul and I were asked to be auctioneers at the annual scholarship auction. Once I heard this news, I immediately started practicing counting. I had to make sure I could count higher than Paul. That competitive nature, contributed to a thought I had to once again embarrass Paul in public. My thought was to auction off our hair. Paul waffled (as any National League fan would) and a deal was was finally struck, my hair versus his goatee. (To this day, Paul still claims it was an even trade for the exact number of hair follicles.) As most of you know, for actions outside of my control, we both lost our hair.

Believe it or not we were asked to help again this year. We almost never get asked back, anywhere. So we were stoked. The competitive thought process began all over again.

Since this year’s workshop is Saint Paul (insert your own joke here), Minnesota Paul had the idea of taking a polar bear-type-plunge in the Mississippi River.

This time around I was the one not overly excited. (For this reason and 11 others.)

This is where I need your help. We need an acceptable challenge to help raise money at the auction. Please give us an idea. The auction is Friday night. We’ll be sure to give you credit at the auction.

The current leading idea revolves around a plate of lutefisk.

Mount Rushmore vs. the Crooked Creek Campground: The Best and Worst of South Dakota’s Black Hills

When I was a freshman in high school, I ran for a class office—probably secretary or treasurer or dog catcher, because I did not have the confidence to run for president or vice president. I learned two things that fall of 1987: 1. The democratic process is a rigorous test of character, and 2. In a class of roughly 200, I had 17 friends. Someone with a crystal ball looking 24 years into the future would not have been surprised to see me sitting at a computer with Cheeto crumbs in my goatee, writing blogs about typography.

I lost that election to someone whose name I forget, but whose campaign slogan, I’m pretty sure, was “More Tunes in the Cafeteria.” The election results not withstanding, I remember enjoying the reaction to my campaign posters, which featured an image of Mount Rushmore, with my own face imposed alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

With Adobe Photoshop 1.0 still three years from being released, I accomplished this effect with scissors, a Xerox machine, and a lot of wasted paper. I recently called my parents in the hopes that they still had one of these posters stashed away, but they had to throw it away to make room for all of my Harvard-lawyer brother’s A+ tests and term papers.

Nearly two and a half decades after that fateful election, on Memorial Day 2011, there I was at the base of the real Mount Rushmore with my wife and two children.

As an experience, Mount Rushmore National Memorial creates a dramatic approach through a series of archways and US state flags, and ultimately allows visitors to get as close as the base of the sculpture. Through a variety of interpretive media, I learned that the reason the sculpture is located in South Dakota’s black hills is that those responsible (whose names I forget because visitors remember ideas, not facts) wanted to draw visitors to a beautiful part of the country. I also learned that sculptor Gutzon Borglum (whose name I had to look up because I can barely remember the names of my family members and friends, let alone historical figures) intended for the final product to include the upper torsos of the featured presidents, pictured here in the sculptor’s studio at the site.

One of the most impressive things about the the sculpture itself, is that it was crafted using blasts of dynamite, which reminds me a little of Shea’s approach to typography.

During our trip, we stayed at nearby Crooked Creek Campground, which featured a slightly less-sophisticated visual presence.

Visitors to the campground are greeted by directional signage that demonstrates that all-too-common grammatical structure in which the apostrophe signifies “Here comes the letter S!”

Next up was this stop sign, which is an improvement on those generic, government-issued stop signs because it specifies exactly where one should stop.

The campground also features more permanent, professionally produced signs for those who are really bad at both counting and directions. There are two more of these signs that read “2nd Left” and “3rd Left.” I figure these signs have to be the result of a committee meeting that started with someone saying, “You know, I’ve talked to a lot of people who just don’t know what we’re talking about when we say, ‘Take the first left.’ People keep turning the wrong way and parking in the river, and their tents are floating away.”

Ultimately, I enjoyed both the sophisticated presentation of a popular National Park Service site and the home-cookin’, hand-painted visual vernacular of our road-side campground—because both were appropriate to the experience. That said, the next time I go camping in South Dakota, I’m bringing a can of black paint and editing the apostrophe out of that “Follow Sign’s” sign.

And the next time I run for political office, I’m using Photoshop instead of a Xerox machine.