Old Man John Brown, subject of “The Fighting Farmer,” Steve Davis’s history of Iowa abolitionists coming in 2014.


JB Iowa_WeeklyGazette

Portrait of Brown on horseback, 1877, published in the Davenport (Iowa) Weekly Gazette.



Detail of the outraged actress from Raymond Pettibon’s illustration for the Minutemen’s Paranoid Time 7″.



A much-parodied bumper sticker.



CBGB in NYC, known as the spawning ground of punk, New Wave and vintage cowboy type.

equal JB_JNdrawing_ForLetterpress_WWJBD

An illustration for the Fighting Farmer book, Boxcar letterpress experiments by MakeSh!t, and possibly a T-shirt.

WWJBD? I’d venture he would free Bradley Manning, demand amnesty for Edward Snowden, clean up our criminal “justice” system, open the borders, and otherwise slap us silly with his Stick of Righteousness. Truly a hero for our time.

[ginormous]mississippi through the ages
 As a kid I remember poring over Tolkein’s handdrawn maps in The Hobbit, an aesthetic experience that, I see now, was a gateway to D&D. Not to play down my dweeb cred, but all I did with Role Playing Games was draw maps—networks of passages snaking across taped-together sheets of graph or hex paper. With some dragons thrown in. Sketching made the fantasy real enough; adventuring there seemed beside the point.

Years later we made a gigantic plywood Risk board in my friend Kelly’s basement, reimagined with new continents and routes (not an original idea). That map made it apparent how much arrangements of land and sea matter (for games at least). A Panama-like isthmus in our world became a bottleneck of perpetual conflict. The State of Stalemate. The Middle East, basically.

My own map collection is modest: a few stuffed shoeboxes and old classroom pull-downs. I have a Wichita train switcher’s map and a large survey of the American Indians of North America (lest we forget America was a place before we mapped it). I always saw them as more than references—composition, color and type; ways to interpret and render space and time—but now paper maps feel like relics. Unfolding one is an atavistic act, like thumbing a phone book or loading film. All the action’s gone online.

I still favor choosing routes based on memory and experience, but the computer in my pocket changes everything. I look at Google even when I know where I’m going: to check traffic, confirm hunches, and calculate ETAs +/- minutes. This mobile mapping thing has become the Internet’s key ingredient. It’s even crept into my job: helping farmers visualize their fields in dollars and cents; apps that get plumbers and cable guys between appointments more efficiently. Maps are money.

Though map media is nothing like it was, abstract admiration still overlays the utility for me. I may be more maps-for-maps-sake than ever. Rob Walker recently made an awesome gallery of digital map art, mostly based on the moments where the technology breaks. Wired’s Map Lab is consistently fun. The guy who does that 9 Eyes Tumblr is a genius. New fictional geographies are everywhere (but how are they for Risk?).

Have you played GeoGuessr? You get plopped down in a Google StreetView someplace on earth and, based on the available information (often scant) you drop a pin on the globe to guess your location. Points are awarded based on how close you get. It’s addictive. I’m getting good, but roadside shanties look a lot alike, whether they’re in Romania, Siberia or Capetown.

Now I’m back to making maps. Real paper ones, I hope, though everything starts digital anymore. My friend Steve Davis’s history book-in-progress, “The Fighting Farmer: John Brown in Iowa,” will include a pull-out map of the spots Old Man Brown stayed on his passages back and forth to Kansas (the contested “final frontier” of slavery). The information’s plotted, but I’m undecided on the design. Should it look like a 19th-century throwback or a contemporary view? A step into the past or a projection of the present 150 years after the fact?

Screen shot 2013-08-07 at 2.37.19 PM

See, that’s the tension with maps: history vs. currency. Both are there, but how to do you capture that? It may come down to the compass rose.


This is an excerpt of a MakeSh!t proposal submitted for artist-designed Mini Golf at the Walker to take place in summer 2013. Fingers crossed! UPDATE 1/9/13: WE’RE IN.

CONCEPT: Once (maybe twice) in lifetime, something happens that transforms a favorite pastime forever. For the sport of Mini Golf, that time is next summer at the Walker Sculpture Garden. Roaming Hole Gardens (RHG) employs the game’s familiar assets and rules but with one crucial twist: the target hole roams. In lieu of taking her usual shot, a player may instead relocate one of 6 topiary plugs into the open hole, thereby opening a different hole—a new target!—for the round. The new hole becomes everyone’s object—that is until another player chooses to move the hole instead of swinging for it. With this deceptively simple change, the sport attains a mind-blowing new level of challenge, strategy and competition while remaining easy enough for anyone to play.

MATERIALS: 6 life-like mobile topiaries are made of outdoor-grade plastic for durability and ease of management. Each is anchored in a welded metal pot that allows it to be moved easily from one hole to another. The arrangement of these artificial trees, shrubs, grasses and bouquets evokes a manicured English garden, reinforced by the symmetrical course design. Other materials are tried and true mini golf: astroturf, plus simple walls and interior obstacles made of bent metal.

PLAYABILITY: Players are greeted at the hole’s start with one rule: “On your turn hit your ball OR move the hole.” The party’s first player may take a shot at whichever hole is then open (subject to the whims of the previous group) or use his turn to move the hole. RHG’s simple design means you are never more than a shot or two away from the target hole. But depending on how merciless your opponents are, it could take several more swings to finish (we recommend a 6-shot limit). Once any player sinks the hole, she collects her ball and stands by as others complete the round.


>> Silver Jews — K-Hole
>> Patti Smith — Pastime Paradise


THE SPRING PSYCHE TRIES TO SHUT OUT INCONVENIENT FACTS, like how this is our snowiest month, or how winters here will only get worse if climate trends hold. But the gaping potholes and eroding cliffs of filth are tough to ignore.

In the doldrums of March, small frustrations threaten to ruin you: misplaced mittens trigger angry accusations; reconciling piles of health care paperwork ends in tears. The mood would be murderous if not for our crazy abundance of hobbies.

Jo expended her last ounce of energy and patience climbing down to Minnehaha Falls so I could take this picture. I try not to think about the chemical runoff involved in this pretty aquamarine icescape.

Seeing creatures more cooped up and miserable than ourselves at Como Zoo. I’d feel bad about supporting this kind of dismal captivity, except it’s free.

A cold, gray day is forgotten over empanadas and Negra Modelo at Victor’s 1959 Café.

Stuff we made with leftover clay from Sarah’s pottery class, which she declined to fire for us.

Dept. of Friends’ Obsessions: Several winter evenings have found me at Kevin’s listening to his amazing jukebox 45s, with a fresh rotation every month or so (click the pic for a close look).

This kid can make a project out of anything (lunch bags, wet leaves, yarn ends, TP rolls). Always expanding her skill set, she recently taught herself to snap and to whistle.

Recent Make Sh!t output: Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett rubyliths by Paul; my own “King Cone” design. Not pictured are Lucas’s fantasy creatures, Witt’s Jeepney, and Craig’s Alfred E. Neuman portrait, each destined for a small run of Ts.

Over several late nights Sarah helped us turn the designs into screenprints in her basement workshop. Witt screened his class project, documented here by Paul—a large image of an MLK march with the central figure neatly removed. By Make Sh!t standards at least, it was a triumph.

Onward to the promised land.

>> Beans — Deathsweater
>> Todd Rundgren – I Saw The Light

A SLEW OF VINTAGE FREIGHT COMPANY PADS were my booty from Sarah’s recent trip to Salem (Oregon), quirky artifacts from the Early Modern era of office stationery scored at a flea market. They’re nice to have by a desk phone (preferably corded), with an in-between size and parchment-like surface that’s good for drawing. You gotta love the tiny maps and type that looks like it’s in a hurry (click a couple times to enlarge).

> The Modern Lovers – Old World

Saying “thank you” isn’t hard for me. It comes as naturally as “I’m sorry” and “I’ll have whatever’s cheapest.” Yet every December I am struck dumb by the task of acknowledging my clients. Some people are blessed with an instinct for smart and sincere giving; this is not one of my gifts. My five years of mediocre professional thank-yous have featured wines, chocolate, cookies, and, one shameful year, absolutely nothing for anyone.

I’m taking a different tack in ’09. Working on the premise that those fortunate enough to work in the commercial persuasion business have our personal needs pretty well covered—and that office people need more snacks like they need extra reams of 8.5 x 11—this year I’m eschewing the goodies in favor of a donation and a card.

The donation is to a fine literacy organization I’ve worked with in town. The card features a collage I made from vintage slides, an attempt to convey my game-for-anything attitude about the coming year.

I’m not sure people are going to get it, or care much even if they do. But at least if things go south for me in 2010 and I’m left unloved and unbillable, it won’t be because I didn’t say thanks.


I’VE FOUND A NEW PRODUCTIVITY ZONE in my day between 10 and midnight, so I’m jumping on this year’s handmade gift program.

Steve Davis a/k/a Hank Piece comes through with a new batch of tunes to share every year, and I haven’t reciprocated in a while. To say thanks, I made an homage in glass to a favorite family pastime of his: mushroom hunting. (Once when I came by to say hi to Steve’s folks, his mom promptly fried up some chicken of the woods for me, as if wild mushrooms were cashews.)

This fails to show the variegated morel pattern of the art glass I found (the light is terrible today). The crudeness of the piece seems forgivable when the subject is ‘shrooms. It looks like it was dug out of a gnome’s root cellar or something.


Here it is front-lit, which reveals another detail I like—vintage privacy glass from my gramps’ collection (the bumpy blue stuff).


I’m someone who doesn’t buy much, which could be seen as a liability in my profession. How am I supposed to persuade anyone to purchase things if I can’t persuade myself? I think of it more as an occupational side effect. Thinking and writing about products is my 9-5, so it’s “happy hour” when I can ignore them.

That said, this little font movie made me (almost) reach for my wallet.



Merchandise that hasn’t lost its power to seduce me: record albumsart books, whiskey & doughnuts. Enjoyed together, when practical.

A piece I did for has been published, a profile of fontmeister Chank Diesel. Rereading it, my pedantic tendencies are striking. Hopefully readers will machete through to the better parts.

Even if you don’t give a flip about typography, Chank’s art-from-everyday philosophy is inspiring. Here’s an excerpt:

Putting the tools of type design into the hands of students and professionals is part of Chank’s M.O. He enlivens his regular speaking engagements with font-making workshops to engage his audience in a hands-on way. In a typical workshop, Chank assigns each participant a character, then they all gather source material from the immediate environment. This summer, Chank and the Las Vegas chapter of the AIGA created Atomic Vegas Seasnakes, a font made from twisting strands of glow-in-the-dark plastic jewelry. “Cheap Chinese imports like these flow into Las Vegas. And they look like neon.” At a summer workshop in Northern Minnesota, designers built letters from found bits of nature with inspired results. “People were using flowers, leaves, sticks. I didn’t know if it would turn out, but it ended up very Victorian—fancy and frilly.” For another Minnesota workshop, Chank had students sculpt an alphabet from the region’s most abundant resource: snow.

I picked up the soldering iron more often then expected this spring. And while the cuts and solders are crude and the material choices feel arbitrary, the ideas and the pieces keep improving.

Ira Glass’s pep talk to wannabe storytellers is relevant for any enterprise: you have to face a lot of bad work until it happens, but eventually your ability will fulfill the promise of your taste. I’m not anywhere near that point, but I’m optimistic.