The Library of Focus

LibraryThe Art Institute of Chicago is a wonderful place to explore painting styles that have brought pleasure throughout the centuries. Some of the great classics are on display including works from Winslow Homer, Grant Wood, and Edward Hopper. Each piece of great art can capture your attention and maintain your focus for several minutes, unless you’ve experienced what I call “artistry overload.”

The last time I visited the museum, I felt the effects of artistry overload after attempting to pause at each of the 1,000 plus paintings and appreciate what the artist was attempting to communicate. My time dwindled quickly and I never got to the works of art that I appreciate most.

I did, however, learn to appreciate several new artists that most people raced past on their way to more familiar corridors. My observation that day helped me to realize that knowing when to pass or pause was essential to understanding and appreciating great art.

I first became aware of artistry overload when I visited the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Prior to attending, I had watched two documentaries on the making of the park and read a couple of behind the scenes books regarding the details missed by most vacationers. I was ready to experience the park through the eyes of the artists who created the venue.

The turnstiles spun as a large crowd moved into the park. I tried to avoid bumping into too many people as we funneled toward the entrance. I was ready to see the park with new eyes. Everything I had learned popped into my mind as I saw the very things I read about.

Glancing around, I realized that I was one of the few appreciating the full artistry of the show (“Show” being one of Disney’s four keys to a great guest experience). Most hurried past on the way to their favorite rides.

The layout of the Magic Kingdom was designed to be a show, similar to watching a movie. The first things you see are the trailers or coming attractions. When you enter through the tunnel that resides under the train tracks, you see posters on the walls featuring the coming attractions from inside the park.

Once you enter Main Street Square, it’s like watching the opening credits. The signs and windows are covered with the names of people who made the Magic Kingdom possible. For instance, above the Main Street Athletic Club are the words, “Big Top Theatrical – Claude Coats, Marc Davis, John DeCuir, Bill Justice.”

The sign honors the four men listed, three of which are Disney Legends, although they had nothing to do with any make-believe Big Top Theatrical company. Claude Coats painted all the sets for Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he also worked with Imagineering to design numerous rides including Pirates of the Caribbean. Marc Davis was one of the Nine Old Men, core animators during Disney’s life.

John DeCuir was a production designer and art director who not only won three Oscars for his work on The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963), and Hello, Dolly! (1969), but also illustrated in watercolors numerous theme park ideas that Disney dreamt up for the Magic Kingdom. Bill Justice, who painted many of Disney’s ideas, also animated characters in Disney’s classics, but is most known for animating Thumper from Bambi (1942).

There are dozens of credits throughout Main Street that pay tribute to the park’s artists, but are only appreciated by the discerning eye. I had fun scanning Main Street’s heritage, but soon tired from all the visuals bombarding me. I was experiencing artistry overload. The more I knew and could appreciate, the slower my trek down the boulevard.

I shared what little I had accumulated concerning artistry overload to a friend, who happily suggested that I shift my focus to what I use in a library. He said, “Picture shelves upon shelves of books expanding across aisles and aisles of floor space. All of which are due appreciation at some point, but not today.”

My mind jumped to my last library visit. I headed straight for my two favorite stacks of books. One held the books on entertainment and the other on movies and filmmaking. The carpet was well worn from my many visits and the nearby table was comfortably familiar. It was a place that never overwhelmed me, as I had already perused every book on the shelves.

That was my answer. I had to return to the Art Institute of Chicago multiple times. Once to see the traveling Monet exhibit, another time to study the miniatures, which I’m so very fond of, and another time to explore one new artist. Maybe during another month I’d visit my favorite artists and then plan future explorations to improve my discerning tastes and expand my horizons.

Heading back to the Magic Kingdom with a plan created great relief. I spent three entire days exploring things that most people miss. In fact, after a discussion with a cast member, I soon found myself behind the scenes and appreciating the artistry of show far more than I could ever have imagined.

The key was seeing things from a library of focus. No longer would I see the entire library as I entered, but instead I’d focus on only the things I was ready to explore. Just as a great movie can be watched numerous times to pick up on all the director’s hidden Easter eggs, how I enter new locations with a sense of appreciation changed to only take in what I could manage on any given day.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

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Beauty in Motion Speaks Louder than Words

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Yesterday I found myself photographing beauty in motion. The picturesque quality of my surroundings revealed an underlying splendor that only surfaced in the heat of the moment. The cycling races I shot revealed much about the character and determination of each competitor.

The motion also revealed the desperation and sadness of those lagging behind. Whether they were bent on being more competitive or were rookies realizing the strain of their first heat, each cyclist faced internal struggles on top of the external ones provided by the terrain.

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I shot over 1,000 pictures in my attempt to capture this beauty. My passion for capturing a segment of life was amplified as my skills were reenergized. I found myself secluded in a closed course where fans cheered and racers exerted everything they had for the win. The focus was intense.

When I snapped off an array of pictures at the finish line I recalled a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “…Let us throw off everything that hinders … And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” My mind spun to another one of his quotes, “…I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race…”

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I finally understood that it was all about the movement. There was a level of beauty in life that couldn’t be seen without some form of action taking place. Being passive or reserved hid the treasures of beauty that can only resound when turned into a deed.

Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother about talking versus doing. He wrote:

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds.”

When my father passed away a couple thousand people came out to pay him tribute. I saw a sea of faces and heard hundreds of stories that dissipated within my sorrows. Years later, the only people I remembered were those who took some form of loving action on my family’s behalf. All the rest were forgotten.

A friend of mine took it upon himself to help any family that suffered loss. He would go to the family’s house two days before the funeral and collect up the shoes they planned to wear. A few hours later, he’d return with every shoe polished and looking brand new. It was his way of demonstrating what love looked like in action.

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Seeing victory smiles on the winners of yesterday’s races were energizing. Not because of the win, but because of their inner beauty being released through the actions they took. That intangible quality that becomes apparent was more powerful than what any of them tried to put into words during their after race interviews.

Only their actions would be remembered and cherished for years to come.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Dialog must be Relational

Conversation is about Relationship, Not Information.

pexels-photo-89873There are talkers and there are listeners that will hopefully never meet. They’re missing the chief cornerstone of relationship when only focused on half of the equation. Talking and listening actively is relationship.

Talkers can never learn or be satisfied until they listen equally as well. The listeners will bust at the seams until they share the valuable information stored within their heart. Communication is the only relational tool that unites the human race and forms culture.

During one film shoot, I directed a group of actors who were very different from their characters. The joy on set was high, as the talent played with roles that stretched their imagination beyond the stereotypical. After great contemplation they delivered heartfelt performances that opened our eyes to new perspectives.

One woman, who was an intellectual, played a ditzy blonde type that had a heart for kids. Her research brought the perception that “ditzy” was based on circumstances of how the person addressed the unknown. Curtailing the stereotype, she resisted playing the person that when jolted by a comment would say the first words that came to her.

She entered the scene as a brunette who led with undefined empathy, which became clear by the end of the scene. The actor’s choice gave the feeling of “ditzy,” but without showing a lack of intelligence. This resulted in the character coming across as empathetic and what I called squishy-warmhearted.

This empathetic quality came out because of the conversation between her and another leader. The dialog revealed the heart of both people and their relationship. It was more than just an exchange of information. The expressions of each character’s souls were on the line, demonstrating their courage in conversing.

Ursula K. Le Guin in her essay titled “Telling is Listening” published in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, shared the following complexities of human communication:

“In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.”

The film was powerful because each character did more than communicate information. Their expressions and backstory came through in how they presented each comment. Even their reaction shots revealed how they were impacted through the courageous interchange.

The audience was mesmerized and fascinated by the dialog, not because it was written well, but because of how it was crafted using the embedded elements of each character within the exchange. The dialog was far more than words or information. It was real in everyway.

I made an interesting note the night after the shoot that read, “Dialog is about relationship, not information.” Whether a discussion occurs in real life or on screen, it is only of value if it develops the relationship. Talkers who talk without listening and listeners who listen without sharing are not interesting because they are only focused on themselves.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Managing Daunting Projects

startup-photosLast Saturday I interacted with several generations at a friend’s 95th birthday. Typically during events of that nature I get to learn a lot about people and observe things that get tucked away in my brain for future use. But this time a person brought up my latest novel (Steele Blue) and asked, “How were you able to write an entire novel? Isn’t it such a daunting task?”

I answered, “It’s not all that difficult if you write it 500 words at a time.”

Now, I’m aware that my answer was a bit simplistic when you consider story structure, character development, and the other intangible elements that must be carefully crafted into a novel. But the person’s face suggested a concern about how to overcome very large and overwhelming projects.

Last week I happened to be consulting with a CEO of a marketing communications firm that specializes in elite professional speakers. The question raised to me was very similar and went something like this, “How do you manage the myriad of elements it takes to make a movie?”

Again my answer was simple, just like you’d give an answer to the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time.

There are three steps I take to break down the overwhelming into manageable bites:

STEP ONE: Assess the project scope.

The 50,000-foot view is a great starting point to understand the maximum effort required for a project. However, a 10,000-foot view makes for better decision making because it includes all departments and freelancers that will have their hands in the mix.

Before I break down a movie script to determine budget and schedules, I must first understand the “why’s” of the project and who will be heading up the departments necessary to capture and translate the vision into a reality. This insight immediately tells me what size ballpark we’ll be playing in and the rough estimate of the cost to produce the picture.

As a director, I’ve found that Anthony DeRosa, who’s worked on numerous Nickelodeon and Disney projects, is one of my favorite producers to work with. The reason is because he and I have a shorthand of quickly determining if a script is a $3MM, $12MM, or $40MM project. It allows us to quickly assess what level of actors will be tapped for the show and what team might be best to spitball the visual effects budget.

The bottom line is that only speaking at the level of vision and goals is not sufficient for breaking down daunting tasks. It must be broken down for each department head to fill in the blanks of what he or she knows is needed to accomplish the task.

In the case of an author or consultant, the work needs to be looked at from the standpoint of available time slots. No consultant can work on more than four projects in a given day because it takes time to ramp up and review the previous day’s work, plus have enough time to do something significant to move the project forward. Most experienced executives will try to limit their productivity to no more than two projects on any given day so they have enough time to meet quality standards.

STEP TWO: Look for natural breaks.

When you look at a work of art you see the whole that makes an impression. But when you study it, you see all the segments that make up the whole. In a story there is always (or at least should be) a beginning, middle and end. In film you have the three-act structure.

In nature, you see patterns of fractal art. Take a closer look at a tree. Its trunk branches out into large branches. Each large branch then, in the same artistic fashion, extends out with more branches. This pattern continues until you have a full balanced tree of branches. Next the leaves come in, and the piece of art is complete.

Finding the natural breaks in a project reduces the pressure and allows for the steps to be aligned to a calendar for easy management.

When I was at a large technology company I was tasked to sell $480MM in switching equipment to one customer. After meeting with the CEO, I learned that I needed to get the written and signed consent from certain key vice presidents before the sale could be completed. I then learned from each V.P. that I needed agreement from key directors, who needed buy-ins from senior managers.

It took me two and a half years to collect support from all players. Everyone added great insights to the project, which also altered the configuration to exactly what the company needed. I closed the deal after a long presentation of input to the executive board including the new offer for $750MM.

That meeting was the easiest close I had ever experienced because I had reduced the entire project down to 300 pieces of research, presentations and sign-offs. The CEO was thrilled because he knew the $480MM project didn’t fit, but loved the perfect custom package, and the future profits the new offer provided.

STEP THREE: Develop specific action plans.

Zig Ziglar, arguably the greatest salesman of our time, shared a story about a father giving a party for his newly available daughter. The father hushed the crowd and told the eligible bachelors that the first man to swim the length of the pool without being bitten by the alligators that he stocked in the pool for the night, would receive $100MM and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

A splash was heard at one end of the pool, and after a series of frantic strokes a young man emerged at the other end. The father asked the young man what drove his decision to risk his life: his daughter’s hand in marriage or the $100MM. The pale looking man answered, “Neither. I just want to know who pushed me in.”

Clearly the young man didn’t know what he was doing or why he had “won.” No one is capable of knowing if they achieved a goal unless they first set it in writing and objectively measure the outcome of their activities. Before taking action, people also need to know what’s in it for them, which is the strongest motivator that we hold dear.

A written action plan must include the following: measureable objectives, motivational benefits, self-assigned awards for success, resources needed to accomplish the tasks, and the next steps for the portion of the project during that stage.

With these three steps in place, the daily tasks are reduced to simple steps that are easily accomplished with little emotional concern.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

The Woman in the Summer Dress

the woman in thesummer dress-2When my eyes partially opened yesterday morning, due to the bright sunlight causing me to squint, I asked myself what would make my Father’s Day special. A woman immediately popped into my mind without any prompting or forethought.

She’s a person who I’ve shared sporadic and trivial conversation with over the past six months. Nothing notable about any dialogue would suggest an interest on her part to learn more about me, but I found a great deal of curiosity on my part.

There was one thing about her that captivated me and I wanted to find out what made her shine in the presence of those she met.

Watching her interact with others from afar fueled my curiosity. At the end of each conversation, everyone she walked away from was left with a big smile reflecting the interaction. She clearly had the ability to listen, care and inspire.

I thought Father’s Day might make her childless for the afternoon and considered that my opportunity to learn about her might be a possibility. My mind went through a dozen scenarios in what I might say to entice a meaningful conversation over lunch. But our paths didn’t cross.

My wondering mind found deep feelings of self-rejection surfacing as I got in my car and started to drive away. I had failed myself and might have to live with the painful feelings of regret for some time. I just didn’t have what it took to attract a woman of integrity long enough to learn about what made her special.

I turned and headed toward the exit of the parking lot. Glancing into each mirror to make sure everything was properly positioned, I noticed the beautiful woman in the summer dress walking toward me. Well, she was walking toward her car that was in the same direction that I was headed.

Instinctively I took my foot off of the gas and slowed the car. I could see her radiance as she walked my direction. Her dress was perfectly suited for the day, both classy and fun in its appearance. Her joyful demeanor caused me to take pause and wonder if my dream about chatting over lunch was viable.

My mind raced with ideas to pull over, park the car and walk toward her, versus appearing like a stalker spotting his prey. Argh!!! I had nothing to offer her except for time and interest, but it couldn’t be enough for someone as energizing as her.

Certainly she required time with only men that could bring great value to her life.

The value a man brings into the life of a woman varies greatly and a man’s viewpoint of it is typically short of reality. Dad used to work extra hours so he could buy the wonderful things mom dreamt about, yet when she bragged about her husband she always talked about the safety and kindness he provided our family.

There was a disconnect between the two.

Dad only needed one simple thing in his life: freedom to be creative. But mom didn’t understand what that meant or how it played out. Unknowingly she squelched all of his dreams. I watched dad deal with the agony of tearing apart the cool secret storage wall he created in the basement after mom nixed the project midstream.

I lifted my foot from the brake peddle as I took my eyes down from the rearview mirror. I had lost the battle within my soul and pain filled my gut more quickly than I could ever remember. There was something special I was leaving behind and I’d never know the answer to what raised my curiosity.

Unconsciously my foot hit the brake again. My heart was crying out for the answer. I had to know why this woman was so important to me. Was she to be a great friend? A lover? A muse?

Her stride was light as her classy dress waved in a pattern of confidence and beauty. Her countenance was alluring and her step had a subtle, yet fun bounce to it.

My heart stirred and I felt my arms turn the steering wheel to park, but my mind overrode those feelings and released the brakes. The car crawled forward to the edge of the parking lot exit. I had lost my internal battle. I accelerated into traffic and didn’t look back.

That afternoon, I sat alone on the couch eating a salad that I picked up from an organic health store, but it made me feel ill. My day of hope had turned into a nauseous feeling of hopelessness. My stomach settled a few hours later and a phone call shifted my mind to a screenplay I needed to rework.

The day became more pleasant when each of my kids called to wish me a happy Father’s Day. My perspective shifted back to a promising future with the day’s hoped for conversation dissipating from the forefront of my mind.

I would be all right without the answers to this woman in the summer dress.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

The Difference Between Talent and Genius

MemoirsMagic is a word that falls short of explaining the difference between the artisan who is wildly talented in his craft versus the person that is a genius in that same craft. Yet we can understand that Michael Jordan was a genius on the basketball court and Beethoven was a genius in the concert hall.

German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer found the distinction between talent and genius easy to delineate.

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

American Novelist Jack Kerouac, a writer who felt he had nothing to offer but his own confusion, found the roles between talent and genius clear.

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

The difference between the two elements that rise from deep within the artist does not separate him from the pains that all artisans experience. Jan Swafford shared in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, his tragic and triumphant genius that made him an outsider. She stated that he was “utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.”

Swafford also shared her perspective on talent versus genius:

“Genius is something that lies on the other side of talent… Talent is largely inborn, and in a given field some people have it to a far higher degree than others. Still, in the end talent is not enough to push you to the highest achievements. Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, and unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit, an ability to make use of not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, an ability to astonish not only your audience but yourself.”

Being self-aware, Beethoven described genius in his letter to Emilie:

“The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”

Skills are taught and will accompany inborn talent, but genius is that elusive element that births the wow factor. Genius is not learned. It is what I describe as a supernatural gift that allows the artisan to create things that no one else considers. It gives him a vantage point on life that no one else can see without him manifesting it within his art.

A good example might be the author who gets writer’s block. He may be a skilled writer, but the talented continue to play with words until the story comes together. The talented has several books inside of him waiting to come out, but the genius has an unlimited supply of stories to share for his lifetime.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

A Father’s Day Dream

A Father'sA special day is just around the corner for dads. Some are looking forward to grabbing a beer and plopping down in their favorite chair to watch a sports event. Others will be dragged to a family function more geared toward women than men, yet it will all be in the name of honoring fathers. And, there will be those dads who long to capture another moment of life with his kids, no matter what their ages.

My dad, like myself, enjoyed the latter activity. He loved to spend time building special memories with my sister and me on Father’s Day, but my mom often had other plans. The older I got, the more I realized that dad just wanted three things out of Father’s Day: thanks, recognition, and appreciation.

THANKS

Dad sacrificed a significant amount of his free time to make extra money so I could do the activities I loved. He networked with key people in town to get me a job at the camera store where I bought my first professional camera system and used it to win Kodak’s national composition award.

Dad also supported my love for music and connected me with the owner of the music store in town. Within a few weeks, I found myself playing drums for elaborate parties, weddings and jazz clubs. Dad also supported my ability to perform and encouraged me to create a show of illusions that led to a first place award in the regional magicians competition.

And guess who let me use his professional 16mm movie camera to explore the world of film. It was no wonder that I shot my first documentary for CBS by age 18. Having grown up with a camera pointed at me since the age of 11 months, I felt at ease in production settings.

RECOGNITION

Without understanding what recognition was, I’d regularly share stories about my dad’s adventures with hundreds of people I met. I shared stories of his heroics like the Saturday morning we were driving downtown in our village. The bank alarm sounded and we watched a robber run out of the bank with a large bag of cash. The guy ran right past the front of our car causing us to screech to a stop. My dad told mom to slide over and grab the steering wheel as he hopped out of the car.

Since my dad was a police officer and they’re never “off duty,” he pulled his .38 Special out from his jacket and headed into the Woolworth store after the robber. He shouted to the clerk to call the police and headed down the aisle in pursuit. Police officers arrived on scene within moments after my dad handcuffed the bank robber and led him to the front of the store. He nonchalantly walked back to the car and we continued on our way as if nothing had happened.

I also recognized him when I won my first national and international directing awards. After all, he helped me understand how to capture story on film and even taught me simple, yet profound concepts like these words of wisdom he shared, “It’s a motion picture and the camera is made for movement, so if the actor isn’t moving the camera needs to move.”

APPRECIATION

My favorite times were those spent chatting with dad about life. Our talks were deep, precious and always just the two of us. If we were in a group of guys, instead of conversations about life, we took turns telling stories that fascinated every man leaning in. When in a group of women we’d listen attentively and only shared a few words when we could add value. But those times we connected alone, whether for 5-10 minutes or longer, were priceless.

I saw in my father’s eyes great pride when I took his words to heart. He knew that one day he could release me in the world and I’d stand tall, making decisions that would make him proud. In fact, I remember the day he acknowledged my manhood and shared with others how proud he was of me. But more importantly I remember the day at the cottage when I thanked him for all that he had instilled in my life. His eyes were filled with such an afterglow that I never thought was possible.

My mom told me later that dad bragged about me to all of his friends for weeks after that day. I suppose it may have lasted longer if it weren’t for the plane crash that took his life at the end of summer. Had I known the power of my appreciation earlier in life, I think he might have glowed for years.

I’ll miss dad this Father’s Day, as I recall more stories than I’ll have time to share with others. He was a servant to our family, a leader in our community, a veteran from WWII, and the best storyteller that I’ve met to date. I couldn’t even begin to think creatively if it weren’t for him.

It’s my hope for fathers all across the globe that this Father’s Day they will be thanked, recognized and appreciated. And more importantly, that they’ll be able to connect with their kids in a heartfelt manner.

© 2017 by CJ Powers