Howdy. This is Michael Hanna from Adams Place, writing my first entry here on fantasticdrivel…kind of.
I’m writing to explain the origin of the Adams Place logo: the blue and yellow whorl (shown at right). In addition to being visually attractive, it has a pretty cool backstory. If you find such things interesting: read on! If you simply DON’T find these things interesting, I don’t really have anything to offer you. You will never know the backstory of the Adam’s Place logo—but that probably won’t bother you. That’s what makes this a perfect fit for fantastic drivel: things you didn’t care you didn’t know.
Three quick things before we get started:
(1) I went with the “anatomy of a logo” title in an attempt to raise (what my friend Hank would call) the t-factor of this post. Normally anything on this blog dealing with “anatomy” would be more…bristol-focused. As it turns out, this post is really more about “the creative genesis of a logo.” Unless you misread that as “creative genius,” however, I’m thinking that’s a pretty boring title. So I kept the anatomical title even though it doesn’t really fit the post. Hank would be proud.
(2) I had intended to write this all out in a single post. That simply did not happen. Splitting it in two is best for everyone involved—and it’s more in-character for this blog, since Hank almost never finishes something in a single post. Part 1 is deeper, more insightful, and classier. Don’t worry. I anticipate part 2 will make up for all of that (i.e. part 2 will contain some quintessential fantastic drivel).
(3) I figured I’d better mention that I use the word “crazy” as a synonym for “mental illness” (you probably would have figured it out from context, but I decided a heads-up here might be courteous). I write about it in the introduction to our book, “Crazy: A Creative and Personal Look at Mentall Illness.” Maybe I’ll post that intro here sometime.
Ok, on with the show. Let me tell you the story of how the Adams Place logo came to be.
I guess you could say it all started with American Pie . . .
When I mention American Pie, most younger folks think of the raunchy teen comedy from 1999. If you haven’t seen it, this summary pretty much covers it:
Four teenage boys enter a pact to lose their virginity by prom night. |from IMDb
That’s not the American Pie I’m talking about. I’m talking about one of the greatest albums of all time:
American Pie is the second studio album by Don McLean, released on 24 October 1971. The album reached number one on the Billboard 200, containing the chart-topping singles “American Pie” and “Vincent”. |from Wikipedia
I have always loved the song “Vincent,” sometimes referred to as “Starry, Starry Night” (those are the first words of each verse, set to an ascending pentatonic scale). The song is about Vincent van Gogh, and was inspired by van Gogh’s masterpiece “The Starry Night.” McLean talks about the process of writing “Vincent”:
The more I thought about it, the more interesting and challenging the idea became. I put down the book and picked up my guitar, which was never far away, and started fiddling around, trying to get a handle on this idea, while the print of “Starry Night” stared up at me. Looking at the picture, I realized that the essence of the artist’s life is his art. And so, I let the painting write the song for me. Everyone is familiar with that painting. |from Don McLean Online
If you have never heard “Vincent,” I urge you to seek it out and give it a listen. Here it is on Spotify.
In the song, McLean uses beautifully expressive language to describe van Gogh’s paintings: full of pain and darkness; of life and color; of sorrow and comfort; and, most of all, full of love. Van Gogh struggled with mental illness throughout his life, and the incredible genius and beauty of his work was often overshadowed by the scandal of his crazy behavior (the most infamous example being the time he cut off all or part of his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper, and gave it to a prostitute for safe keeping). It’s as though the world looked at Vincent and did not see his art, only his crazy. McLean captures this in the chorus of his song. The words change slightly each time he sings it, but its message is always the same. The first chorus goes like this:
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now
The tragic tale of “Vincent” resonates with the very core of our vision here at Adams Place. We are dedicated to debunking the myths of mental illness through word, art, and education. We want to promote and showcase the art of crazy people in a way that can also teach the world what crazy really is—and what it isn’t. That’s what we do in our book, “Crazy: A Creative and Personal Look at Mentall Illness.”
With this in mind, I felt that “Vincent” would be a good place to start looking for inspiration for the Adams Place logo.
the starry night
The song “Vincent” contains references to many different van Gogh paintings, but keeps coming back to his most famous work, “The Starry Night.” Of course I had seen it; as Don McLean says (above), “everyone is familiar with that painting.” I realized, however, that I didn’t really know anything about it. I decided to remedy that situation, beginning with a visit to Wikipedia.
The Starry Night (Dutch: De sterrennacht) is a painting by the Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. The painting depicts the view outside his sanitorium room window at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (located in southern France) at night, although it was painted from memory during the day. It has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, part of the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, since 1941. One of Van Gogh’s most popular pieces, the painting is widely hailed as his magnum opus. |from Wikipedia
Before researching “The Starry Night,” I had no idea what vantage point the painting depicted: the view from his asylum window. He painted during the light of day, but in the dark of night he watched from behind the iron bars in his window, studying the sky and the stars. This gives the painting even greater relevance to Adams Place, as I’ll discuss shortly.
On May 8, 1889 van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: a 12th-century Augustine monastery which was converted to an asylum in the 19th century. Per his brother Theo’s arrangements, Vincent was given two adjoining rooms: one to be his living quarters and the other to serve as a studio. The photo at right is a reproduction of van Gogh’s room, part of the tour you can take if you visit the monastery today. The rooms are called “cells”—monastic cells, which are not the same as jail cells, but they do have bars over the windows.
Well, that sounds pretty bleak. But it wasn’t. Check this out:
Fascinated by the quality of the light and the beauty of the landscapes that he discovered in Saint-Rémy, very inspired, happy and relieved to find a serene and understanding atmosphere amongst the nuns and nurses who received him, [Van Gogh] carried out 143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings in the space of 53 weeks. |from Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery website
That’s a lot of art. Vincent needed the structure and stability he found at Saint-Paul. And he greatly benefitted from the prompt debunking he received.
Hmm. The way I phrased that it sounds like they pulled him out of his bed, like in some sort of initiation or hazing. That’s not what I mean. I’m alluding to the Adams Place mission statement: we’re dedicated to debunking the myths of mental illness through word, art, and education.
There have always been myths, stereotypes, and fear surrounding mental illness. And crazy people buy into them too. Vincent had a lot of fear when he entered the asylum. He believed a lot of the myths about mental illness. But the people and the environment at Saint-Paul had an immediate debunking effect on Vincent’s myths. Two weeks after entering the asylum, Vincent wrote an amazing letter to his brother, Theo, about life there. This is just a small part of that letter.
…my fear of madness is wearing off markedly, since I can see at close quarters those who are affected by it in the same way as I may very easily be in the future.
Previously, I was repelled by these individuals, and I found it distressing to have to reflect that so many in our trade, Troyon, Marchal, Méryon, Jundt, M. Maris, Monticelli and a whole lot more finished up like that. It was quite impossible for me to picture them in that condition.
Well, now I can think of all that without fear, that is to say, I find it is no more dreadful than if those people had died of something else, consumption or syphilis, for example. I see these artists being reinvested with their old serenity, and don’t you think it’s quite something to meet these old colleagues of ours again? That, joking apart, is what I am profoundly thankful for.
For though there are some who howl or rave a great deal, there is much true friendship here. They say we must tolerate others so that the others may tolerate us, and other very sound arguments, which they put into practice, too. And we understand each other very well. Sometimes, for instance, I can talk with one of them who can only reply in incoherent sounds, because he is not afraid of me. If someone has an attack, the others look after him and interfere so that he does not harm himself.
The same for those whose mania is to fly often into a rage. The old inhabitants of the menagerie come running and separate the combatants, if combat there is. |from WebExhibits
A little later in the letter, Vincent again talks about how his fears have been lessened as he has learned about crazy:
Again—speaking of my condition—I am so grateful for yet another thing. I’ve noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seemed to change before their very eyes. And that lessened the horror with which I remembered my first attack, something that, when it comes upon you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you terribly. Once you know it is part of the illness, you accept it like anything else. Had I had not seen other lunatics close to, I should not have been able to stop myself from thinking about it all the time… I like to think that once you know what it is, once you are conscious of your condition, and of being subject to attacks, then you can do something to prevent your being taken unawares by the anguish or the terror. Now that it has all been abating for five months, I have high hopes of getting over it, or at least of no longer having such violent attacks. |from WebExhibits
Vincent wrote that letter on 22 May, 1889, about a month before he painted “The Starry Night.” At the time he painted his magnum opus, he was integrating into a crazy community that was providing both the structure and the education he needed. And the education wasn’t from some classroom course or book series—it was from simply interacting with other crazy people.
This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do as Adams Place. We’re not going to start an asylum (especially in the U.S., institutions of that sort no longer exist), but we want to bring crazy out in the open. Sure, we’ll teach stuff in a more traditional/textbooky kind of way, if there’s enough interest in that sort of thing. But as Vincent’s experience shows, you can learn SO MUCH about crazy simply by interacting with crazy people, by hearing their stories, by not being afraid.
Because it came from this time in Vincent’s life, when he was part of some 1889 version of Adams Place, “The Starry Night” is a perfect fit for the Adams Place logo.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, that sounds like a pretty happy ending. What about the tragic story in Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’?”
I’m not trying to whitewash Van Gogh’s story. Vincent was very ill, and 19th-century medicine couldn’t treat him effectively. Ultimately, Vincent left Saint-Paul in May of 1890, having stayed for just over one year. He died less than two months later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that 21st-century medicine would be able to completely stabilize him either. There’s a good chance that Van Gogh was schizophrenic, and, despite the progress we’ve made in the last 122 years, there’s still a lot we DON’T know about schizophrenia.
In any case, the sad end to Vincent’s story does not change the fact that “The Starry Night,” his greatest and best-known work, was created at a time when Van Gogh was receiving much-needed treatment, community, and myth-debunking.
So, to sum up my logo quest so far: American Pie (or, to be more specific, “Vincent”, a song from the album American Pie) led me to Van Gogh and “The Starry Night.” After some research, I learned the conditions and circumstances under which “The Starry Night” was created, and realized that it was a perfect fit for Adams Place.
However, I couldn’t just use “The Starry Night” as our logo. I needed to use it as inspiration and influence, to go with something related to it, something that captured its essence.
One of the most interesting elements of the painting is the swirling night sky above the sleeping village of Saint-Rémy. Everything else in the picture—the houses, the hills, the cypress tree, the stars, the moon—looks like its real-life model. Everything is beautifully stylized, but it’s also recognizable. The whorls in the sky, however, don’t really look like anything in nature—at least, not anything you might see looking up at a night sky. They aren’t clouds; clouds hover over the earth and obscure the stars from view. These whorls belong amongst the stars. They are celestial. I decided to try to use the whorl as a starting point for a logo design.
Part 2, coming soon!