Mark James Russell

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Talking to the awesome Robert Engman

Engman and work

By far the most impactful and memorable class I took in university was a figure drawing class I took freshman year. It was great spending  six hours a week trying to figure out the human form, but what was really amazing about the course was the professor, Robert Engman.

Robert was actually a sculptor, but apparently he was unhappy with some of the foundational abilities of his students, so set up a figure drawing class loosely modeled on how he had learned to draw at the Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t care if you were an MFA student, a BFA, or just a random undergraduate from any other school, he just liked mentoring and helping young people learn to see better (which is, after all, the true foundation of art).


In between drawing sessions, Robert would talk. And talk and talk and talk — about pretty much anything. Art, life, yoga, his military service in WWII, the New York art scene of the 1960s. He was one of the least pretentious and most accomplished people I’ve ever met. He could be incredibly demanding, but at the same time he was also always kind and thoughtful*.

Which is why I was so happy to discover that someone has posted an extended interview with Robert from his home studio just outside of Philadelphia. Robert is 89 years old now (and the interview was done a couple of years ago), but his soft voice and eclectic thoughts are just like I remember from when I studied with him, nearly 30 years ago.


In addition to Robert’s incredible range of brilliant insights about life, I also loved his approach to art. In particular, I love how his concept of what is important about art revolved around the artist, not the audience or the critic. He would say things like:

“When you go to a museum and you see an array of finished, so-called important works of art, that doesn’t have much to do with what they’re really about. But if you start to paint yourself, now you find out how closely you locate what painters ultimately come to when they start to invent things of their own.

“There’s a whole world of common human experiences, things we share together, and we can talk about it and have ideas. But there’s one thing that takes place in us that can’t be shared with anyone else, and that’s the connection those things have through us.

“I’ve made I-don’t-know-how-many pieces of art, but I’m the only one who knows what that is. You can show them the things, but that doesn’t tell them what that is.”


“A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.”

And I loved how comfortable he was with commercialism. He used to talk about how the “proper” size for an artwork was the minimum you needed to explore an idea. Big works which were big for no reason were basically pretentious nonsense. However, he was also aware that artists need to eat, so if you took your minimalist idea and blew it up huge to make some money, that was totally all right. As Robert used to say:

“Two-thirds art, one-third paying the rent is fine. One-third art and two-thirds paying the rent is fine, too. As long as it all isn’t just to pay the rent.”


Which is good advice, considering his “Triune” sculpture, near Philadelphia City Hall, is pretty frickin’ huge.

Anyhow, if you have the time, take a listen. I hope you’ll find him as fascinating, brilliant, and wonderful as I do.


*Note: This is 2017, when all our idols are revealed have feet of clay. So if Robert turns out to be a Balrog in human form or something similarly terrible, apologies in advance.


Comics (and scifi?) come of age in 2017


Okay, superheroes and science-fiction media franchises have been big business for around a decade now. So many superhero movies are getting released all the time, I know we’re getting sick of it all. But having just finished watching the Legion TV series, I think it’s safe to say the genre has really taken a major step forward, at least in terms in TV and the movies — at last, superhero media are becoming templates for telling all types of stories, light, serious, mainstream, and weird, like the comic books that inspired them.

When it comes to TV and movies, so much of superhero storytelling has long seemed, well, just bad. Even as a 7-year-old, watching the original Superman movie, the concept of spinning the planet Earth backwards to reverse time seemed pretty sketchy. Hollywood’s approach to superheroes, like scifi or fantasy in general, wasn’t very smart or respectful of the genre … and certainly not very good as scifi or fantasy.

But then in 2000 came the first X-Man movie, and its relative quality was a big surprise, followed by X-Men 2 and the first Spider-Man movies. Nevertheless, in terms of sophistication, tone, etc., most comics book movies and sci-fi movies were decades behind the mainstream culture (let alone the cutting edge) in writing and drawing.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were a big step forward and got all sorts of praise; but, really, they were mostly just updating the superhero movie to about the point of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns miniseries (which came out in 1986!). Yes, they were progress, but still 25 years or so behind the comics (and then the Superman V. Batman movie went right back to that same well for more ideas).

Batman Superman

And even Nolan’s “serious” movies like Inception and Interstellar were pretty sketchy in terms of sci-fi — “the power of love” helping the hero cut through space-time to save the day? In 2014? Really?

Anyhow, so Marvel begins to kick butt once they took over their own production with the first Iron Man movie. People were generally pretty impressed and the film got lots of great reviews, peaking with the Avengers, but people soon grew tired with the noisy, meaninglessness of it all.

But it looks like Marvel was keeping an eye out on popular opinion, and took steps to stay ahead of the curve. And rather than doing so by emphasizing special effects and bombast, they’ve instead chosen to focus more on finding interesting voices to tell those stories. Choosing oddballs like James Gunn (who came from Troma Studios) and Scott Derrickson (who did a Hellraiser movie) was a sign of a new set of priorities.

This year, that approach to superheroes really got a lot more interesting, with the much-praised Logan movie, and now with the Legion TV series.

I really loved Legion in particular  because I so vividly remember reading those Chris Claremont-Bill Sienkiewicz issues of New Mutants that inspired the TV show. Back in the mid-1980s, coming across art like Sienkiewicz in mainstream comics was really mind-blowing. Collages, mixed media, and furious scribbles of jagged ink defined Sienkiewicz’s art, and I went crazy for it.


Combining those classic comics with Noah Hawley (Fargo) was a masterstroke. As Bill Simmons said of the 30 For 30 documentary series he devised for ESPN: If you hire brilliant people, get out of the way and let them be brilliant.


To be honest, I was a bit ambivalent after the opening episode of Legion. I thought it was a bit precious, like it was trying too hard. I was worried that once the story got going, it was going to revert into something more traditionally superhero-y, with cheap, TV-level special effects. Was I ever wrong. Throughout the first season of Legion, the storytelling remained vibrant and creative, based on the characters rather than mindless action.

Factor in other good examples, like Arrival (a decent, if flawed, attempt to bringing Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” to the big screen) and perhaps Blade Runner 2049, and it is looking like this is a very good time to be a fan of scifi movies.


Of course, there will still be plenty of dumb scifi and superheroes coming our way. 95% of everything is junk, as the saying goes. But it is nice to think that the best stuff is getting better, really pushing the boundaries of TV and film — even if it took a generation for those media to catch up to the comics.

Begin 2017 with Fortitude

Happy New Year, all. And what better way to kick off the new year with a teaser of season 2 for Fortitude, that freaky, frightening and brilliant series set in northernmost Norway.

There’s also a fun little website promoting the series, posing as a Fortitude tourism campaign. Visit Fortitude! “You’ll feel so at home you’ll never leave~”

The actual series is supposed to begin airing at the end of January. Seriously, season 1 was one of my favorite TV shows in ages. Really smart and really scary. I highly recommend checking it out.

Oh, and have a great 2017.


How I’m feeling these days

No memes2

Trudeau and Korea, part deux

Given that Canada has just elected another Trudeau to be Prime Minister, I thought it would be fun to revisit this blog entry I wrote a couple of years ago on Chun Doo-hwan’s visit to Canada in 1982.

I re-watched the video a couple of times and, sadly, there’s no signs of a young Justin Trudeau. But I hope you might enjoy it nonetheless…

* * *

I just came across this Daehan News feature about South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan visiting Canada in 1982 and thought some people might get a kick out of it.

Chun, of course, came to power in 1980 (officially), following the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979 and the short-lived presidency of Choi Kyu-ha. It was a pretty dicey time for North-South relations, so Chun probably needed all the legitimacy he could find.

There’s a short New York Times article on his visit here.

Just to give an overview of this video:
0:00 – Leaves African leg of his trip
0:05 – Ottawa and Parliament buildings (“Canada is a peaceful country,” says the narrator)
0:31 – Chun Doo-hwan and his wife Rhee Soon-ja disembark their plane. Greeted by Edward Shreyer
1:13 – Rideau Hall for official reception
1:31 – Prime Minister’s residence for some garden party
2:01 – Choppers to Montreal to meet with Korean War veterans
2:45 – Back to Ottawa for an awkward-looking meeting with Pierre Trudeau

Not mentioned in the video (unsurprisingly) is the assassination plot to kill Chun during his visit. Choi Jung-hwa, a son of the International Taekwondo Federation founder and North Korea-friendly Choi Hong-hi, had been living in Mississauga at the time. The younger Choi allegedly tried hiring a couple of people to kill Chun while the South Korean president was in Canada. But apparently that plot was broken up months before the visit — Choi went into hiding in Europe for years before returning to Canada and spending a year in jail.

There’s more about Choi and his return to Korea in the JoongAng Daily, including the great news that  North Korea disguised its agents as taekwondo masters working for ITF and dispatched them abroad. Given that I studied taekwondo at an ITF gym while in high school, it makes me wonder if I could be a sleeper agent.

Check out Young-Hee & the Pullocho

I just added the first chapter of Young-Hee and the Pullocho to its page here on my website. So now you can check it out, for free, in whatever format you prefer — PDF, .mobi or ePub.

It’s just a few pages long, but it starts out in the middle of some action, so hopefully it will give you a sense of what’s in store in the rest of the story.


DDP on the cold night

Just a little shot I took of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza the other night. I never get tired of looking at that place.



Icky Diseases, Then and Now

It looks like we somehow survived the great ebola plague of 2014. Korea was, of course, devastated with, uh, zero cases. The United States somehow turned back the zombie-like scourge that infected, what, four people? Most of whom had been to Africa.

By coincidence, I have started reading an excellent history of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Just an excellent book so far.


It is especially fascinating to compare how fear and superstition back then got in the way of understanding and treating the disease properly — much as happened in the United States with ebola (fortunately, medicine and science was able to mostly out-muscle the politicians). I particularly liked the saying: “Whilst pestilence slays its thousands, fear slays its tens of thousands.”

Korea, like most of the world, has had to deal with periodic cholera outbreaks over the years, going back to at least 1821 when it came via China (that date would be before the disease made it to Europe). Cholera would continue to flare up over the years, well into the 1980s. This is an interesting paper on cholera and Korea in the colonial era. The cholera outbreak of 1919-20 appears to have been the most deadly in Korea, when 25,000 people died.

How things change. Today, the International Vaccine Institute, which is based in Korea, is working on an oral cholera vaccine specially designed for developing nations (being cheaper and easier to administer).

But I still got my flu shot.

The Best Coffee Shops in Hongdae (well, that I know of…)

Okay, for no particular reason, I thought I would give a brief rundown of my favorite coffee shops in Hongdae. By “Hongdae,” I mean the greater region, going from Yeonnam-dong in the north, to Donggyo-dong, Seogyo-dong, and south to Hapjeong and Sangsu. It’s one of the most unusual parts of Seoul and home to a huge number of independent, quirky, cool, and otherwise different coffee shops (and of course the big-name chain brands on the main roads).

This is not a complete list. I don’t claim to know every one of the hundreds of coffee shops in this part of town — some are very nice, a lot are terrible, and others are in-between. But I do know a few places that I think are worth mentioning, places where they roast their own beans or at least are actively involved in shaping the flavor (so they are not just part-time workers hitting a button).

This is also a personal list. For me, the more times I see the word “barista” used in reference to a coffee shop, the less likely I am to enjoy it. So don’t expect many award-winners here.

Coffee Me

Simple, unassuming, but run by a very nice couple. While they have a few snacks, the focus is very much the coffee. They roast their own beans here and put a lot of care into the beverages. It has a big patio out front and a lot of open space inside, so it is quite relaxing.

Located close to Sanullim Theater on the north side of Hongdae, in Changjeon-dong, on Seogangro 9-gil.


Cafe Libre

Widely considered one of the best coffee places in Korea, Cafe Libre certainly is serious about their brews. And its rustic interior is both unusual and memorable. However, its coffee is also one of the prime examples of the “sour” style that is so popular in Korea and that I personally detest. But many people love it, so you probably should check it out. Plus while you are in the neighborhood, you can eat at Tuk Tuk Noodle and enjoy the best Thai food in Korea.

Located in Yeonnam-dong, down Hyanggi 1-gil alley (by Seoul Dongbu Church).

You Are Here

The coffee shop co-run by Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi and the language blog Talk to Me in Korean. The coffee here is excellent, especially the espressos — dark, strong and flavorful. Really my style. (The milkshakes and carrot cake are excellent, too).

It can get crowded at times, but the space is fairly large and there are plenty of spaces to hang out. I find earlier in the day it is usually quieter.

Located at Donggyoro 25-gil and World Cup Bukro 6-gil.


Another place that roasts its own beans and is very serious about coffee.  The menu isn’t huge, but what they have they do well, with the rich, bitter espresso that I like. (Very good macarons, too).

(Grr… cannot find a decent pic or URL … They renovated recently, and the new patio is much nicer than the old layout).

UPDATE: So, I was walking past Belief today, so managed to take a new pic. Not a great photo, but at least it is something.

Also, I remembered another very good cafe, Organic. It’s just down the street from Belief. In addition to very good coffee, it has homemade ginger ale which is excellent.


Note: The number of places in the greater-Hongdae area that are notable for ambiance or interior design is huge. Many of them are open 24-hours, too, including Ethiopia (which is frequently used for filming TV dramas) and Gabia (very stylish interior, good coffee, and probably busier at 3am than at 3pm) — both are located very close to Sanullim Theater. In the Sangsu Station area, Jebi Cafe, Yri Cafe and Mudaeruk  all have excellent coffee and ambiance out the wahzoo.

Note 2: Don’t bother using Google Street view on Yeonnam-dong or Sangsu. It hasn’t been updated since 2009, and back then there was nothing in either neighborhood. Even Naver’s street view, which was made in 2012, is now totally out of date. As always, it is amazing how fast Korea changes. Daum’s street maps seem to be the most recent, having been updated earlier in 2014.

LATE UPDATE (On Oct. 31): I finally went to Anthracite, the very funky building that’s right beside Mudaeruk in the Sangsu area. And, wow, that place is crazy about its coffee.  A bit too pretentious for me, but many people seem to love it.


Dongdaemun Wandering

The middle of August is the height of vacation season in Korea, so plenty of shops are closed at the moment — kind of like in Europe, but instead of a month off, in Korea its just a week. Or often just 2-3 days.

The weather has been quite pleasant lately, so I’ve been walking around Dongdaemun a bit. Here are a couple of shopping alleys that are usually full of shoe stores, but this week were pretty dead:

However, there are still a fair number of places open, including the book stores. Today was a good day for browsing and I ended up buying these art books:

Tiger and Sanshin!

In case you are wondering where I bought these books, here’s a map:

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