Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Viktor Koen’s Steampunk Illusions

Viktor Koen’s steampunk visions populate a world of intricate illusions. He delights in making the physically impossible seem likely and predictable. Steampunk, conceived as a genre of science fiction, envisions a retro futuristic world powered by steam and the machine age.


detail from movie poster for Metropolis

Think of  Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis. In some sense, steampunk is a counterpoint or perhaps alternative universe to our own ever-digital, virtual world. Steampunk these days is often more about fashion, design and a look, like the one Viktor Koen is wearing.


Viktor Koen, from the TedxAthens site

His visual mix of the familiar with the fantastic is intriguing, graceful and strange – but all his images are quite carefully constructed, giving them an air of authenticity.

D.P.Toy No.19.72

D.P.Toy No.19.72

Perhaps you might see his creations as a commentary on our cultural icons of childhood, or a somewhat menacing satire exploding nostalgia and sentimentality.

D.P.Toy No.05.72

D.P.Toy No.05.72

Are we looking at the work of an adult exploring child’s play, a commentary on contemporary society, or just the musings of a fantastically gifted but peculiar artist?

D.P.Toy No.03.72

D.P.Toy No.03.72

However you want to categorize it, we’ve encountered Viktor Koen‘s work many times, perhaps without realizing it. Here are just a few mainstream examples:


cover of the NYT Book Review


Cover from Huffington Post Magazine




Cover for the NYT Dining Out Section

He’s an amazingly prolific and sought after graphic and visual artist, creating illustrations for major publications and personal work that juxtaposes images and ideas to make a point. He comes from a mix of cultures – born in Greece, trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel, with an MFA with honors from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.


Viktor Koen in his studio, photo by Max Eternity

But, be warned, if you’re intrigued by what you see, you may find yourself spending hours wandering through the myriad images that haunt his website or at other sites that display his creations.

D.P.Toy No.40.72

D.P.Toy No.40.72

Because he’s so prolific, I thought I’d just write about two of his series, a fabricated collection of strange playthings he calls Dark Peculiar Toys and his Toyphabet. These two barely scratch the surface of what he’s about, but they do illustrate two recurring themes in his work – typography and mashups of the weird and wonderful.

Here’s Viktor, from an interview in Art Digital Magazine, talking about what led to his exhibit of Dark Peculiar Toys

I’m a toy collector.  I go to flea markets and fight with children over a bin of toys.  There’s no better excuse to buy toys, but to work on a series of toys.  I have a great time playing with them visually.

D.P.Toy No.10.72

D.P.Toy No.10.72

My father was an industrial designer and he gave me some of his old books and diagrams, and I retooled it to match the fictitious toys.  The whole project was very playful.  I always wanted to have these dark toys.

D.P.Toy No.20.72

D.P.Toy No.20.72

A lot of these are trial and error.  The juxtaposition of the sweet and something very wrong is something I always look for.

D.P.Toy No.16.72

D.P.Toy No.16.72

From Viktor’s Artist Statement about the exhibit

I photographed toys and objects that I collected through the years and travels, some of them parts of my personal childhood, and then mixed and matched them for hours. While this was a different form of play, the magic was the same.

D.P.Toy No.15.72

D.P.Toy No.15.72

A year after his Dark Peculiar Toys exhibit was launched, he used some of those concepts to create a mashup of the alphabet in his exhibit Toyphabet. He loves typography and finding just the right combination of alphabetical form and toy imagery was more difficult than you might think.



Viktor, from his Artist’s Statement:

Since typography is an addiction of mine and fusion a second nature to me, illustrated type became a natural extension of my work. The challenge of preserving the integrity of the type forms made the process of mixing and matching a complicated one. The result was characters with unexpected symbolic attributes, true to the original point of the series – that children are formulated way too early to the troubles ailing their parents.

I think there’s some part of us that enjoys being teased  about strange possibilities – like when we muse about an especially vivid dream. I think one of the attractions of Viktor’s work is how it seems so natural and strangely authentic while clearly it is not. The intricacy of the constructions makes us curious to find out more.

D.P.Toy No.09.72

D.P.Toy No.09.72

His work conjures an eclectic group of emotions and, while I wouldn’t want to encounter any of these object creatures in”real life,” they still tease the imagination with interesting possibilities. Maybe that’s the attraction of Viktor’s steampunk visions. We spend so much time plugged in to one machine or other, perhaps his creations point the way to the burgeoning cyborg in all of us.

D.P.Toy No.18.72

D.P.Toy No.18.72

At any rate, his work helps us see the world differently and for that we can be cautiously thankful. No, it’s not a lovely vision, but it does seem to echo the impermanence of our times and the hyper-wired world we find ourselves navigating.

So what do you think about his work? Do you like it? What does it conjure up for you? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.




Maggie Taylor’s Flights of Fancy

Maggie Taylor’s flights of fancy are a strange enchantment.


The Pretender

Her images seem to live outside the boundaries of time and space, merging the fantastical with the familiar.

Night gardeners.

Night Gardeners

They’re so engaging, they carry an almost hallucinatory power.

Maggie Taylor, Animal Dreams, 2010

Animal Dreams

At Yale, Maggie Taylor majored in philosophy. Four years later she pursued a Masters degree in photography. I wonder what pushed her to make such a dramatic change?


But Who Has Won

If philosophy is concerned with the search for universal truths, then perhaps Maggie discarded the abstractions of the mind to realize her own, more concrete “truths.” It’s her version of mind over matter – while her images reveal a vivid imagination, lurking in the background is a highly whimsical intellect. Even if we can’t completely decipher its meaning, each image seems to present a telling moment from some half-remembered dream.

wakeful rabbit

Wakeful Rabbit

Still, her flights of fancy don’t arrive full blown, rather they evolve. Maggie explains, from an interview in OC Art Blog:


Maggie Taylor

“Many times I am starting to work on images and I don’t have an idea of what the finished piece is going to be and they grow out of my own internal dialogue as I’m working. I might have a dream, I might have some little bit of a memory, or some little bit of a story running around in my head that gets filtered into the work. It’s really kind of random and I never know as I am working what I am going to end up with.”

Disappearing Witness

Disappearing Witness

When I first saw Maggie Taylor’s work I immediately thought of Joseph Cornell’s “tiny dreamlike universes” lovingly assembled in glass-encased worlds.

The Art of Happiness

Joseph Cornell, “The Art of Happiness”

Joseph Cornell "Medici Princess"

Joseph Cornell, “Medici Princess”

While the parallels are there, Cornell’s pieces are literally preserved under glass, making the work a little more removed. By contrast, Maggie’s imagery seems more present and inviting. Both she and Cornell were fascinated by nostalgic images of the past – he worked with the physical objects, she scans them into her computer. As Maggie describes:

6a00e553ed7fe1883301157256bb63970b-800wi“I collect stuff, all kinds of things. I collect old photographs, I collect old toys, I collect bits and pieces of fabric and I scan them in or photograph them if they won’t fit on the scanner… Then I make tons and tons of layers in a Photoshop file and put them all together, so it’s a digital collage… The whole process is very slow and I seem to only make ten or twelve images in an average year.”

Here’s an excellent video about Maggie Taylor’s flights of fancy:

Maggie Taylor Artist Video from VERVE Gallery of Photography on Vimeo.

I find her work uncluttered, spare and graceful – which is a real accomplishment given how easy it is to add and manipulate images via Photoshop. Typically, each piece draws your eye to one prominent image, even as you become aware of those whimsical touches lurking in her lush backgrounds.


The burden of dreams

It’s hard to categorize her work. Yes, there’s a dreamlike nostalgia and an ironic formality. But there’s also a sense of humor that invites you in to share the joke. I like her sense of the absurd that hovers around these images… and the playful reminder they offer not to take life too seriously.


So what do you think? Do you like her work? Leave a comment and let me know.

Cultural Collision: the Khmeleva Project

What evolves out of a cultural collision depends on what you put into it.



DakhaBraka and Port Mone‘s Khmeleva Project is a musical collaboration that is at once joyous, ancient, futuristic, tragically sad and euphoric. Lots of adjectives, I know, but this music is so strange to our American ears that it conjures up exotic, surreal imagery.


At the base of the Khmeleva Project are the incredible harmonies by the art music group DakhaBrakha, performing what they refer to as “ethno chaos.” Their music is rooted in traditional Ukrainian folk melodies with a very modern overlay. The strong, luminous voices of Iryna, Olena and Nina, the women who make up 3/4 of DakhaBrakha, have an ancient keening quality that is at once ethereal and electrifying.


Here’s a performance video of “Yelena” that shows off DakhaBraka’s dynamic voices and the power they bring to their live performance.

I’ve been entranced with music from that part of the world, ever since I saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors many years ago. That film is based on a Carpathian folktale and watching it is like being plunged into an ancient river of dreams.


Here’s a link to a snatch of music from Shadows – it gives you an idea of the tradition that gave birth to DakhaBrakha.

Beyond a collision of cultures, DakhaBrakha’s music also embodies a collision between past and present. The rural, peasant heritage they mine for their music holds within it traditional ways of thought and action. Yet the group’s experimental flair is also a musical embrace of freedom and an invigorated future. As the winds of change rattle through their nation, they see a larger purpose for their music. From their website:

We are all the citizens of this planet. But for DakhaBrakha, it is of the utmost importance to remain Ukrainian because we want our music to lift the spirit and boost the confidence of our people.


I sense they see themselves more as a cultural bridge from the past to the future than as a political protest group. The women of DakhaBraka all have an academic background in the Ukrainian folklore tradition and traditional music from the region. Marko, the fourth member of the group, grew up in the Ukraine countryside and came to Kiev as an actor. The members of DakhaBraka came together as an art theater project – their avant garde background plays out in their performances.


Added to their folk melody stylings is a world music orientation. They incorporate into their music a gaggle of percussion instruments from other ethnic music traditions. From their website:

At the crossroads of Ukrainian folklore and theatre their musical spectrum is intimate then riotous, plumbing the depths of contemporary roots and rhythms, inspiring “cultural and artistic liberation”.


Marta Sebestyen

The first time I heard them I was reminded of an earlier “cultural and artistic liberation” in a marriage of folk and electronica, via a wonderful collaboration between singer Marta Sebestyen and composer Karoly Cserepes, in their fascinating CD, Apocrypha. Here’s a selection where you can easily hear a blend of the two musical styles, as a gentler version of DakhaBraka:

The other half of the Khemleva Project, Port Mone is an instrumental trio from Belarus, with accordion, bass guitar and percussion, providing the instrumental base that support DakhaBraka’s flowering tree.


Port Mone

To find common ground, the two groups huddled together in the village of Khmeleva, working jointly to create the musical experience. DakhaBraka’s Marko writes:



We have to rethink and modernize our folk culture. In fact, as a post-modernist band DakhaBrakha is trying to give new life to our grandmas’ songs.


Here’s another selection from the same concert that begins with a quiet mood, at once controlled and intimate, and slowly evolves into something wild and strange.

Marko writes:

We want our sounds to create certain visual images in people’s minds, and emotional experiences. Our main aim here is to open up to people, and encourage them to open up to us so that we part as friends at the end of the concert.


Without the web, it would be difficult to encounter the musical collaborations taking place all over the globe. But now, all you have to do is move beyond the confines of pop to discover a whole world of new sounds out there.  So, what you think, is this music to the ears or just too alien to enjoy. Leave a comment and let me know.


Digital Artist Ben Heine is a Whimsical Wizard

Call it magical realism… call it fantasy…  but this digital artist is a whimsical wizard.


Pencil Vs Camera – 6 (AOC) by Ben Heine

Ben Heine’s art is powered by his finely-honed technique. Although self-trained, he’s a superb sketch artist and photographer – and much more, as he’s shaped his disparate skills into something at once surreal and sublime.


Pencil Vs Camera – 46 by Ben Heine

What makes this Belgian artist’s work truly wonderful is his playful imagery. Melding his skill as an artist with a childlike sensibility, the constructions he calls Pencil Vs Camera reveal a fertile but quirky imagination.


Pencil Vs Camera – 61 by Ben Heine

It’s the juxtaposition of realistic photographic images with his fanciful sketches that set him apart from most other visual artists. Still, I can see references in his work to an earlier Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte, as in the piece below.


Pencil Vs Camera – 63 by Ben Heine


“Self-Act by Erik Johansson


Ben Heine’s images remind me of Erik Johansson, a digital artist I profiled a few posts ago. Erik also transforms his photography with Photoshop to invent a physically realistic but impossible tableaux, adding his own sense of fantasy to the concrete imagery. Photoshop has enabled many digital artists to place the unexpected within the realm of the familiar.  You can check out my post on Swedish Surrealist Erik Johansson’s impossible images here.

Getting back to Ben Heine, besides cheerfully portraying the mischievious moment, his pieces are surprising and fun, with a whimsical sensibility that insures broad appeal. But key to making them work is his ability to draw. From a recent interview:

Ben Heine - Barcelona - Sagrada (2012)

Ben Heine

Drawing was my initial obsession and my first love, because it’s easy to carry a pencil and a piece of paper. I used to draw all the time, everywhere. I needed to draw to express my emotions. 

I realized very early in my life that I would spend a huge amount of time and energy working on visual projects. I never sought to become an artist specifically or to conform to what it might mean to be an artist— it’s just the closest descriptor for what I am.

Pencil Vs Camera - 74 - Tiger and Owl

Pencil Vs Camera – 74 – Tiger and Owl by Ben Heine

He’s often drawn to animals and nature as an inspiration for his art. From a recent interview about his Pencil v. Camera pieces:

Nature represents a divine energy for me. I spend several hours a week walking in forests, parks, and natural places to fill my creative well and take time to think about my future projects.


Pencil Vs Camera – 58 by Ben Heine

Animals are a great inspiration too. I love to portray them in my drawings. I am also fascinated by interactions between people. I love observing them and getting inspiration from their actions and decisions.


Pencil Vs Camera 55 by Ben Heine

Rambling through his web portfolio gives you a strong sense of Ben as an observer, at a slight remove. Everything seems to be fodder for his imagination.


Pencil Vs Camera – 42 by Ben Heine



Pencil Vs Camera by Ben Heine

Below is a documentary trailer that gives you a glimpse into what Ben Heine is all about. If you want to watch the whole 30 minutes, you can find the full documentary here. It’s an excellent profile of the work, his artistic process and his efforts to open new portals for exploration.

If Ben Heine is something of a magician, what makes his magic so appealing? We can admire his technique – he’s a master of the well-crafted moment – but there’s more to it than his impressive ability to execute. I think we like being tickled by visual illusions – those manipulated moments make us confront how we view and interpret the world. Ben goes to great lengths to create an alternative image of reality, with a gentle humor that invites us to step on over and take a look.


Pencil Vs Camera 61 by Ben Heine

It’s that childlike playfulness – reminding us of fanciful days when we might have imagined unicorns munching day lilies in the garden or pictured ourselves soaring through the air on mighty winged-steeds breathing fire.


Ben Heine



I started doing very simple visuals and my work became more complex and time consuming in the recent years. My leitmotif is to push boundaries and do innovative art. I like to live every creative moment intensely. I always want to renew my goals and find new challenges. It’s also important for me to constantly follow new directions and not be afraid of criticism.

I need to surprise myself if I want to surprise the people who follow me.



Just Dreaming by Ben Heine

I like being reminded to make room in my day for play. It makes life a richer experience. For all that, I say a big “thank you” to Ben Heine.

What do you think? Do you like his work? Leave a comment and let me know.

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