The Digital Rabbithole

“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.'” ≈ Lewis Carroll

If anything were ever created to perform both as a maelstrom of lost presence of mind, possibly a meditation, but I would have to be cautionary here as it is less meditation and more flinging one’s self off the cliff, metaphorically, if not ultimately, existentially. I am trying to remember the month. I can recall the year, and the year was 1994. I received a small padded manila envelope from a friend who was an intense, opinionated, and mercurial artist who happened to be a sculptor.

But this guy was unlike most sculptors in that he had become more than interested in a program which allowed him to manipulate images. In thus doing, he was able to craft a base 2D view of a characterization which he would then use to sketch out his ideas for his next work, almost always a mythologically inspired creature, proto-human, quasi-human, half-human, half animal. He was residing in the kingdom of Dr. Moreau, for the most part, and his works were profoundly moving art. This is nothing out of the ordinary for sculptors. Nor artists. We are often at play in the fields of the gods, titans, and all misshapen creatures that may emerge from any potential liaison reasonably possible. It isn’t rare, in other words, this motivation, this focus on the impossible creature, for creating does enhance one’s views of themselves as a god at times.

Ask any writer. Ask a painter. Photographers, however, never really had much of a share in this market, save for whether they had the time, inclination, budget, and patronage to allow them to spend inordinate hours searching the woods and streets of their villages, towns or cities for items, roadkill, old animal skins in the marketplace…you get the picture, but hold onto it in your mind for just a bit longer.

So around 1996, this package arrived. Inside was only a CD. The CD had his handwriting scrawled across the right side, something like, “You need to look at this. Photoshop. You’re gonna like it I think.”

An understatement if ever one was uttered in Sharpie marker.

I looked back into the folder to see if any laser printed instructions were folded up inside. Of course not.

“Lunal Nature” — digital composite image

I was in the throes, the last gasps, of molting out of being a graphic designer and illustrator and making the leap of faith into the void this sculptor had been treading on in for quite some long time. “I’ll quit when I’m 40,” was my saying. I had been uttering it under my breath since I was 32 years old, still in Seattle, and running a shop that was anything but the quiet, introspective arena of mind I had longed to get back to, from the beginning of my first steps into those fields of practice. I had become so tight, so incredibly precise and perfection-oriented that I had forgotten what freedom a brushstroke allows the mind and how it frees the soul.


Pronounced “AHH-shay.”

The primordial mark. The first mark.

It’s sort of a Zen thing, sort of a Tibetan thing, both fused together from contemplating the relevance of the first idea, thought, stroke, mark—and once made, it is our best effort. Rest now, for you can do no better. It sheds the mind from the concept of perfection. In other words, take the leap. It will happen. It’ll work.

Do it sometime. Just don’t make your first motion a leap from a 900 foot cliff. It doesn’t mean that kind of faith, as in the final scene of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Ang Lee’s masterpiece of the human condition. It was one of the finest films I’d ever seen, and that final moment was a near-perfection (though shy of the mark by purpose) of the film’s message, which was revealed lyrically as it progressed.

You may think I’ve digressed, but actually have cut to the heart of the matter, for in Western European folklore, as in many other cultures’ lore from the dawn of time, there is the profoundly similar, and synchronistically shared concept of the stranger at the edge of the forest. The edge of the desert. The mouth of the great cave. When you see them, you know something is about to change.

Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.’

My friend the intense sculptor (which I have come to believe intensity is some sort of equally primordial state of being from which most sculptors emerge, akin to William Hurt’s arrogant professor in “Altered States”) this focused creative being, had appeared in a manila envelope, his marks on a silvered kaleidoscopic disc which carried on it a completely different world.

I inserted it into my Apple desktop, that nameless numerical flat piece of ivory plastic filled with silicon chips which came before the iconic iMac proposition which led many hundreds of thousands of people around this world down the rabbithole just six years later. The Apple whirred. The silver disc spun, and after what seemed about five minutes (it probably was) a screen appeared welcoming me to Adobe’s image manipulation program.

I then did what I had learned to do all my life.

“What happens if I do this?” Then, do it. See what happens.

Of course, this will get you into predicaments at times. It screams out loudly for whatever guise of Failure as trickster is lurking in the nether-shadows of your immediate location to come forth, and to urge you on, to just do it, press that button. Take that step. “Instructions? What? Are you a moron? Just play around with it. See what happens. What could possibly go wrong?”

I opened that slow program, and figured out how to select an image from my desktop. About 22 hours later, I walked up two flights of stairs in my own new altered state of being, coupled with mental exhaustion, to fall into bed in a hyper-state of awareness that almost anything must be possible if you really understood this program. I woke up maybe four hours later, my brain still buzzing, eyes burning from overtaxing themselves on an archaic monitor.

I can state without shame and with total conviction that I still only know maybe 12 to 20 percent of what Adobe Photoshop can do. And I have been in bed with it’s cheshire cat now for 23 years. It is the second-deepest program I have ever known. It eclipsed Quark XPress. It follows only behind that great abyss of silicon infinity called Final Cut Pro.

“Brighid” — digital composite image

I don’t remember what I had made happen in those 22 preceding hours. I doubt if it was all that impressive, not even to me, in final form. What impressed me, was what it might allow me to do down the yellow brick road of technological zealotry. In the weeks to come I fell behind a few paying schedules, and by November, when that hallowed day of turning 40 arrived, I moved into another realm of working.


I sequestered myself in the upstairs rooms of my parents’ old shop, closed for five years, and learned to loosen up and paint again after all those years of being a hyper-realist illustrator. Then, I came home late in the evenings after a 15 mile drive and fired up the Apple, inserted the silvered disc, and explored what was to come.

I am still exploring both mediums. It will never understand either fully. But I have experienced them to the fullest capacity I could in any given moment, and now? They are so wrapped up in each other that the cheshire cat’s grin is just a spiral of teeth stretching into infinity, enhanced by every command, elaborated by every stroke, reminiscent of every pixel.

“Excuse me while I disappear.” ≈ Matt Dennis and Earl Brent


Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...