The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power

“It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to have the opportunity to speak out — to many thousands of people — on something so important.”


The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” philosopher Alan Watts wrote in the 1950s as he contemplated the interconnected nature of the universe. What we may now see as an elemental truth of existence was then a notion both foreign and frightening to the Western mind. But it was a scientist, not a philosopher, who levered this monumental shift in consciousness: Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), a Copernicus of biology who ejected the human animal from its hubristic place at the center of Earth’s ecological cosmos and recast it as one of myriad organisms, all worthy of wonder, all imbued with life and reality. Her lyrical writing rendered her not a mere translator of the natural world, but an alchemist transmuting the steel of science into the gold of wonder. The message of her iconic Silent Spring (public library) rippled across public policy and the population imagination — it led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, inspired generations of activists, and led Joni Mitchell to write a lyric as timeless as “I don’t care about spots on my apples / Leave me the birds and the bees / Please!”

A woman scientist without a Ph.D. or an academic affiliation became the most powerful voice of resistance against ruinous public policy mitigated by the self-interest of government and industry, against the hauteur and short-sightedness threatening to destroy this precious pale blue dot which we, along with countless other animals, call home.

Carson had grown up in a picturesque but impoverished village in Pennsylvania. It was there, amid a tumultuous family environment, that she fell in love with nature and grew particularly enchanted with birds. A voracious reader and gifted writer from a young age, she became a published author at the age of ten, when a story of hers appeared in a children’s literary magazine. She entered the Pennsylvania College for Women with the intention of becoming a writer, but a zestful zoology professor — herself a rare specimen as a female scientist in that era — rendered young Carson besotted with biology. A scholarship allowed her to pursue a Master’s degree in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, but when her already impecunious family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, she was forced to leave the university in search of a full-time paying job before completing her doctorate.

After working as a lab assistant for a while, she began writing for the Baltimore Sun and was eventually hired as a junior aquatic biologist for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her uncommon gift for writing was soon recognized and Carson was tasked with editing other scientists’ field reports, then promoted to editor in chief for the entire agency. Out of this necessity to reconcile science and writing was born her self-invention as a scientist who refused to give up on writing and a writer who refused to give up on science — the same refusal that marks today’s greatest poets of science.

Rachel Carson at her microscope and her typewriter

When her older sister died in 1937, thirty-year-old Carson was left the sole provider for their mother and her two orphaned nieces. That year, she was asked to write a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau. When she turned in something infinitely more poetic than her supervisor had envisioned, he asked her to rewrite the brochure but encouraged her to submit the piece as an essay for The Atlantic Monthly. She did. It was accepted and published as Undersea — a first of its kind, immensely lyrical journey into the science of the ocean floor inviting an understanding of Earth from a nonhuman perspective. Readers and publishers were instantly smitten, and Carson expanded her Atlantic article into her first book, The Sea Around Her — the culmination of a decade of her oceanographic research, which rendered her an overnight literary success.

Against towering cultural odds, these books about the sea established her — once a destitute girl from landlocked Pennsylvania — as the most celebrated science writer of her time.

But the more Carson studied and wrote about nature, the more cautious she became of humanity’s rampant quest to dominate it. Witnessing the devastation of the atomic bomb awakened her to the unintended consequences of science unmoored from morality, of a hysterical enthusiasm for technology that deafened humanity to the inner voice of ethics. In her 1952 acceptance speech for the John Burroughs Medal, she concretized her credo:

It seems reasonable to believe — and I do believe — that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.

Photograph by Charles O’Rear from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

One of the consequences of wartime science and technology was the widespread use of DDT, initially intended for protecting soldiers from malaria-bearing mosquitoes. After the end of the war, the toxic chemical was lauded as a miracle substance. People were sprayed down with DDT to ward off disease and airplanes doused agricultural plots in order to decimate pest and maximize crop yield. It was neither uncommon nor disquieting to see a class of schoolchildren eating their lunch while an airplane aiming at a nearby field sprinkled them with DDT. A sort of blind faith enveloped the use of these pesticides, with an indifferent government and an incurious public raising no questions about their unintended consequences.

In January of 1958, Carson received a letter from an old writer friend named Olga Owens Huckins, alerting her that the aerial spraying of DDT had devastated a local wildlife sanctuary. Huckins described the ghastly deaths of birds, claws clutched to their breasts and bills agape in agony. This local tragedy was the final straw in Carson’s decade-long collection of what she called her “poison-spray material” — a dossier of evidence for the harmful, often deadly effects of toxic chemicals on wildlife and human life. That May, she signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin for what would become Silent Spring in 1962 — the firestarter of a book that ignited the conservation movement and awakened the modern environmental consciousness.

Photograph by Charles O’Rear from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

But the book also spurred violent pushback from those most culpable in the destruction of nature — a heedless government that had turned a willfully blind eye to its regulatory responsibilities and an avaricious agricultural and chemical industry determined to maximize profits at all costs. Those inconvenienced by the truths Carson exposed immediately attacked her for her indictment against elected officials’ and corporations’ deliberate deafness to fact. They used every means at their disposal — a propaganda campaign designed to discredit her, litigious bullying of her publisher, and the most frequent accusation of all: that of being a woman. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, who would later become Prophet of the Mormon Church, asked: “Why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?” He didn’t hesitate to offer his own theory: because she was a Communist. (The lazy hand-grenade of “spinster” was often hurled at Carson in an attempt to erode her credibility, as if there were any correlation between a scientist’s home life and her expertise — never mind that, as it happened, Carson did have one of the most richly rewarding relationships a human being could hope for, albeit not the kind that conformed to the era’s narrow accepted modalities.)

Photograph by Marc St. Gil from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

Carson withstood the criticism with composure and confidence, shielded by the integrity of her facts. But another battle raged invisible to the public eye — she was dying.

She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet.

Carson endured the attacks — those of her cancer and those of her critics — with unwavering heroism. She saw the former with a biologist’s calm acceptance of the cycle of life and had anticipated the latter all along. She was a spirited idealist, but she wasn’t a naïve one — from the outset, she was acutely aware that her book was a clarion call for nothing less than a revolution and that it was her moral duty to be the revolutionary she felt called to be. Just a month after signing the book contract, she articulates this awareness in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library) — the record of her beautiful and unclassifiable relationship with her dearest friend and beloved.

Carson writes to Freeman:

I know you dread the unpleasantness that will inevitably be associated with [the book’s] publication. That I can understand, darling. But it is something I have taken into account; it will not surprise me! You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent… It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to have the opportunity to speak out — to many thousands of people — on something so important.

Photograph by Boyd Norton from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

In that sense, the eventual title of Silent Spring was a dual commentary on how human hubris is robbing Earth of its symphonic aliveness and on the moral inadmissibility of remaining silent about the destructive forces driving this loss. Carson upheld that sense of duty while confronting her own creaturely finitude as she underwent rounds of grueling cancer treatment. In a letter to Freeman from the autumn of 1959, she reports:

Mostly, I feel fairly good but I do realize that after several days of concentrated work on the book I’m suddenly no good at all for several more. Some people assume only physical work is tiring — I guess because they use their minds little! Friday night … my exhaustion invaded every cell of my body, I think, and really kept me from sleeping well all night.

And yet mind rose over matter as Carson mobilized every neuron to keep up with her creative vitality. In another letter from the same month, she writes to Freeman about her “happiness in the progress of The Book”:

The other day someone asked Leonard Bernstein about his inexhaustible energy and he said “I have no more energy than anyone who loves what he is doing.” Well, I’m afraid mine has to be recharged at times, but anyway I do seem just now to be riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and creativity, and although I’m going to bed late and often rising in very dim light to get in an hour of thinking and organizing before my household stirs, my weariness seems easily banished.

Stirring her household was Roger — the nine-year-old orphan son of Carson’s niece, whom she had adopted and was single-parenting, doing all the necessary cooking, cleaning, and housework while writing Silent Spring and undergoing endless medical treatments. All of this she did with unwavering devotion to the writing and the larger sense of moral obligation that animated her. In early March of 1961, in the midst of another incapacitating radiation round, she writes to Freeman:

About the book, I sometimes have a feeling (maybe 100% wishful thinking) that perhaps this long period away from active work will give me the perspective that was so hard to attain, the ability to see the woods in the midst of the confusing multitude of trees.

With an eye to Albert Schweitzer’s famous 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which appeared under the title “The Problem of Peace” and made the unnerving assertion that “we should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanity” in reflecting on the circumstances that led to the two world wars, she adds:

Sometimes … I want [the book] to be a much shortened and simplified statement, doing for this subject (if this isn’t too presumptuous a comparison) what Schweitzer did in his Nobel Prize address for the allied subject of radiation.

In June of that year, Carson shares with Freeman a possible opening sentence, which didn’t end up being the final one but which nonetheless synthesizes the essence of her groundbreaking book:

This is a book about man’s war against nature, and because man is part of nature it is also inevitably a book about man’s war against himself.

At that point, Carson was considering The War Against Nature and At War with Nature as possible titles, but settled on Silent Spring in September — a title inspired by Keats, Carson’s favorite poet: “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.”

Four months later, in January of 1962, she reports to Freeman the completion of her Herculean feat:

I achieved the goal of sending the 15 chapters to Marie [Rodell, Carson’s literary agent] — like reaching the last station before the summit of Everest.

Rodell had sent a copy of the manuscript to longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, who gave Carson the greatest and most gratifying surprise of her life. Struggling to override her typical self-effacing humility, she relays the episode to Freeman:

Last night about 9 o’clock the phone rang and a mild voice said, “This is William Shawn.” If I talk to you tonight you will know what he said and I’m sure you can understand what it meant to me. Shamelessly, I’ll repeat some of his words — “a brilliant achievement” — “you have made it literature” “full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” … I suddenly feel full of what Lois once called “a happy turbulence.”

In an exquisite letter to Freeman penned later that day — a letter that is itself a literary masterpiece — Carson echoes Zadie Smith’s assertion that the best reason for writing books is “to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.” She writes:

After Roger was asleep I took Jeffie [Carson’s cat] into the study and played the Beethoven violin concerto — one of my favorites, you know. And suddenly the tensions of four years were broken and I got down and put my arms around Jeffie and let the tears come. With his little warm, rough tongue he told me that he understood. I think I let you see last summer what my deeper feelings are about this when I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life!

Photograph by Bill Reaves from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962 and adrenalized a new public awareness of the fragile interconnectedness of this living world. Several months later, CBS host Eric Sevareid captured its impact most succinctly in lauding Carson as “a voice of warning and a fire under the government.” In the book, she struck a mighty match:

When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence … it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.

How tragic to observe that in the half-century since, our so-called leaders have devolved from half-truths to “alternative facts” — that is, to whole untruths that fail the ultimate criterion for truth: a correspondence with reality.

Carson, who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never lived to see the sea change of policy and public awareness that her book precipitated. Today, as a new crop of political and corporate interests threatens her hard-won legacy of environmental consciousness, I think of that piercing Adrienne Rich line channeling the great 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another scientist who fundamentally revolutionized our understanding of the universe and our place in it: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

Let’s not let Rachel Carson seem to have lived in vain.


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Kaibosh

Designed by Snask, Stockholm.

Kaibosh identity

Norwegian eyewear company Kaibosh felt that they had become too boring as opposed to what they should be — a trendy and bold eyewear brand. Their identity was too clean and they wanted to be more expressive, more outgoing. The fashionable contender would finally get a fitting dress as well as a lovely new voice. Our assignment began by keeping the existing logotype, and from there developing the new Kaibosh identity, ranging from signs, ads, packaging, bags, and posters, as well as the fit-out of their flagship store.

We started with a focus on tone of voice — they would use much more copywriting in their communication, from promotion material to interior walls.

Kaibosh identity

Kaibosh identity

The brand voice was translated into visual form and matched with a custom-made display typeface, named Sentrum, made to suit the in-store signage. Two eyelashes were added as a symbol to distinguish the identity, with graphic elements created for different scenarios.

Kaibosh identity

Kaibosh identity

We fitted the store with shelving systems, signage, colours, murals, etc., with the project ranging from typeface and still life photography to campaigns, fashion photography, notebooks, and towels.

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More from Snask.

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Leo Espinosa

Leo Espinosa is a freelance illustrator and designer from Bogotá, Colombia. His illustrations have graced the pages of magazines and children’s books earning recognition from American Illustration, Communication Arts, Pictoplasma, 3×3, and the Society of Illustrators.

Growing up in Colombia, Espinosa drew all the time, like many others in his family; his great-great-grandfather was a painter (who while fighting for the revolution in Colombia would paint many famous generals), his father was an architect and mother was an art teacher. His mother’s varied artistic endeavours and work ethic were a big influence on him.

He studied graphic design and began working as an art director in advertising, which he continued after he moved to New York. But he really wanted to give illustration a try, so he quit his job, rented a studio with another graphic designer and started a career as a freelance illustrator. He put out promotional materials and submitted his work to illustration directories, getting his work under the noses of art directors. He worked for the better part of a decade in editorial illustration for clients including The Wall Street Journal, Time, Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Fortune, and Fast Company.

In 2004, he created Studio Espinosa in partnership with his wife, Laura (who’s also a designer). Their goal was to have a stronger presence in the licensing arena by developing ideas that had been circulating in their brains for years. Studio Espinosa has created children’s books, worked on animations and designed an entire product range with Coca-Cola.

In 2012, Espinosa illustrated El Libro Magico De Pombo (The Magical Book of Pombo), which compiles popular fables written by one of Colombia’s most famous poets, Rafael Pombo. These fables are deeply embedded in Colombian culture, with many generations growing up reading them. The book was one of the largest and most demanding projects of Espinosa’s career. Putting all his heart into the project, in less than three months he illustrated about 114 spreads and full pages. The Magical book of Pombo launched at the 2012 International Book Fair in Bogotá and made it to the fair’s top 10 list, competing with adult literature.

If I love a piece of art I’m doing, then it’s likely that I’m doing it right. First there is the process of doing it, but second there is the expectation of what is going to happen when somebody else sees it.
— Leo Espinosa

Last year, Espinosa collaborated with Lucy Margaret Rozier on the tall tale picture book, Jackrabbit McCabe and the Electric Telegraph. Espinosa brings the race between man and machine to life with joyful illustrations reminiscent of Golden Age children’s books.

Espinosa has given lectures and workshops at schools and institutions including Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute and The Leonardo Museum of Science and Art. And since 2011 has served as faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Nowadays, Studio Espinosa is mostly Leo with the occasional collaboration with Laura. He divides his time between some editorial, design, and animation projects, with the majority devoted to children’s books.

You can find more of Leo Espinosa’s work on his website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as some of his older work on his blog.

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In Search of a Better World: Karl Popper on Truth vs. Certainty and the Dangers of Relativism

“Knowledge consists in the search for truth… It is not the search for certainty.”


In Search of a Better World: Karl Popper on Truth vs. Certainty and the Dangers of Relativism

“I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lamented. Nearly half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt captured the crux of the problem in her incisive reflection on thinking vs. knowing, in which she wrote: “The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning.”

This distinction between truth and meaning is vital, especially today, as political propaganda and the “alternative facts” establishment manipulate a public that would rather know than think, preying on the desire for the certitude of ready-made meaning among those unwilling to engage in the work of critical thinking necessary for arriving at truth — truth measured by its correspondence with reality and not by its correspondence with one’s personal agendas, comfort zones, and preexisting beliefs.

This essential discipline of differentiating between truth and certitude is what the influential Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper (July 28, 1902–September 17, 1994) examined at the end of his long life throughout In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years (public library).

Karl Popper

Popper writes:

All things living are in search of a better world. Men, animals, plants, even unicellular organisms are constantly active. They are trying to improve their situation, or at least to avoid its deterioration… Every organism is constantly preoccupied with the task of solving problems. These problems arise from its own assessments of its condition and of its environment; conditions which the organism seeks to improve… We can see that life — even at the level of the unicellular organism — brings something completely new into the world, something that did not previously exist: problems and active attempts to solve them; assessments, values; trial and error.

Popper argues that because the identification of error is so central to the problem-solving process, its corrective — that is, truth — is a core component of our quest for betterment:

The search for truth … no doubt counts among the best and greatest things that life has created in the course of its long search for a better world.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Carl Sagan’s insistence on science’s essential role in democracy, Popper adds:

We have made great mistakes — all living creatures make mistakes. It is indeed impossible to foresee all the unintended consequences of our actions. Here science is our greatest hope: its method is the correction of error.

Looking back on the sometimes troubled but ultimately exponential reach for a better world that had unfolded over the eighty-seven years of his life — “a time of two senseless world wars and of criminal dictatorships” — Popper writes:

In spite of everything, and although we have had so many failures, we, the citizens of the western democracies, live in a social order which is better (because more favourably disposed to reform) and more just than any other in recorded history. Further improvements are of the greatest urgency. (Yet improvements that increase the power of the state often bring about the opposite of what we are seeking.)

What often warps and frustrates our quest for betterment, Popper notes in a 1982 lecture included in the volume, is our failure to distinguish between the search for truth and the assertion of certainty:

Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories.

It is not the search for certainty. To err is human. All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain. It follows that we must distinguish sharply between truth and certainty. That to err is human means not only that we must constantly struggle against error, but also that, even when we have taken the greatest care, we cannot be completely certain that we have not made a mistake… To combat the mistake, the error, means therefore to search for objective truth and to do everything possible to discover and eliminate falsehoods. This is the task of scientific activity. Hence we can say: our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty.

[…]

Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.

In a sentiment of piercing pertinence today, as a litany of “alternative facts” attempts to gaslight an uncritical public, Popper offers a definition and admonition of elegant acuity:

A theory or a statement is true, if what it says corresponds to reality.

[..]

Truth and certainty must be sharply distinguished.

Condemning relativistic approaches to truth — ones that regard truth as “what is accepted; or what is put forward by society; or by the majority; or by my interest group; or perhaps by television” — he cautions:

The philosophical relativism that hides behind [Kant’s] “old and famous question” “What is truth?” may open the way to evil things, such as a propaganda of lies inciting men to hatred.

[…]

Relativism … is a betrayal of reason and of humanity.

It is useful here to revisit Arendt’s distinction between truth and meaning, for where truth is absolute — a binary correspondence with reality: a premise either reflects reality or does not — meaning can be relative; it is shaped by one’s subjective interpretation, which is contingent upon beliefs and can be manipulated. Certainty lives in the realm of meaning, not of truth. The very notion of an “alternative fact,” which manipulates certainty at the expense of truth, is therefore the sort of criminal relativism against which Popper so rigorously cautions — something that, as he puts it, “results from mixing-up the notions of truth and certainty.” All propaganda is in the business of manipulating certainty, but it can never manipulate truth. Arendt had articulated this brilliantly a decade earlier in her timely treatise on defactualization in politics: “No matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough … to cover the immensity of factuality.”

Illustration by Salvador Dalí for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Popper argues that the ability to discern truth by testing our theories against reality using critical reasoning is a distinctly human faculty — no other animal does this. A generation before him, Bertrand Russell — perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest patron saint of reason — called this ability “the will to doubt” and extolled it as our greatest self-defense against propaganda. The cultural evolution of our species, Popper notes, was propelled by the necessity of honing that ability — we developed a language that contains true and false statements, which gave rise to criticism, which in turn catalyzed a new phase of selection. He writes:

Natural selection is amplified and partially overtaken by critical, cultural selection. The latter permits us a conscious and critical pursuit of our errors: we can consciously find and eradicate our errors, and we can consciously judge one theory as inferior to another… There is no knowledge without rational criticism, criticism in the service of the search for truth.

But this rational criticism, Popper notes, should also be applied to science itself. Cautioning that the antidote to relativism isn’t scientism — a form of certitude equally corrosive to truth — he writes:

Despite my admiration for scientific knowledge, I am not an adherent of scientism. For scientism dogmatically asserts the authority of scientific knowledge; whereas I do not believe in any authority and have always resisted dogmatism; and I continue to resist it, especially in science. I am opposed to the thesis that the scientist must believe in his theory. As far as I am concerned “I do not believe in belief,” as E. M. Forster says; and I especially do not believe in belief in science. I believe at most that belief has a place in ethics, and even here only in a few instances. I believe, for example, that objective truth is a value — that is, an ethical value, perhaps the greatest value there is — and that cruelty is the greatest evil.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly sobering and ennobling In Search of a Better World with Descartes’s twelve timeless tenets of critical thinking, Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means.


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Victor Maury

Victor Maury is a French illustrator working as a splash artist at Riot Games. His work has received many Honours & Awards including Spectrum Rising Star Award and Society of Illustrators West Silver Award.

Born in France, Maury moved to America when he was seven years old. He and his family would regularly return to France to visit the countryside and the Pyrenees. These trips stayed with Maury, influencing his work. He dedicated six years to studying art, completing two Bachelor degrees. The first in ‘Animation’ at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by ‘Animation and Illustration’ at Ringling School of Art and Design.

Before he graduated, Maury was already freelancing for Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and Merlino Entertainment’s Heroes’ Tale card game. Now, living in California, Maury is part of Riot games’ League of Legends art team.

Maury enjoys telling stories and is known for his larger than life fantasy characters. His figures dominate the frame and demand the viewer’s attention. He is excellent at capturing the warmth and freshness of a clear day just as easily as the direness and foreboding of hellish landscapes.

You can find more Victor Maury’s work on his website, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter.

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Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it.”


Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1972 as he made his elegant case for rational faith in the human spirit, adding: “To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.”

That selfsame year, across the Atlantic, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) — another thinker of formidable foresight and abiding insight into the human experience — explored this osmotic relationship between optimism, pessimism, and hope in the fourth and final volume of her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).

Simone de Beauvoir, 1952 (Photograph: Gisèle Freund)

De Beauvoir, who lived through two World Wars, devoted much of her work to the notion that happiness is not only possible but our moral obligation — a notion rooted not in a rosy wishfulness but in an incisive intellect that used every tool of skepticism to probe untruth and dispel ignorance. A devout lifelong atheist, she reflected at the end of her life that while many of her philosophical ideas evolved over the decades, her atheism remained unflinching. She held a strong conviction that the dogmas of religion preclude the critical thinking and analytical reasoning necessary for philosophical inquiry and for the evolution of human thought itself — an interference particularly pronounced when it came to the question of whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic attitude toward life and human nature. De Beauvoir writes:

Faith is often an appurtenance that is given in childhood as part of the middle-class equipment, and that is unquestionably retained together with the rest of it. If a doubt arises, it is often thrust aside for emotional reasons — a nostalgic loyalty to the past, affection for those around one, dread of the loneliness and banishment that threaten those who do not conform… Habits of mind, a system of reference and of values have been acquired, and one becomes their prisoner.

With an eye to the ultimate delusion of religion — that of personal immortality, to which the pious cling as a hedge against the terror of the void that death presents — De Beauvoir adds:

Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.

But out of this courageous confrontation with difficulty arises an unexpected fountain of hope — that more lucid and muscular counterpart to blind optimism. De Beauvoir writes:

In what colors do I see this Godless world in which I live? Many readers tell me that what they like in my books is my delight in happiness, my love of live — my optimism. But others, particularly when they write to me about my last book, Old Age, deplore my pessimism. Both these labels are oversimplified.

[…]

My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating All Said and Done, which also gave us De Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, with Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto for hope in the dark, Helen Keller on optimism, and Jonathan Lear on radical hope, then revisit De Beauvoir on art, science, freedom, and busyness and the measure of intelligence.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”


The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating what poetry does. “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than “Do not go gentle into that good night” — a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).

Written in 1947, Thomas’s masterpiece was published for the first time in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951 and soon included in his 1952 poetry collection In Country Sleep, And Other Poems. In the fall of the following year, Thomas — a self-described “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” — drank himself into a coma while on a reading and lecture tour in America organized by the American poet and literary critic John Brinnin, who would later become his biographer of sorts. That spring, Brinnin had famously asked his assistant, Liz Reitell — who had had a three-week romance with Thomas — to lock the poet into a room in order to meet a deadline for the completion of his radio drama turned stage play Under Milk Wood.

Dylan Thomas, early 1940s

In early November of 1953, as New York suffered a burst of air pollution that exacerbated his chronic chest illness, Thomas succumbed to a round of particularly heavy drinking. When he fell ill, Reitell and her doctor attempted to manage his symptoms, but he deteriorated rapidly. At midnight on November 5, an ambulance took the comatose Thomas to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. His wife, Caitlin Macnamara, flew from England and spun into a drunken rage upon arriving at the hospital where the poet lay dying. After threatening to kill Brinnin, she was put into a straitjacket and committed to a private psychiatric rehab facility.

When Thomas died at noon on November 9, it fell on New Directions founder James Laughlin to identify the poet’s body at the morgue. Just a few weeks later, New Directions published The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), containing the work Thomas himself had considered most representative of his voice as a poet and, now, of his legacy — a legacy that has continued to influence generations of writers, artists, and creative mavericks: Bob Dylan changed his last name from Zimmerman in an homage to the poet, The Beatles drew his likeness onto the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Christopher Nolan made “Do not go gentle into that good night” a narrative centerpiece of his film Interstellar.

The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes in the 2010 edition of the volume:

Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It’s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there’s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas’s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” remains, indeed, Thomas’s best known and most beloved poem, as well as his most redemptive — both in its universal message and in the particular circumstances of how it came to be in the context of Thomas’s life.

By the mid-1940s, having just survived World War II, Thomas, his wife, and their newborn daughter were living in barely survivable penury. In the hope of securing a steady income, Thomas agreed to write and record a series of broadcasts for the BBC. His sonorous voice enchanted the radio public. Between 1945 and 1948, he was commissioned to make more than one hundred such broadcasts, ranging from poetry readings to literary discussions and cultural critiques — work that precipitated a surge of opportunities for Thomas and adrenalized his career as a poet.

At the height of his radio celebrity, Thomas began working on “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps because his broadcasting experience had attuned his inner ear to his outer ear and instilled in him an even keener sense of the rhythmic sonority of the spoken word, he wrote a poem tenfold more powerful when channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mind’s eye.

In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life:

For more beloved writers reading their own work, see Mary Oliver reading from Blue Horses, Adrienne Rich reading “What Kind of Times Are These,” J.R.R. Tolkien singing “Sam’s Rhyme of the Troll,” Frank O’Hara reading his “Metaphysical Poem,” Susan Sontag reading her short story “Debriefing,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day,”, Dorothy Parker reading “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom,” and Chinua Achebe reading his little-known poetry.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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Oliver Sacks on Evolving Our Notions of Normalcy to Include the Differently Abled

“If a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life.”


Oliver Sacks on Evolving Our Notions of Normalcy to Include the Differently Abled

“Color itself is a degree of darkness,” Goethe wrote in his theory of color and emotion. Although it was at bottom a misguided refutation of Newton, Goethe’s study of colors, in addition to inspiring artists and philosophers as wide-ranging as Schopenhauer, Gödel, and Kandinsky, inadvertently posed one of the most fascinating questions in neurology: What if color can, indeed, be experienced as degrees of achromatic darkness, and this mode of perception is not a disability but a difference in ability?

It fell on the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), the Gödel of neurology and the Goethe of science writing, to answer that question.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

A voracious lifelong reader, Dr. Sacks had grown enchanted by the H.G. Wells short story “The Country of the Blind,” set in an isolated society where blindness prevailed for three centuries and where a lost Western traveller finds himself the aberrant one, afflicted with sight. Drawing on the Wells story, his own childhood experience of visual migraines that temporarily blunted his color perception, and his neurological work with a painter who had suddenly become colorblind, Dr. Sacks bridged two of his great literary and intellectual heroes — Wells and Darwin — and wondered whether there might exist, not in fiction but in geography, a real isolated culture where total colorblindness — or achromatopsia — had become a basic condition among the population.

Because such mutations are most easily contained in cultures isolated by sea, he reasoned that if such a society existed, it would have to be on an island. After tracking down the appropriate colleague to ask, he was surprised and thrilled to learn that one such island did indeed exist — Pingelap in the Caroline archipelago of Micronesia, where total colorblindness had been coloring the genetic pool for two centuries.

In 1993, tantalized by the promise of a real world that seemed fetched from his fancy, Dr. Sacks set out for Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.” He recorded these observations in The Island of the Colorblind (public library), where they became, like all of his work at the intersection of science and literature, something much larger and richer than mere record — a wellspring of profound and poetic insight into the most central truths of the human experience gleaned from its most unusual and often stigmatized peripheries.

Pingelap, Micronesia

Like all genetic deviations from the mean, colorblindness on Pingelap had emerged due to a formidable brush with randomness. In 1775, a typhoon decimated 90% of the people living on the island. Most of the remaining survivors eventually succumbed to a slow death of starvation, so that of the one thousand islanders only twenty remained. Several centuries earlier, the original settlers had brought to Pingelap the recessive gene for colorblindness, but because the population had been large enough, the odds of two carriers marrying and the gene manifesting in their children had been fairly low. Now, with a tiny but fertile group left with no recourse but inbreeding to repopulate the island, the recessive gene suddenly flourished into growing domination and total colorblindness was soon a common condition.

When achromatopsia first appeared on Pingelap, the term maskun — local for “not-see” — was coined to refer to those afflicted. Two hundred years after the fateful typhoon, 57 of the 700 islanders were maskuns and an entire third of the population carried the gene for the condition. Total colorblindness manifested in one out of every twelve people — a gargantuan leap from the one in 30,000 precedence everywhere else in the world.

Dr. Sacks paints the unusual genetic backdrop against which this little-studied and therefore poorly understood culture plays out:

Colorblindness had existed on both Fuur and Pingelap for a century or more, and though both islands had been the subject of extensive genetic studies, there had been no human (so to speak, Wellsian) explorations of them, of what it might be like to be an achromatope in an achromatopic community — to be not only totally colorblind oneself, but to have, perhaps, colorblind parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers, to be part of a culture where the entire concept of color might be missing, but where, instead, other forms of perception, of attention, might be amplified in compensation. I had a vision, only half fantastic, of an entire achromatopic culture with its own singular tastes, arts, cooking, and clothing — a culture where the sensorium, the imagination, took quite different forms from our own, and where “color” was so totally devoid of referents or meaning that there were no color names, no color metaphors, no language to express it; but (perhaps) a heightened language for the subtlest variations of texture and tone, all that the rest of us dismiss as “grey.”

When he hears of a vision researcher at the University of Oslo named Knut Nordby — a physiologist and psychophysicist who had made his personal condition, colorblindness, the area of his professional expertise — Dr. Sacks immediately knows that his Norwegian colleague would be the perfect companion for a trip to the curious island of the colorblind. The go went on to “form a team, an expedition at once neurological, scientific, and romantic,” and depart for the archipelago harboring the mysterious island.

Dr. Sacks soon finds that his colorblind colleague reaps the rewards of the visual world as much as, if differently from, the color-seeing majority. He writes of their arrival:

For us, as color-normals, it was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes, and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other.

Indeed, Dr. Sacks and his companions discover that maskuns, especially maskun children, have adapted to and compensated for their condition in remarkable ways. Observing a group of schoolchildren, he writes:

The achromatopic children seemed to have developed very acute auditory and factual memories… [They] were oddly knowledgeable too about the colors of people’s clothing, and various objects around them — and often seemed to know what colors “went” with what… We could already observe in these achromatopic children in Mand how a sort of theoretical knowledge and know-how, a compensatory hypertrophy of curiosity and memory, were rapidly developing in reaction to their perceptual problems. They were learning to compensate cognitively for what they could not directly perceive or comprehend.

In this wonderful excerpt from a 1998 radio interview by Henry Tischler, uncovered and animated by Blank on Blank, Dr. Sacks relays the incident that illuminated for him the way in which the maskuns had transformed their condition not into a disability but into a different ability, one superior to his “normal” ability in surprising and humbling ways — an insight that applies as much to colorblindness as it does to conditions like autism:

There is a sort of critical level, so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life and won’t be marginalized and, sometimes, won’t even be noticed.

The Island of the Colorblind is a revelatory read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on death and destiny, the power of music, choosing empathy over vengeance, and his stirring recollection of his largehearted life, then revisit more Blank on Blank animated archival treasures: Leonard Cohen on creativity and his influences, Nora Ephron on women and politics, Kurt Vonnegut on what it takes to be a writer, Sally Ride’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about being a trailblazing female astronaut, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the art of love, Ray Bradbury on the secret to great storytelling, David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Jane Goodall on overcoming extraordinary odds, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, and Richard Feynman on what his father taught him about the most important thing.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

http://ift.tt/1LkXywO

Oliver Sacks on Evolving Our Notions of Normalcy to Include the Differently Abled

“If a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life.”


Oliver Sacks on Evolving Our Notions of Normalcy to Include the Differently Abled

“Color itself is a degree of darkness,” Goethe wrote in his theory of color and emotion. Although it was at bottom a misguided refutation of Newton, Goethe’s study of colors, in addition to inspiring artists and philosophers as wide-ranging as Schopenhauer, Gödel, and Kandinsky, inadvertently posed one of the most fascinating questions in neurology: What if color can, indeed, be experienced as degrees of achromatic darkness, and this mode of perception is not a disability but a difference in ability?

It fell on the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), the Gödel of neurology and the Goethe of science writing, to answer that question.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

A voracious lifelong reader, Dr. Sacks had grown enchanted by the H.G. Wells short story “The Country of the Blind,” set in an isolated society where blindness prevailed for three centuries and where a lost Western traveller finds himself the aberrant one, afflicted with sight. Drawing on the Wells story, his own childhood experience of visual migraines that temporarily blunted his color perception, and his neurological work with a painter who had suddenly become colorblind, Dr. Sacks bridged two of his great literary and intellectual heroes — Wells and Darwin — and wondered whether there might exist, not in fiction but in geography, a real isolated culture where total colorblindness — or achromatopsia — had become a basic condition among the population.

Because such mutations are most easily contained in cultures isolated by sea, he reasoned that if such a society existed, it would have to be on an island. After tracking down the appropriate colleague to ask, he was surprised and thrilled to learn that one such island did indeed exist — Pingelap in the Caroline archipelago of Micronesia, where total colorblindness had been coloring the genetic pool for two centuries.

In 1993, tantalized by the promise of a real world that seemed fetched from his fancy, Dr. Sacks set out for Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.” He recorded these observations in The Island of the Colorblind (public library), where they became, like all of his work at the intersection of science and literature, something much larger and richer than mere record — a wellspring of profound and poetic insight into the most central truths of the human experience gleaned from its most unusual and often stigmatized peripheries.

Pingelap, Micronesia

Like all genetic deviations from the mean, colorblindness on Pingelap had emerged due to a formidable brush with randomness. In 1775, a typhoon decimated 90% of the people living on the island. Most of the remaining survivors eventually succumbed to a slow death of starvation, so that of the one thousand islanders only twenty remained. Several centuries earlier, the original settlers had brought to Pingelap the recessive gene for colorblindness, but because the population had been large enough, the odds of two carriers marrying and the gene manifesting in their children had been fairly low. Now, with a tiny but fertile group left with no recourse but inbreeding to repopulate the island, the recessive gene suddenly flourished into growing domination and total colorblindness was soon a common condition.

When achromatopsia first appeared on Pingelap, the term maskun — local for “not-see” — was coined to refer to those afflicted. Two hundred years after the fateful typhoon, 57 of the 700 islanders were maskuns and an entire third of the population carried the gene for the condition. Total colorblindness manifested in one out of every twelve people — a gargantuan leap from the one in 30,000 precedence everywhere else in the world.

Dr. Sacks paints the unusual genetic backdrop against which this little-studied and therefore poorly understood culture plays out:

Colorblindness had existed on both Fuur and Pingelap for a century or more, and though both islands had been the subject of extensive genetic studies, there had been no human (so to speak, Wellsian) explorations of them, of what it might be like to be an achromatope in an achromatopic community — to be not only totally colorblind oneself, but to have, perhaps, colorblind parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers, to be part of a culture where the entire concept of color might be missing, but where, instead, other forms of perception, of attention, might be amplified in compensation. I had a vision, only half fantastic, of an entire achromatopic culture with its own singular tastes, arts, cooking, and clothing — a culture where the sensorium, the imagination, took quite different forms from our own, and where “color” was so totally devoid of referents or meaning that there were no color names, no color metaphors, no language to express it; but (perhaps) a heightened language for the subtlest variations of texture and tone, all that the rest of us dismiss as “grey.”

When he hears of a vision researcher at the University of Oslo named Knut Nordby — a physiologist and psychophysicist who had made his personal condition, colorblindness, the area of his professional expertise — Dr. Sacks immediately knows that his Norwegian colleague would be the perfect companion for a trip to the curious island of the colorblind. The go went on to “form a team, an expedition at once neurological, scientific, and romantic,” and depart for the archipelago harboring the mysterious island.

Dr. Sacks soon finds that his colorblind colleague reaps the rewards of the visual world as much as, if differently from, the color-seeing majority. He writes of their arrival:

For us, as color-normals, it was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes, and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other.

Indeed, Dr. Sacks and his companions discover that maskuns, especially maskun children, have adapted to and compensated for their condition in remarkable ways. Observing a group of schoolchildren, he writes:

The achromatopic children seemed to have developed very acute auditory and factual memories… [They] were oddly knowledgeable too about the colors of people’s clothing, and various objects around them — and often seemed to know what colors “went” with what… We could already observe in these achromatopic children in Mand how a sort of theoretical knowledge and know-how, a compensatory hypertrophy of curiosity and memory, were rapidly developing in reaction to their perceptual problems. They were learning to compensate cognitively for what they could not directly perceive or comprehend.

In this wonderful excerpt from a 1998 radio interview by Henry Tischler, uncovered and animated by Blank on Blank, Dr. Sacks relays the incident that illuminated for him the way in which the maskuns had transformed their condition not into a disability but into a different ability, one superior to his “normal” ability in surprising and humbling ways — an insight that applies as much to colorblindness as it does to conditions like autism:

There is a sort of critical level, so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life and won’t be marginalized and, sometimes, won’t even be noticed.

The Island of the Colorblind is a revelatory read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on death and destiny, the power of music, choosing empathy over vengeance, and his stirring recollection of his largehearted life, then revisit more Blank on Blank animated archival treasures: Leonard Cohen on creativity and his influences, Nora Ephron on women and politics, Kurt Vonnegut on what it takes to be a writer, Sally Ride’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about being a trailblazing female astronaut, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the art of love, Ray Bradbury on the secret to great storytelling, David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Jane Goodall on overcoming extraordinary odds, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, and Richard Feynman on what his father taught him about the most important thing.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

http://ift.tt/1LkXywO

Ween Posters by Ken Taylor and Arno Kiss (Onsale Info)

You’ll get a shot at some new posters for Ween tomorrow. The info for each is listed below. These go up tomorrow (Tuesday, January 24th) at 2pm Central Time. Visit Postersandtoys.com.

Ween Poster Set by Ken Taylor (Click the image to see larger)

Three 12″ x 24″ Screenprints, Artist Edition of 110, $50/set:

Ken Taylor

Ween by Arno Kiss

18″ x 24″ Screenprint, Artist Edition of 55, $40:

Arno Kiss

The post Ween Posters by Ken Taylor and Arno Kiss (Onsale Info) appeared first on OMG Posters!.

http://omgposters.com