The Alchemist

Being a chemist should always acknowledge the roots of the science that come from alchemy.

Sean Robinson is a great artist in his own right, and is also the master of digitally remastering old art (including an impressive and ongoing stint in remastering the entire 6000 page run of the Cerebus the Aardvark series, which originally appeared on crappy, high-bleed newsprint with runny inks. Those of us who collect the original art have always been impressed by the level of artistry that was lost and which Sean is now recovering). When I joined his and Carson Grubaugh’s “Living the Line” Patreon site, it came with a complementary pen/ink portrait done by Sean. He did a great job on mine and left a lot of white space in the composition, which always means a potential background canvas for Gerhard to tackle.

I told Ger to go nuts on the alchemy motifs, as the pose I gave to Sean was one of thoughtful pondering.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

#1 Adam (2001) by TL Lange

I’ve posted about this painting and a bit about Lange before. Here I am with the cleaned up and restored version of “#1 Adam”.

August 24, 2022

work done by: Conservation & Museum Services
Kenneth B Katz, Chemist, Conservator, and Senior Magician

TL Lange was born in 1965 and raised in Charleston before studying drawing and painting at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC, where he met Paul Martyka, an influential art professor that encouraged his vision. He also met some like-minded musicians and after a couple of years playing in Rock Hill and nearby Charlotte, his band left Rock Hill for Atlanta. As his band opened up for bigger and bigger acts in Atlanta, they also toured up the East Coast, complete with an agent. After a poor performance in New York City with a Sony representative, the band began to backpedal and TL’s love of art making started to rise.

It was in Atlanta that he switched gears from being a rockstar to being an art rockstar. Sold out shows, celebrity collectors and representation by a global distributor contributed to a move to Salt Lake City to open up an art gallery. From there, back to North Carolina and Andrews, where his East Coast representative had an art factory, and to Charlotte, where he established an Atelier. Eventually he chose Black Mountain with a huge studio and gallery in the River Arts District.

Lange started his work with “concrete visions”, and actually began several paintings at one time. He tried to allow some form of synchronicity to determine his next decision. As the artist said, “I make marks for the sake of themselves. I create error that I find attractive in all of our everyday lives. However, I leave it hanging three marks shy of discernment. What I mean by that is that I choose that it not be understood or to be scrutinized by its detail or its adherence to reality—only to be seen for its sense and its nostalgic response without my personal sentiment.”

So what was TL Lange like? From Larry Winn:

“I must have answered the question a thousand times. My short answer would be “if Hollywood were to cast a movie on an artist, TL would be both the star and the subject”. With looks like Johnny Depp, demons that have plagued artists for ages, and gifted with a burning, creative energy which would manifest into some of the most compelling imagery I have ever viewed. But of course, TL was far too complex to encapsulate in some breezy quote.”

“The words brilliant, kind, gentle and spiritual mixed with a touch of exasperating, naive, stubborn and unpredictable serve as an incomplete description of perhaps the most gifted and unique artist with whom I have ever worked. This is a day that I celebrate personally and mourn what should have been. It is also a day to celebrate the undeniable talent of T L Lange.”

In 2002, after contracting the HIV-virus, TL took his own life at age 36.


Lot 257

Let’s get up to date, first.

When the new Detroit Metro Airport opened in 2001, one of the Delta Airline SkyClubs had a large painting in the entryway as a part of its decor. I enjoyed viewing the painting when I went to that lounge. I eventually found out that the painting was called “#1Adam” and it was created by an artist named TL Lange about 2000-2002, sometime before Lange committed suicide in January 2002 (a couple of weeks after he had been diagnosed as HIV positive).

“#1Adam” TL Lange (1965-2002)
48 x 48 in., mixed media on canvas)

The original story is here.

I tried to buy the painting off the wall (I mean, why not) in 2016, but there are rules about this stuff. The Wayne County Airport Authority owned the piece (not Delta), and the disposition of any county property is subject to (a) it being decommissioned and (b) it going up for public auction. I had some fun correspondence with both Delta and the Airport Authority, and I could keep an eye on the wall.

In lieu of pulling a heist, I commissioned a watercolor interpretation and called it “#2Adam.”

#2 Adam” (2017)
by Tessa Kindred (1989-)
9 x 12 in., watercolor and acrylic on paper

The original story is here and here.

In early 2019, the SkyClubs were set for renovation, so I remade my contacts and asked if #1Adam would be staying or going.


OK. Keep me posted for when he hits the surplus auction block. OK? OK!

And then: COVID hit. Airports closed up. Offices and support closed up. Auctioning surplus was not a priority. I kept checking in. Maybe in two weeks. Maybe next month. The office I was talking with was incredibly cheerful and patient.

On June 14, 2022, I checked in again. Still in storage.

But, as it turns out, an industrial auction of mechanical surplus was underway since June 1. They added #1Adam to the end of that auction: Lot 257.

If coincidences with numbers is your thing, 2/57 is my month and birth year. Just saying.

Within a day, there was a surprising level of interest, given the lack of notice as the tail end of an auction filled with supplies, file cabinets, and mechanical goods. And then… the notification came in: when they went to retrieve #1Adam to get it to the auction space, it looked like this:

#1Adam was the victim of a leaky roof. The auction was rebooted with the prospect of damage having been done. How much? Was it reversible?

Time for a little investigation. I contacted an oil painter whom I trust who said that “canvas is very forgiving” and as long as some of the mixed media was not water-based, she thought that looked like it might all be surface cleaning and not restoration. I contacted the University museum’s department of restoration and repair. We do not have an on-site painting expert as there is not enough constant work for that, but they did give me their #1 person whom they contract with when needed, who works with all the Detroit area museums and nationally. He looked at the pictures and said the same thing as the painter: likely to be something cleaned from the surface and it would likely be “as good as new.”

So that was enough for me (not that I was not going to try for it, anyhow). When you think about the tone of this painting, my first impression was that those marks could have been part of the original piece if I did not know otherwise. Or, if permanent damage, crop the canvas. But the optimism was a bonus.

I was in contact with the auction venue, and when the painting finally made it there on June 23, I was allowed to pay a visit to get an up-close on it. The back of the canvas was signed (2001) and the condition was pristine.

What do you think? Did Lange have another title in mind for this?

June 25 – 01:59 PM – there have been 6 different bidders who moved up the price to $375. Was there a fanatic in there? And was there anyone else sitting in the weeds, like me, not making themselves known, until now. I dropped my bid.

June 25 – 02:00-2:03.57 PM – there was one live bidder left, the same one who pushed it to $375, and no one else in the weeds. The auction was to end at 02:04 PM, but the live bidder dropped another $200 in at the last minute, hoping that the final bid price was close (it was not). Another minute was added to the auction and it ran down to zero.

June 25 – 02:05 PM

Winner Winner
Chicken Dinner

And at the end of the day, the auction price plus what it takes to restore it is quite likely going to end up being less than what a competitive auction for the undamaged piece would have been.

Funny how things work out.

Update: June 28

I rented a U-Haul van and got the painting from the auction site to the conservation and restoration place in Detroit. The place was fantastic: a large open studio with the boss surrounded by five artists, all ass-deep in painting projects, and that delicious smell of oil and art in the air. The owner is a former HS Chemistry teacher from NYC, and his son (doing an MD residency) took our organic chemistry courses in 2010-11.

The good news: the majority of what you see on the smears and drips is surface coverage. He took a dipped piece of cotton on a stick, and the white shit simply wiped off and did not lift any pigment. Those three strong drip stains did furrow the paint just a bit, but with the color undiminished you need to get within about 6 inches to see it. It’s fixable. We’ll figure that out once they’ve gone over the entire thing.

One interesting footnote: while organic solvents, particularly acetone, used to be the primary cleaners, the conservation field has switching to aqueous solutions, using various mixtures of ammonia and citric acid.

Update: July 22

First pass on cleaning.

Now for some restoration.

Update: August 10

Wow. Wow. Wow.


Textbook Part 6

I started my first faculty position in Sept 1982 when I was 25 years old. At the end of the current semester, I hit 40 years in the profession (yes, you can do that other math, too).

January 2021: Books A and B are ready to be produced. Book C is barely underway. And it is now pretty clear that the publisher has cold feet about investing at all – as it becomes a lot clearer what I am doing with it as a Creator-owned property. That’s OK, I have worked as the editor for a quarterly publication since 1998, and I trust my production person there for advice.

February 2021: That self-same production person offered to take on the project (at roughly 1/3 the net cost that the publisher would have been looking for). Starting now, I moved from toggling between author and development editor to also being production manager. I like understanding how things work.

At right about this time, the Grand Calendar was set. Some of my colleagues were interested in starting with the books in fall 2021 (a year early and estimated pre-covid). Because the fall term would only have been Books A and B, pulling this trigger would set a series of related events in motion if Books A and B were to be in student hands at the end of August and Books C and D in hands on January 4, 2022.

June 15: Books A and B press ready
Oct 15: Books C and D press ready

It’s February. Books A and B are Word files with pasted in art and questions (although the art is 100% final form, and the text is complete… it’s about 95% of a book). Book C was, I think, about 3 chapters in (of 4 plus 5 appendices), and Book D was a sparkle in my eye. That is easy math: I needed to start hitting about 3 weeks per chapter while dealing with whatever was going to be needed during production (responding to questions and proofing inquiries, at least). I also needed to commission the covers from the wonderful art studio that does some spectacular scientific illustration (Ella Maru).

No pain. No gain. I was going to be doing a lot of bike riding in 2021, and no travel anyhow.

Without that time loss from covid, this would have been easier. On the other hand, work fills the available space, so it might not have been that different.

It was clear in April that Book A would be ready for press by Jun 15 but Book B was not. I was this|close to pulling the trigger on 2021 when Plan B hit me. Book B is already 95% OK. Send it to press as a one-time, collector’s as an ashcan or bootleg version, printed from my own Word files.

And that is what happened.

June 15: Book A and bootleg B went to press. Book B was ready at the end of July. So close.

Aug 1: I wrote the last word in Book D. If you take from this that I wrote the entire thing linearly from chapter 1, page 1, through to the end, without changing the outline, you would be correct.

Aug 15: started the first page of the answer key – 2 weeks before it might conceivably be needed. Why do anything the easy way?

Aug 30: books were in hand, and within days they were being used – vociferously. A design prediction from 2018 was being tested for the first time.

I was staying about 2-3 weeks ahead on the answer key. The fact that the future slots on the web site were blank went almost completely unnoticed.

Oct 15: Book C ready for press, but Book D in as a bootleg.

Nov 20: Book D done.

Jan 5: Books C and D in hand as the second term begins. I was now about a month ahead on the answer key thanks to the holiday break. Some supply chain hiccups and learning more than I wanted to know about how quote/unquote bookstores work these days (managing editor work).

Mar 1, 2022: answer key completed. The first edition was finally “done” in a real sense, and we had been using it for 7 months already thanks to a little luck and the idiosyncratic design.

How much of the original Ege text remains? A couple of homages… a few bits of its DNA linger. There were, I think, 3 passages that I lifted and only needed to edit slightly, which I simply wanted to do in a few places, so her voice was there in the background as a guest speaker. Getting permissions for using spectral data (and anything else) is a giant pain in the ass. So I already had secured permission to continue using those items from the 5th edition in as many new works as I created after I took ownership (playing the long game). We had also generated our own NMR spectra for the 5th edition, so that whole permissions issue was off the table (and if you can tell which of those images I fabricated from the raw materials I had to work with, pat yourself on the back).

As I wrote elsewhere at this site:

The books are designed to expand the pedagogical mission of a standard textbook with detailed explanations, a guided analysis of important ideas, and scaffolded set of open response questions to be worked on and filled in as the learner progresses. The approach is practical and to the point, reflecting the benefits of learning from thousands of students over 40 years. The writing style favors a more personal story-telling narrative that emphasizes explanation.

The text is the singular vision of its author. The project was self-funded and self-produced without changes being dictated by market forces or editorial demands. The book is a wholly owned property of the author.

I had two points I wanted to make upon starting this project.

First, that what constitutes a “textbook” could be different and it would promote student engagement.

Second, that what constitutes “authorship” and the issues surrounding Creator’s Rights could be different and still work.

I think the jury is still out, despite the early positive returns. The book appears to be at least one of the factors leading to an extreme polarization of the students. The A/B end is skewing positive (which is amazing) and the C/D/E end is skewing negative (not really moving negatively, just not advancing like the others). There are multiple contributing factors, including the post-covid bad habits.

Let’s see how this plays out over the next few years.

I’m satisfied that the real experiment is getting done. If it works, great; if it does not, it was not for lack of trying or from compromising the design.

We get these expensive graduate educations to identify and think about new solutions to vexing problems. I’ve always been interested in taking my education and thinking about the vexing problems in education. Not everyone understood or agreed with my decision.

Fortunately, I am singularly bad at both listening and at normative behavior.


Textbook Part 5

January 4, 2020: We were on our usual interview trip in China for the PhD program. The first student we interviewed, coincidentally enough, was from Wuhan University. The irony of that would be evident within about 3 weeks.

March 4, 2020: Admit the stirrings of concerns, travelled out to San Francisco. The most evident thing was people not lingering as much in shared spaces, and lots of scrubbing of surfaces. During free time, I was not hanging out with my computer at the local Starbucks, but rather sitting in a less crowded lounge area of the hotel.

March 11, 2020: As I was flying back from San Francisco, the University of Michigan was announcing its decision to close down for two days and let everyone go home. I was not teaching that term, for which I was quite happy. I started to worry about the fall, though, and the loss of student-student social aspects of learning, and particularly about the impossibility of testing fairly. Heads down on Book C… easy enough to stay home with.

By May-June, it seemed pretty clear and advisable to me that fall term was going to be online (and I wrote my cruise ship essay here at this site). I also ended up completely bringing writing to a halt as I started to think about the fall 2020 term.

It took weeks to master an online testing system and develop new genres of questions, all of which to try and stick with machine scoring only, but still preserve what would could get with open response, while at the same time circumventing as much cheating as possible by delivering individual exams to individual students. I could never solve the “friendly expert sitting with you” problem, but I was pretty sure I could stop collaboration.

Learning how to do this, and then actually doing it, was a huge (and I mean YUGE) time sink. I got nothing written July-Dec 2020, and came back up for air in January 2021.

The fact that I am coming back up for air in March 2022 tells you everything about the last 15 months you might want to know.

Textbook Part 4

At the outset, I was taking about 2 months to do a chapter. So at 20 chapters, 4 years seemed like the right estimate.

I hate revising. Here was my game plan; really, just a game. Write the text (words) and leave placeholders for the figures (Fig 0101, 0102, 0103…) along with a reminder for what I thought needed to be shown. And try to get the placements right without needing to go back and renumber them (at least once the writing part was finished for that chapter). The detailed outline was important to this game, as was the dead time before writing anything and keeping the entire plot in my head. Casual bike rides along a familiar path ended up being indispensable ways to simply think and plan and revise before writing. I was definitely writing and revising drafts in my head.

With a chapter’s text completed and the spots for figures placed, I went back and started to work on the art. While writing a chapter might take anywhere from 5-10 days, grinding through the art took twice that time. And there were about 70 questions to write and format for each chapter, which are also merely art.

As the end of the first term course (Books A and B) got closer to completion, near the end of 2019, I started thinking about production (taking my manuscript with its pasted in art and using publishing software to make it look more like a book, along with the editorial proofing). I planned on using the resources of the printer, and more or less hiring them as a service, the cost of which would be deducted as books were eventually sold. The preliminary negotiations with them seemed fine, so I soldiered on to Book C.

Worry about production when the time comes.

Are you keeping track of the time?

I clearly missed the memo when it said 2020 was going to go sideways with a global pandemic.

Fucking covid.

Textbook Part 3

By summer 2018 I had my plan.

Nothing in and of a textbook today needs to be particularly useful once the course is over, including the book itself. A crossword puzzle book is not written to be preserved in a full color, glossy, hardbound splendor. It is consumable. No effort at all is spent on its shelf legacy. Textbooks, in other words, are now squarely in the realm of the majority of most other books.

I had years of experience with “course packs” (a cheap, spiral-bound b/w printing of collections of our old exams, updated annually). Our examinations are open response, (posed with data, write real answers on paper). And students consumed these course packs year after year: puzzle books. Convenient to carry, the spiral binding allows you to fold them open while working and to share your work with others. As a book, it looks cheap and invites writing. For decades, these things were universally deemed the most essential resource we had, and we were at a point when students were obsessing over ONLY old exam questions instead of reading the book and working on those preparatory exercises. It was a problem.

But this experience with the course packs gave me a plan: a consumable version of a textbook with its pedagogical focus.

Good thing I was doing this on my own. No publisher would have understood it. No one they sent their marketing prospectus out to would have understood it. And the conversation about doing it would have ended with filling the water glasses over that dinner meeting along with a plea “Just write us a book we can sell, will you?”

Um, negatory to that, good buddy. See ya on the flip side.

During most of July-August 2018, I committed a detailed outline to the design of this textbook and its content.

Intro essay, at least marginally related to the TOPIC
Sec 1.1 subtopic, parts A/B/C/D
questions about Sec 1.1 (formatted as our exam questions are)
Sec 1.2 subtopic, parts A/B/C/D
questions about Sec 1.2 (formatted as our exam questions are)
Sec 1.3 subtopic, parts A/B/C/D
questions about Sec 1.3 (formatted as our exam questions are)
Sec 1.4 subtopic, parts A/B/C/D
questions about Sec 1.4 (formatted as our exam questions are)
Outro essay: “What did we learn on the show tonight, Craig?”
Chapter questions.

There are 3-4 subtopics per chapter; always chopped up as A/B/C/D; each section more or less representing 1-2 class days (usually 1); always a set of questions to follow, separated from the Haiku of the pacing in the section. And then at the appropriate breaks, sets of exam questions (the old course pack content). Appendices for the critical reference materials that are part of the learning (think of them as subroutines: GoSub nomenclature, GoSub spectroscopy). There needed to be 4 volumes (2 per term, to keep things portable). Each inside front cover gives the big plan; each chapter has its detailed table of contents; but there is no index. Indices are a reference feature for a shelf item. Someone learning from the book does not need an index.

All this stuff needed to be figured out up front, of course. You cannot be deciding on a new feature while you are writing chapter 10 – not if you want to ever finish and be sane. Think it through; commit; don’t look back.

I wrote word 1 on page 1 of chapter 1 on September 1, 2018. I figured maybe 4 years before it could be in the hands of students (Fall 2022).


Textbook Part 2

What was the revelation that hit me within two hours?

Until recently, textbooks needed to serve two purposes.

First, textbooks are meant to be learning vehicles, filled with pedagogical detail and guidance and explanation for people who have no prior knowledge of the subject. And hopefully written by people who have a degree of pedagogical content knowledge (ideas about teaching the subject that derive from understanding the subject combined with a utility belt’s worth of teaching strategies).

Second, textbooks were (note the tense) meant to be a bookshelf reference. Even as you were learning, if you needed to query the subject, you reach for the book and hit the index.

News alert for the 21st Century: no one reaches for a book to do this any more, not when the entire internet is a clever keyword (and key phrase) indexing system away and you carry it around in your pocket.

As I sat for the first time as a prospective author, I was faced with words and diagrams in the fifth edition of the Ege text that were bogged down in the world of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when textbooks serving two purposes were necessary. It’s only something you really see, I guess, when you are thinking about writing and what you want to say.

By 2015, I knew instinctively that I only needed to think about the pedagogical mission and not the reference mission, but the narrative of this 5th edition, whose basic foundation dated from a time when these missions were integrated, was simply falling apart as I even thought about editing the manuscript.

Surely this issue had been resolved in more contemporary texts?

Honestly, I knew the answer to that question, but I looked anyway. Book after book… all the same. Market pressure and the nature of how textbooks (and other commercial creative works) are created is central to this. Let me explain.

I never got past the initial conversation about authoring when it came up in my office, over and over during the years, because I am a strong Creator’s Rights advocate. Why does that matter? Because books are written as what is called “work for hire.” It’s the old press, studio, and gallery deal (the “We” who run the presses and own the galleries): We hire you to produce a work that We own and have complete control over. We cut you in for a piece of the action (royalties) but We retain ownership. If you do not want to edit something or revise something after We ask you to, then We retain the right to hire someone else to do it and they get their piece of the action, too. So the creators of Superman were paid their agreed upon fee and the company owns the property. And the Creators signed on from the outset (it’s called a work for hire contract). When Superman hits big, the Creators have no claim. Music artists who worked for a label; actors who worked for a movie or TV studio; and on and on. Many industries have come around (billion-dollar profits from films do not only remain with the suits), and production and distribution technologies (who can record, who can print) have loosened the monopoly previously held by publishers.

Throughout the years, my dinner conversations with publishers were short: I am happy to create a book, but I am going to finance it and own the property. I will provide edited and camera-ready copy. What I need you to do is enter into a licensing deal with me to print and distribute. Needless to say, those conversations were over even before the water glasses were filled and the bread basket was at the table.

Books are created by the suits, the suits want to sell as many books as they can. The suits cannot write books; they need to hire authors to generate the IP. Then they need the author as an employee who does what is asked based on market surveys. In my life, I met many textbook authors who went into text writing because of their intellectual and emotional enthusiasm to truly bring a personal vision forward. And in my life, the textbook authors I met were nearly always unhappy and frustrated by the process and how the product ended up.

And that brings me back to 2015. In less than two hours it was as clear as a bell that I needed to think about “design” in a big way if I wanted to create a textbook that was not bogged down by its mission as an on-the-shelf reference source at the same time it was serving its pedagogical mission.

And that took another 3 years.

Textbook Part 1

I wrote a textbook.

Let’s review.

In 2007, I inherited the ownership of the 5th Edition of the Organic Chemistry textbook written by my late colleague, Seyhan Ege. I had been a consultant since the 2nd edition, and through its editions the book traced the insights and changes to the organic teaching program at the University of Michigan. The copyright on the fifth edition was 2003, and I continued to have a custom edition of the book printed. The course continued to evolve and the book, obviously, did not, and the divergence started to get substantial.

Around 2013 or so, I figured I might update the book by having the text extracted and placed into an editable manuscript. Seyhan’s only wish was that anything I did was not a “6th Edition” of her book. Her oeuvre would stand. Whatever was done was now on me.

It took until 2015 to clear some space and time.

Pencils sharpened. Knuckles cracked. Ready to roll.

Pursuing this strategy lasted less than two hours.