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Tradition Meets Technology

Longtime El Segundo resident, artist, art instructor, and Arts & Culture Advisory Committee Chair Neal Von Flue speaks of his background, his interest in the intersection of art and technology, and his influences.

Q&A by Maureen Kingsley

Artist Neal Von Flue at home
Neal Von Flue

1. TESS: Neal, could you share a bit about your roots here in El Segundo and your upbringing?

NVF: My great-grandfather moved here to work at Standard Oil in the 1920s. My kids are the fourth generation in our family to graduate from El Segundo High. We’ve almost always worked or owned a business in town; my father was an engraver and machinist who ran his shop in Smoky Hollow all my life. And, when I was married, my wife and I ran our art studio here for more than 15 years.

2. When and how did your interest in creating, making art, and writing start?

To continue on the family thread, most everyone in my family has been a builder or maker of some kind. I may be the first to be labeled “artsy” or “creative,” but I live with the effect that the generations before me have had on my world. From building houses and engineering to working on cars and bikes, making and fixing things has been a constant part of my family’s life and impacted me from an early age. I learned that any idea that you might have is possible. My family inspired a sense of craft, and, more importantly perhaps, a sense that there isn’t really a gatekeeper when it comes to making your ideas a reality.

From a more linear standpoint regarding art, I always loved drawing, but my experience in high school was more technically oriented. I took animation, photography, and drafting (when that was still a thing) but no formal drawing or painting instruction until I started at El Camino College. That was a profound art experience and cemented my half-baked and youthful ideas for a career. From there, I went into the arts.

These works by Neal, listed clockwise from top left, are: "Tantalus," "Her Father Arrested," "It'll Get So Quiet," "Abhayasta Hand," and "Sweeping Up."

3. Could you summarize for readers your interest in the intersection of art and technology, and provide a few examples of your work in this area?

I think I’m lucky in that I had just enough experience in art-making prior to the ubiquity of computers and digital life. I learned to admire craft and tradition, and approached the sea change that digital art brought with that perspective in mind. In the early days, I wanted to find paths to make digital art look technically real—to find where the aesthetics overlapped—and eventually that evolved into finding paths to merge these ways of being creative and finding the ways that they complement each other and grow. Now, I think that the long history of traditional art has formed a bedrock of strengths, good design, and aesthetics. These qualities can sometimes seem boring, but they also temper the frenetic explosion of digital art and help it mature and solidify.

Neal Von Flue's artwork: "The Jerk"
"The Jerk" by Neal Von Flue

I had been interested in comics and visual language in college. As the internet became widespread, my first steps were in making comics online. I wanted to explore the new potentials for narrative. For example, almost all of storytelling in history—whether spoken or written—has been linear. We are meant to consume a book from beginning to end at the direction of the author, et cetera. But with the foundational invention of the hyperlink, stories could take any shape; or, better yet, the shape could be decided by the viewer. Instead of showing the reader chapters 1 through 10 in chronology, you can provide random links to every chapter. Or you can provide visual icons for each chapter that have no explicit context or order, and that moving framework will ensure that the story is new every time. This excited me as a young artist, and inspired a 20-year obsession with blending technology and tradition. I worked to make narrative models that weren’t linear—they had depth, or pockets in them. Pieces of the story were there if you wanted them, and tangents could shoot off in any direction or be a part of the whole. There were also the formal properties of visual storytelling that became possible on the early internet: a near-infinite canvas, multimedia interaction through embedded animation or audio. And to top it off, it brought an unprecedented amount of direct contact with readers and fellow creators—no publishers or distribution models were in the way. You had to learn to be a content creator, programmer, and marketing team all in one, but it was a very exciting place to be making work.

I later learned about QR codes and figured out how they worked. They are a sort of visual hyperlink, and so I looked for ways to integrate them into tradition by painting large-scale codes that pointed to multimedia and text. I could make those same multipath stories from before, but now they could only be accessed by using your phone to scan a code embedded in a painting. [See two of Neal's paintings that incorporate QR codes below. Try pointing your QR code reader at them, too!]

One of the great things about this is that we’ve only reached a portion of the possibilities that technology might provide creators. The internet now is almost unrecognizable as the place I started. In something like oil painting, we’re still using essentially the same tools and technology that they had in the Renaissance. But in the digital world, advances in the medium create new possibilities—and sometimes new mediums altogether.

Artwork by Neal Von Flue: "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid," oil on paper, 2020
"Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid" by Neal Von Flue

4. What is your favorite medium with which to work? What types of fine art resonate most with you?

That’s really hard to say. I am largely self-taught and so many mediums are interesting to me. I do enjoy sculpting and writing, and I love playing music. But I think I come back to painting most of all. I would say that the idea chooses its medium, but I can’t say I’ve ever had an experience that sounds so dramatic and thrilling as all that. I bounce around as things seem to fit together.

As for what art resonates with me, I really wish I could dance. At the risk of sounding cliché, so much of me is just a frustrated dancer, really. I have a poor connection to my own body and am constantly in awe of people who can be creative with their physicality and sense of space. To me, dancing is a supreme form of expression and so admirable.

5. How would you describe to readers the work you have been doing recently with generative adversarial networks?

The series grew out of that same interest in bridging traditional and digital art. Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs for short) are a form of artificial intelligence that can create images based on a given ruleset. There are two parts to a GAN: the generator network, whose job is to create new images, and the discriminator, who determines whether the generator has done a good job or not. They are given the same set of rules and pitted in a game of sorts (hence the “adversarial” part of the name). They bounce works back and forth, and the feedback they create improves the work and helps them learn to be better. It’s a really interesting development in the explosion of machine-learning capabilities. Incredibly deft fake images of our world are being made by machines. You can go to for a quick example of how GANs can make imperceptible fakes of our world. GANs can also breed really bizarre images as well.

I’ve been using a network to create images that aren’t quite copies of reality but aren’t completely digital either. Then I take these images and recreate them as oil paintings, using classical painting techniques. They start as digital visions of what a machine assumes our world is like, then end up as real copies of a fake perception of our world. Doing this yields a number of interesting results: The GAN’s creative/adversarial process is very similar to the artist/viewer relationship—it’s symbiotic. It also mirrors our own bias, as we only see the successful results of their collaboration, not the countless times that it has rejected its own work. Like us, it learns more from failure.

There’s also a huge technical challenge in recreating digital images in oil paint. It’s like taking art lessons from the AI—I have to really use every trick I’ve learned in order to recreate the image faithfully. But I’ve found the biggest challenge is keeping my own bias out of the image. Being human, I can’t help but try to decipher images, to find the meaning in abstraction. But I have to try and just recreate what the neural network has made, the same way that a still life artist would paint a plate of fruit—not the faces or shapes or stories that I can create from the evocative image.

6. Could you talk a bit about your presentation “The Creativity Diagram”?

The Creativity Diagram came about after I had moved from a life as a working artist to having a “day job.” I was lucky enough to work for the Recreation and Parks department before I began teaching, and immersing myself in that work gave me time to step back from art and determine what my artistic values were. I had spent years making things, and at the same time I had no way to describe the process. So I spent time researching artists that I admired, and it was a useful exercise to figure out the things I had a working knowledge of. I realized that I had a method which I had never identified, really: a process that seemed to resonate with some other artists’ experiences. I then found it was easiest to convey this idea through a Venn diagram, to identify the resources and see where they overlapped. It isn’t a direct answer to the age-old question, “Where do ideas come from?” because ideas are everywhere. It’s what you do with them that matters—how you nurture and grow them—and the Creativity Diagram was a way for me to quantify this process of “growing” an idea from a seed to some kind of plant. Other artists have taken it on and found similar results, and I find it’s useful across disciplines.

I also found ways that you can use it as a troubleshooting guide. It can be a tool for getting out of creative blocks, or for guidance mid-project. It provides me with a structure for striving to make the best work that I can. I developed the diagram into a presentation that I give to art groups, schools, or creative businesses. The presentation provides explanations of the key resources and how to develop them, where this diagram overlaps or contrasts with other models for creativity, and examples of its use as a problem-solving tool. More info can be found here.

7. Could you discuss how your interest in history (particularly the darker bits) influences the art you create?

It’s fair to say the darker elements of history I think, but I haven’t done that on purpose. I’m interested in artists—learning from them by examining their accomplishments—and accomplishments need context. During the time I stepped back from making art, I would write essays to organize my thoughts or try to understand the work of other artists. I wrote an essay about the great artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. She is almost single-handedly responsible for developing the discipline known as art therapy during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s, and the positive effect her work has had on the world cannot be overstated. But that research led to acknowledging the scores of terrible factors in her life that made her the inspiring and compassionate person that she was.

I also wrote a couple of essays about the love affair between Lee Miller and Roland Penrose: two people without whom we wouldn’t have Cubism and Surrealism as legitimate art schools. But to tell each of these stories is to tell the story of the World Wars and the Holocaust. These miserable conditions were directly related to how much they achieved: they provide the context and the contrast.

It wasn’t always about wars, though. I was introduced to the work of Jay Defeo and was absolutely flattened by the breadth of it. But to make sense of how she got there is to understand her incredible personal challenges and obsessions. So yes, the darker elements of history for these artists have provided a way to contrast the incredible light they have left for us. Dark as it may be, I find constant inspiration.

8. What are some of the biggest rewards of teaching high school students at Vistamar School? Has teaching art had an influence at all on how you make art?

Absolutely. I think, without a doubt, teaching has provided more personal reward than my own work can. I had years to develop what I thought would be a purposeful curriculum for art students, and Vistamar has given me a place to reinforce and refine those findings. The foundational lesson I received from the instructors at El Camino was that an art teacher’s primary job is not to dispense knowledge but to provide the structure and supplies, and hold the space. In other words, if you remove the obstacles in front of self-discovery, then a willing student will progress much faster and find more self-worth than they might have had you made them sit and listen to a lecture.

Art instruction is immersive, project-based, and differentiated; no two students grow at the same rate, and a productive teacher learns to work with individuals—providing what each one needs to grow. Vistamar embraces that idea of instruction, and I believe that this foundation has a good chance of building the skills required to be successful in any discipline: critical thinking, creative problem solving, intentionality, and personal responsibility. I’m incredibly lucky to work alongside colleagues that recognize the value of that skillset, in a school that strives to make that unique experience for every student.

9. Could you discuss your role as Chair of El Segundo’s Arts & Culture Advisory Committee and anything you’d like to share about the committee’s projects and goals?

I am really pleased to be appointed as this year’s chair of the ACC. We ended 2019 in a great position: we had a strong committee and an independently-generated Creative Economy Report that provides details regarding the importance of the arts in El Segundo’s fiscal strength and growth. We also had a newly implemented Cultural Development Program that will provide opportunity for public creative projects, city-wide improvements, and cultural enrichment in our future. We had public art initiatives moving forward and we were all excited to build on last year’s progress.

Then came a worldwide pandemic. Our community has risen to the challenges that COVID-19 has created and recognized that art and culture are necessary in times of crisis. Cultural institutions like El Segundo Public Library, ESTV, and ESMoA have all become great resources for residents and a much-needed thread of community connection in a time of isolation. As of this writing I have no idea where we will land. But I hope that when it’s time to come out of our caves, we will be able to continue where we left off: with a solid committee of people, passionate about art and culture as well as diversity of thought and expression in our little town.

Visit Neal online here.

He is also published in El Segundo Writes.

El Segundo's Arts & Culture Advisory Committee is online here.

This story appears in the June 2020 issue.

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