Slowing Down

drawing 2 may 18

My creative output has slowed down a bit–that’s for sure. Remember when I wrote last May about having just five minutes at a time? It’s kind of like that.

But this time I am not as focused on “finishing something” in the short amount of time that I have. I don’t rush. Instead, I savor every free minute I can manage.

This means that I could be working on a single, simple, drawing or collage for weeks at a time. Often it seems like nothing is really happening. I keep at it anyway, but it’s like going back to writing business correspondence by hand and mailing it when you could just send an email. (Can you imagine? Talk about a slow down of the economy!)

But, since I am not counting on any financial remuneration for my artwork, that ambling pace is ok. I’m the only one to set any deadlines or expectations on my work. And without the pressure to get something done, I can slow down and stretch the time out, enjoying it more. Right now I find that it’s satisfying to work that way, even if I have less actual work to show for it.

I’ve said before that this is about enjoyment, pleasure, exploration and discovery for me. Finding all of that in a new situation needs a new approach. Most of our modern lives wouldn’t tolerate a slow down like this. But my art can, so I take advantage of it.

Just a Bit of Friction…

With just a little effort, I could go paperless at work.

I could bring my laptop to meetings and type up my notes instead of writing them in a notebook, like many of my co-workers do. Already, most of my copy editing is done in Microsoft Word using “track changes;” it’s less and less often that I mark up a hard copy and hand someone my suggested changes. And at work, we almost (almost!) have software that allows us to easily annotate and edit magazine page layouts PDFs right on the screen.

I look at the laser printer on my desk and think, “Boat anchor.”

But I ask myself: Do I want to give up pens, pencils, and paper? Do I want to give up handwriting?

The answer is no–or at least, “not yet.”

I have worked too hard to regain my writing to give it up so easily. (You can read about that here.)

And there is something about moving a pen or pencil, gripping it and balancing it in your hand, that seems so much more alive than typing onto a screen does. Our hands are amazing instruments that can perform many, many tasks. They can hold, pinch, grip, push, pull and more. When we use them for simply pushing down keys–or just touching a flat, smooth screen–it seems to be sad compromise of convenience. (And besides, you can’t doodle in the margins of your computer.)

Maybe I am being old-fashioned, or maybe it’s just that writing and drawing have become intertwined for me. After all, what’s the difference between writing a letter beautifully and drawing it?
Either way, with just a bit of friction, ink or pigment is left on paper. Simple lines combine to become ideas and images with a life of their own. It’s intense. It’s delicate. And either way, it’s art.

Taking Back What Is Twisted

A little more than 10 years ago, when I still lived in New Jersey, I attended a two-day workshop with collage artist Jonathan Talbot. It was a wonderful class and the techniques I learned have become staples in my art methods.

But there was a lesson he taught that has followed me even beyond art making.

In the early part of the class, he showed us a page torn from a book. He explained that he would pass around the sheet so we could each tear off a piece to use in a collage. Everyone must tear off a piece, he explained, it was not optional.

When the page came to me, I immediately recognized that it was rag paper–very old rag paper. Plus, the print on it (was it letterpress?) had those funny ‘s’s that look like ‘f’s. I held my breath, tore off a piece, and passed it to the next student.

Once the sheet had made the rounds, Talbot asked us if we knew how old the paper we had just destroyed was. “One hundred years old!” someone guessed. “No, more like 500,” I said, my heart simultaneously racing and sinking. What had I done?

“Yes, 500 is a good guess,” Talbot responded, and everyone in the class groaned. But then he continued, “Ok, before you get too upset, answer this: What language is that on the page?” I looked down at my scrap and saw the phrase, “Gracias al Señor,” or “Thanks to the Lord,” so I said, in practically a whisper, “Spanish…”

“Yes!” he told us. “Anyone hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Good. So what you just tore up was a set of instructions for burning heretics. Now do you all feel better?” Relief passed through the class. “Nothing is too precious to be destroyed,” he concluded, and we went back to our works in progress.

The collage I made that includes that scrap hangs in my living room. I think about Talbot’s point often, and have reached an understanding of what he meant, and also what he didn’t.

That’s because to me, the lesson is also that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. There is nothing that cannot be used as the raw material for art. Nothing is beyond hope.

In Letter 9 of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one devil explains to another that only God can create, and all tempters can do is twist His creations so that they are used unnaturally. (Devils did not create wine, for example, but they can tempt people to drink too much of it too often.) So I like to remember this: Art allows us to take back what is twisted, to take our own fires of The Inquisition and use that heat and light to restore beauty.

Trying It Out

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.
Twyla Tharp

My first try at oil pastels!

A friend and I recently had a conversation that wandered to the topic of how younger women dress. We wondered out loud, “What does it mean if they are dressed provocatively? Does it mean they want attention? That they want to be looked at?” (Of course, we asked with curiosity, not condemnation.)

I tried to remember back to my own time in college. What did I wear, and why? What was I thinking when I dressed each morning? After all, from what I recall, my outfits could range from worn-out jeans and a tee to skirts, blouses, and blazers. The jeans might be tight; they might be loose. The skirt could be any length. Surely everyone around me, including me, was confused about what I was doing and who I was.

And you know what? That’s ok. That’s what you do at that age–try out roles, identities, and personalities. (Some of us do it with more than clothes!) How else can we decide, as women, if we are comfortable being looked at? How else will we know if we would rather others make assumptions about us based on the careless or meticulous way we present ourselves? All we are doing is trying something on to decide if we like it enough to keep it. There’s no right or wrong answer.

I realize I still do this today, but with art. Sometimes I’m working on a gesso panel with acrylic paint, sometimes I am creating a collage in a journal, sometimes I’m relaxing with a pencil and a sketchbook. Maybe the results are something cute, or not. I wonder if I should be more consistent–pick one thing and get good at it–but now I realize that it’s all ok. I’m trying different things to learn what I like, and I might like them all. It’s fun. And a fun discovery–whether about art or about myself–is the whole idea.

…and that’s how it goes…

I am sure anyone creative has experienced one or more of these extremes: you have time, but no inspiration; you have plenty of  ideas, but no time; you have both time and ideas, until you sit down and are facing a blank piece of paper, at which time either a child starts demanding attention or all your ideas evaporate. This past week I’ve experienced all three.

Taking those distance learning classes through Ithaca Collage  has really cut down my art time, my online time, my reading time … my time for everything! I am glad I am taking the classes because I am learning so much, most of which I can apply to my job immediately. I certain these nine months of hectic living will be worth it, even if I seem to be complaining.

However, I miss making art! I miss seeing the art of others online! Sigh…

My current compromise is this–be simple. Since I am only going to have a brief amount of free time to devote to art, I need to sketch something small, something uncomplicated, something I can finish fast. Either that, or it has to be something I can break down into simple steps, so I can put the piece away at a moment’s notice and then pick it up later (whenever “later” comes).

Doing pieces like this 4×4″ simple sketch of a branch keeps me from feeling like I have abandoned my sketchbook. Yes, I’ve already drawn branches just like this one a million times. But I tried to make it look more interesting by doing the sketch on a map–something colorful, instead of white paper. And no, it’s not my best sketch ever. But for now, it’s good enough!

Dreamers, Keep on Dreamin’

Most of you know that my brain surgery was six years ago. And some of you know that before my surgery, I ran about 10 miles a week.

I loved running. It was a chance to be outside and appreciate each season and its own unique beauty. It was a way to be fit. I felt accomplishment when I finished a 5K. And running cleared my head when I needed to turn off my brain for a little while.

So when I was recovering from my surgery and barely able to walk, the question of how soon I could return to running was always on my mind. It was a painful question, but not as painful as the look that would flash across the face of any physical therapist or doctor I put the question to. They would stumble through some non-committal answer, and I would realize that they didn’t want to hurt me with the truth, but didn’t want to lie to me either.

Finally, someone explained to me that my balance might not every be good enough to run again. Asking my body to successfully land on one foot–essential for running!–was asking too much. So, I pretended to drop the subject.

Then, I really did drop it. With work and kids and art, who has time to exercise, let alone run?

But last week I remembered Jill Bolte Taylor saying in her book that she didn’t feel she was completely healed until she could water ski again, 8 years after her stroke. Eight years and she never gave up! (There’s a link to her TED talk on my “More About Brain Injuries” page.)

So since I was out for a walk and no one was looking, I decided to try it. I would see if I could run. If I landed flat on my face, then I’d try again in another few months.

The amazing thing is, I could do it! Now, it’s not a regular run–it’s definitely a brain-surgery-patient run, but it’s more than I have been able to do for six years. My feet leave the ground; I come down on them one at a time. (Yay, me!) And it feels great. Yes, my knees are killing me, but who cares? I ran! Just a couple of yards at a time, but I did it a few times and didn’t fall. Amazing.

That Yes or No Question

Years ago, I was introduced to a man through my job that I knew immediately must have been through a grim battle. He was polite, smart, and reserved. Yet his solemn mien told me he had stared the undertaker in the eye and said a firm, resounding, “No.”

I never got to know him well, but others who did told me that he had survived cancer. So that explained it.

Since my brain surgery, I often think of him. I feel that in many ways I have said “no” to limitations and defeats of my own, and I wonder if those who meet me see my scars so obviously, like I saw his.

But, the thing is, I don’t want to be known for saying no. I want people to hear me saying “yes” after I have refused defeat.

Not because I think that, in saying “yes,” I have the better, wiser, more complete answer. There are times when you are so injured in your fight that all you can do is manage to stand your ground and say “no,” and that is the bravest, most powerful, best thing you can do. But “no” leaves little room for whimsy and fun. Any joy must be quiet.

For me, the fight is not over once I have said “no” to a circumstance that would defeat me. It continues until I am able to say “yes” to other things, the next things, better things.

I have found that my enjoyment of my sons, art, and life as a whole has to come from a place of yes. I don’t want to feel as if I can no longer doodle goofy hearts, act silly with my three-year-old, or even (get this) forget the whole brain surgery thing for a few minutes. To do any of that, I have to find a way to say “yes.”

Don’t mistake me–I don’t want to seem as if I have never been through trials and tough experiences. Yes, they have forever changed me. But they cannot define me.