Speaking Without Words

I am almost finished with my submission for The 2012 Sketchbook Project! Hooray–just one more page to go!

I’ll admit that I was somewhat intimidated at the start of the project, mainly because you are asked to choose a theme for your sketchbook when you sign up online. A theme? None of my journals have ever had a theme! At least, no theme other than “me”: what I am working on, what I am thinking about, and what I am exploring at the time. (Is that too self-centered?)

But whether I am intimidated or not, I generally follow rules; so I signed up and selected a theme from the list that was given without too much fuss. In many places on the website there were encouragements to use the themes as guides and suggestions, not limitations. I still felt a little uneasy. I had decided on “monochromatic,” since I felt that was safe–I could use it to influence my method or media, if not my subjects.

After all, giving my sketchbook a theme–Hopes and Failures, The Worst Story Ever Told, or a similar one from the list of suggestions–would be to bare more than I am ready for. I take comfort in the fact that no one really knows what my doodles, collages, paintings, and journal pages are all about. Their response to anything I put out there remains just that–theirs.

I think back to one of my favorite bands when I was in college, The Cocteau Twins, and how you could never really understand the lyrics that their vocalist was singing. I heard her (Liz Fraser) explain it in an interview this way: that she had some painful experiences, that she wanted to talk about them and express her pain in some way, yet she was afraid to do that, so keeping her lyrics difficult to distinguish kept her protected. She was speaking, but no one could really understand what she was saying. Online, I found this quote from her: “It’s amazing though…I mean really the records are…a representation of our coping skills…”

Yes, it’s more than a little ironic to sing into a microphone and hope that no one understands you, just like it doesn’t make any sense to post art online on this big,vast internet and then refuse to tell anyone what it’s really about. But we all cope in our own way.

The Thing Itself

“Not Ideas About the Thing, But the Thing Itself” is a Wallace Steven poem that has fascinated me since I was first introduced to it in college. At the time, it was the most obscure poem I had ever read, and I just couldn’t figure it out. It was a “welcome to college where you’ll find out that you’re not as smart as you think you are” moment. It was a moment of authenticity.

And authenticity is what I think of when I read that poem today; after all, we seem to live in a culture that is hungry for experiences that are direct, immediate, and most importantly, authentic. This has a good side: protesters across the world can take videos with cell phones and instantly upload them to the internet to show us what their totalitarian leaders are really up to. On the other hand, it means that “The Jersey Shore” and other reality shows like it are the most popular shows on television. I have no numbers to prove this,  but instinct tells me that today more people read blogs than newspapers.

There’s more–think of how few people write first novels anymore. They write memoirs instead. And think of how professional wrestling has lost the interest of many, while the UFC is growing. The first time I saw an UFC fight on TV, I told my husband (a blue belt in jiu-jitsu), “But it just looks like two guys in a street fight!” Exactly. Whereas professional wrestling is a performance, this stuff looks real.

Our culture today rejects anything that seems too manufactured, too polished, too precious. We want the real thing.

But what does this have to do with journals and art? I wonder that myself.

It was a little less than 15 years ago when I first saw example of art journals at a presentation given by Tracy and Teesha Moore. The idea that you’d make art that is just for you–just like you’d write a diary that you never intended anyone else to read–and then show it, was so new that it was a shock to me. But now art journals and sketchbooks are hardly new; in fact, they seem to be all over. There’s the 1000 Journals Project. The Sketchbook Project. There are books and books of examples and how-to’s; there are websites, too.

It used to be that artists’ sketchbooks were private places where they worked out the challenges of larger, finished pieces that were intended for a wider audience. The finished piece was “the real thing.” Today the opposite seems to be true–those raw, unfinished pages seem more real. More genuine.

And so even if the popularity of “the Jersey Shore” makes me worry, more sketchbooks–and more art–in the world doesn’t.

My Journal, My Hair

Last night, I tried to draw my hair.

About a week ago, there was a Yahoo! story explaining that someone had spotted a three-inch-long scar just behind the hairline of Princess Kate by carefully looking at a close-up photo. The writer wondered what that scar could be from.

Most of the comments on the story were to be expected (“Who cares?”, “Give her a break!”, and “So what if she’s not perfect!”). My own thought was: Three inches? That’s nothing–mine is almost 13! My second thought was that my hair would never, ever, give me away.

That’s because my thick, wild, wavy, course hair–which has been my bane for most of my existence–keeps my secret for me. My hair hides the scar from my brain surgery completely: no one that I meet can see my scar, and it would take more than a chance close-up with a camera to reveal it. I can feel it there, but only because I have memorized its location. My scar will never tell the secret of my surgery (and even if it yelled, the sound would be muffled by the many, many layers of hair I have).

So now I finally can say that have something better than what a princess does. And my relationship with my hair has changed from “hate” to “love-hate.” This is progress–trust me. The journal page above doesn’t begin to communicate just how incorrigible it is! That would take at least a few more angst-filled journals…

The Trouble with Hands

Hands are hard to draw. But you already knew that, right? I created the watercolor backgrounds for this journal page in just minutes, then spent hours (and a lot of my eraser) drawing the hands.

What I didn’t realize at the time–and what a visit to the library for a book on drawing techniques or a trip to a museum to look at the work of some masters could have taught me–was that it is sometimes ok to just suggest or imply instead of drawing every detail outright. As my pencil point became blunt as I worked (because I refused to come up for air, stop, and sharpen the darn thing), I found I liked the results better. Up close, it was not clear what those blunt marks referred to. But when I looked at the finished page as a whole, they fit in and led the eye to complete what was not “really” there.

The trouble with hands is: they can’t do it alone. The eye has to engage, participate, and share in the work. But then, I guess that is true of all art.

After creating an abstract piece, I expect a viewer to attach meaning or emotion to what they see–even if it is meaning that I didn’t intent to put there. Their view is their experience, after all.

Maybe figurative work isn’t so different. And so, with that thought, I am going back to my journal. My hands still need some work.

Watercoler abstract mounted on chocolate brown mat board.

Erased Messages

I journal page I worked on recently with some water-soluble graphite pencils. I took it to work yesterday.

Yesterday, I hung up a recent journal page on the bulletin board in my office. I do that sometimes–it gives me a chance to think about a page or technique, and what does or doesn’t work about it, while I eat lunch at my desk. (I gotta get in that art contemplation time whenever I can!)

Both my bulletin boards (there are two) and my white boards (I have three) at work are full. There are to-do reminders, photos of the kids, schedules and calendars, thank you notes, awards and certificates, and the random journal page or two. Until yesterday, there was also the last two notes from co-workers that were left for me when I was out of the office recuperating from my brain surgery.

Those notes–short and simple but generous in spirit–are precious to me. There were so many of them! I will never forget my first day back at work after medical leave when I walked to my office and found that the white board on my door (where I sometimes post my schedule for the day) had been covered with kind messages from friends at work. “We miss you.” “We love you.” “Can’t wait until you’re back.” I left those messages there for years–three years, in fact. They were encouraging reminders that I saw daily, and they helped me get through some difficult days when I felt exhausted and frustrated by my limitations.

And then, I erased them. Three years after I returned to work, I was suddenly tired of being, “the girl who had the brain tumor.” I decided that my co-workers and I would have plenty of ups and downs to share in the times ahead, and I didn’t have to keep those messages as if they were the only kind words that would ever be written to me. (Plus, the were starting to get smudged.) Those messages were written on my heart and mind–I no longer needed to see them to remember them.

There were also notes handwritten on cards or scraps of paper, and these I moved to my bulletin board. Yesterday, however, there was no space left for the journal page I wanted to put up, so I decided it was time to take down the last two messages. I put them in a drawer. Hung up my journal page. Remembered that I needed to be “future-focused.” And tried to have a normal work day until 5.

Learning to be OK with Uncertainty

A recent journal page with watercolor and colored pencil.

If you lived with me, I might drive you crazy. I am one of those people who have to put their car keys away in the same place every time, otherwise I’ll never be able to find them when it’s time to leave for work. Really–the same exact place. Every single time.

It can be a bit much.

It’s not just the car keys, either. It’s my purse, my phone, my iPod, my ID badge for work, the TV remote. I was even that way about the speed and extent of my recovery from brain surgery until my neurosurgeon set me straight: “You’re not the only one in charge here,” he said kindly. Yet uncertainty is difficult to deal with, and I attempt to remove as much of it from my life as I can. I am sure I can seem like a control freak to my family.

Of course, it gets more complicated when it comes to art. If you look at my earliest collages, you get a sense that I am an artist exercising control. I’ve put each piece in it’s place; I remember one time that I spent about 20 minutes trying to decide if a certain paper would look better in the composition with a torn or cut edge.

But true art doesn’t flourish under the constraints of control alone, and I have made an effort to welcome unplanned and unpredictable elements into my work. As I work on my drawing exercises, I try to welcome unintended pencils marks instead of automatically reaching for the eraser. There is room for discipline, but there should be freedom, too.

I say that because I have learned that capturing spontaneity in artwork is what gives it meaning. It gives energy, emotion, and power to the finished piece. In my case, the finished piece may not have been what I intended–but then, was my intention just to make a pretty picture or was it to create something that makes someone think or feel when they look at it? And what about the fact that while looking for the camera battery charger last week (which was not put away in the right place) I found the iPod case I had been trying to find for months? Wasn’t that an unplanned and unpredicted bit of luck?

I am going to continue practicing giving up control in my art. Maybe, if I get the hang of it, I can start introducing that idea to the rest of my life.

More drawing exercises. Wherever the pencil went, I just tried to "make it work."

Those paint splatters were a bit more uncontrolled than I wanted!

Doing Exercises

The task was to draw with two pencils at once. When I tried it, I invented Cubism! (I am pretty sure this is NOT supposed to happen.)

Last month, I started working out at the gym again. I am finally past my “well, since I can’t run anymore, nothing else is worth it” sulking attitude. It’s taken five years, but I have convinced myself that any exercise is better than none, that running isn’t so great for my knees anyway, and besides, I really need to lose some weight!

Before my brain surgery, I liked going to the gym, working up a sweat, and pushing my body to the limit. But now that I find myself pushing my physical limits almost every day, the idea of spending 20 minutes on the elliptical machine has lost its charm. Still, I have started going to the gym and I am hopeful that the old thrill might come back.

I’m much more excited about the drawing exercises I’ve started. They come from a book I purchased a few weeks ago, “Drawing Projects,” and are assignments from an actual class the authors teach on drawing. The beginning projects seem to focus on getting you comfortable with the variety of marks you can make; one has you draw with two pencils taped together (with both points touching the paper); another has you find a way to attach your pencil to the end of a ruler and draw that way (with the ruler as an “extended arm”).

So far, my results are unpredictable but fun–not yet thrilling, but nothing at all like the elliptical machine. Thank goodness!

Trying to draw with any amount of control is hard when your pencil is at the end of a ruler!

This isn't from an actual exercise--I saw some examples towards the back of the book, got an idea, and just went with it.

Where I Hope to Meet a Genius

My corner.

There is a wonderful TED Talk from Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat, Pray, Love) about the nature of genius, inspiration, and artistic talent. In that talk, she explains that the earliest understanding of a “genius” was not of a talented person or artist. Instead, a genius was a spirit, like a god or a muse, that would come to visit the artist and hopefully inspire and inhabit his or her work.

This was news to me, and news I immediately liked. Why? Because when thinking this way, I find that I am no longer solely responsible for what I can or cannot produce artistically. Beautiful journal page? Then my genius must have been around. Awful-looking page? Well, my genius must have been busy somewhere else. Oh, well.

Gilbert expresses, though, that artists have some responsibility: they need to “show up” and be ready to meet their geniuses when they arrive. Luckily, I have a place to do that.

A few months ago my husband refinished an old piece of furniture that was around the house. He made it into an art desk for me; the first one I’ve had since moving to Texas seven years ago. (Yes, I’ve been working at the kitchen table between meals, homework, and board games.) He then helped me re-purpose an old entertainment unit into an art supply cabinet. (No more cases hidden underneath the baker’s rack.)

Now I am finally ready. Here I am. Let’s hope a genius comes along!

Gilbert’s talk is at: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

The Return of My Handwriting

Yes, the extension list of my co-workers that I keep at my desk is rather… haphazard. The pink Post-it has notes that are years old; the blue was written just a few weeks ago.

This week I was cleaning my desk at work and trying to corral the herd of Post-it Notes that had spread all over it. I started to pile the notes together, and that’s when I noticed my handwriting. I was surprised and elated to see that the names and extensions on notes I had written before my surgery looked just like the ones I had written last week!

Normally, cleaning off my desk is a sober chore, since besides notes, I have many folders I use and re-use, most with handwritten labels from either before my surgery, or from right after it, or from the present. The result is that I have many visual reminders of how the handwriting I worked so hard at–tried so hard to make into a reflection of me and my personality–deteriorated after my surgery.

Back during my days at rehab, I told my occupational therapist about my difficulty writing and, as a result, my handwriting despair. She told me not to worry; it would come back. And every month or so she’d ask, “Is is back yet?” with expectation and hope. But it never happened while I worked with her. It took more time than that.

But now–finally! Four and a half years after my brain surgery and my handwriting looks like its old self! Hooray!

Now, if you think it’s silly or strange for me to care about my handwriting returning to its former look, I don’t blame you. After learning to walk, talk, and feed myself again, I should be content and not worry what my writing looks like. Right?

But sometimes it’s the little things that matter a lot, and I’ve chosen to enjoy this small victory for a while. It makes me hopeful. And happy. And it renews my faith in being patient.

Seeing some great examples of street art recently inspired me to work in my "Walls" notebook again.

I took the photograph in this collage about 8 years ago somewhere arond Hoboken or Jersey City.