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.

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.

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:

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.

Waiting for Works in Progress

A journal page from last week.

The artist and frame maker Robert Kulicke once said, “A painting is finished when you agree with it, no matter if it took one hour or four months.” And the older I get, the more I see the truth in that–and the more I realize what patience it sometimes takes to get to the point of agreement.

Back when I was in college, an old boyfriend first introduced me to this idea. I was taking an Introduction to Photography class and was frustrated that a recent contact sheet showed no potential. I didn’t like anything I saw, but I couldn’t explain why. “Put it away for six months and look at it again. I bet you’ll like it better,” he told me. I should have listened–he was a much more experienced photographer than I was–but I just grumbled about how that didn’t help me finish my current project.

Years later I found that contact sheet and wondered why I had hated it so much.

Now I often go back to collages or journal pages that I was never totally happy with–ones that are months or even years old–to see if I can find a way to agree with them. I sometimes find that although I was stuck before, I now have enough experience to get past whatever was stopping me. I see right away what I need to do to “fix” the piece. Other times I need to have enough distance from my initial expectations so that what I once stubbornly considered “wrong” becomes something that doesn’t have to be fixed at all. And then there are the times when I realize that the piece will never be something I can agree with. Then I paint over it without any regrets. I clear my head and start over.

That’s one of the reason why I keep a handful of journals going at the same time. If one frustrates, me I can easily move to another. This keeps me from getting too anxious while I wait to realize what the “disagreement” is really about.

And every once in a while, I work on a page when just a few lines or three torn pieces result in a collage or journal page that seems “done.” I realize that, at times, agreement comes quickly and easily, without waiting.

Thank goodness!

(P.S. That old boyfriend… that was the only thing he was right about!)

I started this drawing two months ago. I am not in agreement with it yet--abstracts are especially hard for me to finish!

Deserving to Draw

Keeping the pencil, pen, or paintbrush in motion is key.

Something quick and simple I did last week.

That little black voice is at it again–you know, the one that asks, “Who do you think you are?” and “What do you think you’re doing?” every time I sit down with my art journal. Yeah, that one.

I don’t know about your inner critic, but when mine is fed a large dose of exhaustion and stress, it grows from a small voice to a deafening roar. It no longer asks snarky questions; instead it demands to know, “Why are you bothering to draw!”

After all, it reminds me: you’ve never been to a drawing class; you haven’t paid your dues at an art school; you’ve had brain surgery and now your right hand is messed up; you have few technical skills; and also, the boys probably need a snack so you should put your pencil down and go be a good mom.

But the thing about giving in and putting the pencil down is this–it doesn’t quiet the voice. The voice never says, “Ok, you’ve done the laundry, read to your sons, paid your dues and been a good girl. Now you are allowed to make art. You’ve earned it”

The only way to stop the verbal raging is to do exactly the opposite: pick up the pencil or pen or paintbrush and keep it moving. As soon as I stop, the voice comes back again and asks, “What is that? Whatever it is, it’s not drawing and it’s not art.”

For now, my answer comes from the introductory pages of the Drawing Projects book I just started, which defines drawings as a record in marks of your emotional response to the situation. I love this definition. It doesn’t say that your drawing has to look a certain way or show a certain level of ability. It doesn’t say that if you aren’t good enough, you are disqualified.

It says all you need to be able to do is feel and then want to translate that to a page. And that, I can do. Besides, doing it keeps the voice quiet.

An Inspiration “High Five”

Inspiration can come from anywhere out there!

I can’t explain what inspires me. I’m not even sure that I can explain what inspiration is! But I know that there are certain pieces of art that say to me, “OK, once you are done looking, you need to go make something.”


I love this Picasso piece because I don’t fully understand it. What are those paintings inside the painting? Who are the people shown? Only Picasso knows for sure, and we are left feeling that he has developed a visual vocabulary that speaks in a language only he understands.
The fox–how I have felt like that fox at times! Homer has too. I think that’s why his signature is at the same angle.Remedios Varo is one of my favorite artists for many reasons. This painting turns a simple domestic action into something surreal by its setting. I am fascinated.

A photograph by Aleksander Rodchenko

There are so many photographs of Rodchenko’s that I love! This is the one that introduced me to his work, which emhasizes shapes and forms, and yet somehow captures emotion, too. It makes me wonder if those Soviet Constuctivists were on to something.

Robert Rauchenberg

Now this is clever. Almost subversive. And it reminds me not to take myself too seriously. (Watch the YouTube video about it if you want the whole story!)
So tell me, what inspires you?

Art Lessons From My Sons

From a Saturday morning about a year ago: the boys making art at the kitchen table.

Not long after my brain surgery, I wanted to get back to making collages and working in my art journals. In fact, I wanted to start as soon as I got home from the hospital, but that just wasn’t possible. I had lost too much control and coordination in my hands.

Once I started occupational therapy, however, I found ways to work within my limits. Some were simple strategies: like using punches to cut paper into shapes instead of scissors, which I couldn’t hold. Others were more unexpected and a bit child-like.

That child was my son, Antonio. He was just about two years old at the time, and he loved to mark up any paper he got his hands on with pen, or crayon, or marker. And in his scribbles and scrawls, I found a replacement for the painted backgrounds I could no longer create.

It was a wonderful collaboration: he never complained about how I used his pieces, he was always creating more works for me to use, and it was a wonderful way for us to spend time together. (Teamwork between artists should always be so generous!)

That was four years ago, and now I am able to paint backgrounds, draw simple lines, and even use scissors. But I still use Antonio’s artwork in my journals from time to time, and now his younger brother, Adan, also paints and draws on papers that I use. Both of the boys create with a combination of complete abandon of expectations and raw energy, and I love to add their spontaneity to my work. Here are the real abstract expressionists!

When I was beginning to learn to adjust to my “new self” after the surgery, I was hyper-critical of all I did–or could not do. I compared everything to what or how I did things “before.” Sometimes I still do. It is the boys’ lack of self-criticism while working that reminds me that making art doesn’t have to be something you are good or bad at, it’s just something you do. In so many ways, it is my boys who remind me that today is the day that matters most.

Background from this collage by Antonio, thanks to a long wait at the doctor's office.

The Opposite of War

I took these photos when my grade school class took a field trip to The World Trade Center in 1978. It

Now I live in the DFW area, but on September 11, 2001, I was living in northern New Jersey. And everyone I knew was directly affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center that day. So many memories.

Today I am thinking of just one–about my friend Cindy. Like me, Cindy lived about 40 minutes from Manhattan (but north, in New York). I first got to know her as a frequent contributor to the art stamping magazine I edited. By the time we talked on September 12th, we had become close friends. That day, in her pain and anger, she told me, “I’m going into my studio. I need to make something.”

I was still dazed; I could hardly accept what happened. And she was talking about art.

Later, I thought I understood. Sometimes making art is what we need to work though a situation that is difficult, or even impossible, to understand. We paint or draw or cut and paste; and while our hands move, wheels in our brains turn, too; and hopefully wind themselves up to a better place.

Other times it is a way to reach out to others. When we seek human connection to assuage fears and confusion, we offer whatever we have.

Now I know these things.

I will probably work in my art journal this weekend. It may or may not have anything to do with this ten-year anniversary. But either way, I’ll be thinking of the line Mark sings in the musical RENT: “The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.”

What I’m Reading

I did some book shopping over the weekend...

The other day I was visiting a friend’s house when I caught a glimpse of a book on her shelf. It turned out to be the book that accompanied Tim Burton’s recent retrospective at MoMA, and I was enthralled by the sketches and drawings it showed.

And while I perused those pages, I realized that I haven’t been to a museum lately. Neither have I purchased any art books. That’s not a good thing!

Of course, I have lots of how-to books: ones about making altered books, and handmade journals, and collage techniques. But after seeing that book on her shelf,  I was thinking about the kind of  book that gives a peek into the mind of a single artist. One that doesn’t set out to teach you anything, but that makes you feel as if you had just gotten to know someone a bit better. And, of course, one that has so many great pictures in it that buying a version for your e-reader just doesn’t make sense. (Sometimes you need to touch and feel actual paper and ink, not electrons and pixels.)

So what else could I do but head to the bookstore the next day? (It was too late to arrange a trip to a museum that weekend.) At at store I found at least 10 books I wanted; to stay within my budget, I carefully choose three and went home to indulge.

I wish I could tell you that these books will improve my art skills. But I do find a good book inspiring, and after reading  just a few pages of the first one, I felt the urge to pick up my pen and get to work. I felt newly connected to the world of art and those who make it.

Just wait until I get to a museum!

P.S. If you have any “art-y” books that you love and think I should know about–leave a comment! I have an gift certificate to use!

Art transforms us.