Who I Will Be

The kind of artist I want to be isn’t afraid to try a new technique or style.

The artist I want to be remembers that inspiration is everywhere–and, more importantly, remembers to look for it.

The artist I want to be doesn’t blow her weekly gas and groceries budget at the art supply store.

She’s an artist who knows her strengths and weaknesses. (And most of the time, she’s ok with them.)

She doesn’t save the good paints and papers for herself, but shares them with her sons when they show interest, because there is always more where that came from.

(But not the watercolor brush that cost $23 and was worth every penny. Hands off!)

The artist I want to be will always wonder what really happened with Artemesia Gentileschi (don’t you?) while admiring her brave Judiths.

And she will be silly sometimes, serious sometimes, and will smile a lot.

And also will continue (for this week, anyway) to recommend “Exit Through the Gift Shop” to anyone who will listen.

The artist I want to be is humble, grateful, and determined; and thanks God every day for art that can touch the heart and make us better versions of ourselves.

But meanwhile, the artist I am is having fun. I hope you are, too!

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.

Too much?

I wonder about an alcoholic taking his or her first drink. Do they know, immediately, that what they just tasted might own them, control them, take their life? Do they know right away, and do they already feel that it is too late to turn back?

Yes, I have written about creating with feeling. I have written about my efforts to think less while making art. And I don’t take any of that back–and yet–I also wonder about the power of raw emotion. It’s uncontrollable power. Can it be destructive?

Sometimes when I am finished with a drawing (it might or might not be a good one), there seems to be such an amount of direct feeling in the lines on the paper that it defies the effort I used to create them. I wonder where that amount of emotion came from, and it scares me when I don’t know. Why? Because, somehow, it seems like a lack of effort to control my drawing, or to discipline myself, and that seems both irresponsible and dangerous.

I think of, years ago, watching Nirvana give their Unplugged performance on MTV. Anyone who saw the performance of the last song could have guessed that Kurt Cobain’s death would be tragic. Watching it, you see him express raw emotion that escapes him and will take control and torture him until he succumbs.

Maybe, being less talented that Kurt Cobain was, I don’t need to worry. Then again, I think I might strive for balance, just in case.

Making It Count

 

OK, so instead of whining about how little time I have, I thought I’d share five quick tips I use for making the most of my time.

1. The first should be obvious: get your stuff together. If you only have five, ten, or fifteen minutes to spare, you don’t want to waste it hunting down your journal or favorite pen. If you have a desk, keep the tools to use most often at arms reach. If you cannot leave items out (maybe you have little kids, like me), then just keep it all together in a shoebox up on a shelf.

2. Remember that it’s ok to be simple. Others may create complex layers in their pieces with sophisticated combinations of color and media. It’s ok if you don’t do that. It still counts as art.

3. Begin with the end in mind, like Stephen Covey says. It’s best if you have an idea of what you want to do when you first sit down. You don’t have to be holding the complete sketch or journal page layout in your head, but it helps to know which journal you want to work in, if you’ll be using watercolors or pencil, and so on. To keep from getting frustrated, it also helps to be clear at the onset how much you hope to get finished. Say to yourself, “I am just going to get a pencil sketch down, next time I’ll start to add watercolor.” (What do I think about on Friday afternoons when I am stuck in traffic? What journal page I am going to work on Saturday morning, of course!)

4. Work even when you’re not inspired–it lays the groundwork for when you are. Spend a few minutes cutting sheets to size, sharpening pencils, or creating interesting backgrounds you will collage or draw on top of later. For those times when you are inspired, remember to stop short of working through all your ideas. It works like this: if you sit down and work until you are stuck and have no ideas left, then you’ll never want to come back to that piece because you have no idea of what to do next. Stopping just short of your last idea, saying to yourself, “OK, I know what I am going to do next,” means that whenever you have a chance to come back, you already know what to do, and that smooths your transition back into the piece.

5. And the last is easy–or at least, it should be: have fun! Remember there should be some joy in creating. Don’t lose it!

Quick Update: The Sketchbook Project Limited Edition

My submission for The Sketchbook Project Limited Edition: spread 1

This hasn’t been a week conducive to blogging. It’s been too busy for clear thoughts… like “what’s my name again?”… let alone writing!

So rather than force myself to come up with something that wouldn’t be worth your precious reading time, I’ve photographed and posted the first three spreads from my contribution to The Sketchbook Project, Limited Edition. My theme is “The Secret and How We Tell It,” which I am excited about.

I used to create a lot of photocopier art, which I’ve incorporated into the book. I also took the time to rebind the book, creating new pages from 90 lbs. Canson Foundation Series Watercolor paper. This paper has been perfect–not too heavy for a slim book, yet heavy enough to take washes of acrylic color and layers of acrylic gloss medium without buckling.

There will be more pages from the book–and more meaningful blog entries–coming soon!

And P.S.–As I write this, there are still more than 1,000 openings for this project. Head over to arthousecoop.com to sign up!

Spread 2.

Spread 3.

Searching for a Psalmist

Acts 9:3-4

I sometimes ask myself: now that I have recovered so much since my brain surgery, what’s next? What is the point of such a miracle if I waste it?

There are days when I feel that the only right response to the gift of recovery is to honor God with every journal page I create. But then I find myself aimlessly doodling things I like, or making a collage of what feels good, and I can hardly scold myself. I gain so much peace of mind from the time I spend with my art journal, it would be wrong to call it “a waste,” even when the images don’t refer to religion, or spirituality, or the Bible. I want to honor God, but I don’t think would be right for my journal to become a chore or my art time to be when I ask myself if I have been holy enough. Such a burden doesn’t seem like the point of my recovery, either.

After all, even Bono’s lyrics vary a bit.While he often sings of his questions to and his search for God in a raw and honest way, that is not the only subject he explores in his music. Nevertheless, in his songs I often here the voice of the Psalmist–and as Thomas Merton says, “The Psalms are songs of men who knew who God was.”

That’s the kind of voice I am searching for! So even if I wander from that path, it is still my goal. Enjoy the holiday season, everyone!

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.

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.

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!