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.

Go with It

Yesterday morning I submitted my final project for class, and today I am feeling so relieved that I am almost giddy. (Whee–another class down, just four left to go!)

That–in addition to the images in a jewelry catalog a co-worker showed me yesterday afternoon–has me making collages like crazy. You know the feeling: that burst of energy that carries you to your art desk early in the morning and keeps you there until the household chores (and the children) just can’t be ignored any longer.

For me, such a time is to be prized, since there aren’t many “bursts” of energy since my surgery. I have to go with each one while it  lasts! The laundry can wait.

Come to think of it, I’ve started (and never gotten around to finishing) quite a few books on maintaining creative energy. I am sure those books are full of good ideas for keeping the spark bright. But for me, the answer is always the same: take care of myself. I need sleep, I need rest, I need to pace myself, and I need not to feel down when the urge to make or draw or paint something has temporarily left me despite doing everything right: like getting enough sleep and exercising and resting when I should.

There are just days like that, and it is better to accept them, leaving myself open to enjoy the times when it all works out and I’m having fun making art.

Today, I’ve made a few mini-collages to be necklace pendants, and I like how they came out so much that I might make a few more. After all, the weekend is young and I still have some energy left!

…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!

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.

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!

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.

Searching for Shapes

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.–Michelangelo

"Hope + Expectation = Faith"

Sometimes when I am working in my journal, I see “something” in the inked or painted background I’ve created:  an image that calls out to be traced in pen or pencil. Something simple, uncomplicated, and direct that is suggested by the shapes the background has created.

Yet even though the image leaps out of the background before me with absolute confidence and certainty, it seems like a risk to me to follow that vision. The image I think I see is never what I intended for that background or that journal page, and I wonder if I’m becoming a bit like those little old ladies who see the Virgin Mary in their toast.

Yes, I hesitate; but the urge to follow that call always overcomes me. And in the end I am always satisfied with the results. It’s not because I think that the finished piece is a great work of art or because I feel that I have something in common with Michelangelo–it’s more a feeling of relief, like when you’ve finally had a chance to say what’s been on your mind.

The blue streaks suggested the fingers of a hand to me the day I created this page.

Journals: By the Numbers

A simple journal page from one of the four journals I'm working in right now.

Some simple stats…

The number of  journals have I completed: 18

For how many years have I kept an art or visual journal?: 14

How many blank journals are in my art cabinet, waiting to be filled?: 6  (How many of those are Moleskines?: 3)

The number of art journals I am working in right now: 4  (That’s the most I’ve ever had going at once!)

The number of novels and memoirs that I started to read last month but put aside for my journals: 3

How many of my completed journals are now lost because I lent them to a friend who proved unworthy of that trust?: 2

The number of journals I currently have on loan to friends: 0