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.

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!

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

A Formula for (Creative) Freedom

Once I read this book, my visual journals were changed significantly.

It was a day, about a year ago, when I had just $30 to spare until my next paycheck. With that money, I needed to buy lunch for a few days that week, cover any expenses that might come up at my older son’s school (like a $10 contribution to a pizza party), plus I really wanted new shoes. Oh yeah, and the boys needed new clothes, too.

Yet I found myself at Micheal’s Arts & Crafts. (Oops.) Since I knew I had no money to spend there, I made a deal with myself–I’d limit my browsing to the $1 aisle. Good plan, right? How much trouble could I get into at the $1 aisle?

The problem with my plan is that at this Micheal’s, the $1 aisle ends at the book section. I realize this too late (books are a weakness of mine), and since looking at other’s art projects is a great way to find inspiration for your own, I am soon flipping the pages of books that I pick up from the shelves at random.

That’s how I found The Doodle Formula. The author, Adrienne Looman, is an adorable and talented scrapbook artist who seems to say, “Anyone can do this.” I love her whimsical doodles, and I believe her.

There is nothing in the book that implies, “If you’ve had brain surgery and your right hand doesn’t work that well any more, don’t bother.” And she calls this doodling, which sounds inviting–not like drawing, which sounds intense and intimidating and way beyond my post-surgery self.

I was immediately hooked. The book is almost $15, but I decided I could skip lunch.

Before challenging myself to "doodle," a painted background was the only hand work my collages included.

Now I love to add hand-drawn elements to a collage.

Another journal page I created after reading "The Doodle Formula."