Sometimes, It’s About the “Stuff”

Yay for Moleskine notebooks and other great art supplies!

This time of year seems like the perfect opportunity to talk about consumerism in our culture and question whether it has gotten out of hand. But since I don’t have anything original to say on that topic, I won’t bother saying anything at all.

But I will write about “stuff”–my art stuff, to be exact.

The other day I went to the store to buy some Moleskine journals. Those Moleskines aren’t cheap, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. And it was the week before Christmas, so I had to fight to find a parking space at the store and then stand in line to pay. My wait gave me ample time to ask myself, “Why are you doing this? What makes this notebook different than any other?” Yet I wasn’t able to articulate, even to myself, what exactly justified their price and my effort. So I just headed home with some new Moleskines and was happy.

By the time I got home, I had changed to wondering why I get so much satisfaction from art supplies–and not just my journals and notebooks. I love new paintbrushes, and paints, and fresh colored pencils, and pens I can uncap for the first time. This feeling would be easier to understand if I told you I enjoyed these tools whenever I use them, but the truth is that it is more than that. I like knowing they are there at my art desk waiting for me. I enjoy arranging them and rearranging them in my art cabinet. I can’t wait to wander all the aisles of an art supply store, even when I have gone there to purchase one thing and one thing only. I just like “stuff.” And I don’t think I am the only one!

I had a friend who suggested that these feelings might be rooted in “creative avoidance.” I.e.–The idea that if you are feeling uninspired and lack confidence in your creativity, you can at least enjoy the tools of creativity without actually using them (and perhaps failing). Hmm. Maybe.

Or it is that we, as artists, are looking for newness and novelty? After all, it’s easier to buy a new sketchbook and pencil than it is to learn to draw somthing new or in a new way.

Neither of those explainations seem totally wrong, but they don’t seem totally right, either. I am not sure what causes us to connect with objects, but when one of my boys wants to sleep with a new toy of his right on the nightstand next to him, I somehow understand. In fact, maybe I’ll slip one of those Moleskines under my pillow tonight.

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!

Remember Color?

All that’s left to complete for my submission to The Sketchbook Project 2012 is to wrap up my journal into a safe package and send it off. Yes, I’ve finished the pages, scanned them, and over the next few days I will have the last handful of images color-corrected and posted to flickr. Yay!

It’s surprising to me that I’ve enjoyed working on the project so much that I don’t even mind that I am parting with the journal. I thought it would be hard for me to give up something I had carefully created, but instead I am excited and look forward to sharing it. (In fact, I just signed up for The Sketchbook Project Limited Edition!)

It is also a bit surprising–and kind of funny–that although I fully embraced the “monochromatic” theme, now that I am back to my personal journal, I am also back to color. I really love my water-soluble graphite pencils that I used though out my journal for The Sketchbook Project, and I have even created some personal journal pages with them. But I haven’t touched them for a few days now.

Instead, I’ve been using many of the paints and inks (and crayons and pencils) that I put aside for the brief time I was working on my monochromatic pages. So, I guess it’s a “color correction” in it’s own way.

Going back and forth between extremes–that achieves balance, right?

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!

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.

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