So, I’m writing you from the Delphic Heights of my eight weeks of on-line teaching experience in the hope of preventing some poor unwitting fellow educator from making the same mistakes that I have made. Actually, that’s not all completely true. I have been teaching a high school course on-line, once a semester for the past three years. But there are important differences. That course is a History of Western Architecture and Aesthetic Philosophy, and although there are hands on design projects, it has been largely a text and dialogue-based course. Frankly, one semester a year in a full schedule of secondary school visual arts studios that are brick and mortar based is a kind of anomaly when compared to full days, week in and week out of teaching the visual arts on-line. Enter COVID-19. The little bug that rocked education all over the world.
Overall, and despite the obvious limitations and challenges of remote learning, I have enjoyed getting to know my students better by interacting with them through my curriculum in a different way. I have unexpectedly been forced to rethink the way I teach and I think I'm a better teacher for it. I know I'm a better person for being reminded of the challenges, frustrations, and fears of what it is to be a student everyday.
I hope that helps! Like Dory in Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming!
This same class made the request to do something completely different-
they wanted to make flip books.
I knew from my colleagues on this course team that this section of students was a particularly challenging one to engage. I wondered:
Would I be rewarding poor behavior by indulging this request?
Did I really want to research and write a new series of lessons in the middle of the school year? Could I really do this with my limited knowledge of animation?
Probably, I guess so, I’ll see…not the best answers to start with but, I dove in anyway.
Student choice is so often the key to student engagement, so I figured that was worth the risk. Sometimes going off track from the predictable, tried and true path leads to unexpected and positive results, not to mention increased teacher engagement. And besides, I love nothing more than the smallest excuse to dive down a rabbit hole of art research. And of course, sometimes our goals as educators are occasionally less than high minded: I love animation and I never made a flip book before: this might be fun!
As I began, I turned to an animator whose work I have always enjoyed, Terry Gilliam, aka the creator of the Big Cut-Out Monty Python Foot. I came across this quote from him:
The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use.
Sounds a whole lot like teaching to me! For my part in our freshman introduction to Visual Arts Principles, which is a team taught course, I need to teach the students how the Elements of Art and Principles of Design are employed by artists in drawing and painting with non-digital media. I make every effort to make sure the students’ experience includes not only the Great Masters of the past but contemporary masters as well. I always hope that they leave the studio seeing a little more and able to recognize the Elements and Principles around them in their daily lives. I suppose generally more visually literate in a hype visual culture. So when I made the decision to build an animation unit I had to come up with an entire new cadre of master artists. Master artists I found that had far more personal meaning for my students since cartoons and animation is so much part of their lives. I also had to find fun and interesting examples and videos about how those artists work. Thank Goodness for TED and You Tube!
So I’ll begin and the beginning, here’s how it’s gone so far. I will be updating since this class section is not yet completed and I do want to share my students work with you.
The new animation unit began with a study of optical illusions in order to get the students comfortable with the principles of balance, visual rhythm, and techniques on how to create visual movement. The students had to find three optic illusions and recreate them in a three inch by three inch square. To start, I focused on craftsmanship since it is so important to draw carefully and accurately for an effective optic illusion and ultimately for a successful animation. I taught them how to use a 2H pencil with a ruler and triangle to draft a perfect grid on a blank page. Then they had the chance to use softer pencils to see the value differences and the utility of a hard lead for under drawing. They selected illusions from searching the web. They had to find ones that focused on: figure/ground (e.g. face/vase), movement (e.g. spinning/moving grids), spacial (e.g. making a hole in the page or impossible geometries). Once they selected their own “classic” illusions to study and recreate, they had to come up with three illusions of their own. The students truly enjoyed this. I assigned each student at random a “Wow! Partner” to sit with. This was their classmate who they needed to “Wow!” with their illusion and exchange honest feedback with. The random assigning of partners had two great benefits. It forced the students to mix it up and get to know each other and it promoted honest feedback. For how to give effective critique, I used the Ladder of Feedback as our casual critique rubric. This first time around, I think I spent too long on the optic illusion exercise and intend to keep it as a shorter two-three day exercise in the future.
Then there was the fun of researching the approaches of classic Disney and Merry Melodies and finding some terrific flip book artists on You Tube (I highly recommend Andymation) as well as getting some terrific advice from folks in the field. All of which meant I had to watch animation shorts for Professional Reasons. To quote Billie Holiday, "Nice work if you can get it." It was was great fun sharing the best of my research with the students and discussing the elements and principles with them in light of these works.
I then had the students create a six to seven panel story board of a simple action by a simple character, e.g. a ball bouncing, an eye winking, stick figure jumping. I then asked them to come up with two more different storyboards. I’ve found that three’s a magic number. The first idea is often clumsy or overly simplistic, the second derivative, and the third you begin to find your stride and have something to build upon.
After their storyboard brainstorming in pencil, I asked the students to ink their favorite storyboard. Here was my opportunity to discuss with them different line types and how to create a hierarchy of line. It also was a chance to demonstrate how using overlap and simple perspective and compositional techniques to create the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface and thereby increase the visual impact of their story and character. Wrapped up in this was a condensed opportunity for character development. With more time I would pull character development out as a separate exercise with a chance to talk about structure/anatomy, proportion, and expression. But, because of the time constraints I needed to keep this to as needed one-on-one instruction. As they developed their storyboards they began to add value and color so I was also able discuss basic color theory.
They currently are creating “draft” flip books using sticky note pads. What’s really fun is that they have begun to see the mechanics of how to create smooth action, adding frames where there were omissions in the storyboard action. The sticky note pads and working in pencil make the entire development process very easy, flexible, and much less intimidating to beginners. This also give them a tremendous amount of drawing practice, even though much of it is repetitive, they have been cheerfully drawing away (even going so far as asking to take their books home and coming to the studio to work during free periods). I'm noticing too that the students are gaining confidence in their own drawing ability. The end goal of bringing their character and story to life has been quite a motivator for both general work ethic but, also craftsmanship!
In the final days of the unit I will have the students create a final flip book on index cards with post or rubber band bindings. No worries I will post video, so stay tuned!
When I retold the story about the young man exploring his cranial orifice with a pen cap to my husband he laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, some things you can teach, but other things you just have to learn.” I got thinking, maybe part of that spark to really engaging the students is that expression of your own learning…pen caps up the nose aside.
Below are examples for my students of my learning to teach about animation. If you would like to learn more specifics about my lesson plan, feel free to drop me a line, I’m happy to share and would love to hear about what you learn when you teach!
The short video above is of a homemade zoetrope I have in the studio. Not only is it a fun gadget to make, it was very useful in teaching animation by providing interesting historic background. It also proved to be very useful in testing my storyboard. I was able to cut my story board strip and place in the zoetrope and watch for "jumps" in action. In the end I added two additional frames in order to make the rabbit jumping from the hat smoother action. I also was able to create a fast flip book from the same storybook by using a copier. That book can be seen in the photo above with the binder clip. The final (or at least where I chose to stop) flip book "Poof" can be seen below. Using the rubber band binding with copier images spray glued on index cards I was able to experiment with adding and subtracting frames in order to change the pacing of the action. It has been a great demo tool for the students in explaining this concepts creating smooth action sequencing and the pacing of the action. Not to mention really fun!
This blog post will be somewhat different than previous posts. I think because maybe my writing, for the first time, is part of my processing the experience itself.
Recently, I experienced a brief illness: a severe allergic reaction to a vaccination. Along with the typical flu like symptoms, this reaction caused intense spasms pain all over my body. Pain of this kind is the notable symptom of the disease which I was trying to avoid. I could ironically muse about the fact that the medical profession has found that the path to better health often times seems to be what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. But, I'll refrain. Having had loved ones who experienced the disease that the vaccination prevents, I am grateful that now, with the unwavering support of my loved ones, I stand on my own two feet immune, despite a terrible experience. I suppose another bright spot of this experience is that I have found that there is actually something on this planet that makes me quite literally “one in a million.” Most folks get this vaccination and their only experience is a pinch and cheerfully move on with their lives. Alas, I must admit that my vanity was hoping for a bit more out of life than to be an anomaly of medical science. Maybe that’s why I make art and write? A good question. But, I don’t think the drive of mere vanity, a desire for some kind of immortality, or brand of uniqueness alone is enough to fuel a lifelong personal vocation for anyone. So maybe my soul is safe in that regard? At least I’m hoping so. Besides, we all know the old story about artists never gaining respect or recognition until long after their own deaths. To engage in art betting on fame and fortune would certainly be one’s vanity playing the long shot in life it seems to me.
Be that all as it may, my recent personal experience has left a mark beyond the singular one on my left upper arm where I got the vaccination. The experience of intense pain, pain that simply does not allow you to think clearly or about anything else, that is quite literally physically staggering can be profound. My small recent experience of pain brought to the forefront of my mind a dear friend who lived with severe chronic pain. The sheer heroism and grace of his daily life where he somehow put aside his pain to dedicate himself to productive pursuits, kindness, and cheerfulness staggers my mind. Indeed, such people seem to have chosen that Buddha-like path: knowing that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. And that in pain, our challenge is to find the gift.
So many stories of suffering artists, artists where pain was an almost constant companion in their lives. Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo come immediately to mind. Despite all the romanticizing of the image of the suffering artist neither artist found creative inspiration in pain. In fact, Van Gogh cursed his physical limitations and bouts with mental illness as the greatest obstacles to his work. Kahlo found her art as the best way of expressing her dreams and all that was good, wonderful, and beautiful, despite her physical and emotional pain. For both artists, pain was chronic, but suffering was the inability to create. Creating was the gift because the act of making art was not only a way of coping, but a way of making sense of their pain. They didn’t chose their physical pain, but they did actively chose to manage their suffering by channeling that energy into their painting.
Pain is a strange companion, when present it is almost all there is. When not, the relief makes it almost difficult to recall with any exactitude. Like a stranger wearing a mask, we recognize the fearful shape of pain, but cannot recount specific features. In many ways, I think Hayao Miyakaki's image of the character No Face in his film Spirited Away, is a perfect personification of Pain. But, our hearts keep a record of pain, its heralds and its scars. Like echos of a shout in a canyon, remnants of little hurts live in one’s body and heart and are recalled when there is a symptom, a rainy day, a hint of that form on the horizon, or any small reminder. The causes of physical pain can be varied, from a virus to a shattering life experience. We even call it “a broken heart.” A broken heart is real pain and suffering. Anyone who has loved and lost knows this. Certainly Van Gogh and Kahlo knew this. The sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, pressure on the chest, difficulty in breathing…sounds like the flu, sounds real enough for a diagnoses does it not? Our bodies remember this pain too, just as it does the stubbed toes, bumped heads, and flus. Perhaps, some of the gifts of pain is perspective on life’s events, and the ability to recognize and compassionately support others in pain. In pain, one’s thought process is completely simplified. One’s psyche completely paired down to the bare essence of things, perhaps this is a kind of "flow," perhaps this too may be a kind of gift. But there is no doubt that in the Herculean effort in channeling all this some extraordinary people can create with a fervor and intensity of vision that is wholly singular.
I think it is unwise and tragically naive to seek out pain in life in the hopes that it will make one more creative. That not only is foolish, as Jim Morrison said, "Nobody here gets out alive" or I'll add without pain. But, that romantic vapid media image of suffering artists I think does artists like Van Gogh and Kalho a great disservice by not recognizing their incredible strength of will in their heroic dedication to their life’s work. As for myself, I never found any artistic inspiration in the trials and tribulations of life. To be sure the sun shone a bit brighter the morning I awoke and the pain was gone. And maybe that was that part of this experience’s gift to me. For surely I have a deeper appreciation for my ability to experience the world as a healthy able bodied and able minded person as well as a profoundly deeper admiration for those who, despite their pain chose to create the beautiful from suffering.
Drawing, for me, is the conduit of vision. It moves me beyond looking to seeing and the more I strive to see the greater my vision. So this autumn, I've come to ask myself and my students: What have you seen? Because that is what is shaping your vision and hopefully taking you deeper in your practice.
This fall I had the opportunity to see three very different exhibits. The first was in Annapolis:
American Impressionism: Treasures from the Daywood Collection at the Mitchell Gallery
I think what stood out to me in this exhibit was the inclusion of works by both George Inness and Robert Henri in the same exhibit. They both are American painters, however, Inness is typically regarded as a member of the landscape painters of the Hudson River School of the 19th century and Henri of the Ashcan School of the 20th century. Yet, considering their works in the context of American Art as it sought to capture the light and mood of place, time and season, it makes perfect sense. It was a pleasure to see little known gems, not juxtaposed, but as unexpected participants in the artistic dialogue of a culture.
The next exhibit I had the pleasure to see was:
Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style at the Walter’s Art Museum
For me, the purpose of art is not merely the representation of reality from a specific point of view it is a representation of the artist's journey within a reality and the truth that is revealed through the vision discovered through the acts of seeing and making. That being said, a "masterpiece" is a work which transcends time and culture and continues to invite us into the vision of the artist as it is represented in the work.
The third exhibit I saw:
Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia at the Freer/Sackler Gallery
So that is what I have seen and how, I believe, at this short distance from the experiences, that seeing is developing my vision. I invite you to consider, "What are you seeing?"
I experienced two kinds of growth in knowledge: the new and the expansion. Now people have be asking themselves for thousands of years: “How do I know?” And “How do I know I know?” Indeed, there is an entire branch of philosophy, epistemology, which has numerous dense tomes dedicated to those very questions. But, for me in reflecting on my summer, I am examining slightly different versions of those questions: “How do I know I am ready to teach this?” And “How can this knowledge become part of making art?”
The terms art and craft since the beginning of the 20th century have been misused and misunderstood. This is beautifully discussed in the brief TED Ed video below. The first part of my learning this summer was what the Ancient Greeks referred to as the “techne” that is the craft. Understanding the media, the various skills, the logistics are all part of the craft of teaching a thing. But, I teach art, so it needs to be more than mere technical skill and well considered logistics, it needs to be, Art. Or Ars, as the Ancient Greeks called it meaning, excellence, mastery, imbued with a spirit of genius.
The 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant said that craft can have mastery and purpose, but art is imbued with genius or innovation and a spirit which communicates to all people. For me, great art usually has all three: masterful craftsmanship, a genius or innovation born of practice, and a spirit which reaches out to engage the viewer in an authentic and meaningful way. But, how to teach..genius? Especially when I’m not one in any field, EGADS! So at the risk of being smote by the gods of the Ancient Greeks for the sin of hubris, I’ll at least share my thoughts on the subject.
Much of the research and writing in education circles in recent years have centered around how to teach innovation and creativity, aka genius. I’ve always found it somewhat strange that it has been only recently that education science has begun to look toward the arts in this regard. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Now, as a card carrying life long day dreamer and visual artist I can speak with some authority about imagination. And with that and the hope that the gods will now indulge me, I will dare to elaborate.
In going deeper in my printmaking and as my skill and confidence increased in both book binding and printmaking, I noticed an interesting shift in my mental patterns. The more I practiced and studied, the more I saw. I began to see what I was working on in everything and everything in relation to what I was working on. There opened up beautiful mental and spiritual space of calm and clarity. There was an intricate interconnectedness in my universe because of my focus. And as I began to pursue those lines of inquiry, that is the why’s and what if’s I found that I was at play. This play was fun, but hard work, and at times exhausting and frustrating. It meant finding comfort in the open-ended questions and the possibility of the unfinished. But, I know that the embracing of the unknown was exactly what has brought me forward in my work, and that it is the practice of creative and innovative thinking. It is also where I think genius, that art spirit begins.
So, what is the most important thing I will return to my students with after a summer of learning craft, and seeking to create art? A Spirit of Play.
Perhaps you believe I have begun this blog post with a misspelling? The truth is I carefully checked the spelling before I posted. After all, it's one of my favorite words in the English Language, so I wanted to be sure I was spot on. I haven't know this word for very long, maybe only six or seven years. I like it so much that I even remember when I learned it. I was with a dear colleague, who has now since passed on. We were discussing travel plans for our students and he said to make our plan work we would need "syzygy." The temptation proved too great and I immediately followed with a "Blessed you!" And we both had a laugh. Never wanting to miss the opportunity to learn a new word, I asked him what it meant and of course how it was spelled. He smiled broadly and announced that it simply was his single, most favorite word in the English Language.
noun, the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system.
Not only does it have an intriguing definition, it has a most curious spelling. No doubt it has been used to confound brilliantly competitive middle schoolers with dreams of being a Spelling Bee Champion. A word which would separate the merely solid grammarian from the true lover of words. Its etymological history, according to the on line Merriam Webster, can be traced to the Greek syzygos ("yoked together"), a combination of syn- ("with, together with") and zygon ("yoke"). My colleague, who spoke numerous languages with the greatest of ease, said he found that some words are just so interesting and so much fun to say that it is important to find opportunities to say them so they remain in use and others learned about them. So, My Dear Blog Readers, I give you Syzygy.
The coming together of three things has been much on my mind in recent days as I have been reading a little book which I had the good fortune to stumble upon in a used book store, ah serendipity...another wonderful word, but I'll save that diversion for another post. The book was The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry, and Calligraphy by Michael Sullivan. I have long had a passion for all three. The author carefully presents a clear overview of the development of the intimate connection between these three art forms. Beginning early in the eight century, when a poet referred to painting as poetry without words and poems as painting without forms the author also discusses the development of the aesthetic principles governing the elements of art and principles of design in Chinese painting with rare simplicity for the Western untrained eye. Although the discussion of which came first: the poem or the image is somewhat of a chicken or egg question, the idea of space (note not referred to as void, for it is an active part of the composition) being that element from which forms emerge and the medium in which the written poem and the image are related and are equally part of the whole, as a goldfish in the water of its bowl.
The idea of collaborative works of art created by highly trained masters of each form within a single work seems almost antithetical our contemporary image of the artist in their creative occupation. In the 21st century, we have come to look upon the artist as highly individualistic, expressing their unique perspective through their work. Use of creative voice, medium, technique, elements or principles are no longer guided by aesthetic "rules." We no longer distinguish between trained and naive artists in defining mastery. We do not even have the expectation in necessarily understanding the work of the artist upon first encountering it. And we often rely heavily on text provided by the artist or informed guides so as to glean some insight. I will leave it to others in a different forum to debate the merits and limitations of artists and aesthetics within this current framework. Like most people, I have my own ideas of aesthetics and artistic standards that can make for interesting conversation if the company, food, wine, and setting are engaging for such an evening of high culture and conversation. However, one thing I have always found profoundly interesting is that even when I do not fully understand the aesthetic "rules" governing the last thousand years of Chinese poetry paintings, the beauty and excellence of a masterpiece bridges all gaps of time, and culture. It seems to me that somehow this truly is at least one defining characteristic of a great work of art: its ability to transcend time, geography, and culture and move hearts and minds in a far away place and not yet born.
It was with all this fresh in my mind, as well as my own recent endeavors in the summer printmaking studio, that I had the good fortune to visit the current exhibit The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Covering 17 centuries of Japanese art and a wide range of media it was a beautifully curated exhibit that made artistic connections both cultural and across time by tracing a single universal and very human theme, the wonder of animal life. To learn more about the exhibit your can click on the button below:
For me, the highlights of the exhibit centered around woodblock prints, and silk paintings. The masterful balance of line and space create a sense of vitality, and yet seemingly contrasting composure, at times serenity, to even the most fearsome subjects as in the dragons and bulls of the Chinese Zodiac. Also impressive was the amazing variety scale of the works from the life size tigers inhabiting multi paneled silk screens to the tiny butterflies who take off in flight as the scroll they are painted on rolls out before the viewer. Being able to appreciate these works in a new way through my own better understanding of technique, aesthetic principles, and history, by my chance encounter with the little book The Three Perfections was indeed for me syzygy. Below are a few of my favorite works from the exhibit. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Artists and teachers are by definition "givers." It seems impossible to have any longevity in either vocation without and innate desire in one's personality to give to others, whether that be knowledge, beauty, a shared experience. Creating and making is giving. Giving can be depleting though. One can begin to feel spent and isolated. Which is why I have selected this image of this post.
This weekend I had the opportunity to get away from my usual surroundings and return to one of my husband's and my favorite little corners of the world: Chadds Ford, PA and Wilmington, DE. In a culture of hyper media focused on the exotic: Wilmington...er..ah..Delaware? You may ask. But, I say to you: Yes, Wilmington, Delaware home of Howard Pyle and the Delaware Art Museum. You seem incredulous still? Ah, then let me enlighten you.
Howard Pyle is quite simply the Father of American Illustration. A Wilmington native, he taught art at Drexel University and later established his own school. There he taught some of the most significant artists/illustrators of the 20th century including N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Rosie O'Neill, Violet Oakley, and Jessie Wilcox Smith. He also influenced Norman Rockwell and Andrew Loomis among others. You may think that you are not familiar with any of these artists and their works, but if you have read Treasure Island or seen a Kewpie Doll, you already know N.C. Wyeth (feather of Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth) and Rosie O'Neill. Pyle's Book of Pirates even influenced the costume designers of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. His illustrated Robin Hood and His Merry Men is still in print.
The Brandywine School of Painting really begins with Howard Pyle. But, why this geographic area? My husband (an artist as well) and I have long pondered this. We've concluded that there is something about the landscape and the light. Many of Pyle's students wrote about this. In fact,, N.C. Wyeth in one of his first letters home to his mother remarked that this landscape was "more home to him than home." There is a serenity of the rolling hills of this region, and a quiet symbioses between the architecture and activity of human kind within this landscape. And then there is the light, long raking autumnal golds outlining the gentle landscape forms in deep blue shadows with the most azure blue contrasting the pure white of summer clouds. If you look at the paintings of the Wyeth's, I think you can see this.
After taking in the Howard Pyle collection at the Delaware Art Museum, we moved from the urban to the rural and forward in time and visited the Brandywine River museum and the studio and home of N.C. Wyeth. Landscape and spaces shape a person. In the best circumstance the landscape is a constant source of renewal and inspiration. This is important for artists and teachers. In viewing the Wyeth Retrospective Exhibit is was easy to see that this landscape that was more home than home was certainly that for him and the generations of artists that followed. Maybe that is why we keep going back, to take it all in and come home again.
I selected this image to mark this blog post not only for its beautiful depiction of a summer moonlit evening, which we have been recently experiencing, or because it is a woodblock print, but because of its title "Summer Studio." These past few weeks my life as a high school at teacher seems distant and I am indeed in my own "summer studio." The initial rush to summer has left me. I think you know what I mean: faced with an expanse of time most responsible and dutiful adults feel the call to obey a Puritan work ethic for the efficient use of time: lists of things to do, chores to complete, etc. etc. etc. Thankfully my wayward nature, strengthened by the distractions of so many things to draw and paint has silenced that voice (at least until the second week of August). So what have I been doing you may ask: playing, yes, Playing. And no I'm not even blushing or joking when I say that. Now we each have our own ideas of play. But, to be clear the Merriam Webster's on line dictionary defines play as the following (please be sure to pay close attention to the synonyms):
engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
"the children were playing outside"
synonyms:amuse oneself, entertain oneself, enjoy oneself, have fun, have a good time, relax, rest, be at leisure, occupy oneself, divert oneself, play games, frolic, frisk, gambol, romp, cavort, caper;
This brings me to my first and one of my most favorite activities that I have discussed here before, walking. I think there is little coincidence in the fact that I love both walking and Henry David Thoreau, who wrote an essay entitled Walking. Having recently finished reading this, I realized that he pretty much summed up all of his major themes in this little essay. I highly recommend it, especially if you have never read Thoreau before. One of my favorite of his quotes, although not from this essay specifically, is:
"Pursue some path, however, narrow and crooked, and walk it with love and reverence."
This seems so much to me a statement of the artistic journey as it does sage advice for living in general.
When one considers the circuitous path of any creative process it is easy to have the image of a maze come to mind. Recently, I read Henry Elliots' Follow This Thread. It is as the secondary title promises a delightful book about mazes to get lost in both literarily and visually. Inspired by this book, my husband and I visited a nearby sunflower maze. What a pleasure to spend a leisurely hour or more surrounded by flowers bigger than oneself, like Alice in her wonderland. These crooked paths were as Thoreau would say the "the enterprise and adventure of the day.” In all this, I was struck by how seldom we really do this in our day to day lives. But, if you like, you can get a small taste of the delight of the crooked path below.
I've just started Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust in keeping with my theme of walking. I was drawn to this book by encountering a chapter title: "The Mind at Three Miles an Hour." I have this sense that three miles an hour, that is the average speed of walking, is all that my mind can really do and be truly present to my surroundings, thoughts, or the delicious mental spaciousness of no thought just sensory experience. This last one, I wanted to note is not void...it is space, not unlike the spaces in master Japanese woodblock prints. For the visual artist there is positive and negative space, both are truly present, both are truly necessary for balance and completeness in the composition. I think this is true for the human spirit/mind as well.
I used to be a wonderful letter writer. I used to carry letters with me for days writing to the recipient as if they were there to talk to. Describing this and that, musing to them in writing about the little things that transpired throughout my days. I learned this skill I think from my paternal grandmother who wrote me faithfully every month on a script typewriter no less!
One of the most romantic things my husband did when we were first dating was to send me hand written letters, even when we still saw each other most days. Somehow those letters revealed a part of him that was less apparent in person, more intimate and indeed brought us closer together in a truly meaningful way. I still remember receiving an annual hand written letter from a dear high school friend a Christmas. She was refusing to give up on real correspondence, but alas, even that annual letter no longer arrives.
Social media is in many ways the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. I love that I can have easy access to the latest works of hundreds of artists, exhibitions in museums around the world, hundreds of articles tailored to my specific interests and the ability to have a window into the world of those whom I often think of with affection but, because of time, distance, and circumstance have long since moved on from daily interaction in my life. And of course, this convenience means means I haven't put pen to paper as a means of connecting with another person in years. When I think of my students, I lament what they have missed: the anticipation of a letter arriving and then the thrill when it finally appears in the mailbox and the joy of seeing familiar writing on the page as you first look at the contents and so much more. I think of how reassuring it was to have friends "live" with you in your mind and heart as you would write them even though they many be very far away.
We are all too familiar with the shortcomings and the many faceted dark sides of social media. I think one of the worst parts of social media are the illusions it creates, e.g. comments instead of real dialogue, "hearts" instead of true presence, and the illusion of "keeping in touch" when you haven't actually exchanged so much as one specific, thoughtful word with your "friend" in years. I am guilt on all counts but, don't worry this is not yet another blog post in the ironic digital universe on the short comings of the digital world and how we're all going to hell in a social media hand cart...I actually have an idea.
Recently I was inspired by a small Facebook group (see it's not all bad...) that calls itself "Found Art Tuesday." If you are not familiar with them I encourage you to look them up. Their mission is simple: they seek to add unpredictable excitement in life and to try to make the world a better place through artwork. The feed is simply artwork someone has created and then left out for someone else to find. Make beauty, then give it away with no other expectation other than the hope that your work may make another person happy. I like that. But, more it is difficult than it sounds. I think every artist becomes attached to their work in a very real way. I know I do. I like to think that developing the practice of giving away things, makes room for growth and opens up more of life to me. That all being said, I have thought to start "at home" as the cliche goes. If you review my blog and works in progress you will notice that I am quite fond of little postcard paintings, most of which come from my walks and bike rides. So this is my "POST IT!" challenge to myself, quite probably to my students in the coming school year (like they will have a choice), and anyone else who wishes to participate: Paint or draw a postcard, make it anything and send it to someone who is a social media friend. Pick them for a reason or no specific reason at all, let that small voice within be your guide and trust that you will create and give the right image for the right person. Be sure to include a handwritten note on the back, something just for them, to them...remember all the time you spend making, and writing you are truly present to them and they are truly present to you. Set a goal: once a month, once a week, whatever you think is reasonable for you. I am wondering if something then truly wonderful can come from social media...let me know what happens to you!
Next to my field sketch kit, I think my bicycle and a cup of tea are probably my most valuable "art tools." Those of you who have read my blog before (and Thanks! if you have) probably know I get much of my inspiration from quiet cups of tea among my flowers and my long bike rides on country roads.
Artists, flowers, tea, and cats seem to always go together. One of my long time favorite books, Kazuko Okakura's The Book of Tea is a wonderful companion in consideration all this. Written for Westerners as an introduction to Japanese aesthetics and culture in the light of Teaism, it was the book Georgia O'Keeffe request be read to her when she was bed ridden near the end of her long life. I highly recommend the book. You will never look at things quite the same way again as this profound and delightful little book has a gentle way of opening your eyes a bit wider to the world around you with all its beauty, sorrow, joy and pain.
Yesterday I kitted out my bicycle for a very specific annual mission: collecting wildflowers. Normally, I would discourage anyone from going willy nilly flower picking. It really is nice to leave the flowers there for all to enjoy especially when I recall a quote from The Book of Tea:
“Why were the flowers born so beautiful and yet so hapless? Insects can sting, and even the meekest of beasts will fight when brought to bay. The birds whose plumage is sought to deck some bonnet can fly from its pursuer, the furred animal whose coat you covet for your own may hide at your approach. Alas! The only flower known to have wings is the butterfly; all others stand helpless before the destroyer. If they shriek in their death agony their cry never reaches our hardened ears. We are ever brutal to those who love and serve us in silence, but the time may come when, for our cruelty, we shall be deserted by these best friends of ours. Have you not noticed that the wild flowers are becoming scarcer every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to depart till man becomes more human. Perhaps they have migrated to heaven. Much may be said in favor of him who”
You may think me particularly cold-hearted to venture forth with my scissors (very sharp to keep the botanical shrieking to a minimum) and press after reading that quote, but my mission is a very deliberate, albeit somewhat futile one. I am trying to capture a season. And in doing so prod both myself and my students to truly see and see more. The contemporary Dutch artist Frederick Franke in his book The Zen of Seeing says that what he has not drawn he has not truly seen. These flowers preserved lovingly between the pages of my press provide endless opportunities for creativity and seeing throughout the year to come. They will be used as drawing and painting models, as part of art works and as ingredients to various art media, specifically dyes and papers.
In venturing forth yourself, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the local pants (especially common allergens like poison ivy) as well as endangered or protected plants, such as the Black Eyed Susan in Maryland, which is the state flower and therefor protected. I also encourage you to make your own press. My husband designed and built mine for my specific needs and use. Here is a link to a DIY flower press:
I hope this post inspires you to read, drink tea, grow and draw the flowers and to go and see the world around you in a bit more detail. There are a few pictures below of some of my favorite local sights. As always feel free to ask me questions and/or leave comments below.