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.
Making the most of my sketchbook
Like most people the white emptiness of a sketchbook page can intimidate me. Even with years of dedicated practice starting a new sketchbook or even a page can be a hurtle. I purposely purchase sketchbooks whose binding design inherently makes it difficult to tear out pages. I tell myself, and my students, that to tear out pages is to deny yourself the joy of seeing your own progress. Sigh, but which one of us does not have pages in are history that seem best left not revisited. Oh well, that's my mantra and I'm sticking to it, because I'm pretty sure it's good for me in the long run both artistically and humility is supposed to strengthen everyone's character, right?
So how to get past the whiteness and emptiness of the page? I've developed a few strategies:
1. Pre-painting a background color on a page. I find a better quality sketchbook allows you the freedom not to worry about it falling apart from months of hurried stuffing into this bag and that as well as being toss, dropped, and generally abused. In addition, acid free, mixed media (for both wet and dry media) paper allow you the freedom to use what every media you need/have for the situation and subject. I usually pre-paint a least a dozen pages in my sketchbook, some solid backgrounds, other I create shapes and half sheets with painters tape. I always keep complete blanks in between the painted pages, just in case! Then I choose the page that seems best suited in situ. I am sure to date my sketches because this of course means that you work is not in chronological order.
2. Decorative papers. Think "scrapbooking." My love of Asian Art led me to the practice of framing, edging and even binding in pages with decorative papers. Occasionally, I create pages with various shapes of pattern and then work my writing or drawing as part of an overall composition.
3. Sketches, seconds, and mementos, again scrapbooking techniques. Loose trace paper sketches can make wonderful overlays that you can incorporate into an overall page design and still include notes if you like. Printing seconds, works that you are less pleased with`, or loose small works (like postcards) with can be mounted and framed, or trimmed and employed as decorative elements. The same can be done with greeting cards. I recommend using a standard PVA white glue (like Elmer's) instead of a glue stick. Glue sticks are convenient and can work well on travel. However, I have yet to find the one that doesn't eventually give up after a few months.
4. Lastly, I am quite fond of little panoramic, accordion sketchbooks also known as Japanese albums. I have had good luck with Pentalic and Moleskin brands for mixed media work. One word of caution here. Be sure the buy two books, if possible, or remove one or two panels of the book you have purchased and rebind with a simple tape binding in order to have pages to experiment on. I have worked on some beautiful handmade papers but, fought them the entire time because I was really asking the paper to do something that it didn't do well. For example, Crow quill pen on soft cold press paper or ink washes on paper with little or no sizing so the bleed was difficult to control.
With these panoramic books, I like to keep a few blanks on hand as well as several with different pre-painted backgrounds. I prefer watercolor, experimenting with different effects like tea staining, salt, and plastic wrap. Sometimes simply daubing the wet wash with a sponge, or tissues can give a wonderful effect. Some are washed with non-staining pigments so I can lift later to obtain highlights. Others I just see what happens. I do try to keep a record of what the washes and effects are however, in tiny notes in pencil on the back of the page for future reference.
Above are some samples of all the techniques I have described above. Since it is summer, I make the most of my addition time to prepare a number of pages and books for the upcoming busy months. I hope this helps you overcome the white emptiness and feel free to share in the comments below any strategies/techniques you have discovered!
The Art Ladies Visit
Pretty much everything with a friend is better and art is no exception! It was great fun a few weeks ago to be hostess to the Art Ladies, as we've come to call ourselves. This was the brain child of my printmaking mentor, just like mind women, getting together to draw on a Saturday morning once a month and then share over lunch what we made. Only our second outing, the group decided to explore my home Scientists Cliffs for sketch subjects and fossils. It was a wonderful exercise in appreciation to see where I live from the eyes of newcomers to the landscape. Also, it was a nice kick in the pants to myself to pick up my sketchbook and pencil here at home more often!
I feel in love with a wild grape vine while on the beach which turn into an ink line study that I'm hoping will be a fun start for a new printmaking project.
Table Music Calligraphy
When I was a sole proprietor I learned very quickly there are many compelling reasons, besides monetary ones, for accepting a project. Experience/education in a specific field, and desire to work with a certain expert/client were all lures when I reflect on past commissions. There also was the hope of exposure to a broader audience, and meaningful purpose that peaked my interest. And last but certainly not least, love for the work itself. These are all important "rewards" that go beyond a simple paycheck. Of course, the best projects are some combination of all the above. A sense of doing meaningful work as well as a sense of accomplishment/acknowledgment and growth are essential in any profession no matter how grand or humble by societal standards.
This past month my colleague, who is a composer and our department chair, asked if I would be interested in participating in creating a gift for two administrators that were leaving the school where we teach. He noted that these two administrator had spent literally years working together across a table from each other. This inspired him to create a work of "table music." Now, I was a dutiful, albeit less than diligent and inspired music student in my youth and had never, to my knowledge, encountered this term. So, if you are reading this and feeling suddenly ignorant don't...I had to have it explained to me too.
Table Music or Tafelmusik in German originated during the mid 16th century and became popular through the 17th century at feasts and banquets. According to my colleague and the composer, these compositions were intended to delight and entertain. That being said, the sophistication and skill necessary in composing this musical parlor game astounds me! Here's how it works: There is one sheet of music between the performers sitting across the table from each other. I read/perform it as the music is written facing me and you read/perform it as the music reads facing you at the same time. Together we make Tafelmusik.
My colleague asked if I could calligraphy the final sheet music. The plan was then for another colleague, with far greater digital technical skills than me, to scan the sheet music and then laser cut it on to stained wooden plaques to be presented as gifts. How could I say no? This was new territory for me for I had never created music calligraphy before, it also was a chance to work closely with my two colleagues each in an area of expertise they possessed that I did not so I knew I was going to learn a lot! And lastly, there are few things more meaningful than being part of creating a gift.
Above you can see the gallery of my progress and hear Rob Redie's original composition "BeaLize." Rob made the composing seem as if it was fun and easy for him. But, isn't that always the way when someone is truly talented? For me, there were a number of challenges. The main one was my coming to understand how the music was structured and the different measures and notes related and aligned with each other vertically. The visual hierarchy of line based entirely on line weight was deeply considered as well. This was of special interest to me as it was a different way of using this visual tool than in my previous drafting experience. I also came to a deeper understanding of musical notation in general, which is an entire language of line, exquisitely beautiful lines. Working this way I had many hours to consider how we express ourselves through a seemingly endless variety of line, a very abstract and symbolic form of communication for our most concrete ideas. There is a terrific short video from PBS Art Assignment on the subject of abstraction and how it is not as foreign to our sensibilities as we might first think.
So there it is, one of those rare and wonderful times where I had the opportunity to do something new for my portfolio, learn from experts, work with great people doing something I love to do for a meaningful purpose. It was a good project!