Reading and drawing, my two favorite things. I post these images on Instagram and neglect my poor blog. But here I am! What’s everyone else reading? Or drawing? I love all of these books. The fact that I finished them says a lot because I can’t seem to keep reading books I don’t love anymore.
no longer living, existing, or functioning
Defunct: A Resurrection is a book of my paintings and mini-essays about all things defunct, from my vintage Polaroid camera to my Ellis Island ancestors. It is being letterpress printed and hand bound in a limited run of 60 copies by the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. It will be released this Friday, April 12, 2019 as part of their Interrobang festival!
Who remembers typing on a typewriter? Watching filmstrips in school? Dialing a rotary phone?
There are objects that become such a part of our daily lives that they are embedded into our memories through sensory experience long after they’ve been replaced with the latest technology. And seeing, touching, or hearing the object again seems to transport us back in time.
Printing presses are a link to our past. When I was invited to give a reading at Ball State University in fall 2017, one of my first questions was, “Can I visit the Book Arts Collaborative while I’m there?” I’d read about it online and, having taken a letterpress workshop in NYC, was eager to see this makers’ space for book arts and letterpress printing. I was smitten from the start. A few months later when Prof. Rai Peterson asked if the students could make a book of my writing and paintings, I could barely contain my excitement.
I wasn’t originally sure what the focus of the book would be, but when I looked back at my daily paintings, I realized how often I returned to a particular subject: the vintage objects I keep in my home. My 1940s phone, 1950s camera, 1960s pencil sharpener, 1970s globe. These once-functional items don’t serve much of a purpose anymore; they are defunct. But they are alive to me. They carry messages from the past: reminders that things can be beautifully designed and well made; warnings that we are making and consuming too rapidly.
And what better mode of publication for a book celebrating defunct people, places, and things than letterpress?
In both content and form, this book is a meditation on materiality and ephemerality; on the objects we love and the stories we tell. It is a celebration of the handmade, the skilled trade, the human touch.
Book Arts Collaborative and Rob and Kim at Tribune Showprint Posters have resurrected defunct letterpress machines, salvaged them, and made them functional again.
One of the greatest aspects of this whole experience is that I feel like an honorary member of Book Arts Collaborative! I have loved spending time with Rai and the students, and witnessing the students’ excitement and pride as they learn new skills and old techniques, make amazing books and journals by hand, and work together to run a business.
They have all devoted hours and hours to this book, and have given my paintings and words the most beautiful home I could imagine. I can’t wait to celebrate with them at Interrobang this week!
Everyone is complaining that it’s still January, but I’m glad! I’m still adjusting to this new year, trying to figure out how to direct myself.
In 2018 I committed to making “50 pounds of art,” or a painting a day, and it was totally life-changing. (HOW life changing, you ask? Read all about it at The Rumpus!) I’m continuing the daily art again this year, so I didn’t know if I needed a new theme for 2019 or not. But I do, of course I do. In fact I need TWO.
The first one is CHI. CH’I. QI. Vital energy. Life force. Energy flow.
I wanted a word that could be applied to all aspects of my life: teaching, writing, parenting, artmaking, planning, eating, social-media-ing, etc. I want to be tuned into the energy I give and receive, and intentional about my choices. I don’t know if I’m using the word quite right, but that’s how I’m thinking of it.
“The ancient Chinese described qi as “life force”. They believed it permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. Qi was also linked to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive functioning unit. By understanding the rhythm and flow of qi, they believed they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity.” (Wikipedia)
The second one is THINK BIGGER.
Which I discovered only accidentally when I posted this on Instagram yesterday:
I thought of this as a humorous anecdote, but as people responded earnestly, I started to think about it more seriously. Thinking bigger for me would not necessarily mean Africa instead of Aveda, but I do have some ideas of what it might mean…
[Today THE RUMPUS will publish a visual essay I wrote about what it was like to make a painting every day, featuring a number of this year’s paintings as illustrations. I’ll update this post with the link when it goes live.]
In 2018 my non-resolution was to make 50 pounds of art (metaphorically) by making a painting every single day (literally). I did it – I painted or sketched or made a comic every day this year – and it has utterly transformed my creative life. The idea was to focus on quantity and process rather than on perfection and preciousness.
I’m a writer and professor of creative writing, and while I’m incorporating more and more visual material in my storytelling (especially comics and collage), visual arts are not my primary focus. Which means painting can be a space of exploration and experimentation. With writing, I rarely share work that hasn’t been revised, vetted, edited, and published by someone who is not me. With painting, I just make a thing and then post it on Instagram in its often imperfect form.
I’ve learned to see in new ways, not only as a human in the world, but as a story-teller. In a written story, certain visual specifics can be eclipsed by atmosphere and the rhythm of sentences, and I’m starting to realize how much I’ve done this–avoided details that didn’t feel necessary. This is true in a comic as well–that you choose what to include and what not to–but you are also forced to answer certain questions, like: okay, you’ve drawn a nightstand: what’s on the nightstand? what kind of lamp? Or, what color is the house? what is the character wearing?
I’ve also found new artists I admire and whose work inspires me. I participated in Inktober this year (the challenge is to make an ink drawing each day of October), and I learned how use ink in ways I’ve never tried before (like the sketch of my journals on this post!). Then I participated in National Novel Writing Month in November and made over 30 pages of a graphic novel about my great-grandmother from Ireland.
And I filled so many journals! Like most people, I typically buy a journal, write or paint in a few pages of it, then abandon it. This year I filled 13 journals (with paintings on one side of each page) and 3 art portfolios with loose sheets of watercolor paper.
Yesterday I was carrying the heavy stack of journals and portfolios I’d filled in 2018 to make the above drawing, and my daughter said, “Weren’t you going to make 50 pounds of art or something? How much do those journals weigh?”
So I weighed them: 22 pounds. Then I weighed a larger painting I’d made on a wood panel; with the frame it was 7 pounds. Then I weighed one of the three a 30×30″ canvas I’d painted: 4.8 pounds (x 3 = 14.4 pounds). Then I weighed the 30×24″ canvas and the 36×24″ canvas and the 36×36″. And a few other smaller wood panels. And then next thing I knew, it was over 50 pounds. Turns out I made a painting every day AND 50 pounds of art – literally!
Click here for my first post of the year where I describe the 50 pounds of art idea for 2018 – and where I have links to the last several years of non-resolutions.
Click here for 12 thoughts after I made it to the 3-month mark.
Click here to see my daily posts on Instagram.
I have made ART–a painting or drawing–every day of 2018, and after three straight months of this, I have some thoughts. Here they are in the order in which I think them:
Thought 1: It’s possible! I believed I could do it, but I didn’t know what it would be like day-in and day-out. It’s a commitment, but it’s doable. I’m not sure I could have done it during other periods of my life (pre-tenure, pre-kid-in-college), but whatever, I’m doing it now.
Thought 2: It’s working! My goal for 2018 is to make “50 pounds of art” (metaphorically) (literally: to make art every day), which I explain here, and which basically means that I will paint or draw something every day, and that I will learn through the process of making and trying and failing and failing better (#beckett). After three months of daily art-making, daily thinking about art, daily work with different paints and different papers and different brushes, I literally feel like a different artist than I was just three months ago.
Thought 3: I get to buy art supplies! Instead of buying supplies *aspirationally* for projects I hope to do but probably won’t, I buy them and use them right away. I have already filled two journals.
Thought 4: Accountability (aka social media) helps! I joined Instagram (link) and post most of my daily work there. I follow other artists, illustrators, and writers, and see what they’re all up to (though it gives me a bit of a complex because they’re all amazing), and the platform provides a nice archive of what I’ve made. And it’s nice to get a few HEARTS and feedback along the way.
Thought 5: I have an aesthetic! I knew that, of course, but I’m exploring and honing it. When every day is another day of, “What do I paint today?”, it becomes clear what sorts of things (subjects, styles, media) interest me and what things don’t. For example, though this is not shocking since I’m a writer: Turns out I love words in paintings. Whether it’s a comic with images and speech bubbles, a story or caption written on the background, a quote from a book, an object that has a word on it, or a weird sign or misreading (like the image below), I love words as part of the design.
Thought 6: It has led to new opportunities! I’m talking about ACTUAL opportunities: people have asked to buy my paintings, commission me to make paintings, publish my paintings (possibly) in a book, use my painting on social media ads, and exhibit my paintings in a gallery!
Thought 7: I have made some crappy crap! Oh well, on to the next thing.
Thought 8: I have made some things I’m proud of! This post features some faves.
Thought 9: Some days it’s really hard! I have no idea what to make. Very little time to make it. And a desire not to make crappy crap.
Thought 10: Confession: I actually missed two days! But some days I make 3-4 things, so it all evens out.
Thought 11: Online art classes give me a boost! I get insights and ideas from the lessons, inspiration from other members posting their work, and helpful prompts when I’m stuck. My all-time favorite online teacher is Misty Mawn. Her lessons cover all sorts of mixed-media projects and techniques; her video lessons are well-thought out, detailed and thorough, but also EDITED, and have amazing music. She is a beautiful soul (and this is not a phrase I am known to use or even think) and she includes recipes and side projects and fabulous introductory videos. I have also explored Sketchbook Skool (but the K’s kill me: skool, klass. ugh), Katie Kendrick, Jeanne Oliver, and Roz Stendahl.
Thought 12: It makes me think about WRITING in new ways! Even though I’m working in a different medium, I’m still thinking about storytelling, and I’m even thinking about poetry–the poetry of color and value, of repetitions and tones. I’m thinking about process and mindset and aesthetics, about editing and revising, about layers and details. And it shines a light back on writing and helps me see anew.
Onward! The year is young. I’m excited for what’s to come.
It’s a new year! Which means a new phrase-of-the-year. Because I’m not very resolved when it comes to resolutions, I come up with one word or phrase designed to inspire me, challenge me, and even nudge me in a new direction. I call it my non-resolution, and I actually devote a LOT of time to choosing it. Last year’s word was Order — which was amazing! I dedicated the year to getting my health, home, and finances in order. I dove into the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, gave away or threw away what seems like half of my belongings, emptied out and sold my 1929 house and moved into a new apartment with a river view.
So the non-resolution phrase-of-the-year for 2018 is . . . 50 Pounds of Art.
The phrase is adapted from a popular anecdote in the book Art and Fear that suggests that focusing on quantity in any pursuit is a way to experiment and learn and will thus lead to quality. Would you rather be asked to make one PERFECT something . . . or 50 POUNDS of it? My idea is to make 50 pounds of art (metaphorically) by making a painting or drawing (literally) every day of the year:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
— from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
This first week of the year I have made a painting each day, and I already feel transformed in the way I think about making art and in my connection to others who I’ve been interacting with about this project. And I’ve already learned so much about my materials and paper and process. I’m learning what I’m drawn to, what I’m good at, what I need to practice, what I can do on this paper or with this type of brush or paint that I can’t do with that one.
That said, I had no clue where to begin when I started on New Year’s Day. I vaguely knew that I wanted to draw/paint something each day but was still trying to come up with a phrase for the year. Then I drew the thing that was in front of me: my Dial Complete hand soap. And so it began.
I posted the image on Facebook and got nice feedback and support, and since I had no plan for what to do next, I made some paintings inspired by my friends’ Facebook photos:
Against my better judgment, I even joined Instagram so I can post there.
I don’t know how it will evolve, so I’m thinking that each week will be a different series. A friend of mine sent me a link to a Library of Congress exhibit on Women Illustrators and Cartoonists, so that might be the focus one week. I’m taking a couple of online art classes those will probably each get a week. Last year I got a new Gelli plate for easy monoprints that I’ve never used, so maybe I’ll spend a week with that.
I’m obviously very suggestible (so please share ideas), and I’d also love some company. Anyone else in for making 50 Pounds of Art this year?
I’m excited to start a new year of drawing or painting or collaging something each day. Last year my theme was ORDER, and man did I get things in order: home, possessions, finances, schedule. I literally experienced the life-changing magic of tidying up. The guiding principle of last year’s non-resolution was from Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I’m off to a humble start, but I’m ready to see where daily art practice takes me in 2018.
Last week I got to teach a 3-day Sprint Workshop on hybrid genres and literary collage to students in Miami University’s (OHIO!) MFA program. On the first day I said, “Here’s some paper, a bone folder, an awl, and some string. Make a mini-book!”
On the second day, they wrote poems and postcards, they cut and pasted:
That night, I put my game face on and gave a reading from The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová.
On the third day, they typed on a typewriter, arranged an accordion, glued pictures of corpses and houses and ice sculptures, and made pockets and postcards and silhouettes. They finished their books as I channeled Tim Gunn and counted down the final minutes saying, “Make it work, designers, make it work!”
That night we shared and celebrated:
Thanks so much to Jody Bates, Margaret Luongo, Cathy Wagner, and especially the MFA students for an awesome week!
I guess it’s no surprise that I would resort to writing metaphors for the state of my life and house, but here it is. In the last few years I have undertaken a major revision of my life. I got a divorce, fell in love, moved in with my beloved, and, in my creative life, wrote a different kind of book (my first with personal nonfiction also the first with visual art). During that time, another major change: my daughter went away to college, and now she’s about to study abroad in Italy for a semester. All these revisions led to a lot of chaos and accumulation of material, and now it’s time to edit: to pare down, to get rid of extraneous material, and to make my life, as the editor of my first book advised, “lean and mean.”
Each year I come up with a word, phrase, or guiding principle that becomes a focal point for my intentions. This year it was ORDER. So it should be no surprise that six months into my year of ORDER, I am reading about The Joy of Less, The More of Less, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, How to Live More with Less, and Breathing Room, and am seriously following the advice.
My faves are The Joy of Less and the Tidying Up book because, while all of the books address the psychology behind our clutter, these two give you rational permission to let go. They acknowledge, for example, that we keep some things for aspirational reasons (someday I’ll write that book and need this source; someday I’ll be thin enough for this outfit; someday I’ll learn to play that guitar), and that it’s OKAY to let go of those aspirations and thus those things. It will even be freeing, psychologically and spatially. If you DO someday take guitar lessons, you can get a different guitar.
(My 20-year-old daughter, for example, wants me to keep a completely pointless pretzel maker because SOMEDAY when she has her own apartment, she wants to have people over and make them pretzels. This is a very clear vision in her head.)
These books also address objects we keep for sentimental reasons. Like that box of cutlery my boyfriend has been lugging around and will never use? Francine Jay in The Joy of Less puts it this way: “The most important thing to remember is that these items were simply things they owned–just like the things you own. Do you feel that you’re embodied in your dinner plates?” And she follows by saying “Your memories are infinitely more precious than any ‘things’ they leave behind.”
This advice is especially freeing for me because, while J. doesn’t even know whose cutlery he owns, I have very treasured memories of my grandparents, and a number of objects associated with them–but not all of those objects pass the “spark of joy” test. (In the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, readers are instructed to hold an object in your hands. If you feel a spark of joy, keep it; if you don’t, don’t.)
Francine Jay uses the metaphor of a curator: you are not deciding what to get rid of (in the museum of your house), you are deciding what to include, what to keep, what to feature in your life. Marie Kondo suggests going through your photos, choosing a limited number to keep (she gives some criteria in her example), and putting them in an album where they can be viewed and enjoyed. It’s editing: selecting the best and getting rid of the rest.
I especially appreciate Jay’s approach in The Joy of Less. First, she addresses furniture (and our American preclusion to oversized furniture and multi-piece sets), and she reminds us to think of the floor as an important part of our space. Don’t cover it up with so much furniture. Second, she encourages readers to rethink the use of rooms and furniture: when she lived abroad, she and her husband didn’t have a TV or couch because they went out a lot and didn’t use it. In their bedroom, they have a mattress on the floor, eliminating the need for end tables! She is not recommending these approaches to readers, but she wants readers to use their actual lived lives as the guiding principle for choosing furniture and using space. Finally, she offers an (albeit gentle) critique of capitalism, reminding us to think of how we are manipulated by ads in our consumer culture (you’ll be happy if you buy this) and of the three components of a product’s life: production, distribution, and disposal–and to consider the financial and environmental costs behind the goods we over-consume. She also reminds us to consider the labor: “who made it and under what conditions.”
In terms of method, Jay suggests going room by room; Marie Kondo insists that you declutter by theme: first clothing, then books, etc. (because you may have these items in multiple rooms and they need to be decided together). I’ve been doing a combo. Both insist that you have to empty out everything and/or put all the objects together.
So yesterday I emptied a bookshelf that was overrun with dozens of CDs mostly from the 1990s, a stack of those awesome Time Life books on topics like evolution and the body that I bought at Goodwill 15 years ago and just returned to Goodwill, a couple of gifts that I didn’t know what else to do with, old photos in tired frames, and a weird family heirloom from Slovakia.
And I started in on some of books. These are just the ones in my bedroom!
I’ll keep a lot of them (many are by my friends!), but over the years I have bought a lot of books I *don’t* need and don’t want. Or that I loved so much I bought them twice!
It feels good, this Life Edit. It gets me thinking of all the ways we create: we accumulate drafts and material, we move it around, look at in different positions and angles, we start new files on our computer, forget about old drafts, dig them up again, we get too busy to write, we come back to it and revise and figure out what the hell the story is, and then, at last, with new focus, we cut, we prune, we make a piece of art.
First, to get this out of the way: I don’t like comics. Or at least I didn’t think I did. I definitely don’t like the cartoony aesthetic or formulaic narratives that I thought defined comics.
Then again: when I was a kid I loved the Sunday comics. I had a page-a-day Far Side calendar that never ceased to amuse me. In high school, after a particularly traumatic loss to the cross-town rival soccer team (I was the goalie and took it hard when I got scored upon), I stayed up drawing copies of comic characters late into the night: Charlie Brown, Garfield, Calvin, Hobbes.
Fast-forward a few decades, and this summer I was awarded a grant to work on a graphic narrative. How did I get here?
There are probably all sorts of grad-school, elitist, even gendered reasons why I decided I wouldn’t like graphic narratives, but I’m in the midst of discovering a form that has both been here along and that is also coming into its own, and it’s pretty exciting. I would say my gateway artist was Maira Kalman, an illustrator with a quirky style and a witty, beautiful voice that emerges in the short commentaries she pairs with her images. Here are a couple pages from her awesome Principles of Uncertainty:
Her work inspired me to create short graphic narratives from painted pages in my journal, and in my book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, I created art and images to pair with the text.
More recently I discovered Poetry Comics, especially the strange and wonderful work of Bianca Stone:
Then I came across the dreamy work of Aiden Koch:
And it was as I tried to find out more about her work that I first found the Sequential Artists Workshop, known as SAW, where she had recently given a workshop. SAW was conceived, created, and is now fearlessly led by the amazing Tom Hart (author of Rosalie Lightning, which I’ll discuss in my next post). SAW is a small, unassuming space with a fully stocked library and terrific artistic energy. In the video below, Tom (on the left) calls it “bare bones” and a “work in progress,” but that’s exactly what makes it such an exciting and inspiring space. You can get a great sense of it in just the first few minutes of this online open house (which is good because you can get seasick from the live cam!):
SAW has a year-long workshop, but once or twice a year they do a low-res, week-long workshop, which is what I did in May of this year. I had never been to Gainesville, and I sort of fell in love with it. All the UF students were gone, and the town had great restaurants and outdoor seating, all within walking distance of SAW. There were just a handful of students in the workshop, so it was intimate and focused. There are three main faculty that teach, and each of them took a day or part of day for artist talks and instruction:
- Tom Hart gave an engrossing thematic overview of his work over the years and led us in some exercises including a scavenger hunt of images and texts from his library that we copy-and-pasted into our own mini-comic books.
- Justine Andersen gave us some real-talk about the life of an artist, shared her amazing portfolio, and gave instruction in inking (how to hold a brush, how to use the ink, how to make lines, even how to clean brushes).
- Jess Ruliffson shared her comic journalism projects and gave a lesson in working with gouache.
There was also time to work on our own projects, and I managed to finish the art on something I’d been thinking about and had roughly drafted: a story about an aquarium fish I had that would not die and that lived through several of my major life changes.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve been delving deeper by enrolling in a couple of SAW’s online workshops: Comics for Writers, Nonfiction Comics, Creating Your Graphic Memoir, etc. The online classes are organized well and offer short videos that walk you through excellent examples of whatever is being taught in each lesson. Every time I watch a video lesson, I add new books to my reading list.
Because the cost of the low-res workshop was so reasonable (<$400 for the week), we could afford to rent a great AirBnB house and were surrounded by Spanish Moss and a lake full of gators.
Thanks for reading. My next posts will be about the graphic memoirs I’m reading (and loving) and, if I’m feeling brave, about the graphic memoir I’m trying to create from scratch this summer.