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Is it ironic that I put CHI over a journal page that originally had CHEEZITS?

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…

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[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.

 

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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.

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What I thought it said. (What it actually said: Saunders)

 

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.

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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.

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All signs point to SAW

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:

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Then I came across the dreamy work of Aiden Koch:

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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.

Earlier today a student came to my office for a conference, and I keep trying to figure out what I could have said instead of what I did say.

We bantered for a bit about literary magazines and publishing in general, and then he got to the point: “I guess I really just want to know if my writing is any good.”

And suddenly we were having “the talk.” Not the birds and the bees, but just as awkward. I would have preferred him to ask about that. All aspiring writers want to know whether they are talented and have what it takes, and some of them are bold enough to ask their teachers. I never was.

As I always do when I am asked questions along these lines, I stuttered and stammered through an explanation of why I did not, in fact, want to tell him whether his writing was good.

“I don’t want that kind of power,” I said, invoking a weird image of me tapping a sword on his shoulders, as if proclaiming his knighthood. (But I called the sword a magic wand, mixing my metaphors and confusing things further.)

“Nor is this the only question to be asking,” I added, citing the importance of things like artistic vision, persistence, determination, desire, inner strength, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own.

But then, feeling like I’d de-emphasized the importance of good writing, I blurted out, “But good writing is important too!”

We sat in an awkward silence while his original question hung in the air.

——

This semester while I am teaching writing, I am also taking art classes. I took an 8-week figure drawing class at the South Bend art museum, and a couple weeks ago I took a week-long mixed-media workshop in Mexico City over spring break (which I have lots to blog and post about!). So all semester I have also been a student of something I really really want to do well.

When the instructors would come around and look at our works-in-progress, I would feel myself get nervous, and if they praised me, I would leap with joy (you know: inwardly).

I'd never used pastels before. My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti's drawings. I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures. But when I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles.

My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti’s drawings, and I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures, but I’m not sure that’s how she meant it. When I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles!

 

In other words, I want and need external validation as much as my students. I would love to ask an art teacher, “Hey, I know I’m like 20 years late to the game, but are my drawings any good?” But I guess I know that the answer would matter and not matter. That it’s up to me. That it’s a process – the learning of the craft, the shaping a vision, the commitment to a certain type of life.

Plus I’m of the ilk that thinks: go figure it out for yourself. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t wait around for permission.

Thus, I didn’t tell the student that his writing is good (even though it is, yes). I did ask what he thinks of his writing (he thinks it’s good). I tried to tell him that there are other questions to ask. I didn’t think to tell him I’ve had dozens of students who are excellent writers doing everything from finishing up MFA programs to quitting school to raise kids. I did tell him to email me in 5 or 10 years and let me know what he was doing.

——

I started my “How to Become a Writer” interview series because I was surprised to see how much my own idea of “becoming a writer” had been shaped by wrong and romanticized ideas based on black-and-white photos of writers smoking.

It was only after I’d been writing for a decade that I realized how much of it was about the things I’d been doing all along: writing, revising, going to conferences, meeting people, meeting deadlines, writing reviews and blurbs, reading literary journals, figuring out how and where and when to submit, writing more, revising more, reading my fellow-writers’ work, etc. Occasionally I attended a party where someone smoked a cigarette.

So, maybe I should have directed my student to my super long list of interviews with writers who advise aspiring writers to persist, keep going, believe in yourself, and don’t stop believing.

But maybe I should have just said, “Yes, yes, your writing is good.”

Because man it’s nice when a teacher tells you you’re doing something well.

 

Frida and Fallingwater

July 23, 2014 — 2 Comments
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Frida Kahlo, of course. Taken at her studio.

 

Frida Kahlo visited Fallingwater in the late 1930s after Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann purchased two of her paintings at the Julian Levy Gallery. The story goes that Frida was accompanied by Julian Levy and that he and Edgar Kaufmann competed for her affections that night. (And that Levy won.)

In my book, Liliane’s Balcony (which – can I mention? – has received a couple awards since I last blogged), I invoke bits of this story and imagine that it is Liliane Kaufmann who is so drawn to Frida’s dark imagery of open wounds and painful births. These are the two Kahlo paintings the Kaufmanns purchased:

“Recuerdo de la Herida Abierta” (“Remembrance of an Open Wound”) combines Frida’s ongoing physical pain with the emotional pain of Diego’s infidelities:

“Mi Nacimiento” (“My Birth”) is a graphic image created in the wake of one of Frida’s several miscarriages as well as the death of her mother. The painting is currently owned by Madonna, who bought it from Edgar Kaufmann jr. She told Vanity Fair in 1990: “If somebody doesn’t like this painting, then I know they can’t be my friend.”

There are several works by Diego Rivera at Fallingwater, but I’m not nearly as excited about those.

Anyway, earlier this month I was in Mexico City where I was geeking out on all things Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. I got to go to Frida’s home/studio/museum, and there on the wall was a picture of Fallingwater!

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(It’s the one in the middle.)

More images from her studio to come. It was freaking amazing.

 

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This is one stop on Zarina’s virtual book tour.
Keep up with the rest of the tour here!

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I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press) and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press). Zabrisky’s work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at zarinazabrisky.com. You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here.

IronRead more by and about Zarina:

Story: “The Twilight of Liberty

Video: Zarina reading “Pig Legs.”

Short Story Collection: Iron

Novel: We, Monsters

Interview:The Nervous Breakdown

How Zarina Zabrisky Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Zarina for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I wrote my first poem at six.  My first novel at eleven. There was no “why.” But if I have to rationalize, I would love to quote Josef Brodsky: “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” So, I figure, if I write anything anywhere close to Dickens… at least, I can try.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

It is not becoming a writer for me. It is being a writer.
I was in Queretaro at a writing workshop last summer. I wrote a poem there:

There is a knitting shop
On the corner
And three old women are knitting,
Needles dancing.
Their faces are still, bronze,
Their eyes fixed on the wall,
Not on the knitting.
Their fingers know
How to weave.
Their hands remember everything.
Their patterns come from their hearts
Or, maybe, from the spirits that live on that big invisible mountain.

They don’t knit,
They became the knitting.
Same for me:
I don’t write–
I became the writing,
And my fingers dance blindly
Across the page.

As for becoming oneself, I am still working on it… I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

My father liked my writing before he passed away. He didn’t do or say anything that stuck in my memory but I remember his face softening and the expression of pride or happiness in his usually sad or withdrawn eyes. Then I became a closet writer and no one had an opportunity to help me–they did not know I needed help.  I didn’t know that myself.

I found a whole new dimension of helping each other in the creative process through literary collaboration with my writing and life partner, Simon Rogghe.  Through listening to each other, and hearing, we write and discover. Being heard is the most important–and almost impossible–type of help that a writer can use, I think.  Together, we have gone on many adventures: performing our poetry to music and even dancing it and taking it around the country–from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Seattle and Portland; writing poetry duets on an imaginary journey in Mexico and creating visual concepts for it.  This went so well that the book of collaborative poetry is forthcoming from amazing Numina Press, in November 2014.  The book is called Green Lions and in it I will debut with my illustrations–the visual concepts found together with Simon.

I was also very lucky to have my publishers, Epic Rites Press (Canada), Numina Press (SF) and Nostrovia Press (mobile and everywhere) work with me and support my books.  The independent publishers are passionate, powerful and insanely talented people, of a rare kind.

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Vaslav Nijinsky

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

So many… From Salinger who managed to run away from it all to just write, to Vaslav Nijinsky, a legendary ballet dance, whose diary was the book that impressed me the most, perhaps. Nijinsky is the dancer who became the dance.  The diary was written in Switzerland in a short spurt, and in a matter of weeks schizophrenia won over one of the most unusual and creative minds of the last century.  But before he sank into decades of mental non-being, Nijinsky pulled up the curtain of the theater which only can be called Universe.  There is no bullshit in that book.  He even says that it should be read the way he wrote it: in his rushed cursive, in French and Russian. I did that: went to the NYC Performing Arts Library and ordered the microflims.  Read them in the dark room for hours…  Also, Jim Morrison.  William Blake.  I am inspired by people who stayed true to their core and vision despite of any circumstances.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

“You must become who you are.” Also, write and read. In particular, read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The only good book on writing I have found.  The book cuts into the bone marrow of language, brain work and the intangible realm called poetry. No frills and no politically correct New Agey nonsense. He can be blunt and rude, but if you read his ABC you might end up with better writing.