Bigger on the Inside

While I have been diving into creative pursuits such as growing vegetables in the community garden, cooking with local sustainable food from the garden and farmer’s market and fermentation experiments in the kitchen, my artistic impulse has sat dormant in an untouched corner of my apartment. Literally. The last space in my apartment to be organized is my art space. There are still  boxes and plastic bins piled up in the corner behind the flat files that have not been moved or opened in the past seven months. I’m not sure what to call it. “Studio” seems a bit ostentatious for the corner of what is supposed to be my dining room that is now devoted not only to art, but also to paperwork and bills. I obviously intend to make art here as I have sacrificed any notion of a dining room table in preference for eating at folding tables in the sunroom or living room or frequently just standing up at the kitchen counter. For someone as devoted to cooking as I am, it seems odd not to have a dedicated space to eat. Alas, my dreams of a custom-made countertop and comfortable bar stools to turn the flat files into a part-time dining room table came to a grinding halt when I realized that the divorce and the fallout thereof was going to cost a lot more than I originally thought. I’ve tabled any type of decorating budget in favor of making do with what I’ve already got.  I’ll get there, eventually. But it is going to require a lot of ingenuity and next to no cash.
I have long since realized that in order for this to be a useful workspace, I am going to have to be realistic as to how many different projects I can fit. I’m working with less than a quarter of the raw square footage I had at the house. I’m also dealing with a lack of “messy” space. In the attic of my house, the floor was plywood in some parts and worn-out hardwood floor in others. I had access to a large utility sink and a basement for wet and/or messy projects. Paint, beeswax, honey, glue? NO problem. In the house, there was plenty of space to spread out the messy projects without the worry of ruining the nice parts of the house.
Here, not so much. I LOVE the herringbone wood floor throughout the apartment. I don’t want to be spilling encaustic paint or glue on it. Papermaking is wet and messy. Same with any kind of paints. Anything from the beehive, honey or wax, is messy. I am not one to keep such messes contained. I know there are artists who can do it…work with such materials and not spill…but I am not one of them. Most of the time it is painfully obvious what I am working with because I am wearing my materials under my fingernails, in my hair, on my clothes. The room I work in fares no better.
I’ve put off tackling this corner of my “dining room” because I must make difficult decisions about which of my “children” — I mean art tools– to keep and which to let go. Again. Because I already made a bunch of those hard decisions when I packed up and left the house seven months ago. But, it seems I didn’t cut deep enough and I still have way too much stuff. Which art supplies I keep and which I part with determines in no small part the direction of my art and what my next art show will look like (because I’ve decided to have faith that the next show IS happening in the not-too-distant future, and that I will figure out how to finance it). How often I get into a creative flow amid my busy and distracted life is largely determined by how efficient, organized and inviting my work space is. Of course I can pick up any and all art mediums again “someday” when I either have a larger home or can afford to rent a studio to work in, but realistically, given the financial constraints of going through a divorce, the next opportunity I have to do that will be at least a few years off (if I’m lucky and/or very smart).
So today, I am deciding what projects to take on for the next period of time until my life changes again. And then I am pitching everything that doesn’t support those projects.
I need to focus on smaller quantities of finished pieces and smaller project sizes, but more detail-oriented pieces. I want to go back and revisit the medical, scientific and botanical illustration styles I studied in college.  I want to go back and look at the children’s stories I started writing several years ago with the plan of creating small-scale pen-and-ink illustrations to go with them. I want to create small miniature pieces that contain volumes of detail and draw the eye in to discover what is going on in a tiny, evolving universe. I may display these pieces with a magnifying glass. For that matter, I may need one to make them considering my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. I want to show a secret world that is bigger on the inside. Aren’t we all bigger on the inside?



Michelangelo: Study of a Striding Male

I’ve been reading a great blog called The Culture Monk  by Kenneth Justice. You should check him out, he’s got a ton of thought-provoking posts and the one I just read is titled “Getting Naked for Art is Wrong…Really?”

The post reminded me of funny story…when I was an art student in college I took figure drawing as required for my major. At the end of the semester my Italian Nonna wanted to see what I’d done over the semester so my Mom and I packed the car with my art to take it over to her. I started pulling out the nude figure drawings to leave them behind. My Mom said, “Why aren’t you bringing those? I think you should”. I was mortified. Show the nude drawings to my modest, religious little old grandma?  But my Mom just said, “All those old churches in Italy have nudes in them. Let’s see how she reacts”. Reluctantly, I agreed to bring them. It turns out, she really liked them. Particularly a pastel drawing of a very handsome young man with nice buns.

It wasn’t until years later when I went to Italy on my honeymoon that I understood why Nonna was ok with her granddaughter drawing naked men. My Mom was right…it wasn’t just the frescos in the churches that had nude and semi-nude figures in them (and not all of them were stick-thin). There were centuries-old larger-than-life marble statues out in the streets like someone forgot to put them away. We never actually made it to see the David because the line was so long and there was so much else to see and yeah, there was a lot of nudity. But you didn’t think of it as overtly sexual, it was just amazing art depicting the beauty of the human form.

Now, It is possible my Nonna didn’t realize there was an actual naked handsome man in the classroom that the class was drawing. Or maybe she did.

Bird Woman

Bird Woman

This painting started out as a figure painting excercise in college. It was a male model. Years later I had several canvases of human figures that were, well, pretty static and boring. So I took my pallette knife and went to town. Out of that effort emerged Bird Woman. Say what you like about gender bending, but the avian figure has always been female to me. She reminds me of a Phoenix, rising out of the ashes of her past.

Everyone Has One Good Story in Them…


Doodle on Manila Folder + PicsArt

Geek Love. Photoshop 7. Cartoon Character Mermaid Punch. I’ve got at least one good story in me, one great unforgettable female character. She takes center stage like an explosion, like a blazing fireball, glowing like St. Elmo’s fire only far more destructive. She’s worth staying up all night with no sleep and goddamn any work that needs to happen the next day, because letting her run loose in my imagination one more time is worthy work in and of itself.

Get me into the writer’s club! I can’t draw anymore, not unless there are words attached.

I need words like I need flowers and fresh sage leaves. I need poetry. I need to be a bard.

I need to be heard.

Something from Nothing

To the best of my knowledge, only God (or whatever name you’d like for the divine) can truly make something from nothing. Maybe. We don’t know for sure how that works. However, to me as an artist, it is not only possible, but very desirable, to take something of “no value” and make it into something of value. I put quotes around the words “no value” because I’m pretty sure that all matter is valuable. Humans put value on things based on how useful we think a thing is to us. In any case, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Here’s a fun challenge to get you thinking about the value of the raw matter all around you: set a timer for five minutes and walk outside. If it is winter where you are (I am in Chicago), don’t even bother putting on your coat (but shoes are a good idea) and in those five minutes, gather as many useless items as you want from your immediate environment. They can be natural, as in a stick or rock, or something manmade, like a pop can tab.

Go inside. If you like, do an internet search for your objects: “stick art”, “pop can tab crafts”, “Oak Leaf properties”, etc. Especially check out YouTube tutorials. I”m pretty sure you will find that there are folks using these raw materials to make stuff cool enough to warrant posting a video. It is amazing.

Finally, make something from your objects. Just try it. How does it feel? Frustrating, confusing, liberating? Really pay attention to the inherent properties of your materials: texture, color, strength, brittle/flexible and so on. How easy is it to get your materials to do what you want them to do? Once you have your finished piece, how do you feel about the raw material you worked with?

If you do this exercise often enough, you will start to look at the world around you with different eyes. Things you disregarded as background noise, like weeds, dandelion fluff, rusted metal, bark and the like start holding interest. What are its physical properties? Would they lend themselves to a task I want to do?

This, my friends, used to be how humans looked at the world around them, until very recently (a few hundred years or less). There were no boxed solutions to search for in a special place, a store. The solutions and materials needed for survival were outside all around, and to be successful you had to keep your eyes open every time you stepped out the door.

I suspect that in spite of our pre-made conveniences, the ones that came from a factory and deemed valuable by virtue of costing money, it is still true. In order to gain real value from our immediate environment, we need to keep our eyes open.

I challenge you to step outside and see the world this way, and I’d love to hear about the results of your experiment!


Raw stuff for this piece: Kentucky coffee tree seeds found on walks home from work, canna Lilly seeds from garden, dryer lint, pics from an old gardening catalog. Not found objects: white flour, baking powder, powdered soap, and glue. Paint, glitter, glaze, string and plastic beads.

Books I’ve Recently Read on Kindle


books (Photo credit: brody4)

But first: My thoughts on kindle, technology, and the demise of the cheap paperback.

I love my kindle. My husband gave it to me two years ago as a Christmas gift, and it has revolutionized reading for me. The fact that I can walk around with something that weighs about the same as a paperback, that contains my own personally curated library, is thrilling to me as a lover of words. Much care has been given to craft a device that feels comfortable on the hands and the eyes, and I appreciate that. I think e readers will eventually (rapidly) replace paper for most uses, like the digital camera replaced the film camera. I still have the Pentax K1000 my uncle gave me when I was an art student taking photography 101, but for most uses can’t afford the film and developing costs. I felt incredibly bittersweet about the demise of film photography (as the prevalent medium of choice) but thrilled by the new opportunities afforded me by digital photography. With every revolution comes the irreversible loss of some element of the old technology, and I think what I’d be able to sacrifice, not without some sadness, is the cheap drug store paperback as a vehicle for literature. We’d save a heck of a lot of trees that way.

I don’t think paper printing will ever go away, at least it would make me very sad if it did. I have been a print graphic designer  for the better part of two decades so my affection for the printed medium will not fade that easily. In fact, the actual programming and designing for web has proven difficult for me personally adapt to given how entrenched my print design skills are. This is one reason why I love WordPress, because I haven’t mastered Html.

I’ve witnessed with the advent of desktop computers for graphic design. I was among the first generation of designers to use the computer exclusively for a living, and one of the last to be exposed to now-defunct hand techniques in school. Quickly on the heels of that change was the change  from film to digital cameras. I’ve seen the internet evolve and am now watching the transformation of the role of the website due to the invention of social media.

A similar thing is happening with our printed materials, and it is an inevitable extension of what has happened to the field of graphic design. The way we read has not only been transformed forever, but so many new mediums have been invented. We are literally changing the way we tell stories. Think about it, the full arc of human storytelling probably started around a campfire in a cave and has now culminated in the YouTube video and this blog post. I say culminated, but it won’t stop here; we will continue to find ever new and engaging ways of telling our stories.

Here’s what I hope happens: I hope paper books become rare and valuable, perhaps not as inaccessible as they once were when they had to be copied by hand by monks, but enough to give us pause and pay a bit more attention to the artistry of the object in our hands. The average home will have maybe a shelf of printed books, expensive, high quality printing and richly illustrated. On this shelf will also be at least one or two such books self-published by someone living in the house, or received as a gift from a loved one. Libraries themselves would contain small collections of such books that wouldn’t get checked out, for library use only. Everything else would be available on an eReader. I really like the way Seth Godin talks about the library of the future, but here I’d like to stress the use of libraries as repositories of the finest quality print books, to be appreciated in much the same way as one does a piece of art hanging in a gallery. There could even be openings celebrating the arrival of new printed books.

That perhaps is the biggest revolution of all…the ability of the average person to have access to the publishing process.

Let’s try to use our new superpower wisely.

Sorry, I guess we won’t get around to my personal book list this post, it turns out my prelude became a post in and of itself. That just means I already have a topic for tomorrow’s post. This seven day challenge is a bit easier than I thought it was going to be.

I Have No Hobbies

I have long been irked by the word hobby. Such as when people say to me, Oh, you’re an artist? What a great hobby!

I cringe every time I hear this. What does a hobby imply? To me, a hobby is something that is fun, but if you don’t have time for it, that’s no big deal. It’s extra. You don’t get paid for it, and you do it primarily for relaxation, that it is secondary to your real work (what you do for money) and you are expected to drop it when it is no longer relaxing or fun (i.e., there’s more important work to do so it doesn’t fit into your schedule anymore). People look at you funny if you spend too much time on your hobbies, and parents with small children certainly don’t have time for them. By this definition, I have no hobbies. Yes, with a family and paid work and unpaid work, I certainly don’t have time for hobbies. About my art, and my garden, and several related activities that feed into the same vision, I feel that:

1. I’d like to get paid or compensated or earn a livelihood from these activities, I just haven’t figured out a way to do it yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t or can’t

2. I believe they have social value and importance to other people, not just as stress relief or a break from my “real” work

3. I continue to pursue them even when they add extra stress to my life, because I think they are too important to let go of in the face of other responsibilities

4. If I were to drop some of my “hobbies”  when they became inconvenient, other living beings would die.

This, to me, sounds more like vocation than hobby. The other day I tried to think of a single thing that I do on a regular basis that would qualify as a “hobby”, and I could not think of any. Maybe collecting Breyer Model Horses….but I stopped the collecting part long ago, and now I just look at the (very cool) collection.

So, in an effort to make peace with the word “hobby”, I looked up the etymology of the word. Bless my soul, Hobby used to mean a kind of horse. A lightweight, small, versatile  workhorse. Or a child’s toy horse, as in “hobby horse”. OH! there you go! Yes I do have lots of hobbies! Probably about 30 of them lined up on a shelf, that I collected as a child!

Ah, there. I feel better about the word hobby now. How can I hate a word that started out as meaning a kind of horse?