Reflections

My workspace in the studio.

My workspace in the studio.

Reflecting on my year of weekly collage-making, the one realization that I keep coming back to is this: When I am too tired, too busy, totally lacking in inspiration or over-whelmed with too many ideas at once, I just need to sit down to work, and something will happen. I must simply pick up the pen and move my hand across the page. It’s like turning on a tap and waiting for the water to warm up; it always does. Learning to trust in this process has been the greatest gift to myself. Just begin. Take the first step, then the second, then the third. Baby steps evolve into long strides, then big leaps. At the beginning of 2012 I asked the question, “What is achievable in tiny increments over time?” To answer this question it was necessary to make a commitment to create each week, every week. This process continues for me, and commitment is the foundation.

Hold On, 2009, oil on panel,12 in x 12 in

Hold On, 2009, oil on panel, 12 in x 12 in

Another important challenge of the project was to open up my subject matter to the real stuff of every day life. My previous body of work portrayed imaginary landscapes that provided me a kind of escapism. A small boat navigated a world of high seas and safe harbors, open vistas and dark caves, dense forests and lonely islands. These paintings were my vehicle for exploring different ways of being in the world, and creating visual metaphors for a continuum of emotional needs: the desire for community and solitude, contentment and ambition, safety and risk. In my collage series, I wanted to confront these themes more directly, pulling back the curtain on the imaginary landscape and allowing myself to find imagery directly from the details of everyday life. The imaginary landscapes had no cul-de-sacs and tidy yards, no family members or week night suppers. But this suburban landscape was the reality behind my invented worlds, and their true source of meaning. I wanted to get closer to this truth and see what I might find.

Detail, Everyday Miracles, Week 35

Detail, Everyday Miracles, Week 35

Once I had decided that anything in my everyday life was potential subject matter, my days became infused with a new curiosity and constant observation. I experienced incredible joy in allowing myself to be fully present long enough to capture an image in minute detail. I became enamored with the practice of painstaking drawing. It could be something as mundane as a pile of laundry, or as beautiful as a rose blooming in my garden. I began noticing spider webs and mushrooms, birds nests and clouds, and I couldn’t wait to draw them. I began thinking more deeply about the people I love, and the kaleidoscope of color and imagery that each person conjures for me. Everyday routines like reading to my son at bedtime became as precious and important as recording events like birthdays and holidays. I gave myself permission to explore both humor and sentimentality, allowing the cute and the silly to sit comfortably with more serious and even melancholy themes. This attitude of openness and curiosity brought a new breadth and richness to the playing field of my work, where all emotions and all parts of myself were allowed to play.

Detail, Winters Past and Present, Week 8

Detail, Winters Past and Present, Week 8

As daily observation became an habitual practice, I found myself more able to enjoy being in the present moment, rather than constantly fixating on the past or worrying about the future. At the same time, however, I continued to explore my long time interest in the role of memory in image-making. A close observation of the present often brings with it vivid memories of the past. Allowing themes from the past to bubble up into my work enriched my experience of the present. Images from my childhood surfaced throughout the year, and took a place right beside the images of our present life: my sled and my son’s sled, my childhood home and our home now, my late mother and my own motherhood, and of course, the Christmas ornaments that each tell a story from a different time. Similarly, images of the future were conjured: the black gum grows big enough to hold the swing I dream of having for my grandchildren, and the fantasy of a hot air balloon ride in July becomes a reality in December.

I extended my attitude of openness and inclusion to stylistic choices as well. I allowed myself to make things that I enjoy making, freely combining aesthetics from such divergent genres as scrap-booking, painting, design, and children’s book illustration. It was important for me to break down those divisions and allow all of my influences to come together in my own way. I embraced my love of picture-making, inspired by such diverse influences as Islamic Miniatures, 14th century Sienese painting, Bonnard and Vuillard, Miró, Bemelmans, and E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations for Winnie the Pooh. Collage was the best medium for me to explore the layering of diverse imagery and multiple techniques, fusing the parts into a unique whole.

Grid installation in the studio.

Grid installation in the studio.

The most dramatic change over the course of the project was my idea of how the finished piece would look as a whole, and how it would be presented. My original intention was that the 12 x 12 inch panels would be displayed in a large grid, four panels high and thirteen panels across. I planned on a tightly controlled palette that would read as vertical bands of color that changed with the seasons from left to right as the months progressed. But as I got deeper into the project, I began thinking less and less about the appearance of the panels all together. Each panel became its own intricate world, and I allowed myself to fall deeply down the rabbit hole of each work. Creative decisions were made more in service to the needs of each small panel, rather than forcing it to fit into the larger scheme of the grid. The imagery became so tiny and detailed, I realized that the top rows would not be sufficiently visible if displayed four panels high! Each work begged to be seen close up and at eye level. It became more about viewing each panel at close range and less about how the group appeared from a distance.

Detail, Holly's Escape, Week 38

Detail, Holly’s Escape, Week 38. She makes many appearances in the collages throughout the year.

While the concept of the giant grid fell by the wayside, new ideas about continuity emerged. I still thought of the 52 panels as essentially one large work that needed to be seen together, like a collection of short stories that could be read individually or even out-of-order, but would have the most impact when read from beginning to end. Visual motifs emerged that would be repeated throughout the series: the Lego Spaceship, our dog Holly and Olivia the cat, the mockingbirds, the wild geese, the dogwoods and the rose bushes, my husband and child. I found different ways to make the individual panels relate, connect, and lead the viewer through the narrative, by repeating motifs, extending color palettes across multiple panels, or by using the same textures or collage materials multiple times throughout the series.

Whether displayed in a grid, hung in small groups, or spaced out singly along a wall, the fifty-two collages tell a story that reveals itself slowly, over time. When I look at the panels all together, I quite literally see a year of my life. I see my child growing up and my life evolving. I see moments that I will never experience again. I feel grateful that I have managed to “capture” this year of my life, and yet I also feel more able to accept the passing of time. I know exactly how long a year lasts, in a way I did not know before. I know how many hours of art-making can be gleaned from seven days. I know how the seconds pass when the tiny point of a pen touches the paper, stretching into hours and days, weeks and months, square foot upon square foot, adding up to a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Week 46: Thanksgiving

I normally steer clear of symbolic images from popular culture, preferring instead to stay safely wrapped in my own obscure personal iconography. I like my comfortable world of diminutive landscapes, little trees, tiny animals, and falling leaves. I like making small-scale pictures with places to wander and stories to tell. But there is a time and place for creating a bolder, singular statement. I genuinely love holiday traditions, so I decided to take on the challenge of the iconic Thanksgiving turkey. (Christmas Trees, you are next!) I could hear the groans of my inner critic, screaming “Don’t do it! It will be trite! It will be a cliché! It is impossible to pull off!” Smiling to myself, I continued on. Using a combination of collage papers, charcoal, ink pen, colored India Inks, and acrylic paint, I reveled in the rich textures and colors of turkey feathers. I enjoyed each sweep of the charcoal, every small stroke of the pen, the fervent flow of colorful ink, and the tactile release of each blob of paint. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to sit here in my studio and create, choosing curiosity over fear. When I was almost finished decorating every feather, I discovered that my turkey had a message for me. It came first in a whisper, and then in a loud, warbling, joyful voice. So I scribbled this message on a piece of paper and glued it right onto the collage: “Be thankful for your Colorful Life.”

Thanksgiving, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Thanksgiving

Detail, Thanksgiving

Detail, Thanksgiving

Hot Air Balloons

We often see hot air balloons drifting over our neighborhood. Sometimes we can hear the faint whoosh of the burner flame when they are flying low. One morning a balloon unexpectedly landed in the middle of our street. We all rushed out of our houses to see the amazing spectacle. It was much larger up close than I imagined. This was quite a sight, as the basket touched down and the rainbow of colors deflated into a puddle on the road. Even though the hot air balloon sightings have become commonplace around here, they never seem to lose their exoticism. For me, the balloons are a reminder that even here in our ordinary suburban neighborhood, there is the possibility of strange, wonderful and even magical events taking place, perhaps at this very moment. Spiders spin their intricate webs, a perfect blue egg sits in a nest, flowers turn their heads to the sun and open into dazzling colors. Behind each familiar facade of our peaceful street, we perform our own small miracles: leaps of faith, daring deeds, resurrected dreams, and acts of kindness, courage and forgiveness.

41 Candles

I just celebrated my 41st birthday. I’m so glad I was born. Here are 41 things I am thankful for in my life:

  1. The opportunity to be the Mom of the greatest little boy I could ever imagine.
  2. My husband and soul mate who continues to blow my mind.
  3. My very loving and supportive extended family who have freely offered their unconditional love.
  4. The foundation of a happy childhood with super hero parents, and the memories of that time that never leave me.
  5. My dear friends who never miss a beat, no matter how long it has been since we caught up.
  6. My teachers and mentors who pointed me on the path to my best work.
  7. Our happy shaggy labradoodle, Holly.
  8. Our sly little lady-like cat, Olivia.
  9. A house that feels like a home.
  10. A backyard full of flowers, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, and trees that inspire me daily.
  11. A safe neighborhood full of friendly people where my kid can ride his bike and play outside with other children.
  12. Access to clean water and plenty to eat.
  13. Access to fresh, local, natural and organic food.
  14. My education. 
  15. Novels, Cookbooks, Art Books, and The New Yorker.
  16. My studio space with a view of the woods.
  17. My Mac with the gigantic screen, and my Wacom drawing tablet.
  18. The opportunity to pursue my creative ideas.
  19. My Vitamix and the discovery of the Green Smoothie.
  20. Learning to keep my body healthy and strong.
  21. The internet, where I can find an answer to any question, at any time.
  22. My iPhone, where I can find an answer to any question, at any time, no matter where I might be.
  23. A steady supply of sketchbooks and Uni-ball Vision ink pens.
  24. The success of my family’s restaurant business and all those who have contributed to it, including our amazing partners who have remained our best friends.
  25. Yoga and long walks.
  26. The ability to work from home part-time for my day-job, so there is still time for my art and my family.
  27. The opportunity to work for a business with a respectful, fun, and supportive company culture, and the highest quality standards.
  28. Awesome co-workers.
  29. All the people in the art and design world who are generous with their knowledge and are willing to share their journeys and experience in the industry.
  30. All the people in the blog-o-sphere who are sharing their personal stories.
  31. My art-escapes to Whidbey Island and the fairy godmother who invited me there.
  32. When I can hear the Universe whispering “Yes, you can.”
  33. When inspiration strikes and I have the courage to act on it.
  34. When inspiration does not come and I have the courage to keep working anyway.
  35. Discovering the power of taking the next small step.
  36. Learning to trust myself and knowing I am capable of more than I once believed.
  37. Music.
  38. Colors.
  39. Rain, Sun, Clouds, Wind, Landscapes, Oceans and all the fascinating creatures of the natural world.  
  40. Lemon, Olive Oil, Herbs, Garlic, Sea Salt, and seasonal produce. And chocolate.
  41. All those who have touched my life, in ways big or small, bringing joy, wonder, and new discoveries about the world that we share.

One Month of My Suburban Life

I have completed the first month of my 2012 project. Some curious things have happened.  I had anticipated more cynicism and wry humor from this project, as an artist marooned in suburbia, trying to make sense of my identity and my place in this often ill-fitting context.  But in the process of drawing, writing, and making art about the simple things in my daily life, I have been overcome by a tidal wave of gratitude for all the good that is around me.  I have surprised myself.  The daily habit of scribbling on bits of paper, accumulating small creative acts with a focused intention, and holding myself accountable each week to observe and respond to what is happening in front of me has yielded unforeseen rewards.  In the spirit of physics formulas (happily re-discovered last week while reminiscing about my Dad helping me with my science homework,) I have discovered a natural law for my life:

(a + g)c = H

a= Awareness, g= Gratitude, c= Creative action, H= Happiness  

In words: Awareness plus Gratitude, multiplied by Creative Action equals Happiness. 

In the process of writing this blog, I have reached out to old friends, and made new ones. I have something positive to talk about when I meet new people.  With a creative structure in place in my life, I wake up knowing I will have a creative day, instead of regretting all the unfocused, unfinished, or undone projects of the past.  I remembered how much I enjoy writing, and find myself saying things I have always wanted to say. (See Ode to My Father.)  When I have ideas, I have somewhere meaningful to put them: in a new post, on a piece of paper destined for a new collage, on a painted panel.  I am discovering there is always enough time for these things, and the old excuses and imaginary barriers have crumbled away.  It is not always easy or comfortable to maintain this flow, and sometimes there is a tricky balance between just living my life and creating things about living my life.  But so far, it is working.