Anne Lamott’s latest book, Almost Everything, is a great delight, as most of her books are. She has a chapter on writing, which she says she uses as a shorthand for discussing other modes of creation. I took her at her word. What follows are her quotations, with the word writing changed to [painting], my brackets. Thank you, Anne Lamott. Have fun, and read the whole book. The chapter “Don’t Let Them Get You To Hate Them” is worth the price of admission, these days especially. My blog title refers to her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, highly recommended.
“If you do not finish what you are [painting], you will probably not sell your [painting], although you may, for much less than what you were hoping, or deserve.”
“No one cares if you continue to [paint], so you better care, because otherwise you are doomed.”
“If you do stick with [painting], you will get better and better, and you can start to learn the important lessons: who you really are, and how all of us can live in the face of death, and how important it is to pay much better attention to life, moment by moment, which is why you are here.”
Another open studio? Another First Friday? Really? My current new project is a series of illustrated notebook pages on Dante’s Inferno and the Underworld. Not really a high demand there, unless perhaps you are a dead person of the 13th century. For years I have struggled with the ideas of supply and demand in art. I saw demand as a corrupting influence, producing Thomas Kincaid cottages, pet rocks, and social media addiction.
“What limits creativity is not the lack of good new memes (i.e., ideas, products, works of art), but the lack of interest in them. The constraint is not in the supply but in the demand.”
I know and work with so many amazing artists, most of them unfairly obscure, in my SOFA Santa Rosa neighborhood. We are everywhere, and we are creating. The supply is high. You could argue that perhaps we have saturated Sonoma County with our good work.
Csikszentmihalyi says that perhaps the limitations of creativity come from scarcity of attention for the products. “Unfortunately, most attempts to enhance creativity are focused on the supply side, which may not only not work but is likely to make life more miserable for a great number of neglected geniuses.”
He goes on to say, “But usually the necessity of ‘selling’ one’s ideas is seen as something that comes after the creative process ends and is separate from it. In the systems model, the acceptance of a new meme by the field is seen as an essential part of the creative process [my italics].
This gives me hope. I always knew there was something wrong with the neglected genius / Van Gogh model, birthing beauty into a silent or hostile void. I hope that I can joyfully enter the creative stream anywhere, either creating new art or by readying the field for it. Thanks, Mihaly.
More frequent posts
I’ll be posting several times a week now, probably. Fair warning! These messages are part of my own creative process. Later I’ll offer a monthly newsletter format.
If you’re going through an Underworld passage right now– as our whole country is– stay safe. I’ve seen and heard a lot more random racism and everyday hostility around me than usual. The decay at the top and the inaccessibility to universal health care is wearing us out.
Saltworkstudio Events and Classes 2019
SOFA Santa Rosa First Fridays 2019, 5-8 PM. Informal open studios neighborhood-wide. Find me in Backstreet Gallery, down Art Alley behind 312 South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA. Map here.
In 2014, I decided I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago and keep a travel journal. Only problem was, I disliked sketching. I knew what a travel journal SHOULD look like…
Never in a million years could I keep an sketchbook like the ones above– the ones full of architectural detail and castles with swans floating on them, with notes in a perfect calligraphy.
I’m an abstract painter. I like big, sketching is small. I like color, and sketching is black and white. I like huge ideas, and sketching is detailed. I don’t even like reality that much, so why would I want to draw it?
I am not an expert sketcher, so please take my advice with more than a few grains of salt. But I was lucky. I ended up keeping an illustrated travel journal that has brought me and others pleasure over the years. As I walked the Camino, this scratchy, amateur sketchbook got me free food, wine and rooms, acted as a thank-you note, and bailed me out of trouble a few times. It got worn and dirty occasionally, as I did. It also let me keep “secrets of the Camino” that eventually became painting and printmaking series, though I didn’t know it at the time. And I normally didn’t draw from photos, drawing what was in front of me instead. I wasn’t a purist about it, but I wanted to draw my moment, adding memories of the day and figments of my imagination.
Tip #1: Practice before you go
Yes, you non-drawer, you do have to practice a little. Why would you suddenly start doing something on a trip when you don’t ever do in everyday life? Everyone can draw and paint. You did as a kid. So get a kid drawing book that shows you how to make firemen and hot wheels and dinosaurs, or get Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory, or a book on anime or doodling. Take a course from a local sketching expert like Susan Cornelis if you can, or find your branch of Urban Sketchers. Find the size kind of sketchbook you feel comfortable with– but with blank pages. Do not use a fancy sketchbook that makes you feel like you have already screwed it up just by looking at it. It should feel friendly! Make stick figures or cartoons. Spill ink and paint on it. Don’t get too serious. Draw your Starbucks. Don’t show anyone. Take an online course from Sketchbook Skool. Do this for a few weeks to a few months before you go.
Full disclosure: here are notebook pages done as practice before I left for Spain.
Tip #2: Use your words and your little scraps of things. Use what you got.
Use your words and the paper travel media which you collect, cut into pieces. Stick on train tickets. Get places to rubber stamp your notebook, then draw later. The key to an illustrated travel journal is words plus images done NOW, not later. You can’t plan what the pages will look like in advance, but you can enter the moment and use everything in front of you. Don’t be a purist and don’t try to have each page make sense. That is your perfectionism speaking, and it will stop your daily travel journaling like an anvil dropping on the head of Wile E. Coyote . I did this page with a plate of paella in front of me, looking at a Roman arch hung with hats. Even if you did only collage and crayons and words, no drawing at all, it might be more amazing than you could imagine when you started.
Tip #3: Do it daily and do it anywhere.
I did this one waiting at a fountain for it to be time to see a movie at night. Please do not wait to do your travel journal page for the day. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. This page had a healing quality for me, as I was stuck in this town as my foot mended from a minor– but threatening to become major– blister infection. I did work on the train and in cafes. I am not a dedicated urban sketcher, braving snow and balancing on stools. These pages do not capture a “thing,”; they address time, space and emotion. They are not as good if you wait for the “right” scene or right place to draw or even a better idea. Do it now, with your crummy view and the mediocre idea in front of you. “If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
I kept an authentic, daily travel journal as a pilgrim in Spain, carrying a tiny bundle of sketching materials. You can see some of my pilgrim sketches here, or read my Camino de Santiago story.
Upcoming Events and Classes
Sunday, November 4, 201810:00 AM, Lecture/Slideshow for SketchKon Art Convention,Westin Hotel Pasadena, Pasadena, CA . “Inner Reportage:” How a Lousy Sketcher and Lazy Hiker Drew an Illustrated Travel Journal on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Way.”
Saturday, November 17, 2018, 5-9:30 PM- SOFA Winterblast. SOFA Arts District on South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA. This locally-famous free art and street festival includes a parade with decorated couches. Follow updates on Facebook. This year, Saltworkstudio will feature work by Tim Haworth as well as my paintings.
First Friday, December 7, 2018, 5-8 PM, Ring the Bells, an informal holiday event. Backstreet Gallery, SOFA Arts District, South A Street, Santa Rosa. Bring your own chimes and bells to ring as you walk through winter studios to enjoy hot cider and live music. The artist Karina Nishi Marcus will have work on display as my guest.
I’m reading a book about getting high without drugs or alcohol. Ironic, because I live in the heartland of hedonistic, exquisite, gourmet highs, sipped, smoked, or tasted: Sonoma County. In the midst of an opiate epidemic– understandable within our current mutated, obscene American political climate– I think we have lost our ways of enjoying the old ways of getting high, all on our own, in our own brains and bodies.
“Creativity is something new, something fresh, something that arises out of the absence of preconceived ideas. Intuition— ideas that spring from the untapped, unpredictable parts of the self– results in creativity.”
I found this striking. In trying to teach students to paint intuitively this summer, I found that the concept is very hard to explain. It doesn’t mean that there is no selected form, no restrictions. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t alter it, edit it, find it wanting, or judge it. If it exists in the physical universe, there is always something that restrains and limits the painting: the canvas and brushes, perhaps a chosen color palette or emotional feeling.
I think you have to paint first to have something emerge. You have to make a random act on the canvas of some kind, because intuition wants a little springboard. One mark… one spatter… one line…
It’s this act of intuition that gets you high. It is exhilarating to watch forms appear from nowhere.
“To observe the unexpected, the unknown, and then use what one finds there in a new, unique way: that is creativity.”
One thing to note is that you have to use it, not just observe it. It isn’t a movie, and it’s not an opium dream. If Coleridge hadn’t written down the lines of Kubla Khan before the “man from Porlock” had knocked at his door, we would not have an amazingly strange and evocative poem, but just another lost drug hallucination. We tend to focus on the lost world, the longer poem or epic that vanished when Coleridge was interrupted. Why not celebrate what he did manage to capture?
I was talking to a novelist who recently visited my studio about characters in his novels who seem to live their own lives, independent of his best writerly plans for them. He said that a master writer once told him something to the effect of “give the construction of your novel to your characters. They’ll do it for you.” I try to give the construction of the painting to the intuitive impulses that manifest: shapes, lines, colors, sometimes spirits or ideas.
This intuitive painting process makes me high. It’s a problem. I can’t drive when I’m painting; ask my husband. It also makes me useless for a while for everyday life and chores. It takes a lot of energy as well, and there can be a big low after the high of creation.
But I’m now an addict. I couldn’t live without the creative high.
“Creativity is the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. That is, from chaos comes a meaningful, organized whole.”
Creation is our agency to make change, and it gives us back unimaginable pleasure in return, if the risk is taken.
I was going to write a completely different blog today. But so many of my friends in the artistic community failed to get juried into our 2018 juried open studio tour, Sonoma County Art Trails, that I wanted to bring up the topic of failure and the dangers of branding.
All four that I know are fine artists, with established reputations, patrons, and studios. Also, coincidentally, all are abstract artists or work outside traditional genre lines, and all are women.
In America, we have a fetish for success. Our success-lust — there should be a word in German for this and there is, “Erfolgswunsch,”– leads us down many dark and sterile ways. Our movies worship the thought that if one works hard enough, makes enough sacrifices, you too can SUCCEED! There are genres of treacly, inspirational songs devoted to this notion. We Americans are suckers for this one. It has invaded our churches as prosperity theology, the notion that even God wants us to succeed at everything. God wants us to market ourselves.
In this spin, the accusation is that if you have failed, you have simply not tried enough. You need to try again. And again. Apply to Art Trails again. Get in those ten thousand hours, loser. (Though those four women painters I mentioned already have put in their time to their art.) We need to re-examine our blind adherence to the try, try again philosophy. Tenacity is good. But what does it serve?
The American dream of success promotes guilt, and it promotes throwing a lot of time and money out to enter the palace of fame and fortune. It promotes buying advice and spending more money to find out how you can get into the Academy, the gallery, the open studios tour– spend year after year applying and paying the fees to apply. Take marketing classes. Give money to get online courses and gurus. Brand yourself, baby.
Part of the current propaganda of Succeeding is “branding.” My own connotations with the world are of pain, burning, slavery, hot iron and screaming calves, and ownership of cattle and humans. Branding involves creating a consistent image and not deviating from it. This means failure to conform to your own brand— say, an abstract painter deviates and paints vineyard landscapes– means that you have failed your brand. It is a failure within a failure, a double failure, failure squared. Loser!
The problem is that in avoiding losing, in identifying with our own brand, we lose the chance for personal growth. Milton Glaser, in the video below, voices what artists have always known. It is a seven-minute video and worth your time. It’s also worthwhile using the link to his website, above, and taking a look at the series of his own quotes in the header. It’s no coincidence that in discussing failure, he brings up branding as an issue.
Success, or personal growth? Milton Glaser managed both, an enviable trick. But difficult. I think everyone really needs to discover their own way through, and that takes reflection, and failure, not wholesale adoption of the images of celebrity and success our society promotes. The internet provides ways of crafting an individualized success that did not exist when I was a kid back in the the 1960’s. We only had print materials and TV.
I had a childhood memory of the show Branded, the 1965-66 show starring Chuck Connors. The theme song seems, well, branded into my brain. It is a very scary theme song and image, showing a man stripped of all his honors, his good name, his sword, and his regimental family, cast out due to apparent desertion of his comrades. In fact, he is literally “drummed out” of the Cavalry, to the sound of military drums in the background.
The very last line of the song in the video below expresses my feelings about branding. Remember listening to those TV theme songs and trying to understand every word? In the last seconds of the final credits of Branded, we hear:
Branded! That’s not a way to die… what do you do when you’re branded, when you live with a lie?
Enjoy the video below. I chose a black and white version, the way I originally saw it. Suzanne
Thanks to Austin Kleon for his incisive thoughts and for providing the Milton Glaser video.
And check out my summer painting classes at LocalsCreate, a new art venue in Geyserville. Metaphoracards is really fun and coming right up on May 29. I need two more people… if you are the first two to sign up online and email me about it, I’ll give you a free copy of Salt Licks and Bad Birds, my book. Just remind me about the book as I’m only offering it here in my blog. I’m teaching a 3 week series Wednesdays in June and July on abstract painting and a wild little class called Dream Figure Intuitive Painting on June 16. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
I have always used the term “object lesson” without quite knowing what it was. I felt, though, that I was having one, so I looked it up. “A striking practical example of some principle or ideal.” Uh-oh. Striking means that, for me, it has to hit you over the head– or open up in your face, like flowers.
I planted bulbs this year. In our time zone, they should go into the ground in October or November. Instead, they moldered and half sprouted in our garage. My husband, the gardener, gave me gentle reminders, about a dozen of them as the months wound by, to plant the bulbs. Finally, with difficulty, in mid-January during a warm spell in our California winter, I threw them in, knowing that the genetic clock had ticked on by for most of them, and that they mostly wouldn’t sprout. I blamed myself for my neglect and selfishness in not planting them; I was convinced I had failed. I visualized them sadly rotting underground. Procrastination would claim another victory in my haphazard battle to gain ground, to make beauty.
Just planting them was so invigorating I decided to scatter and sow ancient seed packets I had lying around, California poppies and cherry tomatoes, in the same bed as the old bulbs. I planted some decade-old nasturtium seeds too. One bulb package contained Parrot Tulips. I didn’t even know what they were, but planted them in a pot near my door.
You might have guessed the story before I did. Most of the bulbs sprouted. The daffodils were that amazing dancing yellow, and the parrot tulips were wonders . The seeds are all coming up right in the ground, not even transplanted as seedlings.
I deal with painting projects sometimes much like the bulbs. I procrastinate, shelve them in dark places, and deny that they need attention. But even late, “bad” attempts at planting can bear unbearably beautiful blooms. I don’t deserve them. But they sometimes happen anyway.
Object lesson: Do it anyway, late, half-assed, or whatever. A basic lesson in creativity.
The last two pictures show the parrot tulips in decline, beautiful even in decay. They reminded me of the lush still lives of the Dutch masters, where a bit of rot was cultivated for its opulence, and for its object lesson. Carpe diem. Do the work.
Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe. It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below). As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not more “primitive” than the realistic animals. They occur together.
It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel: the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events, while the beautiful animals are the movie itself. Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.
We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.” We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous. It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.
I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks. I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.
Upcoming events: on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.
How do you get that authentic, intuitive creativity going? When I’m stuck, I make a Metaphoracard.
It’s not news that small collages can unleash a big creative flow. The Surrealists used collage as an alternate language. Austin Kleon recommends collage, even little messy ones like the Metaphoracards, for coming unstuck. Maybe even especially the little messy ones, the imperfect ones, the ones that will never see the inside of a gallery.
Laura Foster Corben and I invented Metaphoracards as a play activity for Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow Adult Camp. We would take the cards the group made and tell fortunes with them. We wanted to stay out of the territory of the serious, archetypal, and therapeutic, and instead encourage play. But even before that I made series of small collages one summer with my friend David Short. In looking through them, I don’t know now which of us made them– but we had a grand time.
Collage is communal. It’s trashy and it violates rules because it rips and tears stuff. It releases energy, especially when it is done for itself alone, with no desire to show it publicly. It’s totally stealing images, and so it is mercurial and a bit sleazy. I never show my Metaphoracards in public because someone else– many others, in fact– made the individual images I stole.
Collage also invites synchronicity and magic. Austin Kleon writes about how artists cultivate messiness, precisely so that the unexpected can appear. I have begun to think that even collecting images in advance to use later “kills” them, because they no longer exist in the moment.
How are Metaphoracards different than other forms of small collage? Well, we paint first. Getting your own hand and colors on the surface first claims it much better than a glossy cutout background, no matter how beautiful. And it’s so much better if it IS a we, a group, because image finding is best done communally, through a large, messy pile. There are also no words and no suits. With Metaphoracards, you’re always playing with a full deck!
Frog Chalice Shrine
Love After Laundry
If done randomly enough— which is no easy thing– the cards catch a message to deliver both to the maker, and to the group around it. It’s like they are little nets that catch a fragment of the zeitgeist of the present.
And, by the way, they blow dynamite into any creative blockages you might have. I like to make them at the start of the year, to mystify myself. I love to try to figure out what the heck they mean. And they endure as a source of pleasure for many years to come.
You don’t need to take a class to make them, but I’ll be doing a Metaphoracard Class on Saturday, February 24. In the meantime, why not try a random collage with stuff on hand around you? The little spark that is creative intuition will flare up. You’ll see.
And if you can interpret any of the card photos here, let me know! Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember making our own valentines in the old days? These are like Valentines from the collective unconscious.
“What imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” John Keats
I painted Beauty in early August, shortly before the total solar eclipse, which we caught in John Day, Oregon.
The eclipse was a summer zenith of awe, cosmic mystery, and great American road trip. Scott and I met up in Portland after I finished taking a painting workshop with Jesse Reno, and took off from there into the high desert of central Oregon.
My painting Beauty, with images of teeth shining as if for a selfie, a band-aid on a cheek, scratches and boo-boos, precariously balanced on a tipsy pedestal, and a sort of sweetness in her mismatched eyes, is how I have felt for nearly six months.
In October we were caught in the devastating Santa Rosa wildfire. Thankfully, our home and my studio were not harmed, though Scott’s place of business was badly damaged. In December I tripped and fell on cement and hurt my face under my cheek, just like Beauty, who was painted in August. I am recovering from pneumonia in my left lung. And on the day of the Blue Blood moon, the second moon of January and a total lunar eclipse, our cat Nora was killed by a car. From eclipse to eclipse, it’s been a wild ride.
Sometimes paintings hold the future. Beauty’s childlike sweetness and humor made me smile between the eclipses, through precarious times. Seize that beauty.
I’ll be sharing new paintings and exploring ideas in more depth in my upcoming Tinyletters.
“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” Albert Einstein
I’m getting cool emails from my friend Travis, full of big dreams and symbols. Things are popping in his spirit. Travis is an interesting guy, so Etruscan pot shards and kabbalistic alphabets are involved. These are times in life when everything makes sense, moves forward and is enlivened by meaning. Your intuition is part of the great Round, and you feel it. Life advances.
It’s a bit like travel. What makes travel, travel? It’s that we are living intensely, noticing things, sorting them out, digesting them. The days are charged with meaning, and often, pleasure. We advance into fields of unfolding metaphors. It’s risky and interesting. As one of my teachers said, “That’s why you call it risk-taking. Otherwise it would be ‘sure-thing taking.'”
I’ll take a risk here, not knowing who I’ll offend: any real painting is a journey where you might not know where you end up. I’ve been listening to Brene′ Brown’s interview on creativity, risk, and criticism. Well, as benign as it may seem to risk something in painting– after all, it’s only a surface and pigment— I, and so many others, will clutch and stutter and smother when it comes to taking a true risk. Because we will fail.
Yes, we will fail: that’s one thing that Brown insists on. There’s no way to mitigate the risks: no perfect paint or brush, no perfect teacher or color scheme. But we will sometimes have a glorious “yes,” a breakthrough, which is burned into our happiness like a shining brand.
All the pictures of work you see in this blog are failures. They never made it to maturity, but were stages later obliterated, or discarded. Yet they have their integrity as individual marks. They have a transient beauty, like most of life.
I am interested in teaching how to retain the flow of unconcious, or vision, in painting. At the same time, I love the finished product, so I’m also into working with archival materials, frames, shows and showing. But the finished product is only a product without intuitive vision lighting the way. Because who are you painting for, anyway? You are painting for yourself, and a tiny handful of other artists and humans you love and respect.
I’ve long wanted to link abstract painting with dreams, vision and intuition, and to teach it. I’m teaching an intuitive painting retreat in a beautiful locale in Calistoga in October. I’ll be keeping you up to date here in the blog as I develop my ideas on intuitive vision in painting, and how to take the risk. Oh, and Travis will be there!
Friday May 5, 5-8 PM. First Friday Open Studio in SOFA Arts District, Santa Rosa. Join me for an informal evening of art. Many studios are open in the neighborhood. map/directions
Friday June 2, 5-8 PM and Saturday June 3, 12-5 PM. Art and Absinthe. Drop by my studio in the SOFA Arts District, Santa Rosa, on Friday or Saturday, to partake in a drop of the legendary art drink, Absinthe, see art, and hang out. Add a Saturday visit to me to your Art at the Source plans! map/directions