10 Tips on how to keep an illustrated travel sketchbook on the road, even if you “can’t draw” (Part 1)

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A basket of apples in Basque country. The stamps are the the same ones used for Camino “passports.”

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…

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Photo altered and text added with apps
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Storks nesting on top of Spanish church. Photo altered and text added with apps.

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.

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Snow globe and sticky note. I was teaching Moby Dick and Macbeth at the time

 

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Another in the sticky note series. I should do that series again!

 

Tip #2: Use your words and your little scraps of things. Use what you got.

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A plate of paella with cutout collage scallop shell.

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.

 

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The Cafe Moderno, established 1912. Fountain lady and urn.

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.”

Part 2 and Part 3 of these ideas will be continued in the next two posts.  You can read my Camino blog here.

Upcoming Events

Sunday, November 4, 2018 10:00 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.

 

Getting high, creatively speaking

Salt, detail, Suzanne Edminster, original acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"
Detail from “Salt”

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.

The Book of Highs, from my library, with four charming blue eggs, from my Coturnix quail.

The Book of Highs: 255 Ways to Alter Your Consciousness Without Drugs, by Edward Rosenfeld, is an likeable little compendium and pretty fun to read.  Written as a list, and illustrated with pop psychedelic-toned graphics, I immediately turned to the segment “Creativity: Reach into yourself, find and make something new.”  The quotes are all from this book.

“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…

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My demo painting with initial intuitive marks

 

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.

Salt, detail, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas
Salt, another detail.

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.

Salt, far left, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas, 4 feet by 6 feet,
Salt, the final painting, to the far right.

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.

Artistic Failure and the Dangers of Branding

Ikebana, Suzanne Edminster, gold metal leaf and acrylic on canvas, 15″ x 30″. This painting was part of a failed attempt to get into a local gallery.

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.

Goose game, Akua soy ink on paper, a failed monoprint.

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 saltworkstudio@gmail.com with any questions.

 

Rare Blooms and Object Lessons

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My kitchen table, with flowers from my garden

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.

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Parrot tulip one

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.

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Parrot tulip two

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.

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Tulip in decline

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.

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Tulip in decline

Neanderthal art gives a new perspective on “Old Masters”

 

Detail from a collage painting using ancient art. Suzanne Edminster, mixed media on panel.

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.

Suzanne

Upcoming events:  on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.

 

Metaphoracards: Creativity Meets Intuition

How do you get that authentic, intuitive creativity going?  When I’m stuck, I make a Metaphoracard.

Metaphoracards, Suzanne Edminster, Saltworkstudio
A sample of the Metaphoracards I’ve made over the years. You can too!

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.

Suzanne Edminster Metaphoracard Camp Winnarainbow (14)
Cow who would be Queen

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.

Suzanne Edminster Metaphoracard Camp Winnarainbow (2)
Folly Pups

 

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.

Suzanne Edminster Metaphoracard Camp Winnarainbow (16)
A favorite. Strong Man

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.

Amuse Grove Camp Winnarainbow 2012
Instead of the Muse Grove, the Amuse Grove.

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!

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.

Have fun,   Suzanne

Eclipse, Fire, Beauty, Eclipse

Beauty

“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.

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Watching the solar eclipse from John Day, Oregon
Beauty full sized
Beauty, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on board, 16″ x 20″

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.

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Jesse Reno working in his True Measure Gallery, Portland, Oregon

 

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Our eclipse camp in John Day.

 

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

Advance and Retreat

Painting stage, lost under other paint.

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.'”

Discarded monotype.

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.

Painting, unfinished stage, later lost.

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!

Current Events:

Thursday April 20, 6-10 PM. Against Trumpism:  The Art and Poetry of Resistance. Museum of International Propaganda, San Rafael, CA. I have a painting in this exhibit.

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

New series: “Blackboards” and “Kerubim” open in SOFA Friday

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“Black Elk Antlers,” acrylic and oil stick on wood, Suzanne Edminster

It’s always exciting to have a new series choose you.  It makes you famous with yourself.  A great notion has flown down to take you away its talons, like a mythical bird, the Roc.   This bird only sees you.

 Cretaceous Roc by Hodari Nundu
Cretaceous Roc by Hodari Nundu

This year two new series occurred in me, “Blackboards” and “Kerubim.”

I think much art lies outside conscious control.  These do.  Each “Blackboard” develops itself.  I have no idea of what the end result will be when I start. It’s childlike.  I see this, then I see that, then I turn the board and see something else.  I tell stories.  They develop out of the darkness of dream, the blackness of the childhood chalkboard, with markings and erasures like chalk.  And they can disappear like dreams too.

I believe art visits us.  The Kerubim series  (see below) is about visitation of ideas and phenomenon, texting from beyond, and decoding.  Cherubim are very old, going back to Assyria and Babylonia.  They orbit, rotate, have wheels, flames, eyes, thrones, and messages.

Chair Ubim, acrylic on Arches paper, Suzanne Edminster
Chair Ubim, acrylic on Arches paper, Suzanne Edminster

If you can make it, drop by during August.  The opening is in my studio, Friday August 5, 5-8 PM (invite below).   I’m happy to be showing with Chris Beards, an astonishing mixed media sculptor.  I’ll be releasing images on this site through the month of August for those of you who are far away.

It’s so much more interesting to be visited by Rocs or Muses than it is to watch summer blockbusters. With ideas, when the blockbuster opens,  you become its personal theatre.  I wish you happy visitations.

Suzanne

Implied large version

Access the Facebook invitation here.  We are also open for Artwalk on Saturday and Sunday.

 

Big Magic and Big-I Imagination

Suzanne Edminster

Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic on a background of paintings by Suzanne Edminster
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic on a background of
paintings by Suzanne Edminster

Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is the latest in a tidal wave of creativity books, and a very fine one.  I believe it will be the go-to creativity guide for the next decade. It was only in the last twenty years that bookstores developed sections devoted to creativity in the written or visual arts.   For many years it was just If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland , Art and Fear by David Bayles,  or The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.   And you never knew what section to find them in the bookstore; they were obscure.  Gilbert’s  message is not new. In fact it is ancient, but is desperately needed today.  Why are we dealing with an erosion in the basic knowledge of how imagination and creativity work?  Is creativity among our endangered species?  Why is a book on creativity a best seller, besides the fact that Gilbert writes like an angel, or a daimon? Anyway, Big Magic was in my bag during my recent open studios.  Interesting that its cover is abstract art.  Hey, I make that stuff.

Over Underworld, Suzanne Edminster
Over Underworld, Suzanne Edminster

I approve of Big Magic and its exploration of Big-I Imagination.  I first learned the tenets of Imagination that Gilbert espouses through studying the Romantic Poets with poet Diane di Prima.  The primacy of Imagination was stressed; the world be damned, and often was. David Meltzer taught gematria and the concepts word-as-creator, letter as energy, word itself creating the universe, for good or creepiness…. go Golem!

Letters create Golem- check out his forehead
Letters create Golem- check out his forehead

I’ve always been lucky with teachers; I was taught about Blake’s Spiritual Sensation. The line was drawn deeply in the existential sand. Imagination is more important than reality.  It creates reality, in fact.  Ideas exist independently of us. The Big-I Imaginations fly, walk, swim, or lump about all on their own, shedding light and shadow, ambrosia and dung.

Blake said Imagination is Spiritual Sensation
Blake said Imagination is Spiritual Sensation

Diane di Prima also taught Western Magical tradition and guided visualization to students back in the 1980s, long before the vogue, as part of her own rich creative resources.  In Big Magic, Gilbert quotes her friend and mine, Caroline Casey: “Better a trickster than a martyr be.”    And Gilbert has the right idea on gods, spirits, angels, archetypes: they are both real and unreal, terribly important and trivial at the same time. Her approach is positive and full of stubborn gladness and a durable mysticism.  I think it is the creativity book for our time, just as The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron touched a nerve in the 1980s. Cameron’s book was based on an archetype of wounding, addiction, and a 12-step style reclamation of damaged creative impulse.  I prefer Gilbert’s straight-ahead optimism and humor.

Here’s what I loved in the book:  The return of the notion of the individual creative daimon or genius. We each have a little whiz-bang spirit assigned to us at birth to guide or goad us.  Ideas have lives independent of us.  Court them, invite them, respect them, don’t ignore them too long. If you lack inspiration, curiosity and showing up are enough. Permission– Bob Burridge’s permission slips for painting, for example. The right kind of entitlement.  Her own experience with the Day Job: no shame,  keep it as long as you need to. Your art is not actually your “baby.”  You can’t dissect, discard, neglect, or chop up a real baby. You can’t ignore it in garages or sell it.

Bob Burridge's Permission Slip
Bob Burridge’s Permission Slip

She’s so funny! How to speak to your inner critic: “It’s best to be insistent, but affable.  Repeat yourself, but don’t get shrill.  Speak to your darkest and most  negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly, but firmly.”

And when you’re in a lull– as I am right now, exhausted from open studios and down with a cold– she writes, “Any motion whatsover beats intertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion. Make something.  Do something.  Do anything.”    And some sort of inspiration has visited… the next step in narrative abstraction, the next series, maybe called “Themis.”  Or not. Or maybe some silly illustrated journaling or un-sellable Metaphoracards. But something, something, to give a little pinch of snuff or spice or something stronger to my daimon.

In Sonoma County, one person in ten describes themselves as some kind of artist.  For each one of those, there may be a hundred who want to be. In the meantime, we swim in a polluted ocean of information and mind-waste created by nameless others.  (I have just read the excellent novel The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.  The book postulates a nightmarish culture where we all must hear everyone’s thoughts, all the time, a decent metaphor for the interweb. Fortunately, in his book, men are more susceptible than women to this infection.)We have become greedy gluttons of instant, fragmented nano-art rather than makers of a modest, enlivening, everyday creation. Everyone wants to be an artist.  Gilbert’s Big Magic could help.

Suzanne– and thanks to the talented Adrian Mendoza for the portrait

Suzanne at Art Trails 2015. Photo: Adrian Mendoz
Suzanne at Art Trails 2015. Photo: Adrian Mendoza