Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Christmas Card Tradition

Writers and illustrators, neuroscientists and full-time moms need to give themselves permission and time for creative projects that have nothing to do with their career. Homemade Valentines or birthday cards may be just the little selfless act to get one's creative juices going for weightier projects. I've made Christmas cards every year for decades and have given myself a few rules to keep it fun:

1. Do it for love.
Sometimes life can feel like a series of obligations. This should not be one of those times. Do it for the love of the process and love of the people who will receive the cards.

2. Don't procrastinate.
December is usually crazy busy at my house. Even things that I enjoy doing normally feel stressful if there's too much else to do. I like to have my cards made before Thanksgiving.

3. Limit the number.
I don't have time to make a card for everyone I love. I usually send cards to old roommates and friends with whom I don't have regular contact, as well as siblings and parents. I never get angry when people don't send me cards or give me gifts, so I can only hope that others feel the same.

4. Try new things.
This is a time when I don't feel bound to my artistic style. I try new media and I try to keep the card text, news letters and envelops thematically and visually united.

Here is a card I made for my parents when I was 5.

As a college student, I kept the card tradition, sometimes xeroxing sharpie drawings, sometimes using printmaking methods. Below is my husband's wood cut of a toy soldier (he made the year before we met) and my screen print minimalist Christmas tree.

Here is a little pamphlet book I made with a newsletter in the middle and a picture of our first child.

Another pamphlet book card, included a Martha Stewart style quilled snowflake ornament. It is a little smashed after 12 years in our card scrapbook. Again, the newsletter was in the middle of the card.

 When we first moved to Georgia, there was a pear tree in the back yard, so I did an wood engraving of a partridge in a pear tree that year.

And in 2004, I did our first Christmas video.  This tiny disk fit perfectly into another ornament/card.

50 pen and ink, water color, glitter, and calligraphy cards was time consuming but rewarding.

My easiest card was made by hot gluing a couple buttons for a snow man. 
Another year, I screen printed snowflakes but accidentally used screen filler instead of ink, which gave it a glossy surface with varied value. Gotta love happy accidents.

My then 3-year-old daughter's drawing (left) became our card one year. My Uncle Orval, who had done more than 50 consecutive years of Christmas card making himself, called this a "dill pickle Christmas tree." A sewing machine and fabric scraps made the above card possible.

In 2009 I made a gingerbread house and then took a picture of it. The acompanying family newsletter was a "recipe for a happy year" which served 5 and expired 2010.

I thought I'd use my Children's illustration style and do a little painting to show the joy of 2011.

Last  year, each card was unique. You can see the collage process below."Wishing You The Best of Gifts This Christmas" include gift cards that said things like, "forgiveness" "Friendship" etc. Inside the newsletter listed some of our favorite gifts of the year (like education, work, and fun) and a short paragraph for each.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Most Important Story You Will Ever Write

In my last blog post I discussed how to borrow from your life to create a story. In this blog post, I want to talk about how to borrow from your stories to create a life.

A decade ago, I bought my first video camera. Instead of a Christmas newsletter that year, I made a disc with a 2-minute montage of the year's footage set to a Christmas song. It was a big year that included the birth of my daughter and a trip to Tonga. Ten video Christmas cards later, I have every big event during my daughter’s life, in a 27-minute film.

For the first couple of years, I just pulled out highlights from our family life and put them in the video after the fact. Now I imagine the video long before the year begins; I mentally story board how my year will look. I want spectacular scenery, which calls for a trip to someplace wonderful. I want the entire year to be represented, which means we need to make it a point to get out to events in every season. I dream, I plan, I fill my calendar with penciled in possibilities, and I live more intentionally.

In her book, Write it Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Anne Klauser compares writing goals to buying a blue Honda. Once you own a blue Honda, you start noticing all the blue Hondas that are on the road. Writing down goals or detailed stories about what your life could be, making mind maps or vision boards are all ways to open your eyes to opportunities that you hadn’t noticed before. All it takes is a pencil, piece of paper, and a little imagination.

Affirmations are another way to tell yourself a story that you then make come true. I wrote, “I love my job,” before I even got the interview at the Academy for the Blind. I’ve taught there for a semester now and (no big surprise) I love it!

It’s not magic. It’s mindset. When I say out loud, “I have such a great life!” or “I can do this,” I notice an immediate change in my body. I feel happier and more in control. Conversely, when I say, “You are making me crazy!” or “I’m never going to finish this project!” I can feel my blood pressure rising.

Making your dreams known can increase opportunities. Your friends will only tell you about a job opportunity or big guitar sale if they know you'd be interested in hearing about it. Several weeks ago I wrote on Facebook that I'd been wanting to go to St. Augustine, Florida. A friend read my post and invited my family to take a trip with hers. Short story short: this was the view from our hotel room last week.

Words have changed the course of human history; why not change the course of your own life for the better through writing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Stealing Stories

It has been a month since the WIK 13 (Writing and Illustrating for Kids) conference in Birmingham at which keynote speaker, Matt de la Pena, made his call to “Plagiarize life!” For me, the idea that plagiarism can be a good thing echoes Picasso’s claim that “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

No one is suggesting that we break any copyright laws.  Lazily slapping your name on someone else’s work does not make it yours. I believe that the spirit of these two mandates to “plagiarize” and “steal” is more about internalizing ideas and making them your own. It is about noticing, applying, and transforming. There’s nothing lazy about it.

When non-writers briefly meet a girl at a party named Charlie, they think “cool name” before walking away and never giving it another thought. When writers meet Charlie, they think “cool name for a meat-and-potatoes girl with a gift for sarcasm. This will be the friend of my protagonist in my next young adult novel.” Never mind that “Miss Marple” and “Eleanor Rigby” are the names of real people. Agatha Christie and Paul McCartney own those names now.

Of course writers take more than names; they borrow, steal, and plagiarize personality traits, feelings, and experiences. They steal from their own life!

Having a place (be it a poem, journal entry, stand up comedy routine, or screen play) to channel your experiences is a gift. A writing-mindset can turn unpleasant and uncomfortable experiences into stories. It can turn a painfully inefficient carpool lane into productive work time. It can turn drama queens and energy leaches into interesting characters.

Say your boss chews you out you in front of your co-workers. You could be filled with humiliation and hate. You could climb under a rock. You could plan your vengeance. OR you can step outside yourself and notice his popping eyes, the harshness of each word’s consonant sounds, and the stabbing, accusing finger. You can empathize with people who deal with rage-filled control freaks. Now you are qualified to write a believable scene about a child being bullied by his teacher!  You can exercise poetic justice on the pages because writers get the last word.

Embarrassing situations are easier to laugh at when you get into research mode. When you are focused on documenting an experience, you aren’t focused on yourself; when you are experience-conscious, you are less self-conscious.

Tonight as I pulled a cookie sheet of taco shells out of the oven, the kitchen filled with smoke and a burned chemical smell. One bite was one bite too many. When I checked the date on the box I realized that they had expired two years ago. (Obviously we Applebees don’t eat hard-shelled tacos very often).

“Good news!” I said, “These aren’t poisoned, they are just really old. We can still trust the company.”

“We can trust the company but we can’t trust you,” one of my sons chided.

I immediately remembered the dinner scene where Ramona and Beezus Quimby realized that they were eating tongue and that they could no longer trust their parents. I had to wonder if Beverly Clearly had ever unknowingly been fed or if she had ever fed some unknowing child something suspicious like cow tongue or rancid tacos. Her Ramona stories always ring true to me.

It is good advice to write what you know. The bonus is that through writing, that you can know more, just as an artist learns about an object from drawing it. Ideas are infinite as long as we continue to observe, notice, transform, and learn from our lives.

 P.S. Conference highlights always include familiar faces. 
Here is Micheal Allen Austin and I acting blurry. Amazon named Micheal 's book 
“Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg” a Best Book of the Year (picture book category).

Lori Nichols received SCBWI Portfolio Showcase awards the last two years. 
Look for her book "Maple" coming soon.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

If You Can't Be an Artist, Befriend One

Art makes places more interesting.
Artists make life more interesting.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago by an NPR story about an old art friend of mine, David Babcock, who had just broken the world record for knitting the longest scarf while running a marathon. The scarf was 12 feet long, doubling the previous record for marathon knit scarves.  While some may be confused by this story, it makes complete sense to people who know David.

Which prompts the question, “What is the deal with artists?” (Other than the obvious and BY FAR the most important thing, which is of course that they make art.) Forgive my nostalgia as I reflect on my college art friends, and some common threads between them. Here’s the deal:

Above: David in 1994 (long before he became a design professor and took up knitting and running), me, Tyler (ceramists turned animator turned lawyer/photographer) and his bride Sarah Williams (songwriter/ children's book writer).

1. Artists try new things.

All of my college art friends have experimented with new media because being an artist is bigger than being a glass blower or painter. My friend, Chris Lynn studied painting and ran galleries, yet he and his wife, Maria Samuelson, created Blobby Farm, a place where his doodles become chic, plush…uh…blobbies. As executive director of Cleveland's, SPACES, he invited people to bash TVs while singing karaoke. Spectators sat on a set of “bleachers” made from used sofas. He's not afraid to try something new.

Everybody loves Chris

This principle applies to much more than art. The more things you try, the greater the chance of finding things you like, and the more things you like, the greater your chances are of being happy. I am amazed at how many people in my deep-south city (my 12-year-old included) are unwilling to step outside their fried chicken and barbecue comfort zone. Artists are willing to try hummus, kimchi and curry.

2. Artists believe in possibilities.

When asked why he knit that crazy long scarf while running a marathon, David said, “The short answer is because I can.”

That CAN-DO/WHY-NOT? attitude is a must to anyone who wants to live an artist’s life. The world discourages aspiring artists with threats of failure and destitution, but real artists find a way. One year, as newly weds, my husband Dennis and I had eleven sources of incomes listed on our tax forms. We were both active at exhibiting and selling art, we worked as studio assistants and adjunct faculty at Ohio State. Dennis freelanced for a design studio; I tutored Japanese families for Honda. We, along with some friends also started a web development company just a few months after buying our first computer. Why not? Other people could do it. We could too.

This attitude has allowed Mandi Felici to use her degrees in sculpture and textiles to pursue interior design, start a catering business, create flower arrangements, design Ikea store displays, build giant stork nests, and make a shelf piece full of little jars of dirt she’s collected from around the world.
She sees something she wants to do and then she does it. It is that simple.  Scuba diving? Learned. Master gardening? Certified. Meditation retreat for women? Hosted.

Can you see why having an artist in your life would be a good thing?

Here I am with best friend Mandi in her installation, Current.

3. Artists make connections.

I spent my Sunday dinners in graduate school with a small group of printmakers plus one ceramicist. Somewhere between the chicken etouffee and an episode of the Simpsons, Rob (Boy Genius) Stephens would entertain us with, say, an impromptu discourse on Chinese foot binding, inspired by a woman he’d seen using her knuckles to work the cash register because her extra long nails rendered her fingertips useless. 

Once, he hand printed lithographs of kittens onto sticker paper with a seal that designated the stickered sites as “officially cute.” Then he hung them in dangerous neighborhoods to help people feel at ease. The world makes more sense when you can see a connection between tiny feet and long fingernails, between cuteness and safety. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt when navigating through life either.

4. Artists can look at one thing and see another.

In learning to draw portraits, beginners say to themselves, “Now I’m going to draw an eye.” Then they proceed to draw a football shape with a circle in the middle—a symbol of an eye—not something that actually looks like an eye. The trick to observational drawing is looking beyond the eye to the shapes and value contrasts that will ultimately make a believable rendition of an eye.

This skill of envisioning allowed David to look at a giant stop sign and see the top of a kitchen table that could seat eight. It allowed our former professor, Joe Ostraff, to look at a sandwich vending machine and see a way for us to sell small works of art. It allowed my friend Valerie Atkisson to see beyond her homemade paper Christmas card to a business selling nativities made of precious metals.
Valerie and I at her design show booth this year.

5. Artists feel.

They are generally willing to take the emotional risks that make real friendships possible.

The few things I listed are not true for every artist. But they are true for the artists in my life; and my favorite thing about being an artist, is getting to have fascinating people in my life.

Above: Disco skating. Mandi, David, me and Doug Flandro 
(Doug was in the theatre department but has since gone on 
to RISDI and now designs museum exhibits in Boston).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Thinking Outside the Jack-o-lantern

It is pretty common for me, on the first day of a college art class, to ask students to take a few minutes and draw a man on a bicycle with an umbrella. I can’t remember where this idea came from. But I can remember that in about a dozen years of doing this that almost every one of my students have ended up drawing a stick figure riding a stick bicycle, facing right, and holding a vertical, open umbrella. One or two students in each class have the man facing left and once every couple years, someone will have a closed umbrella. One, count it, ONE time (about eight years ago) someone did draw with a view from the front, but that was only after the first sketch of the right facing cyclist.

I have yet to see a drawing of a circus clown standing on the bicycle seat and balancing with a tiny polka dotted umbrella or an angry young man jumping up and down on a broken heap of a bike while beating it with an umbrella. In fact, I’ve never seen anything interesting come from this challenge.

That’s the point. I want students to recognize that the first idea that pops into their head, is the first idea that pops in to pretty much everyone else’s head too.

Being original means we must dig a little deeper. Think a little harder.

Last summer, I decided to offer a mini assignment with a greater possibility for creativity. I asked my graduate students to draw “Halloween” then waited to see how many witches, goblins, black cats, skeletons, ghosts, mummies, zombies, vampires, spiders, haunted houses, cemeteries, ravens, headless horsemen, werewolves, and trick-or-treaters would be represented. The results were similar to the “man on the bike with an umbrella” assignment in the shocking lack of variety. Every student drew a jack-o-lantern. Two of them finished early and managed to add a Pac Man style ghost to the right of their jack-o-lantern.

After these experiments, most students promise that they will try harder to “think outside the box.” I tell them that they can start by not using the cliché “think outside the box.” 

Apple says to “Think Different.”  
Chanel goes a step beyond thinking by telling us to “Be unexpected.”
Sign a urinal. Paint a green stripe down your wife’s nose.  Place daisies at the tips of your mustache. Except don’t. All of those things have been done by men who lived a century ago and had a reason to do them. But do look beyond the obvious and find ways to happily surprise your readers, friends, clients, or workshop attendees.

After the Halloween exercise I went home and made my own image of Halloween. Yes, there are skeletons in my painting. Yes, one is carving a triangle-eyed jack-o-lantern but the other is breaking holiday barriers. He’s dying eggs. 

This image won 1st place at last weeks SCBWI Southern Breeze
Annual Illustration Contest last week.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Teaching Art to Blind Children: My New Job

I have a new job teaching art at the Academy for the Blind. Until I saw on the school's marquee that there was an opening, it hadn't occurred to me that such a job could exist. It does. Considering that there's only one (maybe two) schools for the blind in any given state, and each of those schools may or may not have an art teacher, I feel especially lucky to land such a challenging and fulfilling position!

My students' ages range from four to nineteen, and their visual and learning abilities are as varied as their ages. Because the needs are diverse, the classes are small, sometimes only two or three students at a time. This has allowed me to get to know and love the children very quickly.

I started my first full week, ironically, with an Op Art assignment. Optical illusions may not mean much to most blind, but the line is the simplest of art elements and repetition isn't a hard concept to grasp.

This student exclaimed, "I did it!" after drawing each line. It warmed my heart to think of all the encouragement she's received during her short life. I love the sense of movement in this simple piece.

Week two I plunged into color theory, which is difficult, even students without visual disabilities. In fact, I have taught many college students with 20/20 vision who made it through childhood without learning their color wheel. Luckily, these kids were up to the challenge of mixing the three primary colors to get secondary and tertiary colors in even steps.

Here is another Op Art project using line and repetition in complimentary color schemes.

 Piet Mondrian and Roy Lichtenstein are favorite artists to study when learning about primary colors and triadic color schemes. You can see from this picture how close most of my students need to get to the paper in order to see what they are doing. This Mondrian-style piece was done on braille paper.

The student who created the red piece in the upper right said, "This is really beautiful. Do you think people will like it?" We discussed Picasso's Blue Period before making our own monochromatic paintings. I believe that teaching art history and formal design principles is what separates real art lessons from mindless craft time. I want to give kids the tools to make informed aesthetic choices to better communicate ideas.

The youngest students have done crayon rubbings of various textures and created textures in salt dough by stamping it with objects. We are also making and decorating newspaper hats. I've only been at the school for a few weeks but so far I am loving it. I pinch myself every morning.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Aesthetic America

Part of being in artists is a heart-pounding-breathless enthusiasm for beauty. As a freshman in college, I sprinted home to share an amazing rainbow with my roommates."Oh, Kristen,"was their response. "Don't be such an artist."
Worst advice ever.
Being an artist and enjoying the beauties of the natural world are things that bring me joy. Last month my family wrapped up a road trip which included visits to 21 National Parks and Historic Sites in 18 states. It was a thrill to take in the variety of colors and textures of the American landscape. I'm happy to share some of the eye-candy the natural world has to offer.