24 October 2014

Around the world blog hop: One artist's story

Artist Julie Booth recently invited me to participate in the "Around the World" blog hop. It seems to have been going on for quite a while, reaching far & wide around the globe. Both artists & writers have been contributing their answers to the same four questions, and it's a wonderful way to learn more about others who may be doing work similar to yours—but also those whose media, techniques & philosophies are completely different.

I still remember discovering Julie's blog, Threadborn...a gorgeous purple dress caught my attention in a blog post for the monthly ROY G BIV photo challenge that Julie and Jennifer initiated a few years back. I decided to join in for the "Orange" month (my favorite color), and was thrilled to be the winner of the hand-printed fabric that participants were eligible to win. (It's shown in the photo above, the backdrop to yesterday's tea time with fig bread.)

Julie is one busy lady; not only does she teach classes, post regularly on her blog and put out a newsletter each month, her forthcoming book, Fabric Printing at Home, shares her knowhow for creating fabrics printed with items & ingredients found in the kitchen. (I love this role of kitchen things in her work/book, as I also enjoy the blurring of the line between studio & kitchen.) Julie's website can be found here.

Before getting started on my contribution to the blog hop, I’d like to mention that my answers tend to mingle & overlap—very much paralleling the way my creative process works. This post is also very unlike my usual ones in that there is but one photo. I had originally wanted to answer the questions visually (at least in part), but the post took on a life of its own and has instead morphed into a tome of text, leaving no time to create additional material.

Also, as a prelude to the four questions asked of each artist, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that came to mind as I put together this post.

For one thing, when I recently had a look at the ABOUT page on my website I noticed that my favorite medium is listed as "oil paint"—and it's true, I do love to paint. Yet, in recent years there has been little time at the easel. I don’t think you can really use time and space as an excuse for not doing something you truly want to do, but I remember reading somewhere that, until fairly recently, it was far more common for women to be writers than painters. The reason given for this stronger tradition of women writers versus painters was a question of "space." One writer, as I recall, wrote her novels on the ironing board. (I can imagine her, surrounded by neatly folded piles of cotton knits and crisp shirts lined up on hangers, the scent of lavender and a starchy mist hanging in the air. Or maybe it was more like heaps of laundry that grew ever more hopelessly crumpled as she lost herself in a story?)

Excuses aside, I would certainly argue that painting inherently requires more space than the few square feet of an ironing boardor at least this is true of the kind I do. I live in a small city apartment, so this idea of having several three-by-four-foot canvases going at once is actually more of a dream at the moment. In all honesty, the issue is probably more one of mental space—there are so many other things going on in my mind and studio right now. That said, I have this fantasy of a grid of blank canvases, maybe two-by-two feet, hanging together on the living room wall, each to be transformed over time.

I have also said that "place & space" are my focus as an artist & writer—themes that stem from my architectural background—yet an interest in nature, seasons & cooking has crept into my life in the last decade. Among the architecture books, the T-square & triangles, paper, paint, glue & pencils, you will find seeds, dried stems & petals, pressed leaves and blossoms, cicada carcasses, dissected fruits & vegetables. I love how science, math, history and language all have a place in the realm of art. And poetry.

For a long time, especially while I was working on The Piazzas of Florence (a narrative book that includes my original watercolored/collaged maps of each piazza), I had an "identity crisis." I didn’t know if I was a writer or an artist. Now, of course, I realize that it's not a choice that needs to be made.

But, with an architecture degree, why not architecture? When I began my studies I chose social sciences as my "depth"/minor—and I really enjoyed courses like Human Geography & Sociologybut it wasn’t long before I switched my minor to fine arts so I could have time to paint—I wanted to make. This change was something that had to be discussed with one’s advisor, and I still remember him asking, "But do you want to be an architect? Or just a designer?" (As if the latter were a dirty word!) Without hesitating, I answered that of course I wanted to be an architect. Maybe he knew better.

In any case, the architecture market was in a dismal state when I graduated, and the firm where I interned my last year—and planned to stay with—"downsized" to literally just the owner. But I realized that I was actually very comfortable working at a more intimate scale, creating things with my own two hands, and over the years I have meandered happily between visual and "language" art. I find the form of a book to be a very natural tool for expression. In fact, I love everything about creating books, from developing a concept to experimenting with the structure and figuring out how to incorporate text & images. But I also find myself frequently venturing outside of the book as a choice of "media" these days.

So, that brings me to the first question...

1. What am I working on?

Like most artists & writers, I am always working on several projects. I may set out to be focused and single-minded for a week, or even just a morning, but the day pretty much always ends up taking me where it will.

- The project I am most excited about is a new book. (Ironically, it's also the one getting the least attention right now...more on this in a moment.) I say "new," but it's been slowly taking shape for a few years now...just that it was a while before I realized the work I was doing was headed toward a book. As is usually the case, the structure is the element that drives me—so this is firmly in place—but because I am working on so many other things right now I am in more of a leisurely gathering/recording phase. At times I can hardly stand to not be working on the book every day, but I see this stage as very necessary—this gradual building-evolving-growing and, eventually, strengthening, of an idea. And fortunately a lot of everyday life is creeping into the book, so it receives constant, if minimal, nurturing.

- Another ongoing project is my second alphabet for A Letter a Week (ALaW), the theme of which is "place." I love how this challenge to create what amounts to two alphabets each year has pushed me to try so many ideas that have led to new work. As is typical for me, my exploration of the "place" alphabet's myriad solutions has taken me from A to Z in terms of the focus. I hope I will be ready to blog about it some time soon...

- I am just finishing up a POD version inspired by my artist's book Where Sea & Sky Meet. This first copy is a gift, but I might also make it available in my online shop, PaperSynthesis.

- I haven't added any new items to PaperSynthesis for a while, but the 2015 calendars, new prints and a taste of the work I'm preparing for another online shop are all in the works. While the emphasis of PaperSynthesis is on photography, cities, and different ways of expressing them on paper (i.e. the embossings and stitched poetry), the focus of the new shop is graphic design. Most of my energy in the last few months has gone into creating the "identity," the supporting materials and the product lines (which keep growing/expanding!). It has been great fun, but much more work than I had imagined. I was planning to open the shop this month, but decided just this week to wait until the New Year. One thing I have realized is that when you consider whether or not to take on a project or meet a deadline that proves to be unrealistic, you are also making a choice that you will not be able to work on certain other things.

- I have been preparing for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but still haven't decided whether or not I should participate this November. I am leaning instead toward devoting the time to completing an e-version of The Piazzas of Florence, which has been in the works for a while now. (The book was originally published by an Australian publisher, but they never sold the rights to the US, i.e. a huge market has missed out on it.) I hate to break what would be a four-year NaNoWriMo streak though, as I really enjoy this "month of writing dangerously." (The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.) Non-fiction has always been my thing, but I'm fascinated by trying to write fiction, and have really enjoyed my attempts each November—watching the characters draw me into their world, vicariously living other lives. I'd better stop there, as I'm on the verge of talking myself into doing it!

- Theoretically, I am also working on an oil painting, but in reality it's been on the back burner since I went away this summer. Sometimes I consider switching to acrylics so there will be less set-up/clean-up time, but I love oils so much that I will probably just wait for the right time to focus on it. Regardless, painting is often on my mind—meaning that I can't help but observe the world with a brush in my "mind's hand"—and I trust that this will serve me the next time I am standing before the canvas.

- I always have things going on in my large "sketchjournal" and on the studio table (and any other free horizontal space I can manage). I've been saving strips of paper from my projects for years now, and after experimenting with ways to reveal my found (stitched) poems I started playing around with weaving the strips of paper. I feel I’ve gotten ninety percent of the way to where I want to go with these weavings, but it's always the last ten percent that's the hardest for me. (It's also where I believe the magic lies.) In the meanwhile, I started creating story strips/lines, which in my original concept involved strips of paper and fabric as well. I'm still not sure ultimately where they will lead, but I continue to collect and experiment when I can.

- Music is definitely starting to become one of those things that's tugging on my creative conscious. {More on this in my answer to Question 3.}

{Let me just pause to ask: were our answers supposed to be brief? I do hope not...}

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I don't really have a genre! That would be the easy way of getting out of answering the question that has proved most difficult for me. But it's also been the question that I have found myself pondering most since I first perused the list.

Maybe this is because I haven't fallen into a particular niche—that I am still developing who I am as an artist. Though I believe it's linked more to who I am, period...my personality & way of working are very much all over the place. To borrow from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s use of shells to discuss the various aspects & stages of a woman’s life, I seem to be in the oyster shell stage—if not in a marriage (as she is primarily describing), certainly with my work. And the first few lines in the "Oyster Bed" chapter of Gift from the Sea touch on exactly how I see myself fitting into the category of "Artist" and where I am right now (underlines are mine):

There are other shells to help me, to put in the row on my desk. Here is one I picked up yesterday. Not rare; there are many of them on the beach and yet each one is individual. You never find two alike. Each is fitted and formed by its own life and struggle to survive...with small shells clinging to its humped back. Sprawling and uneven, it has the irregularity of something growing. It looks rather like the house of a big family, pushing out one addition after another to hold its teeming life—here a sleeping porch for the children, and there a veranda for the play-pen; here a garage for the extra car and there a shed for the bicycles. It amuses me because it seems so much like my life at the moment, like most women's lives in the middle years of marriage. It is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations...

In other words, I thinkthough we are many and many of us may do similar work—looking at the whole person/artist, we are still each completely unique, despite the similarities.

As for the second theme I can relate to in AML's description of the oyster bed—the physical appearance—it characterizes the work-in-progress stage that I am in. (And maybe this will always be the case...)

But even if I cannot define what distinguishes my body of work from that of other artists, I do know that we each get there differently. I don't think anyone else could possibly fathom what it took me to arrive at a finished piece—or the things that inspired me in the first place, or sent me off in a particular direction.

Maybe it's easier to address the question in terms of what I believe my strengths to be. For example, I don't think my photos set me apart from the many other talented photographers out there, but I do seem to be able to bring together a collection of photos, whether for an artist's book or a blog post. Some artists can say so much with a single photo—or a swathe of watercolor or a continuous line of ink. I am in awe of this. But my natural tendency/approach is one of layers, of multiples & connections—superimposition, juxtaposition.

Which brings me to what is important to me, which I suppose distinguishes one's work as much as anything else. Structure is as important to me as content; it's very unusual for me to commit to a direction on content before establishing a structure. I am interested in multiple dimensions—three-dimensionality, or four-dimensionality (i.e. time as an element). I sometimes wonder if this stems from my dance training as a teenager? In fact, while my writing path has its clear roots—a clumsy but ernest attempt at a novel at the age of eleven—my first career choice would have been dance teacher. I spent a lot of my childhood in surgery/casts because I was born with a dislocated hip, and started dancing much too late to be a professional dancer...but I love dance as an art form.

The influence of my architecture degree also has a clear place in my development as an artist/writer; when it came to writing The Piazzas of Florence, this is what gave me a voice—a way to frame the story. In fact, my architecture studies have helped me to understand how I see and experience the world. I believe strongly in space & movement as design elements, whether this means giving some breathing space to a series of beads on a necklace, allowing generous margins on a page layout, or arranging furniture so that space can flow around it. This quote from musician & pianist Artur Schnabel sums up how I feel about the importance of space in art/design: 

"The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides."
— Artur Schnabel

My training as an architect also gives me an appreciation for analysis & a tendency toward precision—the latter I admit I wish it were easier to let go of sometimes.

I feel that where I am today—in this space between art & writing—is exactly right, even though, in many ways, architecture seemed such a natural choice for me. But I know I would not be here without it—without all that came before.

3. Why do I write/create what I do?

The obvious answer, as any artist or writer knows, is that I can't not create. I tend to "see" things through the lens of whichever media they speak to. For example, I see how the light is glancing on a rough stone wall, highlighting only the foremost parts, and it makes me want to get out my camera. I notice the decisive angles of shadows crisscrossing, and I want to paint. I spot a combination of colors that sing, and I want to design, either on paper or the computer. I observe people simply living their lives, or have a conversation with someone—or read a book—and I want to write. I see a toothy paper in a warm shade of white with a deckle and it inspires me to create a book. (Indeed, it was the lovely Rives Heavyweight that first got The Piazzas of Florence, which started off as more of an artist's book than a commercial one, in motion.)

I've always said I only have to walk out of the portone (the main/front door) of our building to feel inspired—and it's still true...but not even necessary. I find inspiration in everything. It's a bit—can’t quite find the word (morbid?)—to say this, but it has occurred to me that even if I found myself in the position of never being able to leave the house again, I have enough collected inspiration (and probably materials) that I would never run out of ideas/projects. Every time I go out I find myself thinking I really should more often—there is so much in this beautiful city/big world—but it almost drives me crazy that I find even more inspiration to process/synthesize/work with. Besides the endless stream of undeveloped ideas, I often find myself wanting to rework old projects as well—to find other ways of expressing the same concepts—so there are many artist's books, stories, oil paintings, etc., waiting their turn.

Every day/"The" everyday also inspires me: the ingredients in my kitchen, the flowers in bloom...where the light is falling & where it's sending the shadows...or what’s playing through my headphones. Music is another form of art that I would like to explore more—to learn how to visually convey that desire to wrap myself in a song...to become completely immersed, to know it backward, forward & upside down. Like with a favorite book or a favorite city. To dissect it, examine it and know all of its parts. While there was a time when a song would inspire me to express it through dance, now I am more inclined to think in terms of creating a book...

...which, going back to the first question (What am I working on?), is something I'm doing with a new Foo Fighters song. I realize it may not be to everyone’s taste, but the first single from their soon-to-be-released album has moved me tremendously (maybe I will try to explain this at some point, so that it makes more sense to non-FF fans). For me, rock has the power to do this as easily as Rachmaninov or Beethoven. Something from Nothing (I include here the link to the first ever live performance on the Letterman show last week) is one expansive crescendo, beginning with a few quiet, slow chords and growing in intensity, then finishing on the tail of Dave's signature Grohl "growl" (or, more accurately, scream). I love how, if you compare Minute 4 with the Intro, you wouldn't even recognize them as being part of the same whole, but in listening to the whole thing you see how they got there. This one song holds, for me, the richness & depth of an entire album, and conjures up all sorts of images & emotions when I hear it. From my first listen, the line that really captured my imagination was "a button on a string"—such beautiful imagery—and after watching the first episode of the HBO series that shows Dave Grohl's process & inspiration for the album*, I appreciate it even more. Now I know how that line got there.

This brings me to the point that I really like knowing the background of a piece of art—understanding the story behind it. Yes, it can be intriguing to not know (and occasionally preferable!), but I can rarely think of a time when knowing didn't add to my appreciation of a building, painting or song.

{*For those who may be interested, both album & series are
called "Sonic Highways." The concept was to record 8 songs in 8
studios in 8 different cities that have each played an important
role in the American music scene, and the lyrics/music
were inspired by interviews with each city's music legends.}

4. How does my writing/creating process work?

When it comes to the creative process, I am a firm believer in the power of time: time to experiment, time to question, time to step away, time to reconsider.

I think there's a time for lists and a time to defy them. I make lists/goals/plans, but it's typical for me to write up a list and then promptly turn to something that's not on it. And I don't worry about it—the list often seems to be more about finding space in my mind for a thing I intend to do (eventually). I suppose you could say I have a tendency to work "latently," i.e. on a list I made ages ago. Goodness knows that I am slow in getting through things, but I'm learning that it's unrealistic/overly ambitious to expect to complete them bing-bang-boom. At times it can be very discouraging, but I feel the projects all feed off of one another, and therefore become better as a result of this.

So, I might wake up planning to work on "x." I will think about it as I get ready for the day, while I make breakfast. Then I'll sit down at the studio table with my coffee and, though I begin with the strongest of intentions, it's just as likely that I will start working on something else entirely. This dynamic reminds me a little of what happens when writing fiction...you might have this whole story fleshed out (or, at the other extreme, no idea how to fill the blank page), but then the characters take you places you didn’t know existed, or do something completely unexpected. The creative process has a life of its own, and I have found it best to follow. Of course there are times when you don’t have that liberty, but the best days are those when it can unfold as it wishes.

I like to zoom in & out on a project for different perspectives. Sometimes I work exclusively on a single thing for a stretch, focused to the point of barely leaving the apartment for days on end. (As I've already mentioned, I am a homebody in the truest sense of the word.) Then there are times when I am all over the place, dropping in on/out of many projects at once. I do whatever feels right, to the best of my ability, and in spite of the logistics and responsibilities of life that willand dodistract.

Discovering the linksthe connections—between everything fascinates me. I love setting off on the creative journey each morning, not knowing where I might be by the end of the day. Sometimes I end up back where I started, or in the same place I was last week—or it can feel that way. But of course, every time you venture down a road, you can at the very least carry away that experience. Maybe you don't feel as though you have learned anything, but eventually you'll know why you spent the day doing "x," "y" or "z." That's where trust comes in. You have to trust your process if it works for you, even though it doesn't always make sense.

Many artists draw a thing to get to know it better; I often use the camera for "things," like a flower or an ingredient. When it's an idea that I'm trying to understand, I think with a pencil. It used to be that I could hardly think without a pen or a pencil in my hand, but—as I alluded to in a recent blog post—getting out of the studio is often an excellent way to encourage creative thinking. The difficulty of course is remembering the thoughts & ideas if you are otherwise occupied. (That’s what the back of your hand is for :)


Well, for someone who wasn't sure if she should accept the invitation to participate in this blog hop, I ended up having a lot to say—it seems the writer in me took the reigns for this post. I knew that taking the time to reflect on the questions and their answers would be a worthwhile exercise—and in fact, it was only in the answering of the questions that I actually arrived at many of the answers (one more example of "the process" at work). I hope each of you who had time to make it through this long, somewhat indulgent, post are able to consider how the questions relate to your own work!


And now I am happy to step out of the spotlight to introduce the artists who generously agreed to continue this international blog hop. Each will be answering the four questions in the next week or two.

I. I know Susan Bowers through her blog, Tracemarks. At first I thought her name was "Trace Marks" (!), but soon discovered that the blog's name referenced the direction her work has taken: toward etchings and other thoughtful, deeply beautiful, mark-making. Her artist's books are works of art, with pages rich with etchings, embossings, threads & other touches. One of my favorites can be seen here. Susan & Fiona Dempster have also been collaborating on artist's books for the past couple of years; a recent collaboration can be seen here (Susan offers more details on her book in the post that follows this one, as Fiona does on her own blog). And now I would like to share her artist's statement, which I find very poetic, with you:

Traces, fragments of narrativenever the whole story. Leaving things unsaid is as important to me as the ability to be explicit in my work. Through an economy of line and mark making I strive to express the underlying cadence of my subject. What lies beneath, what is revealed slowly and sometime obscurely, the suggestion rather than openness or frankness is what intrigues me as both an artist and a viewer.
An enduring love of paper and books, abstract images, stories that can be told and retold and ideas that are open to reinterpretation have meant that the medium of the artists' book has become increasingly significant in the way I work. My work with books enables me to develop an intimacy with the viewer and quite often my books are left unbound so that the reader may rearrange the images/pages to tell a different story.  I love this playful interaction between the viewer and my art.

II. I first came to know of Margaret Robbie's work through her blog, Charlton Stitcher, when she began participating in the monthly ROY G BIV photo challenge. While many of her projects involve textiles, other media also inform her work; I love in particular how she often uses her very striking photographs as starting points for her lovely stitching & weaving projects. One of my favorites can be seen here (with followups to it in subsequent posts), and this is another work that also intrigues me. Margaret has given me a few details to share with you:
I have had artistic activities of one kind or another at the centre of my consciousness for most of my life. I've looked, watched, thrown pots, drawn, taken photographs, painted (occasionally), and now woven and stitched. It seems to be part of my internal wiring. I studied graphic art during teacher training but, as was true for many after the war, I was encouraged to opt for a 'safe' job (which I enjoyed) and never worked as an artist in any way. Since I retired, I have been making up for lost time, taking online courses, going to workshops, and reading anything I can get my hands on. I love it all.

III. I don't remember how I first found my way to the blog of Eric Adama, Cerulean, an "undaily visual journal mixed media on paper." But I do know that I love his collages. In them I see beautiful layering, rich textures, an appealing sense of geometry, and what feels to me like allusions to architecture. His "Summer in the City" series (number VI can be seen here, and the others are each in previous posts) really caught my attention, and the nine collages of another favorite set, "Rivers and Dam," can be seen here. Eric has passed on these words to introduce himself:

Eric Adama is a Dutch artist who lives and works in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In his paintings and mixed media collages he likes to explore the relationship between human life and the elements earth, sky and sea. Sometimes they reflect tracks on walls and houses which suggest stories in disguise and lost memories. In other works he explores the position of the individual human celebrating his impartial position of freedom. His favorite material is paper, his favorite word is freedom. He likes to take side roads and elephant paths.

I hope you will enjoy learning more about each artist's work. And feel free to leave a comment/link if you decide to participate in this very international blog hop (whether as artist or writer—or both), so we can continue discovering more creative souls.

Thank you for reading!

16 October 2014

Shoemaker of Dreams: A designer's story told through paper

It's the third Thursday of October, and time once again for the monthly ROY G BIV photo challenge. Since we've already gone through the colors of the rainbow, you may recall (after doing "pink" in August & "black" in September) that we're focusing on colors beyond the rainbow for the rest of the year. This month it's "white."


Though I don't shop in the luxury label shops that begin in Piazza Santa Trìnita and line both sides of Via Tornabuoni (the street that leads north from it), I must say that I love walking through this area. My primary shopping mode is of the "window" variety (as much as I love the idea of being beautifully dressed, I have very little patience for shopping), but the windows of these designer shops never fail to interest, amuse, surprise & amaze me.

I have been wanting to share these photos of some very special Ferragamo window displays since I took them back in April 2013 (yes, I am a little behind with my blogging plans), and today finally seemed like the perfect chance. Instead of the usual clothing and accessories showcased in the shop's numerous windows, for a brief period each one contained a marvelous creation: the pages of enormous "books" had come to life with imaginative & intricate cutouts. Accompanying them were passages from Shoemaker of Dreams: The Autobiography of Salvatore Ferragamo, which inspired each of these lovely works of art.

While the book pages are white, thus in line with the "white" theme, I find the reflections of the buildings in Piazza Santa Trìnita and along the Arno side of the Ferragamo shop to be equally intriguing.

Incidentally, the little square where the Ferragamo building sits was mainly a traffic thoroughfare when I wrote The Piazzas of Florence (it was among the dozen piazzas I included), but has since undergone a series of wonderful improvements. The column in the center, which used to be barricaded, has been restored to public use (i.e. you can sit on the stone bench surrounding it), the paving stones were replaced/refitted/leveled...and, most importantly, you see more pedestrians and bicycles than cars since vehicular traffic is very limited now. It is a true pleasure to walk through and spend time in, and certainly more befitting the church and grand palaces that surround the piazza. Few people were out & about on this chilly morning when I took the photos, but there's usually a pleasant bustle throughout the day.


The photo above/left was one of my favorites from this outing; it looks as though the façade of Santa Trìnita church is sitting at the back of this shop (Sergio Rossi, I believe).



To finish, here is an image of some white buildings reflected on the Arno as I walked home after photographing the Ferragamo window "exhibition"...


The ROY G BIV photo challenge was first begun by artists
Jennifer Coyne Qudeen & Julie Booth. Each month is devoted to
a different color, and all are welcome to join in the search.
Please visit their blogs for links to other participants.

Guidelines are here.

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