Every drawing session reminds me of the importance of brushes. Depending on the surface used- fabric, slick paper, toothy paper or fabrics — different brushes perform differently and are a simple yet vital part of the toolkit. And of course, those luscious orange colors of late Roma tomatoes from the garden, picked green and ripening slowly indoors. Handbuilt ceramic bowl by Eric Jensen.
In November 2016, Gatlinburg, Tennessee suffered a devastating fire that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and tree-covered acreage. As news broke on social media, we watched the unfolding story as it related to Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, a beloved crafts school with a network of artists, fans, and workshop attendees spread across the globe. The stories of escape from quickly advancing flames were horrific. We were frightened for Arrowmont’s staff and families, and we worried that nothing would remain of the school. When morning came, the dormitory I’d stayed in just one year earlier while attending a Surface Design Association conference, was one of two buildings destroyed in the fire, but the rest of the campus had mercifully been spared.
So, when I was invited to attend Arrowmont’s Pentaculum 2018, a gathering of 80 artists and writers working in clay, metal, fiber, 2-d, and wood, I felt both delight and reverence. I wanted not only to inhabit this loss but pay homage to renewal. I’d make a piece in my Tarp Series, in which I position my expressive textile paintings as metaphorical tarps. I see tarps as protective, versatile and adaptive. I’d start with drawings on campus, translating them to cloth, then photograph the piece outdoors in select settings.
Upon arrival, inevitably I recalled a much earlier connection to the Great Smoky Mountains. During very formative years as a 19 year old, I spent two months at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, then known as the Maryville College Environmental Education Center. It was 1973, and I leaned into the wildness, leading school children on hikes, learning about material culture, foodways, harp singing, launching myself into the art making and community arts career that has been a part of me ever since.
At Pentaculum 2018, we did not anticipate the very unusual cold weather, which made outdoor drawing impossible and photography challenging. But I let my eye be “open,” with doodles and observations on walks and out the studio windows.
The imagery in the resulting piece, Sorrow and Renewal, is more representational than is usual for me. Colors are black, grey, —and red. Red for pent-up passions, energy, sorrow, fire, joy and heat. But it is in the context of the forest, streams, rocks, gnarled trees, that this red makes the most sense and feels right.
Scouting photography locations in 13 degree weather, I explored the woodpile of huge downed trees, there perhaps not from the fire but adjacent to the hill where remains of the fire are visible. And also there, grapefruit sized piles of bear scat from visits to nearby dumpsters. But it was a place along the river that truly allowed this piece to find its singing voice. Renewal is apparent, gratifying, and not to be taken for granted. Pentaculum 2018 was a wonderful experience. And Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts continues to be a magical place.
My busy life involves balancing studio work with arts administration and advocacy for other artists. Pursuing drawing in a regularized way has always been an unrealized goal. That’s because drawing requires making time to stop, listen and be present in the moment. My ticker is set to always being on the move.
Last fall, before I accepted the position of President of the Surface Design Association, I had a serious talk with myself. I’d need to make a serious commitment to work-life balance or be swallowed up by administration and regret. But SDA is my homebody group and helping it develop and thrive in the future is important to me. So, just in the way that I took on careful planning for SDA and Iowa Artisans Gallery, for which I work part time and am a co-owner, I decided to plan my studio life. In addition to creating works for the wall, I’d start a drawing series. I’d do it during the week, on several of my admin days. And so I have. Today’s blog post is an update on that process, with 21 drawings into the collection.
Drawing has curious consequences. It teaches me to be more fearless. Taking risks is required, yet not risky. It doesn’t really matter. Drawing rests and re-sets the rational brain. This is helpful in the life of an administrator.
Some days, nothing gels. On those, it’s important to make the habit, to just keep going. I’ll work in my sketchbook, on paper, on fabric with matte medium, or on canvas with gesso, using pencil, brush and ink, watercolors, sticks, and acrylic paints. How about cut-up blue jeans or other clothing? That’s next. Sometimes attempt #8 leads me in a new direction. If nothing else, I can always tear up your paper and try again.
One other curious consequence: drawing allows me to acquire experience rather than always holding on to objects. Best to surround one’s self with the objects that hold meaning. The others? Draw them, commit them to deep, multi-sensory memory, and pass them along.
Stay tuned- more to come.
Last September, I engaged in a much-needed weekend in my studio. Looking upon my upcoming role as Surface Design Association President, I knew I MUST prioritize making time for balance and creative work, so critical to making the rest of life function well. In that, I am just like 99.9% of our SDA members and all my other colleagues I know outside of SDA. All ages, all stages.
Suddenly I had an idea: talk about the importance of a studio day. A day later, I read that I’m not alone in my thinking. Here’s the piece in the New York Times.
What follows are the closing comments I made at SDA’s Made/Aware: Socially-Engaged Practices Intensive at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. (Read a wonderful summary of this event, written by Tamryn McDermott for SDA’s NewsBlog.) I appeared in my studio garb, my SDA “uniform” —apron, t-shirt and torn jeans, rubber gloves in my pockets. I spoke to this gathering of artists, educators, students, makers, who among them have amassed an impressive list of accomplishments and inquiry, with dedication and enthusiasm.
This is what I said, illustrated here with photos from my past:
We are first and foremost, a community of makers. Many of us working in textile and new media do this as a tactile antidote to our increasingly digital world. In whatever stages of life you find yourself—longtime artist, recent college grad, juggling paid employment, or retired but wanting to rekindle a longtime interest —creative work is never an easy fit into a busy life. The quest for work-life balance challenges all of us and increasingly is part of a national conversation, as recent media articles have pointed out.
SDA helps us to promote connections with our fellow makers. Our group of largely textile-centric makers is the most diverse of any national textile organizations available to us. The SDA Journal, Blog, and our members show us a broader way of thinking about what we do, as do SDA’s tools such as exhibitions, grants and fellow aficionados to talk shop with.
How do YOU make time for creativity? No one path fits all. Creative success is rarely about being secluded and monastic, — it’s about living fully within our lives, a frame of mind. Often, it’s about enjoying the ride, the process rather than the final outcome.
My own life confirms this. I joined SDA as a recent college grad and worked in my studio in addition to jobs and new motherhood. I always referred to my studio work as my fourth child. If I didn’t pay attention, it screamed and hollered. There was a time when my creative moment coincided with Mr Rogers Neighborhood on Public Television.
Later, I saw firsthand how the kind of creative thinking that artists employ brought new ideas to the table in our Downtown District, where I worked as a long time manager for Iowa Artisans Gallery, a 4000 square foot business with 200 artists, and served on committees for community initiatives. And it wasn’t just me. For a time, the interim head of the local Area Chamber of Commerce was a graphic designer who injected new life into the organization. As a business manager/owner, I hired artists with both retail and creative abilities, or others who simply wanted to be creative, encouraging them to pursue and fulfill their own personal life destinies as artists of all stripes.
Throughout this time, I always tried to guard my studio day on Fridays. Make no mistake: work-life balance is an issue for everyone I know.
I invite you to join me in making time for creativity during a weekly Studio Day, whether it’s by learning/contemplation only, or by active doing, —for an hour a day, a day a week, or many days every month, whatever fits. And wouldn’t it be great if SDA, as an organization, took a “studio day.” (Mind you, I’m not saying we should shut down our website for a day a week, just that our Board, staff and members can commune together in that great notion.) We share the importance of creativity to the structure and balance of our lives. Let the community of SDA members inspire us to be more than who we are working alone. It is not selfish. It is about good self-management practices that make us more meaningfully productive in all of life.
Lastly if you believe in SDA and its community, here are a few easy things you can do to help strengthen this organization. First, invite a friend to join the SDA community. Our membership numbers are crucial to publishing our robust, quarterly Journal. And there’s more, but that’s for a future discussion. Second, thank our advertising partners and suggest new ones. (I’ll do it here for the ones I have used for years in my own work: shout-outs and thanks to ProChemical & Dye, Testfabrics, Dharma Trading.) They wonder if their ads are unseen, down some big black hole. WE NOTICE!
So, I’ve come to the end of this little talk, and on behalf of the SDA Board, Staff and all of our volunteers, I wish you a safe and inspired journey home, to the heart of your creative work and life and your very own SDA uniform! Ciao!
My new years’ gift to myself: do the one studio thing I had the greatest need and drive for, starting to draw on a more regular basis. Along came The Sketchbook Project (see my October 18 post on drawing) with just enough deadline and incentive to make me finally commit. The result is not brilliant, but it’s done, and it’s opened my inner eye.
Here’s what I wrote about my experience:
Most artists I know wish they would draw more. I started drawing in college and for two years, it was all I wanted to do. Then I took up printmaking (markmaking!) and eventually, textiles.
In my textile work, I do a lot of printing and monoprinting- I love color and music and spontaneous expression. Drawing is the act of listening to the world around you, of being an observer as opposed to a participant. Damn it, it requires a lot of patience and concentration. It is meditative.
So, now that I have time to be more of an observer, it is time to draw again, to relearn, to connect hand, eye and head. I also wanted to learn to use sumi ink wash techniques; the world is not all black and white- there’s lots of grey. The sketchbook project gave me the kick in the pants to get this rolling. Being intimidated by the first page, I decided to start in the middle. I also did my drawing in 3 separate sketchbooks each session, to loosen me up and let me try varying papers and approaches. Sometimes I included those other drawings in the Official Sketchbook.
One of the wonders of the current digital media scene is being able to mix print and video information in the same article. I am intrigued by The New York Times’ Line by Line series (“about rediscovering the lost skill and singular pleasure of drawing”) and can’t resist posting about it here, though it’s Black Friday and I have to head to Iowa Artisans Gallery for work.
Today, James McMullan’s contribution centers on drawing the figure- understanding the relationship with face and hands, among other things. His contributions are today’s #11 in the series: “Strategies to Get You There” , which follows an earlier one, #10 The Chain of Energy.
For years, when my kids were around, I thought that the way to really make summers creatively productive would be to aim for a drawing a day. It was always hard to actually get to more substantive studio work during that time. Intentions then, and later for other regular drawing “devotions” always gave less than satisfying results. Only an occasional drawing, but when I did them, how revealing.
Two Surface Design Association (SDA) Conferences ago, and looking at the course offerings of Penland School of Crafts, I realized that although the array of techniques and workshops was stunning, what I really want most is to draw. To expand my visual vocabulary. For my hand to be more in touch with what I see and what I want to express. A drawing a day would do it.
Still, it’s hard to fit that in, hard to be the observer instead of the doer.
This year, I learned about The Sketchbook Project, where you sign up to participate by receiving and filling a blank “moleskine” type of sketchbook, which then goes to sketchbook library in Brooklyn, and potentially on display. Yes, it costs a bit to join and needs to be done by a certain date. Hey, we pay tuition for classes. Since this seemed like a good way to force myself into a habit, I gladly signed up.
Receiving the sketchbook was a bit of a disappointment. Such thin cardboard covers. There’s no reason why participants can’t deconstruct the book, and insert new pages, as long as the size conforms to the guidelines.
I spent time being intimidated by the empty pages. How to start with a bang, not a wimper. Most of us who draw at all know that only 1 of 10 drawings is any good though all have something to teach or can jog our memories as to place and locations. Starting a new sketchbook meant for others was definitely intimidating. My solution? start in the middle. Add pages randomly, numbered as Page 1, Page 2, etc. That seems to be working. Other solution? Use three sketchbooks- my regular journal one, my larger pad, and the Sketchbook Project one. Start my day in one, and migrate to the others. Copy and collage when needed. It’s starting to happen.
I’m also adopting some techniques about holding a brush and using washes that I learned in a Chinese Painting class, with a teacher from China who spoke no English and his interpreter, who was hard to understand. We sat in a basement and drew symbolic landscape on a beautiful spring day. Ironic, but the techniques have truly been useful.
I haven’t done enough yet to really have an effect on my paintings and prints on fabrics, but that should come. For now, it’s a rich time of year to draw outside, to see potential in any view. For really, anything can be made into a drawing, and the most mundane subject matter can be the most interesting. My sketchbook will not be glamorous, but it will be a step in the right direction, for me, made fun by sitting outside – and – simply – drawing.