In the children’s area of our local Louisiana library
an armful of this week’s haul of crinkly books.
Explaining, to the appalled assembled parentage of
Madison, Ellie, Aubrey,
Brok, Brendan, Holly and Bree,
why my three year old
zebra print bow gathered up in her curls
has just leaned forward
comfortable on the blue plastic couch
to cup her hands around her mouth and clearly shout:
“Mom, did you get any books with the naked people in it?”
“It’s Eric Carle,” I say
to the suspicious mommy grandma big sister faces
“one of his books, ‘Draw me a star.”
But by the time I’ve described the artist as an analogy for God
I realize I never should have explained to begin with.
Who can explain the point, or the pulchritude, of a picture book.
There is nothing to defend, there is nothing to do but
stack up the books on top of the stroller
16 month old strapped back in below the dangerous tower of words
three year old galloping ahead to the circulation desk
shelves of books waiting their turn.
Let me tell you about some of my strengths as a mother:
- I excel at getting toddlers to eat vegetables. This is mainly due to the fact that I love vegetables, and my enthusiasm is catching, and also because I have some amazing recipes in my arsenal, including a recipe for Bim Bim Bap from the amazing book ‘Hungry Monkey.’ I tweak the recipe by using no table sugar, and more fruit for the marinade and I use any ole veggies I want and, voila: a toddler who eats — with delight — cabbage, snow peas, carrots and trees (broccoli.)
- I’m great at singing songs with my little girls, not because I have a great voice — but maybe because I don’t. Singing is just fun, I really enjoy it and so even on days that are otherwise difficult the three of us will be rocking out for at least some part of it. My little bean is 9 months old and automatically looks up when LuLu and I start singing ‘Great big stars’ because not only do we sing, we put on QUITE the performance.
- I’m, quite frankly, amazing at sharing gardening and other old world-esque skills with my little girls. Lulu can dead head a marigold and pull it apart to spread some seeds around, she knows that roses love banana peels, and that lavender and rosemary smell delicious. Also, nary a meal out goes by without Lulu sprinkling some salt onto her right hand and then throwing it over her left shoulder. I taught her that. Safety first, as it were, and I look forward to passing on all that and more to Miss Bean.
I could go on, but I don’t want anyone feeling bad at their inability to, oh, effectively extricate a cranky little girl from the playground with as little drama as possible vis a vis my impressive ability to make up silly rhymes on the spot. Also, what I’d like to get to is my huge, yawning, aching and horrifying deficit as a parent:
I CANNOT CONSISTENTLY GET THESE GIRLS TO NAP.
I mean, really.
There should have been a class, but I probably would have failed. And, yes, I’d love to read that book that worked so well for you…but when, exactly, does one find the time to read? (Honestly, too, parenting books give me anxiety — unless they’re about food or the incredibly reassuring ‘Baby meets world’ book that I think should be handed out at the first ultra sound…especially the part about breast feeding.)
So, I typed this while breast feeding because Bean decided twenty minutes of shut eye was all she needed today (it wasn’t, she’s miserable.) I probably won’t paint today, which is aggravating, but I’m trying to keep a stiff upper lip about it all. I know it will get better, LuLu does actually nap pretty well most of the time now, and gets through the night too — which I never would have believed was possible, so, fingers crossed that Miss Bean comes around sooner than later.
Oh, much, much, sooner than later.
*Throwing salt over shoulder*
A former co-worker of mine recently sent me this fantastic article about an artist with down syndrome, her art reminded him of a former client of ours. It’s not a very long read, but it is empathic and inspiring. It touches on the therapeutic use of art in clinical settings, and the use of art to serve the individual art maker — two things I’m very interested in. The article doesn’t specifically mention the use of art therapy, but it does provide a nice snap shot of how powerfully therapeutic art can be amongst populations that are often misunderstood and underestimated. In addition, it eloquently illustrates the potential power of art to support our greatest personal image: “She also found respect and deference as her talent blossomed.” Ah, what a sentence. What a goal for art making. What a reason to make art.
This week I’m trying to go Christmas shopping, and get out our Christmas cards, and convince my little ladies that naps are necessary every day, and, in the case of my little bean, should be enjoyed more than once a day. I haven’t left myself much time for art making, but I’ve still got my magic sketchbook, and a few quick sketches here and there are making me feel good. Specifically, I’m working on some hand-drawn font, and I’m drawing bicycles. I’ve been intimidated by bike drawing my entire drawing life — I’ve actually creatively avoided it in illustration assignments. Bikes beguiled me, but lately I started thinking of a painting that I’d like to do, and it requires a bike. So, I went on line and found a few “this is how to draw a bike” tutorials. As it turns out, I LOVE drawing bikes. Spirals and movement, line and balance — it’s all there. I should have gotten in touch with my inner bike drawer a long time ago.
I hope your Thanksgiving (if you celebrated it) was absolutely lovely — warm and nourishing. And that your holiday season is filled with light, and that you’ve also been doing things that wrap you in joy.
This week I had some lofty painting goals. And then we all got sick.
My toddler, Lulu, attends a very sweet, play based, school program twice a week. When I picked her up on Tuesday her teachers warned me “she was the only one not coughing today…” Sigh.
So, now we all have it — the general malaise of short people germs, resplendent in yucky and gunky, and short on sleep. The baby, my little bean, has it the worst, as if teething wasn’t enough for her already.
The beguiling thing about a sick toddler is that, unless they are really sick, the illness can bring on a manic level of energy. As the sick mama all I want to do is slurp soup and watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and feel sorry for myself, but Miss Lulu wants to (figuratively) swing from the chandeliers.
What to do?
Typically our at home activities include painting, but as our usual mode of painting needs a certain exertion of energy in set up and clean up I presented LuLu with the tissue paper painting option.
Tissue paper painting is one of my favorite artistic tools. It can be used as a meditation device, or it can be appreciated for it’s hedonistic amounts of sensual enjoyment. It’s an intervention I used regularly as an art therapist and while I did, on rare occasion, meet a client who didn’t delight in the process, for the most part I think it’s a balm for all wounds, across all populations.
Tissue paper painting requires the following supplies:
- Tissue paper
- Elmer’s glue (or any glue similarly non toxic and easily washable)
- Paper (as high or as low brow as you want to go, I’ll explain more below.)
- A cup/bowl
- A brush, anything that can carry a water based solution, width at the artist’s discretion
There are two types of tissue paper: the kind that bleeds (the colors ‘run,’) and the kind that does not. If you look at Lulu’s painting you can see some blue, that is the dye leftover from the piece of tissue paper she first put down, but then subsequently removed. If you buy tissue paper at a craft or art store it will often be labeled as bleeding or non, I recommend the kind that bleeds — it’s more painterly, and part of the magic of tissue paper painting is how much work the medium does on it’s own — there’s a certain loss of control on your end, but if you don’t like that and want as much control as possible than the non-bleeding sort might be more up your alley. (Hoarding the tissue paper that comes with gifts and rolling the dice as to whether it will bleed or not is also a nice devil may care way to go about things.)
The glue is mixed with water, enough water to make the painting fluid, but not so much water that the tissue paper doesn’t adhere to the surface. Approximately a 30/70 or 40/60 glue to water ratio. If you want to get super zen about things you can just use water: some of the dye might run, but once the water dries up the tissue paper will slide off the paper and your art work will have been about living in the moment. The usual process is to put down the tissue paper where you’d like, and then coat each piece with the glue mixture. Today, though, Lulu painted the whole paper in the gluey water and then put down her tissue paper. It was one of those hand to head smacking ah-ha moments. It’s a much more immediate process that way, less control, of course, and I wish I’d known of that technique when I was working as an art therapist with the geriatric population. Toddlers, truly the best innovative artists around.
As for the paper, heavy stock water color paper is heavenly, and you can get super precise about things and tape down your edges so that the water doesn’t buckle the paper. Alternatively, any paper or cardboard with a coated surface is nice and celebrates the fluidity of this process, but, truthfully, there really isn’t a wrong paper to work with. As Lulu is a very prolific artist I tend to collect all sorts of paper and up cycle them into her works of art. The paper she used today was 8×11 office paper my husband had previously printed with a typo.
There is a lot more I could say about tissue paper painting, I could go on and on actually, but I’ll just quickly say that I prefer tearing the paper into shapes as opposed to cutting it, but adolescents, in particular, often got into cutting out letters/shapes and gluing them down, and that you can be a tissue paper purist, or you can incorporate anything else glue-able: glitter, beads, shells, collage, or — as you can see above — the odd popsicle stick. Dried tissue paper paintings done on thin paper and hung in a sunny window take on a stained glass effect, and layers and layers of tissue paper and glue become effortlessly organic. I’m not surprised that Lulu named hers “The Flowers,” somehow this process moves away from it’s store bought origins and gets quickly earthy, in the best possible way. When I would paint along with my clients I would inevitably layer blues and greens together — it felt especially soothing — and almost every group agreed that my finished product looked like the ocean, and so one day I intentionally choose reds and oranges and when it was all done a client observed that it looked like the sun setting on the ocean, it’s just that soulful of a way of creating art that I think it brings out our primal identifications with nature. (No, seriously, check out the cool water marks left in Lulu’s tissue paper and tell me that doesn’t seem like the relief of a fossil?)
If you do delve into this process I would LOVE to know your reactions to it. Meanwhile, I’m off to make a cuppa peppermint tea. Stay healthy, soulful artists, stay healthy.
Let me start this post off by saying that I did not steal the sketchbook that I am currently using. Not exactly. A better way to explain what happened is that I think the sketchbook choose me.
I was working as an art therapist for a well-known mental health agency, itself a smaller branch of a much larger national chain you’d recognize if I mentioned it here. So I won’t. When I started working there the art room was a hot mess. Now, I pride myself on a tightly run ship of an art room, and during my cleaning and reorganizing I found the sketchbook. It’s very pretty, it was made in Nepal, has flowers stitched on the front cover and it’s inside papers are soft and beautifully pulpy. Over the course of the next three years that I worked there I periodically put it out during my groups, but no one ever took me up on the offer to use it.
Towards the end of my tenure there the agency, like almost all other outpatient mental health programs in New York , began a conversion to a new state mandated system referred to as PROS. If you have ever worked anywhere that has ever undergone a complete philosophic and practical overhaul based on the opinions of experts that have never actually worked in the field they are experts in, you are already groaning. If you have not, and would like to know what all the groaning is about, simply grab a friend and head into your kitchen. Instruct your friend to intone, ceaselessly, “NO, not that bag of peas, the peas on the left, NO not the bag of peas on the left, the bag of peas, grab the peas on the left. NO, not the peas on the left, grab the peas on the left,” whilst you open and shut the freezer door on your head. That is, a little, what the process is like. For an even more authentic experience, complete follow-up paper work documenting the experience, know that for the purposes of your paperwork that “peas” refers to “rutabaga,” and, also, please refrain from using the word “rutabaga” in your notes, or the words “freezer,” “open,” or “shut.” Please try to be as detailed and specific as possible. Make three copies.
I digress. I thought, during that awful, horrible, conversion that I would use the pretty sketchbook to take notes during the approximately 5,000 meetings a week we were required to attend, or that, at the least, I would use it to doodle in as a defense of my sanity while paragraphs that began with “11(j) SEE NYSDOMH form 12.33k-z” were read out loud, and I did take a few desultory notes and make a few painfully self-conscious doodles, but the book was too pretty, and I felt bad exposing it to such torture.
So, back in the art room it went. But, I was pregnant, and very sure that the new program wasn’t a good fit for me, and knew that my husband was being transferred out-of-state soon after our baby was expected, so I put my notice in with the agency, said goodbye to some really good people, packed up the personal flotsam I’d acquired, cried at my goodbye party, and went home. Somehow, I really don’t know how, the sketchbook came with me.
Shortly after that my first daughter was born, very shortly after that we moved to Massachusetts, sometime after that my second daughter was born, and practically right after that we moved to Louisiana, and the sketchbook came with us. This is quite remarkable. Packing and preparing for moves brings out a side to my personality that I wish I was able to tap into more regularly: I become a lean, mean, throwing out/donating machine. I get rid of loads of stuff while preparing for a move, and during the ensuing unpacking I bemoan how much stuff came with us anyway, and throw out more. At least four times the sketchbook sat on top of a “get rid of this” pile, and each time it escaped.
A few months ago I got back into the habit of keeping a sketchbook, I knew I had to. I’m healthier when I can make some art, and I function better as a Mom. There it was, waiting for me: the perfect sketchbook. Everything works well in this sketchbook. Pen, ink, charcoal and pencil all flow beautifully on the textured paper, the natural color of the pages gives immediate tone to what I’ve drawn, and the book feels good in my hands — sometimes my daughters run their hands over the cover, or the pages, and my toddler delights in picking out my self portraits with her and her sister. I look at it often and can’t believe that I almost got rid of it, days that I don’t have time to draw I like seeing it on my table, it’s become a talisman for me, we are a perfect fit.
One more funny thing about this little sketchbook of mine: I swear, it was empty when I found it. And, I swear, that when I tried using it at work I flipped through its pages several times and always noticed that it was empty. But a few weeks ago I sat down with it at the end of the day, I was too tired to draw, I just wanted to look at some sketches, I opened it all the way to the back cover and there written in a beautiful script that was not my own was the following: “I am a prisoner in my own skirt.” — Edith Russell
If you follow that link you’ll learn, as I did, that Edith Russell was a survivor of the Titanic, but that she almost didn’t make it into the lifeboat due to the constrictive nature of her very fashionable skirt. More importantly, what a quote! What a chance to reflect on the self-imposed constraints we place in our lives, roadblocks to the happiness we so desperately want. How many times have I sabotaged a chance to really, truly, get what I want out of life? Oh, tons, tons and tons of times. That whole time I was working at that agency, for instance…ah, but that’s another post, this one has gone on long enough as it is. So, I drew Ms. Russell. Apparently she didn’t die very happily, although she did continue to live an extraordinary life. Oddly, I think I look a little like her, and I’ve got more to say on the way that making art starts connecting the artist to odd facets of the universe, but I’m saving that for another post too — and I’m hoping I might get some feedback about other practices that draw folks into magical moments of kismet. Meanwhile, thank you so much for indulging me, if you’ve gotten this far. I’m quite enraptured with this little magical sketchbook of mine, and this post was fun to write.
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” — Zora Neale Hurston
Isn’t that an amazing quote? I came across it in a book I’m reading: ‘Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy’ by Sarah Ban Breathnach. It was a gift from a friend who is fortunate to have a gem of a used bookstore in her neighborhood. I’m fortunate to have her as a friend, among her many strong points is a penchant for generous and thoughtful gift giving. She gave me the book two years ago, but I only just started reading it. I’ve had this experience before, of having a book in my reading periphery for a while, and then finally cracking it open to discover that it is exactly the book I was hungry for in that moment. That’s how I felt when I read that quote by Ms. Hurston, I was so hungry for that sentiment of timing and patience, I practically licked the line off the page.
Somehow, I never read Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their eyes were watching God’ during my education. It’s a mixed blessing: I’m sure I would have benefited from reading that book at any point in my life, but it was delicious to read it for the first time in my thirties. If you haven’t read that book yet then I have to tell you: you should probably stop what you’re doing right now (yup, stop reading this) and go out and buy/borrow that book. You can come back and read this later, no thanks necessary — I’ll just be happy to know that more people are walking around with that book informing their souls. And then, there’s that quote above. So simple, so profound, so kind and generous, so perfect for me right just now in this moment.
Hence, my sketch painting of the beautiful Ms. Hurston. The link on the book title shows one of her portraits, it’s one of the (approximately) eight I sketched from to make the above painting. Drawing from photographs on the web is a tricky business. Importantly, it is never a good idea (unless just for personal edification) to do a strict copy — any illustrator who draws exactly from a photograph and then uses that created image for monetary or professional gain is guilty of copyright infringement (unless, of course, they’ve previously worked out a mutually agreed upon usage contract with the original photographer.)
In addition, there’s the issue of authenticity. A photograph is also an artistic image, not the original person. This is so last century (or maybe two centuries back? Photographers?) to dither about, but a photograph inherently changes the subject. So, as an artist, it’s important to recognize that attempting to draw a figure out of history based on photographs is several steps removed from it’s source. Who knows what Zora Neale Hurston really looked like (away from the self-conscious imposing view of the camera?) Who knows if Ms. Hurston liked the assembly of photographs on the web, or if she felt they accurately represented her? My answer to all of this is to sketch from several different sources, and then imbue (hopefully) my drawing with my own emotional reaction to Zora Neale Hurston as I understand her, resulting in an original work that is reasonably recognizable as a portrait. And what would Ms. Hurston think about THAT? Ah, if only I knew…
Here’s what I do know, though, I’m quite proud of this little sketch painting. It’s finished, it happened relatively quickly — largely around nap and bedtime, it felt good to do, and now it feels good to look at. I like how loose I was with it, I was more focused on process instead of product, and I’m thinking that’s the only way I’m going to get any painting done. Also, I really like that I painted this in my charming little sketchbook, it’s contributing to the increasing chunky texture of the book — always a sign that art is being made, and a way of answering back.
A few weeks ago my little ladies and I were visiting the local library, as we often do. Vera B. William’s wonderful ‘A Chair for my Mother’ was one of the books the children’s librarian had displayed on top of the stack and I excitedly pulled it down and said to Lulu, “Lulu, Mommy used to work for the lady who made this book!” And Lulu said “Next, we go to the playground?” And that concluded my name dropping for the day.
When I was in my twenties I had the very good fortune to be an occasional studio assistant to the amazing Children’s book illustrator and author Vera B. Williams. Vera is pretty much as you imagine her: she has beautiful white hair, crinkly eyes, a perfectly raspy perfect Bronx accent, a strict policy of wearing skirts in the rain, and an ever present joie de vivre. Vera’s books are beautiful and very real. The kids in her books grapple with things that real kids do: poverty, imperfect adults, life’s ups, and downs, good days and bad days. However, there isn’t anything depressing about Vera’s work. Life is worth living, despite all it’s twists and turns, and Vera’s kids live life to the fullest, minus any smarmy sugar coating.
One conversation, among the many interesting ones I was lucky to have with her, stands out in my mind, and is something I’ve reflected on ever since becoming a Mom. We were eating lunch and Vera mentioned that she’d been given a gift certificate to a cooking class, and then she laughed, and said that when she was home with her kids cooking had been one way to be artistic, but that now that she was working as a full time artist she rarely cooked anymore. I’m paraphrasing liberally, it was a long time ago, but I remember her listing some of the other ways she used to be artistic while she was raising her children, and I remember her acknowledging that she didn’t do much of those types of things anymore now that she was able to paint and write on her own schedule.
I remember being surprised, at the time I was walking around with the “all of a piece” quote from Anna Karenina written in my address book, and my number one aspiration was to have everything in my life in one piece too: I wanted jobs, friends, a place to live, and a lifestyle that all moved cohesively in one socially conscious and artistic direction. The notion that the successful artist in front of me had ever not been completely put together and succinctly goal oriented was difficult to wrap my mind around. I was very young, and so thought I was very old, and had difficulty recognizing that life doubles around on itself, sometimes, and that, sometimes, the winding path, with plenty of rests, is the most productive.
Now, with two small halloween costumes draped over my art desk, along with an unfinished sketch, and finger paintings drying on the kitchen table, and jack o lanterns that still have to be carved, I take great comfort in that conversation with Vera. It was a gift, and there’s a reason I kept it tucked away in my mind. Someday soon, far sooner than I can imagine now, these little people will all be grown up and I’ll have more time to paint, but, for now, there are crinkly library books to read, sticks and leaves to collect, and small, pudgy, fists determined to have their moment at this keyboard too.
My current catch-22: I think, “I should really write a new post and get back into the swing of things, it’s been so long, too long.” And then I think, “But I should explain, I should rationalize, I should set new realistic goals. I shouldn’t just pop in a post all of a sudden, it’s been too long!” So then, having thoroughly shoulded all over myself, I do nothing. The time with no post yawns wider, and becomes even more of a reason that just popping in a post isn’t an option.
Meanwhile, there’s so much to write about. My new baby girl! A new move around the country. Newer adventures in mommy-artistry. New art, but different. New inspirations, some surprising. And new realizations that communicating through writing and art inspires me and keeps me healthy, and that even if I can only do a little bit right now it’s just the right amount.
So, I started thinking of my favorite Toni Morrison quote. When asked why she started writing Toni Morrison said “I wrote the book I wanted to read.” And that’s what this post is, the post I’d like to read — an acknowledgement that it is difficult to get art done and raise two gorgeous wee girls, and be present in this family as a wife and mother and person. I would like to read a blog post by a Mom who says, hey, look, I’m an artist, and I’ve got these great kids, and amazing husband, and friends and family and all the rest, and I’m just trying to figure it all out and also, oh yea, this is what I painted and how and why. And, quite frankly, I wouldn’t need to read a self denigrating, or aggrandizing, list of all the reasons she hadn’t recently posted — I would just want to know more of how all the pieces were currently fitting together.
So: I’m just popping this out there.
And I’ll be back real soon.