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.
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.