This post is long, was fun to write, and if you stick around to the very, very, end I’ll explain what the sketch is of.

“I’m a prisoner in my own skirt” — Edith Russell

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.

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Learning how to accept a compliment

'Harvesting Water' Copyright Kate Forman 2004
‘Harvesting Water’ Copyright Kate Forman 2004

A long, long, time ago — when I was deep in the throes of an extremely awkward adolescence — my Aunt Liz gave me the following wise advice: “you better learn how to take a compliment.”

 I don’t remember anymore what prompted her to say that, but I imagine that I was probably melancholy and morose at the time. The words had quite an impact on me — I still think about them. I’m not very melancholy or morose anymore, though I have my moments, I guess we all do, but learning how to take a compliment is still something I’m working on.
 
Maybe it’s a woman thing? Maybe it’s an artist thing? It still amazes me when people like my artwork, and compliment it — especially when they notice and then comment on something I was trying to articulate in a painting but thought I hadn’t expressed successfully — the attention feels like a gift, and often overwhelms me with gratitude.
 
Lately a lot of wonderful things have been happening to me, and learning how to accept good things — and trust the attention to my artwork and the new opportunities it inspires — has been a learning curve.
 
The one I wanted to write about today regards my Australian friend Asta Lander. Asta is an incredibly positive person: she channels her creativity — expressed visually and via writing — for personal health and good, but also for the “greater good,” specifically human rights and women’s rights issues. For some perspective on her thought processes you can check out her blog
 
She’s inspired me — and displayed never-ending faith in me, even when I dropped the ball the first time we discussed collaborating on a project together. Her kindness, and compliments to my artwork, are bolstering — but it took me a while to know how to accept it.
 
Accepting that my artwork is reaching someone also means accepting that I’m being seen — art can be used to hide behind after all, and there’s something comforting in that, though stifling (did I mention that my moody adolescence was spent scowling over intricate notebook drawings…and not math homework?) Being seen is liberating, and a little scary: someone saying “I love your artwork, lets…” means that pipe dreams become real, and so does the effort.
 
I mentioned in a recent post that Australia has been very good to me — and that I’m learning to trust that goodness and the paths it seems to be leading me on. My vagueness around my collaboration with Asta is intentional, I’ll write more on our project when we’re more underway…but for now I wanted to give a clear, and seen, statement out to her, and to the universe — thanks for the compliments!

Keep kissing those (artistic) frogs

'Behind the scenes' Copyright Kate Forman 2006

‘Behind the scenes’ Copyright Kate Forman 2006

 This weekend was my beautiful god-daughter Jenna’s first communion. It was a blast: she looked like a wee princess, and kept her tiara on long after her pretty white dress and hand-knitted shawl came off. There was a lot of dancing among the young guests, but Jenna’s younger brother, Scott, my Godson, and I took some time to look through his sketchbook.

Scott is an amazing artist and he keeps an almost daily sketchbook. It’s awesome and filled with pictures of his imagination, including a castle he designed for his sister (what princess wouldn’t want a pink castle with a purple slide as the exit door?) and a cool green frog waving from  a cool turquoise lily pad.

Which brings me to the point of this blog: Scott’s self acceptance, and how all of us other keepers of sketchbooks and similar collections of dreams and ideas could learn a lot from it.

You see: the frog drawing, as compared to some other sketchbook pages, was, well, a little rough. Please understand, I’m not dissing Scott’s artistic talent, he’s WAY ahead of where most 5 year olds are developmentally. It’s just, the wave was a little off, and the posture on the lily pad was just a smidge un-frog like. On top of that, Scott’s name — drawn over the frog — had been crossed out in blue crayon, and the whole page had been ripped out of the book, and then stuck back in.

So I asked Scott what was up, and this is how he explained it to me: first he wrote his name, but then he didn’t like where it was, so he crossed it out, and then he thought he didn’t like the way the frog looked, so he ripped it out, but after a little bit he realized that he liked the drawing just the way it was, so he put it back in.

That’s all folks.

No breast-beating or loathing self-doubt, no torturous self talk or avoidance of sharing. Just an open, confident, loving ability to edit, and accept, with a healthy dose of matter-of-factness.

To top it all off, when I praised Scott for his truly wonderful drawings he very seriously looked me in the eyes and said: “yes, I am a great artist.”

Now I know I’m biased, he’s my Godson after all, but I really think he’s brilliant. So, the next time I’m painting and berating, or resenting a revision, or shrinking from self-promotion I’m going to keep young Mr. Scott in mind, and dial down the neurosis and up the acceptance.

To that end: I never liked the illustration that accompanys this blog. I still see it’s faults, but today I also reminded myself that I painted it while I was working 40+ hours a week, and operating on way too little sleep. It was an illustration for a children’s magazine, and a perfect fit for the article. There are things about it that I learned from, and wouldn’t repeat today, but I still really love the make-up guy — I painted him with greatness.

Hanna, fairy tales, fear and art

"Girl with Ladybug Skirt"

'Girl with Ladybug Skirt' Kate Forman Copyright 2005

This weekend I saw the movie Hanna. LOVED it. Loved everything about it: Saoirse Ronan’s mug, the soundtrack, the spunky best friend, and all of the fairy tale references and imagery. Mostly, though, I loved that it focused on a 16 year old girl who’s major problems in life weren’t a cute boy at school, a wardrobe malfunction, or an un-realistic curfew. Hanna fights for her life — and in that way the movie comes closer to an actual fairy tale than most that revolve around a young female.

‘Hanna’ made me think about a used book-store gem of mine: Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.‘  He asserts many interesting claims, but mainly that our sanitized approach to children’s stories in modern times (1976 for him) cripples their greatest value: the fear. It’s the heros’ and heroines’ fear and fight for survival that makes the story valuable, and any watering down of it, he states, doesn’t allow the reader, often a child, the valuable opportunity of imagining themselves in the same situation. By leaving fairy tales scary and dark, as opposed to Disney-fied, a child can confront their own dark fears and grow.

Bruno Bettelheim was a complex man who may have bought into his own mythology too much, and therefore leaves a controversial legacy, but I like that he embraces fear and darkness in fairytales. Art should provoke and inspire, especially if it taps into what we’re most afraid of. It’s not the axe wielding masked maniac in our closet: it’s our potential. That’s what really scares the crap out of us.

I know it scares me, and it took me a long time to realize that it was fear that kept me from making art. Many things helped me name it, including an amazing book that my even more amazing sister gave me: Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ArtMaking,’ by David Bayles & Ted Orland.

The book, and years of wrestling, allowed me to confront the fear that I wasn’t good enough for the art: that I didn’t have a right to take time to paint, or assert to the world that I was an artist. That somehow ART was bigger than me, and who was I to claim it, and what would happen to me if I did.

Every time an artist comes to their art making place, they create a fairy tale. They confront their existence, their hands, their creativity, all crippling judgement has to be conquered and slayed: a giant critical dragon that stands in the way of allowing the artist space and time to just be.

So, with my own soundtrack, and with my own vocabulary of fantastical imagery: I’m off to slay the dragon — it’s time to paint.