At a recent writing workshop the presenter made the distinction between public writing and private writing. Thinking about this distinction is helping me to think about writing a blog versus keeping a journal. I have been writing journals for years and have over 250 volumes, mostly labeled, and shelved in my front sunporch. All my work begins in my journals–my rough ideas, my rough drafts, sketches that become my panoramic watercolors, the sketches that became the illustrations for The Robin Makes A Laughing Sound: A Birder’s Observations. My journal is where I have conversations with myself, sorting out ideas, priorities, organizing my life. What do I want my blog to be? I titled it HOME SCHOOL MFA because if I’m not in the process of learning, I get bored and withdraw. My journal is a center for learning, I suppose it is the textbook or maybe better, the homework, for my HSMFA. I don’t want my blog to replace or even copy my journal. My journals are private, written for me, uncensored, unedited, the raw material for my art, my writing, my days. My blog is public writing, ideas, images I want to share with anyone who is interested. This is a place where, in the words of Austin Kleon, I can “Show my work.”
Reading Nikki Grimes:
The Watcher: Inspired by Psalm 121
Written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, MI
48 pages, counting the pasted down side of the end papers
The Romare Bearden inspired illustrations were done in paint and collage.
This book is an example of the “golden shovel” form of poetry, where a poem is composed by using a line of already existing poetry, in this case, the 121st Psalm, to provide the last word of each line of the new poem. Nikki Grimes provides an explanation in the end matter. Not only is her own poetry achingly beautiful, but she has provided a challenging, yet accessible way to compose one’s own poetry.
The book is unapologetically religious in tone—a child is guided by their understanding of God to solve a problem at school and make a new friend—and the sentiments are inclusively ecumenical.
Words with Wings
Written by Nikki Grimes
Wordsong, an imprint of Highlights, Honesdale, PA
A novel, ideal for middle grade, told in a sequence of poetry—this is a story about a young girl who struggles to contain her daydreaming and to learn to focus her imagination appropriately without losing her individuality. An understanding teacher is inspired by this student to incorporate daydreaming into the curriculum to foster creative writing by his students. Her mother recognizes the girl’s talent at writing when the girl begins to write her daydreams down. The poetic format means that the book is very readable, and while it is 84 pages long, it is not a dense book; each page has lots of white space and several different typefaces are used to differentiate narrative from daydreaming. The reader is able to experience the blossoming of a young poet.
Revisiting another favorite poet—
unBEElievables: honeybee poems and paintings
written and illustrated by Douglas Florian
Beach Lane Books, New York
32 pages, not counting end papers
In his usual format, each spread presents a poem and a typical (and wonderful) illustration by Douglas Florian. The illustrations are created with gouache, colored pencil, and collage on primed paper bags. (I also see stamps or stencils in the lettering on the illustrated pages.) The palette is appropriate to bees, with bright golden yellow with touches of black, and also to wild flowers with greens, pinks, oranges, and reds. I can see the folds and overlapping paper of the bags under the background paint—a scaffolding that I find very intriguing. The illustrations are delightfully child-friendly as is the word-play in the poems. Each spread also includes facts about honeybees and bee-keeping, including the alarming mystery of hive collapse and diminishing bee populations. The last page includes a “BEEbliography” and several websites for further research.
My husband and I have been doing a lot of traveling since he retired. I love to travel–I’ll go almost anywhere. Chuck does most of the planning and has lists of hundreds of destinations he’d like to see. All this travel does, however, wreak havoc with my work, both writing and art. I gain all kinds of inspiration–story ideas, interesting characters, amazing possible settings, and lots more. I gather images through sketching and snapshots. But before I am able to process these ideas and get them down on paper, outside of my journal, we are off again, and I’m inundated with more images, more ideas. The challenge for me is to find a way to work that is flexible and portable. My journal acts as a miniature, mobile studio. I can develop story ideas in my journal. But ultimately, I need a way to develop my art ideas while we are on the road.
Here are two studies of chipping sparrows based on sketches out of my journal. I’m thinking of this project as “Birds of My World.” When we travel, I sketch the birds wherever we are. I have been intending to work from these sketches, to create my own sort of portfolio/field guide of the birds I see traveling. Now I think I can bring the tools I need to create these collage-drawings on the road. When we get home I can continue to fill out my own bird portfolio.
The paper I am using is Strathmore 400 series drawing paper. The spiral pads come in several sizes, which will allow me to put larger birds on larger sheets of paper. This size, 9″ x 12″, is easy to pack when I travel, and I use found papers and maps salvaged from the location I am in for the collage. The largest pad is 18″ x 24″, too big to transport easily, but handy for larger birds like penguins and gulls. I can work on these in my studio once I get home.
I have several goals for this project. One is to create my own “field guide” to the birds I have seen in Africa, South America, Antarctica, anywhere I’ve been lucky enough to travel. I hope that the process of drawing and studying these birds will re-enforce my ability to recognize them and identify them in the field. Another goal is to explore the combination of collage and drawing, to become more free with the materials.
In the end, I will be creating my own portfolio, inspired by Audubon, to help me learn to know the birds of my world.
I recently was on a Roads Scholar Tour, The Best of Costa Rica. It was a great trip with great people. The weather, however, was not great. Who knew it rained in the rainforest? And by rain, I mean deluge. I never did use the paints I carried with me everywhere. Our clothes wouldn’t dry and neither would my Journal pages. I’ve been stymied lately by a journal that looks great but is not conducive to work in
The thirsty paper sucks ink from my pen, bleeds through to the next page, does not take paint well, and takes forever to dry. I can’t wait to be done with this book and get on to a new and more inviting one. Am I blaming the materials for my lack of energy? Or does it really make a difference to work in a different journal with pages that give ease to my writing and that take paint well? Was I seduced by the charming latch on the leather cover? Was I fooled into thinking this was the handmade paper I’ve loved working on before? Or was it just the rain in the rainforest?
Learning to post from my phone. I’d rather use paper and pen but we all must embrace the advances of technology. This way I’ll be able to post about our upcoming travels. Costa Rica here I come—always a warrior for my art even when I’m on the road.
I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in Painting and Drawing the same month my older son graduated from high school. I got myself a studio in Oak Park, where I live, and began to explore life after art school.
I applied for a fellowship grant based on my BFA project, The Moon Project. I submitted drawings made in the Oak Park Conservatory to a contest run by Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory. And I applied to the Illinois Arts Council to be a visiting artist in the Chicago Public Schools. I was turned down all three times. It was hard to be rejected three times in quick succession. A real blow to the ego. I don’t think that had ever happened to me before. I had always been an excellent student. I felt like crawling into bed and giving it all up. Instead I told myself, “It’s character-building time.” And I continued to work at my art, on my own, in my studio. And I did have a few successes. Several of my pieces sold out of the gallery attached to the space where I had my studio. I got positive feedback on my work from the potters who rented space in the same building. I approached a new gallery owner in the small New Hampshire town where I spend part of every summer, and she accepted my early panoramic watercolors. And I was invited by the Oak Park Education Foundation to be an artist in the newly created Art Start program, that paired a working artist with a classroom to present 4 workshops designed by the artist and teacher to enhance some aspect of the class’s studies. My first classroom was a 2d grade classroom and the unit I tied into was “Birds.”
Four years after I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in Drawing and Painting, I asked three of my favorite teachers what an MFA degree would do for me that I couldn’t do for myself.
Susan Kraut’s answer was that most people went for an MFA to get to where I already was, a working artist with a studio of one’s own. “Unless you want to teach,” she added. “Then you need an MFA.” I did not want to teach on a full-time or regular basis.
Richard Deutsch countered my question with one of his own–was I satisfied with my studio practice? If not, then what was missing? He suggested that I could always take a course as a student-at-large to fill in gaps I felt in my training. Unless I wanted to teach? I did not.
Richard Rezac was the last teacher I approached. I’ve often found his art difficult to access–the references are obscure or personal or abstract, the forms carefully chosen and unexpected at the same time. And every time I’ve asked him for advice he has been amazingly concrete and helpful. Once we got the “Do you want to teach?” question out of the way he said, “I’ll give you the advice that I didn’t take–save your tuition money and travel with a purpose.”
This advice really resonated with me and was the beginning of what I often refer to as my “home-school MFA.” I asked Richard to be more specific about “travel with a purpose.” I suggested a show of Titan work in the National Gallery in London as an example. He described how he would plan his itinerary, going to the show his first day in London. Doing some research before his trip to find out what else was showing in galleries or museums and spending a day or two exploring this art. Then he suggested returning to the Titian show before departing. A three or four day trip to London to see art.
He also suggested I read widely, go to lectures, ask questions. I asked him what besides art he did for fun and he looked sort of sheepish and admitted that he doesn’t do non-art related things. I’m not sure that’s true, since I’ve bumped into him on his way to the symphony, but he has always seemed dedicated to art the way a monk is dedicated.
It’s been over fifteen years since I quizzed my teachers. I would not say I’ve attained my degree yet–it’s always a work in progress.
I still have my studio and I think of Richard Deutsch talking about the importance of just showing up, logging the time. I have a time clock in my studio to remind me to log the time.
I have taken workshops and attended lectures. And I’ve traveled a lot. Not always as purposefully as the theoretical London trip that Richard Rezac laid out, but I search out opportunities to see art wherever I go.