Does Your Work Matter?

I frequently find myself questioning the worth of my creative endeavors.  It’s like being on a tight rope and then making the mistake of looking down and then falling.  Truly am my own worst critic.

Today I received a gift via Austin Kleon’s newsletter in my inbox to help counter those doubts.  Thank you, Austin for posting these wonderful words of wisdom from Martha Graham…

A story about meeting choreographer Martha Graham for a soda, as told by Agnes de Mille in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be”.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

Ok..let’s get on with it then!

“The Art of Noticing” a Book

Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.  Mary Oliver

I notice small things.  This probably started when I started birding and identifying plants in college.  Little brown birds become wrens, those spikey white flowers in a bog become bog orchids, rocks in a canyon tell stories.

As I slow down and notice things around me, the world becomes less chaotic.  When my cell phone is left behind and the portal to insanity shut off I can sit on the porch step and notice the honey bees probing in the flowers of autumn joy sedum and the variety of clouds in the sky.  Noticing helps me to be a more imaginative writer and artist.

A book, The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, recently came to my attention via Austin Kleon’s blog.  I checked it out from the library recently and have been impressed by the plethora of unique activities that will get the novice and experienced noticer into prime form.  Enjoy taking a color walk, documenting odd things from a road trip like gas stations, writing a review of manhole covers or fire hydrants, start drawing, write a field guide to the dogs in your neighborhood, write a poem about the items for sale in the check out line of a store, stop talking and inventory what sounds you hear.

If you need help downshifting into observation mode this book has the tools to do so.  Who needs Facebook and Instagram for entertainment when one knows how to notice?  As a new hardback it’s around $15, or check it out from the library as I did.  Everyday life will become full of new adventures.

Writing Like a Great Horned Owl

photo by Pixabay

photo by Deb Broocks

There was this magnificent great horned owl that lived in the hayloft of the barn, part of the old farmstead that became the Nature Conservancy field station on the Zumwalt Prairie in NE Oregon. A month ago I spent a week there as a participant of the Outpost writing workshop sponsored by Fishtrap, a non-profit writing organization located in Enterprise (see my previous post, Writing the Zumwalt Prairie).

Occasionally we would see this stately bird from its perch at the hayloft’s opening scanning for prey and looking down on us sternly from above.

Owls are unique in that they can rotate their heads 180 degrees in each direction.  Their feathers are constructed in such a way to facilitate silent flight and their eyes are 35 X more sensitive than the human eye needing only 5% of the light we require.  Add to that their extremely acute hearing and you have an extremely adept hunter.

Dissecting owl pellets

Since owls typically swallow their prey whole, they have a daily ritual of regurgitating a tidy package of fur, bones, feathers, and the like into one tidy package known as an owl pellet.  When one dissects an owl pellet you can piece together the skeletons of the small rodents, and birds they consumed.

During our writing circles with our teacher /poet Kim Stafford, he encouraged us to always be paying attention with all our senses as we experienced the prairie around us, being mindful not to disregard the other visitors to our psyche as well.  He stressed to capture those thoughts and inspirations on paper or voice memo before they escaped us- much like the owl and its prey.  These morsels of observation are what feed us as writers.  Kim is never without a small notebook and pen.  I often saw him jotting things down as he went about his day.

To be any kind of creative it is important to pay attention from wherever our perch may be.  Writing, (or sketching)  like an owl is the essence of personal expression.

Writing on the Buckhorn fire lookout

Owl Pellets

 by Alanna Pass

I am learning to write like a great horned owl

I sit on a high perch

so that I may swivel my head in all directions

observing, listening, smelling

for inspirational prey

I leave my perch at a moment’s notice

a presence detected

with a silent swoop I spread my wings

extend my outstretched talons

and snatch my prey before possible escape

I bend head to toes

open my hooked beak, extract this morsel

and swallow it whole

repeating this routine until I feel a blissful sense satisfaction

Then I rest

to coalesce all my inspirational prey into one tidy parcel

until complete

I project my written pellet into the cosmos

to land at the feet of others

with the intention that they may also

experience the wonders, the truths, the inspirations

that I have lovingly collected, digested, and presented

from my perch with a view

art by the author

Writing the Zumwalt Prairie

In the NE corner of Oregon in Wallowa County lies a little visited wonder known as the Zumwalt Prairie. I recently returned from a five day writing workshop in this remote place and still memories swirl in my mind like the prairie wind.

This 330,000 acre bunchgrass prairie remains largely intact as the high elevation averaging 4,000 feet, poor soils, and harsh weather conditions made it unsuitable for the plow. This was a summering ground for the Nez Perce tribe before white settlers and broken treaties ultimately exiled them from their lands. This land is still home to a plethora of wildflowers, elk, deer, badgers, bird, and insect species, many of them threatened.

The Nature Conservancy owns and operates 36,000 acres of this land.  It’s a nature preserve but part of its mission is to work with the local ranchers integrating them with their mission of conservation work which includes biological inventories, ecological monitoring and preserving biodiversity.  It’s a partnership with conservation and private interests.  Careful grazing management is part of the picture.  The Nature Conservancy field station was a farmstead abandoned years ago as the harsh conditions of hot summers, frigid winters, poor soil, and remoteness made it too difficult to farm.

Continue reading “Writing the Zumwalt Prairie”

Crafting a Personal Credo

CREDO

“a statement of the beliefs or aims which guide someone’s actions”.

Over the years I have collected some words of wisdom that have guided me through this adventure we called life.  I decided to finally write them down in a format that was easily accessible.  At first, I considered a small booklet but then I settled on a poster format.  This would serve as a mini “Graffiti Wall” that I could access in an instant

This was a project I did not want to fuss over (avoid perfection, just get ‘er done).  I grabbed a 14” x 11” piece of cardboard, painted a coat of yellow paint over it with a little embellishment, put my cartoon self in the center, and then started writing my words and phrases on the board in different colors and sizes.  There is plenty of room for more guiding principles as this is an ongoing project.  You can never have enough words of wisdom.

I keep this posted in my studio and glance at it now and again.  It keeps me grounded as with my personal mission statement- but that’s a whole different post…

Live by this credo: have a little laugh at life and look around you for happiness instead of sadness. Layughter has always brought me out of unhappy situations.

RedSkelton

The Art of the List

“It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive” 

John Lennon

There’s a grey zone between creative projects, that high of completing something big and the low of “Now what?” 

To ease out of the “what now “ doldrums I find great solace in making lists.  I find them grounding from to-do lists, not-to-do lists, to grocery lists.  I feel better with a rock-solid list.

This go around I decided to make a list of my symbols that I use or would like to use in my imagery and my writing as metaphors or prompts.  Here is my latest list.  Feel free to use any of it you like…

*all visuals in this post are from my daily planner or sketchbook

Stepping Up to a Creative Challenge

Mixed media painting by the author

I needed a large piece of artwork to hang behind our bed- preferably a painting to put the finishing touch on our Covid bedroom remodel.  We started this project wall by wall at the beginning of the lockdownto light up a dark vintage 1940s bedroom in this old farmhouse to something fresh and airy.  Off came the dark blue wallpaper and the remnants of an old brick hearth- something I hated for the 28 years I slept under it.  Now the walls are a lovely light green with white woodwork and new white blinds.  This painting would be the symbol of new beginnings.

I am an artist but not a painter- not my thing. My skills are in printmaking, ceramics, and mixed media. In general I work on a smaller scale than this project required. In my mind’s eye, I had a vision of an abstract painting of a rural farm landscape in cheery colors.  Extensive research online turned up nothing that I liked.  Original art was out of my price range.  That left the task up to me to manifest the painting. 

Often when I am faced with a large creative challenge my first default is procrastination.  That was not an option in this case.  I wanted this room to have closure. So I fleshed out my recipe I’ve used before (which with some revision works for writing projects)…

  1. Vision– what do I see as a finished result?
  2. Concept– what do I want to express?
  3. Reference sources– images for a color palette, design ideas
  4. Proper materials for the project (pull out those 25 year- old acrylic paints)
  5. Timer to keep me on task (essential)

I broke down the project into small steps such as…

  1. Figure out the proper size of the painting
  2. A trip to the art supply store to pick up a cradled (dimensional) artboard of the right dimension.
  3. Another trip to pick up the proper sealer
  4. Apply gesso
  5. Set my trusty timer and paint for an hour straight with no interruptions- no matter how scared I was of screwing up. Keep going– paint until the timer dings.
  6. Repeat the above step over and over until done, make tons of mistakes, and paint over them. Revisit reference material for guidance.

I wish I documented the process to show how muddled the first attempts were but I was too involved with the process and making a mess.

Eventually, I started to find my voice which beckoned me to add familiar media: collage paper, water soluble crayon, colored pencil, paint pen, a little gold leaf to add to the sky, and a few ceramic shards from an old pioneer homestead found closeby.  Then I started to enjoy the process and looked forward to visiting my studio every day.  To get to that point though, I had to push through my insecurities.  In that regard, my timer was my best friend.

The finished piece now hangs in the bedroom.  It may not appeal to the eyes of others but that was not the goal.  I love it. The design represents the landscape around my home. There are details that are personal to me within the piece.  Moreso it represents to me that by pushing through your one’s fears, you can accomplish your goals.  Just start and keep going.

Have a Happy Day (Planner)

Last year I was looking for a daily creative practice that I could stick to.  I was not much of a sketcher or morning pager.  I needed something kind of short and sweet.  Then I noticed the 2’ blank square in my 2020 day planner.  Not much going on there but a few spillovers from my to-do list.  I committed to filling up those square every day with a doodle or something creative.  The ground rules are to use pen and have no judgement on what I come up with.  Spontaneity is key.

Fast forward over a year later- my day planner practice is my creative kick start to the day.  Not only does it get my pen to the paper in a nonthreatening way, I have created an artifact of my life to look back on though this crazy time of Covid and political craziness.  Mostly I create a daily doodle, a weather report, a cartoon, quote, poem or something about my life with words and/or pictures.  It’s been an evolving practice.  Some have become finished pieces, most I don’t appreciate until I look back at them.

This year, 2021 I couldn’t find the same day planner so I made my own.  I purchased a simple blank spiral sketchbook and glued some decorative paper.  I customized it for words of the year and monthly goals and then grid out each week as they come along.  At first I measured but now I just eyeball it letting the lines be as wonky as they want to be for interest.

My planner is now less about what I need to do but how I need to be…creative and fully alive, paying attention to the inspiration each day has to offer.  I highly recommend trying out this daily practice.

Life is more than a to do list

Please visit my other blog about sustainable living at onesweetearth.art.blog

Notes on Tossing Out My Old Artwork

In the doldrums of this pandemic my creative image energies are ebbing more than flowing. It’s times like this at times all I can muster is to tidy up. Usually that involves just organizing my workspace. Then after years of procrastination I faced down the leaning pile of old cardboard portfolios full of aging class artwork and design projects that lurked in my closet. The problem is when you hang onto old work there’s really no room for new- physically or metaphorically.

 Bye-bye charcoal nudes, bye-bye watercolors, bye-bye drawings. Yep you were “A” quality, fun, but at this point, are not doing anyone any good including myself.  And woe to my son who would be stuck sorting  them out when I’m packed up to the Rock of Ages Rest Home. The recycling bin is full. I have a well stocked collage box and plenty of classy bookmarks as souvenirs. I took pictures of the T-shirts I designed and donated them to a thrift store where someone can put them to use. 

Bidding farewell to old creative work of any kind is like saying goodbye to parts of oneself- but thinking about it, all that hard work and practice is still with me deeply embedded in the work I do today. When I peruse all those past efforts I think of them as either good or bad but merely steps along the path to where I am as an artist today. 

We are but at some total of all our work and practice. The beat goes on.

I love my clean closet. 

That’s over with!

There’s a Pen for That

You want to be a writer, but you don’t know how or when. Find a quiet place; use a humble pen.

Paul Simon

Recently I received a question on my Almost Daily Doodle Instagram feed.  “What kind of software do you use?”  I had to laugh.  I guess the software would be my hand and my hardware would be my pens.  Years ago when I had to make money I did much of my illustration work by computer but I found working by hand so much more intimate and enjoyable.

I began my love affair with pens in elementary school in the early 1960s.  In the third grade, there was this rite of passage where we all learned cursive handwriting.  It was time to put away those rotund pencils they gave in first and second grade to learn our letters with the privilege of using a pen.  This was the first taste of the grown-up world and we relished it.  My girlfriends and I were particularly fond of adding stylish curlicues to our letters and using flowers to dot our Is. Then there was the endless practice of refining our signatures.

To showcase our newfound skills we begged our parents to buy us Shaeffer fountain pens that used little ink cartridges. Blue was the preferred color of the day.  It was a badge of honor to have a blue knuckle on your middle finger where those pens would at times leak.

Many schools have dropped cursive handwriting in favor of keyboarding.  It’s a shame since there are documented benefits to the brain in the areas of thinking, memory, and creativity when you write with pen to paper. I do most of my writing by hand first before typing on a computer. My pen helps me think.

In my twenties, I became an accomplished calligrapher with all manner of dip pens until carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand curtailed that pursuit.  I’ve had all kinds of artistic endeavors since but now in my 60s, I’ve returned to the simplicity of pen to paper to do my artwork.

I have a variety of sketch pens I use- nothing too expensive.  Recently I’ve switched from Microns to Hi-Tech and now Uniball Signo.  Recently while perusing the Jet Pens website for a reorder I came across their fountain pen section. One can spend a fair amount of money on a fountain pen but I found a Pilot Metropolitan for $19.50.  Live it up!  Third-grade joy here I come! 

Since it came I’ve been sailing over smooth paper for my journal and other writing.  What fun to write with a nice pen!  If you want a simple pleasure consider getting yourself some cool pens (and nice smooth paper).  Check out your local art supply store or go to JetPens.com.  Below are some samples of my favorite pens.  Happy writing!