Sketchbooks

   I’ve seen some wonderful uses for sketchbooks recently that should motivate anyone to start a new adventure in creative thinking. My friend Roxanne shared a beautiful collection of watercolors that tell the story of the flower garden that she and her husband Ron have been cultivating at their home. As the garden changes through the season she has been documenting various flowers, plants, bushes and arrangements that Ron cuts for her to arrange in vases. Her intention is to fill the sketchbook as a gift to him. (Spoiler alert not necessary, Ron won’t be reading this). 

   Another artist uses the sketchbook as data collection, kind of how Leonardo da Vinci kept notes and drawings to explore and better understand things. Curiously, he wrote his words in mirror, right to left and put seemingly unrelated things together on one page, but were they really so unrelated? Waves on the ocean and a woman’s portrait with wavy hair makes sense to me, but his laundry list could have been just a convenient page for that day.   

   I use some sketch books for quick line studies of what I plan to paint. I have one specific for traveling. I know that using a camera is clearly more convenient and certainly more in the real moment, but as Roxanne noted, drawing in the moment is more real too. It allows you to pay attention to details while you are there, not so much of a surprise once you get home to go over the pics you took with your camera.

   Sketchbooks are an exercise, clearly requiring some discipline whether there is a focus on a theme or random thoughts and images. Taking a few minutes each day to capture how light hits a corner of a room or a plant in the garden (think Monet’s Haystacks) or a new view from a parked car window, a child sleeping or a meal just before you eat can improve your observation skills, your drawing skills and your ability to live in the moment almost like meditation.

 Challenge: Get a small pad that you can carry around. For thirty days, discipline yourself to create sketch time. Pick a theme or a purpose to your sketching, having a mission to gather images creates a discipline. Draw, cut and past, paint, use what ever medium you want. At the end of thirty days, it should become a habit and a quest. Challenge  a friend to do the same and compare your results to further inspire your efforts. 

 

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Renovation: to make like new again

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Happy New Year 2013! —“to make like new again”.

Renovation of a room opens up all sorts of creative opportunities that can be exciting for some of you out there. Depending on the room, just deciding what color paint to use on the walls can get one giddy. Not so much me. It is true.

I’ve watch my mother and siblings go through the process of gutting kitchens and reinventing them with cabinet brochures, paint swatches, floor samples, wallpaper sinks, counters and appliances. When I did my kitchen it was a necessary evil to get involved in. One reason is that the kitchen is so small that there weren’t a lot of options to change it. My first choice was really to have a bigger kitchen. My second choice of cherry cabinets was nixed by my brilliant contractor brother who said the kitchen was too small for dark wood and “it will get darker over time”.  Rats.  My third choice was light birch with chocolate laminate counters. Tell me why I now have yellow cabinets and a granite counter?  Thank goodness it’s pretty.

I admit that I have a deficit in imagining when it comes to home decorating. As an artist, it is just a little embarrassing to labor over the 50 swatches of varied white paint swatches only to find out I picked out the exact same tone that was already on the wall. So much for a healthy change.

Why am I sharing this? Well, there are different kinds of visionaries in the world of environmental decor. My preference is to work the interior walls like I would a canvas. Paint them all white, put in neutral toned furniture (perhaps one statement piece per room) and then generously throw color around with the accessories- drapes, pillows , paintings, sculpture. I’ve even started to eliminate rugs and put in wood floors. An area rug will be fine.  I think I prefer this type of decorating to a professional makeover (which believe me, I give lots of credit to interior designers) for three reasons. 1- Simplicity- it’s just easier not to have so many choices and easier to execute, 2- Future changes can be made more often. Yes, it is likely I will get bored of a pattern on the sofa or wall paper- accessories can be changed more often for new visual interest, and 3- economical- let’s face it- anything with a designer name on it costs more.

The master bathroom that we renovated I deferred to a simple solution. I could find no vanity cabinet that I liked that would fit in the space. I designed what I wanted and had my brother build it for me. With his final touches, I did not have to settle for something I didn’t like and it was not at all  costly to have it custom made.  After I’ve admitted a passion for white walls, I actually chose a yellow wall paint. You do have to warm the room up a little.

Okay, the final point of this – look at your environment, your home. It reflects your inner self. No surprise if you keep an organized house, you may run an organized life for yourself and your family. If you create cozy spaces, you might be a nurturer to those around you. If you fill your space with comfort, your friends will be comfortable there too.    If all of your chairs are hardwood or you don’t have any chairs, my guess is that, to borrow from Greta Garbo – you “vant to be alone”. If not, maybe some soft cushions?

Assignment- pick one small change you would like to make- unclutter a corner, clean out a drawer, make room for change and it will be easier.

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Driving on the Wrong Side of the Brain

   Yes, you read that right. Some of you might think I meant to put ‘drawing on the right side of the brain’, which is the title to a drawing book by Betty Edwards. Her book is about learning to drawing by training the right side of the brain with appropriate exercises. An excellent book for anyone wanting to explore that aspect of creative growth, it supports everything I teach my students. 

Well, I didn’t intend to refer to that book, but it makes sense to. What I want to share is my recent tour of Ireland by car and the practice it takes to retrain the brain to do something unfamiliar.  Driving on the opposite side of the road is a perfect example of how we can learn new things by over-riding habits of the brain. I’ve been driving a stick shift since I was 16 years old. Initially, it was about getting better gas mileage, but more so it was to stay physically involved with the process of driving, so I’d be more aware and safer on the road. New rules require new habits.

Driving in Ireland required that I not only keeping the car to the left and looking to the right when making a turn, but sitting on the right side of the car with the shift (thank God automatic) on the left. Training myself to  deliberately and consciously scan every other car, bump, turn and roundabout along the road I had to create new response pathways in my brain to create new habits of thinking. I hoped I would eventually relax while driving, but that never happened. I was always on guard. I couldn’t trust my right brain road habits not to take over unconsciously. I did once, actually twice, make a right turn into the wrong lane and it wasn’t until the end of the week that I stopped feeling lost when I looked to my right for the rear view mirror that wasn’t there (it was to my left). Most roads were barely wide enough for two cars. Even in Connecticut, country roads are wider and main roads are slower. Spatial relationships are tested when you have to judge how close you are to the wall next to the passenger door (your left) and take corners when those same walls block your vision of on coming traffic. I left the rental car with reminders of bramble bush caresses and more than a few stone wall hugs.  The good news is that by the end of the week, I had repeated new driving habits often enough that I felt more confident of learning new ways of doing something opposite from what is so familiar.

What has this got to do with creativity?  Everything. The key is to exercise our brains to do new things, so that we keep learning. Creativity requires both sides of the brain. Life requires both sides of the brain.  I do believe that even though I use my whole brain, habits create little pathways that can become ruts if we don’t change them up now and then. Imagine that with left brain activities as well. Language is a matter of practice, balancing one’s check book is a matter of practice, playing a musical instrument is a matter of practice, as is art making. The key to creative growth is the diversity of the practice to take the skills to new creative levels. Improvisation strengthens creative commentary. Not that one should make up new road rules, but believe me, my driving experience in Ireland allowed me to see more. I didn’t just see new places, but I developed a keener awareness of the spaces I traveled through. Roundabouts all look the same, but each offers the possibility of several roads to take or a bumper to crash into. One cannot look at each round-about the same way.

“I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day, so satisfied I’m on my way.”  -Yes    

You’re creative task is to do something backwards or opposite (make safe choices). Try writing your name backwards or upside down or with your opposite hand. Walk backwards (in an open space, it’s just the act of walking backwards you want, not the obstacles). Drive to work another route. Get out of bed on the opposite side (better yet sleep with your head on the opposite end of your bed). Change the order in which you normally do a task. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s more efficient, it’s just an exercise to strengthen your brain. Creativity comes from what we know and what new experiences we bring to it.

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A Ball of Yarn

A simple ball of yarn has so much potential. I mean it literally, but it stands up to metaphoric expectations as well. To follow the trail of a ball of yarn, one must start by unwinding at the beginning. I repeat ‘the beginning’.  Connecting the beginning of the ball of yarn to a crochet or knitting needle begins the journey. One string can connect into its own stitches or enmesh with stitches on a loom that convolute into infinite possibilities. I can follow a standard pattern that will give me a predictable solution (hat, sweater, blanket…) or I can work out my own plans for a unique more personal result. I can make it practical or simply aesthetic. By using a set series of different stitches I can get textures, repeated patterns, solid consistent rows or erratic random surprises. All of this with one ball of yarn that starts at the beginning and finishes at the end.

What I appreciate about the process is that I can purposefully determine the outcome, take a risk at creating something unexpected or improvise either way. I don’t worry about errors, it’s a journey and adjustments are part of it. My commitment is to the ball of yarn and if I’m paying attention to it along the way, it will respond to my guiding hand.

I challenge those who say that a ball of yarn has two ends? How can that be? There has to be a beginning and an end and they are not interchangeable. One starts, the other finishes.  If we looked at our life line we would see that is how it is. Just like the ball of yarn we create a tapestry of experiences that are not always strictly linear, but certainly leading to a completed life. We can’t rewind it, but we can redirect it. We can look for patterns to follow for structure and improvise when the plan does not work for our needs. We can choose to walk a straight line (like the goodie two shoes that I am), but that actually shortens the distance between the beginning and the end ( so now I know better). That ball of yarn is not an infinite strand, but it contains infinite possibilities. Create your life that way. To quote a wise man – “See the ball, be the ball.” –Caddyshack. You have a beginning and can create a deliberate and complete life. If your journey takes you off the straight path you may get a bit tangled up, but it may be part of the plan.

Another wise person said, “It will all work out in the end”. May I add, if it isn’t worked out, it isn’t the end.

Assignment-by knitting or crocheting you will make creative and practical applications, but you will also center yourself in your own ball of yarn as you unwind it. There are great opportunities in adult education programs and yarn shops. Even some libraries have knitting groups that are communities of kindred spirits and great teachers of the craft. Everyone participating is there for the purpose of making something from a ball of yarn.

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“Of Glorious Plumage”- Brainstorming and Collaboration


What do those words conjure up for you, “Of Glorious Plumage”? The first time I heard them was in a meeting where the task was to write a sample learning objective. It sounds technical and boring- “learning objective”, but it’s common vocabulary for educators .  At the end of a long day (with limited energy and brain power left) the task still isn’t really that exciting, but I don’t like to waste energy on a sample. If I’m going to write one, I want it to be useful in the end.

I had the good fortune to be sitting next to Tom Boates,  a music educator and orchestra conductor in my school.  “Let’s write one for both of us,” I suggested, wanting to kill two birds with one stone. I was tired.  Well, birds it was.

I asked what he was working on in class and it turned out that he was conducting a piece of contemporary music titled “Of Glorious Plumage” by composer Richard Meyer. It was written in the influence of the Impressionist movement in music. Whoa. Impressionism? Do we see a connection here?

By the way, I had peacocks strutting their tails in full fan in my head from the title, but Tom talked about eagles and terns on wing floating on thermals . Wow, how could our images be so different? That’s where listening skills come in. Once I heard the music , I understood his vision clearly. What power the extra sense has in our response to the world around us.

Needless to say, we collaborated on a lesson that combined visual art with music.  Mr. Boates came into talk with my students about various genres of music Classical, Romantic and Impressionistic to set a context to creative development in music. He enthusiastically shared his art books on Impressionism and made connections to the visual applications of Impressionism. I worked with both introductory and advanced students to challenge them in two very different assignments. The advanced students researched their birds and created complete compositions to interpret their take on the music. The intro students also researched birds. They were each given a strip of brown wrapping four inches wide and ten feet long. Each created repetitive designs of birds and feathers and beaks and even habitat images across the strips of paper. Then all of the strips were woven into a huge nest in the main foyer showcase at the school.

The day before the performance, members of the orchestra were shown the art that their performance piece had inspired.  So as it turned out, our learning objective did not “kill” any birds, but brought many to life in a creative collaboration.

Look around to see what others are doing and how it inspires you. It might not be another artist, but a chef or dancer. Open up a dialogue of possible ways to work together on a project that combines each medium in a common thematic goal. It could be designing a garden with a botanical expert or recycling water bottles into a art with an environment group. Seek commonalities with others that you think might be on different paths and see what a good brainstorm can create.



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Creative Action

We live in interesting times. Some people face difficult days, others wake to more joyful expectations. I know. I get up at 5 am in the dark most working days and believe me, it isn’t easy. Not for what lies ahead, but because no matter what time I go to bed at night, my deep sleep is 4 am to 7 am, which means an abrupt awakening.  Of course, once I’ve coaxed my body awake (hint: it takes sunrise to go into effect, so I’m clearly not a vampire), I really have a pretty good day in store. I believe that when I start my day.  That said, I’m not immune to unfortunate news and events . I have concerns about things like anybody else. Things like the economy, children in need, health, war, human rights, animal rights – oh yes ,the list is endless. How does anyone function with so much negative energy in the world? As an artist it find it helps to work on my thoughts about such things, but not all of them at once.  I can accept just how cruel the world can be or  I can generate  a thought to make a difference in my day or someone else’s.

“For every action in the Universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Get it?

As a creative person, I find it easy enough to generate good actions. The challenge is to react to negative actions with equal, opposite and effective force. I’ve said it before, art has the power to improve the human condition and elevate the human spirit.  Sometimes just making an injustice visible or simply singing while you grocery shop is the action to take.

I challenge you to take action.Use your creative voice, your vision of what can be and your courage to make commentary. Communicate in your most comfortable medium or take a risk in a new one. If banging a drum to the rhythm of your day does it for you, strap one on. You may even start a parade.

If you prefer to “make something” then look in the news papers and magazines for things going on in the world that you have an opinion about. Real issues, like the economy, family values, celebrities who have no merit to be such, charities you believe in, political points of view, a local hero and the list goes on.

Read through the article and look for key words that trigger your unique thoughts on it. Look for  or create  images to represent your toughts. You may find words have enough power to be included, but consider the visual impact. Cut the images and lay them out in a composition. Use copy machines or scan into a photo shop program to make adjustments in size, color etc. Print, cut and add to final collage. A glue stick will hold it together, if only a glue stick were all that the world needed.  Add mixed media to emphasize design and make your statement stronger.

“For every action in the Universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

What is your action?

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Planting Seeds

It’s not too late in the season to plant seeds. It’s actually never too late when you think metaphorically. I spent some time this morning with my sister at a local farmer’s market held at the Dudley Farm in North Guilford, CT. This farmer’s market has a wonderful variety of vendors that not only include local produce growers, but also bakers, crafters and blue grass musicians. Deb got some luscious looking tomatoes, fresh basil, squash and cucumbers. I found my way to my favorite baker to pick up a giant loaf of cinnamon bread (makes the best ever French Toast).

Clearly the vegetables had been planted early enough in the season to be ready to sell now. However, I had planted a seed at the farm last fall that is just about to bloom, metaphorically. I’d contacted a lovely woman named Phyllis by phone, who organizes the farmer’s market to plan a special book signing event for Nature’s Royal Tea Party. Typical New England weather, the only dates open last Fall were rained out miserably. Today, without planning  it, I finally met Phyllis in person and we picked another date, let’s hope a dry one. There is a point to sharing this story other than self promotion- by the way the date is July 17th from 9am-noon.

Yes, my point- I recommend that anyone wanting to make things happen, whether it’s improving career options, learning a new skill, improving social connections or, in my case, sharing my creative process- just plant seeds. It simply means do something each day, anything,  toward your goal. You won’t always get an immediate result, but it’s really kind of neat how things start to pop up if you plant the seeds to begin with.  A seed I planted in January at a fundraiser for the Children’s Museum grew into an invitation by the New London Public Library to present my book at  the Fish Tales, Tugs and Sails event July 24th (yes, more self promotion, but it’s all good).

You can’t always predict what will grow, but keep planting seeds. You will reap a beautiful garden. Of course planting real seeds is not a bad idea either. A beautiful garden may indeed be the best goal.

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