On Inspiration

2018-09-21 15.55.58
Blue Moon Rising, 2018, acrylic on panel

I read books on creativity all the time. I’m not sure if it’s because I, somehow, want to be assured that I’m creative, or whether I want to understand what goes on in that process. Either way, one thing that comes up time and again, is the admonition not to rely on inspiration. In fact talent and inspiration are two terms that almost everyone disses.

I understand it to an extent. Talents aren’t share equally among everyone, and we don’t want to make anyone feel bad because they were born with a little less of a particular talent than someone else. And there is in the creative community this idea that the talented rely only on their talent and don’t work hard. That’s wrong I think, but I’m going to leave that for another time.

Another thing that books on creativity disparage is inspiration. I’m not saying you should sit on your duff and wait for inspiration before you attempt your creative project, but for heaven sakes if it comes along grab it with both hands and enjoy the blessing.

In my last post I noted that I’d finally painted something I didn’t hate. I made a tiny beginning. Then a day later I had the opportunity to visit Lorenzo Dupuis’s studio. What a wonder! I still feel all melty inside when I think about his luminous work, and I was/am inspired. For months and months I’ve been feeling as though I’m repeating myself or taken what wasn’t mine from others. Now, there is a path, a way to learn, a voice to find and I’m going to follow that inspiration. And surprise, surprise there are hints that I’ve been moving in this direction for some time. Yes, I’m worried that my work will look too much like Lorenzo’s, and guess what, he worries that his work looks too much like someone else’s. Creativity is a funny circular thing. Accept your talent, your inspirations and make something of it!

Being Social, Being Creative

Visitors
Visitors, 2014, encaustic on panel

As a creative person I find I have two major modes: the inner mode, which is the one that rummages around in my mind looking for patterns and divergences. And the outer mode that engages in the world and socializes with other people.

For me those two ways are very distinct. When I’m in a creative groove I’m inner focused, sometimes to an extreme. I do not want to be disturbed by disturbing things, like the wrong kind of news, the wrong kinds of sounds, the wrong kinds of light and people.

But, soon enough something curious happens. Idea generation begins to stagnate, and boredom and self-doubt set in.

It is at this point that being social, meeting with people, and being outwardly focused is the thing I need. Now, as an introvert, I find it difficult to breach that ‘being social’ barrier. I go kicking and screaming into socializing. When I, finally, capitulate I have a wonderful time. I forget all about creating things. I don’t have solutions to a paintings in my head. I don’t connive ways for my story characters to find their way out of a difficult situation. In fact, I don’t think I could do those things if I tried. It takes me days after a social period to get back into my head, and into a creative mind-space. I make tentative attempts. Again I doubt myself. But little by little, I move back into that inward space, and lo! All those things I experienced during a social time well up and become energy for something new. And the cycle begins again.

We all need social connections and community. Some of us need more than others, but everyone needs at least a little and if you do creative work you’ll do well to remember that you need it more than most. Think about it. Without input there can be no real output.

 

 

On Being an Art Snob

It's Written
It’s Written, c 1990s acrylic on rice paper (30 x 48″)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I studied Fine Arts at the University of Saskatchewan we made a sharp distinction between ‘fine art’ and what was often termed as ‘Sunday painting’. This university was very influence by abstract expressonism, especially the works that came out of New York in the 40s and 50s. A Prairie province, like Saskatchewan, coming late to the dominion of Canada (1905) and always tending to feel a little backward, embraced New York and it’s ideas with with a fervor we didn’t give Canadian artists.

The university had an off campus college at a northern lake (Emma Lake) and people like Stanley Boxer, Clement Greenberg and Barnet Newman (and many more) were invited to teach.  I drank it all in.

As a young sprout I wanted desperately make good art. But I had no idea about this kind of painting at all. What I wanted to do was make drawings and paintings like Rembrandt. But I learned. Iit was exciting to hear the theories of these men of (yeah, mostly men, but my painting above was influenced by Helen Frankenthaler) were exciting and nicely laced with high spiritual thought. Little by little I developed what Mr. Greenberg would have called taste.

And, though not intentionally, I began to looked down on those who could draw realistically and render. I made massive paintings using no method that you might call traditional.

Fishing with My Father

Fishing with My Father, above, was entirely built from bits of paper, glued down on a sheet of plastic, and poured over with acrylic paint washes. Then I added more bits of paper, string and whatever looked interesting, to come up with this final product. The painting is 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide.

Fast forward many years:  I still like abstract expressionist art very much, but I’ve found myself yearning to draw and paint recognizable people and things. I long to render and get lost in the minutia of the subject. And guess what I’ve found. There are so very many artists, from Urban Sketchers to Illustrators who do marvellous work, that I in my ignorant pretentiousness never looked at.

So here’s a thing I’ve learned. There are all kinds of taste in art. In fact because I’m a painter, I’m now pretty much a dinosaur because current tastes are for video art, sound art, and compilations of ideas that have nothing to do with the kind of esthetic taste I was taught to cultivate.

So, here’s some advice, younguns, listen to many teachers, stay humble and learn from everyone.  Here’s to staying open!

 

 

 

 

For the Birds: A Story

Blair's MagpieSM
Bird, acrylic on paper, Painted by my husband, Blair Barbeau

Now don’t get me wrong. I like birds. I liked them a lot, but I also have a bit of a phobia about them flying near me, and to be honest, to hold a bird in my hand, warm, and frantic with its heart nearly knocking through its chest, well, that freaks me out too. I try not to give in to fears and phobias, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not still there.

Tuesday last, I’d went for my usual early morning walk. Nearing home, I heard a persistent knocking. I stopped and looked around. I saw no one about. Doors were closed, no hum of lawn mowers. Nothing. But there it was again the knocking. I glanced at an elm near by and almost missed it. Man, Spiderman has nothing on the Downy Woodpecker. It walked vertically up the trunk of the tree dispatching bugs as it found them. No, I wasn’t afraid. I was thrilled to see this incredible little bird so close up.

Breakfast done and cleared away I headed to my downstairs studio. I’d started a painting–yeah, me–and it was going well. I couldn’t wait to get back to it.

In a moment I was immersed. I had some podcast going, or perhaps an audio book by Peter Grainger, I can’t remember which. I heard something, but it came to me distantly as sound sometimes does when I’m in the midst of creating.

Again, louder, insistent, a scuffling noise, something banging on metal, Then silence.

My studio is off the family room. In the family room we have a Franklin stove type of fireplace. When we bought this house we were told that the installation of the fireplace was not up to code, meaning that the house insurance company said it’ll cost you big time if you plan to use that fireplace. So we stuffed the stovepipe with that pink fibre glass insulation to keep out the cold of winter and put an electric fireplace insert into the firebox. You know the sort of thing. Fake logs, fake flames created by some kind of light doing some kind of thing, and behind it all a heater to throw some warmth at you.

There is was again. The loud scuffling noise. Some knocking. It was coming from the fireplace stove pipe.

No, no, no! I can’t deal with this. It’s a bird. I know it’s a bird, and I have to get it out, but it’ll fly all over the house and I can’t. I just can’t.

I call my husband at work. He pretty much said, “You’ll have to get it out. Put the dog and the cat into a bedroom. Close the door on them, then open all the outside doors, and remove the fireplace insert.”

Sometimes husbands aren’t as useful as you’d expect. I thought maybe he’d drop everything, rush on home, to take care of things while I cowered in the bedroom with the dog and the cat.

Big breath. I screwed up my courage, did as my husband suggest and pulled out the fireplace insert.

And nothing. No bird. A little pile of dirty pink fibreglas insulation lay at the bottom of the firebox along with–was that bird crap? Maybe it wasn’t a bird. Maybe it was a bat. Ha try again. I knew it was a bird. Somehow, there was a bird in the stove pipe and it was above the fibreglass stuffing. I got a flash light and tried to figure out a way to solve this. maybe I could pull out the insulation, but if I did that, I’d pull the bird down on me. I stuck my head in the firebox and craned to see what I could see. Nothing. I could see nothing at all. Nothing save a black hole. I needed help for this job, and that poor bird would have to wait until my husband came home. He’d put the insulation into the pipes and he surely knew where he’d put it.

I took the dog for a walk. I couldn’t bear to stay in the studio and listen to that it try to knock it’s way out of it’s sheet metal prison.

About mid afternoon, I heard a ruckus downstairs. Not the bird surely, this was more noise even that it could make.

Oh my God! The cat was in a panic. The dog started to bark. A large–I mean not your wren or your sparrow, not even a robin sized bird, but a BIG bird was fluttering around in the firebox, stopping now and then pausing to cling to the mesh firescreen.

I called off the dog, grabbed the cat and put them both into a bedroom, closing the door on them. I ran around closing the doors to every room that had a door. I opened all the outside doors. Then cautiously I went back down the stairs. Yes, it was till there, it’s yellow tail feathers spread, its chest heaving. I took a small blanket from the couch. My intentions were to throw the blanket over the bird, pick it up and put it outside. Cautiously I pulled back the fireplace screen. In flash the bird was past its edge and in the air.

Stupid, stupid me. I should have closed the window shutters. It slammed hard into the window. Its poor beak was seriously bent out of shape. Again I tried with the blanket, and this time I caught it. Darn good thing, because I don’t think either of us could have taken much more.

Holding it as gently as I could, still in the blanket, It carried it outside. My intention was to set it on the lawn. Its feet never touched the ground. Zoom! It was gone.

So okay, I guess it wasn’t a HUGE bird, but it was pretty big. It turned out to be a Hairy Woodpecker and I’m happy to report that before it zoomed away, it’s beak looked okay again. I guess they’re used to hammering it against things.

220px-Picoides-villosus-001

Phew! Two close encounters in one day. I may yet get over this phobia.

 

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone

But Painting JacksonYou know that optimistic post last week? And the excitement about trying comics the week before?

Bleh! Crashed and burned.

Something has happened in my studio practise. Something I haven’t been able to talk about because I keep thinking ‘don’t be such a baby’. It’s been going on for months and months now. For more than a year.

I can’t paint.

This week I tried again. As before my efforts ended in disaster with me in terror, sure that finally it’s gone forever, this thing that has sustained me my whole life. Gone in waffley washes, in screeching colours that subside in mud and wander like zombies across my panel.

“Alright,” I say, “You can still draw. So draw. You can write…well, you can sorta write.”

And all the dominoes fall.

So last week ended on a way down note.

I don’t mean for this new week to follow its path. This morning I wrote my morning pages, I went for a walk and I hit reset.  I will remember to breathe. I will go gently and be kind to myself. And I’ll do it all again tomorrow and the day after, and the one after that…

We often admonish each other to be kind to others. Life is hard. Remember to be kind to yourselves too.

Creativity: How it Works

Globe atop the Turler Cosmos Clock
Globe atop the Turler Cosmos Clock

 

 

 

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I have a partial manuscript I call The Chronos Project that I plan to revise.

The story is about Anna Wassar, a young ethics enforcer who works at a time-shifting facility, where historians of all sort shift to other time periods to do research in their particular field of interest.

Anna becomes aware that someone is bringing treasures from the past into the future, and that if she doesn’t stop them, the Temporal Ethics Commission will shut down the Chronos Project.

Anna shifts to 1940s Germany in pursuit of her suspect, and things do not go well.

Okay, not a bad premise. Maybe a bit Timecop, but the theme is different and I like it.

A number of years have past since I wrote the first version. Hey, I even tried a second version, and one hundred and twenty thousand words into it I still couldn’t make it work. Time has passed and I am ready to give it another try.

I printed the whole thing and  began to read it back to front. To my surprised I have many excellent scenes, and surely I can…but Anna, Anna doesn’t have enough agency, and what about the murder bus and the children at Görden at Brandenburg an der Havel? How am I going to make that all fit?

Never mind. I’ll be systematic. I will separate the story into point of view sections (there are five–OMG, way to many?) and then I will read each section and see if I have a decent character arc for that character and we’ll go from there. Right. That’s a plan.

Days pass and I don’t work. “Nope, will not,” says that recalcitrant brat in my head. “Can’t, can’t, can’t. Won’t! You know what? I don’t really like writing. I don’t want to write, anymore. Heck, I’m retired. I don’t have to do hard work and I won’t. Done. I’m done.”

Except that I begin to wake up dreaming writing. Yes, thoughts in another characters head, third person.

Then this morning in my journal:

Sunday, 3 June, 2018

(ping)

It was the third of June another sleepy, dusty, delta day

I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailin’ hay*

And I’m there. Yes, in the Mississippi delta, but no, not only there, but where ever the work is hard, where the air smells of fresh-mown hay, where dust lifts off a roadway and hangs in the air, where heat shimmers in the distance of—my daddy’s farm. I’m home.

(ping)

In an instant I remember others who catch me like that. Stephen King is one. Always, his words make me feel as though I’ve lived them myself. I’m two-hundred and eighty pound, gay Julianne Vernon,  in my pickup truck, horse trailer behind, driving down a quiet highway. In the distance I see a car stopped on the roadside, and I know what to do. I’ll stop and lend a hand. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done. It will be my undoing, but I don’t know it yet.

Synchronicity

I look over my Facebook feed and I see a post by a printing company. It’s a link to a blog post by Meribeth Deen. Meribeth talks about writing mentors and how we all need one, and maybe if we copy their words they’ll bring us to our words, and—ding, ding, ding.

I know what to do: Read Stephen King’s words, write Stephen’s words, and then write Anna Wassar, just a little, not much, not a great long thesis, just as much as I can see in a one inch frame.

That’s how it works, creativity. One small thing leads to another thing, and still another and these things spiral and gather, swarm, swoop and excite and suddenly you can’t wait to write, to paint, to dance your dance and sing your song.

 

*In 1967 Bobby Gentry wrote and performed Ode to Billy Joe and I loved that song. Bobby sang it beautifully, but what I loved most was the story. A whole and complete story in the lyrics of a 4 minutes song (it was longer in the original writing). It had everything necessary for story, including a mystery. What were Billy Joe and that girl throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

 

Bear with Me

Drawing of a bear
Bear, digital, May 6, 2018

Spring is truly here! It’s astonishing to have temperatures of +27C so early in the year. With this marvelous weather comes birdsong, budding trees, and a tonne of yard work.

Between bouts of raking and digging, I continue to revise Hannah’s Hearing, a novella featuring a boomer-aged woman (think: Fredrik Bachman’s, A Man Called Ove) and I managed to get out to do at least one urban sketch.

It’s lame, I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to plant a stool on the sidewalk to draw, so I parked my car at a nearby mall and tried sketching a senior’s high-rise. I need to get over my fear of having people watch me do my work.

The bear was a digital practice drawing. I’m trying to expand my abilities and repertoire. Like many people, I gravitate to drawing faces or figures. It’s nice to change it up. For instance, I hate that my ability with perspective drawing is so iffy, that’s why I’ve been going out to draw buildings.

I’ve been listening/watching Youtube videos while I draw. Some on drawing, some on publishing, and many on thinking, philosophy, and psychology. It’s a bit like being back at university—without the writing papers bit—and I love it!

What about you? What do you listen to while you are doing your creative work?

Sometimes it’s NOT about the Product

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Sometimes it’s the Experience

I was fortunate enough, in these past ten days, to visit my lovely daughter and her family in California. The Monterey Peninsula is beautiful, Especially at this time of year. In my part of Canada we, still, have snow on the ground and though we have gorgeous spring and summer wildflowers, they are often of the retiring type–small flowers, delicately tinted. Not so in California. Is there a wild flower in the world that speaks out as much as the California poppy? Perhaps, but I haven’t visited that land yet.

My daughter is an excellent artist, and one of the things we did together was to sit side by side with our sketchbooks, drawing the natural world around us. My results weren’t stellar, but the experience was sublime!

Huion: A New Tool

For a long time now I’ve wanted a digital graphics tablet, in particular, a screen tablet designed especially for artists. Last week I received a lovely gift of birthday money from my son, that he earmarked for a, someday, drawing tablet. You see these tablets, especially the ones developed by Wacom,the giant in graphic tablets, are very expensive.

But, but, but…

New manufacturers are catching up, and after I did a whole lot of research on graphic digital tablets, I found that companies like Huion, Ugee and others are producing excellent products at a fraction of the cost. A Wacom 13″ HD tablet on Ebay is still over a thousand dollars (CDN) whereas this lovely Huion 15.6″ HD tablet was about half that price. I pulled the trigger, as is obvious from the photos above.

So this brings me to a little philosophy about tools for artists. All credit to the wonderfulness of Wacom’s tablets, or Apples various devices, or any of those tools people rate as top of the line in paints, or inks, and papers. I’m glad these wonderful things are out there. But if you think you make art because you can’t afford these amazing things, think again. I hear that Shakespeare didn’t have a MacBook Pro and Scrivener. He managed to do a pretty good job of writing nonetheless.

I think artists are by their nature adapters. If they can’t afford one tool they’ll learn to use another. I haven’t tried a Wacom Cintiq, I can’t make a comparison between it and the Huion tablets.

Is the Huion tablet an excellent digital drawing tool?

I think so. The setup was easy. Krita, my preferred drawing application works well on it. Does it have problems? A couple. I hear it has more paralax (difference between where you put down your pen and where it draws) than some tablets. If it does, it hasn’t been a problem for me. One thing that annoys me a little is that the bottom right corner doesn’t respond as well to my pen touch as I’d like. I’ll figure a work around by moving my brush pallette to another  area of the screen.

So, yes, it’s a tool, but its also a toy and I love it!

Gasp! You’re Giving up Your Studio?

Studio View 330 Ave G

If you’re going to be a serious artist you’ve got to have a studio!

That is one of the things I learned in art school along with things like theme, balance, architectonic strength and structure. It was by far the easiest thing to understand. If you’re going to do work you need a place to do it, and if you are going to take yourself seriously and expect others to take you seriously you need a place you can call a studio. Ideally, this place is not your parents basement. At least that’s what I thought.

Before I even got my degree I managed somehow to secure a studio spaces–sometimes shared–in various warehouses in my home city. The amenities were often far from optimal when ‘very cheap’ is all you can afford. One of these studio spaces was a shared accommodation over a coat factory. On a cold November day, when a New York critic was scheduled to visit and pass comment on my art, the furnace went out. It was as bitterly cold inside as it was outside. Thank goodness she’d worn her silk socks that day.

There were times when I couldn’t afford even the lowliest space, but whenever I could I tried to have a place outside my home as a studio.

But Do you really Need a Studio Space Outside your Home?

Yes and no. The question is akin to Virginia Wolf’s need for a room of her own. I know of writers who clamp on a pair of noise cancelling headphones, find a corner in their home and write award winning material. I know visual artists who work on the kitchen table in their smallish condo. If you’re doing digital work, do you really need to rent an extra place to house your desk and computer/tablet setup? Probably not, especially if the cost of the studio eats up monies you need for that new graphics tablet.

Still, it is a nice thing to have a place to go that has only one purpose–the place you go to create your art. It’s a physical thing and a mental thing. And if your work is very large, or if you use a medium that it would be unwise to expose your family to, like say welding or encaustic painting, then a space with proper ventilation outside of your home is a must. If you have children who could be harmed by your materials, or who demand your attention at all times, you need an outside studio.

Are you judged on your seriousness as an artist by the studio space you have? Maybe, but I’d say don’t let that worry stop you from creating in whatever circumstances you find yourself. It’s not about where you create, it’s about what you create.

As a writer and a visual artist I do think it’s helpful for you to have a space you can go to to shut out distractions in order to focus. it’s helpful, but by no means a prerequisite. Artists are very good at focusing. They wouldn’t have come to their art if they weren’t. It takes a lot of focus to find your talent and go after it.

So why did I give up my studio this week?

Well, to be honest I didn’t exactly. I gave up a very nice space I had in what used to be the preacher’s office on the second floor of an old church that has been converted to studios. I loved this space, but for various reason (including a long period of creative drought–everything I painted sucked) it made sense. This does not mean I’m giving it ALL up. Another thing most artists have lots of is grit. They just keep on, keeping on.

No, I haven’t given up on painting and writing, but I have decided to convert a space in my own home to a studio.

Here is is.

Studio View 3

Painting area

Studio View 4

Digital Workspace

I don’t have the kind ventilation, here, that I would need to continue with encaustic work, so a shift in materials is in order. All to the good. I loved working in encaustic (beeswax and pigment), but I appeared to be at the end of the line with it.

The nice part of this new studio that it can be do triple duty as analog artist studio, digital workstation and writing office.

But hey you, if you can’t afford an off-site studio space or don’t have a room in your home you can commandeer, use your kitchen table. If it works it’s a worthy place. The important thing is not where you work, but that you do.