Saturday, April 4, 2015

My Favorite Literary Libraries - Part 1 - Dangerous Libraries

This idea has been rolling around in my head for a while now. I love books and I love libraries. And by "love" I mean that I am enamored, besotted, passionately entranced. I have worked in libraries, and now find myself in a position where my work, although not in a library, focuses on libraries and books. I'm in a sweet spot. None of which has much to do with this post, other than to give you an idea of the level of affection I have for big buildings filled with books.

I have an idea that lots of other writers feel the same way, given the number of books that contain reference to, or even more delightfully feature, libraries as a key element of the story. So, since this is my blog and I am the expert on all things me, here is a list of the best literary libraries I've ever come across.*

*Your experience may vary.

Part 1: Dangerous Libraries

1. Lirael, by Garth Nix

This is one of the best libraries I've ever encountered. Room after magical room, spiraling deep down into a glacier and guarded by the Clayr, an enclave of women united by their gift of seeing the future and their dedication to preserving their orderly society. The lower the level the more dangerous the books.

Librarians wear vests, color coded to show their experience and status and stiffened to protect them against dangerous magical outbursts. Their keys are a encoded into a bracelet with seven stones, as a new stone is activated it offers access to more rooms, because it takes skill and experience to go up against a truly powerful book. Other tools include a magical, mechanical mouse who can run for help, and a whistle, to call if they get into trouble, because Garth understands that although librarians are solitary adventurers, everyone needs help sometimes.

I would happily encase myself in a glacier if I could go to work here every day.

2. The Unseen Academy - Discworld Novels by Terry Pratchett

Okay. Let me just say this. Terry Pratchett is, hands down, one of the best writers ever. And I don't mean just in the fantasy genre. I mean EVER. His Tiffany Aching novels (a sub-series within the Discworld series; Wee Free Men, Hatful of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight) are four of the best coming of age novels I've ever read.

That being said, he has also written a fantastic magical library, housed on the campus of the Unseen University (for Wizards) and presided over by an orangutan, who used to be a magician until his unfortunate accident. He may no longer be human, but he's still a damn good librarian.

Pratchett is another writer who understands the dangerous power of many books piled in one place. When the books in his library rub up against each other, magical forces are unleashed. It takes steely nerve and unflinching confidence to wrangle this library. Plus he works for bananas, always a plus in the sometimes skin-flint world of academics.

3. Inkheart - by Cornelia Funke

I know, I know. You thought I was going to say the Hogwarts Library. But no, for me, when it comes to dangerous libraries, it has to be the library that belongs to Mo's wife's Aunt Elinor in Inkheart. First of all, Elinor, who so fiercely guards her precious library. Her's is a true calling. She worships her books and hoards them. She is a woman who has allowed herself to be altered by her love of the written word, which is, in and of itself, a dangerous thing.

And second, Ms. Funke touches on the dangerous nature of the books themselves. What, in fact, could be more dangerous that being sucked into a story as it's being read to you? With the right voice it could happen to any of us. It happens more than you think, but Ms. Funke has taken it from a relatively harmless state of mind to a delightfully dangerous reality. As much as we might wish to live in the world of books, actually doing so could be quite dangerous.

So that's it for part 1. Part 2 - The Library as Adventure.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Art Journaling

I mentioned in my last post that I was developing a workshop on Art Journaling for Tweens and Teens and that, in preparation for that, I was working on an art journal myself.

I started out thinking that I was just going to make an example journal. Something to show the kids that had different examples of techniques they could use in their own art journals. As usual for me, I've exhaustively researched the topic and have way too much material for one simple hour and a half long workshop for kids. But working on this makes me realize that I love doing this, putting together workshops on how to do stuff. I've done several now, artist trading cards and mosaic making, as well as more boring topics, and I like to think I do a comprehensive job of providing my students with the basics to go and have fun on their own.

When I first graduated from design school, I toyed with the idea of starting a studio space that could be used for classes as well as work space for design students who couldn't afford their own studio space, but needed a place to spread out and work on art projects. I still think that's a great idea, although, I have no idea how to go about creating such a thing without a lot of money, which is, unfortunately, my perpetual stumbling block.

But, since I always overthink things, maybe I can start smaller, by creating a series of classes and get a good curriculum going and then looking for space. I've got quite a list of potential classes and I've even developed the actual format for many of them.

I know this is not a new idea, many artists do this, and quite successfully. What makes it novel to me is that I have a great deal of difficulty figuring out how to translate a great idea into a great idea that will make you money. Something I'll have to work on if I plan to oh, I don't know, ever make money.

but I've strayed some from my initial point, which is this. Art Journaling is completely addictive. Who knew? I find myself pulling out my art journal at odd moments and writing down something and then drawing in little illustrations. I documented and illustrated making Mac & Cheese for my son's birthday dinner. Who does that? I guess I do, but it was never something I would have thought to do before. The creative freedom unleashed through this relatively simple exercise has completely taken me by surprise. A very pleasant, very productive surprise.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Book of Lists

Almost exactly three years ago I wrote a blog entry about Lists. I mention this not because I remembered that I wrote a post about lists, but because I was reading back through old posts and I found that one. (I know there's a way you can link your entries to other entries, but I don't know how to do that and I'm not able to take the time to learn it now, mainly cuz I have to go shower but I'm going to write this post first.)

In that post I vowed to make more non-shopping lists. And then I didn't. For three years. But a few weeks ago, as I began to develop a workshop for tweens on Art Journaling, I began a small art journal and I called it "The Book of Lists". Right now it has only one list in it, but I'm working on it, okay? It's a work in progress.

And I have a list of lists to put in it. And that list is a pretty good non-grocery list in and of itself. I was in a hospital cafeteria. (Minor procedure for husband - one of those - "Oh you're 50? Here, take this test.) I had some time to kill (er, I mean, some time to spend) and I knew, even then, that I was going to be working on an art journal as I developed this workshop. But the problem was, in all the useless things I'd brought along to keep me occupied (I need more toys than a 3 year old on a bus ride to Mississippi) I couldn't find the notebook I'd decided I was going to journal in. So I did what I often do in these circumstances. I pulled out my trusty plastic organizer (10 pockets, fold over top with elastic and button closure, filled with handy colorful 3x5 index cards - I like index cards almost as much as I like pens, funky magnets and decorative pushpins.) and started to make a list of lists that I should put in my Book of Lists.

Pretty meta hey?

So I know you're wondering what is this metalist of lists. Not in order of importance.

1) Super powers I'd like to have
2) My personal 7 wonders of the world
3) My favorite color combinations/names
4) Food combinations you should never try (although I later changed this one to "I wouldn't want to try" as I don't like to tell people what they should or shouldn't do. I do, but I don't feel good about it. For the most part.)
5) Places I want to go and why.
6) My favorite pet names.
7) Jobs I wish I could do. (I'm betting "astronaut" is at the top of that list for almost everyone.)
8) People who are on the "Having Too Much Fun" list. (a list within a list)
9) Places I would like to live if I didn't like to live here
10) Amenities I would have in my Secret Sanctum (with map)
11) If the world was fair....
12) My own personal months of the year
13) Likewise, holidays (maybe incorporate these into one list, unless, like homework assignments, the double spacing doesn't quite get me to the full assigned length)
14) My top five desserts (top five deserts would just be too easy.)
15) If I had a store I would sell....

Keep in mind, I'm making an art journal to share with tweens. So some of the lists came out of my own, inner tween, who is finding it refreshing that I've finally decided to let her into the driver's seat for a while.

Gotta go, the tween is late and the adult is thinking that now I only have 5 minutes to shower and get ready for work. The tween is being quite distainful of the adult's concerns. I mean, really, who needs more than 5 minutes to shower, brush your teeth, throw on some clothes and get in the car. The adult is pretty sure that it will take at least 5 minutes to find her glasses which she is pretty sure she knows where they are but the last time it took a while before she found them perched on top of the underwear that she pulled out to wear but then forgot that she'd taken out and took out other undergarments instead. The tween has now rolled her eyes several times and is ignoring everyone.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May Already?

Since I last posted about chi-stipation, I've made some inroads. I can now actually walk straight into my studio, without worrying about a shower of glass shards, (although it's still far from neat and organized) I've finished two large mosaics, one which I submitted to a national juried show, the other to a show themed "American Dream" for a local gallery here. I'm working on a commissioned piece (not a mosaic) and several other things that will end up being travel posters for the summer library program.

In other words, I'm busy. And this is a good thing. But...(and isn't there always a "but"?) I still feel like I'm not doing it right. Which makes me wonder, what is doing it "right?" What do I expect from myself that I'm not getting?

I've always struggled with this. When I'm writing I feel like I should be making mosaics, when I'm making mosaics I feel like I should be doing more cut paper work, and when I'm doing cut paper work I think about painting more or quilting more or just something else, more.
And I ALWAYS feel like I should be spending more time with the kids, gardening more, exercising more, and just, in general, being a better person. When it gets like this I never think I should be watching more television and yet somehow, I always manage to find time for that.

I've read lots of books on how to be more creative. I learned a lot from Julia Cameron and "The Artist's Way." I loved Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" about the writing life. And I believe that Stephen Pressfield's "The War of Art" should be required reading for everyone aspiring to the creative life. And virtually every book, article or random piece of advice I've ever read or heard has one element included in it.

If you want to be a...insert artistic pursuit here...focus on doing that. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by other things you could be doing. And yet that is exactly what I end up doing.

But what would I give up? See. That's the real question. It's not so much that I'm distracting myself away from my "true" goal, which may or may not be true, but that I have such a hard time letting go of the other things. I can't imagine not writing. I can't imagine not making mosaics or painting or cutting up gorgeous little bits of paper.

I almost managed to walk away from quilting. I gave it up for several years. But this spring, when my family received a particularly cruel blow, I found myself making a baby quilt for the friend of my son. It was like comfort food, flexing the scissors and threading the machine.

So like it or not, I'm going to be doing these many things that I do. And I'm resigned to that. I just need to find the balance that will allow me to be productive and yet not feel as though I'm missing out on some other great adventure.

Since I'm on a roll...

Thought I would add in some other work that I've done in the last few months, but which I haven't put out there. All in preparation for updating my website with the latest and greatest stuff...

This first piece is another cut paper piece. I have been working in this media on and off since design school. I'm on again right now. I'll have a few more pieces in the weeks to come.

Monday, March 28, 2011


I knew I'd been gone a long time. I might even have admitted to six months, but it's been nearly a year since I've updated my blog. Now, one the one hand, I know that there were very few out there pining for my pearls of wisdom, but, on the other hand, I believe that when I was making (more) regular entries, I was getting down some things. So, my Spring resolution is...doesn't everyone make resolutions in the Spring, when the grass reappears and the world is fulfilling it's promise to let you out of the damn house again?...that I will go back to blogging and that I will update my work on my website.

There. I've said it. Work. Out there. For people to see. If my art career grew on mystery I'd be famous by now. I seem to have an even harder time showing people my art than I do sitting down to create it. But both of those areas have been better lately, and I think I know why.

One of my favorite guilty pleasure movies is "Big Trouble in Little China." Yes, it has Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall in it. Yes, it's horrifyingly full of demeaning cultural cliches. And yes, the production values make Conan movies look like art house cinema. But it also has a string of one liners, mostly delivered by Kurt, that just ache to be made into a self help manual for sound bite editors. And one of my favorites is when the shaman is explaining to Jack Burton about eastern religion, during the course of which he compares it to "your American salad bar." I first saw that movie thirty years ago (much as I hate to do that math!) and I still remember that line, complete with cheesy chopstick punctuation gesture.

So one of the things I've picked up from my trip to the world religion salad bar is the concept of "chi" or energy, more specifically (in my mind) energy flow. When the chi is flowing all is right with the world. You feel good. Things happen they way they should and you are movin' to the groove. When the chi is blocked, well...I have never read this specific analogy in any philosophical manual but it seems to be akin to a massive case of energy constipation and when it happens there is irritability, bloating and general peevishness for all. I'm sure I'm mangling this venerable and respected concept, but to me basically it means the more crap cluttering up your life, the harder it is for the chi to flow (and the chi is what gets things done baby!)

And I've had some chi issues. Perhaps it isn't unusual that I haven't posted in a year, and that my last post was about the death of my father-in-law. Dealing with death in the family, even when, superficially, it seems to be over and done with, takes more than you might think. More than I would have thought, even a year ago. It's not that we were so set adrift by grief that we were unable to function. There was functioning taking place, I'm pretty sure. It's more that we were set off course for a time. We had to readjust to the new state of the world, and it was harder to do that it seemed as though it would be. Time passed and the need to return to purpose was perceived but, at the same time, it was as though we couldn't quite find ourselves.

And, in the middle of all that, in my studio there was a large mosaic, a little less than half completed.

Understand that my studio (lovely grand word that) is a small, converted bedroom in a 100 and some year old farm house. It was converted to a kitchen for a miniscule upstairs flat probably around the time soldiers were returning from the war in 1945 and then converted to a studio when my husband and I moved here to get a little more elbow room. Unfortunately, we had both underestimated the size of our elbows and had limited funds for the massive warehouse that was what I apparently needed to corral all my crap (remember crap? The stuff that keeps the chi from flowing?) and so my studio began overstuffed and just progressed from there.

Place into the middle of that limited space a folding table with a mosaic that is roughly a yard wide and two feet tall, covered with enough broken glass to create some sort of torture chamber with the single misplaced bump of a generous hip, and you have the perfect recipe for chi-stipation. (My hips are so generous you could even call them philanthropic.)

Well, a few weeks ago I realized that I had to make a change, and part of the change was to get that mosaic done and out of there. I actually love making mosaics. There is something so fine and fiddly about finding just the right snippet of glass to express a curve of shadow or the glint of an eye. It is quite satisfying to labor in so close with pieces of glass the size of a baby aspirin or a grain of rice, and then step back and see what those tiny bits of color come together to create. But, for some reason, despite loving the process, I have a hard time with mosaic making. It taunts me. I become fearful at times. Most often when I am close to creating something that I really love, and I become more and more aware that with a single bad decision, in the too close moment of placing the small, I lose track of the larger picture and it all goes bad.

I freeze then, within that moment of fear, and have trouble moving forward. Pressing through to finish the work, where there is freedom of movement and the joy of creation. And the point at which I can get the damn thing out of the middle of my studio!

So maybe this is all part of the same thing. Maybe the fear of making mosaics is just the reflection of the larger fear that has been freezing me in place for the better part of a year. The placing of the small obscuring the larger picture. So I went back in there. Into the moldy chi corner of my life, and I started putting small pieces of glass onto the wood again. I made a few shelves and organized some more glass. I sorted and separated and broke glass into small pieces (a satisfying step all by itself) and, in essence, packed my mosaic making bags for the continuation of my journey down that path. And it worked.

I feel better. I feel positive about what I'm doing with my life again. I feel like the work I do is getting done and I'm back in the pattern. And I'm kick butt proud of my latest mosaic. So here's to Spring, and grass and longer days and more sunlight and an undeniable urge to move some more chi around.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I attended a small presentation today. Suzanne Vega, the lovely singer/songwriter, is performing tonight at our local performing arts center and she agreed to give a free workshop on creativity today. Okay, so the words "free" and "workshop" and "creativity" each have their own pull but combine them together and I'm in the front row. (Actually the third row but who's counting.)

So there we were, a small group of about 50 artists, surprisingly few of them actual musicians, but all admitting to being artists, ready to hear the low down from some who's made it. Not surprisingly, she started out with the disclaimer that there is no magic formula, no one special task that will make it all happen.

I knew that. But it bears repeating.

She had some other good points. She suggested that you carry a pen and notebook with you, everywhere you go. And write things in it. I wrote that down in my notebook that I carry everywhere with me, with one of the dozen pens floating around in the bottom of my bag. I started doing that while in school and the habit, fortunately, has stayed with me. It made me smile a little bit.

She said that you need some space to work. Maybe it's a chair. Maybe a room or a corner of a room. Someplace where you can sit and think and no one gets to ask you if you know where something is or if they can eat this. My chair for the last year has resided at Panera Bread but I got the point. I didn't write that one down.

Maybe this is only surprising to me, but the most relevant point she made, in my opinion, was that you have to connect with people, and stay connected, and these days that means on the internet. It means Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and Blogging. I wrote down "Blogging - rituals." because when she said that I remembered where I had been just over 24 hours earlier and thinking about rituals.

My father in law died two weeks ago. It was not sudden. It wasn't unexpected or tragic. It was the passing of a man who had lived a long life into a different part, the last part, of the human experience. But we couldn't hold the ceremony until yesterday. There were any number of reasons for this, not important ones, but we all seemed a bit in limbo for those two weeks.

It didn't seem like it should matter, and maybe in the long run it didn't. Sometimes, when I thought about it, I even felt like it was a good thing. The extra time gave us room to process, time to reflect and think about how we felt. Except for the fact that once we were there, in that small chapel in the Veteran's Cemetery, it seemed all at once like we'd just lost him. Again.

It was a military ceremony. The family had a few minutes to say what they wanted to say and as I listened to his children talk about their father, I both knew him again and knew him for the first time. We laughed a little and cried some. I was proud of them all, these people who were my family through another ritual and a shared lifetime. They were good people who stood to honor their father.

Then, polished and poised young soldiers moved with erect precision through a ritual that has been witnessed by millions of families at this time. The salute, the unrushed and precise unfolding of the flag, then holding it out over the soldier, covering them in the flag of their country while the sharp and strange 21 gun salute is made, and then the even more precise refolding of the flag and it's presentation to the next of kin.

The soldier folding the flag was a young woman, dark hair in a tight bun at her neck and her face solemn and nearly expressionless as she folded the flag. Each bend of the fabric smoothed deliberately with a white gloved hand before moving to the next fold, down the entire length of the flag until the solder at the other end, a young man with a round, young face, tucked the ends of the flag into the triangle, taking time to carefully smooth and secure every bit, every wrinkle.

This was a packet that was not going to come undone. This was a duty that was not going to be rushed. This was a ritual that was as carefully and deliberately performed for an old man long away from his service and his uniform, just as it was for the young soldiers who might have died recently. At the end they gave it to his wife, who wanted to protest, and maybe didn't want it at all, but who took it, trying earnestly to tell this young man, this stranger, this soldier, that Will had been a man of peace. As if that meant that he couldn't be here, in this military place.

Everyone was very respectful to us as we filed out, to complete the ceremony and then complete the ritual, with the breaking of bread and the celebration of life.

And on and off during this entire event, this entire day, I thought about ritual. I thought about how we place ourselves in the context of ritual and custom, to ease emotion. To create space for our minds to work through whatever we have to do now. I thought about the meaning of the senses, the sharing of photos, the sharp report of seven guns firing together three times, the food we eat as we spend time together and the touch of a hug.

How did we develop rituals? What is it about us that creates rituals to deal with the events of our lives? As I listened to Suzanne talk about the use of prayer, meditation and sometimes even things like Tarot cards to access the archetypes of our nature, of our waking dream space, I thought about the rituals of art making.

I read an article recently where an artist, talking about his work and his method, said that the Jewish philosophy is that art is as much about the materials used as what you do with them. That you invest, through your time and attention and intention, added meaning to the materials you select and that you use to create your art. To make important art, you use important materials.

Subject matter, thought process, that zen state when you are working and your hands just seem to be doing what they're doing without you even knowing exactly what it is that you are doing or why, these are all made relevant through the ritual of creating art.

It seems to me that once you go through something like that, the question of whether or not anyone else likes it is actually irrelevant. Someone will see it and understand. Someone will recognize the layers of intent and attention wrapped in and around the work, like the thick waxy coating on an encaustic painting, deepening and coloring the subject. And you will have succeeded, even if you never make a dime.

But its more than that. Because the same is true of your life. Intention, attention, respect for your materials, love of the results, fearless movement in your own direction, listening for the voice of inspiration and heeding the delicate, tentative, almost invisible call of intuition, of the pattern. These are the things that create value in a life, just the same as in a work of art.

And it is a wise person who, at the end of their life, has given that to those around them. Freely, and without reserve.

What is the difference between someone who wants to be an artist and someone who is? I believe it is the person who has incorporated the ritual of art, not merely the act, who is the artist. Suzanne is right, there is no one magic formula or task. There are many. And, like any ritual, they only become more powerful, more meaningful with repetition.