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.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Too Long

I must admit that there are many other things I should be doing right now, but sometimes you just have to write. I've been working on a project for some time now, a retelling of a Norwegian fairy tale, and while I think I have a good handle on the written part, even though it's still not completed, I've struggled with the illustrations. I keep going back and forth on how I want the story to look.

This is something I tend to do. If I have an external deadline (somebody wants it from me) I have no problem deciding on an idea and pursuing it. That's fortunate I suppose because otherwise I'd constantly be in trouble with the people who expect me to produce things for them. But, if my deadline is internal, for some reason I feel comfortable with extended the deadline, sometimes indefinitely. Well, maybe "comfortable" isn't the word, it's more like I have thought in the past that it's okay to extend my own deadlines, because I'm the one setting them. And I justify it by telling myself that I haven't decided the direction I really want to go in, I need to do more research, it's not quite there yet, blah, blah, blah. What I've been trying to do recently is to create the same sense of urgency for my internal deadlines as I do for my external deadlines. And artistically this means choosing a direction and going in it, full on.

To that end, I finally started one of the illustrations I've been envisioning for Tatterhood for some time. One of the key elements of the story is that she and her sister embark on a journey. It is a journey of salvation and restitution and I've chosen to make the ship they travel in more than just a means of transportation but also a symbol of who Tatterhood is internally. The ship represents her own need to move outside the bounds of her defined role, and also her ability to do so. With all that riding on it, I really wanted the ship to represent this in a visually cool way.

Pretty big order. And this week I started the ship. Whew. It's not ready to show you yet. Still looks pretty odd. But I'll post some pictures soon. And the process of creating the ship has been really interesting for me. I'm exploring a lot of my own ideas about making things.

Even though I've been thinking about this story for so long, living with it, if you will, I'm only just starting to feel like it's becoming real as I create the miniature version of Tatterhood's ship. It's as though the physical act of building the ship is helping me to see her character even better, and making it easier to write her actions and thoughts down in the pages of the story. The two are becoming more closely tied together, something I didn't anticipate when I started to work on this story a year ago.

I probably should have begun this process long before now, realizing this today, but we learn what we learn when we learn it. I am very excited about the prospect of seeing this through to the end now and seeing both the words and the images on paper. It's quite empowering to be working on something that is my own, start to finish, idea to execution.

I love the process of creating design work or illustration to make other people's ideas visual. I always have. It's one of the reasons I did so well in school. I can take an idea and run with it, and I love the interaction with the client. I think one of my particular strengths has been to find out a particular angle or idea unique to that person and create something that speaks to that idea. But with Tatterhood, I'm starting to really get a taste of what I can do when I combine my own ideas and talents to that same end. And it's exciting.

In the art world they call this "finding your own voice." And it makes sense because it's when your art really starts to show you, as opposed to showing the myriad of images and ideas that have influenced you. I know that some artists never really do find their own voice. And I know that I've felt close to finding it for years, but never really felt as comfortable as I do now with this direction.

We'll see where this goes. Maybe Tatterhood's ship will be the thing that helps me break through my bad habit of shortchanging my own work. That would be really cool.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Man oh Manifesto

A few weeks ago, I came across an article about writing a manifesto. I had a vague idea of what a manifesto was, sort of a “rules to live by” meets “wild-eyed fanatic” mash-up (another new word that’s already overused.) So of course I immediately thought, ahh, here’s some blog material. Because that’s how I usually think. (Not really.)

First, I imagined what sort of manifesto I would write. Clearly, it would be funny. Very moving and deep, in a funny way. Perfect, actually. Except that I don’t usually write things like manifestos. They’re too concrete and directive. And they use big words. Bigger words than I use because I’m not very deep, or a concrete thinker, or inclined to issuing directives. I mean, really, how am I to know what others should do? I barely know what I should do.

Second, I realized that if I actually had a shot at creating a moving, deep and yet pee-your-pants-funny manifesto, I better see what one looked like. Or even maybe just look up the definition. To be honest, this is always what I realize at this point. It's my "go to" second step. Research. I research. A lot. Because that’s a great way to act like you’re working, while not really actually working.

So here’s what I found. There are 23,700,000 Google results for “manifesto” with the first one being the Wikipedia definition. (That's twenty three million, seven hundred thousand for those of you, who, like me, tend to lose count after two, maybe three, zeros.) So of course I went to the Wikipedia site, and learned the definition of manifesto, which is “A manifesto is a public declaration of principles and intentions, often politcal in nature. However, manifestos relating to religious belief are rather referred to as credo. Manifestos may also be life stance related.” It comes from the Latin word "manifestum", which means clear or conspicuous. But, given some of the examples of manifestos I found, I don’t think everyone looked up the definition in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia lead me to some interesting stuff. For example, out of all the manifestos they could have chosen to quote they selected an excerpt from the Maintenance Art Manifesto written by Mierle Laderman Ukeles in 1969. Here is the quote they included:

"Maintenance is a drag: it takes all the fucking time (lit.) The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs -- minimum wages, housewives - no pay. Clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby's diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don't put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don't litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I'm out of perfume, say it again - he doesn't understand, seal it again - it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young."

After I read this I realized I probably didn’t have to write a manifesto, Mierle was pretty darn close to universal. But maybe there were others that would come even closer to representing my personal manifesto. (Although that was before I actually read Mierle’s entire manifesto, wherein she proposes to live in the museum and do the maintenance as an art exhibit – and then extends it to the disposition and cleaning of other maintenance objects such as garbage trucks – I don’t see myself doing that.) I got to Google result number 750 before I realized that I was just polishing the rocket, (um no, wrong metaphor) before I realized that I was already done with my research and further googling would be silly. Here is my list of things I learned about manifestos.

Things I’ve Learned About Manifestos

  1. Other people are more likely to read it if it has a great name, no matter what it actually says inside. Probably the best example of this is the Peanut Butter Manifesto. I doubt I would have read it if I’d known it was about what Yahoo isn’t doing right and not peanut butter, as I’d originally thought. Although it’s certainly worth a read. Second best is The Awesomeness Manifesto, written by Umair Haque for the Harvard Business Review, which in no way lived up to its title (the Awesomeness Manifesto, that is, not the Harvard Business Review.)
  2. Umair Haque is crazy for manifestos. I found four within the first 50 or so examples of manifestos. The aforementioned Awesomeness Manifesto, The Builders Manifesto, The Generation M Manifesto and The Smart Growth Manifesto to name a few. And it made me wonder. Can one person really write more than one manifesto? Shouldn’t there be some sort of limit on the number of times you can tell the world how it should behave? Or am I the one that’s crazy here? Although, to be honest, the salutation at the beginning of "The Generation M Manifesto" is my favorite. Like many manifestos, it is written like an open letter, but this one is addressed to all the old people who run the world. How precious is that?
  3. Manifestos generally manifest as a series of rules or points. Shorter is usually better here. Five Rules for Life actually limits you to five rules, but on the up side, you get to pick your own. The Simple Living Manifesto has only two rules, but then they give you 72 more rules to clarify the two simple ones. Some of the additional 72 include “Be present.” “Learn what “enough” is.” And my personal favorite “Declutter before organizing.” (emphasis mine) Oh man. I’ve been doing it all wrong!
  4. There are many resources available to you should you decide to write your own manifesto. These include “How To Write A Manifesto” which handily explains what size paper you should use and gives a nifty example of a possible format, and a remarkably concise document also titled “How To Write a Manifesto” found on the Scottish Parliament site which suggests that you include pictures of desired outcomes, either drawn by yourself or found on the internet. I like the homemade quality of that idea. gives specific examples about what not to do and suggests a reasonable number of pages (2 – 4. Max 5, please.) Lance Whipple in his blog creatively titled “Lance Whipple” covers a wide territory when giving you advice on creating your manifesto, including guidelines for the appropriate number of rules to live by and suggesting advice from the Air Force little blue pamphlet on “Core Values”. The “How To Write An Avant-Garde Manifesto” by Lee Scrivner, goes into great detail about the use of caffeine as a brainstorming aid and the now famous (I’m sure) no quotations imperative, but I have the sneaking suspicion he’s not completely serious.
  5. Manifestos do not have to be about earth shattering subjects. The winner in this category clearly has to be “really. tights are not pants” although the runners up are “Tank Girl: Post Feminist Media Manifesto” and “The Gobbledygook Manifesto.” Although, to be completely honest, the “Tank Girl: Post Feminist Media Manifesto” went mostly over my head, I just liked the movie and the Gobbledygook Manifesto is here because I liked the Gobbledygook Volume Analysis Chart. Oh and an honorable mention goes out to The Cloud Appreciation Society.

And that’s five things, and I have it on good authority, or at least sort of by consensus, that a list of five things is perfectly adequate for anyone. Any more and you’re just showing off.

If you’ve stuck with me so far, here’s your prize, a lovely three part series of interviews on The Transom Review with Ira Glass, on what makes great radio. It’s long but well worth every minute.

Ira, who’s name is practically synonymous with his show, This American Life, (which, in fact, I can’t even sit here and type without hearing Ira’s distinctive voice saying in my ear “This American Life presented by Chicago Public Radio”) talks at one point about the Big Idea and how what often makes radio stories worth doing is how well they can tie into that Big Idea, the universal idea or concept that makes a story bigger than itself. So maybe that’s the takeaway here, that manifestos are simply an attempt to tie into that Big Idea, the one that makes sense out of nonsense, creates order out of chaos and a map in the wilderness.

Or maybe not.