Friday, September 30, 2011

Enter Here: Repetition & Revision

Stream-of-consciousness writing can be a useful tool for freeing up words and ideas in preparation to make or write something, but if it is presented as an end product it may be hard on the reader. What does s/he make of seemingly unrelated imagery, disjointed phrases, a word written over and over? The visual equivalent is collage or assemblage in its rawest form; it contains everything imagined in one piece, as if the artist had horror vacui: a fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces. We don't mind these written and visual pieces, in fact we might even seek them out if we are interested in the artist's process, but if we are not interested in how the artist works, the pieces may appear confusing, jumbled, and disjointed. The viewer needs a way in, an entry point.

William James wrote about the adult stream of consciousness as a psychological phenomenon. James Joyce used the style in Ulysses. Some say Gertrude Stein used it as well. Writing classes use it as a writing practice: keep writing for n minutes without stopping, keep your pen moving, don't edit, let your mind wander as you write. The connections, I think, are between the flow of the material, the personal nature of one's thoughts, and the continuous change of those thoughts over time. For a writer who uses this method as a daily practice, s/he might be able to achieve the flow of repetition and revision that will be exciting and fresh. S/he may be able to discover and uncover surprising thoughts. But it will likely take some shaping and organizing to get to the heart of the work.

When my friend teaches a collage or assemblage workshop she advises students to discard most of the material they've assembled. More is not better in this case; it is only more confusing. It is fun to intuitively work with the material, moving it around, layering it, but the maker doesn't have to provide every single detail; s/he should try to leave a little room for the viewer's imagination, memory, and experiences. There's got to be a way to organize it, whether by color, shape, theme, or in a way that tells a story, which might be through juxtaposition, conflict, or through a relationship between the subjects. Writing can be organized by, but not necessarily limited to, theme/concept, chronology, character, or location.

A collection is often a catalyst for a project; it automatically has an organizing theme. For some reason I have boxes full of collected picture postcards, stamps ripped off of their envelopes, and a clothespin holding a stack of parking permits, among other ephemera. I could pick one of these collections and group the stamps by color, for example, or postcards by location, or parking permits by date, then transform them by adding a story or poem, creating a traveling character, or painting on top of them. I could make a flip book or a flag book, something that would show both the similarities and the differences. Or I could take just one image and write about it (or color copy or scan and print out multiple times). Then work with it again from a different angle and continue working—repeating and revising until something exciting emerges.

"Repetition and revision" is a concept that surfaced recently in the "Plays & Politics" class I am taking. The term is used in describing a storytelling style in some of Shakespeare's plays, in jazz, in Toni Morrison's Belovedin learning to play an instrument, and in the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks. I think it is also useful to apply it to bookmaking and think about making books that are like jazz pieces. Repetition familiarizes us with the material and gives us a way in. Change wakes us up.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Bouquet of Art in the Schoolroom

So often, due to lack of funding, art is the first thing that is cut from the school curriculum. We who make it are always outraged. We know art matters, although we can't always articulate why it matters. In an inspiring recent article, Charles Blow wrote about a Head Start program in West Harlem in a renovated building formerly filled with illegal activities and shady characters that is now filled with art and light. The poor children who attend the program are thriving. Head Start is a national program for underprivileged preschoolers that provides education, food, health services and other services to prepare kids for school. The "other services" in this location happen to be inspiration and beauty through nature and art. And if the children's art is up on the walls, they learn pride as well. The issues raised in this article reveal an answer: children need hope in order to live and by viewing and making art they develop and maintain that hope.

We all need hope and inspiration. It is interesting that in harder economic times we tend to buy small things to keep ourselves going. I recently read that sales of nail polish, flowers, and handbags go up when the going is rough. Something beautiful makes us feel better, lifts our spirits. For some reason the lifting of the spirits is not in the California State Standards for art, although "aesthetic valuing" is. Many of the teachers know about the lifting of the spirits, thankfully, and are able to inspire as well as to instruct.

Ironically, at some public schools in New York, fire inspectors told the administrations that most of the art had to be removed from the walls. They said, "…no more than twenty percent of your wall space can have things hanging on it that are flammable." The unhappy schools have mostly complied, although I wonder if there might be some alternatives to the all or mostly nothing approach. The schools know that the kids are happiest surrounded by art and especially by art they create themselves.

Many of us believe that we should continue to make and fund art. We've heard the stories of kids who could finally express themselves, who were visual learners, and who found pride through their artistic talent. It is heartening to hear that art inspires hope. Hope isn't an extra quality to be given or taken as funding permits. Hope is essential to education.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Origami Envelope Pocket

What's that in your pocket? I've included this little origami envelope in most of my instructional books because it makes a good pocket you can easily attach to a larger book. You can also use it alone and slip a little square book, card, or tag inside. Or bind several together to create a a book with all pocket pages. For content, think about what you carry in your pockets, a favorite article of clothing with pockets, memory of clothing with pockets, or a narrative about a hidden secret.

Try making square versions of these books and cards to slip inside the envelope: X book (32), Shorts book (35), Pants book (36), Snake book (39), Twist card (43) Miniature Tied binding (shown above, 65). The Origami Pocket itself is also shown (186). Page numbers are from Making Handmade Books.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Creative Control & Responsibility

Themed art exhibits and themed literary magazines generally make me uneasy unless I think I'm going to be able to experience the world differently, either by viewing them or by participating in them. Are they, on some level, transformative? An art show about polka dots, for example, could be all surface and dotty, or it could include the history of the name, fabrics made with dots, famous people who wear them and their biographies, and any political or social connotations, if such existed. Artists simply could be asked to submit work with dots or to submit well-rounded work that connects to these deeper themes. Interesting how deep this could go from such a light subject. In all cases, the curator makes the call. The curator, to make a book analogy, has the title, the covers, and selects the pages from the submissions. Submissions. Submit. Another reason to be uneasy. The artist is a contributor but not necessarily viewed as an individual. The curator/editor has the creative control and the overall vision. Which is great if you are the curator or the editor.

Or is it? With creative control comes responsibility for the outcome. A potential exhibit came up recently in Oakland. The Museum of Children's Art planned to show artwork from traumatized Palestinian children created in art therapy centers. Children's art. Did the children want to show this? If adults decide to show children's art, who has the creative control? What are they saying? Here, on the surface the statement is general and universal: war is bad, children suffer, look how children can work through trauma and express themselves through their art. Looking deeper, looking at MECA, the adult sponsor of the exhibit, you can't miss the pro-Palestinian statement when they gathered the work together (Israeli flags drawn on the military hardware, a few American flags on it as well). The museum was pressured to withdraw their intended exhibit. They were shocked, shocked to discover that the Middle East is a controversial topic. The curators surely weren't just using the art "to foster insight and understanding," (both are admirable) which is what their letter to the public implies. With such an explosive topic, it is naive to think that focusing on these children's use of art as an expressive medium was enough. The overall curatorial vision avoided the actual content. Suddenly, the cancellation of the exhibit became a political issue, as if it wasn't political up until this point.

The curators had a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility if they had chosen to proceed. The subject is large and complicated, with good guys and bad guys on both sides. They could have featured interactive activities, discussions, examinations of different cultures. Presenting hard topics is a hard task. These topics make people uncomfortable and they are confusing; the excuse for cancelling the exhibit was that the children wouldn't understand. That they would be frightened. The kids who are frightened live in our inner cities already and I don't see any exhibits of their work. Other children are frightened, too. In the "Plays & Politics" class I am taking currently, we were asked to write about our first political memory. Even though we are all different ages, half of the earliest memories were about war or worrying about being drafted and dying. War concerns many generations.

The museum could have shown that war affects all human beings by including work from Israeli children who have witnessed their own share of war as well. War is made by adults. Death doesn't choose sides.

These are children we are talking about. In this case, they were vulnerable children who were not making art to share with anyone; they were trying to work through their trauma, and their work was ostensibly going to be shown to demonstrate their feelings to the world. Artwork from adults is clearly a political statement. In an ideal world, perhaps, this show could have generated a thoughtful discussion rather than degenerate into the recent distracting, finger-pointing session about censorship. An exhibit is only as good as the vision that precedes it. With research, time, care, and planning, a themed show like this one could have been a transforming experience for everyone. Perhaps the discussion has just begun.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Walking with Maeve Brennan's Spirit

"Somebody said, 'We are real only in moments of kindness.'"
The above quote is from the "Author's Note" to The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan. The book is a compilation of columns she wrote for the New Yorker in the 1950s-60s about her walks around New York. These are not sightseeing walks, yet she sees sights, most of which are contained within a few blocks of wherever she is currently living. There are old brownstones with restaurants underneath them, buildings in various states of demolition, one of her favorite eateries, Le Steak de Paris, and "The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown" (43). But more importantly to her are the people that come and go from these places and how they behave towards one another, the little moments of humanity within the rushing city.

In "On the A Train" from February 15, 1958, a man offers her his seat but she declines, mistakenly saying her stop is next. Although it becomes very important to her that she right her mistake so that the man does not think ill of her, she worsens the situation. She ends the piece with "Sometimes it is very hard to know the right thing to do" (16). This feeling carries over into a story from July 23, 1960, "Giving Money in the Street" (175). Brennan gives an "unfortunate-looking woman" a dollar, but the woman repeatedly calls after her, "It's too much." Brennan feels uneasy thinking about why this should be so. Her moments of kindness, such as the one in the latter piece, actually become her challenges. Perhaps this is the reality, then: we face conflicts when we are awakened from our entrenched thoughts and worn routines, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

Brennan finds these moments of challenge in what I call the "stories in the days." I'm a fan of the story in the day—and one is always there, if only we watch for it. Brennan made watching for those stories her job, and she got paid to notice them. Reading her observations, frettings, and musings heightened my own awareness and got me looking very closely at a routine walk that I take around my neighborhood. I started choosing objects along the walk to revisit and I started watching for changes. A monumental urn was placed in a park where the day before no urn existed. A house was demolished over the period of five days. Chairs migrated to the curb, then disappeared. A discarded wooden box was eventually spraypainted with a colorful face. I started listening to the snippets of conversations and arguments of other walkers passing me, and I imagined the kinds of challenges they faced.

I walked with a friend recently past some Jehovah's Witnesses who commented on her "nice hound." When she and I sat down at a shady bench in a park nearby they approached us, asking us if we would like some reading material. It was a Friday. She told them "Shabbat Shalom" and that she was Jewish. "Shalom means peace, doesn't it?" asked one man. Yes, it does. She smiled radiantly at them and they went on their way. She said, "Instead of an uncomfortable moment, I like to make it a teaching moment."

All these details are teaching moments. I'm still walking, examining, revisiting, and listening. The focus on these details is like getting a hearing aid or a new paintbrush and adds clarity, humility, and color to my walks. I thank my friend, and if I could, I would thank Ms. Brennan (1917-1993). These are real gifts, just right, not too much at all.

At the New Yorker's website you can read some of the abstracts/summaries of the Maeve Brennan's columns by searching the archive for "long-winded lady." If you are a subscriber already, you can read the full stories.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

One Nation

I was moved to print this card the second week of September, 2001. Here in the United States we had suffered a tragedy together which caused us to be kinder to one another…for a little while. There's a big to-do over this, the tenth anniversary, a look at how we were changed, memories of the event, memorials of those who died. But what is even more heartbreaking to me is that ten years later we really are back to "authority and rigid thinking." We aren't working together to make our world or anyone else's a better place to live. On September 1, President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner were in disagreement over the "date and time of the president's much-awaited speech" about increasing jobs and fixing the economy. Really? One nation…divided again.

We really should remember.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Book for Michelle Carter's Play

When Michelle Carter asked if I (or someone I knew) could make a scrapbook prop for her latest play Patience Worth, I was delighted and said I'd do it. I don't ordinarily make scrapbooks, I'm not close to being a scrapbooker, but I do make things periodically for friends. In this case, the scrapbook is integral to the play: it is only through these clippings that a young girl knows her spirit mother. Michelle only knew she wanted something nice and something different, but she couldn't tell me anything specific. The only constraints she gave me were that the book had to look real because the front row of the audience would be able to see it up close, and it had to be able to be refilled. Commissioned projects can be satisfying or alarming: the person can love whatever it is that you do, or s/he already has something in mind but can't describe it. It is always frustrating when the person sees it and says, "Oh, but I really wanted ______."

It was hard to know where to begin. I needed a context, a reason. What should the book feel and look like? How big? What kinds of materials? I asked to read the script; she sent a scene where the girl is reading snippets of the clippings aloud. The time was the early 1920s in St. Louis, so I researched scrapbooks of that time and based a design on those images. The hinged hard cover has two holes with eyelets: the wire-edged ribbon runs through them. The endpapers are acrylic ink painted Tyvek, the cover is a handcut stencil with gold gesso. For the articles, I took some of Michelle's written words, created titles, filled them out with lorem ipsum, and laserprinted them. Stonehenge is a thick paper with a manufactured deckle edge so I cut the paper to make use of the deckle and adhered the articles to the pages with photo corners and/or glue stick. All this paper gives the book a solid feeling.

So much trust goes into this kind of project. It is a relief when it works.

The play opens Friday, September 9, 2011 at Thick House in San Francisco (1695 18th Street), and runs through Sunday, October 2.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Margaret Kilgallen: Artistic Lineage

It is an interesting feeling to walk into a room and find that the art is solid and grounded, and that the work has many deep roots, connected both downward and outward. I am sorry I never met Margaret Kilgallen because her art evokes that feeling for me. I saw her work at the Art in the Streets graffiti show at LA MOCA and didn't know and later couldn't even remember her name, but I knew I needed to find out.

I was drawn to her work immediately because the lettering resembled old wood display type. At the time, I wondered if these were salvaged signs made into sculpture, but soon learned she had painted them all new, herself. It was uncanny. Who was she and why were these giant letters, clearly made with historical knowledge and research, in a graffiti show? I wanted to understand her story from the letterpress and bookmaking angle, if there was one.

And there was. She studied printmaking and learned letterpress at Colorado College (BFA, 1989) from Jim Trissel and later worked in a letterpress shop and as a bookbinder for the San Francisco Public Library in 1990, after volunteering for awhile. She was interested in fifteenth and sixteenth century letterforms as well. At SFPL she met Daniel Flanagan and from him learned more about book conservation and how to repair paper, which is likely why some of her paintings are on discarded book pages. She painted on gallery walls and on outside walls in the Mission district. Margaret Kilgallen and several others were dubbed as part of the Mission School of art because of their geographic location, their new approach, and their subject matter: graffiti, skateboards, surfing, trains.

Additionally, Kilgallen depicted "strong women," particularly unknown or formerly invisible ones such as: Fanny Durack, an Australian swimmer who was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal; Matokie Slaughter, the first woman banjo player she heard on an Old Time record; Algia Mae Hinton, who played guitar and buckdanced;  Kathleen Hanna, rock star. An extremely wonderful (and well-made) book, published in 2005 that has many full-color plates, two essays and excerpts from an interview with her is Margaret Kilgallen: In the Sweet Bye & Bye (available through Giant Robot). She says, "I don't like to choose people that everybody knows. I like to choose people who just do small things and yet somehow they hit me in my heart" (120-121). Many of the words Kilgallen painted were these women's names.

She was connected to other women artists such as Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain, with whom she worked as they installed their incredible project at SFPL at Civic Center in 1996: 50,000 altered catalogue cards inset into the walls. You can see two of Kilgallen's 'zines (both from approximately 1998): "Nellie was there" and "Fly by Night," in the library's own Little Maga/Zine collection. Books and type continued to interest her even as she painted.

In  a video interview here, Daniel Flanagan, currently a book conservator for the California State Library, notes that the bottoms of her painted trees look like the serifs at the bottom of letterforms. She liked what he calls "vernacular typography:" handpainted signwork, posters "that were printed, really, using wood type."(minute 5:30) Her work is also rooted in Japanese woodblock prints and Asian calligraphy, where the artist/writer used one brush for both writing and painting.

Kilgallen says of Flanagan, "He taught me to work with the flow of the hand. If you're sewing a book, you don't stop…because by having that flow… it will show, and your work will come out better" (118). The flow does show in her paintings; it is hard to tell where lines begin or end. She always painted by hand, going over and over the lines, never projecting the letters or using stencils. This practice, this attention to detail, put the movements and marks inside her body, ready when she needed them.

The source of this installation: when she was on a surfing trip to Mexico she saw shacks made of billboards, which inspired her try making them herself (66-67).

Part of the essence of her art, the impulse behind it, was her dislike of being constantly being bombarded by inane subject matter, particularly from billboards. Countering this irritation, she presented her own symbols and vocabulary, all created by hand. In addition to the big wall paintings, she stitched together small paper paintings into larger, quilt-toplike forms or hung many framed works close together, a bombardment of her own style. She says, "We completely block it [advertising] out as if we don't see it, but for some reason we don't think of it as garbage…That's like mind garbage…people might want to put their own visuals—graffiti—in their own neighborhood, something that they could relate to" (123-124).

She sounded like she cared deeply for her work, for people, for the world. "She was always leaving out half her sandwich for whoever might want it,"  says Flanagan (10:48).

You can find out more about Kilgallen from an essay by Aaron Rose as well as through photographs of her work in Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture, which is both a book and a video. You can see some long excerpts on YouTube. A good video, an excerpt from the PBS series is Art21: Art in the Twenty-First Century, which captures Kilgallen, her work, and her philosophy. The following is a short clip to give you an idea.

Margaret Kilgallen died of complications from breast cancer in 2001, at age 33, three weeks after her daughter was born. Her husband, artist Barry McGee, and her daughter Asha Kilgallen-McGee carry on.

July 2011, outside MOCA, someone had installed this tribute to her—a bicycle garden. I discovered later that it was instigated by Randall Poster and Aaron Rose. The handlettered beige sign in light blue, black, and warm red (by the green bike) reads: This Mobile Bike Farm at MOCA / is Dedicated to the Memory of Artist / Margaret Kilgallen / (1967-2001) / Designed By: Futurefarmers / Tended By: Silver Lake Farms / Presented by Wild Goodness and Levi's Film Workshop.

Margaret Kilgallen stretches and reaches out and through her artistic roots to us. Grow, art, grow.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

100th Post: ArtBeets, Why Not?

Since we were talking about numbers and specific numbers seem to be important and since the publishers of Making Handmade Books wanted one hundred in the title, I thought I would point out that this is my one hundredth post. In fact, to celebrate, I will make it only one hundred words.

What occurred to me the other day, when I asked myself why I was doing something odd was, “why not?” No good reason not to. So “why not” is both a good answer and a good question.

Thanks for reading. Your comments charge me up.
More to come…