Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Importance of Being a Reader (to a Writer)

"How important is the reader to the writer?" wrote a reader, which started me thinking.
We look at who and what the reader is. The writer imagines the reader as her audience. Could be someone she knows. Could be a sea of someones. What is the sound of a performance without an audience? 

The first reader is the writer. The writer must be delighted by the work and feel it accomplishes what she set out to do. But to make the work an act of communication and sharing rather than one of personal entertainment, she gives it over to a second reader. 

The next reader is important to the writer because he can point out where the work is confusing or seems unfinished. The writer may have a picture in her mind and think the characters are conversing at a table in the backyard, but the reader may wonder if they are at home or in a café. Are they siblings? friends? married? separated? parent and child? The second reader's job is to ask the questions so the writer can clarify what is going on.

Once the writing is out in the world, the readers determine how long the story lives. In an online article called "Why the reader/writer contract is important" by Susan Rand, she writes:
When an author sits down to write a book she enters into a contract with the reader. The reader's part is to buy the book and recommend it to his friends.… the writer promises the reader that she will take his hand and guide him safely through the world created in the book. 
It is assumed that if the story is advertised as a gentle story of the natural world, it won't become a graphic horror story halfway through. If it does change outrageously like this, the readers will feel betrayed. If the writer antagonizes the readers, the readers won't want to read anymore. Additionally, if the writer is skeptical of the readers, the readers will feel it. The writer must treat the readers as equals, she must not dismiss them, either by explaining too much or writing over their heads. If the story is lost, the message is lost. 

The writer trusts that the readers will engage with the work and give it a fair try. The readers trust that the writer respects them and provides what is promised. The story comes alive when it is written and reactivated when it is read. And through the readers, the story lives.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Summer Book Art Gallery

or What I did on My Summer Vacation. If you have been reading, you have seen some of the work in the making, particularly Cactus Couple, which showed wet felting and needle-felting, The Bones of Crows, which started out as a cigar box tutorial, Let Me See: 20/30, with thirty-word stories inspired by the Safety Pin Review, Gangster, with altered text and a Jacob's ladder, and Shadows of Language, inspired by Sashiko.

Cactus Couple
Who can judge the success of a marriage?
Take the pearl-headed pins out of the felt book and
push them into the cactus egg while you read.

The Bones of Crows
The bones of crows are hollow.
What weighs them down?

Let Me See: 20/30
Vision is askew in these twenty thirty-word stories.
Read the book. Pin the patches to your clothes,
or hook them together and hang them on your wall.
Check your eyes with the 20/30 line of the eye chart
stenciled inside the lid.

A Delicate Situation
Different cultures hold different things in high esteem.
Is that really a bird's leg?

You Thought You Wanted to Be Invisible
All those conventions, all those politicians in suits
are taken care of by many someones. The invisible
people make things happen. They are never in the pictures
in the newspapers (non-photo blue). The notepad 
is from "Hotel Never Mind" and contains excuses and notes 
from guests to the maid service,
generally regarding the tip.

A found book about true crime. 
A found gangster who committed true crime. 
Look! A bag of shredded money!

The Daily Bean
The Daily Bean
The Daily Bean
Growing beans in a cup for art is not all that it seems.
Read the diary, handle the glass object, wonder if 
there are red beans in the felted object. (hint: yes.)

Above photos by Sibila Savage.

And, hot off the press, two books in a box which also contains a well with the words from both books: Shadows of Language: What He Meant and Shadows of Language: What She Meant. Same text, except that the genders are swapped. Very strange when we confront our assumptions…

Thank you, readers, for your continuing inspiration.

Watch for these books at the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, CA.

And you can now order a copy of the first twenty-six, short-short stories and photos in book form: Sidewalk Story, the book, is now available from CreateSpace and from Amazon: Sidewalk Story.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How Long Did It Take You?

We are so curious about time and process that, "how long did it take you?" is the everpresent question that creative work inspires. The answer itself, in relation to the work we are interested in, doesn't mean much: "a week" or "two years" or "twenty years, on and off." If we like the work, the art, the book, the story, whatever, we nod and say, "Oh" or  "I see." But something also happens that we may or may not notice: we may be comparing ourselves and our own processes with the answer. 

A week. You wonder how to work this fast. You wonder if it would take longer if you've never done it before. A week. Wow. Eight hours a day? How lucky to have that much time to devote to it. It is so detailed. Or, in your opinion, do you think it might have been better if it had been made more slowly?

Two years. You might think you couldn't do it in a million years. You might wonder why it took so long. You might ask, how could anyone possibly spend that much time on one project? You might decide this person is a master and it took time to be one.

Twenty years, on and off. You might think it is interesting that the project still engages the creator. You might be curious if the maker is nearing completion, or still just enjoying the process. Perhaps something happened that made her/him put it aside: obligations, health issues, business problems. Well, it depends how big and complicated it is, I suppose. A 700-page biography? An art installation? A poem? A perfect poem? Aha.

There's a wonderful, related story in a favorite children's book, Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia by Remy Charlip. (As an aside, in an early edition, the artist is a man, in later editions, the artist is a woman.) Basically, a man pays an artist for a painting of a fish, but after years and years, the painting is not done. Finally, the man demands the painting. The artist quickly paints a beautiful fish as he watches, which makes the man even angrier. Why didn't she do it before? The artist opens a door and "thousands of paintings of fish fell out." How long did it take her? It didn't take five minutes to make the painting. It took many years.

We consider complexity, mastery (and practice), incubation time, and general life issues as we absorb the answer. If one poem takes twenty years, on and off, perhaps it is a perfect poem, arrived at after thousands of attempts.

Some artists do not like to answer the question, "how long did it take you?" They may say they are not wage slaves, that if the work is good it doesn't matter, or that the question detracts from the work. But the curiosity is valid. If the answer matches our perception of our own working style, we may silently wonder the real question, "Could I do this, too?"

detail from new work, Shadows of Language

Search for "how long did it take you?" today and you will get 17,300,000 results that are led by questions about weight and women's issues, followed by jobs and housing. A popular question, indeed!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Craft Barn: Fall Workshops with Alisa Golden

If you happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on certain Tuesday evenings this Fall, I hope you can join us for some fun and relaxing workshops in my East Bay studio from 7-9:15 pm. Each week will feature a new project, versions of which you may have seen here, some you can find in my instructional books, and some are new. The studio is a calm, supportive atmosphere where you can unwind and play. All levels welcome! Four people minimum, Six people max. Here's the line up:

  • Sept. 11: Origami Pocket Flag Book with decorative papers
  • Sept. 18: Brush Book with found pages and abstract marks
  • Oct. 9: Pocket-Sized Hardcover Journal and sewing designs into book cloth
  • Oct. 16: Drum Leaf Book (softcover) and black & gold gesso and gel pens
  • Oct. 23: Art Patches with watercolor markers, paints, and inks on watercolor ground
  • Oct. 30: Dos á Dos Slims (two joined hardcover books) with "text and texture" brush and/or pen and ink
  • Nov. 6: Needle-felted Book and/or Collage with colorful wool
  • Nov. 13: Miniature Cigar Box covered with book cloth
  • Dec. 4: Artist's Postcards with stamps, punches, pencils, thread, and ink
  • Dec. 11: Postcard or Book Quilt: sewing with embroidery thread
75.00 each / all materials included, tools provided.

General info here.
Hope to see you soon!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Assemblage of Fiction

I wondered if "Photoshopped" is in the printed dictionary yet. It isn't. I'd give it the definition of "enhanced, touched-up" or maybe even "an activity used to create a fiction." lists "Photoshopped" as "used to describe something that is fake." Based on what is listed there, it looks like the word, actually the name of a program by Adobe, is becoming accepted into generic use, much like a brand like "Kleenex. "The random people who enter definitions at Urban Dictionary use the word as a derogatory term. I'm still finding it interesting that people want their photographs "real" or "nonfiction" and feel negative toward them as "fiction." Perhaps this is so because advertising is almost always artificial, as are altered sexual photos, and we hate being lied to and being betrayed. The alterations don't have to be bad, however. They can be intentionally humorous. They can be used to radically change an image, to make it into something new, an artful piece that is not assumed to exist in physical form. The transformed photo becomes its own truth. But this is not really about photography, this is about the writing of fiction.

Big moments in history are often used as backdrops for new or composite characters: the American Civil War for Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is an obvious one. Scarlett and Rhett are characters she created out of her imagination. Famous people like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington are mixed into the fictional story of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime: A Novel. Real people, modified events. In both instances, the time, the place or the people are widely recognized by the readers as true, something else is created. Is this Photoshopping? Not unless we are being tricked without our knowledge. 

We don't expect these works to correspond to reality, but we do expect to believe in the world that is created for us in book form. We can go to an accurately described Venice with a fictitious detective, for example, and have a nice armchair trip with a plot. If the geography doesn't work out correctly, say it takes five minutes to go a distance that in real life takes five hours, we probably won't want to read any further. Funny, how that works. Real places, people, and things, must behave as we know them. Fictional towns, characters, and objects can have their own rules. Can you bring them together like Photoshopping? Yes, if we understand which is which.

English classes tend to throw out the term "suspension of disbelief," originally coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), which turns out to be exactly what we are talking about, the combination of the "truth of nature" and the "colours of the imagination" (pages 90-91 on Project Gutenberg in Biographia Literaria):
During the first year that Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination.
Coleridge goes on to describe the two kinds of poetry. One is where the characters have real emotions under "supernatural" circumstances: we sympathize for the people in the strange scenes. In the second, ordinary people are given almost "supernatural" feelings regarding the "loveliness and wonders of the world." We learn how to see through their eyes. I think we are back to Novalis in the attempt to making the strange familiar and the familiar, strange.

Whether s/he chooses heightened awareness of known daily life or real feelings in the face of an imagined situations and places, the writer has the ability to cut and paste and integrate, creating a meaningful fictional story with truth at their core. The result can be assemblage in its best form.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sashiko-Inspired Book Covers

Works by Cy Twombly, Cui FeiIndia Flint, and explorations by Velma Bolyard (Aug. 1 post) recently reminded me of sashiko (pronounced sash'ko), a kind of Japanese stitching. Sashiko ("little stabs" in Japanese) is mainly characterized by designs sewn with a running stitch in white thread on an indigo background. It began as a practical way to layer and reinforce the primarily hemp clothing of poor farmers and fisherfolk in the late 1800s, but is now used as decoration on cotton quilts and other textiles. It was also used to patch together any good pieces of material left from worn-out clothing and create new garments. I wondered how the stitching might look on book cloth and book covers, and also how I might recreate a pieced-together look. The traditional patterns are repetitive and regular. I chose to improvise for bookmaking since I have not studied the formal technique. The work presented here is inspired by (but in no way comparable to) the fine craft taught by sashiko masters (for sashiko instruction, see links to the how-to books, below).

I started with blue book cloth for one, and painted and layered Velin Arches paper with indigo, Prussian blue, black, and marine blue FW acrylic inks for the other (Daniel Smith, Inc. carries both the paper and the inks).

The following assumes you want to individually wrap two boards for a Coptic binding. For the book with painted paper covers I used boards that were 6 1/4" square (159 cm). For the book cloth covered book I used boards that were 4" x 6" (102 - 152 mm). Cut your paper or book cloth to approximately 1" - 1 1/2" (25-38 mm) wider and taller than your boards. Turn the paper or book cloth over and draw around the boards. Traditionally, you would mark out your pattern with a grid and evenly sized stitches before you sew. You can do this now, if you like.

Use a long bookbinding needle and start sewing with waxed linen thread from the wrong side. You can use a bone folder to press the end of the thread to the paper to hold it. (The example is shown with unwaxed thread.) If you want a straight line, take your needle in and out and in and out before you pull the thread through. If you are sewing curves, you will need to sew each stitch separately.

Wrap the boards as shown on page 209 of Making Handmade Books, including the end papers. Cut the endpapers 1/4" (6 mm) smaller than your boards so you will have a 1/8" (3 mm) margin, or see this post for wrapping boards and a binding that includes a book block. Glue tends to seep through the sewing holes, so I recommend placing waxed paper under the cover paper or book cloth to protect your work surface before you apply the glue to the back. Discard the waxed paper. Press the boards into place

sewn on paper
sewn on book cloth

Hiromi Paper sells book cloth that is reminiscent of indigo-dyed cloth or denim. Some styles to look at: 341-72-Mohair Deep Blue; 201S-65 Sumida-Ori Blue (which I believe is what I used for the example shown); 540-73 - SN Shantung Midnight Blue. Or you may wish to dye the cloth yourself and make your own book cloth with mulberry paper and wheat paste (see page 22 of Making Handmade Books, Backing Cloth). And, of course, no one says it has to be blue.

For correct technique and lovely authentic patterns, you might refer to the excellent reference and instructional book, Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook by Susan Briscoe. She gives history, traditional patterns, more modern ones, and projects that features sewing sashiko by hand. Briscoe's book has patterns grouped by style such as: diamond stars, waves, and steps and weaves, giving multiple variations and their Japanese names. The 18 main projects (with their variations) are nicely shown and include samplers, cards, coasters, table mats, cushions, tote bags, and curtains.

If you are interested in using a sewing machine rather than stitching by hand, Mary  S. Parker's book Sashiko: Easy & Elegant Designs for Decorative Japanese Machine Stitching is very useful. Parker has patterns grouped by how the designs are formed: continuous straight lines, continuous curves, straight lines with pivots, etc., also with their Japanese names included. This book has step-by-step instructions for 20 projects (the book jacket says 25), which are similar to Briscoe's, but also include gift wrap cloths, director's chairs, and quilts.

Both books show and depend on the use of grids, marking patterns, and finding efficient paths on which to sew. Whether or not you wish to pursue the craft of sashiko by hand or with a sewing machine, the patterns can inspire a variety of projects.

Here is a simple article and link to Sashiko supplies. And a very quick sampler video:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Craft of Imitation: Restoring and Copying

If you walk through the gardens at the Huntington in San Marino, you will inevitably get to the faux-wood railings in the Japanese garden or to a long arbor made of artificial trees. The trees were made of reinforced concrete, created originally in the 1920s by an undocumented craftsman. Due to air pockets between the metal and the cement, water was able to seep in and create rust and decay. These "faux bois" (false wood) arbors in 2012 are surrounded by low wooden scaffolding on which a man in white and gray sits with his mortar and cement, his brushes and bags and nails and tools. If you ask, the man says he is a sculptor and restorer, and he is happy to tell his story. His business card affirms his narrative, adds his name—Terry Eagan—and carries a web address, where you can read about how he came to work in the gardens and see more pictures. Eagan takes his job seriously. He does not try to update, improve the work, or put his own original stamp on it, he wants to restore the sculptures to the undocumented craftsman's original intent.

When I read about the art forger Ken Perenyi, in the New York Times recently I thought about restoring and copying and imitations. The intention behind the copying is important. Perenyi used to pass off his paintings as originals by famous artists and could get $700,000, according to the article. While he was suspected but never arrested, he eventually altered his plans and now sells the works as copies for around $5,000. He got a certain thrill from the deception, and now he has written a book about it, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.  It does make a good transgressive story, but a perplexing one about a canny criminal and con man. A review of the book suggests that the story is also a fake, or an embroidered tale. I have not read the book. For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that what Perenyi wrote was a confession.

While Perenyi might be working aesthetically with the artist's original intent, and while he may be extraordinary skilled, he is not creating anything new. Eagan is copying what already exists, but the restoration is what he has been hired and trusted to do. He is making whole what is broken. There is no moral issue. I find myself interested in Eagan's honest process: his obvious attention to details and love and pride for a craft, even though it may not bring him great wealth or a movie deal. He was so engaged in his work he was nearly invisible; I almost walked past him.

So, if you ever wander through the Huntington Gardens, be on the lookout for Terry Eagan. Ask him about his work.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sherwood Anderson: Beneath the Surface of Lives

Buoyed by the recommendations of several professors, friends, and the fact that it was an inspiration to Ray Bradbury and his book, The Martian Chronicles, I finally read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It was first published in 1919, and the stories appear to take place around the 1880s in the United States, but that is not to say they are dated. We can be refreshed to find couples taking long evening walks together as their primary form of courtship and entertainment (embracing and kissing are optional). While we might notice the lack of automobiles, telephones, and computers, the emotional resonances—the fears, insecurities, loves, lusts, and discomforts—are spot on. The result is, at times, melancholy.

In this collection, Anderson wrote a series of interconnected heart-catching stories that are less concerned with plot than with capturing an emotional moment in time. The dedication is a clue to the contents:
To the Memory of My Mother, Emma Smith Anderson, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated. 
Anderson wove his mother's words into the story "The Teacher" at paragraph 19, "The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say." All of the stories show people doing or saying one thing, but thinking about or wishing they were doing something else. This paralleled his own life: he had a breakdown and left his first marriage, his three young children, and his business to pursue his writing, much to the pain of his family, but delighting and inspiring a later generation of writers.

Beneath the surface of the sentences, style is also important in Anderson's writing. If you have read much Gertrude Stein, particularly aloud, you might begin to hear her cadences in his work. I could hear her reading many of Anderson's stories in my head. Malcolm Cowley, the 1960 editor of Winesburg, writes that Stein's 1909,  Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena "…pointed the way toward a simpler and more repetitive style, closer to the rhythms of American speech…" I would stress that he echoed her rhythms without the incomprehensibility of some of her work. You can read Stein's book onlineStein's repetitions show immediately. Here is a sample of the first paragraph of "The Good Anna:"
Anna Federner, this good Anna, was of solid lower middle-class south german stock. When she was seventeen years old she went to service in a bourgeois family, in the large city near her native town, but she did not stay there long. One day her mistress offered her maid—that was Anna—to a friend, to see her home. Anna felt herself to be a servant, not a maid, and so she promptly left the place.
Similar musical sounds occur in Anderson's "An Awakening." It begins with pairs of adjective/nouns that have consonance ("k" in "dark skin"), and assonance (long "a" sound of "grey" and "eyes," short "i" of "thick lips"). Then: angry and man (internal rhyme), fight and fists (alliteration), shop and kept and Kate and Mc (consonance), sat and hats (internal rhyme), rear and store (assonance) and others:
Belle Carpenter had a dark skin, grey eyes, and thick lips. She was tall and strong. When black thoughts visited her she grew angry and wished she were a man and could fight someone with her fists. She worked in the millinery shop kept by Mrs. Kate McHugh and during the day sat trimming hats by a window at the rear of the store.
If you compare these two stories further, you will likely find that Stein is a fine craftswoman, but that the attention to language often does not allow the reader to get too close to the characters. Anderson's sentence sounds ebb and flow more loosely. He was somewhat grammatically challenged, but he made up for it by diving into his characters' hearts. Belle's frustration, for example, is made even more tangible with the addition of "fists" to the description.

Of all of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio (and they are available to read online, although a paper book is always nice), I think that "The Untold Lie" is one of the strongest and most satisfying. It is also the one that is highlighted and summarized in the introduction by Malcolm Cowley. Two men, at different stages in their lives, have a conversation about women. One asks for advice and the other is torn and twisted, completely in anguish about which answer to give since both are true and both are lies: the answers conflict. (But that's a bit of a simple summary.) Many of the stories wilt, droop, or drift away at the end, and do not have—according to Cowley, and the first I've ever heard this term—the "snapper*," sense or relief, or surprise ending that American folk tales usually had. Instead, each of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, in its own way, grips the reader and gets under the surface of skin.

*anybody ever heard this word to describe the ending? I've heard of twist or turn, but not snapper.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

That Travel Journal Again

As I prepared for my visit to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I sorted through bins of the blank books I have made in hopes of finding one I would like to use as a travel journal. They all stared at me. Not one was willing to travel. I would have to make a new one.

I rummaged around in a bag of discarded book covers that a friend gave me, and picked two covers that seemed durable and possibly waterproof as well. After trimming the boards to a size that would fit in my backpack, I wrapped one edge of each board with decorative paper, tore and folded a couple large pieces of Stonehenge printmaking paper for inside pages, stenciled some of the pages with black gesso, and set about binding the book as a Coptic with paired needles (pp. 181-183, Making Handmade Books). I used a different color thread for each needle and tied the paired ends together inside the first signature. 

I have found that traveling light and limiting my supplies helps. Here is what I pack for a plane trip:
  • Faber-Castell Artist Brush Pens, variety of colors (waterproof and lightfast). These are brush markers.
  • Pencil and white plastic eraser
  • Pigma Micron Pen Black, .05, .005 (permanent ink). These are pigmented fine tip markers.
  • Avery Permanent Glue Stic, 0.26 Oz, Clear (acid-free, photo-safe). The best glue stick that holds for any length of time.
  • Handmade journal with hard covers and thick paper: printmaking papers such as Stonehenge or Lenox printmaking paper (250 gm/sq.m) that will hold collage as well the pen drawings.
  • A small rounded-end scissors or a hole punch (optional)
  • Some waxed linen thread wrapped around a small piece of cardboard (optional)

Since I was driving to L.A., woohoo! I could also bring my sharp and pointy tools and other favorite media. I carry the sharps stuck into a wine cork. All my tools fit into a Medium Art Bin. Additional tools:

Some thoughts came up way back in March, when I visited NYC (posts of some of the pages here):

  • Take your time. Use one page for each event such as museum visit, hike, dream, or dining experience. Don't try to cram a whole day into a page. The book you've brought probably has plenty of pages that you won't be able to fill, anyway.
  • Think about and try out three kinds of lettering styles; use one for titling, one for emphasis, and one for the events of the day.
  • Cut or tear out parts of printed ephemera such as paper bags and take-out menus and use a few interesting pieces instead of trying to use everything.
I was ready. I had a tote bag that was just the right size and that felt satisfyingly full. I had envisioned drawing, writing, or making designs on the black gesso with the gel pens (I was thinking of Tico and Gond Art), but that didn't happen. Instead of a travel journal, I ended up using the book as a notebook and writing the mini-stories that would become the basis for my new mini-fiction blog. So it goes.

There are many artist/writers who are very good about keeping and making lovely travel journals. Two artists I admire in this department are Judith Serebrin, who makes illuminated journals with small paintings and calligraphy, and Andie Thrams, who makes painted nature journals.