"The eye has to travel."
The eye has to travel,
in order to observe how best to hold the things we love,
much the way nature does.
The eye has to travel,
in order to consider the wayward journey of things not of one's land.
Not to judge,
but to remember that there are forces more enormous, more powerful and further beyond our control than the minor acts of what are first assumed to be irresponsibility.
And to also remember that we are all guilty of these accumulations,
these small, yet mindless acts of discarding.
The eye has to travel, inward, in order to solve the challenge of preserving the things we love.
Not because of some need for nostalgia. Or sentimentality.
But because these objects deserve reverence.
The things we find deserve to be held.
Even if for a short time.
Even if they are ugly.
Even if the task involved with some of them feels insurmountable.
Because it is through this act of holding
that we learn and teach and discover
the most basic lessons of responsibility.
In 2003, in a wandering-around-a-Swedish-city-where-I-could-maybe-get-us-fed-as-long-as-I-only-had-to-ask-for-an-open-faced-sandwich-and-a-cup-of-coffee kind of way, we stumbled upon Gothenburg's Rohsska Museum. A new exhibition had just opened, and while I'd never heard of this artist and my husband and I were mid-afternoon crabby (what we really needed was an open-faced sandwich and a cup of coffee), the signage for this bright, textile-y exhibit was alluring and people poured through the front doors, so we checked it out.
The work on exhibit was by a guy named Kaffe Fassett. (I know, right, you've never heard of him either.)
And as I bumped into Swedes who'd stopped to inspect the seashell-inspired needlepoint upholstery and the enormous colorful sweaters and the prolific monochromatic quilts, I jammed my fists deeper into my pockets because I really (and I mean, really) wanted to flip all these things inside out. I wanted to inspect edge finishes and backs. Analyze materials. Squeeze. Prod. I know my gallery-visiting self well enough to keep the pokey fingers on lockdown, but others apparently didn't because the security guard spent the afternoon rushing all over the place, politely asking for restraint. This was hard for the particular group gathered there that afternoon.
My Swedish isn't great, but I recognize an undertone when I hear one. I can translate a petty criticism, a fleeting muttered comment. That hem doesn't hang straight. Does he really make all these things by himself? The stitches are uneven. That sweater needs to get blocked. I wish I had a photograph of a certain needlepoint tapestry that hung down over an entryway -- not because of the remarkable work, but because of the hilarity of watching every single Swede that walked beneath it contort their necks to view the snarled wool and knots visible on the warped back side.
I can make fun of Swedes because I am one -- well, a half a one plus a bit of one -- and because I shared their thoughts that afternoon. Anyone who has been taught to sew by a Swede (or a German or a Dane or a Norwegian or a Finn, or a Russian Grandmother ... etc.) and has survived the PTSD of, "The back has to look as good as the front," or the dreaded, "You have to rip this out because it's not perfect," will tell you:
This kind of thinking is REALLY hard to shake.
My mother taught me how to embroider when I was about 3 or 4. Taught me how to use a Viking machine and to manipulate a Simplicity pattern when I was 9. And then I took off. At 17 I knew my way around a Brother industrial single needle, could troubleshoot and rethread an industrial 5-thread overlock, and began training with a designer while going to undergraduate school for degrees in art and textiles. My mother was then asking me for sewing advice.
And here's where I have to take a second to collect my thoughts, because this was going to be a post about how I really have a dislike for commercial fabrics. How nothing zaps my creative energy faster than a fabric store. How, in order to use the vintage fabrics and thrift store clothing and linens that really fire me up, I have to back almost everything with cotton interlining and this is where I employ all that commercial quilting fabric. This was going to be a post about technique. I was going to flip my work inside out and show you all the B-sides. Show you something that maybe everyone else is already doing, but I'm too silly and in my head to know this.
And yes, I do press the majority of my seams open. It reduces bulk and this technique amasses it. But now I'm bored with this whole idea. Why talk about it more? You get it: interesting, yet thin fabrics + hours of extra work + structural reinforcement = Content Swede.
Right. So, I'm far more curious about that sentence up there, the one about my mom asking for help with the skill she taught me in the first place ... this resonates with me all of a sudden. I'm interested in mining that intersection of motherhood and childhood and the ideas and techniques that are passed on, because what, exactly, does it mean to have your child suddenly become more proficient at something than you are?
It's going to happen. We want this to happen for our children. We want to give them the tools and the foundation and the skills to go out into the world and forge their own way. A master tailor I worked for, Manuel, used to say "Kill the father," meaning, "Become better at this than I am." But when does what we teach our children become a hindrance? When is our voice a muttering, petty criticism that lodges in their minds and keeps them from moving freely into creativity? Keeps them forever ripping out the same seam again and again until nothing's left but a hole?
In our house my husband and I have a gentle reminder for one another with regards to what we say to our children. Sometimes laughed out loud, sometimes muttered in passing, it is: Hear you, hearing you.
--My 8-year old claiming that the boy in his swim class is "inappropriate and disrespectful towards the teacher?" Hear you, hearing you.
--My 6-year old wanting to loan a book to a friend "so she can get a sense for the overall series?" Hear you, hearing you.
--Both of them bursting into tears over this or that project because they can't make it perfect? The first time? Hear you, hearing you.
And a museum full of Swedes one afternoon, who've been taught to work by hand with stoic perfection, viewing a wild riot of colorful textile gestures, seemingly created at a speed barely able to keep pace with the ideas tumbling out? Hear a generation, hearing a generation...and a generation, and a generation, and a generation. That's scary.
So, do we embrace these voices, this history, in our work? In our lives? Or do we heave and push against it? Or both. Maybe it's some kind of luxury to take the time to even think about it, but sometimes the work takes so long that all I have is time to wander around in my head, bumping into all those other Swedes. I spend more time undoing perfect stitches in an attempt to free the look of the hand than I do ripping out actual mistakes. I'm unraveling on a cellular level.
Damn ... here I've gotten all heavy and flipped myself inside out to present my B-side for you all to prod. Makes me realize I need a cup of coffee. Here, I'll order one for you, too, and we'll page through this lovely Kaffe Fassett book. Then let's just take a peek at the back of this stitching here and assure this Little One that the knots and wool snarls don't matter. It's all easily fixed and no, you don't have to re-do it, and no, we're not re-doing it for you. Because what we want her to embrace and understand and carry with her into adulthood is the idea that it's the motivation to keep going that is the true perfection.
Betterment is a perpetual labor. The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality. To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only humans ourselves. We are distractible, weak, and given to our own concerns. Yet still, to live as a doctor is to live so that one's life is bound up in others' and in science and in the messy, complicated connection between the two. It is to live a life of responsibility. The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.
No one in my family is a doctor. I'm frightened by and in awe of doctors in the same way I'm frightened by pain, yet completely in awe of the transformative power it wields, mentally, physically. So when I read a book, written by a doctor who is also a writer and -- turns out -- a human, too, I can't help think about it for a while. Mainly, I wonder, do any of his words make sense when applied to my own life? My own humble work?
We all want to be better.
Better at our jobs, better at our relationships, better at being human. My hands don't save lives, but they work. Could I take Gawande's advice to the medical profession for how to be better and apply it to the work lying here in front of me?
I'll not list his specific suggestions for becoming a "positive deviant," but I'll make the suggestion to read his work; he is an exceptional writer and speaker.
What I will do is list the questions I found myself asking of myself while I read, and still ask now:
Am I curious enough?
You don't know everything -- even about your own work -- so what else can you discover? Do you know who your peers are? You probably know who's led the way, who you disagree with, or admire or long to mentor with, but more importantly, do you know the work of the generation surging behind you? Do you know who nips at your heels? Is the tide rising or lowering? What if you sought these people out and asked them questions about their lives, their motivation ... what would you learn? This information could inform your work, make it better. Aside from curiosity, one could even call it kindness.
Am I being a whiner? Again?
How many times have we gathered and found ourselves slipping into the same complaints with the same groups of people? How many times have you really solved problems with this technique? Maybe we could have alternative topics in our back pockets, a way of steering a conversation gone sour, not to ignore a topic, but to at least give it a rest for a while. Maybe we'd be better at finding solutions, or at least finding a sense of peace if we weren't so pissed off about the unfairness of it all, all the damned time.
What could I be analyzing?
If you try to find answers in the way science does, by counting, comparing, analyzing the differences and outcomes, then odd connections may lead to insight about your work or yourself. Gawande writes, "If you count something interesting, you will learn something interesting." We can all be better counters, better comparers, better analyzers.
Do I really have something to say?
If you are writing -- as you should be -- and finding and willing an audience to read your words, then are you also editing? Are you distilling thoughts in a meaningful way, or burping up some free-writing to send out into the world? Because it could be that the place for the latter is a private journal. Not every thought needs to be shared with everyone, all the time. Be a better editor. Write meaningfully. Succinctly.
And lastly, why do I resist change?
Because you are afraid. To be better means taking risks. But even if a risk makes you worse for a while, the experience may make you better, eventually. Be patient. Wait for "eventually." Stop resisting change and see what happens.
In the meantime, pay attention to the little things, all the small clues that add up to something much larger and require immediate action. Someone you love might need a doctor. And he'll need to be still and rest for 72 hours so he can get better.
Scope of work:
1.) Illustration for the 2015 Nevada Reading Week Conference. Check.
2.) With dogs. Check.
3.) Must use the theme "Got Books?" Check.
4.) Must appeal to a variety of ages (K through middle school + adults). Check.
5.) Must fit on a t-shirt + bookmarks and publicity materials. Check.
6.) 5 colors, including black and white. Check.
7.) Vectorize for reproduction. Ch...vector-what?
So, for those of you who didn't know this, I used to illustrate children's books. Which is not to say I never will again, I'm just taking a break for a variety of reasons. One reason is ironic -- it's because I now have children. When I started in 2000, I could work the way I needed to work to meet deadlines, make the changes required from artistic directors, and submit on time (ALWAYS submit on time, people, ALWAYS). And when I had my first child in 2006, I thought I could insert him into the backpack and keep right on working. He, of course, being a person, had other ideas.
Child #2 had some good ideas, too. And the 8pm to midnight illustration shift will get you by for a while but it's not sustainable. Mentally.
The other reason I felt the need to take a break was the ultimate cliche. I was that woman who'd left a career to have a family and then when she was ready to return to work, everything about her job had changed.
Fed Ex original artwork to the publisher? Nope.
Did my trusty 2001 scanner talk to my new Mac so I could scan and upload properly? Nope.
But I'm flexible and a learner and a worker, so that's a bad excuse. So here's another:
Did my hair start falling out the summer I prepared to head to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's conference in LA after not having gone to this phenomenal gathering in 8 years? Yup.
The third reason is that motherhood changed me. I lost the lightness and naïveté of the first books. I had other people's cels roaming around in my body and I would never be that self I was before children again. I was now, dark. Mostly, I was sleep deprived. One art director I met with in LA looked at my portfolio and said, "Normally I'm never without words. But right now, I am." (And not in a good way, let's be clear folks). Another writer and illustrator, who'd just won a Newbery very graciously sat down with my portfolio and after some thought said, "Your work is threatening." (And not in a good way. Again folks, let's be clear). He said, "You are forgetting that this work is for children. This is dark. This is terrifying." He understood. His own work is dark. (Which is what I LOVE about it, by the way). He had to check himself, his own artwork, constantly.
(And yes. I completely recognize that there is a place for dark children's book art. However, this was not apparently...umm...in demand at the moment.)
Soooo, sometimes the Universe has to resort to whacking you over the head so you'll listen. And then you become a textile artist, where you feel completely uninhibited and dark and moody and allow yourself to take a break from the "Bunny Eat Bunny World" of children's book publishing. Temporarily. Or something.
But every once in a while you get a call from an old friend and agree to do a side job, which turns out to be pretty fun. And luckily, you're able to phone the t-shirt printer in Nevada and ask about "This Vectorizing Business" and when she sees your artwork she says, "No problem, I can do that for you." But mostly what she wants to talk with you about is Alaska. Sweet, because you're not interested in a crash course in vectorizing. You have a feeling it will make all your hair fall out. And you can talk about Alaska all damned day because it makes you feel wildly interesting.
Perfect for reproducing on a t-shirt? Yes!
Am I a graphic artist? No. I didn't do the vectorizing. And I don't want to learn how. Ever.
I like ghost lines. I like smudges. I like the mark of the maker's hand. I like a wonderfully crappy underdrawing demanding some attention beneath the final marks. And I tell my kids this all the time: "I want to see your underdrawing." I take erasers away. We have favorite illustrators whose underdrawings are what we admire most about the final illustrations. "Underdrawing" is a word like "Caldecott" and "Newbery" and "Trace" and "Final Design" and my children have known these terms since they were 3.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no purist. I recognize the shift from page to screen. And I have to say, I'm totally THRILLED to upload images to a site and not have to deal with building in an extra 3 days for shipping and insuring illustrations. That's a freaking game changer. But it's just one of many tools. I think the biggest fear residing within me is that everything will become vectorized and screen ready. Including my children. Do I read bedtime stories on the iPad? No. My husband does. I flatly refuse and say, "Sorry, I just don't know how it works," and then I sneak away and go work on my blog in the dark while Papa takes over. Do I read on a Kindle/tablet? No. It makes me feel like I want to puke. Something about the "page turns" makes me sea sick. Do I sometimes look at Pinterest before I fall asleep? YES! And then I wake up 4 hours later (!), completely overstimulated (!) and thirsty (!) and lay there reminding myself for the next 3 hours (!) never to do that (!). Again (!). But then I do.
But this isn't a post about screens vs. paper pages. It's just a post about a side job and it would fun to hear your thoughts on the above process images vs. the final outcome.
My humble-yet-opinionated-because-I've-seen-a-lot-of-bad-art opinion? There's a tool for every job. The real skill lies in recognizing when something is a useful tool and when it's just a gadget/gizmo/whizbang/hot-new-thing. Are you using a hot-new-thing because it's a hot-new-thing, or because it's the right tool? This is the same lens I apply to working with textiles. I am constantly asking myself: Is this the right vehicle for what I want to say? Could I say the same thing with a photograph? With a painting? In writing? Is this the right medium at all? Do I need a hot-new-thing?
And then I make a go or no-go choice.
The most important part about a work-for-hire job, any job, is that the client is happy. And I think those librarians will be. I sent them the original artwork to frame and use however they'd like. My kids are thrilled. They'll each get a t-shirt in the mail.
And I've learned a new word (VECTORIZE!) and get to go back to stitching now. However I like.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.