Note: The flying squirrel-doodle to the left (12″ x 20″) is the subject of this blog and is the doodle that I refer to throughout. Other images are from my sketchbooks.
What’s in a doodle? Curly do-dads, texture, funny wings, big long tails, emotion, practice, improvisation, new ideas, new media, spilled tea. Even the sound of the word doodle suggests spontaneity and flow. Doodling is the quintessential imaginative drawing, and imaginative drawing is the theme of a new drawing class I’m planning for adult learners this Spring at the Lawrence Arts Center. This class is the reason I’m thinking about doodling at all and about the place of doodling in my own creative process.
I keep sketchbooks but often begin my explorations with writing. So when writing gives way to sketching, doodling, and drawing, a ballpoint pen is in my hand and is often what I use. I learned recently that ballpoint pens are the medium of choice for entire on-line communities of artists. And the January 2014 cover of ARTnews shows the work of ballpoint pen artist Toyin Odutola and inside the magazine is the work of other ballpoint pen artists, too. Inspired by these, I decided to explore this medium in a large-scale doodle-drawing to gain a better understanding of it not just for sketching but for “finished” work as well.
So already through the pen, art and life are connected in a doodle. Or maybe life itself is a doodle because in a doodle, everything feels connected. For example, the first time I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was at the soccer fields in Overland Park, Kansas, and that little piece of history is in this doodle. It isn’t in it literally, but that experience led to something that led to something that is in it. When we returned from Overland Park that day, I looked for this beautiful grey-blue bird with the extravagant tail in my Kansas bird book and found it, “one of the most well-known birds in Kansas.” Ha! I was surprised and wondered what else I have never heard of. And perhaps more interestingly, what might be all around me that I have never seen?
The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher eventually led me to backyard birdwatching. When I was scribble-writing some ideas for this blog, I looked out the window at a zillion Starlings at my suet feeder and seconds later two Downy Woodpeckers were there, and then two Goldfinches and then a slew of Cardinals. The feeder is constantly churning with comings and goings and then, of course, there are squirrels. And there are squirrels in my doodle. It was several months after seeing the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that I decided to get some bird feeders. I got the cheapest feeders I could get — small, plastic and ugly — and a waterer too, and hung one at the side of the house and one in front. And the birds came! And the squirrels came too, lots and lots of squirrels. My husband gave me bigger and better bird feeders as gifts but also grumbled about the cost of feeding a whole neighborhood’s worth of squirrels. But he was the one to notice the littlest and cutest squirrels on the coldest of days saying, “We gotta keep those little guys alive!”
I began reading Bert Dodson’s book, Keys to Drawing with Imagination, and drank in his encouragement to doodle, to stretch your doodles in new directions, to noodle the doodles, and to mix them up. I joked about getting a bird-proof squirrel-feeder. Or how about a Squird feeder! Of course there are Flying Squirrels. But what if flying squirrels had actual wings? What if they had cicada wings?
Doodling odd flying squirrels made me think of those strange prehistoric creatures that surely should not be able to fly but surely did. Amidst my listening to jazz and “All Things Considered” on the radio as I doodled, I heard Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” interview author Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert talked about her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. In it she explores the fact that species are dying off so quickly due to the impact of humans, that it is a time of mass extinction, and is considered the sixth mass extinction on earth.
My flying squirrels will never exist but imagining that they could provided a moment of levity as I listened to Kolbert’s dark accounting of the extinctions of species now taking place as I doodled. I wrestled with the ugliness of it all in the vigorous marks I made in the tails of my flying squirrels. And that’s not all the bad news I was hearing as I worked. At this same time the Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill to preserve “religious rights,” a bill really intended to take away the rights of gay and lesbian people should they ever be allowed marriage equality in Kansas. I explored the absurdity of it all as I doodled.
I went to KU’s Natural History Museum on the day I took my computer in for repairs. Little squirrels had been nesting in there, slowing it down and giving me that interminable spinning pie wheel. It had been a long while since I’d been to the museum, and I wanted to scope it out as a possible destination for my drawing students. There were old bones and taxidermied creatures. I came across a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and a flying squirrel (a dead but real one) and made a quick sketch of the squirrel. And I decided that I would like to make some art about animals that are gone.
And then the doodle was done. I liked some of the things that were going on in it, especially the bottom-most squirrel. The shape and pattern of it had a visual integrity that the more cartoon-like squirrels seemed to lack. I liked working with a Bic ballpoint but wasn’t fully satisfied with it either. I couldn’t get the darks dark enough. I figured out that the basic Bic crystal has a twin, the Bic crystal pens found in the pack of 12 colors, and with these I could eke out a slightly better black and darker blue. I wondered how this image would look in scratchboard, a medium I’ve used a lot. But in scratchboard, how could I keep the sense of spontaneity that I liked here, when I find the application of lines in Scratchboard to be more cumbersome?
The doodle helped me ask questions and forge other kinds of professional connections, too. I wanted a better-than-Bic pen for a blacker black and went on-line to find out how I could un-clog my old Rapidograph technical pens. Happily I found an on-line community to help me. When I posted my doodle on my Facebook page, a friend shared about an interesting on-line doodling community. And the doodle may have suggested a path forward on an illustration job that I’m working on. It even helped me process the beginnings of a collaboration with a composer-friend in New Jersey. We hope to explore a music/visual art collaboration and our point of departure will be nature, climate change, and extinction. For her part she will begin composing about a river. I will start with birds or frogs. Then we’ll trade our work and see how the other person’s art inspires a second round and hopefully many more.
Bert Dodson’s book, including his chapter on doodling, has helped me to push my work in small but significant ways. One key to drawing creatively is to simply draw at all, and through the process of making and working, ideas come. “We tend to think of imagination and creativity as qualities that people have. But in reality these qualities show up only in action–as something you do. Simply put, imagining is what you do in your head; creating is what you do on paper.”
My sketchbook for The Sketchbook Project is done! News, Boats, Better Angels: A Visual Journal, along with thousands of other sketchbooks from around the world, will be included in a traveling exhibit of artist books made this year. The project is coordinated by the Brooklyn Art Library, a branch of the Art House Co-op based in Brooklyn, NY. An on-line catalog of this year’s books will be coming soon.
I have long kept sketchbooks to examine my life and creative process, but this is the first time I’ve made one for public view. It is still a process-oriented book like my other sketchbooks, but in this one I focused on several ongoing themes: better angels (a theme I can’t quite explain but it has to do with grappling with what is the right thing to do), paper boats (a symbol for the flow of life), and news (my response to newspaper stories that struck me especially in an election year). I enjoyed the project because it has enabled me to share a looser, more personal kind of art with others, and I’m excited that I will be able to see other people’s sketchbooks, too.
I wish I had a new art piece to post every day or even every week. But making art is not an instant process. So instead of showing pictures of new work, in this blog I’ll tell you about my current work as it is unfolding right now in my studio.
Here is the start of a new piece: plywood. I just painted a sealer on it. Beginnings are hard, even just that much. I like to avoid beginnings. Instead I make lists, do errands, clean my studio, surf the web. But the drudgery and uncertainty I like to avoid in the beginning is no less a part of the creative process. So I begin. Choreographer Twyla Tharp writes, “If you’re at a dead end, take a deep breath, stamp your foot, and shout “Begin!”
I have a vision of what this piece will be in my mind, and I selected some green cloth from my trove to cover the wood. I envision this piece as a collage with a light green background, a landscape that is barren and shiny with textures made of cloth and gold thread. Small painted silhouettes of mule deer dot the scene, some hiding behind shrubs. The deer are painted and lacquered, black and white, positive and negative, present and absent. I won’t be able to fully translate these ideas into a tangible form. There is an airiness and movement to the piece in my mind that I’ll never achieve in a collage. I enjoy what my college design professor called this kind of beginning, this intention that would inevitably turn into something else: a point of departure.
While the image in my mind feels like the beginning of the piece, my mind started working on it long before I ever thought of making it. So where did this idea — these appearing and disappearing mule deer — come from? The deer came from Mesa Verde National Park, where my family and I camped for two days this summer. We were excited to see deer off to the side of the camp road on our first day there. Later we saw deer a couple of times more, clusters of three or six. On our second day there I stayed at our campsite for most of the day. I sat quietly and sketched. A buck wandered through our tent’s back yard. He didn’t see me at first. When he did, he froze. And when I turned to leave, he left too. Later I opened my mind and my peripheral vision to the whole scene, the whole campground, as I wandered through it towards the camp store looking for a cup of tea. I noticed that there were deer all over the grounds. When I became aware of the whole, I felt the slow churning of the place; mule deer wandering everywhere, some in the open and others hiding, slow motion, looking, watching.
A week later back in Lawrence I put a bit of that experience into my Sketchbook Project sketchbook. I remembered my family and the other campers at Mesa Verde watching the deer and photographing them, and the deer watching us back. Earlier this summer I also saw a deer that struck me, a lone deer running through my Lawrence neighborhood, confused. I made a collage about that experience, too. But unlike the deer in Lawrence, in Mesa Verde the campers were in the deer’s neighborhood and not the other way around. Or that’s how it seemed.
I have other pieces in the works in my studio that are at various stages of completion. One is a mosaic that lies on a table, ready to grout. I like taking pictures of my mosaics just after I’ve completed tiling them and just before grouting, with bits of broken dishes all around and my trusty red-handled tile nipper to the side. It is a familiar scene and I like the way the shards fall, a chance arrangement like wind shaping sand dunes.
And there’s more. Here’s another page from my Sketchbook Project sketchbook. I have been pasting newspaper clippings into my book as the news unfolds, with stories that strike me as significant in some way. Along with the clippings, I am creating relationships between spreads by drawing pictures of a paper boat in each, from different angles and perspectives. Drawing over the news becomes a response to it. This two-page spread includes a clipping about the mass shooting that occurred in Colorado this summer. I drew the boat at around midnight one night when I couldn’t sleep. The shooting in Colorado was horrifying and senseless. And yet to make sense of it I had to think about guns. Why must we have them? And so many? And yet so many think we must. [A second horrific shooting occurred this summer in Wisconsin a couple of weeks later.]
Here is another piece in progress. This is a background that I made to accompany my planned foreground, a wind chime caught in a violent gust. And yet the background doesn’t seem quite right for the foreground, nor does my plan for how to make the chime seem right anymore. So I don’t know what I’ll do to make it right. But I like the idea of it; a beautiful object transformed by the weather into something that is clanking like a warning bell. It accords with themes I’m exploring for my upcoming exhibit at Do’s Deluxe.
More projects: My sister-in-law mailed a set of broken dishes to me; toy dishes sent from a relative to her for my niece, which crashed to the floor in a freak accident. Could I make a mosaic with them? I have some ideas and sketchbook scribbles. And what else? I’ll make an illustration for a book of limericks for my college alma mater come November, focus on mosaics come spring, and soon teach a class on “field sketching” at the Lawrence Arts Center if I get enough enrollment.
What else? The mule deer piece is currently in idea form and I’ll soon start putting the pieces together to turn that idea into a collage. But I also have a work in progress that is on the verge of being an idea, another scratchboard piece in a small series about our “better angels.” I don’t know what the next piece will look like yet, but I have been visited by those angels in my sketchbook, so I suspect that a more tangible idea is soon to follow. But what comes before something is even almost an idea? Maybe experiences? I have experiences in the hopper too from the summer, captured in photos and journal-writing. There had been fires at Mesa Verde, and I was struck by the other-worldliness of the burned landscape against the sky. All of the barren landscapes that we drove through this summer, in Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, were hauntingly beautiful. We saw other fires too, active ones exacerbated by the drought, and the drought exacerbated by global warming.
There was a little bird at Mesa Verde that made quite an impression. It hopped around looking for bugs, shuffling the leaves with such gusto that it made quite a racket. At first I thought there was one bird doing this but I realized that it was a kind of bird and there were many. But I never saw more than one at a time. The bird had a dark head and tail feathers, tan on its sides, a white belly and speckled back. What was it — that earnest little bird?
Having new experiences, like seeing different birds or unfamiliar landscapes, makes creative work seem possible. Spending too much time in my studio makes me feel dull. And bored. And lonely. Getting out helps. But when travel isn’t possible (and it isn’t much of the time), I read. I just finished reading a book called Biggest Elvis. My brother recommended it. When I asked him what it was about he said, “It’s complicated.” The book is about three Elvis impersonators in the Philippines who work at a club where bar girls service in every way imaginable, servicemen affiliated with a nearby US Naval base. I took Biggest Elvis on vacation and it was good company because it provided images of beauty and desolation at the same time I was experiencing a similar contrast of beauty and desolation through the car window. The book raised moral questions about the characters it portrayed. But in the end they were almost too complex to judge. And that’s what struck me the most about this book. Biggest Elvis was about US imperialism, too, but again the portrayals were not simplistic.
I’m throwing Biggest Elvis out there as an example of one of many small but notable experiences to draw on in my work. I don’t know if I’ll ever draw on it in any kind of direct or meaningful way. But as Corita Kent and Jan Steward put it in their book Learning by Heart, “Everything is a source.”