Thursday, October 22, 2015

Gelli Prints, Mixed Media, Sewn Collage, etc.

Art-wise, I've been enjoying a change of pace and much exploration of monotype Gelli printing, abstract compositions, sewing on paper, the use of watercolor and acrylic paints in collage as well as watercolor pencils. My head spins sometimes as I go off onto tangents, experimenting, researching techniques, tools and processes. In any case, I am having fun.
Joyscape 3: This one started as a Gelli print, then went into collage territory and then yesterday I sewed onto it. I have ruined a few collages on the sewing machine, but this one seems to have come through and I think I about finished with it.

 Joyscape 2: Acrylic paints, tissue paper... Not much sewing on this one and I may do more. 

  Joyscape 1: Various papers including some I bought in Chinatown, sequins, hand and machine sewing.

Untitled (07/2015): I loved doing this one, though some of the colors ran later on when I top-coated it with clear medium. Most of the papers in this one were Gelli printed by a friend who most generously shared a stack of her inspiring handiwork with me.
Output of a Gelli printing session last week. These are not at all finished... After a printing session, I pick out a few favorites that seem to have the most potential for development, and the others go into artistic limbo.
A few favorite Gelli prints I will work with soon. I love nature printing and have become quite the leaf thief. I don't think my neighbors mind. As I walk or ride my bike, I pluck leaves from low hanging tree branches. The leaves are easiest to print with when they are still somewhat green. If the leaves are too dry, they crumble.
I have to be in a certain mood to get out all the Gelli printing tools and materials. There is always a huge mess to clean up afterwards. I have two Gelli plates. One is 8 x 10" and the other is 6 x 6". I am liking the smaller one better, perhaps because it is square. Anyway, the process demands quick action because the paints dry fast. Golden Open Paints are the best and dry slower. I have been busy cutting out stencils and masks. They say that Gelli printing becomes addictive. I can see that  now, though the first time I tried it, I was a bit disappointed. I think I wanted the prints to be works of art the minute I pulled them, but as time has gone on, I've learned to play with my output more and turn some of them into finished pieces.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

In a "Note to Readers" on the website for writer Ivan Doig, the author mildly rails against being pigeonholed as a "Western" writer. "If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life."
For me, Doig has always been one of the great American storytellers. I was saddened to learn that he passed away during April of this year. But he left behind a wonderful novel that does him totally proud: The Last Bus to Wisdom (Riverhead, 2015). Doig came from humble beginnings in Montana. His parents were sharecroppers, his grandmother a ranch cook. In a You Tube "Authors Road" interview with Doig, I learned of these and other similarities between the author and his Last Bus to Wisdom protagonist, Donal Cameron. Both had red hair and loved comic books. Both spent time on Indian reservations. Both had an affinity for language. And yes, The Last Bus to Wisdom found its start in Doig's memories of a cross country bus trip he took in 1951.

And within its pages, I found a similarity between myself and eleven year-old Donal. We both loved our grade school autograph books. Bussed to Manitowac, Wisconsin for a summer while his grandmother has major surgery, Donal loves to pass that autograph book around and collect witticisms. In fact, he wants to collect so many that his astonishing collection might hopefully become a Ripley's Believe It or Not! newspaper story. Donal is not shy about offering the book to a wide assortment of people he meets on the Greyhound bus and other places his summer of adventure takes him: waitresses, hoboes, rodeo stars and -- believe it or not -- even Jack Kerouac, pictured here as a manic midnight bus rider (closing his signature with: "On the road somewhere south of the moon and north of Hell...").

When Donal gets to Wisconsin, he quickly sours on the company of his bossy, mean-spirited Aunt Kate. Luckily, he rather enjoys the company of his German-speaking Uncle Herman. But moping around their home, Donal fears for his future. If his grandmother dies, he might end up in an orphanage or poorhouse. Beyond this point in the novel, wherein Aunt Kate has a meltdown and puts Donal back on the bus, things really heat up. No need for me to spill the beans about what happens, but trust me -- thus forth, readers are in Great American Road Story country. Okay, one hint: Uncle Herman goes along for the ride and before two long both of them become true desperadoes. This unlikely pair face toil and trouble with much wit and imagination.

I count this as one of the best books I've read this year. The Last Bus To Wisdom reads like a classic, in the vein of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Doig typed this and all his other books on a typewriter! For me, it is bittersweet that his last book has that very word "last" in its title. At first I found the title a bit odd because I was taking it too literally. There actually is a census-designated place called Wisdom, Montana (2010 Census data population:115), now forever immortalized in Doig's old-fashioned, yet fresh and frisky novel.

PS: Here is my beloved autograph book and one of the silly sayings on its pages. I recently enjoyed getting together with three childhood girlfriends, and oh, how we howled reading through its (mostly silly) pages.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Reviews by Us & For Us on Goodreads and Amazon

Book reviews used to be my primary selection tool for finding books I wanted to read. I don't read as many reviews as I used to, especially because I am no longer a working librarian ordering books. I still enjoy reading the New York Times Book Review. Guess I am a dyed-in-the-wool book nerd -- it's actually the first section of the Sunday paper I reach for! I also enjoy BookPage, a giveaway book review magazine I pick up monthly at my public library. NPR does some great book reviews and I often jot down titles listening to their author interviews. I also browse through book stores and libraries. Last but not least, interesting books come to me via word of mouth: friends at yoga or church telling me about what they are reading.
Yet in this age of the Internet, I tend to read reviews more after I read a book than before. Call it the age of the informal electronic book club... On both Goodreads and Amazon, there is a wealth of opinion and reading those reviews often feels to me like I am putting my ear to the ground to learn what people really think. I do appreciate professional reviews, but to get a consensus of opinion, there is nothing like reviews by the people, for the people. Yes, I am aware that Amazon fights a problem of bogus reviews. I prefer browsing the reviews on Goodreads.
After I read a book, I often feel like comparing my reaction with others. So I usually do that on Goodreads after first setting my own rating or writing a review. The longer I've stayed on Goodreads, the less I want to write negative reviews. I usually only take the time to write a review when I really like a book. But it amazes me to see how often books garner both good and bad reviews, proving how widely reading tastes can differ.
I especially have problems giving authors one or two stars out of five on Goodreads, though it does happen... Sometimes a book is just not my cup of tea, however well-written. I know how much work and devotion goes into writing books. Unless I want to throw a book across the room or stomp on it, I tend to err on the side of generosity. For example, I just could not give Ms. Harper Lee anything less than 3 stars for Go Set a Watchman, although honestly, I found it a bit less than compelling, especially compared to her beloved first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Opinions are all over the place for Go Set a Watchman. I didn't want to join the crowd either way on that book and so kept silent. Oftentimes on Goodreads, you will see that a book has thousands of ratings but a much smaller percentage of reviews. Some readers are just not writers.
Yet I am of the opinion that all these electronic opportunities for us commoners to publish our thoughts about books we read has to be improving not only our critical skills, but also our writing skills. Who knew so many people cared or could write so well? I love to click on "like" for good reviews or chime in with a comment. This is democracy in action, being able to say what we think, publish what we think, taking for granted such free speech. And to able to do it instantaneously online is quite wonderful. Thanks for reading these humble opinions of mine. To see what books I've enjoyed lately, click on over to my very own Goodreads page.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Easier to Begin Than Finish: a Concept I Have Often Noticed in Both Arts and Crafts

Across the years, dabbling in ceramics, jewelry making, crochet, sewing and collage, this is what I have learned is a common conundrum: it is much easier to begin making something than to finish. Ask any knitter, quilter or crocheter about their unfinished projects and most often they want to run and hide. We all have too many half-finished projects stuck away. Often in the excitement of picking out new materials, we get excited about a new design and jump into that project. Yes, sometimes it all goes smoothly from start to finish. But often the finishing details are the bugaboo. And the more time you spend on a project, the more important it becomes to finish it successfully. The project shown above is a collage I put aside for months before I felt brave enough to add paint to the canvas.
Here is a Texas map I began making in response to a recent Cloth, Paper Scissors magazine Readers' Challenge. The rules were that it had to be no more than 8 x 8", and use a mix of cloth and paper. See above the start of my Texas map. At this stage, I am just playing.

After I completed my paper map, I cut out a blue cloth outline of sorts. Future steps will include sewing the various elements. And this is where it really got tricky for me, as I was not at all used to sewing on paper. It really could have ended badly.

But ultimately, things did work out. I had an easy time of sewing on the map itself. Sewing on the darker blue fabric was truly a mess and I thought I had ruined it. I tried all different kinds of stitches using red thread. Somehow I got away with it and I am glad to say that in this case, the efforts were worth the time and this image was just published in the July/August 2015 Cloth Paper Scissors issue. I even got a whole page -- page 88, to be specific! (I can not link to it since the magazine comes only by subscription. It is available in bookstores right now.)

In traditional paper collage, getting such works ready to enter art shows can be challenging. I can not always afford to have work matted and framed by professionals. Lately, I've been doing a lot of work on wood panels. The tricky part there is the finish, often varnish or other clear mediums. I spent hours getting the wood ready for collage on a piece recently. It was a small slab of found wood with layers of peeling paint colors. After I did a lot of sanding and smoothed out the area with wood filler where I needed to mount the collage, it was time to clear coat the thing. No wait, before that, I painstakingly glued green velvet ribbon around its sides, finishing the upholstered look with brass nails (sorry, you can't see that effect in the photo below). Then I used several layers of semi-gloss matte medium, fighting a few little bubbles and buckles. Hurray! It was finally ready to enter in a show.

And here is the outcome on that: my piece, called "Dreamwaltzer," was not accepted for the intended show. Oh well, win some, lose some -- that is part of the creativity game. Before that piece, I completely ruined a decent collage I had worked on for days by attempting to sew on it.
There is no way around such investments of time and technique. It is all a part of the process. You learn as you go along. I have gotten used to the inevitable failures. At times it feels very healthy to abandon or destroy a piece. In college, I took a lot of ceramics courses. You might love the pot at every stage and then hate it when it came out of the kiln with a lackluster glaze. In collage, most of the time, I have three or four pieces going at once. Things need to dry or flatten, etc., so I work on an alternate piece. Often I reach a sticking point towards the end of a collage when I find myself backed into a corner, unable to devise or find the last few pieces needed. At that point, I need to set it aside for a day or longer and come back to it fresh. Sometimes that works like magic and I am able to solve the problem easily enough. Yet I do have a file full of iffy unfinished work. One of the great things about collage and mixed media is that you can always cut up whatever it is and use it in some new way, or cover up what you don't like with new materials.
Anyway, when I am feeling weary of complicated projects, I turn to simpler creations, be they small stuffed toys for donation to charity or quick postcard collages. Or I get compulsive about organizing my art supplies, always a fun process. Inevitably I find things I can't wait to work with. And I love having an orderly work place. Both my parents were neatniks, so I've got plenty of those genes. Being organized helps keep me on center. This year has flown by with plenty of days or weeks when my attention was turned towards home and garden projects. Now that it is so hot, I am spending more time inside making art. No day is long enough! I love the creative life.
This small collage, "Cityscape 3," was a fun piece that came together quickly.
This piece, "Femme Undulata," took a little bit more effort and actually contains part of an etching I did in college, as well as a suminagashi experimental scrap. I have a lot of fun experimenting with different materials.
Thanks for reading my rambling thoughts and looking at my images!
"Much of the beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium."
- Henri Matisse

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Green Road by Anne Enright

I just finished reading The Green Road by Anne Enright. She always delivers a literary punch. So let me tell you a little bit about the book.

Irish matriarch Rosaleen Madigan is rarely happy. She married beneath her station in life. So maybe that is why she carries such deep discontent. She is at times a hypochondriac, a drama queen and narcissist. Her discontent is passed on to her four children in various ways. They have trouble finding love or work or the meaning of life. Anne Enright writes beautifully. Her chapters devoted one by one to each Madigan create psychological portraits with considerable nuance.

However, I found this method jarring at times, especially in the second chapter when we leave Ireland and find ourselves with Don Madigan who as far as we know from the first chapter, longs to become a priest (to his mother's horror). Instead we find him in New York City, dabbling in gay relationships, watching his friends die of AIDS. He has a longtime girlfriend, but as the novel evolves, Don becomes decidedly gay. Constance Madigan is the one child who remains within driving distance of her mother. She marries well and has a brood of children, but battles her weight and hates her body. Hanna Madigan drinks. Emmet Madigan travels the world fighting malaria and other third world issues, never quite committing to any love relationships.

So there is a world of sadness herein, culminating in a family Christmas gathering where all four children return home when Rosaleen, in her 70s, decides to sell the family manse. On said holiday, Rosaleen creates a drama just as she always has, and during this drama, we the readers, become more intimately acquainted with what makes her tick. This catharsis at novel's end feels just right. There are no happily-ever-afters, but everyone evolves a step or two towards a better understanding of themselves. I am of Irish descent and very much enjoyed suffering and sightseeing with these less than perfect, so very human Irish characters.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hausfrau: a Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum

"Is there a difference between shame and guilt?"

"What's the difference between a need and a want?"

Early on in Hausfrau: a Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum, these are questions Anna Benz asks of Doktor Messerli, her Jungian psychoanalyst. Anna is an American living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband, Bruno. They have three children. Anna speaks little German. Anna does not drive (but instead rides trains, and those trains are a major motif of this novel). Anna is bored. With Bruno's encouragement, she is seeing the psychoanalyst and taking a German language class. Anna has many secrets. Readers learn of the first secret within the first few pages of the novel: that Anna is having a sexual affair with a classmate, Archie. Nor is the affair with Archie her first dalliance.

SPOILER ALERT: Another secret haunts Anna every day: her youngest child was not fathered by Bruno, but by an American man named Stephen who has gone back to America. Anna thinks she truly loved Stephen. The affairs since then seem to mean less.

"How did I become so unprincipled?" Anna asks herself. And that is but one of many such interior monologues the readers of Hausfrau are given. Anna's interior self is in turmoil. I was scared for Anna. I had hopes for Anna. At times it seemed as if Anna was on the brink of setting herself free from her troubles. But the web of secrets she has created is gossamer thin and ultimately breaks.

I can well imagine this book being included in reading lists at women's study degree programs, alongside Erica Jung's Fear of Flying, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Chopin's The Awakening. For some, the novel will be controversial simply because of the explicit sexual content. Hausfrau will not be forgotten. I believe it is a literary masterpiece, a grand tragedy, a perfectly Jungian shadow tale. Anna's self awareness grows due to analysis and I loved the way Essbaum showed how the threads of wisdom from therapy do have some effect on this troubled woman's behavior. I have always been a character-based reader. This novel took me deep into an unforgettable character's sins and solitude. But to say this book is character-based does not mean there is no plot. There is much movement and energy to the plot, no matter that Anna's housewifely ennui is ever strong.

The very last line of Hausfrau is so accomplished, so fait accompli... And right before that denouement, what is the last thought of Anna's we are privy to? "Let this not become me." Achingly human, hopelessly headlong, as inevitable as the regularity of the Swiss train system timetables, Anna's foretelling of her own fate can not save her. A stunning ending, a stunning novel.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

All I Want to Do is Sew

All I want to do lately is sew! Feeling like that is rare, so I am going with the flow. My mother used to say that she didn't much like to sew, but liked to have sewn -- and often I feel like that too. Sewing takes patience, and sometimes that is a quality I am short on. I think what got me started was working on a mixed media piece involving both cloth and paper which was accepted as a possible finalist in a Cloth Paper Scissors magazine Challenge. I won't share that image here just yet; hopefully there will be good news about that piece yet to come.  I have been working on some small patchwork pieces that I will eventually turn into mats or pillows, unfinished still, but at least squared off and ready for further projects.

My biggest project to date is the zippered purse shown above. I don't really know how to put zippers in, but found a way to fake it by sewing the zipper in while the sides were still open.  Working without a pattern, I learned a lot. Making the purse took many hours and while I was working on it I thought -- never again. But then when it was done, I found myself thinking of what I might do differently next time to improve the design, including some shortcuts I learned the hard way (like sewing the inside pockets on before adding the zipper and making the bottom a bit wider). But no more purse projects right now.

After going to "the Hidden Quilt Shop" in Old Spring, TX with a couple of girlfriends last month, I made the two pillows above. My favorite find there was some fabric printed with a map of Manhattan Island. And so I made a long skinny pillow out of that fabric. (They had lots of different map-themed fabric among their 18,000 bolts!) The batik strips that had been hiding in my fabric stash were also put to use for a pillow. Theoretically, I am always working to use up my stash, but invariably along comes some project or another that demands the purchase of more fabric.
And don't get me started on yarn consumption. In that area too, I have the goal of using up my stash. I attend the "Common Threads" group at my UU church. We  knit, crochet and sew together twice a month and also choose an annual charitable project. Last year we donated quite a stack of blankets to Texas Children's Hospital and will do so again this year. The staff at TCH told us that ever child admitted to the hospital is given a special blanket to keep. I love having a reason like that to crochet! We have been having a lot of rainy days lately, perfect weather to hunker down and sew or crochet.  Back to my projects now and thanks for reading!