Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shosin: Otherwise Known as Beginner's Mind

Shoshin is a Japanese word, roughly translated as "beginner's mind", a Zen concept I admire. At times in my artwork, this state of mind is most useful. And I was reminded of it a few days ago, making art with my five year-old niece. She puts her favorite colors everywhere, so the people she drew had bright blue hair and rainbow dresses. To quote Pablo Picasso, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

Not growing up comes in handy when facing the blank page or canvas. There are many ways to head into the direction of beginner's mind. Writing or drawing with the non-dominant hand can jumpstart a certain playfulness. In writing, sometimes it's provocative to start at the end, not the beginning, and then decide how things got there.... In all creative endeavors, the trick is allowing yourself to to play with the ingredients and make new combinations. The biggest challenge is emptying the mind of preconceptions. Just as in meditation, the mind is over-busy, full of shoulds and should-nots.

In various creative writing circles I've belonged to, we often played the game where we came up with a short list of words and everyone wrote a poem or short story using those words. What fun it was to see the unpredictable variations that were born. I also recall hitting beginner's mind under the tutelage of Natalie Goldberg at a writer's workshop, where she would give us a prompt such as "Tell me about the street you grew up on." Then we would freewrite for ten minutes, a method she fully develops in her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 1986).

Depending what stage of art-making I am in, I sometimes need to tidy up my workspace and put away unfinished projects, messy scraps and files, etc. When I am deep in a collage series, the mess doesn't matter. But if I've been away from making art, as now during the holidays, I can't seem to get started again unless I clear the deck and start anew. At some point where once there was only chaos, the arrow turns instead towards potential. Maybe that doesn't qualify as true beginner's mind, but it brings me calm and makes me receptive to whatever might come next.

May your new year start fresh, and bring much creativity and unpredictable delight!

photo by KAO: Dawn Shadows

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sticks and Yarn

Knitting: how did it ever get started? Did people use twigs, perhaps bones? And the yarn itself - when did spinning fiber into strands become commonplace? These questions were on my mind last week as I tried my hand at knitting. I was visiting Mom in New York, and she was recuperating from a hospital stay, so I had some time on my hands. Mom is much better now and I'm back in Texas getting ready for Christmas. I've not gotten very far on a narrow blue scarf, but I am intrigued and hope to keep learning this ancient womanly art. I've been a crocheter since college and do find knitting to be much slower than crochet, but both have their appropriate uses. Knitting is known for its ability to stretch as needed. Crocheting is great for intricate open designs.

As it turns out, knitting was not always done with two needles. Rather, it is thought to have started with a single needle, employing a series of knots or loops. There was also a technique known as nalbinding that could be confused with knitting, so in some ways knitting's exact train of origins remains unknown. Socks are among the first known knitted items, dating back as far as nine or ten centuries ago. In the OED, the word 'knitting' dates back only to the 1400s. Egypt/the Middle East is the place knitting (using cotton or silk, not wool) is thought to have started, later spreading to Europe and the American colonies. In the Scottish Isles, woolen goods became an important, highly developed craft. The origins there may have been related to the knot making done by fishermen. During the Middle Ages in Europe, there were knitting guilds. In other times, being trained in knitting was promoted as a way for poor people (both men and women) to make money. Of course, eventually the Industrial Revolution came along and now we all take machine-knit goods for granted. My curiosity about the first knitting needles still remains partially unsatisfied. Mysterious and ancient, knitting makes me feel connected to centuries of peoples past, clicking away by candlelight and moonlight......

Spinning began with the spindle and distaff, later evolving towards the spinning wheel and the spinning mule. I've never tried hand spinning, but know it has experienced a revival in the last few decades. I'm not sure I'll ever have the patience for it, but appreciate the unique results artisans are able to achieve by starting from scratch. I learned that yarn itself is much older than the art of knitting, having been dated back some 20,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic era. Primitive people are thought to have rolled tufts of animal hair or plant fiber down their thighs to make yarn, then winding it onto stones. It is fascinating to think what a breakthrough this simple act may have been.

Interestingly, crocheting dates back only to the 19th century, when it became known as a less expensive method for lace making. When I was in college, many of my friends crocheted and we wiled away many an hour making mittens, shawls, hats and purses. During my years at West University Library, I taught a coworker, Bill, how to crochet. He took it up with zeal and far surpassed my level of expertise. He then stepped up to knitting and eventually bought a knitting machine. He would even crochet or knit at stoplights on the way to work! And he learned if he took his knitting with him when called up for jury duty, he never got picked for a jury. Bill gave me a lovely, elaborate crocheted doily when he retired.

At this time of the season, I would be remiss if I did not offer my thanks to all who read my humble blog. I always loved doing reports as a child in school, especially the kind where I got to do artwork as a part of the project. Sitting down to blog is a weekly ritual I enjoy, giving me an excuse to marry words and images together. I am thankful that Harris County Public Library required staff to learn how to blog some 3 or 4 years ago. Blogging helps me stay focused. It keeps my language skills polished (to some extent), and hopefully givers readers content they can use or enjoy. Thanks especially to all who took the time to make comments this year. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Room: a Novel by Emma Donohue

Room: a Novel (Little, Brown & Co., 2010) by Emma Donoghue is simply unforgettable. Room, like Door, Bed, Duvet, and other nouns, are always capitalized words in this purposely claustrophobic novel. Room is five year-old Jack's whole universe. He and his mother are held captive in a 11 x 11 foot bunker. Indeed, the Room is the place Jack was born. His mother was kidnapped from college seven years ago. When mean "Old Nick" visits his imprisoned sex slave, Jack hides in the wardrobe. His mother has poured all her love, attention and knowledge into her son. He can read. He has an impressive, quirky vocabulary. Together they recycle everything that comes their way into art or other inventions.

I won't say much more because of the spoiler factor. How much longer must mother and son live like this? Will they escape? Read it and see. Jack is a boy wonder you just have to meet. I think Room will be popular on the book discussion group circuit because it brings up so many horrifying and sadly relevant issues. Because one of my friends is very involved in campaigns against human trafficking and modern slavery, I have become much more aware of the issue. Please see the Not for Sale: End Human Trafficking/Re-abolish Slavery site for further information.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Favorite Books, 2010

Time for my annual roundup of best books read.... Since I have blogged about many of these during the year, I will keep my comments short. Due to my 2010 TLA Lariat List reading duties, all titles are fiction, and quite by chance this year, all the authors are women.

The Postmistress (Putnam) by Sarah Blake. When a doctor leaves his small town on Cape Cod to volunteer in London at the start of World War II, in case of his death he leaves a last letter for his wife with the town's postmistress. Will the letter ever be delivered? Top notch historical fiction.

The Book of Fires (Pamela Dorman Books) by Jane Borodale. In 1752, pregnant and ashamed, 17 year-old Agnes Trussel flees rural Sussex for London, where she becomes an assistant to a fireworks maker. Will she lose her job when her pregnancy becomes known? Explosive, colorful and captivating.

Claude & Camille: a Novel of Claude Monet (Crown) by Stephanie Cowell. The unruly love story of Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his wife/muse, Camille Doncieux. An intense portrait of the Monets and the Parisian artists the surrounded themselves with.

Good to a Fault (Harper) by Marina Endicott. After a lonely woman crashes her car into the car of a homeless family, she invites them to live with her. Indeed, her life will never be the same. Heart-warming/heart wrenching story from Canada.

I Still Dream About You (Random House) by Fannie Flagg. At age 60, a realtor and former Miss Alabama has lost her interest in life. She plans her suicide, but a much coveted real estate listing keeps interfering. Spunky and oddly enough, humorous.

The Irresistable Henry House (Random House) by Lisa Grunwald. Raised as a practice baby in a college home economics program, Henry House has many mothers. How will this affect his life? Darkly comic.

The Brightest Star in the Sky (Viking) by Marian Keyes. When a spirit periodically visits a Dublin townhouse, the tenants are suffused with the expectancy of romantic change. What follows is a plenty of falling in and out of love as forces of fate and magic collide.

The Swan Thieves (Little, Brown) by Elizabeth Kostava. Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow tries to solve the mysteries surrounding his patient Robert Oliver, a prominent painter, who stopped speaking after attacking a painting in the National Gallery of Art. Contacting the women in Oliver's life, Marlow becomes deeply embroiled. A multi-dimensional, sweeping novel about art, love and obsession.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning (Ballantine) by Nancy Pickard. The man who went to prison for killing her father 23 years ago is back on the streets. Should Jody Lincoln believe new rumors of his innocence? Surprise and suspense electrify a small town in Kansas.

Still Missing (St. Martins) by Chevy Stevens. Realtor Annie O'Sullivan is kidnapped, impregnated and held captive in a secluded mountain cabin. Will she survive? A suspenseful first novel with many unpredictable elements.

I really miss having time to read nonfiction, especially memoirs. My Lariat List assignment will end in April of 2011 after we vote on our 25 favorite novels (main citeria: that the novels be a pleasure to read) at the TLA conference. Then I'll be free to read as I please. The Fed-Ex and UPS drivers will not be stopping by my house quite as often, delivering large quantities of Lariat fiction. It has indeed been a privilege to serve on this task force, as well as a real bonanza for books. Any fiction-loving Texas librarians who might be interested in turning themselves into Lariat reading machines, please feel free to contact me. In the meantime, happy holidays!

"Good fiction reveals feeling, refines events, locates importance and, though its methods are as mysterious as they are varied, intensifies the experience of living our own lives." - Vincent Canby

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rock, Shell, Bead & Brick

I needed a little break from collage so I picked up my pliers and wire and started wrapping rocks. Call them tchotkes, doodads, fetishes, what have you, I don't care -- I'm on a tear. Earlier in the year, I blogged about finding finding a bunch of beach brick down in Galveston, most of it likely to be remnants of hurricane Ike, which manifested its horrible self here on the Gulf Coast during September of 2008. The bricks' humble shapes spoke to me, softened as they are by sand and salt water. As for rocks, I've tended to pick them up wherever I go. Funny, though -- looking through my scattered-around-the-house collections, I realized you can never really have too many rocks. Indeed, I need more! For purposes of wrapping as small sculptures, the less rounded the better, and also it's best to have at least some flat surface area.

And so my season of Christmas giftmaking began. I pulled in all sorts of supplies that were otherwise languishing in my study -- ribbon, beads, shells, etc. Though not used in any of the photos above, I also have a small stash of plastic-coated telephone wire, delightful because it comes in many colors, some of them even striped. Wish I could get my hands on more of that stuff! I also began to incorporate small pieces of driftwood into these small assemblages. Yesterday I took a short day trip to Galveston to see what else I could find on the beach. The softened bricks were less abundant and the pieces I found were often small. I imagine most of it has now been buried in the sand or carried away by beachcombers.

Brick has been around for at least 5,000 years. It makes sense that the first bricks were made in the Middle East, where rocks are in short supply. What are bricks made of? Clay, shale and sand mostly. After being formed, they are baked in furnaces for as many as 100 - 200 hours. I took several semesters of ceramics in college, and now I'm thinking it would have been fun to make some artisan bricks, but life is short and I'll let that thought go!

Is it just me, or does this time of year seem to speed up and rush towards the holidays? My time and attention span for blogging, not to mention household chores, is in short supply. And so I'll say adieu and get back to my giftmaking.... The rocks and wire are calling me. Happy holidays!

photos: 3 wrapped rock/brick assemblages by KAO

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Favorite Childhood Reads

I've been thinking about the books I loved as a child, when I regularly checked out the full limit of five books at a time from the Floral Park (NY) Public Library. Perhaps the reason I've felt these memories stirring is that I've been poring over old elementary school class photos posted by a fellow Floral Parker on Facebook. Guess I've always been an enthusiastic reader. When Mom and Dad first started giving me an allowance, I saved up four weeks worth to buy a Bobbsey Twins book! I also loved attending the Public Library's used book sales and filling up a grocery sack with unbelievable bargains. And here I am so many decades later, getting ready to volunteer a the Friends of the West University Library book sale this weekend.

For purposes of this post, I decided to indulge in a bit of research about three of my favorite children's authors: Lois Lenski, Louisa May Alcott and Maud Hart Lovelace.

Lois Lenski (1893 - 1974) began as a book illustrator but blossomed into a prodigious author who still did her own illustrations, which I remember with great fondness. Growing up in Ohio, Lenski later lived in New York and Connecticut. During the 1940s, for health reasons, she and her husband began wintering in the South. That is when she began producing her series of books about the lives of children in different regions of America, among them Bayou Suzette, Strawberry Girl (which won the 1946 Newbery Award), Cotton in my Sack, etc. I couldn't get enough of this series and read the books over and over. I knew of no other books quite like them. Striking in their realism, they put me into the shoes of then-contemporary children whose lives were so different than mine, migrant workers, houseboat dwellers, cotton pickers, etc. Children even wrote to Lenski and asked that she come visit and write about their lives. She also created many wonderful picture books most of us baby boomers can't help but remember: The Little Auto, Cowboy Small, We Live in the South, We Live in the North, etc. Unsentimental, innovative, prolific and dedicated, Lois Lenski gave the world her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood, in 1972, a book I hope to someday read.

I hardly feel qualified to write about Louisa May Alcott (1832 - 1888), except to say I must have read Little Women more times over than any other book from my childhood. I identified with the character of Jo, always a "scribbler", and remember how delighted I was to discover that her story was continued in Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo's Boys. During Alcott's childhood in Massachusetts, she was educated not only by her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, but by many of his learned friends, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Alcott was also a nurse during the Civil War, an abolitionist and suffragette. I've long wanted to visit Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, where Alcott wrote Little Women. She also wrote Gothic "blood and thunder" thrillers under the pseudonym of A. M. Barnard.

Maud Hart Lovelace (1892 - 1980) grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, a place she would later fictionalize as Deep Valley in her beloved Betsy-Tacy series (illustrated by none other than Lois Lenski). Very much based on her childhood, they took the main character of Betsy from age five to her wedding days. Tacy and Tib, her adventurous sidekicks were fictional versions of her real life best friends. How I loved immersing myself in their lives, replete with happy endings and the sustaining power of friendship. Researching the books today, I realized the series had a definite feminist undercurrent, for the girls had independent dreams and aspirations far beyond the expectations for girls of that time. Her popularity continues today, especially through the efforts of the Betsy-Tacy Society.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Collage Exercises

A playful approach to collage is the best tactic whether just starting out or feeling stuck for some reason. To that end, here are some collage ice breakers.

1. Find an image you like and cut it into 3 or 4 pieces, as in the sunflower above. How do the pieces interact in their new shapes? How can you make a new composition using them in any way but right back together?

2. Take a landscape image or some other patterned design and cut it into some commonly recognized shape: a circle, star, hand, heart or cross (as in the cross combined with the sunflower parts above). Use this as the starting point or repeat with many similar or contrasting shapes. You see this in commercial art a lot lately: the human body in the shape of a field of ragweed for an allergy drug, etc....

3. Take 3 or 4 images about the same size. Cut through all the pieces at once, making the same shapes. This might mean you cut the pieces quite randomly, almost making something like a jigsaw puzzle, or in any combination of known shapes. Take a look at the assortment of shapes you've created and put them together in a new and interesting way. Add to this as needed to form a whole composition.

In general, just sitting down with a stack of magazines, catalogs, etc. and giving yourself the license to cut out whatever appeals to you is the gateway to good collage. Doing collage with a group of friends is always fun, as collage can be very instinctive. Seeing what everyone chooses in the way of images can be revealing! Our obsessions pop right up. Making collages for me is something like a waking dream state, where all sorts of subjects and passions recombine and interweave. For me, collage is a world where all things are possible. Reinvention, integration and revelation sure to follow...

Collage by KAO: Flame of the Flower, 2008

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Collage Online

One of my favorite online diversions is visiting collage-related websites. So today I thought I would share a few of my favorites. First up: Scrapeteria, a blog where weekly themes are
announced and then exemplified daily by a variety of artists. Recent themes have included Weird Headlines, Halloween, Laundry, Assemblage, Pets. I've had one assemblage and one collage featured in the last two months, and hope to continue to find work to submit. Themes are announced every Thursday night.

Collage artist Julie Sadler maintains the website called Collage Clearinghouse, a "place to find all kinds of information about collage". There is such a great collection of links and resources there, I need to spend more time pointing and clicking around.

The National Collage Society, which I joined for the first time this year, lists as one of its purposes as advancing collage as a major art medium, and I'm all for that! I am pleased to be included in their 2010 26th Annual Juried Exhibit. See my piece above, Broken Labyrinth #3.

Notpaper is a Flickr group about collage, as well as a blog. Then there's Collagista, a collage-based e-zine, which I learned about following Cultural Dissection. Lately many of my friends have been exploring SoulCollage, a fantastic intuitive collage process. Global Collage is an interesting, diverse, participatory collage site I just discovered today. Thanks to the internet, there seem to be more places than ever to show and share collage work!

photo: Cut and paste paper collage, Broken Labyrinth #3 by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apple Season

Once upon a time I lived in the land of apples. As a college student at SUNY Plattsburgh, I remember picking apples for cash over at least one long weekend, even camping out in the orchard overnight with a group of friends. Then later, in St. Lawrence County, during my first marriage, we owned a farm that had a number of apple trees. What a pleasure it was to stroll from tree to tree tasting their fruit. We dried apples and made apple butter. We also took large quantities of apples to a cider mill.

Well, those days are long gone, but on a recent trip to Plattsburgh, we had the pleasure of visiting Banker Orchard. My husband bought a load of apple wood for grilling. I especially took a liking to Empire apples, a small dark red variety which manages to be both sweet and tart. Reading about them, I discovered they are a cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious. The New York Apple Country web page is a good place to learn about apple varieties, browse recipes and figure out which variety of apple is best for pies.

As a child I had a fascination with Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774 - 1845). So I decided it was time to sift the facts from the lore of this beloved American folk hero. He did not become known as Johnny Appleseed until late in his life. He never married, and was quite a wanderer. He wore old clothes and often went barefoot. Chapman never married. He established several small apple nurseries in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, but rarely stayed to tend them, preferring life on the road as a missionary for the Swedenborgian Church. Because he did not believe in grafting apple trees, most of the varieties he grew were wild, often only suitable for cider making. He got most of his seeds from cider mill pulp, also known as pomace. Johnny Appleseed was a vegetarian, and was known for his kindness and respect for animals. All in all, an eccentric fellow who truly followed his own path.

Apples are thought to be the earliest cultivated fruit, first raised in Turkey and Asia Minor. Apples came to America with some of the first colonists. Worldwide, there are some 7,500 cultivated varieties of apples. I was surprised to learn that China is by far the world's largest producer of apples, followed by the United States, Iran and Turkey. Eating "an apple a day" is wise indeed, as they are a good source of fiber and antioxidants. I leave you now to go create some sort of apple-themed treat involving apples, cider, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, brown sugar, honey and phyllo dough!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Claude and Camille: a Novel of Claude Monet by Stephanie Cowell

I wanted a bit more painterly insight from this book, but who can really know what went on in Claude Monet's mind as he painted? Claude and Camlle (Crown, 2010) by Stephanie Cowell sets out to tell the love story of Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux, an aristocratic woman who gave up her privileged life to be Monet's model, mistress and wife. Their love story is well worth imagining, full of dramatic setbacks, secrets, reversals of fortune and much passion. Since not much is truly known about Camille, Cowell invents a complex, insecure, beautiful woman who not even Monet could ever be sure he truly knew.

Friendships among the struggling artists who came to be known as the Impressionists are another strong point of the novel. Monet, Bazille, Pissaro and Renoir display their "one for all and all for one" allegiance to each other, sharing paint, food, wine and shelter. For a nonfiction portrait of this group, try The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins, 2006) by Sue Roe. When the West University Library Book Club read this last year, we also enjoyed a tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, tailored to tie in with the book, an experience I found especially enriching.

I have always been fascinated by Monet's methodology of repeatedly painting the same subjects such as the Cathedral of Rouen or his Giverny water lilies, seeing them anew with each change of hour or season. As a child I saw some of his water lily panels at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and experienced true awe at the scale and totality of his vision. The popularity of impressionism is unrivaled, and is sometimes dismissed or dissed for exactly that reason. But I can't get enough of the Impressionists! Monet led the pack with his serial treatment of subjects, and we forget how uncommon that was. So if you are at all an art history geek and haven't had enough of impressionism yet, grab Cowell's book for a lovely immersion into the world of Monet.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife

In 1991, I entered into a delightful collaboration with two other poet friends, Sharron A. Crowson and Sandra Reiff, wherein we put together a chapbook called The Wives. In 1995 we followed up with The Astronaut's Ex-Wife and Other Poems (both from MetaRaven Press). We told stories of wives in first and third person. Many of mine were historical. Being a librarian, I loved doing research on the wives of famous and not so famous men, including Rebecca Boone (wife of Daniel) and Deborah Franklin (wife of Ben), as well as many women of the western frontier. The poem printed below is based in Galveston.

Lighthouse Keeper's Wife

I am Lillian:
wife, then widow,
to Daniel Ahern,
he the lighthouse keeper
here at Red Fish Bar
on Galveston Bay.

He went to town
on the schooner one day
and fell overboard
and was lost.
"Your husband drowned
last night," a sailor
told me when
the boat returned.

Inspector Mead
allowed me to continue
here at the light station,
so I kept
the light going
for two more long years,
and fed my babies,
kept them tied
to my waist
so they would
not fall over the railings
into the water.

But no more
will I study the waves
for some sign of
my Daniel.
for it is 1889
and I am tired.

Another man has asked
me to marry, and
I agreed.
This morrow
we move to town
I must learn
how to
turn my back on the sea.

- Keddy Ann Outlaw

photo: Cover collage by KAO

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Collage: a Theme Evolves

At a meeting of my small Artist's Way group last Sunday, we talked about why we value making art, be they stories, painted chairs or collages. One person said she had discovered that she likes herself when she is caught up in writing a story, laughing at her own words and the characters that come to life. My first response was to say that art brought what was in me to the outside, a rather inarticulate statement. I know I like taking scraps of this and that, be they images or words, and weaving them into some new whole. Many of us said we made art for the sheer joy of it. You do it because when things are going right, it feel like you were born to do it! And that feels terrific.

Another aspect of it for me is that when I making art, I encounter problems I CAN solve, versus other issues or problems in life that don't come so easily. Every collage composition presents challenges in balance, color, texture and/or theme. Recently I watched as a certain theme evolved in my so-called scrap collages. I'd been mostly playing with color and form, somewhat abstractly. But then images of doors and windows started sneaking in, and they seemed to ground the compositions. Before too long, houses became the entire theme, though I was still using some abstract elements. And, so a whole new theme was born. Perhaps you can see the trend for yourself in the collages above, with the older collages towards the bottom, and newer more house-centric collages at the top.

Talking about the value of making art, I couldn't help but think of my friend Albert Huffstickler (1927 - 2002), who said this about the path of art in his poem "The Way of Art":

It's the willingness to be a window
through which others can see
all the way out to infinity
and all the way back to themselves.

I am humbled to think my art might do that for someone. May it be so.

illustrations by KAO: Scrap Collages 37, 28, 23, 24, 16, September, 201o

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Best Novels I've Read Lately

Here are three books I've read recently that I really enjoyed.

The Irresistible Henry House (Random House, 2010) by Lisa Grunwald is about a boy with many mothers. Henry is a practice baby in a college home ec program during the post WW II era. Later he is adopted by the program's strict, stalwart head teacher. When her extreme neediness emerges, Henry grows up hiding his problems and artistic talents. Eventually sent away to boarding school when he stops speaking, his teen years are largely spent developing his artistic skills and figuring out how to juggle girlfriends. His job as a Disney animator, time spent in London, as well as influences from the counterculture, influence his coming of age. Because this novel is darkly comic, expect both laughter and tears.

Going back a little further in time, The Postmistress (Putnam, 2010) by Sarah Blake opens during WW II, when a doctor leaves his small town on Cape Cod to volunteer in London. In case of his death, he leaves a letter for his wife with the town's postmistress. Meanwhile in Europe, a female radio journalist struggles to find and tell the stories of Jewish refugees. The doctor's wife and the postmistress listen to her broadcasts, little knowing that fate will tie the three of them together as the war marches on. Intriguingly moody, this is topnotch historical fiction with many compelling story lines.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning
(Ballantine, 2010) by Nancy Pickard kept me on the edge of my seat. As the book opens, Jody Linder learns that the man who went to prison for killing her father 23 years ago is back on the streets. Should she believe new rumors of his innocence? Also unresolved since the day of her father's murder is the disappearance of her mother. As surprise and suspense electrify a small ranching town in Kansas, readers too will feel agitated by the atmospheric changes. Pickard is the award-winning author of 18 mystery novels, and I hope to read more of them soon.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Collage: Working with Scraps

I'm at a stage with collage where I'm allowing myself to play with abstractions. I approach them almost as scrap quilts. I challenge myself to use a certain small handful of scraps and go to it. I am also working with leftover scraps of matboard. Playing like this helps to turn off the inner critic. Often I am drawn to fully saturated colors and patterns, the goal being to trick the eye into almost not knowing what it is seeing.

I've had a touch of insomnia lately, so some of these were made after midnight! It is fun to wake up and go see what I might have made the day before. After I finish the first layer of glue-down, it may or may not be all done. Often I add more layers later. To make sure the layers adhere well and stay flat, I slip the images between pieces of wax paper and insert them into a large book which I weigh down with another large book or my assorted boxes of scraps. Collage is quite obsessive! I love having this outlet for my imagination. Off I go now to cut up a few more scraps...
Photos: Scrap Collages by KAO, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Growing in Circles by Bonnie L. Casey

I just finished reading Growing in Circles: My Struggle to Make Peace with God, Myself and Just About Everything (Two Harbors, 2009)by Bonnie L. Casey. The list of girlfriends I'd like to send a copy to is long: women going through midlife divorce, women fighting depression, fibromyalgia or PTSD. Not to mention mothers of children with conditions such as Asperger's syndrome. Also, I have one friend in Idaho who is writing a spiritual memoir and she would appreciate this book. The subtitle says it all!

Bonnie's tale, a journey from the Seventh Day Adventist religion to eclectic mysticism, is structured around the steadying influence of her Sacred Circle girlfriends. In Bonnie's words, here is the purpose of the group: "to support each other in our search for meaning and connection with the Divine." Her group meets monthly, and readers are privy to their wonderful topics of discussion, sent out in advance by email. Among the topics: finding joy in life, habits to discard, perceptions that influence inner peace, significant experiences with animals, the influence of myths and fairy tales, relationships with fathers, and many more. What an honor it was to look over Bonnie's shoulder into the group's dynamic influence on her life. Because I too, also belong to a women's sacred circle group that meets weekly to discuss similar issues, I am a great believer in their shared wisdom and resonance. I think of these meetings a form of spiritual practice as well as a bedrock of friendship and connection.

I wonder if Bonnie has ever seen the book Signs of Life: the Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998) by anthropologist Angeles Arrien. In it, she explores how circles, spirals, squares, crosses and triangles encourage and inspire us. Circles are of course a powerful symbol of wholeness. Bonnie L. Casey's circular journey to wholeness is a true heroine's journey. Among the tools she finds useful in her battle with mental, physical and spiritual crises are yoga, labyrinth walking, gardening, meditation, mindfulness and gratitude. She also touches on labyrinth walking, one of my favorite spiritual practices. One of the watershed books Bonnie found along her path to wholeness was Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (Ballantine, 1992) by Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, also a book I highly value and tend to read over and over.

I am indebted to Here Women Talk, a social network I stumbled upon a few months ago, where I enjoy facilitating a discussion group called Creative Intentions, for introducing me to Bonnie L. Casey and her soul-searching, inspiring book.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Kewpie Collages

Kewpie and the Carousel Horse

Kewpie Contemplates the Tree of Life

Kewpie Does the Diner

Kewpie Hits Gold

Kewpie and Feathered Friends

Indulge me in a mostly visual post this week, a selection of Dollscape collages from my Kewpie series. I had to pull of out the art show I was slated to do at a local church; it just didn't work out. Politics, poor communication and ever-changing contingencies are some of the reasons why I said "adios", and feel much the better for it. The pressure is off. My art career is still and will probably always will be a work in progress. I am investigating other opportunities to show and sell my work. The Kewpie series is mostly light and/or mock serious. I hope you enjoy them....

Kewpies originated in Germany, and are said to serve as an alter ego of Cupid. Here in the United States, they were popularized by a cartoonist/illustrator named Rose O'Neill during the early 1900s. Kewpies are highly collectible. There is also a Kewpie Mayonnaise sold in Japan (and on Kewpies were some of the first mass produced dolls, and have been made of bisque, wood, paper and celluloid. Rose O'Neill envisaged Kewpies as friendly little creatures who helped people get out of trouble and/or heal broken hearts. May many Kewpies be with you!

photos: 5 Original cut and paste Kewpie collages by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

If you enjoyed reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, you'll be able to stomach Dog Boy: A Novel (Viking, 2010) by Australian author Eva Hornung (a pseudonym for Eva Sallis). The Road, which I very much admired, is set in post-apocalyptic America. Dog Boy feels almost as deeply post-apocalyptic, but is set in post-Perestroika Moscow.

When readers first meet Romochka, he knows nothing of dogs. He is alone in an abandoned apartment and does not know where his mother or abusive uncle have gone. There is hardly any food in the apartment and everything of value has been removed. The entire building seems to be vacated. Winter is coming. When he ventures out into the city, he encounters lots of wandering homeless people, both young and old. Danger is everywhere. Somehow he ends up following a wild dog to her lair. He snuggles in with her four puppies, he drinks her milk, and thus begins his apprenticeship as a dog or dog boy. Spending several seasons with the dogs, he becomes skilled at gathering food scraps and hunting. In time he becomes their leader.

The book is brutal. Blood and guts abound. But the story is gripping. I wanted to put it down at first, but had to find out if Romochka lived to tell his tale. Would he ever go back to a more humanlike existence? A campaign to find and poison feral dogs is involved. When the dogs bring a second child, only a baby, back to the lair, Romochka is at first jealous. But his attachment to the babe grows, and the plot thickens. The level of communication between the dogs and Romochka is beautifully developed, but at the same time challenging to read since the the first half of the book has very little spoken dialogue. But the readers' rewards are many, and thus Dog Boy is a book I feel I will never, ever forget.

I've always enjoyed books where children must survive without adults: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (all childrens' titles) come to mind. A school librarian friend recommended Dog Boy (Thank you, Janis!) We are hoping for a sequel.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summertime Miscellany: Right Brain/Left Brain

There is a very provocative book I read years ago that I keep thinking of: The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (Viking, 1998), by physicist Leonard Shlain. Basically, it claims that our left brains became more prominent after humankind began to communicate through text, versus the pre-print era when we thought and communicated more visually (via the right brain). In this age of the Internet, we move more towards a balance of the two. Shlain aligns text with linear male thinking and women with more holistic, visual states of mind, a premise that seems too simplistic for me. Yet I am fascinated by the rapid changes in our culture as far as modes of communicating go. We have become very graphics-rich. Everyone is a photographer. Graphic novels are beoming de rigueur. We consume visual content via tv, ipods, film, YouTube, email photo attachments, you name it....

Sitting down to blog this week, I felt less verbally inspired than usual, so I reached for my camera and went out to the yard. Yesterday I snapped the photo of our one lone cucumber growing in the garden, hardly worth the dozens of gallons of water we've poured into it, not to mention compost, mulch, etc. But maybe there will more cukes coming. Sometimes I think the cuke and squash flowers just don't get pollinated correctly since it is always a challenge to succeed with these veggies in hot humid, Houston. Why do we even try? Darned if I know, but that's a different post..... I thought about doing some research on cucumbers and composing a whole post about that, but it felt too forced. So this morning I took a few more photos of things growing in the yard and wanted to be done with it, just post a few photos and move on with my week since I am busy getting ready to hang my art show.

But this notion of visual versus text kept gnawing at me. My brain is leaning more towards the visual these days since I am making so much art. But then again, I also read a lot. I'm not sure I can conceive of a world without text. Artist's Way author Julia Cameron recommends giving up reading for a week or so if you are a blocked artist. I'm not sure I could ever do that! There is much to be said for being fluid between both modes of communication. I love to pour over native American war and pony paint symbols, cave paintings and other pre-text images. Apparently most people picked up paint or sticks to draw before there was text. They took "art" for granted.

Drafting an artist's statement for my forthcoming show, I wrote that I love collage because it serves as an alternate reality where anything is possible. Because it is often multi-layered and complex, collage has the potential to portray the states of paradox, fancifulness and imagination common to the human brain. Only through collage do I feel I am saying things words can't express. We have become very sophisticated in our visual communication, and I do believe that involves some integration of the mind's ability to move back and forth between the brain's hemispheres. We have so many digital tools that allow us to express ourselves. Talking to or everyone (or no one) here in the blogosphere, I am grateful for this mode of communication that blends words and pictures. Peace out!

photos by KAO" Lone Cuke, Chickens a Pecking, Plastic Flamingos "Pete & Petunia", Yard Flowers with Metal Chicken Figurine

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Assemblage Fever

Assemblage boxes are multiplying on my work table during these Dog Days of summer. Last year I was sewing up a storm during August. It's good to have plenty of inside activities planned when the thermometer shoots past the mid-90s. I've made assemblage boxes before, including a portable Elvis shrine for a friend, but it's been awhile. That means my supply of oddball materials has been building, and it was time to get into action. That and the added nudge of homework assigned in the Mixed Media course I'm taking at the Art League gave me plenty of impetus.

Wikipedia defines assemblage as an artistic process in which a three dimensional artistic composition is made from putting together found objects. Joseph Cornell was a master of assemblage, and here in Houston we have access to a lot of his work at the Menil Collection. Years ago I devoured a wonderful biography of Cornell called Utopia Parkway: the Art and Life of Joseph Cornell (FSG, 1997) by Deborah Solomon, which I can't recommend enough. But I don't want look at too much of Cornell's work right now because I'd rather play with what I have, uninfluenced by anyone else's masterpieces.

I'm using cigar boxes, boxtops, frames, all kinds of substrata, and though I tried to get away from the "dollcentric" theme I've developed in my collage practice, I quickly realized there was no getting away from that particular obsession. See two works above that I completed last week, both of them including small doll elements. There are always problems to solve in such multimedia works. Will the glue hold? Will the glue show? In what order should things get glued down? Will I be able to touch up the paint without messing up other surfaces? Will there be enough three dimensionality? and so on and so forth. There is lots of experimentation and running around for "just one more thing", as well as some frustration when things don't quite work out right. There are both "oh-ohs" and "ahas", so life is never dull when I'm caught up in assemblage fever. I like to work on more than one box at a time so that while one is clamped, fresh-glued or fresh-painted, I can turn my attention to the whatever next stage is required.

I should be doing other things - there are three rooms to paint here at the house, and many other siren calls. But I'm having too much fun to stop. As long as the AC holds and we don't run into any hurricanes, I'm all set. Roll over, Beethoven - the Dog Days are here.....
Photos: assemblage boxes by KAO, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert would make a good reference librarian! She has a nose for research and a natural curiosity. I'm sure most of you have heard what a difficult time she and her Brazilian-born beloved, Felipe had with immigration, a situation which at first put them into exile and then catapulted them towards legal marriage. To say that the previously divorced Gilbert had a full-tilt case of premarital jitters would be an understatement. She and Felipe had already had a private ceremony with eternal vows, so in truth she was already married in her heart. It was the legal, financial and bureaucratic aspects of marriage that gave her the heebie-jeebies. Three times married myself, I have to say, I could relate....

So Gilbert took it upon herself to research the subject of marriage, and turned it into Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. No, it's not another Eat, Pray, Love. It's a different kind of book altogether, a mix of memoir and her findings on the institution of marriage. At first I felt a little unsettled by this methodology, wanting more of the scoop on her relationship. But then I settled in and found it absolutely fascinating.

For instance, she presents the "Dads or Cads" theory, a DNA variation related to the vasopressin receptor gene , which makes men either trustworthy, monogamous and reliable or decidedly not. She pores over statistics related to the "marriage benefit imbalance", in which men make out better than women once the vows are said. Gilbert drops in on families in Southeast Asia, fascinated by their marital customs. Never having been a mother, she ruminates on the need for what she calls "the Auntie Brigade", and gives aunties some long overdue kudos. She points out marriage's tendency to tame the wild, comparing it to a bonsai tree. Thank you, Elizabeth, for doing all that research so I don't have to, and for pulling together all the most colorful and telling bits.

By book's end, Felipe and Elizabeth cross all their immigration hurdles and manage to lash their lifeboats together, no surprise. They live in a small renovated church in new Jersey (isn't that cool?). I've enjoyed watching some Internet movie clips of Gilbert speaking, including this one on nurturing creativity. She has such a natural, unassuming manner on stage. And I can't wait to see the movie version of Eat, Love, Pray (in theaters August 13, 2010). As far as I'm concerned, Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Gilbert should BOTH be called America's Sweethearts.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer at Tiffany: a Memoir by Marjorie Hart

I picked up Summer at Tiffany: a Memoir (Morrow, 2007) by Marjorie Hart a few months ago to send to my mother, who at age 91 still leads an active reading life. Then I got to read it when I visited her on Long Island. As perfect as any beautifully wrapped Tiffany box, this is a book you want to recommend to anyone with ties to Manhattan. Though set during the summer of 1945, it has a certain timeless excitement that can only come from a young person's first encounter with the Big City.

Marjorie and her best friend Marty are University of Iowa college girls who manage by a fluke to acquire summer jobs as the very first female "pages" at Tiffany & Co., the swanky jewelry emporium. They only earn $20.00 a week, and must count every nickel to get by. Interwoven with Marjorie's letters home and news of World War II winding down, this memoir is a vivid historical portrait. Their summer in New York is one they find most thrilling, indicated by frequent sprinklings of their excited "ohmygosh" reactions. Agog when movie stars such as Judy Garland walk into Tiffany's, thrilled by treats such as ice cream sundaes at Schrafft's or sandwiches purchased at the Horn & Hardart Automat, Marjorie and Marty also get a taste of New York's nightlife. They date and dance with soldiers, and even celebrate VJ Day in Times Square.

Marjorie Hart did not publish this memoir until she was age 83, realizing that the summer of '45 stories she told her grandchildren were grand fodder for a book. She is a professional cellist and former chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the University of San Diego.

The New York City Hart describes is the one my parents spoke of, my mother as an overseas telephone operator and my Dad a returning soldier/college student. In the 1950s, I was taken into the city for special events. I too remember Fifth Avenue, Radio City Music Hall, Schrafft's and the Horn & Hardart automat. One of the biggest childhood thrills at Christmastime was seeing the city's store windows: Lord and Taylor's (still the best!), FAO Schwarz, Tiffany's. So naturally I took to this book like cream cheese to bagels! Give it to anyone who enjoyed The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. New York, New York -- long may she prosper!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Process and Product: Art Chair Finally Done

The Furniture Bank art chair I've been painting the last few weeks is done! I'm calling it the Four Star Crazy Quilt chair. Quilting motifs often find their way into my collages. And so when I agreed to paint an art chair for the Furniture Bank (see the June 16, 2010 post), I immediately arrived on the crazy quilt idea. Then I had one false start that I painted over. Estimated time spent: about 60 hours in the last 3 or 4 weeks.

So it's a relief to be done, especially because I find my attention moving on to the mixed media assignments related to a class I'm taking at the Art League. Last week I wrote about the art process, and shortly thereafter found myself grappling with the challenges of taking collage to canvas. My appetite for new processes was truly put to the test. I started my first canvas in class, and it was wild with images and paint and all kinds of things glued down too quickly with Mod Podge, a medium new to me. That same night, after I came home, I pulled off some of the buckling, bubbly layers. That was just the first redo. The next day another, and so forth. That canvas is now relegated to the junk heap, but I did learn plenty along the way.

For one thing, from both the chair and canvas projects, I've learned what a forgiving medium paint is. Whenever you don't like the way something looks or you've dribbled where you meant to drabble, well - just paint it over and try again. Do-overs are a very big part of most artistic endeavors. Now I feel better able to judge what will and won't work as far as paint goes. Remember that old cowboy saying: Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement. Sometimes you just have to experiment. The risk that you may have to start over is all part of the process. I started a second canvas today that is looking much better, well worth all the muddling that took place on my first try.

Guess I'll also mention that I've started facilitating a group called Creative Intentions on a new social networking site called Here Women Talk. We'll see what comes of it. In three days the goup has grown to 14 members. A friend in North Carolina joined the site, and soon I followed. Creativity fascinates me. To quote a friend who left a comment here last week: "I love the creative process because I disappear and become what I am creating. I feel eternal." What could be better than that?

photos by KAO: "Four Star Crazy Quilt Chair"

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Art: Sometimes "It's All About the Process"

I've heard people say that for them, art is all about the "process" more than, say, fame or fortune. In any art form, the journey towards a completed work of art can be rich and meaningful. Or it can be torture! Or both.... Discovering what you have to say with music, dance or paint may be a prelude to a finished piece. Yet some of the discovery takes place even as you are making whatever it is you think you are making. There are bound to be changes. Surely you've heard novelists say that their characters took over and sprouted new plotlines. The creative flow can be like that.

In collage, part of what I love is the pure mystery of what emerges. Gathering together a pile of images, then weaving them into some new whole, is for me very satisfying. Sometimes I work with intention, sometimes not. Often what I think I'm doing takes a left turn and ends up somewhere else. Backing up a bit, part of the collage process is gathering all those images that appeal to you. The search for materials, not only gathering them, but sorting them, becomes part of the journey. Unless I am involved in a process of discovery, of continually nudging my materials and obsessions into a new form, I get bored.

Only recently I learned there actually is something called Process Art. Think of Jackson Pollock flinging paint on canvas. Or Andy Goldsworthy building sculptures from icicles or twigs. Yet in true "Process Art", as I understand it, the final product is not the point at all. The actual performance of the art is what it's all about. As the Wikipedia article on Process Art points out, such art as been around a long time in the form of such rites as Buddhist sand painting or Japanese tea ceremonies.

Making art can be very ritualistic. Thinking of artmaking as ritual takes it into the spiritual realm, does it not? Such ritual can become the high point of the artist's life, be they musicians, dancers, sculptors. I'm glad I don't make art that requires public performance, but thinking of performers I know, often they have trouble winding down after the high point of a major concert or show. They make art every time they perform, whereas most visual artists perform alone in front of their canvas or clay, and then if they are lucky, bring their art somewhere out into the world to be seen. Right now I am missing my collage rituals because I am spending all my time working on an Art Chair for the Furniture Bank. I just started a Mixed Media course at the Art League, and in the next seven weeks hope to learn some new tricks for taking collage to canvas, mixing it with paint and image transfer processes. The good thing about taking a break from one medium to try another is that it helps the creative well to fill. Often you learn techniques from one medium you can transfer to another.

There's a new reality show on Bravo televison called Work of Art that I find fascinating. Viewers get to see the competing artists go through their processes to complete various artistic challenges. The winner will be given a one man show at the Brooklyn Museum.

My "Dollscape" collage above is one of the pieces I entered in the Jung Center Anthologie show, which runs through July 14th. When I was at the Center a few days ago, I noticed that very few pieces had the coveted red dot on their labels signifying a sale. I had three of my collages printed on giclee canvas for the show, an investment I may never recoup. But that's alright, making the art is really its own reward. Feeling obsessed enough to keep making art is for me a vital life force. Hope that doesn't sound pompous! And so the journey continues....

collage by KAO: Planetary Reflection (2010)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

Canadian author Marina Endicott's second novel, Good to a Fault (Harper, 2010), is still on my mind although I finished it more than a week ago. I miss those characters! If you like Anne Tyler (one of my all time favorite authors), try Endicott. Her protagonist Clara Purdy reminds me of Tyler's Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe. Both characters are full of goodness, guilt and remorse.

We meet Clara Purdy, a lonely, mild-mannered insurance claims adjuster, in the first paragraph just as she crashes her car into another car during her lunch hour. Her life will never be the same. Inside that car is a homeless family, replete with two children, a baby and a (very nasty) grandmother. On learning that the Gage family is homeless and that the mother needs a hospital stay, Clara feels so guilty, she invites them all to live with her.

Bad move, good move? Both. Clara finds herself enraptured with the three children, especially the baby, Pearce. When the children's mother, Lorraine Gage, is diagnosed with lymphoma, the temporary living arrangement becomes more permanent. Mr Gage flies the coop, stealing Clara's car and some money. The grandmother reveals her penchant for shoplifting. The plot thickens. Clara leaves her job and becomes totally enmeshed with the Gage family.

In addition to Clara's point of view, readers get inside the mind of Dolly the oldest child, who at age 8 is quite shrewd and street-savvy. Not knowing if her mother will live, Dolly starts snooping through neighbor's homes, looking for cash and valuables she figures she may have to steal later on if her mother dies and/or Clara turns them out. A soon-to-be-divorced priest, Paul Tippet, is also given page space, another lonely character who much like Clara, thrives on helping out this all-but-falling-apart family. And let's not forget Lorraine Gage, stuck in a hospital bed while her children seem to be thriving under the care of Clara Purdy.

A fine mix of characters, and for me a very compelling, both heart-wrenching and heart-lifting read. The novel was shortlisted for Canada's Giller Prize in 2008. I'll be looking for a copy of Endicott's first novel, Open Arms (Douglas & McIntyre, 2001), and hope we'll be seeing more novels from Endicott in the very near future. Happy reading!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Images of Summer

Happy Summer Solstice one day late, not that it hasn't felt like summer on the Texas Gulf Coast for many weeks now. The tomatoes have quit producing, it's just too hot. The grass grows so fast you can't believe it. I ride my bike early or late and swim when I can. After putting in about 12 hours on the art chair I wrote about last week, I decided to scrap it and start over. Same quilt concept, but on a larger scale, not so fussy.... And so it goes. I'm off to the beach!

photos by KAO: Grass Shadows; Self Portrait on Bike, June 2010; Tomato Harvest; Biggest Sunflower, 2010.