Needless to say I’ve been carefully balancing my time between work on the commission for Caplan Art Designs and time for rest and playing towards the art exhibits scheduled for this year. The commission has a firm deadline and I’m steadily on schedule. In order to stay on schedule I’ve let go of much of my social media. If I haven’t responded to you this is why. Anyway, around the commission priority comes work towards a new painting series.
As I mentioned last week extra paint from the commission gets used on another painting in progress. This way I don’t get distracted from the commission and am still making progress towards future exhibits. Last week I was working on this painting and this week I finished it.
As I mentioned on my recent email newsletter I’ve been reading and thinking about time. Specifically time and creativity. Human brains simply need time in order to put ideas together. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading. (Details about the books are available here https://bookshop.org/shop/clancy)
Yes, despite being busy I’m still carefully making time to read every day. It’s how I maintain my creative focus, enthusiasm and fun. Same with my sketchbook work which I share via my email newsletter.
A book – whether a library book or a personal notebook/sketchbook – occupies time in uniquely personal ways. The reader moves through time and space as they page through a book at their own pace and magically whole worlds, memories and ideas are built letter by letter, word by word, page by page in the readers mind!
As I say on another page of my website the definition of an “artist book” is “… a book conceived as an art object. It reveals a story over time and space using a combination of content and art techniques in a way that directly involves the viewers participation. “
Books and artwork both use time – time itself – as a creative technique!!! These thoughts about time and the book format also lead me to thinking more about handwriting, hand created art, handmade books and the value of the handmade in this Artificial Intelligence, rush rush, hurry hurry, often prefabricated and canned world. Can both handmade paintings, handmade books and handwriting be analogous to homemade cooking? What does it mean to be real? To be authentic? To be human? To be a time bound being that exists in space?
There is no one grand answer to any of these questions (that would be too hedgehog-y – in reference to the book “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin) but all of this is in my mind as I work. You’ll see some evidence of my musings on these topics in the upcoming illustrated short story about an alien in outer space on my email newsletter…🤣… but I digress.
I hope you too are being mindful of your time this week. It’s a precious resource. Thank you for sharing time with me. See you next Monday.
I hope your holiday season was refreshing. A friend asked me 2 questions: what’s the difference between your blog and your email newsletter? My blog is about my creative life generally. My newsletter (via Substack) is where I’m serially publishing my sketchbook content, both art and words, prior to the time and efforts of creating a printed book. There may be a printed book of the art and words someday just not right now. But rather that let my art and my stories sit unseen in my sketchbooks I’m going ahead and sharing them. It’s like publishing a novel, in short excerpts, serially in a magazine. It’s also like what I currently do for Storyberries – I’ll create one of my short artist books and let it become a short ebook on the Storyberries website. Then after I have enough of the “shorties” I’ll create a printed book collection of them. But the kids who visit the Storyberries website didn’t have to wait for my printed book before they had a new story from me!
Anyway, like I was saying, here on my blog I share my artistic inspirations and other resources… like my recent collection of Jolabokaflod books that cover the 3 categories, poetry, short stories and essays, that Ray Bradbury mentions in his reading program. I’ll use many of these books in the new year as inspiration materials.
During the holidays I also got a new set of acrylic paints from the same art supplies company, Arteza, that made the advent calendar our friend gave us. I liked the quality of the Arteza paints and the way they’ll let you create a custom palette!! So many of the available art supply sets are primary colors only – and it gets expensive buying individual paint tubes to construct a custom color palette. So Arteza is a find!!
Here’s a series of color swatches I painted with the acrylic paints I chose for my personal palette. As you can see it’s not kindergarten primary colors but there is a sortof red, yellow and blue…
Two of the other color palettes I also got from Arteza are gouache paints. One set is a human portrait skin tone palette. The other set is a natural land based palette. These color sets join my “butterfly palette” – a color assortment based on the colors of butterfly wings – for use in the new year.
Here’s a closer look at the gouache colors squeezed out of the tube on the new, previously empty, palette box.
Immediately I did a project that allowed me to use every one of my new gouache palette colors, both the human skin tone and the landscape tones. Just like when I use my butterfly palette I enjoy using the color tones of diverse human skin and the myriad of landscape colors to give color to mundane objects like coffee or tea cups.
My project, my excuse to try all of my new paints, is a 2023 calendar. I’m going to scan these monthly pages with my original art on them and make a downloadable (and printable) calendar for the paid subscribers of my email newsletter. Starting at 7 dollars a paid subscriber gets a calendar and access to my other artist book ebooks including current sequences of my sketchbook. I’m publishing my entire sketchbook a sequence at a time – at least one sequence each month.
Here’s a closer look at my calendar in progress…
Anyway, that’s what’s going on in my creative life as we begin 2023 … please visit my newsletter to see and get downloadable versions of my 2023 calendar and other art projects that I talk about here. It’s easier for me to share the downloadable digital files over there…
So as to not spoil holiday surprises I’m sharing the advent calendar adventures on my social media, including this blog, and celebrating Jolabokaflod. A friend gave us an advent calendar of Arteza art supplies – which has been lots of fun to open! Even more fun is discovering a new source for good quality art supplies!
I designed a few projects my wife and I could do together. Here’s the first one.
I made triangle tree shapes.
My wife did the tree ornaments.
And then she did the stars on the tree tops.
I did the shadows and hint of snowy landscape.
Then I did red wrapped gift box shapes.
And my wife did the gold bows on the gifts.
Another joint project is our gift book to be given away for Jolabokaflod aka holiday book flood. This gift will be given Dec 23rd on my email newsletter so please be sure you’re subscribed! You can give a subscription to someone else too.
Here’s the Jolabokaflod poem I wrote and recorded – in case you missed it.
Yes, were getting very serious about Jolabokaflod now and here’s how it goes at our house!
And here’s some of the books that have come by mail from 3 of our local independent bookstores!!
Happy Jolabokaflod to everyone! Happy Holidays too!!
P.S. please make sure you’re subscribed to my email newsletter so you can get your gift ebook on Dec 23rd!!
Recently a friend asked if I had made a book about my hearing experiences. Yes! In 2003 I made a one-of-a-kind book titled “Book Of Days And Ears”. It measures 3 inches tall 6 inches wide and is one inch thick. When fully opened it is a smidge more than 12 inches wide. The leather covers and the pages are hand sewn together with a Coptic stitch. This book binding style allows for page expansion, letting me sew additional elements into the binding and do thick collage applications on the pages themselves while still enabling the book to close.
Book of Days and Ears begins July 31 2003 and ends Oct 10 2003. It is a diary or journal style book with the date stamped on each entry. The entire book took place when we lived in Oklahoma and the main content, the overall “plot”, of the book is dealing with my hearing aid issues over the span of 3 months, trying to contact the hearing aid company and fussing with the mean dragon lady who worked there. The other staff were nice (nicer than others I’d encountered in Oklahoma) but during visits I had to get past dragon lady first. Here are just some of those pages.
Part of how I dealt with the hearing issue saga was through various art projects which I recorded in my book: paper marbleling sessions of which I sewed samples into the binding, letterpress and block printing project samples were glued onto the pages, art exhibits were documented by collaging parts of the event announcement on a page or actually sewing the event flyer into the binding. Here are a few of the art project related pages.
Of course in and amongst the pages shared above there are visits with friends, the death of a mentor/friend (the book artist and author Shereen LaPlantz), visits to bookstores and restaurants. And board games like backgammon which are ways to interconnect with people that don’t rely solely on the spoken/heard word. Here are a very few examples of this kind of page entry.
Here’s a video flip through of Book of Days and Ears https://youtu.be/2It3Vjl_Eao and me talking about it. You can see some book pages not pictured above. Did I mention that I talk about the book in the video? No, I couldn’t hear myself talking. I showed the video to my wife for sound checking prior to putting it on YouTube. Brave and cheeky of me eh? 😆😁
Fast forward away from 2003 Oklahoma to present day 2022 in Washington state and as I wrote last post… my current hearing aids stopped working and I visited a local hearing aid center, Vancouver Hearing Aid Center. Things are vastly better now: there is a button and a window in the hearing testing area, there are zero dragon ladies to deal with (Wow! An absence of mean dragons!!!), my supportive spouse is allowed to be with me and clear time tables, contact information etc details are given in written form! It’s almost as if they recognize that their clients might not hear well! Imagine that?! Anyway, I am still profoundly deaf just as I was in 2003 and as I was at age 8 see the hearing test chart below.
My Odditerrarium exhibit is humming along nicely at the Caplan Art Designs Gallery! This week was another busy week and I’m grateful to have a Gallery collaborator who helps keep things going in many ways including with posts like this! What a nice way to show the pets that inspired the portraits in my exhibit!
Since I knew this week would be another busy one I carefully carved out some time to sketch. Because I’ve discovered I enjoy sharing step-by-step how I create my sketches I documented my sketchbook session and posted it here on my email newsletter. In the post I show the art supplies (like the NIL-TECH watercolor pencil set) and how I use them as well as how I got the idea for my sketch.
As you know from earlier posts I’ve been working on a new illustrated poetry book for Storyberries.com. Knowing I wouldn’t have much time to work I did “need to let it dry” kinds of tasks: I spray-fixed the pages and glued the still-raw boards for the book covers. In the last photo you see the small credit card sized book just before I set it up interlaced with wax paper and paperweights to dry while life happens.
Then a wonderful visit happened over three days with family! There were two college soccer games to attend in support of one family member. We ate in a number of locally owned restaurants. We went for a hike in a park. We played games of dominos well into the night. I didn’t photograph everything and I never managed to get everyone in the photos at the same time but this photo below was the most successful.
One family member was on the field being a goalie. Other family members were along sidelines taking photos of the action on the field. There were so many reasons we were seldom in the same places at the same time for a family photo. The games were active occasions!
The outdoor soccer games were also unseasonably warm and sunny, for the Pacific Northwest, as you can see below.
I wear two high powered hearing aids and have since I was 8 years old. My right ear is a bit better at hearing with hearing aids than my left one. I know well from past experiences that hearing aids are sensitive to heat, moisture and interference by hats – among many other things – so I try to be careful. I even remove my hearing aids before I use spray-fix on my art projects just in case.
Well, during the first soccer game I was enjoying listening to family members and the noisy hubbub of the game when suddenly everything went quiet as if a switch turned the sound off. My right ear was completely silent and I could barely hear, with the hearing aid in my left ear, the loud drums and shouting from the crowd. Immediately I told the family member who was talking to me that something had happened to my hearing aid. I told my wife too and excused myself to go to the car to see if I could replace a battery, adjust a setting that was knocked off by my hat or do something and get my hearing aid back on again. No such luck.
So I went back to the stadium and told my family that I’d be more deaf than usual the rest of the day. My hearing issue was no problem for anyone else, some sign language, repeating things patiently, and my lip reading skills could compensate. It was me that had a problem. In such scenarios I have FOMO, a Fear Of Missing Out. My family loves me and includes me in everything- I can trust and rely on that – it’s that they are all such good storytellers. They’re good storytellers in the literary sense of building suspense using nuances of wordplay, of voice tones and inflections, of playing shared family knowledge like a violin (in kind, gentle ways) while building towards a punchline. To miss some of the words or sentences means a high probability of missing the joke! If you know me at all you know how I love a good story so I had a serious case of FOMO!!! I didn’t want to miss any clever turn of phrase that would be said!
To cope with the FOMO I did my best to focus on the bigger picture of just enjoying their physical presence and to appreciate the things I did hear and let the rest go…and to just trust myself and them! I did my best to “catch the conversational drift” and add related stories of my own now and then. I tried to be as much a full participant as possible. It was hard at first to keep my FOMO from dropping down like a barricade between us but I leaned on trusting myself and everyone else. I imagined the conversation was a happy-accident style painting where an artist just trusts the creative process. I reminded myself that I like surrealism and nonsensical poetry – that I would be fine with things not being comprehensible. I recalled the art college essays I wrote about the artists John Cage, Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell and Ray Johnson. I also remembered reading about Surrealism and Dadaist poetry and storytelling in addition to the art styles.
Later that day when we had dinner and as the evening cooled off my right hearing aid fluttered to a little more life. Not back to it’s normal power but I was glad of a wee bit more sound. After we were home I got out the hearing aid instructions and fiddled with the settings. During breakfast the next morning I fiddled with the settings some more and the second game day had a bit more – not normal but better- hearing in it. Still I practiced “just appreciating what I did hear” and “just trusting and loving”.
Here are some photos from the second soccer game of people I was just loving and trusting.
Our family soccer goalie is in the middle behind the fence. The 4 others are also family members.
And I found myself just enjoying our meals together and didn’t take photos. Except for this one at happy hour.
Stories got told over our domino games we had at our house till after midnight! In our quiet house I heard a bit more of the stories but it’s obvious that these hearing aids need repair! Will visit the hearing aid repair place asap!
So I learned this week that it really is true that “A little nonsense now and then is valued by the wisest people”, that art can help – even when it’s memories of art history essay papers, and also that just loving and trusting can lead to some of the happiest of experiences! What a great time I had with family!!!!
I hope your week is filled with love, trust and happiness too! See you next Monday.
I think a lot about thinking. So do cats I think. Here’s another painting in my Odditerrarium series for upcoming exhibit at Caplan Art Designs in October. My painting is titled “Cognition”. Sometimes it seems like brains are fish bowls with thoughts swimming about.
Besides forming a theory of mind as related to other living beings – I find it’s helpful in my creative life to keep notes, in a sketchbook/notebook, on things that happen in my life, things that catch my eye, my feelings, thoughts and responses to the world. My sketchbook/notebook becomes part of a collection of objects, photos, books, places etc that resonate with me in some way and yet may also be relatable to someone else. I think creativity is a way to connect with both ourselves and each other. To the elements of my ongoing collection I add my imagination…
… like in my current project for Nil-Tech I free-associated or imaginatively mixed a feeling experience in my life (of enjoying a coffee) with a real life cup from my kitchen and a photo of a dog. Almost everyone has has the experience of sinking into the relaxation of a pleasant beverage – almost like a hot tub – so it’s a safe bet that my feeling is relatable. A cup and a dog are common reference points too. Anyway, here’s a photo below and link to one of my videos on Nil-tech: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CitjpxIoBoO/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=
My point here is that my system of getting creative ideas is a lot like cultivating a garden: carefully planting perennials, evergreens, planning to rotate annuals etc regular cultivation for ongoing use in cooking or decor. This helps me sustain my creativity over the long term. Also for sustainable creativity I find it helpful to keep an uncultivated wild patch or two, some experimental ground areas where anything goes and uncertainty reigns, where I’m in the classic “beginner mindset”, or in the spirit of a kid flopped on their belly coloring to their heart’s content with no thought of their scribbles being “good”. All of this in my mind when I say I’m re-wilding myself.
The term “re-wilding” typically refers to ecological conservation, a way of letting the land be naturally whatever it is as a way of restoring the ecosystem.
I really think we can do this with our minds too, we can re-wild ourselves and our own mental landscape, from time to time by allowing ourselves a more expansive diverse habitat of the mind, to sidestep our own habits, group-think, expectations and presumptions. To deliberately try a new methods or materials just to be playful. (Play, at any age, is necessary for good mental health.) As creative people re-wilding is a neccessary part of a creative life. Generally speaking re-wilding is allowing ourselves to play off-leash now and then so we can reconnect and restore ourselves.
I wrote over on A. M. Sketching about re-wilding ourselves and included this page from my published sketchbook “Another Sketchbook” as a reason why cultivating a mental life is helpful. For us creative types our mental lives are what we create with so the quality of our mental lives is also a precious piece of equipment.
My 3d block project mentioned in my last post is coming along.
Another fun project currently in progress is also using ordinary things as prompts. I’m doing illustrations for a cookbook by Chef Kim Mahan! More on that as I go.
The experimental “re-wilding” projects I’m working on are two different poetry book projects. Possibly for Storyberries experimental art books section! Here’s a peek at my two projects. Both are about the size of a credit card when closed but they open out to about 20 inches long. The patterned and colored papers you see will possibly be the book covers of one book. I’ll share more as I go along.
I hope your week is wild in the best ways. See you next Monday.
This week the Aurora Gallery finished framing my adopted Mom’s quilt that I told you about in a prior post. Doesn’t the frame look great? We went right home and hung it in a special place!
As you see in the photo above – included in the frame is a piece of handmade paper on which I hand wrote Mom’s name and a bit about the quilt.
I also remembered a story related to the quilt theme of “knowing what it is when you pick it up” (details in this post). The story I remembered goes like this: A man holding a lit candle went looking for fire with which to cook his rice. It was a long search. If he had known what fire was or asked some questions when he began searching he could have cooked his rice a lot sooner.
This week we went for a browse at Vintage Books an independent bookstore a few miles from where we live. As I browsed I came across the local author shelves and was delighted to see a book I illustrated, “Dr. Bob’s Emotional Repair Program First Aid Kit”, right there on the shelf where I was browsing! What a fun surprise! It’s available via the bookstore website too!
Below is the book haul we came home with!
Below is a sketchbook drawing I did of two books I’m currently enjoying reading! I’ve added both of these titles to my public books to cheer up by book list here.
I enjoyed seeing this photo of a happy person with their dog with my artwork in the background at Canal District Wines this week and thought you’d enjoy it too. I’m thinking I want to do more art like this … I like the boldness and simplicity.
This project in progress below is a 3d cube 8 inches square that I’m doing for a holiday exhibit at Caplan Art Designs! I’m aiming for the used wooden toy block look – but with a dog theme.
My drawing marathon for NIL-TECH will start on Monday and run for a number of weeks! If you’ve followed my blog you’ve seen me working towards this… and now here it is! Drum roll please! Actually please follow NIL-TECH on their Instagram or Facebook pages so you can see the end results of all the practice you watched me do here on my blog! And thank you for cheering me on! Here’s the link to the 54 piece watercolor pencil set I’ll be using in my marathon. Wish me luck!
I hope your week is pleasant. See you next Monday.
A fun creative exercise is to list the good things in my life. As the saying goes here’s “a few of my favorite things”. Items on my list are in bold type.
Painting. Basset Hounds. Flowers. I combined these favorites in a mixed media painting titled “The Goods Of This Life”. It’s 8 x 11 inches and was made using ink, color pencil, gouache and collage on board.
And yes, the orchids are a homage to my adopted Mom (mentioned last post).
Art supplies. I’ve been channeling my inner Julia Child and practicing talking while doing a drawing demonstration for NIL-TECH. In this video I’m sharing how I get my ideas and start a drawing using watercolor pencils.
The idea for this “Coffee Pup” drawing was inspired by the feeling of enjoying the first sip of good coffee. Coffee is another good thing.
Fountain pens and poetry and the awareness of caring… 3 more good things.
Family. That’s a really big good thing! A group of us got together to watch a great nephew’s university soccer game! We had such fun seeing each other and cheering for our nephew!
Friends are another really big good thing and cookouts … two more good things that I enjoy. Naturally I had put them in a poem in my artist book Patch La Belle.
Libraries. Oh my goodness libraries are such gifts! Both the public libraries and private libraries you assemble yourself at home are treasures!! We recently visited our local library for the first time since the pandemic began in early 2020. Since the pandemic started we’ve primarily checked out the ebooks. I certainly count ebooks among the good things in life but printed books… oh, it was such a treat to get print books during our recent visit!
One of these days I’ll write more about why libraries and books are so important in my creative life. But not in this post. In case you’re curious, however, about how books relate to my creative life I’ve begun keeping a public list of some of my favorite books that help me in my creativity here: https://bookshop.org/shop/clancy
I never know when a good thing will inspire art – which is why I keep lists in my sketchbook. If you haven’t already signed up to get my email newsletter in which I share my sketchbook pages please do! https://sueclancy.substack.com/
I hope your week contains many of the good things in your life…and that you’re able to notice them. See you next Monday.
This week a box came from my sister that held a quilt our Mom was adamant that I have. Opening the box transported me instantly to my adopted Mom and Dad’s house. Love smells like old books, coffee, flowers, swimming pool chlorine, Mom’s soap and cleaning products, wine, champagne, cigars and cigarettes. Here’s what the quilt looks like.
As I wrote on my email newsletter I remember well over 25 years ago when this quilt was being created by both Mom and Dad. The quilt took some time to do so I saw it in several stages of production. During each visit Mom and Dad told stories and talked about ideas that relate to the quilt. Rather than completely repeating what I already shared – here’s the main story and…
…a related story…
…along with the truth as illustrated below that both the light and dark parts of ourselves are accepted – we may wish to be more careful about what parts of ourselves that we “pick up” or choose to feed. But no matter what we are accepted just the way we are. (Btw: These stories are are in this book)
There are other quilt related thoughts on my email newsletter A.M. Sketching but here’s a look at the frame and mat we chose at the Aurora Gallery. The just off white mat looks like fabric, woven texture and all. That was one thing I’d enjoyed about Mom, her use of textured fabrics around her house. The frame we chose is a teak wood which reminds both my spouse and I of Dad’s bookcases.
While we were at the Aurora Gallery I realized my current exhibit was still there. This photo is what I could see just by turning my head from where the quilt was spread out. It felt like Mom and Dad got to visit my exhibit. Yes, I teared up at the thought and no one at the Gallery minded.
Both Mom and Dad were unbelievably supportive of my artwork. My art was displayed constantly in their house. So it feels extremely proper that their artwork will soon be displayed prominently in our house! According to the Gallery it will take about 2 weeks until the frame is ready. We already have a place of honor for it in our living room.
Over 15 years ago, during my Abstract art phase, Mom asked me to make a piece for a particular place in their house. Spirals, dots and piano keys were my visual interrelated motifs, each element feeding other elements… I titled it “Food For Thought”. It was about storytelling, the arts and feeding our minds and hearts. My mixed media painting was a response to the quilt and the quilt related stories.
Here’s “Food For Thought” as it was displayed in Mom and Dad’s house many years ago.
All of the above has me thinking of the importance of stories more generally. I’m painfully aware that book writers, illustrators, publishers, educators and librarians are currently under attack – and that books are being removed from public access. I’m feeling an urgency to support local bookstores and the general awareness of books that encourage creative people. So I’ve begun keeping a few publicly available book lists here on Bookshop.org – online book sales there benefit independent bookstores and a small benefit to affiliated people who keep book lists. We create the world together. I learned that too from Mom Penny and Dad.
Ursula K. LeGuin, an author Mom, Dad and I enjoyed together, says it extremely well.
This is why I value the idea of democracy and a nonviolent society. Democracy is the ideal of creating a civilization rooted in free thinking, in equality, in equal access to ideas, to a society based on rule of law, to fact based evidence, transparency, and the right to explore ideas without having to tiptoe on eggshells in fear of some authority figures displeasure, without fear of violence from those who disagree. To create society based on the stories we tell ourselves and each other rather than via the whims of a strongman, or fists or other weapons. Stories can be dangerous enough… part of growing up (or of good therapy) is to learn to distinguish helpful stories from the unhelpful ones. To learn this valuable lesson one needs access to a wide array of thoughts. As this article says “….if we lose our librarians, we lose a core element of our democracy.”
Anyway, all of this was swirling in my head along with my memories of Mom and Dad, storytellers both, and I cried. After I subsided a bit my spouse gently asked if a visit to a bookstore would feel good. I said yes so off we went to Broadway Books. When we entered the store a clerk asked if she could help. I asked for some hopepunk books, books with gentleness and kindness in them. Quickly a book of essays by Ross Gay was handed to me followed by 3 fiction titles. Here’s a selfie of me waiting in the fiction section while the clerk looked up another title. She was so kind!
After a good browse we were at the counter paying for our books. Since we’d gotten so many books they gave us a thick cloth bag to hold them all. I teared up suddenly remembering how Mom made thick reusable cloth bags long before they were normal in stores. Mom even made cloth bags with drawstrings for use when wrapping presents rather than using paper. Whenever we had our lunch meetings at restaurants Dad would bring his Mom-made cloth bag with books in it and I would bring my Mom-made cloth bag with my sketchbook and other books… So there I was standing at the Broadway Books checkout counter with tears running down into my mask. Again no one minded. Everyone was so kind! I waited until we were outside to take my mask off to wipe my eyes and blow my nose.
Here’s the stack of books we came home with.
So I think we chose well. As both Mom and Dad often said “Stories, for better or worse, inform how we relate to our own emotions and experiences”.
I wrote in my last post that there may be hedgehogs and foxes in my upcoming sketchbook pages because I’m reading “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay about Tolstoy and history based on the Greek aphorism “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”
In his book Isaiah Berlin writes (I’m paraphrasing) of how history is actually created by a whole bunch of people but when we talk about a time in history we tend to single out one person as a “hero” and the lone “causal agent” of an event. Berlin writes of how as a creative person Tolstoy was naturally a “many things” fox but as he got older Tolstoy wanted to be a hedgehog with “one big thing” that explains everything.
My reading got me to thinking about hedgehogs, foxes, Tolstoy’s demands of himself as a creative person and how that aphorism related to creativity. I said something about that and my friend Liz Gauffreau asked me how hedgehogs relate to the literary world:
Well, besides the fact that both foxes and hedgehogs are so very cute and fun to draw and write about here are a few of my somewhat random thoughts while reading the essay by Isaiah Berlin. Don’t worry I’ll intersperse my thoughts with sketchbook drawings of hedgehogs and foxes using all 3 of the new fountain pens I described in my last post. (BTW there are even more fox and hedgehog sketchbook pages in my recent email newsletter )
As I read Berlin’s essay I’m realizing that as a creative person I use the fox-like kind of “knowing many things” in a free ranging playful open way while I’m in the midst of creating. I’m free-associating between many things while I’m on the hunt for how to best express my elusive thought. But once I’ve finished my creation and caught my thought then, if I’m not careful, I can curl up into a prickly ball hedgehog-like defensive about whether my creation “means” something, what it means, whether it was worth doing, which “one big things” label it belongs within…etc. Staying for any amount of time in such a prickly ball isn’t helpful.
This getting stuck in a hedgehog ball mode happened more often in my younger years but still occasionally I feel a despairing “what was the point of doing all that?” moment. By now I know not to “feed” such overly self-critical negative thoughts and to deliberately stretch out and switch my thinking to some other more pleasant topic. I know such moments will pass especially after a good meal, a good night’s sleep, time spent reading a novel or going for a walk with my spouse. It’s not always easy but that’s the way I deal with it. I avoid getting stuck by deliberately keeping fluid movements between the modes of fox and hedgehog. Anyway, in my mind, that’s one part of how hedgehogs and foxes figure in the creative/literary life.
Another part of how hedgehogs and foxes figure in to it: our creative life isn’t “one big thing”: we aren’t the sum total of one published book or one painting. We aren’t one label. A creative life is cumulative. Of course when people talk about artists or writers shorthand references – labels – are often made like “So And So is the insert genre label author of Famous Book”. But this is just a way of speaking, a verbal convention. It’s even a necessary one because we use helpful labels to find things, like books to read, and a name or a genre category label is a great starting place.
Yet during the lived reality of a creative life things aren’t so simplistic. Creativity is many-things fox like when we’re in the midst of our unnamed, unlabeled creative project. It can feel unfocused, messy, free ranging all over the territory at the beginning only slowly becoming focused over time as the thought “scent” is caught and the project develops towards completion. After completion then the one-big-thing hedgehog label can be applied. And while my diagram below simplifies the fox/hedgehog creative process please know that this process isn’t linear, its fluid, there will be foxhogs and hedgeoxes, there’ll be all sorts of fits and starts, beginnings and endings, rushing currents and still pools… before a project is finished.
This process of metamorphosis from fox to hedgehog is part of why it is such a challenge for writers and artists to think up loglines or book jacket blurbs or elevator speeches or art statements that sum up their creation in a few sentences (or a Tweet). To sum up their work of the last few years, work they sweated daily over, work they gnashed their teeth on – to distill what it was about using 150 words or less both encompasses and transcends the lived creative process itself. It’s hard to rise above the creative life meadows where the foxes and hedgehogs have played and, from a birds eye viewpoint, select a single meaning for the shorthand talking points. This difficulty is why it’s also a challenge to write query letters that briefly describe a manuscript submission. It’s hard to reduce a fox-y many splendors creation down to a hedgehog-y one big thing and to call the hedgehog an accurate, yet attractive, name.
By the way if you formulate the hedgehog one-big-thing, the logline or art statement, in advance and are rigid about it (i.e. curl up in a prickly hedgehog ball) the resulting project is seldom satisfying to either the foxes aka the creators themselves or to their audience.
And yet a hedgehog can be a great starting place – if you aren’t rigid about the hedgehog label and use it as a prompt! It’s highly likely that a creation that starts out as one defined hedgehog can shape-shift to a fox during the creative process and finish up needing an entirely different hedgehog-y label. So that’s another reason it’s a challenge at the end of a project to select the exact hedgehog that was metamorphosed from that fox. This is also part of the exhilarating fun of a creative life.
We enjoy the arts for the fox-y complexity of many things in them – we talk about that complexity we enjoyed viscerally using simple hedgehog-y verbage. The fox represents a direct experience and a nonverbal expression of life. The hedgehog represents a definition and ways of talking about that artistic representation of life. We need both the foxes and the hedgehogs. The challenge is to remain loose, open, letting the foxes and hedgehogs become themselves while also keeping a benevolent watch over them.
What a work of art or literature “means” in the big scheme of it’s hedgehog label, is identified (if ever) after the work has been made and existed in the world a while. After the artist is finished then we use simple language to sum up what a creation meant. We give it a genre, a category, a label. That summing up or meaning finding is done and verified over the duration of time that the art exists – it gets reevaluated by the artist and by the audience constantly. The lables often get changed multiple times before they “settle” if they ever do. Almost all of Tolstoy’s work has gotten reevaluated numerous times since the era in which he was living and working.
From a creative person’s point of view I find it’s sanity-saving to not worry about the meaning of one work in the big scheme of things but to just get on with the next project. I don’t worry overmuch about the hedgehog labels I give my work for use when submitting or promoting it. As I wrote in my last post I’m regularly surprised by what labels publishers, distributors and art gallery owners place on my work. I just accept the label and these labels become tools I can use to talk with that distributor. For example I now can say to Storyberries “Here’s a new ABC123 Poetry book from me”. But even with that new knowledge generally my attitude when I’m working in my studio is “I’ll make the stuff and you can sort it out” rather than getting stuck on any of the potential labels while I’m in the creative process. Anyway, here’s a note on this topic that I have thumbtacked to my art studio wall.
The meaningfulness that is found after the creation is finished also has an element of danger. Sometimes because an artist is so tired upon completion they, in their fatigue, misjudge their own work and may mislabel it or even destroy it. Sometimes an artist gets stuck on a label and that impedes their progress. Sometimes the selected audience isn’t ready for a creative work and rejects it. Sometimes a work isn’t found to be meaningful until long after the artist and audience’s current era is gone and a new era begins. Sometimes a different audience within an artist’s lifetime finds the work more meaningful. Sometimes meanings and labels change over time too. Sometimes these new labels are helpful and sometimes they’re not.
So for all of those reasons I find it’s best to avoid gaslighting myself, i.e. making hard declarative statements about my work, either as I’m working on projects or whenever they’re finished. I just enjoy the process of making things. Other people can sort them into meanings and categories. That said, I do find the effort of succinctly summarizing my own creative works as a logline etc helpful as long as I don’t take it too seriously. Whatever you want to call it is fine with me as long as my personal foxes get to play and my hedgehogs stay cute.
Which brings me to book banning. I despise censorship because someone somewhere has decided in advance what a book or work of art “means” and they aren’t willing to let people decide that for themselves. They get rigid, in a hedgehog-y prickly defensive ball way, about everything fitting into their one big thing label whether that label is political or religious. They can’t, or won’t, deal with the foxes free ranging exploration. They’re allergic to questions and uncertainty. They reject categorically the concept of changes over time. They’ll decide they just don’t like one particular fox or hedgehog and insist that the external world must conform to their preferences.
Creativity is all about questions and dealing well with uncertainty. To be creative is to actively participate in change and growth. Creativity is a response to the world. Anyway, here’s an article about many of the current censorship efforts that I keep a careful eye on.
In my current art exhibit at the Aurora Gallery on the upper left shelf in the photo below is an artist book I made which tells a truth about rabbits and metaphorically about people. It’s called “The Rabbit” and it is about book banning.
I also participated from home by posting this: I #standwithsalman in favor of free expression. For the Aug 19 2022 @PENamerica event I’m reading from “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by @SalmanRushdie – it’s one of my favorites – Here’s my reading on YouTube.
There now that I’ve finished this blog post I’ll deliberately avoid the one-big-thing type question of “did my efforts to write this blog post mean anything or matter in any way to the larger literary or creative culture?”. In such a question lies gaslighting madness. So instead of going there I accept that I enjoyed writing out my views of the creative process within the context of hedgehogs, foxes and the essay by Isaiah Berlin. And I hope my friend Liz will enjoy reading my thoughts on how hedgehogs and foxes relate to the literary world. There, that’s enough mattering and meaning for me.
Aha, now after rereading what I’ve written (and correcting the autocorrect 🙄) I see that there’s a few category and tag labels that I can use when publishing this blog post! Good enough…
I hope your creative week is full of playful foxes and hedgehogs. See you next Monday.