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.
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.
Early this week I’m delivering all of the Odditorium fine art and books to Burnt Bridge Cellars! This weekend I made sure the art is ready to go and signed some of the artist books.
These artist books are stories within the Odditorium series fine art visual stories. First there’s the Odditorium exhibit catalog which tells the story of the exhibit itself and has images of all the fine art.
Then each additional artist book that I wrote and illustrated, whether for children or adults, contains an odd look at a household or mundane experience. Numpurrs is about a shared meal. Patch La Belle is a collection of whimsical poems about drawers, chairs, cake and much more. This Rabbit is about liking activities at home. Another Sketchbook is about enjoying books and ones own mind. Favorites So Far is a collection of my favorite recipes. Pembral Forgets, written by Steve Tubbs and illustrated by me is about fall leaves and good food.
I didn’t sign all of the books and I hope the green dragon bookplates, that I spoke of in a prior post, come from the printer soon. I plan to sign a few of those for Burnt Bridge Cellars to have on hand just in case someone wants a book signed that wasn’t already signed.
Here are boxes of fine art ready for delivery. One of the side benefits of working in a series on the same size art boards is the ease of packing for transportation.
It didn’t take long to double check that all of my exhibit ducks are in a row because I was basically ready a week ago. So I’ve begun to work on other projects and a starting point is to read about stories and imagination.
Speaking of poetry: I’ve started a new poetry sketchbook. I like the mini books from paperblanks.com with the unlined thicker paper as I can both draw and write on it. I don’t paint in this book as the paper isn’t suitable for watercolor or gouache. This is deliberate as the attributes of the paper in my poetry sketchbook helps me focus on the words and the illustration idea itself instead of getting focused on color too soon. I have a bound watercolor sketchbook for when it’s time for color considerations and serious ink work. This means I may start something in my poetry sketchbook and then try the same sketch in color in my watercolor sketchbook. The 3 photos below show the new (orange) poetry sketchbook, then one of the poems I wrote in the new poetry book. The 3rd photo shows my watercolor sketchbook and a color effort with my poetry idea. At this point I’m just playing.
Related to my household surrealism thoughts I wonder…Can poetry or short stories also be a mug or notecard? What if the mug is big enough to hold soup?
What if the card is itself a pun shared between people…?
I want to make things that help people connect with other people. This is part of why I enjoy having fine art exhibits at Burnt Bridge Cellars – via Caplan Art Designs – people connect over my art, the wine and food. It does feel strange – and anticlimactic – from my point of view to have an exhibit at the winery and not have a big blowout multiple hours long opening party due to the sensible covid restrictions. (The winery is at 50% capacity and reservations are necessary for eating and drinking at the winery. They welcome masked people dropping in to buy bottles of wine and see the art.)
But last year during the worst of the pandemic shutdown I was delightfully amazed at the many kind responses – virtual comments on social media – about my art, my books and my efforts at a virtual exhibit! (This years virtual exhibit is here) And because in the past exhibits I’d had trouble hearing in the winery when it was packed with people – during shutdown 2020 I actually enjoyed my online interactions with people because I could actually read what they said!!
Anyway, I have hopes that somehow it will all work this year too – and that people will go to the winery and enjoy the wine, the food and my art and books!
Speaking of food… Here’s a yummy soup I made this week. I like having soup in large mugs – makes it easier to get the last bite. The potato soup recipe I used is from one of my favorite cookbooks. I love thinking about things that build community: books, music, art and….soup!! This book is fun to read because it’s also a series of stories about food and friends in different communities.
A person doesn’t live by soup and bread alone we also need our personal green dragons, aka our imaginations, carefully nourished so we can deal with the emotional wolves inside us and be able to participate in life. What do you feed wolves? Stories, poems, music and fine art!
Here’s another sketchbook page somewhat related to this topic.
May your dragon and good wolf be well fed this week. See you next Monday?