Jumping Fences

Hybrids.  Grotesques.  Chimeras.  Today I’m thinking about the drawings of Eduardo Galeano in The Book of Embraces.  Have you read this book?  I love it—its playfulness and seriousness, its range, its voices, and its visions.  It celebrates art, imagination, and the human spirit through beautiful vignettes and whimsical illustrations such as a man with an octopus for a head holding a hula hoop, a pensive donkey wearing a suit and spectacles, a fish carrying an umbrella.  These images were the catalyst of my MFA critical thesis, “Seeing in Embraces,” which was published by Assay Journal this month.  Check it out to learn more about The Book of Embraces.

I’ve used the illustrations in The Book of Embraces as prompts in creative writing classes, and it’s always gone well.  I keep it really simple, just ask everyone to choose an image and write from it.  I write too, and I always find that the image catapults me into the middle of something interesting.  I write something I had no intention of writing, follow a trail of associations I’d had no idea was there.  I love the surprise and the weightlessness of having jumped the fences of the self.

These hybrids had been such great springboards for writing that I thought I’d apply them to drawing.  I grabbed my journal and some pens, walked to Java Shack, ordered an Iced Tea, and sat down at a table to draw some hybrids of my own.  There was a dog with a flower for a head and a plastic cup with a parking-meter-straw.  But it was not going well.  My hybrids lacked the vitality and poetry of Galeano’s creations.  I imagined Galeano’s combinations came from intuition, intention, or spontaneous play.  Mine felt forced.  And my drawing style seemed ill suited to the depiction of wild hybrid creations.  In my article, I say that Galeano’s style doesn’t strive for verisimilitude.  But as I looked at my own drawings, I realized that Galeano’s illustrations project a certain authority nonetheless.  Maybe it’s the authority of his draftsmanship or of a style reminiscent of 19th century news sources, pre-photographs.  At any rate, my hybrids lay flat on the page like the drawings they were while Galeano’s creations inhabit the page.

A few days later I tried again.  A face from a magazine sprouted a stem.  The stem sprouted a leaf that required another leaf, which would require another stem.  Was I going to do this?  It looked nothing like a Galeano hybrid, sharp and self-contained.  Should I turn the page and try again?

When I was an art major at the University of Illinois, I heard a piece of advice I often think of: sometimes you should see a piece through even if it doesn’t seem promising.  So that’s what I did, and eventually I fell into the zone—an hour passed like a minute.  That’s another kind of fence jumping.  But in this case I didn’t escape myself but rather came home to myself in a hybrid done my own way, in my own style.


This makes me wonder: Do we ever really escape the self?  When we say we’ve escaped it, maybe we’ve actually enlarged it or discovered it to be something different from what we thought it was or just done something outside our usual habits.  Maybe it’s a particular sense of the self we escape, and not the self itself.



The End of Summer Owl


More decoration than decoy, the owl did not seem to take its job seriously, leaning against the fence like a summer hire in the last week of August.  The sparrows saw a slacker and hopped around under the awning, cracking seeds against the pavement, skittering about the dogs’ water bowl, beating the heat with their open-beaked bird pant.  But the end of summer owl had a message for me: eat all the raspberries, go swimming, go barefoot.  What does the end of summer owl say to you?

Child Sense and Clover

I was trying to think of something to draw or do for this blog.  A while ago I’d taken a picture of clover weeds with the idea that I’d make a small painting, but I thought I could do better.  Maybe I’d go to a café and sketch something or just think of something else.  Days passed, and inspiration had not struck.  The heat index was regularly in the 100s, and that didn’t make me want to sketch at a café or hit the streets.  A couple more days passed, and I bemoaned my lack of ideas.  But then I remembered that I did have an idea and had had an idea all along—the clover painting.  All I had to do was accept it.  So I did.

Does this kind of thing ever happen to you?  I’ve taught and practiced freewriting long enough to know the power of first thoughts, yet I still fall into psyching myself out sometimes, insisting on some theoretical better thing, instead of just saying yes to what’s at hand.

Clover.  It represents summer and childhood, IMG_3273minutes meditating the way children do—with such intense interest and rapt attention, like falling down a rabbit hole, totally absorbed.  I long for such intent looking.  That’s why I love travel.  We get our child sense back through the strangeness of things.  I picture myself, maybe six, squatting in the world of a suburban driveway, pondering a fissure in the asphalt where the prairie of a prior century showed through.  Big brother clover, expert on the way things are here, tell me what you know of storms and earthworms, sneakers and basketballs, dandelions, ants, and the lilies’ white bells, of inhabiting margins and claiming a place, of the right to exist, a calling into summer, a sprawling meekness, marvelousness, symmetry and pattern, subtlety, delicateness, of the touch of tiny fingers.


So, Donkey Ears

I got such pleasure from playing Pictionary with four ESOL students last week.  It wasn’t the pleasure of playing Taboo, which gets everyone excited, energized by competition and the pressure of a three-minute timer.  And it wasn’t the pleasure of playing Apples to Apples, which gets everyone feeling silly, trying to be clever.  It was a quieter pleasure, and it felt special, out of the ordinary, even intimate.

We played our own version without teams or time limits, each of us taking a card and drawing on the white board, trying to get anyone else to see what we saw in our minds’ eyes.

It’s a curious process.  You go to the board with a vague image of, say, a donkey.  You see a pair of nostrils, hoofs, a tail.  You start with the head, and as you draw, you find your hand making those pointed donkey ears you hadn’t pictured along with the nostrils, hoof, and tail, but which are suddenly materializing as if from the drawing itself.

I suppose it’s like how words beget other words, like how, when I worked at the Library of Congress as a writer and couldn’t think of a word, I’d call my mom and say, “Help me with a word, it’s like . . .” and as I tried to put words to the idea, I would inevitably remember the word.  So, donkey ears.  It was like my hand knew what to do before I did.  Actually, I think it’s just a super-fast process of responding to the line as it’s traced on the board with a new thought of what to do next that comes so fast we don’t catch it.  It’s such a fast thought, yet so still and calm we hardly notice it.

Sometimes when you see a great movie, you exist in its afterglow for the rest of the day, maybe the next day even.  This game of Pictionary was a bit like that.  It gently haunted me.  Why was it so special?  Was it because we weren’t competing, just enjoying the act of drawing, the fun of guessing?  Was it because we’d given up the pretense of competition, admitting to ourselves and each other that these simple things gave us pleasure, that these frivolous things were worth doing?

Maybe I’m making too much of this.  Maybe to the students we were just killing time and taking a break from the text book.  But the drawings.  I feel like if I’d just taken a few pictures of the drawings, they’d speak for themselves.  There was a stunning deer with muscley legs, a triumphant entrance to the magic kingdom, a cute piranha, a mountain landscape, a jungle, an ape, a flying monkey.

But I didn’t take pictures, though I kept thinking about it as we played.  I didn’t have a blog post in mind, was just enchanted by the drawings.  But I told myself to just pay attention and enjoy the game.  Maybe it was the right call.  Maybe taking pictures would have changed the experience, made us self-conscious, when the beauty of the drawings was their complete lack of pretension.  Direct and fresh, the drawings were not actually an attempt to communicate so much as an act of conjuring.

I’m reminded of the cave paintings in Lascaux. I remember being told in an art history class that the Paleolithic painters depicted animals to conjure them, make them present, maybe in the cave or maybe later, for dinner.  I always struggled to wrap my head around that idea.  But comparing Taboo to Pictionary, I begin to get it.  In Taboo you try to get your audience to think of a certain word.  You throw associations at them, trying to push the right button.  It’s a manipulation.  In Pictionary you turn your back on your audience and just try to do justice to thing itself—to that deer or donkey.  You try to bring it into the room.  This also reminds me of children’s drawings, which are tributes to the big blue Earth and all it contains, to cousins Sun, Sky, and Moon.  Maybe the intimacy is between the drawer and the drawn.

Paint What You See Not What You Know

woman with ear ring and wordsI just spent ten days at Vermont College of Fine Arts as a graduate assistant at the summer residency for creative writers.  With equal parts hope and skepticism, I’d packed my big sketchbook and a set of oil pastels, but they never left my backpack.  I did, however, do a little sketching in my journal.

The first morning, I woke at 4:30 and, not able to fall back asleep, went outside with my journal and wrote for awhile as the sun rose over the evergreens.  Then I sketched the house next to the dorm I was staying in–it has an amazing garden in front, thick and deep like a night of frog song or a garden by Van Gogh.

montpelier garden

I drew more quickly than usual, going for the main shapes and not concerning myself too much with details, perhaps because I knew I could never account for the abundance of leaves, stems, and blossoms.  I once had the privilege of taking a painting class with David Coughtry, who advised, “Paint what you see, not what you know.”  On this early morning, that’s what I did without thinking about it.  I wonder if it helped that I was up so early and knew the whole day was ahead of me.  Not one to get up with the sun, I felt like I’d received a gift of extra time–a slice of splurge time that didn’t need to be productive or have anything to show for itself.  Maybe that mindset made it easier to see.

Another day, I drew at one of the picnic tables outside College Hall.  I spent many extended moments there and realized it was one of my favorite things to do at residency, the pleasure of loafing out there enhanced by the knowledge that I was missing some fantastic lecture or reading because it made clear the great value of having time to spend in contemplation at a picnic table in proximity to others in conversation, dedication to a sentence, or meditation on a passing moment.

montpelier street

From the picnic table, I drew the street–a busyness around a center of stillness and spaciousness, not that I consciously saw it that way at the time.

My favorite drawings are blind drawings, or somewhat blind drawings, sketched in lectures–mostly heads and faces.  Drawing blind is when you keep your eyes on your subject as you draw, not looking down to see how you’re doing.  That’s what I did–but I cheated a lot.  Blind drawing creates a line with a lot of flow, a relatedness between shapes, and a spaciousness.  Gesture is its genius, simplicity its signature, and accident its anima.  There’s a weirdness, an inaccuracy, that gives a blind drawing life and often captures the subject better than an accurate and thorough rendering would.  At least, that’s my opinion.

What would the writing version of a blind drawing be?  Surely it would be generative, with minimal self-correcting.  But it would also have to be playful, prone to happy accidents and perfect inaccuracies, fast and loose with a devil-may-care attitude.  It’s probably a how, not a what.  And how about writing what you see, not what you know?  What would that look like, and how would that go?


Seeing Poppies

In 2002 I left my job at the Library of Congress, moved in with Mom and Dad for a few months, and then spent the summer backpacking in Europe.  It was a life-changing trip, though I couldn’t point to anything specific.  It’s more that the impact it made was too strong for me to doubt that it influenced the small and big decisions since.

For a month I was in Italy, hitching a ride on an Evergreen State College study abroad as an alumna.  I lived in an apartment in Florence for three weeks, walked everywhere, saw everything, had an incredible art history teacher/tour guide, filled my journal-sketchbook,  learned enough Italian to shop at the market, order at restaurants and cafes, and ask for directions when I got lost.  I people-watched in piazzas, ate incredible cheese, pastries, and pasta, took twilight strolls with a scoop of gelato, took photos of Italians at their windows, sketched Michelangelo’s Pieta.  Beauty, beauty, beauty.

After Italy, it was Barcelona, the Pyrenees, Chamonix, Freiburg, Paris, and London.  On my weekend in Freiburg, I decided to go to church, and I met a couple who invited me to lunch and then to join them for a swim in the Rhine.  We stopped at their home, and I remarked on the beautiful paintings on their walls.  I learned that my hostess was an artist in her spare time.  She showed me several pieces, and my favorite was a small expressionistic painting of poppies.  I couldn’t describe it now–I don’t remember it well, but I remember the impression it made: I loved it, and it made me love poppies.  Since that painting in the home of generous strangers, poppies have had a special place in my heart.

Once, when I was in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, I went on an excursion with a group of students that took us through fields of poppies.

The photos don’t do justice to the feeling of dumb luck when standing in a green field flecked with deep-bright red.  Poppies are such a bold red that I’m always surprised by how delicate their petals are, and how modest–poppies aren’t a fancy flower, just a four-petaled, open-hearted, wide-eyed creature.

Across from our apartment building in Arlington is a community garden.  Walking by it the other day, I was arrested by a song-burst of poppies.  I had to take some photos.  And even though in high school we aspiring artists considered it cheating to work from photos instead of from life, I used one of the photos to make a little painting.  One watercolor paper greeting card and a cheap set of water soluble paints–8 circles and 1 brush–yielded much pleasure and brought me back to a time and a painting that taught me to see poppies.

Poppies Small


Never the Whole Story

On Saturday I spent a couple hours with an ice coffee and sketchbook at Java Shack.  After three weeks of nearly incessant rain, sitting outside in a shady spot on a sunny day felt profoundly good.

With a brush tip marker, I drew my view from the wrought iron table for two—a parking lot behind some buildings across the street.


About a year and a half ago, I drew the same view.  It was some time in the fall.  I was frequenting Java Shack on Fridays, when I would write a poem on a postcard and send it off to a friend and fellow writer from graduate school.

IMG_3091 - Copy (2)

Now I rarely go to Java Shack.  I’ve finished graduate school and have a job on the other side of the city.  My writer friend and I have a different project.  A lot has changed for me since my Java Shack days, and I thought the two sketches, a year and a half apart, might depict some significant change too, but I don’t find that they do.  Maybe the “Towing at Owners’ Expense” sign was gone on Saturday.  If it was there, I missed it.  And maybe that’s a new bike rack next to the tree.  But someone still keeps a couple flower pots out in the parking lot.  Nothing’s been painted.  The black awning is still going strong.

So what could I say about these two drawings?  I started writing about them in my journal: The tree gives structure and is the star of the drawings with its gesture, form, aliveness.  But the cars have personality.  Maybe they steal the show.  Both drawings feel crowded, especially the early one, which is toppling in on itself.  In the latest one, I left things out—the telephone poles and wires.  I cared less about the details of the buildings—the pipes along the walls, the corners, angles, precise dimensions and relationships.

It was somewhere in that last sentence that an image flashed into thought: Afsoon’s back yard.  Afsoon was my best friend from about 4th to 9th grade.  She was the only person in her immediate Iranian family who was born in the U.S.  What made me think of her yard?

Maybe it was the tree.  Once we were in her yard—she was sitting on the thick branch of a tree—and her father came out and literally pulled her off the tree.  I don’t remember why.  I just remember feeling uncomfortable, feeling it was wrong for her father to be so rough with her but wanting to trust him because he was the father and grown up.  Maybe it was the tree.

Or maybe it was the fence.  Once Afsoon’s mom took us out the back yard and across the street to the back of a neighbor’s house to pick grape leaves from the bushes along a chain link fence.  She was making dolmas for dinner.  It felt weird to scavenge food on Old Glenview Road with the cars passing.  It felt like stealing and trespassing, poking my hand through someone’s fence.  Maybe it was the fence.

Or maybe it was the cars.  Afsoon’s brother, who always played “Rainy Day Woman” at top volume, who always left the house with a slammed door shutting down a yelling match with his mother, was always working on a car.  Parked in the front yard of their suburban home, a black Trans Am, an orange Corvette looked as out of place as a toothbrush in a candy dish.  Maybe it was the cars.

Or maybe it was the leaving things out and caring less about details—whether the width of the awning was a third or a fourth of the width of the building, how many branches were on the tree and how many windows on the wall.  Maybe it was the acceptance of ambiguity.

One of the hardest things for me when it comes to drawing is not overworking a piece.  Overworking kills the life inherent in gesture.  But I feel a drive to clarify and define that’s hard to resist.  I did a better job resisting on Saturday, leaving out the telephone poles, letting architectural details go unseen behind the tree, putting the fence in the wrong place, which is maybe the right place as far as the drawing is concerned, because in a way what we see is sacred, but in another way it isn’t.  In another way, what we see is never the whole story.