Friday, March 27, 2015

Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory

I found a quote on my Good Earth tea tag:  “Life isn’t about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.”  It didn’t say exactly how.  Nevertheless, I pasted it on the front page of my latest journal. 

My journal is my constant companion and often it props me up when I'm sagging with fatigue.  Little quotes like that keep me going.  Since I sometimes write and draw in my journal at coffee shops or in the park, I often get comments from people who pass by.  They often say some variation of I wish I had time and the talent to draw. 

I try to tell them you don’t have to have talent (I don’t), but you need to make time.  Everyone claims to be busy, and I don’t doubt that.  I’ve been recommending Danny Gregory’s book Everyday Matters since it was published in 2003, because it’s a compelling illustrated memoir, and it’s also a story about how to make time for art in your life.  How to create yourself by observing the world around you, drawing what you see, and writing about it. 

Now I have another Danny Gregory book to recommend:  Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to Be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are (Chronicle Books, 2015).

He says:  “Art will make your life richer and more fun and better, and cooler, and less stressed…Art stops time.  When you draw or paint what’s around you, you see it for what it is. Instead of living in a virtual world, as we do most of the time these days, you will be present in the real one.  Instead of focusing on all the things whirring in your head, you will be able to stop, clear your mind, take a deep breath, and just be.  You don’t need a mantra or guru.  Or an app.  Just a pen.”

I’ve always kept a journal, but not every day and often I got rid of my journals.  When I started purposefully doodling, adding a visual element to my journals, it made me treasure my journals more.  It also took away the fear of despoiling a beautiful blank book.  Once I started drawing, doing some calligraphy and colorful front pages in the journal, I wanted to work in it, and I wanted to go back and see what I’d drawn and written.  It’s not great work, but it’s mine.  A celebration of the ups and downs of my life.  It helped me through the years when I had a mystery neurological disorder – drawing pictures of the spine, drawing a network of nerves in a simple gingerbread type figure, doing self portraits – it took the sting out of life.  It made me appreciate the details. It made me grateful for what is around me.

Art Before Breakfast is a playful and accessible book.  It stops time – and it makes you aware of all the time you do have.  We make time for all sorts of things in life.  If we elevate our own creative needs to the level of say, washing the dishes, then we create the time we need.  Keeping a little book to draw and write in close by makes it easy to take the few minutes you need to create and center yourself.

If you think you're too busy to make art, then by all means, make art.

First, redefine what you think of as art.  It's within you, truly.

This is not a typical book that emphasizes a certain technique or mastery, it's a book that gives you permission to ignore all rules and just play:

Don't let your brain stop you from drawing.

As for making time, develop an art addiction and take art breaks just like smokers make time for smoke breaks (and if you smoke, take your journal with you

When you were a child, you drew with abandon.  Find a kid to teach you abandon again.  Tell your story in your own unique and beautiful way

If you're afraid to draw a picture, practice calligraphy and writing in cursive.  Develop your own font.

Gregory has written and edited several books to encourage the artist in us all.  In the book An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers, How Books, 2008, he says, “Illustrated journaling has transformed my life and given me the clearest form of identity I’ve ever had.”

Can an art journal really do that?  Everyday Matters was a memoir that told how it happened.  In that book, he encourages illustrated journaling but also tells the story of how he came to accept his life after his beloved wife became paraplegic  after a subway accident.  The story unfolds in the drawings and his writings.  

In it, he explains there is ALWAYS something to draw

Years later, his illustrated journals kept him afloat while grieving for the loss of his wife in the stunning and profound A Kiss Before You Go, which I reviewed here and I encourage you to read.  It helped me understand more about grief and how to honor it. 

If you haven’t started drawing or keeping a journal, I urge you to read Art Before Breakfast.  It’s an invitation to make your world more vivid, playful and beautiful.  The instructions will lead you to judge yourself less harshly and celebrate your unique style and story. 

I'm much more likely to draw the empty plate after I've eaten

Writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau said, “After the writer’s death, reading his journal is like receiving a long letter.”  There are so many of my ancestors I would have loved to get a letter from.  Don’t let your life slip by, or wind up being a pristine blank book.  Encourage yourself and start to draw.  Create yourself.  Let Art Before Breakfast nourish the urge to leave your mark in the world, if not for your heirs, then for yourself.  It’s a gift you can give yourself that will reveal the treasure all around you.

You can find out more about Danny Gregory at  He's got lots of encouraging articles and has a presence on both Facebook and Twitter.  Get to know his work, then get drawing.  

Thanks for visiting my blog.  If you'd like, leave a comment.

I'm linking this post to Paint Party Friday.  Click the link and find a whole list of artist who are living creatively and have made art a part of their lives.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's in a Dress?

Some books come along at just the right time.  I read to kids Bridge Meadows, an intergenerational community supporting families adopting children from the foster care system,  I live there and serve as a mentor.  One of the boys here has, at age 5, had an identity revelation.  He says he is not a he or she, a boy or a girl.  He likes playing ball and drawing, he likes pink and wearing dresses.  His mother is supporting him in figuring out who he is on his own terms, so some days he wears pants and some days he wears dresses. 

As soon as she let him choose his own clothes, she noticed his behavior changed, he grew more confident, a part of him blossomed that he’d held tightly under control.  It was amazing to see.

Still, outside of his loving family and community, there isn’t a lot of support for a boy who wants to wear dresses.  There is outright disdain and worse.  It’s a worrisome situation.  

When his mother reached out to the community to explain their choices for her son, I’d recently read about the book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, by Chistine Baldacchino and illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant on the altogether exuberant blog Brain Pickings

I immediately got the book to share with him.  It’s a sweet and moving story of a complex boy who, in spite, of being teased, holds on to his love of a tangerine dress that he discovers in the dress-up center at school.  The dress reminds him of his mother’s hair, his cat, tigers and the sun.

Morris Micklewhite likes to paint, do puzzles and sing loud during circle time.  That’s all fine.  It’s his love of the tangerine dress that causes him trouble.  But it’s such a fantastic dress!

My young friend loved the dress, was upset at the bullying,
Malenfant's illustration incorporate a lot of white space when the action is stark

It gets so bad that Morris eventually get sick with a tummy ache.

The mother's worried look is so touching

But while he's thinking things out, he begins to dream and finds his way to self-acceptance.

I love way the art is drawn as if by Morris

And his pride

When his friends won't let him play with them, Morris creates his own rocket ship, one so cool that the other kids come to him to play.   The dress doesn't matter, it's Morris's sense of adventure that draws the other kids to him.

My friend thought it was really cool to see a boy in storybook who was like him. "I've never seen a book like this before.  I like it." The bullying made him mad, but he was so glad Morris kept wearing the dress.  
He wanted a closer look at all the picutres

I’ve been impressed at how my friend is so sure of his need to wear dresses at such a young age.  He’s teaching me a lot about when personality and identity start, if it isn’t pushed down by shame and shock.

I also read this book to a group of girls and boys.  When I showed it and read the title, one of the girls said, “But he’s a boy!”  As I read the book, though, and Morris started getting teased, the kids all commented about how mean that was.  The dress didn’t matter.  

We talked about what made something for a girl – dolls, pink, dresses—and something for a boy – action figures, beyblades, football.  We found no real reason why things are for girls or boys.  They all knew girls who were “tomboys,” but not boys who liked dresses.  They didn’t see any reason why boys shouldn’t wear dresses.  The girls felt good that they were able to wear whatever they wanted.  Why shouldn’t boys?  This is a great book to open a conversation about what bullying is, and how it hurts the person who is being bullied.  It shows that a person who is different is non-threatening, and often a lot of fun.

On another note, all the kids were impressed with the fun things that Morris Micklewhite got to do at school.  None of the children I've read the book to have painting stations, singing circles, or dress-up centers.  The author and illustrator of this book are Canadian.  It's published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, a wonderful Canadian publisher.  (Look at their catalog here.)  It makes me wonder if there is  more emphasis on creativity in Canadian schools.  Hmmmm.

Chistine Baldacchino is a graphic artist and web designer with a background in early childhood education.  This is her first book. She lives with her husband in Toronto. Isabelle Malenfant has illustrated more than a dozen children's books.  She lives with her family in Montreal.

Sometimes, these days, when I see young men in their very loose, long shirts and sagging trousers, I wonder why they don’t make a transition to tunics and dresses.  It’s only random cultural associations that make garments, colors, and styles seem male or female.  I now know several parents who are allowing their boys to wear dresses.  Will they face the same kind of bullying that they would have in the past?  Are we evolving a little bit out of our strict sense of what is appropriate dress? 

I think back to the furor it caused when women began to wear pants.  And in places on our beloved planet, pants are still illegal garments for women.  What a strange world.  But books like Morris Micklewhite envision a world a bit less strange, a little more colorful and kind.  I like that story.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you'd like, leave a comment.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wild and Happy

I often read with my 6 year old neighbor Karishma, here at Bridge Meadows community.  Last week, she came over and urgently asked for the book Wild by Emily Hughes.  Her shoulders were scrunched up to her ears.  I quickly found the book.  She flipped to the back and read the last page out loud.  “You cannot tame something so happily wild.”
Her shoulders relaxed and she sighed.  She then read the whole book again.

It’s been her favorite book for about a month now.  Even though she doesn’t really want to eat raw salmon from a river or sleep in a tree, she identifies with wanting to be wild.

The day she so urgently needed to see the ending was her first back at school after a week off.  She’d had a cold, then impetigo.  She got a toothache which required a visit to the dentist.  Her first day back at school didn’t go well.  I didn’t get the details but I was happy that she sought relief in a book. 

Wild tells the story of a girl who has known nothing but nature since birth.

“No one remembered how she came to the woods, but all knew it was right. 
The whole forest took her as their own.”

This spread is from the book but scanned in on Emily Hughes' site.  You get better detail than on the other pictures I've posted

In many ways, this is a Garden of Eden story.  And I think it touches on the same desires for a peaceable garden, something not so dog eat dog, evolve or die.  In Wild, bears teach the girl to eat, birds teach her to speak, foxes teach her to play.

The trouble comes when she’s discovered by humans and they try to help her.  It doesn’t go well.  

from Emily Hughes Site

The girl is powerful enough to know when enough is enough and gets her freedom back.  And she takes the dog and cat with her.  This element is important to every kid I’ve read this book to – they are as concerned about the dog and cat as they are the girl.

Wild represents an idyllic family, where everyone plays together and there are no confusing rules, or school, or bad days, or shoes.

For me, it was a nod to the wild child that I once was – the one who got in trouble for jumping on furniture, climbing trees, and spitting out food I didn’t like.  I was tamed, but I like to think there is something happily wild still inside me even in my fifties (aging has helped me shed a lot of the need to please, and makes me appreciate my inner wild.)

Hughes illustrations are detailed and loose at the same time.  This wild girl’s expressions bring her to life.  I’ve never see such an accurate illustration of a child who feels she is the victim of an injustice or stupidity.  

Hughes' style is vivid and lyrical.  The scans and photos I‘ve posted here do the book no justice.  It’s a Flying Eye book and it’s done in their usual beautiful style with a great binding and colorful endpapers.

Emily Hughes lives in London, but is originally from Hilo, Hawaii.  She earned 2nd place for the Macmillan's Prize for Children's Picture Books in 2012.  She is a young author and I look forward to the work she creates in the future.  Flying Eye Books is bringing out her second book, The Little Gardener, in August.  I can't wait!

In Wild, Hughes has created a powerful and determined girl.  The girls at my community center who I read it to just love that.  They study the book, the details of the art, and get dreamy eyed about being wild.  It’s a delight to see them imagine a joyous adventure that has nothing to do with being a princess. 

Karishma loves the girl’s hair and big eyes.  And she loved the ending even more than I imagined.  What a thrill it was that she came to me frustrated and wanted to see a book instead of play on the computer.  Playing computer games might have helped her escape from her problems, but reading Wild helped her reimagine why it’s so hard to be schooled and civilized.  It reminded her that life is sweet and there’s a whole world of nature out there for her.

You can follow Emily Hughes’ blog by clicking here.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you’d like, leave a comment.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Size Matters -- or Does It?

I haven't posted about journaling in a while, so I thought I'd write about how I keep up my writing and drawing practice.

Last year, I started keeping a morning written journal where I spent 10 to 30 minutes writing freely.  This is different than the free write some people do, or the morning pages, where you write to loosen up and just throw the pages away.  I can't do that -- I horde words and stories.  I write about what's happening in my life and my mind, the details of the day before.  I also use that time for story beginnings.

During the day, I keep a visual journal for taking notes, practicing drawing, trying out painting techniques and giving myself a place to play.  Play is the best way to learn.

One of the things I've learned is that size matters.  Maybe.

I bought a little journal with nice paper that would be easy to carry. I could sketch discreetly.  It would be light and perfect.  Except I didn't really like it after I started using it.  It was too small. I resisted it for a while, but it was the only thing I had.  I only did one painted piece in it.  A loose tree:

 But I used it, nonetheless, and actually wound up with a few expressive drawings:

My husband at Salty's bar-- a fish was on the wall behind him

Church notes during a music service

Further church notes

Multnomah falls
I think if I'd liked the journal better, I would have gone back and painted a few of these, but looking back, I enjoy the simplicity and these drawings bring back memories -- simple visual language in a letter to my future self.

My next journal was a Strathmore hardbound 8.5 x 5.5" watercolor journal with cotton paper.  It was a little larger and that made a big difference.  However, it was hard to use that thick paper for light sketches and writing.  It felt like I was wasting it.  It had a precious quality to it.  It did force me to try more paintings and to work across the spread.  However, that didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.
ink sketch

Spirit Bird
I went on happily painting pages.  One thing I like is to use my leftover paint puddles to paint journal pages so I can draw or write on colored pages later.  This wonderfully absorbent paper didn't do so well with my wet techniques:

paint seeped through
I had some seepage problems with journals before, but not to this extent.
The sun got green ooze.
I had better luck with writing and illustrating, though the paper seemed meant for watercolor:
At the Tula's a gluten free pasty and coffee shop

At Sound Grounds after my first venture in my power chair on the bus.  I colored their logo the wrong colors
So now I'm back to an inexpensive Canson Art Sketch book, hardbound 8.5 x 5.5.  The paper is only 65 lb.  I've used it before and it buckles when I paint, but the buckles flatten out after a while and there's not the same kind of seepage.  It's great for writing and doesn't feel precious.

I'm most excited about trying my new Winsor and Newton inks:

I also have a big 9x12 Canson Mixed Media spiral bound book when I need to go big.  That means I'm now keeping 3 journals.  The morning write, the day and travel book, and the big journal.  I'm also considering keeping subject journals -- like one for Bridge Meadows Meetings, one for concerts. one for spring flowers -- I don't know if it'll feel as if I'm spread too thin or if it'll help me tell the story of myself to myself a little better.

I think the different sizes and different kinds of paper bring out different styles.  It was easy to do minimalist sketches in my little journal, easy to paint in the watercolor one.  It's fun to do collage and paint in the large journals.  But the humble 5.5 x 8.5 Canson seems to be right for everything at this point.  I wonder if I'll feel the same 50 pages from now?

If you'd like you can read my last post on journaling in 2014 here.

How do you keep your journals and sketch books?  What's worked and what's not worked?

By the way, Danny Gregory, who I blame for getting me addicted to visual journaling, has a new book out, Art Before Breakfast, which I'll review next week.  Check out his blog for inspiration to illustrate your life and to live better through bad drawing.  It works :)

Thanks for reading my blog.

I'm linking to Paint Party Friday, where you can find lots of enthusiastic and creative art bloggers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review of One Plastic Bag

I was sipping coffee in a lovely cafĂ© with glass walls, enjoying the light and feeling of openness.  I looked around at the sky and the winter trees, all bare of leaves, limbs like calligraphy against a gray sky.  Except the one on which a plastic bag was snagged.  It danced in the wind, an ominous trash dance.  Even though they’re banned here in Portland, Oregon, they’re still a part of our landscape.  They’re still used almost everywhere, all over the world, even in villages in Gambia.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook Press/Lerner Books, was just released and it brings to light the depth of the plastic bag problem, as well as the innovative way one group of women are dealing with it.

In Njau, Gambia, when the plastic bags broke or were no longer needed, people dropped them.  One plastic bag became two, then ten, then hundreds.  “The bags accumulated in ugly heaps alongside roads. Water pooled in them, bringing mosquitoes and disease. Some bags were burned, leaving behind a terrible smell. Some were buried, but they strangled gardens. They killed livestock that tried to eat them.”

But people got used to them.  We’re very adaptable, even to things that are ugly and destructive.  When I wait for the bus here in Portland, I’m amazed at how many people throw down their trash and how the rest of us wait amongst the litter and never pick any of it up.  Picking up trash is beneath us; we have other things on our mind.

But Isatou Ceesay wanted change and despite being ridiculed, she became that change.  She and a small group of women began to collect and clean the bags.  They cut them into strips and crocheted purses.  The purses were colorful and practical.  Isatou realized that the purses could be a way to help alleviate the poverty of the women in her village. 

This is a truly inspiring story and one of the reasons I keep reading “children’s books.”  There is hopefulness in them and many publishers, especially the small independent ones, are looking for unsung heroes to celebrate.

Miranda Paul’s writing is clear and lyrical.  She met Isatou while teaching and traveling in the Gambia.  Miranda is an avid recycler and conservationist.  This was a story she “had to tell.”
Her descriptions of village life are vivid and inviting.  You feel as if you're there.

The story is beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon.  Her luminous paintings bring the book to life.  She uses collage elements that enhance her backgrounds but also make characters more vibrant.  (She also illustrated The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, which I reviewed here.)  Her faces and hands are particularly beautiful and expressive.  You feel Isatou’s thoughtfulness and hopefulness through Zunon’s paintings.

Here's a link to a short trailer of the book, so you can see a bit more of Zunon's art, but of course, the best way to see it is in the book.  The screen does it no justice:  

The book includes bonus information such as a Wolof language glossary, timeline of actual events, and photos of the women of Njau.

It's a beautiful book about an ugly topic, with great art, a great solution to a trashy problem, and a great woman who proves one person can make a difference.  

Here’s a link to the book’s website which includes lots of links for teachers and families.  I could see this being a great book for a family discussion night on environmental topics and different cultures:

And here’s a direct link to a 15 minute video on the Njau Recycle Centre:

Here’s Miranda Paul’s website.  She’ll have another book out this year, Water is Water, and two in 2016:

And here’s Elizabeth Zunon’s website.  She’s illustrated a book by Nikki Grimes called Poems in the Attic, which will be out in April:

Both Paul and Zunon belong to the wonderful We Need Diverse Books campaign, which you can read about here:

What are you reading these day?