Category Archives: Art

My Creativity Toolbox

I was out of town for a few weeks and to be honest, had zero creative spark. Nada. Not even an ember, it was just plain extinguished. Now that I’m home in my little corner of Oregon and back at it, I started thinking about the tools I use to get those ideas burning again.

Here’s what I rely on the most:

  • Music is a HUGE part of my writing. I think more than anything it helps to keep me from getting distracted. And to get very specific here – I love writing to Celtic music. If I’m writing a really intense scene, bring on the Riverdance! I use Pandora (it’s free if you don’t mind the occasional commercial) and I have some very finely tuned stations to fit my “writing mood.”
  • After many years as I handwritten writer, I finally transitioned to writing direct on the computer several years ago. Maybe not as romantic, but a much more effective use of my time. But when I’m stuck, I always default back to scribbling on a piece of paper. Instead of focusing on writing actual prose, I “talk myself” through a block. Such as “Okay, what I am trying to say here. I’m trying to get this character to____.” Before you know it, your story is off and running.
  • Write/draw/compose/create by a window. Even if it’s dark out, it always helps.

I started getting curious about what other artists use as tools to help with creativity. Here’s a few ideas that I might add to my own toolbox that are easily available online:

  • Allow yourself to get lost on Flickr…there’s some amazing photography on there to peruse and you never know, you may find an image that inspires your own project. (If you actually use it, make sure it’s part of Creative Commons!)
  • Many sites recommended using Pinterest for ideas…now, this is a tricky site for me. I tend to get VERY distracted on Pinterest and before I know it, three hours have passed and nothing is accomplished except 30 more pins. But I found searching specifically for “art journal ideas” or “art therapy”  or “writing prompts” came up with some amazing options! So if you tread carefully, I think it is a great creativity sparker.
  • Motivational quotes can be a big, well, motivator. For me, I have a poster with a Margaret Atwood quote hanging right over my computer.
Proof.
Proof.

To be honest, many of the websites that boasted “motivational quotes” were drowned with ads. I’m recommending my go-to for quote finding…which is good ol’ Goodreads. If you search for “quotes” they have a huge selection organized by tags such as love, knowledge, power, etc.

What are some of the tools you use to help “spark” your creativity?

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The Color of the Wallpaper in my Head

I see a specific shade of blue and I think of a Charles Vess comic.  I see another shade of blue combined with marigold and a Chanel lipstick red and I think of Wes Anderson.  I don’t think of the artist maybe as much as I do the way their art made me feel at a certain time.

It’s almost like when you hear a turn of phrase and think “Oh, that’s so Wodehouse” or that feeling that Chesterton would have phrased it in a similar way.  Or you see something quiet and startling in the spring and know you have wandered unknowing into a Neruda poem.

Color is different though.  There’s something about color that lift your heart and dashes it all at once.  The best writing speaks in color.

I am so much an infant still sometimes because I see something beautiful and I want to put it into my mouth.  Not to eat it, just because I feel like if I could take it in I would understand it better.  I am not sure if anyone else has that impulse, or if I’m just sort of regressed.

Patrick Rothfuss writes in green.  Neil Gaiman and Madeleine L’Engle write in the colors of Moonlight.

Paint is so difficult to shape into colors that make sense.  I am always in awe of painters.

This last weekend I was laid flat with a pressure headache and didn’t make it outside as I wished, nor could I draw or paint.  But as I thought about color and saturation, hue and contrast, Robert Frost just ran through my head over and over… “I have been one acquainted with the night”.  I don’t know what color the poem is, but I feel like I have been one acquainted with color. Perhaps some day we shall be friends. rcw600x600

 

Accolades and Art

Leonardo DiCaprio finally got his Oscar.  This moves me even though I stopped watching the Academy Awards after the 2006 awards. The Oscars are notorious for not being really representative of a lot of the art put out there in cinema, and yet I’m so happy for DiCaprio.  There’s something really touching about this man who has worked in this industry since childhood be recognized by the best known award ceremony in the country. Even more touching was the standing ovation.  He received one at the Golden Globes too.

Why is it so important to us to be recognized?  Why is it so hard when we are not? I mean, we all know the general answers to these questions, but there seems to be moral assignation to whether something is properly recognized or not.  We hear about a struggling artist whose art only comes into prominence after their death and endures for many lifetimes and we shake our heads and say “what a shame”.

There also seems to be judgement if you desire acknowledgement or accolade within the art community.  If you do well in a work -a-day job, and you desire recognition your ambition is lauded.  If you crave applause at the end of a performance it’s inferred that you are a bit of an egoist.

There’s something about doing something artistic that leads people to believe it should be wholly satisfying in and of itself.  I wonder if this stems a bit from the idea that art is somehow not properly Work, that people are fortunate to be Artists.

Some YouTube Videos exist of famous musicians playing in public places, like the subway, and people rushing by and ignoring them.  Not even giving them a glance as a busker, much less as a Master.  It’s interesting to me that people are so shocked when a commuter walks by Lindsay Stirling without a second glance, but isn’t shocked to have say… Bryson Andres just playing in the street for their enjoyment.

I think that a social contract should exist between the people working to enrich the world around them and the people who enjoy that enrichment.  We sing, you clap,  we make art, you spend a moment to look at it.  A busker makes your morning?  Drop a few coins into their case or hat or whatever.

To start with, locally, as a community, we should be better engaged with recognizing, appreciating and encouraging each other. I mean, that’s the thing  we can change.  And be happy for each other when we receive recognition, that’s the other thing.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…

My personal hymnbook was given to my by my classmate Cody upon our graduation.  It’s the hymnal of the denomination of the church we both attended at the time, of the boarding school we both attended our senior year.  Everyone in the class received one.  To me, it’s a beautiful object: img_4406

Shane Bertou recently commented that he uses a hymnal as a devotional, and I deeply resonate with that use.  This morning I cracked the book looking for something to speak to me.  I hadn’t carefully planned the dip into hymnody this week.  (Isn’t hymnody a ridiculous word?  Someone used it in conversation with me and it never occurred to me that someone would use that word for serious. I love it).

Paging through, noting songs like familiar friends and becoming surprised at many that I have no recollection of… I stopped at page 111: I Know Who Holds Tomorrow.

I probably stopped because I love the cadence of the word “Tomorrow”.  It immediately brings me show tunes and Macbeth and a feeling that I’ve called since highschool “the possibility of maybe”.

My favorite verse is the third:

I don’t know about tomorrow, it may bring me poverty, 

But the one who feeds the sparrow,  Is the one who stands by me, 

And the path that be my portion, May be through the flame or flood, 

But His presence goes before me. And I’m covered with His blood. 

My classmate (or likely his remarkable mother) gave me possibly my favorite graduation gift, a collection of songs that I sing, that I learn from, that feed me and challenge me.  Even the ones that are edited by the church that printed the hymnal, even the ones that I think seriously miss the mark theologically or otherwise.

Art is important. Music gets to places inside of us that nothing else can, poetry can do it too.  If I haven’t been clear this series; if nothing else I hope you open a hymnal.

Edit: previously I had written my classmate was named “Casey”, this is incorrect, it was Cody.  Casey is his brother with whom I worked at said boarding school.

Bells on Her Fingers… Bells on Her Toes…

It’s Friday and I’m a little fried.  I want to listen to The Cure and read fiction and be in bed, but that is tomorrow’s activity docket. (Okay, so I might listen to The Cure while at work).

I haven’t drawn all week, either.  You ever get the feeling when you don’t draw your hands ache?  When I don’t play music my hands itch sometimes, when I don’t draw; they ache. I sometimes feel like I don’t have much choice in being a creative person, it was decided long before I was born.  I used to think of it as creative compulsion, but now I just think it’s who I am and that’s my lot.  Usually I’m grateful for it.

Sometimes it is hard to go about my normal day.  I’ve gotten over the not doing art for a living thing, I changed my perspective on that and I’m pretty good with working a normie job.  It’s more that my brain comes alive when I solve something at work and starts to compose a song or lay out a painting and it’s super distracting.  Sometimes I’m able to jot it down but often I have to turn it off and just lose the kernel of it.  It’s that trade off that we make sometimes in life, and I haven’t found a balance for it yet.

It’s been a week full of that, so I’m sure I will creatively explode this weekend… and I’ll post the results.

TGIF, y’all.

A Quilt and a Cuppa and a Book

I missed blogging on Monday as I had a rare and true day off, where nothing was expected of me, and it was so much more important to make the most of that, than to sit down and a computer like I do every work day of my life.

Today I was going to write about the depth and whimsy of “On The Jericho Road”, memories of switching the high and low parts,  Merle Haggard, Donald S. McCrossan and the intersection of popular music and hymns, but I think that’s the most I’m going to write about it today.

Instead, I would like to talk about some thoughts that came on that lovely day off as I was wrapped in some quilts with a cup of tea, reading.  My husband bought me the “Time Quintet” of Madeleine L’Engle books for Christmas.  I adore L’Engle.  I love her mannered way of writing and her big concepts and thoughts in children’s books.  Her book “Walking on Water; Reflections of Faith and Art” is a must read in my view.  I did not realize she was so prolific until late in my 20’s, and for some time have wished to read all her books starting with the ones I feel in love with as a child.

I never considered her to be as blatant as Lewis in her theological bent, although she really is.  She just seems to be less pleased with herself about it.  Also, her non-fiction is greatly underrated.  But that’s not what I want to talk about either.

See, when I was a kid, I used to go to the little library in our church and borrow books.  There was  quite a collection of fiction.  Some of them were quite good (Brock and Bodie Thoene) and some of them were abysmal (Janette Oke), but all of them relentlessly moralistic in a way that often literally interrupted the story.  As much as I loved reading Frank Peretti, the Christy Miller Series, and  other perfectly good, wholesome and sometimes well written tomes… I couldn’t tell you what most of them were about.

My mind already had a standard in it for what was Interesting.  Karana on her lonely island eating abalone and taming wolves.  Indians in cupboards.  Bridges and wardrobes to other worlds, and the woods between them. There was Judy Blume to give me a roadmap of how to survive school and siblings.  There was Dickens and Dumas to show me how the world could be cruel or kind and that it was only my heart that I could use as influence.  All of these stories had messages that continue to teach me to this day.

It was bewildering to me when I started to meet fellow homeschooled children who were only allowed to read Christian fiction, and even those books were discouraged because they were fiction.  Although Christian marketed non-fiction was better, it needed a critical mind.  Elizabeth Elliot was a woman of some wisdom and an amazing life story, and yet none of us should have taken her “Passion and Purity” without serious questioning.  Anyway, the idea of someone censoring book reading was so foreign to me.  I don’t think anyone had ever told me “don’t read that”, save for Sweet Valley High books as they were vapid… and I read those and tired of them quickly.  The library was a safe place for me.  I think I was 10 when I read George Harrison’s autobiography and Gone With The Wind, in between The Babysitter’s Club.  I could understand not watching TV, I had no context for a world where one could not read whatever one chose.

When I got to boarding school, some well meaning person had donated entire series of what can only be described as “Christian Romance Novels”.  We read the backs out loud by the fire when we were bored, streaming tears at the copy that tried to convey sexiness but not too much, and promise some sort of redemptive story line.  Nothing was funnier, and yet nothing was more deeply embarrassing to me.  It was the end of the ’90s and the novelty of Christianity as a genre was wearing off as it was shown to be shallow marketing and not lasting in any classical sense.

I feel that I should say that there are vapid, moralistic and shallow books that are not marketed at the Christian sector.  I feel like someone would comment on that right away, or take that to be the bent of my post. Rather, understand that as a person of faith, I weirdly feel responsible for the books that shout “I am a piece of Christian Fiction!” I feel that people will look at my faith from that angle and think it is boring and one note.  So there is something to reading L’Engle and feeling… oh there you are.  There is something to reading fiction where you know the author’s heart beats similarly to your own, even if she hasn’t spelled it out.

As we continually talk about Art, the subject of quality will always come up, the subject of depth and of intent.  I thought for years that the reason that I could not tell you what a single Janette Oke novel was about was being my mind wanted something more lurid because I am a fallen wicked person… but that can’t be it.

I haven’t read Island of the Blue Dolphins since I was 8, and yet I can probably tell you all of the plot points.  I didn’t have to google “Karana” (and I’m hoping that I got that name right).  It was a transformative piece of literature in my life that has informed my person. I have a feeling the author was just telling a story,  based on a true story incidentally, but with that truth that cold facts can never convey.  I think where “Christian Lit” goes wrong is that most that I’ve read is trying to convey a message instead of telling a story.  The story will convey the message that is in your heart if you let it, I think.  I think Dumas knew that.

That is the challenge, isn’t it?  To write what you need to write instead of what you are supposed to write. May I learn how.

 

Gentle Reader, Strong Loss

deep forestYesterday, February 11,  my dear friend would have been 35, had he not left us 8 years ago.  I managed not to think about it in any sad way all day long, just in context of being terribly grateful for our short, intense friendship.  Once I tried to sleep, all I could feel was loss.

Like most people, I’ve lost quite a handful of people at this point in my life.  My grandmother who got me interested in painting and art,  the childhood mentor who encouraged my writing and my love for detective novels (just to name a couple).  The loss of a collaborator had ramifications that I still feel today.  He’s been gone 8 years and I still get the same sharp pain in my chest when I finish something and feel as if I have no one to show it to, no one that will understand the heartbeat of it.

Over the few years of our friendship, there were daily debates, all night calls to discuss Radiohead and how it’s like and unlike Classical Music and Art,  trips to the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo where I learned appreciation for Modern Art, poems that flew back and forth, songs sung over the crappy pre-skype video services or phones propped up by the guitar.  We both used to write for this online community/blog thing, and from the first few interactions, I’d write my post knowing that he’d read it and get it and still tell me what could be better about it… I would post knowing that if no one else read it (and people did, it was a vibrant little community), he would read it and since he was my Gentle Reader, it didn’t matter to me if anyone else did. From the moment we connected via AIM (yes it was that long ago) there was constant feedback, revision, collaboration and camaraderie.

I read a quote on Tumblr last night, it said:

“One day, whether you

are 14

28

or 65

you will stumble upon

someone who will start a fire in you that cannot die.

However, the saddest,

most awful truth

you will ever come to find —

is they are not always with whom we spend our lives.”

-Beau Taplin from Hunting Season

It took me years to force myself to start to do things that mattered to me creatively after he died.  I knew it would piss him off, just stopping, but my grief was a tidal wave that would flatten me when I least expected it.  And I had lost my Reader, why did it matter if I made anything?

I had never needed that before, I spend most of my life just making things as it pleased me, or writing songs for a bigger audience.  I don’t know why the second I found my creative twin soul I couldn’t do without him.

I finally just started forcing myself.  Just knowing that I would be sad and it would suck, and that maybe I was just doing it for me. It helped a bit.  Therapy helped a bit.  Prayer helped a bit.  Doing The Thing helped in various amounts. But I didn’t get over it until I inundated my creative world with the permeating sense of impermanence.

The thing about grief is that I think it needs to be expressed, and we don’t always get to choose what that looks like.  Until I started writing and painting and drawing my grief, until I started to be completely bored and frustrated by loss, I just couldn’t get past it.  I thought chin up, make myself Do, make myself Carry On and it would lessen.  But time doesn’t heal some things, really.  I don’t know if it is healthy for other people, I don’t know if it was healthy for me. However, for me the only way I have found is through it.

It’s a strange thing, setting foot outside the door of my inner creative mind, and to express it these days, sort of without a net.  Although, the gift of having loved someone is that I do hear my grandmother’s voice, my mentor’s voice, my gentle reader for good or for grief, in every scrap I release to the wind.

Now My Raptured Soul Has A Song Stuck In My Head

The opening lines of “At Calvary” will always remind me of morning chapel at the private religious boarding school I attended my senior year of high school.  All those teenagers in their uniforms, not quite awake yet singing in harmony.  It’s a wonderful song to be nostalgic about, because it’s an ideal hymn in many ways.

I think that the wonderful old timey piano arrangement has such a beguiling tune.  It’s a tune suited for a music box, catchy and pleasing to sing and to listen to.  The four verses are short, to the point, and the rhymes are not forced as one finds in some classic hymns. Written by a Moody Bible Institute staff member on the back of an envelope (the guy’s name was William Reed Newell), it’s a song that touches deep and yet does not weary.

It’s a testimony to the tune that attempts to freshen it up with an updated tune (which has been used to great effect with other hymns), results in a really depressing overworked slog (sorry, Casting Crowns).  Daniel Brink Towner, the composer of this and many other hymn melody, had such a gift (and training, the guy had a doctorate in music) for getting a song caught in your head.  Once you sing “At Calvary” in the morning at school, every time you are bored in class you will hear “Years I spent in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified”.

Here’s a great jam out of this classic hymn, as a break to my rambling:

I haven’t dug to see if Newell was doing his city wide verse by verse bible classes at this time, or if he was Superintendent of MBI yet. Some sources say that he had just begun to teach there, but I’m not sure how much it matters to me.  The verses of At Calvary express in wonderful brevity a testimony of redemption.  I look at the photo of Newell that is on every site that bios him and I see those sparkly eyes and think, that man had wit about him.

In fact, the power of such well turned lines means that I’m going to be seeking out Newell’s study materials. I’ve found some online, and I have been truly enjoying them.  I have such appreciation for a male writer who does not seem in love with his own words, and he may just fit the bill!

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me, there my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary”

 

Wesley and White-ness

Oh Charles Wesley, I sort of love you and dislike you deeply all at once.  Though I tend toward Wesleyan and Methodist congregations out of preference, I always come to little bits of un-comfort in the writings of the Wesley brothers.

I wanted to write about “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” because I love the build up in the song,  it is just a really triumphant sounding piece especially if you are at a church with an organ and an organist who really knows how to jam.  Wikipedia tells me that this tune is by Carl G. Glaser, and the one they sing in the UK is a different tune… which if Wikipedia is to be trusted makes me wonder how much I’d like the song with a different tune.

Doing my research on this piece, it seems it was written by Wesley to commemorate the year anniversary of his renewal of faith.  I had no idea it was a 10 verse poem originally, or that it had the  verse with the very problematic imagery of:

Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the AEthiop white.

See, this is what I’m talking about.  I’m all into the triumphant nature of the song and the freedom of belief… and Wesley uses the imagery of washing an Ethiopian white.

Now, I get that he lived in a time that was super racist.  I get that the missional statement of the time was that brown people needed God because they were savages.  I get the socio-political and cultural context of the poem.  It still makes me upset.  It still makes me feel like it alienates a bunch of people from the song.  Most hymnals agree, and don’t include that verse… in fact, you usually get only 4 to 6 of these verses (and if you are Wesleyan you probably only sing the first and the third anyway, haha).  But now I know it’s there.  You might say to me that the imagery is saving an African, not whitewashing them, but I think you will find that contextually that’s Saving An African, not sharing the gospel with a human who happens to be from Africa, and has way more whitewashing than a poem with imagery of whitewashing, and oh man I’m not sure how equipped I am to really address that level of Patriarchy all throughout recent Christian history in a quick blog about a hymn.

And here is where we approach the hymn as a piece of art,  a religious poem as a poem.  Is it good to just throw out the part that is racist to save the rest of the piece?  Have we missed an opportunity to talk about religious leaders as fallible people? Should we address the idea of being Clergy as a career path and the pitfalls that come along with that?  Why should it get a free pass because of time and place? Am I holding it to a higher standard than I would another piece because of it’s use in worship and is that a good thing?

As a poem, I find it fascinating to delve into.  As a hymn, I find the truncated version beautiful. As a human, I find the inherent racism troubling.  As a Christian, I find the historical context embarrassing.  As a white person, I have the privilege if I want to skip the verse, pretend it never happened as my place in the song’s internal world is secure… but I don’t think that is a good use of my privilege. What do we do with the huge swaths of our culture that were inherently passively racist?  I mean, I’m asking.