How do you make creative work in a time of chaos?

This blog post is a long time coming. Stuck in my throat for months, today is the day when the not writing becomes more painful than the writing.

How do you make creative work in a time of chaos?

I’ve been asking myself this question for the better part of nine months, without coming to any conclusions. Over the past months, I have felt my energies pulled in areas where I am deeply concerned, but powerless to affect in an immediate sense. I have felt this from my audiences as well. It takes energy to engage with artwork. When you have spent your emotions for the day by calling your elected officials, or trying to engage with your racist cousin, you want nothing else than to sip your purchased wine and stroll past art festival booths without going in.

Great Unknown, a linocut by Elizabeth Busey

Elizabeth Busey. Great Unknown. Reduction linocut on Rives BFK. 18 x 18 in (image size), ed of 21.

I get it. I feel that way as well.

Instead of throwing myself into my materials and the swirling worries of the day, it is easier to numb my brain watching energetic people flip houses in thirty minutes to an hour. If only a fresh coat of paint, some exposed shiplap and a new backsplash of subway tile would wash away the horrors of each day’s news headlines.

Making things new. Making things better. These are valid, even valuable goals to have. But what if what I “do” now seems superfluous, even vapid and shallow? Should I create more? Should I press on with my body of work and wait until the skies clear?

Some would argue that your work should speak to the times. How I envy people whose artistic vision can dovetail seamlessly and speak directly to all of the pain, fear and anger that has arisen in the United States. Perhaps my work is an antidote to all of these feelings, but right now that does not seem to be enough.

How do you make creative work in a time of chaos?

I visited the Catalan region of Spain this summer with my husband. We spent time in the cities of Barcelona and Girona, and hiked in the Benasque region of the Pyrenees. I saw the works of the native sons of the region — Picasso and Miro. I’m not a devotee of either artist, but it was illuminating to see their progression as artists at museums that housed their work.

What was more illuminating in this trip was learning about the Spanish Civil War. Both cities still had public bomb shelters that were now contained in city parks. Plainly said, these shelters were built to protect the citizens from the bombs of their own government. Both Picasso and Miro escaped to France during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted his famous protest painting Guernica in 1937 in Paris, a protest of the German bombing of the city of the same name.

Some people today will create work in the vein of Picasso’s Guernica. That will be valuable. Yet most of us would not like this image to greet us daily on our living room walls.

Is creative work that is calm, peaceful, rejuvenating, or even hopeful appropriate today? Necessary?

I would like to think that it is.

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In Praise of the Traveler’s Sketchbook

My husband and I are on walkabout in Spain — our first vacation together since our daughter was born 22 years ago. Traveling with my children has been among the most memorable times I have spent with them, and I wonder what it will feel like to travel without them.

As I was preparing for my trip to Spain, I was looking through the travel journals I kept during our trips to Europe when my children were 7 & 9, and four years later when they 11 & 13. The notes and the watercolor sketches tell the story of our travels and my artistic journey as well.

Young children and a novice artist make for a humorous journal

On our first trip we visited provencal France and the limestone mountains of northern Italy, and then spent a few days in Paris.

Our first holiday home, many years before AirBnB made this sort of travel accommodation easy to find.

I carried a small Windsor & Newton watercolor set, waterproof pens and a multi-media sketchbook with us everywhere. At the time I used a hiking backpack, as the water bottle holders on the sides were perfect for the two baguettes we required each day.

Water and snack breaks when hiking allowed me to capture some of the scenery.

Some of my sketches show my inexperience in composition… Although the Dentilles de Montmirail translate as “teeth” I probably should have adjusted this drawing to look a little less phallic.

Sometimes the writing is hilarious to me as well. We have a penchant for traveling to France over their national holidays when all of the stores were closed. “Finally got fresh fruit” is a common entry. I wrote about some of the not so nice parts of travel. One day I wrote: “Tom wanted the quintessential rural French hotel experience — and he got it!” I go on to describe a hotel with only one toilet for all of its guests, but curiously a bidet in each room. Further, I wrote “the beds felt as if they were made of gelatin — where they move in several directions at once.”

Gelato stops in Paris were the perfect opportunity to practice capturing the city.

 

The view from our hotel window in Paris. I haven’t nailed down shading and perspective yet, but when I see this sketch I remember the fabulous narrow deep European tub that soothed our tired bodies and feet.

The passage of time shows maturity for children and the artist

Four years later, we again ventured to southwestern France, northern Italy and the Mosel area of Germany. My children are now 11 & 13, capable of longer hikes and wanderings, and therefore I have fewer sketches. My writing is often done each evening.

The ruins of a castle in northern Italy that we reached after a walk through terraced olive groves.

The back of this notebook has some phrases that remind me of how my son got lost coming down from this castle. “Mio figlio perduto — my son is lost.”  “Dieci anno — he is ten years old.”  “Giallo camicia — (he is wearing) a yellow shirt.” It is hard to take a photo of someone being lost, but this brings the memory and all the emotions right back.

I brought back leaves from our hike to explore printing with them.

My painting skills are improving. I’m no longer relying on a pen sketch to create the image. I’m also using text and shapes to explore ideas when there wasn’t something special to paint. On this day (below) we visited the Otzi, the man from the Copper Age who was found frozen in a glacier. A fascinating experience, but it did not seem appropriate to paint an ancient dead human.

Sometimes I used the sketchbook for calculations. In this case, we try to figure out just how hot the hot springs were to decide whether we should pay the entry fee. At 95 degrees F, we thought it wasn’t worth it. Plus the guys did not have the requisite Speedos.

It is hard to understand my sketch here, but if you read the text you might be able to decipher that warm water was supposed to be gushing from the rock. As spoiled Americans, we did not think it was warm enough.

It amazes me that trips that I took nine and eleven years ago become vivid once again when I see and read these entries. I remember that I painted this sketch of a hillside hermitage while squatting on a trail. My family had gone exploring, but I had to kindly chat with each hiking party as they passed with only my poor traveller’s French.

A hillside hermitage is a challenging subject for an watercolorist, including me.

Why some journals get filled, and others do not

I did find a journal from our trip two year’s ago to Amsterdam and Berlin. My children were 18 & 20. I only wrote on the first page, perhaps in the airport or on the plane. Our trip this time was punctuated by almost adult children wanting to venture off on their own — developmentally appropriate, but stressful for me. Strange hours, poor sleep and the ambivalent feelings of an older parent meant I spent no time with my journal.

This trip I am determined to sketch and write each day. I have a sketchbook that is small enough to fit into my purse. I will send my photographer husband off to take some photos while I lounge beneath a tree, or on a rock, and try to capture the sense of my surroundings.

Art and writing provide us with a muscle memory that photography alone cannot. Time to flex those muscles…

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Staying Inspired When You Can’t Create

How do you stay inspired when you can’t create? Maybe your studio has been flooded by a wet spring. Perhaps the tendons and muscles in your thumbs demand rest. What if you are forced to be on bed rest to recover your health? Two on-line series provide me with inspiration, even when I have my feet up…

Dried ink -- up close supporting bar on my rubber roller.

When I can’t create, I look for unexpected images with my Iphone. This one is the supporting bar of one of the rollers in my studio.

Netflix’s Abstract

Netflix’s new eight part series Abstract is an absolute delight. Each 45-minute episode profiles a different design professional. We learn where their ideas come from, how they began, and most importantly how they go about creating.

Episodes include:

  • Christoph Niemann: Illustrator
  • Ilse Crawford: Interior Designer
  • Tinker Hatfield: Shoe Designer
  • Paula Scher: Graphic Designer
  • Platon: Photographer
  • Bjarke Ingels: Architect
  • Ralph Gilles: Automotive Designer
  • Es Devlin: Stage Designer

I used to have favorite episodes, but after seeing all of them, I would recommend watching them straight through. I find watching people create a calming yet stimulating experience, as well as a hopeful interlude while you wait to get back to your own creating.

Illustrator Christoph Niemann

Illustrator Christoph Niemann is the genius behind many notable New Yorker magazine covers.

Craft in America

Craft in America is a PBS series created in conjunction with the Craft in America Center. While most episodes focus on three -dimensional or low-relief two dimensional work, they do include printmaker Tom Killion in an episode on process. On the Craft in America site, you can search by episode theme, location and even medium. I could lose myself in this site for days.

Craft in America artistsCraft in America artists are fascinating to watch, and tell inspiring stories.

 

So whether you are cooped up by circumstance or weather or health, there is always something you can watch to stay inspired.

What are your inspirations?

 

 

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What does HOPE look like?

I love art installations. I have yet to create an installation purely of my own work, and so I turn to my greater community for help. Thankfully, the congregation at First United Church in Bloomington, Indiana is tolerant of my needs and gladly participates when I ask.

This winter, I was obsessed with finding hope. I asked the congregation, as well as the community groups that use our space, to send me images of hope from their cell phone cameras. My comment to them was that unless it was an image of their grocery list or the book they wanted to read, the content was probably something that other people might find hopeful.

wave of photographs on blue paper

An installation of photographs on blue paper creates a wave of hope in the hallway of First United Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

Assembling the wave of hope

Over the course of a month or so, I received 120 images, which I downloaded and sent off to be printed. My challenge was to combine these images in a way that made a statement, but did not require expensive framing and could be displayed easily on a painted cinderblock wall.

A few years ago, I had seen an installation of solar printmaking using cardboard and small loose-leaf binder rings. I decided to augment this idea to create what I was seeing as “A Wave of Hope.” I purchased four colors of blue scrapbooking paper — thick enough, but not too heavy — along with 500 1/2 inch binder rings. With a newly acquired ATG tape dispenser, I mounted the photos in either a landscape or portrait format on the blue paper. I drilled holes through the stacks of paper, and took the entire set to the site for assembly.

 

The challenge of the actual installing

With the help of my daughter Hannah, we created a makeshift armature out of dowel rods and the hanging system in the art hallway. We formed chains of imagery, linked with these rings and attached each one invisibly to the armature with fishing line. The chains moved up and down as if they were waves, but were attached to one another so that they did not twist and the entire piece had a bit more stability.

I don’t hear huge exclamations when people pass the installation, but they slow down and seem absorbed in the imagery. I think that is what hope is like — it will sneak up on you if only you are open to receive it.

If you are so moved– why not attach a hopeful image in the comment section?

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Making the Invisible Visible

Clouds move. They may appear static, but they are really being driven by wind — a force which we cannot see.  In my latest linocut, I play with repetition in the form of a diptych to think about cloud movement as an illustration of that that illusive wind.

©Elizabeth Busey. Revealed by the Clouds … a Gust of Awakening. Reduction Linocut Diptych. 12 x 12in each image size, 22 x 21 in framed size each, edition of 16.

Repetition and two images are the key

As I noted in a previous blog, a diptych is a pair of images that are created to be displayed together. Here I chose to stagger the same long cloud formation, where part of it is somewhat repeated in each image. I was not concerned with making this repetition apparent, so you can only see the actual repetition in a few places. What I wanted you to see is your eye perceiving separate frames, like Eadweard Muybridge’s famous running horse demonstration.

(more…)

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Art festivals are lessons in mindfulness

I sometimes get wrapped up in my own message. For me, creating artwork is a way for me communicate images and ideas to others via a particular medium. Sometimes people want to receive my message…and sometimes they don’t. My weekend at one of the nation’s top rated art festivals was a lesson in mindfulness.

The weekend started out auspiciously, because I avoided having my tent rolled by severe weather. I had a favorable site near a children’s activity area, and away from the talented yet resounding musical acts. The forecasted rain never materialized. It was staffed by numerous volunteers who wanted to meet my every need. Conditions were favorable for people coming to experience my message…

art festival tent

My art festival tent is set up to be peaceful and inviting. I wish I could bring a small settee…

(more…)

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A creative life well lived

The world lost a creative soul recently. Donovan Walling was an example of someone who truly embraced every facet of his innate creativity. He was an educator by profession, one who traveled during his lifetime between the classroom and the scholarly world. But all the time, Donovan found the time to create.

I had the pleasure of touring his home once in search of artwork for an ekphrasis (writing about art) project I was doing with our congregation. The home he shared with his husband Sam is filled with paintings he created throughout his life. Earlier works were more geometric — including one above the living room fireplace that is six feet tall and was created on his garage floor. More recent work, such as Peace Like a River, are looser and more flowing. Donovan was never afraid to try something new. “I can always paint over it,” he insisted.

Donovan Walling. Peace Like a River. Acrylic on canvas. Installed at First United Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

Donovan wrote about his inspiration for Peace Like a River:

Peace Like a River was inspired by the hymn of the same name. My sense is that peace is a complicated concept. From a distance, the stylized blue river in this painting is a placid stripe against a neutral background. But when you look closer, the river of peace flows across a backdrop that is nuanced and chaotic, just as every life, close up, is more complex than it seems from a distance.

He wrote poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Because of his professional work, he developed publishing skills which he used to produce self-published volumes that he generously shared with his friends. Last fall he invited me to co-produce a volume focussing on justice issues with the congregation of First United Church, Bloomington. (You can read my contribution in this post.)

His creativity was fueled by every part of his life, some of which I had the pleasure of learning more about during his convalescence at home. Donovan was creative is the best way. He didn’t consider whether something he created would find a home with someone else or not. He was compelled to create as a way of sharing the honest details of who he was as a person, inviting others into his life. His was a creative life well lived.

 

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Can artists do math?

Besides the joys and challenges of art creation, artists are always faced with making decisions about how they will display their work. The options are many, but I have been lately struggling with the question of “national” juried shows. The following musings may be heresy for some, but I do think artists who wish to be professional — i.e. actually sell their work and make a profit — must remove their rose colored glasses for a moment when considering these shows.

I’m frequently tempted, especially by the shows that specialize in printmaking or works on paper. When I had work accepted into the Boston Printmakers 2013 North American Print Biennial, it was a heady experience. I even made a pilgrimage to Boston to see the show. The Boston show is arguably one of the premier printmaking shows in North American, and having it on my resume is probably beneficial.

Breath Intertwined

Breath Intertwined was featured in the 2013 Boston Printmaker’s Biennial.

The importance of reading the fine print

Whenever I see a call for submissions, I always have a rush of “oh yes! let’s enter this one!” But I make myself read the fine print regarding commissions and shipping requirements. My work is larger than some printmakers, and even when framed with plexiglass it is cumbersome. This makes it difficult and expensive to ship. In these juried shows, the artist is almost always required to pay for shipping both ways. Some places require proof of return shipping payment before they will hang the work at the show. (Note: if you get a Fed Ex business account, they will print a return label that will only get charged to your account if it is used. I haven’t been able to accomplish this with UPS.)

And then there are the commissions. I have seen required commissions on any sales between 30 – 50% for these shows. This is after I have paid a $35 – 50 entry fee for 1-2 images, with additional costs for more submissions.

Asking the forbidden question

When you do the math (yes I said math) I wonder just how much this “exposure” is worth. Even if my work was sold (and didn’t have the return label used) after my materials and framing costs, I would lose money.

I realize it sounds crass to talk about losing money… But why are creative professionals expected to exist on such a ridiculous financial knife’s edge?

My own decision-making plan

I don’t have the answer this question, just some guidelines that I have set up for myself to balance my desire to have my work seen, with the realities that the IRS needs to see me make a profit if I am to be considered a professional artist and not a hobbyist.

  • I look for shows that are within four hours driving distance. Transporting my larger work by car is still cheaper than shipping.
  • I look for works on paper shows that still ask for the work to be sent unframed — possibly just matted — to be displayed under plexiglass. The Boston Printmakers Biennial did this is 2013 and it made all the difference. Sadly, they have changed their requirements and now require black metal frames — something I never use.
  • I look for shows that have 30% commission or lower. Any higher, and I lose money because framing works on paper is expensive.
  • I spend most of my effort and marketing dollars on local and regional efforts. I am more than willing to drive the four hours to a group show opening, in the hopes of making another regional contact. These efforts have been much more fruitful than many of the juried shows I have entered. I know this limits me — as I’m close to Chicago, but not to the coasts.

Saying no to oneself is difficult. Weighing (very unlikely) accolades against your bottom line requires the cold light of day. This artist still needs to do the math.

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Finding the reset button means getting focused and motivated

April has come and gone, and so has my solo show. After the flurry of art making and promotion, I find myself in that strange place of limbo, not knowing exactly what to do next. No wonder authors of a successful books find it hard to write their next book. How do creative people go about finding the reset button?

This situation happens to me occasionally. Complicating matters, my quiet house/studio will be changing soon with the arrival of my young adult children who are home for the summer. So planning and motivating are crucial before my house becomes noisy and my schedule challenged.

The blessings of a road trip

As an environmentalist, I am chagrinned to admit that I love driving. Spring in the Midwest is intoxicating — where you are enveloped with every color of green and the clouds are unimaginably spectacular. On this particular road trip, my destination was Cincinnati, Ohio (about 2 and a half hours southeast) because I wanted to visit the non-profit gallery Manifest.

large storm clouds over fields

Rolls of storm clouds press upon me as I travel east.

Fantastic waves of storm clouds rushed me east. At Manifest, I was delighted to see work by my former relief printmaking professor Ed Bernstein in a group show entitled Drawn. At lunch, I was treated to a fast moving torrential downpour, followed by azure skies and staggering cumulus clouds. I began to ponder doing some small tonal studies of cumulus clouds, perhaps making use of mica powder. A new idea begins…

heavy clouds over Woodburn neighborhood in Cincinnati

Heavy clouds over the Cincinnati hills soon release their moisture.

Church spire seems to touch the rapidly moving clouds.

Churches are everywhere in Cincinnati. This one in the Woodburn neighborhood was so high it felt like I could almost touch the clouds rushing by.

Libraries are candy for the soul

This morning brought a Facebook post entitled 11 Nonfiction Books All Artists Will Want to Read. If I am honest, I often retreat into the world of murder mysteries, which are diverting but not very challenging to me and to my art. A quick visit to our local library yielded these beauties:

two memoirs by artists and writers

Two memoirs by artists and writers.

A quick stop in the science area, and I picked up some more inspiration…

books about weather and clouds

I am fascinated by the highway of clouds that flow above me and wonder about the science behind them.

Now for the real planning by getting focused

One danger with all this inspiration is that I buzz about my home studio, having lots of ideas but not accomplishing anything. I learned the value of planning at least six months ahead from Alyson Stanfield, so I grabbed a sheet of Stonehenge paper and started writing down categories of activities. The details — the to do’s — followed.

my own six month plan on paper

Emptying my brain of all of the goals and to-do’s helps me focus.

I love a good list, but acknowledge that without saying WHEN something will be done, the list is useless. With the exception of actual deadlines, I shy away from putting specific dates down. So I began circling things that needed to be done immediately in red. Other colors followed: end of May, end of July, end of summer. Today I will create goals for May, and every Sunday night I plan out the week. I’m posting this poster nearby to remind me of where I’m headed.

How do you reset and get motivated?

 

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What is a diptych anyway?

If one is good, two must be better. My latest linocut, Iridescent Argosy, is comprised of two 24 x 13in blocks that are intended to be framed separately, but be hung close together to create one display. This is my version of a contemporary diptych.

Two panel linocut of brilliantly colored cumulus cloud.

©Elizabeth Busey. Iridescent Argosy. Reduction linocut diptych. 24 x 13in (each block), ed of 12, $600 set.

The origins of the diptych begin in antiquity, when lesson books were two wax-coated plates linked with a hinge. Later, low relief artwork that was related in topic was used. In the Middle Ages, clergy began using this format, allowing for the safe transport of icons. Several famous altar pieces are actually three joined panels, or a triptych. In these examples, one side was related to the other, but each side could also stand alone.

A modern version of the diptych

My interest in the diptych was inspired by printmaker and painter Yvonne Jacquette. (Follow this link to see a 2016 interview with the artist.) In her woodcut Hudson River Diptych, Jacquette uses two blocks slightly separated to show the expanse of a harbor scene. For me, this artistic choice emphasizes the vastness of the subject, and also gives the feeling of gazing through a window into a different world.

Using two blocks is also logistically helpful in some ways. Smaller blocks are easier on my hands and elbows, and smaller paper and framing materials are less expensive. But I’m mostly drawn to the notion that this image was just too expansive to be contained within one frame.

And now I can spell diptych…

 

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