The Road Not Taken Might be Full of Potholes

A dear friend reminded me this week, with a wistful note from the University of Whatsis, just what it’s like to have a massive struggle with your direction and purpose when you’re still young enough not to have done so umpteen times and more, and recognized the inevitability of the Next One. Now that I’m older, if not necessarily any wiser but definitely more experienced, I can say with a certain amount of commitment that my credo may be morphing into “if at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.” Therein, much to my surprise, I have learned to find a better recipe for progress than in the mere trying. I wouldn’t know what my artistic successes looked like if I hadn’t first figured out how it looked when my art, or my life as an artist, sucked.Graphite drawing: Before

I don’t know if what she’s experiencing is anything at all like my first semester of grad school, but I was not at all confident I’d made the right choice, let alone that I had the necessary chops, when I was having my first major critiques, evaluations, mini-showings, and so forth. YIKES. It all freaked me out pretty seriously. But then I had the peculiarly wonderful personal-lightbulb moment of thinking (I seem to recall this actually happening in the midst of a big end-of-quarter or -semester evaluation in private conference with my main teacher/mentor, but I could be conflating events) that, if things weren’t working at all this way, then I would just force myself to start from scratch and do as much differently as I could possibly do.

No more black and white for now, I decided, despite being addicted to plain graphite drawings; all full-color. No more small scale; everything as gigantic as I could afford the materials and workspace to do. No more fussy detail and slowpoke timidity; be fast, loud, bold, loose, and reckless. Away with the still-life! Time to go all figurative, which I’d avoided like the plague. Down with pacing myself! Stay up for ages and do two, three, ten works at a time, even to the point of pinning up a long wall full of sheets and running from one to another and back again. I worked as fast as I could, using every material and medium I could scrounge up anywhere, gessoing over every image that I found unsatisfying immediately and reusing the paper/board/fabric from which it had been erased. I drew left-handed and I drew two-handed. I used dirt and food to draw with, and my works filled up both my trash cans and my portfolio. My teacher thought I’d gone nuts. My work was unrecognizable. I was unrecognizable, even to myself.Oil pastel drawing: It Figures

But I lost so much of my fear of failure in that burst of activity. If I made forty works for every one I’d agonized over before, then now I had thirty-nine extra chances to get it right, or at least, better. And simply by working more and faster and with so much less self-criticism in the moments of the making, I did get better.

I didn’t get perfect, and I didn’t go sailing through the rest of grad school, let alone life, nor will I, without continuing to have plenty of self-doubt episodes and artistic flatliners and emotional meltdowns along the way. But believe me, those have all lessened in number and intensity, and I have, after each of them, greater faith that the present moment of frustration and gloom and disappointment is not the end of the road, but just a big ol’ pothole in it. Some of those potholes may give me real artistic/creative flat tires or even a broken axle. But so far, I keep potting along and finding that what the potholes are often doing is just slowing me down enough to notice a side road or alternate route I’d not otherwise have noticed. I’m still a work in progress, always will be, but if I’m open to change and challenge in this, there’s good ahead.

Digital illo from a photo: Self-Portraiture as Work in Progress

PS—Thanks to my darling husband, who took the photo that I use for my Gravatar these days, and for the basis of this little sketch.

Oliver Sacks & Other Friends I have Never Met

Digital collage illo: RIP Oliver SacksRIP Oliver Sacks (1933-2015).

Many of you who have been visitors to my blog for some time know that Oliver Sacks has for many years been one of my heroes, a deeply admired person because of his almost superhuman intelligence, his incredible breadth and depth of interests in a miraculously polymath-painted life, and most of all his quietly humane character. He lived a life so full of remarkable adventures, of openness to thought and passion, and seemingly endless ability to express his unique insights and experiences in language that was both approachable and lyrical that it seems ridiculous to believe all of this was only part of the substance of one single person’s life.

He died yesterday after a life that he self-described most aptly as that of being a perpetual Explorer, and I think that he will always, even in death, in some ways remain unchanged from the otherworldly spirit that he was on the terrestrial plane. His interests, while so many of them were decidedly practical and rational in his approach to them, were at bottom more genuinely in the philosophical realm of How, Why, and What-if than strictly scientific, a matter all the more notable because of his stated distaste for the perceived veils and distractions of organized religion. He was, indeed, sometimes criticized by fellow scientists, particularly in neurology (his central area of study), for being more interested in writing about and even, supposedly, exploiting the experiences of his patients and subjects than in performing and documenting the hard science that might explain and even cure them, but that, to me, was precisely his greatest strength and gift: that by translating the coldly factual into story form and making a simplified narrative both more approachable by and engaging to a wide readership, he made all of these disparate character studies and discoveries—both his and others’—far more meaningful and important in the lives of a whole generation who would otherwise have no reason to concern ourselves with or even grow to love this strange inner world of neurology and what it means to our being human.

All of this is only a small part of what endeared Dr. Sacks to me, as it clearly did to the tens of thousands who wrote him letters, consulted him, and studied and lauded his manifold accomplishments during his colorful life. Most of all, because he more and more fearlessly allowed us into his own inner life, to see how he himself experienced this complex, lovely, infuriating, and mysterious existence of ours, we were allowed to see him as a peer and a flawed, eccentric, humorous, and daring person all at the same time. This kind of intimacy is rare, for most of us, even with our closest companions, so being given so freely, vividly, this relatively unvarnished view into his inner workings made me join those thousands in thinking him a unique brand of Friend. We will all bear this loss. Yet we will all continue to benefit from the wonderfully ethereal quality of our presumptive Friendship, as well; he will remain with us in his books, the documentation of interviews, film, and all sorts of other recorded parts of his life and work, and of course, in the intense spirit of exploration that he fostered in himself and admirers alike.

I say these things here not only because of the unparalleled character I think Oliver Sacks shared with so many of us in his life, nor merely because I always found him a rollicking, endearing, and thought-provoking Good Read. It’s because his life and his death, for me, underscore what I have found to be profoundly true and increasingly obvious in my own smaller sphere of living: that what is universal in us transcends simple explanations or first person contact and allows us to befriend and treasure others who may share in daily life very little strong commonalities but remain in this larger and more complicated universe unimaginably interconnected. I have friends through this very blog who, though I have not met you and may never have that privilege on this earth, feel as bound and happily related in our mortal way to me as those who keep my physical company and speak to me face-to-face each day. I understand these connexions, however slightly, better because of the work and words of Oliver Sacks. It seems to me that his peculiar genius, despite his own avowed struggle with emotional incoherence or remoteness at times, was to find through studying, learning, expressing, and teaching others about the supposedly quantifiable attributes of the brain’s workings, a sweet, lasting, truly human kind of love.Digital collage illo: Oliver's Rainbow

Strangely Enough

Practice makes me better at what I do. Not perfect; not even superb. But better.

What it utterly fails to do is to make me a better person. Not meaning morally superior or that I believe it should make me a genius or give me magical powers. Not that any of that wouldn’t be dandy! But really.
Digital illo: But I Repeat Myself...

Thing is, new knowledge or skills gained through practice are not in and of themselves transformative. I still have the same silly obsessions, ideas and ideals, and flaws and fears. I’m still attracted to the same colors, patterns, textures, and shapes, not to mention that I have recognizable signature styles of line work and abstraction and the like. So I learn how to use new tools and materials, like my little iPad and its friends the art apps. And I still kind of draw the same thing over and over. Variations on a theme. That sort of thing.

And strangely enough, I don’t mind. It remains true, along with all of my other perpetual characteristics, that the end product of my art work is less important than the process. That’s the essential part. Does it make me boring and predictable? Very possibly. Does it mean I’m unteachable and irredeemable? Hope not. Does it matter in the grand scheme of existence? Not likely. The universe has more important things to do.

I do not.

Foodie Tuesday: Just Shoot Me (Said the Food)

No, my friends, I’m no longer feeling so terrible with the flu that the thought of even writing about food repels me; I am, I believe, fully recovered already. No need to bump me off. Whew! But my appetite is still slightly limited and my interest in slaving over a hot stove, nil.

Lest you be too confused by today’s post title, I am not making a personal request either to be executed or made into a photographer’s portrait subject. Not crazy about either idea. I’m also, for the record, not overly fond of getting shots (except for the knowledge that they usually are meant to help me be healthier), and I can’t recall ever drinking shots. All such nonsense aside, my teasing post title only means to tell you that I’m thinking about food photography and meal-time hunger and how incompatible they are.

Photo montage: First, Find Pretty Food

*SOOC*? Almost. Light-adjusted for clarity and slightly more accuracy, straightened if necessary, and cropped. But the foods were already pretty attractive. Hence, my firing off a shot or two, tossing the camera aside, and getting down to the real business at hand. Eating and drinking. Wouldn’t you do the same?

Left to right, above: Flavored honeys at the farmer’s market in Halifax; a cinnamon apple napoleon with vanilla custard and pomegranate glaze at an unknown restaurant in Seattle; a glass of Pilsner Urquell enjoyed near its ‘birthplace’ at a neighborhood eatery in Prague.

Pros don’t need tons of time or patience to suss out the situation, set their cameras on the ideal settings, frame the shot, take it, and abracadabra!, they’re done. Great art, now let’s get down to eating. So unfair. Of course, that’s arguable, because if I spent the time and effort to learn and train properly in how to use a camera of any sort, I might conceivably get decent enough skills to save myself a few frustrations, not to mention gut rumbles.

Fool that I am, I have always let my natural intimidation around all-things-technical (plus, admittedly, fear of a certain unpleasant would-be teacher in years past) scare me out of getting serious about cameras. I’m generally content to let the camera do all of the work for me, at least until I get photos onto my computer where I can play with them endlessly as artworks or, at the least, adjust them so they better fit my idea of what I saw or am trying to convey. Part of my artist persona has always been to edit, tweak, second-guess, and fiddle with images, so it’s not as onerous to me to figure out how to make a photo into what I want it to be—I’m far less interested in documentary accuracy and straight-out-of-camera [*SOOC*] “honesty” than in getting my story told. All photographs were, and are, still only images of what the photographer chose or was able to show us, despite the popular notion that they are “truthful” in ways that other visual forms of data are not. And while I like a Pretty Picture or a dramatic image, what I’m always in search of is illustration that enhances and furthers my storytelling, whether with words added or not.

As a cook, I am in the same category. I love to eat delicious and, sometimes, complicated foods. I enjoy goofing around in the kitchen and, occasionally, discovering something I can make that’s delicious or, rarely, complex. But the very idea of having good technical skills as a cook—never mind chef—is just as unattainable, between my aforementioned phobias and my laziness, as going pro with a camera.

The results of all of this? I blog about food; as an aficionado but never as an expert, I am limited in what I can tell you about food not only in technical terms but in how I show it to you. I shoot as well as I’m able, and if it’s really imperfect, touch up what I shoot until it’s at least marginally post-able. Then I use it. And I blather about what I do and don’t like, how I make dishes or fail in the attempts, stuff I like to eat when I’m out and about, new treats I’ve learned to adore, and other food-lust topics, just as though I had any business doing so. I happen to like documenting my foodly obsessions.

The other thing I do is try to learn along the way. Food tricks, perhaps. Learn from my mistakes. Photographic ones, mostly. Couple of things I’ve learned: find pretty foods to shoot (see above montage). Better chance of getting a good portrait, if you have a good-looking subject, whether conventionally beautiful or just wonderfully interesting. Use as much natural light as you can get. The food can be moved a little to catch the light better but the sun can’t be so easily moved to better suit the food. Don’t get fancy. The food’s already attractive—okay: or horrible, if that’s what I’m documenting, so it’s at least meant to be an interesting subject. No reason to do a lot of fussy setup and presentation extras, since I have limited supplies of tablewares and glamorous shoot venues, so I tend to pay more attention to details of the ingredients or go for a tight shot of the plate rather than overdo extraneous things.

That’s about it. Because, as I intimated in my opening salvo here, even the littlest bit of time spent on the photographic part of the posts is time taken away from my pursuit of eating. Digital cameras are a boon in this regard, of course. Fast, efficient, no waiting. My little old smartphone is helpful as well. As techno-dull as I am, I know very little indeed of what my phone can or can’t do, let alone how to make it do anything for me. But I know how to take the simplest of snapshots, and my phone camera knows how to send them to my waiting computer, and that speeds up the process just one helpful little bit more. So glad to get to the table faster.

Photo montage: Phone-to-Table Eating

The middle photo was taken with a regular point-and-shoot digital camera, and the flanking shots (a little later) with my cell phone camera. I think I’m getting incrementally better along the way. More importantly, faster to the table. Most importantly, the food tasted rather good. Mission accomplished, I guess.

Left to right, above: Zucchini frittata with salsa, olives, and crispy bacon; roasted chicken breast with guacamole and coleslaw; skillet-cooked steak and mushrooms with pan-fried  mashed potatoes, balsamic deglaze, tomatoes, and strawberries. All home cookery.

Things I’ve Learned

Most of the stuff I’ve been taught over the years hasn’t stuck especially well. Key among the useful and meaningful skills and knowledge that have been handed down to me are the remarkably applicable ones wherein I ought to spend most of my energy on keeping my mind open and my mouth shut. Many a disaster can be averted, I know, and many a mountain scaled, if one only practices this simple-sounding combination. But I also know from long experience that the person able to perform this remarkably magical duo of acts on a consistent basis is all too rare, and I am hardly the best practitioner of them.

Other people’s shortcomings, of course, are neither my excuse nor my problem: it’s I alone who need to iron out the kinks in this skill set. Along with these, there are a huge number of additional talents I ought to have cultivated better by now, knowing as I do through experience and example how significantly they can and should improve my life and the lives of those around me. For example, what if I stuck to the demonstrably excellent principle I’ve been taught, in which one stays focused and present in the now, the moment being lived, rather than entangled in mistakes past or muddled by the ever-impossible-to-read future? I can only imagine I’d waste a whole lot less time, energy, and worry, and spend it much more profitably and pleasurably.

I have learned a lot of things that, on their own and at face value, seem quite minute and insignificant but can actually be useful, if I pay attention to them. And if I bother to consider their inverses, their hidden sides, they may all the more inform and improve my existence. Life isn’t all clover and strawberries. Yet, as it happens, the occasional, if less-adorable, onions and garlic can season delicious dishes that even the most sensitive palates can love. A weedy dandelion brings provocative beauty, sometimes by its mere contrast, to the most refined and orderly of gardens. At times, the best company is oneself alone. Bigger, newer, louder, faster, stronger, and prettier are not always better. Cuddly looking creatures can bite. Long, heavy books can be well worth reading, but “Classics” aren’t always so.

Does hearing, knowing, practicing, or appreciating any of these tidbits really make me a better or more righteous person? Nope. But a longtime practice of attempting to find and test such little specks of potential goodness in the chaos of life might—could—help.
Digital illo: Things I've Learned

I’ve learned a lot of brilliant and useful things in my lifetime thus far. It’s too bad I’m not always good at putting them into practice. But I’m working on it, really I am.

While We were Drawing

While we were drawing in the studio where I taught—years ago—there were difficulties that came as much from my frustrated and inadequate attempts to teach as from the normal technical complexities of drawing well and the imperfect ability of any non-superhuman to master them instantly even if I had been a great teacher. But there were also moments of surprisingly peaceful, encouraging, engaging grace. A fair microcosm in this way, I suppose, of learning throughout life.Photos + text: Studio 126, part 1

Photo + text: Studio 126, part 2

Little Alvin Grows Up

Just having a little fun with digital drawing tools again. It’s nice to have art toys, isn’t it. I know that my latest little dragon friend wouldn’t have been hatched, let alone gone through his spotty youth and prime and grown into a fully fledged friendly monster, if I hadn’t had access to such enjoyable and versatile playthings. Little Alvin here is happy to meet all of you.Digital illo: Little Alvin 1 Digital illo: Little Alvin 2

Alvin the Artful

From the day that he was born, he has been drawn to things

That make him want to skip and jump and stretch his wavy wings;

His destiny is in the works and he’s a tool of fate

Designed to entertain, amuse, and if it’s not too late,

To educate his artist friend in how to make him change

From skinny little squiggle lines to something rich and strange,

And older dragon, more mature, more layered, nuanced, wild,

And her, the artist, to more skilled—but happy as a child.Digital illo: Little Alvin 3 Digital illo: Little Alvin 4