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Sara Hendren has a new book (that I had the pleasure of blurbing!) coming out in about a week, and I told her, “Oh, you’re in ‘The Gulp.’” The Gulp is that weird time in between when a book is finished and when it’s published. It’s always been a nerve-wracking time for me, but Hendren’s editor, Rebecca Saletan, says it’s her favorite time — it’s like “having a secret before the world knows.” I like that (much sunnier) take and I am stealing it.
On Sunday, the boys achieved one of my professional dreams: a full page of drawings in The New York Times! They were published along with an essay I wrote about the creative hijinks they’ve been up to during quarantine. You can read the piece online here.
“You can’t really teach art,” said John Baldessari, “you can just sort of set the stage for it.”
So here’s an assignment, from our house to yours: Forget school for now. Give your household time, space, and materials, and fill the rest of the summer with art.
It was an extra thrill to be part of “The Diary Project,” as it started with a page by my hero, Lynda Barry, and went on to feature pages by some of my very favorite cartoonists, including: Anders Nilsen, Wendy MacNaughton, Ivan Brunetti, Esther Pearl Watson, and Eleanor Davis.
Big thanks to Alicia DeSantis — I pitched her “The Chronovirus,” then some of my houses alongside Jules’ drawings of the Three Little Pigs, and she had the keen editorial sense to say, “What if we just ran the boys’ drawings?”
The boys were quite pleased on the whole, but Owen would like everyone to know that there’s one glaring error in my text: Super Kleon Bros. is not an “imaginary” video game! He is busy making the music and coding the game in Scratch. (I told him he should send a letter to the editor.)
When it comes to early drafts, this is often the only editorial guidance I need.
Here are some collages I found in my 2017 diary. They’re each made from a single magazine ad.
They feel more relevant in quarantine than they did in 2017. Art is time travel…
I laughed out loud in self-identification when I read this description of Regis Philbin in his NYTimes obituary:
“Aggravation is an art form in his hands,” wrote Bill Zehme, the co-author of two Philbin memoirs. “Annoyance stokes him, sends him forth, gives him purpose. Ruffled, he becomes electric, full of play and possibility. There is magnificence in his every irritation.”
“It me,” as they say. I have to be agitated to really get down to work. Stirred up. A little angry.
I’ve decided it’s better to work with it than to wish it away, so, when I am beginning a new project, I often ask myself, “What’s something you despise in the culture that you wish were otherwise?” and I go from there.
It makes things more pleasant, being stuck at home, to make homemade, handmade things.
Alan Jacobs quotes Ursula K. Le Guin in his piece, “Handmind in Covitude”:
Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.
I’ve been sort of peripherally interested in quilting for years. My mom quilts, and one of my favorite possessions is this simple quilt she stitched together in college:
Which, you know, isn’t much different than these pieces:
This recent interest surged from reading about the work of Rosie Lee Tompkins, watching this documentary about the quilters of Gee’s Bend, and following Amy Meissner’s Instagram, but the seeds were planted way back. I found this batch of photos from my 2015 book tour:
I’m fascinated by how long it takes seeds of thought to sprout. So many of my projects which I think are new ideas are actually pretty old ideas that receded (re-seeded?) into the back of my mind, and hung out there dormant in the soil, waiting for the right conditions…
It’s also not lost on me that my books, too, are stitched together like quilts. (If you look closely in the back of Steal Like An Artist, there’s a quilting reference.) When I can’t stitch together words, I stitch together images.
My sons are native Texans: Mispronunciation is their birthright. These mispronunciations are often mundane (the word “hair” gains one to two syllables, for example) but they sometimes border on works of expressive genius.
For a while, when my 7-year-old said “Coronavirus,” it sounded like “Chronovirus.” I never corrected him, because I think this name for the virus is more descriptive of what we’re going through. (“Chrono,” from the Greek word “Kronos,” meaning time.)
Who knows what day it is? Who cares? (Every day is Groundhog Day.) It’s a return to circular time: all you can rely on is sunrises and seasons. I don’t even bother wearing a watch anymore, but I did enjoy making these virus collages out of watch ads. To pass the time…
PS. My 5-year-old: “Look, papa! My Oreo looks like a Coronavirus!”
Today we honor Jan Steward, who passed away on July 1. Jan was a friend and student of Corita, as well as the co-author of "Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit."
Photograph by @pixtakerirfan for the @latimes. pic.twitter.com/GAfBVODTLD
— Corita Art Center (@coritaartcenter) July 22, 2020
Just a few weeks after I shot this video about how Corita Kent has impacted my work, I found out that her former student Jan Steward died. Steward was an artist and photographer in LA, but she’s also responsible for Learning By Heart, the book of Corita Kent’s teachings that sort of fizzled when it came out in 1992, but has now become a kind of cult classic for folks like me.
It was in 1979 on a trip to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles when Corita asked me to write this book. We would work together. It would be quick and easy. It was neither. She lived in Boston and I in Los Angeles. We worked by letter and phone and progress was painfully slow. We worked for hours on content and every few meetings the concept would change—sometimes radically.
They went back and forth about titles. Corita insisted it be in black and white so it was affordable. She didn’t want any of her own work in the book. (Imagine!) Corita died in 1986, with the book unfinished.
In a great 2009 interview with the LA Times, Steward went into more detail about how she wrote the book. She said she wanted the book to feel like being in one of Corita’s classes. (True to her name, she was a steward of Corita’s teachings.)
“Corita was loath to formalize things,” noted another one of Corita’s students. “She thought something would become calcified the moment it was written down.”
So Steward had to come up with the right approach:
She scribbled her teacher’s thoughts on pieces of paper, found copies of her lessons and collected stories from other former students. Then, she threw each into a cardboard box that most closely matched a particular part of Corita’s curriculum. The contents of each box turned into chapters such as “Looking,” “Sources,” “Structure” and “Connect and Create.”
(I’m reminded of Twyla Tharp’s banker boxes.)
Steward wrote of the book,
The process I want to describe is living and squirming and very difficult to pin down. The process is one of teaching, learning, growing, and doing things to make the world a better place. Whether that world is within you or as great as infinity.
“After I finish a book, I forget how to write,” says Patricia Lockwood. She followed up: “And then I always forget I’m going to forget how to write and plunge into the depths of despair … so beautiful.”
Here is how my friend Maureen McHugh put it:
Every time I think I’ve figured out how to write, I discover that actually, I’ve just figured out how to write the thing I just wrote, and I have no clue how to write the next scene, the next story, or the next book.
I think all the time about this paragraph I clipped from comedy writer Tom Koch’s obituary:
Can I do it again? Probably. I mean, I have before?
I like what Meaghan O’Connell wrote this week about revision:
Imagine taking the very sharpest thought you had each day for two years and then adding it to a pile. If someone walked by and looked at your pile of best thoughts, they’d think you were a genius.
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