“A very sensible day yesterday. Saw no one.”
—Virginia Woolf, Jan. 31, 1939
I still find collage — glueing one thing to another — the most restorative thing I can do to get back to a good place in my work. It never fails to get me unstuck. These two collages were, fittingly, made from a Restoration Hardware catalog. The robot above was made for my 5-year-old, and the comic below was art directed by the same 5-year-old. (It’s been a happy, lazy Sunday.)
My sons draw all the time, but they don’t seem to care one bit about their drawings after they make them (I envy them), so they leave piles of finished and half-finished drawings everywhere. I go through them and find scraps of construction paper that I want to paste in my notebook. Sometimes I’ll make a collage out of them:
And sometimes I’ll actually use one of the drawings as a writing prompt, like this scribble of the digestive system Owen drew:
In a way, the page becomes a collaboration between us, even though I rarely ask their permission. See also: Orchestrated drawings.
Back in January, I decided that my new notebook needed a guardian spirit to watch over things. Emily Dickinson seemed right.
I felt like Emily D kept a good watch, so when I finished that notebook, I decided to continue the practice. I burned through 8 notebooks this year, so I had to pick 8 spirits…
For the next notebook, the collage artist Hannah Höch.
Then, since summer is a hateful season to me, I went with H.W. and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood.
George Strait’s hat, swiped, again, from The New Yorker.
Walt Whitman, with my 2-year-old’s scribbles over his face.
A drawing of a robot by my 4-year-old.
Finally, for my last notebook of the year, here’s Jack Lemmon from The Apartment.
September 1, 2017
[Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua Guatemala.] It is a wonderful strange experience to drive into a place at dark, in the pouring rain, to try to piece together what the place is, but then see it in the full light of the morning…
September 2, 2017
A woman and her son watching the maccaws. Women carrying baskets on their heads. Men driving pickup trucks with the beds full of flowers. Boys carrying bouquets. Schoolgirls standing on the street corner and giggling and eating ice cream…
September 3, 2017
My horoscope told me “Visite la iglesia” so that’s just what I did: wandered the ruins at the San Francisco Inglesia, and threw in a prayer for good measure. Then I went for an avocado ice cream at La Tienda de Doña Gavi (The Store of Mrs. Gavi) and strolled around as the afternoon storm clouds filled the valley…
Reading some of composer Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians, I came across this piece of advice for composing, which I thought was spectacularly bad: “If you are starting out on a composition, begin by working everything out in your head. Do not try out a piece on your instrument until you have fully conceived it in your mind.”
This might be good advice for a musical genius, like Beethoven, Mozart, or Robert Schumann, but it runs counter to my own personal experience with art. Very few of my decent pieces have come from me thinking in my head, as in, thinking through a piece and then sitting down and executing it. In fact, I don’t know if that’s ever happened. Most of my good ideas have come from an exploration of specific materials, a kind of back and forth between eye and hand and head. These collages are good examples: I did not set out with any kind of purpose or ideas before I made them, merely some time, space, and materials.
I know some writers who claim to work out all their writing in their heads before hitting the paper, but 1) I suspect they’re liars 2) even if they do have it worked out, it’s in getting the words on paper and then editing those words that the ideas take on any kind of real form. As a young artist, I thought the ideas had to come first before you wrote, and now I think the opposite: You start working with your hands and the ideas come.
Better advice than Schumann’s might be from a newspaper clipping I saved called “How To Draw Blood” (you could cross out the last word), in which a worker at a free clinic started out by saying, “Develop intelligence in your fingers.” Her point was that every vein in every arm is different, and you not only have to think, you have to feel your way through a lot of medical procedures. The feeling is as important as the thinking.
Best not to overestimate the intelligence in your head: your fingers have a lot to teach it.
See also: Don’t Ask.