Here are some printing experiments with a leftover red onion and blue ink stamp, a la Bruno Munari’s Roses in the Salad.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) August 2, 2021
I’m also a big fan of using peppers. (Or whatever leftover vegetables happen to be on the cutting board and the mood strikes.)
I’ve started incorporating some of these prints into my collages:
Yesterday I was reading the introduction to Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a book pieced together from two trunks full of writing he left behind after he died. It was also Kafka’s birthday, and because I don’t really believe in coincidence, I started thinking about other writers who left behind trunks full of writing, writers like Emily Dickinson, etc.
It occurs to me that “Pretend I’m dead” could also be a compositional method. I hate writing books so much I have goofy fantasies about faking my own death (the COVID era seems like the perfect time to do it — who would know?) and publishing books posthumously.
“Why don’t you assume you’ve written your book already,” Stewart Brand once suggested to his friend, Brian Eno, “and all you have to do now is find it?”
Why not pretend you’re dead and start piecing together a posthumous volume?
Might be a way to get started, at least…
* * * Update 7/12/2021 * * *
A reader sent me a funny parenting version of “Pretend I’m dead.”
Mom gets a call from her adult daughter, who’s in a panic about a trivial situation. “What should I do, Mom?!?”
Mom says, “Calm down. Now, pretend I’m dead. What would you do?”
Another reader said she wished people could read their obituaries before they were dead, which reminded me of the Better Things episode, “Eulogy” (S02E06): “Sam, feeling unappreciated, encourages her children and closest friends to pretend that she’s dead and speak at her pretend funeral so that she may hear how they really feel about her.”
I have a handful of writings I try to re-read every year. One of them is Anne Lamott’s chapter on jealousy from Bird By Bird. Another is Tim Kreider’s essay, “The Referendum,” collected in his marvelous 2012 book, We Learn Nothing.
I don’t think there’s a single piece of writing that better explains the human behavior I witness day-to-day amongst my cohort. (I can’t believe it’s a dozen years old.)
The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.
The problem, as Tim says, is that we only get one shot at life, and once you reach a certain age, every one of your peers gives you a “glimpse of the parallel universes” that would have resulted had you made different choices. (Instagram, for example, is basically an app designed to evoke The Referendum — it hit the app store a year after this essay was originally published.)
Once you read about The Referendum, you see it everywhere: “We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.”
When my oldest was five, he recited this poem:
by Owen Kleon
A fart! A fart!
You can hear a fart!
A fart! A fart!
You can smell a fart!
A fart! A fart!
O why can’t you see a fart?
Perhaps that was the inspiration for our fart collages, an ongoing collaboration and art activity I pull out whenever the kids are driving me absolutely crazy. It’s very easy to make a fart collage: simply cut out a photo from a magazine and add a toot visualization.
I believe deeply, you see, in the connection between fart jokes and creativity. (There’s a whole wiki devoted to Mozart’s love of scatalogical humor.) Jokes, pranks, irreverence — if we start poking fun at the world, at a certain point we wonder if maybe we can change it…
My pictures are collages. I didn’t invent the collage. Artists like Picasso and Matisse and Leo Lionni and Ezra Jack Keats made collages. Many children have done collages at home or in their classrooms. In fact, some children have said to me, “Oh, I can do that.” I consider that the highest compliment.
I begin with plain tissue paper and paint it with different colors, using acrylic paint. Sometimes I paint with a wide brush, sometimes with a narrow brush. Sometimes my strokes are straight, and sometimes they’re wavy. Sometimes I paint with my fingers. Or I put paint on a piece of carpet, sponge, or burlap and then use that like a stamp on my tissue papers to create different textures.
These papers are my palette and after they have dried I store them in color-coded drawers. Let’s say I want to create a caterpillar: I cut out a circle for the head from a red tissue paper and many ovals for the body from green tissue papers; and then I paste them with wallpaper glue onto an illustration board to make the picture.
He then added to the collages with crayon — for example, the lines coming out from the body of The Very Hungry Caterpillar:
There’s an absolutely wonderful episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood in which Fred Rogers visits Carle’s studio and they paint together:
Rogers: In this, there’s just no mistakes, is there?
Carle: No, you can’t make mistakes really.
There is a deep, lovely interview with Carle in Leonard S. Marcus’s underrated book of interviews with picture book illustrators, Show Me A Story! (Marcus also wrote the introduction to The Art of Eric Carle.)
The interview begins with this beautiful description of Carle’s studio:
Carle is a precise and energetic man whose large studio hums and clatters at one end with the high-tech whir of computers and scanners, and at the other with the old-fashioned rustling and scratching sounds the artist working with papers, pens, and brushes have generated for centuries.
I was drawn to what Carle said about the importance of chance:
Sometimes you have to listen to chance. You have to look at the crack in the wall. You might follow the crack and be surprised to find a picture in it. It’s like the children’s game of looking at a cloud and seeing an image, say, of a sheep, in the shape of the cloud.
Carle kept files full of hundreds and hundreds of his papers, organized by color, and he said that often he’d go with the first paper he found in the top of the drawer:
I believe in chance. You carry a cup of coffee across a room. You look at it and it spills, or you don’t look at it, and it doesn’t spill. It’s that type of chance I have in mind.
Like many authors, he had a love/relationship with making books. He said it often took a torturous year (or more) to get the idea, but often only a week to actually produce.
In contrast to the pain of publishing, he spoke of the meditative quality of glueing and painting his papers: “It’s like being in an alpha state: total peace.”
Working on a presentation of some of the collage work I’ve been doing for the past few years. God, I love making this stuff. What a gift it’s been to glue and things to the page when I don’t know what else to do… https://t.co/B4feF8ri7k pic.twitter.com/zUwHS2C14X
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 6, 2021
It’s always a great feeling when you start gathering pieces for a show or a presentation and you realize that you’ll not even get close to being able to showing everything.
Some topics I’m trying to
quilt patchwork together:
- Anni Alber’s idea that you must listen to your materials, because they do the dictating of what needs to be done
- How in a good process, the art takes you where it wants you to go
- How in any art form you must identify your materials and set up a sensual relationship with them
- Terminology, and how some quilters got mad at me for calling my pieces “tape quilts”
- finding treasure in the trash, saving scraps
- making time to learn
- the long history of collage
- making ugly art
- the calm of collage
But the more I think about it, the more I just keep thinking of a quilt of days. Each day is like a panel in a quilt. Some days are ugly and some days are raw and some days are chaotic and some days are colorful and some days are orderly but if you keep adding them up they turn into something.
One thing I do to procrastinate on books I should be writing is make fake covers for books I don’t intend to write.
The one above came from a typo: I tried to type “hell yeah” and typed “hell year” instead.
The one below is a manipulation of a book on small business taxes my wife got from the library:
I find this kind of creative lark really freeing and fun and pressure-relieving. It can also lead to new ideas.
I’m reminded of Guided By Voices frontman Bob Pollard, who said:
Back in high school, maybe 4 or 5 people wanted to be in a band, but nobody knew how to play an instrument. So in art class, we’d sit there and make album covers, and the credits, and I’d have the lyrics, and we’d have everything but music. We even made t-shirts for our band. Walked around, and people’d say, “You guys have a band?” “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got a band!” And no one could play anything. So it started out as kind of a fantasy.
When Pollard is writing, he says he often likes to start out with song titles and fake band names, and then write songs for those specific titles and names. (cf. Nathaniel Russell’s Fake Fliers.)
Sometimes I’ll post an image and people will think it’s a book cover, like this quilting collage I made.
More fun: If you watch my friend Wendy MacNaughton’s show, Draw Together, you’ll see a bunch of fake books she made for the set.
I do actually have the book cover ready for the book I need to be writing — now I just have to write it.
“The things people refuse / are the things they should use”
The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal once worked as a trash compactor, and, according to the critic James Wood, he “rescued books from the compacting machine and built a library of them in the garage of his country cottage outside Prague.” He based his wild, short novel Too Loud a Solitude on his experiences, giving them to the fictional narrator, Hanta, who says he “can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books.” (Same.)
Because art imitates life only for life to imitate art, last week I read a story about garbage collectors in Turkey who opened a library in an abandoned brick factory from books they rescued from their trash roundes. The library now has over 6,000 books. (They also turned a garbage truck into a bookmobile and formed a band from tossed-out instruments.)
Atlas Obscura’s entry notes that “‘Stealing’ things from the trash for personal use is a big no-no in the world of sanitation.” But as Mark Twain said, quoted in Steal Like An Artist, “It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”
Everything is eventually headed for the dump. Books, ideas… you name it. What you rescue from the dump, the treasures you keep, that’s part of your work.
Filed under: trash
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Musician James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem has taken up fishing during the pandemic.
“I’m somehow able to get outside myself,” he says, “unburdened for a few hours by whatever it is I really should be doing, while I, instead, do this repeated motion, over and over…”
He says that there’s “a meditative quality to the work” and he often repeats to himself, “Slow is fast. Slow is fast.”
“I needed for time to be meaningless so I could justify spending a few weeks learning how to do this new thing.”
It tickles me that he talks about learning to fish the way some people would talk about learning to play music.
I’m also thinking, well beyond the pandemic, we can declare time “meaningless” any time we want, and give ourself permission to learn new things…
Filed under: fishing