Pick up that art journal!

When I decided to write the book that became When Wanderers Cease to Roam, I had to decide how I was going to write it. So I thought back to my favorite reading experience. And to be honest, my favorite reading experience wasn’t War and Peace. It wasn’t Jane Eyre. It wasn’t Catcher in the Rye. Those are all fine books that I enjoyed reading…but they were not the books that I credit with saving my life at a time when reading was one of the few things that kept me sane during a tough stretch of life in my early 20s.

The book that kept me from going totally crazy in 1981-82 is this:

This is the Better Homes and Gardens Craft Kits Catalog from Fall 1981.

In 1980 I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to live in Niger, West Africa. By the Summer of 1981 I was going crazy with boredom: Peace Corps jobs are not all that hard to do, and in Africa you had a lot of down time due to the heat (the middle of every day was for laying low, and then there were the sandstorms and the 24-hour misery of the hot season).

I was only 24 and I did not have  a lot of coping skills when it came to figuring out what to do with myself with all that free time. Also, I did not drink beer: this isolated me socially from 99% of my Peace Corps peers. Without TV, radio, friends, and work, I was going crazy.

Then the wife of the Presbyterian minister gave me some of her old magazines — and in that bequest was this Crafts Catalog. In any other circumstance, I would not have given this catalog a second look. But this was Africa. And I was desperate.

And here was a picture book of all the things I was missing, here in Niger, on the edge of the Sahara Desert:

The Four Seasons. (An innovative deep quilting technique makes a pretty array of seasons! Kits have design on fabric, yarn, nylon tracing cloth, polyester batting, needle and instructions for completing each impressive 16″ x 16″ scene: $14.99 each)

Forests.  (An  hour past dawn, the glowing beauty of early morning is captured forever in this impressive wall hanging. Latch hook is used in 3-D to bring all the outdoors in with this dramatic 27″ x 41″ creation. $49.99 ; Latch hook: $1.49)

Paris.   (Anyone’s an artist with this step-by-step approach to painting that makes a Parisian street scene come alive with Impressionism [sic] styling. Kit has 16″ x 20″ canvas … and can’t fail instructions. Easy-to-master painting method was developed through years of testing. Regardless of artistic background or ability, you can create the professional-looking color and texture in this scene inspired by the 19th century works of Pissaro and Sisley. $36.99)

And of course, Unicorns. (Unicorn serenity: soft, subtle shading captures the mystique of this graceful mythological animal, dreaming amid delicately twining greenery. 20″ x 20″. $16.99; with frame $31.99)

There are 50 pages of this stuff, approx. 350 crafts projects in all, each with a little story about how wonderful the item is. Some of the stories end with you getting compliments from those who see your artistry, some of them end with your family treasuring this piece of art for generations. You get the idea.

But oh! If you were a 24-year old non-beer drinker on the edge of the Sahara, this is a book that gives hours of entertainment as you read it over and over. Sometimes, you’ll just look at the pictures. Sometimes, you’ll pick it up for a page or two, or you’ll flip through it until something (say, a New England village in cross stitch, or a snow scene in acryllic yarn) catches your fancy… Sometimes, you’ll get lost in thought about the last time you were inspired by the 19th century works of Pissaro, or the hopes you have of one day catching a unicorn…

Desultory, digressive, fun, materialistic (as in: referencing material culture), and episodic: this Crafts Catalog was my favorite reading experience. This is the reading experience I wanted to replicate when I wrote my book. Only without those damn unicorns.

So you see, I did not write an art journal when I put When Wanderers Cease to Roam together. I wrote the world’s first Catalog Memoir.

An art journal  is a much more private matter. I happen to have half a dozen such journals in my bookshelf, full of the stuff I jot down when I do my visual note taking when I travel, or when I go to a musem, or when I look through a well-designed catalog and find a clever composition of text and images that I want to try out for myself. I also have diaries– shelves and shelves of them. They are full of the notes I write day to day, about weather, food, money, shopping, cats, memories, etc.  My art journals and my diaires are the raw material I use when I put my “catalogs” together.

In researching the state of the Art Jounal lately, I’ve discovered that there is a general consensus out there that an art journalis theraputic  “sacred space“, that the images that one glues, stains, staples, pastes, hammers, nails, rivets, melts, layers, or scrubs onto the page is above criticism, comment, or — heaven forbid — restraint. I have read more than once that the “art” in an “art journal” comes from a “still, soft voice” from deep within one. * * * This is me not rolling my eyes: if that works for you, who am I to suggest that it seems a bit, oh, melodramatic?

But let’s say you want help creating some illustrated pages in the story of your life. Let’s say you want some pointers about the Art of Observation. Let’s say you want to create a public record of your existence, something  that will communicate  to others in a common language…

I can help.

To start an art journal(we’ll call it that for want of a better word but be warned: No Glitter!) , it helps if you know what shape you want your journal to have. Is it going to be a chronology? For how long: a year? a month? Or is it going to be the record of a certain period of your life? Or, will it be a collection of memoires? Or: will it be an inventory? Maybe it will be what magazine editors call a “round up”: a gathering of everything you know about a certain topic (Life? Love? Cats?)?

A chronology works best for a beginner — that’s what I chose as my format when I wrote my book, which strats in January and ends in December.  And you know how embroiderers practice their first stitches on a sampler, and how beautiful those samplers can be? Think of your new art journal that way. As beautiful practice.

But before there can be art, there must be text. Because you’re not making a sketch book — you’re making a journal. So the first you have to do is write something.

Writing Tip No. 1 comes to you thanks to the lady who, at the end of my most recent talk at a local library, complained to me: “My children don’t want to listen to my stories! I just came back from New Orleans and when I try to tell them about it, they only listen for five minutes!”

So I said, “Maybe your story is too long.  Try writing a 100-word story about New Orleans.”

And she looked as if I’d pinched her. “But I can’t tell all about New Orleans in 100 words!”

I hurried to explain: “Don’t try to write ALLabout New Orleans — write about onedinner on Bourbon Street. Write about having coffee at the Cafe du Monde when it starts to rain. Write about walking in the Garden District to find Ann Rice’s old house. Write about the time you heard a Cajun speak French. Break up ALL of New Orleans into small, bite-sized stories.”

She thought about it and said, “Oh. I guess I can do that.”

There were a number of people who wanted a word with me , so I didn’t go on to tell her the good news, that in the act of writing a small, bite-sized story she will be focused enough on it that she’ll remember some wonderful, quirky, unusual, personal detail that would otherwise get left out of a BIG story that tried to tell ALL about New Orleans. I didn’t tell her what I believe: that a 100-word story is like a hologram: even though it’s just a piece broken off of the complete story, that fragment will have the spirit and the shadow of the whole story behind it. Don’t worry that it doesn’t. And there will be time to write more 100-word chunks of the whole story.

So: decide the shape of your art journal (see above)  and write your first 100 words.

Let me know how that works — and I’ll discuss lay out, composition, and have an illustration tip on Friday.

16 comments to Pick up that art journal!

  • Thank you, Viv. A good start for us.

    I live in Pennsylvania. Where and when is your class this year? I’d bunk out in NY for a week just to attend.
    It would be my vacation.

    Maybe it won’t be firmed up for a while, so I’ll keep reading the blog.

  • Barbara Lemme

    Excellent advice! I remember the “long”, boring stories from my grandparents. When we picked a single thing to talk about, it became more bearable, in fact, fun. And we listened.

  • Thanks for TIP 1. Im excited to get started! You are my favorite blog. I know people must tell you all the time how clever and funny you are in your point of view on things that most of us forget to notice.

  • jackie

    bulls eye….right to the heart. I hadn’t realized how gradually, subtlely, I had become hooked from the moment I found When Wanderers Cease to Roam…….to now. I had this eery feeling of this written and posted just for me. I lay a bed reluctant to rise up from under covers and cat this morning because I just didn’t know what was to do, where was I going, any particular focus. Then the fog lifted and sunlight shown out the window. Morning coffee, no personal emails, and then a new lesson or session with Vivian. What a treasure.

  • Janet

    Vivian, the 100-word story idea is solid, practical advice–and as challenging as writing the perfect classified ad. Thanks.

  • Your life-saving catalog reminds me of the crafts I did back in the early to mid-70s, to stay sane in a bad relationship. I still have the ugly decoupage dresser box I made for my stepfather–to his credit he kept it on his dresser until he died.

    I have no “still, soft voice” inside. Mine is whiny, shrill, adenoidal, and bossy. Is there hope for me with a journal?

    The 100-word limit is excellent. I tell my writing students–particularly those who are writing papers–keep your topic narrow. Tiny little topics work best. Concentrate on the specifics.

    Now I need to decide on a chronology. I like the idea of a catalog. It will prevent me from being too wordy. And yes, to Janet! The perfect classified ad!

  • Kim

    You are a national treasure. While I am no journalist, artistic or otherwise, I do enjoy the vicarious aspect of it all, and your book (and blog!) provides such pleasure and delight. This past weekend was a dear friend’s 60th birthday, and I’ve been pondering what to give her for awhile now. Just before leaving to collect her for a day’s celebratory outing, toodling around the countryside, my very own copy of “When Wanderers Cease to Roam” offered itself up to her. Am I so altruistic that I’d sacrifice my beloved book? Naaahhh … I’m gonna get myself another copy! (And as other loved ones’ BD’s come up, I’m sure this scenario will repeat itself, over and over again!)

  • Vivian, once again a “relatedness”. My sister and I have a long history with Better Homes and Gardens. We sold kits to them about that same time period and have remained best friends with the buyer. She now works for Disney in N.Y. Our kits were also usually featured once a month in the magazine up until about 5 years ago. We still get letters from people wanting them. I’m so thrilled that our humble craft industry made such an impression. And once again thanks for the writing advice. It really helps.

  • I’m wanting to capture dream essences … which aren’t chronological or even, often, very easy to pin down. 100 words? I get phrases … will that work?

  • Sandy

    Oh how exciting – our first assignment!

  • maryann

    Awesome! Love it!! Looking forward to Friday!!!!

  • Marina

    Thanks for this kickstart …. well…more like an encouraging nudge than a kick, thank goodness :-)

  • Deborah

    I always seem to focus on a tangent, like: ooh! ooh! I remember that unicorn picture! I think every fabric/craft store in America had it on display at one time. It awakens memories of that period of my life, too.

  • Somehow you had slipped off my RSS feeds! Aghhh!! Seems like I found my way back at just the right moment…. One hundred words? I think I might just about manage that. Roll on Friday!

  • Ann

    As I stand on the brink of retirement after a 40 year working life, your book and your blog have awakened me to new possibilities. Yesterday I signed up for a course on watercolors (a medium I have never mastered). I look forward to Friday and learning more about how to share thoughts and observations. I am also thinking of a dear, dear friend who was taken to critical care on Sunday and teeters on the brink. His life, my life…it is all so very fragile. Sharing some of mine suddenly feels more urgent.

  • Sally De Fazio

    Dear Vivian,

    Oh, you are brave! Saying, No glitter! or No anything else, for that matter. Recently I’ve been engaged in a somewhat one-sided discussion (I’ve been doing most of the talking) with three friends who all have experience in the “book arts.” It’s clear that definitions about what constitutes art journals, or, even what constitutes a book*, for that matter, are hard to come by. I can’t wait to see what else you have to say on the subject. “Wanderers” has inspired me to turn one of my hand-made blank books into an art journal. Seeking further inspiration, I pulled a couple of books from the library and gasped to find a project in which the budding journalist was invited to feel uninhibited in spilling her thoughts onto a page because most of the writing would be gessoed over. Gack.

    I occasionally bring “Wanderers” into the watercolor class I teach to show my students how successful a “simple” painting can be. And now I find that many of your paintings are snack-sized! Trés cool! Food and art, a sybaritic combo.

    With thanks and admiration for your straight-from the hip blog, (a wonderful book)


    *Do cloth “pages” with a little writing, hung on a tiny clothesline, constitute a Book? Must be so–I’ve seen this in a Book Arts exhibit at a university.

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