Winter Whites and Weekend Blues

January dawn light, through frost-covered windows, shines onto my bedroom curtains,

and makes me remember this light on a dusky winter walk a few days before, in upstate New York:

When the sun unexpectedly shone for a bright moment on a snowy day in upstate New York, I ran to this window:

That same sun beam was lighting up this corner of the library.  (What do you read on a day like this? That bookcase contains nothing but murder mysteries — I recommend something English, written before 1950.)

Back to that icy sparkling window: in the upper left hand corner is a peek at the backyard:

This is what the backyard looks like:

In the front yard, there is a gazebo where you can sit and look at loons and beavers on the pond.

And when it snows the very next day, this is what the snow around the gazebo looks like at night:

I want to frame all your comments this week!  My replies were supposed to be attached individually (to Candice, Jacquelyn, and Janet) but turns out that the blogging elves weren’t in the mood and they just chucked everything into the flow.  Julie and Nancy, my fellow  reverent minimalists, and Deborah and Barbara: you are not alone — there’s a few of us out here who still keep our bullshit detectors in working order and we are with you.

Kim: I was heading in your direction for this post anyway but your story makes my job a little easier. Because today I want to talk about something I left  out when I wrote about the “more is better’ style of art journaling that seems to be the esthetic norm of most how-to books on the subject.  Now, I was warned by a professional in this field of art journaling instruction that I should stay away from this topic, that my criticisms would invite a lot of flak from the practitioners of visual abundance so I want to thank Toni, Shelly, and Els for their temperance. I was warned, actually, that this is a controversial topic in our art journaling community (who knew?) and that the debate could get really nasty (who knew?) but I’m going to GO THERE anyway.

What I left out of my monologue about the over-done appearance of art journals these days is my explanation of the difference between art as self-expression and art as communication.

I have almost nothing to say about art as self expression except that I don’t want to have to look at it.

I lied. I do have a something to say about art as self-expression. And here it is: It is very rare that anyone’s self-expression contains any communication, communication being the mutuality of  the experience of art, the acknowledgment that the rest of us are not here on this earth just to be assaulted by your need to be heard. I know there is a myth out there that art is purely self-expressive but that is not so. In fact, one’s act of  self-expression is so exceedingly uselessto the rest of us that when an some one’s act of S.E. actually manages to communicate to the rest of the world, that person is regarded as an artist  and (if the communication is really, really good) is hailed as a genius. (Picasso, Van Gogh, Pollack, and the like: their acts of self-expression brought another element to their work — talent, truth, inspiration, a mystical tapping into the collective soul — that made the rest of us willing to meet the challenge of their art.)  Genius, despite its being another word (like awesome and bizarre) that has been over-used to the vanishing point, is still rare.  Artists are pretty rare, too, even though that word also has been over-used to the point of meaninglessness. 

Self-expression is a good thing, a fine thing, and a necessary thing. It is also essentially a private thing: even those who teach the kitchen-sink school of art journaling often warn that these journals, layered with collage and gesso and cutlery, are too intimate to pass around in public; I applaud these teachers for showing great sensitivity towards their pupils. For those of you who took me to task for wanting to put the brakes on the self-expressive nature of these “altered book” journals I want to assure you that I have no intention of criticising the quality of the work produced or the impetus to go at it. Good for you. Express yourself to your heart’s content. That doesn’t make you an artist, but I’m almost certain that that’s not the point of that kind of art journaling anyway.

Just be aware that the result of all your efforts might be of exquisite value only to yourself because of the intensely personal nature of the craft. Also, since there seems to be an entire industry that depends on your buying stuff to cram onto those pages, to some of us, that makes the whole enterprise seem a little gimmicky, the antithesis of art or, even, self-expression. Is all I’m saying.

My purpose in writing about all this is to suggest, from my own humble experience  as a freaking awesome communicator, that the art journal can become a meaningful conveyor of biography, information, experience, emotion, etc. You know, like a book. Like a good book. As opposed to a book-like object. An art journal can be the ocassion for a wonderfully mutual exchange: I give you my carefully thought-out text and illustrations and you give me your attention (no small thing in American culture), for which I feel honored and you feel like I’m a freaking awesome communicator. The way to do this is to temper self-expression with awareness that something — coherence, self-control, mastery of the craft, and respect (did I forget anything?)– is owed to your reader.

So, what have we learned today? We learned that I am the last person to teach anyone anything about self-expression, seeing as how there are already many people willing to show the way when it comes to that. But I will gladly share what I know about communication, something I cherish (Ha! Extra credit for using that word seriously!) . And those paint-chip brochures I raved about last Monday: think about the heavy-duty communicating going on in those — yes, they just want you to buy stuff, but they also hit all the same nerve circuits that a really good art journal should. Which I will enumerate next Monday because my fingers hurt from all this typing (Shorter Blogging is my New Year’s Resolution).

I’m still on my Winter Whites kick that I began on Monday with my post about 28 shades of white. Today I put up some photos of my most recent experience of January. Next Monday I will be putting up my art journal pages based on these two posts, something January-esque about light that I’ll have discovered this weekend when I sit down to paint, after having thought a bit more about what I seem to like so much about 28 shades of colorlessness and find something that is worth communicating. Right now, I have NO idea. But I’ll work on it.

Hence the title of this post.

18 comments to Winter Whites and Weekend Blues

  • Universality. That’s what you’re talking about. Art journals are touted as a place to put a person’s private thoughts and feelings, like any journal. But once we splash them out there in public, they need to strike a “me, too” chord. Memoirs, no matter how different the experience, must connect universally to readers, even if they’ve never been abused or worked in a coal mine or whatever.

    If the art journal is just for the person creating it, does it need universality?

    On the subject of titles like “artist,” I am loathe to think of myself as “author.” People introduce me as Candice Ransom, the author. I look behind me to see who that person is. I’m a *writer.* I write books. But I’m the *author* of such and such a book. See the difference. I feel the same way about “poet.” People write poetry, but they aren’t a “poet.” It’s not a job any more than an author is a job. Someone else confers the title of poet on you.

    More later when I’ve had my oatmeal and I can communicate better.

  • I hail you and salute you and otherwise agree entirely with you that the most meaningful place for self-expression is – uh – with the self [my own visual journal being a perfect frickin' example of all the reasons WHY, altho' I have abstained from the use of cutlery!] And I don’t necessarily WANT to ‘splain me to anyone else; it’s hard enuf to ‘splain me to myself. Finding like-minded friends is my idea of how to proceed, those who inspire me to take the inward journey I am wanting to take but don’t require me to play show and tell. Dan Eldon, for example, or anyway his journals. Juliana Coles.

    When Martha Stewart’s craft line took over an aisle and a half at my local Michael’s store, I figured it out, in final form (I detest Martha Stewart) — what you said: ‘ … there seems to be an entire industry that depends on your buying stuff to cram onto those pages, to some of us, that makes the whole enterprise seem a little gimmicky …’, and stopped schlepping all that shite home (embellishments, gizmos, doodads, latest trendy ‘art’ supplies). I purged the living bejeezuz out of my studio, made donations thither & yon, and returned to my lifelong love: A WRITTEN JOURNAL (also private self-expression, only for my eyes).

    I endorse anyone doing anything that gets him or her off her keister in a creative bent. I do NOT necessarily want to see it all, hear it all, try it on, or be required to make comment. But to encourage the effort? Ever!

    I LOVE that you have challenged this subject in just this way — I think it allows anyone reading to test internal gauges and reactions, to say out loud either AMEN or UP YOURS. Important stuff, this having a tested opinion.

  • August

    I like “I have almost nothing to say about art as self expression except that I don’t want to have to look at it” almost as much as “No amount of applied crap can hide lack of originality, individuality, and content.”

    You are strange, you people who are both visual and verbal. I bet your brains are a jumble of tangled wiring.

  • Barbara Lemme

    Playing with “stuff” can be fun but considering it “art” when it looks the same as everyone else’s play is silly. Few of us can make art and few of us can write well. It’s a pleasure to have both. Thanks for this forum. Thanks for your shared words and art.

  • Somebody put a nickel in me today–I can’t shut up. I’ve thought all week about Monday’s post and now today’s and can’t write all my comments here. So I posted my thoughts–and conclusion (what’s best for me)–on my own blog today:

    Like Toni, I reached the breaking point (photo of my former studio on blog) and got rid of nearly everything. Shut down my studio to make it into a sitting room just for me. I grew weary of ever-more techniques to add to art, like beeswax and tape-transfers and soldering.

    When Martha Stewart’s over-priced stuff hit Michael’s, mixed-media artists were making projects from the little wire hangers the product hung from! Reminds me of kids playing with the boxes their big present came in.

  • Fruitless discussions of “What is art” proliferate to almost the same degree as overdone self-expression does.

    I have recently been “treated” to the opinions of several art snobs on the subject. One gentleman who is truly full of his own importance, actually publicly decried the use of the word “art” in the description of “Art Classes for Children”. I was speechless – which was best under those circumstances. Where can *that* subject go?

    Wherever it goes, it goes too far.

    However, as I have written publicly before: because you can give someone an aspirin, you are not a doctor, holding a golf club does not make you Tiger Woods, and making your mark on paper, or gluing cutlery to pages does not make you an artist.

    It takes training of one sort or another to be an artist and, more importantly, practice, practice, practice. And maybe you make it to “artist” and maybe you don’t.

    I personally define art as: well conceived, well designed, well executed, visual communication.

    If you can hit that criteria, you are doing great.

    During all your practice, however, a lot of chaff will be produced. In fact, without producing your share of garbage and recognizing it as such, you will never become an artist, because you will never know the difference.

    My biggest problem with the overdone self-expression is how it is so overdone. It has taken over *all* of the paper arts publications, both magazines and books, shoving out every modicum of variety, creativity, and difference, which are the very foundation of the arts, and then declaring itself the benchmark of style .

    This has been done by the folks-who-want-you-to-buy-something, and has been shamelessly copied and recopied ad nauseum for at least the last 8 years – and counting. Hardly anyone is publishing original, inspirational magazines and books anymore.

    I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday with a friend. We were in the Crafts section. The jewelry books and ceramics books were great. The paper arts books – on journaling, on handmade book making, card making – ALL look the same. And they are all filled with crowns, wings, and those poor decapitees from the 1800s.

    I don’t like the style, but there are lots of folks who do – and they have a right to their stuff. But I want *my* stuff too. I teach art, photography, and journaling 365 days/year. I run out of creative gas myself sometimes. I would love to still be able to buy books or magazines that inspire me and refill my tank.

    But because this “style” has been allowed to eat the paper arts, there are no books for me – or for you if you want something different.

    Whether it is self-expression or artistic communication, let’s see something new.

  • mo

    this is my quandry today as i contemplate how to proceed with an online “art” journaling class i joined. i want to include visuals with my writing, not the other way around. i’m not interested in disembodied heads floating on top of floral backgroud paper, or wings or crowns. and i want the visuals to enhance my writing, not define my writing. certainly i make no pretense that what i’m doing is art. it’s just fun and just for me.

    vivian, i’m so glad to have “found” you again, i thought i’d lost you when you left WW blogs. i’m glad jessica posted this link. and what a provocative topic to boot. yeah, who’da thunk it would be so controversial, LOL ;)

  • Jacquelyn

    Having emptied and flattened FIVE big cardboard boxes, I found I had reached a plateau, a still point of sorts, whereby I know what I now have and where for my ongoing self-expressive artsy fun. Actually these are memory books for my self and my kids. And their kids.
    Before my small living space turns into studio/work space, and at this delicious still point of order, I invited a friend for tea. She brought with her a bottle of homemade QUINCE brandy to spike our Portland mint and Charleston grown black tea. (Charleston has this country’s only tea garden/plantation) Now I know of two quince trees on this island. If I had some paint chips I could describe the kind of grey it is out here. I think this afternoon I will drink Earl Grey.

  • jen

    aren’t comments wonderful!!

  • Jacquelyn

    Having emptied and flattened FIVE big cardboard boxes, I found I had reached a plateau, a still point of sorts, whereby I know what I now have and where it is for my ongoing self-expressive artsy fun. Actually these are memory books for my self and my kids. And their kids.
    Before my small living space turns into studio/work space, and at this delicious still point of order, I invited a friend for tea. She brought with her a bottle of homemade QUINCE brandy to spike our Portland mint and Charleston grown black tea. (Charleston has this country’s only tea garden/plantation) Now I know of two quince trees on this island. If I had some paint chips I could describe the kind of grey it is out here today. I think this afternoon I will drink Earl Grey and leave it at that.

  • I am still haunting the home stores for paint chips. Found a gray called Secret Passage (probably not Jacquelyn’s gray). If I was a kid, I would have my bedroom painted that color just for the name. Lowe’s Olympia paints has a wonderful series called Audubon Classics, paint colors inspired by his paintings. The brochures are lush with quotes from Emerson and Rachel Carson . . . I think I want to quit writing books and get a job naming paint colors. When I was little, I wanted a job naming elementary schools–I was going to name them all after poets.

  • Elise

    Art ceases to be art when it becomes marketing.

  • Nancy

    Vivian, I laughed out loud at “I have almost nothing to say about self-expression… etc”–I’m with you there!
    I have finally found a self-descriptive phrase that feels comfortable; I could never call myself an “artist”, for a variety of reasons; now I say “I spend my days playing with art supplies”. Some days the results are good, some days they go directly in the trash… but I’ve had fun and perhaps learned a little bit.

  • mary

    What happened? I’ve had a Martini, and I don’t understand what is going on….EXCEPT;
    I read Vivan’s blog every day AND I LOVE IT. She is a sharp ” New Yorker” and she shares her thoughts and art with all of us, l , and we are richer for it.
    I agree with her idea of throwing away the scrapbooks that are filled with junk.
    To the individuals who do scrapbooks for their own life and circumstances, NOT for the world to see; DO IT. You will love it, Your family will love it. That’s why you do it.

    Vivian is interested in bringing the rest of us up to the Art criteria that she enjoys.—AND she has been reviewed AND RECOMMENDED by NPR
    So , dear readers, that’s good enough for me.
    Vivian, You are the best daily contact we artists have.
    Keep giving us our daily dose of what life is like on Long Island and our outlook as artist, so we can improve our own world of “art”.

  • tippy

    Elise; You are absolutely correct .

  • I’ll go back and read all these comments and the post I’ve missed but I think I am missing something else or I am in the Twilight Zone. Are you not with the Wisdom Women Blogs anymore?

  • Shelley

    I just saw the notice posted on the main Wisdom Woman page that Vivian is moving her blog elsewhere. I absolutely want the link to follow her wherever she is going!

    I’m not sure why it was deemed that she was not a “good fit” here, but her blog is one that I eagerly look forward to every few days. It’s not mandatory that I agree with everything. I just thoroughly enjoy her wit and outlook, and the fact that Vivian makes me think, and most importantly, makes me laugh!

    I enjoy the other blogs here too, all for different reasons. Hope this site will continue to showcase a variety of styles and opinions, and let the readers sort out their own favorites.

    Please do post the link when Vivian’s site is available at the new location. I for one am sad that she will no longer be seen here.

  • ej in ABQ

    I’ve really only given this a cursory review, at a friend’s recommendation. But it seems there’s confusion between “fine art” and craft-like expression. These two worlds will always clash. Then add journalists and what a mess! A journal– basically an elaborate diary — IS private, or should be. Whoever started this business of posting and bragging about journals as art is the one who should be chastized. High art, crafts and journals — three different activities, IMHO. And, yet, I do glue things in my journal. Do I have to be graded and evaluated on that? I think not! But I don’t call it art, eiher.

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