Now that everyone seems to have the technology to make cheap watches (which I must designate in my heart mere instruments for marking time, not timepieces), I get to wondering whether the beauty of true clockworks will always be preserved or will only serve as curiosities and fodder for art. That precision we take so nonchalantly to be ours is a museum of measurement and the poetry of a mechanism we should keenly regret to lose if we value something more than the rigid math of time, the seamless meeting of Doing and Deadline.
I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
The bane of poorly placed or unattractive light switches, outlets, thermostats and other mechanicals is one of the great challenges to the average homeowner’s creating truly cohesive and attractive decor. Frankly, I’ve never understood what could be so hard about putting all of the functional and utilitarian elements of any building into very easily accessed and yet unobtrusive locations throughout, but that’s never happened in any building I’ve seen let alone in the houses where I’ve lived. Home design is generally pretty dimwitted in terms of simple practicality. But then, it offers a dandy problem-solving adventure to those of us who like such things.
So I say, if you can’t lose it, use it.Exposed under-sink plumbing but not a lot of room for real cabinets? How about a half-height set of portable drawers and a counter skirt that fills the gap and hides the plumbing? It’s cheap, especially if you can use a ready-made window valance as I did in this instance, which also means that when your tastes change, changing the treatment won’t take a major investment either. A nasty old tile countertop that’s set in such hard concrete that it can’t be removed without demolishing half the room can be overlaid with a simple piece of laminate and a hardwood facing raised to be level with the edge of the top. Again, a cheaper fix than demo and new tile or stone, and easier to replace when the time comes even if you’ve still not saved up enough for the super-cool high-end stuff.
Another problem that’s pretty common in modest homes is a den (in this case the spare bedroom) where you want to be able to sit among your books and read but can hardly fit in your little old slipcovered sofa and still allow enough room for the adjacent door to clear, and then run out of space for the actual bookshelves. One fairly easy way to deal with this problem is to mount the bookcase on the aforementioned door. When I did this, I did install casters at the bottom of the case so the door hinges wouldn’t have to bear the weight of all the books as well, and ended up not only with handily located books for our cozy little reading nook but just a touch, however modest, of the secret thrill of a hidden doorway, even if this one only went to the attic. Add an old highboy dresser with some drawers removed for extra shelf storage, and for tucking away additional materials, there’s no end table or footrest like a stack of old trunks and suitcases. Voilà! A small and comfortable snug for reading, with a lot more stored in it than would seem probable or meets the eye.
With no space for a sewing room, I got a little creative finding a spot for that work, too. I found an inexpensive storage cabinet, the white laminate particle board kind, in about a 6′H x 2.5′W x 1.5′D configuration, at the local builder’s supply store, installed a hinged pull-down bench I could put my sewing machine on (or when it wasn’t in use, put behind it), added small weight-supporting posts in the middle of the shelves, and had a simple little sewing center that I used easily for quite some time. By setting my serger on the shelf adjacent to the pull-down bench, I had a comfortable corner where I could sit in my cheap swiveling office chair and go from one machine to another while I was working on my projects, reaching up to the stacked fabrics stored on the top shelf or underneath to the other tools and notions and sorting boxes on the bottom shelf. Finish work, push the sewing machine back in the cabinet and fold the bench up in front of it, latch that in place, and close the cabinet doors. No sign of Sewing Central in the guest bedroom until next time.That house was more than big enough for the two of us, but in typical older-house style the space was divided oddly and not quite a perfect design for us as-is. What was not typical of the place’s vintage was that it had quite a high proportion of windows to wall space, a very nice thing but also a little limiting when it comes to placing furnishings and hanging art. That drove the placement of the antique china hutch (whose back side, happily, was finished in the same rustic style as its front) as a room divider to frame the dining room without overlapping either of its flanking windows. Having a wood-stove could have been a delight, but since the area where we lived had frequent burn bans because of the local microclimate, we hardly ever had the chance to play with it. Eventually I traded the stove to a friend and fellow artist in exchange for helping me redo the flooring and counters in the kitchen, but in the time while the stove crouched there using up real estate in the living room, it got a customized cover of lined taffeta (made at my little sewing station, of course) that made it into an extra end table with a hint of insulation. The living room itself was quite spacious for a house of that vintage, so with its location practically next door to the campus where we both worked, it was a handy post-concert gathering place for debriefing the concert over a glass of wine.
That meant we wanted to put as much seating as possible in the place without making it feel like one of those seedy recliner showrooms where salesmen lurk in the shadows and try to sell you chairs that look like poseable hippopotami. We already had a couple of heavy mid-eighties pieces of furniture that needed a little touch of camouflage for their portly nature (the white-draped tub of a chair on the left of the first photo above was later ‘darkened’ with multiple shades of purple into the equally chunky but less omnipresent chair on the right of the second photo, and its variety of textures and shades helped at least marginally to distract from the bulk of the whole. To get a slightly airier feel among the furniture occupants of the room, I took my grandparents’ old Jenny Lind double bed and made it into a little post-Victorian settee that kept us company for a goodly while after. That way the frame was virtually free (the seat slats were pickets salvaged from backyard fence repair) and all I spent was on the fabric and padding for upholstering the piece.
Still, I was irritated that the first wall anyone approached on coming through our front door was ‘decorated’ with an inconveniently placed thermostat. Never mind that the thermostat was located directly downwind of the only exterior door in the area, it was just plain an eyesore and a pest to hide. So I made it part of the art arrangement, ‘gilding’ it with metallic ink to match the background of the small icon and the frames of the larger artworks with which it was prominently grouped. It may still have been a pig, but I liked its looks better with the lipstick on it.
Now, I told you that I think virtually every place has some of these irksome ill-placed or hard to disguise quirks in its construction, and those I’ve dealt with were hardly limited to the one house. Our current place has them, too, and I’m working my way through them bit by bit, like the hideously ugly and out of date but perfectly functional doorbell box in the front hall that now lives behind a small basket that I think was originally meant to be an office Inbox but is mercifully less attention-getting than the egregious original bell cover. And it’s ‘breathable’, so there’s no worry about the sound being muffled or the mechanism overheating in a closed box.Further episodes must wait for another day. The hunt for better, easier, more practical and attractive but less expensive solutions never ends. There will always be another touch of decorative deceit needed, as long as there are builders who don’t think through the way their buildings will actually look and work when, wonder of wonders, people live in them.
What? People. Easy-peasy. People, people. The most productive combination of ideas and imagination with the support structures to bring them to reality that was ever created. And hey, the human machine is able in turn to create further things. Yes, like hardware and software, among many-many-many others. What a strange invention is the human, the first ‘learning computer,’ yet so prone to errors and malfunctions and full of operational bugs that if we’d been a product, our inventor would’ve gone bankrupt in a cosmic instant.
Despite our messiness, though, we remain marvelous and surprisingly elegant machines. The thought of building structures that are not only composed entirely of living cells that, in health, constantly renew themselves and rebuild but are also able to contain and generate and synthesize and communicate intangibles like belief and imagination is quite astounding. That we creatures are able, as well, to imitate our own invention by being creative ourselves is nothing short of bizarre and miraculous.
How lucky we are, how blessed, to be–despite our fragile and somewhat freakish nature–able to be powerful and lovely in our creative ways too. How grand that we can appreciate this loveliness. And how rich and potent, above all, that we can still recognize how small and fleeting all of this goodness is in the greater scheme of invention that embraces us, our fellow living things, our world, our galaxy, our universe–and all the marvels that are yet unknown to us. We are tiny, we are mighty, and we should always be in humble awe.
A necessary understanding of the importance of imagination in my life turns the very idea of coming in for a landing on its proverbial ear. Not, I assure you, in the sense of making a crash landing, my dears. It’s simply that the exquisite security and comfort of realizing it’s time to let my imagination take over, rather than inviting me to curl up and suck my thumb in a cozy fetal position as though my project is a fait accompli, makes me eager to take to the skies. Quelle surprise! Here am I, lazybones extraordinaire, looking with pleasure upon the prospect of digging in to work with a passion.In the meantime, it’s a joy when the creative juices begin to flow. The laws of physics have taught me, as has long experience, that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. In like manner, a spirit dancing the glorious dance of invention tends to build up steam and grow increasingly hungry for further invention. Boredom and lassitude and dull deconstruction have no place in the middle of the rushing river; everyone to the oars and full speed ahead!Just as bad attitudes and actions tend to lead to more of their like, an awakening of the creative urge can spur an upsurge of yet more desire for innovation and art. The muse is a hungry creature. A ravenous creature. Mother of invention that she is, I think perhaps her middle initial is ‘&’. I hope I can be a good acolyte, if not precisely her child. It feels so good to move forward and upward, to fly.
The nice blogger from Zara–A Writing Story stopped by recently and her post said she is working at starting to draw. I’m delighted to have another person join the ranks of happy visual artists via drawing–a collection of skills that come in quite handy (no pun intended, especially since there are artists who use their mouths or their feet to make artworks) for far more than strictly a pleasurable activity or visual entertainment. Drawing, a foundational skill in all sorts of visual art, is also a means of communication that differs from and can work in wonderful tandem with writing, singing, signing, and any number of other ways of personal interaction and transmission of information. In addition to the practical application of the end product of the process, the practice of drawing itself has great power as a mnemonic device, a tool for problem-solving, and the training of the brain in such useful skills as eye-hand coordination and (as I know from experience) the correlated motor control of working through tremors to achieve refined movements.
But beyond that, as I said to my blogger colleague, the act of drawing has elements of physical pleasure in the mere action of arm and hand and body that can be worth the pursuit, not to mention the mental and/or emotional pleasures possible. The act of drawing as a form of meditation, even without regard to any possible ‘product’, is quite desirable on its own.
As I said to my correspondent, she needn’t be intimidated in the least even if she’s a rank beginner: By even making the effort to learn, you’re worlds ahead of lots of others! A book I often referenced when teaching my beginner students in college was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain–it has exercises that aren’t too hard even for someone who’s never attempted to draw before, and because her focus is on how the brain works in visual activity, she offers insights into the process and possibilities that few others do. There are, of course, innumerable excellent how-to books for those who want to draw, many of them favorites of mine as well, but because of Dr. Edwards’ [then] ground-breaking work in recognizing the character of right-vs-left brain function and how it played out in drawing, I always found her work particularly helpful.
Because drawing can engage so many diverse cognitive processes like this, it can be complicated and overwhelming to know just where to start learning how to draw. As I remarked in my note to my fellow blogger, All of that aside, simply making marks on a surface is the beginning of drawing. Sometimes the least intimidating way to begin is to take a piece of paper, make some totally random marks on it, and then see where that takes you. Even if all it does is make you comfortable making the arm movements for a start, that’s helpful. If, as with most people, you look at it and think ‘that looks like . . . ‘ or ‘that doesn’t look quite right . . . ‘–well, then, you’re already making editorial decisions that can help you move toward drawing the way you want to draw.
The bottom line, if you will, for me is that I feel more alert, more attuned to potential solutions when everyday problems arise, and generally just plain happier when I draw. It’s not because every drawing turns into something fabulous–far from it–but because the process of drawing opens up my brain and spirits in useful and unexpected ways. Many times, my drawing produces nothing more than scratches that are shorthand for bigger and more complex and, I hope, better things to come. But the exercise itself is valuable to me, and a glance back through my sketches can often kick-start me into drawing a work that is more successful than the twenty previous ones.
Ultimately, whether I’m in gear for serious drawing or just fiddling with a pen or pencil to pass the time, it’s good practice and feels worthwhile. If nothing else happens, at least I have given my brain some thinking-room between the lines and I might figure out what to make for supper, how to cut through the piece of metal that is in the way of my completing a repair in the garage, or who knows–I might even remember where I set down that book I was reading days ago before it ‘disappeared’. It’s doubtful I’ll come up with any Nobel Prize-worthy inspirations while drawing, but then again, if I don’t draw, I’ll never find out!
Of course I’m vain. I would love to be thought of as a great beauty. Not that many people on earth could probably say with full honesty that they wouldn’t like to be thought attractive and compelling and engaging in the slick social way, no matter how sincerely they live the principles of much deeper character. But, that confession aside, I can also say that I am not so exclusively vain that I mind having others be indifferent to, or even dislike, me. Let’s just be realistic enough to say that that would be beyond impossible.
So I really can’t have too many qualms about making fun of myself and exaggerating my own failings and shortcomings and even pasting on ones I don’t think I actually own, if it buys me any artistic pleasure. After all, there’s a bunch of fun to be had in clowning and playing characters and being someone or something new and weird and ridiculous. There are reasons we still have art and theatre and fiction all around us. It’s amusing to make the stuff and amusing to see what others have made.
I guess that makes me a cheap sort of witch or magician, maybe, when I’m making up my fictions in visual and verbal imagery. Kind of a fun vocation, when I get to play at it. Abracadabra, here I am for your amusement. Poof! Now it’s your turn.
There mightn’t be any reason to connect the hat known as the cloche with the bell for which it’s named, given the resemblance of their shapes. The similarity may end there. Unless you want to make a silly cheap pun and say that the hat kind of rings a bell for some reason.
More productive, probably, to just work on drawing curves by sketching a figure wearing a cloche and simply exaggerating the resemblance a little bit more by simplifying the shapes to an extreme. Whether it’s quite characteristic of my style of drawing or not, it might be that I tend to like drawing curvy forms just because the arm and hand action that creates them is comfortable and pleasing to me when I draw.
The long and the short of it is that practice may make me better at drawing, but it also makes me happy as an activity in itself and for its own sake, and drawing curved forms feels pleasant and encourages me to draw more. And that, if I’m in the mood to draw curved forms, why then, drawing a cloche hat is a handy way to get into the process.
Shallow, I know. What do you expect from a person who makes cheesy puns in public and draws in a particular style merely because it feels nice!
When I am making artworks I am the ruler of all I survey. I get to invent my reality and decide how much of it I want to reveal to you, and even (to a certain extent) how I want you to experience this particular reality. I do know that you will bring your own point of view and that my art, this Empress having invented it or not, will tell you a story that exists in its own unique way within your personal context.However, like all storytellers visual or otherwise, I still control how much I’m willing to reveal to you of the whole project in the end. Do I give you the ‘whole story’ or choose to share a scene, a snippet, and then let you extrapolate from that to decide what the storyline is in the image, not to mention all of the possible storylines extending beyond the image in every direction? I choose the window; you interpret what you see through it.
In the case of this drawing of a lady with her fat pony, I’d say that a cropped version of the picture gives plenty of information about both characters and their relationship but mercifully deletes some of the evidence of my horribly sloppy parody of equine physiology, something that’s far more painfully exposed in the larger version of the piece. Yes, there I go, showing you my ‘underwear’ again. But don’t you agree that the image is improved, its focus stronger and its flaws somewhat mitigated, by the cropping?
Ultimately, of course, I’m still Empress around here. I get to choose whether I’ll show you my process and share my behind-the-scenes action like this, let alone whether an image is finished or not, whether I’m going to use it for a post or not, and whether I’m going to tell a whole large story or a tiny bit of one. It’s good to be the Empress.
My beak’s a single fang I sink in artery or vein
And none suspect me of this drink but clinically insane
And paranoid-type fantasists whom no one else believes
When they accuse the pretty bird that flits in flowers and leaves.
Though tiny as a bumblebee, I may grow round and bloated;
The nectar of your heart is how I keep my Ruby-Throated
Good looks and family heritage (and, not the least, my name),
My shapely belly and my speed of flying fast as flame.
It’s not that I’m nefarious, invidious or rude,
But merely that I have a taste for human blood as food,
And do not fear: I’d never kill you outright when I dine—