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Archive for the ‘graphic art’ Category


Let me say right off that this blog post has nothing whatsoever to do with clothes, or the small rooms in which the tidiest of us keep them. It’s about work–my work, to be precise. I’m a designer, a writer, an illustrator, and a teacher. In most of those arenas, my job entails working to others’ specifications–making other people’s dreams come true. In some cases my clients know exactly what they want, and they just want my hands and computer skills. In others, though, my job is less giving my client what they think they want than it is showing them all the things they might want if they knew those things existed.

In short, I am paid to Think Outside the Box, to Dream Up Amazing Things, to show my clients things they don’t want so they can have a better idea of what they DO want. I am paid to take risks, to court certain rejection not occasionally but every single frigging day.

And I’m okay with that. Really I am. I understand that when I walk into a client meeting I will walk out of there with (if I”m lucky) two of my three dynamite ideas rejected out of hand–and it will probably be my favorite two. I understand that I am working in pursuit of another’s dream, creating another’s vision. That’s my job. I’m used to it. I know the dangers of falling too deeply in love with a concept–any concept. It’s likely going to get shot down–and the more I fall in love with it, the more likely the idea’s quick death on the boardroom floor is.

And yet sometimes it still happens. I go to the initial client meeting. I listen to their thoughts and ideas. I take notes. And then, at some point in the process, I am struck by lightning. I know–I just know–that I’ve got pure gold in my concepts. I hurry to the next client meeting on eager feet, clutching my concepts in my sweaty hands (not really–sweat is hell on comps, and these days it’s all about email and pdfs in my world, but you get the idea).

I present my work. And my clients look at each other out of the corners of their eyes and I know that, like Michael Bolten, I have perhaps been watching too much of the wrong thing. I have allowed myself to dream the big dreams, rather than the necessary ones, that my comps reflect me more than they reflect what my clients wish to say about themselves. There I am, singing in a rich, ringing voice of being Jack Sparrow on Tortuga, Forrest Gump on the bus bench, Scarface, Erin Brokovich, when what my clients want is a nice, tight little addition to their edgy little rap.

And so I put away my braids and beads, the crashing ocean and the blue, blue sky, my deskful of cocaine, and God-help-me my Erin Brokovich suit, and I re-set my sights on crafting a nice, tight little addition to their edgy little rap, because I am a professional, and i truly do know that my job is creating art and designs that will help my clients reach their dreams and goals. It’s not about me. Some days, I am a gun for hire.

But this video is for the other days, the days when I stride into meetings with a concept that goes giving my clients what they think they want, and shows them the world they might have instead. Sometimes they want it. Sometimes they don’t.

And this video captures that experience perfectly–so perfectly, in fact, that I suspect Michael Bolton may have spent some time as a designer. So for all those people who have ever wondered how a designer feels in a concept meeting–and for every designer who has ever been there–this video is for you. Play it proudly.

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When I was a sweet young thing I worked in a design studio with three nice men. As the New Kid, I inherited the job of picking up second lines when first lines were engaged, and functioning as Person B on big projects. One day I was working on a couple of my own projects and serving as Person B to just about everybody else. Those were the days of slow processors, and we had an extra workstation, so I had opened up projects on two computers. I’d give a command on one, and then go give a command on the other while I waited for the first computer to finish processing. In between I was returning phone calls, sending faxes, printing proofs, and building a “comp” over on the drafting table.

I didn’t think anything about it until one of my office mates started to laugh. “I can’t even answer the phone when I’m working on something,” he said. “And you’ve got every machine and the drafting table going down there.” A discussion ensued among the three men about a PBS show someone had watched about how women are better at multi-tasking than men are, but I don’t remember details; I went back to circulating through the computer, computer, phone, fax, drafting table, computer, computer.

I’m not sure that the ability to multi-task is gender-linked. I know it’s something I do well, and I know that when I’m doing it I tend to focus more intently on the jobs in sequence than I do on a single job, done separately. There’s something about bouncing between different types of tasks that seems to keep my gain more closely engaged for longer periods of time.

Now that it’s just me in the doghouse, I find myself using multi-tasking not only as a tool to get client work done, but to advance my own writing and design projects. I can only edit effectively for a couple hours at a time. Then I stop editing and go draw something. When I get a few sketches polished I put them aside and paint, or do creative writing. Each task seems to take a different sort of energy–and in some cases doing a different kind of task not only allows my batteries to recharge, but actually seems to help the process along.

For instance, in the time I devote to my own work each day I’m working on three books right now. I’m proofing Benchmarks, the memoir about single mothering that I’ve talked about here before. I’m also editing and typesetting a collection of short stories that grew out of some past-life regression exercises I did. And I’m writing on a YA book about a girl who discovers that her alter ego is all too real.

The mixture of projects not only helps me keep each of them moving ahead, but also energizes me for my “real” work–the design and illustration work I do to pay our bills. So here’s the thing: instead of waiting for time to work on the projects you love, try getting them out and working on them a few lines, a few stitches, a few paint strokes, at a time, as you’re passing by doing other things. It’s a great way to ensure that your personal goals, the ones that feed your soul, keep on track right along with the goals you meet on behalf of others.

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It’s summer, and to escape the heat I’m taking Patrick, his friend Jerry, and Jerry’s cousin Jeremy to the movies. Patrick and Jerry have just finished fourth grade; Jeremy is a couple years older. We’re driving through shimmering heat waves and I’m giving thanks for the A/C when Jerry suddenly breaks off his end of a conversation extolling the virtues of baseball to ask, “So how do you write stories?”

I am a little surprised. Jerry struggles in school, and as far as I know hasn’t voluntarily picked up a book on a subject other than sports in living memory. My years of experience driving boys around has made me fast with an answer, though, so I say, “You start with a question, or with a person, or an event. And then you start to ask questions about it.”

“Like what?” asks Jeremy. This is our first time with Jeremy in the car, so he’s largely an unknown quantity.

I’m drawing a blank, so I throw the question back over the seat. “Okay. You want to tell a story. Should it be about a man, or a woman, a boy or a girl?”

“A man,” somebody says.

“All right. Where does he live?’

“France,” Jerry says.

I am a bit taken aback. France seems a very long way from our little town. Still, though, it’s their story. “Okay,” I agree. “What does he do? What’s his job?”

“He has a cart,” the boys decide.

“What’s would a man in France sell off a cart?”

After a brief discussion they decide on coffee and croissants. I wonder where they’re getting their information, but I am too intrigued by the process to ask.

“Is he good at it?” I ask.

“No,” they decide.

“Why not?”

“He keeps giving the stuff away.”

“Why?”

“His town’s poor.”

And so it goes, all the way home. We pull thread after thread, answering question after question, rapidfire. Within fifteen minutes the boys have outlined the “Cloud Writer.”

Back home, I am looking forward to putting my feet up and enjoying a cool drink. Nothing doing.

“What’s next?” asks Jerry.

“Well, next you’d start writing it down.”

Jerry’s face drops.

“Or you can start making pictures for it,” I finish, taking pity on him.

“Okay!” he says. “Do you have any paper?”

I get out some drawing paper and pencils and the boys sprawl on the living room floor. I boot up my computer and type the story into Word as fast as I can.

The afternoon turns to other things, games for them, work on one of my own books for me. But Jerry doesn’t forget. He’s a regular at our house that summer. Every visit begins with the same question: “How’s the book coming?”

Not well. I’ve become absorbed in other things. Patrick enjoyed the writing part of it, and liked getting to edit me, but art is not his forte in those years. And Jerry is more a sportsman than a man of letters. “Cloud Writer” languishes.

For one thing, I can’t think of the right setting for it. The story’s set in France, but other than what I learned in my history and art classes and a biography of Joan of Arc I read in third grade I know nothing about France. Paris is wrong for our coffee and croissant seller. It’s too big, too urban. It doesn’t have enough mysterious shadowy corners from which men in black hats and capes and bearing magic sketch pads can slither.

And then I happen upon a novel set in the Langue d’Oc section of France, in the years when the Cathars were just about to find themselves crosswise of the King of France, and his very own Crusade. The story catches my interest, and, as is my custom, I start googling place names. And that’s how I find Carcassonne, an old city surrounded by wheat fields and full of fantastical architecture, sunlit walls, boulangeries, tourists, and enough shadowy corners to delight the heart of the most mysterious stranger in the blackest cloak.

Finally, I can see the story. What’s more, I have a history and culture for the little coffee seller. The story includes passing references to Cathar priests–the parfaits. In our story, the parfaits are still present in the city. In reality, they were slaughtered a thousand years ago. The agrarian culture is there, front and center, in the failure of the crops, and the destruction of the economy. The tourists who really do flock to Carcassonne, Mont Segur–another Cathar stronghold–and Rennes le Chateau, are some of our coffee sellers’ most important customers.

Understanding the “where” of the story makes all the difference; this coffee seller isn’t some slick Parisian street vendor; he’s a simple man in a rusty black suit and a white apron, born and bred in his city, known to all, and known by all. He’s small town, small time. He’s a good man–and therein lies the key to the plot.

Jerry’s moved away. Jeremy is in high school. But at long last, I can finish their story. And it makes me glad. What those boys started  on the way home from the movies was good. If you read yesterday’s post, you have an idea HOW good.

In the end, “Cloud Writer” is a story about our dreams, and how they shape, and are shaped by, our reality. Now if I can only get the illustrations done…

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A couple days ago I posted a larger copy of this picture, and promised I’d explain it in the near future. I used to do something similar with another painting I did. It was a lovely painting of Holsteins in a Gothic cathedral, and when I asked my students what they thought it meant just about anything might come back. Some were very troubled by what they saw as sacrilege–cows? in church? What could I have been thinking? To them, the picture was blasphemous, a fist in the eye of all they held holiest.

Others saw it as a commentary on religion. To them, the cows meant placidly accepting the message offered, chewing it over…and over…and over…like a cud. To them, the picture was social commentary on the failed spirituality in our religious institutions.

Which group was right? Neither. And both. Here’s how that picture happened: I was driving a forage harvest truck for my dad one summer. We were harvesting for a dairy. It was a slow, slow process that day, and I had a lot of time between picking up loads. I found myself looking into the barn where the cows lived between milkings.

This barn had skylights–something I haven’t seen in many barns–and the early afternoon sun slanted down in rays, illuminating the black and white Holsteins in a gentle golden glow. I found myself thinking of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and the Nativity paintings of the Renaissance, with their classical settings, rich, warm colors, and soft, deep shadows.

Suddenly the barn wasn’t just a barn: I saw the high roofs, the open beams, and the struts and bracing overlaid with the arches and buttresses of classical and Gothic architecture. I saw the cows as organic shapes, contrasting with the visual logic of the simple, sunlit barn interior. I grabbed my notebook and a pencil, swung down out of my truck, and ventured into the alley between the twin mangers.

I gathered up some of the sweet-smelling hay, mounded it up into a seat in one of the mangers, and started to sketch the beams and rafters. Because I was concentrating, it took me a while to realize that something was breathing on the back of my neck. Actually, it took a large, slimy drop of saliva. I jumped and turned around–and there behind me was a crowd of cows, peering over my shoulder, watching me draw.

I had never seen cows at such an angle before–from below, and just in front. As I looked, one of the cows took another step forward, stretched her nose out, and sniffed. I reached through the fence. The cows stepped back. I pulled my hand back, turned back around, and went back to drawing. But this time I drew the cows across the way.

A warm, moist puff of air alerted me to my audience again. I turned, slowly, this time, and found myself eye to eye with several cows. And I began to look–really, really look, there in that quiet barn. The cows looked back. I started to sketch, quick little thumbnails of cows from a point of view new to me–nearly under the animals, but at peace, all of us mildly interested in each other. I sketched legs, feet, noses, eyes, eyelashes, the high arching curves of eyelids, ears, udders, bellies. Eventually I heard a horn blow out in the field, gathered up my pencil and paper, and stood slowly. The cows stepped back. The spell was broken. Life went on.

Two years later, in the midst of a Chicago winter, I found myself remembering that warm, placid afternoon, the gentleness of the moment, the golden, glowing tranquility, and I wanted to capture that. Conveying a feeling like that is not easy; I found myself resorting to the symbolic body the cows had first reminded me of–Renaissance Nativity paintings.

I began borrowing from religious imagery, creating an environment for my cows. And then I created the cows themselves, drawing in their peaceful, gentle eyes, their long sweeping lashes, their delicate ankles, their jaunty registration tags and bands.

I was seeking to capture a peaceful summer afternoon, but somehow a lot of other things got into that painting. My ambivalence about organized religion and the almost mystical connection I felt with some kinds of animals made their way into that painting through the symbols I chose. I hadn’t intended to paint about those things; but I ended up painting about them, anyway. The language of symbolism is like that–and in the end, the most important message is not what the writer or artist intended, but what the reader or viewer perceives. And that’s out of my control.

I can’t tell you what this picture should mean to you; that depends on how you read the symbols. What I can tell you is what I was thinking.

I was thinking about my family, how its public image survived by isolating its members both from each other and from the larger world, and how our religious practice factored into that. I pulled images from traditional art and illustrations, and put them together into something new. If you’re familiar with those things, you’ll recognize most of these elements. Many of them come from conventional religous paintings. But in this context, they take on a whole new meaning–and that meaning is determined both by the painting, and by what you see in it.

There’s just one last thing I’d like to tell you about this painting. I started it when I was in the midst of discovering the truth about my family history, and how child molestation, secrecy, and religion combined to create an incredibly destructive force. In my need to come to grips with my life I created a whole series of sketches. This was one of them.

But they hurt too much; I packed them away and got on with the business of survival. And then, years later, I found them again. I looked at the sketches. “I can do something amazing with these, now,” I thought. Before, all I could see was the pain in them, and it had swamped me. Now, I set to work not on re-drawing them–the whole series has survived intact in terms of symbolism, figures, and colors–but on teasing out the beauty in them. I was painting my pain, but doing it with the intention of finding beauty in it.

The result is a series of pictures that are at once lovely and troubling. I love the colors, shapes, and patterns in “Blest Be The Ties”–and I find the children, isolated on their sheer wall, trapped in their best clothes, heartbreaking. I find the dancing figures at the top infuriating–and lovely. I find the angel puzzling. And that’s the power of symbols. It’s impossible to reduce them to a one to one correspondence; what the painter paints may not be what she intends to paint, and what the viewer sees may be something else altogether. The meaning can only be a shifting, evolving thing that painter, society, and viewer create among them.

So what do you see? And what does that say about me–and about you?

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