Toast master.

toast closeup
I can smell the toast so deeply I can taste it. Not like “I want that so badly, I can taste it” but literally, like the atoms of carbonated bread have drifted through the air, into my nostrils, and pachinkoed down to the floor of my tongue where my taste buds are “Holy cow”ing about the yeasty taste of freshly toasted Italian bread. I have not been eating bread for a while, because I am middle aged and paunchy and this seems likes a smallish sacrifice to make in order to hold on to my boyish charm. I’m not completely convinced this is working, and perhaps I need a chemical peel, some Spanx and a toupee to really push back the years where they belong. Perhaps, but for now, I am just skipping toast.

I didn’t make this toast to eat, but to draw. It’s cooling and hardening and I can quite effectively tell myself that it will taste like cardboard and I should put the smell out of my mind.

I uncap my rollerball, bend back the covers of my sketchbook, look at the toast hard for a minute and then pick a spot to start. It’s in the upper left, my usual point of embarkation. I pick a corresponding point on the page and make my first mark. I move slowly and confidently at first, my eyes mainly snapped to edge of the toast, like a zipper. I slide along, heading right, enjoying a ziggedy path full of toasty landmarks. This is the easy bit; there’re lots of anchor points to reassure me that my line is correct. Then I hit a smooth part, an unbroken stretch, and my confidence wavers. I can deal with this  — I pause to measure the length of this flat bit, then backtrack, calibrating the distance traveled, and finding where that distance led me on the path so far. I locate a landmark on the edge of the toast, find its mirror on the drawing, then measure the corresponding distance. Now the flat path isn’t a mystery any more. I can say with certainty how long it is. I fire up my pen again and head down the road. Eventually I have circumnavigated the whole slice and am back in the upper left. On my page is a lopsided rectangle that seems to perfectly map the outer edge of the toast, all its harbors and lengths of coast navigated and known.

Now to bivouac then head inland. I look at the tiny holes that nestle against the crust. A freckle mass of pinholes where hot air escaped from the dough and pushed its way to the surface. I count six in a lopsided star configuration and copy them onto my page. Then I slide a wee bit to the left till I get to the next topographic event, a twig-shaped indentation, that goes down a fraction of the inch. I imagine myself roped up like a miniature spelunker and lowering down that crevasse. I note the footholes on the way down and copy them down in ink. I walk along the bottom of the cave, then spring back to the surface. I move on down to the next gathering of crumbs.
I continue across the toast like this for awhile, recording every indentation and protrusion, my drawing filling up with speckle and dashes.

Then I pause to survey the whole, rising up into the clouds above the island to see what I have wrought. I look around, take my bearings and suddenly feel queasy. The edge that I have been charting does not correspond with what’s on my page. I have been moving too quickly perhaps. Or maybe too slowly. I immediately feel regret, another drawing poorly observed, despite my pledge to be consistent and slow, to check every inch. The little horn that protrudes above the crescent cleft in my drawing is actually a half inch further along on the actual edge of the toast. I have jammed too much information and now my drawing is inaccurate. One mistake and everything that follows it dominoes further off the cliff. One slip-up and everything connected to it is off by more and more. Disgusted with myself, I hop across the toast and resolve to come at it from the opposite direction, hoping to deliberately distort the journey back in such a way that I will meet up in the right places, two wrongs making a right.

I head south and realize that the toast is far narrower than my drawing. My disgust deepens. Perhaps this is a lost cause. Perhaps it will work as an incomplete drawing and I should just quit now. Perhaps I should just eat the toast.

But then, the clouds break. I realize that I have forgotten how much room the thickness of the bread takes up. What I thought was the inner edge of the top was actually included the crust as well. I thought I was in South Texas but I am barely in Oklahoma. I am okay. I carry on.

I come across a large hole, the biggest one, a veritable dry lake that almost goes clear through to the other side. How do I deal with its shadows? I don’t want to cross hatch or simulate the lighting in any way. If I do, I will no longer be mapping and the tiny details will get lost in a wilderness of lines, lines that don’t describe actual observations but instead pretend to be light and dark. I only want to mark lines where there are lines. It’s a rule I set for myself early on in the trip.

So just look for more and more detail in the shadows. I indicate darkness not with the artificiality of hatching but by drawing more complex details in some areas and less where the light is stronger. Details create a sense of volume without pretending to be darkness.

I pull back up to a 50,000 foot view again. I see an area that looks more sparsely populated and head back down to see what I have missed. Another area also lie bald and patchy but i decide to leave it incomplete for the sake of contrast. If you add every detail, you end up with an undifferentiated mass. Pauses here and there to add the contrast that makes for drama and interest. The viewer’s brain fills in the missing details, staying engaged. Less work for me.

I darkening the lowest edge. It’s a conceit and rules violation because I vowed not to indicate shadows, but the drawing needs it, simulating a third dimension and lifting the toast off the page. Rules are meant to be broken, just so long as you acknowledge you know they are there.

The toast is utterly cold and dead now, the smell long dissipated. And so is my need to draw. I recap my pen, flip the book closed and wander back to the kitchen to see if there’s any celery in the fridge.

You talkin’ to me?

 

IMG_1831

I’ve always talked to myself. When I was little, I would narrate my doings, describing the astonishing thing I was building with Lego, the culmination of a stellar building career, summarized in grandiose terms by a plummy narrator, like a BBC biographical documentary.

As big, batty person, I talk to myself in the shower a lot, singing, using accents, getting louder and louder, repeating phrases I like just to feel them roll off my tongue and into the tub. Usually someone else in the house knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay.

I talk to myself when I make dinner, pretending I am hosting a cooking show, explaining how to properly julienne.

I talk to myself, less loudly, when I walk, immediately clamming up if someone passes by. Or sometimes I’l wear headphones just so it seems I’m just on the phone.

I dunno, I like to hear my voice in my head, and I like the idea of saying silly nothings that could amuse only me. Those I live with sometimes get irritated by my chipperness. They aren’t morning people. Or morning dogs. No problem, I’ll talk to the sparrrows.

Sometimes drawing is like talking to myself, especially when I am drawing from my imagination. A couple of days ago, I listened to the radio and filled a page of typing paper with hippos, some buck toothed, some with trotters, a giraffe or two, a crocodile in ballet shoes. They spoke to me.

I like it, it passes the time, it is not for anyone but me. But I like to listen to whatever it is in me that wants to say hi.

Kiss all frogs.

Scan 18

When I was running a creative department a few years ago, I decided to make a film about creativity at the agency. Not about my department, but about people in accounting, account services, production, catering, media, and human resources. When I first put out the request for people to tell me about their creativity, the silence was deafening. Wasn’t that the job of my people?  But I insisted, and soon uncovered lots of examples of hidden creativity.  People who never saw fit to mention it in the office, went home and cooked incredible pastries, played the banjo, wrote sci-fi stories, won prizes for their roses, build radio-controlled helicopters, were in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The film was a smash and it opened all of our eyes. By removing labels, we discovered the hidden assets in our company. And we started using those assets in new ways, inviting new people to brainstorming sessions, giving them problem-solving assignments, asking them to help us crack the tougher nuts. Soon the whole agency was a creative resource. Instead of a few dozen people in my department, I could call on the whole staff.
We just don’t know where answers will come from. And when we insist on judging situations prematurely, we limit ourselves and our potential. Instead, we need to open up and stow the labels.
Invention doesn’t land neatly. We have ideas and don’t know where they go or what their purpose is yet. We need to honor those ideas — especially if they seem like mistakes.
For example, misconceptions are a sort of mistake that can lead to innovation. You mishear the assignment, you misread the brief, you misunderstand the problem, and 1+1 don’t make anything coherent.  Because the puzzle won’t snap neatly together, you really scrutinize the pieces. You come up with all sorts of explanations for this perplexing situation. You dream up new theories, new explanations for how things work.  Maybe you get a new tool and you toss away the instructions unread. You find a box of paints you’d forgotten about in the back of the cupboard and discover they don’t mix like they should. You visit a new country and can’t understand how they can eat what they do.
Most of these musings lead nowhere — after all, they’re built on a foundation of error.  But some of them, maybe just one, pivot your thinking, open your eyes to a whole new perspective. Your imagination struggles, flails and then comes up with a link no one has ever seen before. If the pieces fit too neatly, you’d be stuck doing the same old same old.
Sometimes knowing too much means not having room for the answer. Out of the mouths of babes (of all ages and all departments) come surprising insights, based not on experience, but on a fresh point of view.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t shun your mistakes. Don’t burn bridges.
Our wastepaper baskets contain the seeds of revelations and brighter tomorrows.

P.S. Happy 616, PL.

Master of None.

Scan 7

I have always been a dabbler. I have tried so many things, thrilled at the initial excitement of learning a new skill.
Here’s a partial list.
In high school, I learned the basics of how to write computer programs in BASIC. I sort of learned to solder electrical circuits, to make picture frames, to throw pots, to weave, to make silver jewelry and cloisonné.  I formed a Marx and Engels study circle after school. I learned the rudiments of playing the banjo, the piano, the saxophone, the harmonica, the electric guitar and the vibes. I acted in plays and directed them too.
In my twenties, I learned about cooking, photography, carpentry, and construction.
In my thirties, I learned to bind books, to screen print, to ballroom dance, to lift weights, to edit film, to design books, to get around a golf course, and to change diapers.
In my forties, I learned to watercolor, to use a dip pen, to podcast, to properly pack a suitcase, to write in HTML, to use a DSLR, and to make ice cream.
So far in my fifties, I have dabbled in barbecuing, painting in acrylics, gardening, entrepreneurialism, and driving properly.

Despite all this dabbling, I am not especially good at any of these things. I am not an expert, not even particularly skilled. (I can sound like I am which can be useful to dinner parties, allowing me to find common interest with almost anyone, except rabid hockey fans.) And yet there is still an enormous attraction to me in learning something new, in going to YouTube to research instructional videos, in buying specialized equipment, in delighting at those first glimmers of ability.
Some of the skills I have tried to pick up seem like they could transform my life. Many just seem interesting. And many turn out to be a lot harder than I thought, frustrating me until I throw down my banjo in disgust, and wander away, beating myself up at another failure.
But I don’t regret being a dilettante. I think far-ranging curiosity is key to a creative mind. Though recently, I’ve wondered if I need to cool it and stay on track. Time seems to be finite and it’s better to refine what I know.
But then again, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at lithography. And boxing. And After Effects, Oh, and the ukelele. Yeah, the ukelele.

The Club

Scan 20

Over decaf, a friend told me of the time her teacher inherited a country club . Acre upon acre of sprawling grounds, putting greens, tennis courts, bungalows, a pool. Each August, he closed the club for a month, hung a chain across the drive, and filled it with artists, his students. He flew in models from New York and all day long they drew. At night they spread their work across the ballroom and he picked through the field of paper, a cassowary in a stained polo shirt, diving into the pile to pluck out a sheet of newsprint here, a watercolor there. As they sat cross-legged, smoking and paring the paint from their cuticles, he would weave a long twisting narrative that connected the works, a story of art and struggle and life.
This magical month of sunshine and charcoal and stories fueled the students through the year of ordinary living, until they could return the next summer to sip bottled beer on the club porch and pass around their sketchbooks once more.
I felt my cheeks grow hollow as I listened to this story from another era, a time of commitment and freedom I will never know. To live art so utterly, to learn without end, to share, to be young, to be led, to experience the drawing life as a mighty oak to add ring after ring to, never completed, always stretching and growing and failing and learning. Not a hobby or a vocation but a 24-hour life without end.
The story made me feel old and spent, standing on an empty train platform in the rain. Yearning for youth and ink and sunshine and possibility. Till deep in my head, a voice, a boy’s voice, said the sun was still shining and the day was still long.