Notes on notes

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Doing my homework for color theory class this week, I discovered I had made the sort of thing I had always admired. It’s a great feeling , to look at your own work, and say, “Hey, that’s how you do that!” and see that you just did. The thing I made was not just a watercolor of an orange – but a page with little swatches of color and handwritten notations that, as a composition, captured the process I went through in making the picture.

There’s a fair amount of carelessness in the whole thing which evokes the way I was working but there’s also a progression that shows how I was learning and experimenting.

This is the tip of the iceberg of what I am realizing is my aesthetic.

I have always been very drawn to notebooks and diaries and I see now that this is primarily because of the way they look. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Gerald Durrell and wanted to be a naturalist or a vet. I also loved drawing maps and making books. Perhaps that’s where this taste for logs and sketches and Latin names first began.

I remember going to an exhibition of diaries at the Morgan Library a few years ago and there was a huge book that contained a captain’s log, kept in the 18th century. The book was open to a spread that contained a painted map surrounded by spidery calligraphy. I could feel the voyage in those two pages, the creaking of the ship at night as the captain filled in his log and drew the map.

Field manuals kept by botanists and naturalists also have this palimpsest aesthetic; that’s part of why I love the work of Richard Bell, Roz Stendahl and Hannah Hinchman. Not just a report on nature but nature itself invading the report, smudges and fingerprints, taped-down specimens, random thoughts inspired by the moment, teeny gestural sketches surrounding a carefully rendered drawing. My old pal, Walton Ford, does this to a T, making enormous, spectacular watercolors that evoke 19th century explorers and are meticulously rendered. His work has put me to shame since we met at sixteen.

I am in full sympathy with Bill Gates for paying as much as he did for Leonardo’s Codex, not just because it contains the discoveries of one of the greatest minds to ever ride around on human shoulders but because of how beautiful it as, the sepia drawings, the mirror handwriting, the thick parchment pages.

When I was in college, I knew a rather crafty fellow named Brody Neuenschwander who was pursuing a course of independent study, hand grinding his on pigments and illuminating manuscripts. I’m not sure where such a major ultimately lead him, though he did do the calligraphy in a few Peter Greenaway movies, but what a wonderful way to spend your time.

I have always liked Peter Beard’s diaries; for a couple of years he had his work on display in SoHo and we went many times to look through his huge diaries, filled with photocollages and the phone numbers of his famous friends. I also love architects’ plans, those perfect sketches, wonderfully strange lettering, elevations and notes and marginalia. You can feel the ideas unfolding. And skritchy scratchy dip pens like the ones Ralph Steadman uses, spraying inkblots all over the words.

(I’ve never been that much of a fan of Nick Bancock’s work. I find his stories muddled but worse of all, it’s all artificial and seems like much of it was computer generated to simulate real letters and postmarks and the like).

I have a big collection of old diaries, ought at flea markets and on eBay and best of them, particularly the travelogues, have this layered, lived-in feelings that is wonderful. The same goes for collections of old letters, stacked and tied with faded ribbon.

Of course, computers threaten this aesthetic. Biologists and naturalists, explorers and cartographers use laptops now and everything is rendered on the web. Fat chance that there will be musty piles of old servers found behind cobwebs or that this blog will be enshrined in a dusty vitrine some day.

Thinking on paper

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My mum taught me to appreciate paper early. To riffle through blank journals and pinch the sheets between my finger pads. To consider pulp and fiber. To notice how a pen flows smoothly here while it bucks and protests there. Since, I’ve met and felt quite intensely about so many different papers.
French toilet paper – crisp, waxy, impractically nonabsorbent and harsh. Little Italy deli sandwiches wrapped in thick white paper, once, sliced in half, then wrapped again. In Pakistan, at nine, I cut my finger in class and the teacher bound it in green crepe paper, which, as I watched in horror, turned black with my blood.
Fibrous, mud colored hand towels in bus station bathrooms. Hand made papers in the flat files of Tallas, marbleized in Brazil — $80 a sheet. Small edition books with cream-colored papers printed with scarlet initial caps and black, debossed, letter set type. The lox-colored pages of the Financial Times. A dental bib with its little necklace of steel balls and alligator clips. Heavy vellum that takes soft lead like a dream, then smears posterity. Sculpted papers at the Dieu Donné paper mill, tectonic layers thick as egg cartons. Ridged passport pages. Anachronistic rolls of brown paper in the butcher shop. Stationary, too good to use.
Silk-screened banana leaves on pre-war wallpapers. Foot thick stacks of tissue paper on a store counter, enfolding plates, glasses, lingerie, soft as carnation petals. The dehumanizing feel of a paper-covered examination table sticking to my buttocks. Gridded, oily pages of a Chinese composition book. Toothpick thin strips of heavy stock for sampling essential oils at the perfumery. Distant newspapers packed with an ebay purchase, stale with old cigarette smoke.
My grandmother at her desk, shredding old accounts payable into confetti with her aluminum ruler. The savage shock of a paper cut. Bond. Hot pressed bond. The sinful indulgence of any paper over 300 lbs. Architects’ amber tracing paper ripped from rolls screwed to the drafting table, soon spidery with the lines of 6H mechanical lead and Rapidograph ink. Drawing on paper restaurant tablecloths with a roller ball pen. Collecting shirt cardboard. Foreign bank notes. Ancient craftsmen in folded newspaper hats. The heady smell of musty, rare books.
Paper balls lurking in the toes of new shoes. Kids’ papier maché over withering balloons. The lottery tickets, fractioned over and again, in the Treasure of Sierra Madre. Fish and chips in a vinegary newsprint cone. The grimness of motel glasses wrapped and sanitized for my protection. The surefire excitement of florist paper, encircling roses. Ripping open a fresh 8 1/2 by 11 brick to feed the printer. The corpse of a forgotten note to self, transformed and illegible in the pocket of freshly laundered jeans.
The trembling promise and snowy expanse of a virgin journal.

The Open Book

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I am a member of a wonderful community called “Artist Journals 2” which is currently conducting a discussion on whether or not one should share the contents of one’s illustrated journals with others.
I had to chime in:
I’m a journal keeper who feels okay about sharing (most of) his journals with other people. In reading other posts I get the sense that there are two key reasons why people are reluctant to share what they make in private: a) violating their sense of privacy and b) embarrassment at their more humble efforts.
My own journals have never struck me as terribly private. True, I talk about the daily aspects of my life but frankly they are no more intimate than the things I share in small talk with the people with which I work. For me, my journal is not a confessional but an historian in the best sense of the word, someone who not only records the facts but develops themes and meaning that weave them together, explicating my life and showing me what’s important, lending deeper value to the things too easy to take for granted. Generally, I find that these themes and lessons are universal and by sharing them I get a chance for a sounding board.
I am a reserved and private person by nature so perhaps my journals are a way to let it out. But I am always amazed at how much people will share with others. Even in the posts on this group among a group of relative strangers, we have little hesitation to talk about our health, our relationships, our fears and anxieties. This is a group in which we have all been granted (albeit loosely) a membership so perhaps that’s why we feel we have this freedom. Still, I feel the same sense of connection with the people with whom I share my journals. Granted, that membership now extends pretty broadly because my journals have been published, but I still assume a certain kinship among the people who bother to read it, a kinship of the soul.
As to embarrassment at my experimentations —I’d rather not share lame drawings, failed experiments and inattention but that doesn’t prevent me from sharing my unedited pages. I find that by having a sense that what I am making will be seen by someone, sometime, I am actually driven to take more care with what I am doing, to polish my words and drawings and make sure my observations ring true. As to really experimental things, pen wipes, color combinations, etc. well, I usually do those on a piece of scrap paper and chuck em out. They would be meaningless to me in a few hours anyway. The one really solid reason to not share your journal is because, frankly, most people don’t care. They’re not interested in what you had for breakfast, whether it’s raining, how the cat is, whether your hair’s turning gray. Most people are interested only in themselves. Even if you cram your book with intimate revelations, chances are most readers will flip through, say, “Very nice” and hand it back to you, None of us is that important! But I find sharing is an enriching experience. It connects me to others and makes me see how universal my concerns and experiences are. It drives me to make my pages less sloppy, my writing more terse. It is a gift of myself which often leads to wonderful conversations and gifts of all sorts on return.
Diaries with locks on them are things of girlhood. Open your life, I say. Be brave and share yourself.

Belongings

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Maybe it was going to the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim but I’ve been feeling sort of sick of materialism. Everything we encounter, it seems, is in some insidious way aimed at making us burn to buy something, anything (and, yes, I’ve spent twenty years in the belly of the advertising beast, stoking that flame). Even at the Rosenquist show, where the art is all about the decadence of commercialism, the giftstore has all sorts of Rosenquist books and fridge magnets and coffee mugs.
Anyway, I feel like I own too much and appreciate it too little. So I am going to try to get more out of what I have and scale back, if possible. I even cut out my planned trip to the art store this afternoon. We’ll see how long this resolution sticks.
I like the idea of a journal diet. Draw everything you own. Everything. Every single book, every stick of butter and shoelace. Now that would be a humbling experience. Or just draw everything you eat for a week. You’ll be thinner, calmer and happier.
Speaking of calmness, I continue to wrestle with my new server, but the break at the Guggenheim was refreshing and inspiring.

Making book

A few people have asked me what sort of books I make my journals in, so here’s the short answer:
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I bound all the books in this group. It’s not as hard as I first thought and let me choose the paper, size and shape I wanted They are not terribly long so I can have the thrill of a new volume and the book itself won’t get too dinged up from being toted around everywhere. #1 is in linen with a slipcase, #6 has a foil stamp I did with a die I designed, #7 was a travel journal for a trip to Death Valley.
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After I left a journal on a plane and never got it back, I lost the heart to bind books #8 & 10 but I will some day. #11 is an old boy’s adventure novel that I refilled with watercolor paper and is a big fat journal with no writing in it at all, just drawings and watercolors. #12 is full of drawings of New York I did for #13 which was an edition (1/1) of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince I did for Patti’s birthday. #14 is another rebound book.
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These are all Moleskines, the small kind with drawing paper. #20 has an inlaid initial made of multicolored chicken shells that my friend Quentin Webb made for me. I dedicated it entirely to self portraits.
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I had gone away from drawings for a while and did a lot of digital photos and mini-polaroids so I made this all black#22. #23 is a larger Moleskine I kept on a retreat from NY after 9/11. The books I favor these days are very rough and simple and bound for me by my sister, Miranda, who is a printer. #25 is my greatest hits album and with a few mouse clicks and just $10.47 can be on your own shelf in days.
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These are various and sundry books. #28 was the journal I kept when Patti was pregnant and which is the basis for a new book I wrote last summer, #29 is the travel journal we kept on our New York vacation, #30 is from a trip to Bermuda and #31 is a pile of the books I use just for writing in and are far more self-indulgent and whiney than even the things you’ve seen so far on this site.

God — looking at them all arrayed like this instead of shoved in their cupboards makes me seem enormously self-involved, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic and horrible.

Helluva Town

nyjournal1A few years ago, we decided to take a vacation in New York. Yes, we live in New York but we’ve never been tourists here. So we went to the Whitney biennial and the Cooper Hewitt triennial, the Museum of Natural History, a Woody Guthrie show at the Museum of NYC, the Queens museum, the Hall of Science, the Bronx Zoo. We went to the top of the Empire State building and the Easter parade and heard music and ate in touristy restaurants.

What made it really special is that we kept a family travel journal. We recorded everywhere we went and how we felt about it. We took pictures and did drawings, we drew maps and made collages of souvenir stuff. The most avid journal-keeper was Jack and he was just five.
I’d like to write some more about travel journals in the future because I think they not only record your journey, they help to define it as you’re doing it.
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