Ah, Autumn! The days start to cool, the nights get a little longer, and around here the ink gets flowing. I have traditionally taken on Inktober every year; that’s annual October challenge to illustrate and ink one drawing everyday, responding to prompts. I admit, I’ve had a mixed experience with Inktober over the years; some years have been more successful than others, some years I feel inspired and invigorated, other years are a little bit more of let’s say a struggle. The practice is always incredibly valuable in helping me build skill and maintain habits.
This year, I’m branching away from the office Inktober TM prompts and taking on #spellstober22, a list made by Australian artist, Spells (or, Liz, according to their Tumblr). I saw a friend of mine post this list on her Instagram page, and these prompts really got me excited, so I decided (against my better judgement of what my daily schedule can actually handle) to take on Inktober Spellstober this year!
I’m really loving my illustrations so far. The list is so well crafted, that I’m starting to see a story emerge from just the images. Characters with lives and a world they inhabit with dramas and intrigue.
I’ll post my images up on Instagram first, and then eventually update them here on the homepage all through October, and then they’ll live on this post for the rest of ever.
Often there’s one way to define Art that most folks can agree with: visual art, movement, poetry, music, installation, experience, culinary, film… All are ways for an artist to express their own perspectives, feelings or a statement and that others can connect to or perhaps create their own understanding by experiencing. Art is the communication between humans that works on our thoughts, emotions and physical reactions to connect us through creative means.
But what about craft? Can craft express the same way as Art? What’s the difference between craft and Art to begin with?
For Pride month this year, I made an art kit for a local youth library with celebratory embroidery and cross stitch crafts. It was so fun to create patterns and make little pride patches, plus coloring stickers, which are a big thing around here! I also did some research into the history of craft, starting from the concept of “craftivism” and I quickly learned that crafting has a long woven history with political messaging, resistance, resilience and social protest.
What is craft, and how is it different from Art?
Craft and Art are two sides of an art historical debate that has waged for at least the past 150 years, and probably much longer. Both Art and craft are creative practices in special skills that may imply talent and require dedicated practice to develop. The distinction is arguable, really, and is traditionally drawn along lines of use. Works of craft are made with creativity, but with utility— how the crafted object will be used– at the primary center of the object’s function. Works of Fine Arts are made with creativity, asethetics and message as the primary focus of the work. Fine Arts are things like painting, sculpture, collage, music, dance, poetry, culinary arts and we may find ourselves or our art history professors asking us “What is the artist trying to say with this work of art?” We rarely, if ever, aks the question of intent with crafts– things like woodworking, fiber arts, architecture, and foods like baking or beer; the intent of crafted objects seems obvious: to be used or consumed.
This distinction of use-focused v. aesthetics-focus has historically implied hierarchy, generally with the Fine Arts being more prestigious and important than craft. The Fine Arts are also historically much more white male-dominated and public – meant to be SEEN and experienced by the masses, whereas crafts have been thought of as feminine and including works that don’t require as much skill and are therefore underdeveloped, as well as domestic and personal.
In the late 19th Century, in response to industrialization and mechanization of production, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States and Europe, was lead by artists such as William Morris and John Ruskin, who sought to elevate the practice of designing and creating by hand to the level of Fine Arts. Ruskin and Morris idealized careful craftsmanship and high skill in the making of commonly used objects. The Arts and Crafts movement was overall a multifaceted ideological comment and in some cases rejection of industrialization, and in others a condemnation not of the use of machines, but rather the treatment of workers in factories to mass produce objects for use and disposal. The Arts and Crafts movement produced amazing works and academic study of architecture, furniture, and decorative arts like embroidery, but ultimately failed to “elevate” craft to the level of Fine Arts. Because Arts and crafts are different in important ways.
The British art historian Rozsika Parker writes about the shared history of embroidery and femininity in her book, The Subversive Stitch. In it, she describes works of craft as personal expressions. As crafts like fiber arts were largely handled by women starting in the Victorian era, they became expressions of women’s daily lives in that context: caring for families and domestic concerns. Women were largely excluded from political and public action and so their works were also excluded from commentary on social systems at large, unlike the male-dominated Fine Arts. And it’s because of this exclusion and distinction that craft has a valuable role in subversion and resistance of those systems. Groups like the British Suffragists and the youth counterculture of the 1960’s both used craft, particularly embroidery to make statements against the hegemonic patriarchal systems they struggled against. “[E]mbroidery showed that the personal was the political – that personal and domestic life is as much the product of the institutions and ideologies of our society as is public life.” (Parker, 205)
Parker’s book was published in the mid-1980’s, and she was looking back on the new Women’s Lib movement of the 1970’s, focusing specifically on the experiences of white heteronormative women. Beyond the scope of Parker’s research, crafting has been intricately woven with movements of resistance throughout history.
Despite this, quilting was used as a tool of resistance against the oppression of slavery to mark safe houses on the Underground railroad, offering beacons of freedom to enslaved people. Ruth Terry, in a 2019 article on Medium, connects research in neuroscience that suggests needlework supports mental health resiliency in coping with trauma, and that enslaved women who would knit and sew together may have experienced these benefits in the midst of generations of slavery and abuse.
A photo of the incredible Sojourner Truth shows her sitting serenely with her knitting laying across her hands, a symbol of skill, patience and calculated precision, the same which she used to defy the atrocious history of slavery in the United States and liberate enslaved people.
Quilting continued its legacy of memory and preservation in the face of certain annihilation into the late 20th century.
In 1987, gay rights activist Cleve Jones created the first panel of the AIDS Memorial quilt in memory of his friend, Marvin Feldman and in response to the devastating AIDS epidemic that had reached its height in the mid-1980’s. The quilt had been conceived as a way to remember the names of the lost, and public response was overwhelming as people throughout the US sent panels to the San Francisco workshop and donors supplied sewing equipment to construct the quilt. The quilt was first displayed in 1988, and has since grown with continued contributions. In 2019, the quilt weighed 54 tons with nearly 50,000 panels, each memorializing a beloved that had been affected by AIDS.
It was just about connecting the dots that were already there, really, as I had studied conceptual art while doing my undergraduate degree in the late ‘90s and knew that what we make can tackle different issues. When I started knitting, I started looking at the ways in which I could help others with it, which at that time, meant making items and donating them to charities – something my grandmother had done for years, as she made hats for new infants at the local hospital she volunteered for. In that way, what we make has the chance to create changes in the fabric of our world, whether it’s knitting a tiny baby hat or doing something on a larger scale.
These objects show how deeply the makers care about the various issues, by the time spent and ideas shared. It is my hope that, shown together, the works help people talk about difficult issues that the show may evoke or get people thinking about how they can express their feelings with what they can make with their hands.
— Betsy Greer, describing Making Change at MODA
The Yarn Mission, a community knitting collective, formed in 2014 following the murder of Mike Brown and the protest response in Ferguson, Missouri. The collective is focused on community organizing and providing safe spaces for Black protesters to be together, and support each other, all centered on shared knitting practices.
Knitting kept hands busy, calmed spirits, and created a positive point of connection between complete strangers brought together by the protests. Eventually, Ferguson protestors and residents became like family, working together to keep streets clean, get to cars safely, and ensure everyone had necessities like toilet paper.
–Taylor Payne, qtd in Ruth Terry’s article on Medium
This is so far only the beginnings of the research I’ve collected on crafting as expression and resistance. There’s so much more I want to share and write about, and I’ll continue crafting this post with more resources on craft as expression and craftivism in the following weeks throughout Pride month!
This activity was developed for The Arts Center’s 2022 Spring Break Art Carnival. In this one project, we combine art, crafting, scientific observation, and dialogue about social and personal responsibility for waste and care of natural resources.
Using non-biodegradeable materials that would normally be thrown away, we create propagation tubs and planters for small plants, starts or seeds. Through the acticvity, we talk about what we know about plants and waste materials, what we are curious about, and what we observe about plants, the planet and single use plastic products.
The materials for this project are very accessible, especially if you’re like me and save every single plastic tub you’ve ever seen in your life. If you are having a hard time finding plastic food tubs, ask friends and family members to save theirs, or check out a nearby materials exchange organization. Here in the Willamette Valley, we have MECCA (Materials Exchange Center for Community Arts) which is legitimately one of my top 3 favorite art resorces in the world.
Plastic tubs (yogurt tubs, cottage cheese, butter, etc.) – I found an adorable tiny tub for green chiles!
Yarn, collage materials
Adhesive (white glue, mod podge, hot glue)
Awl or screwdriver for making drainage holes
basic potting soil with perlite
plant starts, seeds or ground cover/ moss
dechlorinated water (see notes below for how to do this)
Through this activity, participants will be able to:
identify non-recyclable materials (plastic tubs) and alternative uses for those materials
to construct a planter with drain holes and understand what a plant needs to thrive (water, air, light, soil)
practice observational skills using different senses for drawing plants and observing conditions of soil
describe their observations verbally
know when to change the circumstances of a plant’s environment (more water, more light, etc.)
use different weights and types of line to depict plants
identify and label different parts of a plant
understand and recall the different stages of growth of a plant
Process & Notes
To create the planter:
Select a plastic tub to use for this project (one with a lid is best).
Clean the tub well with soap and water, and dry thoroughly.
Pierce the bottom of the tub with several holes using the awl or screwdriver. These will be drainage holes for the planter.
Drainage holes help keep the soil the right moistness. Without them, when we water our plants, the water will collect in the bottom of the tub and could rot the plant’s roots, which can kill the plant. The drainage holes also help keep the soil areated and not compacted so the plant’s roots can grow freely.
Decorate your tub! Use collage paper, yarn, paint, anything you’d like to decorate the outside of the tub. Don’t add decoration to the inside of the tub, those materials can leech into the soil and make the plant sick.
Allow your decorations to dry while you mix your soil with perlite (3:2, soil:perlite)
The perlite is a natural material that helps keel the soil airy and helps balance the water in the soil, to keep it from getting too wet and to release water when the soil is dry.
As you mix the soil and the perlite, observe the material:
with the soil in your hands, notice what it feels like: dry, damp
hold the material to your face and look closely, what do you see?
smell the material, what does it smell like?
as you mix the soil and the perlite, what does it sound like?
DO NOT taste the soil or the perlite
Place your soil and perlite into the planter when it’s dry. If you need more drying time, use the time to look at the plant starts, and make observations using your senses. You could even start drawing the plants.
When your soil and perlite are in the tub, you can add your seeds, plant starts or ground cover.
Gently place the plant or ground cover onto the top of the soil. If the start has long roots, carefully dig into the soil and place the roots gently into the soil, and then cover.
For seeds, use your finger to poke holes to the depth of about your first knuckle and place seeds into the hole. Cover with soil.
Water the soil with fresh, dechlorinated water (see notes below); use observations about the soil and the planter to know how much water to use.
when you water the soil, listen to the water run into the soil. what does it sound like?
Observation and drawing:
Hold your planter with your plant or seeds in your hands. Use your senses to observe the plant or seeds, and use words to descibe what you observe
What does the plant, soil, planter look like?
What does the plant, soil, planter smell like?
Gently feel the soil or the plant leaves, what do they feel like?
Does the plant/ seed/ soil/ or planter make a sound as you hold it?
DO NOT taste the plants, seeds, or planter
Use your pencil and paper to sketch what you’ve obsereved (using all the physical external senses, not just sight).
What kind of marks or lines do you use to depict what you have observed.
What do you notice when you look/ smell/ feel/ touch/ listen more?
What different ways can you approach your planter or the plant to observe it differently? From above, from below, from a different side, etc.
Make predictions: what do you think will happen to the plant next?
Use your plant diary in the zine to make notes. Include the date and time and write about what you notice.
How to dechlorinate water
The water in most taps will be treated with chlorine, in amounts that’s typically safe to drink, but can be harmful to plants. Spring water is best for plants, as it contains natural occuring nutrients that can support plant health. Distilled water is not advised for plants as it can damage plants. If tap water is your best option, you can dechlorinate water by filling a large bowl with water and allowing it to sit at room temperature for 24 – 48 hours. Since chlorine is a volitile chemical, it will dissipate from the water over those hours. I give the water a stir every few hours to make sure I can bring some water up to the surface where the chlorine can dissipate.
What plants to use
For the project at The Arts Center, I brought clippings from my own houseplants: spiderettes and persian shields, which I prepped the night before by dipping their stems into rooting hormone and placing in a holding container with some potting soil and perlite. I also brought baby’s tears, an easy-to-grow ground cover from a local nursery, and some packets of wildflower seeds.
This was a super fun activity, and my first time doing a community event like this with actually 100’s of folks over a few hours in such a long time! Some of the participants came up with clever ways to turn their planters into hanging planters, and different ways of collaging and decorating the plastic tubs. I also brought extra handbound journals to give away since I always have a bunch of those lying around, and special Plant Love stickers I designed and printed for the event!
Thanks so much to The Arts Center for inviting me to be a part of this event!
One of my favorite activities to do with my kid and adult classes is to handbind our own sketchbooks and journals. For classes or residencies where students will use sketchbooks for practice, writing, or to make observations, this is usually one of the first activities I introduce.
Journal-making is a great activity to set the tone for the class; with so many options for choice and customization for individuality, I like to demonstrate that the preferences the students make are celebrated and choice is a standard in the class. I focus on that freedom particularly for youth students where we may also explore new skills and story-crafting.
This pamphlet binding is super simple and straight-forward, and uses a small collection of materials that I’ve been able to source somewhat inexpensively from local craft stores and online. Plus, it’s expandable, with the option to add more pages as students need them!
Another reason this is my favorite initial activity is because of the sense of wonder I usually see in most students when they finish this project and realize they’ve made an actual book! I do teach bookbinding classes for teens and adults where we dive into more sophisticated and complicated methods of binding. In those classes, the point is to practice bookbinding specifically. In my other classes that are centered more around community, story-crafting and reflection, creating a journal/ sketchbook can be the first way to dip into personal expression for the class.
I remind students in these classes that the journal they make is their book; they can put anything they want in it and they don’t have to share, so it’s a safe space to experiment, practice, fail, and try again. I’ve seen multiple students do this project and then want to spend the rest of the class period just making more books because they’re so elated to have actually made something themselves, so I always have more materials on hand.
Here’s the activity process, which can be done with most students 8 years and older. That’s the age group I’ve kept in mind for the project plan, although I’ve also made these with much younger children with some adaptations. See the end of the post for those and other adaptations to make this project accessible for all ages and abilities.
Handbound Sketchbooks/ Journals
Students will use materials to make choices and create their own sketchbooks for use throughout the class.
Students will make choices from several options
Students will use special tools and materials for book-making
Students will be able to use the words and identify an awl, embroidery thread, a needle and book signatures
Materials (per student)
One sheet 12″ x 12″ Scrapbook paper, decorative, several options
4 – 16 individual sheets of writing or sketching paper, cut to 9″x 11.5″, folded into 4 sheet signatures
Tapestry needle with large eye (No. 18)
1 hank embroidery thread, various color options
Scissors (one pair for the whole class is usually enough)
Optional (for no-pocket option): Paper cutter
Optional (for pocket option): glue sticks
Students should have their own individual spaces and materials to use. Place the signatures for each student, the tapestry needle, and the awl at each spot. Make separate piles of scrapbook paper in different areas of the room so that students can see the options and make choices.
Invite students to observe the materials at their desks and share their observations.
What do you think the tools are called?
What are the tools used for? What could be a different way to use the tools?
How should the tools be handled for safety?
Introduce the activity: we’re going to make our own sketchbooks
Name the tools and their use:
The awl is the sharp tool with the wooden handle, we’ll use that to punch holes in our paper and cover.
We’ll use the needle and thread to sew the pages of our book together.
The paper is four sheets folded together, which makes one signature.
Students can select their covers from the piles of paper around the room. note: I usually have lots of options so I make sure to tell students to look at everything and share what they find with each other.
After students select their cover pages, ask them to fold the page in half into the orientation they want for their book cover. Some decorative pages might have patterns that have a specific orientation, so make sure students understand that how they fold their paper is how their book will look in the end.
It’s helpful to also demonstrate that the cover pages are too long for the book, and so they’ll need to be trimmed down by 3″ off one end. Or, students can fold the sheet up 3″ from the edge to make two inner pockets. I ask students to make the choice of what they want to cut off or fold.
If not making a pocket, use the paper cutter to trim off the excess 3″ and the student can keep the scrap to make a bookmark or an even tinier sketchbook.
If making a pocket, use the glue stick to glue the two open edges of the pocket to the cover.
Binding the Sketchbook
Use the awl to safely punch three holes into the folded edge of their cover: one about 1″ from the top and bottom edges, and one in the middle. Help students do this safely by securing their cover in their hand with one finger on either side of the folded edge.
Take one signature of paper and fold it on the outside of the cover.
Using the holes in the cover as a guide, punch holes in the same spots on the signature.
Measure embroidery thread to 3 times the length of the spine of the cover.
Thread the needle to prepare binding.
Place the signature into the cover, making sure the holes line up.
Sew the needle into the cover from the outside into the middle hole, going all the way through the signature as well.
Pull the thread through, leaving a 3″ tail on the outside of the cover.
Next, sew into one of the edge holes from the inside of the signature, pulling the thread through to the outside of the cover.
Sew into the last hole on the outside of the cover and through the signature.
Lastly, sew back out the middle hole going through the signature and the cover.
It’s helpful to make sure the beginning tail and the needle are on opposite sides of the thread that’s passing down along the outside of the spine.
Take the thread off the needle and tie the thread and the tail together to finishing the binding.
To add more pages to the sketchbook, take another signature of 4 sheets of paper, folded in half. Lay the signature along the inside of the sketchbook, near the inside of the spine and mark on the signature where the holes of the sketchbook has been punched. Use the awl to punch holes in the new signature in those spots. Place the new signature inside the sketchbook behind the signature already bound, and follow steps 7 – 13 above to bind in the next signature.
Note: The dimensions for cutting the cover paper and the signatures leaves enough room for 4 signatures to be bound into one book.
Adaptations for Accessibility
This project requires eye-hand coordination, ability to fold paper, thread a needle and sew. Students with limited dexterity may need support from other students and adults.
For students who cannot use the awl safely or effectively, students can point to where they want another person to use the awl to punch holes in their paper for them.
Students may need support with threading their needle. A needle threader or a needle with a larger eye may be useful.
Students may need support with folding. Having pre-folded signatures is helpful for saving time and avoiding confusion. Adult or other student help for folding the cover page will support students with folding.
For much younger children, adaptations can be made by using a hole punch or larger awl to make holes in the cover and signatures larger, plus a large plastic darning needle and yarn instead of thread. Adults can also hold the cover and sheet together and point to where children can sew into the binding. I’ve made this project with children as young as 24 months with adult or older child help.
Note: Some of the artwork included in this practice may be disturbing or triggering to some viewers, including images of violence, physical harm, and psychological trauma.
Recommended for teens and adults, ages 13+, use your own judgement for yourself and your students.
Frida Kahlo’s Retablo-Style Art
I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.
Frida Kahlo’s body of work consists of frank depictions of struggle, pain, disability, heartbreak, longing, and ambivalence between social and societal constructs. In some of her work, she draws on Mexican folk art for deep personal expression in retablo-style paintings. Retablo paintings traditionally depict Catholic saints, made to adorn the space behind the altar of churches. In the 1870’s, Mexican craftspeople adapted retablo art for personal use and display in homes (Rosengarten, accessed 2022). These versions of retablo art depict personal moments of tragedy and struggle that have been overcome, and as an expression of gratitude to religious figures: Christ or Catholic saints. Frida Kahlo’s use of the style is non-religious, taking the traditional structure of the retablo to emphasize personal identity and mythology in her subjects, including her own personal experiences (Merotto, 2020).
Kahlo was an avid collector of retablo art, filling her home with hundreds (Rosengarten) or maybe thousands of pieces (Merotto). Her seeking out retablo art for her own collection and to inform her work was certainly inspired by her love for Mexican folk tradition, which is notable as well in her choice of dress and iconographic symbols that populate her artistic works. Kahlo was also likely drawn to the deep emotionality of retablo art, and its combination of divinity with the experience of suffering (Rosengarten). Retablo art also represents the “syncretic Mexican popular identity” (Merotto) as it combines Spanish-Catholic art with pre-Spanish traditions and moved out of churches into the domestic visual cultural realm. In her artwork, Kahlo was ever occupied with her own syncretic identities as mestizo, bi-sexual, politically active and living with disabilities.
The folk art retablo style is characterized by flat perspective, with a composition portraying a scene as if it were being acted on a stage, and bright colors painted on metal or tiles (or otherwise easy to access materials). The visual space is usually divided into thirds vertically, with the bottom third being a space for written text describing the incident, the middle third depicting the incident, and the top third depicting the intervening saint. Realism in depiction is not a priority, rather the emotional experience of the participants in the scene, including pain, fear, suffering, relief and gratitude are highlighted.
In Kahlo’s retablo art, we see quite frank and often graphic depictions of pain and struggle, and usually the overt absence of supernatural intercession from a saint or religious figure (Merotto). For Kahlo, her experiences and her artistic representations of those experiences stayed firmly within the world she could sense. She emphasizes physical details, grounding her and her viewer in the reality of the event.
This journal practice is about creating narrative in visual artwork, focusing on sensory details and the storied layers of lived experience: what was the experience, what was the outcome?
Time needed: 30 – 60 minutes
Think of this as a meditative creative process, in which you can make choices for how you want to respond to the prompts and access your own lived experience.
This is a visual arts practice including drawing and writing, but you do not have to have an established drawing practice to try this out. You can also use these prompts for different kinds of art practices. See the description below for adaptations.
2 journal pages
Writing implements (pencil, pen)
Drawing/ painting implements
Think of a time when you struggled through something difficult. Perhaps a disappointment, a heartbreak, grief over a loss or the fear of something you couldn’t control.
We don’t like to think of these memories. For some of us, the pain of these memories can be like experiencing them again. Personal resilience is built up through having these experiences and making them part of a full life, learning from them and continuing on with them, but not being held back by them.
If those kinds of memories are too difficult for now, you can think of an experience that isn’t necessarily sad, but perhaps was difficult. Some ideas might be moving homes, overcoming an obstacle, healing from an injury.
From this memory, write down what you remember.
Create two columns, one for objects around you in the memory, and the other for feelings and thoughts you had through the experience.
Divide the two columns into thirds, vertically.
The bottom third will be just before the event of the memory, what the circumstances were, what was happening.
The middle third will be the time of the event, what happened in the moment of the struggle, which could be a long period of time.
The top third will be after the event, the resolution and moments of resiliency when you were through the experience of the event.
You can use words or sketch doodles for these boxes. Using doodles will help you build a visual library for your painting and illustration work.
On the next page, you’ll draw or paint your experience, capturing all three moments of time and as much visual information as you can remember, using your notes and doodles from the previous page. You can split the scene into thirds, vertically.
The bottom third will be a place to write about the event. You can start here by writing out the basic story of the event, including what led up to it, what happened, and how you were able to learn and grow from the experience.
The middle third will be the main scene of the event. You can place yourself in this part of the image, experiencing the event, including the objects and people that were around you, and your emotional feelings represented by facial features, body postures, objects or icons, even words.
The top third will be the moments of resiliency. In religious versions of ex-votos, this is where the image of a saint or angels might be. You can use religious visual language or your can use your own visual language, picturing yourself after the event, in your moments of resiliency, more knowledgeable for the experience. What are you grateful for after the experience? You don’t have to be grateful for the experience, but are you grateful for the people who supported you, the communities you became a part of, what you learned about yourself?
As you draw and write, don’t worry about perfection. Don’t worry about making people look a certain way or using the right words. Focus instead on the objects, feelings and thoughts in the experience. Use color, pencil, erasers, markers. Set a timer for yourself for 3, 5, or 10 minutes and keep drawing for the entire time. If you feel like you’ve finished before the timer has ended, just keep going. If you feel like you want to keep creating after the timer has ended, keep going!
The practice, inspired by Frida Kahlo
Frida’s art is powerful because of her personal expression and stark emotionalism. Creating emotion in art is one way to make a connection with viewers of your art. If you don’t plan to show the artwork to anyone else, it can also be a way to connect with your own creative expression.
While we focus on moments of sadness and pain in this exercise, you can explore other emotions and experiences as well – anger, fear, longing, regret, joy, peace, confusion, apathy. The opportunity to explore multitudes of emotions is one of the privileges of consciousness and creativity.
Literary art – write out your list of objects, thoughts/ feelings, and use those words to describe the experience in prose or poetry.
Story crafting/ Comics – create an experience for a character and list out the sensory and emotional experiences for them using the prompts.
Sculpture/ 3D art – use shapes and forms as stand-ins for emotions, sculpt objects from your experience that hold significance.
Collage – collect magazines, newspaper, pages of old books or printed images from online, cut them out and combine them on your journal page to depict your scene. You can focus on collecting and assembling words, images, colors, shapes.
Abstracted painting – as you write out your list, ascribe colors, textures or shapes to each word or element of the memory. Use that as your visual library to put your abstracted composition together, paying attention to harmony, balance, and contrast between your elements.
2021 for me has been a year of transition, change, and work. In this year, I started teaching adult and youth art classes for local organizations, I took on freelance design work and hustled to build connections with local and national organizations I found myself aligned with. Really, in 2021, I took on the artistic project of being the independent artist I set out to become last year. I have been really fortunate to be able to focus on this work; this project of being allowed me to connect with my creative and collaborative goals and communities in new ways, for which I am ever so grateful.
I’m looking back now at the year through the art I’ve made, to check in with how I have grown as an artist in 2021.
Colored Pencils, Acrylics & Classes
I did A LOT of teaching this year, which has been so incredible and an invaluable way for me to grow as an artist. I can’t say more without first thanking all of my students for taking my classes and learning with me. When I get down to the obvious question: did my art improve this year? I have to say, yes, it absolutely did. My technical skill, expression and composition all improved dramatically in 2021, perhaps more than within any other year, EVER. That is completely due to the constant practice I had with my teaching schedule.
To prepare for my classes, I explored different subjects, techniques with media and paid closer attention to my practice, all of which reinforces what I’ve long suspected: the best way to learn is to teach.
I started working with colored pencils a few years ago, but it wasn’t until I was teaching colored pencils class that I really dug into why this medium is so special and what can be achieved with it. My color theory and line work have exploded, and these days I’m achieving rich dimensions in my illustrations that I wasn’t seeing last year.
Teaching a watercolor and acrylics class also challenged me to revisit media that I knew I liked, but had forgotten that I loved. Working on a lotus with my class inspired the lotuses I’ve started painting using different lighting and background techniques.
Themes: Ladies & Plants
I’ve always had themes in art that I’m compelled to create. Women and fantasy elements (fairies, dragons, mermaids) are my typical favorite subjects. As I pulled together the montage for this year, I generally knew the pieces I wanted to use, specifically the lotuses and #PlantPerson illustrations that I really loved creating. This year, my sense of why I’m drawn to fantasy themes really clarified for me. As a child (and definitely still as an adult) I loved reading fairy tales and watching Disney movies. Something that I struggled with, though, was [not] seeing myself in those stories, and feeling like I wasn’t sure I could belong in them, which was totally heartbreaking. The #PlantPerson series (ongoing) is a way for me to create the narratives and images I wanted to see as a child, combined with a fascination with plants.
Plants are quite fantastical already; if you think about it, they eat light and live within a space time that is both the same and wholly different from our own! They’re really the magical spirits/ fairies from fantasy, except real and if I’m careful and attentive, I can keep them in my home and admire them anytime I want!
In my latest illustration, I Paint Sparkles (2021) I feature two of my own houseplants – my own Strobilanthes dyerianus and my partner’s Dracaena trifasciata. I’m also building on a theme that I started last year, one I call “dark haired girl with a black bird” and also “horned woman with black cat”, which was the first illustration I finished this year.
This lastest illustration, I Paint Sparkles, was cognitively difficult for me, as I used colored pencils to create the bird, cat and girl, I found myself exaggerating features and getting really dark. I felt self-concious about my art being “not pretty”. So much of the fantasy art I like to look at is a continuation of the images I loved as a child: airy, svelte, and fair. I still love those images, but I end up back in the same struggle I experienced as a child: where’s the earthy, dark and rounded characters? Where’s me? I almost abandonned this painting a few times, wanting to turn away from it and try again to make something more gentle and fairy-like. But as I worked on this piece, I started reading and doing a lot of research about Frida Kahlo (for a super exciting upcoming project!). Kahlo’s work is of course powerful and beautiful. It’s moving and it doesn’t look anything like the images I struggled with as a child and now. I still want to find a way to bring these two aesthetics together, with tension, but also in a sort of discordant harmony.
Something to work on in the next year.
Looking Back to Look Forward
This is only my second year creating a retrospective of the year through art (see 2020s’s Art v. Artist here), and it’s already really fascinating to see how things change and what stays the same. I sure do love black birds, cats and fantasy elements, but branching out (LOL!) into plant illustration is a wonderful new addition. I’m ending 2021 in a much different attitude than I was in at the end of 2020. I’m much more optimistic about what’s ahead: new projects, new residencies, new trips planned. In 2022, I’m launching a whole new endeavor with my arts business that I’m excited to share with folks soon. For those subscribed to my Patreon, you’ll be getting an advanced look at what I’ve been working on in the next few weeks. Plus, I’m thrilled to start administrating the Corvallis Arts Walk and be closely involved with my local arts community!
Thanks so much for everyone who has supported my creative adventures so far, and for checking out the artwork and sharing yours!
This year, I participated in The Arts Center’s annual Arts Alive! event with a chill little paint-with-me video that I was pretty into.
Grab some paints, a brush or two and set your mind to something you want to say (to yourself or, heck to the world!). Don’t worry about it being perfect, just sink into the process and chill with me.
Plus! Super cool extra thing: you can get the kit we made for this video so you (or someone you think could use some creative time) paint with the same materials I used at home! Make your own little garden of encouraging/ rebellious messages by getting your kit at my Arts & Crafts shop on Etsy: Art Kit – Little Painting/ Big Message (materials are SUPER limited!)
(This post was originally published on InklingsIllustrated.com on December 14, 2020)
It’s the end of 2020 so here’s a look back on my art and creativity this year.
I don’t need to tell you this, 2020 has been a year that will remain with those of us conscious enough to remember it *looks at children age 5 and younger with suspicion and envy*. I’m not going to try to silver lining this wackadoodle experience we’ve all had of 2020. For me, like many, it’s been a year of struggle, confusion, a lot of YouTube, and sure, some opportunities.
When this year started, I made a bold decision to quit my career in arts administration. At the end of January, I had figured if the time to prioritize art and community education in my life wasn’t now when would it be? What was I waiting for? So, at the very end of February, just as we collectively in the United States were becoming aware of the COVID-19 global pandemic, I made the jump to full-time independent artist/ community educator, supporting myself with a part-time job.
My reflection on this decision I want to sum up as simply as possible: it has been really hard and I’ve often struggled to support myself, but I’ve also gotten to re-focus on my favorite things about being me, and I don’t for one moment ever regret the choice I made. I have been so very lucky, because just like everything else in life, luck has played a huge part here in the success I’ve experienced. It’s only been with the incredible support from my family, friends, and community that I’ve been able to make this transition.
Making time in my life to make art has been an incredible investment into my own existence. This experiment that was half-chosen/half-pandemic-induced, in which I had several days/weeks alone in my home with my cat and the art supply collection I’ve been bulking up for years, has resulted in the profound gratification of knowing precisely what I want to do with the time I have here, on this planet, in this body, in this world.
I want to make art.
And I want to encourage others to make art.
The time investment I made since the start of the year to make art as often as possible – for me that’s mainly drawing and painting with various media – has yielded the most prolific creative year of my life and from that I can see exponential growth in my artistic skills. It can be hard to self-evaluate creative growth, but I’m in the fortunate position to have made SO MUCH ART this year that I have a collection of pieces that describe in sometimes awkward detail how much my art has changed.
I compare my Angel’s Landing piece from March, to the Seekseequa mountain illustration (bottom 3 of the top compilation image) and I see so much development in my skill, specifically my line quality and detail work. I get so chuffed to see that change in my art, it’s like I’ve been exercising regularly all these months and I’m seeing results that I feel really proud of. And the earlier piece is already a far cry from where I started, 3 years ago when I quietly said to myself, I think I’m ready to be an artist.
It’s also really fun for me to compare these two illustrations: Phases of the Moon, which I did in April, and Enlightenment Now, which I finished last week. I can see the ways I’ve gotten stronger: in composition, in figure drawing, in painting and in digital enhancement… I could go on (although it looks like my clothing illustration can still use A LOT of practice). But the thing that I like the most is how this is so clearly a subject/ composition I like to illustrate. I mean, I kind of forgot that I had drawn the moon illustration in April, and I found it while going back into my files for pieces for this retrospective. I should do this kind of illustration again in another 6 months to a year to see how it’s changed: dark hair girl, giant black bird, something celestial and lots of blues, purples, and greens. One thing for sure to say about the skill development, thank goodness I picked up colored pencils! They really make that bird LIVE!
Community Education was something I had all but given up for lost this year: with gathering so risky, how could I teach art for kids, teens, and adults? This really was a blow at the beginning of the pandemic, arts education was (and still is) 80% of my soft business plan. Teaching is essential to me, and I realized late last year that I truly need to be teaching, working with kids and adults to exercise their creativity. I was hanging out with a class that my arts org was hosting, and being able to be with those kids, making a gigantic mess that I had to clean up afterward (and they helped a lot, really) was one of my happiest moments at work last year. So then when I quit my job to be a full time artist and educator, and the educator part was pretty much impossible because of the global pandemic, I was like a lost sailor at sea.
I’ve reclaimed my bearings, little by little, by offering public and private classes on my website at Inklings, and with local organizations like Linn-Benton Community College. I have also had the beautiful opportunity to work with the local youth services non-profit, Jackson Street Youth Services, to offer art classes and creative projects for their shelter and mentor programs.
I’ve been participating in more classes, which has been a big boost to my energy. Being isolated and disconnected is rough on me, as a highly social person. It’s my normal to have every night of the week planned for some social interaction — and although that was often exhausting and I’m quite grateful for the reset to my typical commitments, I still quite miss the opportunity to connect with others’ creativity and to learn and explore with other people. Participating in webinars to learn about social justice and the arts, Theatre of the Oppressed, Solidarity Economy, Transformative Justice, yoga and advocacy, all of these have been important experiences to keep me involved in my communities and to inspire my creative teaching. I have the beginnings of plans for 2021 classes that go beyond visual arts that I am very excited about.
And that’s brings us to now, looking ahead. I have the sketch of a chubby little kitty that’ll end up being my New Year postcard (watch out loved ones, Dynamite is coming!). I have class plans that I’m working on, and connections and relationships that I’m nurturing.
So, yes, it’s been a year, and one I would have changed for all of us, if I could. But since I can’t and this is the year we had, I’m glad it went the way it did for me. I got really lucky, to have enough support to get through this year, including generous friends and family, a part time job, and absolutely no questions about what I should have been doing with my time when I suddenly had a lot of time. I knew I should be making art. And I did. That’s something I feel good about feeling good about.
<3 Happy and safe holidays, and f*** 2020 Jen
P.s. Want to follow along and get more Inklings? In 2021, I’ll be posting more about the work of being a creative entrepreneur, the process of artistic skill development, and probably a lot more random project posts and cat pictures here on the blog. Subscribe on the blog front page to catch all the updates.
You can also support me and see more of my art (plus get free stickers every month) by joining my Patreon.