February has been an incredibly difficult one for me: creatively, financially and psychologically.
A lot of this was lourded over by the "financial" (having to replace both sets of brakes on the car started the terror-ball rolling, but alas it was only the beginning.) Really once the money demons have you it's hard to break free, and this time, for me, they really colored all the other aspects of my life. (I'm not proud of that, but what can you do.)
Add to that a population's insistence that the personal facebook feed is where one spews unchecked, unchallenged, unquestioned hate, and you're in for a world of unhelpful thinking. I think last month more than anything has pointed out to me that there is a whole lot of social media that is unhelpful, maybe even destructive without meaning to be.
I am fortunate as I have two roads into the internet -- the personal and the professional. But the professional road can be just as bad when you're sunk. I think people sometimes lose sight of the fact that when you are struggling -- in whatever way -- it can be hard to run up against the brick wall of fixed smiles that is the professional brag-a-thon. Awards, admirable gigs, travels to romantic places, travels to difficult places, casual rubbing-of-the-shoulders with people who haven't answered your emails, new homes.
These are one-sided displays, and deep down I do know that. These snippets never dwell on the whole story, the real story. The sleepless nights before the work was completed. The tears when the pressure built. The lost luggage. The troubling noises in the hotel parking lot that kept you up at night. The missed train and impromptu, nervous hours pacing up and down a strange station, surrounded by signs in a language you meant to learn but didn't. The over-analysis of your art director's off-handed comment. The new home that is a downsize.
So there's nothing for it but to keep going. And sometimes that means doggedly marching forward into the abyss with no expectations. It's the no expectations that's key -- I've been revisiting a lot of my Buddhist texts again, because there's something encouraging about those constant urges to let go and renounce judgement. At some point that sunk feeling turns into something else.
Because in all honestly it's also been an incredible month in terms of getting a grip on what actually matters, what doesn't matter. I haven't quite mastered the mindset of this is a great opportunity to practice my coping, my patience, my resilience, but I suspect that takes a lifetime to really get hold of. And there have been moments of absolute clarity on this front, and that's been reassuring.
My life is a like a huge board of faders, and I am looking at what can be turned down so that the art can turned up even higher. Focus, focus, focus.
Here's some stuff that's been helping, should you find yourself in a spot like this:
Maria Popova's recent entry on Brain Pickings about creative block.
This incredibly timely TED Radiohour digest of simple happiness
And of course, re-listening to Pema Chodron's "Getting Unstuck" and "True Happiness".
Sunday, February 9, 2014
We went “Wauklyn” in a Winter Wonderland yesterday — not many opportunities for us to do that here in the mild maritime pocket of Portland.
We went out to Lauralhurst park, to see if the pond was frozen. All of Portland was out with us. People were sledding down the street and people without sleds had their river-floating gear. Lots of cross-country skiers — lots of snow gear that probably hadn’t seen the light of day since 2008, when we had our last major snow that stuck.
Us Coloradoans got rid of all of our snow gear about four years ago when it became clear that we’d hardly ever have cause to use it. But two wool socks in a rain boot makes for a good snow boot, and when the snow is as dry as this you aren’t so much in for wet as cold. So we piled on our woolens like a 1940s Rockwell Painting and went out in it with the rest of the city.
We don't even have that many plows in our fair city, and the few we have are usually dispatched to the interstate. So the roads have been packed down to a slick slab that has since frozen over with the frozen rain overnight. High hopes for it melting in time for work to proceed as normal for most of the citizens (and, for me, so the library will open). But it’s been fun to look at in the meantime.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, I will be looking backward over my process for the Heart of Darkness project. You can see my final pictures and learn more about this project by clicking here. (Previously: Finding the story.)
October 18: God Bless authors who publish their bibliographies.
October 22: Two sets of thumbnails: the story from the "pilgrim's" perspective -- fairly easy (imperfect, this my first pass, but findable at least), and again from the Congolese perspective, which I found to be extremely difficult at this stage. So that's what I'm working on now, finding that story.
I DON'T want to run into the problem I had with Dickens, where a few pictures that needed to be there JUST WOULDN'T COME. None of that this time, let's do LOTS of work beforehand so we know what to expect.
Because either way there's nothing stopping me from completing the project, winner or no.
And frankly, it will tell me a lot about Folio if I don't get picked and someone who is buying into the "limbs" and "inhuman cries" gets the prize.
Friday, January 24, 2014
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, I will be looking backward over my process for the Heart of Darkness project. You can see my final pictures and learn more about this project by clicking here.
First order of business was of course to dive into the world. I got hold of both paper-copies and audio-copies of the primary text and supporting text, and read them both over the course of a few days. I read the numerous essays included in my Norton Critical Edition. I re-read particularly descriptive sections of "The Poisonwood Bible," by Barbara Kingsolver. I made many, many trips to the library.
I wanted to put myself in the minds of the Africans as much as possible. It meant finding the pre-colonization peace, which would deepen the anger and injustice of the ongoing colonialist oppression. It meant finding that anger. For that, I turned to more modern sources. I downloaded W. Kamau Bell stand-up shows, both One Night Only and Face Full of Flour. I re-listened to American Radioworks' documentaries on Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.
I did other things. I re-watched Planet Earth's "Jungle" episode. I watched the Michael Palin's Pole-to-Pole episode from Tanzania, wherein he visits the site where David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley met (an event that was very much on Europe's mind at the time this novella was published). I kept searching. I just kept following interesting ledes, drawing a lot, and keeping the channel open.
November 8: It's incredible to live in this day and age where I can watch a youtube video about making fufu.
It was finally in a book called "Art of Africa", published by Scala, that I saw some images of the White Man as the natives saw him.
"An albino," suggested Okonkwo.
"He was not an albino. He was quite different...and he was riding an iron horse."
These images greatly influenced my early sketches of the "pilgrims".
And it was playing with these shapes that eventually lead to the serendipitous cover idea.
I had already been plotting good story beats and was amassing quite a very promising thumbnails of moments from the story, but finding this cover idea was very encouraging. It made me feel like I was on the right track.
Monday, January 20, 2014
Hung out with my friend and his kids again last Wednesday, for more drawing together.
It went much better than last time, I think mostly because the kiddos knew what to expect. The boy child proudly came up to me right at the beginning and said, "I have a big drawing pad just like YOU, Maggie!"
We're hoping to make this into a regular thing.
Friday, January 10, 2014
Back in October I learned that The Folio Society, in collaboration with House of Illustration had announced their 2014 book competition. I missed last year's contest by a hare's whisker, so I was really exhilarated to catch this one in time.
Folio Society is a publishing house in London that specializes in illustrated novels. A great deal of their backlist includes classics, though they commission illustrations for newer work as well. It is basically my dream job in contest form: they select a book, put the call out for illustrations. You are to submit three illustrations from scenes in the book in addition to a cover, and if selected you are paid a commission and produce six more pictures, to all be published by the end of this year.
I think it is set up this way to help unknowns have a shot at the top -- the contest makes clear concessions for students in particular. But a lot of Very Big Deal illustrators who regularly get editorial work for the New York Times have illustrated Folio Society books, so it comes with a great deal of prestige within the profession, to say nothing of the blind joy that is finding a publisher that illustrates books for grown-ups.
So it was with great interest that I learned that this year's book was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
It's a meaty choice for a contest -- and clear way to separate the big players from the dabblers. Aside from the rich visual imagery and the mental anguish of the narrator there is the incredibly complicated subject of colonial Africa. A topic, I would argue, the author does not address in a way that satisfies the modern reader. (Not terribly surprising, as the novella was written in 1899.)
There is additionally the problem of Way Too Many Pictures Out There of "rush walls, peaked grass roofs...a whirl of black limbs," concerning Africa. As an illustrator I take responsibility for the images I put out there, and if there's one thing I want to do with my work it's to contribute to stereotype REDUCING images, rather than make images that reinforce stereotypes.
The novelist Chinua Achebe objects to this book, on essentially the same grounds that I do. He particularly objects to the reduction of Africans as a "whirl of black limbs", arguing that Joseph Conrad continually reduces the Africans to body parts, as to things sub-human, as this is the only way his white brain can understand them.
It's a book I'm not sure we need to perpetuate. It's a book I'm not sure we should celebrate by giving it new clothes. But the book endures. Even while I was working on this Tin House put out a lavishly illustrated version of the text, which I found to be a little bit of a cop-out. It has a beauty to it, but it seems to me the book demands a more forceful, direct approach. Additionally, to abstract figures to the extent that Matt Kish has done denies the Africans the opportunity to be PEOPLE in this book. And if we must allow the book to continue, I feel the least we can do is finally give the native people a chance to tell their side of the story.
I am much more interested in modern Africa than I am in historic Africa. But of course, modern Africa was shaped by the brutalization of the continent by many, many Western projects -- and arguably continues to be shaped by them -- and so I suppose in some sense it is valuable to look backwards to see what it is we have done. And in this case, I intended to really look.
It goes without saying then that this book is certainly not one I would have picked on my own. However, the best projects are actually those which challenge us, because otherwise we never grow. And in truth I was already trying to develop a deeper understanding of the continent through reading the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who encourages us never to be seduced by the single story.
To that end, I approached this project not as a single story, but as two stories. The story of Marlow and the Europeans, wandering into the land of "incomprehensible" natives, and the story of the natives encountering uncomprehending foreigners. It was in this way I hoped I could do justice to the text and making it a bit more manageable for modern readers.
Friday, December 13, 2013
"Oklahoma" gets a bad rap, just like "Nebraska" and "Kansas" -- notorious for states that are boring to drive through.
I will admit that there is a whole lot of SKY.
But that much sky also gives an opportunity to see things you could never see in the forest.
We grew up driving through these landscapes, playing auto-bingo and becoming very, very good at spotting things in the sea of sameness.
Because in fact, it's never the same.
The features on the vast landscape are all as different as people, you just have to take the time to notice. All somewhat untouched by time, and all the more amazing for it.
And even the sameness gets spruced up for the holidays.
And each town does it in a different way.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
It has been over ten years since I've made the traditional Thanksgiving trek to Grandma's house. (In fact, it's been over eight years since I've even seen her, which is a crying shame.)
It's so odd to have let so much time pass like this -- for a long time we would go twice a year. Once in the summer, and again for Thanksgiving.
Travel was something we trained for early in my household. Adventures were very important to my parents. I went on my first campout when I was probably far too young to do so, famously getting lost in my own sleeping bag AND getting violently ill all over my father. That's the stuff of memories, folks.
My parents' parents lived an hour away from each other in central Oklahoma, and driving there from Colorado became a well-worn routine. We became masters of road trips. Early on we would pack a rubbery plastic basket filled of toys and books -- always a new comic book or two stuffed in there somewhere, readable only after the journey began. We'd leave before dawn with a thermos of coffee for the grown-ups and little dry breadstick things for the children to tide them over until real breakfast (perhaps Cheerios in a park somewhere).
Later the baskets turned into little tote-bags that Mom made herself, and later still our car-gear was carried in whatever bag we carried around in civilian life. Musical tastes diverged, Walkmans turned into CD players -- there were a few years when every single car occupant was on headphones -- including the driver. A newly liscensed driver (me!) lessened the burden on Mom, and the trip became a bit faster. The homemade auto-bingo games became longer, then we started playing them "best two out of three". Road maps were pored over, and a lifelong love of maps and vacations and adventures with mileage counts was kindled. Wrong turns were rerouted. Cellphones arrived, but lost service outside of the major cities. Routes became modified, new restaurants were tried, but many of the long-standing traditions remained.
Tomorrow I'm going to re-take that journey, and see how much of the old route's landmarks still stand.
I have mentioned before that Thanksgiving was the special gathering holiday in my family, and is a dear favorite of mine largely because of that. This year's gathering will be smaller than they have been in the past, but hopefully will be none the worse for that. Mom and I have taken it upon ourselves to cook for Grandma this year, to pay her back for all those many meals she cooked for us.