Monday, November 20, 2017

The 2018 Useful Calendar Goes to the Dogs

The Year of the Dog is coming up in 2018, so how could I not want to make that the theme of the Useful Calendar, my annual project of research and art?

I'm embarrassingly late with the calendar this year and there's no excuse for it. I even got an early start, working out my color scheme back in February and setting up the framework for a new design for the cards, so as to make more room for artwork and generally make it more visually appealing. 

This just in: calendars are done and available in my Etsy shop (just click this sentence). Yay!

Less text, bigger art

The backs of the calendar cards are still filled with text and some obscure but interesting holidays, but in a bit more reader-friendly design

More room for art means that instead of doing one illustration of a dog for the cover card, I needed 12 dogs. So I made a plan for getting it done in a timely manner, including doing all the illustrations by mid summer.

I'm still working on those illustrations.

Collecting photos that I can use as references for my watercolors is one part of the challenge. This summer I took some furtive photos of dogs with people, but only one turned out to be usable, as it happened. 

A dog with its person at the Riverview Cafe. I'm pretty sure the dog's look meant it was giving me permission to use the photo as a reference for this illustration.
Café dog as August dog

Mostly, I have looked online for photos I could use as references without violating anyone's copyright. For me, that means not considering art photography, and not copying anything as closely as I did my own photo. The photos I looked for were to give me the general idea of the scene I'm trying to create, with wide creative interpretation, as with this snowstorm photo from a Chicago newspaper article. 

As you can see, it was rather drab and dark anyway, but very helpful in getting the sense of walking a dog during a March blizzard. 

I changed the person's garments, modified their posture somewhat, added the scarf both for color and to convey the sense of the wind, and changed the breed of the dog to sort of a golden retriever, with a wind-blown tail.

This rainy scene was also from a newspaper photo, with fewer modifications, especially to the dog. But still dressing the person up a bit more colorfully and modifying their posture a bit, especially to hide their face under the umbrella. 

I'm still plugging away at the illustrations at this late date in November, but I'm kind of getting on a roll, you might say. It's like I'm getting more familiar with basic dog anatomy and that makes the process a bit quicker. I no longer create a grid over the photo to get the proportions correct, I just do a few quick sketches, decide on the things I want to change, and then get out the paints.

Once the artwork is done and placed, I'll just need to tinker with the design to make a version with the weeks starting on Sunday so customers can choose their preference. I'll proofread it again, too, even though I've done so several times already. I may even catch all the mistakes by the time the artwork is done.

Fortunately, we don't have a lot going on over Thanksgiving, so I hope to have it completed by the end of the holiday weekend.

And the featured cover dog was easy — I used an illustration I actually did complete this summer, for my little zine about listening to the night sounds in my bucolic city neighborhood, which I wrote about here.

And that drawing is also going to be my December dog, since it looks to me like it's singing a Christmas carol. So I used it to make a Christmas card as well.


Friday, September 29, 2017

Making a little zine about listening to the sounds of the night

I wanted to have a new zine ready for the LoLa art crawl, which took place in mid-September, and while I always have several zines started in some form, none of them was quite close enough to completion in the time I had available.

Then I remembered an essay I wrote a long time ago that I've long intended to turn into a tiny zine. By tiny I mean 1/16th of letter size paper, or 2-1/8th inches high by 2-3/4 inches wide.

The essay, which I wrote in 2008 when my husband and I were publishing a local literary journal called Minneapolis Observer Quarterly, or MOQ, was inspired by my occasional sleepless nights listening to sounds that wafted through the open window. The focus of MOQ was the "bucolic city," so an essay about the mingling of nature sounds with scattered city sounds — we live in a quiet neighborhood a good six miles or so from downtown — seemed like a perfect theme for the journal.

At the time, I illustrated the essay with a drawing of a cricket. I believed that I was hearing the chirping of crickets at night from June through September, but I later read that crickets in Minnesota don't start chirping until late summer and concluded that I was probably hearing treefrogs or toads at the beginning of summer. I revised the essay to incorporate this new information, and did a drawing of a toad to illustrate the beginning part.

I decided to use this essay for my new zine because it didn't involve doing any research; it was already written, I just needed to plan the layout and do some more drawings to go with it.

My zines tend to be a little research heavy, which is why it takes me a while to complete them. And sometimes my blog posts lean that way, too.

In fact, I started to fact check myself again about the toad/frog/cricket sounds, thinking to provide a link in this post to a reliable source, but I was getting mixed results and realized I could still be wrong about what it was I was actually hearing, and briefly felt a bit chagrined that my little zine could be inaccurate and maybe I should do more research and then revise it again ...

And then I slammed the brakes on my overactive brain and decided that it was just fine as a simple little evocative essay about my observations, with several new drawings and a nice presentation, and that's all it needs to be.

If you're interested in buying one, after all that, you can find it in the shop at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, or in my Etsy shop.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The book artist's version of a scrap quilt

I sometimes wad up a piece of scrap paper and toss it out the door of my studio so the cats will scamper after it (and then I shut the door). I don't think that's a legitimate form of reuse, though.

I really could put more stuff in the recycling bin. It's not that I throw too much away, it's that I hold onto small items and scraps because I'm too certain they can be repurposed in some way. And it's often true, as long as I'm able to make the time to use them.

Take paper scraps and trimmings, for example.

When I make a journal using a vintage book for the cover, I'm repurposing the book cover (yay), and using recycled paper with a high post-consumer content for the pages (yay again). But to fit the pages to the cover (which is kind of backwards, a book conservationist recently pointed out), I end up trimming away strips of my perfectly lovely paper, which is a bit thicker/heavier than most journal and notebook paper at 70lb (most notebook paper is 50lb).

Some recently constructed journals and their remnants

And I hate to just toss those trimmings, which are often 2.5–3" wide, into the recycling when I could reuse them to make mini journals and notebooks.

A couple of mini journals made from scraps -- and the covers are from Yorkshire tea boxes

In addition, like any paper crafter, I have accumulated a lot of paper of various weights and patterns, often purchased from scrapbooking shops (scrapbooking per se doesn't really appeal to me, but I really like a lot of the papers and other materials involved). I have used the decorative scrapbooking paper to make sleeves for my calendar cards (2018 will be available late October). Those paper sleeves are sealed and reinforced with packing tape.

My 2015 Useful Calendar was the last one that was trading card size

A couple of years ago, I changed the size of my calendar cards from trading card size (2.5" x 3.5") to 1/8 of a standard letter size page (2.75" x 4.25"). That change ended wasteful trimming (the scraps were too small to use for anything else), while also saving me a little time in production and giving me a little more space for content. Score two for zero waste. Or would that be three?

But that left me with a lot of sturdy little tape-laminated paper pockets that I had made already and could no longer use for my calendars.

Leftover calendar card sleeves

So I'm making little notebooks to fit into the pockets. And to satisfy my urge to make something artful and unique, rather than the same thing again and again, each mini notebook is ornamented with beads and charms on the spine (which also makes for a convenient handle for pulling them out of the sleeve), and their covers are collaged with assorted scraps that I just couldn't quite toss into the recycling yet because they're too pretty or interesting. Sometimes that includes bits of those book pages, as well as trimmings from the decorative papers used to make the sleeves.

Two mini notebooks with their coordinating sleeves

I've also repurposed whole text blocks that I removed from old books in order to use the covers, glued the edges together and cut them into simple shapes, which I then collaged with more scraps to make little stand-alone art objects of solid paper.

Stacks of book innards, and a few paper block collages made from them.

Yeah, it's kind of an obsession. But in my defense, I do end up tossing some of my paper scraps into the recycling. I put most of them into a large paper bag and staple it shut, because by the time I'm really done with the scraps, what's left is pretty small and needs to be bagged like shredded paper so it doesn't gum up the recycling machines. But by that time, I feel pretty satisfied that I've gotten a decent amount of reuse from those old books and other scraps of paper.

More mini notebooks with their sleeves

Come see my scrap paper notebooks, vintage book journals, and paper block art pieces during the LoLa art crawl, Sept. 16–17, at site 62, Bob Schmitt's Laughing Waters Studio, on Minnehaha Parkway.

Friday, August 11, 2017

More new journals from old books — AND here comes the LoLa art crawl!

The annual LoLa art crawl is coming up in about a month and I need to get serious about making journals to build up my inventory!

LoLa stands for League of Longfellow Artists, which is a volunteer-run neighborhood arts group that's been going around this South Minneapolis neighborhood every year for nine (9!) years now. I'll be setting up shop at the adorable little yellow cottage that is the home studio of LoLa cofounder Bob Schmitt, Laughing Waters Studio.

This is all happening September 16–17, by the way.

So here's a look at a journal I recently completed, when I wasn't feeling quite so rushed so I took some pictures along the way which I won't be doing anymore for a while now.

I started with a vintage book with a pretty cover that I picked up at a Duluth shop called Chester Creek Books and Antiques. It was only a dollar and the pages were brittle and yellowed, so I figured it was OK to take it apart and give the cover a new life.

I've written before about how I enjoy taking apart old books to examine how they were made, kind of like a kid taking apart an old alarm clock or something (when my daughter was in preschool, the teacher asked for donations of such things and then had these 4-year-olds take them apart; one parent later remarked that her child knew the difference between a Philips and a flathead screwdriver after that). OK, that was a bit of a digression; back to the book.

I made an interesting discovery when I started taking this book apart, and that was that they had repurposed some other printed matter when constructing the spine. Today we talk a lot about reusing and repurposing materials, but in past decades they did that sort of thing as a matter of course. The blue paper is attached to the spine of the cover, and the teal scrap is glued over the spine of the text block, covering the stitching. 

I saved those scraps because I thought it would be cool to reuse them again in a collage. And I suppose it would have been really cool to use them in the journal I made from this book, but I set them aside to use later.

This book did not have headbands, which I wrote about in the above linked blog post (or just click here instead). Those are often another example where materials were repurposed, at least in mass-produced books. Traditional headbands in fine bookmaking are handstitched, but bookbinders in the late 19th and early 20th century would make them from scraps of shirt fabric, a practice I have also employed. (Actually, I use various cotton fabric scraps, including some from old shirts.)

In the above photo, you see the blank text block I made to fill the new journal, next to the original text block. The original text block appears to have been sewn with a kind of chain stitch, then was rounded, then coated with glue (probably a type of rubber cement), and then the strip of paper was pasted over that.

My assembly is a little different. First, I used a running stitch with the signatures interlaced together. 

Instead of rounding the spine, I keep it flat so that the journal will lay open more easily for writing in. I brushed on a synthetic flexible glue known as PVA that's acid-free, so it won't yellow or become brittle. 

Next I glued on the headbands to protect the edges (top and bottom), and attached a ribbon page marker with more PVA. Finally, I attached end papers with a thin strip of glue and then wrapped linen tape around the spine in two places, which takes the place of the paper used in this book, or the webbing often used in traditional fine bookbinding. 

Here's a view showing the end papers that I glued to each side of the text block. This hand-marbled paper (made by Sally Power) will be attached to the cover boards, over the original endpaper shown on the inside of the back cover.

Setting aside the text block for the moment, I made a new spine for the cover boards, reusing my own paper scrap from an old calendar I made a few years ago. Since it's my own scrap, I know that it's acid-free paper and won't get brittle. The cloth covering the spine is a black linen tape, the same type as the white tape used to reinforce the text block. 

And here's the finished journal. Come see it in person during LoLa.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The sweet serendipity of the volunteer garden

I had a plan to get some cool-season vegetables started early this year, but right around the time I was getting ready to plant lettuce seeds, I noticed tiny seedlings of camomile in the raised bed. It has grown in this part of my garden the last few summers, and I decided to let them get a little bigger so I could transplant them to a spot next to the fence, thus delaying my salad planting.

When I transplanted a few of the camomile as I had planned, I noticed the distinctive gray-green leaves of poppies in the same bed. Poppies, with their delicate tap roots, do not care to be transplanted, so I just gave up on the early salad garden idea and let these volunteers have their chosen garden spot.

I did eventually clear space along one side of the box to plant a row of beans in June, which are coming along very nicely and don't seem to mind sharing their bed with these pretty companions. Camomile and other flowering herbs tend to attract beneficial insects, so having a few of them scattered around the garden is a good thing anyway. 

At the same time, I remembered that dill has grown in another of these boxed beds, so I waited for that to sprout, planting cucumbers and radishes at one end. And soon I noticed a few more poppies amid the dill. Now I have this cheery mix of volunteers in the cucumber bed, including a few small purple violas.

I planted the camomile and the dill a few years ago and haven't had to plant them again since. But the poppies have introduced themselves, I never planted them. My neighbor has some also, and she alerted me to their presence in both of our gardens a few years ago. But hers are frillier and a paler pink, which is funny, because I've had both the frilly pink ones and these deeper salmon colored ones, and I like the salmon ones better. I  had decided that when they bloom this year, I would pick the frilly pink ones to keep them from reseeding. But I'm getting only the kind I like this summer. Maybe I did that last year and forgot!

I did a little research online and have learned that these (both varieties) are bread seed poppies, so I'll save some of the seeds to use in cooking. 

By delaying planting in these beds, and staying alert when weeding, I've discovered a few more volunteers, like this pale pink petunia. I don't remember growing anything like this, so I have no idea where the seeds came from. (Unless my neighbor had them in a hanging basket, which is very possible.)

I have planted the sweet little blue-purple violas known as Johnny jump-ups, and now they show up around the patio and elsewhere, but this volunteer violet or small pansy in the midst of the sweet woodruff in my front yard is a little bit of a mystery. 

I'm enjoying all these volunteers; it's rather fun discovering them and just letting them grow. I'll thin them out from time to time, and I've been harvesting the camomile blossoms a few times, which seems to prolong their blooming period. If you just leave the camomile and let them all go to seed, the plant finishes its life cycle and dies back in a few short weeks and becomes rather unsightly. But this summer, I'm finding that the more I pick them, the more they bloom.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

On podcasts and a daily drawing practice

I once commented to an artist friend that when I dash off a quick sketch of something in order to do a more careful drawing later, I tend to prefer the sketch to the later drawing. “That’s because you’re overthinking it,” she said.

I have a pretty good feeling that is the reason why I have often struggled to maintain a daily drawing practice. Even though I have plenty of available time, I have trouble sitting down to just draw. It's not that I  think that drawing in itself isn't a worthwhile use of my time, it's just that drawing by itself isn’t quite enough to occupy my brain, to keep it from paying too much attention to the act of drawing. It’s like I end up micromanaging myself, if that can be a thing.

Politics podcast from FiveThirtyEight 

In a seemingly unrelated development, I recently discovered podcasts. It started with the website, which I became a little obsessed with during the election. I found their nerdy analytical take on polls and their other quantitative ways of looking at politics to be strangely calming. And I still do. (That’s not to say that their podcasts, or website articles, are dry or ponderous. Quite the contrary, it’s all quite lively and engaging, in a rational sort of way.)

So I started listening to their regular podcasts, including a topical chat about recent events in politics, which are aired every Monday, and a few others of a nonpolitical nature.

We the People podcast from the National Constitution Center

But, like most people, I don’t like to just sit and listen to a podcast, or the radio for that matter. I want to do something while I’m listening. I know that many people will listen to something when they go out for a walk or a jog, but when I go for a walk, I prefer to listen to the birds and other sounds all around me, so that doesn’t work for me. I do listen to MPR News when I’m running errands in the car, just not at home.

Can He Do That? by the Washington Post, and The Daily by the New York Times

You see where this is going, right? Here’s what I discovered: When I draw, paint, doodle, or engage in similar art activities while listening to podcasts, my overthinking brain gets out of the way and my artmaking flows more freely. Sometimes my sketches have random notes jotted all around them, as well, which you may have noticed.

It’s not really multitasking, it’s more like a happy melding of symbiotic activities. 

Listening to Politics and More, from the New Yorker, and The Global Politico, from Politico, while making mini notebook ledgers

I’ve named some other podcasts that I listen to in the captions to the photos I've included here (and in the notes jotted among my doodles and sketches). These are all ones that I find engaging and informative without hyperbole or partisan rancor—because teeth-gnashing is not compatible with artmaking, in my opinion. (You can find any of them by searching the name in your preferred podcast platform. I use a podcast app on my iPad.)

And I don’t abruptly stop whatever I’m working on when the podcasts end, whether it’s an actual project, like making a journal, or just idle drawing and doodling. At that point, I’ll usually switch to classical music until I’m ready to stop.

And my brain doesn’t seem to notice, so it stays out of the way.

. . . and Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day