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How's My Book Going?
And other questions I ask myself
I’ve been working as an illustrator for twenty years and I’ve been drawing and painting for twice as long, yet there is still so much that I don’t know how to do. Crowds of people, cars, cityscapes, complicated interiors: many things elude me. A lot of subject matter I simply avoid. If you ask me to illustrate a picture book manuscript that requires painting crowds of people, I will demure. I have demurred.
But one of the great things about being an artist is that you’re always learning to do things that you didn’t know how to do. Breakthroughs are intoxicating. Sometimes they have to do with color, atmosphere, composition, or medium. Sometimes they are metaphysical. Sometimes they are purely technical: you painted something and it really resembles the thing you set out to paint in a way that you did not think yourself capable of. These technical breakthroughs are no less thrilling to me, the artist, but sometimes I get so caught up in the achievement of the thing that I lose track of the fact that I’m making art. Art isn’t just faithfully rendering a thing because you can. I don’t know what art is, but it’s not that.
As you may remember, I’m hard at work illustrating a journal I kept in 2001. Back then I lived in a SE Portland warehouse and a few months ago I went back to visit and take pictures. I had Milo, my ten year old, with me and he did not like this experience. We got into the building by slipping in the front door as a guy with a cart of produce was leaving. Milo wondered if we were trespassing. I was honestly not sure. He didn’t like this, and he also didn’t like the stairwell.
In January of 2001, I lived in a space on the third floor of this warehouse. Colin and our friend Stiv lived on the second floor. I went down to their place to use the phone, the computer, the TV/VCR, and the kitchen. I was constantly in the stairwell between the two floors. Running to answer a phone call from an ex-boyfriend in San Francisco. Racing downstairs in the middle of the night to jump into bed with Colin after a harrowing nightmare. Making my way, in a towel and sneakers, to the second floor bathroom to shower because it was nicer than the filthy, haunted shared bathroom on my floor. I went downstairs to bum cigarettes, toast bagels, borrow books, and check my email (which was still a novelty to me then). I took the stairwell to the second floor on the morning of September 11th, 2001 to watch news coverage and wonder about my parents who lived in New York City at the time. You get the idea.
So it was moving to find myself in that stairwell again after so many years. The echo of our footsteps on the metal risers was a sound I knew so well. It reverberated deeply. I spent as much time as I could in there, taking pictures, absorbing things, until Milo was like, MOM. I hate it in here. It’s spooky. Please can we leave? And we left.
At home I used the photos to make an illustration for this journal. I wanted to paint myself in a bath towel, carrying my Pert Plus and my hairbrush to the second floor shower. I was thinking about how different my life was then - walking around a creaky old warehouse in my towel, washing my hair with Pert Plus - and I was thinking about my emotionally resonant experience in the stairwell.
Here’s something I think about a lot: How do you know if the art you are making is meaningful to anyone other than you, the artist, and is it ever good art if it’s not?
Somewhere along the line I decided that I was doing a good job painting this stairwell. I thought it would be too hard to capture this shadowy nexus of pipes, wires, and gauges, but as I painted I kept figuring out solutions and techniques. It was fun. If you paint, you probably know this feeling. Like a blossom unfurling, every moment something new is revealed.
I worked like this for a few days: having fun, learning stuff. When I eventually stepped away long enough to gain some perspective, I realized that I didn’t love the painting as much as I had loved painting it. The composition seemed off. The stairwell didn’t feel emotionally resonant. I didn’t like the self-portrait.
On a whim, I cropped the bottom third of the picture off and painted myself out of it. I may have been too hasty? I worked and reworked that self-portrait so many times that I had come to loathe it. It felt terrible but also brilliant and cathartic to paint over it. I’m currently working on filling this stairwell with human shadows, which is another painting entirely. I’m not sure if it’s a better one. I think time will tell.
Before I was an illustrator, I was a painter. In early 2001 I was unemployed - about to get hired to work yet another job in a bar - and I painted a lot, on big canvases. There was never the promise of a show or any money and nobody guided my work but me - no art directors, no editors. I’m thinking a lot lately about the ways my practice has changed since then, specifically the ways illustration work has rewired me. I miss that purely self-guided creativity: the surprising turns it took, the energy it required. I’m always trying to recapture it. Sometimes I succeed.
On the other hand, something that I’m in the habit of doing as an illustrator is making a high res scan of a painting that I’m unhappy with and then totally demolishing it to see what happens. And there’s freedom in that. The painting of me and my Pert Plus still exists on my computer and maybe it will be in this book. Or maybe this painting of shadows in a stairwell will be instead. Or maybe neither.
This is a weird project for me. Forget the fact that it’s so personal, and nostalgic to a degree that is a little embarrassing. Because it is, and so much is coming up as I paint, but I’m still figuring out what to say about all of that. This is also a weird project for me because I don’t know if it’s illustration or an art show. It is illustration, for a book that’s coming out next year. Though I’m not sketching first. I’m just painting - creating a body of work inspired by my twenty year old journal with little editorial oversight. It’ll also be an art show at Nationale in 2024. And you will not see me and my Pert Plus in that show, or anything else that I heedlessly painted over in a moment of vexation.
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