Operating Principles – Revisted

Midway through the second year of “Her spirits rose…” I think about the process as a more flexible thing than I did at the beginning. Last year I planned whole months, mostly now I react to the present (with a little lag time).

Aided by an Internet creation – a chunky paperback I had made from last year’s posts, a “blog to book” publication, I’ve read through old posts thinking about possibilities for pocket books. One might be about what I think of as “operating principles,” and I’ve revisited the first six months so far, collecting favorite quotes.

But I also want to make note of June! Needing a series like last year’s flowers to allow more time for all of us to enjoy June – I’m thinking to combine the two impulses and make posts with a clunky title, “Field Notes from June: iPaintings with Operating Principles.” Or maybe just one or the other.

June is upon us – still cool – but rhododendrons bloom and winter wrens and robins sing in the woods when we walk in the early morning. The white-crowned sparrow calls from his bluff perch, the olive-sided flycatcher from the firs above, and a crow, surely the same one from past years, visits the water dish.

Two different deer trios are about – I encountered a doe with a pair of fawns on the south forty and, just before we left on our trip, a mom with the tiniest fawn, newborn with crisp white spots, appeared. Our house sitter spotted them on our little deck (when the fawn saw her, it slid under an Adirondack chair with that collapsing-to-safety leg movement of a tiny fawn).

This week I watched that pair with what seems to be last season’s fawn, now a yearling. The fawn touched noses with the yearling – and then, distracted, skittered off and jumped straight up – after a robin.

Plants I think of as midsummer blooms (my Alaska gardener roots) – thalictrum, columbine, and real geraniums bloom in my garden now. The rain and rain and rain pleases those sturdy perennials. A handful of annuals in little pots waits for me to get outside and plant.

I wish you the pleasures of daylight and green in this first summer month! As always, thank you so much for reading and for keeping company in this endeavor.

Art with Books

When my family and I moved to Alaska in 1959, the year of statehood, the Z.J. Loussac Library (then a 1955 downtown building) was a lifeline for my sister and me as out-of-place newcomers.

We migrated from the Young Adult section to the real stacks during years of checking out big piles of books and high school study afternoons at old wooden tables. Later, motherhood meant accompanying little children to story hour – followed by a treat at the nearby Woolworths, and a slow walk home with the red wagon full of books.

In 1986 Anchorage built a beautiful new building – many-leveled with comfy chairs and good light. Past story time by then, our sons’ continued trips to the library supported their new interests from schoolwork to backcountry manuals. A list of the checked-out books (a life list like birders keep) would trace our years, revealing life’s changes and inquiries.

The “new” library building is 25 years old this year, and Friends of the Library plan an exhibit of art made from books as part of the celebration. When my painter friend passed the “call for artists” on to me – I applied.

Organizers invited participating artists to select books to use, winnowed from donated and deaccessioned library books – leftovers – unwanted even at book sales. The day I visited on this trip, I chose from books in an alternate set of stacks in the basement, the “dungeon.”

I looked for a book with a title that might reflect my thinking and found a little gilt-lettered volume titled “The Great Conversation,” the first volume in a Britannica Great Books series. The relationship we have with the libraries of our lives does seem a conversation of sorts.

And now the threatened “end of the book” as paper object complicates things. On the airplane I read part of a paperback novel, but also one on my iPad. The New Yorker from last fall I carried with me has a Roz Chast illustration on the cover titled “Shelved.” It shows books with expressive faces on towering, stuffed bookshelves. They watch a fellow in a chair using headphones and a laptop.

I haven’t a clue what I will do with this little book – can I make it a library memoir of some sort? I have till August to conquer my reluctance to “alter” a book and make an offering from this unwanted volume.

Projects Large and Small

Bainbridge Arts and Crafts recently announced its annual “Almost Perfect Sale” – bargains for customers and a chance to clean out the studio for artists. I got out the 12×12-inch panels I painted in acrylic – nine flower panels exhibited in a shared show as one quilt-like piece. I like the idea of this sale – better the panels find a life out of their storage box.

I began to picture them signed and titled as individuals, and when I posed them about my little workroom, I told myself – this will be a project I will enjoy – painting again on each, even if only writing words.

And then I thought about Rose Frantzen. If you go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Hlebdar504&feature=player_embedded, you will see a really exciting use of 12×12-inch panels. The link takes you to Frantzen’s “Portrait of Maquoketa” at the National Portrait Gallery and her gallery talk.

Frantzen conceived of, and completed, a huge portraiture project. In her talk, she explains the genesis of her project – her initial “ah ha” moment came in the grocery store: “I’ll paint a portrait of each person in this little town!”

It’s fun to watch her begin to speak nervously, and then warm to the task of describing her working process – how many people, in what format, and what the whole experience was like (not what she imagined, going in). While you listen you get to see her lively paintings in the background – 180 of them, people of all ages – each painted from life in one sitting.

Frantzen is an artist through and through. She also taps into “project energy” with this series – the vigor that attends something we label as a project – setting aside time, making lists and plans, looking forward to the encapsulated period contained within this particular project, and finding pleasure in the moments of resolution along the way.

I sent the link to my painter friend and to my friend who paints in the woods, but didn’t think more about it till I was in the midst of the small, doable, (signing and titling) project (a break from pushing along the larger pocket book project). But Frantzen is great encouragement to keep going with big projects.

Her project is truly enormous – and the joy in the video is her articulate ability to tell of her growth and learning along the way. When Frantzen talks about her discoveries – about individuals and generations, little towns and community – she describes dedication. The video is 57 minutes (an easy to complete project) – an enjoyable, inspiring tale of what became so much more in the doing.

It’s a pleasure to share this – I really wish Rose Frantzen well. And all of you, with all your projects!

Pocket Book Plans

Our neighbor down the road, who keeps track of such things with gauges and graphs, reported that each month from December to March we had double our average rainfall.

Garden and ground are soggy – I only stab quickly at pop weed and pick handfuls of daffodils. Our dependable lawn mower guy mowed once, but his tracks puddle in places. March became a planning month.

My clever friend is planning a kitchen remodel. She wants to keep the sunshine and apple green paint, but widen a doorway and arrange appliances for convenience. And it’s been fun to hear of our younger son’s Los Angeles garden plans coming into reality. Phone photos show newly smothered-by-cardboard lawn piled with mounds, which will turn into rich soil. These sturdy garden beds will help realize his plan for a backyard vista of “just sky, bushes, and trees.”

Here, while the rain poured down day after day, I dreamed of summer trips and a visit by my young friend and her mother in August – when rainy days will be just a memory and the grass dried brown with heat and sun.

And I’ve been planning for possible artists’ books – an old form inspired by a modern form. In Hawaii, I used the bed as a work surface and spread out various pieces of the blog – images and text reminders – trying to discover a book structure. I wanted to capture some of what I love about making the blog, but in paper form, not one-of-a-kind but to print in multiples. I began to imagine a series of “pocket books.”

Trying to push the technical details a little ahead each day, I made a rough dummy of an accordion fold book that can stand up, using one big sheet of paper, printed. In my plan, full size images on each accordion page, reduced and folded over, make back pages with pockets (to hold the printed essays).

And I’ve been thinking about what web people call “content” – what I think of as subjects, themes, concerns – the stuff of spirits rising – writing and drawing, food and Frances, making everyday things artful, travel and family. When I spread out some of the essays and images, I get hopeful thinking of little volumes, not organized chronologically like the blog, but adapted into gatherings with titles like
Birds”, “Gardens,” “Drawing,” “Beans,” “Weather,” or “Virginia Woolf.”

I hope. A plan’s a start.

Codex Book Fair – Berkeley

Surrounded by the spirit of Berkeley, the Codex International Book Fair and Symposium is held on the Berkeley campus. I watched students protesting on Sproul Plaza in solidarity with Egyptian peers and ate dinner at Café Gratitude where entrees have names like “I am Worthy,” “I am Abundant,” and “I am Touched.”

Attended by their creators, the Book Fair features scores of beautiful letterpress, digitally produced, and one-of-a-kind books. Lectures each morning at the Berkeley Art Museum make the event even richer.

Best for me was being there with my friend, the one who paints in the woods, while she tended her table of “fold-y forests” (what the young writer calls the calendars my friend makes with her tree-filled images). They brought color, and the scent of fir and spruce to the Student Union ballroom.

For a couple of days I walked the campus and Berkeley neighborhoods in sunshine, and dipped repeatedly into Book Fair treasures.

I am inspired!

A Visit to the UW Book Arts Collection

A little class in bookbinding at my children’s school, 20 years ago, first exposed me to the notion of making books. A son came home one day and said, “You should come tomorrow – you will like this.” I did and was hooked. A little research led to the University of Washington’s book arts and rare book curator Sandra Kroupa, center of a book arts universe, then and now.

On a rainy November Wednesday a couple of weeks ago, I left here in the morning dark, grabbed a muffin in Winslow and caught the 8:45 ferry. Passengers, wearing rain gear in shades of black and gray, stood like mourners when waiting to disembark in Seattle, and looking the same, with hood up and sturdy shoes, I climbed the hill to the bus tunnel.

I walked sidewalks scattered with fall leaves – oak and maple, red and gold – across the campus to the library. The University of Washington’s Book Arts Collection, used to be housed in the Suzzallo Library – “collegiate gothic” in style, fairy tale in appearance. Now the Collection resides in the modern Allen Library next door, but I remember old wooden tables and natural light, a nook at the side of a beautiful reading room.

On my first visit Sandra presented a cartful of wondrous handmade books – and I was inspired thinking about possibilities (including the thought of being collected in such a place). But most of all I loved meeting Sandra. She nurtures artists – she listens, she commiserates, and she’s realistic.

Often we speak of binding or paper possibilities. This time I asked about text in artists’ books. (I thought of that Anne LaMott essay when she spoke about structure in life being the key – goals and planning).

We talked in her office – she calls it cluttered, but I think it feels like a treasure cave. The computer glows, surrounded by carts of books in their archival storage boxes. She showed me an intriguing artists’ book – a doll bed at first glance – with quilts, flannel sheet, and pillows made from antique textiles. Taking off each piece of bedding (that familiar motion) reveals text from the life of a 19th century woman.

Sandra deposited me at a library table with a cart full of books which present an interesting possibility (books made with original art, but also affordable multiples of the same book), and left to present medieval illuminated manuscripts to a Latin class.

On my way out I saw richly colored pages (she calls them fragments) arranged on a classroom table and wished I could sit in on the class. But the afternoon grew dark. I rode the bus back downtown, walked through city bustle (display windows bright with color), and bought a huge bouquet of orange dahlias and ornamental kale at the Pike Place Market.

On the ferry I sat in the very front near the big windows. I kept seeing those manuscript fragments, but then I looked on the iPad screens of fellow travelers – at illuminated words and images. More accessible than manuscripts in their time, but full of possibility for beauty and interest.

Brain full I drove home in the dark – spirit refreshed.

Books – Pixels or Pages

On a rainy Sunday (no, not all Sundays are rainy these days, but many), we headed for the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair at the Seattle Center. We rode the ferry from Bainbridge and walked up the hill to the monorail – a Sunday morning city – quiet.

And it was hushed in the Exhibition Hall – a huge room full of aisles of booths manned by book people of all stripes – independent bookstores, dealers with first editions, collectors of posters, individual pages of manuscripts, and author correspondence.

My main goal was to visit Vamp and Tramp Booksellers. I don’t know how or if they assign those titles to each other, but Vicky Stewart is pretty with southern honey-tones in her voice, and her husband Bill is professorial and kind. Both are gracious. Together, they cross the country in a van with their goods aboard – handmade books consigned by the artists that Vamp and Tramp, with enthusiasm and care, represent.

They have a great web site (vampandtramp.com), but with artists’ books there is no substitute to seeing, holding, and opening pages. Vamp and Tramp make this possible by visiting book fairs and special collections at libraries and universities on their rounds.

Artists’ books are hard for galleries to exhibit, but they are comfortable owned by individuals or in special collections. Housed in custom made boxes in closed stacks, these often one-of-a-kind books are brought out by request for students and interested visitors, and for exhibitions organized around individual artists – or particular subjects.

To visit Vamp and Tramp at this book fair is a little like a visit to a collection. In a setting with many faded (but valuable) books, their books are colorful and inventive in shape and content – popup books (handmade and amazingly intricate), accordion folded books, elaborate hand bound books, and books of unexpected materials. I asked particularly to see books that contained text beyond letterpress (many book artists are printmakers, and they produce exquisitely beautiful volumes with large text blocks).

I’m curious because I want to make more books, and wonder now about beyond the year of the blog. Combining words and pictures is joy for me. The mechanics of constructing a book by hand is at the other end of the spectrum from sending out the blog with a push of a button. Paper pages or pixels – both a chance for expression.

On this visit I delivered my set of foldbooks, newly bound and housed in a red portfolio. On their circuit to Canada, back home to Alabama, and up the East Coast, Vamp and Tramp will show these books where they might be of interest – all before Christmas.

While I stay home and work – that’s inspiring – and I’m very grateful!

Big Bird’s Banana Bread

September might be my favorite month. I love the often-fine weather and the potential for exciting new beginnings. School starts (all those years – as students and as parents of students). We married in September. Three years later in September our first son was born. Virginia Woolf wrote, “It’s a pleasant thing come autumn to make plans.”

But this September is looking a little quiet, and I am fighting the empty feeling that comes after a full holiday weekend. It’s sad to see the two pairs of slippers, worn by the young people on their visit, lined up in the corner of the entry. Dimming light brings a little melancholy this damp morning – foghorns on the Strait and three sweaters on me.

I’m always trying to wrestle my mind away from an unconstructive default. Overripe bananas moved me to make “Big Bird’s Banana Bread.” The fragrance of the banana bread baking set up a series of nostalgic (and not realistic) thoughts about the beginning of school, remembering years of banana bread as afterschool treat.

The recipe came from a long ago Sesame Street Magazine – I used to know it by heart, but to make it after we moved here I had to ask the mother of my young friend to send it down to me. It takes just a minute or so to put together – melt the butter, heat the oven, mash the bananas with honey, and add the dry ingredients and nuts if you like.

But it takes an hour to bake – and by that time I had turned to finishing up a series of foldbooks about autumn. (The words of Mary Oliver set me to work: “The working concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work – who is responsible to the work.”)

The handwork of cutting the endpapers, titling the books, and picking colors for covers reset my mind. The six books, embellished with hop vines and rose hips, an orb weaver, late blooming-lilies, and Washington winter plant color, trace this time of late summer into winter. Drawn and painted over a couple of autumns, these pages are overdue for binding. (The foldbooks will decorate the header of “Her spirits rose…” to finish the year.)

I decided to take the banana bread to my bookbinder friends along with the books to be bound. They might have fall plans to tell. Then I can plan how to record September here – the images on the foldbook pages remind me there is much to cherish about this season.


The only member of my high school class to get anywhere near Hollywood did it big, producing movies seen near and far. When our children were medium sized and we were in L.A. for other things, I called the producer. I’d always liked him – he was funny, and he liked me – I was short.

We were staying in a hotel and the producer arrived, carrying T-shirts and ball caps ablaze with the current movie’s logo, driving his tiny, shiny black sports car practically into the lobby.

We drank a beer and tried to ignore how we didn’t look like high school anymore. I think the younger son wandered off, but the older stayed, and the producer entertained the three of us with his success story (which was impressive). What I remember most was when the producer said to the older son: ”Your parents are going to tell you can do anything!” (which of course was true), ”but I’m going to tell you that isn’t true. You can do a couple of things, maybe some one thing really well, and your job is to figure out what that is.”

More beer – we parted, the kids grew up, the producer died a too early death in a Hollywood way.

In the family mythology, this story is subject to different interpretations, but I take away the part about figuring out what you can do by focusing on that question. In spite of the sad ending, it’s a good story for young people, if they seem overwhelmed by the vast possibilities for their futures. The story also resonates for me when people say they aren’t talented or imaginative, attributes which also require focus.

Once I made a series of artists’ books called “Shoe Statements” to explore what a shoe’s type or a shoe’s relation to others might imply.

In these original drawings for the book titled “Archetypes,” well-worn shoes and boots posed on my worktable. In a book titled “Connections” they consort heel to toe; in “Crowds” they huddle together in an uncomfortable pile; and in “Mismatches,” footwear lose their regular partners: a little cowboy boot pairs with a dress shoe, a Converse-All-Star mates with a work boot.

In my favorite book “Horoscopes,” I combined shoes with some of those daily newspaper homilies. Statements like: “Develop routine that enables you to complete a variety of tasks, assignments” and “The tide suddenly turns” can seem meaningful – or absurd.

All this is to include a text from “Horoscopes” which suggests why focus might be beneficial:

“Focus and the horizon widens.”