Thursday, February 26, 2015

Creative Block by Danielle Krysa

We are all artists. Whether our creativity shows up in the kitchen, the garden, the easel, the blog post, the darkroom, the poem, or the ceramic studio, we all have artistic talents even if we don't always have time to pursue them and use them.

In the past few years, I have been taken up watercolor painting and sketching. Believe me, this is not a skill that was ever encouraged in me by any teacher in school. I have attended a couple of workshops, enlisted private instructors, and spent a weekend at an out-of-town art conference. Just like anything else, I find that practice makes - while certainly not perfect - at least better.

Which is why I was so intrigued by the new book Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists.  Its cover promised that I can Get Unstuck and Discover New Ideas. How could I not resist.

OK. I am crazy about this book. It is written/compiled by Danielle Krysa, an artist herself and blogger at The Jealous Curator. For the book, she has corralled artists from all over the world and questioned them about their artistic lives. I like that the interviews are short (ten questions) and in a Q&A format. Here are glimpses into the lives of men and women working in paint, collage, ceramics, textiles, embroidery, graphic illustration, paper cutting, watercolor, photography, and sculpture.

Each interview is accompanied by a couple of paragraphs on each artist's training - academic or self-taught - and representative photos of their work. The artists answer such questions as:

When did you first truly feel like an artist?
Do you ever throw a piece of work away?
How do you handle criticism - from others and from your inner critic?
When do you get your best ideas?
How do you get through creative blocks?
How does it feel when you are in The Zone?

At the end of each section, there is a photo of the artist and his or her suggestion for a Creative Unblock Project. These are most fun. Suggestions range from cutting a piece of work in half and creating something new to making a sculpture from an item bought at a thrift store to photographing or sketching everyday objects from a walk around your neighborhood.

It is fascinating to see the wide array of materials and subjects that the artists have been inspired to create. And to learn a little about what inspires them to create. 

I highly recommend it for the artist in you. The encouragement and inventiveness contained here will motivate you to pull out your camera or sketchbook or paints. Have fun!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Precious Ramatswe vs. Isabel Dalhousie

I am always happy to discover a new tale in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. There is something about the way he tells the stories of Precious Ramatswe and Grace Makutsi that comforts me, calms my breathing, and lowers my blood pressure. 

The latest, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, is no exception. All sorts of exciting things happen - well, exciting for Botswana where the action takes place. Mma Makutsi opens the restaurant of the book's title - along with keeping her desk at the agency - and learns that being The Big Boss is not all that it is cracked up to be. Mma Ramatswe hires another detective - certainly low man on the totem pole - who helps her investigate the case of the Woman Who Can't Remember Her Name.

As always, many cups of bush tea and fat slices of cake are consumed, the little white van plays a starring role, Mma Makutsi's shoes once again talk to her and warn her about certain employees hired for her new venture, and the sights and sounds of Botswana fill one's senses. 

Always, and in all ways, a delight.

I wish I could say the same for Mr. McCall Smith's mystery series set in Edinburgh, a wonderful city full of history and tantalizing streets, and home to the Sunday Philosophy Club (which never meets). The detective here is of the amateur kind - Isabel Dalhousie. She is a character I would so like to like - but I just don't. I find her to be bossy and nosy and although she thinks she means well, she says and does the most hurtful things. 

Isabel is a woman in her forties, is comfortably well-off financially, and lives alone in her large family home that is taken care of by housekeeper Grace, who is not shy about stating her opinion on most everything. 

Isabel is the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and spends part of her days reading submissions to the journal for publication. The rest of her time is spent having lofty thoughts on moral duty and analyzing everyday philosophical dilemmas. 

There isn't much mystery here. In the first book, Isabel sees a young man fall to his death from 'the gods', the upper balconies, in the theater. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder? When this one is solved, practically on the final page, Isabel's reaction to the outcome seemed rather suspect. 

In the second book, Isabel meets a man who has had a heart transplant and he keeps having fearful visions of a man's face. This gives Isabel plenty of chances to jump to conclusions which, for as much as she Analyzes Everything, seems out of character. 

Twice before, I have attempted to read the first book in this series and now, basking in the glow of The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, thought I would give Isabel another try. I made it through books one and two - The Sunday Philosophy Club and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Alas, my interest in Isabel has more than waned; it has ended.

I blame part of my sticking with Isabel and her prying ways on being stuck in my house by the ten inches of snow and bitter cold that we are experiencing. I downloaded the books from the library onto my Kindle. So easy. But, I am afraid I will have to leave Edinburgh and Isabel Dalhousie and patiently wait for the further adventures of Precious Ramatswe in  Botswana.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading One Book One Hundred Times

I read with interest a piece written by Stephen Marche and published in The Guardian this past week. In it Mr. Marche states that there are two books that he has read at least one hundred times. 

The first is Shakespeare's Hamlet full of murder and madness. The second is P.G. Wodehouse's The Inimitable Jeeves full of merriment and mirth. The first he read for his dissertation and the second for his amusement. 

He calls this centireading and writes about the process: By the time you read something more than a hundred times, you've passed well beyond "knowing how it turns out". The next sentence is known before the sentence you're reading is finished. 

Here is the link to the original article if you would like to take a look.

Of course, this got me to thinking of books that I have read multiple times. There are not that many. And are there any - or even one - I might be willing to read one hundred times?

I went to my shelves.

The first one that I saw that I might consider was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is so beautifully written and the characters are so dear and I have read it at least three times so I would be on my way.

Or what about 84, Charing Cross Road? That one by Helene Hanff I have read at least five times. Then there is On Writing Well by William Zinsser, a fine treatise on writing non-fiction that I have read four or five times at least. 

But three or four or even five times is a far cry from one hundred. I must say that I feel a tiny tingle of excitement considering the prospect of choosing a book and reading it over and over. I think it would have to be a small book - 200 pages or so. Or perhaps I could find a book with a mere 100 pages and read it one hundred times.

84, Charing Cross Road fits that bill at 97 pages. My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird is 323 pages, and my third edition of On Writing Well runs to 238 pages.

Knowing my fondness for essays, perhaps I should consider the Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb. I have a copy that contains the original twenty-eight essays first published in 1823. If I read an essay a day I could finish the book in that number of days which means I would have read the book thirteen times by the end of a year. I can't do any more math but I still would be a long way from one hundred.

How long before I grew weary of the words? Would I even live long enough to read a book that many times? If I read the same book once a month it would take me over eight years to reach my goal.

Would you care to chime in on this? Is this idea just too weird to even contemplate? If you would attempt to read one book one hundred times, what would it be? 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Listen to the Warm: A Farewell to Rod McKuen

Nineteen sixty-eight was a difficult year in America. We were fighting in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated within two months of each other. Race riots erupted in the streets. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of violent clashes between the police and anti-war demonstrators.

And yet, an American poet named Rod McKuen was writing about love, the sound of rain, warm beaches, a cat named Sloopy, and meadows full of flowers. Upon hearing of his death at the age of 81 this past week, I revisited a book of his poems, Listen to the Warm. The book was given to me and inscribed by a friend with the date Christmas, 1968. 

His poems and songs are part of my youth. Jean, written as the theme song for the movie adaption of Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is often an earworm - with its lyrics...Till the sheep in the valley come home my way, Till the stars fall around me and find me alone... that resounds in my thoughts at the oddest times.

A roommate and I often sighed the sighs of young heartbreak while listening over and over to a (vinyl!) recording of his translation from the French of the Jacques Brel song If You Go Away. This song has been recorded by so many including Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, and Dusty Springfield.

There was also many a night in those days in which I was lulled to sleep listening to The Sea, an album that included not only McKuen's husky voice reading his own poetry but the soothing sound effects of the ocean and the music of Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings. 

Perhaps, as some would later call him, Rod McKuen was the King of Kitsch and today some of his poems might seem too sweet and sentimental, but still his words were a part of my life and I wish him a fond farewell.

It happens just because we need
to want and to be wanted too,
when love is here or gone
to lie down in the darkness
and listen to the warm.