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Friday, December 27, 2013

God is in the details

My friends at In Design Inc. do beautiful interior and event design. Much to my glee, they've called on me a few times to infuse a project with a shot of sandstromvassen. It's always fun, because they give guidance then kind of say, "Do what you do."

What I did recently was create little cards (pretty much precisely like the one above) to identify the various dishes on the banquet at a solstice party.

And I must say, couldn't you just go for a pistachio macaron or two right about now?

But back to Chris, Bret and Juliana at In Design. Beyond being grateful for the work, I'm grateful for the lesson they impart when they pay someone to create illustrated menu cards for an event. It's that no-detail-goes-unconsidered quality that separates artists from the rest of the pack. They're like Martha, only much nicer, and with better dogs.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas from Roscoe and Me

Here was this year's Christmas card.
If you didn't get a real one from me in the mail and you'd like one, I'd be happy to send one.

In any case, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

The Pen in Hand Staff

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why the Artist In Your Life Is Sort of Crazy

This one would be a good one to see up close so you can read the text. You can do that by clicking the picture.

The thing about doing any kind of arts-related stuff, whether you're getting paid for the project or not, is that a lot of us really regard it as more or less equally important to neurosurgery and finding an alternative to burning fossil fuels.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

But It Works Like a Charm!

A few years ago, I sent our younger daughter, Lylah, out with my credit card and an idea of what she could buy her dad for Christmas. Our nice Rabbit corkscrew had recently bitten the dust. She could find a replacement at Williams Sonoma, I advised, and her father would love it.

She came back with an elaborate and very heavy box from Le Creuset. I believe it was lined with velveteen. It had this corkscrew in it, as well as a gizmo for removing the foil seal around the cork. The corkscrew itself is nothing to sneeze at; no arthritic old person could manage it. But once you have the hang of it, no corked bottle is safe.

It all seemed very elaborate, and it turns out that such fine machinery costs … $180. Lylah, of course, had no idea what a chi-chi corkscrew was supposed to cost (I had figured the Rabbit replacement would be about 50 bucks). But it was late, and the holiday was upon us, so we kept the corkscrew, and eventually we told Carlo just exactly how valuable the thing was. If we were going to own a $180 corkscrew, we were going to squeeze every bit of entertainment value from it.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Your Terrible Correspondent

I used to be such a splendid little blogmistress, posting daily or every few days or at least weekly.
All I have for you by way of apologies is this alligator and a very short story.

When my children were young, my brother Eric told them he had an alligator living in his bathtub.
They believed him.
Part of them still does.
The end.

(Plot is like everything else; you get what you pay for.)

Coming soon, by the way, will be a blog on my favorite picture books of 2013.

Now go away and do something with yourself.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gratitude for the Extroverts

It's true - this page has virtually nothing to do with this post. But you can click on the image and read it if you'd like.

Perhaps you've been vacationing on Uranus and thus have missed the celebration of the introvert that has been trending, as they say, on the interwebs. A couple of new books on the topic of introversion -- what it is, how it's valuable -- have brought us out of the closet in droves. And now we all know more about introverts than we ever dreamed, but if you're just catching up here's the shorthand:

1. We introverts expend a lot of energy when we're around groups of people, and need to recoup afterward. Quietly. By ourselves.
2. We're not necessarily shy, we just like a lot of alone-ish time.
3. The very idea of piles of social plans can set us to swooning.
4. Staying home almost always sounds better than socializing, even when the people we plan to socialize with are dear friends.

Honestly, the consciousness-raising around introversion has been great because, as one friend noted, "I'm so glad to know it's a thing." And it's given me a quick bridge to others like me, because now that it's a thing it's also a thing we have in common, and can laugh about. There are people who know exactly what I mean when I say, "I have THREE SCHEDULED EVENTS this weekend." They're already feeling fatigued on my behalf.

Yes, I'm grateful for what I'm sure some of you will regard by now as the endless onslaught of love-an-introvert messages; frankly, we were due.

On the other hand, I want to carve out space here to say how especially grateful I am for the extroverts in my life. Without the extroverts I might be some 21st century middle-aged-woman Salinger imitator.

My dearly beloved extrovert friends and relatives inspire me. They inspire me to go beyond my apprehension and/or terror, and imagine the idea of a new social experience as having possible positive outcomes. They're good at leashing up my inner extrovert and forcing it out for a constitutional now and then. On these occasions, I breathe the fresh air of human interaction and remember that this, too, is good, even though it's good in a different way from snuggling on the couch with my dog.

And, perhaps best of all, on the rare occasion when I want to actually host a party or event, the extroverts sincerely do not mind showing up. Some of us introverts actually feel guilty when we extend invitations to other introverts, knowing that at least part of them will regard the gathering as emotionally burdensome. We have no such worries with our extrovert friends, who, as I understand it, do not start planning their escape even as they pull up to the party house. (What must that be like ...?)

So yes, extroverted friend, daughter, husband ... Your kind have ruled the world for most of history. After this brief pop-culture flirtation with introversion has passed, you will likely continue to do so. That's OK with me. Just two requests: First, please don't take it personally if I turn down your invitation to go out and do something. But second, keep inviting me anyway. Cleary, I need you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Our new red chair

Observe: Roscoe hangs on the red velveteen chair in the living room. There used to be two, but we had to ditch the other because one of the cats kept peeing on it and it reeked. (Sidebar: Yes, we put it out on the tree lawn. Yes, it was gone before the garbage truck came. People are strange.)

The red chair has been in this house since 1998, the year we moved in. It was part of a grand celebration of redecorating during which we killed the terrible style that came with the house: the foil wallpaper with Chinese fans and the mirrored wall and the black leather par-tay sectional and replaced it all with some combo of respectable elegance and quirky art. The pair of red chairs gave the living room, with its cherry-stained book case, a warm, clubby feeling that I wouldn't have arrived at without the help of my designer friend Chris, but which definitely balances my quirky-art tendencies.

Everyone has loved the red chairs, but the dogs have loved it best. Ramona, our beloved basset hound, perched on the one by the window and rested her drooly chin so often that a dark, shiny patina bloomed on the armrest. Pearlie, the Newfoundland, was too big for the red chairs (which wouldn't stop her from coming over and resting her butt on your lap if you were sitting in it), but now Roscoe has claimed the remaining chair as his go-to spot. I wonder if his nose picks up latent basset hound molecules.

The point is that -- well, this is pathetic, but -- part of my brain still thinks of the remaining red chair as half of "our new chairs." Put another way, when I look around the house, my eyes are burdened by signs of age. Every room cries for a paint job. The bedroom carpet is a wreck. Nothing, really, is new, except for the recliner I bought Carlo for Christmas last year.

Yet I can't account for how quickly the new red chairs became the one old, remaining chair that has been present as three dogs came and two went; as two girls turned from little kids into college women. The guy who painted this room green, who was a buoyant combination of cheerful and bitter, who I'd love to hire to repaint it now? I happened across his obituary a while back.

The remaining red chair has the bits of fabric hanging shredded underneath the seat, where the cats have turned it into entertainment. Like its partner, it really should be tossed. But I probably won't do that. Roscoe finds comfort in it, as you can see. And of course, so do I.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

I have a good excuse

This top image dates back to August, and I apologize for the lameness of a)posting a throwback and b) not posting in a month.
The bottom image hints at why. I've been working hard in my non-paid-gig hours to get this wonderful show of artist sketchbooks together at Stocker Art Gallery at Lorain County Community College.

It's been a thrill to reach out to artists - several of them friends -- and spend time with their sketchbooks. They're full of gorgeous drawings, intriguing notes, the occasional misstep and even shopping lists. If you're near Elyria next Friday, Nov. 15, stop by during the reception from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hog day afternoon

I am glad to be a part of the population who would rather spend an afternoon looking at farm animals than do a lot of other things. Also glad to have raised daughters who suggest such excursions.

It was a judgment error to let the crazy chicken stay in its spot on the page, but I had drawn her there in pencil before I drew the sheep scene. Using her as border accent seemed like a good idea at the time -- less so now.

As for the piglets, well ... There were two litters, and two gigantic sows. And I could've pulled up a stool and sat there for hours. A sign read, "Please do not pick up the piglets," which was good news, because it didn't say "please don't touch the piglets." So Lylah and I touched the piglets whenever they came close enough to the pen. I wondered whether the mothers would be upset, but they both looked too lazy or exhausted for petty protective instincts. The mothers' coats were course and almost oily feeling. The babies were softer, but their bodies, which looked plump and loaflike when they slept in little clumps, felt harder than they looked.

They hopped around the pen and took care of their mother's position as she ambled to the food trough. It seemed they had instinct enough, even at a week old, to give a thousand-pound object a wide berth even if that object was Mom.

Sorry about the scanning shadows, by the way.

Saturday, October 05, 2013


Years ago I used to write a regular newspaper feature on people and their collections. Among the memorable: a good-natured guy who collected urinals, a sweet woman with an awe-inspiring collection of interesting teapots, and the man in Westlake who became an expert in big mechanical music boxes.

Some of my ambitious colleagues regarded this as a waste of time and newsprint. (Newsroom types aren't shy about sharing their views.) I'll admit that this astonished me at first. I'd always loved feature stories, and in a way, the less event-oriented and the more personal-story oriented they were, the better. You can learn a lot about someone through the objects that attract him. Our stuff becomes, in a way, a portrait of our selves.

Eventually, even I tired of the series, though, because I started seeing a common theme. In many cases, folks who were really obsessive about certain types of collections were clearly -- even admittedly -- trying to fill some endless need. There was a difference between those who casually acquired interesting objects and the more hard-core types, who tended to have disciplined and impressive collections. The hard-core types began to seem, to me at least, a bit damaged. Every story started to sound the same.

Clearly, I'm a collector, too, though in neither a disciplined nor obsessive way. And I'd like to think that the stuff around my house says something good about the people who live here. I leave you to your own conclusions.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The perfect day

My perfect day is something like this:
Nothing scheduled.
Nothing due.
A dog, a pen, a book, a walk. Some people around -- being near but doing their own perfect thing. A nap.
That's it.

What's yours?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Among friends

This weekend I was among other people -- many of them middle-aged women, but men as well -- who love children's books. It was the annual conference of the Northern Ohio Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writer and Illustrators. I took a class with a picture-book writer who told of reading picture books aloud to her college-aged sons and their friends, and I thought, "Yes! These are my people." There were lengthy discussions about what makes good kid lit, and of course much of the the pointers are the same as would be given to anyone trying to write anything successfully, except perhaps lawyers and those writing artist statements for gallery walls. (Those are areas where obfuscation and murkiness seem to guide the aesthetic.)

Anyway, it was fun. And for you at home making lists of picture books, I give you Lisa Wheeler, who has written zillions of delightful titles and is a pretty good conference class leader, too.

By the way, I doodled my child and dog here in my note-taking notebook, then liked them enough to do them again in color in my watercolor book. I shouldn't have put the toe-licking action right there in the gutter of the sketchbook, but you get the idea.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Beautiful wordlessness

I love wordless stories.

Here's one I bought recently: Bluebird by artist Bob Staake. Take a look -- there's a short trailer posted on the site.

In Flotsam, David Wiesner conveys an eloquent tale about a magical camera found on the Jershey shore.

Though he's best known for comics like The Spirit, the late great Will Eisner was a master of wordless narrative. Here's one I go back to over and over, for all kinds of reasons. Some pages have dialogue, but many don't.

Finally, The Arrival by Shaun Tan tells a special and fantastical immigration story. The drawings are impeccable.

So I said "finally," but I meant only finally for today. There will be more ...

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Best Thing I Saw Yesterday

The best thing I saw yesterday was a hawk landing on a low roof of a neighbor's house. This is unusual, especially since hawks tend to prefer tree limbs or even power lines. He/she didn't stir when I got as close as possible to catch a glimpse, so I repaired to the sidewalk after a respectable time.

But off in the park later in the day, I caught a glimpse of a snake emerging from the murky lagoon; a turtle playing chicken with a duck on a limb sticking out of the water; a squirrel carrying something really really big in its mouth, scampering through the woods; and a duck taking a really long bath. Sweet autumn flowering things emitted clouds of fragrance, there and gone before I could identify the source. A heron, it turns out, can stand in one place for many minutes on end, but eventually it wants to check out another part of water, so it arises on pterodactyl wings, then lands thigh-deep near the rushes. And of course in the woods, one looks for interesting trees, and one need not look long. The one on the left of the page above, with its swirling grain, had more character than some people I know.

A funny thing I heard: small boy whining at his mother, "You always make me come out here and look at nature!"

That is all now. May your day be full of fresh air.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Something I wish I had known in 1979

We dropped the second child off at college on Friday.

The first child was already there, well moved into her new apartment, full of the confidence one tends to get when one achieves senior-in-college status. But the second child is, I think, proportionately filled with intrigue and fear, and because the two of us are emotional clones, so am I.

Yesterday I felt like I had a slight flu.

"Oh," I said to myself. "That's right -- this is what happens sometimes when I think I can escape Actual Feelings. I feel like I have the flu."

And then I reminded myself that this is just how it works, at least for me. No big change in life may go unregistered by the mainframe. There is no way out of the mourning for whatever it is that has come to an end (for instance, my time as the center of my kids' universe). The mainframe insists: We Will Have Feelings.

This is OK, because what I know now that I didn't know in 1979, when I was a terrified (and, as it turned out, depressed) teenager being abandoned by my primary care units on the very same college campus where I dropped my kid off on Friday -- what I didn't know then is that feelings aren't dangerous.

Yes, this sounds stupid. We're supposed to know that, but I didn't. Back then, it all terrified me: the depression, the wonder, the loneliness-in-a-crowd thing, and the fear itself. So that first year was terrible.

What I want the second child to know are two things. The first: Unless you're a robot, or perhaps escaping some truly abusive home situation, you cannot avoid having a lot of strong feelings during times of big change. Like, say, going off to college for the first time. The feelings WILL BE HAD. Sometimes they'll feel like fear and loneliness. Sometimes they'll feel like fatigue or anxiousness. Some of them will be good and exhilarating. Many will. But there will likely be a storm of feelings in your first weeks and months.

The second thing is: The feelings are not dangerous, and they settle down as you settle in. It pays to notice and acknowledge them, but don't let them run away with your reason. Think of them as that friend who you love but who tends to tell little lies. You learned a long time ago that you can't totally rely on her. So you don't let her make the big decisions requiring good judgment.

You give the feelings a nod, when you're having them. You say to yourself, "Oh, that's right. I'm in the middle of a big new thing and this is normal." Then you suck it up and take a walk or do your homework or otherwise refocus on the kinds of things that make your higher self proud.

Had I known this in 1979, my first year would've been less dreadful and more fun. (It was some of both, by the way.) But I know this in 2013, and now so do you.

Friday, August 09, 2013

What is the animal thing all about?

My childhood dog was a dachshund named Rudy. He arrived as a puppy when I was about 4 and departed when I was in high school. Family lore differs on whether he was A Good Dog or A Difficult Dog -- he barked with religious devotion at the mailman and bolted long and far on the rare occasion he got loose -- but I loved his presence. He was reliable company, and he made our family dog people.

One afternoon when I was perhaps ten or 12, a neighbor's tabby cat wandered into our rock garden. It curled around my legs and allowed me to pet it, and when it didn't scurry off in reaction to my attention (that was the kind of behavior I'd come to expect from my friends' cats), a felt a strong affection bloom inside my heart. Surprise, surprise. We were dog people, but a sudden fondness for a cat somehow had found me. Day after day, I hoped the cat would return to our yard, which it did with a frequency that annoyed my mother. I don't remember admitting to her that its visits pleased me.

Today, we still know dog people and cat people. More and more, though, thanks to the interwebs, we know seriously dedicated, almost bent animal people. More and more of us ARE such folk, encouraged by advertising and Facebook posts and just a general trend that feeds our pro-beast leanings. More of us joke (sort of) that we get along better with animals than with people. More of us actually do.

I'd like to think the zoophilia signifies an element of pure human goodheartedness. Maybe it does. It seems to me, though, that all our swooning over coats and beaks is as well a symptom. For those of us who find cultural gyrations spinning just a few hundred rpm's too fast, a beastly presence supplies calming influence. Office drama and family trauma and the straight up insanity of politics at every level -- well, it's all just a bit much, isn't it? It's weighty and frustrating and dispiriting, and for this we have an antidote in the form of a garden cat.

Or in dogs sleeping on tattered couches.

Or in videos of big burly men singing puppies to sleep.

Or photogenic lizards.

Or poignant journalism about places that care for orphaned elephants.

Most dog people will tell you that man's best friend offers unconditional love. True enough. Many cat people will tell you more or less that their cats allow them to share space with them, and that this, combined with their cat antics, is somehow pleasing. Whatever else these creatures bring to our lives, they deliver simplicity and straightforwardness and innocence -- qualities that eclipse whatever sins they commit by way of dining-room puddles and wrecked upholstery.

Our devotion to our pets, and our fascination with the rest of Noah's menagerie, is telling us something. Our world has gotten hard and fast and stupid, even as it has become wildly interesting and efficient. We are full of love, yes, but we are also looking for rescue from an environment that moves too fast and unpredictably.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


The pleasures of summer, Sandstromesquely speaking: art and Ann Arbor, music (Steely Dan -- perhaps my last live rock concert? if so, an excellent choice), the presence of too-absence girl children, and the weird joy of wandering into a vulture cage.

This last is hard to explain, even to myself. But imagine you were able to have a conversation, even a halting conversation, with a dinosaur. Would you enjoy it? Would the part you didn't understand intrigue you -- like half-comprehended song lyrics? Maybe it would.

And maybe you'd be a little thrilled by the prospect of being so close to something that really was not meant to be so close to you, as well as evidence that this creature, with its birdbrain, still communicates with specificity -- in a way that seems to offer evidence of personality.

I will not try to persuade you of the vulture's beauty; I'm boring myself with that line, though I still fervently believe it. Few others do, and we know who we are.

But I'll bet that if you had an opportunity to make friends with a dinosaur, such friendship attended, as it would be, by all sorts of hurdles and miscues and foreignness -- I'll bet you'd do it. I'll bet you'd like it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013



Friday night, I was feeling sorry for myself. I leaned into it and drew the Squonk.

Despite his sad-sack nature, I think the Squonk is a wonderful character. I like that we don't know a whole lot about his looks, so I can kind of make it up. (Though he always looks pretty much the same way in my head.)
Anyway, I've drawn him before, which you can see here.

And he figures into my book project, which you cannot see here.

But the point is, the Squonk not only lives a desperate, hunted existence, but -- well, he's a little self-pitying. I mean, he DISSOLVES INTO TEARS. Sometimes we feel we will dissolve into tears, but only the Squonk is sufficiently self-sad.

That leads me to wonder: Do all emotions have usefulness -- even the unattractive ones?? Does self-pity have some kind of unsung utility?

I have no answer. But I have a Squonk. And so do you.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Middle School

In case you were wondering, and thought you'd save me the embarrassment of being asked: Yes, I'm stiiillll working on "Thick Through the Middle." And speaking of "middle," I've been toiling with a part that has to do with the horror that is middle school, which led me to this image. I shall not EXPLAIN the image -- whatever sense you get from it is probably just right.

But it makes me wonder. What do other people remember from middle school? Rough days? Tender moments? Antics and jokes? Crushes and enemies? When people say "middle school" or "junior high," where does your head go?

Friday, June 28, 2013


Is that a warp you see? Yes, the drawing above was scanned from my sketchbook and the fold in the book didn't scan perfectly. Ergo, the fairy's wing looks weird.

In the early 1970s, one of my excellent brothers gave me the Barbra Streisand Live at the Forum record for Christmas.

Warning: In addition to having absolutely nothing to do with the illustration above (which has its own story embedded in it, which also has nothing to do with the image), this tale has several cul-de-sacs. Here is the first one: After asking for the record for Christmas, I started thinking of all the other things I might get as a surprise, and un-asked my brother for the record, telling him I'd changed my mind. He said, "Too bad -- I already bought it for you." I told myself this was probably just a ploy on his part, and that, come Christmas, he'd have bought me some other wonderful thing. But in fact, he was being straight-up, so on Christmas of whatever year that was (I was still quite a child), I received "Live at the Forum." I ground the grooves into sand. It was my first favorite record. (There would be more, of course.)

Anyway, back on the main drag.
Track 8 is a reprise of Streisand's "Funny Girl" hit, "My Man," a song that almost immediately captured my heart. It dates to the very early 20th century, and so even in the 1970s, it had a kind of antique sensibility. Perhaps you know it? Here are the lyrics:

Oh, my man, I love him so, he'll never know
All my life is just despair, but I don't care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright, all right...
What's the difference if I say I'll go away
When I know I'll come back on my knees someday
For whatever my man is, I am his forever more
It cost me a lot,
But there's one thing that I've got, it's my man
Cold and wet,
tired -- you bet,
But all that I soon forget with my man
He's not much for looks
And no hero out of books is my man
Two or three girls has he
That he likes as well as me, but I love him...
Oh, my man, I love him so, he'll never know
All my life is just despair, but I don't care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright, all right...
What's the difference if I say I'll go away
When I know I'll come back on my knees someday
For whatever my man is, I am his forever more...

Let us count the incidence of dated language and sentiment, shall we? I mean, really: You'd have to look hard for a song that embodied more female disempowerment than "My Man." It's almost impossible to imagine a singer like Streisand even performing it. In fact, when I recently went to find a Youtube recording of it, I came across video of her offering a disclaimer of it as "a classic victim song" -- right before she sang it onstage at a concert. And broke my heart all over again, for about the 1,500th time.

I am helpless in its presence. Or, at least I am helpless in the presence of the "Live at the Forum" version of this song.

It's not that I don't get it. Even as a kid, and an often lovesick teenager, I understood the narrator of "My Man" to be denigrating herself. Even then, I saw that -- devoted as she was -- she deserved far better than this unattractive, not terribly successful philanderer who owned her heart.

Not only that, but I understood that SHE understood that she deserved better. And that she probably was not going to do any better, at least in this lifetime. These layers of knowing were, I thought, part of the genius of the song. At first listen, maybe you take the narrator for a dopey chick who's being used and doesn't know it. Then you see that she's being used and she DOES know it, and not only that but she's self-aware enough that she knows that even if she screws up the courage to leave him, she'll "come back on her knees someday."

Wow. Because who among us hasn't been willing to be that fool, even temporarily? Even if we snapped out of it at some later date?

More than that, though, what kills me about "My Man" at the Forum is Streisand's phrasing and pacing beginning at this critical turn: "two or three girls ... has he ... that he likes .. as well as me ..." then pours it on with "But I love him." And in that moment, the pathos falls away and you get something very ... relate-able. Even if you've never loved a schmuck with three girls on the side. Even if the object of your love was actually DESERVING of it, you get this line that embodies that abandon that love brings along with it.

And it. Is just. Divine. (Says me.)

Now, this is the point at which I underscore the purpose of this essay, and its underlying connection to an aging fairy with a dog.

Wait, no. I'm lying. As I said, there is no connection to the illustration. Having listened to the song recently, I simply had a yen to think about it. And defend it. So there you go; I feel better.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Second Thought: God, friends and creativity

Decades ago, in a conversation about music, my brother Greg made the case that a singer isn't as creatively important as the songwriter; that the songwriter generates something from nothing, whereas the singer is merely repeating or interpreting. He would rather have songwriting talent than singing talent, he said.

As a kid who transfixed by the idea of making something where before there was nothing, his logic made perfect sense. I downloaded his opinion onto my own personal hard drive, and there it stayed for years to come. I think of it as the "God" definition of creativity: You can only claim to be creative if you're the one making something from nothing. And since being creative was good, and merely parroting someone else's creative product seemed less honorable, the singer was less important than the songwriter.

It would be years before deeper thought intruded, but eventually it did. And when you think deeply about what it means to be creative, you inevitably end up (say I) admitting that no one creates something from nothing -- well, except perhaps God himself. The songwriter used language he or she was taught; most likely used melodic tropes evolved through the ages. The song might be new, but it's hardly without foundation material.

Meanwhile, the singer might or might not be creative. She might mimic others' styles. She might fake emotion. Or she might bring whatever that thing is that truly creative people bring to what they do. You can think of it as the "special sauce," or as a way of stamping the starter material with a piece of one's soul. Whatever.

Most of creativity -- all of it? -- is taking what we're given and adding what's uniquely ourselves. Some of us do it on a grand scale. Some of us add just a little bit.

Collaboration rules. We collaborate with composers, singers, painters, or writers who went before us. We work in real time with other musicians, artists, editors and technicians. Being creative doesn't make us God. But talented friends and curious hearts can make us creative.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Works On Paper

I wonder how long ago it was that the birch tree's shedding of its papery bark first caught our eyes. We must've been kids, right? Kids born before the takeover of the electronic glow. Kids still able to study the tiny, fierce industry of an ant colony for long minutes, or to get our shoes mucked up in a creek bed. The flaking birch was like the weeping willow with its chandelier branches: special-tricks trees. Memorable trees, recognizable at a distance, like the sassafras with its friendly hand-shaped leaves. There was a small delight that came with being able to know and name them, even though most everyone else could do it, too.

A few years back, my friend Sarah took me to her summer house in the woods. We traipsed amid trees she'd known since childhood, and she showed me a new great thing: big, solid chunks of tree fungus that you can snap off and draw pictures on with twigs. She'd been doing it since childhood, I think.

It had been so long since I'd learned anything like that. So long.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

They Grow Up So Fast, Don't They?

A page from the sketchbook. Click to read it bigger.

In the season of graduations, a mother cannot help but be struck by the breathtaking swiftness of it all. I should point out that the blond kid on the right is not graduating from anything this year (well, except her junior year of college), while the non-pictured daughter IS. The principle remains.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Strange Birds

I once knew a woman whose fear of cats teetered on the edge of phobia. She quaked in fear during her one visit to my house where, at the time, the cats numbered three. I know lots of people who don't like cats. She was the only one I've known who feared them, and I'll admit it: I judged her for it.

Occasionally you'll come across a person who was bitten by a dog as a kid and has put all dogs on the "out" list. Almost everyone else seems to fall somewhere in the range of "I like a nice dog" to "If it came down to my kids or my dog, I'd have to think long and hard ... ."

And then there are birds, in all their winged strangeness. Birds, in their inscrutable bird-brainedness. Their unpredictability. Their Hitchcockian fluttering. They are beautiful and unknowable, and oh, by the way -- they fly. They do this thing we cannot do without heavy machinery.

I spend more time around birds than the average person -- more time up-close with birds of all kinds, but especially birds of prey. Up close they become more beautiful and more strange. Up close, the communication between bird and human seems both more vivid and more elusive. That they try to communicate with us seems undeniable. What they mean is often another question, though they can be deliberate and clear when they dislike something.

Mostly, I think, they'd like us to leave them alone, and yet those of us who can't really can't. I might've mentioned here that I've been known to visit the caged birds at the pet store just to get summa whatever that is. We can't have a bird at our house. Wouldn't last long with the cats and dog, and to be honest the cage aspect of captive birds makes me anxious. What good is having a bird if you keep picturing the better life it might've had outdoors, where it could put those wings to good use?

And still, their beautiful strangeness is intoxicating. I cannot say why. Can you?

By the way, we had a whippoorwill in our backyard for a couple of nights recently. Whippoorwills are extra strange because they're super-camouflaged, thus much more often heard than seen. I was happy to have heard him or her. It's reassuring to be visited by something other than a robin or a finch.

Monday, May 13, 2013


This great little building in University Circle has been on my sketching wish-list for a long time. What finally moved me to move on that was a bit of sadness: Sergio's, the restaurant that occupied the space, closed suddenly, if not unexpectedly, a while back.

Sergio Abramof was one of Cleveland's wonderfully talented restaurateurs. I didn't really know him, though I'd been at a table or two when he had stopped by to say hello to someone I was dining with. He seemed like a sweet, gregarious guy. Sergio died a while ago, and though his family was keeping his restaurants going for a while (there was a second one at Shaker Square), it wasn't a shock that this couldn't go on forever.

With Sergio gone, and Sergio's closed, it seemed smart to sketch the cool building while it's still there. It has a slate roof, which I love. Wish I knew more about its background.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Dog collecting

Two years ago, we adopted Roscoe after meeting him at a fund-raising event by an organization called PAWS. It was a beautiful spring day outside at the polo fields in eastern Cuyahoga County, and there were dogs all around. Adoptable dogs, dogs with their humans. Lylah and I took our sweetie, Pearl, and walked around for hours, saying hello and taking pictures.

That day, I started a collection of dog pictures with an eye toward such occasions as last week, when I couldn't get dogs off my mind and needed to draw one. I might've exaggerated her mouth just a tad (on purpose). I see, too, that the eyes look a bit close together (unintentional). But anyway, it was nice to have a new dog face to draw.

Incidentally, the dog on the blog header here is an Italian greyhound named Maurice, who is my favorite internet dog. I know his parents, but have never had the pleasure of meeting him in person -- a situation that must be remedied.

Perhaps on another day, we will discuss why some people feel closer kinship with animals than with other humans. But not today.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A tiny secret about drawing

If you are just learning to draw, or just starting to keep a sketchbook journal, draw organic things. Practice drawing them accurately, of course. But organic shapes are more forgiving if you screw something up. Architecture and cars -- not so much.

That's it for Sunday advice.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Please don't use the h-word

I have a brother who has to run regularly to feel like himself and another who has to play guitar. They have both done these things long enough that, I believe, without access to these activities, they are not fully themselves. Not that they've ever said this, exactly, but I'm extrapolating because the pen in the hand serves a similar place in my life. Doing art of one kind or another can get me out of bed at 5 in the morning or keep me up till midnight, and this is true whether or not I'm getting paid for them. Projects have been known to occupy my dreams. I do not feel at all casual about art or writing.

If you have some activity or pursuit like this in your life, you are lucky. The downside is that when you can't do your thing, you feel a little unhinged, and perhaps less alive. The upside is that by doing your thing, even in the midst of temporary chaos, you have a route to some measure of sanity.

All of this is to explain my allergy to the word "hobby." Useful as it is to separate vocational work from that done for non-vocational pursuits, it's often used by people who don't do stuff to trivialize the stuff other people do. Whereas I find that the runners and musicians and sketchbook-keepers of the world, many of whom do other things to make money, bring startling passion to these non-paid efforts. They are not likely to stop these activities on a Friday and take up stamp-collecting on Monday. (Nor, I assume, would the fervent stamp enthusiast stop collecting stamps to take up jogging as a replacement time filler.)

If you meet someone who needs direction in life -- a young person, perhaps, or someone at loose ends after a breakup with a mate or a job -- don't suggest they find a hobby. Use the p-word. Help them locate their passion.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

So, ya think you're an artist, do ya?

True Story: Soon after I finished art school, another illustrator said to me, in a not-so-friendly way, "So. Congratulations. You're an artist."

The half-concealed sarcasm meant that it's stupid to think that doing art school makes one an artist (and perhaps he felt I was too dumb to figure that out for myself).

Despite the tone, the comment raised a good question that makes me wonder now then: When IS a person an artist? When they make a living off their art? When they sell their work? When someone else calls them "artist"?

Maybe it's when they:
a) just keep making art and
b) give no thought to labeling one way or another.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Embarrassment like the smell of crayons

A friend used to keep a box of crayons in his office. He'd heard that a deep inhale of that crayon smelling could offer a little break from the stress of the day because it so fiercely whisks you back to childhood. And it really does. If you haven't tried sniffing crayons, give it a go. It's astonishing how deeply connected that scent is to the feeling of being a kid.

Embarrassing memories have that same power to transport us through time. The page here started out as sketchbook play, and while I can't explain all the imagery -- it doesn't have a one-to-one relationship with the story, and I was never a skinny curly-haired kid -- it did put me in mind of this one memory from childhood.

For a long time, I experienced the memory only from my own point of view. Later, I started to wonder how my mother experienced this tiny little incident, and I could kind of get a glimpse of what it must've been like to have a weird kid like me. (Then again, I think all kids are weird up to a point, and that part of what adults to, for better and for worse, is attempt to pound the weird out of them so they can get along in society.)

But no matter how many times I think about it, I'm never quite able to NOT feel the shame of the moment. It's like a box of crayons gone bad.

Do you have a moment like this? Sure you do. Everyone does.

And now, here's the story typed out, so you don't have to squint. Even when you click to enlarge the illustration, it's difficult to read.

I was perhaps nine or ten. It was a sunny morning, probably spring, and I wanted to go outside just to test the air. There didn't seem to be a reason to let the fact that I was in my bathrobe stop me, especially because I had seen a commercial on TV that showed a woman going outside in the morning in her robe and stretching and smiling and taking in the fresh air.

I wanted to do that. So I did.

I pushed open the screen door and stepped onto our front porch and stretched in the luxuriating way of the woman on the commercial. I stretched and smiled and tried to feel the sensation she clearly had felt -- you could see it on her face! -- and the air and sun really were quite nice.

And then suddenly Mom was at the door and she said, in what I recall as a sharp, hushed voice, "Karen, what are you doing? Get inside!"

Naturally, I was embarrassed, but not because I'd been on the porch in my bathrobe imitating a TV commercial. It was that I had embarrassed my mom.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Support Your Local Writer (Artist ... Bookstore ...)

Two magazines and an art book in my bag, I settled in with Lylah at the Barnes & Noble cafe to quaff coffee and draw. Such a pleasure to be with the baby of the family (OK, she's 18 now), and with the best leather sketchbook on the planet. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much.

But, still: distress. To my right was a couple who sat for at least an hour, he with a Clive Cussler novel from the stacks, she with a book titled simply "Vinegar." It was a small hardcover from the remainders table. They read and they read and they read. I hoped I'd see them eventually rise and get in line to pay, and I think he indeed might've bought the Cussler, while "Vinegar" was left behind, almost entirely read, from what I could see, along with a bride magazine. (Sidebar: She was 65 if she was a day, but perhaps there was a daughter or granddaughter looking forward to nuptials.)

Worse yet: behind Lylah sat the woman you see above, taking cookbooks and cooking magazines from the stacks and copying recipes into her notebook.

This practice of devouring the contents of books and magazines at the Barnes & Noble Cafe, then declining to buy, is so rampant that it's almost not worth noting. Perhaps the corporate execs have done the math and found the economics to be somehow defendable.

Here's what I know. The bookstore clerk I vented to about this noted that B&N sells 40 percent fewer magazine titles today than 10 years ago. Magazines are dying. (Though we like them, don't we? I do.) Bookstores are dying. Employment for writers is nosediving.

Yet somehow we think that because it's legal to "borrow" content from a store this way, it's also defendable to do so.

Do you like art and music and literature? I say support it. Pay for it as if someone you cared about was trying to making a living off of it. Someone probably is.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

And then sometimes ...

Raise your hand if it's all gone according to plan.

I didn't think so ...

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Good Cheer, Inspiration and Comic-Con

Please take a gander at some work done by some of the fine artists who participated in my drawing-journal workshop today at Lake Erie Ink. The youngest participant was 3. The oldest was 19. Pardon the iPhone quick-snaps here. While the photo quality stinks, I think we can agree that the art itself is transportive.

Each student pulled an object from a box of stuff I brought. This one had a little statue of Nelson Mandela. The nose had broken during transport from South Africa. I like the way the artist had fun with that in the text.

This is one of my favorites. This young artist didn't even know how to begin drawing the weird little book light she got from the box of stuff to draw. But she eventually figured out how to finish it -- then wrote about it. She was a sweetie.

If you're drawing a dachshund, it should have a pointy snout. If you're drawing a dachshund salt shaker, it might have a flat nose where it meets up magnetically with the dachshund pepper shaker. Bravo to this artist for drawing what she saw, not what she thought should be there.

One carved wooden dolphin, many angles. This artist played with views and perspectives.

If only you could see the precious 6-year-old who did this. But I think you CAN see that he already has a sophisticated eye. (And, translating his message, he writes in the voice of the glasses: "I am giant. I go on people. My name is Sunny."

The artist who made this page let her imagination go. Her inspiration was an old troll doll with the fuzzy hair. She turned it into someone else entirely. Bravo for imagination!

All the young artists promised to keep drawing in their sketchbooks, and I believe they will because they were so enthusiastic during the workshop itself. So how 'bout you? Are you keeping up your sketchbook habits? Go get a pencil...

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Curious Thing

At the hair salon this morning, a woman who looked to be in her 80s was having highlights administered by pro-colorist Rosie. The client's struggle to hear did not restrict her enthusiasm for conversation, and she seemed to be wondering a lot. What did Rosie do on her trip? How old were so-and-so's children now? (They are 12 and 10, in case you're wondering.) And what specifically would you call the hair-coloring process Rosie was using?

As Rosie painted bleach on the woman's hair and folded locks up in foil, making her look (as we all do in this position) like something trucked in from another planet, the woman posed all these questions good-naturedly. It wasn't interrogation; it was curiosity.

My friend Julie and I have talked over the decades about how rare a trait curiosity seems to be. I was struck by that thought when I was looking at the photo reference I used for this drawing, which is (sort of) a drawing of my grandfathers on a day that, as I understand it, was one of the rare times they spent together. What I know about these men -- upon whose existence my existence depended -- you could write on your dog's dewclaw. In all the years my parents were around, it never occurred to me to ask much about my grandparents. Heck, I didn't ask enough of my parents, either.

Don't mistaken this for self-flagellation. I'm slightly more curious than the average bear, though I can become a bit overly captivated by my own voice. But if my grandfathers were around today I'd have plenty to ask. For instance, were they drunk on that day when they were smoking cigars?

Most of the people around us have stories to tell, recipes to share, ideas to impart. Never forget to bring your bag of questions, that's what I say.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


In a meeting at work this week, we were talking about an acquaintance who is, in a word, darling. So I sketched a picture of her on my notepad, and we all giggled.

I spent a little more time with her as a drawn character, and ended up with this page. I don't know too much about the real person, but when my brain went to inventing things about her, this is what came up.

Happy Saturday.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A little Lingg

The suburbs are filled with forgettable buildings, so whenever I come across architecture with a little character, my drawing hand trembles a little in anticipation.

I loved Lingg as a building even before I knew it was filled with delectable, artist-made jewelry and gifts. Even before I knew Heidi and Beth, the great ladies of Lingg, I knew the little building set back on Chagrin Boulevard should be filled with something interesting. So nice to find out that it was.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Of a quiet weekend

So much happens on weekend days when nothing is happening.

A squirrel shoves his face deep in the snow, looking for a nut. Does he remember where he buried it?

The dog spies deer in the backyard and gives chase without uttering a single syllable of his irritating little bark. They flee like thieves.

The furnace fan kicks on. Shuts off. Kicks on again.

The hole in the sweater calls out to be sewn.

A friend drops by with a plow and cleans the drive.

The cat curls onto lap, onto keyboard. Purrs and sleeps.

The pen makes a line on a coated paper.

The page gets turned and turned again. And again.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Master Class

Just a quick note about what I do at 6 in the morning these days.

I study and draw.

I stacked up a keenly selected pile from my vast array of children's books and am studying the illustrations more closely than ever. Then I'm copying them or copying selected techniques. The page above was inspired by Don Daily's version of "Brer Rabbit." Daily has some really great visual language going on.

In the evening, I'm working on my own book.

The challenge of being out of school is that we must volunteer to do ourselves what our teachers used to do for us. Focus. study. Impart discipline.