How to step into the river: personal artistic practices

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Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.

If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.

I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.

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I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.

I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)

I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).

There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.

And that is a gift.

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My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.

If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.

xo, Carrie

Light a fire, big or small, it's winter solstice
December reflections

5 Comments

  1. Every year I choose a word for the year. Last year was FLOW which given the circumstances served me well. This year my word is CURIOUS being aware of both its definitions—eager to learn or know something and strange or unusual.
    I’m hoping again to write a page everyday in my notebook and do some sort of art. I’ve seen Lynda Barry mentioned a number of places by a bunch of artists I admire, so I ordered her Syllabus book and will give it a go. I must admit I’m intimidated for some reason but I figure the universe is telling me to learn from her teaching.

    Reply
    • Hi Pamela, I’ve been fortunate to take several workshops with Lynda Barry, and that likely helps with interpreting her books on cartooning and creativity. I used Syllabus in the creativity course that I taught two winters ago. You will definitely find some fun practices to try out by going through the book. In 2017, I made an attempt to work my way through all of the exercises in Syllabus; not sure I quite made it, but I did create a semi-cohesive (personal, never-to-be-published) project using many of her exercises and activities. LB is extremely generous in sharing what works for her and her students. I hope you’ll find some exercises that inspire and feed your curiosity in the coming year!

      Reply
  2. I’m curious to know the rationale behind the ritual of tracing your hand and putting the two dates. Is there one?

    Reply
    • Hi Leslie,
      There may be a rationale behind it. My own interpretation leads me to a couple of conclusions. 1) Lynda Barry is committed to writing/drawing by hand (she calls hands “original digital devices”), and to the idea that our hands have “eyes”, and if we pay attention to what our hands are telling us/showing us, we can access what’s happening subconsciously. She calls it bringing the back of the mind forward. 2) Our handprint is unique to each of us. But it also changes as we grow and age. I think it’s a way of identifying ourselves. 3) The dates place us in time, and mark out the time that we’ve had here on earth, the years of experience that feed into the words and drawings that will go into this notebook we’ve claimed.
      But those are just my thoughts on the subject! I find that it also helps as a way to get a new notebook started. All those blank pages can seem intimidating — but I mark the first page with my hand, and I’m off!

      Reply
  3. That’s so interesting, thank you! (1) reminds me of the artist Laurie Doctor, who talks about dreaming with our hands. I wish I’d heard about this sooner. I’m 62 and just started a new notebook with it for the first time. But who knows, maybe I’ll live as long as Aganetha Smart and leave a lot of handprints in a lot of notebooks.

    Happy belated birthday!

    Reply

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