2014-10-23

Drawing Your Life

I have already told you about Danny Gregory´s fabulous book about creativity, "The Artistic Licence". He is also one of the people behind Sketchbook Skool, which looks like a pretty interesting project. I was curious for something more personal by him, and got this, "Everyday Matters", which is a memoir of sorts, a compilation I would assume, of pages from his own personal illustrated diary, with a no doubt heavily edited text to make a coherent story.

It starts when he and his wife Patti are a young, successful couple in New York, he is an advertiser, she a stylist, they have a dog and a new baby, and the terrible thing happens: she falls onto the railway track and is run over by a train. Her spine is crushed and she ends up wheel chair bound.

This book has none of that cheerful entusiasm that "The Artistic Licence" had, as you can imagine. This is personal, this is an account of what it´s like to have life - as you expected it to be - taken away from you. Gregory starts to draw in an attempt to deal with things - the word he keeps using is "slow"; this new life is slower than it used to be, and that is frustrating. Some things he took for granted are suddenly out of reach. Some things he took for granted now seems incredibly valuable. Other things he took for granted means nothing any more.

These aren´t cute drawings of beautiful still lifes. There is no sentimental glow to any of Gregory´s drawings. His surroundings - as he sees it - is what I recognize when I look around my own home, just the stuff of every day. Gregory draws himself into his new life. What Gregory is communicating to me is a lack of self-awareness - a mindfulness - that I find admirable and difficult to obtain. Perhaps only really difficult times can get you there. Or drawing, I hope.




2014-10-18

Re-reading

This post at Austin Kleon´s blog made me smile, as I had just been tossing out a few pages in my diary on how my reading was frustrating me. A prayer-answer, if ever.

I am really into no 14 on his list right now: "I will re-read favorite books the way I watch favorite movies and play favorite records over and over." Actually, I feel a bit like I have gone into some kind of literary fetal position, if that makes any sense. Comfort reading in the extreme, for me anyhow. I am trying to be kind to myself, though, as life is crazy right now, both inside and outside. Things are changing - in a fundamental way - I can feel it and I am eager for it, but it´s not yet ready. It´s like being very, very hungry and having to wait another three hours for the stew to brew. (I don´t suppose stews actually brew, but I like how that rhyme.)

Also, no 8: "I will not finish books I don’t like", no 10: "I will throw a book across the room", and no 21: "If I hate a book, I will keep my mouth shut". Actually, even no 22: "I will make liberal use of the phrase, “It wasn’t for me.”". Yeah. It´s painful to realize someone was hurt by a remark you made and you can´t take it back. So, will I only blog books I like? Can´t really blog something I stopped reading and tossed across the room, I guess. (Though I´m sure I have done.)

As you can tell, I am having a bit of a reading crisis and it´s been coming on slowly all year. It´s just a small part of the whole change, though. Since I stopped working on that novel of mine and started doing other things, reading just isn´t the same, and the reasons for picking up a book has changed. Writing anything, even blogging, has changed. Or rather, is changing. I just made a list of things to work towards, with a deadline that is nine months ahead of me, so the fetal analogy isn´t so far off. I am tempted to make changes happen, make declarations of this and that, but it just isn´t the time. I´ll just wait and see.

2014-10-08

Trip to the Mediterranean

As I was doing away with my desk (turning my study into a studio for this winter´s art classes) I found a note to self to go see a librarian about a book. The book in question is "Medelhavsresa" (= trip to the Mediterranean) by Birger Lundquist from 1952. It was published the year he died, only 42 years old.

This is drawings we are talking about, not stories. Birger Lundquist was a famous illustrator (of whom I have written before) at Sweden´s number one daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, from the 1930´s. According to the foreword by Georg Svensson, this was his first trip abroad. He set out in the fall of 1937 - to get away from some personal problems (his daughter with colleague and journalist Barbro Alving was born in 1938, so that might have had something to do with it) - and the drawings are from that trip. Some of them were published in the paper at the time, but most not.



Lundquist was a prolific draughtsman, he was never without a pen and a pad according to the legend, which also says that there were some 80.000 drawings among his belongings when he died, and he had given many away, as he was not precious about is art.

He said that he learned how to really draw on this journey, and that he owed much of it to the French artist Jean Launois, whom he met in Oran and Tlemcen. Svensson claims that Launois was an obscure artist no one but Lundquist had heard about, who died from drunkenness in 1948. A quick googling shows he was important enough to have a Wikipedia article, which states that he died in 1942, and there is some of his art on different sites, like this one. He certainly could draw, and I don´t doubt that he taught Lundquist quite a bit, or that they drowned their sorrows together in the strong stuff; there are quite a few drawings in this book from bars.

Most of the drawings - which are only a small selection of what I imagine is a suitcase full, at least - are of people on the streets. Lundquist really knew how to capture a character, sometimes slipping over into caricature, particularly in the drawings he elected to send home to be published. You can really see the fashion of the day in the girls hair and makeup, even if he only uses his reservoir pen - they all look like little Edith Piafs. But he also has some more scenic city views, and it´s amazing to see what he could express with only a pen, and pretty fast too, I think. The energetic, confident line speaks of a restlessness that almost seems manic. Some drawings are watercoloured, but this wasn´t something he did much

I love these drawings, and will forever aspire to be able to work a pen like this. This is urban sketching before the concept existed, and it is just too bad he died so young. I would have loved to see what he could have done as a mature artist.



Throughout, Lundquist makes wonderful sketches of hands,
which is very hard. 

I love this composition: the minaret, the camels, the robe, hat and the expressive hand.
I  bet he did this in seconds. 


I have never been to Athens, but the husband went earlier this year, and I thought I recognized the mountain on the lower half of the page. I bet he stood on pretty much the same place as Lundqvist did when he took this snap, or what do you think? Or perhaps on the hill in the drawings middleground, depending on what kind of lens he had on.


2014-10-05

The Bones of Paris

I had finished the third novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series and felt like I needed a change. Not a big change, but a little one. I decided to stay in the 1920´s and in the genre, and bought the second in what I imagine is becoming a longer series about former US agent Harris Stuyvesant, who was the hero of "Touchstone" by Laurie R King. This one is titled "The Bones of Paris", and Paris is where we find Harris now. It´s been three years since the last story took place, his friend Bennet Grey is back in his cottage at Land´s End, and Bennet´s sister Sarah, who was also Harris´s love interest, has disappeared, badly wounded from the ordeal they went through together and needing time to heal, alone. Harris is hurt, but also understanding and patiently waiting for her to get in touch again. Not that his emotional loyalty to Sarah stops him from having one or two flings...

Laurie R King has a great
moodboard on Pinterest!
After going in circles around Europe, stopping here and there, working both in bars and as a private investigator, Harris is in Berlin when he gets the assignment to locate a missing American heiress, Pip Crosby, with whom he had a short relationship at the south coast of France a few months earlier. He returns to Paris and goes in search of her, expecting to find her in some arts or political commune, doped up by drugs or ideals. He reaquaints himself with the Paris of the artists and American expats, the writers (like Hemingway and Fitzgerald), the visual artists (like Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Buñuel), the models (Kiki, Lee Miller), he sees films like "An Andalusian Dog", and strikes up an awkward friendship with a police officer, Doucet, who is troubled by what he sees as a cult of death in the art community and investigating a disturbingly long list of missing people who were connected to it. As were Pip Crosby.

Pip had also been the mistress of a Parisian count, Dominic Charmentier, the man behind a horror-burlesque type theatre which he claims provides a release to those tormented by the memories and losses of the war. As Harris goes investigating the man and his connections, to his surprise, he finds that the duke´s assistant is his own Sarah Grey. Though she is hardly his any more, but turns out to be engaged to the police officer Doucet!

By now, I did find that the number of coincidences were a bit too remarkable. Or was it that what Stuyvesant was uncovering seemed so disturbing? I try to avoid books with perverse murderers going after women and children, and found myself so eagerly distracted from the reading, that when one of Laurie R King´s newsletters came in my mailbox, I started re-reading old Mary Russell stories instead of going ahead with Harris´s search for Pip.

I realized during this reading how much I like the way King can turn a phrase. I´m not really capable of grading English prose on a scale of beauty, but she is to my taste, that´s for sure. Finally, I pulled myself together and read to the end. Which was happy enough, but pretty hairy just before the finishing line, just as you would expect. And now I am knee-deep in "The Beekeeper´s Apprentice", again...

2014-09-28

On Drawing

This weekend, I finished four books I have been simultaneously reading - or looking in, as is the case with some of them; three of them are about drawing, one has very little text at all, just a preface, not even written by the artist. At first, I thought I might do one post for all of them, but now it seems that it would be unfair to them all, as they are each very good and recommendable.

I´ll start with one by Andrew Marr, the British political journalist. I had no idea that he is also a very good draughtsman, who knows a thing or two about art. Turns out, he has also written a book on the subject, "A Short Book About Drawing". I was curious and got it, and was not disappointed. I am not the kind of bibliophile who gets excited about what a book looks like or anything; I have favoured cheap paperbacks before I easily transitioned into the world of e-books, but with this one, I have to mention that it is a very pretty book to look at. Also, it doesn´t smell or give off cough-inducing fumes, something I am always wary of with books containing many pictures.

The chapters have headlines like "Drawing and happiness", "The eyes - drawing and movement", "The heart - what is drawing about?", and it is very enjoying to read his thoughts on why he (and others) draws, and the role of drawing in education, culture, and art. He isn´t just sitting in his room with this either, being a journalist he goes visiting drawing teachers and talks to artists like David Hockney, who
"goes as far as to say that the age of photography is now coming to and end, that its shallowness is boring us.
He may be ahead of the mass, but it´s certainly true that there is something about the physicality and simplicity of drawing that makes it undefeatable. With strips of charcoal or pens, basic tools in our hands, it has barely moved forward. An iPad app which I use all the time, Brushes, is not essentially different. It is faster, brighter, more flexible, but in the end it is a stylus and a surface, and the drawing is just drawing. Personal, direct, drawing has not "advanced". It stands outside glib ideas of progress."
Andrew Marr: Central Park, New York.
Marr uses only his own drawings to illustrate the book, both because - he says in the preface - they are cheap, and because he thinks that while he doesn´t regard any of them as real works of art, he thinks that most of them will encourage people to try for themselves. And they do. I like Marr´s drawings a lot. Most of all I like that he seems comfortable to go at it with all kinds of tools, from pencil to paint, and - and this is not something I have seen much of until now - the iPad, with which he produces both some flat and some startlingly vibrant drawings.

But do modern artists even draw today? Many art schools don´t teach drawing at all, Marr says.
"Conceptual art is needed in a book on drawing because the status of drawing fell so far after Duchamp´s rewriting of what the word "art" means. Like the aftermath of any explosion, the debris is scattered and awkwardly shaped. Some great traditional artists hang on to their status, like well-decorated rooms exposed to the outside world when half the house has been blown away. Far from the commercial centres of the art world, many thousands of traditional painters and draughtsmen quietly keep going, as if nothing has happened, rather like the late Romans carrying on with their quietly satisfying provincial lives - planting vines, mending tracks - even after Attila´s hordes had sacked the Forum." 
Andrew Marr: Hay-on-Wye. 
And what about using mechanical tools? While reading, I think of two Swedish artists (very successful) I have seen working by tracing a photograph from an overhead projector onto a large piece of paper. Isn´t that cheating? No, says Marr:
"Artists have used mechanical tools and aides of all kinds. They have used light-boxes and lenses of all sorts, squared lattices, spray-guns, and, yes, computers. Artists have also always copied. [...] ...aids are neither here nor there. Nor is the quotation and reworking of somebody else´s picture.
The only question is aliveness. A lame, mechanical copy of another work is a lame, dead thing. Most of us, even, subconsciously, can tell. The drawing must say something about the drawer as well as the thing drawn."
Marr may humbly say that his drawings aren´t art, but some of them reveal quite a bit about him, particularly a night-time drawing on the iPad where you can see his lonely reflection in a New York hotel room. Does it possess aliveness? I would say so. (If you want to see it, you must buy the book, so there!)

This is, without a doubt, one of those books that you can have on your shelf and take down every year, read a chapter or two, or let yourself be drawn in and re-read the whole thing. Or just look at the drawings, be impressed and inspired. I would recommend it for anyone who draws or would like to draw, or even anyone who is the least interested in art and personal expression. Marr has the attitude of the very accomplished amateur. You will understand more after having read him.

2014-09-09

Lord Peter Wimsey Investigates

I started on "Doctor Sleep" after I finished "The Shining", but was easily distracted. I must - reluctantly - confess that Stephen King isn´t really my thing. I really like his book "On Writing", but the fiction just leaves me, ahum, bored. I may finish it some day, but I´m not going to read it out of a sense of duty.

Instead, I read an article, I forget where, about Dorothy L Sayers, and realized that I had never read her. I immediately bought the first book "Whose body?" about Lord Peter Wimsey, which was 99 cents on amazon (Kindle version), and by serving the first third of the second novel, "Clouds of Witness", at the end of the first, I was hooked. Now I´m on the third one, "Unnatural Death". There are around fifteen, I think.

It reminded me at first a lot of Nancy Mitford´s novels, but it´s really just the similarity in the character gallery, and the way people talk. Wimsey is like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster, and I even think Sayers herself has said so. Sayers is a much better writer than Mitford, and she is just as interested in portraying the lower classes as her upper class hero and his entourage. She delights in dialects, to the point that it can become tiresome, but I forgive her.

We meet Lord Peter Wimsey, younger brother of the Duke of Denver, in the 1920´s, a few years after the War. He is a man of leisure, with a flat on Piccadilly, a faithful bulter called Bunter (who tells him what to wear, what to read, where to go and how to get there, more or less), and a couple of hobbies: collecting rare first editions, and solving crime. His mother, the Dowager Duchess, encourages him (to the irritation of his much more conservative older brother and wife, the present Duchess of Denver) and some pages into the novel, we see why:
"...Mr. Bunter, sleeping the sleep of the true and faithful servant, was aroused in the small hours by a hoars whisper, "Bunter!" "Yes, my lord," said Bunter, sitting up and switching on the light. "Put that thing out, damn you!"[...] Listen! Oh my God! I can´t hear - I can´t hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can´t they stop the guns?" "Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no - it´s all right, Major, - don´t you worry." [...] "Thought we´d had the last of these attacks," he said [later, to himself]. "Been overdoin´ of himself. Asleep?" He peered at him anxiously. An affectionate note crept into his voice. "Bloody little fool!" said Sergeant Bunter."
Many young men returned home from the front with shell shock, and being a lord doesn´t make one immune to this affliction, as we see. We also understand more about the depth and history of the relationship with Bunter. The Dowager Duchess´s opinion is that investigating is good for her son, as it distracts him and gives him something useful to do (a modern writer might phrase it as a matter of self-esteem).

Wimsey´s crime solving is much facilitated by the fact that he is friends with the head of Scotland Yard, who welcomes any help he can give and puts the Yard´s recources completely at his disposal, and his close friendship with Charles Parker, a very good detective at the Yard who collaborates with him. Or, as Wimsey likes to say:
"This is the real sleuth - my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He´s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, 'My god, what intuition that young man has!'"
I love this. A good, honest murder mystery in the English tradition. A clever and sympathetic hero, some excellent supporting characters, they all feel like real people, even if they talk like "Hullo! Look here, I say, deuces!" (Note to Swedes: hullo, is hello pronounced upper class-like, as Maggie Smith does in "Downton Abbey": höllöu)

Two actors have played Lord Peter on television, Edward Petherbridge being the most recent one. I didn´t see it when it was on, in the 80´s, had much more interesting things to do then, and from what I have seen on youtube, it hasn´t aged very well. The husband is old enough to remember Ian Carmichael from the 70´s. Both can be seen on youtube, if you are curious, but I personally think that they should do a revival instead of doing the same Austen and Sherlock films over and over every five or ten years. I see Laurence Fox as Lord Peter, Judi Dench as the Dowager Duchess (she a bit too old, but who cares, so is Fox), and anyone really as Parker, since he is described by Sayers as "nondescript". The Duke of Denver, who is most inconveniently accused of murder in the second book, would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and oh, Bunter, who should play him? Someone able-looking, like Douglas Henshall, perhaps. Too old again, of course, but I think that war aged them at least 20 years, so it wouldn´t matter much.

I can´t really recommend this enough. I expect you know your own taste well enough to know if you should try it yourself.

2014-09-02

The Creative Licence

Ever since 1992 I have been in the habit of keeping a diary. For the first ten years, it was mainly a therapeutic tool, helping me to unveil some not so healthy structures and behaviours in myself and people around me. After that, however, I felt that the habit was restraining me rather than helping me forward but I didn´t know how to break out of the mould I had created. I tried to quit, I tried other ways, but always came back to the same thing I had been doing; it was kin to an addiction.

I wish I had stumbled upon Danny Gregory´s book "The Creative Licence" a few years ago. (Actually, I would have needed it before it was written, probably!) The subtitle is "Giving yourself permission to be the artist you truly are", and it is an enthusiastic class in how to do an illustrated journal, whether you think you can draw or not. It is about seeing your world differently, challenging your perceptions and bringing impressions to the page, mixing it around and creating ideas for whatever you are into, not just the visual arts.
Drawing is seeing [...] looking is a language [..] In Genesis, God has Adam name the animals. Labels make abstract thinking possible. But because we overdo it, looking replaces seeing, and we soon stop seeing things for what they truly are. We say "tree" and stop saying "elm" [...]. This is where drawing comes from. You can look at something slowly and carefully [...] you stop thinking about bills and aches and grievances and chores. You, your pen, your paper, your subject, you just are.
This is drawing as mindfulness practice. And being mindful is the door into the state of creativity. It´s like that old cliché: the nutty professor/inventor who gets lost in his own thoughts and work, forgetting all about sleeping, eating and the world around him.

Gregory has a story of his own, of course, about the creative person who got lost in advertising and found his way back and now wants to share and encourage others. Personal experience is always a good place to start. He also has several suggestions on how to start a journal, how to re-start, challenge yourself to "draw ugly", "be specific", "draw negative space", and such things. Lots of illustrations, naturally, not just from his own journals but from other people´s journals as well. He also encourages the reader to experiment with writing, arguing that writing is drawing too. My only objection to this book is, actually, that at times, it is very hard to read, because the writing is so awkward and wonky. A challenge, perhaps, but also a source of irritation. But it´s a minor objection.

I´d like to finish with a quote that made me think, not because of what is said, but because of who says it:
"I cannot tell you how happy I am to have taken up drawing again. I´ve been thinking of it, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach." - Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother.
If you are bored and don´t know what to do, or you know what you want to do but don´t know how to do it, this can be the book for you. You don´t have to be wanting to learn how to do art, just wanting the courage to put your impressions and ideas on anything down on paper. That´s what Gregory is teaching: courage to create.