Let’s Make Art Together

Like many of you, I’m feeling a bit lost right now. I’m holed up at home, grateful to be here with someone I love. I’m able to work from home a little. I’m also making more time for art every day, because it’s fun, and it’s calming. I’m fortunate to be part of a really amazing Facebook group where lots of artists have gathered for an online course, and the support there is truly incredible. (If you’re curious, check out Lilla Rogers’ MATS website, where she’s got some amazing classes. And some freebies.)

This is a hard time for everyone. It’s a time when we need to stick together, and be good to each other, and care for our community. It’s also a time when we need to reach out to one another, and be there for each other, and know that we have a support system.

I feel like I’m not in a position to do much, but here’s what I can do. I’m drawing every day, and I’m sharing some coloring pages that you can download, for free, every day that I can. (I’ll shoot for every day, but I might miss my deadline now and then. Life’s a little bananas right now. But I’ll do my best.)

Click here to download your first bird pages.

Each day, I’ll post new coloring pages on a special webpage on my site. I’m also going to post updates and other useful links over on my Facebook page. (It’s my artist page, not my personal one.) I’d love to use that page as a creative space where we can talk about the fun, inspiring, creative things we’re doing and making with each other in the coming weeks. (Did you color a page? Share it! Did you find a link to an awesome learning tool for kiddos? Share it there. And come say hi–I’d love to hear from you.)

I know some of y’all are looking for fun, free activities for your kids (and for you, too!) to keep calm and have a little normalcy right now. I’ve been seeing some great resources in the last couple of days, like virtual tours of museums, free art museum coloring books you can download, and even celebrities reading our favorite books. I’ll post those things on my Facebook page, and you can post what you find, too. I’d love to use that page as a place where we can share resources, talk about creative things, and support each other.

The next few weeks might be really, really hard. Harder for some of us than others. We might be in isolation for a little while, but we don’t have to be alone. Come check out my page, and let’s make the most of this together.

To see all the coloring pages in one place, go here.

Carving Out More Time for Art

It’s been a while since I wrote a post. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, and in a funk. I’d spiraled down to that place where I walk around in my slippers muttering (or hollering), “Why do I DO THIS? Why do I bother with ANY of this?!”

This = write books, paint birds, make art.

We have those days, we creative people. I know I’m not alone in this. But it still sucks. Sometimes it feels like you’re just shouting into a void, posting photos on social media and checking to see if anyone saw them; checking traffic in your Etsy shop to see if anyone is looking; following your Amazon author page to see if anyone else has discovered your book and (GASP) perhaps written a nice review to give you a nice, “Atta girl.”

But there are lots of days where it feels like shouting into a void. And if you’re an introvert like me, doing things like “being active on social media” is pretty dang hard—or at least, it’s hard to do it in an authentic way that is more fun than walking over hot coals.

So here’s what I decided: I needed a new creative outlet, and I needed to make more things. I needed to get my hands dirty. I was frustrated with painting, and I was damned tired of staring at a computer screen. (Spoiler alert: I write novels in my “free time.” My day job, graphic design, consists of me staring at a computer screen all day. I started having headaches recently, and felt like my eyes were going to actually fall out of their sockets. When I took some time to think about how many hours a week I was staring into a computer screen, I kinda had a fit.

Ergo, the tantrum in the fuzzy slippers.

SO. I decided to sign up for a pottery class down the road at our community college. Y’all, I hadn’t made a piece of pottery in somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years. I pretty much sucked at it back in the day, but it was fun. And since then, I’ve seen some other artists making some awfully cool things (just check out #ceramicartists on Instagram, and you’ll see) and I found myself thinking, “Hey, I could do something like that. Maybe.”

So I did it. I signed up for a pottery class. And I tried to throw on the wheel again, and it was an absolute fail. I made awful pots. (And ok, “pots” is being generous.) I smushed them and made some other things instead, like birds that started out looking like sweet potatoes.

Then I took another class, with a teacher who was really great. He’s like this blend of Yoda and Bob Ross and Dorothy Parker. I made some crappy stuff, but it it felt great to be building something with my hands, even if no one outside that classroom would ever see it.

And then something cool happened. I took the things I loved about carving woodblocks, and took my sometimes snarky sense of humor, and just started making some things that made me laugh. Like these bonzai/succulent pots:

And since the wheel is not my friend, I kept hand-building things, including a couple of cups. (There’s this shape I really like, but these aren’t quite it. I bought a cup when I was in the Outer Banks that the potter said was the same shape as the cups that were on Blackeard’s ship. Obviously this cup was decorated with Blackbeard’s insignia and was super cool, which is why I bought one—but the shape is perfect for your hand, with a slight taper at the top. I have yet to replicate it, but I will continue to try.)

These cups are my most recent: they will be perfect for holding coffee. Or wine.

I first saw this sgraffito technique years ago, done by artist Kathy King, who is a total badass and one you should google immediately. I thought her work was amazing, and thought, “Maybe someday I’ll try that with clay.” And then I forgot about that, for a long while. I did other things, like day jobs, and got lost in this space where I thought I didn’t have time for art.

But here’s the thing: that’s always our excuse. “I don’t have time.” And it feels 100% true when we say it, like the world is closing in, and we’re juggling all these balls and they’re about to come crashing down and boy it’s going to be hell to pay when they do. But really, you have to create time for what’s important to you. It’s more like what author Nora Roberts said at a reading: “Some balls are made of plastic, and some are made of glass. If a plastic one drops, it bounces; if a glass one drops, it shatters.” The key, she said, was to know which balls were which, so you can prioritize. And that’s what it’s like when you try to make time for all the things you love. After lots of jobs and shifting priorities, I’ve learned that my life is better when there’s more art in it. That’s a priority I can’t drop.

So when I got this wild hair a few weeks ago, and wanted to try ceramics again, I decided I would not fire these things in the kiln unless they (a) were useful or (b) made me smile. I didn’t want a whole bunch of ceramic tragedies sitting around my house or being tossed into the garbage. I would kill darlings, and it would be a good thing.

So here we are. My hands are dirty. They ache a little, but that’s ok. My eyes hurt less, because I am spending fewer hours staring into a blinding computer screen. I’ve experimented. I’ve made birds and smushed them, failed and failed better. I made a few pieces that I liked, some that might be gifts. I gave myself permission to play, and to just enjoy making things again, and it feels incredible. I feel more creative, and more inspired, and less like a person slogging through her work week. I have something new to look forward to, and am carving out more time each day to make things. Sometimes it’s just an hour, and that’s ok. I’m putting less pressure on myself these days—and that’s part of the balance, too.

The Simple Things Save Me

lemon cake on a pretty plate

Some days I need baking therapy—because the alternative is bourbon, or a punching bag, or a tantrum. I used to love baking: cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and then I stopped. It seemed pointless to make cakes and pies when I lived completely by myself (did I really want an entire cake sitting around? It would go bad if I didn’t eat it, and we couldn’t have that, but then I would just feel guilty for eating the whole dang thing.) I got out of the habit, and I kind of forgot about it. I forgot how calming it could be.

These days I’m craving more calm. And you know what? If my fella doesn’t help me, I’ll eat the WHOLE DAMN THING MYSELF.

Or I’ll share with friends. That’s a better idea.

Because baking therapy is real. And some days, I need it in a real bad way.

My mom was a baker, a collector of recipes. She clipped them from Southern Living, and hand-wrote the ones from friends on cards she kept in special boxes, grouped by savory and sweet. She followed these recipes to the letter, like they were chemistry—one wrong measurement might cause the kitchen to explode. She made notes on the cards as she experimented—more butter, less sugar—until she got them just right. My grandma was also a baker—but she was more of an alchemist. She kept recipes only in her head, and each time she baked something, it was a loose interpretation of what she held there. No cake or pie ever turned out the same way twice, and when she hit gold, we’d say, “Did you write it down as you went?”

“Nope,” she’d say. “I’ll remember.”

I used to bake like my mom. When I was thirteen, I baked a pound cake that won a blue ribbon in the South Carolina state fair. (It was my Granny’s recipe—she was a chemist who wrote things down. My father’s side of the family was more into guidelines.)

Over the years, I’ve become more like my grandma. The recipes are in my head (more or less), and each time things are a little different. I still have some recipes written down on cards, but for the most part, I cook meals by throwing things together and hoping for the best. Usually it works out ok.

Usually.

But that’s COOKING. BAKING is different. There’s still some chemistry to account for with buttermilk and baking soda and whatnot.

A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to bake a cake for my fella’s birthday (because where I come from, you get a homemade cake on your birthday), and I realized that my mom never made a wide variety of cakes. Everyone had their favorite: coconut for Dad, German chocolate for Grandma, apple nut cake for Grandaddy. I can’t even remember the kind I requested as a kid. But as I went through the recipes I’d written down, I realized I never experimented much outside of the family favorites.

So last week I went wild. First I made a lemon cake for my fella (it was actually that blue-ribbon pound cake with a lemon glaze.) Then I wanted to try something totally new, so I pulled a recipe off the interwebs (thanks, addapinch.com) and rolled the dice. I put on my chemist’s apron and went right by the recipe (because despite my grandmother’s tendencies, if I learned anything from my buddy Alton Brown, it is that baking is a science and by god there are RULES) and y’all, this was the most amazing thing that EVER came out of my oven. (You know you want that recipe. It’s here.)

It felt good to make something tasty. But it really felt good to do something that made both me and the fella happy. I felt like I had taken some time to make something I wanted, forget about work, and do something fun. It reminded me why I’d enjoyed baking, and how calming it could be to just focus on a little thing that was going to bring some joy, and forget about the daily aggravations for a minute.

It’s only been a few days since the chocolate cake, but you know what? I needed to get my zen on again, so today I tried a new lemon cake. With orange zest and buttercream frosting. (You can get that one here.) And yes, I have started tabata to balance out all this cake business. I needed some new hobbies, anyway. It’s important to have balance, right? I need to build some muscle anyway, but we need rewards in this life, and cake makes a pretty nice reward.

And like Ernestine Ulmer said, bless her soul: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”

We always talk about how “it’s the little things” that keep us content. I still need this reminder sometimes, and I need to remember that even when work’s a dumpster fire, and life is driving us bonkers, and our family is pushing all of our buttons, we can still slow down and do one small thing that brings some sweetness into the day. Even if it’s as simple as a cake.

On Being Gentle

Last week, while tidying up my house, I came across an artifact that looks pretty ordinary, but reminds me of an important idea. It’s one that we hear all the time, and one that all too often falls by the wayside. We’re in a hurry, we’re distracted, we’re frustrated, we aren’t thinking of being gentle.

The artifact is this: a small lidded vessel made of clay. It’s a lovely blue-green glazed piece, only a few inches tall. It has a pattern that reminds me a little of fish scales. I remember the day that I got it, and why, and why I very nearly gave it away.

A few years ago, I taught an eight-week letterpress printing class at the incredible Penland School of Crafts. I was so excited to be there, teaching a skill that I love to students so eager and delightful. My students came from all different skill levels—some had been printing for years, and some had never carved a block or set a single line of type. They were creative, energetic, and determined to make the most of their experience at the school. They created ambitious projects, learned how to make books from the prints they made from these behemoth printing presses, and in short, crushed it every day.

Near the end of sessions at Penland, it’s tradition to have a “show and tell” day, where lots of artists swap their wares. For seven weeks, over a hundred students had been experimenting in metal, clay, painting, and print, and had made new friends, collaborated on projects, and worked out trades for pieces their new friends had made.

On the day of the show and tell, I made my rounds, and a few artists asked to trade their work for mine. When this happens, I always accept. One, because I like collecting art, and two, because if someone likes my work enough to trade me something that they have made with love, then I want to trade, too. I traded my work for earrings, prints, and a small ceramic bowl.

After the show and tell was over, I went back to my classroom to find one of my students, C., in tears. She was one of my most talented, energetic students. She’d always been excited to be in the studio, had a contagious laugh—and always had a huge grin on her face, like her heart was overflowing.

And y’all, this young woman was sobbing while another student whispered to her, her hand on C.’s shoulder. When I walked over and asked C. what had happened, was she all right, she told me.

“I asked R. to trade something,” she said. “And R. said no, because my piece wasn’t an equal value to hers.”

My heart broke for her. C., just out of college, so excited to have found a craft that she loved, had just had another artist tell her that her work wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t valuable enough. And isn’t this the fear that so many artists have? Deep down, we worry that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t creative enough, we aren’t valuable enough.

And this woman, R., maybe not intentionally (I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment) made that fear realized.

Here’s the thing: that lidded bowl that I’d liked so much and traded a print for? It was made by R. After C. told me her story, and after we’d talked for a while, and her smile had come back, I didn’t want that bowl anymore. It would just remind me of R. and how she had chosen her words so carelessly in that moment, when a young student, in awe of her work, asked to trade only to be hurt. I didn’t want to have something of R.’s anymore, regardless of how much I liked her work.

I finished out my class, and we all traded prints and books. And I kept that bowl, instead of giving it away. For a while, every time I looked at it, I thought of R. and her hurtful words, but then I thought this: I’ll keep that bowl for one reason.

It will help me to remember, first and foremost, always to be kind.

***

P.S. In case you were wondering, C. went on to become an even more inspiring artist. She went to grad school, and did some exhibitions, and continues to be brave and beautiful and amazing.