Bento’s Sketchbook

Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger by John Berger
ISBN: 9780307379955

The big handwritten question on the book’s cover — How does the impulse to draw begin? — isn’t immediately or succinctly answered within. Berger wanders, takes his time, shows us pages from his sketchbook that may or may not be tightly coupled with his text. They are connected, the reader is willing to believe, but the connection isn’t always obvious.

I suppose this is one of the points Berger is trying to make. The book is a meditation on Spinoza (he is quoted throughout), and on living in the world as a participant and observer. How does the impulse to draw something begin? It isn’t an easy question to answer.

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

I don’t believe the word appears in the book, but one answer to how the impulse begins seems to be mindfulness. A quality of paying attention, a willingness to notice, and a desire to somehow interact and deepen understanding: that is the beginning. That compels a person to pick up a pen and draw. Part of the answer is in how you decide or not to interact with the other regulars at the public swimming pool, how you reflect on the threatening messages received as a shopper in a giant discount food warehouse, how you think about riding your motorbike and search for analogies.

…if we imagine the stories being told across the world tonight and consider the outcome, I believe we’ll find two main categories: those whose narratives are emphasising something essential that is hidden, and those which emphasise the revealed.

Drawing and writing aren’t the same thing, but they both involve noticing and creating. They are different avenues of investigation.

What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become.

It seems I keep reading about storytelling, even when I am not consciously setting out to do so. I set out to read about drawing (which, I understand, can be seen as storytelling in a different form).

Bento’s Sketchbook is a quieter book than Ways of Seeing, and less directly educational that About Looking. Berger is musing here. He’s welcoming the reader to join him, but without an obvious sense of urgency. We should have, one supposes, the sense enough to follow without his being conspicuous in his appeals.

Reading this book does make me want to draw — I have pens and pencils and plenty of paper handy — though I don’t have any illusions about my ability. I don’t think I have the ability to draw things that look like things. Well, not realistic high fidelity depictions of things, at any rate. Berger’s sketches in this book make me appreciate anew how that isn’t the only kind of drawing that “counts”. (The book did not, despite his probable intent, make me want to go study Spinoza.) Toward the end of the book, Berger describes how it feels to draw:

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or to bees constructing their cells.

Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? I suspect any sustained creative pursuit can get us there if we are willing to consistently look, and to bring more to the power of our observations than our sight alone. Perhaps through meditation, one can arrive in the same place. Only it may be harder to communicate it to others without the picture.

Steal Like an Artist

10 Things Nobody Told You About Being CreativeSteal Like and Artist by Austin Kleon
by Austin Kleon
ISBN: 9780761169253

It turns out that the secret to getting off your ass and doing something is… getting off your ass and doing something. Kleon’s book is parts manifesto, pep talk, tough love talk, to do list, and art held together with some humor, good intentions, and a vision of the world where more people actually get off their asses and create.

Which makes it pretty awesome, unless you are determined to be a hardcore cynic, in which case I suppose you decided the book was ridiculous based on the title. It is not.

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.

If this manifesto resonates with you, go get the book. I doubt you’ll be sorry. You’ll probably be inspired, and you’ll want to share it with others. There isn’t a great mystery here, the ten key points Kleon makes are listed right on the back of the book:

  1. Steal like an artist.
  2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
  3. Write the book you want to read.
  4. Use your hands.
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important.
  6. The Secret: Do good work and share it with people.
  7. Geography is no longer our master.
  8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
  9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
  10. Creativity is subtraction.

I liked that he calls out the secret right there, point number six, in case you might miss it. In other words, the secret is there is no secret: get off your ass and do something.

Creative side projects have been important to me for a long time now. I think, after reading this book, I will try and apply the ideas to not just my side projects, but to my day job. The list of things Kleon says you’ll need to be creative seem to me to be necessary in my new gig: curiosity, kindness, stamina, and a willingness to look stupid.

I highly recommend this book. I think it will be good for the creative and procrastinating and sometimes scared (most of us) and the not certain they are creative, but yes they are and need a nudge to embrace new ideas (all of us at some point).

The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sísby Peter Sís
ISBN: 9781594203060

This books is a beautiful object. Of course you’d expect the illustrations to be wonderful (and they are stunning) but Penguin went the extra mile and provided pages with a wonderful texture to them (literally) and made the book just a bit larger format than a hardcover usually is. The story is Sís’s interpretation of the twelfth century Persian poem. I am admit to not knowing anything about the original source when I picked this book up.

So I’d say you don’t need to know anything beyond what you find in these pages to enjoy the journey Sís takes you on. The poet is transformed into a bird, and leads the birds on a quest, though “the birds realize that this will be a difficult journey and are reluctant to give up their comforts.” They attempt to cross seven valleys: the valleys of Quest, of Love, of Understanding, of Detachment, of Unity, of Amazement, and of Death. There is risk, uncertainty, doubt, fear — and determination, recognition, and faith.

If you are already a fan of his work, don’t hesitate to pick this up — though know if you usually buy his books for little people, children are not the primary intended audience for this book. (Not that it would be bad for kids… and older readers may appreciate it.) If you are drawn to Muth’s Stillwater panda books, or particularly his Three Questions, this will probably resonate with you as well. Definitely recommended.

It Chooses You

It Chooses You, Miranda Julyby Miranda July
ISBN: 9781936365012

This book is what happened as a result of July’s struggling to finish the screenplay for what would become her second movie, The Future. Of the screenplay, she tells us:

Again and again it was respectfully suggested to me that I cut Paw-Paw’s monologue. But I couldn’t kill him twice, and I thought his voice might be the distressing, ridiculous, problematic soul of what I was trying to make. Not that my conviction protected me; it’s always embarrassing to pin a tail onto thin air, nowhere near the donkey It might be wrong, it sure looks like it is — but then again, maybe the donkey’s in the wrong place, or there are two donkeys, and the tail just got there first.

I suspect July is the kind of artist you either really like, or she bugs the shit out of you. Reasons she may bug you: she seems to get away with doing whatever she wants; she does more than one kind of thing (writing, directing, creating art installations); she creates characters who could use a good proverbial smack upside the head at times; she might be considered twee; the Paw-Paw mentioned above is a cat.

I like her. I loved her short story collection No one belongs here more than you. This book, while all about stories, isn’t fiction. July is telling the story of being stuck in one creative pursuit and what emerges are many other stories, often of people being somehow stuck in their lives.

She and her assistant and a photographer go meet people who are selling things in the PennySaver: these are the stories she hears as a result. The PennySaver is the poor internet-less person’s Craigslist. Through her, we meet people selling old blowdryers, photo albums, leather jackets, tadpoles. They are sad, strange, funny, a bit repulsive, heartbreaking. July reveals what she is really looking for, by finding them:

All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life — where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.

I think this is the reason I like Miranda July. I want to know the same thing.

It Is Beautiful . . . Then Gone

by Martin Venezky
ISBN: 9781568984568

This book is a collection of graphic designer Martin Venezky’s work. He shares what he’s done with some details about his thought and construction process. In the case of his teaching, he includes samples of some student work in response to his assignments. He doesn’t love everything he’s ever done: the book include points of view other than his own, most notably in an interview with Speak magazine publisher Dan Rolleri, who fired him more than once.

What I liked most about the book is that Venezky is unapologetic about his obsessions. They are on full display, and you either have to admire or hate that he managed to work images of his cat into paid work. Venezky isn’t a “point and click designer” — meaning, in part, that he is a more literal cut and paste designer because he uses paper and scissors, he has a pen in his hand.

I’m not sure how I feel about so stridently making this distinction. I tend to think work speaks for itself (or not) and lots of information about the process shouldn’t be necessary or shift my response. Working digitally doesn’t save time in all cases — you can spend ages manipulating and creating digitally — and part of the point here seems to be the time invested in making something. Perhaps to justify that it is work, what he’s doing, though it looks like he’s having fun. Certainly his massive, wall-sized collage creation reflects consist effort and playfulness.

Recommended if you are a fan of collage, prone to obsessive collecting, or are a designer in need of a visual inspiration resource. I found myself wondering where/how I could give over significant wall space to see what collage would emerge if I started assembling the various images I’ve kept… and also what it would look like to create something similar in digital form. I’m not sure if my cats would make the cut, though I do believe my obsessions would be made visible.

Winter Stories

by Paolo Ventura
ISBN: 9781597111256

Paolo Ventura shoots film.

He shoots film, capturing scenes he has worked hard to create. He uses miniatures and painted backdrops, little models he can arrange just so. The resulting photographs invite storytelling, lingering, puzzling over what is real and what isn’t.

Is that tightrope walker really wearing shoes? Yes. They shouldn’t wear shoes, should they? It’s out of place, the scene with the shoes (like many others in the book), full of uncertainty and tension. You can imagine walking around in this world, imagine it isn’t a set, imagine what people’s motives are. This world is enticing, not less so because of of the sense of danger, the grittiness.

You can see sample images, sadly small in comparison to the luxurious eleven by fourteen inch satiny pages, on Ventura’s website. But if you are truly curious, search out his work in a bookstore. The book as an object is beautiful and well-made with a thick, folded over dust jacket and rich paper.

In addition to the finished series of photographs comprising Winter Stories, there’s an essay by Eugenia Parry as well as pages from Ventura’s sketchbook. The sketchbook has both literal sketches — watercolor smooth lines — and polaroids. It’s a peek into his process, but not one that really reveals the artifice, that ever pulls back far enough to see the scale of the model. The essay is more companion piece than explanation, though more explanation surfaces in the footnotes if you want to dig. I liked this about the essay. It had one great line, that fits the work well: “It’s not perplexing if you believe in magic.”

Serious Drawings

(H is for Holy Crap)
by Marc Johns
ISBN: 9783832793142

I follow Marc Johns on twitter. Not because I know him or care to know what he ate for breakfast (he doesn’t generally tweet that kind of thing), but because I find it interesting to take even a little peek into the head of the guy who draws things like six people in a blue octopus, which is the drawing he posted today.

He frequently draws on sticky-notes. He uses pen and watercolor, and tends to work on small scale even when the canvas is bigger than a post-it. He’s got a quirky sense of humor. Underneath a drawing of five detached arms, he’s written “These are doll arms. They are not meant to convey some sort of morbid arty statement. They are just doll arms.” Either you think this is funny, or you don’t.

If you don’t you probably also won’t like the sixteen and eight ounce jars of holy water, the liar with his pants on fire, the multi-limbed, multi-headed, or antlered folk, or the picture of the world with the label “ingredients: mostly idiots.” If I was a nicer person, this might not tempt me to make jokes at your expense or feel a bit sorry for you.

So, yes, I quite enjoyed this book. It was the first thing that arrived from my amazon wish list this birthday/holiday season, but I would like it even if it wasn’t a present.

Half-Life

by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
ISBN: 0879233184

Though I don’t know Purcell’s work well, I’ve been aware of her for a long time, as her subject matter — cabinet of curiosities kind of stuff, eery and disturbingly beautiful — is something I find compelling. She’s on my mental list of artists I want to learn more about, whose work I want to spend time with. So when I found this early volume on sale in a used bookstore, I snapped it up.

What I find fascinating about these images is that so many of them seem to have multiple layers, they invite long looks and investigation. It’s not how they were made, it’s the end result that holds my attention. While technique can be interesting, knowing how an image was made doesn’t make me interested in a photograph if nothing was sparked when I first looked at it. That said, I find it remarkable that most of these weren’t double exposures, but cleverly created single exposures. (Since this book was published in 1980, they obviously weren’t digital manipulations.)

If this level of creativity and exploration of what is possible is what she created early in her career, I have much to look forward to as I get to know Purcell’s later work.

Healing Waters

by Linda Troeller
ISBN: 0893817708

Troeller spent over a decade photographing water therapies in spas all over the world; this book is the result. It may sound luxurious, and I suppose it is, but without the negative associations of excess or incredible expense. This images are about the luxury of time, letting go, taking care of oneself — embodying, in many cases, the metaphor of floating away.

The softness, blur, motion, and interesting light effects work to make you feel the water, the warmth, the relaxation. (They even made me curious about water therapies; I love to be in the water, especially at the beach, but have never tried a spa treatment.) I found the images that captured the sense of motion in water to be the most captivating.

The Suitcase Series: Camilla Engman

by Janine Vangool
ISBN: 9780978326876

I developed a bit of a crush on Camilla Engman’s work from seeing it on the UPPERCASE blog, so I finally decided to treat myself and order a copy of the book.

The book is the sort of object which, if you are the kinda of book person who is also interested in artists, it is easy also develop a crush on. It is small (for an art book, it would be a bit extra-wide for a trade paperback) with rounded corners and a pleasingly rough brown paper cover. Then there are all the extras: postcards, a booklet about Engman’s fabulous dog Morran, and a soft fat rubberband to keep everything together. So it felt good in hand, and gave me a bit of a warm fuzzy happy I bought this feeling even before I read it.

It’s a casual book, not a stuffy monograph. Think studio visit, cup of tea and maybe a short walk in the woods time with the artist; it’s charming without being too cutesy. I liked that it is a look at how Camilla became an artist and what her daily practice is like, and shows what inspires her and all the different types of projects she works on. I didn’t find the writing all the strong, but for me the idea of the book itself (studio visit/introduction to an artist in book form) and the visual — Engman’s art — were really the point.

I am fascinated by Camilla Engman’s work. Her figures seem somehow off, disturbed, but in an inviting way that makes sense guided by some internal to her characters logic I can’t quite grasp. I want to spend time puzzling over the stories I can imagine from her paintings and illustrations. She lives and works in Sweden, but I hope that her work will be exhibited here so I’ll get the chance to see it in person.