Saturday, June 12, 2010

Danny Gregory's An Illustrated Life

I've been making and selling hand-bound notebooks and sketchbooks for the past year or so. This was instigated by two factors: 1. my aversion to filling books with my own pictures and writing (an issue I'm working on!) and 2. my great fascination with artists' sketchbooks. This interest was cemented while visiting the Morgan Library in mid-town Manhattan. Among so many great exhibits was a room of 19th century landscape oils by a painter I can no longer recall. In vitrines throughout the room the curator had displayed the artist's sketchbooks, complete with his travel painting set and portable easel. The books were filled with rougher versions of the completed paintings on the wall - kernels of ideas, the freer, originating departure points for the more deliberate work done on canvas. I loved them for their uninhibited creativity and for the way they communicated spontaneity, the hands and heart working without too much interference from the mind. When I sell my books at art and craft sales, I inevitably talk to many people about sketchbooks. They tell me how and when they use them and what qualities they like them to have. Many people express inhibitions and anxiety about drawing or writing in a "nice" book (they doubt their abilities can live up to a beautiful object), as well as a profound fear of a blank page. I'm often surprised by their concerns because, while fearful of many things myself, a new book has never seemed to be anything but full of potential. Once, at a sale, I told a customer about the difficulty I have convincing people that they deserve to work in a well-made book with high-quality paper and she suggested it might help me to display books by Danny Gregory. Gregory taught himself to draw several years ago as a way to contemplate his life. He's written several books insisting that anyone can do this and, more important, that their days would be enhanced if they observed them closely and rendered the people and places around them. This idea is fully explored in his book EVERYDAY MATTERS, which counsels people on drawing in a matter of fact of way on a regular basis. The result becomes a visual diary of their lives, completed with commitment and focus but not too much forethought. Of significance to me, however, is his book AN ILLUSTRATED LIFE which compiles pages and statements from artists Gregory selected, all of whom use sketchbooks routinely. It's wonderful because all of the work represented differs widely, but much of what's expressed about sketchbooks is consistent. All of the artists are at different stages of their careers, but they're professionals and so are in the habit of being creative. Still, they express fear of each book's first, blank page and of making mistakes and drawing poorly. Almost all of them have devised ways to overcome this concern. Apart from this, they unanimously vouch for the usefulness of sketchbooks and the special qualities books possess over computer work or mere blank pages. They like books because their design necessarily unites all of the drawings they contain, even if their content is disparate. Because books move from front to back, filling them relates to progress, continuity, and chronology. Since books have covers, they allow for privacy, which means that the artists don't feel pressure to complete their best work. They can experiment, or express something personal, because few will see and therefore judge the result. More of often than not, the book's contributors claim using sketchbooks enhances their other work, the looseness of their daily, casual entries leading to ideas and approaches they might not have arrived at otherwise. Most moving were many artists claims that their sketchbooks, almost always at hand while at home or traveling, amounted to proof of existence. The act of discerning and interpreting the world around them via their own perspectives and visual styles meant they were living and perceiving at a specific moment in time. They could return to their books for proof of who they were and where they'd been. The sensations and feelings those experiences summoned were coursing through their drawings and still accessible in the here and now. I feel renewed motivation to make sketchbooks, based largely on Gregory's book. The participating artists specify dimensions and papers that attract them to certain books and all of this information will help me to design new shapes and sizes over the summer.