The point of writing in my art journal

Journal page white on black

Journal page in tribute to my mother by Suzanne Hollifield

I used to keep a written journal every day. In fact, I’ve got boxes of them taking up space in a closet. When I taught high school English, every class started with ten to fifteen minutes of the students free writing, which I never read. The point was to develop fluency, to support thinking in words instead of images, and to develop a writing practice that just might carry over to life after school.

At some point, however, I began to write less and less. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say, it was just that after I retired from teaching and especially after I stopped dating on a regular basis, I had less drama in my life and so less need to bare my soul on paper. 

When I began painting two years ago, I began to write again more regularly. At first, I only wanted to document my learning process, and then I started taking classes that encouraged self-reflection before picking up the brush. I used the prompts supplied to me by my teachers, initially by Kelly Rae Roberts in her Spirit Wings course to create mantras for the paintings and then by Effy Wild in Book of Days, a year long course that comes with a prompt for every day. The fact that I often painted over what I had written gave me a freedom to express myself without reservation.

Journal page

Journal page by Suzanne Hollifield

Over the last year, I’ve strayed from the prompts more as world events have challenged me to think about where I stand on certain issues. I often feel the stress of my values in conflict with those of people I love or care about, and although I am aware that nothing will make me stop caring for certain people, I wonder if we might become estranged by events if push comes to shove. 

I made a commitment several months ago to read the words of great leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when I get really upset with the way things are going in the world. I have also started listening to podcasts that either explain events or that offer a positive viewpoint. They help me stay rational and positive rather than reactive and fearful.

One podcast that is just back from hiatus is #ReikiRadio, which you can find on Blog Radio or on iTunes. It is hosted by Yolanda Williams. She spoke on a recent episode about how during the last year many people have been dealing with the Shadow, and she indicated that our country might also be dealing with its Shadow. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I heard it, and I’m sure it will provide days of fodder for my art journal. 

If you are wondering how that works for me, I usually write on the paper; then I either paint over it or glue collage piece over it. I have, on occasion, torn the writing and used it as collage pieces. (I’m thinking of doing this with some of those old journals.) in this way I get my feelings out, and then make something beautiful out of the pain or anger or frustration I’ve expressed. 

Another way to art journal is simply to make the writing a part of the page itself as in the two pieces here. Sometimes, I just use a poem or a quote that is meaningful to me. Recently, I’ve been using music as a jumping off point, thanks to a class I’m taking called Mixed Tape II.

This is not to say that I never save things I write anymore, but art journaling has given me a way to express the irrational and the confusing parts of my mind and heart without judgment. It is surprising to me how often simply doing that finds a resolution that all the self-analysis of previous years did not. Besides, I get to paint. 

Painting to music

MixedTape 4

Just by way of information to my readers, I have recently upgraded my WordPress account, and I now have a new domain name. Be sure to change it if you have me bookmarked or if you have me in a blog reader. It’s https://suzyhollifield.com. Now I feel like a real blogger! I have a domain name!

My next step on my artist journey is to print some cards from the original art I have done and given away (but scanned) and try to sell them in my office. They might or might not sell, but I don’t have much to lose. I’m going to try. I may even try to do some holiday themed cards. On to feeling like a real artist!

Now to the meat of this blog. The image above relates to a class I am taking taught by Effy Wild, my mentor/teacher/blogging-instigator. The class is called Mixed Tape II, and you can still enroll. There is also a Mixed Tape I which is also open to new students. It’s older, but it’s still relevant.

Our last lesson in Mixed Tape II was about dancing with art. The basic instructions were to put our chosen song on “repeat” and make marks and fling paint on the paper in time with the music until we were happy with the results. The song I chose was “Which Side Are You On?” sung by Ani DiFranco.

Ani’s version has updated lyrics. The original lyrics were written in 1931 by Florence Reece during a coal strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. You can hear her sing it on YouTube by clicking the link. At the peak of the strike 5800 workers were unemployed and only 900 working, according to Wikipedia. The story of the strike makes pretty interesting reading.

“Which Side Are You On?” has since been sung by greats. Pete Seegar, who rerecorded the song in 1967, made it famous again. Numerous other versions have been recorded. The first I heard recently was that of Natalie Merchant, who uses the original lyrics, and there is a very different version by Arlo Guthrie with words that have a decided religious tone.

This version by Ani DiFranco is my favorite, though. She is really a great performer. I love her enthusiasm and her “tell-it-like-it-is” attitude. Her rewrite is closer to what is going on right now in our country, and the words make you think about how you are going to take a stand on things.

I chose the part about feminism although I could have chosen any of the other stanzas. It’s just that recently it seems I’ve seen so much of what I’ve spent most of my life working and fighting for get overturned and lost because people won’t stand up together and say “No, you can’t do that to us.” It makes me really sad. It makes me angry sometimes, too, especially when it comes to the public schools. That’s another story.

I tend to be a left-leaning moderate. I taught school too long not to be able to see both sides (mostly both kids in an argument have a point to make). Still, there are some things that are simply not worth fighting about. They don’t matter. On the other hand, some things are worth fighting about and fighting for. They do matter. The trick is deciding which is which and then answering the question, “Which side are you on?” And willingly accepting the consequences of your answer.

Beginning Again

It’s been over a year since I first started this blog, and although I intended to use it to document my learning journey in painting, I never really got it off the ground. As a result, I ignored my own advice to “just begin”.

Over the last year, I have continued taking online art classses, and I’ve continued to draw or paint nearly every day. It really has become an important part of my life. I am finally at the place where I feel like I am developing my own style, and I want to do my own thing more than I want to copy my teachers.

One of my favorite and most respected teachers is Effy Wild. She recently challenged her students and her blog followers to blog every day in September. In a way, she is responsible for my being back here blogging. I need to give her credit for that; otherwise, I’d still be procrastinating. Thanks, Effy. BTW, Effy teaches some really dynamic classes on art journaling. You should check her out.

Underpainting of portraitToday begins the Labor Day weekend, and I decided to paint a canvas since I have the time. I chose a reference photo from a copyright free site named pixabay.com.  While the photographer didn’t ask to be credited, his named is Jerzy Gorecki. I used a technique I learned from online teacher Kara Bullock, in which I first placed a grid on both the photo and the canvas and then did the sketch. Afterwards, I completed the underpainting. One of the things I’ve learned from Kara is to spend time on the underpainting, and like her, I use an app called PosterShine to break down the reference photo into the darkest darks, the midtones, and the highlights. Once the grid and the values are in place, it is easier to start adding layers and details.

PreliminaryAfter I started adding other colors, I changed the skin tone to a pinker shade. I spent most of today  just doing layer upon layer of skin tone, then the eyes, lips, hair, clothing, and background, and even now, I am aware that I still don’t have the dimensional quality that makes a painting come alive. Still, it was a good day, and the painting is my own. It was as good and satisfying day, Tomorrow, I will have time to work on it some more. I am excited and looking forward to it.

Just Begin

I wanted to begin this blog with a really attention-grabbing story about how I have grown as a student artist over the last year. Then I realized if I wait for the perfect, entertaining beginning, the blog will never get started. The best way to tell my story is just to start telling it.

Before about a year ago, I had never painted anything beyond some cutouts for bulletin boards. (I taught public school for thirty years, and then went to massage school and became a massage therapist.) I started painting on my own last summer to make some things to decorate my massage room after changing locations, and I found a new passion.

I’ve had other passions in my life, and over time, I’ve either lost interest or reached a level of proficiency that seemed to mean I’d never get better without committing more time than I wanted or that I was as good as I needed to be to accomplish what I wanted to do.

Painting is different. I think this is in part because of the online classes I’m taking. I’ve never taken a face-to-face class; I don’t know if that would be markedly different. The first online class I took was Kelly Rae Roberts’ Spirit Wings. I discovered Kelly’s work in a shop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee while on vacation, and after doing an Internet search, found this six-month class in painting angels for a special price. I signed up immediately.

One of the things that impresses me about Kelly Rae Roberts’ work is her personal story and philosophy. She calls herself a Possibilitarian, and much of what she believes and includes on her art reflects ideas that can also be found in the research of Brené Brown. It came as no surprise to me to learn that they were friends. Those ideas include believing that vulnerability is the only way to be truly strong, that we have permission to ask for what we need (and to say not to what we don’t), that it’s important to have people around us who can share our successes and our failures without making us feel that we are loved for what we do rather that for what we are. You get the idea. Kelly’s class was for me.

WhispersMy first angel was the Angel of Whispers. We started with journaling what it is our hearts most want and really listening for the answers. Then, after the preparation, we began to work on the mixed media canvas and to paint about the second week. There was a Facebook closed group where we could share with each other, and we could ask Kelly questions in the online classroom.

I was amazed at the support the other students gave each other. Really. I could not believe how freely everyone shared and how everyone encouraged each other and nobody shared hurtful criticisms. It blew me away! I’ve been in a classroom all my life, and I’ve never been in classrooms like these online groups. People help each other. Don’t tell me that there’s something bad about not being face to face in a live classroom. If you think that, you’ve just not experienced what I have. I got as personal interaction with the teacher as I have in many college courses, and I certainly interacted with my classmates more and felt more validated.

So I’m going to stop for now and post my Angel of Whispers. I look at her now and want to change her eyes and work on the proportion of her face, but then I go back to Kelly’s classroom and see the first paintings she did. I think I’ll keep this angel. In a way, she is a muse for me.

By the way, the header for the blog is the second Angel of Whispers I did. Like the first, I see mistakes in her, but she reminds me everyday to be grateful for all the many blessings I have.

I’ve since taken a number of other online classes. I’ll be writing about those as time goes on. I really encourage you to risk it and take one. You won’t be sorry, even if you think you can’t draw a stick woman.