Healing the World

Over the table in my studio, I hang a sign. Sometimes it hangs up there for a day, sometimes for a month. It’s not an affirmation, it’s a question. It helps me think while I work. My studio is my Place Without Noise–no music, no TV, just silence. So a question hanging in eyesight is sort of a mental chewing gum.

The most recent question is “How Will You Heal the World?” No doubt the world needs healing–Haiti still has 634,000 people living in displacement camps,

Constellation Orion from cwru.edu

almost a year after the earthquake; Japan is still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami–there is no shortage of damage in the world. Isn’t is ridiculous to think I can help? Me, with no skills in engineering, nuclear physics, or law?

My mind was a smooth blank as I pulled a piece of paper toward me to cut into butterflies for a collage. The paper was a map of the night sky, and there, on one side, was Orion. The hunter himself didn’t have an auspicious beginning. He was born from an ox-skin that various male gods had urinated in. He was blinded by his father in law, revived by the goddess Artemis, and then angered the Earth goddess Gaia, who sent a scorpion to kill him. Gaia then placed them both in the sky as a warning to others not to harm the earth. Not much healing there, and I don’t want to think about out punishment for all the plastic bottles we put in Gaia’s earth, either.

What I did notice was Orion’s sword. You can see a pinkish star in the knife at

A closer view of the Orion Nebula. Via cwru.edu.

his waist. That’s not really a star, it is a whole nebula–an incubator for new stars. The young, forming stars are hot, and heat up the gas around them, causing it to fluoresce–so what we are seeing as a star is a cloud of gas and tiny hot stars 1,500 light-years away.

Maybe a small kindness, a prayer offered when someone asks for one, generously letting a car ahead of you in line, particularly when you don’t want to,  maybe all that is the equivalent of a tiny hot star that helps light up the nebula. Without the star, and others like it, there would be no fluorescing nebula, no sword in Orion’s belt. And of course, if you are a star in a nebula, you don’t see all of Orion.You see something else when you look into the universe.

As my hands smooth over the paper, looking for a spot to cut out the butterfly, I wonder if the way you heal the world is one tiny, glowing act at a time. They add up over time, and eventually you have a constellation of healing put into the sky as a lesson to everyone else to help out, too.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, creativity coach and artist who thinks art heals by scattering stars into the sky, one at a time.

Learning from Dreams

Dreams are important. They are more than just random processing of the day’s events. Sure,  some parts of dreams are recycled parts of experience. But dreams are also our very personal stories, given meaning by our deep personal connections.

In a dream, we recognize the yellow tricycle we passed on the sidewalk earlier in the day. That doesn’t strip it of meaning. To wrangle meaning out of dreams, we have to sit with the ideas our dreams give us and untangle the complicated links to ourselves.

Put down the book that “explains” dream images. You create the message and you can understand it. It’s yours to explore for meaning. A few nights ago I had a dream about a toaster cozy. Unlikely, yes. At first.

A handmade toaster cozy, sadly no longer available on Etsy.

The Dream I was in a class of women, and we were all making kitchen-appliance cozies. You may remember those–covers for toasters, blenders, coffee grinders. Cozies were very popular in the 1950s and early 60s. I think the purpose was to unify the look of the kitchen, although it’s possible women wanted to “hide” the machines that did the work for them while they wore pearls and shirtwaist dresses.  There was a lot of conflict in housewives’ minds about having “women’s work” made easier. It was more noble to do everything by hand, but a lot faster to use a machine to help.

In my dream, I was in a sewing class, learning to make a toaster cozy. The other  women in the class were making their cozies really fast, sewing machines humming. Most of the cozies in my dream were crayon-colored prints, with contrasting piping. (In my waking life I’m not attracted to crayon-colored prints and piping.) Some women were quilting theirs in traditional quilting patterns.

My toaster model was a vintage, rounded, 2-slicer with the big bakelite black handle. The instructor kept stopping by, fretting. I was making a cozy out of Tyvek,  the material FedEx envelopes are made from, and was adding a stuffed sculpture on top. The instructor was worried, and said, “This isn’t really the shape everyone is working with.” I nodded, but kept working.

The instructor, who in my dream was a home ec teacher, asked to see it on the toaster, but I shook my head. I didn’t speak, just kept working. Finally, when other women were putting their neat, tidy, perfectly sewn toaster cozies over their toasters, I put mine on the toaster–it used the toaster as a base, and the whole cozy was about two feet high.

  On the top of the cozy was a tiger, rearing up on two hind feet, claws out, snarling. The teacher was horrified and asked me why I did that. I said, “Because I needed to.”

The interpretation: Here is what I knew but didn’t say to the teacher–the toaster was fear and the cozy was anger,  a reaction to fear. I was covering fear with a show of anger. Tyvek can’t be torn or ripped. It would stand up to a lot of angry treatment.

Showing strength and anger keeps people from seeing we are just a toaster. Because being a toaster is not enough, in our heads. And yet, we buy toasters just for that ability–to toast bread.

The question: What cozy do you put on to appear to be something else? What are you hiding from the world?

Quinn McDonald is the author of Raw Art Journaling. She has a strange attraction to Tyvek.

Back to Loving the Studio

The fat envelope that came in the mail got tossed on my desk so I could make the cranberry sauce and the best sweet potato pie I’ve made in three years in time to eat it on the same day as the turkey. It wasn’t till hours later that I could open the envelope. It contained Cloth, Paper, Scissors’ new issue of Pages, the magazine for art journaling and book making.

Pages has 144 pages of bookmaking, binding, inside pages, art journaling samples and cover ideas. There are names you will recognize, like Julie Fei-Fan Balzer, Jane LaFazio, Traci Bunkers, Lisa Engelbrecht, and Kathryn Antyr –all working through projects I’d like to make. I found myself settling in with the magazine, something I don’t often do.

And then, settled in, I saw Raw Art Journaling reviewed favorably. Be still my heart! My favorite quote from Jenn Mason’s review is this sentence “. . .you don’t

Center of page: my 35mm slide mount journal

need to be able to write or draw to experience the benefits of journaling, and then [Quinn] goes on to provide projects and chapters that back up this statement.” Yes, it’s wonderful to read that the editor could see what I wanted the book to be.

Even better, on page 11 and 35 are my 35-mm slide-mount journals. One of them is made with braille paper–it has a real message that can be read by both sighted and blind people– and the other one is a collage.  I had sent in the images so long ago that I was surprised when I saw them on the pages.

OK, this is sounding self-referential, even to me.  But it’s been a hard few weeks.  (I tend not parade the charnal house side of my life on my blog as readers may be eating breakfast. And I prefer to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from the mechanically-separated-meat part of  my life before putting it in my blog.)

The braille journal is in the lower right-hand corner.

Seeing something you haven’t thought about in months can be a jolt. I suddenly realized that I have missed collage and missed doing work in series. The joy of series is that you get to work on the art of the piece instead of the details, which are decided on at the beginning of the series. You get to chew on the interesting problems and solve them–dig for meaning.

I spent hours this weekend in the studio, working. I’m not showing the results here because they are still in the mechanically-separated-meat stage. What does that mean? It means I’m making a big mess and haven’t found out all the answers, although two pieces are in the book press and I’ll be able to check on them in a day or so.

Here’s the meaning part I’ve learned. I moved away from collage for the worst possible reason–because I was looking for something new and fresh that would prove to me I was an artist.  And after this weekend, I remembered how much meaning there is in collage, because collage can be as new as the artist who makes it. It can be used in journaling, to tell a story you can’t quite write yet. Or to tell more of a story than you know. And that’s where I’ll stay for a while.

Thanks, Pages, for getting me back to the studio and back to work.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and art journaler who works out her life in a small studio that’s also a guestroom. She is the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.

Ideas: Set Free Into the Wild

“Set your ideas into the wild.” It was just a sentence fragment I read on a blog today, but now, hours later, it still resonates. What a wonderful image–taking your ideas and setting them free against an autumn sky, to soar away.

The memory of fireflies, Ink on paper. © Quinn McDonald

You lose control over them, but you never really were in control of your ideas. You just kept them, like fireflies in a jar,  until you had filled your eyes with wonder, and then you let them go, because they weren’t really yours to begin with.  But you never forgot the glow in the dark and the churn of comfort and power you got from opening that jar and having the fireflies crawl to the rim, lift their wings and blink up into the grassy-smelling dark of night.

Our ideas are ours to nourish, marvel over, and set free into the wild. You write a book, you teach a class and your ideas float across space and time, to be caught, transformed and set free again, in different shapes and textures. You may not even recognize it when it comes back, but as it passes you on the street, dressed in a suit and formal with design, you’ll smell a hint of summer grass and catch a slight wink of light, and the memory will still be there.

The experience of recognition, the experience of power and joy, that makes setting free your ideas all the more worthwhile.

–Quinn McDonald has a jar of ideas on her desk. She remembers it once held fireflies.

Shop Local, Play Global

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and hordes of people are heading to stores for Black Friday sales.  Some are already in line. I don’t now what’s wrong with me, I love saving money as much as the next person, but never enough to stand in line at 4 a.m. to buy something that I’m not sure I need.

What I really want to do, something that combines shopping with helping artists–is buy handmade gifts for the holidays. It’s a good way to support art as well as the people who make it.

I’d much prefer to shop locally, keep the money in the c0mmunity, and show support for people who own businesses in my community. Local art stores, art fairs, and shops need your help to thrive. Support them, please

T. J. Goerlitz, over at Studio Mailbox, has an intriguing list of gifts, experiences, and services on her blog today. T.J. just came back to Minneapolis from spending years in Germany, so her hand-picked list includes artists in Europe.

I’d be inconsistent if I didn’t suggest you buy Raw Art Journaling for someone who could use a creative boost.  The book makes a thoughtful gift, is easy to wrap and you can get free shipping from now through the holidays by using the code on my website.

And here are some other ways to get yourself  and your studio or office organized before it refills itself with gifts.

Let’s start off my clearing out junk

Get rid of unwanted Direct Mail (and save some trees.)

Stop unwanted catalogs. This site requires that you know the name of the catalog (or company), but it is incredibly detailed, so you can get rid of only the ones you don’t like.

Sit down with your kids or grandkids and teach them how to make a snowflake using this diagram from http://thesocietypages.org

Or just stop worrying about wasting paper and make a virtual snowflake with virtual scissors and paper using the same pattern. It takes a bit of practice, but they all wind up looking wonderful.

Or laugh at do-it yourself projects gone oh, so wrong.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach  who is not yet thinking past Thanksgiving. She’ll start next week.

Thanksgiving, Home and Alone

This year, the cooking man and I are sitting down at a Thanksgiving table for just us and another couple. Laughter, good food, it makes for a Thanksgiving some people aren’t having.  And a few years ago, I was alone–no family, no friends around on turkey day.

Now, I’m one of those people who can have fun by myself in a phone booth in North Dakota, provided they still have phone booths there. You may not be. In that case, please take a peek at my Alone-at-Thanksgiving post from a few years ago. There are pointers for being alone, ignoring the holiday entirely, or celebrating your own way.

You can also read this article by eHow–it’s not anything new, but they use the word treacly, one of my favorites for this time of year. I think PyschCentral’s list is a little more interesting. And don’t forget bowling–duckpin or regular. Lanes will be open and you can learn a new skill, particularly if you think it’s geeky. It’s fun.

There is the other side to Thanksgiving, the big, messy family side. I have a post for you in that situation, too. Just in case.

One more thing–there is a certain time of day you feel moody. For some people it’s early morning. Others hate when the sun dims at twilight. Know which day part is your saddest time and plan–be at a movie, at the mall, taking a bubble bath, getting a massage. Don’t allow yourself to have a pity party. OK, if you do have a pity party, stand in front of the mirror and talk out loud about the sadness of your life to yourself. I’ll bet you can’t keep it up long.

Finally, if all else fails, the day you are alone on Thanksgiving may be the best time of all to start a gratitude journal. Yeah, I heard that. So ready my snarky post, and think it over.

If you do decide to go shopping, now that stores open on Thanksgiving Day, please shop at local stores and contribute to your community. That helps everyone.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who has spent happy Thanksgivings alone. She is also a certified creativity coach.

Eye on the Heart

Making samples of your art is always hard. You want to get every part right, you are working against a clock, and you don’t want to start over.  Usually you have a show coming, art retreat deadline coming, or a class deadline sneaking up in jackboots.

Here it is: the intersection of art and writing. Communicating from the heart is never easy to understand.

The past two days to get samples made. Of course the gremlin shows up. This time he showed up in a van with the whole family. It wasn’t the ‘aren’t-good- enough’ trap I fell into. It was something much worse. It was, “what if my concept for this class is simply too complicated? What if no one comes? Maybe I should do something else, something easier to understand” And there it was–the same thought that had driven me out of silverwork. The idea that I had to focus on what sells, what is easy for clients to understand and pay for.

I thought about it for a while. I know that a lot of people prefer product classes–you go in, hand over the money, and walk out with a cute project. If you are adept, you walk out with a project good enough to give as a gift. I don’t teach those classes anymore. Enough people teach those. I’m going for something else.

Almost every artist I know has videos, a You Tube channel, and online classes. I think that’s brilliant. I’ve watched a lot of You Tube–I’ve learned how to tie a tie when my husband had his arm in a cast, how to do Coptic stitching with both one and two needles, and how to do a reasonable watercolor wash.

But it’s not what I teach. I think we make art for a different reason–not to make gifts but to make meaning. That’s why I teach in person. To see a glimmer of hope and help the person stay with it. To see the shadow of fear and let the person know that’s OK, too. That’s why I teach classes that include deep writing.  Sometimes when I explain a class to store owner or art retreat leader, I get a blank stare. Each time that happens, I feel a pang of guilt, an urge to take it back and offer a simpler class.

But I’m not going to make that same mistake again.  I want to offer people access to their own creativity, to joy, to meaning-making.  There may be fewer people out there who want to explore meaning, but they are my audience.

I often thrill to artists who do esoteric art with great enthusiasm. With great love. The only reason that kind of art works is because it connects their hearts to their soul through their minds. It’s challenging. It’s thrilling. It’s frustrating. But in the end, it has more satisfaction than anything else. And if you are willing to share what you learned after going through that process, the class will be powerful, particularly if you walk out with your hands empty and your heart full.

Years ago, an artist friend of mine learned how to make fishing nets by hand. She sized down the pattern and used hair-fine silver wire to cover small rocks. It took infinite patience, and person after person said, “Who would buy that?” “How much will you charge?” Her answer was, “It doesn’t matter. I’m learning how to encase my hard heart in delicate beauty.” Years later, I saw her work in a gallery, and smiled. She had found her audience, appreciation and the value she had to make for herself first.

So I’m going to take a stand for my own art. The art of exploration, of writing, mark-making and meaning making. It’s too juicy and rich for me to walk away.

I’ll soon be announcing two classes that I’m teaching based on this concept of deep work and deep satisfaction. I welcome those who want to join me. And if the classes are small, it won’t make any difference to working from the heart.

–Quinn McDonald is an artist who works at the place where words and art elude each other. She is the author of Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art.

Exploring Ink

Ink is weird. When I started playing with it, I thought ink was made to put in fountain pens and stored in bottles. Well, it does come in bottles, but there is acrylic ink, watercolor inks, shellac inks,  alcohol inks, and sparkly inks. There are inks you can put in airbrushes but not in a technical pen, and inks you can put in a dip pen but not a fountain pen. It’s amazing, and my head is spinning. There are inks you thin with water and those made with shellac that don’t like water.

Because I’m experimenting with inks for a new class, I’m making a wonderful mess in the studio–different papers, gel medium, water, alcohol–and blends. Which ink likes what? I take notes and eventually I will create the Frankenstein monster in ink and every time I say “Frau Blücher!” a horse will snort ink over my desk.

Walnut ink crystals didn't dissolve on gel medium, and brown Higgins ink won't dry.

In this project, I was trying to eliminate warping in the paper substrate. The usual way to do that is to spray both sides of the paper with water before working on it. What would happen if I painted over an inked sheet with gel medium and continue to ink it. Would it quit warping? It does quit warping, but other odd things happen. I let the gel medium layer dry and sprinkled walnut ink crystals over two spots. The crystals can’t be scraped off the sheet once they dry.

Brown Higgins ink, which I thought was water-based, must be shellac based because it won’t dry on the gel medium. At least not in 12 hours. I stood the paper upright and left it alone, and the ink continued to spread. The red-orange dried in about 8 hours. When I went back to re-work it, I could see a figure in a red dress in the ink.

I began to work with the figure, but watercolor pencils and Pitt Pens both picked up the tacky brown ink. I finally used India Ink to get the effect. The piece may never dry, but it taught me some interesting facts:

–you can spray or drop ink on watercolor paper and get interesting effects.

India ink can be used on damp gel medium and shellac ink, but it's very difficult to work on wet ink.

—If you let the ink dry, you can add more ink without blurring the first coat.

–If you spray alcohol on ink, you get interesting effects, but it also doesn’t evaporate completely from the paper, and subsequent layers will behave differently, even if you let the paper dry.

–Spritzing on Tattered Angels Glimmer Mist on the first layer acts as a mild fixative. When you re-spray with water, the tiny mica particles shift and flow, even if the page was completely dry.

These experiments are teaching me a lot. It won’t be long till I’m ready to teach painting backgrounds with ink–if it turns out to be a bit more predictable.

Quinn McDonald loves experimenting in the studio. Both her hands are now heavily inked in brown and red. The checker at the grocery store asked her if she had been in an accident. “No,” she replied, “this was an on-purpose.”

Choosing Art Supplies: Need v. Want

Of course you know you don’t need a lot of equipment to be creative. Paper and pencil is fine. Paints and brushes. Scissors and glue if you work multi-media. But in our consumer society, we are pushed to be “creative” by buying equipment, products, “stuff” that will make us better artists. “If I buy this left-handed brush made with the eyelashes of a thousand virgins surely I will be able to paint perfectly.” I’ve been there.

There is a fine line between “need” and “want,” and even if the line is clear, it

This brush does a lot in one stroke. From Tonyspainting.us

doesn’t mean we don’t want. There is also that slight frisson of fear that if we buy one more thing, the producers of  Hoarders will come to our door while we shriek, “I’m an artist, those are my tools!”

If you have limited space (who has huge studios with endless storage like those featured in those yummy studio  magazines?) you need to make careful choices of what you need and how you will store it. It doesn’t make sense to have the perfect piece of equipment if it takes you an hour to find it. So how do you make that choice?

I asked my spouse, who is a chef. Yes, he has a ton of equipment, too, but here are some great kitchen rules that work in the studio:

1. Choose equipment that does more than one thing. For example, toasters ovens can cook without heating up the whole kitchen, broil, and make toast, but a specialized bagel toaster can just toast bagels. Does anyone need a banana hook? Look for equipment that can do more than one thing. A paper cutter for example, can trim straight edges, cut papers in half or other fractions, make triangles, squares, and other straight-edge geometrics. A paper cutter can also cut heavier papers for covers, pockets, and cards.

2. Avoid equipment that requires you to buy more than one to achieve the same idea. Years ago, we used a square cake pan and a round cake pan to make amazing cake shapes. Now you can buy cake pans in the shape of brains, vampires and SpongeBob SquarePants. How often will you use each one of these? The same thing works for shaped hole punches that you can buy in eight sizes. Will you really use all eight sizes of butterflies? Nope. But when you are standing in the store, you aren’t sure what size you will need the most, so you buy them all. Marketing loves your indecision; they are counting on it.

3. Buy the best of what you use the most. For a chef: knives and pots. (Notice these are all multi-use tools.) You need good ones and several because you are not going to take time to plan your meal so you can keep washing one pot and reusing it. The same is true for paint, brushes, paper, and whatever you use in your specialized kind of art.

What purchase do you regret? What was a great discovery? Let me know in the comments.

-Quinn McDonald is an author and creativity coach who works with creative people who are stuck.

Rape, Sex, Power and the Enabler

Our culture has an opportunity right now to get it right. “It” is the connection between sex, rape, and power. Penn State’s behavior gives us an opportunity to put into public discussion what other institutions, including the Catholic Church, did not. We have the power to decide, at this very moment, that rape is an act of  power over a victim. And, as Jackie Dishner’s  said so clearly in her Ms. Blog article: “Do not let [any] ‘Jerry’ convince you this is horseplay. Abuse is systematic, deliberate and requires enablers. So if there’s any game at all, it’s called pretense, and there are no winners.” It always enrages me that the abused is the one to feel shamed and dirty. The rapist hides, and continues to rape.

Wait. Watch. Wonder. Photograph by John O. Nolan. Used under a license from Creative Commons.

Rape always involves an enabler. Someone who will look the other way.The second a witness makes a deliberate decision not to help a victim–whether it’s a child or an adult–the tipping point shifts and the enabler emerges.

Why do enablers look the other way? Because institutions are very powerful. Institutions employ us, give us our paychecks and benefits, pay our insurance. We are afraid of losing our income, so when we see our institution doing something wrong, we remain silent. We rationalize this behavior by saying we are loyal. We say we aren’t going to judge. We say we aren’t going to rat out our boss, our co-worker, our company.  When we don’t say “I witnessed a crime, and if you don’t report it, I will, ” we choose to be an enabler.

In the not-too distant past, a girl who was abused kept her mouth shut. She would be blamed for “starting trouble.” She would be warned not to make trouble for the boy’s “future.” She would be threatened. How long in the past did this happen? About two weeks ago, when women stepped up to confirm that Herman Cain, a man running for President of the United States, had groped them. Other women condemned the accusers as “wanting attention.” No woman wants to be groped for attention. Yes, there are people (women and men) who lie to get attention, but there are far more people who claim raped women are exaggerating. And those accusers are enablers.

Kelly Salasin who writes the Empty(ing) Nest blog, writes touchingly (and bravely) about the shame of her giving up the right to say No.  It’s a touching blog because she acknowledges her own weakness, and her own suffering. A suffering that has lasted 25 years and changed the way she thinks about herself, relationships and closeness.

Broken Glass At Work 6, by Eric Schmuttenmaer, "akeg" under a Creative Common license.

Many years ago, I did say “No!” but there were no accolades. I fought off an older boy’s drunken advances when I was 16. He picked me up at my house like the gentleman he wanted my mom to believe he was. At the dance, he drank too much, and then he took me to his apartment, poured me a bourbon, which I did not want, and stuck his tongue into my mouth. He insisted angrily that I drink, so I took tiny sips, hating the soapy, burning taste. His experienced hands snaked into my bra and up my skirt. I said, “No!” while pushing him away, and he easily pinned me to the couch. I alternately pleaded and cried and demanded to be taken home. Tired of my squirming and screaming or too drunk to finish what he had wanted to do, he cursed me and slapped me. But he picked up his keys and said he’d take me home. He skidded off the road several times, but he got me home alive.

My mother was waiting up and saw me beaten and teary.  She called me a whore and I, not knowing how else to save myself from her wrath and punishment, told her “nothing happened.” Everything had happened. But as the enabler, she cared only that I was still a virgin.  I was “gounded”– kept in my room for a week. And the guy? He told everyone he’d had consensual sex with me; that I was a tease.  This was in the years when a girl’s reputation could be ruined by locker room talk. And it was.

I did not recognize my mother for the enabler she was that night. I did, suddenly, understand that some mothers will not protect their children. Because they need to use the power that was denied them. To my mother, it was more important to protect a man than protect her child. If my clothes were torn and my eye was swollen shut and blackened,  I must have tempted a man three years older, five inches taller, and 90 pounds heavier.  I must have been the “whore.”

I was not raped physically that night. Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. And I learned everything I ever needed to know about being powerless that night, those many years ago.  The incident changed the shape of power and to whom I hand over my power.

Enablers want other people’s approval  more than they can approve of themselves. They will drink the Kool-Aid to get admitted to a group for the acceptance a group offers.

What does this all mean? I’m asking you to consider who you are when you “don’t judge,” when you turn away, not wanting to get involved. Because if you do not help, you are an enabler. You have the power to change a life forever, one way or another. Choose wisely.

I did not want to write this blog. My blog is about creativity, and the many ways you can be creative. I avoid writing about politics and religion. But this week, I read this blog by Eve Ensler, and I knew that post was filled with the creative anger that creates change. And I wanted to stand up and be counted.

Quinn McDonald is a writer with a colorful past. She still hates the taste of brown liquor. She will not be an enabler.