It’s Not About Space

Most people have their creative play driven out of them by fourth grade. Children are told what art is, and lessons are generally about precision and not making a mistake. But art is about seeing and being. And making mistakes so you can fix them and learn to see better.

Making art isn’t about “stuff” either.  Art comes from within you, not through stencils, transparencies and puffy paints. I’m not saying they aren’t fun, or that creative play should be sparse. I am saying you don’t need to break the bank and become an art-product consumer to be an artist. It’s not what you own, it’s what you do with what you have.

justine_ashbee1Here are two great examples of what I mean. Both of these people can’t NOT make art. They stand in the flow of time and art and the work pours out of them because there is no other choice. They have their own ideas of what art is, and the only tool either one of them uses is a Sharpie pen.

ashbee_web61Justine Ashbee uses good paper along with her Sharpie. Her flowing lines and subtle use of color are incredibly beautiful art. She does it freehand. It comes from within her. It’s the flow of art. You couldn’t stop her creative work because it makes meaning. It doesn’t need to be supported with a million products.

Charlie Kratzer, the other artist, does a totally different kind of work. He decorated his entire basement with a black Sharpie. OK, it was more than one. It was $10 worth. The rest was his creativity, his ideas, his desire to decorate his life.

Kratzer is a lawyer, and started with one line in the basement–a line that began a mural around his basement wall. The mural is not just furniture and columns and wainscoting, although it is all that.

The art spans literature and popular culture, Picasso and Churchill. I could list all the things on the wall, but there is a wonderful video and article that does a much better job.

Being creative is not about owning stuff, buying stuff, or having a fabulous studio to store the stuff. Right now there it’s popular to have artists’ studios in magazines, along with descriptions about how this big, airy, wonderful space is exactly what every artist needs. Yes, it’s nice to have lots of space and storage, but thinking you need 300 square feet with special furniture before you can create is the same as thinking you aren’t an artist until you have four bins of stuff.

Creativity is making meaning in your life. Anyway you can. No excuses. Get busy doing one thing that you love. It’s fine if you think you can’t. Just get into the studio and start. The rest will wash over you and sweep you away in art.

—Quinn McDonald is using her old stuff to create new stuff.

Back from Madeline Island

Thanks to all of you who stayed and chatted while I was on the Island. It was absolutely magical. A wonderful class, amazing participants, and surroundings that I could not get enough of.  The staff of the school, artists themselves, spoiled us with help getting what we needed (an extra tarp? No problem. More paper towels? Sure. Fresh apples, water, soda? Of course–in the fridge in the classroom.) We had a light and airy classroom, open 24 hours a day.  We had beautiful weather until the end, and the rain and cold were perfect for leaving with a tinge of sorrow.

Here are some images so you can have a peek at the week:

MISA Ferry_SmOn the ferry from Bayfield, WI to Madeline Island. Another ferry is still at the dock. The ferry held about a dozen cars.

MISA_Reflect_smA color-corrected version of the sunset reflected in the window of the hotel in Ashland, the night before I took the ferry.

MISABarn_smThe classroom was in this barn, on the top floor. You can see lights on in the room. The room was bright and airy and big. On the ground floor was the hall where we shared meals with everyone at the school–writers, painters, journalers, all of us. Good food, too!

MISALandscape_smLooks like a painting, but it’s a photograph of the view from the South balcony. Yes, our classroom had two balconies. On the second and third day, a pilot flying an ultra-light airplane buzzed this field about eight feet off the ground. As he roared past the balcony, we could see the top of the plane. My jaw was hanging open, so I didn’t get a photograph.

MISAClouds_SmAt the other end of the island is a town park. I went to watch the moonrise. Before that, there was this amazing view of clouds moving in, reflected in the estuary.

Moonrise over Lake Superior

Moonrise over Lake Superior.  Just like that.

MISATurtles_sm Because you want to give them a chance to get to the other side. And you aren’t in a hurry anyway.

MISACemetery_smMadeline Cadotte (who gave Madeline Island its name) is buried here. She is the daughter of Ojibwe (Chippewa) Chief White Crane and wife of fur trader Michael Cadotte.

12715657_133952560724The cemetery is closed to the public, so this is a photo of Madeline Cadotte’s headstone  by historian Paul Wilcox. Madeline died on August  17, 1887 at age 35. Must have been a hard life in those years.

MISAHands_smMonsoon Papers with inked hands. As Lindsay said, “I don’t want to wear gloves. I want proof of life.”

MISA_TableArt_smA table full of art made by meaning-making hearts and busy hands.

MISAARtists_smThe willing artists, each with some of their art. After class some would stay, often till after midnight, working on what pleased them and what called to them. It was a magical week, for sure.

Quinn McDonald is back from a week at Madeline Island School of the Arts, making meaning and exploring the island.

Identity in Action (or, DoBeDoBeDo)

A flurry of articles have floated across blogs recently. They are all versions of “I am not a writer, but I write.” The upshot seems to be money–people are declaring that they write a blog or an article and are happy to do it without getting paid, because they aren’t “real” writers. This makes me smile.

My mind went to variations of that statement. “I’m not an artist, but I art.” Maybe that should be “Make art.”  Or, “I’m not a chef, but I cook.”

This agave has both white and pink flowers. It doesn’t know it’s not supposed to do that.

Yes, I recently wrote about the importance of being professional and demanding the money you deserve if you are a writer. And I said that because I am a writer, and people writing for free devalues the profession. But I’m looking deeper into declaring what you are not.

There are reasons for declaring what you are and what you are not.

1. You are scared to death of being responsible for being a better writer, artist, chef. If you say, “That’s not my real identity,” you don’t have to shoulder the responsibility for getting better or being professional. It’s OK, even good writers need to practice and work at their skill. It’s OK not to be perfect and still identify with that activity.

2. You think you can only be one thing. This is part of our culture. You can either be a good parent or a good employee. You can either be a writer or an artist. You can not only do more than one thing, you can be good at more than one thing. Notice that I used “do” and “be” in the same sentence. You can have both of those.

This chandelier is made of both light bulbs and crystals. It doesn’t have to choose only bulbs or crystals. It can use both. And then it can be used for light and for beauty. If an inanimate object can do that, what can you do?

3. You have to have a clear identity. Well, sort of. By that I mean you can define your own identity. When people ask me what kind of artist I am, I say, “I combine words, illustration and color.” The next question is always “what is that called?” It’s easier to talk to someone if you can label them with an identity that is known to you. That is not my issue, although I can help them through it. I might add “Art journaling and collage.” But it’s two things, so sometimes I say, “Mixed media,” because that’s a larger term that covers more.

I think the answer comes down to how you make meaning. What do you do that allows you to explore yourself, your life, your world, and the thing you were born to do in this world? Whatever that thing is, it’s fueled by your creativity. That’s who you are. When you are yourself, that’s your identity. That is what you do.

In the meaning-making life, who you are is what you do. Not always well, but always with purpose. Meaning.

Today, when I purchased some black gesso and clear gesso (they make clear gesso?) I had no idea what I would do with it. But I knew it would involve exploring what i don’t know. And that makes meaning for me. I’ll show you what I did tomorrow.

How are you making meaning today?

–Quinn McDonald has two new bottles of meaning-making liquid in her studio. She doesn’t know what they do. Yet.



Book Intros

No one reads them, right? Book introductions are the part most often skipped. Can’t speak for everyone, but I read them. First. Before I read the rest of the book. The introduction, particularly in a how-to book, is the foundation of the book that follows. I learn about the author, the intention, the organization, the background, the thinking that went into the book. It’s a lot more interesting (and telling) than the author’s bio. It helps the book make sense.

When I read the reviews of my book on, I am always mildly surprised when the reviewer says, “she must have meant this book to be for beginners,” or “I was surprised to see she includes a lot of information about writing in your journal.” Yes, I do. I wrote Raw Art Journaling primarily for those who want to keep an art journal but don’t know how to draw. Because journaling is also about writing, I included exercises about writing. I explained it all in the introduction. When people say “this isn’t for fine artists,” I wonder how they reached that conclusion. Because fine artists already know how to draw? Nope, book isn’t about drawing or not drawing, it’s about making meaning with your creativity.

Just because I read introductions, and read them first, doesn’t mean anyone else does. I’ve watched how people read the how-to art books. They pick them up, and flip through them, often back to front, and find a project they think may be interesting and read it.

Do you read introductions? If you do, tell us what you find interesting. If not, what makes you skip them?

Quinn McDonald said this in the introduction to her book: “One of the great joys of accepting your imperfection is that it frees you to create imperfectly.” She still means it.

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.

Sudden Silence, Return to Noise

It was obvious when it was gone, and it was obvious when it came back, but in the middle, it was just fine. During Journalfest, in order to experience a real retreat, I did not check or add to Facebook, Twitter, or my blog. I had blog posts

You get to decide how you fill your calendar.

pre-written that posted automatically. I checked the replies once and answered two people, but then decided it could wait till I got back.

Years ago, I made the decision not to include social media on my phone. It’s busy enough as it is, and I find it distracting if it beeps, vibrates and buzzes–it’s hard not to answer it or “just check this one text” while driving. And I’m not going to endanger myself or my fellow travelers doing that.

So from Monday night to Sunday night I abstained from Social Media. The laptop stayed at home. After all, I was going to be in class all day. And I was. I checked email, because I run a business, but few of my friends use email anymore.

What did I miss. A thousand photos of slogans, 500 photos of a cat dressed like a taco, 400 posts about small, daily events. I enjoy those. I post those. But I also was fine without those. I had a few surprising realizations:

  • I wouldn’t pick up the phone to share those events, but I’ll read them on Facebook.
  • I do nothing about what I read except nod my head, smile, frown, shake my head in disbelief, leave a few comments and move on.
  • When I close out Facebook, I don’t remember much of what I’ve read.
  • I complain I don’t have enough time.

During the week I was at Journalfest, I had enough time. I explored the town. I practiced what I learned in class that day. I read. I walked. I meditated. I went to bed at a decent hour. Much like Facebook, I talked to people I didn’t know, but it felt more meaningful because it was face to face and the conversations lasted longer and focused on one topic of mutual interest.

Milky Way watch from

True, I didn’t have to take care of the cats, cook dinner, clean the house, do laundry, pay the bills or other chores. But I became aware of how much time I spend on social media.

As an introvert, I like social media. It’s easier than meeting people, talking to them, holding up a conversation. But it’s also flat. I post stuff and see who replies. There are conventions to follow. To be nice, you click “Like” on every comment, whether or not you really like it. You look up people who leave comments, and leave them comments. There are rules that don’t appear anywhere that everyone knows.

Social media is an amazing tool, but I’m not sure it’s a real conversation or that the people we meet there are real friends in the old-fashioned sense of friendship. I understand the world is changing, and I’m a fan of change.

I didn’t announce I’d be gone for a week, and when I started posting, no one noticed I’d been gone. That’s less likely to happen in a classroom, a religious circle, a restaurant where you are a regular.

But after being gone a week, I realized it was good to be gone, and good to be back. And it’s good to think about how you spend your time, because every hour that passes is irretrievable. Gone. Forever.

And I keep looking at how much I got done while I was away.

-Quinn McDonald is aware that she has fewer years left than have passed. She’s watching the clock a little more closely.

Meaning-Making Like the Little Red Hen

Making Meaning through your creative work takes courage.
It’s an intensely private work, which in our culture is always slightly suspect. When you see the serial killer being led away from the crime scene, you always hear, “He kept to himself,” or “He was a loner,” as if those things are somehow intrinsically bad and wrong. Yet that’s where a lot of creative work is done–by yourself. Alone.

One person's chicken is another's Little Red Hen

Making Meaning starts from scratch.
Sure, you may have played with kits. And you may well be using many leftovers from various kits to make your own stuff. But you are working with your idea. You aren’t assembling anything, and you aren’t using directions supplied with a kit. You are moving into uncharted territory, and you are alone. And you love it.

Making Meaning means you write the rules.
The way you make meaning is your way. Not your neighbor’s, not the rich and successful writer, musician, dancer, or gardener you admire. You get to fail, try again, and then succeed. And that trip is what makes it so very satisfying. Because it involves creative play, messing up, and fixing it all by yourself. Making meaning brings satisfaction because it involves triumph over obstacles. The major obstacle is often your own thinking.

Making Meaning is not a consumer activity.
You can buy a kit and make something, but it doesn’t make meaning. You can buy paint-by-numbers, scrapbooking kits and cards, you can complete step-by-step wire-wrapping jewelry and wind up with a product without one scrap of meaning making. You may feel empty after such an activity, even if you have completed a gift-quality product.

Making Meaning is a Little Red Hen project.
You remember the story of the Little Red Hen. Her friends–the cat, dog, mouse, chick (it varies from story to story) don’t help her plant the wheat, cut the wheat, take it to the mill, or bake the bread. But they all show up to eat the bread. And after all that work, she doesn’t share the bread. She eats it by herself. Is she selfish? No, in this story the other animals aren’t starving, they are hoping to share in her success without having done the work. The Little Red Hen has made meaning in the bread and is eating the joy of her work.

Making Meaning is a goal in itself.
You’ve written a book? That made meaning. Publishing it is another story. The joy you feel in writing is the success. Publishing is an administrative task that will make you feel proud, inadequate, fill you with “shoulds” and bring out detractors, admirers, and hangers-on. That’s a step beyond making meaning. Making meaning is a journey.   It can have many goals that don’t make meaning. Make sure you notice when meaning-making stops, you don’t want to confuse the journey with reaching a destination.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach. She is believer in doing it yourself–from the work to the meaning.

Throwing Your Life Away

“How could you let him throw his life away?” my neighbor asked. She was speaking of my son, who had recently announced he wanted to major in music, to switch from math and Russian.

“He could be an engineer or a lawyer, something important, but you are letting him major in music? How do you feel about wasting all that money?” My mother asked. “You are letting him throw his life away. Just like you did!” The anger in her voice was hard and sharp.

Your path is always there, waiting for you.

Maybe you’ve heard that phrase, too–“Throwing your life away.” It sounds dangerous, stupid, harmful. In my son’s case, and earlier, my case, it was what saved our lives.

My son had chosen a path that he had been encouraged to follow. Gifted in math and languages, majoring in them seemed like a good idea. But his love of music emerged when he was in high school, and he wanted to spend his life with the intricacies of melody. I knew from personal experience that unless you follow the path that beckons, the journey will be rocky, harsh, and may well lead you into a personal, barren wilderness.

So when he told me he was interested in music, I was pleased. It was good to know so clearly the path you wanted to follow. He turned in that direction. He threw away many possibilities–the wrong ones. The ones that would have left him unsatisfied, a drone at his work, uninspired. So many mothers told me that he could always have music as a hobby. It sounded like an echo from my childhood. What I had wanted was not important, I had been told. I was a child, and the ways of the world were harsh. I could do art and writing as a hobby.

Times were different then, and obedience to parents’ wishes was part of a good daughter’s life. Art and writing were a hobby, and I blundered down the path of success as my parents saw it for me. It was years till I could “throw my life away,” shed the burden of “should” and “hobby” and create the life I wanted. It was hard, but ahead of me was the steady light of life’s purpose, a sure knowledge that writing and art were where meaning lay.

So when my son knew early that his path was music, I was happy that he was throwing his life away early. The life of someone else’s expectations, of success, of bent and hobbled dreams. He’s doing well in his life, he is bright, has good friends, does satisfying work, makes meaning. What he threw away was a life defined by other peoples idea of success. What he found was his own success. (Oh, incidentally, he’s a success by anyone’s measure, including his mother’s pride.)

It took me longer to throw my life away. I wasn’t as sure of my own mind, my own direction. The compass was there, but I wasn’t as sure in my choices. I didn’t believe in myself as much as I believed that my parents knew best. When I figured out that their advice fit their lives and I would have to find my own path, I threw my old life away, too. And am happier for it.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist. As a life and creativity coach, she helps others discover their life’s purpose, hard as it may be.

Tutorial: Sumi Ink Marbling

Marbling paper is a complicated process. Marbling paper with sumi  inks and colored pencils is fun and unpredictable–you don’t know what you’ll get, but it’s always fun. Raw art is meaningful art you make with a minimum of equipment and without kits. It’s art that is uniquely yours and art that makes meaning for you. All the expensive equipment in the world won’t make you an artist. But making something meaningful does.

This simple, unpredictable technique  of marbling paper uses only a black ink. The project that allows for quiet meditation and a lot of fun with colored pencils, aquarelles, regular pencils, ink pens, or whatever else you have. You will need some equipment:

  • Toothpick
  • Soup plate or baking dish (8-inch square)
  • Paper towels
  • Paper to work on (I used 4 X 6 Arches Wove Text, but any  good paper will do.)
  • Sumi ink (available at most art supply houses. Walnut ink or regular fountain pen ink won’t work.)
  • Tap water (Don’t use distilled or treated. Regular tap water is perfect.)

sumigraphtintGather everything on a place you can clean up easily. Stack up two or three paper towels. Make sure the bowl you use will hold the entire sheet of paper. Fill the soup plate or baking dish with cool tap water.

Dip the toothpick in the sumi ink, so you get the toothpick wet. Touch the tip of the toothpick to the surface of the water. The ink should immediately flow onto the surface of the water. Use the tootpick to gently spread the ink on the water’s surface.

Pick up the paper by holding it at opposite corners–one on the bottom, one on top. Curve the paper slightly, so the bottom will touch the water first. Roll the paper smoothly over the surface of the water. If you want both sides of the paper inked, wait till the entire piece of paper is floating on the surface of the water, then gently push the piece under water, pull it out by one edge, so water and ink rolls down the length.

Hold the paper by one corner, allowing it to drip dry. When the paper is no longer dripping, put it on the paper towel to dry. You can use a hair dryer to finish the drying process.

When the paper is dry, use pencils, pens, or colored pencils to pick out and emphasize patterns that the sumi ink made. In the example I made, I use my favorite subtle-color pencils–watercolor graphite pencils, which can be used wet or dry. Derwent Graphtint are wonderful for subtle work, but you don’t need anything more than a regular pencil. OK, you can also use Derwent’s InkTense for their transparent color. Use a light touch, because gentle color works best with the mysterious swirls of sumi ink.

FTC Required Disclosure: I purchased all materials in this tutorial. No one paid me or donated the tools I mentioned by brand name. Links to products are not paid, simply practical ones I find useful.

—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who believes that everyone can keep an art journal, even those who can’t draw. See her work at

Collage: Street Team Challenge

Michelle Ward's street team logo

Michelle Ward  at GPP Street Team runs a monthly challenge for creatives. I don’t want to limit it to art journalers or artists, because the contest is always open to interpretation. The contest is always interesting, just enough challenge to make it irresistible and enough left to the imagination to make it intriguing.

This month’s challenge was to rip lines of text from a magazine and create a collage. The alternative was to create a collage background.

I wanted to create a word collage, something I haven’t done in a while and love doing. The background needed to be related, but not distracting. While cleaning out some files, I noticed that a lot of envelopes are printed with security patterns–small patterns in green, gray or blue that keeps prying eyes from seeing what’s in the envelope. I loved that these patterns had such variety. I tore them in strips and pasted them down with Golden’s gel.

The background uses security envelopes to create color and pattern.

The magazine I used was a New York Times magazine from several months ago. The table of contents used interesting numbers written in an elaborate calligraphic hand. Seeing only the numbers of different sizes, I saw ages instead of pages. Using the numbers, I searched the magazine for thoughts or events that might happen during a lifetime and pasted them next to the age appropriate for that thought.  Below the image are some of the words that may be too small to read.

Inner Beauty/Outer Space © Quinn McDonald, 2010 All rights reserved.

The words create a path through a life. Holding the idea that inner beauty is important doesn’t mean that the rest of the world want to agree to that idea every moment. We live in judgment–our own, others,–all the time. The idea of a life lived without fear and sadness exists only in the vacuum of outer space.

Title: Inner Beauty/ Outer Space (The Lives They Lived)

17. . . Simple Truth: It’s important not to be gifted.

22 . . .She wrote songs about being crazy in love.

28 . . . Women who want to want.

32. . And independent woman, she married but that wasn’t enough

36. . . They lived apart isolated by circumstances and by choice.

38. . .Seeing inside, she got beneath the surface of people–and things

42. . .The price of success is less than you think.

49. . . She taught others how to listen to the unspeakable.

52. . .The police can be so literal. They should read more Kafka.

-Quinn McDonald is a raw-art journaler. Her book, Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art will be published by North Light Books in June, 2011.