The artist’s sketchbook: an improvisatory monastery


A poem or drawing appears from nowhere almost like an apparition leaving a monastery at dawn.

Where does it come from?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that isn’t the right question to ask at all.

In fact, it’s better not to ask many questions and instead follow along and see what happens.

I create handmade sketchbooks and use them to explore the ideas and possibilities these creative apparitions offer, never questioning the unplanned nature of their gifts.

For me, an artist’s sketchbook is kind of like an improvisatory monastery with its quiet empty pages awaiting our imagination’s contemplation and suggestion. Our mind is free to run and play with the muses in this space where poems, drawings and paintings are always and forever under construction.

The arabesque of shape, line and future conjured from the imagination is constructed using a powerful, but temporary scaffolding created by the muses: inspiration.  Imagine a poem yet to be born, waiting to be constructed letter by letter, line by line, before words become meaning.

As a child, I was in love with the alphabet and the challenge of trying to construct letters from nothing, watching my hand holding the pencil and moving it across the paper.  The mysterious graphite shapes became forms became meaning, became magic. Forming letters made me feel powerful at a time when I had no power.

Some years ago, during a fearful time, unable to write even a sentence, much less a word, I returned to painting as a way of expression. Could I excavate my love, my language from the paint? Was there a way back to this childhood space where I might once again rediscover wonder and play?

These seemed like the right questions for me to ask since I had always drawn and painted, but I had never used color and texture as a way into language. Oil on canvas was always a figurative color-filled way out for me.  Could paint be my letters?

I’ve always loved the idea of a poem becoming more than words on a page that someone usually reads when they’re in a room alone.  Somehow, just the idea of a poem growing out of itself into something larger in the world like an actual space that a person could visually enter into made me less fearful, more happy.

But how could I reconstruct a poem into a painting? I decided to try with one of my favorite poems, Methaphor.

To tell you how the muses do their work, you must first understand that one day, for no reason, I bought three large spools of golden thread from an architectural artifacts store here in the city. Why? I didn’t sew.  I had absolutely no need for gold thread.  Zero need.  And yet, these spools of gold were irresistible to me. They appeared to glow, as if lit by some tiny inner sun.  And before I even knew what I was doing, I had paid for them, carried them home and stacked them on my workshop table.

After a few days, I forgot about them.

One day, as I was painting in my sketchbook, I impulsively grabbed one of the spools and unwound the thread because I needed something to hold together the small canvases I was interested in layering.

Why not? It was an expedient choice, better than glue. And then I discovered that the threads could be designed into different patterns of shapes.  The muses give you inspiration for ideas you didn’t even know you wanted, their guidance often at odds with what we think we need.

But soft, deep listening is required. An artist’s sketchbook offers the perfect space for this exploration of our wildest dreamy imaginings where anything is still possible. We’re free to contemplate and construct something out of nothing. Like magic.

Imagine that.