Tuesday, August 8, 2017

new beginnings

[originally posted on 08 Aug 2017 10:16 AM PDT but then disappeared!]

i needed a fast way to say farewell to some new friends who were moving away and my thoughts went immediately to poetry.  last year around this time, i had illustrated a lovely poem by lucille clifton with abstract watercolor designs for a group of departing interns in a program i'm involved in.  this year i realized that i could (and should) use something even cIoser to home ⎼ and maybe even with the author's permission this time!  and that's the day i ran into my poet friend bonnie on the street; she said she'd love to offer up a poem for the project.  bonnie is a respected elder in our harlem community who has been attending st. mary's episcopal church in manhattanville since at least the 1970's.  in her book of poetry published by the church, "greetings, tutankhamun!" we found the perfect poem.  it's called new beginnings.  all told, it took about a month to put it all together (which is not apparent by the little book's imperfect appearance).  little doodles replaced a key word from each page.  simple, right?

it seems to me that every art project you make is a short summary of your life.  and the elements for this project are pretty wide-ranging.  it starts a few years ago when i took an art class at cooper union called "how to make books."  we learned several methods, but one of my favorites was the "instant book," just a simply but cleverly folded piece of copy paper.  ever since then, i make lots of little books ⎼ of all kinds ⎼ but instant books are ideal for a short message.  then there's the component of just how many friends i have made in my lifetime who are poets.  quandra prettyman, my favorite college professor and all-around excellent (and patient) friend, is the most famous among them.  but i have three or four among my group of church friends alone.  i wonder why that is?

the recipients are the next ingredient in the recipe.  i am on the board of a wonderful organization that provides young adults with an opportunity for community living, service work in a social justice-related field, and time for personal spiritual discernment, now called the new york service & justice collaborative.  we develop year-long relationships with these fellows, and then have to say goodbye in august.  every year.  this is not as easy as it might sound.  some stay friends with us and take jobs nearby.  many go to seminary to pursue clergy positions.  but some don't come back at all.  and saying goodbye is not my strong suit.  

excerpt from "New Beginnings" by Bonnie Mitchell-Phelps,
illustrated by your black snapper

The final ingredient for this mini-book-as-life-summary recipe is the doodles themselves.  even as a child, i was always creative.  but never drawing.  i had an older brother who was an artist and i left the drawing to him (he was an accomplished painter and a cartoonist who told painful stories ⎼ about life, HIV, and AIDS ⎼ with silly pictures).  a few years after he died i started doodling.  maybe as a way to stay connected to him.  or maybe i felt free of judgment from an expert.  either way, it was new and i just went with it. 

how to make books, then?  start with someone you need to tell something tricky.  if you need one, find an ally to help with a beautiful message (and get their permission).  have someone teach you the mechanics of folding paper.  and then try something new.  suspend your fear of judgment and just begin.

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