Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Dabbling Artist

"Books, albums, they're the same. People create things." -Patti Smith

Patti Smith said the above last week in New York at BookExpo America (BEA) while interviewing Neil Young about his memoir, which is due out this fall. (The New Yorker blogged about the interview here; our own Jodie, in her elegant Jodie way, managed to encapsulate the craziness of BEA into a beautifully written blog post here).

Coincidentally, I happen to be reading Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids. Nearly two years after it's been a bestseller, I picked it up because the instructor in my photography class showed us Robert Mapplethorpe's orchid images and mentioned the book. I had seen it so many times, on our Books We Love table, on our best sellers shelf, but it wasn't until then that I really knew what it was about: two artists trying to make it. 

There are many reasons why Just Kids is appealing, not the least the core of the book, the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. It was a relationship made complicated by Robert's attraction to men, but also one that was remarkably simple because it revolved around a mutual respect for each other's work and careers. However what I found most compelling about their lives is how Patti and Robert explored so many art forms. Patti Smith was into drawing and wrote music reviews for magazines before becoming the poet and musician that we know her for today; Robert Mapplethorpe actually resisted photography because it was an expensive medium to work with, and instead made necklaces, created installations, and drew.

I related to this exploration of many art forms, being somewhat of a dabbler myself. In graduate school, while pursuing my degree in creative writing, I took classes in literary nonfiction, screenwriting, column writing, and even wrote film reviews for the school newspaper, while chipping away at my novel. This summer, I decided to formally learn photography, something I've been fiddling around with for as long as I can remember. It was inspiring to see that these two greats in their own fields played with other forms of artistic expression, and that maybe, it even enhanced their eventual careers.

In that vein, here are some books that speak to the dabbling artist, young or old, or anyone with the least bit of artistic sensibility, looking for some inspiration.

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon - This miniature book is structured around a list of ten pieces of advice about being creative. My personal favorite is rule number 5,which states that "side projects and hobbies are important," and then goes on to discuss it as a form of "productive procrastination."
How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum by Kerri Smith - This lively, colorful larger format book offers page after page of excercises that suggest ways to creatively interact with the world. The back includes pages where you can conduct your "field work."

Tattoo a Banana: and Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything Into Art by Phil Hansen - Quirkier and more humorous than the others, some of Hansen's project ideas include decorating plastic grocery bags with permanent markers, making a face out of potato peelings, and window decor made of glue.


Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment edited by Paper Mounument - A more sophisticated collection of assignments from established artists. Despite the title, artists of all mediums will find this inspiring.

Learning to Love You More by Harrell Fletcher & Miranda July - Miranda July does it all, from writing fiction to performing to directing. In 2002, she and her husband founded the website Learning To Love You More, where they posted assignments and encouraged readers to submit their responses. This book includes both the assignments and the best of the more than 5000 responses they received.

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