Living at the convergence of faith and art.


Process, Process, Process

Sojourner by Lewis M. Curtiss jr~

SOJURNER – Dry Pastel – 11×14 / LM Curtissjr

When I was a youngster, I was just like all kids seem to be. I was energetic and impatient. When I was supposed to do a “project” I’d rush through it as fast as possible. I’d then gather up my “creation” and toddle off in search of praise despite the dripping glue and paint.

Even in college I was still working fast because in this American culture of ours; fast is rewarded. In my work in film & theatre, there were time crunches and budgets to maintain. The mentality was for high quantity, and the quality just needed to be “good enough” for the job at hand. My creative work was always pressed by either a budget, a deadline or both.  It’s no wonder students of the creative arts are always asking the “old pros”, “So, where do you get your ideas?” The pressure to produce continuously is enormous.  But alas, I digress.

Years later when I was in theatre leadership, I was the Production Designer for the company and its primary builder as well. I took my time on the designs because I had to enhance the context of the story.  A good set does that, but our low-skill novices needed to be able to assemble it quickly.  So there’s the dichotomy; meaningful beauty in a matter of a few hours of intense construction.

In these current years of not working for others, not working in a production context, I’ve slowed down a great deal. I’ve gradually moved from impatiently wanting to see the thing done, to actually savoring each and every stroke of brush, pen, or pencil. It’s been a wonderfully long journey that takes further steps every day.

The majority of this shift has been a movement away from a paradigm of quantity over quality, to the reverse; quality over quantity. I savor quality (or qualities) over quantity any day. I’m no longer a tin can being kicked along the road by the driving forces of production.  For me quantity is so meaningless that I simply won’t tolerate it in myself.

As recently as this year, I’ve even stopped making quantities of Coptic-bound journals; why? because in the end it’s nothing more than a pile of product about which I have little care. What enjoyment did I get from that experience? Well, I enjoyed the collection and processing of upcycled papers and paste-board. I enjoyed ironing the paper and cutting it into sheets, and then folding them into signatures. I enjoyed the design elements I’d use on the covers; covering the boards and folding each corner with a binder’s fold. In short, I loved the process. But in the end, I was left with a pile of journals that I liked, but very few people wanted (or would buy). It was pleasant, repetitious, and productive. And while I’ve ceased making them for sale I still make all of my own journals and sketchbooks for personal use mostly. I don’t buy journals or sketchbooks anymore.

Instead, I make art books – that is books as objects of art. These are one of a kind, filled with meaning, and certainly not repetitious. With these “books”, anything goes, and I’m no longer making them for others. There’s no pressure to “produce” quantities of “product”. Each is filled with meaning and story.

The beautiful collage quilt blocks I used to make were also product.  I began making single blocks, having researched thousands of quilt block patterns, and while each was unique, it soon became a production line effort.

It wasn’t until I began reincorporating story into my work that a far deeper satisfaction emerged.  It’s what I was creatively hungry for but had so quickly forgotten.  As a faith-driven artist, I just couldn’t see much of my relationship with God in the quiltblocks.  I’m not knocking quilts or quilters, I love both.  I’m simply saying that quilts just aren’t my medium, whether made in paper on masonite or in fabric.  What I am knocking is my own impatience, and lack of savoring each moment of making.  I was rushing to get the thing done and missing the point along the way.

How is it that I allowed myself to be pushed and shoved into a production mindset?  What is it that I temporarily let go of?  What did I forget about myself, who I am, why I make art, and for Whom?

I’ve had to relearn why I got into this “art-thing” in the first place.  I’ve had to return to the foundations of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.  That’s why I remembered that I’m into story – I’m a storyteller and that is the kind of art I need to be making.  I needed to quit listening to the “good advice” of well meaning others, and remember who and what I am before my Lord God.

I’m drawn to art that contains story.  At minimum the work must contain some evidence of human beings.  I don’t care if it’s a paring knife on a plate with a half-eaten apple, there’s a story in it.  Someone’s been there.  This development of story in my work has caused a dramatic slowing in my making.  I “listen” more to the materials, to the piece being made, and to God’s insights in the making.  I’ve come to the point of savoring every brush and pencil stroke; every knife cut and trim; every architectural element to be included in the work.  I’m even savoring the mental planning process of thinking through how it’s going to be assembled; something of an old friend from my scenic design and stage directing days.

For me process, the acts of making, of thinking about making, of considering the meaning of what’s being made all merge into a kind of meditation or at least a contemplation.  That’s the major reason I’ve slowed so much, and savor each moment of process so much more.  I don’t want to miss anything, not a “flavor”, or a “smell”, or the whisper of insight God’s Spirit might share with me.

To my mind art, like faith in God, is not an intellectual/mental “thing”.  Making, the process of making, is intimate, dynamic, deeply personal, uncertain, “messy”, but oh so precious.  God and I commune in process. I worship Him in process.  Sometimes I even feel a bit like John the Revelator who, being taken away in the Spirit, was shown things, deep things, and told to share what he’d experience with the world.  It’s a privilege, a celebration, a joy.

It’s all in the process.

Summer: It Changes Everything!

From Alki LighthouseSummer – it’s here, as of this weekend, Memorial Day. Three months of changed seasons, and with it changed experiences. Summer’s here, and I have Summer goals, and Summer activities, and Summer thinking. When Summer hits Seattle, everyone comes out of their Hobbit holes. The streets are filled with people taking it all in.

I know we are chided all across the nation for having so many gray days, but real, true Seattleites go out anyway. We love misty Spring rains; when it’s warm and there’s a rain shower of fine mist falling, and we don’t care that we’re in shorts and a T-shirt.

58 Days of Sun

According to KOMO 4 Weather, “Seattle only averages 58 sunny days a year with, on average, about 10-12 for each of the summer months so that doesn’t leave much left for the other nine months. Indeed, Seattle and its 220 overcast days ranks as the cloudiest major city in the U.S. and only ranks a little behind Forks and Astoria, Ore. of major weather stations that track the data.” So when the sun does come out, you can bet we Seattleites are out soakin’ up the vitamin D.

This whole sense of a seasonal shift gets me looking for new creativity. There’ll be Street Fairs, Farmer’s Markets, and gallery openings in abundance. It’s the energy that gets me excited. I tend to get out more, something I’ve been lacking lately.

Creative Permission

Summer seems to be a permission season for me. The change of season seems to fuel new experimentation, seeking new ideas, methods, and techniques. I’m going to be building paper-making equipment, mould & deckles, pulp tank, and vertical press. I’m going to be experimenting with various materials and methods to make paper for my collage work, my journal covers, and maybe journal pages – we’ll see what develops.

I’ll certainly be painting and drying new batches of hand-painted paper-stocks for art making. This is best done when the weather’s not so cold out there in the garage. Besides, the paint dries a whole lot faster.

I’ve set some new goals for both my online ETSY site – Fingerprints, and for show & sell opportunities of a growing body of new work. Lately I’ve been focused on making Copticbound Journals. The last batch I put into the bolt press numbered 15; that’s 30 new covers, and 60 new signatures (sections) of pages. I love stitching these journals together, it’s so relaxing, giving me good thinking time.

Your Thoughts;

Do you have Summer art-making plans? Does the bright, new energy of Summer move you into new creativity?


Collage Minis

Collage Minis / Handpainted paper collage / 5.25" x 7.25" approx. / (c) 2012 Lewis M. Curtiss jr~

In the last couple of weeks I’ve concentrated on getting my websites linked to one another (Art Making & Social Media). Things didn’t work correctly at first, even though I followed the instructions. It’s just something about me, I guess. Anyway some very helpful folks at ESTY Support walked me through it and on the third try, voila, I was connected!

I’ve been reading a few art marketing blogs, and my gleanings have lead me to evaluate what it is I’m offering as finished art works. This is more than just mere marketing and promotion, it’s about my need to take a second, third, and fourth look at my God-given mission; That my art practice will result in changed lives to God’s glory.

My reading has helped me to articulate what I physically create and why, as well as figuring out where and how I’m going to “show & sell” what I make. I make 5-lines of artworks and will eventually be selling them in 2 different venue contexts. I forget where I heard it, but when it comes to selling artworks, context is everything.

Decorative Beauty

I make Coptic Bound journals, Collage Minis, and Collage Quilt Blocks. These three lines of art-works fall into a decorative realm because that’s what they are – decorative. They’re fundamentally made to offer some beauty to the lives of those who buy them.

The journals are idea/memory catchers (Books & Bindings). The Collage Minis are an affordable, approachable collection of unique, one-of-a-kind pieces of personal art. They look great on a desk or table, or in groupings on the wall. And third, the Collage Quilt Blocks, are single-block collage works based on traditional quilting designs rendered in contemporary collage.

These three “lines” of artworks are my “creative solitaire”. I make them in batches, and really enjoy the spontaneous process of making them. And while they’re complicated to make, the creative decisions are something I do quickly, without a lot of thinking. I follow my instincts which allows me to a re-grounding of creative spontaneity, an important instinctive skill (Process and the Journey).

Meaning, Purpose and Story

The two bodies of work I make in the meaningful/purposeful category are my Quad Quilt Block Collage pieces (24” x 24” approx.). These are large embellished collage quilt-based pieces. A series of works are in development. And lastly I’m developing a body of concepts for Collage / Mixed-media paintings. These will be narrative, story-telling works coming as soon as late this year.

I can only spin so many new plates at a time (Balance & Productivity). Lately God’s Spirit has urged me not to spin so many new plates at one time. I’m to develop my art practice in healthy steps, making adjustments along the way. That’s the only way it’s is going to grow and remain sustainable. Heavens, I’m still struggling with how to best use this blog in the service of my creative mission; That my art practice will result in changed lives to God’s glory.

Which reminds me of something I’d tell cast-members in the theatre productions I’d direct; Everything, every line of dialogue, every movement, every gesture has purpose and meaning. It’s no different for me in this context of making visual art. All of it, in one way or another, points to the fulfillment of my mission. Hence the tweaking.

Mid-Course Corrections

I love this process of setting of to purposefully accomplish a goal, and at regular intervals pause to reevaluate. These mid-journey course corrections keep me on track, help me to adapt. They keep me focused on the main thing as the main thing.

It’s all up in the air, and for me that’s a huge change I’ve made over the last five-years. I used to be rigidly unchangeable, unadaptive, and laser-focused. I have missed a whole bunch of healthy opportunities and serendipity along the way. I was so blasted insecure that I’d muscle my way toward the goal only to find that I’d usually missed out on better choices. I’ve loosened up a great deal.s

So I tweak, I plod, I spin one new plate at a time and to remind myself, to focus myself, I continually ask myself “Why?”

Your Thoughts?

What do you do in your creative life/art practice to discover and re-discover the main thing? How do you focus and remain focused, and yet remain open to really great serendipity along the way? Do you think as much as I’ve described here about what you’re making and why you make it?

I’d love to hear from you.

Books & Bindings

Coptic Journal - by Lewis M. Curtiss jr~What is it about a book – the book – that so many find so absolutely captivating? I mean, the thing doesn’t even need to be filled with words and pictures to be an almost sacred object in the hands of an admirer. I love them. I love making them.

I make books in my art practice. I bind pages together with thread and string and sell them or give them to a select few. Mine are simple creations following centuries old methods developed by those early peoples who saw a desperate need to organize and offer knowledge to their fellow mankind.

Today handmade books are considered optional in the face of our digital technologies. My books are considered a quaint little contemporary craft, and I’m certainly not the only one making them. There’s a whole industry of amateur crafters, craftsmen, artists, and artisans who make books by hand; people who just put together a few pages of fun or who create archival wonders of breath-taking beauty; a gift to future generations.

I find myself drawn to the book, as an object, for several reasons. It is used to gather and store information and knowledge; it’s a vessel. It’s a transmitter used to broadcast ideas, knowledge, and information across time and space. Do you know that we’d know nothing of Biblical events if there were no Bible, or of the mind of Caesar were it not for his campaign journals?

The book, or the pamphlet, was the first human end-run used by the masses to get around the stifling control of their oppressive contemporary gatekeepers. Today we use the internet, but there was a time when hand copies, and later the printing press, was the fastest means of “broadcasting” information into the hands of “the people”.

I like the book because it needs no batteries, it is, itself a random-access memory device, it’s beautiful (when well made), and portable.Handstitching a Coptic binding. I like the book because it represents humankind’s first, best, means of long-term remembering, and I won’t even venture into the utterly fascinating history of its development. Let me just say that the book is one of humanity’s greatest inventions.

We accumulate, don’t we. We add knowledge upon knowledge, generation to generation in the hopes of passing along whatever wisdom we seem to have discovered in our own lives. I am reminded of the scene in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf consulted ancient dust-covered texts.

Writing a book is like tossing a lifeline into the future. We still read the “classics”; To Kill a Mockingbord, Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol, Wuthering Heights, and legion upon legions of others. We still glean these works for the wisdom, or life-lessons we value. The vessel is still needed.

I loved books long before I ever thought about making my own. Like most people I love them for their content. But in making books, in actually folding paper, gluing up and covering the boards, in sewing the signatures (page sections) together I become intimately aware of the technological marvel they are.

Books so simple – a pile of pages with protective boards on both sides. Without the binding the pages would be loose-leaf, a mere stack, and could be lost or damaged. Because they’re sewn together, they stay together and retain what they have to tell us.

Without cover boards, this stack of pages would eventually wear away with handling and storage, and so slightly over-sized boards, sometimes of wood even, are incorporated into the binding, and this highly organized, information gathering tool becomes a book.

What I like about the simple utilitarian journals I make is the gift they are to the lives of the people who buy them. It’s like making a dream-catcher, or a memory box for others. People can fill the blank pages with whatever suits their fancy, and I made the vessel which they fill, embellish, and personalize. I got to give them a place to think, remember, and share their life experiences.

Punching stitching holes for a Coptic binding.When one journal is full, they buy another, and continue their collecting, exploring, grieving, celebrating, and thinking. With the books I make by hand, people cast their own life line into the future of their own families and friends.

And it never runs out of power; never looses its readable format. One day it may be opened by a grandchild and in their hands become a window into the life of someone they love.