Reflections on a decade of sharing Advent poetry and art


A 183-word blog post published a few years ago became the most visited blog post I have written. How did this all begin? Part of the story started with a family tradition of creating handmade greeting cards. Part of the story involved a search for good seasonal, Christmas poems. Part of the story was how a father learned about Advent.

Last year I had the ambition to share a poem a day throughout the season of Advent. Newly discovered poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Christian Wiman, Edmund Spenser, and others. Unfortunately, work life became unmanageable due to circumstances beyond my control. Only six poems shared during last year’s 2018 Advent season.

This year the plan was to share twelve poems during the Advent season. But again, work life demands became excessively burdensome. The poems were not released. They remain in the draft category of the content management system. In spite of the hurly-burly of this December, one of the children drew a very nice drawing on the chalkboard. It accompanies the Advent calendar that our family has used each year for more than a decade.

Finally, I wrote a long-ish essay to mark the decade. A story about the handmade greeting cards, the search for good Christmas poems, and how a father learned about Advent. But I decided not to publish it. I doubt anyone is interested in the story. In lieu of that, here are blog links that highlight the last ten years of Advent art, audio recordings, blog posts, and poems.

2018

Let Evening Come, Jane Kenyon
A Scandal in the Suburbs, X.J. Kennedy
Hill Christmas, R. S. Thomas
Remembering that it happened once, Wendell Berry
Advent, Mary Jo Salter
Advent, Patrick Kavanagh

2017

Exploring 12 Days of Advent poetry

2016

A holiday podcast for Christmas Day

2015

It’s that time of year
First Sunday of Advent — Poems
Second Sunday of Advent — Poems
Third Sunday of Advent — Poems
Fourth Sunday of Advent — Poems

2012

Advent Poems (or the 12 days of Christmas poetry)

2011

Mighty Mercy, John Piper
Advent Calendar, Rowan Williams
Annunciation, Denise Levertov
The God We Hardly Knew, Óscar Romero
Mosaic of the Nativity (Serbia, Winter 1993), Jane Kenyon
Advent, Donald Hall
For Christmas Day, Charles Wesley

2010

Into The Darkest Hour, Madeleine L’Engle
The Winter Is Cold, Is Cold, Madeleine L’Engle

2009

Woodblock printing on a budget
Diy woodblock prints/greeting cards
“Christmas night,” a limited edition woodblock print
Woodblock prints/greeting cards
“Peace on earth,” a limited edition woodblock print

Finish what was started

 

One of the challenges of an artist and designer is the amount of unfinished sketches or mock-ups (a working sample of an illustration or design) that collect over the years.

Found a unfinished illustration from over five years ago. Decided to finish the ink drawing. Added watercolor as a painting exercise.

Never too late to complete an unfinished illustration.

A good test of skills


Tested a couple old brushes using a dozen watercolor half pans on illustration paper. Purchased the art supplies for a book cover illustration project a few years ago. Have not had the occasion to use them since then. Apart from recreational sketches and practice.


Painted some studies of graphic design advertisement posters from the 1960s. Muscle memory atrophied more than expected. How does the aphorism go? Either control the watercolors or they will control the painting. Some clumsy mistakes. A good test of skills. Not ready to paint a book cover illustration. But the exercise warmed up the muscles and mind to consider more opportunities.

Inktober — Day 23 #inktober #inktober2019

Tried to accomplish four Inktober prompts in this illustration — days 20 through 23. Inspiration for the piece comes from reading the poetry of Li Po.

Enjoy — and keep inking!

Inktober — Day 15 #inktober #inktober2019

Inktober’s rules are simple: draw something in ink each day for the month of October, post it online, hashtag it, and repeat. So, if I draw three panels in a single day, does that make up for two missed days?

Ever watch those drawing challenges? Do a drawing or illustration in 10 minute, 1 minute, and 10 seconds. My self-imposed challenge for day 15 was two hours.

The prompt that day was “legend.” The inspiration: two-fold. One, I revived a cartoon character I created long, long ago. Two, an homage to Starchild, created by James A. Owen.

The big challenge for me is that a two-hour block of time is a lavish luxury for me. It means I can not begin until the work day is done, household chores completed, and kidlingers in bed. Mostly.

Before I finished the inking process, one of the kidlingers reminded me that within the two-hour window I stopped twice. Once to spend 15 minutes brewing a pot of tea for the night owls of the household. And once to re-tuck a younger kidlinger into bed.

Hope you enjoy the results of day 15 of Inktober.

Thursday reminder to keep going


What does one do with old, unpublished artwork? Dozens upon dozens of illustrations remain hidden. Housed in art portfolio cases and cardboard boxes. These sketches, drawings and illustrations remain artifacts of decades of work.

They resurfaced this summer. Drawings and illustrations created with the purpose of advancing a career as a children’s book writer/illustrator, comic book artist and/or cartoonist. Several four-page comic book stories present an exercise toward a full-length comic book. Inspired by the 1990s indie comic scene, a lot of the stories are slice-of-life scenes and dramas. One collection of illustrations is a story written by a friend. Another set of drawings features character drawings for a writer seeking to pitch a proposal to Image Comics.

There is a portfolio case filled with pages of a first issue and half a second issue of an indie comic. It was created for a writer who contacted me to collaborate on the project. The pages display pen and brush illustrations. Think of the early work of David Collier. If he drew every page with his right hand. (He is left-handed. If I recall correctly.) On second thought, maybe it doesn’t look anything like David Collier’s work. The struggle with this indie project was that I learned that I do not illustrate fast and well at the same time. Back in those pre-iPhone/pre-Twitter days, I worked as a graphic designer during the day and an artist by night. A 30-day deadline to complete 22 pages plus cover art was a difficult task. If I had worked eight hours a day on the project instead of two hours a day, maybe the results would have been better. The indie comic was never published.

Another sketch book has pages of comps for a cartoon strip. The idea was that if I cannot draw detailed panels and pages fast, maybe I can draw cartoons faster. So, I created a cartoon character and comic strip and discovered that drawing a cartoon is just as time intensive as illustrating detailed comic pages. I pivoted toward a cartoon style similar to Jim Davis. In short, a comic strip with near static panels and subtle changes in art between one panel and the next. Sort of a pre-Adam Ellis templated four-panel strip. The comic strip was published regularly in a North Carolina alternative newspaper until the paper took an extended sabbatical.

“I like that one,” my bride commented. Dozens of cartoon pages rest on a desk in our bedroom.

“Maybe I should collect these pages into a book,” I offered.

“What do mean?”

“You know, like an artist’s sketchbook or portfolio book. I’ve got several of those type of books.” I think of books like Michael Wm. Kaluta Sketchbook or C. Vess Sketchbook.

“Yeah, but aren’t those more like retrospectives of an artist’s celebrated career?”

“Hm. Yeah. I guess you’re right,” I answered. But why can’t it be used to promote a career, I think to myself.

“Maybe after you’ve published your magnum opus.”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

The illustration boards still rest on the desk I built from salvaged wood. A reminder to keep going.

Strange Throwback Thursday

Comic Stroll 2013

 

After nearly a six-year hiatus, I was excited to see a project that began with notes and sketches transform into a published comic strip. Even if it was a one-off. Even if I had to hand the responsibility of drawing each panel to someone else. It was done.

I had imagined that the creative non-fiction comic story I crafted would earn some interest. Maybe it would open a few doors to an audience. And allow me to write and illustrate. Even earn some money. Maybe I would quit my day job and provide for my household by doing something I loved. Telling stories. And drawing pictures.

That was five years ago.

A few weeks ago I found a box in the garage. It had several copies of a publication that printed my comic strip. I glanced over the pages and then placed them back into the box. I also found several books. Opened one book I remembered enjoying.

“What’s that?” asked one of the children.

“It’s a collection of comic strips.”

“Oh.”

I pulled a copy from the box and gave it to the child.

“There’s a story in there I wrote.” I said. “See if you can find it.”

The child took the copy of Comic Stroll and headed off to the couch in the living room.

I flipped through the pages of the book I had found. Read a few highlights.

Yeah, I resemble that, I thought to myself after reading a few lines at the end of the book. The author referenced a friend of his who gave up an art gig for a corporate job in order to provide for his family.

Yeah. I know what that is like.

How many comic pages might I have written and illustrated if I had. . . Well, what-ifs and might-have-beens are dangerous paths to pursue. What you did, great or small, is what matters.

Watching my progeny spend an afternoon reading comic strips I had a hand in creating was a pleasure.

NOTES:
Comic Stroll, a publication of the Southeast chapter of the National Cartoonist Society, featured a collection of previously unpublished comic strips. You can read the whole journey of what started in November 2005 as a couple drawings and became a creative non-fiction comic strip:
[1] Comics and Narrative Non-Fiction
[2] Comics and Narrative Non-Fiction Continued
[3] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 3
[4] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 4
[5] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 5
[6] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: UPDATE
[7] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: UPDATE
[8] Strange Familiar Place comic series
[9] Strange Familiar Place returns
[10] The return of Strange Familiar Place to print

The final page


The final page of a sketchbook is a peculiar geography. . . read more ->

Leaving the oak grove office

DSCN3911[sqr-tilt-dallas]

The summer is at an end. Or at least the American tradition of the start of school and Labor Day signify the end of summer. And so, my work at the oak grove office has also concluded.

From the shade of oak trees, I hand-lettered and hand-painted signs for a Renaissance Faire. An anachronistic skill for these highly digital, automated modern times.

“Sure,” he said, the mastermind and owner of the School of Combat. “I can get these signs printed somewhere. But this isn’t a… video game… This is real combat. Real armor. With real swords. The signs need to be real. Anything fake… and the magic is gone.”

DSCN3912[sqr-tilt-dallas]When tasks around the grounds did not occupy his attention, he would take a pencil and sketch out a drawing of a crane or boar on a wooden shield. All the drawings were based on authentic heraldry. My job was to accurately paint the shields.

“Should only take a few hours,” he said after he assigned projects. “Depending on the details.”

All the shields were painted with a combination of six colors. Attention to detail and quickness of brush were essential to the painting of the shields and signs. Some mornings I would draw a double-headed rooster, unicorn or swan. Before noon, paint filled in the background. Red for the swan and unicorn. White for the double-headed rooster and the crow. Water was used to thin the acrylic paint for some techniques like shadows and highlights.

“I like it,” he said after he inspected my work on the wild boar shield. “You should see kids when they enter the ring. They’ll claim one of these shields… They’ll point at it or whack it with their foil. The painted animal or bestiary becomes their totem.”

DSCN3903[sqr-dallas]He asked for my brush. Loaded it with some black. Mixed in some white. A little blue. Touched up a few details on the belly of the boar. I did not mind. Always yield to the master. Some of his crew have told me that other artists did not last past a day with him. Maybe they were untrainable.

“Yeah, this is great,” he said and handed me back the brush. “You don’t know how happy this makes me.”

He took a seat, smiled, slowly ran is hand over his nearly shaved head. I explained a couple details about the boar and the other shields I had worked on that day.

“You know,” he started. “This is spiritual… very spiritual…”

DSCN3904[sqr-tilt-dallas]The fencing ring is violent, he conceded. But it is necessary, he added. America does not have a rite of passage for boys becoming men or girls becoming women. The ring provides a balance to the scales in some manner. Brothers settle festering scores with each other. Young men humiliated for their arrogance. Families learn about justice when they enter the ring of combat. Daughters win matches and glow with achievement. He told me all manner of stories about the ring.

Then he stood up, “No one has ever been injured in the ring. The armor prevents that. Well, maybe injury to their pride. The armor allows for that.”

He smiled his hallmark smile.

After I returned to the task of painting shields, meditation on his words continued. In that oak grove, there was no artificial broadcast of mechanically distributed musical entertainment. The rhythm of framers hammering out their progress on a building competed with bird song. Every so often a circular saw cuts through the hot summer afternoon.

DSCN3421[...]Boys tend to gauge range first before striking, he told me earlier in the summer. Girls go straight for the prize. If you want to win, he told me. Strike first and fast. And don’t stop until someone pulls you off the target.

My brush paused at that thought. I gauged the next brush stroke. Cursed myself for lack of discipline, and applied the next stroke. And the one after that. On target and fast.

Do not stop until someone pulls you away. Until summer fades to autumn. Until the shields and signs are placed.

From the office in the oak grove

DSCN3413[...]

Two full moons ago, I shared a glimpse at my outdoor office. Yesterday, I asked the boss if I might share few details about the location and the unique job I enjoyed under the shade of red and white oak trees. And he said yes.

The adventure started with a phone call and brisk interview. It was a working interview. The interviewer wore a leather flat cap and showed me wooden shields and signs.

“Can you paint?” he said.

“Yes, I can,” I said. “I brought my own brushes. Should I have brought my own paint?”

He didn’t answer. He was sorting through a stack of shields piled on a wooden table. He explained that some shields required touch up work due to weathering and use while other shields need to be painted — originals, as he put it.

“If I like your work, I can keep you busy all summer,” he said as he produced cans of paint and assigned a place to work. “If I don’t like your work…” Well, suffice it to say he related that my working interview would be concluded and I should not return.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said and assigned two projects for me to complete. Then he got in his truck and drove down a service road to do something somewhere else on the property.

DSCN3405[...]

It took a few moments for me to gauge what to start with. I picked up each shield and sign and weighed where to start. After I opened a couple of paint cans, I searched for a water bucket or anything to keep the brushes clean and for mixing colors. I salvaged a water bottle for a trash bin and began to paint. Long story short, he liked the work I did and told me I should show up the next day. That routine continued for most of the summer.

One, of many, comments he shared with me continues to intrigue me. It involved the idea of hand-painted art versus computer-generated, printed signs.

“There is juju with these things,” he said inspecting one of the shields I painted. “People connect with this stuff, because it was created with human hands. Not some computer.”

DSCN3411[...]

I listened to him. I examined the source material that he shared with me. He sketched bestiary on a wood panel and I watched. He asked for my brush and corrected a shadow and I learned.

DSCN3416[...]
As I drew the typography of a sign for the ring, it became clear to me what he had been telling me and showing me this summer. The clean, manufactured sterility of our culture separates the element of human touch. When I painted the “y” from the word “only” it was similar but not an exact facsimile of the “y” in “beyond” on the line below. Yes. Precision could have improved the exactness of the two letters. My lettering and painting captures my technique as well as foibles. 

DSCN3418[...]

During this summer, I read several books by Ryōkan and Bashō. The historical footnotes and commentary on the calligraphy of the poets were as exciting as the literary work itself. The fact that scholars continue to examine the brushstrokes hundreds of years after the poets passed from this earth testify to the essence of human connectivity. The falter of a stroke — a brush loaded with ink that lacks the energy to complete a long stroke remains a signature of the poet. Was it intentional? Or accidental?

As I examined a finished sign with him one afternoon, I said, “It’s not perfect.”

“Only God is perfect,” he said. “These are magic. When people see these signs, they will know that this is real. This is the real thing. Not a duplicate. This is OS. Original standard. Good stuff. See you tomorrow.”