Monday, 31 January 2011

Sandra Brownlee: Notebooks (part two)

Sandra Brownlee in her Dartmouth, Nova Scotia studio
From a young age Sandra kept a notebook and it was while a student at NSCAD that she began to incorporate its use into her daily life. At first the books served as tools to record information and weaving charts, but over time they evolved into a greater role. Sandra uses her notebook as a thinking space-- a safe place to enter more deeply into her work and her practice. She normally works in one notebook at a time, but when she is working on a special project she keeps an extra one specially dedicated to that. Sandra's notebooks are now a catch-all for everything: quotes, images, experiments, and ideas. They are a place for playing, experimenting, creating, and freely expressing herself. The notebooks are a place to see and respond.

It is in her notebooks that Sandra digs deep. It is where she enters "the thorough experience of experience" as Inez Martinez wrote in an essay called Interiority. On these pages Sandra responds to her physical environment. Once she picked a delicate flower, pressed it, made a cloth pocket for it, and then darned this pocket into her notebook. She will post a card from a friend on one page and then on the opposite page, recreate the card in her own way. When she receives gifts, she does a line drawing of the object, thus becoming one with the gift, or becoming the object as Walt Whitman wrote in his poem There Was a Child Went Forth.

"There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years."

During a decade-long transition from her well-established weaving practice (that I will write about in another post), Sandra ramped up her notebook practice, often filling a page a day. She returned to childhood activities and found herself exploring materials and techniques of childhood art like finger-painting in her notebook. During this transition, the notebook became a portable studio and she was free to create art anywhere.
 Artwork by Sandra Brownlee, Photography by Keith McLeod
When artists exhibit their work, we generally see the work and an artist statement. We are rarely aware of the thinking that allows the artwork come to fruition. Sandra's inclusion of her notebooks in an exhibition, even when firmly closed, remind the viewer that artworks and the ideas behind them don't just come out of the blue. They evolve from a jumble of dreams, images, thoughts, and stories that we tuck away in our notebooks. They jostle together, a hodgepodge of miscellanea, until connections are made and insights arrive. The mind sees patterns and creates linkages between unlikely things.

In her essay, On Keeping a Notebook, Joan Didion wrote: "It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you." So, in the end, although I would love to curl up on a comfy couch with a pile of Sandra's notebooks and a mug of hot green tea, the reality is that my own notebooks (or sketchbooks, as I call them) will tell me what I need to know.

Thank you Sandra for so generously including your notebooks in your solo exhibits. They inspire us to fill our own sketchbooks, make our own connections, and make our own artwork.

* you can read part one of this essay here


Anonymous said...

Karen, well-written post. Thanks so much!

Jenna J. Erickson said...


do you know if sandra has a website? we are interested in speaking with her about teaching a workshop at Madeline Island School of the Arts.