Monday, 28 February 2011

Eckhart + Bey = ?

The Dadaists would juxtapose seemingly unrelated words and images to create new meaning. Here are two quotes that I pulled from my Book of Commonplace:

"The shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out, for if you want the kernel, you must break the shell." -- Meister Eckhart

"Everything has a value, provided it appears at the right place at the right time. It's a matter of recognizing that value, that quality, and then to transform it into something that can be used. If you come across something valuable and tuck it away in your metaphorical suitcase there's sure to come a moment when you can make use of it." -- Jurgen Bey

Friday, 25 February 2011

Martin Venezky: It is Beautiful...Then Gone

It Is Beautiful ... Then Gone
Image from 
A few years ago I stumbled across Martin Venezky's It is Beautiful... Then Gone in a San Francisco design bookstore. This is a book whose contents have planted themselves firmly in my mind. Venezky is an extraordinary graphic designer (and teacher) who marries handwork with technology, although handwork clearly wears the pants in this union. Venezky celebrates process and experimentation in his collaged illustration, poster, and magazine designs. He and his design team use photograms, broken spirographs, old typewriters, and other old technologies to create their intricate designs. The final essay, "thoughts on the classroom," is particularly inspiring. Here Venezky shares his teaching philosophies and some of the exercises he gives his graphic design students that force them to experiment, play, discover and to push their ideas far beyond their expectations. The work of his student Nazgol Ansarinia is especially thought provoking. Check out Venezky's company website: Appetite Engineers for more eye candy. Another feature that I love about the book: Venezky shares copious images of his inspiration wall. Martin Venezky's inspiration wall kicks ass! 

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Essential Tool #2: Sketchbooks

A few weeks ago I wrote about Sandra Brownlee's notebook practice here and here. Above are images of a sketchbook (#13) that I just finished last week and some of the twelve that preceded it. As you can see, the covers are very plain compared to those belonging to Sandra Brownlee. For years I used a hard-bound 8.5" X 11" sketchbook, but in 2006 I switched to a coil-bound 8" square sketchbook. The 8"X8" fits nicely in a large zippered freezer bag and is portable enough that I can travel with it. My favourite pen tucks into the coil and an elastic holds it all together. The coil-binding allows the pages to lie flat, making it easier to work on them. I fill about 3 a year. When I am out and about, I carry a 4"X6" sketchbook with me. What are the essential tools in your creative practice?

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Essential Tool #1: The Pen

Drawing done using a Pilot V7 © Karen Thiessen 2011
My favourite pen for writing and drawing is a black Pilot V7 Hi-Tecpoint. Even though it has its occasional faults, I buy the pens by the dozen. I cannot fly with my beloved Pilot V7 because if I do, it will leak dramatically (for the rest of its life) and when I least expect it like when I'm signing a receipt in a public place while wearing nice clothing. Naturally, I will not have a handy tissue to blot my newly blackened hand. The pen was redesigned with a much smaller viewing barrel in about 2008 so that you can no longer tell how much ink is in the cartridge until shortly before it runs out. My conspiracy theory thinking has me believe that it was redesigned so that they give you less ink. Since the redesign, I've also found that the nib doesn't work as well, so 4 out of 12 pens are duds. Did they change the metal to save money? But, I persist with this pen. The ink is a deep black and when I am writing or drawing with a perfect pen, the ink flows nicely and the friction of nib on paper is so minimal that I can work for hours. When I fly, I switch to a pigment pen. It works well, the ink is black, but it drags to such a degree that I truly miss my Pilot V7 for the entire duration of the trip. Yes, really.

Do you have a favourite pen? If so, let me know.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Family Day

small vintage suitcase © Karen Thiessen 2011
Yesterday was Family Day, a statutory holiday, which meant that my family had a three day weekend. This is what we did: purged two recycling bins worth of paper, took a partial carload of previously loved goods to a local thrift shop, cleaned, did several loads of laundry, and filled a garbage bag with 5 sad pillows. We also prepared a whack of things to sell, including the cute vintage suitcase in the above picture. I started collecting suitcases before everyone else did, and a few weeks ago I realized that I have far more than what I need, so I'm selling 5 from my collection. The same goes for chairs, I have 16 to sell... among other things. Yikes!

Keri Smith wrote a great post called "Secrets Shared" where she listed 15 Secrets of the Self Employed. Secret #8 resonated with me: Keri has a belief that cleaning out her recycling bin brings her new work. Like Keri, I have a belief that cleaning and tidying my studio brings fresh ideas for new work. Over the past week, I've cleared 84 magazines, several buckets of paper, and other things from my studio. I've also dusted and vacuumed. The space feels wonderful and I can't wait to get to work.

Monday, 21 February 2011

London: Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford: White Painting, 2009. Mixed media collage on canvas, 259 X 366 cm
This is another artwork that captured my eye at the Saatchi Gallery. This piece is huge and must be viewed from across the room. Thankfully the gallery was not crowded, otherwise it would have been impossible to view the piece as a whole. I spent a lot of time looking at this mixed media collage trying to figure out how Bradford made the collage: it was a puzzle to be solved. In my sketchbook I wrote: layers and layers of paper over coloured clothesline cording, paper abraded around the cording to reveal it, possibly with a sander. I don't really know if this is true, I just needed to imagine how Mark Bradford created the piece. Like Jacob Hashimoto, Mark Bradford is an American artist who was born in Los Angeles, where he lives and works.

Friday, 18 February 2011

London: Jacob Hashimoto

 Jacob Hashimoto: Continent, 2007. Acrylic, dacron, wood, paper. 240 X 214 X 20 cm
The Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Modern are my two favourite galleries in London. Given the lack of crowds and its smaller scale, I had a better experience at the Saatchi. One could see the work properly and truly take it in. The above artwork by Jacob Hashimoto caught my eye. Like the Michael Brennand-Wood piece, this reveals textile, collage, and painting thinking. Jacob Hashimoto is an American artist who lives and works in New York and Verona.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

London: Michael Brennand-Wood

Michael Brennnand-Wood @ the Victoria & Albert Museum, London UK
In London the galleries are free, so it's worthwhile to make time to visit them. Mind you, there are so many that one could spend every moment indoors. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Brennand-Wood give a slide talk about his work at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. I was thrilled to find this piece in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He combines textile and collage thinking so well.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

London: A new way of giving the finger

Finger "painted" bollards, image © Karen Thiessen 2011
It seems that a London UK theme week has snuck up on me. Here are some creative "interpretations" of bollards that we found in East London in 2009. This is graffiti that I approve.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

London: Driftwood aka Petra

Driftwood, Image © Karen Thiessen 2011
Driftwood, Image © Karen Thiessen 2011
Above is Driftwood aka Petra, a summer pavillion installed in Bedford Square, London UK in 2009. The concept was designed by third-year architecture student Danecia Sibingo, with a design team of Lyn Hayek, Yoojin Kim, and Taeyoung Lee. Twenty-eight layers of plywood sheath a hidden structure. Driftwood seduces viewers to walk around and through it, inviting us to examine its strata. It reminds me of the friendly Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Chicago's Millennium Park.

Monday, 14 February 2011

London: Discoveries

Image © Karen Thiessen 2011
Image © Karen Thiessen  2011
"Discoveries and inventions arise from the observation of little things."-- Alexander Graham Bell

The above two images were "discovered" while on a trip to London, UK. Vacations are a great time to explore new foods and places and meet new people. The nice thing is that you don't necessarily need to leave town to do it. Have you ever played tourist in your home town or city? All that is required is a willingness to see and experience your environment with different eyes. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere, there is still much to discover. Go for it, give it an honest try.

Friday, 11 February 2011

More Sandra Brownlee goodness

Original notebook of Sandra Brownlee. Image © Keith McLeod
Departures and Returns catalogue. Image © Keith McLeod
When is an exhibition catalogue a work of art in itself? When it is the catalogue for Sandra Brownlee's 2009 solo show Departures and Returns at the Mary Black Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sandra has a knack for surrounding herself with talented photographers, catalogue designers, and book binders. The catalogue was designed by Sarah Bodine of Sans Serif Studio in New Jersey. Sandra and Sarah took a collaborative approach to creating the catalogue. According to Sandra, Sarah has a long background as an editor in Philadelphia, where Sandra lived for many years before moving back to Nova Scotia in 2005. Sarah gave Sandra assignments like find 10 quotes from your notebooks that still resonate with you. Sandra and Sarah each chose pages from Sandra's notebooks. They didn't necessarily like each other's pages. From this exercise emerged a modest chronicle. In addition to the catalogue, they produced a deluxe edition that was sold for $500 each. The deluxe version was a conscious distillation of what is in the notebooks and includes an original black-and-white weaving, and a piece of Sandra's polka dot curtain from her studio, among other things. Unfortunately the deluxe edition was beyond my budget.

Niko Silvester of White Raven Ink bound the catalogues. Niko's account of binding the catalogues can be found here.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Looking Tool

Two inch viewfinder
Inspired by Corita Kent's book Learning By Heart, I made this 2" square viewfinder out of box board. Now I have it in hand when I am looking through magazines or my sketchbooks. For fun, I made a few rectangular and triangular viewfinders just to shake things up. This is my newest studio tool. Make one and start looking-- the edited images might just surprise you.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Beautiful Detritus

Scanned orchid flowers © Karen Thiessen 2011
Inspiration comes from unexpected sources. Sometimes I see an object that I have been using for a lifetime in a new light. In the last few years toothpaste caps, apple stems, dead flowers, finger nail clippings, and bread tags are just a few of the things that have entered my awareness. Above are dried orchid flowers that I plunked on the scanner and scanned. They are the same flowers, but I played with those on the right in Photoshop. The next time you eat an apple or clip your nails pay attention to the beauty in detritus.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Day In & Day Out: the squares

2" square of watercolour paper
Smitten by the concept of the Day In & Day Out (hereafter DIDO), I returned to this practice on January 1, 2008. I limited the size to a two inch square of watercolour paper and the quantity to one per day. Beyond this, I could do anything. Now I am into my fourth year of the 2" square DIDO but I almost didn't make it. In late 2010 I wondered what more I could do. I was bored. And then one day I wasn't. In the DIDO marathon I had hit the wall, acknowledged it, and then new energy and ideas arrived unbidden. As of today I have practiced the 2" DIDO 1135 days and I have learned a lot along the way. Many of my DIDOs have brought insights that I apply in my regular studio practice. Eric Cameron continues to have in influence on my work 18.5 years after I learned about his work.


"The absence of limitations is the enemy of art." 
-- Orson Welles

In our current age of too much choice, limitations are a good thing. They help us to focus and to innovate. The old saying: "Necessity is the mother of invention" is true. When I was growing up, money was tight (my parents were starting a business) and we lived in the middle of nowhere. If we ran out of something, we made do with what we had and my parents were quite innovative whether it was making a meal or fixing something. Necessary creativity was modelled daily and I attribute this as being the foundation of my own inventiveness. Having every tool and material under the sun does not make you or me a more creative person. If anything, too much stuff and too much choice hinders. As I heard in a meeting the other day, we need bull pens.

P.S. Today is the 15th anniversary of living without a television! This has been an excellent limitation that I highly recommend.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Patterns of the ordinary

Mesh plaid © Karen Thiessen 2011
Happy Monday! You know those mesh bags that contain onions, oranges, avocados, and other delights? They are so mundane that you stop noticing them. Not today. Above is a pattern that I made from this photo from February 3. It reminds me of my Grandpa's beloved 1970s reclining chair.

Dear readers, soon I'll introduce the occasional theme week and I'm pretty excited about sharing more weird and wacky images and ideas. It's winter-- we need weird and wacky! 

Friday, 4 February 2011

Annie Dillard: Spend it all

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is a signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly is lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."
-- Annie Dillard from The Writing Life

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Chinese horse Image © Karen Thiessen 2011
According to Chinese astrology, 2011 is the year of the Metal Rabbit. Gong Xi Fa Cai is Mandarin Chinese and means "wishing you prosperity in the coming year." When we lived in Singapore, Chinese New Year was a bigger deal than Christmas. It was a welcome break from North America's obsession that begins the day after Halloween and lasts for 55 days. I see dim sum in my immediate future. 


Grid of mesh © Karen Thiessen 2011
This week I started going through Corita Kent & Jan Steward's book Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. Corita Kent (1918-1986) was a nun, an artist, and a teacher. Her book features many of the exercises that I learned in my foundation art courses, but I am learning that it is good to return to the basics now and again. Sandra Brownlee returned to the fundamentals during a ten-year hiatus from active weaving and it restored her soul and reinvigorated her studio practice. Monkey see, monkey do.

Yesterday was a snow day. A storm came through and dumped a foot of snow. Shovelling was vigorous and fun and with perfect packing snow and I was tempted to make a snow fort. Instead, I made a big pot of carrot, sweet potato, and ginger soup before heading to my studio. Sister Corita's "looking" exercises were in my head as I worked in the studio.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Collections of Nothing

Collections of Nothing
Dear William Davies King,
I just finished reading your book and I found your story equally fascinating and revolting. Yes, it was that good. Two things attracted me to your book. First: material culture and psychology are interests of mine and your book addressed both, specifically the psychology behind your collecting obsession. The cover adorned with envelope security patterns was the second thing that pulled me in. I collect them too and I was intrigued to learn about your collection. In essence, I bought your book for its cover and finally on page 104 (out of 163) I learned some of what I hoped to know. I was truly impressed that at the time of you writing this book, you had over 800 distinct patterns. Given your commitment (compulsion?) to collect, I'm certain that this collection has grown. My collection consists of 110 patterns-- a fraction of your accumulation. Needless to say, I have pattern envy.

I disagree with a few points from page 104. You state a) that no one wants what you have (I do!); b) that there are no websites for envelope linings (wrong again-- just search for security patterns). Here are several websites devoted security patterns:
• Designer Joseph King has a website called and an impressive Flickr account, both devoted to security patterns.
• Kenn Speiser's website Tinted Safety Envelope Research has categorized "safety envelope" patterns according to families that he has called: weave & tile; circles, dot, & gons; log jam; code; images & logos, etc.
Samantha Haedrich has created a book of envelope security patterns
• I have written several posts featuring security patterns, as have other bloggers.

I was excited to discover the website with your Secret Dictionaries: The Collages of William Davies King. Please consider scanning your collection of security patterns and putting it online for us all to see. Better yet, you could write a companion book to Collections of Nothing with images of your collections after all, what is material culture porn without photos?

                                                                              With thanks, Karen

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Rumi: Forty early mornings

A new moon teaches gradualness
and deliberation and how one gives birth
to oneself slowly. Patience with small details
makes perfect a large work, like the universe.

What nine months of attention does for an embryo
forty early mornings will do 
for your gradually growing wholeness.

The Illuminated Rumi