Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Art/Visual and Written Journals: Competitors? Or Collaborators?

What a renaissance the Art Journal has seen in the recent few years!  No longer only the private (& possibly bored) sketches of suppressed Victorian women, or the deliberate majestical sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci genius types -- we now have blog, website, on-line class and workshop access to such as Danny Gregory, Julie Prichard, Kelly Kilmer and Juliana Coles.  These artists teach everything from sketching as daily practice to background preparation via paint or collage techniques to deep self-exploration through the combination of words, visual imagery and specific ephemera.

Four years ago, after thirty years of diligent and mostly happy written journaling, I reached a point of stagnation, a sense of severe statis, in my writing.  A work associate and friend suggested rubber stamps as a first step to incorporating the visual aspect I sought in my journals.  From there, I launched -- to paint, collaging, mixed media canvases, a delightful first attempt at sewing (a Picasso-esque cat for my brother), assemblage, and a comically entertaining (but definitely failed) foray into soldering.  I participated in swaps, round robins, challenges.  I crafted ATC's, altered books and swimming pool filters, created pieces or canvases prompted by an inspiration photo or object, and I began to visually embellish all my written journal pages.  Backgrounds abounded, complete with tags, pockets, photos, ephemera, brads, ribbons, rub-ons and security envelope parts.  I also began a visual journal during this time. 

I continued, though, to maintain my written journal, and discovered myself feeling EXASPERATED by the intrusion of the visual elements.  My journaling took on all the fluidity of a football game -- start, stop, whistle, huddle, FLAG! punt, tackle, stop, time out!  My years'-long favorite cheezo Bic pen didn't take to gesso or acrylic paint.  My thoughtflow retreated, frustrated and interrupted by the cramped spaces of tags and inserts, or small clear areas available for writing.  Actual writing.  Because for me, it was and remains ALL ABOUT THE WORDS.  The message, feeling or theme of my visual backgrounds rarely connected in any way to the current thoughts in my mind, and that jarred me.  The space taken up by stuff left my pen hand reluctant and jittery.  So -- I studied the many articles and blog posts relevant to art journaling, and shook my head over and again.  A single word?  Uh -- not.  A phrase or quote?  Shucks, those are merely my jump-off points, never summarizing my thoughts compactly, succinctly.  Both my written and visual journaling tapered off, stuttering, spluttering, then screeched (literally) to a standstill. 


What was I feeling?  From experience over the last four years, I understood profoundly the value of the visual journal in unearthing the moist, the blunt, the raw, the hesitant, the very ENTRAILS my pen tended to gloss over or downright avoid.  I still wanted to get beyond my 'habits' of writing, out of my own almost 'automatic' Pen Head.  And the overlap (written, visual) happens subconsciously, organically, anyway -- there is no stopping the influence of one on the other.  It really is true that sometimes a color, an image, can immediately, perfectly express what no amount of writing has yet been able to grasp.  And then, and always, after working or playing in my visual art journal, when I returned to the writing, my pen moved without gravity, with an altered, informed, freed continuity and awareness, full of (YES!) surprises and revelations. 

I remembered distinctly that neither would I be anywhere without the uncountable books I've ingested, the reams of found correspondence, travel journals, the diaries and personal writings of the past that made their way to me.  Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Teresa of Avila, Benjamin Franklin, May Sarton, the pioneer women who recorded their lives in small bound books and neat, alert penmanship, to name a few.  And then there are my two abiding favorites, more influential than any others:  The Diary of Frida Kahlo, and The Diaries of Anais Nin.  WRITING IS AN ART FORM!   How deeply within you did that statement resound?  Art journals are, for the "now", glorified, extolled, held aloft to the near exclusion of any other art form.  I feel, in turns, angered by and resistant to that, despite my intellectual ability to recognize a trend as a trend when I see one.  It can feel like a devaluing of written journaling, all this art journal trumpeting.  For those of us who are mainly, deliberately (and also helplessly) written journalers, writers, it also delivers a thrust into further isolation -- because writing simply does not allow the immediate, almost instant gratification effected by the visual arts.  There is no publication anywhere devoted to written journaling that I've been able to unearth.  I see the impact of art journaling (visual! visual! visual!) even on my blog, where I receive heightened response to "technique" posts, and writing prompts are met with silence.  Even a strictly written post, such as this, absent of visual accompaniment (filler?) tends to be scanned then passed over.  We have slowly been conditioned to seek the RIGHT NOW, the LESS WORK, of visual art, over the effort required to allow writing to paint, sculpt, weave, and sing to and for us.

For me, a visual journal is just one among the many tools I utilize to impact, break open, expose and hone my written voice.  The visual journal isn't something to suppress, supplant, or compete with my written expression.  It hasn't lesser or greater value.  My fervent wish is that we soon regain our perspective, a retreat from the art journal genuflecting currently en vogue.  My fervent wish is also for writers to hold steadfast, and minus doubt.  A Bic pen on a sheet of unembellished paper is every ounce as potent, as magical, as paint, ephemera, and photographs.  If you are, as I am, A WRITER, it's critical to remember we  stand aside visual artists as PEERS, rather than subordinates.  Many who are visual artists are so because they can't write (or anyway believe that to be true).  If we writers feel bouts of visual-art-envy, we can remind ourselves that perhaps visual artists experience envy over our ease with a pen, words, creativity and expression on a page.

And, if you've noticed, most art/visual journalers ultimately incorporate some form of the written word. Fundamentally, and ideally, there is no place for competition among art genres.  It's counterproductive and, I'm certain, not at all what any of us intend.  We all need each other and mainly seem to realize this.  We all benefit from our diversity, from the stimulation one medium provides another.  Let's shake hands, call it an equal exchange, then return each to our studios, inspired by and INDIVIDUAL in our talents.


  1. Fundamentally, and ideally, there is no place for competition among art genres.

    I agree! Well said, TB!

  2. I think we are all visual writers and artists and it takes us a long time to agree to that...well, it did me....

    and competition....blech....I hated high school because of competition and wish that word would just explode and go away....

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  4. Each to their own. I couldn't exist without competition and I'm happy to be my own if need be! I don't journal like the people in the blogs.

    My journaling lacks depth because I seldom write about anything that matters to me. The hands are bad and can't write legibly for long so I don't. I can draw forever, just not write. Am I a constipated journaler?

    For some reason, the written word carries the meaning for me and the imagery is just the attractive nuisance. Yes, nuisance. The two just don't usually come together for me in reality; only if I make up the stuff I write do they coincide.

    My confession.

  5. Toni - you have raised some interesting and well written questions - for me - at this point writing is the base for whatever follows in my journal - I don't prepare pages - this doesn't work for me - the words flow, and then I play on top - I love the terse, economical and often poignant haiku (surely there is a closet writer lurking inside me)... the journal (art, visual or otherwise) functions for me as a confidant, a friend and an avenue towards wholeness. Competition doesn't serve the parts or the whole in my opinion. I am the keeper of the temple (my body, mind and spirit) and also the keeper of the temple books. We each have our own paths to the center. Your self-trust shines through and inspires - bravo!

    xox - eb.

  6. Brava! Okay, so here's the surprise, I agree totally with your very well penned thoughts here.

    There is something to be said for visuals. It helps us 'see' things as we train our minds to allow words to build images for us.

    There's a reason that children's book are chocked full of art and illustration; it's done so as they learn to read, they are coached in how words will paint images in their brains.

    Both are needed. Some of us have skills in the art mediums. Some of us have skills with words. Some, fortunant few, are blessed with both.

    As to what you said about the art journals? You answered my reluctance to write in the beautiful one you gifted me. I feel like I'm writing on a canvas hanging in a museum. We all know what a crime that would be. I look at it and look at it over and over. I hold my pen over a favorite page...and then I put it down because my words can't add to what's already perfect in my eyes.

    You are so very smart about all of this.

  7. As a writer/illustrator I know where I stand when it comes to art journals: it's all about the words. It's all about the stories that we have to tell each other, the stories that we hand down in families, the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are as individuals and as a culture. Each life is a story -- and each life is about communicating our own unique stories.

    As a writer/illustrator I make "art" to support the words, and I work much much harder on getting the words right (a dedication to craft that I share with other committed journalists; it's not like I'm exceptionaly conscientious)than I do on jazzing up my images with loads of glitter and gesso.

    I don't know what is meant by "no place for competition among art genres". There is certainly room for discussion, criticism, evaluation, and improvement; is that "competition"?

    Culturally, there has always been competition among the genres: it's institutionalized as a heriarchy. That's why the Met Museum doesn't display quilts, that's why romance novels have their own section in the book store. We can argue the validity of our culture's choices when it comes to defining high and low art, but we can't deny that it exists.

  8. For some reason, the first line of my Comment didn't go through:

    What a kind art journaler you are!

    And Wabbit: Bless you for saying that competition with ourselves can only make us better writers and artists.

  9. This was a most interesting post. For years I kept a written journal but mostly it was just a place where I bitched and whined! When I began doing an art journal I noticed my pages were happier and brighter (most of the time)....and I find it difficult to add words to my art journal pages. I admire people who can write. I'm not one of them. But I love putting down color and images and making something happen on the page. I think there's room for all of us in the journaling world. I have a quote I love: "In a world of individuals, comparison makes no sense at all." I saw that online and didn't write down the author!

  10. Vivian, I'm not sure I said that, but I like it!

    I can write. In fact, I have nearly always made my living doing it in some form. I can draw. I can paint. People have paid me to do those too. All of those accomplishments just don't usually mix with deep soul and gut-wrenching truth from me.

    I gotcha Janet on the bitching and whining pages. Once I go back and re-read those pages, it usually stops me doing that for a while. In fact, that practice could just be at the root of my journal constipation.

    Perhaps I find the words and the imagery powerful enough on their own that to mix them might be incendiary.

    As for competition, it's at the root of growth, I believe. If you aren't competing - even with yourself - what is driving you forward to create again and again? You want to do it better or more perfectly than last time? That is competition in the guise of perfectionism. It wears masks, you see. It's not a bad thing, per se.

  11. the serious side of this topic suits you well, I'm just wondering what happened to inspire this piece?

  12. Great discussion!
    When Howard Gardner came up with his theory of multiple intelligences he was trying to create a framework around the different ways people intereact and learn within their environment - he looked externally at the cognitive domain, tho, and not internally at the affective/emotional domain. We straddle both worlds. Our brains come with many many parts that are used (to more or less of a degree) by each individual. Images, shapes, color, forms and marks have their own language,both embedded by the person who creates them and then, from a different perspective and with a unique set of experiences,by the person who views them. I am reminded of the book "The Painted Word" by Thomas Wolfe,he parodied the Art World's need to write about visual arts in order to explain and validate artists' works. I think what I am trying to say is that expression in both visual arts and written language (and also music)creates symbols representing feelings, ideas, concepts that cannot be concretely expressed. And we are all wired differently (even different every day as Juliana says).
    BTW, I love the last intelligence he added, the 'pattern-finder'

  13. Toni,
    I've been thinking about this post all day because the one that stuck with me was your comment about writing prompts. Just some thoughts (that you can throw out the window if you like) but I spend a lot of time on writer blogs where prompts abound. I think it is harder straddling the fence you are as a writer/artist. I come here to read your blog because I know you understand the writer's heart but that you see it at time through an artist's eyes. So that combo works for me. But some of your readers might be artists first and the prompts are secondary to them over technique. Or they might be new artists like me and busily devouring all the technique posts we can, knowing we can come back to prompts at another time.

    Or they might be people like me who don't use prompts easily from other people because I already have so much to say. I'm having trouble in Kelly's class following the prompts but because I am having trouble I am going to force myself to do them all and see where it takes me.

    In the past I have done writing blog posts that were focused on prompts and I can tell you what worked for me. One, having a day of the week that was a prompt day. For one year I did a Tuesday memory prompt so that people could come and know that they could read them every Tuesday. I told a short story about how it related to my life and then shared my result of the prompt. Having the post focused just on the prompt helped.

    I also tried to keep them fairly short.

    I don't know. There are no easy answers and it takes time to build up a following but I think you shouldn't beat yourself up about writing prompts not getting the response you want because you may not yet be hitting your target audience.

    Like I said, my two cents. :)

  14. PS - I see that you have your prompts on Wednesday but the label, Wednesday Write-off, works for the title but maybe consider also adding a second label (doesn't cost a dime) to those posts that also say "prompt" so that people who are conditioned to look for "prompts" will see them?

    Just another thought. :)


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