Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Adventures in Metal Clay

First foray into metal clay!

I've just returned (recovered?) from a 2-day class working with metal clay. Never in my life would I have thought making little metal bits and pieces could be a) so messy, b) so labor intensive, and c) so totally addictive. I can't wait to make more!

I apologize for the quality of these terrible photos. I'm not a photographer and I snapped them very quickly in my studio without a light box or any other professional set-up. No matter what I did I couldn't capture the rich luster of the pieces (the largest is about 2" high) which in real life have a much stronger sheen and color than shown here, thanks to several hours of polishing with a small hand-held rotary tool.

Copper pendants for beading.

Prior to taking the class, the only clay I ever worked with was just your typical ceramic-type clay: stoneware, porcelain, and terra cotta. The first time I ever heard of metal clay was through Twitter. I asked a Scottish jewelry maker how she crafted the quite lovely pieces she displayed on her profile page and she replied that she used silver clay. I was dumbfounded--I'd never heard of such a thing. When I further investigated the subject, I discovered there were all kinds of metal clays including steel, copper, and bronze which were the materials we used in the workshop.

My goals for creating the pieces were two-fold: first, I wanted to learn to make pendants for my bead work, and second, I wanted to create items for pottery inlay. I first thought of doing this when I brought home some antique coins from Taiwan several years ago and made a series of Asian-inspired pots using the coins for decoration. I was pleased with the way the pots turned out, but as I was tying the coins to the pots with leather and raffia I kept thinking it would be far more original and fun to create my own metal work designs. Hence my need for a workshop.

Now that I've taken the class and gone through all the stages of "I'm never doing THAT again," to "Wow, I could spend the rest of my life doing this!" my next step is to buy a comprehensive how-to book and investigate starting out with silver clay, a much less-complicated medium than bronze and copper. With silver, you simply form a design, fire it with a butane torch for a few minutes, scrub off the residue with a soft-bristled wire brush and Bob's your uncle--pure silver jewelry. Steel, bronze, and copper on the other hand require a certain amount of clay preparation (we mixed our own using powdered metal and water), a somewhat lengthy kiln firing, and a lot of finishing work: sanding, filing, and polishing. Again and again.

Despite all the tedium, not to mention the rivers of olive oil required to keep the clay from sticking to any surfaces and tools while in the molding stage (on Day One I was covered in enough oil to qualify as a fritter), I was extremely happy with my initial results. Believe me, they look much better in person, and I was amazed at my patience in learning to use a Dremel rotary tool without harming myself or others. I am definitely going to continue with this medium, and in the meantime I have eight pieces of treasure to keep me occupied for months to come. A real win-win if you ask me!

Tip of the Day: The workshop I took was held in a private studio but offered through the University of New Mexico continuing education department. Taking a class in the middle of the work week was as good as going away to summer camp for a month. What have you always wanted to learn to do? I bet your local school or college has just the course to get you started. Sign up today!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How to Be Your Own Writer's Group

Photo © Creative Commons Zero (CCO)

After fifteen years, my writer's group has called it a day. The reasons are many: extensive travel plans; classes and life changes; projects and deadlines to meet. We just don't have the time any more for freewriting together on a bi-weekly basis. But that doesn't mean I'm going to abandon my own personal schedule of artist's dates and making time to sit down, slow down, and check-in with myself. (How's it going, Valerie? Well, I managed to revise twenty pages of Ghazal and three sketches on my picture book this week. Really? Great! Have a latte.)

It's going to be different, no two ways about it, but I've come up with a plan to ensure I still have a creative life beyond my desk or art table:
  • Keep writing in cafes. I've always loved drinking a cup of tea or coffee while I scribbled in a spiral-bound notebook surrounded by a crowd of noisy strangers. The more chaotic the atmosphere, the better the writing seemed to be! Although I'm no longer in a group, I still want to have cafe time to a) journal on my writing progress, b) create my synopses, query letters, and book descriptions, and c) work on a new project/challenge I'll be announcing in a couple of weeks!
  • Watch YouTube.com videos on art and writing. Instead of watching the usual TV programs, I can set aside a dedicated half hour or so to learn a new creative technique or listen to an inspiring talk.
  • Enroll in an online class. There are so many to choose from! I may not do this for a little while, but it might be fun for say, Inktober (an ink drawing a day challenge in October). Interacting with the teacher and other students might prove to be the most valuable part of the class.
  • New supplies. There's nothing like a trip to the office supply or art store at least once a month. Gel pens, sketchbooks, brushes, color pencils . . . shopping for supplies is always the perfect artist date.
  • Buy a new prompt or how-to book or magazine once a month (or so). Bookstores, yay! Need I say more?
  • Cut out magazine photos, and rather than create new stories from the pictures, see if I can use them as reference photos to illustrate my WIP. Although Ghazal is a literary novel for adults, I enjoy designing illustrations to go with the plot. So far these have only been rough sketches, but I'd like to go deeper with these and create some solid artwork based on my plot. And who knows? I might end up having an illustrated novel after all--a whole new genre!
  • Pick a non-cafe writing spot to use on a regular basis. For most of our meetings as a group we needed to find a place that was good for everyone with good parking, wasn't too noisy (not many people share my ability shut out distraction), and that provided privacy for reading our work aloud. Now that it's just me, I might go to a park, a business center, or a hotel lobby, places that might not welcome a group but are fine with a lone visitor. 
  • Use social media to connect to other writers. I've been so busy with my book these last few months that I've let my tweeting and even my blogging slide a bit. Thinking up tips and motivations for fellow writers and artists is a great way to connect online without resorting to tweets such as: "I had a sandwich for lunch." (I still do that, but I do try to justify it by sharing a vegetarian sandwich ingredient or recipe others might like to try!
I was lucky to have my group for so long, and the one thing that won't change is our friendship. We still plan to have lunch, visit galleries, and have some non-writing adventures together. In the meantime: happy trails, all. Thanks for hanging in there. 

Tip of the Day:  For most of my writing life, I've gravitated toward writing groups. The same with art. But now it's time to think outside of the box and explore something new, groups that focus on travel, beading, reading--they're all out there. But until then, I've got a book to finish . . . a never-ending book . . . Hello, manuscript. Have another latte.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Urban Sketch Group Wish List

Urban Twilight, Brush pen and watercolor.

I've been an urban sketcher for about four years now. During that time I've learned a lot about drawing and about myself, e.g., perspective will always be a problem; I can't be outdoors for five minutes without a sweater; I can sketch in public (really surprised myself with that one!); and most of all, I love to sketch. From pencils to brush pens, I'm a fan. The one thing that's eluded me though is finding a good sketch group, one that equates to my writer's group and keeps me motivated.

One of the challenges I've encountered when trying to create a sketch group is that a lot of the artists I meet are actually plein air painters rather than sketchy-sketchers. They thrive on lengthy, silent, meditative solitude, going their own way and able to ignore bug bites, sunstroke, and dirt in their paint. Urban sketchers like me, on the other hand, need, well, an urban environment: strong architecture, lots of people, and most of all, speed: "Let's draw fast!"

The other day I was trying to figure out how to solve this dilemma. In the end, I decided to simply write down my wish list and see what comes of it. As they say, "Write it down, make it happen!"


1. Dedicated meeting time as a group, as opposed to everyone gathering at a specific place and then scattering to sketch solo. Two hours is a good length of time for a group meeting, especially if that time is divided into segments, say, using the first half hour to discuss a specific technique, tool, medium, or subject matter, followed by an hour to draw, and then taking the last thirty minutes to share and discuss work. 

2. To save time deciding what to draw, I think it would be fun for a group to occasionally draw the same pre-selected subject or scene together, or at least work from a shared theme such as doors or windows.

3. Taking this a step further, how about meetings where we all use the same medium or tools? For instance, a meeting where we only use brush pens, or just graphite. Or we choose a specific challenges, like drawing in only two colors, or drawing in a continuous line and not taking your pen from the paper. 

4. I love timed sketches and they're especially fun to do as a group. Three minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes--set a timer and draw fast! 

5. Maybe it's just me, but I think urban means urban and rarely, if ever, means going out to explore the wilderness. Not that I have anything against the great outdoors, but it just isn't my thing for artwork. That said, neither does urban mean downtown. There are hundreds of interesting, complex places to sketch that have nothing to do with grand office buildings and busy intersections. How about sketching apartment complexes, schools and playgrounds, construction sites, museums, art galleries, industrial parks, or simply the street you live on? I often think a lot of well-designed and interesting architecture is overlooked just because it's too close to home. 

6. Lastly: LET'S WRITE! Sketches can be greatly enhanced by writing, whether it's to record thoughts and feelings about a place as a journal entry, or to experiment with some poetry or flash fiction inspired by your drawing.

So those are my ideas. How about you? Anything you can add to my list? All suggestions will be most welcome!

Tip of the Day: Finding a group of any kind to work with isn't always easy, and most creative people usually have to learn at some stage to enjoy their own company and work on their own. One of the best ways I know to combat any feelings of isolation or loneliness on the creative path is to watch art videos on YouTube.com. There are hundreds (thousands) of excellent workshops, demonstrations, and on-going conversations with artists at all levels. Two of my favorites are Brushes and Bunnies and Sketch with Teoh. Check them out the next time you need some inspiration as well as a new art buddy.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Travel Writing: Pack Your Journal!

A view of Shanghai--thanks to my travel magazines!

Without a doubt my favorite magazines for finding writing and art prompts are travel magazines. I can spend hours snipping, tearing, cutting, and dreaming over photos of tropical beaches, European cities, and the kind of Asian resorts that make me want to run away from home in a heartbeat. There's hardly a single page I can pass up without having an idea for a story about a millionaire with three poodles or an orphan who finds a full set of packed Louis Vuitton. 

The bulk of my magazines come from the library free giveaway bin: Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Kids, Sky; you name it, I've read it. Strangely enough, though, for all my love of travel and the magazines that go with it, I've never attempted writing a travel article myself. Lately I've been thinking it's an area I should look into. To better understand what goes into an article, I started taking notes on what makes a good story, as well as the different kinds of articles magazines publish. Some of the main points I've observed are:
  • A piece of travel writing can be as small as a paragraph, or as long as a book. That said, there's not many travel magazines willing to reprint your entire book, but they will look at small sections or chapters. Travel magazines are also a good way to promote your book via reviews, which in turn make a good starting point for armchair travel writers. If you've enjoyed reading a book about Singapore or the North Pole, submit your opinion!
  • Humorous articles seem to be overwhelmingly popular. The more mishaps the merrier. Whether it's the time you fell off the gondola in Venice or slipped on a banana peel at the Ritz, enquiring minds what to know more, more, more.
  • The articles don't always have to be slapstick funny, but they can be deeply personal. I've read articles that have brought me to tears: stories about adopting children overseas, scattering a loved one's ashes on a faraway beach, or coming to terms with a serious illness or disability through the daily rigors of getting from one place to another.
  • Travel experiences don't have to be recent to qualify as magazine-worthy. Travel memoirs are among some of my favorite articles: "When I was ten years old, eating ice cream in Helsinki with my grandmother . . . "
  • For many people, travel isn't just about business or pleasure. Sometimes a trip has a deeper significance, such as taking a pilgrimage to a sacred site, or doing volunteer work in an area hit by a natural disaster. Writing about these experiences for publication can inspire others to take the same path.
  • The more unusual the place visited, the better the story, whether it's a little-known trail-way, restaurant, or museum: weird is good.
  • Speaking of restaurants. . . . Many travel magazines devote entire issues to food themes, complete with recipes. Yum! (Don't leave out the wine!)
  • Budget travel is always a big hit with both travelers and readers.
  • But luxury is even better! I particularly like the articles that show how to combine the two extremes, as in, "A backpackers guide to Lake Como," or, "How to get invited for free to the most expensive island in the world." If you can manage it--write about it!
  • Clothing articles are always a stand-out: what to pack, what to wear in Hong Kong, the best in-flight slippers, etc. etc. If you have a clever way to travel in the same outfit from Barcelona to Tahiti, let us know.
  • Theme journeys make for good stories: eco-travel, visiting literary shrines or artist's studios, motor racing. . . . Designing a trip and an accompanying article around a specific interest sounds like a great way to test the travel writing waters.
  • Travel buddies. Some of the best stories I've read are about the people you travel with. Whether it's a spouse, children, extended family, best friend, group of strangers, or all by yourself--the human element is in many ways the most important part of the trip as well as the story.
  • Artwork. Be sure to take your sketchbook on your next trip. Many of the articles I read include sketches of the journey taken, and most of these sketches are totally raw, smeary, crooked, and real. In other words--they're sketches. Their lack of "perfection" is what captures the moment so well. Even if you don't consider yourself an artist, give it a whirl. You might find a whole new reason to travel!
Tip of the Day:  Keep in mind that travel writing doesn't always have to be nonfiction. Perhaps poetry or a novel based on your travels might be just the ticket. Bon Voyage.