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Simply Sunday - May 14
Maira Kalman’s Women Holding Things, a Jar of Drawing Prompts, and more
“Isn't that the only way to curate a life? To live among things that make you gasp with delight?” — Maira Kalman
Happy Sunday everyone!
This email arrives on Mother’s Day (in the US), so to everyone celebrating or remembering, I wish you a peaceful day.
I know the day can be complicated. It can be a day that doesn’t happen the way you hope or wish. It can be a day with hundreds of shifting emotions. It is a day.
I’ve had Women Holding Things on the couch and in a stack or in a pile or floating between surfaces for many weeks. I flipped through it recently, planning to talk about it on the podcast because I am such a fan of Maira Kalman. The book came to mind as I thought about how to approach this day.
In typical Kalman style, Women Holding Things is a beautiful collection of paintings with a throughline of text that ties it all together. Women have been holding things since the beginning of time. Women hold things, from hats to pies to children.
I encourage you to take a look, be inspired by the voice of her work, by the fresh and open feel of her paintings.
A Jar of Prompts
One of the prompts recently (week 16) was International Juggler’s Day. It isn’t a day that would have ever made my awareness, but there is something inviting about these unusual days that pop up and nudge us to draw something that is beyond our normal jar of picks. You have that, right? You have a glass mason jar filled with slips of paper that hold the things you enjoy drawing or could draw, assorted slips of paper, tiny folded or rolled scrolls that name the things on your shelves, the people in your life, the things out your window? You can dip in at any time, pull out a slip of paper, and have your drawing prompt right there, a personal challenge, randomly selected in the moment, a fortune cookie approach to the creative window.
Yes, you should have a mason jar into which you slip your daily gratitudes, too. But this jar of prompts…. It strikes me as a good solution, a simple solution, a functional solution. I am always intrigued by simple approaches that can help order the world and enhance our creative habits. Even better when the solution, the parts you need to put it in place, are right there, at hand, nothing to buy. Doing more. Doing better. Getting on track. Shaping your habits. Polishing your windows of time. These do not always require new things. Often, they merely require new perspective, a new way of looking at what you already have and what is around you.
If I look at the cluttered bookshelves next to where I am sitting, there are a hundred things I could list to draw. Some of these things I have drawn before and will draw again. I realized last year how much I wish I had a Pez collection. I don’t eat Pez, but these few dispensers that I have from the boys things charm me. They are simple in line, but I love to draw them. I checked every local source last December, wanting to add a few, knowing that these and similar bits of whimsy give contour to my voice on the page. I couldn’t find any to add. Maybe that was for the best. I appreciate the few that emerged in the ongoing sifting of things and have found a place on these shelves.
If I just focused on these shelves, could I fill a jar or make a long list of things to draw? What do I see? If I took an inventory of these shelves, with an eye to objects I might draw, what would I discover? I know that often I look at these shelves and nothing jumps out. I see the whole but not the potential of the individual parts. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts, but in this moment, I am realizing the wealth of possibility on these shelves. I am looking at the individual elements, deconstructing the holistic view, focusing on single strands in this tapestry of things.
Taking just the middle section of the bookcase…. and ignoring the books….. I see…. a dump truck (which I kept to draw), an brightly colored cardboard origami “mouth” hand toy that I made with the kids (and taught as a craft at the co-op nursery school), a knitted gnome, and a quilted triangular pin cushion (I think these are roosters; this one is yellow and orange, with touches of blue and green, and it makes me smile because it is bright and yet soft, and I know if I picked it up, it is squishy and full of sand). I see a very small group of wooden figurines that taper, like nesting dolls, in size…. A guard, a queen, a princess, a little boy, and an even smaller girl. I don’t know what toy set they were from. I never remember us playing with them. But I adore them lined up on the shelf. Painted wooden knobs, a remnant of my Mary Engelbreit-inspired days.
A whole zoo of tiny figurines, children in animal costumes, in pairs. Two by two, although I think I am missing a rabbit and maybe a cow. We can’t remember when I bought this little set. It came with a small wooden ark that had tiny shelves on which these all could stand. I threw out the ark last year in a fit of cleaning, but I adore the figurines. I don’t think I could draw them though. The unfinished (but gorgeous) vintage jewelry tree I started last year with assorted items my mom gathered and brought. The Pez dispensers. The duck and the pumpkin. A tiny ceramic gnome with a fuzzy beard, a small gift last year. A beautiful small cut crystal vase with a pattern in bright colors, only a few inches tall. Inside the vase, a little pink thread “mummy doll” I remember buying in an airport years ago, a keychain with a tiny bell on top. Something about it resists being thrown out.
I see several pieces of ceramics made by my youngest in high school. These have lids and circular rings. Two 20-sided dice. The “edible” plastic stand from a Mother’s Day gift last year (not something I would suggest, but I will probably forever have the plastic stick). Assorted other things are tucked in, jars of odds and ends, a small jar of rocks, a jar of sea glass collected over time on walks at the beach, and old DSL lens, a coffee mug. If I move either way on the shelves, I see other things. Bottles of ink. Candle holders. Tiny picture frames. The one I see now shows me, maybe 25 based on the location, but maybe younger.
I see a rainbow beanie. I collected stuffed beanies for years (and wasted a lot of money and have scads of them in the basement that will end up donated). The rainbow beanie is one I have drawn many times, a favorite. A Weebles Dalmatian fireman. (Is this really a Weebles? I’m not sure without checking it, but I think so. I remember my own remembering of “Weebles Wobble but they don't won't fall down!” when the kids were little.) Other ceramics made by my son. I love all of these small containers, these trinket-sized bowls. Just this week, he brought home another almost 20 pieces…. All “cups” and larger. But I especially love these smaller pieces from a few years ago. And I could go on….. These shelves are full.
Probably, as I survey these things and see some of the true clutter, the things my eyes skim over, there are things I could weed and winnow yet again. But I could easily make a giant list of these items, cut them into slips, and create a wonderful jar of drawing prompts, a list to work through, a list I could systematically draw, one by one.
Sometimes we do need to give ourselves guidelines or ropes or make a game of it. The prompts for Illustrate Your Week work similarly. The prompts are broad and generic. You personalize them with your own interpretation in the moment or in the context of a week. You might do the same prompt again a month or a year from now and do it totally differently. But the prompts themselves, yes, are a grab bag of sorts. At times, I’ve made the prompts (or bonus prompts) as a scavenger hunt to inspire you to look, discover, and find. There is something intriguing about random prompts when you find your own way in.
I resist drawing things (or doing projects) that don’t have personal meaning to me, which often makes it difficult to use prompt lists. Years ago, I was intrigued by the popular Everyday Matters list that many people worked through in their sketchbooks. I drew my keys, my phone, a lamp. Looking at my shelves, I see the potential for a personal list, a list I never considered making and didn’t know I needed. But today, it feels like a wonderful idea. You should draw things you love and love to draw, and working on drawing the things you have kept, the things that have trailed along with you through the years, that can be a wonderful project.
I was going to write today about the juggler and about pockets and about a drawing I did in 2007. But I got sidetracked by this idea of the jar, this metaphor for creating an inspiration pool. Do I really think any of us has a real jar of prompts? No. But what a delightful woman that would be who keeps such a jar, not as a showy thing, but as a true thing, as an authentic part of her creative habit. You would need two jars…. One full of “to be drawn” ideas and then one to drop the used slips into. What a beautiful year-long project this could be. I have a birthday coming up, a few weeks away, but close enough that thinking of this as a possible project makes total sense. I might do this! And track it. Yes! The trick might be “finding” the actual thing to then draw it once it was pulled. (Photos could be taken to catalog the inventory.) This is a seed of an idea, but one that has blossomed. Details to work out, yes. But the game of it, the randomness, the metaphor, that’s what speaks to me right now. There is whimsy and memory and a healthy dash of the “unexpected” in this idea.
I didn’t sit down with this idea in mind, but now I can’t stop thinking about it. Of course I have so many things I want to draw that I don’t know that I can or want to fit in a random thing a day. I think this would be a good weekly though, something I could add to my mix as another “one a week.” So a 52 project. Or maybe it is just a fun idea, an idea for when I’m totally stuck. I can’t guarantee I will fill actual jars. I’m more likely to just start a new Notion database. But the idea of this list in some format. It has legs.
What would be the first five things you would add to your jar of “to be drawn” items from a nearby shelf?
Illustrate Your Week — Week 20
The new prompts for Week 20 have been posted.
Write for Life Read-Along
For those reading along, my notes on Week 6 of Write for Life are here. (This was the final chapter of the book.)
Old Episodes of the Creativity Matters Podcast
Moments (and links to a number of Kalman books)
Episode 259: Dear Diary (an old “May” panel-a-day project has been on my mind)
What one thing made you smile today?
Enjoy your Sunday!
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“I look for the moments between the moments. I want to show you what else I see and then weave that into the story. The digression is much more important than the topic.” — Maira Kalman