a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Elements of the Earth

October 18, 2016

Rust and burn...the way the earth consumes its essential elements and then renews itself, slowly, eon by eon, while we hardly notice.

In Asheville this weekend, under Holly Fouts' exuberant tutelage, ten of us made rust and burn work for us on papers of all sorts, leading us into visions we hadn't yet imagined.

Holly Fouts, books and papers
The workshop, called Elements of the Earth at the industrious BookWorks, which one enters significantly from the side of an old brick building in an alley off a quirky neighborhood off Haywood, was the den of a lot of creative printing techniques and even more inspiration.  It was a beautiful two days, the sun helping our clothes-pinned masterpieces develop into colors one sees mostly in its more spectacular settings over oceans and deserts.

desert or ocean

caves at guadirikiri

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Basically, in those two full, energetic days, we learned how to make rust, print rust, rust rustable metal, char, burn, singe, and crater, with a bit of dye, natural and unnatural, on the side.  We turned blank pages into resplendent papers that became a book, or paintings to be framed, or, particularly in my case, caches of papers to be used as cards or weavings or hangings or whatever shaped its destiny on any day.  We learned chemistry and sorcery, we argued over techniques and tricks, we shared materials and skills, damp rags and caustic trays. We dipped, dyed, folded, crumpled, smoothed, hung, rusted, rehung, burned and shaped our enthusiasms, and now, having been turned blissfully toward new light, we have come away with a fall of leaves that will become and become and become.

It couldn't have come at a better time for me, caught up in the web of family needs and desires, and house projects, and also a bit panicked at the calendar ahead of which lies our Holiday with Friends show in November. Working hard and well-focused at Elements of the Earth opened for me a huge well in which I could dip greedily.  Especially one which uses, as I do, so many small, forgotten, decomposing but renewable fragments of natural life on this planet.

Workshops that really work depend so much on who teaches them.  I remember a calligraphy workshop a few years ago that  I'd been looking forward to for weeks, whose instructor, though a regional prizewinner, brought with her such a wealth of material (dazzling, really) but a dearth of teaching skill.  So, one taught oneself, stimulated by the colors and textures of the piles of paper, tissue, ribbon, paint, ephemera around us.  Meanwhile our leader dashed from person to person, trying to take our brushes in her own hand to reform our pieces to look more like hers.  (We quickly learned defensive moves.)  But those materials...I remember them still with fondness.  One of my favorite pieces, Abiquiu, issued forth from them.
Abiquiu, 2009
As I was packing the "bring" list for the Asheville workshop, I came across a stash of old travel notebooks and sketch pads.  There were one or two drawings I did for the boys' birthdays, some raw paints the boys and I did at Margaret Reasor's on the Gulf Coast or at school.  A whole notebook--two, in fact--from Jean Rosow's sessions in the Botanical Gardens, the one that started me off with art.  Another, drawings in graphite pencil--amazingly good for such an imperfect drawer as I am--from Jane Filer's classes at the Carrboro Arts Center.  Strangely, there were none from Betty Bell's painting group (I think I framed most of those), but it made me remember what a good teacher she was; another wanderer and chatterer, she never interfered, but could lay out just what we needed and remark on just what would make an image better.

drawing, 1994
Good teachers pull work out of each student, even at the beginning when you don't know you have any in you.  Focus, necessary distraction, a good pen, a helpful gesture, another angle, or "here's an idea":  a good teacher knows her stuff but more important than sharing that information, she or he shares the keys to unlocking it in ourselves.  "Here's how to do it," they show us patiently and carefully, "Now, have at it!  have fun!"  And we set to working harder than ever.

Holly Fouts not only shared those keys with us (both virtual and nice, rusted, real ones that made great impressions) but also encouraged the same sharing among us, all of whom were already artists skilled in other areas, in a panoply of media with experience in lots more than just one form.  Each of us had signed on to this weekend to bring a new perspective to what we were about. So there was more than one deep well, in fact, to draw from.

Learning like that is fun, but it's work, all right.  The brain reeling, the feet trucking miles back and forth among stations on the studio floor, the shoulders bumping into others as we, tunnel-visioned, meld what we know, what we learn, what we believe we can do with this new medium.  And, then, just outside the tunnel, we are struck with what that new medium can give to the others we practice. The expansiveness this newness affords.

rust book, cover

rust book, flyleaf and first page
Any art is like that, of course;  it's never only the one you're there to study, but a thousand openings in the field, as Duncan put it poetically, crossing media, crossing genres, crossing planets. Life lessons, too.  Coming home with the bounty, we are so enlivened, thanks to the gift of people who teach well.

My niece, Jessica, at dinner the other night, was rhapsodizing about her four children's teachers this year:  "We're so lucky!  They're all wonderful!"  Inventive, kind, perceptive, understanding, knowing, enthusiastic, she meant (and said so).  We are all so grateful when we find them--or they find us--along the way.

Talk about essential elements of the earth.


  1. So enjoyed this blog - makes me want to sign up to a class so that someone could show me how to unleash all that I can give!! YOU should run a class, teacher!!!

  2. Oh Rachel, i love hearing your voice again! thank you so much for starting this blog, i will enjoy it so much!