Automatic asemic.

Sometimes, writing can be a visual art form.

I don’t mean in the same way logo design or typography are — just the shape and flow of text itself. The letters don’t have to spell anything, they don’t even have to be proper letters (just look at the beautifully evocative text of the Codex Seraphinianus) in order to have meaning.

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A portion of a page from the Codex Seraphinianus.

In the Codex Seraphinianus, the artist chose to use an invented language that doesn’t map to an existing one — while he invented an alphabet to write in, these letters join together to form words that don’t mean anything. The overall impression is that of a young child who has gotten a hold of some beautiful and inexplicable book. They know the words mean things to those who can read them, and it feels like there is a whole trove of knowledge there for the unlocking. But, without that kernel of understanding — without some way to turn the jumble of shapes into something that makes sense — there is a perpetually tantalizing, mysterious feeling of knowledge kept just out of reach.

In its primary role, written language is bound by semantics. C with an A followed by a T spells “cat,” and you know the sounds each letter stands for and the small, furry animal to which they refer. Asemic writing is writing unbound by semantics. It has meaning, it can be interpreted, but these things are not subject to the rules and logic of reading. The shapes and repetition of letters are treated as a pattern, neither more nor less than the fronts of a fern or the shapes of Arabesque tile, and the feelings and images they evoke are what give them meaning. This necessarily varies from person to person — where one may read aggression in the slant of a garbled word, another may see exuberance — but this subjectivity does not mean asemic writing makes any less sense than language.

codex
Magnified words.

It’s just different. 

In some of the magical and spiritual disciplines I work with, language becomes more than its literal meaning, too, and asemic writing can be doubly so. A sentence may have its vowels and repeating letters struck out, then the remainder rearranged into a sigil used to focus energy and intention. A planchette can dash across a page, leaving the uncertain scrawls of a spirit’s thoughts in its wake, while a group of breathless observers try to find sense in the jumble of lines and shapes. Scrubbed of their literal meanings, freed from the restrictions of semantics, letters and words (or alien shapes that merely suggest letters and words) can condense into something else.

There are whole areas of the study of literature devoted to analyzing word choice. “Happy” may not always mean “joyful,” and “patience” may not always be virtuous, and its worthwhile to examine why someone chose the words that they did. Even when words no longer have meaning, this still applies. Asemic writing is still made up of the lines and arcs we associate with text, and their placement is never random — there are things to be read in the ascending slant of a line, or a ripe, bubblelike downward curve.

Even when you can’t read the words, there is meaning to be had.

 

 

 

 

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“Pink is [not] my favorite crayon.”

I think everyone who has a favorite color has, at the other end, one that is anathema to them.

I love everything in the range of blue-gray to purple — it’s hard for me to choose between slate, periwinkle, or violet. On the other hand, I absolutely hate pink.

I don’t know why, exactly. Sometimes, it’s one of the few colors that can actually be so bright, it makes me feel dizzy and nauseated. Sometimes it reminds me of being a child, when every item I ever came in contact with was invariably doused in some shade of pink. Still other times, it reminds me of the angry hue of the edges of a wound.

(Fun fact: A particular shade of pink, Schauss pink, is so named after a researcher who experimented with its effects on people. Some inmates of correctional institutions find it soothing, while others become agitated by it. Personally, I can’t blame the second group at all.)

Not all pink does this, usually only shades that are either red- or blue-based. Shades of pink that tend more towards orange or peach, like salmon, don’t bother me at all. In fact, I enjoy looking at them — like the bright orange-pink of a sunset.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I came across a drawing challenge: Work entirely in a color you absolutely hate. As a glutton for punishment, I couldn’t turn it down. I lacked the materials to put together a finished work entirely in pink, but I did have some new  pens and enough sketchbook space for a doodle.

pink

And so, I tried to find some way to work with it in a way I could live with. I’m not entirely sure I was successful (I really want to revisit this idea with a wider variety of pen tips, and it could definitely use some black), but it was a fun challenge nonetheless!

 

 

Inspiration in unplaces.

Have you ever felt out of place in a familiar spot? I don’t mean socially awkward or anxious, just given the sense that you’re in a place that shouldn’t be — like a shopping mall before the stores open, inside of a school at night, or somewhere else divorced from its usual context by some small, important detail. They are a familiar place, easily made into a strange-seeming unplace.

There are two times of year in this area, one in spring and one in autumn, where the light around four PM turns everything a lovely orange-gold, but the angle of the sun creates stark shadows of a particularly surreal length and sharpness. With a clear blue sky, it reminds me of Dali’s “Landscape with Butterflies” — colors too bright to be real, shadows too long and forbidding to be welcome.

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Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Butterflies”

The idea of unplaces fascinates me, the way something so minor can make the familiar so strange. I think part of it comes from when I was a little kid, in an area where we largely had to make our own fun. I spent a lot of time in an abandoned school behind the house I grew up in, and, once I was a little older and could hop a fence, sneaking around storm water basins and drainage culverts. It’s a bizarre feeling, ducking under a pulled-up bit of chain link and stepping into a wet, wild world where the spongy turf and overgrown trees suddenly and strangely block the sights and sounds of traffic. There are no more sidewalks, no more streetlights, just murky ponds of massive snapping turtles and every quietly resentful goldfish that’s ever been loosed down a toilet. It is a small shift, just a chain link fence and a few strides, but it’s an important one.

I remember riding the train across the country a couple of years ago. I lived in Delaware at the time and, having saved up enough for a seat on Amtrak, decided to give it a go. As we passed through the million shades of the desert, from persimmon orange to the blinding, glittering white of Utah’s salt flats, I could see occasional islands of abandoned humanity. There were no towns around them, no yards, fields, or fences — as if some capricious and malevolent giant had plucked them from their foundations and left them there like forgotten toys. Just the occasional roofless husk of a deserted homestead, sometimes with a scrap of dry-rotted cardboard abortively tacked over a window, even less occasionally with the rusted corpse of an ancient car sinking slowly into the sand around it. Even in the safety of the train, sitting in a cushy seat just wide enough for me curl up to sleep in for the four-day journey, they gave me goosebumps.

In Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, there’s discussion of a place being uncanny, or, in German, unheimlich. But unheimlich isn’t used there in the passive sense of being merely unfamiliar, where an observer can gain understanding with time and effort. Instead, it’s used in the sense of a place being “full of not-knowing,” where gaining understanding may not be possible, helpful, or even safe.

It’s surprising how little it takes to make a place unheimlich, into what feels like something you were never meant to see. Sometimes it takes strange geography, like an average, suburban-looking house seemingly transplanted to the middle of the desert at random. Sometimes, it’s something as minor as a shift in schedule or a change in weather that turns the familiar into the uncanny, or even the unsettling. It’s this that can help us see a place with new eyes.

There’s a lot of strange magic in the places you don’t belong.

Find the unheimlich.

The process.

“Aw, crap. I have an idea.”

The trouble is, it’s probably midnight.

I’ve noticed my time definitely goes in cycles — early mornings, I have the most energy for writing. Late at night, I get most of my ideas for making things. Ten, eleven PM? I want to redecorate my apartment, learn to weave, and paint a triptych.

I’ve read that everyone naturally has times of day where they are more productive than others, and you should try to find yours and work with it. (This is, unsurprisingly, not much help for people who have to be at a job at 9 AM regardless of how productive they may or may not be feeling.) I try to work with mine, but that isn’t always possible to do while still being considerate to those around me. Luckily, my S.O. doesn’t seem to take much issue with me bringing my sketchbook and a set of pens to bed like a cup of tea and a good book.

Sometimes, I’m struck by an idea just as I’m nodding off to sleep — right when my brain starts to decompress, and I can catch my thoughts starting to follow strange paths on their way to dreaming. I end up waking up again, reaching to scribble something down that probably won’t make any sense in the daylight.

Really, my process goes something like this:

  1. Get hit with an idea.
  2. Realize I should’ve been asleep two hours ago.
  3. Decide whether it’s something that would work better in ink, or if it requires the precision (and ability to erase) of pencil, or the looseness of paint.
  4. Set up my materials, including a tiny spotlight I keep for just this occasion.
  5. Begin making whatever guiding lines I need. I may open up several tabs on my laptop or phone full of references, but, if it’s some strange dream-creature, I may not.
  6. Sketch until I’ve reached the point where I can begin inking, blocking out colors, or erasing my guiding lines, darkening, and shading.
  7. Either go to sleep, or
  8. Look at the clock, realize it’s almost sunrise anyway, make a cup or two of dandelion coffee, and press onward until I’m satisfied.
  9. Do something else, come back, see my work with fresh eyes, and realize I’m not actually satisfied at all.
  10. Repeat steps 8-9 ad nauseam.

Occasionally, this somehow yields a finished work.

Coping with “Artist’s Block.”

Work in progress by Jecca Vanderbeck.

Everyone has run into a creative block at some point or another. It could be the fear of  blank page, a jam session where nothing seems to come together, or the vague discontent of not having anything to wear.

It happens to everyone, and it’s always temporary, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing when it occurs. Sometimes, it can feel like blocks are firmly in place more often than not — while it’s a great feeling to hop out of bed bursting with energy and with a head full of ideas, accompanied by gentle beams of sunlight, distant birdsong, and the wafting aroma of fresh coffee, this is very rarely the case. Even if you absolutely love your life and what you do, it is rarely the case. Can you imagine if it was? It’d be exhausting.

One thing I’ve found that has helped me flatten my back against the wall, suck in my stomach, and sneak my way past creative blocks is having a muse, of sorts. When I have no ideas, when a blank page seems to mock me with its flat, white stare, I can at least draw or paint that. 

For me, they’re carrion birds.

Raven painting by Jecca Vanderbeck.

They snuck their way into my imagination shortly before I became very ill, when I had a constellation of vague symptoms and no answers. Finding ways to make vultures, ravens, and carrion crows bright and beautiful became a kind of obsession. If I could do it for them, I could make myself okay with the specter of death.

Work in progress by Jecca Vanderbeck.

In this case, overcoming artist’s block came along with healing other unresolved fears I had. While not really a personified force, they nonetheless gave faces to my thanatophobia — they made it knowable and face-able. Could I have found a muse without having to go through that? Maybe, but having them has made it possible for me to overcome my fears of artist’s block and loss and death, all in one fell swoop.

“May the key of inspiration unlock your dungeon of creativity.”
― Kevin Ansbro

Pencil and permanence.

To be honest, I don’t really like sketching with pencil.

It has its advantages, sure. You can’t really erase pen, pastel, or paint, for one. Plus it’s buildable — ink is sort of the same color, no matter how lightly you press. These are the very same reasons why I don’t really like it, though.

I have a harder time with things when they leave me an “out.” If I have the ability to erase, I will erase, and erase, and erase until I can do something perfectly (spoiler: that never happens). In the end, I’m always way less content with whatever I’m working on. If I’d just erased one particular line, if I’d just gone a little further back, everything would be perfect and I’d be happy.

A work in progress.

If there’s the opportunity for me to erase my first mistakes and try again, I’ll do it endlessly. If there’s a chance to second-guess, I’ll make an obsession of it.

Ink doesn’t offer me the luxury of starting over. If I sketch something in ink, I have to commit — build on what I’ve done, accept the mistakes, incorporate them, and let whatever happens, happen. Without the ability to erase, I’m inevitably much more pleased with the finished product. Ink doesn’t leave room for regrets.

It’s a pattern that carries over into the rest of my life. If there’s an opportunity for a do-over, if there’s something that pretends to place perfection within reach, it will become a source of obsession. Placed in a position where the stakes are higher, where I have to build on every mistake I’ve made, I’m much more relaxed. It was true when I left home as a teenager, swearing I’d never go back. It stayed true through every move I’ve made, from traveling back and forth across the country, to leaving a stressful, well-paying job for the uncertainty of working for myself. The higher the stakes, the happier I am.

Make the lines permanent.

Go big, or go home.

 

Inside, or en plein air?

An ink drawing of a butterfly and flowers.

I used to have a great portable easel. It folded up small, weighed about two pounds, and was a snap to pack up and carry. I didn’t get it because it was portable, though, but because I was broke — as it turns out, easels meant to be easily taken outdoors are a lot cheaper than the fancy, sturdy ones with built-in storage.

To be honest, when it comes to choosing between working in a studio or en plein air, I’m torn.

wipbutterfly.jpg

I love working en plein air when I’m doing a landscape. It’s much easier to capture the spirit and life of a place when you aren’t separated by time and a photograph. The way the light changes, how things shift and move in the wind, the way sound and scent can color the atmosphere… These are all things I miss when I only have memories or pictures to work from.

I appreciate the challenge of it, too. I primarily work with ink and acrylic. When I paint, I enjoy working “wet on wet” — something that’s not exactly easy to do when a sunny day wants to speed-dry all of my paint! It forces me to adapt my techniques, or else cobble together new ones on the fly. In terms of practicality, painting in natural light (particularly diffuse light from an overcast day) is a great way to accurately see and mix true-to-life colors. Since most of my artwork will be kept indoors, painting indoors is helpful for seeing exactly how colors and materials will behave in artificial light.

A formal garden.
A small part of the beautiful Brookside Gardens.

On the other hand, I greatly prefer working indoors if I’m working on a portrait, fantasy, or wildlife piece. There’s a level of detail that I feel like I miss otherwise, and not having the added input from my other senses encourages a kind of abstraction that I enjoy. With only a photograph or simple sketch to work from, divorced from the natural context of working outdoors, I feel encouraged to play more. A bird or butterfly in the meadow it calls home is one thing. Placed in a blank field, it can become anything.

A picture of a malachite butterfly hanging upside down from a leaf.
A lovely malachite butterfly.

 

Choosing to work either outdoors or in a studio always means sacrificing some element, some feeling. Outdoors, things are infused with life, sound, breath, and motion. Indoors, the process of making a thing can take on a still, meditative quality. I’ve never been able to work on anything complex outside — I get too distracted. I’ve also had a hard time working loosely indoors — I feel too constricted.

An ink drawing of a butterfly and flowers.

Working indoors also gives me more control over my environment, inclement weather aside. I can play the right music, light the right incense, maintain a tranquil atmosphere that lets me lose myself in whatever I’m doing. But working outdoors invites a certain amount of chaos, and there are few things I enjoy more than looking for patterns and symbols in the buzz of insects, calls of birds, or shapes of leaves that accidentally land on my wet canvas.

The balance is the thing.