As a kid, I played without thinking: jump rope and jacks. Dances and cassette-taped comedies. Roller-skating. Failed hot air balloons from wicker laundry baskets. I wrote poems, scribbled pictures and read loads of books. My only goals? Fun.
Some time after my first gray hairs arrived (college!), playful morphed into a state I had to justify. Because everything else was so imPORtant. All these responsiBILITIES.
But if like me, you’ve had a kid or a cute small animal bumbling around your house, you learn pretty quickly that you have to noodle around with these guys. And it's joyful, right? We hear ourselves laugh or make silly voices. We forget our dumb grownup worries for five whole minutes. It’s the goofy form of Zen-- without a zafu.
This year I stumbled into that same brain-clearing happiness when I began to noodle around with art. The spark was Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, a little book with a lot of wisdom and creative zing, which inspired me to re-think my work space. He suggests having an analog desk for hands-on projects and a digital desk for computer-ish work. At last, I thought. My cheery markers, pencils and craft-related hodge-podgery would get to see the light.
I pushed an old desk into an empty corner of my office. I felt like the teenager who, after years sharing a teensy room with her sister, gets the guest house in the backyard. With glee, I taped photos and notes to the wall. Glue stick, scissors, papers, pens and creative books populated the desk. Random artifacts, like a kalimba, stones, a knuckle of driftwood and a bird-shaped candle holder filled in the cracks. I called this new place my play desk.
On nights after my other work was complete, I sat there and flicked through magazines. I cut out images that sparkled for me, and doodled on patched-together pieces of colored paper. I ripped edges. I squiggled dotted lines. I made hasty black-out poems from advertising copy. I didn’t try too hard to make anything anything. This whimsical fiddling made me feel calm and happy.
Around the same time, I became captivated by the shelf of free rejects at the library. This was the place to find books falling apart from overuse, or donated books too simple, complex or just plain weird for the average reader. I was kind of drawn to the quirkiness of these books. The old-style fonts and aging paper tickled me. This trove seemed like an artist's gold mine.
At my play desk I skimmed those paragraphs, and cut out phrases. With no plan, I pushed around teensy strips of paper. Most days the words looked too jumbled to be anything like a story or message. In the morning I’d stare at the phrases with a new curiosity before mixing them up again.
Deliberating over words never helps me start an essay. Likewise, over-thinking's no good at my play desk. What I use liberally: going-from-the-gut. Instinct. Sure, that choice'll do! Just slap it down. Trim it. It becomes what it becomes. Eventually the visual stories jump out at me. I glue the parts together.
Now, in this funky part of my life, by not knowing at all what I'm doing, I've begun to make cards. They say things. They are like little meditations in a downward trickle of words. Mini-stories about people you can remember if you squint your mind's eye. They are words strung up over colorful backgrounds, notes the words might've been dying to say all those years stuck in funny old books.
It takes me a week or a month to "see" who each card is for. Then I write a sweet note and send it away. And I feel sorta like a bird.
So. All this work has given me quite an appetite... for art. Time to skeedaddle to my play desk.