Thursday, February 18, 2010

On artists who write, and writers who art: Part 1

I am currently in week 4 of teaching a 15-week class called Journal + Sketchbook: Ways of Seeing. It’s a specialty class offered to students in the Fiction Writing program of Columbia College Chicago, where my wife and co-teacher Patty is an Associate Professor. They are encouraged to use their journals in all fiction writing classes; in this class, I offer the students ways to use drawing to further their writing process. 

Patty had the initial idea for this class in 2005. She’s a writer, I’m an artist. A lot of our friends fall into these categories. We then started to notice how closely the two arts were linked in the work of many past artists and writers. Our initial digging around turned up about ten writer/artists and artist/writers who had dipped a toe into, or fully immersed themselves in the other medium as a means of taking a break from their usual practice, and also as a means of expressing similar things in that other medium. 

Writer Number 1: Franz Kafka. When he wasn’t working in a Prague insurance office and writing about beetles, he kept an extensive journal which is peppered with small drawings. If you’ve read any Kafka, you will see how he managed to capture the atmosphere of his own fiction in just a few simple strong lines: 


Here is a drawing from a student when we taught this class in Prague: 



Artist Number 1: Frida Kahlo. Everyone’s favourite bedridden feminist icon kept a diary in which every page is saturated with watercolour, then covered with automatic drawings, scribbles, free association lists, letters to Diego Rivera. It’s all looser and faster than the meticulous surfaces of her paintings, yet every page breathes with the sense of the unconscious bursting to express itself: 



Here is a page from a student’s journal/sketchbook: 




Writer Number 2: William Faulkner. The author of the biography of my cat – “The Round and the Furry” – produced some extremely competent drawings in a 1920s art deco style. He also drew maps of the imagined place where his novels were set: 



We ask students at different times to imagine and draw something from a piece that they are writing: a character, a room, a map of the location. 

Artist Number 2: Eugene Delacroix. Born in 1798, he started keeping a journal in his early twenties. It’s evident that even though it is a diary, he was writing with a reader and possible publication in mind, and for that reason it’s considered one of the great documents in art history: 

Tuesday, October 8, 1822 
“When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought! That is what they say. What fools people are! They would strip painting of all its advantages. A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder.” 

We can use this in different ways: write the quotation on the chalkboard and discuss it; ask the students to write about their own writing process; ask the students to write about how using a sketchbook has influenced their journals and writing. 
In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about some surprising finds in the annals of artists who write and writers who art.


On artists who write and writers who art: Part 2

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