The Art of Paying Attention (Or, how a huge mistake ended up being the best thing ever.)
Sister Corita, the gift of mistakes, and an awesome collaboration with writer Laurel Braitman
Heellllloooooo Grown-Ups Table!
What a week! Big thanks to last week’s Visiting Artist Ishita Jain for the inspiring outdoor drawing assignment. Seeing all your drawings in the thread was a great reminder that we GUT peeps are all around the globe (India! Germany! Zimbabwe! So much Tasmania!) I’m going to send out a GUT-member location-roll call so we can see where everyone is drawing from. Drawers international, unite! Special shout out to randomly-selected GUT-member Stephanie Miller who shared her work and gets a signed copy of Ishita’s book! Email me, Stephanie. :)
And now, PLOT TWIST: Turns out this week’s dispatch is not going to be the TED conference report I promised. Something… happened.
Mistakes = Opportunities for Creativity
So, I was supposed to be at the annual TED conference in Vancouver all week watching talks, meeting interesting people and co-hosting a couple workshops with my dear friend, the brilliant writer-professor Laurel Braitman. I was so looking forward to sharing DrawTogether with everyone at TED, and bringing back TED secrets to share with all of you.
Due to a stupid travel snafu on my part (check your passport’s expiration date, friends!) I found myself grounded in the Bay. There was nothing anyone could do. I was stuck. Bereft. Crestfallen. SO much work had gone into preparing for this trip. And Laurel and I were up shit creek. This was a partner-led-workshop. There was no way we could host it from different sides of the border. We both wanted to bail.
But after some gentle arm-twisting from the TED folks and a couple deep breaths, we realized if anyone could pull this off, it was us. Laurel is a professor at Stanford and teaches writing in person all the time, and I have a wee bit of experience teaching art in front of a camera… So we mustered up our chutzpah and went for it.
And friends, it was awesome. The participants loved it. We had a blast doing it. And we both got that good feeling-reward of doing something scary and new.
Given how often we talk about embracing mistakes in DrawTogether, the whole thing was kind of perfect. It felt like a disaster at first, but as soon as we let go of expectations and embraced constraints (GUT peeps, this should sound familiar) we created something entirely new and unexpected. We never would have dreamed up this hybrid workshop without my dumb mistake.
It was a great reminder that Art doesn’t wait for perfect conditions. It tackles whatever is in front of it with whatever it’s got on hand. It takes a deep breath and says “Oh, what the hell” and goes for it.
In Laurel’s new memoir, What Looks Like Bravery, her therapist tells her, “If you’re not scared you can’t be brave.” Same goes for art.
Art rewards the brave.
Here’s a mini-TED workshop just for YOU.
(And you don’t have to pay 10k for a ticket.)
Today, Laurel and I are sharing part of our TED workshop with you.
Here on the Grown-Ups Table I emphasize more of the drawing/visual part of the workshop. Over on Laurel’s writing-focused newsletter(it's so good - subscribe!) she focuses more on the writing part. But we both do both.
And before we jump in, please allow me to make a huge explicit and heartfelt plug for Laurel’s beautiful, powerful book on grief and love: What Looks Like Bravery. Good news for GUT-members: one member who shares their drawing/story over in the chat this week will receive a signed copy of Laurel’s book and some *excellent* limited edition art supplies from our friends at Blackwing Pencils and the Corita Art Center. SO MUCH PRIZES, SO MANY WINNINGS. I’ll announce the winner up top next week. Woohoo! (But you gotta be a member.)
Alright. Onto the art part!
The Art of Paying Attention
You might recognize this title of the workshop/dispatch from my 2021 TED talk. Basically everything I do has the same title. It’s my religion and I’m an evangelist. Get used to it.
Our TED workshop had two parts: Part 1 of “The Art of Paying Attention” focused on using drawing and writing to pay attention to one another. Part 2 focused on paying attention to the world. Today we’re focusing on Part 2: Paying Attention to The World.
Okay, now Imagine you’re at a fancy conference in Vancouver. Ready? Go.
Sister Corita and Close Looking
You’ve probably heard me talk about Sister Corita before. We based a DrawTogether kids’ show episode on her approach to looking at the world, as well as an awesome DT podcast episode that’s fun for all ages.
An artist, nun, and lifelong educator, she taught art at Immaculate Heart College in the 60s in Los Angeles, and became known for her vibrant, influential pop-art screen-prints that combined text and images to powerful effect. Unlike her pop art peers (think Warhol), she had a strong socially-engaged voice and didn’t shy away from “mistakes”, including drips and smears in her finished pieces.
She plucked imagery and text from all around her - advertisements, magazines, even bread packaging - and reframed it (literally), using color and composition to help us all consider these things we’d normally overlook in a whole new light.
You may also remember those wonderful Art Department RULES that hung in her classroom. She was radical in all sorts of ways and used art as a powerful voice, protesting the Vietnam war and human suffering through her art. She eventually split from the church to dedicated herself wholly to her art. But her underlying values, that art is a form of engagement and activism, remained strong until she passed in 1986.
In her life and work, Sister Corita practiced the art of paying attention.
One of the tools Sister Corita used to help teach her students how to look closely at the world was something she called a FINDER.
“A tool for looking is a finder. This is a device which does the same thing as the camera lens or viewfinder. It helps take things out of context, allows us to see for the sake of seeing, and enhances our quick-looking and decision-making skills.”
- Sister Corita
A finder is basically a piece of paper with a rectangular window that helps focus our attention on the world “one piece at a time.” (Sister Corita’s words.) In our day to day lives, with all the visual stimulus we have going on around us, we probably never notice little things like an old car’s bumper. Or the edge of a wooden chair. Or someone’s painted fingernails. We’re so overwhelmed that we just don’t see them.
But when we focus in on the world one piece at a time - when we give it our attention - we begin to actually see what’s in front of us.
Drawing is one of the best ways to do this. And a finder can help.
As we draw the object we’ve caught in our finder, maybe we notice that car bumper has a scratch - and it’s been painted back over with black paint. What’s the story there? The edge of the chair is well-worn - and is there some gum stuck under there?? Who put it there? And the painted fingernails seem freshly painted - oooo - someone is putting in some effort. But there is a big smudge across one! Imagine what that’s about….
When we use drawing to pay attention and look closely, we notice so much more. Behind everything we notice, there is a story.
This week’s assignment (AKA the rest of the workshop) is all about paying attention, and it’s both visual and verbal. Drawing and writing. I’m assigning the drawing, and Laurel is assigning the writing.
Remember, this exercise is not about making a “good drawing” or a “good piece of writing.” It’s just about using writing and drawing to help us pay attention. No experience required.
GUT members, special instruction for you: I’d like you to handwrite your story. You can incorporate it into the drawing if you want (think about our food drawings when we combined image text. Or our NYT story dispatch. Or anything Sister Corita made!) - or you can write it on a separate piece of paper. But handwriting is a form of drawing. And we want to keep that right brain active.
Sound good? Laurel and I can’t wait to see what you create.
If you are not a member of the GUT yet because of financial barriers, email me. Nobody turned away. (TYSM paying GUT-members for making these scholarships possible, keeping the GUT open to all, AND keeping a roof over my head!)
Alright ready? Let’s do this.
The Drawing Part.
Alright, GUT Members, let’s be brave. First things first:
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