Fly your own bird

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde

DSCN0126One of my favorite episodes on the hilarious Portlandia series is the one that popularized the phrase: “Put a bird on it.” Now listed in urban dictionaries, the expression refers to any creative trend that’s become so common that it’s a cliche. If you haven’t seen the episode, think of the times you’ve visited a boutique or gallery and noticed how many items are embellished with a bird. You get the idea.

On the topic of originality, freelance writer Pam Houghton recently posted several excellent tips on building a satisfying career. For me, the tip that resonated most was the one emphasizing the importance of listening to your own voice — instead of following trends.

“Some people make success look easy,” Pam wrote. “The times I tried to imitate them never worked even after repeated attempts….I had no choice then but to step back and ask, what is it that I do well?”

Pam’s post got me thinking about my early years as a journalist in the 1980s. I was a huge fan of New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, whose “Life in the Thirties” pieces were so fresh that I wished I’d written them. I wanted to draw “aha!” moments from my readers, like Quindlen did every week. I wanted to be a family columnist, but how could I hold a candle to Anna Quindlen?

Then there was Anne Lamott, who wrote the exquisite memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, and lots of juicy essays for Salon. Add to the fact that I also admired essayist Annie Dillard, and you’ll get why I considered adopting my middle name, Anne, as a pen name. The Annes and Annas were rocking the writing world.

On one hand, I learned something about my own taste — and writing goals — when I examined the nuts and bolts of their work. Quindlen spun the personal into the political; Dillard brought both depth and poetry to her nonfiction; Lamott broke rules and made me laugh out loud.

Luckily, I stopped short of stealing their pet adjectives or mimicking their styles. But it took a while to feel confident in my own voice.

It’s tempting to reach for something quick and easy — a bird? someone else’s idea? — when we’re timid or lazy. (As a mixed-media artist, I’ve been guilty of pasting too many birds on my collages.) Of course, it’s natural to follow trends when we’re starting out, whether we’re designing furniture or writing poetry. And while it’s true that we learn by observation, the trick is to avoid getting stuck in copycat mode. (Plagiarism is illegal, period.)

Being an original is twice as hard in the digital age. Everyone is chirping for attention, building a platform, following trends. The biggest challenge is to keep stretching your wingspan, then landing on something that’s truly your own.

— Artwork by Cindy La Ferle; copyright 2012 —  

Creative obsession

"Becoming" by Cindy La Ferle

“Becoming” by Cindy La Ferle

No, I haven’t gone missing — it’s just that I’ve been lured “off-campus” by my other blog. This year, I finally gathered a portfolio of my artwork and started building a separate site for it. I’ve created the new art blog by myself — no help from the family geeks — and I’m having a blast learning how to build and customize the pages. I just added a separate page of quotes on creativity and links to my favorite artists. Too much fun!

Once traffic builds there, I’ll post regular updates. And, if there’s enough interest, I’ll include a few tutorials on mixed-media art projects you can make at home. Meanwhile, here’s the new link: Cindy La Ferle’s Mixed-Media. I hope you’ll visit the site and subscribe for updates. (It might be the only place to find me until spring break.)

P.S.: My art is featured this week in The Oakland Press and The Macomb Daily(4/14). Click here to see it.

Telling stories with art

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” – Stella Adler

DSCN3582Not long ago, a friend asked: Which came first — making art or writing stories? Her question got me thinking about the new direction my creative life is taking.

Looking back on my childhood, I recall watching my mother as she mixed her oil paints on a glass palette. In those days Mom worked at home as a color artist, tinting portraits of brides and high school students for local photography studios.

Like most kids, I was fascinated with art supplies, and seized every opportunity to make a mess. There’s an old family story about the time I grabbed one of Mom’s paint brushes, then somehow ended up in the emergency room with the brush stuck in my nose. I was barely a year old — but the accident never discouraged my urge to dabble in art.

Over the years, however, my interest in books and writing grew stronger. And while I always managed to take art classes, even in college, I was discouraged from trying a career in art. How many artists make a living selling their work?

My college professors urged me to pursue writing. I could argue my way through any topic, and was even advised to consider law school. (I know … I can hear you laughing.) After college, the field of journalism wasn’t exactly wide open, but I managed to find interesting work at publishing companies, magazines, and newspapers.

But I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that making art gave me the creative freedom I’d been missing from the calculated process of writing and editing.”

After I married and became a mother, freelance writing provided the flexible schedule I needed. The writing life was near-perfect for two decades, in fact, and I loved it.
Circus

By the time my son left for college, however, freelance budgets began evaporating. Publications folded up and disappeared like traveling circuses. And while I didn’t suffer a full-blown midlife crisis in my empty nest, I desperately needed to be excited about something again.

Why not art? Heading to the local craft supply store, I felt my heart lift for the first time in ages. I started making cards and notepads for friends, then tried bigger projects — altered books, shrines, and mixed-media assemblages. I made mistakes; I learned new skills.

All along, it occurred to me that I was still telling stories — just using different materials. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that making art gave me the pure creative freedom that I’d been missing from the calculated process of writing and editing.

Not that I’m giving up the writing life entirely — but I’ve decided to make 2013 my official “Art Year.”  I’ve promised myself to create at least one new art project a week, whether it’s a birthday box for a friend or an entry for an art competition.

Though I’ve had several of my altered books and collages accepted in Michigan art competitions, one of my long-range goals is to have enough quality work for a solo art show. And I’d like to start selling a few of my pieces. Maybe I won’t make a living as an artist, but my soul is telling me to follow my heart — before any more time gets away from me.

So far, I’m off to a great start. Two of my pieces were selected for the Anton Art Center’s 40 Michigan Annual (through February 23), and I recently learned that several photographs of my pieces were accepted for publication in a new anthology showcasing writing and artwork from the Midwest.

If you’d like to have a look at what I’ve been up to in my studio, please click here to visit my project gallery on Facebook. For regular updates on all of my projects, please “like” Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office and Studio on Facebook.— Cindy La Ferle

— Original artwork by Cindy La Ferle. For a larger view of both art pieces shown in this post, please click on each photo. —

School supplies for Mom

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver

I have a hunch that fall will arrive early this year. Maybe it’s the angle of sunlight on the black-eyed Susans in our perennial garden. Or maybe it’s the snap and crunch of acorns under my tires when I bicycle around the neighborhood.

Whatever triggers it, I can’t ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies — even though I don’t have a student anymore.

It’s been four years since my son moved to his own place in Chicago. Yet I still struggle to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m officially an empty nester.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood — the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch boxes — I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my little boy started school each year. I’d thank the Blessed Mother every time I dropped him off at the local Catholic grade school, believing it was a miracle to have several kid-free hours a day to meet deadlines and run errands all by myself. In those days, the calendar on our kitchen wall was a perpetual list of music lessons, Cub Scout meetings, school conferences, field trips, baking marathons, and rotating carpool schedules. (And I was the mother of an only child.)

Even now, I can’t fathom how any parent finds the time to juggle it all, no matter how many children she has.

Spreading my own wings

In retrospect, I’m surprised at how long it took to adjust to the void my son left when he moved into his freshman dorm at college. His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping its door shut. Up until then, I hadn’t fully realized that the vocation I’d enjoyed most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was mothering.

Determined not to become a long-distance helicopter parent, I had to figure out where to devote my maternal energy during this uncharted phase of my middle age. I needed to explore something different — something just for myself. Was it time for a puppy or a brand-new hobby? The late-summer ritual of buying school supplies provided my first clue.

The week before his big move to college, my son and I headed for the nearest office supply store. While my son made a beeline for the computer supplies, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored markers, glitter glue and drawing pads.

And that’s when my inner artist — who’d been banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college — finally reasserted herself. I had no idea what she planned do with all the tubes of glitter glue and Magic Markers she tossed in our shopping cart, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think author John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Which is exactly what I needed at the time.

A month later, I went shopping for real art supplies at Michael’s craft store, where I also discovered several art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. By the end of that fall, I’d started clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. While my son studied (and partied) through his freshman year at college, I happily painted, cut, and pasted a whole new path of my own.

No matter how old we are, school bells signal a change of seasons and inspire us all to start something fresh. For me, it’s time to put the garden to rest and head back indoors to discover where art will lead me next. In preparation for a new season of creative projects, I’ve already swept the floor of the studio, which I now consider my classroom. Last week I made a list of the things I’ll need to get started — and I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

“Like” my author page on Facebook for additional updates, inspirational quotes, and creativity tips. 

Ancestor art

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.”  ~Georgia O’Keeffe

One of the many things I appreciate about my artist-architect husband is that he’s always encouraging me to push my own artwork to the next level. Given that our family has been in a crisis mode (my mother’s health) for the past year, it’s not easy to make time for art, let alone enter our work in competitions.

Regardless, earlier this month Doug printed out the forms for the Anton Art Center‘s 38th Michigan Annual Art Exhibition and nudged me to enter one of my new pieces.

I’d been working on a mixed-media assemblage (mounted on canvas) that was inspired by a post-Civil War photograph I found in my Granny Bee’s family album. The woman in the photograph isn’t identified, so, sadly, I have no idea who she is. Yet her pensive expression and confident pose always intrigued me.

In my assemblage, the woman’s photo is surrounded by found objects — twigs, feathers, part of an old leather Bible cover, and vintage fabrics. In the background, you’ll also see a scrap from a notebook of shorthand that Doug brought home from a thrift shop.

Titled “The Importance of Ancestors,” this piece pays homage to the “stuff” we leave behind — and how tokens from the past can influence our memories of a person. It also plays with the idea of having roots and family trees.

Thanks to Doug, I entered the piece in the Michigan Annual Exhibition, and was pleased to learn this week that it was accepted. The opening reception is on January 27th, 6 – 9pm. The exhibit runs through February 24th.

One final thought: Athletes typically have their own cheering sections, but most artists and writers labor in solitude. If you practice any of the arts for business or pleasure, it’s important to have close friends and advocates who keep you encouraged and inspired. (Of course, a supportive spouse is invaluable.) Cherish those people — and try to schedule more time with them. Avoid the naysayers who trample your dreams or spend most of their free time watching mindless games and shows on TV.

Seek out the company of other creatives, and be sure to applaud their efforts and talents.  — Cindy La Ferle

— For a larger view, please click on each photo. —