“The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.”
—Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (borrowed, with impunity, from Marita Alber’s blog, Midnight in The Garden of Evil Knievel)
Ideas. They come at the oddest times…in the shower or on a bicycle ride. Sneak up on you when you’re at a dinner with friends. Ambush you as you’re rushing off to work in the morning. I used to think “That one’s so memorable, there’s no way I’ll forget it.” And then I’d promptly forget all about it. So I started keeping track of these ideas in a journal devoted to such things, and called the first one a Seed Book. The name has stuck, and every new journal I dedicate to these slippery, skittish ideas is now called a Seed Book. I have a few.
What sort of ideas? Anything. Everything. Not just art, but any project or endeavor that I can’t start right away, but would like to hang on to for when I might need it. There are dumb ones, corny ones, vague and barely-there ones, the ones that show real promise, the terribly ambitious, grandiose ones, the simple little fixes for around the house or daily life.
Sometimes it’s just a title…not for any specific work, but a string of words that I like the sound of, and think “I might use that for a painting/an embroidery/a short story/a title on the cover of a journal.” A catch-all rattle bag. My version of a big drawer into which you throw all those little, interesting things that you don’t have a place or a use for yet. Sometimes I just do thumbnails. Sometimes I don’t even draw anything, I just write a sentence or two that explains the idea to myself, enough to call it back to mind when I read it again. There are photos (my own), little test illustrations where I try out the idea, or test a color combination. Lots of diagrams, I seem to love diagrams of how something will be constructed…a diagram for sewing a shopping bag, or a new hybrid bookbinding format. It can’t be avoided, I doodle here a lot, too…mindless meanderings of ink or pencil lines, when I can’t remember an idea that came to me as I was going through the supermarket checkout, and I’m pretending to be distracted with something else so that the shy little thing will relax and come out of its mouse hole.
Over time, and across several seed books, I might refine an idea. Carry it forward from an older book, but in a slightly changed form because some time has passed and I am a different person now from who I was then, when I first wrote it down. Yes, some ideas have been with me for a long time. It can be hard to let go, and it can become a habit, in itself, to carry the ideas around for years without ever doing anything about them. I try to cull them, from one book to the next. As much as possible I try to find an opportunity to actually take one idea and implement it, make it real, bring it to life. And then I can cross it out (what a great feeling!) or, more likely than not, refine it to the next level, where it becomes something else again.
I had to start a new seed book this year. This one’s quite nice…some of the others I’ve had are just bound pages with undecorated plywood covers! One of them doesn’t even have covers and looks like a book that has had its covers ripped off (I didn’t…it never had covers, I never got around to making covers for it). I made this particular red book to go into the jacket that I designed for my Coursera Design: Creating Artifacts in Society course. But I won’t be traveling for a while, so I never really meant to use this particular book as a travel journal. Instead, I’ve dedicated it to being a seed book.
The covers are an old painting that wasn’t going anywhere. I liked a small part of the painting, but the rest was unfinished and rather meh. So I cut book covers from the two parts that I liked, and have since re-primed the remaining canvas to use as something else. The design on the seed book’s cover is from the Nivkh people of the northern half of Sakhalin Island and the region of the Amur River estuary in Russia’s Khabarovsk Krai. I remain fascinated by the Nivkhi because certain aspects of their shamanic culture involved the use of embroidery as a way to cast spells…a very similar casting of spells is practiced by the Ainu of Japan. This symbol has been found embroidered on fish skin cloaks of the Nivkh. Today’s Nivkhi are a dispirited and dwindling community, whose traditions and religious ceremonies are lost, who are plagued by alcoholism and other ills suffered by small minority groups that have been bulldozed aside by mainstream industrial society.
Anyway. I’ve digressed and am going all nerdy on you. Sorry.
The pages are entirely from scrap pieces of gorgeous printmaking paper. Deckle edges, watermarks, a mix of heavy, cottony white Hahnemuhle and creamy Arches paper. It’s an absolute luxury—almost scandalous—to be doing my doodles and messy thumbnail sketches on such lovely paper, but they were scraps pulled out of the rubbish bin behind the printmaking building at Charles Darwin University, and I’ve had them for years. It was time to put them to some use, however humble.