April 27, 2019

Stick to the Program

I want to write something about organizational problems. I want to write something about Corrie Baldauf. I want to write something about life and art and how I’m learning to do those things. I want to write something because I feel like it, not because it is my job, or I’m getting paid for it, or it’s been assigned to me. These are things I need to keep in mind at all times while I navigate difficult new life terrain: organization, life, art, learning, writing, having a calling, freedom, and Corrie.

It’s a well-known fact that I love stickers. You might know this because you’ve seen me pull out the silicon folder I generally keep in my purse and affix a series of small stickers to my notebook or my day planner. You might know this because you’re a child I’ve encountered in an airport, looking bored, and offered a sticker. You might know this because, if you’re really special to me or I think you get it and I trust you, I might have shown you my sticker collection. It is my sticker collection I’m concerned with this morning.

I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately because stickers are taking a central role in the part of my art process that sits between visual art and writing. It took me a long time to identify myself as an artist, because I am not particularly good at drawing or painting, and those tend to be the clearinghouse media in mainstream educational systems—assuming you are lucky enough to go to a school that even has a dedicated art program anymore. I was very lucky to not only go through California public schools at a time when the arts were still funded, but to follow that with a private high school that had an incredible emphasis on the arts and many different media facilities and faculty. I still had to make it through Visual Arts I, which was intensely demoralizing, because I am not and likely never will be good at drawing from life or accurately representing scale reality on a 2D plane. Luckily, I made it through to photography—real black and white film photography, that I learned to develop myself in the school’s lab, like the dinosaur I am—and that saved me.

I digress. I have always adored stickers—again, because they possess a kind of fidelity in 2D visual representation of which I am incapable—and hoarded them as a child. There is a difference between sticker lovers and sticker collectors. I am constantly amazed by my friend’s kid, Esmé—one of a handful of kids with whom I have an ongoing sticker-based dialogue—who will, when I greet her with an envelope of stickers, immediately convert them into a composition that employs every. single. one. Her sticker pictures are Dargeresque, loaded with stacks of animals, dense and intense and funny—I wish I could do anything as good as them, but I am still undoing the damage of Visual Arts I and the cult of verisimilitude. Meanwhile, I am a hoarder of many things, especially art materials, so while I use stickers, it is with nothing like Esmé’s zeal for kinetic energy—I tend to accumulate stickers, waiting for their right moment, and as a result, I have a pretty large collection, especially for a 38-year-old woman.

We’ll return to the sticker collection in a moment, but I need to pause and mention Corrie Baldauf here. Corrie was really my first friend in Detroit. She is an artist of the first order, and a person not made for this world, I feel at times. She is a practicing optimist, under global and personal circumstances that make such a position largely untenable. She and I have long conversations, trying to figure out the world, and until recently we shared a kind of core curiosity and interest in people and things that sometimes leads other people to see us as naïve. We are not. We no longer have this in common, because, through a series of really catastrophic experiences mostly with people in the art scene, but some with people I’ve attempted romantic interactions with, I have lost my curiosity about people. I feel that I know what’s up now. I don’t really want to be around them anymore.

This makes the handful of people I still care to interact with particularly dear to me, and it was good to see Corrie, because I’ve been having a difficult month. Arts writing is my calling, and I find it utterly fulfilling…except for all the ways that it is damaging to any notion of a secure personal life or stable future. There is no emergency, because of other measures I have taken to shore up my existence, but I perceive a lack of sustainability in this profession—financially, but much more so emotionally—and am receiving a clear signal from the recently photographed black hole that it’s important not to let myself get sucked under. For as long as I’ve been a writer (always), I thought I would write a book; as recently as one month ago, I thought that would be my next undertaking. Then I went to AWP in Portland—a big conference for writers and publishers, attended this year by 15,000 writers—and came away with the distinct feeling that there’s enough books in the world. In space, even the smallest trajectory change can leave you spiraling into a deep nothingness. The abyss is calling, and it wants all my molecules.

So it was good that Corrie came over.

We talked about a bunch of things, and in the course of that, she helped me realize that I have already found a new way of writing a book, and it involves stickers. This is the best kind of therapy—the person who does not make suggestions about changes to your actions, but changes to your perceptions. Corrie has never, that I recall, told me to do something different; she only ever suggests that I see something different. Something that’s already there. This is optimism, but it is also deep looking, keen observation, and tendency to value details and process—these are all things about Corrie that make her a master artist, and difficult, I think, for a lot of people to understand. I am so lucky to be someone who gets to try to understand her better.

One way I know if something is a good idea, a real point of inspiration, is if it gives me energy. I’ve spent the last month idling next to the black hole—a place of incredible pressure, where, according to theoretical physics, light bends so that you can see the back of your own head—and debating my next move, and I’ve been able to come up with ideas, but all of them feel enervating and complicated in ways that lack the spark that will carry me through the hard work of any undertaking. I woke up today, and it was clear that I needed to reorganize my sticker collection—this idea gave me a lot of energy. I already have the things I need; I’m just lacking a system that lets me access them efficiently. My collection currently sits in a series of envelopes in a box in a drawer. It’s hard to see things and navigate them cleanly. I realized why people keep sticker books—it’s the best way to lay out all your stickers so you can see them. But I don’t have a sticker book. I took a look around to see what I do have. What I found is a binder that Corrie gave me a couple years ago, when I was working with ideas of evidence-gathering. It’s a three-ring binder with glassine pages that have little pockets in them. I could not quite get it to work for me at the time, but I accept on faith that things Corrie gives me are important, so I kept it around, even through a big move. Today it is the right tool for the job, and it is going to help me continue my work. That feels exciting and fulfilling and full of energy. In a month where nothing has made cohesive sense, and I’ve been struggling through illness, boredom, anger, and the lovable chaos of agreeing to foster a litter of five six-week-old puppies, this binder is a point of sense and order.

I am reminded that I still love the things I love. I still know how to be a person. And I am making right choices all the time. I have a sticker collection and five puppies downstairs—if I recall myself 30 years ago, I see that being a grown-up is exactly as I hoped it would be. I can stay true to that person, and not let art world social-climbers and outright sociopaths drag me down with their human chess games. I can sit with the winners—I already am. The abyss is still there, but it won’t get all my molecules today. Something must still be decided, but perhaps not by me, after all.

In the meantime, it is quiet—the puppies have settled down after a clamorous morning—and I have stickers to sort.   

2 Comments on “Stick to the Program

Ed Gardiner
April 27, 2019 at 4:50 pm

Live the life you love. Love the life you live. Thanks for your thoughts.

Cedric Tai
May 1, 2019 at 3:19 am

Oh god, I just remembered when I told you to try to not do something, something you were working on that had a grand vision, but you and Corrie are both right, this appreciating of re-seeing things is a way better deal.

I’m still conflicted about drawing because one artist I admire said that it’s the slowest form of deep observation, but I too think about the inevitable hierarchy of those who are good at drawing and thinking because it separates us weirdos who both seem to not be able to quit wanting to make/express, but are also obsessed with the slightest possibility of stopping, and sure enough we lose a child-like wonder. What’s the good part of being an adult that was everything you’d hoped it would be?

Sending positive energy your way in the form of stickers that have yet to have been invented. I can see them in my mind right now.


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