November 22, 2017 by Jean
I am really not advocating that we forcibly eliminate poetry from the world. “Stamp Out Poetry” was the title of the art class I took this month at the Senior College. It was taught by a team of two women, paper artist Karen Brooks and retired social worker and poetry aficionado Kathryn Tracy. The idea behind the course was to combine paper art and poetry in a project where each student would create an accordion art book combining designs created with rubber stamps and a poetic text of our own creation or choosing.
This course was way outside my comfort zone. I don’t think of myself as artistic (although my affinity for both photography and gardening suggest otherwise), and I have long suffered from “poetry anxiety.” When I was in my thirties, a friend asked me to read a poem at her wedding. I was in a cold sweat about it until another friend wrote out the poem for me in sentences and paragraphs.
In the first week of class, we began by talking about words and poetry and then learned how to create rubber stamps using Speedball linoleum cutting tools and a carving block of soft rubber-like material. Kathryn immediately put me at ease about the poetry component by saying that the essence of poetry was attention to the nuances of language and attention to the small details of life. I am a self-professed “word nerd,” and I am definitely good at paying attention to the little things in life. If I didn’t have to worry about rhyming and meter and poetic form, I was good to go. By the end of class, we had created two rubber stamps, and I had managed to use the tools without drawing blood. It was fun to learn the basic skills involved and to admire one another’s designs. For homework, we were asked to make a list of words that “ring” for us, and we each chose an illustrated children’s book to take home for inspiration.
By the time I arrived for the second class, I not only had my list of words that “ring” for me, I also had composed the text for my art book. I knew I wanted to evoke the seasonal transition we were in the midst of, and my words were inspired by my observations of my garden:
… and fall
During class, we created one more stamp (I actually did two, a phlox flower and an ice crystal to represent frost) and then learned how to make the front and back covers of our books. I decided to have my covers represent the beginning and end of the seasonal transition, with the front cover covered with phlox flowers and the back cover with an ice crystal design.
In the third and last week of class, we created our books by gluing the covers to the pre-cut and folded accordion pages and then put the stamped designs and the lettering onto each page. I was sweating this part of the process, because the two-hour class didn’t seem very long to get all this done. During the week between classes two and three, I had made all the stamps I needed for my book. In addition to my phlox flower and ice crystal, I now had an aster blossom and three different leaves (a maple leaf, an oak leaf, and a beech leaf). The lettering was what I was really worried about. I am terrible at printing (we only learned cursive in my childhood Catholic school), and my once-lovely cursive writing has deteriorated as a result of arthritis in my hands. When Kathryn asked me if I wanted to hand-letter my book or use letter stamps, I chose the stamps. That turned out to be a mistake; stamping letters was much harder than I imagined it would be. My letters ended up smudged and crooked, creating kind of a poetic ransom note effect.
In the end, I didn’t succeed in executing the vision for my book. Most of my classmates had simpler designs and texts and much more attractive results. In the past, I would have run away from my sense of failure by shrugging and saying, “I knew I was never any good at this kind of thing,” and I would never have tried it again. But one of the benefits of aging is the freedom from pressure to succeed and the resulting willingness to take some risks – and the time to be more persistent. One of the lessons of the class was that creation and analysis are very different processes (one right-brained and one left-brained) and that you can’t do both simultaneously. In the days after the course ended, I thought about my classmates’ books and what made them more successful than mine. In addition to the mess with my lettering (which I can correct by hand-lettering and doing it much more slowly and carefully), I realized that the stamps I designed were smaller than everyone else’s and that my designs ended up looking too cluttered and busy. I also realized that making the front and back covers entirely different did not work well. I’ve already cut new, larger stamps for my flowers and frost crystals, and I intend to create a new art book with the same text to see if I can come closer to my vision.