What's in your box?

Creativity is about thinking outside conventional boxes, but what if it's your box, and you decide what to place in it? Your creative practice/mind/space is yours. Artists often feel like they helplessly ride art-making waves, with little control and input. I mean, it is great to give up a little control, and be open to chance and ambiguity. But, it's your work and somehow you steer it and own it.

What if you grab what inspires you (small objects, images, articles, song lyrics, books of poetry, old sketchbooks, small works of art, photos, ideas or doodles that you write on diner napkins or meeting minutes) and place it in a project box... then, respond to it by making art? Sometimes either ideas seem scarce or overwhelmingly abundant; the box is a way to contain what inspires you, organize it, and connect seemingly disparate ideas into something new.

The project box isn't a new idea, but it has recently worked for me, especially when I reviewed the writings of Twyla Tharp (choreographer and project-boxer) and the art of Joseph Cornell (assemblage artist).

“I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance.” 
― Twyla Tharp

 If you know about Twyla Tharp, and her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, you are familiar with her bank box process of collecting inspiring materials--one box per project. This has worked for her for more than 50 years as a productive choreographer. I am not a dancer or choreographer, but what is brilliant about the box for me is that it's a way to short-circuit both overwhelm (too many ideas) and block (no ideas at all). Through some kind of a creative osmosis of the objects being next to each other and being in physical contact with you, new ideas form.

What was unexpected for me with using the Twyla Tharp's project-box idea, was how the box, the items in it, and then spontaneously photographing the arrangement of those objects on the box cover, became art, itself. And then, I thought back to Joseph.

"My boxes are life's experiences aesthetically expressed."
Joseph Cornell

When I was 17 the work of Joseph Cornell captured my imagination, and contained my overwhelm about sculpture. You mean, I can gather some three-dimensional objects and arrange them? From a young age I've loved to physically arrange things--rooms, Barbie houses, table and shelf arrangements. There is an art to arranging. Joseph Cornell's work was and still is like poetry to me. At age 17, I created a boxed assemblage entitled Melancholy Friend, containing a dried rose, an antique looking broach, a few of my drawings, a few sticks, and a hand-written poem I wrote for a friend suffering from depression. Melancholy Friend assemblage was accepted into the student art show in college that year.

Recently, gathering and arranging the objects (below), and then shaking them up, brought me back to age 17, arranging my own little inspiring worlds.
Arranging objects from my project box.

After shaking up the arrangement.

“Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea foam and billowy cloud crystallized in a pipe of fancy.” 
― Joseph Cornell


Water, Sun, Moon, Growth. A Book.

Today, this book, Water, Sun, Moon, Growth, was sent to the Brooklyn Museum.

Taken right before I misplaced the book for 5 days

First day, making an arrangement of inspiring objects.
(SBP book, on bottom left.)
by Carolyn Kleefeld, Climates of the Mind
Random arrangement, after shaking up objects.
In case you are thinking about joining in on the Brooklyn Museum Sketchbook Project, here was my process, January-March, 2019:
  1. January: Accept a birthday gift of a Brooklyn Museum Sketchbook Project from poet-friend, LouAnn Shepard Muhm. (Or, go to the Brooklyn Museum, pay, and order the book.)
  2. February: Register the book online with the Brooklyn Museum and choose Go-between from theme list.
  3. Find out the postmark deadline is March 30th, 2019. Freak out a little, when looking at the blank pages. 
  4. Decide to pull a lot of current creative ideas together (Water-Moon-Growth, Drought-Sun-Decay, the Twyla Tharp project box, and poetry from Climates of the Mind by Carolyn Kleefeld) into one book. 
  5. Still February: Gather inspiring objects in the bank box. Then, make arrangements of inspiring objects on the cover of the box: retro fabric, stones, leaves, almonds, a net, etc. Read some Kleefeld poetry. Take photos. 
  6. Embrace change and chance. Shake the objects to create a random arrangement. Take more photos.
  7. Still February: Begin drawing in book, compositions influenced by poetry, the photos, and above themes. Fall hard for the color and blendability of Prismacolor colored pencils. Create new imagery and compositions for future work on book pages.
  8. March 11-12th: Finish last pages. Name it, Water, Sun, Moon, Growth, and create the book cover image.
  9. LOSE THE BOOK for 5 days. Look everywhere in house and classroom. Text husband, daughters, and LouAnn (poet-bestie), begging for help to find it. Dig through the garbage a few times. 
  10. Give up looking for it for a day, and estimate that 40 hours of labor were put into the book.
  11. Stand catatonic, for long pauses in various places in your house, trying to reimagine where you move things when you clean. 
  12. FIND IT! In a file folder you hastily stuffed with a pile of your 18-year-old daughter's college info, and the book. 
  13. Smile, BIG. Pay for the digitized version of the book. 
  14. March 25th: Get video of flipping through the book pages. Send Water, Sun, Moon, Growth to the Brooklyn Museum.
A few details of pages from the book, in chronological order

The 'project box' of inspiration for the project