Category Archives: creative exercises

Spooky Season Bonus: The Monster Box of Monsters!

He’s so cute I would give him all my candy ūüėć

I honestly cannot tell you what the Monster Box is all about. The front office staff just asked me to make this for the PTA. They wanted a large box that looked like a monster and you could put candy in the mouth. They did not explain anything beyond that. I gather someone saw a similar project on Pinterest or something. I will have to go to the Fall Festival to divine the true meaning of the Monster Box.

Getting the box was a bit of a chore, and then I had to rebuild it because it didn’t have a bottom, and the top was kind of weird. After I cut the mouth I realized that they wouldn’t have any good way to get the candy OUT of the box, so I cut another access panel in the back. Then I made it look like the monster was wearing novelty underpants.

If I had to do it again, I would do a lot of this differently. I’m not use to working in 3 dimensions or with cardboard.

This project took about 7 hours, and used 1 1/2 bottles of Elmer’s glue. There was also a lot of tape involved and a little of my special bookbinding plastic adhesive. I might go back and hit the horns with the hot glue gun just to be sure. They are the number one thing I would do differently if I did this again. I’m not sure they’re stable.

Road Trip Memorabilia

The day before we left on our epic Grand Canyon adventure, I was at Target looking for things to entertain kids when a thought occurred to me. The Man doesn’t use printed maps anymore, depending entirely on his phone for directions, so I thought it would be fun for the kids to buy a state map and mark our route on it as we traveled. It could provide a sense of perspective that you don’t get from a 5.7 inch diagonal display (The Man is a fan of his ZMAX phablet).

But what would we do with this map afterward? Would its destiny be to moulder amongst other forgotten relics of road trips past?

Perhaps influenced by my Trickster’s Hat experiments, I had another idea. I saved up all the ephemera from the trip (national park handouts¬†and such) and printed out a couple dozen photos. (When was the last time I printed out photos? Maybe 2006! We didn’t even print our wedding pictures.) Then I mounted the photos¬†on the map.

6 days of no holds barred sightseeing, compressed into a single rectangle.

6 days of no holds barred sightseeing, compressed into a single rectangle.

As it turned out, there wasn’t room for the ephemera. There were empty spaces, but none big enough for the inset¬†maps or other things. Instead, I printed out a second round of photos with small details like flowers, petroglyphs, and animals, and added them like marginalia.

Close up on (most of) the route.

Close up on (most of) the route.

Then I remarked the route, color-coding it by day so you can easily see where we drove on each leg of the journey. We were gone for 6 days, which allowed me to make the color code a rainbow. Then I bordered each photo with the corresponding color so you can easily see on which day any particular image was taken.

Use this product to stick things to paper.

Use this product to stick things to paper.

This project is perhaps a bit craftier (rather than artier) than the stuff I usually do. As evidence, I present this glue product. I wasn’t sure what to use, so I asked the Cat, who is an accomplished scrapbooker. She recommended this stuff, which is a very sticky glue loosely affiliated with a waxy tape. You just run the device over the thing you wish to glue and the glue transfers effortlessly from the tape to your picture, and doesn’t wrinkle the paper like some glue does.

You have to be careful because it is extremely sticky. If you run the device over a spot you’ve already gotten glue on, it can jam the works; and once you place your image, it’s pretty difficult to get it back up again, so you need to get it right the first time.

I had the map professionally framed, because it’s a weird size and there was no way I could buy a frame off the rack. Although lately I wonder if I ought to learn how to frame things myself. They mounted it and made it look quite professional, and I picked it up this afternoon. The kids loved it. The framers loved it too.

Detail from days 5 and 6: hiking Boyton Canyon and the Sinagua ruins near Sedona.

Detail from days 5 and 6: hiking Boyton Canyon and the Sinagua ruins near Sedona.


Boynton Canyon Vista

Boynton Canyon Vista is a short and sweet trail through¬†the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness around Sedona. From the sandy red earth a forest of pine and oak, yucca and prickly pear twists its way up a gradually sloping path toward a peaceful saddle known as one of the region’s seven spiritual vortices.

Rows of rock balances

Rows of rock balances

The forest might make be magic, or people might make it magical. Wordless cairns mark the way. A seemingly natural proliferation of heart-shaped rocks encourages the custom of setting these cordate stones into the forked and spiraling branches of juniper trees, sharing¬†“a gift of love from mother earth” (not my words) with visitors . Around the saddle, hundreds of rock balances ring the last levels of the gentle rise like a prosperous miniature city strung out along a series of plateaus.


The Man was the champion of rock balancing. I said, “You’re an artist.” He said, “No, I’m an engineer.”

Jutting toward the sky on the south side of the side, a tower of red rock presides over the landscape. Heart-filled junipers shade the open land. The stones glow copper-gold against the surrounding forest.


My little balance, which I built 3 times, because I knocked it over twice while doing something else.

We climbed the spire of rock, although 3 out of 4 of us didn’t believe, at first, that we could do it at first. Climbing down was the hard part, which we completed without incident. Feeling empowered, we began our own rock balances on the wall to the north.


The Man combines 2 Boynton Canyon activities: rock balancing in a tree.

The first time I visited this site was with the rabbit and the fox. The rabbit was in an anxious mood because of a sign mentioning bears in the area. A strange forest spirit in the guise of an old hippie offered us heart shaped rocks along with a lecture on the power of positive thinking and all encompassing love. The same man gave us rocks on this trip. “A gift of love from mother earth,” is his greeting.

Origami Lotus Candy Wrappers and Other Beautiful Trash

From the scraps of a bulletin board (I think it must have been last winter's lantern design) I idly constructed a magical paper landscape for two little sisters to enjoy.

From the scraps of a bulletin board (I think it must have been last winter’s lantern design) I idly constructed a magical paper landscape for two little sisters to enjoy.

My dear old friend, the artist Jeffrey Woods, went through a period when a great deal of his work involved covering glass with tiny vinyl dots, painting the glass, and then peeling off the dots. As a result, his entire property (I’m talking the inside of the¬†washing machine, the cat’s tail, the artist’s feet) to this day remains¬†infested by colorful, sticky, vinyl dots, forming their own patterns across the landscape. There’s a metaphor in there about the persistence of art, I think. If you ever visit his workshop (which you wont; you can’t; he doesn’t let people in) you’ll notice that his trash is gorgeous. Picture paper plates which have sat on turntables inside an airbrush booth, sporting rings of complementary colors, crammed beside¬†gracious curves laser cut from clear blue plastic, stuffed stuffed alongside sinewy white stencils into a plastic bag with the remains of yesterday’s lunch.¬†Splashes of color on the walls and floor from which those prone to pareidolia cannot help but search for meaning: constellations of random mess.

As a child, I spent a fair amount of time folding origami. I used to have a decent repertoire: shrimp, cranes, swans, boxes. Now the only thing I remember is the lotus blossom, which somehow looks more like a water lily than a lotus to me. Anyway, these were folded from chocolate wrappers. Endangered Species Chocolate is my favorite.

As a child, I spent a fair amount of time folding origami. I used to have a decent repertoire: shrimp, cranes, swans, boxes. Now the only thing I remember is the lotus blossom, which somehow looks more like a water lily than a lotus to me. Anyway, these were folded from chocolate wrappers. Endangered Species Chocolate is my favorite.

When I was little, I was always intrigued by artist’ palettes, the random smears of color sometimes more lovely than the finished works. I seem to find patterns spelled out on a piece a paper that I’ve used to blot my paintbrushes or wipe my fingers.

Testing markers on this sheet of paper, both sides. Paint pens always jam on me. The doodles on this paper came out way better than whatever it was I was actually trying to do with the paint pens.

Testing markers on this sheet of paper, both sides. Paint pens always jam on me. The doodles on this paper came out way better than whatever it was I was actually trying to do with the paint pens.

I’m the kind of person whose hands sometimes go on without her, particularly when it comes to small, malleable pieces of refuse. I remember once, years ago, picking a twist tie off my cousin’s counter and, without really thinking about it, curling it into an elaborate butterfly. Her son took an instant liking to it and, shades of Hawthorne’s Artist of the Beautiful, smashed it into a wad. My cousin was horrified. I laughed. It was perhaps beautiful, but it was also a bit of trash.

I'm just as likely to curl paper as to fold it. With the right material to hold their form, these scraps could easily be beads.

I’m just as likely to curl paper as to fold it. With the right varnish¬†to hold their form, these collaging scraps could easily be beads.

Challenge yourself to find something pure and shining in the discards of your life and watch the world made magical.

Mapping Stories

Jacks, my little hero

Jacks, my little hero. From the unpublished novel The Girl Who Followed Her Own Counsel. Drawn sometime in the late 90s. 

It took me 17 years to write the first draft of my¬†first novel, and while the storytelling came hard, the characterization and world-building came easy. I lived in that world for years, and it’s an easy one to go back to. I believe I did sketch out at the major city at least once, but it was a picture drawn from memory; I didn’t need or use it as a reference, because I knew exactly where everything was. I knew it so well that when I wrote the sequel, I still didn’t need the map, even though the characters spent time¬†the other side of town, where Jacks rarely ventured in the first book. I wish I still had that map, but I have a feeling it’s long-gone; I haven’t seen it in years. Possibly, it was done in a notebook, in which case it might turn up.

Mallory's mansion, from my 9th unpublished novel, The Hermit, sketched on the back of a library receipt.

Mallory’s mansion, from my 9th unpublished novel, The Hermit, sketched on the back of a library receipt.

Mallory’s mansion was the¬†first time I needed to sketch out a scene I couldn’t hold in my head. It’s a sprawling, one-story adobe, built around a series of inner courtyard gardens, and this drawing helped me keep the protagonists’ progress through the building straight in my mind. Kaija, the eponymous hermit of the novel, knows the building well, but she hasn’t been there in years. Mallory has passed away, and Kaija and her friend, Little Brother, are systematically searching the rooms for a message they believe Mallory may have¬†left.

New Pueblo timeline, showing the history of the city and the history of several families, along with the protagonist's progress.

New Pueblo timeline, showing the history of the city and the history of several families, along with the protagonist’s progress, from my 10th unpublished novel, Greenpunk.¬†

When I started Greenpunk, I knew it would be at least as complicated as¬†The Girl Who Followed Her Own Counsel, and also that it wouldn’t be a world I could live in. First of all, it’s a dystopian novel and not as pretty as Jacks’s world, and second, my aging brain can’t handle spending 17 years on a first draft. The 2 years it actually took really wore me out; I still haven’t started revising, because it was so cumbersome to gestate (800 pages!). To keep the details straight, I used 2 visual mnemonic devices: a timeline, and a family tree. The timeline actually starts a hundred years before the novel; it’s a murder mystery, so the backstory needed to be firmly in place before the writing began. I started the timeline before I started the novel, added to it as I became more familiar with the world, and then set it aside about 2/5 of the way through the story, once all the characters had met. At that point, I mostly only consulted it to remember the ancient history, the things that happened before the main characters were born.

The Collier family tree. On the off chance that I ever finish revising and sell this novel, I’ve blotted out the details that are mysteries in the book so as not to accidentally ruin the surprise. If it ever comes to that. I don’t think it’s possible to actually read the timeline above, so I didn’t bother editing that, although it’s full of spoilers.

The Collier family tree was a document I consulted frequently as I wrote. Not only did it help to keep the history of the city’s most illustrious family straight as Rip, my protagonist, began to sort it out himself, it also gave me easy access when I needed to bring in new characters. Looking at this chart, which I drew before I started writing, allowed me to answer questions such as, “Who are so-and-so’s confidantes?” and “Which characters are most likely to rebel against the patriarch?” and “Who dislikes whom?”

Darkest Agola, a child's fantasy world, set on top of his physical world

Darkest Agola, a child’s fantasy world, set on top of his physical world

I’m excited, because the night before last I drew the above map. The first week of August, I’ll be taking a writing retreat to Flagstaff with another writer, where I hope to draft the entire script for the graphic novel I want to start drawing in the fall. This map helps me envision a lot of the story. My protagonist, Prince, is 10 years old on page 1. He lives on his family’s farm, but he envisions it as a magical world where he can set the rules. The upper right hand corner represents the part of the farm his grandmother sold off before he was born, which is now a suburban cul-de-sac. Obviously, a lot of the story’s conflict takes place at the border between these 2 worlds.

A lot of the writing is done in my head, often long before words get committed to paper. Maps, timelines, and family trees help cement the details so they’re firmly drafted before the actual draft.


Soft Craft

The only thing I can really competently sew is a curtain. I’m envious of those people who whip out renaissance dresses and elf coats and doll clothes and leather bags. It seems impossible to me. When I try to make a quilt, I start out with the best intentions and perfect squares but soon enough my lines are diagonal and nothing lies flat.

The Monica Doll, slightly worse for the wear

The Monica Doll, slightly worse for the wear. I still have the human-sized overalls my mother made for me from that purple denim.

This is a ragdoll I made for a guy I dated in college, so he could take me with him on a semester abroad in Japan. He gave me a hand made bracelet of copper mail. Both the doll and the bracelet were imperfect creations and kept breaking (links falling off the jewelry, seams bursting on the doll), and we had to keep asking each other to fix them. When we broke up, almost 20 years ago, he kept the doll and I kept the bracelet. They were both broken, like our relationship, and neither one of us wanted to invest the energy to fix the tokens when there was nothing left to fix them for.

About a year ago the guy contacted me on Facebook and asked if I wanted the doll back. I was frankly amazed that he’d had it all this time. I had assumed he’d set it on fire, like he probably did with all the photo negatives I tried to get back from him, or, at the very least, voodooed me up. But the doll was in about the same condition. Rather then fixing the seams, which would just burst again, I lay in some good patches on her so she’s a bit sturdier than she was before, if not somewhat worse for wear, just like me.

A yarn dolly

A yarn dolly

This is a simple project I did with my stepdaughter, who insists she’s really good at sewing, but really isn’t. You just wrap some yarn around your hand or a card so you have some big loops. Using a small piece of yarn, tie off the head. Then cut and tie off the arms. Tie off the waist. Separate, cut, and tie off the legs. You can dress your dolly or give her hair, but I couldn’t find anything that looked better than naked for her.

The Trickster’s Hat Part 13


Our wedding, superimposed over a map

Our wedding, superimposed over a map

This is the end, basically. I had hoped the book would end with a bang, with a massively inspiring prompt for the most wonderful art project ever, a sort of capstone moment. A trickster’s thesis. A daring dissertation. But the penultimate exercise, while intricate and interesting, did not yield any great results, and the final exercise wasn’t an art project at all, but more of an instruction for two things that artists should do, which most of us probably already do.

So this is my favorite piece from the end of the book, Exercise 47, printing photos on old maps. The result is interesting; the pieces could use more adornment, but there is something lovely about the results.

And there you have it; I did 49 exercises for creativity and it feels as if I learned a great deal. I only blogged about one third of these activities. A few of them may come up later, but if any of this sounds interesting to you, I do encourage you to lay your hands on a copy of the book and give it a try yourself.

My parents' wedding, superimposed on a map

My parents’ wedding, superimposed on a map

The Trickster’s Hat Part 12

People never listen anyway

People never listen anyway

Some of what Bantock strives to communicate in¬†The Trickster’s Hat is the need to tell your inner critic to shut up. He’s quite right; it was that voice constantly insisting that my work wasn’t good enough that robbed me of the pleasure of intensive visual creation for big chunks of my life. Art is subjective, and I have to believe that it’s better to create something flawed than not to create anything at all.

Exercise 44 is intended as a visual reminder. Paint two parrots, one green and one red. Simple enough. My parrots were born in the space of under a dozen brushstrokes each. But then, the directions continue: paint a big, black X over their beaks. How sad! I was rather pleased with my parrots and did not want to obliterate their little faces. Rules are rules, but, engaging again with the spirit rather than the letter of the law, I poked some holes in the paper and tied their beaks shut instead, a much more elegant solution, and the parrots are silenced just the same.

The text just came to me then; it’s a bit of a joke. I have a few thousand books in my office, and while I had envisioned the¬†room¬†as my personal space, my husband and stepkids would rather hang out in here than in the other public spaces of the house. When the kids (and sometimes my husband) get rowdy, I’ll tell them, “Quiet in the library!” My stepdaughter protested at first, “It’s not a library.” “Oh, really?” I said. “Look around.” When my stepson saw the parrot poster, he said, “OK, that’s hilarious.”

The Trickster’s Hat Part 11

A magic bottle

A magic bottle

Part of being a trickster is embracing whimsy. Exercise 32 involved creating a magical object: here a magic bottle. The vessel itself once held a single shot of a very high quality absinthe we drank in Prague; the herbs were still in there, along with a number of perfect tiny seashells, petals from the first roses my husband ever gave me, beads from my wedding gown, blue glitter, and a few other things. The pink flowers I ripped off a headband my stepdaughter hadn’t worn in over a year.


Envelopes made out of old maps

Exercise 34 was one of the most fun ones; I’m sorry I haven’t got a picture, because the final step was to mail the completed project to someone. It began with directions on how to cut and fold an envelope out of an old map. Fortunately, I am the kind of person who owns many old maps. Then, the reader was asked to create some strange, whimsical work of art and mail it to someone with no explanation.

My best friend Jack knew about the¬†Tricksters’ Hat and had done one partner project with me. I cut out a large image of Abraham Lincoln’s hat and then cut and paste letters, ransom-note style, to spell, “The trickster wears many hats.” Then I cut out a couple dozen tiny images of hats, all different: baseball hats, construction hats, fishing hats, Santa hats, an astronaut’s helmet. I folded the big hat, filled it with the little ones, inked a beautiful address, and then decided, since I had the key to his place and was taking his mail in while he was out of town, to create another fake stamp and also a super-fake jeweled return address label. Then I hid it in his real mail. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see his face when he opened it. But he appreciated it very much.

The Trickster’s Hat Part 10


Van Gogh’s iconic painting of Blue Irises in a Yellow Vase

It’s a really striking image, and much-copied. I love the thickness of the brush strokes, the boldness of the color.

My Blue Irises in a Yellow Vase.

My Blue Irises in a Yellow Vase.

Exercise 31 involved learning from others: pick a famous work, study it, learn from it, duplicate it, and then expand the project in some logical way. The example in the book suggested visiting a ballet school if, for example, your famous work was one of Degas’s.

Drawn fast, larger than actual size.

Drawn fast, larger than actual size.

For my extension, I visited the nearby Tucson Botanical Gardens and sketched flowers.

This is a hibiscus that lives in the greenhouse.

This is a hibiscus that lives in the greenhouse.

I like the rougher look to Van Gogh’s work, how it seems sloppy, but it’s not. The colors weren’t really available to me with the materials at hand, but some of them made a nice showing there, anyway.


Orchids are hard; I’ve been trying to draw a passable orchid for years. I sketched this one slowly and then took it home to use the pastels. Somehow it looks meaty, rather than delicate, and I’m afraid there’s something the slightest bit obscene about it. Orchids are complicated.

Sketching in the gardens was so enjoyable. It’s definitely the sort of thing I want to incorporate into my artist’s life to a much greater degree.


The final flower

The final flower