The first blog I ever read was Wish Jar Journal penned by my next Creative Life interviewee, the fabulous Keri Smith. It was through reading Keri's blog that I found other blogs and from there was encouraged to start writing my own; I imagine this path into blogging is shared by many others too. Keri's been very influential in the blogosphere, leading by example and challenging conventions, and now her books are extending that work, one page at a time. Keri is the author of Wreck This Journal, How to be an Explorer of the World and now her latest creation, This is not a Book.
Friends, meet author, illustrator and guerilla artist, Ms Keri Smith…
SC: Did you always know you were an artist, even as a child? Could you tell us about your path into this career?
KS: An interesting question as I think all children are artists. Is there an awareness of our openness? Perhaps. But to me the word artist is just a label. There are many examples of ancient and aboriginal cultures who have no word for art. This is the space that I aim to inhabit these days. Not putting art in a separate compartment from life. I seem to have quite an aversion to the actual word art, it seems too all encompassing, like a massive catch phrase that includes too many 'objects'. I would like to create a new word, or maybe some kind of sound? Or just erase it entirely from my vocabulary. Yes, I like that idea.
i've gotten away from the questions, haven't i?
My path. Through a dark forest with no illumination. Translation: I have flailed and fluked my way here. I became an illustrator because I love to draw and love to look at drawings. In the beginning I think I was too scared to really trust my own ideas, so I just drew for other people/companies. Over time I developed more confidence and was able to experiment more. You see, when you are afraid it is much harder to take risks. Now I have learned that I do much better work when I just fling myself out into the abyss without caring too much about how it will be received. I wrote down a quote to this effect the other day, "Make it dangerous or it's not worth doing." ~Maurice Sendak
Please describe a typical day – do you have many routines?
7am – breakfast, tea, toast, soft boiled egg, granola & yogurt
8am – walk the dog with the whole family
9am – play with my son
10am – work in my studio (my husband and I tag team with our child)
12pm – lunch
1pm – play with my son
3pm – work in my studio
4:30pm – dinner preparation
5:30pm – dinner (we used to eat at 8pm but it is important for us to eat together as a family, so we switched to accommodate our child's schedule. We are slowly going to push it to later again.)
6:30 pm – whole family walk
7pm – bedtime ritual, fruit & yogurt snack, read books, etc.
7:30 – put baby to sleep.
8pm – free time (I get to do whatever I want, a lot of the time this is work time, sometimes a movie)
10pm – reading time.
10:30-11pm – bed. our bedtime is early because my son is still nursing quite a bit which makes my night not as restful as it could be. (read: my sleep is greatly compromised.) we are working on weaning slowly right now.
Could you tell us more about your new book – after Wreck This Journal and How to be an Explorer… where are you taking us now?
Ah, now you're talking. I've been waiting for someone to ask me this. With Wreck i was in a deconstruction phase, this is a very physical experience (throwing things, dripping, spilling, tearing, defacing). But it was also conceptual, dealing with the idea of an object you must destroy in order to complete it. With Explorer I began to examine things, pay attention to the small details. As explorer progressed I moved from the concrete into the abstract and asked people to work with their imagination a little bit. Create things that do not exist, (i.e. create an imaginary portrait of your city, adding things that are a little bit magical or strange). In the case of This is Not a Book, I am asking you to go into your imagination even more, (though still being physical on occasion). In order to complete the book you must transform it into something else repeatedly. And it must be a thorough transformation, meaning you have to believe in it or it won't work. I do not take the imagination lightly.
When starting a new project, how do you begin to gather your ideas/inspirations? How do you record them?
This might be a difficult one to answer because I am not always aware of the process that is going on in my brain. I will say I am first "taken" with an idea. That means something comes in and I immediately become obsessed with it. I go into research mode during which I feel like an explorer mining the entire world for clues and things related to my idea. I also (and this is the part that is hard to explain), make connections with other seemingly unrelated ideas. Sometimes I will read a science book or website. During which I find things that do relate or form a connection to make up something new. There is an exercise in Not a Book that demonstrates this somewhat, called the 'idea formulation generator' where you create three columns that are essentially lists on different subjects. You then pick one item from each list and combine them to come up with a new idea. All of my ideas are recorded in a journal with a pen.
You’ve been writing a blog for over six years now…. Has blogging helped the progression of your career in any way? What does it mean to you these days?
It's actually been over eleven years, I didn't archive the early days. It definitely has helped to build a readership over the years. Though I think a lot of readers of my books do not necessarily read the blog, or come to it from the books. And in many cases the blog has also provided a forum for experimentation which is a beautiful thing to me. These days I am finding that I am doing less of my experimentation in a public forum, preferring to put that energy into my books and personal work. I'm not exactly sure why that is. i think in part I have felt a bit overwhelmed with the whole blogging world, there are so many people out there doing the same thing right now and so it feels less unique to me (compared to when I started). I think it's become more important to me to redirect my energy.
Has your experience of book publishing been what you expected?
Yes and no. Publishing can be a very exciting industry, and I have been involved in it in some capacity for most of my life. But in the case of my work it has been a slow build, (which is a really good thing), and I am only now feeling like I have crested some sort of hill. I made very little money in publishing for years, which is actually the case for the majority of authors. A lot of people think I'm well off because I have books out, I assure you that is not the case. In the beginning I signed some not very good contracts, which ensured that I would not make any money, (read: no royalties yet for my early books). But I have grown and learned some things the hard way, and now I have a wonderful agent to deal with the business side of things. I really like the position I am in right now, it allows me to continue to put my work out into the world and that is all I aim to do (and feed my family).
What books/music/artists/sites etc do you love? Could you share some recommendations?
John Cage, Bruno Munari, Masanobu Fukuoka, Buckminster Fuller, George Perec, Gaston Batchelard, Eva Hesse, Charles and Ray Eames, Corita Kent, Bruce Mau, May Sarton, Italo Calvino, just to name a few. My research is never complete. That is one of the great joys in my life.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Birthing my son.
How has motherhood changed your way of living/working (beyond the obvious lack of time :) ?
It has made me so incredibly vulnerable. This is an important place to be if you are an artist, you learn more about intimacy than you ever thought possible. It has also made me painfully aware of the painful parts of human existence and the areas where the world needs work. I feel like I want to make the world better for my child and will go to great lengths to impact it. See the next question.
What is the message you want to share with the world? (in other words, what do you consider to be your life’s work?)
I feel moved to do so many things to change the world, (the word "service" is very big to me right now). It sounds slightly full of ego to write that. On a simple level I would like to give people ways to question things in the world, to look at them from many different angles, to pay attention, to open up to a new experience, to grow, to challenge themselves, to experience the real world more (as opposed to a virtual one), to question everything, to revolt. Most recently I feel myself being pulled more and more into the educational realm. I have been working with and speaking to the educational field about ways to impact and improve a system that is in great need of repair. I want to find ways to reinvent it. I feel we must move away from the current economic model completely and create a system where people's health and well being are at the forefront. Money can no longer lead, our focus on it is destroying us and the planet.
What’s your favourite quote?
Current favorite (it changes frequently):
'I really think it's important to be in a situation, both in art and in life, where you don't understand what's going on.' ~ John Cage
i also love:
'Relax and let everything go to hell.' ~ Sol Lewitt
You're having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?
Barack Obama – the person you need to speak to if you want to impact the world substantially right at this moment.
Walt Whitman – one of the most amazing humans that ever walked the earth.
John Cage – always thinking and pondering the world.
Bruno Munari – we need someone at the table who does not take everything too seriously.
Carl Jung – one who walked the walk
Ray Eames – for her mind and visual sense
* * * * *
Keri, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today. I think i'm going to get that Sol Lewitt quote tattooed on my arm…
You can read other Creative Life interviews here
There are two moments that stand out for me from my time at the Squam Art Workshops, and for both of them I was alone. I discovered very quickly that you have to find your own rhythm when you attend a retreat of this sort; it's very easy to turn up at your cabin with a suitcase full of expectations, and it's definitely best to leave them on the plane. I was surrounded by friends I already knew, bloggers i felt i knew and could finally hug in person and people i had yet to befriend. One of my biggest thrills was getting to meet some Unravellers in the flesh – it's wonderful getting feedback in an email, but sitting down and discussing their experience of the course over breakfast completely knocked my socks off.
After a few days filled with people and hugs (and a LOT of coughing – I wasn't able to shake off the cold, and spent the entire week sounding like Kathleen Turner meets Marge Simpson) i found myself alone on Friday afternoon. It had started to rain and i wasn't sure the clouds would clear – Friday was my designated day to take photos of the lake – but as i toyed with the idea of lighting a fire in the cabin, the sun suddenly came out (as captured above) so i grabbed my cameras and ran outside. People-hugging aside, this trip away has, surprise surprise, been all about the Polaroids for me. I've had moments, in both Montreal and by Squam Lake, when i thought my head would explode, there was so much new stuff to see and shoot. My camera and I were bonded at the wrist, and I discovered that Polaroid portraits are my new obsession. That afternoon, as i walked along the twisting path by the lake, i tried to capture the scene…. the changing leaves… the stillness. Sitting on a rock at the edge of the water, i flipped through my polas, as you do when the sun is on your face and you can only hear the leaves rustling. And it was at that exact moment the wind raised its head and whipped one of my Polaroids in the air, flipping it out onto the lake. I let out a very ineffectual and croaky 'noooo!' as i watched my Polaroid float away. For a split-second i wondered whether i should wade out and get it, but the water was cold, and i was ill, and as ridiculous as it sounds now, i honestly had to say to myself with a soupcon of irony you've just got to let it go. So i stood on the rock, and watched my photograph bob along the water, getting smaller and smaller. And it was then that, out of nowhere, a man in a green canoe came paddling around the rocks.
'Is that your photo?' he shouted.
"Yes!" i shrieked back.
This magical being of the lake paddled over, scooped my Polaroid out of the water, and paddled back to me on the shore, the sun glistening on his tanned muscled forearms, a dashing twinkle in his eye. Oh okay, it wasn't really an Eat Pray Love ending – he was actually a rather portly gentleman named John who was holidaying by the lake with his family. We spent a good half an hour chatting about life – turns out he'd spent a few years in London in his twenties and that was when i saw the twinkle in his eye. As I walked to the dining hall later that evening i kept marvelling at the saved Polaroid. I mean, what are the odds?
[the saved Polaroid]
My other Squam moment happened later that night. I'd spent the evening with friends talking about work and life, sat by a crackling fire in what was affectionately dubbed the 'party cabin'. When i got back to my own cabin i discovered Jeanine had lit a fire before going to bed, so i entered the warmth and sent her some extremely thankful vibes through the wall. Earlier she'd been telling me about the previous night's skinny dipping and wine by the lake – Canadians are apparently very hardy! – and while i knew there was no way i'd be getting in to the water (are you sensing a theme here?) i knew i had to be out there, so i wrapped up extra warm and trundled out to the dock with my torch and tissues.
I felt a thrill being out alone in the darkness; it was a perfectly clear night, and i lay back on the wooden jetty, staring straight up at the stars. I didn't feel the cold, I didn't need to cough, i just lay there: looking, thinking, wondering, planning. I whispered a few words to the universe, and before I closed my eyes I saw a shooting star. People, i'm not making this up. It happened; it was magical. After half an hour of communing with the stars I took my tired self indoors and sat by the fire for a while before going to bed. i felt full. i felt content. It was a really good feeling.
i remember reading the post-Squam blog posts last year and feeling a mix of envy and curiosity. And i'm here to say that, yes, it really is that good of a time. But there was no levitating over the lake (i tried – it didn't happen ;) and while friendships are made and renewed, it really was mostly about reconnecting with yourself and your creative dreams, and sitting under the shade of the trees, and having some much-needed fun. Lots of smiles. No stress. The perfect way to spend four days. Elizabeth has created a special place we can visit, and i hope it grows and expands as the years pass. There is room for all of us.
I'll be there again next year for sure, so if you are too, can i take a Polaroid of you?