Construction, Deconstruction… Reconstruction

JFries spring colors 2 3.14.2020
…any minor world that breaks apart, falls together again… — Steely Dan, Any Major Dude

Staying at home, maintaining physical distance, and working on a new piece for spring.

This is for the “Construction/Deconstruction” group show at the Brickbottom Gallery, scheduled for April 16 – May 16. Details may change due to coronavirus, so watch this site for updates.

My experiment: “Painting” dried flowers with thin skins of dyed tissue paper. The flowers were collected last fall, after they had gone to seed and dried naturally on the plants. I am trying to restore their summer colors. I like the effect – it kind of looks like paintings rendered in 3D. This work-table still life shows pink yarrow and hydrangea in progress. Far in the background, blurry behind my coffee cup are more yarrow, seaside goldenrod, and white pine, waiting their turn. The yarrow are from my own garden. The rest were collected from roadsides, and the hydrangea I actually found in a parking lot where it had been dropped by the wind. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the broken china and egg shell yet.

JFries work table 3.28.2020

I’d been tinkering with this technique for a while, but the disruption we’re all going through with the coronavirus pandemic has inspired me. “Construction” and “deconstruction” are classic Art Words, more or less abstract concepts we creatives often dance around with. But as things kind of come off the rails around us, it occurred to me that “reconstruction” is what art really does. Artists see things, and take them apart, and then we put them back together, a little altered, interpreted, understood in some way, and made part of the human conversation. Our work isn’t done until we’ve got it all together again somehow.

Right now, a lot of us feel like we’re watching things fall apart, but we’ll get through these times. Nothing will be the same, but we can rely on the continuity of construction, deconstruction, reconstruction. The artists, writers, poets, musicians, etc., will tell the stories of how it all went down, and each of us will add our memories to it. We’ll reconstruct our world, with a little more weight of experience and a little more light of understanding. 

This process is slow and delicate, perfect for being under a stay-at-home order. And sometime after I’m done building my memories of last year’s flowers, this year’s flowers will be blooming everywhere.

Be well, friends.

A Walk in the Woods

JFries forest border 1.5.2020

I thought I’d share a glimpse into my creative process today. 

I did some monotype practice, making black and white dendritic prints. Those are the ones where you squish paint or ink between two panes of glass or sheets of metal – two impermeable flat surfaces – then pry them apart, leaving a pattern of branching forms on each surface made by the physics of fluids. You then pick up the patterns on your paper, producing two mirrored images.

JFries bw monoprint 1.5.2020

There are a lot of tutorials on Youtube, so I’m not going to teach you how to do it. Just go squish some paint and see what you get.

No, I want to talk about the process of designing a collage. The thing with dendritic prints, similar to inkblots, is you will see in them whatever your mind creates. I typically see landscapes, so go psychoanalyze that. The point is images emerge, and the artist will build upon them.

JFries bw forest dark 1.5.2020

So I focused on this print and thought, “It’s a forest. A deep, dark forest. Who will I meet there? What action will I witness?”

Scenes began to coalesce in my imagination, and I hit my clippings files to find figures and objects to play the parts.

Unfortunately, all the images that would work are also black and white and tend to disappear on this background. Adding color masks didn’t work.

JFries collage composition 1.5.2020

I need an image in color or which can be colored. Something in the right mood. I have this one image from a Victorian Christmas decoration. It’s about two inches high, a little girl holding a miniature Christmas tree that would be perfect for what’s in my head.

This kid has been haunting my studio for nearly ten years. Clipped ages ago but never quite fitting into a scene, she’s constantly fluttering about, in the way, falling out of every stack of papers I pick up.

Wouldn’t you know, today I can’t find her.

JFries bw forest light detail1 1.5.2020

Obviously, I went first to where I thought I’d last seen her.

Then I checked a succession of places she could likely be.

Then I went back into the files on the off chance I had inadvertently put her away where she belongs.

JFries bw forest dark detail2 1.5.2020

By that point, I was pretty well cursing her, her damned tree, and the entire Victorian era straight to the Devil, and considering stopping everything to completely reorganize all my collage clippings. Maybe my whole studio into the bargain.

Then I got called for tea, and I realized it will soon be dinner time, and I have other things to do.

Still haven’t found the papery little pest. The cat better have eaten her, that’s all I can say.

This is the life of a creative. The prints came out well, though.

JFries bw forest light 1.5.2020

Sketchbook Visit: They Say Practice Makes Perfect

Working on the words aspects of a couple of projects, which is not very visual as processes go, so I thought this week I’d share a glimpse into my sketchbook.

I’m training myself to do more drawing. My poor book – I made it at New Year’s, for encouragement, using a variation on the Japanese tetsuyoso binding – and now it’s being filled with mad randomness. I think I have too much on my mind.

On the Writerly Side

I’ve posted a lot about my artwork, but not much about my writing. It’s time I addressed that – not least because I have no visual art ready to photograph this week.

So, let me tell you all about my books.

50 Words:

I’ve mentioned this year-long challenge in other posts. I’m writing one fifty-word story each week over 2019. They have to be fully realized narratives told in exactly fifty words, no more, no less. Inspired by a game played by the first-generation surrealists, these micro-stories are kind of like prose haiku. You have to learn the arts of implication and editing. You have to milk every nuance of meaning out of every word, even the articles. So far in January, I have written a version of Rapunzel as star-crossed romance, a heist thriller, a high fantasy with a dragon, and a family drama. It’s fun! You should try it. I’ll explain my method below, and you can try your hand at writing your own.

The goal is to print the stories in the form of book-cards, which you’ll have to imagine for now as I haven’t finished designing them.

My method for churning out fifty whole words may seem complicated, but it suits my brain. I’m too commitment-phobic to pick a track to follow, so I let the universe pick one for me by randomized draws.

First, I pull five random words, all of which must be used in the text. Next, I pick from a selection of story prompts spat out by a random generator. My favorite generator site is Seventh Sanctum. The prompts give me up to three story elements, of which I must use at least one. Finally, I break out the Tarot deck and pull three cards, the meanings of which must inform the story.

Thus, for the story I wrote today, I worked with the following:

  • The words were “body,” “here,” “know,” “factories,” and “sister.
  • The story elements were “a pharmacist is involved” and “a character becomes pregnant.”
  • The Tarot cards were the Nine of Cups (reversed), the Queen of Pentacles (reversed), and the Queen of Cups, suggesting imperfect joy and a contrast between a terrible woman and a good woman.

From these building blocks, I wrote a story about a young woman, poor, hardworking, rejected by her mother but loved by her new husband, who has learned that she is to become a mother herself.

I drafted the story on unlined paper with a dip pen and brown ink. It’s a beautiful, slow, calming way to write, making pages that are dreamy to look at, even with my horrible handwriting. The ritual of it is almost like a tea ceremony – the preparation of the ink and nib, blotters and water ready to hand, the smooth flow of color and the scratch of the nib across the paper, the regular pauses every so many words to dip and reload the pen in the inkwell. It keeps one focused. Rather zen, you know.

Eventually, the story is formed enough to type it into the computer and edit it down to the final word count. Tomorrow, I’ll reread, edit further, and come up with a title.


The Other Project, Noir on Many Levels:

Another work in progress is a novel, of course. It’s an adult dark fantasy, a supernatural detective story with witches and dead people and crimes across centuries.

The process is pretty much the same but with more moving parts – character profiles, research, settings, plot maps and diagrams, chapter outlines. I’m woefully but not irretrievably behind schedule on it. I hope to have sample chapters available in the not too distant future.


Strangely for a narrative artist, I had no pictures to illustrate my writing process. The sidebar images are scans of this post’s original manuscript, handwritten with the dip pen, just like I said. And here is the beginning of today’s fifty-word story.

If you try using my formula to write your own fifty-word story, I’d love to hear about it and even read whatever you end up with in the comments.

Paper Decorations, Website Changes, and Feeling Eager for a New Year

I am spending this week making holiday decorations. There will be more paper bows like the first ones I made last year, plus paper mushrooms to make a “forest floor” around our tree and paper stars to twinkle above it and amongst its boughs. I’m having lots of fun playing with paper forms and surface treatments.

Also this week, I am working behind the scenes on an overhaul of this website. The new look will be brighter and livelier, with better organization. It will go well with some big projects coming up in 2019, including new books, dollhouses, toys, more of my Cities series of collages, and lots of art and writing experiments.

It’s been a crazy and distracted year, but I feel excited about the holidays and the new year. I’m ready to buckle down and get to work.

By the way, the new background image for winter is my own photo of white pines in Charlestown, at the Lower Mystic estuary.

mushrooms in progress
Paper mushrooms in progress on my work table