This is the second in an occasional series about keeping a sketchbook practice to get through the pandemic and other crises. You can find earlier columns below.
I love being alone. The older I get, the more alone time I crave. Im careful about who I say this to, because so many people are having a hard time social distancing, but I actually like many aspects of this simplified life with so few choices and a lot of time spent quietly in my studio. I am lucky to be married to a fellow artist who feels the same way. We are really good at giving each other plenty of time and space to be quiet and creative.
Im actually shocked at how well weve gotten along these past four months. Granted, I have some sketchbook pages that Id never show anyone, but thats the beauty of a sketchbook/journal. You get a chance to get all that crap out onto paper.
But heading into month four of quarantine, I began feeling the desire for a bit more connection and more in-person conversations. Right around this time, a friend told me about Bread & Gardens, a tradition started by a man in my town named Manfred Gabriel.
The term Bread & Gardens appealed to me. I often draw people with roots going into the earth. Drawing this helps me to feel more grounded. And, like many people during quarantine, I started making bread, although it took a while to get a decent loaf. I managed to kill two sourdough starters given to me by friends.
Manfred takes bread-making to another level. A lawyer who divides his time between an apartment in New York City and his home here in Ashfield, Mass., he was baking bread long before it was trendy. It was his wife, Christinas, idea that Manfred could bake enough bread to give away to friends and neighbors each week, for free, barter or money if people insisted.
Manfred wrote: Its therapeutic for me to bake bread particularly right now when everything seems disconnected and scary. The bread and flowers are both lures, if you will, to get our neighbors and friends to come over.
The outdoor giveaways, Manfred added, are also a way to offer a remedy for the stress and isolation of the pandemic. Making the trip up to our little clearing in the woods, taking in the flowers and the gardens, the wave and chat, the chance encounters with others, and picking up a wholesome loaf of bread (the staff of life) are all equally important parts of that remedy, he said.
He bakes different breads each week, such as seeded brick, a German-style sourdough rye Vollkornbrot with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and flax seeds; baguettes made with local, stone-ground bolted flour (bolting is a traditional French method of sifting the flour); and Vinschgauer, a sourdough rye Alpine flatbread with traditional bread spice, coriander, fennel and anise seed.
I was quickly hooked on this Sunday experience. I leave their place with delicious bread and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers that Christina picks for me as she proudly shows me her beautiful gardens.
I felt so filled up by their generosity. It made me think: How can I be more generous and connect with others a bit more often? These are issues I explore in my sketchbook.
One day, when I was feeling a bit low, I wrote to my neighbor and asked if her kids would like outdoor, socially distanced art lessons. So, now Im giving weekly art lessons to the neighbors kids. This is as much for me as it is for them. I love hanging out with them, and my goal is to turn them on to a sketchbook/journal practice. Ive given them homework to draw or write daily in a sketchbook.
Want to join us?
Draw anything that relates to connection and/or generosity, and send it to us through the form below or at this link. You can also post it to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #sketchwithgayle.
This weeks trade secret: The light was so beautiful and no one was around to pose for me, so I set my phone to video, propped it up and walked into the frame. Then I took screenshots to paint from later.
How drawing got me through my husbands heart surgery, and more
As a freelance illustrator, I always felt like I should keep a regular sketchbook practice. Id seen other artists sketchbooks, and they were amazing. But I just wasnt inspired to do it. It felt too much like work.
Eight years ago, however, I had a major breakthrough. Instead of fretting that I should be drawing in my sketchbook, I started thinking that I get to draw in my sketchbook! The main key to this awakening was letting go of caring what my drawings or paintings looked like. I was simply trying to document what I saw in a loose, fun way. Still, I mostly used my sketchbook when I traveled, as in the painting at the top.
Then, last November, my husband had quadruple bypass surgery. I was scared. For the 12 days he was in the hospital, I sat in his room and drew what was going on in my sketchbook or took photos to draw from later. (And yes, Id asked him if he was okay with this. I think he actually liked it.)
Drawings from life are always looser than when I draw or paint from photos. Scenes such as these of Peter in the intensive care unit were terrifying. Drawing helped keep me calm and gave me something else to focus on while remaining fully present.
Drawing pictures such as these, from photos Id taken earlier, allowed me to process things twice in real time and then later in my sketchbook.
A few months later, Peter was doing great, but I had another source of terror: the novel coronavirus. I knew from my hospital experience that having a regular sketchbook practice would be helpful. So, after the quarantine began, I started weekly therapy sessions with Margaret OConnor, a therapist and coach who, years ago, had introduced me to the idea of drawing and painting how I felt. For a while, fear was a main topic of the sketches that resulted from these sessions.
I began drawing some of my worst fears, just letting them rip. (The words I cant breathe take on a whole other meaning now.) Both of my adult kids live in Brooklyn, a coronavirus hot spot, and I was terrified for them. Peter remains at high risk, and that was also very scary. Margaret helped me understand how responding from fear just creates more fear. Talking, drawing and writing about my fears made them less terrifying. Keeping a daily sketchbook practice helps me stay calmer.
Then came George Floyds horrifying death, and the world seemed to explode. One night, I couldnt sleep. I kept hearing George Floyds last words over and over in my head. I drew what I was feeling.
I began to educate myself and examine my beliefs and thoughts on being racist/anti-racist. As I listened to author and anti-racism educator Monique Meltons podcast, Shine Brighter Together, I painted her portrait. I painted historian and anti-racist researcher Ibram X. Kendi while listening to Brené Browns podcast discussion with him.
As you can see, my sketchbook drawings are rough and I draw and paint for a living! You do not need to be an artist to keep a regular sketchbook practice. Its a great grounding tool, and it can bring clarity to your thoughts and feelings.
Here are some practical tips for getting started:
- Get a basic sketchbook that you like; here is one that works for me. Do not get a watercolor or heavy-paper sketchbook. High-quality sketchbooks feel too precious. You dont want to worry about ruining pages.
- Start with whatever pencils or pens you have handy, and eventually try new materials. You might find it easier to sketch with a pencil to start. I like using a thin-line black or colored pen and brush pens. Try not to erase.
- My sketchbook lives on my desk, because thats where I do my daily practice. You might want to carry yours with you. Whether you sketch at a set time or a random one, take a few minutes to close your eyes and ground yourself before starting to draw or write in your sketchbook. I like to put my hand on my heart and sit quietly before beginning my morning sketchbook pages.
- Dont censor or edit yourself. Unless you have a friend that you really trust doing this practice with you, this sketchbook is for your eyes only. (I have an artist friend who acts as my accountability buddy. Weve committed to texting each other a drawing by 10 a.m. each day.) Definitely dont share it looking for feedback. This is about letting go of all judgment and just drawing or writing what is truly in your mind or heart at that moment.
Kabaker is a writer, painter and visual storyteller based in western Massachusetts. You can find her at gkabaker.com.
Story and illustrations by Gayle Kabaker. Design by Eddie Alvarez.