when the sun disappears
we dance in its umbra
embracing lightless silence
where mockingbirds dare not fly
darkness belongs to bodies
we plant kisses like seeds
and if one star
carves its absence like a scar
then you and i are healing
in the wound
Pastel Planets 1
Mom and I have a long history of exchanging handmade cards. Store-bought cards can be wonderful, but there’s something special about knowing a person took the time to not just buy something but create something unique for you.
For this past Mother’s Day, I wanted to make a card that would be unlike any I’d sent her before: a pop-up card. It turns out the Internet has a treasure trove of tutorials and inspiring examples, so I picked one and ran with it.
Mine has a pretty simple front: a butterfly based on a design I pulled from an image search, with the black lines done in Sharpie marker and the color done with acrylic paint thinned with water. Mom likes blue and butterflies, so I couldn’t go wrong with a blue butterfly.
All the paper is Bristol paper: what comic books used to be drawn on before the digital age. I did all the butterflies and other colored pieces individually, then cut them out and glued them in place.
Here’s the interior:
Thanks to the sturdiness of Bristol paper, which is a bit like cardstock, the card can be displayed open like this. It took me the better part of a Sunday to put it all together, but this barely scratches the surface of what’s possible in a pop-up card. People have made everything from multi-layered hearts to dinosaur skeletons, so clearly the sky is the limit in the pop-up master class.
The basic idea is pretty straightforward, though. The body of the card is two pieces of paper. For the interior pop-up sections, you cut one of those pieces along lines perpendicular to the center fold. You fold those cut-out sections so they pop up at right angles to the fold of the main card. Glue the inside piece to the outside piece, without putting glue on the folded pop-up sections. Finally, cut out and glue anything you want to attach to those sections.
Bristol paper is sturdy and well-suited to being painted and displayed, but it can be challenging to make precise, smooth cuts in it with scissors. I originally intended to cut out the butterfly antennae. I settled for drawing them on with Sharpie after I glued the butterflies in place. If I were making another card from shapes with finer, more complex details, I would try a thinner paper stock for those pieces.
I’ve been asked to present at a gathering of storytellers later this month, and I don’t really know what to share. But wondering about it prompted me to collect my thoughts about stories: what they are, what they mean, and why we create them.
Fiction can convey a psychological or emotional truth which is lost in a mere recitation of facts. By taking the senselessness of life and shaping it into a narrative which makes sense, which has internal order and cohesion life’s random events do not, stories do more than present facts. Stories tell us what those facts mean—to the author, to the reader, to each other, and our societies.
Stories bring us comfort beyond simple entertainment or fantasy fulfillment. Stories take us to a place where humans control the timing and sequence of events, determine who populates the world where those events take place, and decide what is the point of everything. Stories are a place where life does not happen to us, but where we happen to life.
The power to shape action, character, the environment, and history itself does more than relieve the suffering life inflicts upon us in careless, random fashion. This power also inspires us. It suggests we can impose our will upon the realities we confront. It makes us wonder if we are not so powerless as we often feel. Stories fan a spark of belief that we have power over our destinies, that we might shape our lives like heroes and conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Storytelling is not limited to fiction. We make stories of our own lives, and the lives of others. We take observations, perceptions, and perspectives, and we turn them into tales we believe to be true or real. But these tales are as subjective as fiction, open to multiple interpretations, and completely dependent on who tells the story. Two different observers can disagree on the facts of an event or character, and what meaning we draw from interpreting those facts tells as much about ourselves as it does about anything objective.
We could propose that all stories are fictions—whether based on actual events or fantasies—for every story is a creation of the storyteller. Every story has a bias, an agenda with roots in the storyteller’s culture, time, environment, and uniquely personal experience. Understanding stories in this way reveals that humans do not have one truth, but many truths—and perhaps as many lies, for not all agendas are honest.
As storytellers, we should consider our subjectivity. What is the truth we want readers to perceive, and why do we want that? What ends do our stories serve? If we are to be honest with our readers and listeners, we must first be honest with ourselves and understand our own intent. We make our stories most compelling when we use them to present multiple perspectives or arguments and let readers draw their own conclusions— even when we want them to draw a specific one.
Is the power to create stories what makes us uniquely human? Even that proposition serves an agenda: a belief that humans are different from other animals and set apart. Does the honeybee tell a story about finding nectar when she dances for the hive? Does the lioness tell a story when she teaches her cubs to hunt? Do chimpanzees have a story when they bury their dead? Does the crow know a story when she stays behind the flock to be at the side of a sick or wounded crow? Maybe we are wrong to label all animal behaviors as instinct, to dismiss the transmission of information within a community or from generation to generation as merely the result of some internal pre-programming.
Maybe if we look deeper and with more compassion, we will find stories everywhere, even in our inhuman companions who share this world with us. Maybe we will discover we simply don’t speak the language of those stories, or they are told in ways so alien to our way of thinking that we fail to recognize them for what they are.
Maybe stories are everywhere, surrounding us with truths we have yet to consider, and we only need to learn how to listen.
If you pay attention to this site at all, you know I have grown to love octopuses, especially the telepathic space octopus variety. It all started innocently enough, when I came up with the idea in 2015 that Meteor Mags and Patches would encounter a giant mutant octopus in an asteroid cavern and forever have their lives changed as a result. But that crazy idea resulted in tons of research into octopuses and a genuine fondness for these freaky sea creatures.
So, I was thrilled to discover these handmade rings on Etsy.
My ring arrived weeks ago and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I have fat knuckles that are wider than the rest of my fingers, and that usually prevents me from wearing rings. But this one was adjustable, so I gave it a shot. It turned out to be the perfect solution, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
If you are looking for a book on octopuses that is full of scientific knowledge but still accessible to a non-biologist, you will enjoy Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate. If you want something a little more horrifying and science-fictional, rock my short story Never See the Night.
Maybe you need some bad-ass octopus music? I recommend the neo-psychedelic song Octopus Ride by Harvey Rushmore and the Octopus, and the epic slow jam blues album Under a Black Moon by Electric Octopus. Or, if you want some visual splendor, do what I did and commission Joe Shenton to draw some space octopus madness.
You should also get a copy of the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition, which features mutant space octopuses in the stories Red Metal at Dawn, Daughter of Lightning, Voyage of the Calico Tigress, and Hang My Body on the Pier. I’ve got big plans for the telepathic space octopuses in Mags’ universe, including a tour of the solar system hell-bent on revolutionizing human consciousness through music.
Just don’t order calamari around me if you want to be friends. I’ll take it personally.
My cat-o-lantern is carved on a 6-inch tall pumpkin and is based on a clip-art image I pulled from the web. The small size made it tricky, since even my smallest kitchen knife was too big to cut the tiny shapes. I went with an X-acto knife for cutting and a miniature screwdriver for scraping.
Working with color has always been a challenge, because I have a form of red-green colorblindness. According to a recent test, my specific variation comes from weak green receptors. Green isn’t the only thing affected; I have trouble distinguishing some purples from blues, light pinks from white, browns from greens, and many more. But guess what?
Mountains; acrylic on canvas, 24×30
I love playing with color anyway. I still see it. My world isn’t black-and-white. That would be an even more extreme colorblindness. Mine is like color “confusion” compared to that. But because color remains a challenge, I was thrilled to learn Bob Ross recorded a landscape painting demonstration designed just for colorblind artists. It’s very much like his other work, but all in one color: a grey tone mixed with white to create lighter values.
I watched it twice in a row, utterly mesmerized, and then tried my hand at his techniques on a much larger canvas with acrylic paint. Ross used oil, and many of his techniques don’t translate to acrylic. Acrylic dries faster, so you don’t have the luxury of blending as smoothly as Ross did with oil.
On the other hand, you can do a few things with acrylics that Ross never did with oil: layers of color washes, splashes, and other “wet” effects you get from making a mess with water and paint. My art teacher loved Payne’s Grey and first suggested it to me as a color for painting the mountains in Sedona at night, just at the end of sunset. I love it too, and when the little tube she gave me ran out, I bought 250ml of the stuff. Payne’s Grey is the only paint I used in this piece, plus white: an ultra-white interior house paint (semi-gloss) from the hardware store.
Ross uttered an especially memorable line in his monochromatic demonstration of building mountains: “All you need is a dream in your heart. And an almighty knife.”
Watch and learn!
No actual mermaids appear in this abstract painting, but it was the last wash of turquoise that made me think it might be the kind of place they’d like to swim. The other two colors are quinacridone magenta and ultramarine violet. The colors are liquid acrylics from Golden, and the black and white layers underneath are semi-gloss acrylic house paint. A couple coats of gloss varnish from now, she’ll be decorating the wall. 15 x 30 in., acrylic on canvas.
My Venus flytrap is a year old now, and it’s been a wonderfully green, insect-killing addition to the office. But I almost let it die.
Back in February, I posted the picture below. It shows a stalk growing among the various fly-eating leaves. I didn’t know flytraps made stalks, so I left it alone to see what would happen. I might as well have signed the poor thing’s death warrant.
That stalk is meant to become a flower. Fortunately for my flytrap, that never happened. The stalk only turned black and shriveled up like the leaves do on a regular basis. I say “fortunately” because when a second stalk sprouted a few months ago, I did the research I should have done in the first place. It turns out that when a Venus flytrap makes a stalk that flowers, it really puts its murderous little heart and soul into it. Once the flower blooms, the plant has done its job and gives up on life. It dies.
As soon as I read that, I cut off the new stalk and, per the article, placed it into the sphagnum moss beside the rest of the plant to give it a chance to sprout and flower on its own. It didn’t. But hopefully I cut the cord in time to keep my plant growing. It’s hard to say, as this wintry time of year is a dormant phase for flytraps.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this? Maybe it’s “Do your bloody research.” On the other hand, how dare I interfere with my plant’s attempt to create its ultimate biological masterpiece: a beautiful flower that is the apex of its existence and its entire reason for living? Why should my goals for the plant be more important than the plant’s goals for itself? Shouldn’t I just let it do what it wants?
After pondering this problem in relation to mammals I have known and loved, be they human or feline, I realized I am projecting my personal problems onto my flytrap, and that the solution isn’t mammalian in nature. What would actually make my little plant happy is not pointlessly dying, nor my trying to rescue it from itself. What it really wants is a mate: another plant, with another flower, with whom it can share pollen and create new flytrap seeds together, and spawn a whole new insect-killing generation.
So, besides “do your bloody research”, the other lesson here is: Even flytraps need a friend.
I’ll put it on my list of things to do next year. Catch you in 2017!
Blue & White Nebula
Notes: Created on an 8×10 canvas mounted on board. Using a trowel, I smeared on a thick layer of white semi-gloss acrylic house paint and let it dry. Then I sprayed it with water and dropped Golden brand liquid acrylic artist paint, in Prussian Blue. It made these interesting patterns as it diffused through the water.
Now let’s have some rock from the band Nebula, from the Nebula/LowRider split album:
I’ve been experimenting with a new method of creating colorful, visually interesting backgrounds for things like book covers, business cards, and blog headers. It begins with painting 8 x 11 canvasses which are mounted on a board instead of a frame. They fit nicely on my scanner, so I can digitally manipulate the images later. This one began as a collage of pages torn from a proof copy of my new poetry book. It ended up as the cover to a new book.
Throw a filter and text on it, and it comes out like this:
It looks pretty awesome in print with a matte finish. Once I get a few good scans, the canvases can be recycled by adding layers of different materials to create cracks, swirls, and other interesting textures. Below is the same canvas as above, but in the process of getting a new, messy layer of krackle over it.
Here’s one I haven’t used for any backgrounds yet, a basic color wash with acrylics.
I had some old acrylic varnish and played around with pouring it and liquid paint at the same time, splashing water on them while they were drying, and mixing them together before pouring.
It isn’t going to hang in a museum or anything, but it’s a fun way to get unique backgrounds and textures. I sampled a section of the image for the current header on this blog. The image’s right half is simply a section of the canvas with its colors inverted.
I haven’t painted in two years. But I recently rewrote a couple old memoirs as a poem about painting, and it felt like time to take some pretty colors and make a big splashy mess in the kitchen again. The blank canvases in my office won’t paint themselves, after all. The working title for the painting-in-progress is The Legend of the Frozen Coast, partially in tribute to the Frozen Coast painting I sold on Craigslist a few years back.
I don’t know what other painters think about when they paint, but I have been imagining The Legend of the Frozen Coast as a pirate adventure story starring Meteor Mags’ great-grandmother and read on a radio program. Explore Nordic debauchery in the icy wastelands! Witness the fate of a ferocious kraken frozen in a glacier for 10,000 years! Set fire to a fleet of brigands and mercenaries! Throw in some insults and salty language from The Pirate Primer that arrived this week, and the tale almost writes itself.
A storm hammers the forest.
The wind rips down his tent.
He can’t make any sense of it in the dark.
The painter drags his sleeping bag to a rock ledge.
It gives no shelter but is clear of the trees.
Electricity tears the sky to shreds.
The rain carries out its assault
not in drops but one continuous torrent.
He huddles in the soaked bag for nine hours,
powerless and small.
Stillness, yet never-ending motion.
The calm shadows of trees on a lake
draw lace stockings on a nightmare.
The struggle for life rages below the surface.
A bee caresses a flower intimately.
He cares nothing for the coming storm.
He is within her and she is within him.
They are one and the same.
Step away from industry. Obliterate
the underlying colors and textures
even when they persist. Use an avalanche.
Give them landslides. Drench them in
thunderstorms of black and broken skies
until they recede. The painter and the canvas
are the cyclone and the shore.
You don’t need to paint this canvas at all.
Do what comes naturally. The painting
will take care of itself.
This poem appears in the collection Inner Planets: 50 Poems by Matthew Howard. Available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook.
This drawing is based on a photograph of Ellie the Studio Cat. Ellie here is modeling for Tesla, the pirate radio DJ’s Siamese cat in the Meteor Mags series. The Psycho 78s album cover she is lying on needs to be finished, and then it can join the recent crop of drawings for the next set of stories in the series.
It’s been slow going on this drawing, not due to technical factors but emotional ones. Ellie disappeared last month on March 20. I’ve posted her on numerous websites and put up 150 flyers in the neighborhood, talked to many helpful folks in the area, and responded to dozens of phone calls about cat sightings. But no luck.
Ellie was my constant companion through life’s storms for the better part of six years. I miss her more than words can express.
I suppose that’s why we have art.