Everybody is an Artist, or Reading is Making

Someone's 'Create a nonstop line' page of Keri Smith's 'Wreck this Journal'.

One of my recurring New Year’s resolutions is: less passive consuming, more active making and producing. The trouble is that, to my great dismay, I’m no good at crafts. Painting, drawing, knitting, crocheting, sewing, sawing, gluing, dyeing, stenciling, cutting, folding and welding: all admirably creative kinds of handiwork, but it’s better for everyone if I stick with passive consumption in these cases. So I usually end up whittling all mighty intentions down to: less reading, more writing. While we know at least since Barthes that the process of reading is active and productive, too, two books which recently came to me – one into my possession, via B., and one to my attention, via amazon recommendations – promise to squeeze every last drop of creativity out of their readers.

Quentin Blake and John Cassidy’s Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered, published by Klutz, prompts you to draw and sketch everything from everyday objects such as brooms, specs and candles, to flowers, animals, and people. It comes complete with three different pens and pencils and provides ideas, technique and encouragement around the edges of every page – with the centre left blank for your own attempts. The authors’ credo is that everybody can draw, that there are no such things as mistakes, and that every drawing is successful as long as it catches the essence, or spirit, of its subject. A typical page from Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered looks like this:

“How far are you going?  -Just up to the Vanishing Point. I’ll be right back.”

Or like this:

Creatures we’re encouraged to draw here include the Great Steaming Blurge; the Hopeless Flopper; the Small Hairy Gloob; the Ten-legged Unexpected Thing; the Nervous Furblow; the Long-tailed Werble; and the Greater Spiked Glunk.

A similar emphasis on creativity and participation underlies Canadian ‘guerilla artist’, writer and illustrator Keri Smith‘s books – most famously maybe Wreck this Journal. Here you are encouraged to create by destroying: you can tear up the pages of the book, crack its spine, spill coffee on it, punch holes in it, and scrape it along the ground – the muddier the better.

Keri Smith in Wreck this Journal.

Similarly, Smith’s This is Not a Book prompts you to think about different uses for the object and to interact both with the book itself and, through the book, with people around you. Thus the book can be transformed into a secret message (tear out a page, write a note on it for a stranger, and leave it in a public place); a recording device (have everyone you contact today write their name in the book); or a musical instrument (create as many sounds as you can using the book, like flipping the pages fast or slapping the cover).

It’s all been done before – a fact Keri Smith acknowledges in How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum (“None of the ideas in this book are new. Many of them have been pilfered, borrowed, altered, and stolen from great thinkers and artists of our time.”). But originality is not what these books are about; they are about doing, about dropping passive consumption in favour of active making and producing.

For book previews (in German) of Wreck this Journal, This is Not a Book, and How to Be an Explorer, see here, here and here. The German translation of Wreck this Journal adds a nice layer of meaning to the book: ‘Mach dieses Buch fertig’ means both ‘Wreck this Book’ and ‘Make this Book Complete’.


One thought on “Everybody is an Artist, or Reading is Making

  1. I’ve been thinking about getting a copy of Wreck this Journal for a long time now. But I’m too easily distracted by all the Amazon reviews to actually place the book in my virtual cart. My current favorite…

    ‘Someone out there makes a fortune off of hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soap, wipes, plastic, you-name-it, while someone else is making a fortune out of your kids dragging a notebook through who-knows-what bacteria-infested, germ-infested muck while we worry about reducing our carbon footprint in a world with finite resources. ‘

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