Sketching my way through crisis

Part 6: What is the tone of the new normal?
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This is the sixth in an occasional series about keeping a sketchbook practice to get through the pandemic and other crises. You can find earlier columns below.

For many of us, our worlds have shrunk to the people we occupy space with. How we communicate is always so important — but now more than ever, there is no room for misinterpretation or time to let things fester. It’s such an opportunity to see what’s not working and what can be fixed. How do we really want to be? How do people feel when they are around us?

Something I try to be mindful of is my tone of voice. When we’re at home like this with no escape, the family ecosystem is going to get brackish pretty quickly if my tone is harsh, mean, sarcastic, accusatory or — the biggest sin — disrespectful.

Even when we’re not together, there can be issues. My adult kids both live in Brooklyn, and in the beginning of the pandemic, I was trying so hard to not sound terrified when I spoke with them daily that my daughter said I actually came off sounding uncaring.

I’m always open to new ideas or advice regarding this issue. This led me to a new friendship.

Once in a while, I reach out via direct message or email to an artist, writer or someone who has touched or inspired me in some way, just to say thank you. I figure, what’s the worst thing that can happen? They don’t write back!

Jancee Dunn

Jancee Dunn is such a person. I became aware of her after she followed me on Instagram. She is the author of several books, one of which is “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.”

Because my daughter, Sonya, is pregnant, I bought her the book. I read it before giving it to Sonya and found it very well-written, real, honest, funny and relatable. It was also carefully researched, with advice from experts who I respect a lot. I loved it.

But it definitely brought stuff up for me. Even though our kids, now 31 and 26, are out on their own, my husband and I are still dealing with some of the same issues we had when the kids were young. This felt a tad depressing!

Most of these issues relate to how we speak with and treat each other, and tone plays a huge factor here. Jancee had not only interviewed many relationship experts for her book, but she also seems quite wise herself. So I contacted her, told her how much I admired the book and asked if she’d have a chat with me. We immediately fell into a very honest conversation, and we had so much in common that she quickly felt like a soul sister. I sketched and took notes as we talked.

Jancee told me about undergoing counseling with Terry Real, a family therapist, speaker and author who founded the Relational Life Institute in Boston. He recommends something he calls “full-respect living”: Nothing you say to each other should drop below simple respect. No swearing, no yelling, no sarcasm. He says to ask yourself: Is this respectful? If not, he says, then, with all due respect, shut up! It’s a good guide to live by, and apparently it can be done.

We often have a completely different tone or way of communicating with our mates than with our kids. Jancee said that in doing research for the book, “I found that even babies as young as 6 months old get a stress response if their parents speak to each other in a harsh tone.”

And, of course, we need to be careful about how we talk to our children directly. “The tone of your voice is so important when you’re wearing a mask,” Jancee said. “Yesterday, I was out with my daughter, and I realized my face was not visible at all — I was wearing a hat, sunglasses and gloves. The only way to communicate anything I was feeling was through my voice.”

At the end of our conversation, Jancee said: “The world outside right now is pretty scary and chaotic. So, you set the tone as you quarantine as much as you can. I remember being incredulous when Terry Real suggested full-respect living. But is this goal really so insurmountable — to treat each other with simple respect? To modulate your tone for the people you love?”

Wow. It was so inspiring to talk with Jancee! Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you admire. With an appropriate tone, of course.

Lots of trade secrets this week: Our friends from Part 5 — artists Barry Blitt, Jennifer Orkin Lewis, Samantha Dion Baker and Mark Ulriksen — and I talk about our processes and finding inspiration during the pandemic.

The prompt for this week is to do a self-portrait! It’s your self-portrait, and you can make yourself look any way you want. (See mine below; I don’t really look this glamorous.) I print the photo in black and white and do not look at the color photo, so I can make the painting any color I like. Change the photo however you want. Try to spend no more than an hour on it, and use limited colors. I used six colors here, and that makes a lot of colors! I added yellow at the end, because I wanted some highlights. Have fun with it! Tag #sketchwithgayle on Instagram or submit here, and I will choose one to put in the next column and will share others on Instagram.

Enjoying the last days of summer by my friend's pool.

Reader submission for Part 5
Lynn Peterfreund of Amherst, Mass.

Part 5

Aug. 31:

How the pandemic keeps changing where I find inspiration

My day-to-day work life hasn’t changed much during the pandemic. I’ve always lived a bit remotely from other people and worked alone from home. But I find that what I’m inspired to create is constantly shifting. For example, I thought a weekly flower share that I purchased in April would inspire a nice series of still lifes of flowers, but I’ve only painted two (above). The novel coronavirus, then George Floyd’s death and then the protests made painting flowers seem frivolous and meaningless.

On the other hand, Mother’s Day inspired me to do a portrait “gift away,” asking for mom photo submissions. I chose the photo/story that inspired me most and gifted the sender with a painting of her mother. It not only felt meaningful, but receiving the photos and stories of so many moms also made my heart full.

This mom was captain of a synchronized swim team.

Inspiration comes and goes, but some questions stick. How does what I do make a difference? Help the planet? How does what I do matter? This feels especially true right now.

I have this quote pinned on my studio wall. I like being reminded of this. That’s not a spider; it’s a shadow cast from a plant!

I tend to have a lot of ideas, so I try to have a small sketchbook with me for writing down ones I don’t want to forget. If I am sleeping well, eating healthfully, exercising and meditating regularly (not easy to do these days), the less time I waste and the more I am able to follow the inspiration/idea that will resonate most for me and others.

Okay, my secret is out. I cannot spell. I could have fixed heightened, but I decided not to, because correct spelling is not the point of my sketchbook!

Even when I’m very inspired, however, I sometimes procrastinate before I begin painting. These days, I’m quite distracted by the news, and that leads to many more hours of procrastination. Once I begin painting, I face more usual distractions. I will take a break and head for the kitchen at the first twinge of hunger or thirst. I might even stop and fold laundry, respond to an email, write a card, make a call or anything else that might keep me from painting.

I am constantly inspired by other artists and am curious about how they work. I asked some of my friends who use sketchbooks about how their creative process has been affected by the crises in our country. It was comforting to realize that we are all grappling with staying focused and inspired — or with news overload — and to see how our sketchbooks are helping us deal with the world.

Illustration by Barry Blitt

Barry Blitt has had so many New Yorker covers that he can’t count them all, and he won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning!

I’m sort of embarrassed about how little my working life and actually, my entire life has changed since the onset of the pandemic. I live in the rural middle-of-nowhere, I’m not an overly social being. I’m more jittery now, can’t deny that. But I’m happy to have a sketchbook between myself and the world, as usual. And, certainly, as the world continues to go mad more exponentially every day there’s no shortage of material to make drawings about. So, I find I fill sketchbooks with ideas faster than I can properly ink them and send them out.”

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen

Mark Ulriksen has also had many New Yorker covers. Sixty-three, to be exact! (This is a thing for many people, counting New Yorker covers like Olympic medals. I’ve had six!)

I’m not getting as much work done because, as a news junkie, I am too consumed by all the news of late. Where it used to take me about three hours from when I wake to get my day going, it now takes four to five. I’m also emailing friends more than usual, participating in Zoom sessions and staying connected virtually. That all eats into my day. Plus, like any good creative person, I find multiple ways to procrastinate before I set foot in my studio.”

Illustration by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Jennifer Orkin Lewis, illustrator, author and teacher, has a deep love of color, pattern and nature.

“For many years, I have done a daily sketchbook painting, but now, on some days during covid, I find my mind wandering, my interest waning and my inspiration way off. There are so many distractions with the news. Nature always inspires me the most; a quick trip to Maine this week, still isolating, was a perfect chance to reinvigorate my painting.”

Illustration by James Steinberg

James Steinberg has been working in sketchbooks for years, rarely doing portraits. Recently, he has felt motivated to focus on portraits, using the humble pencil.

After [the death of] George Floyd, like many others, I felt disgusted and outraged and exhausted by the systemic racism in this country. I wanted to get to know the faces of some of the victims.”

Illustration by Samantha Dion Baker

Samantha Dion Baker’s sketchbooks are rich with variety, and I love how she uses lettering in combination with drawing and painting.

I keep a daily sketch journal — I have been drawing my days for years — so my process hasn’t changed at all, but the content certainly has. What is happening in the world has made my sketchbook a place to vent, a place to find peace and a place to communicate with my future self, and my kids, about this unprecedented time.”

This week’s trade secret: Rather than just chatting during a Zoom call, sketch the people you’re seeing.

I drew this while watching Françoise Mouly, the art editor of the New Yorker, interview Blitt.

A self-portrait of me with my dog, Charlie, in my pajamas at my fantasy dream place: a pool by the ocean.

Reader submission for Part 4
Illustration by Sara Newton of Mesa, Ariz.

Part 4

Right before I got sick, I gathered a bunch of lilies from a friend’s garden and painted just for me. For fun. This is so important to do.

Aug. 10:

How my sketchbook helps me be a better responder

A couple of weeks ago, I began having a headache and chills at the end of each day. It was as if 3 p.m. became my witching hour. I would feel fine all day until boom — I felt lousy. On the third night, I had a fever, so I went to get tested for the novel coronavirus (a self-administered, up-the-nose swab that was super easy) at CVS and settled in to wait for the results.

Being this sick was a completely new experience for me. I never get sick. There were hours where I would lie in bed, trying to force myself to eat and drink and not go down a rabbit hole of fear. When I felt up to watching TV, I binged the first four seasons of “Schitt’s Creek.” This hilarious show almost made me forget my pounding head.

The coronavirus test came back negative. Then I had more bloodwork and Lyme tests done. I was prescribed antibiotics. Within two days, I felt like a new person. The Lyme tests were negative, but apparently this can happen with Lyme. The doctors still think this is what I have, and they will retest in a week. I am just so relieved to feel better.

During those many days in bed, I was flooded with memories. I thought about my mother, who died of breast cancer at age 48, and my father, who died of lymphoma at 57. I also lost many friends to AIDS. By the time I was 31, I had lost many people I loved. Years later, I realized how unusual this was. My daughter at 31 has experienced only a few deaths, and none of people very close to her.

I recalled how, shortly after my father’s death, I was at a small dinner party, where my loss was barely mentioned or acknowledged. Everyone else seemed to be having a grand time. Even all these years later, I remember thinking: My life is forever changed, yet for you all, nothing is different.

Now, when so many people are experiencing grief and loss in so many ways, things have to be different for all of us. We must show that we’re all in this together. How we respond to each other is critical.

I think I often fall short by not responding with enough empathy and compassion. I am not proud of avoiding someone in the grocery story because I just can’t deal with their loss at that moment. Or walking away or hanging up the phone and thinking: Why did I say that!? The more I use my sketchbook to work out how I feel about what’s going on in the world, the more grounded I am, and the more likely I am to respond to others in a more thoughtful manner.

I wish I could say that I responded thoughtfully when my husband, Peter, and I learned in April that our daughter, Sonya, is pregnant with her first child. But instead of excitement, all I felt was terror for her; she lives in New York City, which, at the time, was being ravaged by the coronavirus.

Guided by my therapist, I used my sketchbook to visualize Sonya and her baby as safe.

It took me a few days to pull it together to respond in the way a mom should — with happiness and joy at the news of my first grandchild! (I have to give my very “in-the-moment” husband a lot of credit here. He was appropriately elated.)

Although it’s still scary to think about Sonya giving birth in New York in December, I am trying hard to stay in the moment and embrace this experience with excitement.

I know a lot of young women who are pregnant right now. This new life represents hope and faith in better times ahead.

Life goes on. No matter what.


Reader submission for Part 3
We chose this sketch by Carol Morgan from Washington, D.C., because it perfectly captures the “new normal” of wearing a mask and gloves during activities such as gardening. And of course, we love the dogs in the garden.

This week’s trade secret: I hate to waste paint! When I am finished with a painting but still have paint left on my palette, I use it up by painting random backgrounds in my sketchbook to draw over later.

When this column began, we had the idea to end each column with a self-portrait and a trade secret. Here I am with my son, Max, back when we could touch each other. Yes, we are wearing the same shoes!


Part 3

July 20

How my dog, Charlie, brings me comfort and joy in these unprecedented times

One of the scary things I’ve been exploring in my sketchbook recently is hanging out with other people. After an outdoor potluck, I found my social distancing sweet spot. It’s not very large.

But along with examining things that feel frightening and out of my control, I also like to remind myself of what gives me comfort and joy. I shared this practice with the three 12-year-old girls I’m teaching, and we explored things that make us happy. One of the kids mentioned potato pizza; I’d never heard it! We then had fun sharing all of our favorite foods. Reading is also soothing for them, and we discussed our most beloved young adult books. I asked the girls to loan me some.

One of my greatest sources of comfort, especially now, is my dog, Charlie. If I am feeling low, simply petting him or giving him a hug magically helps me feel better.

It makes perfect sense to me that dog adoptions are way up during the pandemic. Research has proved that dogs can help ease anxiety, reduce stress, prevent loneliness and keep humans active. A study from Japan showed that simply staring into your dog’s eyes raises your level of oxytocin (the “love hormone”).

Eyes like pools of love.

Charlie not only provides unconditional love and compassion, but he also makes us laugh. Sometimes, the looks on his face alone are hilarious! Plus, he’s always thrilled to see me, no matter how long I’ve been gone. Which, these days, isn’t much.

Charlie and a friend wait for treats.

It’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve only been a dog person for about eight years. Charlie is my first dog, though I’ve painted him so many times, it feels like I’ve had him forever. He even made it onto the cover of the New Yorker!

The reason I never had a dog before is that I thought I was allergic. Then, our daughter began bringing her dog, Ike, home when she visited New York City. Not only did I have no allergic reaction — but I also fell in love. Ike was a very majestic German shepherd/Rottweiler. When he died suddenly, I was completely unprepared for how intense my grief was.

Ike waits for the stick.

It was time for us to get our own dog, I decided. I visited shelters and scrolled constantly through Petfinder, looking for another Ike. After many months, my husband, son and I saw a dog we liked but just weren’t sure about; he was a bit goofy, not majestic at all. (Little did I know how regal he would seem to me later.) We left the shelter without him. Then, Peter, my husband, said: “I keep thinking about that dog, and I could see him in our life.” And he hadn’t really wanted a dog!

Was this dog the one? The next day, I returned to the shelter, asking the universe for a sign. But it wasn’t until I was filling out the adoption paperwork that I finally got it. Charlie’s “birthday” (which had been randomly picked because he was a rescue) was Oct. 17. Peter’s birthday.

Such serendipity sparked the idea for a project I’ve had on the back burner for a few years, gathering stories for a book of miraculous dog rescue stories. One of my favorites is the story of Ricker and Joanna.

A few years ago, Canadian Joanna Caplan was fostering dogs while working and living in Nepal. Ricker, a paralyzed street dog rescued in Kathmandu, was delivered to her by way of a seven-hour bus ride, carried in a bag by kind locals. After Joanna had fostered him for a month, he began to use his legs and walk! Then, he was sponsored by a woman who wanted to adopt him, and he was flown to Canada.

Ricker in a bag!
Ricker.
LEFT: Ricker in a bag! RIGHT: Ricker.

When Joanna moved back to Toronto from Nepal, the woman decided she couldn’t keep him, so Joanna took him in temporarily. She found him another home so she could go to India. Then, not only did she not move, but the man who had taken Ricker was also hospitalized, and the dog once again needed a home.

“That was the third time Ricker had come into my life not of my choosing, and I knew that this time there was no way I would ever give him up,” Joanna said. “He was mine, and I was his. Ricker has given me so much, and I am so grateful that he came into my life when he did and that I got so many chances to realize that we are meant to be together.”

Now, I cannot imagine life without a dog. I love that Charlie follows me everywhere; it’s just comforting. When we’re alone, I talk to him. He has a bed under my desk, and I like tucking my foot under his body. That connection with him makes me feel happy.


Reader submission for Part 2
A reader submission relating to the previous theme of connection from David Regnier of Eugene, Ore.


This week’s trade secret: I cannot draw anything (well) without a photo of it. There is no shame in needing good photo references. Here is how I would draw a dog and cats if I didn’t have a photo to draw from.

I did a “video photo shoot” and later took screen grabs to paint this portrait of me and Charlie! He is such a good poser.


Part 2

July 6

How my neighbors’ bread and flowers encourage connection and generosity

I love being alone. The older I get, the more alone time I crave. I’m 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.

Here we are in Bali. When will we ever travel again?

I’m actually shocked at how well we’ve gotten along these past four months. Granted, I have some sketchbook pages that I’d never show anyone, but that’s 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, Christina’s, 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: “It’s 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.

Sometimes Manfred even bakes a delicious treat for everyone, such as these sticky buns.

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 I’m 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. I’ve given them homework to draw or write daily in a sketchbook.

This week’s 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 screen shots to paint from later.


Part 1

June 22

How drawing got me through my husband’s heart surgery, and more

As a freelance illustrator, I always felt like I should keep a regular sketchbook practice. I’d seen other artists’ sketchbooks, and they were amazing. But I just wasn’t 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, I’d 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 I’d 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 O’Connor, 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 can’t 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 Floyd’s horrifying death, and the world seemed to explode. One night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept hearing George Floyd’s last words over and over in my head. I drew what I was feeling.

(For The Washington Post)

Portraits of Monique Melton, left, and Ibram X. Kendi.

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 Melton’s podcast, “Shine Brighter Together,” I painted her portrait. I painted historian and anti-racist researcher Ibram X. Kendi while listening to Brené Brown’s 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 that’s 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.
  • Don’t 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.” We’ve committed to texting each other a drawing by 10 a.m. each day.) Definitely don’t 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.

Gayle Kabaker is a writer, painter and visual storyteller based in western Massachusetts. You can find her at gkabaker.com.

An illustration of Gayle Kabaker painting in her sketchbook.

Story and illustrations by Gayle Kabaker. Design by Eddie Alvarez.

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