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Writing > Essays

WorkBooks: Thinking and Making

“Show your work,” advises the elementary teacher to her students learning long division. Number listing, erasing, crossing out, and maybe a bit of smudging are all incorporated into the mathematical process. It is not enough to show the answer; the path to it is equally important.

So too with artists. As visual thinkers, they may be able to conjure a mental image that answers a problem, but it may not be the end solution. WorkBook, an exhibition of sketchbooks, process pieces and journals1, invites us to witness this problem-solving process. We can enter the usually private space of artists’ sketchbooks. We don’t see the final work that grew out of these sketches. Instead we see thinking out loud: circuitous trails of words, fragmented pictures, and random juxtapositions. Harvard based psychologist Howard Gardner notes, “Research on creativity reveals that, even though new ideas appear to come to one as a flash, there has invariably been tremendous preparation beforehand– and this preparation can be documented in the written record. Moreover, thought does not take place in a vacuum– it take place in various media of expression.”2

The sketchbook is a place to explore old ideas, and a place of revelation as new ideas develop. It is a place to experiment and try out those new ideas risk-free. Thoughts are unraveled, doubt is expressed, and artwork is invented. It is a place of paying attention. It is also a visual archive that supports a larger career: a record of the evolution of style and subject matter, an index of recurring themes that appear and disappear or mutate, and evidence of creative activity. Derrick Buisch, one of the curators of WorkBook, describes a sketchbook as “as an active site, …a place for invention, sketching, reflecting, and inventorying. The books show a raw and unmediated look at note taking and forming information.”

Co-curator Clarence Morgan has kept commonplace books for more than 35 years. He describes them as repositories for random thoughts and impressions that have no place to go. “Thinking is messy. Logic or illogic is unpredictable- it depends on wayward thinking. Inconsistency is my buddy, randomness is my cousin, awkwardness is my second cousin.”3 Small hardcover notebooks are stockpiled with found quotes and elliptical thoughts carefully printed in a mix of upper and lower case handwriting. He writes words and sentences as if he is drawing each letterform. Other sketchbooks contain small squares of drawings, the color and patterns akin to his larger paintings but with an integrity all their own. He cautions that the small images are not a direct map to the larger work; they are an indirect way to manifest his own curiosities. That curiosity keeps him uncomfortable while it keeps things fresh.

Bound and Lettered Magazine
Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008
First published as an exhibition essay as “Show Your Work” for Friends of the Library Magazine, UW Madison, Spring 2008