Making as Process seeking connection through creation

This is how we look at each other from across the table. She made me the rainbow wheel embroidery necklace in the last picture, and I put it on that day to do a presentation in class. Jennifer is the only person in the world to whom I will hand one of my journals without apprehension for her to peruse. It is a rare thing to be able to trust someone to be tender handling your heart.

Jennifer Bilton and I met while checking in at the Atlanta airport in 2014. We were going on the same study abroad program in England with a group from our undergraduate university, and my mom asked her to walk with me to the terminal. We spent the next two and a half weeks exploring England together, laughing, writing, pretending to be Holmes and Watson, eating well, avoiding death by speeding London traffic, reading Victorian novels, making inside jokes, and becoming fast friends. We have supported each other in so many ways, and it has been one of my greatest joys and inspirations to watch her bloom into her art and carve into her life the creative space that she dreamt of occupying when we first met.

Playing with colour, texture, shape, and mixed media is essential to Jennifer's practice. So are words. Much of her inspiration comes from songs, poetry, a quotation--words found in the wild.

These hoops hang above my bedroom bookshelf. The skull and flowers, a birthday present a few years ago--Memento Vivere--"remember you must live." The peace on earth hoop was one of the earliest I got from Jennifer; hopeful birds, butterflies, hearts in shades of blue. The hoop with "as you wish." she made with watercolors on fabric and silver thread for stars. It's the most recently made of the three, and it shows how she was exploring more in abstract ways, with color and shape.

A selection of paper products I have that were born of Jennifer's hands, through printing press, pen and ink, digital design. I wrote to her in a letter once, "Blooming is a process and a state of being," and she turned it into flowers. The open journal in the center bottom position was a collaboration between us. We sent two journals back and forth to each other in the summer after I graduated college. I loved the closeness it gave us, even across the state. There's something vulnerable and magical about making art off each other's ideas, creating together, crossing lines.

Writing, for us, is also a form of making. For my first birthday after we became friends, Jennifer sent me the handmade card in the top right: "Birthdays are nature's way of telling us to EAT MORE CAKE." We choose cards that the other person will laugh at or love, snail mail as care. My favourite is the one with two bears that says, "I'm here for you."

The way that Jennifer makes art is an expression of herself, and of the beautiful, sparkling mess of life. The doubts, questions, and curiosities, and the bright splashes of play. In some ways, our practices are similar. We both use art and making as therapy, as a way of asking the question and, sometimes, of making our way into the answers. Mostly, it's about connection. With the world, with words, with others, and with ourselves.

Now here's what I have made, O Reader, for you....

I love a loose definition of making. I love the expansive promise of a liminal space. I also love wrecking a thing that I think is given false reverence. There was something viscerally satisfying in coloring over the words of Major British Writers, Vol. II, Enlarged Edition with black crayon. I make redacted poetry as an act of reclamation and defiance, but I also love the art of making tenderness out of tedium. I included one of Jennifer's business cards, too; watercolor waves and the message to carry on. "a collection of fine minds / a little of the best of each, / in planning this collection / I have chosen the inimitable self"

This whole book documents process. I took inspiration from Jennifer's sort of investigative approach to making. What will it look like if I do this? I'll try this and see how it feels when I look at it. I didn't plan the spreads before I started them. I just let myself play and mess up and use those "mistakes" as funnels into the next thing, leading me to the next decision as I had to adapt to them. I don't love the outcome, but I like that about it. Something can feel good and be what you need without being perfect or beautiful. This was how I felt at the time. *the words inside the folded paper are Instructions hand lettered by Jennifer that I wanted to include in the book. You can see them in the video at the end of this page.
Sometimes making is self-assurance, or self-forgiveness. Embracing that changing thing in all of us. We don't always have to be sure. Sometimes, making can teach you how to give yourself grace. The colored pencil writing on the left page reads, "There is something strange about making a journal with other people in mind. I can't stop thinking about how this will be seen--and the fact that I will be seen has me shifting in my skin. When I make art, how much is apparent of me? How many of my soft spots are out in the open? I hope people will realise that to some degree when they hold this book, read my words, they are holding something of me in their hands. O Reader, show me sweetness, and gently laugh at my uncertainties. I've laid them out here for you."
"I offer up to you a relic from my past. Someone of another self made this, but they were me, too. Do you understand? Can you explain it to me? Sometimes I see traces of them in the shadows under my eyes. I think about how grateful they would be to see me now. I think about how grateful I am to have brought myself here, to take up all the space inside myself." The blackout poetry on this page is something I made several years ago, when I was someone else. I think about that frustrated person often when I make art, and I try to send them love back through time. On the right is a page I ripped from a clothing ad booklet and pasted here simply because I thought that wearing four pairs of glasses at once demonstrated great power. Not everything has to be meaningful.
I bought the postcard on the left on a trip to Asheville with Jennifer a few years ago. It's by Abacus Corvus. (Last year I learned that the artists are also friends of my new and beloved friend, Jess. The threads that tie us together....) Sometimes I feel that my magpie heart is cracked-open, too. On the right side of the spread, I used gold sharpie, paper, crayon, thread, and laser cut acrylic. The laser cut design is a lyric from the 1975: "Tonight, I wish I was your boy," coupled with geometric framing a la Jennifer. No paper paraphernalia is safe from her doodling hands! The crayon gradient is something I've been making in the past few months. When I look at it, I feel a blast of color, and I love the act of making with crayon and without specific direction, just following a feeling. "You planted something behind the base of my sternum. It gives me a feeling of safety. It scares me. It glows in my cheeks. I want to hold you with more than my eyes. Tender and terrified."

In addition to the analog components of the book, I included the Adafruit circuit playground as a randomized color palette picker. This is both a nod to Jennifer's recent practices with set color palettes in her art and something to use as a starting point when the person making something in the book is feeling blocked or uninspired or just curious about what their colors of the day might be. Each color displays for 5 seconds so that the user can make a note of the colors (or quickly grab them from a nearby box of crayons.) I'll show you how it works in the video.

The rest of the book is empty, waiting for you! It's an invitation to collaborate, with me and the others whose hands move across its pages. Making is relational, and I want this project to be touchable. I want it to be lived in, written in, messed up, blacked out, and pasted over. The book itself isn't holy, and neither are the words printed in it. What has meaning and power is the space that we create therein, the space we hold for each other, and the space that we make for ourselves. Sometimes our art is a way to ask a question, and sometimes it's an answer. And sometimes, it's just an intent in that direction. See me, and I'll see you right back.

my beautiful, sparkling mess. Great British Bake Off in the background and everything at my fingertips.
Created By
Gavin Shelton


photos taken either by me or by Jennifer Bilton