When the Asteroid Passes, What is Left Behind? Journals, Sketchbooks, and More

1982 UK daybook, quite faithful to daily entries. I spent a lot of time waiting for trains. It is a perfect model of a memory support — where I was, what I did, with whom did I meet.

Strange, strange times indeed. Historically we have had hundreds of pandemics but never before have we been so tuned in, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, to the world —electronically and, perhaps, psychically. In any event, I am able to know, as soon as a response comes in, how my friends are holding up in Norway, Australia and Israel. Yet I recall that John Adams did not know the Revolutionary War had concluded for some months.

Somewhere between 1984 and 1993 — sketchbooks used on the subway while commuting to the Center For Book Arts, NYC. Grids help with alignment as the ride was rough. Contains my notes from various board meetings.

In the midst of this time of change, chaos, and threat, my mind turns to the value of leaving behind our own record of ourselves and our time.

A big part of my process, maybe a third, is made up of work and ideas developed in sketchbooks and journals. For over fifty years I have done this in ways which are flexible and, somewhat, erratic. I teach sketchbook making workshops as a fluid and expansive way to learn about bookbinding. Within those workshops, I design my teaching to help students generate personal content in the use they make of their sketchbooks.

Sketchbooks, Scrapbooks, Diaries, Chronicles, Daybooks, Logs and Journals

With advent of the current viral crisis (which to me resembles an impending asteroid impact), I was contacted by a few people that are “journaling” about it. The conversation generated this post.

My first reaction is a flavor of reactionary horror at the mere word. None of my dictionaries contain the term “journaling.” It is not a word and not an invented word with which I am becoming comfortable. Our language may evolve so this short cut term becomes accepted yet, from my experience, it is a sloppy word because it’s not operational. 

Sketchbook No 37, UK trip 1999, 7.5×5.5, relief plate printed on cotton.

Like “sailing,” it does sort of describe an activity. But if one says “I am sailing to the islands” and disaster befalls, I have some notion about where we should send the Coast Guard. When someone

says they are “journaling” my antenna twitches — I simply do not know what that means. 

I think I also know what they are trying so hard to say and it is in this arena that I want to inquire: what is it they are leaving behind? Is it a simple bit of graffiti, scrawled on a wall suggesting that “Kilroy was here” or could it be richer and more profound? Naturally, as always, everyone contributes no matter what the dance and as such whatever is made and dated for this time will indicate something beheld. Perhaps these journals will be just channel markers, buoys for our trip through the virus-field. Personally I would like more.

The Power of Journals

A few years ago a dinner guest brought along a notebook, small and brown. It was a journal. Books like these, along with a pencil, were issued to American soldiers as they were heading to Europe for the dance of death called THE GREAT WAR. (They were called doughboys? Sounds like we sent a squad of pastry chefs to war.)

The idea was, during off time, the boys were encouraged to write in the book (and of course also write as many letters home as they could). The books that survived the wet and mud are an amazing record of what life was like for a young Kansas farm boy who mostly wrote about his desire for a pair of dry socks. This is the kind of profound result someone maintaining a journal will leave behind. 

In all of these activities there is a quotient of time or sequence. Diaries, logs, etc, usually are entry dated so that an order to experience is seen. I usually date my sketchbook entries [unless I don’t] and it’s a whimsical process. If it seems like it will be useful later, by all means date entries — it can become graphically potent to do so. 

Journaling with Arty-ness

No 37. England evokes Tintern Abby, Wales with Philip Smith and undeciphered glyphs at the British Museum.

My own impression of much “journaling” today is that the journalizers seem unwilling to go deep enough due to emphasis on “arty-ness” over recorded truths. There is much material to inspire them to make their own versions but it quickly becomes for me redundant and conventional.

Yet given the viral disaster in which we are embedded, will today’s artworker journals wring some truth from our experience into a form on a page? Will these notebooks be of as much interest to historians as was the little note book I saw from World War I? Perhaps they will, and I am incapable of anticipating what these graphic and writing skills will reveal. (I am open to surprise.)

No 42. Sketchbooks began to get paper tabs onto which could be attached proofs from etching or other bits from the cellusphere.

In my own experience, I’ve rarely found much to care about in arty, playful “journaling-isms” — they don’t usually tell me much at all about what is current or about the person or their moods. They do seem sometimes to reflect, perhaps, that they saw something inspiring in a catalog or book or online and decided to echo that energy. 

The value we can achieve in our journals, sketchbooks and more most often comes when we record our hesitations, sensations and what we are observing. Recording this will be of great value at some unspecified time in the future… (A couple of historians, professional grade, have verified for me that this is how it works.)

A process which allows time to ripen and mature seems part of leaving behind records of value. So I suggest sketchbooks and journals gain their truths through the hard work of living as we record life and our thoughts day by day. This depth, however broad, can contain a long list of potentials and motifs for how we deal. Recipes, plots, entertainment scope and an inventory of what is missing — and on all levels.

The Range of Potentials and Peter Beard

By Peter Beard.

By Peter Beard.

The range of ways this works out is, well, rangy. We have the WWI notebook where profundity for me lies in its tiny scale and modest desire for a dry place to stand. We also have Humboldt’s exploratory observations and a wide range of exploration notebooks. I never tire of seeing how someone details their life. Adolf Wölfli had a pile of sketchbooks and diaries in a corner, nearly as tall as he was.

We also have the astounding collection of journals or day books created by the late Peter Beard. I was privileged to install a show which contained about 30 of Peter’s books. 

By Peter Beard.

We met at the opening and had a memorable conversation about the efficacy of me making blank books for him. We concluded, rightly so that his process of using store bought books, diaries, and account books (whatever he found) was far, far better than me making some hot rod binding for him to basically eat. In my time with his books it was clear that his dynamic was so loaded with spontaneous handling of scrap and clippings, writings and stones, that it was mad scientist archiving of a very high order. Inspired as I was by this, my books in no way resemble his (I have yet to glue a stone into a book). Yet in his hands and thoughts, these were inspired. He was a very interesting man.

By Peter Beard.

Look closely at his books — energetic and so loaded. Stimuli overlap but are not included just for effect. You can read these and, if you really work at it, you find phone numbers, receipts, menus including, for that entry, what he had for lunch. He included anecdotal musings and, of course, drawings and photographs. Best of all, they were authentic to his personhood. I found them to be brilliant.

Each of Us Must Search for a Valuable Path to Useful Journals

No 37. British Library and notions on tooling and pattern making.

We are not trained to know what useful thing to make of a journal — it is clearly not an instinct evolution grants us. So do what you will. And do something — everyone contributes. Just know that many kinds of value are operating here and pen to paper has been found to be a tremendous memory aid — far more helpful than typing into a word processor.

What has been at the core of my work with books is a component of “changing ones mind.” I find that I am curious and love learning. For me, finding an alternative to a method or a revision of how I think about something is great juice for a notebook entry. It allows me to realize the answer to that fundamental question of “why didn’t I see this before?’’ is sitting right on my nose. What once was vivid and solid is now found to be provisional.

On my NYC commute I would randomly get off the No 1 then make my way to the Center. This book records finds like the weird tool shop where I found brass lice combs (yup) and the taxidermy supply house where you could buy glass eyeballs for anything. On occasion I was clever and wrote down the address…. I never did find again the place where I bought a box of butterflies.

That I discover those so often as I go back into my sketchbooks even makes me wonder if I am paying attention at all or if so much of a bounded life results simply from inertia — just flowing along. We shall see. In all of this, even with the noise of my critical mind, I never want keeping a sketchbook to sound like an assignment.

A personal tug towards activity, like any activity, will see it come alive. But anyone taking on a journal as an obligation is less likely to produce. How many of us, given accordion lessons, abandoned that thing by the roadside as soon as we could? The desire to do something authentically will always triumph over something merely assigned.

It is also important to see or remember that all art history, and even general history, texts are in effect journals (before photography provided pictures of events). Most all of my history books are illustrated with artworks forming a pattern of context. Janson’s History of Art, to me, is one long chronological journal of what has come before.

Through it all I remember that a dedication to a journal or sketchbook capturing some truths of a life is the way these objects become far more than we can ever envision. My experience of this only becomes evident later on, the retelling I experience through reading, is an eye opener and this potent effect cannot be underestimated or predicted.

©2020 Timothy C. Ely — All Rights Reserved

No 42 is my first Colfax sketchbook, 2001. I began here to draw cell towers and other telecommunication supports. We all live over the loop. This is an astonishingly rich sketchbook.

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