Analog. Our brains design better in analog.

I know you might not believe it (what with my youthful glow), but computers as a personal device did not exist when I was a kid. I was born in the 70s and as a pre-teen I received an electric typewriter for my birthday along with a typing course on 45 rpm records. And yes, I had a red plastic record player in my room on which I mostly played a Tchaikovsky record of Swan Lake. I learned to type in a flash. I loved those exercises. Whole pages of unintelligible jibberish which quickly taught my brain where all the letters were. I can’t imagine not being able to touch type. I still remember the hum of the electric typewriter and the clunk of each key being pressed.

In 6th grade I remember we had a computer in the corner of our classroom with a green screen. You could make a code that would cause a little triangle to walk a track around the screen. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Ten minutes to write the program, two minutes for a 1/2 inch triangle to make a gridded track around the monitor. That was it. My first computer programming.

When I was in junior high, my father came home with an Apple IIe. That heavy plastic box with the 3.5 inch floppy discs had 256 KB of memory total. If you wanted to save something you were working on, you had to put in a disc. But you had to take it out again to put the program disk back in so the program would run. I typed my papers on that machine and printed them on a dot matrix printer. Remember that paper with the little strips on the edges with holes in them to feed the paper through the printer? Good times!

The third basement in three years. Masters thesis in progress. This photo proves that I did NOT have one of those colored bubble Macs at this point. It must have come later. The sticky notes are real though. Circa 1997.

In my undergrad years we had computer labs on campus where we could do rudimentary word processing but not much else. We had a VAX system so we could sit in a computer lab in the music conservatory and talk to a friend on a computer in the library. Green screen again. It was the early form of texting I suppose. Most of my college crushes bloomed and died on those green screens.

When I was working on my masters degree I got my very first personal computer. It was one of those colored plastic Macs that looked like a bubble. I wrote my masters thesis on it. But I did all the research on index cards. The computer was just for word processing. What I could have done with Excel. Stacks and stacks of library books about child development all flagged excessively with sticky notes which 3M had made a mint off of by that time.

Computers are our friends today. But they aren’t always the best way to make our brains come up with creative ideas.

I have been observing myself struggle with a large writing project over the last year. I’ve enjoyed working on it, but the linear nature of writing a document on a computer was really hindering my ability to put concepts in an order that made sense. So I followed the advice of a couple friends and wrote all the concepts on sticky notes and put them on boards in my office. After some hours of moving them around, I had a better flow for the ideas and was able to tackle each section in a linear format again. But after a section is written, I need to print it out, spread the pages, and see where each idea ended up. Paper, ink, conceptualization that is concrete in a tangible sense.

I find this is also very true when designing for tapestry. This probably isn’t surprising since I’m creating something that is visual art and not a string of words that will flow through stacked pages. But I have to design in a very hands-on way. I sometimes use a computer for layering and to play with color, but in general, paper, rulers, colored pencils, and quite a lot of tracing paper are my friends. I can do the same thing in an Adobe program, but my brain doesn’t work the same when it is looking at a screen.

I’ve had several students in the online classes recently struggling with tapestry design. This isn’t unusual as we all do at some point. But sometimes there is a group of them who are particularly stuck. What I hear most often is frustration at themselves for being unable to develop designs that they love quickly and easily. Some of them have just started learning the tapestry techniques in the last few months. For you all especially, I will say first of all, stop being such a perfectionist in this regard. I know you because I am one too. Your brain and hands won’t absorb everything immediately and it takes practice. Second of all, give yourself time. Keep weaving and don’t expect miracles. Expect to have fun and to try out new ideas and materials and little by little those ideas will bloom. It won’t happen when you’re watching a video or staring at a drawing program. It’ll happen when you’re singing in the shower or taking a walk or while you’re sitting there weaving something and letting your mind wander. Write it down—maybe not on sticky notes, though I suppose you could do that. Then you’ll have another idea. Write it down too. Move those two ideas around on paper or in your mind for awhile. Keep weaving, keep daydreaming, keep giving yourself space. Then another idea will come. Do the same thing again.

You must have patience and also some confidence that it will get easier. Looking at tapestries and art in general can help a lot. Reading books about design, clipping out images you like and putting them in a notebook, scribbling ideas even if they’re in words and not drawn… all those things help. But what helps the most is to keep weaving and to have patience. Tapestry weaving is kind of like writing a letter with a fountain pen instead of your laptop. Sometimes the pen will get clogged and occasionally you’ll knock over the ink. But the act of writing this way is beautiful and expressive. It does take more preparation and it isn’t immediately ready to jump out into the world.

You’ll need an envelope and a stamp and an address first.

Analog. Weaving, Lego, and a 7-year-old writing her own book.

Let’s pretend we’re 7 again

I spent much of the last week taking care of my nieces. There is very little screen time and a whole lot of analog fun in their house. We made three huge drawings thanks to some tapestry cartoon paper I found in a closet in my studio that was my grandmothers. They wrote and illustrated their own books. We made pancakes and Lego houses for a whole host of little toys I can scarcely keep up with (LOL dolls, Hachimals—do these make any sense to you?). I did a little weaving and we read a lot of books.

We went to the park, slid down the slide into a pile of snow, ran down the sidewalk and right back into the car screaming, “It’s too cold!!!” And then we went right back to coloring.

Get yourself some analog skills y’all. You can learn from elementary kids if you have to.