anna brones

writer + artist + activist

Archive for the ‘Design + Creativity’ Category

24 Days of Making, Doing and Being: Digital Advent Calendar 2018

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I’m not sure where the idea originally came from, but sometime towards the end of November last year I decided to take inspiration from my childhood advent calendar and make a digital one. The goal was to offer a daily prompt or short essay themed around the topics of Making, Doing and Being. The challenge was to create a little space for slowing down, consuming less, and being more present during the holiday season.

Swedish Christmas always involves advent calendars, whether they are in paper form or something larger. The tradition of printed advent calendars dates back to the early 1900s in Germany. Growing up, I had a particularly special advent calendar, one that my mother had woven, filled with 24 pockets, each to hold a small note. It hung outside my bedroom door and every night, she or my father would write a note for the following day and slide it in. When I woke up, it was the first thing that I checked.

Sometimes the notes would be about a holiday task to do that day, like baking cookies or decorating the tree. Other times it was just a prompt for taking a little extra time to make an ordinary activity a bit more magic, like listening to music or reading a book. It made all of December – not just Christmas – special.

This can be a difficult time of year for many reasons. Family relations can be strained, social expectations can be crippling, stress levels run high and money might be tight. At the same time, there is also so much potential for magic and wonder. But we have to actively create it, and we have to show up for it.

December means the arrival of the solstice, and in the Northern Hemisphere, winter begins. Perhaps just like we’ve lost the meaning of the holidays—trading experiences and togetherness for mass consumption—we’ve also lost the winter way of being. We have forgotten how to slow down, how to hibernate. Instead we sprint as fast as we can to the “big day” and then count down the days to the New Year when we can give ourselves the gift of a blank slate.

Think of all the advertising and marketing that happens at this time of year; so much of it is focused on selling a cozy, slow image. Why? Because that’s exactly what we’re craving. Here’s the secret to that kind of living: you can’t buy your way to that feeling, you have to create it yourself.

The goal with this advent calendar is to do just that; create a little magic every day during the month of December, so that’s it’s not just a countdown but an everyday celebration. It’s a focus on slowing down, finding balance and contentedness. The calendar is created as an antidote to the consumer frenzy that has come to define this month, a challenge to ground yourself wherever you are and reconnect with both yourself and the people around you.

Of course, the joke in my family all of last December was that while I was busy writing about slowing down, I was cranking out the newsletter on a daily basis, often in quick bursts between other projects. There were nights when I was up late because I realized I had forgotten to schedule the next day’s post (my parents tell a similar tale of all those years spent writing notes for my advent calendar), and there were even a few “morning of” emails, all crafted while wondering why I had committed to this thing in the first place.

But inevitably in those moments of insecurity, of wondering if perhaps I could have chosen a better use of my time, someone would send me an email to thank me for bringing a little light into their day, and I would feel a sense of immense gratitude.

The whole endeavor ended up being one my favorite things that I did last December. It turned out that I needed it as much as everyone else did. So much so that I decided to do it again.

If you want to receive the Making, Doing and Being digital advent calendar, all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter. Every day, you’ll receive a morning email. It might include a recipe, a quote, a prompt. Whatever it is, it’s always paired with an original papercut illustration. There will be some Scandinavian inspiration as well, and this year, even some input from friends and colleagues who I think embody this concept of Making, Doing and Being in their own personal and professional practices.

There’s no paywall and you’re not required to buy any of my books or work to receive the digital advent calendar; it’s 100% free. I want to keep it that way, accessible for everyone, because I want to share without expectation, create art and magic and put it out into the world just because. In a world gone mad, that feels like the one sane act that I can contribute. That being said, putting together this work takes time and effort, so if you feel like making a donation to sponsor the advent calendar you can do so here.

It all kicks off on Saturday December 1, 2018, so if you want to receive the advent calendar, be sure to sign up for my newsletter.

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Written by Anna Brones

November 29, 2018 at 07:35

Surprise Art

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I love making things. I also love giving art to people, and I believe that our world is better with more art in it.

I wanted to offer something for the upcoming holiday season, but I didn’t have the capacity to invest money in items like prints or calendars. Instead, I want to offer small pieces of original artwork for people to keep or give away.

But here’s the catch: you don’t know what you’re getting. This is surprise art!

Between now and December 5th I will be making a series of small papercuts. Each one will be matted and wrapped. Place an order and you receive one of these pieces, which I will be sending out in two installments. Because I wrap them immediately after making them, I don’t know who is getting what. Consider it “grab bag art,” like when you were a kid and bought one of those paper bags at the toy store and had no idea what would be inside.

Each piece is mounted in a 5×7″ black mat and ready for framing. You can buy it for yourself, or for a friend, and feel free to order as many as you want. Because it’s a surprise, they are priced a little lower than my original pieces, the intent being to provide affordable artwork to bring a little joy to you and anyone you want to gift it to.

You can order here.

Written by Anna Brones

October 16, 2018 at 08:39

Vote

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It’s National Voter Registration Day, so make sure you and all your friends are registered.

I just had these Vote buttons made, featuring my original papercut “Stars, Stripes and Uterus.” I made the papercut in 2016, but it still feels timely. Because women’s rights are human rights, and this button is perfect for election season (but wearable during any season, of course). You can order yours here.

Want the same artwork on a coffee mug? I’ve got that too. Order here.

Written by Anna Brones

September 25, 2018 at 13:54

Nature’s Pace

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“Bark looks like islands. Nature’s map.”

I had written those few words next to a line drawing of bark in my sketchbook. I had stood close to a fir tree, so close I could inhale its smell, closely inspecting and drawing with my black pen the lines that I saw. Now that I look at the drawing it doesn’t really resemble bark anymore. But it certainly looks like islands.

How often do we take the time to see? The time to listen? The time to be?

I thought about this a lot last month during a three-week creative residency at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. A creative residency is one of those wonderful things that allows you the time and space to let your creative mind wander, and I am so grateful for getting that time. I spent those three weeks with as much physical as mental wandering. After all, the two do go hand in hand.

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Written by Anna Brones

September 7, 2018 at 08:36

Cultivating Wonder and Imagination

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wonder

noun I won·der I \ ˈwən-dər \
1 a : a cause of astonishment or admiration : marvel it’s a wonder you weren’t killed the pyramid is a wonder to behold
b : miracle
2 : the quality of exciting amazed admiration
3 a : rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience
b : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

Merriam Webster

As a child, I remember the feeling of waking up for the first day of summer vacation. There was a lightness to that morning. No time to be out the door, no schedule to abide to. No homework to think of, no expectations of after school sports practice.

There was nothing, and in that nothingness, there was the potential of everything.

That first day off felt limitless. An entire summer in front of you to be enjoyed. There might be trips planned, or certain things that needed to be done, but in those waking moments of the first morning, there was that feeling of absolute freedom.

I often wonder how children feel on summer vacation now. If they are too booked up to just get to play and explore. And even more, I wonder how we as adults work to get back to that feeling of limitlessness. With our phones, and email and Twitter feeds and to-do lists, it’s difficult to ever feel like we are in that state of an absolutely blank slate. Instead, we come to the slate with baggage and even when we wipe it clean, we’re usually bad about leaving a few things on the board. When we do that, it’s hard to be open to the world around us. We go through the motions, tick off the do to list, then start over. It’s hard to be awake. It’s hard to feel a sense of wonder.

When was the last time you felt a sense of wonder?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I rode our bicycles to our favorite nearby state park to camp for the night. It’s an easy overnight, one with enough hills on the way to make you feel like you did something. The flora and fauna is the same as at our house, but pedaling those 10 miles gives me enough physical and emotional separation that by the time I arrive and set up our tent, I am in a completely different head space. The to do lists are left behind; I refuse to pack them in my panniers.

On this evening in question, we took our late dinner down to the dock to watch the sunset. The sky filled with intense pinks and blues, reflected in the shimmering waves of the saltwater. As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the dark trees made a perfect silhouette against the sky, as if someone had cut them from paper and glued them there.

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Written by Anna Brones

August 3, 2018 at 09:38

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You Are Enough

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When I was 16, I was offered a scholarship to go on a 21-day Outward Bound course in the High Sierras. While I had spent ample time outdoors, I had never been mountaineering before, and never on a backpacking trip that long. I would go and spend three weeks navigating the backcountry with strangers, all of us in that awkward teenage stage where we were already trying to navigate our own lives, trying to find our way across the invisible map that is life.

I don’t remember packing for the trip (I’m certain there was a list) and I don’t remember the flight down to Fresno, where we all met before hopping into vans and heading to base camp. I don’t even remember what base camp looked like. All I remember was that feeling in the pit of my stomach as I lay in my sleeping bag trying to fall asleep.

It was that slightly warm, slightly spiky feeling, one could call it “butterflies,” but that sounds too light, too friendly, too sweet. This is the kind of feeling that’s uncomfortable and off-putting, you might want to throw up, but you’re not really sure. You’re uncomfortable certainly, but not enough to indicate the kind of fear that’s intense enough to make you stop what you’re doing. And so you stick it out.

This is a feeling that I have experienced throughout my life, and still do. It’s a feeling of fear and trepidation, it’s a feeling of standing on the edge of a precipice and diving into the unknown, it’s a feeling of anxiety, it’s a feel of nervousness, it’s a feeling of not being good enough, or not being equipped enough to take on the task at hand. It’s a feeling that says, “I’m out of my comfort zone and I’m not so sure I want to be here right now.” Age has taught me that this is a feeling to be endured, because there’s usually good stuff on the other side.

This week I taught an outdoor cooking class. I spent most of the class being upbeat and effusive, throwing ingredients together without measuring them, spewing off ideas for variations that one could try, and generally trying to get the class to be excited about making food outdoors. Internally, there was a different scene taking place. “You’re not outdoorsy enough to be teaching this class. When did you last go backpacking? Three years ago? What do you know about packing light? You only go bike touring, that’s not outdoorsy enough. When was the last time you even cooked a meal outside? Two weeks ago when you went on a bike camping? Yeah, but that was an easy overnight that’s very close to home. What’s adventurous about that?”

I am not the only one to deal with that voice. We all have it. We all experience impostor syndrome on some level. The feeling that we are not truly qualified to be doing the thing that we are doing.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 27, 2018 at 11:46

What Blocks Our Creative Flow? (And How Do We Get Back There?)

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Creative flow is that sought after state that so many of us keep wanting to get to. When we’re there, we feel strong and empowered, as if we are doing exactly what we should be doing in that exact moment. We may work hard, but in a sense, that work feels effortless. When we’re not there, that state feels more elusive than ever, and we try to think of every possible means of chasing it down, hoping to harness that power once more.

But what is creative flow? When and why do we get into that state?

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” wrote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. 

That’s what we feel when we are in that moment of creative flow. We are immersed in what we are doing, everything else falls away. This doesn’t just happen in creative practice. Ever felt a runner’s high? That’s because of flow. Or when you come out of an hourlong yoga practice and realize that you haven’t thought about anything else in the last 60 minutes besides your physical presence? Flow.

I found a segment from WNYC from a couple of years ago on the neuroscience behind creative flow, featuring an interview with Dr. Heather Berlin. “Productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with creativity,” says Berlin. An excellent reminder that just because we are producing work doesn’t mean that we are being creative or doing creative thinking. Some of the best stuff comes to us when we’re on a walk, or staring out the window. That’s because, “the unconscious can do much more complex processing,” says Berlin. The creative flow state can’t be forced. In those moments it’s better to turn off and tune out.

In her interview, Berlin mentions a study that involved MRI scans of jazz musicians’s brains while the musicians were improvising. This study is about ten years old, but the lessons to be drawn from it are timeless. According to Science Daily, “The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.”

In other words, if we can turn that part of the brain off – or at least put it in pause – we might be better able to lower our inhibitions and better tap into our flow state.

Earlier this week, someone asked me what my writing process was. I would love to say that I diligently sit down on a regular basis and write for a predetermined amount of time, avoiding all distractions and committing myself to the process. I can think of about one month in the last year and a half when I was good about doing that (and I managed to write a book in that month, which I guess is proof that such commitment does work). However, for the most part, my writing process is what I call the “marination method.” I have an idea, or an assignment, I file it away at the back of my brain, and let the idea sit and percolate. Eventually the deadline nears, and I have to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and release those ideas.

Often I feel that I am up against a block, and in those moments I know that before I can sit down and do the work, I have to do something to get the creative juices flowing. A creative warm up so to say. That can be a run or a walk, or just taking a few minutes to paint with watercolors. (Sidenote: I am avoiding a deadline at this very moment, but telling myself that writing this is a good way to warm up to finishing the piece I need to turn in). Something to get my mind away from focusing too hard on the project at hand, and letting it wander instead. Often I find that somewhere in this process the unconscious kicks in, things come to the front of my mind that I hadn’t even considered. When I finally get there, then I feel like I am in the flow state.

I’m not necessarily advocating for that as a writing strategy, but in the moments when we feel that we are up against those creative walls, it’s an important reminder that pushing through isn’t necessarily the best path forward. If you let the prefrontal cortex do too much obsessing, you’ll keep coming up against that block. One study even used targeted electric currents to block that part of the brain, showing that doing so can help to break down that wall and lead to more creative thinking.

But we don’t need electric currents to stop obsessing. Think of another use of flow: physical movement. Exercise is good for our creativity. Intuitively, I think it makes sense that physical movement would lead to creative movement.

If we’re looking for that creative flow state, we have to do the things that get us there. There’s no magic solution, but you can be sure that refreshing your email isn’t one of them.

Stay small; often we don’t have an entire day to devote to a creative project, instead, think about what you could do creatively in fifteen minutes. If you can do those fifteen minutes every day, that ends up leading to a very regular creative practice, which helps to encourage the flow state.

Focus on putting one foot in front of the other; your overall project may be huge, but focus on the individual steps to get there, in order to distract your brain from derailing.

Think process, not product; flow is about being immersed in the moment, not getting hung up on whether or not the end product will be perfect.

Change your scenery. Take your notebook outside.

Avoid distractions. Unless of course they are the kind of distractions that encourage creative thinking.

Move.

Breathe.

Flow.

Written by Anna Brones

July 20, 2018 at 11:40