Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Letting Go of Perfect: Perfect Sponge Cake

The Found Recipe Box will be making its first public appearance on June 21st! I’m a member of the Visual Journaling Collective at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the group coordinator, Roz Stendahl, has asked me to give a presentation about the project for the June meeting. I’m excited to share this experience with the group and even more excited to be able to share a bunch of the recipes! As I’ve been preparing for the presentation, it has caused me to do a lot of reflecting on my artistic past as well as my future.

I’ve always loved art, but I have my mom to thank for pushing me into pursuing it and making it a part of my life. My freshman year in high school, she encouraged me to sign up for a drawing class. From that point forward, art was a part of every semester’s class schedule. I was frequently frustrated with my abilities (or lack of, as I saw it), but during my junior and senior years of high school, I met an art teacher who would change my life in ways I didn’t realize until much later.

Everyone has a teacher from their school years that stands out as an inspiration and monumental figure in their development. I have several that come to mind, but none as prominent as Ross Shellenberger, or “Mr. S” (that’s what his students called him). He was one of those teachers that would never give up on you and most certainly would not let you give up on yourself. I was in classes with some amazingly talented artists and it was very easy to get intimidated and want to throw down the pencil or brush. But he would always pick it up, put it back in your hand, and show you where to go next.

 A sample of my art from high school

To give an example of how influential Mr. S was and how dedicated he was to his students, he created a class for me my senior year when my schedule conflicted with all the classes he was offering that semester. He was scheduled for hall monitor duty at the front door to the high school and had it approved that I could pull up a desk and sit with him for that hour. It was the best class I’ve ever had. I had one-on-one instruction from my favorite art teacher for an entire hour. And without any other students in the class, I was forced to focus on my own work and not compare myself to everyone else.

Mr. S encouraged me to continue with my art studies in college. But as I went off to school freshman year, I was enrolled in science and math classes to fulfill requirements for a biology major. Art was left by the wayside. However, during my sophomore year, organic chemistry made me realize I was heading down a path I didn’t enjoy and I began junior year in a new direction: with writing and art. But there were still challenges to be faced.

I started my art minor with drawing classes and was shocked how quickly my lack of self confidence in my abilities returned. I couldn’t make things look “real” and easily got frustrated. Without Mr. S there to look over my shoulder and tell me to believe in myself and give my skills a chance, I was left to figure it out on my own. I decided to try something different and enrolled in photography classes. How much more “real” could it get than a photograph? I was about to find out.

While I was so wrapped up in making things look “perfect,” I had completely forgotten about the whole purpose of making art. What was my reaction to the image I was creating? What about composition? What did I want to say with my drawing or photograph? As I was drowning in questions about my intentions with art and listening to my inner critic verbally abuse every aspect of my creative self, my mom was watching a TV show about someone who, like Mr. S, would change my life, and my art, forever.

A sample of my photography from college:

I went home one weekend to visit my family and while I was there my mom and I went to a bookstore. We wandered off in different directions for a while and met up at the café with a stack of books in our hands. As we sat down, she handed me a book and explained that she had recently seen something about this photographer on TV. He was a photojournalist and had been killed in Somalia at the age of 22. After his death, his mom found a stack of his journals and decided to compile them into a book and publish them. This book, The Journey is the Destination, was full of his journal pages and my mom wanted me to have them. As soon as she had seen the show, she knew he would be a huge inspiration to me. And she was right.

The photographer’s name was Dan Eldon.

Dan’s journals have inspired countless people around the world and I’m sure there is no end to the stories of people who have been moved by his work and his desire to make the world a better place. I keep his book in a special place on my bookshelf and have spent hours and hours reading the words, looking at the pictures, and marveling at how courageous and free he was with his art. He took pictures and tore them up, wrote on them, spilled ink all over them, pasted newspapers and tickets over them. He wasn’t destroying his photographs; he was giving them a new purpose and a new voice that was calling to me. But it’s not just his art that was so moving. Those journals also recorded Dan’s reactions to the world around him. They became a recording of his passion for travel and adventure, his sorrow for the intense suffering of people across Africa, and a montage of the violence he witnessed throughout his journeys.

Not long after my mom gave me that book, I had to do an emulation project in my photography class. The assignment was to take photographs using the style of a famous photographer. I chose Dan. I created seven boards on which I pasted my photographs and followed Dan’s process of tearing them, gluing on top of them, painting them and writing all over the boards. It was liberating, exhilarating, and felt like “home.” I had finally created something that felt good to me, something that I was proud of and that made me feel alive. When I took the boards in for the class critique, my classmates turned to me stunned and asked, “You did this?” They were so used to seeing things that were cut “perfectly,” framed “perfectly,” and totally void of feeling that this came as quite a shock. One of the guys whose photography I admired most in that class came to me afterwards and told me how impressed he was with my work and that he really hoped I’d continue in that direction. He said he really “felt” my pieces. I wanted to hug him. It was one of the nicest things I’d ever heard about my art.

The 7 boards I created for my emulation project

This experience caused me to broaden my artistic boundaries. My new favorite painters became Van Gogh and Matisse. I loved their ability to let go, challenge people’s perceptions of the world, and express their views the way they saw them, not the way others expected them to do it. One of the things that I think was so powerful about Dan’s work was that he never meant for anyone to see it. Those were his personal journals; he never intended to publish them. So he took chances that he may not have if he knew others would be studying the pages and truly let himself be free.

About two years ago, I was formally introduced to visual journaling through a class I took at a local workshop. This is a relatively broad term and might mean something a little different to each artist. To me, it means keeping a journal (either a blank book or an old book that I have “repurposed” into a journal) full of writing, collage, photographs, sketches, or whatever else I feel like putting on those pages. It’s a place to be free. It’s a place to experiment. It’s a place to try new things and figure out who I am as an artist, or even as a person. I am addicted to books and one of my favorite subjects is art “how-to” books, specifically visual journaling. I recently discovered a new book called The Journal Junkies Workshop: Visual Ammunition for the Art Addict by Eric M. Scott and David R. Modler. It instantly became my favorite. It’s not that it had any new groundbreaking techniques between its pages, but it did have something that no other visual journaling book I’ve read has: a foreword by Kathy Eldon (Dan’s mom) and a special dedication from the authors to the memory of Dan Eldon. My eyes immediately teared up when I read that and I ran to the checkout counter with the book lovingly embraced tight against my chest.
 A page from one of my journals

A page I created soon after I found this recipe box

Pages from a journal I took to San Francisco several years ago

As I dove into the book’s pages, I had my presentation for the Visual Journaling Collective tucked in the back of my mind. And when I thought of them both together, I realized that I have my mom, Mr. S and Dan Eldon all to thank for this blog. I found this recipe box at an antique show. I wasn’t looking for it; I wasn’t even that interested in cooking at the time. In fact, I was there looking for things to use for art: paper, old books, postcards, or anything that could be glued into my journal. Instead, I found a recipe box full of old recipes (ironically, I never had the thought to pull all of those old cards out of the box and turn them into art). But if my mom had never encouraged me to take an art class, if Mr. S had never pushed me to continue making art a part of my life, if I had never made the acquaintance of Dan Eldon through his journals, I may never have been at that antique show and this box of recipes may not have found its way into my home and my heart. It’s amazing to follow the trail of inspiration back to moments in your life that, at the time, may have seemed insignificant, but years down the road you realize were life changing.

Through all of this – my art and this project – I keep encountering situations that produce the same conclusion: I need to let go of “perfect.” Some days it’s really hard to mute that horrid inner critic, but when I do and I’m submersed in a project (art, writing or cooking) I get that same feeling I got when I did my photography emulation project. I feel like I’m “home.” I recently came across a video interview with Dan’s mom and sister, Kathy and Amy. It was explained that Dan began keeping journals as part of a school project and continued to keep them even after the assignment was completed. Kathy said, “He was never happy with his photographs, so he cut them up and shredded them and added things to them and painted them and decorated them and made them into masks.”  When I heard that, I thought of my own artistic experiences, how frustrated I felt with what I produced and how liberating it was to follow in Dan’s footsteps. I felt immensely connected to Dan when I watched that interview and it confirmed my belief that I need to let go of “perfect.” Or more importantly, just let go. Life is too short to avoid the things we love most just because we’re scared of how others will perceive it or because we feel we’re not good enough. Imagine if Van Gogh never painted Starry Night, or if the Beatles never broke the musical mold, or if J.K. Rowling never put Harry Potter down on paper. A simple idea can change the world. The hardest part is just mustering up the courage to breathe life into it.

And to those three people who have been so incredibly influential to me, I dedicate this recipe: Perfect Sponge Cake. To Dan Eldon – a man who left this world way, way too early, but whose influence will resonate across the globe for many generations. To Mr. S – a teacher who believed in his students and realized their potential even when they struggled to see it. And to my mom, my wonderful, amazing mom, I have so many incredible things to thank you for. But, for encouraging me to sign up for art classes, for introducing me to Dan Eldon and for always believing in me, I am eternally grateful to you and owe you a lifetime of trips to Disney World (and when I win the lottery or publish a book, you and I are making a special trip to Disney together…our first stop, of course, will be the new Hogwarts castle at Universal Studios).  This is an amazing cake, and I can honestly say, one of my absolute favorites from the box. Dare I call it “perfect?” It’s easy to make and has a light, refreshing flavor with just a splash of citrus taste that goes really well with whipped cream and some fresh fruit. This is definitely a recipe I will make many, many times throughout my lifetime and with every bite, I’ll think of all the special people in my life that push me to be a better person and strive to achieve my goals.

I often wonder if Kathy Eldon had any idea when she published Dan’s journals that they would be as incredibly inspiring to the world as they have been or if she had any doubt about whether or not to even publish them at all. I am so grateful she made those journals available to the public, as I’m sure millions of others across the globe are as well. There is no doubt that the world suffered a tragic loss when Dan was killed. I hope his family can find solace in the fact that he lives on through those journal pages and that every time someone encounters them, their life is forever changed in a deep and profound way.

I think most people have the dream of doing something that will positively impact people’s lives and make the world a better place. I would love to know that something I’ve done has touched someone as deeply as Dan’s art has touched me. But those goals will never be accomplished unless we give our dreams a chance. So whether you want to write a book or start an organization to help those in need, keep the lessons from my mom, Mr. S and Dan Eldon in mind: get involved, believe in yourself and let your creativity be free. You never know what you’re capable of until you let go.

If you are in the Twin Cities area and are interested in Visual Journaling, please stop by the Visual Journaling Collective meeting on June 21, 2010 from 7:00 – 9:00pm and say hello (it’s free and open to all artists – click here for more info.). I will do a presentation about The Found Recipe Box project and then we’ll have treats (all will be recipes from the box). However, we will be sketching the food before we eat it – hey, this is supposed to be about art right? Don’t worry about skill level or what type of art you’re interested in. Everyone in the group is extremely supportive and encouraging and we all have very diverse backgrounds (graphic designers, print makers, cartoon artists, landscape painters, textile artists, etc…).

To learn more about Dan Eldon and to see some of his journal pages, please visit:

I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book The Journey is the Destination, the Journals of Dan Eldon. I hope it speaks to you the way it did to me. And for more information about Dan and his journals, check out the book Dan Eldon: The Art of Life by Jennifer New.

If you would like to further explore the world of visual journaling, I highly recommend the following books:

By Danny Gregory:
An Illustrated Life
The Creative License
Everyday Matters

By Sabrina Ward Harrison:
Spilling Open
Brave on the Rocks
Messy Thrilling Life

By Maira Kalman:
The Principles of Uncertainty

By Keri Smith:
How To Be An Explorer Of The World
Living Out Loud
This Is Not A Book
Wreck This Journal

By Someguy
The 1000 Journals Project
(click here for the 1000 Journals Project website)

By Kate T. Williamson
A Year in Japan


  1. Molly, what a wonderful tribute to your teachers and mentors! I'm looking forward to your talk (and treats) on Monday!

  2. Thanks for a terrific post. Wish I could transport myself from Ohio for your visit to Roz's group. I bought Dan's book, it looks terrific. And I SO relate to your inner-critic issues.

  3. Okay, so now I have to get Dan's book too...and I ADORE Maira Kalman. :-)