Prompt 240. A New Way to See
& the artist Kari Gale on noticing
Last year, only one week after my second bone marrow transplant, I shared a behind-the-scenes tour of my makeshift studio in my hospital room. However it was only while putting together the most recent module for our 30-day Art of Journaling project that I watched it for the first time. It threw me back to that moment—to those six weeks in a kind of sensory deprivation tank, under fluorescent lights, surrounded by so much beige. There was nothing to feast my eyes upon, no visual splendor to lift me up or lighten my days.
You can start to lose it when you’re locked in a room like that, especially when you’re in pain or afraid. Only a few days after I made that video, I ended up with two blood infections and an excruciating combination of kidney issues and mucositis. Since I had a white blood cell count of zero, I knew I could easily die.
What saved me in those hardest moments was my watercolors. Intuitively I knew that the only way to keep from losing faith or losing my mind was to engage with the brutal realities I was facing—everything from the physical objects like hospitals gowns and wheelchairs to the existential questions that arise when facing one’s own imminent mortality. But I couldn’t do it head-on. I needed to see the truth but see it slant, as I wrote about in this week’s module. It felt safer and more productive to engage with it on a symbolic level—what the writer Joseph Campbell calls the “mytho-poetic.”
Take the first painting I made, where I’m in my hospital bed—not in my hospital room but nestled in a tree just outside the window, overlooking the city’s nightscape. In another, I’m standing on a watermelon, with an elephant on its hind legs as my IV pole: a very precarious balancing act. In still another, I’m half human, half sea creature in dark blue water. Though I love swimming, I’m terrified when I can’t see the bottom; I panic if the slightest bit of seaweed touches my foot. And yet there I am in the deep, descending even deeper amid all these creatures.
When I was painting these, I didn’t have a full awareness of what I was doing. The border between conscious and subconscious was as porous as it’s ever been for me (partly because I was on a motherlode of drugs, but also because I didn’t care about the outcome of what I was making—such a glorious lesson in lowering your expectations). But with the distance of a year, it’s clear I was taking what felt most frightening and fragile and finding a way to coexist with it. Rendering my medical situation in these different landscapes and locales was a way to acknowledge my immediate reality, but also to make room for other possibilities. It only occurs to me now that in these paintings, I was establishing a visual language for holding both hardship and hope in one palm.
My foray into painting continues to amaze me. Not only did it guide me through my darkest valley, it also changed me. Because of this practice, I see and engage with the world differently. A walk around the neighborhood is no longer a functional effort to get my dog to do her business, but a full sensual adventure. I take in everything, whether the buildings on my block or the sky’s particular shade of blue or the flowering trees. Rather than rushing from one thing to another, I’m slower, more purposeful. I listen, watch, and observe more intensely. I feel more curious, more alive.
This is also true for today’s contributor, the journal artist, illustrator, and writer Kari Gale—though rather than being inspired by fever dreams, her practice was inspired by the ordinary. In a poignant, instructive essay called “Noticing,” she shares how drawing ordinary objects has revealed the richness and beauty all around her. And I’m confident it will for you too.
Some Items of Note—
We’re in the home stretch of our 30-day journaling project, and all month I’ve been looking forward to this week’s theme: Art Journaling. It’s not too late—you can join us for the last week, or you can start from the beginning with Week One. More info here!
In honor of my husband Jon Batiste being appointed to President Biden’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, I rereleased A Creative Heart-to-Heart—where Jon and I answer questions from the community about life and the creative process—as a free podcast. It’s raw and unfiltered and gets to the heart of how we use a creative practice to marry our sorrows and our joys. Give it a listen and let me know what you think!
Also now available for everyone—my Studio Visit: Hospital Edition. In it I talk about what it was like to learn to paint while in the bone marrow transplant unit. I hope it’ll inspire you to reimagine constraints as an invitation for creative reinvention. Note: If you’re having trouble viewing the video, click here.
Prompt 240. Noticing by Kari Gale
I started drawing in a journal a decade ago while making a 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I had been painting in some form my whole life, but prior to the Camino, I didn’t have a regular art practice, mostly because figuring out what to draw or paint was overwhelming. I always felt pressure to create something important—something capital M Meaningful.
But after eight-hour days of walking on the Camino, I was too exhausted to seek out the perfect picture postcard view. I could only capture what was directly in front of me—which to be honest was a considerable relief. Drawing the immediate instead of the aspirational helped me slow down and be present to my surroundings. I began noticing the subtleties of shape, light, texture, and color with fresh eyes and delighting in the art-making process. Most profoundly, I began to see ordinary things as beautiful: a dirt path, a crumbling wall, even my café con leche. When I took the time to pay attention, I realized that everything has elements of the exquisite.
That was the start of an art practice that I have cultivated for a decade now. It takes discipline and patience; I’m constantly having to remind myself, Slow down, be present, notice. But it’s also changed my life. I’ve come to understand that things only seem ordinary because we’ve grown accustomed to their beauty. Immersed in the black hole of our phones or weighed down with just getting through the day, our vision grows hazy and clouded. We begin to overlook the extraordinary.
For me, it’s the practice of noticing that’s important; the final drawing or painting is just an outgrowth of the noticing. To retrain my eye, I try to view whatever I’m rendering not as the object itself, but as pure shape, line, and color—because we tend to draw what we think is there, not what actually is.
Slow down, be present, notice. I often wonder what would happen if we applied this practice in other areas—with other humans, in challenging situations. What if we took the time to see what’s actually there before judging or reacting? That would truly be extraordinary.
Your prompt for the week:
Open your cupboard or your fridge and find something ordinary to draw. Garlic (those wrinkled, paper-thin layers) and peppers (smooth and waxy with curvy lines) are some of my favorites.
Slow down. Be present. Notice: The silhouette, the color, the texture. Try to view the object not as what it is, but as lines and shapes and colors. Using a pen or pencil or a crayon, capture what you see on a piece of paper. Then write about whatever was extraordinary in your ordinary object.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Kari Gale is a journal artist, illustrator, and writer who specializes in capturing the narratives of journey, food, and travel through pen, ink, and watercolor. From her tiny house in Portland, Oregon she works as an author/illustrator and creative mentor to others looking to document their own stories through journal art. Kari's artwork, books, and online Travel Journal Workshops are all available at karigale.com.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
The 30-Day Journaling Project, where we’re exploring the art of journaling and all it can contain
Inspiration Immersion, a community discussion on the tools that get us into the creative flow
On Dreaming, a recap of our last record-breaking meeting of the Hatch—700 people joined!—where we read “Dream Nest” by Dana Levin, learned about instructive dreams, and wrote with “focused non-focus”
Hi Suleika. I'm a Brit having treatment for cancer in France. Your memoir helped me in two ways. 1. I created a group for under 50s being treated at my hospital (based on your motley crew). 2. I refused to stand up when a miserable Parisian commuter had a go at me for using the fold down seats on the metro during rush hour. I blushed with shame & anger but I knew I was within my rights. I read your posts here every week & find the language you use helps me to reframe my experience and make sense of it in a more manageable way. Like the co-existing you mentioned today. Really love you & pretty much everything you do ❤️ Kerrie xxxx
This is all so magical. I often wonder about perception and our sensory experiences especially when practicing some kind of artistic or creative practice. I too have intuited my way through during times of illness and the unknown. When I was younger, art, poetry, writing,music and painting saved me at least briefly from being in the storms of my mind and anxiety about my health. I also learned the art of noticing particularly noticing how light falls (Komorembi) and the spaces between as you mention, Suleika. Funny how even in our darkest hours we learn to dance with the shadows. Maybe this is grace or a kind of mystery. Maybe creating is the art of embracing mystery. Thank you again for your insights and for sharing your heart with us all. Such a gift! ♥️ keep writing and painting....