Keeping Your Childhood Wonder

When you are a child it is so easy to find the world a wondrous place. So many things seem magical, especially the natural world. Everything is new and an adventure. I think that it is important not too lose this sense of wonder in life. If you become too cynical and apathetic it can have a negative impact on your creativity.

Our creative vision is most often stimulated by the wonder of things. When I was quite young I would do paintings and drawings with little difficulty. Often these contained images of plants and flowers, animals, mythical creatures, family holiday destinations, or characters from stories, films or history. There was a never-ending supply of subject matter. Here is a pastel drawing I did as a child of some Sea Lions, followed by a recent drone video of the colony at Seal Rocks near Phillip Island and The Nobbies. To me they are still amazing creatures to watch.

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My childhood drawing of Seal Rocks

Such things still make me excited like a kid and would not want to lose this feeling. One summer night not so long ago I went outside around midnight. It was still moist after a summer storm and suddenly a large Grey-headed flying-fox, Australia’s largest fruit bat (wingspan up to 1 metre or about 3 ft), swooped right over my head. I could have touched it. I had never been that close to one before and I was exhilarated. After this encounter I would look out for them and was lucky enough to see a classic scene of  bats silhouetted against the sky during a lightning storm. These creatures are wonderful and we are privileged to have them in and around our city. It is good to notice your local wildlife and remember that humans are not the centre of everything. My experience motivated this poem.

Flying Fox

Flying Fox, the beat of swooping wings

Above my head

A wild bat wonder

Flying Fox, across the lightning sky

I watch at dusk

No gothic horror

© Copyright theartistschild.com 2017

Here is a video of the colony of Grey-headed flying foxes at Yarra Bend Park in Kew, Melbourne, followed by another of the bats flying across the Melbourne skyline at dusk.

Reconnecting with your childhood imagination is an effective way to get ideas as an adult. Some people have entire careers reliving their early fantasies. Things that grabbed you as a child can still be inspirational. Collecting seashells at the beach was one of my favorite childhood pass times. Their shapes and colours were so beautiful and it was like finding treasure. The only time I ever bought a shell was a Cowrie shell as a souvenir from a trip to Sydney. These shells are uncommon in Victoria. I still have it and its strong colour has lasted because I keep it in a dark box. It is a lovely subject to draw with the spotted markings.

The excitement of being given or finding something unusual can still bring on a sense of childlike delight. My grandfather gave me a rock containing some fossilized shells when I was a child because he knew that I was interested in such things. I still love fossils and have collected a few mainly as holiday souvenirs. I still get a buzz when I see interesting fossils in museums or books. Prehistoric Ammonites with their spiral shell shape remind me of the shells of some freshwater snails. I carved one out of a small piece of talc stone with this type of shell so it is also permanently frozen in stone like a fossil.

The ingenuity of inventions might be what tickled your early imagination. My father had inherited an old Remington portable typewriter (1929 model) that fascinated me as a child. I would try to type things with two fingers but this was a slow exercise. When I got the chance I learnt to touch type and it has made the writing process so much easier, as well as using computers. Keep that childhood thirst for knowledge. Learning any form of technology gives you so many more creative options and it helps if you are keen to embrace new methods.

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Sometimes you find that when you get really excited about something there are always people who think you are strange. They can’t understand your enthusiasm. But if you lose your joyousness just because of what people think it would be very sad. Being indifferent means that it is difficult to get involved in the creative process.

I hope I will always be able to maintain the childlike passion of a David Attenborough when he describes fabulous wildlife and never become bored and jaded. There is so much in this world that is wondrous.

Kat

Here’s The Pointer Sisters who know how to get excited!

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Midwinter Chills: Ghastly Ghosts and Comical Phantoms

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It’s the middle of winter in Melbourne and there have been icy winds, frosts and dull days. A good time for ghost stories as these are so much more enjoyable when it’s dark and cold. Reading a modern ghost story has brought back memories of the classic old spooky tales, which I have always loved. Not all are serious and a bit of humor is needed when it is chilly. These stories stimulate the imagination and have led to endless interpretations of this intangible world.

Belief in the supernatural has provided plenty of material for artists and writers over the centuries. Shakespeare gives a chilling account of a ghostly apparition in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, which has given visual artists inspiration for some beautiful illustration.

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In the 19th century ghost stories were very popular. They were so much more convincing at a time without electric light. In winter one could imagine terrible spectres lurking in the dark of night. Some of the stories are quite creepy, like those by the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote some truly disturbing tales. A couple about haunted houses, like An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Anger Street (1851) and An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, are full of terrible apparitions and shadowy figures on the walls (click on titles to read stories). Read these late at night when the wind is howling for full effect.

Ghostly legends can also be very funny. The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev Richard Harris Barham) contains many humorous stories and poems about ghosts. Tales such as The Spectre of Tappington; The Ghost; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; and The Dead Drummer are accompanied by quirky black and white illustrations (click on titles to read stories), which include skeletal spectres, headless figures and phantoms done by well-know artists of the time. These stories are wonderful parodies of ghostly folklore.

Another writer and illustrator who dealt with ghosts in a humorous way was W S Gilbert, the lyricist of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame. His collection of poems, Fifty “Bab” Ballads (1884) contains a nonsensical poem that I have included below called The Ghost, the Gallant, the Gael and the Goblin, complete with Gilbert’s (Bab) delightful drawings. It’s about competitive haunting that does not go to plan. A very quaint story with the witty use of words you would expect from the man who wrote, “I am the very model of a modern major-general, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…etc.

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Probably the most famous ghost story of the 1900s is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. We have a copy from the 1890s that has drawings by Fred Barnard, who was one of the illustrators of Dickens works. The grotesque depiction of Marley’s ghost became the prototype for many film versions of the tale. Michael Hordern as the tormented Marley in the 1951 version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim, seems to have stepped out of the illustration. Below is a colourized version of the scene.

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The magic of film has made it possible to depict transparent ghosts and ghastly hauntings. From the earliest days of film we can see attempts to bring the spectral world alive for the viewer often with unintentionally hilarious results, as for example in George Melies The Haunted Castle, 1896.

Since then there have been some very terrifying movies, such as The Haunting (1963), with its horrifying haunted house. You would not want to watch this one alone on a dark winters night. It uses sound to a frightening degree (warning: even the trailer is really chilling). Often films that leave much to the imagination are scarier than those with lots of special effects because of the mystery.

There have also been many entertaining comedy films about ghosts, such as Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennet, a hilarious story about a dead married couple haunting a crusty old bachelor that lead to some ridiculous situations.

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Plains of the Darling, NSW, detail by Edward Officer

In Australia there are old bush ballads about ghosts, such as the swagman who haunts the billabong in Waltzing Matilda (Matilda was his swag, not a woman). Like Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of a ghostly horseman riding through the countryside has also peaked Australian writer’s imaginations. One of my favorites is the poem Rafferty Rides Again (1940) by Thomas V Tierney about a bushranger’s ghost that is seen riding in the bush on moonlit nights. As it is still in copyright click on title for a link to the poem. The song Ghost Riders in the Sky is in this tradition and Johnny Cash does a great version.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in wintertime it is fun to read or watch spooky stories, especially when you are inside near a fire or heater and you know you can turn up the lights any time you like.

And what better way to end this post than with Australia’s Kransky Sisters, singing Talking Heads Psycho Killer as only they can.

Kat

Invasion of the Ants

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Illustration from Chambers Encyclopaedia, 1895

Sometimes what creeps us out can also inspire creative works. Under normal circumstances I don’t mind ants, especially Australian native black ants and even stinging bulldog ants provided they keep their distance. But when ants start to invade our inside space that is a different story.

Invasion of the Ants

Ants

A lone scout appears

Crawling on the computer

Then more

On kitchen benches

In cutlery drawers, floors

Feelers touching, foraging

Finding crumbs

On they come

Swarming

 

Ants

Form long brown trails

Relentless lines of raiders

Appalled

We follow the horde

Down halls, up bathroom walls

Madly squashing, spraying

A futile stance

Against advanced

Invasion

 

Ants

Man-created super colony

An immense insect alliance

Inundate

Swamp local species

Can’t placate, annihilate

Terrain taking, attacking

Argentine ants

Small chance

Of victory

©theartistschild.com 2017

Normally ants are benign, beneficial insects when they are part of their home eco-system. Their organization, co-operation and industry as a group has inspired stories since the time of Aesop’s Fable, The Grasshopper and the Ants.

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The Grasshopper and the Ants by Arthur Rackham, 1912

Outside of South America, because of their sheer numbers, argentine ants have become a huge problem in the world (How the World became a Giant Ant Colony). Accidentally transported in ships, they now infest every continent except Antarctica. These transported ants are all genetically related and do not have the biodiversity of their species at home. Separate nests do not compete or fight one another and instead have formed into super colonies that span kilometers. Melbourne has one that stretches for at least 100km (discovered in 2004), California has a 900km super colony along the coast and in Mediterranean Europe, 6,000km (The Ant Super Colony) ). They kill and take over the territory of native ants and are causing damage to whole eco-systems. The following is a short Australian documentary that explains how these ants are so successful around the world using amazing wildlife photography.

Early attempts to eradicate the ants were quite basic. In 1960s Sydney small boys were encouraged to find nests and were paid $10 for their trouble by the government. This would have seemed a huge amount of money to children at the time. A 1967 Pathé newsreel tells the story.

We have had argentine ants in our garden for a long time but when the house next door came down last year, the ants from next door moved into our place. Their numbers have swelled considerably. The weather has been quite mild, without much rain so there has been no help from nature to control them. If there is just one crumb on the kitchen bench the ants will find it and they are attracted to any water in the bathroom so cleaning is endless. When an ant appears next to you on the bed sheet you know there is a problem. Looks like we will need professional assistance to reduce these pests. There are now products that are reasonably safe to spray outside if you keep your pets out of the way during the operation. This invasion has brought back some unsettling memories about ants.

There is something about a huge plague of creatures that can both repel and fascinate us. This is often the basis for horror stories and movies. One of the first scary films I remember watching as a child was The Naked Jungle (1954) starring Charlton Heston based upon a short story, Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson. In it an Amazonian plantation owner has to contend with the threat of ravenous army ants destroying his crop. I watched this late at night with some friends at a sleep over and we all screamed during the scene where an unlucky worker is eaten by the ants (until the host’s little brother started doing a mock reenactment that made us laugh). I hope the actor was paid well for having so many ants crawling all over him. Not for squeamish.

Although the premise is exaggerated for dramatic purposes, the idea of unstoppable, carnivorous ants plays on our primal fear of the uncontrollable powers of nature. We create the nightmare in our minds.

In the horror film Them!, also made in 1954, ants have become huge monsters. I saw this movie late at night as an adult and it still has the power to disturb, although modern computer graphics produce more believable monsters. The trailer gives a good idea of the horror-inducing mood created by the filmmakers. The giant ants were meant to be the result of exposure to radiation from the atomic bombs. At a time of cold war tensions it played upon everyone’s paranoia surrounding the nuclear threat, which became terrifying ants.

Because ants work together this makes them seem like us on the one hand, but being insects, quite alien on the other. I’m sure many sci-fi alien societies are based upon ants. As invaders, ants are worthy opponents and will continue to inspire, frighten and mesmerize us in works of fiction and artworks.

Kat

Of course the appropriate music for this post after all the apocalyptic doom is Ant Music by Adam and the Ants. This live version was filmed on the Australian TV show Countdown in 1980. The sound is better than the official video. He also did a song called Ants Invasion but it is not as catchy. “Don’t tread on an Ant, he’s done nothing to you….” Huh! Obviously Adam Ant had not experienced argentine ants in 1980.

Nonsense Poems, Funny Pictures and Laughter

I was looking at some classic old humorous books from the 19th and early 20th centuries and found that, although written and illustrated at least 100 years ago, they still are funny and make me laugh. Humor that is based on topical events seems more dated than that which deals with universal themes and one can learn a lot from these inspiring writers and artists. I especially like the nonsense poems and their accompanying illustrations and I thought I would share some of these delightful pieces for those who may be unfamiliar with these works.

One thing that I noticed was there seemed to be an obsession with bizarre noses in a couple of the books. English artist and writer, Edward Lear (1812-1888), who popularized the limerick and nonsense songs and poems that were published in his Books of Nonsense, was especially fond of exaggerated noses. There were a number of limericks devoted to this part of the anatomy and here are a couple of my favorites.

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Lear’s ink drawings are pure whimsy. He was a landscape painter and illustrated books of natural history and his free and imaginative ink drawings are in complete contrast. Yet there is something very tangible about those birds sitting on a nose and Lear’s poems and “sight gags” still have great appeal.

The other nose related reference occurs in American writer Max Adler’s (Charles Heber Clark 1841-1915) Out of the Hurley-Burly or Life in an Odd Corner (1874). We have the Australian edition published by E W Cole (188?). The book is a portrait of Clark’s life in Conshohocken, PA, disguised as fiction and is filled with the comic illustrations of A B Frost. There are also some funny poems. The following Tim Keyser’s Nose tells a wonderfully ridiculous story that is still enjoyable today.

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From noses we move onto another American writer’s take on mythological creatures. Artist Oliver Herford (1863-1935) wrote witty and humorous poetry. We have a first edition copy of The Mythological Zoo (1912) that came from a relative and I recently had a good look at the book. The poems, although written over 100 years ago are still a lot of fun, together with Herford’s amusing illustrations. I have included a couple of poems that show his clever turn of phrase and a modern view of some ancient beasts.

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Every summer someone will still say the annoying words in the last line of The Salamander. Herford had a sharp wit and has been compared with Oscar Wild, as someone who also made very incisive quips.

Cartoons can sometimes become dated when an audience can no longer relate to the subject matter. If it deals with obsolete attitudes or long forgotten events the humor is often lost. Universal themes about basic human nature are less likely to date. These types of cartoons can be found in Melba’s Gift Book (1915), instigated by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba to raise money for The Belgium Relief Fund during WWI and full of works by Australian artists and writers. I’ve singled out a couple of the cartoons that deal with human nature in an amusing way.

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With a change of clothing those partygoers could be a modern couple and procrastination is still a problem for creative people. Everyone needs a nagging pet like that cat.

Sticking with the theme of funny pictures we can still laugh at the visual and physical antics of such comedic masters like Charlie Chaplin in old films.  Chaplin’s little tramp trapped in a sleeping lion’s cage is a hilarious example.  Classic “man out of his comfort zone,” that creates great comedy.

Humorous Music is a bit more difficult. Some old comedy songs just don’t transfer to the present day but there are others that have travelled better. For example Ragtime Cowboy Joe was first recorded in 1912 by Bob Roberts, done again over the years by various performers, including a The Chipmunks version in 1959 and has been given the Muppets treatment. It is still a popular song for the ukulele. I think this a lot to do with the catchy turn of phrase and crazy images it brings to the mind. And it’s a cowboy song.

As well as the feel good value of old humorous works, studying these also provide timeless clues about the crafting of words and visual art for its comic effect. To make others laugh is a wonderful aim. We all need a bit of nonsense in our lives.

Kat

Inspiration from the Sea

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Physalia Utriculus (from The Ocean World by Louis Figurier, 1872 Edition)

The natural world is full of many bizarre and fascinating creatures, especially the sea. For us land lovers who do not venture far out beyond the sand, anything living in the ocean seem most mysterious and more alien than a science fiction monster. One such life form is the “The Pacific Man of War” (physalia utriculus), cousin to the larger “Portuguese Man of War,” that inspired the following poem:

Physalia

Floating, bloated Physalia

Sails the waters of Australia

Buoyant, Blue Bottle, bather’s hell

Weapons submerged in ocean swell

Tentacles, twisting, clutching bite

Stun the prey of hermaphrodites

Stealthy, Pacific Man of War

Stingers loaded, washed ashore

A stranded, congealed, deflated mess

No armistice with final rest

©Theartistschild.com 2017.

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Illustration by F Seth from A Sketch of the Natural History of Australia by Frederick G Aflalo, 1896

Lately I have been looking at some 19th century natural history books that came from relatives. I was particularly taken by a couple of illustrations of “The Pacific Man Of War,” and its scientific name.  Not many words rhyme with Australia.

These are commonly known as “Blue Bottle” jellyfish in Australia, although they are not a type of jellyfish. In fact they are related to corals. The Physalia are actually a large colony of separate polyps carried under the floatation bag, itself an individual life form. The polyps perform various functions such as catching prey (the tentacles), waste disposal and reproduction.

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Stranded Physalia Utriculus (Wikimedia Commons)

Blue Bottles can become stranded on ocean facing beaches along the east coast of Australia. They are more common the further north you travel and are considered a hazard when they wash up in large numbers. Physalia can give a very painful sting to any swimmer who bumps into their tentacles, which also remain active when lying on the beach.

Although not a frequent visitor to Victorian beaches the occasional individual can drop in as the following video demonstrates. Despite their bad reputation, seen in close-up physalia are beautiful and mesmerizing creatures.

Kat

The Broken Club and the Half Eaten Atlas

Interesting tales attached to objects are for me what gives them value. The more bizarre the better. The following is a poem inspired by two items and a family story.

The Broken Club and the Half Eaten Atlas

Safely kept were the tribal club and atlas

Left behind by a missionary man

Some friend of an ancestor

Then the club was broken in two

By one boy who

Used it to strike the floor

And the book found under the house

Half eaten by a rat or mouse

Last possessions of Gottlob Rembold

A resident of Sydney

Who went off to New Guinea

Or so I’ve been told

In the late 19th century

And was eaten by cannibals

©Theartistschild.com 2017

There is a story in our family that a German missionary left some of his possessions in storage with a relative.  The Aboriginal war club (waddy) and Stieler’s Schul Atlas are all that remain.  He was supposedly eaten by one of the New Guinea tribes of headhunters and this was why he never returned to collect his things.  The war club (broken by an uncle when young and mended with some waxed flax by me) is the type of weapon used to attack enemies in tribal battles.

While I am usually dubious about the veracity of such sensationalist tales, I think that the story is most likely true because it came from a branch of the family that was quite reliable.  They were very honest and practical and not the types to make up fanciful stories.   Ellie and I thought that we would investigate this further to see if there was any actual documentary evidence available.

The name Gottlob Rembold and a Sydney address are hand written in the Atlas.  We Googled his name and this has made the story stranger and more complicated.  In Sydney in 1881, a Gottlob Rembold at the age of 27 was charged with shooting and wounding his uncle in the chest with intent to murder.  Apparently this Gottlob was a young man from Germany, who came out to Australia in 1880 to live with his aunt and uncle, a farmer, probably after the death of his father.  There was a dispute about a large sum of money in a will that he claimed was his, but his aunt said it was left to her.  Gottlob also claimed that he had been mistreated since his arrival from Germany ten months before.  Gottlob was found guilty but the sentence was remitted with no reason given.  There is a prison photo of Gottlob but we can’t show it as it is subject to copyright and  only available to view by Ancestry.com members.  It is not a mug shot, but a normal studio portrait and he was a good-looking young man.

His was not a common name in Sydney at the time so it is surely the same person.  The atlas has a date of 1876 and this is when this Gottlob was 22 years old and might have been contemplating travel.  After his release from prison he could have gained assistance from a religious organisation and then decided to become a missionary.  Gottlob had been employed as a gardener so this was a change of direction.  Not that it did him much good.

Gottlob’s story is part of the rampant Western Colonialism that took place around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Probably if Rembold had been a medical missionary or an Anthropologist he would have survived.  As opposed to some of hardline missionaries of the period, they tended to respect the host culture and were not perceived as a threat so usually lived to write about their experiences.  Gottlob must have made enemies if he had such a nasty fate.

Not all family stories are sweetness and light and the sad and bad characters can be just as inspiring as the heroic figures.  Was Gottlob a naive young man mistreated by his aunt and uncle or was he an opportunistic, murderous fortune hunter who turned to religion?  We will never know the whole truth about his end unless we can find a death certificate.  Without more information one can only imagine the mysterious and violent demise of the unfortunate Gottlob Rembold.

Kat

To lift a rather dark story the following is a live version of Rage Against the Machine’s protest song Killing in the Name by my favorite string quartet, Sydney group “FourPlay String Quartet.” They can really rock the strings.  Ellie and I saw them perform this same piece in concert and it was electric.  The members of FourPlay are all fantastic musicians and composers and their own music, while influenced by the past, is of our time.   In recent years they have collaborated in performance with Neil Gaiman.  Check them out on YouTube.

Away with the Fairies

Often when I am creating I go into another imaginative place. I feel that I am in a world of my own creation, the place of daydreams.  It is a great space to be in when you are writing or doing some visual art.  But at times this ability to put myself into a story or travel with my mind has not been appreciated by others.

As a child I became easily lost in the world of make-believe.  I remember going to a scary play when I was about 5 and became very distressed because one of the characters terrified me.  I thought it was real.  I had to be taken out of the theatre.  It was on a school excursion and the head teacher was not impressed. She obviously had no imagination and could not understand why a little child might be frightened.  I also found the MGM lion very terrifying because it was so big and loud. I thought he was going to eat me and hid behind my hands.

In kindergarten another girl and I were totally involved in a game we were playing and decided not to go inside when the bell rang.  We went to an area where there was an empty water feature with rock formations and continued our game.  Then the drama started.  The teacher started calling our names and we knew we were in trouble and hid behind the rocks and did not come out.  Things started to escalate and more people were looking for us.  Eventually we reluctantly decided to face the music and got into a whole lot of trouble.  Our mothers had been called and as punishment we had to spend the rest of the afternoon in the principle’s office nervously giggling.  We were only little kids acting out our fantasies but the reaction of the adults was totally out of proportion because of their fears.

As I became older I spent a lot of time in school daydreaming through classes or dreary assemblies.  I think that I missed lots of vital information by drifting off into my own little world.  Luckily there was always art class.  I could always concentrate on my artwork or a good book or anything that engaged me.  My early school reports often had remarks like needs to make more of an effort or would do better if she paid attention and concentrated on the work.  Any tendency to let your mind wander was to be discouraged.

All my day dreaming never did me any harm.  In fact without it I never would have persisted at any art form.  Ideas don’t just fall into your lap without time spent musing.  You can’t change reality without first imagining something different.  The world probably would not have many inventions or great works of art and literature without lots of daydreaming on the part of their creators.   Questions like “What if I do this? What would happen if? How can I do that?” are often answered by daydreaming.

Nowadays I tend to daydream in the garden, watching TV or gazing out the window when I’m in the studio.  For this reason it is good to have some kind of view, especially if there is a bit of nature.  It is also easy to daydream under the shower or in the bath because the hot water is very relaxing.  The only problem is that you can’t write anything down and have to quickly dry yourself and find a notebook before forgetting the idea.  Often when you are in this state your mind flits around from one topic to another so it can be difficult to keep track of your thoughts. If I am in that frame of mind I take a notebook into the bathroom just in case.

For those of us who have chosen to follow the creative path, daydreaming is an essential part of the creative process and losing oneself in some imaginative place is not something to discourage.  Being able to transport yourself somewhere else mentally or transform yourself into another character is really helpful.  A moment flight of fancy can develop into a story or a series of paintings.  Never stop your mind from wandering or as my parents used to say, being away with the fairies.

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Away with the Fairies

One midsummer night I dreamed

I’m in a tree far away

Visible in full moon light

I lie on branches with the fey

Faces glimpsed amongst the leaves

Figures hide behind the limbs

Bright beings with fragile wings

Stir the air and fan my skin

Some drift around me as I gaze

A whispered spell upon me cast

I finally slip out of the haze

To find my bliss at last

© theartistschild.com 2017

Daydreams can become reality so let yourself fly.

Kat

Here is one of my favorite day dreaming songs from the 70s.