A Business Card Collection

Precisely two years ago today, Stoytcho and I were walking the warm, humid streets of Jakarta at night in search of dinner. Indonesia was the 11th country in a year-long trip to circumnavigate the globe; from October 2016 to November 2017, we traveled through 28 countries on five continents to experience what the world beyond U.S. borders. Eschewing resorts and (most) tourist destinations, we took our two ~40 lb. packs and hostelled, camped, and hiked our way through these countries, living on USD $30 per person per day for meals and lodging and documenting our experience on the blog Neverending Everywhere.

With cash and carrying capacity limitations, we couldn’t buy many souvenirs on the trip, but wanted more than digital photographs for memories. So we started collecting business cards everywhere we went, because people gave them freely (and often) with excitement. Every few months, we shipped them back to the U.S. and by the end of the trip we had collected more than 200 cards, tracing our path across the continents through neatly rubber-banded stacks.  We had a way to visualize our travel in more than just photographs.

Though we knew we wanted to display the business cards somehow, they sat untouched for a year after we returned to the U.S. as we settled into new lives in Boston and I started consulting with ClearView. A couple of months ago I pulled them out to organize them and see what we could make.

I had originally envisioned layering the cards underneath a sheet of glass on a coffee table, but our apartment didn’t have a coffee table and finding one seemed time consuming. So for now I decided on a collage display format, which would only require a frame and cardboard mounting.

The creative process for the collage was straightforward, with deciding on the broader pattern and minimizing card overlap taking the most time. I started by finding the average size of the business cards and laying out a pencil grid on the carboard mounting, guessing that a vertical collage with horizontal business cards would be most visually appealing.

Then came figuring out how to pattern the business cards. I wanted to lay down cards by color instead of by chronology, so you could see Mandarin next to Cyrillic next to Vietnamese next to English. But the colors on each card were different and the number of cards we had in each broader color group varied significantly. We had many more cards with red, yellow, black, or brown primary colors compared to relatively fewer greens and blues. So a rainbow across the collage in any direction, built from columns of business cards of similar color group, seemed difficult to complete.

Instead, I opted to pattern the collage as a gradient, working to match each card laid down with the color next to it. I organized the cards by color group and within that, color intensity. I laid them down with black on the bottom, then moved slowly upward and outward, laying down blue, gray, and brown cards, then up further into greens, yellows, oranges, and reds. I used standard poster putty tack to hold cards in place, in case I wanted to move them later.

I initially placed business cards so they would have minimal overlap, but because of variation in sizes and the size of our final frame, Stoytcho pointed out that we would have to cut the edges of some cards to fit them into the collage. So I reworked the collage to allow overlap between cards, ensuring the most interesting or informative part of the card remained visible to trigger memories of people and places.

After the final card was in place, we slotted the board into the frame and hung it on the wall, a reminder of our travels. Taking a step back, it’s amazing to see not how many places we visited, but how many people in the world have their own businesses. Here in the U.S., where brands reign and large companies are common, when we envision work or a career it’s often in someone else’s company. In countries outside the U.S., especially in the developing world, to build and run your own business is much more common, from walking vendors hopping between railcars in Mexico City to the evening food carts of Indonesia. The lifestyle comes with its own pitfalls and benefits, from uncertainty over the future to the freedom of working to build something for yourself. But it’s something different from the U.S.

It will be a long time before Stoytcho and I get a chance to travel around the world again, but for now we have built a reminder of where we’ve been.

Creating Art When You Don’t Know How To

Inspired by my friends Cindy and Eric, I’m learning to create art. The last time I put pen to paper for artistic study was in high school (hi sophomore art class). This is probably my fourth or fifth attempt to do learn how to make art in the last decade through lesson plans or tutorials, with ended in failure. My last visit to an art supply store was an avalanche of colored pencils and paper types and paints and tempera and markers–so many tools that I don’t know how to use, all of them daunting. I have no idea how to art, so how do I start learning what I don’t know?

I started with what I know. And if you want to learn to make art but are also feeling uncertain, overwhelmed, or terrified by the thought of creating art, starting with what you know (instead of a specific book or tutorial) might be the right path for you too.

While I haven’t created art of any kind in years, I have been making creative decisions my whole life. You have too. An artistic decision is everything from choosing the color of our clothes to picking what music to listen to after a rough day at work to simply choosing to touch the bark of a tree. You’re making a decision to experience a feeling in that moment. That is a creative act in your life, even if it doesn’t make art that others can enjoy. So we are all creative.

Some of my most recent creative decisions have been in figure-making for academic journals, which might sounds boring (but stick with me). During my PhD I published two research articles that required not just figures showing data, but also schematics of what was going on at the molecular level. Creating these schematics isn’t entirely standardized, leaving room for artistic leeway. I ended up spending a lot of hours in Illustrator and Powerpoint building these schematics, not just for my research articles but also for presentations I gave on my work. This mostly consisted of arranging shapes and colors in a way that conveyed information but wasn’t painful to look at (seriously, lemon yellow will never look good on a projector). These each creative decisions, though I didn’t think of it at the time.

So for my first artistic endeavor, I started with something I know: my thesis work. Below is an artistic interpretation of what I discovered with my thesis work.

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There are things I would change (and certainly a few things that are ‘scientifically inaccurate’) but overall I’m pretty happy with it. Here are some close-ups:

One of the biggest challenges (besides having to give up some scientific accuracy to artistic license) was figuring out what colors to use on the sketch. My previous experiences with color in this world have primarily come from 1) clothing choice, 2) creating Powerpoint documents and scientific figures, and 3) identifying plants and mushrooms. None of those translate super-well to watercolor pencils, so I took one of the sheets in my notebook and broke it into boxes to test color patterns for each part of the sketch. I then tested the final color palette on the other side:

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Though it takes an extra piece of paper, this method was invaluable for seeing what colors look like next to each other (which does change) and I can keep it for subsequent projects, so I’ll count that as a technique learned!

I’ll let you know what I make next.

Natalie