Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | Reviews

Drawing from Life: The Journal As Art by Jennifer New

By Shelbi Thomas
Excerpts reveal artistry of journal-keepers from all walks of life.

Drawing from Life: The Journal As Art by Jennifer New, 192 pp, $25, Princeton Architectural Press

As a seven-year-old, I kept my keen observations on the world in a pink Barbie diary. It boasted a lock and key, but for extra protection, I added a sticker that warned potential trespassers to keep out.

Barbie watched over entries that seem silly now ("Eating a whole bag of gummy bears in one sitting makes you sick," I once wrote) but that must have been revelations to my young mind. When I read them now—along with countless other notebooks I've filled to the brim with musings, doodles, lists, and story ideas—I discover versions of who I used to be.

Iowa City writer Jennifer New, 88BA, says that journals contain the very breath and spirit of their keepers. Perhaps that's why I took the extra time to put that sticker on my Barbie diary—and why I felt the guilty pleasure of reading something forbidden as I dove into New's book, Drawing from Life: The Journal As Art.

In Drawing from Life, New interviews 31 journal-keepers on how they use their notebooks to observe, explore, reflect, and create their worlds—and then she lets their words and images speak. The faithful scribes and artists behind this collection of journal excerpts unlock the secrets of their lives and hearts. The result, bound in a journal-like book with rounded corners and a graph paper background, is visually stirring.

Like snowflakes, no two contributors are the same. Quilt makers and cartoonists, naturalists and architects are just a few of the occupations represented in this book. Drawing from Life juxtaposes instructions on how to make an Ethiopian lip plate, the solution to a complex math problem, and snapshots from a man who photographed everything he ate for a year. In doing so, it highlights people's complicated and diverse motivations for documenting their lives.

The disparate entries illustrate the elusive creative process. Iowa Artisan's Gallery artist Mike Roberts, 73MA, 75MFA, finds inspiration in mundane objects like pizza slices and works through a series of notes, diagrams, and thumbnails to create his paintings. Director Michael Figgis sketches camera shots in the margins of his film scripts to create a visual foreshadowing of the final product. The most famous of the contributors, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, explains how a doodle he scribbled after a trip to a Japanese fashion show inspired the trademark "big suit" he wore in the band's concert film Stop Making Sense.

Sometimes, journals are the instruments of travelers; other times, journals are the travelers. Drawing from Life also covers the 1,000 Journals Project, which sends notebooks out across the globe for people to add to and pass along. A website ( tracks their locations as they bounce from Iceland to Singapore and on to the next destination. Some journals disappear for years, but they resurface after visiting more places than most people see in their lifetimes.

Whatever their subject matter, these notebooks all offer a safe place where journal-keepers can—uncensored—share who they are and who they'd like to be. "All artists produce works that in one way or another are self-revelations," maintains New York psychiatrist Martin Wilner, whose intricate sketches of fellow subway commuters are featured in Drawing from Life.

Indeed, even now, I'll occasionally return to my Barbie diary to remember what it was like to believe in tooth fairies and cootie shots. As New says, "In the end, journals may show more fully than any finished piece what it has meant to be us."