Monica d. Church

What’s your sketchbook origin story? When did you start and how/why?

In my first 9th-grade drawing class, I was encouraged to keep a sketchbook by my teacher,  Marshall Eddy. He believed that practice was an important tool for learning how to draw. But while I drew in sketchbooks in high school and at RISD, it wasn’t until I traveled to Mexico for five weeks during RISD’s intersession that I really committed and connected with the practice. When I look back on that sketchbook, I can see both many things that began there and things I’ve since revised about the work that goes into a sketchbook. The Mexico sketchbook is much larger than anything I would use today. It’s where I first drew people I didn’t know on the city streets, as well as portraits of the people I was traveling with. I made written entries and began gluing in tickets and found papers.

While the Mexico sketchbook was really the beginning of keeping a sketchbook, my first trip to Vietnam in 1992 cemented the practice. I had thought I would work as I did in Mexico -- from life -- but once in Hanoi I realized that rather than working from street life I wanted to work in a more non-objective fashion. I began to seek out handmade papers, joss papers, receipts, tickets, toilet paper, any random scraps of paper I could pick up off the ground in the busy streets of the capital city of Hanoi. At that time, Vietnam did not have any relations with the US and because of this there was very little trash, but I was able to find cigarette packs or discarded lottery tickets, and I kept the wrapping paper from anything I purchased. I had brought watercolor pencils and Windsor & Newton watercolors (a huge splurge at the time) and I made over 30 collages in that sketchbook while in country. The format of this sketchbook was 7” x 8”, which remains my favorite to work in.

So with your Hanoi sketchbook, you settled on a particular size of 7” x 8”, and the pages of the book are non-objective. Did any other aspects of your travel land on its pages?

Yes, I have a few written journal entries with general impressions. I made color pencil studies of flowers and of ceramic floor tiles, and a few attempts at street drawing. Reviewing the Hanoi sketchbook, I came across the funniest few pages. They are a series of combined photographs of my husband, Bob, and me. The photographs were originally made for visa purposes. I cut them up and reassembled them and the results are hysterical.

Earlier you mentioned that your teacher, Marshall Eddy, believed practice was an important tool for learning to draw. Is this true for you now in your sketchbook?

Now it is not about drawing practice but about an active looking process. I am less interested in the resulting drawing than in the fact that I have really looked at something with care and attention.

Is that care and attention the impetus for activating your sketchbook now?

The impetus for my sketchbooks is much like a meditation about where I land, so to speak, visually. It’s where I have conversations about what currently interests me in the art world or with my own work.

Could you describe what these conversations look like?

I write reactions to podcasts, take notes on webinars, and make visual notes about current paintings. My notes usually take the form of lists or phrases. For example, when listening to Brian Alfred’s podcast interview of Emi Winter, I wrote, “Slow experience of painting.” This was the essence of what I got from that particular interview, and it was all I needed. I make notes like that to myself because if I don’t write an idea down when I have it, it leaves and goes elsewhere and I can’t find it again.

Are there things you do in your sketchbook you can’t do anywhere else?

Yes, I love a small format and am able to work with the idea that the results are for my eyes only. It’s also where I visually solve real-world artist problems like how to conceptualize an exhibition. When traveling there is no better place to ground oneself. It’s a private space for making visual notations. I try to capture my bodily experiences visually through piecing together fragments of color, texture and collected materials.

Since the pandemic, does your sketchbook have a new role?

The pandemic has limited my travel – and thus the nature of my sketchbooks. I’ve begun working in numerous sketchbooks in an attempt to be more organized. One is a written daily listing of what I did that day without judgment (which really helped during the 2020 shutdown when days blended together). A second is a datebook with a list of to-dos. The third is for notes and ideas I get while listening to podcasts. The fourth is a general sketchbook for drawing during ZOOM meetings and that I keep in my bag so I can draw while waiting or in the car. The fifth sketchbook (and my current favorite) records the evolution of my sailcloth-based paintings. It contains notes on paint mixtures, documents the painting’s progression, and includes small collages. This nautical sketchbook is a revelation: in the past I never took the time to carefully observe the progression of my paintings and having notes on color mixtures has proved to be invaluable. I also keep a sketchbook/notebook for specifically for contract work.

Will the six sketchbooks you’re currently keeping remain part of your practice?

I’m not sure. It’s an attempt to be more organized. I like having one that is just a practical list of what happened on that particular day. I’ll continue to use a small sketchbook for specific bodies of work/projects. Once I begin traveling again, I’ll go back to using one sketchbook that serves as a catchall. Who wants to carry around more than one?

Prior to the pandemic, why were your sketchbooks limited to travel?

They weren’t limited to travel. It’s just that the sketchbook becomes more focused and important while I’m traveling. Working in a sketchbook keeps me grounded and provides a space to process new places and experiences. When I’m traveling, I’m outside my comfort zone and the sketchbook is a place where I feel like I can find and connect with myself.

Can you say more about how your sketchbook is grounding?

It’s a space where I am able to empty out my head noise. I can be as anxious or confident as I want, make drawings, doodles, marks, glue paper – I believe it all comes down to a tactile connection. This happens through paper and glue, pencil or pen to paper combined with having with no expectations of creating a product. The process is a working meditation.

To learn more about Monica, visit her website or follow her on Instagram!