How to Begin

by Barbara Martin

in How to Tips, Motivation & Inspiration

wood boxes for assemblage project

pile of boxes

A week ago Monday, I lugged home a (clean) trash sack stuffed with ten (very clean, empty) cigar boxes all the way from Pasadena.

It seemed like a good idea at the time because I’m excited about collage and assemblage right now and sturdy wooden cigar boxes are a handy size for small assemblage pieces. Like a proud mama, I photographed that pile of boxes stacked on the living room carpet, I photographed them in my studio, I even tweeted the photos. And then I conveniently “forgot” them.

Dontcha know it, an empty box is just as intimidating as a blank page or an empty canvas or any other thing that needs to be begun from scratch with “just” an idea. And I didn’t have just the one empty box staring back at me, oh no, because I have to go-all-out-full-tilt-right-over-the-edge when I do things, so it’s:


By coincidence, I noticed this creativity queue challenge happening over at Tammy’s Daisy Yellow blog. It felt tailor-made for me – and my collection of wooden “Pandora-boxes” I was less and less willing to open.

header as drawn in red and white

header before neon treatment

(Even better, I enjoyed Tammys index card a day or “icad” project last year, which eventually lead to the “colorful” header on the blog now. Which bright new header was a step toward coming out of my recent ahem blog hiatus. Because tiny things really do make a difference. Believe it!)

So for this challenge today, I love Tammy’s list of suggestions on starting:


I love the concept of working separately, yet in community.
I love the idea of publishing my work – it’s all good, in theory.

the studio hot seat! camera is ready!

But we all know “begin” can be a tough switch to click. Isn’t it “funny” how having a publication deadline can be helpful – for me, I’m due to publish this tomorrow. Also, photos are better taken during daylight because flash messes with the colors.

So here’s how it went down, step by step, with those

#1. I can’t decide which box to start with, have been hemming and hawing over that all week. But the clock is ticking and I have to do something and do it quick. I make the BIG decision to start with a matched pair of boxes because “twins” seem less threatening than just one. Maybe because it feels like there is a spare? Voila: Specific Boxes!

Deciding WHERE to start is HUGE. It gives me a focus, which in turn streamlines subsequent decisions. And suddenly, it doesn’t seem that hard.

#2. I pull out pieces of paper and supplies: tissue paper, crumpled and stained drawing paper, bubble wrap, water color paints with glittery sheen, glimmer spray, acrylic medium and a scraper made from a plastic card….. Voila: Starting Colors!

adding color to the boxes

playing with color

This is beginning to feel like a fun adventure I can’t wait to get my hands on. Suddenly, I have a “brain wave” thought and

#3. I dig out the fortune cookie fortunes I’ve been collecting. I only find 3. I don’t let that stop me, but I start to dilly-dally, wavering over which 2 of the 3 fortunes to use. Nooooooooooooooo time for that! I solve the problem by grabbing another box and then I drop a paper into each box without looking at what the papers say. Voila: Themes!

messages from fortune cookies

instant themes

This feels like solid progress, like things are beginning to take shape and come together. It’s really sort of a relief, now that I’ve gotten started. The problems I had been wrestling with, the questions about materials, colors, theme(s), and even which size and shape and how many boxes have all been sorted out in one quick session.

#4. I stop to take pictures and congratulate myself on the flurry of progress I’ve made so far. (And mostly resist the temptation to wonder why it has taken me over a week to actually do this.)

But wait. I know I’ve been stewing over it all week while I went about my daily life and seemingly “did nothing” about the boxes. I know that in the background my brain has been mulling it over and trying on this and that to see what might work…so today the answers seemed to pop right up like magic.

Best of all, going forward is easier because I know what to do next: use the papers to line and/or cover the boxes, color more paper if needed (I set out the sea salt and isopropyl alcohol toys to play with)

sea salt and isopropyl alcohol

art materials: sea salt and isopropyl alcohol for paint texture

and then ponder what to add to the boxes to transform them into that series of assemblages I had in the back of my mind when I snatched up that serendipitous pile of boxes off the sidewalk in front of the fancy shmancy (and smelly) cigar store in Pasadena last week.

In other words, I have no clear idea (yet) what they will turn into. But no longer do I have (scary) “empty boxes” staring at me. These little boxes are now a project in process; I am free to play around and see what happens next.

I am kind of in love with them. I’m calling them #Boxettes.

Boxette #1 (Don’t do something, just stand there!)
Boxette #2 (Dreamer’s Destiny aka DoubleD)
Boxette #3 (r a I n)

And ya know what? The leftover boxes are just pinching and shoving and squiggling, they are so eager to get off that shelf. I hope they can wait their turn like civilized little boxes should. If not, that’s OK too. There’s plenty of room on my table, now that there’s some forward momentum.

p.s. If you happen to have any spare fortunes in your junk drawer, I’d really appreciate it if you could send them my way?

Creativity Queue Challenge at Daisy Yellow blog

p.p.s. Do check out the rest of the posts and participants in this fun creativity challenge over at Daisy Yellow!


Tammy March 28, 2012 at 8:34 am

Barbara, Fabulous progress, so happy that you are inspiring others to take that first step. I agree that our minds are mulling things over, sorting things out, and so when we finally get around to doing something it does ramp up quickly. My art journal ephemera (anything that’s not cardstock) is in 2 huge baskets. I am contemplating re-organizing because the little things are smothered by the big things! I’m also a fan of cigar boxes and have been using them in the sewing room for bits of fabric scraps, thread, bobbins, etc. Thank you for playing along with the challenge!

gem March 28, 2012 at 9:33 am

Good job! Loved your process breakdown, that is exactly how I usually dig out of a creative rut (and/or block) – break it down into smaller chunks, and suddenly you are taking big ‘ol bites! 😀 Keep it up, hope to see some finished assemblage boxes at some point!
~ gem ~

Barbara Martin March 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm

@Tammy So often creativity is nonlinear… it can be both rewarding and frustrating sometimes for that reason, I think. But as long as we are willing to take the small steps then things work themselves out. This is a great challenge, and I am happy to emphasize the value of small steps. Thank you for letting me host!

@gem Hahaha. I am not sure yet how the boxes will play out. That is the beauty of being willing to be process oriented rather than product oriented. For now I am happy to be playing along with them. And yes, I’ll update on the blog here eventually about the Boxettes, you bet!

Thanks for the encouragement!

Lizzie Bo March 29, 2012 at 4:51 am

I’m always amazed that I can feel so stuck one minute and then have that flood of action the next. It’s clear that while I feel like I’m dithering, I’m actually working things through in some part of my head. Of course, sometimes I’m just dithering. But this was the perfect post to illustrate how that little nudge into action (a deadline, but anything will do) allows all the rest of that to come out. I can’t wait to see how they progress. Thanks for the post.

Ellen Porter March 29, 2012 at 7:32 am

Interesting, motivating post. At first I wanted to grab boxes and find things to put IN them, now I am more inclined to grab boxes and decorate them. Or go have Chinese food so I can find some themes for whatever creative project I might do.

Barbara Martin March 29, 2012 at 9:26 am

@LizzieBo That is such a good reminder: recognize if you are procrastinating for real, or if you are letting it percolate. In this case I had another deadline(!) for a piece of writing so I was preoccupied and sort of hyperbusy doing that for the two days prior to doing/writing about this. It is a bad habit, and I think it is a habit, of mine to wait for the pressure of a deadline before I really get to work. I am sure the deadline kills off the inner critic and that’s why I can (finally) do the work. I am learning to set that inner critic gently aside on my own without a deadline, but it is an uphill battle sometimes.

Barbara Martin March 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

@Ellen — You go!!!! ps I have excellent/terrible news for you: I bought a whole box of fortune cookies at the grocery store a few months ago! I was so surprised to see them — they just jumped right into my cart. Perfect example of an impulse buy.

Also a good example of my ongoing issues with being organized. Out of a box of 15 cookies, there is one cookie left in the box which means there should be 14 fortune papers in my studio. Although to be fair, maybe my husband ate a few and didn’t save the papers? And maybe the box only had 14 cookies as it is labeled by weight and says “approximately” 15 …. so give or take a few, I still should have a lot more than 3 on hand and within easy reach. I guess I’ll just have to be on the look-out. Or pick up another box except that might be cheating, I am not sure. LOL.

Lorinda @ Everyday Endeavours March 29, 2012 at 9:52 am

I love your fortune cookie idea. How brilliant–instant themes. My problem with boxes like that would be that I wouldn’t want to cover the wood…. all that beautiful dovetailing and labeling… I would, however have them full of crafting goodies in about five minutes of bringing them home. Can’t wait to see how they end up! Thanks for co-hostessing with me today!!

Barbara Martin March 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

@Lorinda Yes, I know what you mean about the wood and I may do something to allow the wood to show through on the boxes with “good” wood and especially dovetails, like the ones in the picture. About half of them are paper-covered on the outside and part of the inside — the way I think of a traditional cardboard cigarbox. I took all the wooden ones they had, oddly they all cost the same price. Such an opportunity! :)

Barbara Martin March 29, 2012 at 10:15 am

If you are reading here and want to participate in today’s dealiebob with the linkerdoodle, head over to Tammy’s introduction to Day 3 of the challenge!

Barbara Martin June 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm


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