Recommendations Staff Book Reviews

Spilling Open

by Public Service Associate Juliana

photo by Juliana Farrington

My path to art journaling, like many of my life’s interests, was inspired by a library book. I’d just started high school, and my sister had a book report assignment on a self-help book of her choosing for her seventh grade English class. Naturally she went to the library, and I, library lover that I am, tagged along with her. Browsing the self-help section of the stacks, a single spine stood out to my sister, golden yellow with a title that looked like handwritten cursive. She pulled Spilling Open by Sabrina Ward Harrison from the shelf. After a quick flip through the pages, she looked up and said, “I think you’re going to like this one.” And wow, was she right. She’d found something special. This isn’t your typical self-help book or a how-to book on “how-to art journal”, Spilling Open is itself an art journal. I was absolutely enamored.

The publisher describes Spilling Open as “the creative expression of one young woman’s attempt to understand herself as she grows into adulthood. Harrison shares her private journal and art, offering us lessons in life and empowerment that resonate with fresh, youthful wisdom.” To engage with this text feels like reading someone’s thoughtful, curated diary. Personal, emotional, visual. I was so inspired by her work I went out that very same week and purchased a journal to begin my own art journal. I chose one with a cloth cover and thick handmade paper and set off on a creative journey that I didn’t know would become a lifelong passion. 

What I found particularly captivating about the book was the way she draws you in. She achieves this with her font choice, choosing to free write the text rather than type it, so the writing feels more personal, more intimate, more human. The abundance of marks and images large and small brings the reader to look closely at each page. I read Spilling Open as though through a magnifying glass, examined the details cover to cover, noted quotes and things I wanted to remember, photographs I suddenly felt moved to take, and topics to prompt later free writing sessions in my journal. 

The subtitle, “The Art of Becoming Yourself,” became a lifelong theme within my art journals. The expressive process of collecting, collaging, and recording helped me gain clarity, release anxiety, sort through difficult feelings, and grow into myself. As a diarist, poet, photographer, collector of ephemera and other minutia, art journaling helped me piece together all my interests. I didn’t think of it as therapy then, but art journaling became a way for me to ground myself, calm my thoughts, and most of all, to relish in the beauty of the day-to-day.

I experienced sparks of recognition within the pages of Spilling Open, Harrison’s seemingly effortless way of reaching the reader through tiny, intimate details. It was my first experience with how the very personal can become universal. Like when she says, “I know that the sound of a paddle dipping into Lake Simco, and knocking against the side of the canoe makes me want my childhood. I know I can’t go back. I know I have to put the next toe forward.” It was invigorating to discover such subtle beauty and relatability, and I felt driven to make my own pages to attempt to capture such details from my own life. 

Art journaling became what I did to take a break from homework, or what I did when I should have been doing homework. To this day, there is no greater joy for me than gathering scissors and glue and creating a lovely mess on the floor as I sift through a box of miscellany. It all becomes grist for the mill. Journal entries, magazine images, handwritten lists, electrical tape, pressed flowers, discarded insect wings, black and white photographs.

My sister’s discovery of Spilling Open that day in the library became a true example of how a single book can alter your life. I ended up studying the text so thoroughly I seemed to be more influenced by my sister’s assignment than perhaps she had been. I didn’t have to write anything for a grade, but the book was so compelling, so significant to my life, that here I am now, twenty years later, writing the report.

  • Spilling Open: The Art of Becoming Yourself by Sabrina Ward Harrison | print