Updated: Jan 26, 2021
She journaled every single morning for a year, made the radical decision to get sober, accepted a challenge to write thirty gratitudes a day—ultimately finding a way to blend art + gratitude journaling with a community that celebrates her practice.
Abstract painter Tammi Salas is co-creator of The Unruffled Podcast, a show about creativity + sobriety that launched in 2017. She illustrated The Mantra Project, a writing, journaling, and meditation experience from Tempest. Her course Proof of Life teaches artists to go deeper into their creativity, self, and work. Find out more at tammisalas.com. Follow Tammi on Instagram at @tammisalas and check out the thousands of gratitude art lists on Instagram tagged #tammisgratitudecircle and #tammisgratitudetribe.
AJ: I've so enjoyed seeing your work on Instagram and luxuriating in your art, words, and imagery. I'm excited to learn how you came to journaling and what it means to you. Tell me, what kind of journaler are you, Tammi?
TS: I am a committed journaler and an art journaler. I love accountability, so I’m a daily journaler as well.
AJ: Accountability is one of those words that scares me a little. What is accountability’s role in your journaling?
TS: That’s how I started journaling in earnest. It started as an accountability project. I was following a couple of artists that I admire—Lisa Congdon was one—who were doing daily accountability projects and something about it spoke to my Virgo sensibilities. I liked that I could start at the very first day of the year. I committed to journaling on Jan 1 of 2014, a year before I quit drinking.
I committed to journaling on Jan 1 of 2014, a year before I quit drinking.
AJ: Sounds like it was the right time for you to begin.
TS: I had been unhappy with my life to that point. I think I was looking for something to tether me to myself and to enable me to keep my word to myself. And so I thought that if I committed to a project for an entire year, I’d see if I could do it. That was the first thing. I haven’t missed a day in my journal since I started on January 1, 2014.
AJ: What was that first journal like back in 2014?
TS: It was an art journal. Art. Words. Thoughts. Quotes. We used to spend a lot of time at the breakfast table. I would paint with whatever was at the table—coffee, beet juice, a broken crayon of my son’s, or his watercolors. I did half a page a day, for the entire calendar year.
AJ: Half a page is do-able!
TS: It was all that I could commit to because a full page just felt like way too much. The next year, 2015, I committed to filling a full page and drawing lines to quell my anxiety. Lots of lines and some words. I would spend that time meditating on my life, thinking, “What’s going on? You’re not living right.” Drawing in these journals and making tick marks was my way back to myself. I got sober in February of 2015.
AJ: What kept you on track that first year of journaling?
TS: I wanted to see if I could keep my word. I wanted to commit to myself, not cheat on myself, which I felt like I had been doing my whole life. I committed to drawing, painting, words, sketches, ideas, dreams, imperfection, to be daring and experimental. My first entry was the word acceptance. And I kept my word to myself. When I got to the end of that year, December 31 of 2014, I was like, “I did it.” There was a deep satisfaction.
I wanted to commit to myself, not cheat on myself, which I felt like I had been doing my whole life.
AJ: You’re an artist, so it must have come easilyish?
TS: At first it was very uncomfortable. I didn’t know what I was doing at first. I was drawing like I was in third grade. I would sit at the table, usually with a hangover to be quite honest. The mornings were the hardest for me. I had to sit there, sit and just contemplate my life. By the end of that year, the journal had become this thing that I carried everywhere. It was with me at all times, a security blanket. I started to see what I was drawn to, imagery, shapes, colors and what I liked. It was all intuitive. Eventually, I started sharing it on Instagram.
AJ: I love how organic it sounds like your process was. You committed and then the magic happened. It’s as if you planned it! [Laughs]
TS: I didn’t realize what I was doing until I had about eight months of sobriety; looking back, I thought, “That whole year before was getting me ready for this.” The gratitude practice kicked in after I got sober. I got a sponsor who challenged me to write a 30 item gratitude list for 30 days. I thought it was completely outrageous for this person I didn’t even really know to require that of me and I resisted. I only like my own ideas! [Laughs.] But my people-pleasing gene and my task-master personality said, “I accept.” It was really hard at first to think of thirty things that I was grateful for.
AJ: Thirty things every day is a lot!
TS: By the end of the thirty days, I loved it so much. And I was like, “I can write 100 things!”
AJ: As if thirty isn’t enough. So, what happened?
TS: So my sponsor said, “Why don’t you continue with the gratitude lists practice?” That put me at a crossroads. I already had the art journaling project that had been so good to me—that got me here, examining my life, got me making art again, sharing it publicly. My art journal was the thing I looked forward to when I got out of bed in the morning. I didn’t want to give it up! But I had this other assignment, to write a daily gratitude list, which I now loved, but which took time and thought and dedication as well.
...the art journaling project had been so good for me—it got me here, examining my life, got me making art again, and sharing it publicly.
AJ: You had to choose.
TS: Well, sort of. My thinking was, “Maybe I can marry the two.”
AJ: I love it—you chose both.
TS: That’s exactly what I did. I started making watercolor foundations. Watercolor dries so fast. I'd go and made my tea and by the time I came back, my page was dry. I could write the gratuities right on top of the painted page. I’ve been writing gratitude lists every day since December 10 of 2015.
on shifting from fear to love
AJ: What does gratitude journaling do for you?
TS: It’s a way to move out of self pity, to shift my perception of my life. They talk about that in A Course in Miracles, moving from fear to love as a shift in perception. That’s what I’m trying to do every day: Move from fear to love. From my desk every morning, I can sit there and change my perception about a situation, a person, place, or thing. I can make peace with myself or with a really hard situation. I can find beauty.
From my desk every morning, I can sit there and change my perception about a situation, a person, place, or thing.
AJ: Okay, that. is. a. huge. shift.
TS: Here's what happens. Gratitude starts to permeate the neural pathways—it changes the way you think. So I can go through my day, be driving down the road, and find appreciation and gratitude for something really beautiful that I see. Now I can see these things even when I don’t have the journal in front of me. That’s what the practice affords. It has given me my perception of the outside world. I see more beauty.
AJ: Could you read a few of your gratitudes? Not 100 but, you know, a few?
TS: [Laughs.] I am grateful to wake up without a hangover. To have music as medicine. My studio to create. Texting technology. iMovie tools. Knowing how to ask for help. Love in my life. My gray hair. Another 24 hours. Anxiety tools. My intuition. Girlfriends. Accepting what is. Information. Self care. Wisdom. My body. Grace and humility. My sexuality. Source. Vulnerability. Young people. Healthy food. Books. Groceries. Change.
AJ: If I wanted to try my hand at gratitude art journaling, how would I go about it?
TS: To make it happen in the morning, for me, I have to make it easy. Everything has to be waiting for me. And this: To have my morning routine, I have to have an evening routine.
AJ: Omg, the untold secret of all successful people: An evening routine!
TS: Right? So in the evening my desk is cleared. My gratitude journal is out. It’s tidy. It’s important to make it accessible. And so, when I sit down in the morning, everything is waiting for me—it’s an invitation.
...when I sit down in the morning, everything is waiting for me—it's an invitation.
AJ: What about supplies?
I have a little drawer in my desk with thrifted watercolor palettes and I have one paintbrush (that I got for $0.49) on my desk. I have a little ceramic bowl that I put water in. And pens. I always bring my journal with me and carry a pencil bag with a paintbrush in there, too, plus pens and a watercolor brush. Over the years I’ve learned what pens work in my journals: Micron and Gelly Roll pens—the Classic type, and Pentel markers.
AJ: I’ve noticed printed imagery show up in your work on Instagram and wonder what supplies I need for doing collage?
TS: Right now I’m doing mono collage. If someone wants to do collage and gratitude, all you need is a sketchbook, a good pen, watercolors and brush (if you want), and a glue stick and a magazine (if you want). The pen and the book are really all that you need to write gratitudes. I have magazine images that I’ve collected and organized. That’s a nighttime activity. I make folders with images organized by themes, and a folder for words. In the morning I can just grab an image that reflects my emotions. I collage my emotions.
If someone wants to do collage and gratitude, all you need is a sketchbook, a good pen, watercolors and brush (if you want), and a glue stick and a magazine (if you want).
AJ: So, magazines. Do you order rare European magazines or buy Art in America, or what? It seems like you would need a lot of resources.
TS: I don’t think you do. I have two big fat Vogues. I have some National Geographics here in my studio from a friend. Random catalogs show up in the mail. That’s all I have. What I’ve found most helpful is having a stash of images.
AJ: I'm inspired, Tammi. Truly. Any last bit of art journaling advice?
TS: Don’t do the next page, do today’s page. You know what I mean? For me, I’m in today. You only have twenty four hours. If I make a mistake on the page, I have to accept the mistake. If I misspell something, I have to accept the misspelling. That’s the practice for me. I want to accept the imperfection. The world’s not going to end. Accept the mistake and move on.
These are three remarkable people—and their books—that inspired me when I first started out. Even now, I turn to their work, follow them, and track their updates and read their newsletters. —Tammi Salas
Lisa Congdon | Find Your Artistic Voice
When I would sit down with a cup of coffee and do half a page in my first journal, back in 2014, that was inspired by Lisa Congdon. She’s a Portland-based artist and a big influence for me. I admire how dedicated and committed she is to her practice. Like me, she came to art later in life and describes herself as a "late bloomer." I appreciate that as I was forty three years old when I started doing my journals.
Austin Kleon | Steal Like An Artist
His book Steal Like an Artist is a quick read and an amazing book. It's the book that helped me do all the illustrations for The Mantra Project, and just do the next thing, the next thing, and the next. Nothing is "original." Be sure you're giving attribution for work that's inspired by another artist when you’re riffing. Eventually, your work becomes your own. (Psst! Austin does a great weekly newsletter.)
Maira Kalman | And the Pursuit of Happiness
For studying handwriting, Maira's work was important for me. Her work is just beautiful. She does illustration for The New Yorker (and has illustrated/written more than a dozen books). I love her for her sensibility and the observations she makes. She’s an inspiration of Lisa Congdon’s, too.
Interviewed on April 24, 2020 via Zoom, separately together | Valley Ford, CA and Petaluma, CA. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
I talked to Tammi a week later. Here's our Instagram Live conversation.
05:58—Inside Tammi's FIRST journal, inspired by artist Lisa Congdon.
08:56–Her journaling NOWADAYS—art journaling meets gratitude lists.
09:06–Tammi’s untold four-fold process.
13:02–Sources of gratitude (mostly painful sources).
20:55–Use ANY journal to get going—lined, unlined, whatever.
22:17–Dealing with that first EMPTY page—paint the opening spread, come up with a word for the year, or just start on the second or third page.
25:55–Journals tell our story.
26:26–What LOGBOOKing is—the journal you need most is a logbook, inspired by Austin Kleon.