The Artful Travel Journal

Photojournalist Dan Eldon was stoned to death by an angry mob while reporting a story in Mogadishu in 1993. Dan Eldon Safari is a Way of LifeThis was something I thought a lot about, as it happened right when I’d become seriously interested in journalism. (Maybe I wouldn’t be that kind of journalist, I concluded, with my signature flinty courage.)  In the years that followed, I read many stories about Eldon’s life, his work, his death, all of which are well worth learning about. But it was his travel journals that have always captivated me the most.

Eldon’s are no ordinary travel journals, of the sort that I have piled to my right as I type this. (Soft-sided Moleskines, numbered, with the names of the places I’ve visited written in marker on the face.) The seventeen that he created before his death were works of mixed-media art; their creation wasn’t about note-taking, but a form of both meditation and creation. Rather than being made on the fly — as I often tend to grab for a journal (or more frequently, these days, my iPhone) to jot something down that I don’t want to forget — these were made out of the heat of the moment, as Jennifer New writes in her introduction to Dan Eldon: The Art of Life.

Dan’s room became his art studio…his desk was covered with little jars of beads and interesting colored spices, such as saffron. He had boxes of colored pencils, watercolors, pastels, and pens of every sort, including old-fashioned fountain pens, metallic markers, and fine-tipped architectural pens. He collected coins and bills from every country he visited, along with postage stamps and official documents. Even the lost parts of animals – snake skins, egg shells, and feathers – were saved.

Whatever wasn’t stored in stacks in his bedroom he kept in recycled metal boxes made out of old beer containers. He traveled with the boxes, hauling supplies with him wherever he went. As he got older, not only was his Nairobi bedroom filled with the collection of paper, pens, and found objects, but so was his mother’s apartment in London and other places he called home, if only for a week or two. When he showed up at his cousin John’s house in Iowa in February 1992, he brought with him an astonishing array of materials, including the detritus from recent trips to Japan, India, and Moscow. About six weeks later, he left for Kenya, boxing up much of what he’d brought and leaving it on John’s porch.

The pages Eldon created were stunning, as you should now go see for yourself.

Kathy Eldon Heart of Life

But if you’re still here, I will now confess that in recent months I have started to make my own art journals — although nothing that I’m ready to show another living soul, thank you very much. (Please see my earlier comment about my flinty courage.) My aspirations are not artistic: I’d found that there was a step that was missing between the notes that I took on the road, and the writing of my travel stories, a kind of processing that I wasn’t able to to do just through writing. Plus, I really love art supplies and paper, browsing the pages of the art journals which are legion online. Pinterest seems to be made for this, and I’ve become an unabashed fan of Teesha Moore’s pages.

There are two other books that were released in 2011, The Journey is the Destination, and Safari as a Way of Life. Later this month, his mother, Kathy Eldon’s memoir In the Heart of Life will be released, which I’m also looking forward to reading.

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