Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fresh From the Oven

Cookie Jar front cover

One hand
in the cookie jar
takes a cookie out.
How many put the cookie in
is what the world’s about.

When I first read the manuscript for Who Put the Cookies in the Cookie Jar? I was hungry to illustrate it. It is rhythmic and rhyming. I love to bake and eat cookies. George is a witty, warm and wonderful person and I wanted to work with him. But most of all I was drawn to the underlying meaning of the book: that every person’s contributions matter. As George put it, the book is an ode to the widest sense of community.

paschkis cookie jar illustration

When I considered what this book should look like I thought of the WPA posters of the 1940′s. They were created to convey a message of community simply, powerfully and with graphic strength. I also looked at the works of Grant Wood because of their optimism and apparent lack of irony. WPA-Poster-1  WPA posterwpa postergrant wood landscapeWhen I illustrate a book I always start by painting one finished illustration, before drawing any of the sketches. This was the first painting:paschkis cookie jar illustrationAll of the other paintings grew out of that “seed”painting.Paschkis cookie jar illustrationpaschkis cookie jar illustrationpaschkis cookie jar illustrationGeorge’s text shows the joy that comes through doing work and being part of something bigger than yourself. I found that joy in working  on these paintings. Of course, any book about cookies must start and end by eating cookies. Please join us for a celebration at Eagle Harbor Books on April 14th from 3-4 PM.paschkis cookie jar illustration

A Window on a Doorway to a Launching Pad

I’m pretty busy these days working on the art for Boom Boomso I am re-posting a piece that I wrote for my other blog, Pebbles In The Jar, a site I created to be a resource and forum for people interested in connecting public schools to the arts community. I have worked as a volunteer arts liaison in Seattle public schools since 2000, when my eldest daughter started first grade.

This is one of my favorite posts that I’ve published to date, largely because it grew out of a conversation I had with my dad about his experience of the arts in education when he was a teenager in New York. I couldn’t help but compare it to the situation I’ve observed in schools here in Seattle.

I’m lucky that my father got the encouragement in the arts when he did. He went on to study ceramics at Alfred University, where he eventually met my mother.

A Window on a Doorway to a Launching Pad

A long time ago in a school district far, far away…

Well not that far away really, just the Bronx.

At the beginning of World War II, when New York was still heating up the melting pot of immigrant cultures that would define the five boroughs, my father started his Freshman year at DeWitt Clinton High School, class of ’45.

My father’s father had come alone from Russia at fourteen, eventually finding steady work in the garment district in New York City. His family lived in a one bedroom apartment in the Amalgamated Co-op on Van Cortlandt Park South. My dad and his older brother shared the bedroom. Their parents slept in the living room on a Riviera hide-away bed.

The DeWitt Clinton student body at that time drew from the immigrant families who lived in the neighborhood; largely Eastern European Jews but also Italians and Irish as well as black students coming up from Harlem–thousands of them pouring out of the Mosholu Parkway station on the Lexington Avenue line every morning.

As my father describes it, DeWitt Clinton was an all college-bound high school. When he attended, there were over ten thousand students, all boys. I have his Arista pin, signifying his membership in a city-wide honors society which came with enviable perks like unmonitored access to the hallways between classes.

In addition to the core curriculum of math, language, science, history and English at this college-prep, ethnically diverse, public high school, students at DeWitt Clinton also had a full spectrum of arts classes to choose from. These included drawing and painting, theater, choir, band, and sculpture. My father particularly enjoyed sculpture.

They also apparently used what we now refer to as arts integration. My father’s Sophomore English class studied “Macbeth” with each student being given lines to memorize and recite. My father’s assignment was Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. “Come to my woman’s breast and take my milk for gall.” I’m quoting my father, not Shakespeare. He still remembers a few choice bits.

And then there is The Magpie, DeWitt Clinton’s student literary magazine.

Read this for example, written by a young James Baldwin, ’42,

Black Girl Shouting

Stomp my feet
An’ clap my han’s
Angels comin’
To dese fair lan’s.

Cut my lover
Off dat tree!
Angels comin’
To set me free.

Glory, glory,
To de Lamb
Blessed Jesus
Where’s my man?

Black girl, whirl
Your torn, red dress
Black girl, hide
Your bitterness.

Black girl, stretch
Your mouth so wide.
None will guess
The way he died

Turned your heart
To quivering mud
While your lover’s
Soft, red blood

Stained the scowling
Outraged tree.
Angels come
To cut him free!

The Magpie, Winter 1942, v. 26, n. 1, p. 32.

And look at this illustration by his brother John Baldwin, ’40.

A Stroll Down Broadway, End Paper (Part 1) January 1940 issue

And this image by Robert Blackburn, ’38,

School Yard, p 21. 20.

James Baldwin served as The Magpie’s literary editor for a time. Richard Avedon was his buddy. Neil Simon was there then too, probably wandering the hallways wearing his Arista pin.

Countee Cullen, Will Eisner, Avery Fisher, Paddy Chayefsky, Frank Gilroy, Fats Waller–DeWitt Clinton has graduated an amazing list of illustrious people, as well as my father, who went on to become a high school and then a community college teacher in both ceramics and math.

Keep in mind that this was the high school you went to for a good education. If you wanted to be an artist, you went to The Music and Art High School next to CCNY.

So here was a public high school in a working class, immigrant neighborhood, during wartime, following the most traumatic economic period in US history, before fundraising auctions or walk-a-thons were a twinkle in any PTA member’s eye, providing art for its students without questioning art’s educational value or requiring significant data or RFQs in order to continue its funding, turning out some of the most creative American minds of the past century.

Yes, I am naive and no historian, and that was New York and this is Seattle, but still, the contrast is pretty awesome. What happened? Why don’t we value the arts in education anymore?

I think the answer may be that we don’t value education anymore. We value stuff. Lots of stuff. And Power.

And our culture no longer perceives knowledge as power. Instead, money and fame are what we respect most. If you asked the American people what they would rather have–a 55” Class Edge Lit Razor LED™ LCD HDTV with VIZIO Internet Apps® and unlimited cable access, a you-tube video of their overweight cat going viral resulting in an interview spot on the Ellen Degeneres Show, or a free, excellent, public education–what do you think the majority would answer?

What if that changed? What if education became the priority in our society across all learning areas? What if the entire population rose up to support schools, teachers, students, learning? What if knowledge was part of the American Dream?

If not, how many creative minds of this century will be left under-nourished?

Skinny Books, Dust, Dandelions, Sneezes, Apple Cake and Inspiration

Books...

Books…

The other day, with many tasks calling to me, I decided to spend the afternoon doing something that is a ritual task-avoidance activity of mine, something not on any of my To-Do lists: I decided to move books from one place in my house to another place. I do this from time to time; my husband is used to it and he just rolls his eyes and ignores my sneezing (dust) and my talking to myself (about how silly I am to be doing it when I have so much else to do.) Several months ago, we had to eliminate an entire set of bookcases to make room for french doors out to the deck. Total chaos! It seems I’m always carrying big bunches of books from one place to another.

and more books....

and more books spilling over….

When I say “big bunches,” I mean big. This time around, I moved my collection of poetry (about 400 books) from the living room to my study. Why? Well, I didn’t want to do anything on my To-Do list, that was probably the biggest motivator. And I had been looking for some time at how messy the poetry books were.

and the poetry books....

and some of the poetry books….

Minus the Collected Works of someone, and minus anthologies, poetry books are a skinny lot – many don’t even have 1/2-inch spines, and they’re visually “busy”  compared to fiction (which took poetry’s place in the living room.) Fiction is less cluttered, less multitudinous, less random in its trim sizes. The effect of a house over-filled with books is not always calming, and I was going for calm.

and books on chairs...

and more poetry books in stacks and more books on chairs…

No matter what the motivation was, I found myself with stacks and stacks of books, wondering yet again (as I do periodically) about how to organize the poetry. Fiction, no problem – I do it alphabetically. But with poetry I wonder if the  alphabet of last names should prevail.  There are other possibilities on any given shelf of my poetry bookcases:

1. Poets I love 2. Poets who loved each other. 3. Poets by the century in which they lived. 4. Poets by the places they lived – England, France, Russia, Spain, (maybe a shelf of everything in translation?) and the American South, New England, the American West – poets known as “regional.” 5. Poets who have won the Nobel Prize or have entered “the canon.” 6. Poets who are private little discoveries of mine, or so I think. 7. Poets who are friends of mine. 8. Poetry reviews in which I have poems of my own. 9. Poetry criticism by poets. 10.Poetry criticism by non-poets. 11. Big anthologies. 12. Miscellaneous (sometimes, my favorite category – unclassifiable.

In the end, after all the pondering, the alphabet prevailed, except for a few I like to keep handy on my desk.

and a few books on a messy desk....

and more books on a messy desk….

When I’m looking for something, I want to find it fast, so practicality won the day. Admitting this makes me feel slightly ashamed, but there it is. I do manage to keep a few special old books around the house.

and books with hands....

and old books next to old hands….

For one afternoon of carrying great bundles of books from one room to another, thinking about ways these writers related to each other (Should I put Ted Hughes’s Collected Works next to Sylvia Plath’s? Raymond Carver’s next to Tess Gallagher’s? Should I make sure the Welsh and Irish poets do not get mixed in with the English?) and ways I related to them (Do I really love W. H. Auden enough to add him to the shelf with Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur? Do I love Walter de la Mare in the same way I love C.K. Williams or Robert Graves?)…for that time of pondering, I was gloriously lost in the world of poetry.

and special books....

and a lion and a foot and complete set of The English Poets, of course……

I opened quite a few books and read a poem or two or ten. And I was inspired. How wonderful to be a poet – that’s what I was thinking at the end of the day.

So I sat down and wrote a poem.

Moral of the story? Avoiding your To-Do list (“Write!”) does not always mean you’re being unproductive. It doesn’t mean you’re wasting time, not always, not if what you have in front of you (a good book…or 400 good books!) inspires you. And inspiration doesn’t always come from something intellectual – not always a book. It could come while your surveying the almost-spring garden, Sometimes it come when you’re in the kitchen – the color of an apple or the smell of an apple cake makes you feel creative and makes you sit down to write a picture book (yes, Julie Paschkis, I mean you.)

I honestly believe that everything a writer does is a source of inspiration. Moving books from one room to another, baking a cake, playing the ukulele, drawing, reading a personal essay in The Threepenny Review (oh, it is so good),  pulling dandelions, pruning a tree, taking a walk, talking to a neighbor. Don’t feel guilty when you spend time not writing. Eventually, the desire to write will overwhelm you – when it does, pay close attention. Heed the call.  Do it. Write. Let it take you over completely.

The author Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward

And an author and his book (Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward)

You might not be prolific if you follow my advice. But you’ll stay engaged with the world of real people and real objects. Engagement – that’s a good goal, and I think it’s what makes for good writing – and a good life.  Touch things, move things, make music, bake things, get your hands dirty, unsettle the dust, sneeze.

and books that need dusting! (Achoo! Salud!)

…and books that need dusting! – on my To-Do list!

Then come back to your writing, inspired.

———————————————————————-

WORK THAT LASTS

There are many ways to develop a creative work from its inspiration to completion. We could construct a spectrum, in fact. On one end would be Shoshona Bean, a singer/composer who works from within, incorporating all she feels and knows into her music. At the other end would be the people at Netflix who work from without, basing creative decisions about content and casting as well as delivery on their viewers’ preferences.

OFARRELL

Shoshona Bean’s new album, O’Farrell Street, is old-school soul. It has a grittiness and authenticity that can’t be faked. You can hear some of the tunes and watch the making of it at this YouTube site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=zrAc4ecUevA

On the other hand, the writers of Netflix’s House of Cards, like the politician in its leading role, tend toward manipulation. They give viewers exactly what the viewers’ past 15 years of viewing choices suggest they want, even to the casting of Kevin Spacey in the lead. Author Gina Keating, Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs, explained this in an NPR interview: “A very powerful matching algorithm underpins the way that your Netflix page works,” she said. “Everybody’s Netflix page looks different based on what they’ve viewed in the past and liked. [Netflix] can aggregate those communities to create audiences for content.”

Shoshona Bean raised $28,000 on Kickstarter, to make her O’Farrell Street album, finding grassroots support of her vision. She gathered a team – instrumentalist, singers, production people — who aligned with her goal. I am proud to say our son Tim wrote the instrumental arrangements and produced it.

Netflix released their 13-hour House of Cards series at one time, catering to binge viewers who gobble the whole thing in a day or two. Immediate gratification. Total submersion. I wonder if any of those viewers go back for a second runthrough?

Shoshana Bean’s new album begs to be listened to again and again. That’s how it is with things made from the heart. As one reviewer wrote: “Bean spent years blowing audiences away with her voice on Broadway (she starred in Wicked), but this album finds her at home in her element, singing songs about love and heartbreak… at once throwback and undeniably current.” I can’t wait to listen again. It’s a lasting thing of beauty.

Time Travel

My post today is not related to children’s books, except that illustrating children’s books led me to study Spanish. But it is a story, and a true story at that.

At the beginning of February I went to Guatemala with my friend Deborah Mersky to study Spanish at La Cooperativa, a wonderful school in San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlan. Here is San Pedro himself in the town square.san pedro

The night before I left I came across some photos that my great uncle (Karl Paschkis) had taken in 1953. They were taken in Santiago, another town on Lake Atitlan. I took the photos with me.santiago guatemala 1953santiago, guatemala

The teachers at the school instantly recognized the people as being from Santiago because of the fabric in their clothing, and they thought that some of the same families might still be selling their wares at the market.

One afternoon Deborah and I took a small ferry across the lake to Santiago.boat on Lake Atitlan

The town sprawled over the hill. Over 30,000 people live there now. Deborah and I showed the photos to several women at different stalls in the market, some of whom spoke only Tz’utujil, a Mayan language.  No luck. So after a while we gave up and went to see the church. In a courtyard behind the church several women were sweeping up leaves. I showed them the pictures. One woman was so excited that she practically grabbed them from me. She held the pictures to her chest. She knew the people in the photos and cared about them. We spent some time explaining who took the pictures and when, and trying to understand her relation to the the people in the pictures. I am still not totally sure if they were friends or family (madre o compadre) because Spanish was a second language for all of us and everyone was excited.

I told the women to keep the old photos – I don’t think they would have given them back to me in any case. Then Deborah took some pictures. Three little boys ran across the courtyard to get into this photo.santiago

I can hardly believe that we found these people so quickly in a town that big with photos from 60 years ago. Maybe in 2073 someone can go back to Santiago and find these boys who will be old men by then, or someone who knew them.