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Here’s to Amazement

Robert F. Bukaty - Maine Cold

I’ve been reading One Hundred Years of Solitude again. I read it every so often – usually after a long period of rain in the Pacific Northwest. The book acts on me like a tonic.  I love the way the inhabitants of Macondo, the village Garcia Marquez creates for the novel, see ordinary things  as wondrous. A magnet, a magnifying glasses, a cake of ice  – the ordinary is extraordinary. Sure, a young woman can float off into the sky – but ice? Ice is a miracle.

Here’s how Garcia Marquez describes the moment a gypsy giant brings ice (hidden in a pirate chest!) to Macondo:

          Disconcerted, knowing the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio Buendia paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery

It’s easy on a day-to-day basis to allow the mystery or ordinary things to sink below the surface.  But  part of the joy of reading Garcia Marquez is that wonder  is refreshed. We come away ready to see the world with new eyes.

The photo of the bird above, taken by the wonderful AP photographer Robert F. Bukaty, has the same effect on me.  How unexpected it is – the bird’s breath in the cold Maine air, the frozen whistle.  That photo is a poem.

Which reminds me: April is National Poetry Month. I’m going to read some poetry.  And write some poems.  I might go out and play with magnets or buy a magnifying glass or hold an ice cube in my hand.  I’m going to try looking with fear and jubilation at what surrounds me.  Christopher Fry, the British playwright, once said that poetry “is the language by which man explores his own amazement.”  I’m going to go exploring.

Ice!

Imperfectionism

Last Friday Margaret wrote about the richness that comes from limitations  and the happy accidents that occur in printmaking: the beauty of imperfection.

I looked around my studio. I have lots of postcards and posters and other images pinned up and so many of them could be described as imperfect. I am drawn to those images; they have vitality.

This is the computer corner in my studio.

Eve is pinned to the left of  my computer. (We are both tempted by Apples). I love her huge arms and little head. She was drawn by John H. Coates in 1916.
When I draw people I go to great pains to get them to look accurate in some way. But accuracy is rarely what I love.
This image by anonymous is pinned to the side of a bookshelf.
When the artist got tired of painting the sky she or he just stopped. There is still plenty of sky.
This lubok (Russian folk print) tells the story of a cat and many mice. The limited palette, the crammed in text, the pattern, and the peculiar mice all add to the allure of this picture.
Above my painting table I have this image by Hiroshige torn from a magazine. Here the strangeness and beauty of the image are strengthened by the absolute perfection of the drawing.
Cantering in the opposite direction is this festive horse is by Yuri Vasnetsov.
And this startled horse was painted by Bill Traylor. The tiny ankles of this horse are elegant. Blue is just the right color.
Years ago I read Electricity by Victoria Glendinning. I am still haunted by the line that I remember as: ” The roses on the wallpaper were painted by someone who had never looked very closely at a rose.”
I want to look closely at roses (or turtles) and I want to draw as well as I can. I also want to have the joy of imperfection in my work.
Here is a horse I painted last winter.
And one from a few years ago that seemed on point for this post.
…Are you drawn to imperfection, perfection or both?

Responding With Wonder

On Margaret’s other blog, Pebbles in the Jar, the January 18 post is about the state of arts education in America. (http://pebblesinthejar.org/) She writes how recent studies show that arts education nurtures certain Habits of Mind. The list includes problem solving, critical and creative thinking, dealing with ambiguity and complexity, integration of multiple skill sets and working with others. But my favorite is in a further breakdown of these Habits of Mind, and that’s what I want to put on the table today: Responding with Wonderment and Awe.

My picture book, FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, comes right from that place of wonder. But it started when I was messing around with paint. I drew this big egg shape, blue above/green below, and thought it looked like earth and sky, so I added a moon and then two little creatures running beneath.

The moon reminded me of a time my husband, John, and I took ballroom dancing lessons at the local community center – which is up on a hill above Lake Washington. On the last night of the class, a full moon was shining down the lake. So at the end of the class, the instructor threw open the doors and turned up the music and we waltzed out into the parking lot. A moonlight waltz. It was one of those times when life expands. When our ordinary life became, for a moment, extraordinary. A time of wonder.

So I looked at this little painting and thought how I might make a picture book that included moonlight and music and my husband and myself. I started by drawing the characters. I gave the bear John’s lanky body and expressions. I decided, like John, he’d be cautious and helpful – and that also, like John, he wouldn’t like playing his ukulele in public. The rabbit, would be impulsive and prone to exaggeration — and would enjoy playing her ukulele in public. Opposites, almost.

If you have a chance to read FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, you’ll see how through a harrowing sailing and camping adventure they remain good friends to each other. And that the key moment involves music and moonlight:

Frank and Izzy sang to the stars.

The poet Andre Gide once said that, “The whole of a person’s artistic expression is to try to recapture those moments when your soul first opened.” (though he said it in French.)

Sometimes I wonder about wonder. What survival-of-the-fittest need evolved our keen relish for the beauty of the world, for its quirkiness and incredible detail?

And, getting back to arts education, I can’t help but hope there’s a time – oh, maybe as part of the fourth grade and seventh grade assessments – when this habit of mind, Responding with Wonder, is on the test.

Quilt Pieces

A few years ago I began designing fabric for quilt makers. I looked at a lot of quilts for inspiration. The old quilts were especially beautiful and I wondered what stories they  told. If they could only talk they would tell me. That thought inspired my new book which comes out next week from Peachtree:
Mooshka – A Quilt Story.

My mother used to call leftover bits of fabric schnitz, or schnitzerle. This post is about the family schnitz that were used to create this book.

This is a photo of my younger sister Karla when she was in kindergarten.

And here is Karla sleeping under Mooshka in the book.

Here is my Great Aunt Marjorie in 1917.

This is how I imagined her as a child telling fortunes.Marjorie telling fortunes

Here is the wedding photo of Lily and William Powell in 1887. I had never seen this picture until last week but I had heard the story of his proposal many times.

And here is his proposal in the book.

All books are pieced together with bits of fact and fiction, with many people helping to stitch. That metaphor feels especially pertinent to this book. Thank you to all of the stitchers and stories that helped make Mooshka.

Here’s a photo of Karla and me working on a first draft in about 1964.

Links:
Click here to see the book: Mooshka at Amazon.

Click here to read a review from Publisher’s Weekly, or this starred review from Kirkus.

Click here to see some of the fabrics I have designed, future schnitz.