A Summer Frame of Mind

Well, we’ve had a rainy summer so far, with temperatures below normal – that’s okay with me. I’m a cool-weather type, preferring a swim in ice-cold Puget Sound to a swim in tropical waters, and preferring a rocky log-strewn beach to palm trees and white sand. This preference bewilders and disappoints my kids, I think, since they’re sure (and have told me) that the Mayan Riviera is closer to paradise.

Riviera-Maya-hidden-beaches

Certainly each heart beats faster for whatever speaks directly to it, and the lush Yucatan calls to many souls. I will join my sweet kids from time to time when they spend an afternoon snorkeling alongside sea turtles. Meanwhile, my heart beats pretty fast when I  lean down and pick up an agate on a Whidbey Island beach. (And it doesn’t have to be either/or, does it? The Pacific Northwest vs. the Tropics? I only meant to explain why I don’t mind a little July rain!)

Cama Beach

When I’m in a summer frame of mind, I resist most things of a scholarly nature. Or, better said, I resist large thoughts that challenge my brain. Little bits and pieces of things satisfy me from late June through to the end of August. I tinker, I play. Long walks are left to autumn, and the reading of War and Peace left to winter.

In that spirit, I offer those of you reading Books Around the Table today some recent bits and pieces that delighted m. One is specifically about writing, though all are about writing, since writing is basically about wonder. Links are included.

1. Did you know that a large cloud of ladybugs is called a bloom? And that some blooms are so large they show up on radar screens? What a world! Read more about it over at Atlas Obscura, which is fast becoming one of my favorite websites. For poets, that website provides so much inspiration.

ladybugbloom-480x270

2. Do you have certain obsessions? I mean the kind of obsessions that you often can’t explain? I love old flashlights. Collect them, who knows why. Love the names of marbles, keep a list of those. Always intrigued by pairs of dice. Or photos of people I don’t know having picnics. Collect old cameras in general but especially old Brownie cameras or cameras that fold in and out. Can’t get enough of true crime documentaries – well sometimes I fill up, but I’m puzzled about being so attracted to these. Another obsession? I would love to have every wall in my house papered with architectural plans.  So I’m cheered by this article from the New York Times about authors’ obsessions.

Brownie camera

Family Picnic

3. Isn’t there always room for something about the moon? Summer, autumn, winter, spring.  Always. Always. So here, thanks again to the New York Times (what would I do without you?)  is something a little moonish.

moon

4. Finally, a summer poem. Always room for a poem, too, right? Thanks to Poetry Magazine, March 2010. And thanks to Carlo Betocchi – 1899-1986 –  a surveyor and engineer who built bridges and canals…and poems. He might have been obsessed with magnolia trees. Or with the wind.

Summer

Translated by Geoffrey Brock
And it grows, the vain
summer,
even for us with our
bright green sins:
behold the dry guest,
the wind,
as it stirs up quarrels
among magnolia boughs
and plays its serene
tune on
the prows of all the leaves—
and then is gone,
leaving the leaves
still there,
the tree still green, but breaking
the heart of the air.

magnolia tree

Follow the Trail and Read the Tale

Sweet breezes and a warm sun greeted us Saturday afternoon when we arrived at Windjammer Park in Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. The park had reopened just that morning after a year of renovation and kids exulted in the warm weather, swarming the spouts and fountains along an ersatz river at the splash end of the park. At the other end, a huge pirate ship play structure crawled with more little ones.

Sno-Isle Libraries interim director district manager Mary Campbell and Oak Harbor librarian Jane Lopez-Santilliana. Mary passed out cookies at the close of the event. (library photo credit)

Between the splash park and Bailey’s playground, meandering along the shoreline above the driftwood and the beach, waited the brand new Story Trail. My sister Kate and I had been invited to the Story Trail’s opening because our book, Little Wolf’s First Howling is the inaugural book. We could see Little Wolf laid out spread-by-spread in cases along the path, awaiting the ribbon cutting.

The sponsors of the cases plus Kate and I snipped the opening ribbon together. (library photo credit)

“Follow the trail, read the tale,” says the tagline along the bottom of each case. And, after introductions and the ribbon cutting, that’s exactly what we did. With the help of a moveable audio system, Kate and I read our book to the many community members gathered for the occasion. What a joy.

The Oak Harbor Story Trail came into being when a new Clean Water treatment plant necessitated reworking adjacent Windjammer park. Sno-Isle librarians saw an opportunity. They had heard about Story Trails on the east coast and wished for one for their patrons. Mary Campbell met with city planners to suggest that the library partner with the city and parks department to plan and install the Story Trail.  Mary and Jane Lopez-Santilliana worked with Sno-Isle administration staff to draft and submit a proposal to the City of Oak Harbor planning committee, parks department and city council. All three organizations approved the Story Trail proposal and partnered together to make it a reality. Donors stepped forward to sponsor the 26 cases along the harborside path. Jane will have the task of changing the books every few months.

If you happen to be in Dallas, Texas, you can see fellow BATT author/illustrator Julie Paschkis’s book Vivid is also part of what they call a ‘Story Path’ in Highland Park. The announcement of that path’s opening included this history: The first ‘Story Walk’ was built in 2007 in Vermont, the brainchild of Anne Ferguson with the assistance of Rachel Senechal, a librarian at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Since then, variations of the program have been implemented in all 50 states, and at least 12 countries.

Author/illustrator Kevan Atteberry told me about the ‘Popup Storywalks’ program in our Seattle area. His book, Bunnies, was a first book when it was installed at St. Edwards Park earlier this year.

My husband, John, made a short video about the Oak Harbor Story Trail opening. Click here to see it.

Thanks to the Oak Harbor librarians and sponsors and everyone else who made it possible for Little Wolf to spend this summer at the beach.

 

Shapes

Artists work with line, shape, color and texture. It can be hard to pull those elements apart.

Toni Yuly illustration from Gracias Abejas

Where does shape end and color begin?

Edouard Vuillard

When a shape is right it dances.

Suzy Lee

A shape can be positive or negative (i.e. created by the space around it.)

Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn

A well drawn shape gets to the essence of things, eliminating detail.

Lois Ehlert

Dick Bruna

Bill Traylor

With compression and distortion a shape can convey movement. Exaggeration makes it more active (and more delightful).

Bill Traylor

Margaret Chodos-Irvine – detail from Where Lily Isn’t

Mayumi Oda

As it moves toward abstraction a shape is enlivened by what is real.

Matisse papercut

Henri Matisse

Salud – here’s to this shapely world!

Bill Traylor

Bjorn Wiinblad

Mayumi Oda

Beauty In Limitations: A Printmaker’s Perspective, Revisited

It’s been a busy week. So… this is a post I published here way back in 2012 – the early days of Books Around the Table. It amazes me that it has been seven years already.

. . .

I chose this post because I am moving away from being a printmaking purist and into the freedom of working with gouache paints and brushes. Nonetheless, I cut stencils to use as a base for my painting, so I guess I still prefer to work within the safety of limitations.

Denslow’s Mother Goose, W W Denslow, 1901

I have been thinking about limitations lately.

Like illustrations from old picture books before four-color photo-processing became the norm. The ones I’ve accumulated are mostly from the 40s and 60s and they seem have been printed that way to keep production costs down. An economy of expense leading to an economy of style.

Those images have a particular quality that I’ve always loved. The simplicity of an image made by building layers of color. The opposite of slick. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to printmaking. Printmakers are inordinately fond of process and tools you have to sharpen by hand. We think in layers. We are to painters what typesetting is to Microsoft Word.

Kees & Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938
Kees &Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Not that images like these were simple to produce. Each color had to be created on a separate overlay in black (or the photo equivalent). Often the print run was limited to two or three colors so overlapping was used to create more.

When you have to do the color separation yourself with specified colors, you have to create the mechanicals whilst thinking ahead to what the image might look like. You won’t know for sure till the finished page comes off the press.

Kees, Elizabeth Enright, 1937

The above images were printed with red, yellow, blue and black inks. The oranges and greens and other tones come from overlapping the transparent inks and using screen tones of those four colors. I know it sounds like CMYK, but the difference is that the color separations were all done by hand. There was no full-color image to start with ahead of time.

Rather than confuse you further by describing what I’m talking about, I will show you an example. The spread below demonstrates how three separate images overlap to produce a multicolor picture.

Woodcuts & Woodengravings: How I Make Them, Hans Alexander Mueller, 1939

When artists work under these limitations, I think a kind of magic can occur. I like the happy accidents that happen when colors overlap and registration gets a bit off. Some people would argue that you can get the same effect more easily using a computer, but there is too much control — down to the pixel — with digital media. There is no room for chance or Happy Accidents. The only accidents I can think of involving computers involve spilled liquids, and they are NOT happy.

Pierre Pidgeon, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1943
Ilenka, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1945
Mrs. McGarrity’s Peppermint Sweater, Abner Graboff, 1966
Josefina February, Evaline Ness, 1963
James and the Giant Peach, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, 1961

So how does all this inform my work?

“Daphne’s Hand”, Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Well, like I said, I’m a printmaker, and printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique in which to work. Nonetheless, it is worth it to still leave room for chance in my work. Images like these remind me that working within limits can have positive, even beautiful, results that could not be achieved in any other way.

It only takes 30,000 years of culture to get this

Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.

Cartoonist Amy Hwang

I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.

We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we  know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.

You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.

You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.

Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon.  Oh, and you need to be able to read.

For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.

That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.

That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.

And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry;  what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite  get from other writing.

Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.

Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.

Cartoonist Tom Gauld

 

 

Words We Don’t Have Words For

untranslatable 1

Just when I’ve decided I’m a Luddite, allergic to new technology, and just when I’m thinking it would be nice to be unplugged and unconnected and off every grid imaginable, and just when I believe that if I had a magic wand I would eliminate my iPad and my Internet connection (and eliminate cell phones – please, somebody, give me an old-fashioned phone I can dial number-by-number, how I loved the sound of that dial) – just when all the above happens, I’m left stunned and delighted by something wonderful that comes to me via the aforementioned Evil Internet. Usually it’s something I would have missed entirely if I were off the grid.

Here is the latest: A Glossary of Happiness.

A glossary of happiness? Yes, it exists. Last week the New Yorker emailed me a link to an article about a psychologist named Tim Lomas who has been compiling an “online lexicography of untranslatable words” dealing with happiness. Lomas, a lecturer in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, put together 216 words from 49 languages. Each word on his list fits the bill – we lack a suitable single word which translates it into English. Since he published the list, the number of words has grown to over 400.

What takes Lomas’s list into deeper territory is the theory that the words which different cultures come up with speak to ““things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.”

I’m not sure we often think of happiness as something that is “constructed.” But in a culture where many people teach their children that being happy involves status, winning, and wealth, it’s worth wondering why we don’t have a word like “gumusservi” which is Turkish for moonlight shining across water, or like “boketto,” a Japanese word for someone who is gazing vacantly – somewhat stupefied – into the sky.

If you’re interested in other links to untranslatable words try  this list at Mental Floss (which offers you “iktsaurpok,” an Inuit word for “the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet”)  and at Rocket Languages (including “sobremesa,” the time spent after a meal when you sit contentedly and talk with friends around the table.) Also, these books looks great:

untranslatable 2

Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders

untranslatable 3

Other-Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak

Words do matter. As writers, we know that the right words, in the right order, make for great writing, writing that stirs up emotional reactions from our readers. Lomas thinks it’s possible that if we share this glossary of happiness, we might come up with ways to articulate states of being and feelings that – put simply – make us happier. “If you just put them out there and people are aware of them, then—almost like linguistic natural selection—people will find ones that appeal to them, and they might start using them.”

“Linguistic natural selection” – I love the sound of that. I’m going to go exploring for words. And maybe I should invent a word for the happiness I felt when I dialed a telephone number and heard the sound of the dial returning to its resting place – if you’re old enough, you know that sound. I don’t have a word for it.  Not yet.

 

THE WELL-SAID WELL

Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.

“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.

“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011

“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.

 

 

 

Muchly

I love things – especially things next to things.

Shoe lasts at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown Pennsylvania

When you say a word over and over you lose the meaning and hear the sound. The same thing happens visually with these shoe lasts.

In the recent Troika show I put together lots of white poked- paper pieces. (To see more of the show please read Margaret’s post here: Still Life: The Show.)

In a previous show at the barn I had assembled paper dolls.

And before that, bread (at the Davidson Gallery in 2001).

The individual objects might be goofy. Together they have a conversation.

Seattle artist Gregory Blackstock is a master of drawing things next to things. He gives us multitudes of objects without irony.

The repetition creates rhythm and delight.

Please click here for a radio story about Blackstock, a man who was a dishwasher for many years before becoming a renowned artist.

Joelle Jolivet creates oversized picture books full of bold and informative illustrations. Click here for a peak at her studio and printmaking process (in French.)

In their book Crabtree Jon and Tucker Nichols give us objects with a dose of humor. Like Julie Larios a few weeks ago here, Crabtree is wrestling with the problem of what to do with all of his stuff. Here he assembles everything that begins with the letter s.

Even the captions are broken in this collection.

I used objects to tell part of the story in this illustration from the new book Fearsome Giant, Fearless Child by Paul Fleischman.

Humble objects like spoons and bowls and brooms can tell stories.

Brooms at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Pablo Neruda had three houses in Chile, all crowded with his collections. In his book Odes to Common Things Neruda wrote about buttons, onions, socks, artichokes, to say nothing of the hat. His ode, word next to word, says it all.

Here is my illustration from Pablo Neruda – Poet of the People by Monica Brown.

I leave you with these cardboard boxes from Crabtree. Where else are you going to put all this stuff?

Still Life: The Show

Last weekend, May 11, was the opening of the Troika Still Life show at the Bitters Co. barn that I wrote about last month. Troika is what Julie Paschkis, Deborah Mersky, and I call our joint collaborative endeavors.

The barn is a beautiful old building near the town of Mt. Vernon in the Skagit Valley of Washington State. The slanted ceiling is high and the beams and rafters are dark, aged wood. The weather for the day was clear and sunny. Light streamed through the windows at both ends of the space. Bitters Co. is owned and run by sisters Katie and Amy Carson, who design beautiful and useful goods made by craftspeople from around the world. 

Here are some photos from the installation:

The hanging of the first of our three fifteen-foot long collaborative stenciled banners:

Julie is looking for the best spot for her larger-than-life paper lady.

She found it!

Here, my daughter Ella is helping fill the pockets in my “Correspondence” piece.

Katie Carson has just helped install the hooks to hold the dowels to hold my “Cream Top” and “Sugar Shirt.”

And here are photos from the day of the opening! (I forgot to take pictures during the event itself, but here are photos of the work before and after attendees were there).

Julie’s paper lady welcomed our guests.Our three “Cloud Banners” graced the center of the gallery space.These are some of Deborah Mersky’s collaged clay prints.

These are two sugar lift prints by Deborah.

Julie installed a wall of cut paper pieces, painted and poked.

Here are two more paintings by Julie.

This is my Entwined I piece, knitted from twine.

This piece is titled Correspondence. It is sewn from cotton batiste fabric, and includes 33 pockets that hold letters and cards that my mother and I wrote to each other over many years.

Below is Loneliness, sewn from denim, but maybe I should have titled it “Solitude.”

And Workmen’s Circle, also sewn from denim. Six pairs of continuous jeans – each right leg becomes the left leg of the pair in front of it. This piece required a lot of planning and engineering on my part. Added plus: it spins in the breeze.

And outside the barn hangs one more banner. Three wheels of Troika. 

The show will be up till May 27. The barn is at 14034 Calhoun Rd. The hours are 11-4 daily. 360-466-3550. The new Bitters Co. shop is in La Conner: 501 1st St. Call first to make sure they’re open if you plan to stop by.

Learning a new language can add magic to your writing

 

Trying to learn a new language in your 60’s is a bit like beating your head against a brick wall—in an entertaining kind of way. It’s hard. Much harder than I imagined. First I had to stop comparing my 60-something brain to my 20-something brain.

In my twenties if I’d studied Spanish for five years, I’d have been fluent. Now, after five years of study I’m hovering in the doorway of intermediate, but not fully in the room. I had to learn early in the process to define progress as simply knowing more this week than I did last week. It had to be as simple as that or I would have been utterly discouraged.

So why do it? Why learn a brand new language?

Really, it was to change myself. To feel that even in my sixties and older I could become new. Instead of looking back and wishing that I could speak a foreign language, I realized that I could become someone who did.

Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back, but then once in awhile I get a reward like a talk with a taxi driver in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a pretty simplistic conversation, but we easily chatted for 20 minutes and my husband was wonderfully impressed.

I feel less helpless when I travel, even to a non-Spanish speaking country. So many people around the world speak more than one language. It always rather embarrassed me to not be able to do anything but English (and a few phrases from long-ago French classes.)

Most of all, I’ve enjoyed how my own language has become richer by learning a different one. I can see more clearly how English is a combination of Romance languages (tracing back to Latin, of course) and Anglo-Saxon.

Take the Spanish word “dormir” meaning ”to sleep” derived from the Latin “dormire” which goes even further back into a common root language known as Proto-Indo-European which connects a whole range of languages from Hindu to Russian.

From it we get words like dormer, dormitory, dormant.  But I love how our own English verb for the actual activity is “sleep” coming to us by way of Old English by way of Proto-Germanic. It gives English a wonderful facility for humor and irony because we get to play with two-dollar words like mausoleum from Latin mausoleum. And two-bit words like grave from Old English græf. In English, you can be a scurrilous buffoon or an oafish clod.

Although I knew all those English “dormir” words, even the French dormir, it wasn’t until I was studying Spanish that it dawned on me that the sleepy Dormouse in “Alice in Wonderland” wasn’t just as random choice by Lewis Carroll.

He undoubtedly knew that “dormouse” is rooted in “dormir.” But when I first read it, I didn’t consciously make the connection, but I suspect my subconscious did. And this subconscious connection made this sleepy character feel all the more right.

Learning Spanish has reinforced just how powerful it is as a writer to know more than one language or to, at least, seek out the roots of words. If an author gets names and terms right, it can do half the work of creating a world. JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at this. Rowling, in particular, really milks the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of English which give the Harry Potter books that entertaining mix of the grand and the mundane.

Rowling does this over and over again with her names. Albus Dumbledore, a mix of the Latin albus meaning “white” and the very homey, English-y Dumbledore. Or consider Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (lots of earthy Anglo-Saxon roots here) in contrast to Beauxbatons Academy of Magic (Latin and Greek here.)

It certainly didn’t hurt her as an author that she speaks excellent French. She also studied German and got some exposure to Greek and Latin through majoring in Classic Studies in college.

Tolkien was a scholar of linguistics, especially Germanic languages, and even developed several languages of his own. He, too, played with linguistic contrasts, but more seriously and consistently than Rowling. Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn Elessar, the Shire and Lothlorien, Frodo and Galadriel. Obviously both he and Rowling knew the Latin-rooted mortalis. Mordor and Voldemort don’t both sound ominous just by chance.

I don’t expect studying Spanish will turn me into JK Rowling or Tolkien, but maybe it will help me improve my names. After all Mouse and Bear are about as basic as you can get!