Monthly Archives: July 2017

Signatures, Technicals, Showstoppers

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I’ve been binging on The Great British Baking Show lately and wondering why. I’m no baker, that’s for sure.

In my family, we fall into “categories” for cooking, and my grandmother was the baker. When she died, several years ago, my sister and my daughter took on the “baker” role. I suspect I’m in the meat-and-potatoes category, or maybe it’s soups. My extended family members all like my soup; it’s all about the lime juice and salsa I add just before serving. Not star-power cooking, but it will do. I don’t long to be a baker, that’s definite.

So if I’m not that interested in improving my baking skills, why watch the Great British Baking Show (aka TGBBS)? Two reasons stand out:

#1: The amateur bakers are all so nice to each other. This is not similar to American reality TV shows like Project Runway, where competition gets ugly (and apparently the uglier, the better, because if things are too nice, viewership plummets and producers go crazy.) Honestly, I think half the reason I watch TGBBS is because I am so disheartened by the nasty stuff going on in politics right now, I find TGBBS a huge relief – everyone polite, everyone sweet. The worst that happens in this show is that a tower made of cookies falls over, or sticky buns won’t come out the pan they were cooked in.

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Yes, people get judged and one person has to go home at the end of each episode. But there are lots and lots of hugs when someone is headed home, and no one’s career as a baker is ruined, because no one on the show is a professional baker. So there’s some tension, yes, but not much. It’s all about nice, sweet people trying to make the most delicious baked goods they can. No one gutting health care, no one tweeting inanities.

#2: I see a parallel between the effort to produce good baked goods and the effort to create interesting stories. After all, creative people, no matter what they’re creating, interact with their material in certain ways. On TGBBS, the contestants work to respond to three different challenges each week: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. I think writers do basically the same.

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A “Signature” bake involves presenting something that is uniquely YOU. On TGBBS, if the “genre” is Breads, then a Signature bread must be produced which reflects the baker’s personality and or personal traditions in some way. You see a contestant with science-based inclinations using a ruler to measure the absolute uniformity of dough for bread sticks. Think of it as a modus operandi.  If flair, rather than science, drives someone’s Signature bread stick production, then we might see plaited dough woven together in dark and light stripes. Or if the challenge is a meat pie, we see a contestant whose background is East Indian use unusual spices to enliven hers, while someone more traditional produces a straight-up Cornish pasty.

British baking show 6

This sounds to me like what writers talk about when the conversation turns to “voice.” We recognize certain writers – we know if an essay was written by David Sedaris or Oliver Sacks, not because the subject is different but because their voices are uniquely theirs. As a writer, you don’t want to sound like everyone else. You want to sound like YOU. Your voice, your signature – uniquely yours.

“Technical” challenges require the bakers to follow recipes and rules. Everyone gets the same ingredients and the same recipes. Sometimes the recipes are a bit vague, allowing for different results based on the bakers’ interpretations of the rules. But essentially it’s about seeing how each baker does with restrictions, that is, with less innovative and more formal tasks.

British Baking Show 5

Anyone who’s ever written a villanelle or a sestina, anyone who has had to produce a line of iambic pentameter and/or follow a rhyme scheme knows what a technical challenge is.

And I think we all understand the phrase “showstopper.” For this, the bakers must take a category (writers work in genres) and  produce something out of this world, never tried before, something attention-grabbing. It’s like a “signature,” but with an added dollop of wow. Very hard to do well, and many baking disasters occur in this phase of the episode of TGBBS. Bakers are going all out, taking risks. So for anyone trying to write the Great American Novel. Also true for any creative effort. Stopping the show with a showstopper is no easy task. Some of us never attempt it, some of us wouldn’t miss it for the world – instinct guides us at this point, I think.

So…The Great British Baking Show. It’s so much fun to see the smiles on the faces of the bakers who have handled a challenge well. So sad to see things go wrong. So nice to see the camaraderie and support and genuine affection among the bakers, no matter whether one baker is doing well or whether the cookie tower (or short story, or picture book, or illustration, or novel, or….) has crumbled.

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As writers, we know those challenges; we know those feelings of joy and frustration. I’ve had my share of sticky-buns (in my case, poems) that wouldn’t come out of the “pan” they were cooked in.  I’ve also had my moments of being declared the equivalent of Baker of the Week. I do my best to produce a well-baked poem – sometimes it works, sometimes not.

And even if I didn’t see writing parallels behind every croissant, I’d still be watching The Great British Baking Show. From time to time I need to avoid (one hour at a time – I’m not greedy!) whatever foolishness is  currently dominating the news. Who knew British bakers would come to my rescue???

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Lunch with the Ladies of Mazza

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It was a cross between Parents’ Night at elementary school and a rolling party. Parents’ Night because we spiffed the place up and hung my sister Kate’s and my best artwork on the walls. A rolling party because these ladies were primed for a good time even before their big bus pulled up to the bottom of our driveway.

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I hung my sister Kate Harvey McGee’s paintings down the hall. Kate illustrated Little Wolf’s First Howling with me and I wanted the visitors to see her pastels.

Last month the Mazza Institute Study Tour landed in Seattle to begin their visits to NW children’s book illustrators’ studios. Most of the tour members were from around Findlay, Ohio, where the University’s Mazza Museum holds an amazing, diverse collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators. Every summer they take a tour to a corner of the United States and visit illustrators’ studios. Julie Paschkis and I thought why not invite the group to lunch on the first day of their journey? Lunch for 40 on our patio. Why not?

Luckily, fellow BATTerinas Bonny Becker and Margaret Chodos-Irvine, as well as author/illustrator Dana Sullivan, signed on to help. And John, too, of course. (Our other BATT member, Julie Larios, was doing a tour of her own while teaching at Vermont College’s alum retreat.)

We greeted the enthusiastic busload of women and their leader, Ben Sapp, with peach bellinis. Mostly our guests were former teachers and librarians who now work as docents at the Mazza Museum. Several collect children’s book art themselves. Right away, we connected. Picture books matter to them like they matter to us.

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Margaret set out the buffet of sandwiches and salads while our guests helped ferry drink ingredients out to the patio. 

Over a luncheon prepared by Julie, Margaret and Bonny, we talked books and illustration and illustrators and heard about past Mazza tour adventures. Though we had ample leftover food, the ladies managed to polish off all the Prosecco.

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Bonny says we can see the back of her head in this photo. Ben Sapp, John and Julie and I are standing, left to right, in the back.  

Dana led a “Great Book Giveaway” trivia game. (“Name the four Little Women.” “Name four cats in children’s books…”) These ladies know their children’s book trivia! Later he posed with director Ben Sapp.

After lunch, our guests toured my studio, viewed artwork, bought books and tried their hands at gouache resist.

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It was a lot of fun. As we walked our guests back down the hill, I had a chance to tell director Ben Sapp how thankful I am that there is a place in this world like the Mazza Museum that values children and stories and especially the art of children’s books. It’s the culture of a world I want to live in.

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Loading up the bus after lunch and the studio tour. Dana says they rolled away singing “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Over seven days, the Mazza Study Tour ladies met 15 illustrators. In Tacoma: Ben Clanton and Wendy Wahman; in the Seattle area: Julie Paschkis, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Dana Sullivan and me; on Lummi Island: Nina Laden and Paul Owen Lewis; in Olympia: Nikki McClure; in Portland: Carolyn Canahan, Nicole Rubel, Maggie Rudy, Kate Berube, Alison Farrell, and Zoey Abbot Wagner. Such a rich variety of illustration styles and media. I wish I could have trailed along.

After the luncheon, as we took down tents and put artwork back into flat files, I thought back. Who would have guessed 25 years ago in Keith Baker’s Picture Book Illustration class, that two of my fellow classmates – Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine – and I would create a critique group that grew into Books Around The Table, and that over the years together we’d all publish 70? (maybe more?) children’s books AND end up hosting 40 ladies from Findlay, Ohio, for lunch?

It was a memorable experience, but John and I had expected that because my old studio was on the itinerary 10 years ago, the last time the tour came to Seattle. Some of this June’s guests had been on that tour, too.

I hope in another ten years they will roll through again. I’ll have the peach bellinis waiting.

Go Outside!

It’s July. It’s good to be outside.
Step out!

illustration by Rudolf Mates from A Forest Story

Ride your bike.

Edward Gorey

Julie Paschkis – Out for a Spin

Everything is better outside. Eat outside.

illustration by William Steig for Sylvester

illustration by Hedwig Sporri-Dolder for Hinderem Bargli

Climb up high.

illustration by Alois Carigiet for Florina

Dive down.

illustration and poem by Julie Paschkis for Vivid

Dance around.

Yevgeny Rachev 1900

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Maybe go fishing,

illustration by Chris Raschka for Fishing in the Air

or explore an island.

illustration by the D’Aulaires for Ola

Read a book.

Charles Knight 1809

Or listen to a story.

illustration by Rudolf Mates for A Forest Story

Take a nap on the grass.

illustration by Hedwig Sporri-Doldi for Hinderem Bargli

Or sleep outside for the whole night.

illustration by Kathleen Hale for Orlando the Marmalade Cat

Stop looking at this screen or any other screen. Go outside! You might even float away.

illustration by Wm Steig for Gorky Rises

 

 

What Would Betsy Ross Do? The Exhibit!

Last night was the culmination of something that started nine months ago – the opening night of “What Would Betsy Ross Do? The New American Flag Project,” a community art project that evolved from my reaction to the 2016 United States presidential election.

You may have seen my call to participate on this blog in December last year.

This is my artist statement from the show:

The morning of November 9, 2016, I woke up feeling intense anxiety with an image in my head that I had to go do something about.

I started piecing bits of fabric together in a concentric pattern. I stepped back and looked at the piece, and it occurred to me that I was redesigning a new United States flag based on what I saw this country becoming – an endless circling of opposing forces. It was cathartic.

Then I started wondering what other people would do with the same idea. Regardless of how they voted, what did they think? The Stars and Stripes are meant to symbolize unity and balance, but do they still accurately represent our country now? What would Betsy Ross’s flag look like if she were to create it today?

I sent a note out to friends and artists whom I thought might be interested. As more people began to respond, I looked for a gallery to show the work. I am very grateful to Cora Edmonds and her staff at ArtXchange for stepping forward to host the show.

Some participants are professional artists. Some are not. Some are people I know and some are friends of friends or relatives of friends. Others came to the project through social media connections. And some are students of teachers who brought the idea to their classrooms.

To all of those who participated, I thank you for your thoughtfulness and your efforts. You gave me my wish; to see what other people think, to bring together a community of creative people, and to heal through making art happen.

Art may change the world we live in. Or it may not. What is important is that it gives us a way of dealing with the world on our own terms.

Initially, I just wanted to see what other people would do with the idea of redesigning the U.S. flag for today’s America. Then I wanted to bring people together to share the experience of making art that makes a statement. Then I wanted to find a way to exhibit their works for the public to view.

I got all three.


J Kennard-WWBRD? flag

Along the way I connected with a varied group of people, some of whom I knew and others whom I’d never met. I led a workshop for middle school students at Coyote Central (two other artists led art classes with young people as well). I got to work with the dedicated staff at ArtXchange Gallery.

The opening event was the icing on the cake, or perhaps the cookies.

I feel very fortunate to have been given the idea, the opportunity, and the support.

To see all the flags individually as well as the artists’ statements, please visit the ArtXchange Gallery website.

In addition, fifteen of the artists contributed to printing a collection of postcards with their images from the show. Proceeds from the sales of these packets will be donated to the ACLU at the end of the exhibit.

Cora Edmonds at What Would Betsy Ross Do? exhibit with postcards

As I write when I sign copies of Apple Pie 4th of July – make your own parade!

Sailing Away

If you had to guess what kind of boat is most associated with books, what type do you think it would be?

Just like cats and books, birds and books, and rain and books go together, so do books and sailboats (although there are some rare exceptions to the sailboat).

For these summer days, I thought it would be fun to look at  my collection of images of books in art for the theme of boat. I found quite a few.

Not only does the sailboat work conceptually since sailboats and books are both places of leisure, contemplation and escape:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Illustration by Catherine Nolan

Illustration by Natalie Andrewson

It works artistically given how books and boats echo each other visually:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Henriette Sauvant

Sometimes the books and boat metaphor can feel a bit stretched:

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I do like the idea of books as an ark to preserve knowledge–although I’m not sure what the cylinders on the roof are about.

Books and boats can also be seen as a metaphor for capturing knowledge:

Illustration by Christiane Beauregard

Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu

Or maybe the appeal is that with both boats and book we are set a-sail on something vast and deep:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski