Author Archives: Margaret Chodos-Irvine

A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

On June 13, I attended an event in Portland honoring Ursula K. Le Guin. The tribute was organized by the Le Guin family and hosted by Literary Arts. Speakers included writers and artists whom Ursula had worked with, as well as others she had influenced, inspired, and befriended. The spoken tributes alternated with photos and video selections from “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin”, a feature documentary film by Arwen Curry.

My feelings about Ursula have always been held close in my heart and not something I often talk about. But there, in that auditorium, I felt I was one of many whose hearts Ursula had touched. It was bittersweet, remembering her and missing her.

The event was filmed and is available to watch on the Literary Arts website.

Ursula K. Le Guin was a master of the art of words, but she also was a brilliant  thinker and an outspoken advocate for artists, free speech, and humanity. My admiration for her has only deepened as I have continued to read her writings in the months since her death. I have almost finished her Conversations On Writing with David Naimon, which I recommend if you want to hear more of her thoughts about her craft. It nicely captures Ursula’s relaxed style of speaking and her humor.

I am also about a quarter of the way through Lavinia, in which Ursula gives eloquent voice to a female character from Vergil’s Aeneid.

‘I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am now, only in this line of words I write…”

I look forward to reading more of Ursula’s works that I have not yet read, and then maybe I will re-read some of my old favorites of hers that I read years ago. It is a good way to continue to pay tribute to her, and to keep hearing her voice and learning from her.

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Creative Writing 101

My youngest daughter just finished her first year of a Creative Writing/English Literature degree at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She returned to Seattle this week and I was interested to hear what they teach about the craft of writing these days, so I invited her to take my spot writing this week’s post on Books Around The Table.

Introducing Clare Chodos-Irvine

I only have ¼ of a university degree, but after nine months of studying literature and attending writing workshops, this is what I’ve learned about writing:

  1. 90% of the time, avoid adverbs. I have a classmate who, throughout the five submissions I made over the course of a year, never failed to circle my unnecessary adverbs. I didn’t realize that I used so many until he pointed it out. More often than not, an image, sentence or metaphor is stronger without the use of an adverb. Usually, it stops you from repeating yourself. There’s no reason to say, “She ran quickly,” because if she was running, one would hope it would be quick.
  2. Classmates and teachers are there to help you. I’m lucky to have had professors in my first year who were constantly supportive. My classmates are all so talented, and having a group of people to bounce creative ideas off of is extremely helpful, even if you’re not a creative writing student.
  3. Pretty much anything can inspire you. I took a survey of British literature from the beginning of time until 1660, and although the course didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure, I was inspired by the alliteration in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the complicated rhyme scheme in Beowulf. I read things I would never have read otherwise, thanks to my teachers’ thoughtful planning of the course reading lists. A story I have been sitting on for three years went from a fantasy/romance piece to a feminist werewolf story thanks to Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” , and my fiction workshop classmates. I was inspired by my classmates constantly. They often found meaning in my writing that I hadn’t discovered myself. For example, they saw a woman chipping paint off her wall as an extended metaphor reflecting her decaying relationship. Being surrounded by a large group of creative individuals is electrifying because, for the first time in my life, the majority of the people I am around share my passion for writing.
  4. There is no such thing as children’s writing. If a children’s book or a YA novel is well written, anyone can enjoy it. This was emphasized frequently by my fiction professor, and is proven true by writers like Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) or Roald Dahl.
  5. Don’t get rid of anything. I discovered this year that some of my pieces that were unsuccessful as short stories work very well as poems. I disliked poetry until I turned sixteen. Even after I liked reading poetry, I didn’t think I should write poetry. My poems sounded too confessional. But when I rewrote some of my short stories as poems, they worked much better. Fiction can work as poetry, and vice versa.

Lastly, I learned that creativity takes work, and it hurts and it’s scary to put a piece of yourself out there. But as intimidating as writing is, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am eager to learn as much as I can about the past, present and future of the craft. I can’t wait to earn the next ¾ of my degree.

 

Easter Egg Hunt!

From Wikipedia:

An Easter egg is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or secret feature of a work (often found in a computer program, video game, or DVD/Blu-ray Disc menu screen). The name is used to evoke the idea of a traditional Easter egg hunt.

I had never heard the term before last week, when Books Around The Table met for our monthly lunch and critique meeting.

I was showing the images I have done so far for Where Lily Isn’t and pointed out a not-so-hidden classic dog book reference (can you find it?) when Bonny Becker brought up the term.

M Chodos-Irvine-Where Lily Isn't pg 10 final

I’ve put Easter Eggs into my illustrations before. In my first picture book – BUZZ, by Janet Wong – I included my eldest daughter’s birthday on one spread,

BUZZ car page

And both my daughters appear in the parade led by the main character at the end of Apple Pie 4th of July, also by Wong.

M Chodos-Irvine Apple Pie 4th of July final spread

On a more somber note, many years ago I heard Maurice Sendak talk about his work for Dear Mili, a lesser known Grimm story about a young child’s journey during wartime. Sendak’s imagery for this book is full of visual clues of his thoughts and influences (perhaps Easter Egg isn’t an appropriate term in this case), including images of Jewish children in Nazi Europe during the Holocaust, the face of Mozart, references to Van Gogh, and many more that I can no longer remember. It is a masterwork, IMHO.

M Sendak- Dear Mili spread 2M Sendak- Dear Mili spread 1

I believe Easter Eggs are common in picture books. Do you know of any? Have you hidden them in your own work? Do tell! It’s the perfect time of year for an Easter Egg hunt!

Always Coming Home

When I learned that Ursula K. LeGuin had died, it came as a shock. I knew she was getting older, but she still seemed invincible to me. I am fortunate to have been one of the many people whom Ursula Le Guin brought into her creative universe. She was very generous in her collaborations. I worked on several book projects with her, and kept in touch over the years. I will miss her.

In the summer of 1982 when I was 20 years-old, I got a call from Todd Barton, the then music director for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and a former teacher of mine at the University of Oregon, asking if I would be interested in working on a project with Ursula Le Guin and him.

Ursula K. Le Guin. I knew that name. I had read one and a half books of the Earthsea Trilogy in high school, but had to give the set back to my friend so never finished the rest. I figured that I should memorize the author’s name so I could find them and finish them some day.

The reason Todd Barton called a 20-year-old college junior was because he knew I had an interest in scientific illustration (I was pursuing a double major in art and anthropology) and had seen a fair amount of my student work. Ursula had written Always Coming Home, an archaeological study of a culture that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now” and was looking for someone to illustrate it. She wanted someone young and not yet “jaded” about work. Todd was going to create the music. The book would come in a boxed set with a cassette tape.

I said yes.

I worked on the book for a year and a half, taking time off from school to complete it. I created 101 illustrations, mostly in pen and ink, but including a few woodcuts.

While I was working on the illustrations for the book, I spent a few weeks with Ursula and her family at her childhood summer house in Sonoma County – the setting for Always Coming Home. I went there to observe, study and draw reference on site for the illustrations.

One day while walking with Ursula on the grassy hills surrounding the house, she bent over and picked up a leaf and showed it to me. The leaf had a beautifully convoluted pattern etched into it by some sort of leaf borer. That was the moment that I realized that she saw much more than I did in the world around me. It isn’t enough to see things when you look for them. You need to look for things to see.

So I want to give Ursula credit for changing my life. Not in the obvious way – by being the first person to hire me to illustrate anything – but on a more personal and fundamental level.

To be open. To notice. To gather. To find.

That is the gift I needed most at the time, and I have carried it throughout my life.

And I still have that leaf.

 

Many Gifts

Each month, Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Bonny Becker, Julie Larios and I meet at one of our houses, around one of our tables, to review and critique each other’s work. We also share news, thoughts, stories, quandaries and lunch (or brunch) and tea. As most of you already know, this blog evolved out of our working friendship.

Each year, we exchange gifts for the holidays – small things, often items we have made ourselves, sometimes souvenirs from places we have visited in the past year.

But the greatest gift we give each other isn’t at these yearly holiday gatherings; it is what we give each other each time we meet, and often in between. We give our eyes, ears, brains and trust. It has been many years since I joined this group (around 2002) and it started ten years before that. A few members have come and gone (and come back again). We started blogging together in January of 2012. Between the five of us, we have published 69 books and 309 blog posts. Geez.

There have been a lot of thoughts and ideas shared around our tables. I am forever grateful for the excellent input and feedback I have received over the years – and that is not to discount in any way the friendships we have developed.

If you have a professional critique group like ours, you know how valuable it is. If you don’t and wish you did, find a few open-hearted individuals whose work you respect see if they are amenable to starting a children’s book group with you. Maybe you will find a good group if you take a picture book writing or illustration class or workshop (that is how this group got started). It helps if you are all at a similar place with your writing and/or illustration careers.

Best wishes for a creative and productive new year!

 

Vintage Holiday Images from the (Great) Pacific Northwest

This week I went to the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, Washington. They have a several shows there currently. Territorial Hues: The Color Print and Washington State 1920-1960 is an excellent exhibit of mid-century Northwest printmakers.  The pieces by Glen Alps were some of my favorites.

The museum is also showing their third annual display of Vintage Christmas Cards.Many of them are done using printmaking techniques (always good for reproducing images in multiple). Here is a small sampling from the display.

Glen Alps, 1954.

George Tsutakawa, 1967.

Danny Pierce, “Christmas Trees”, 1986

Danny Pierce, “Cockle Prober”, 1990

Danny Pierce, circa 1990.

LaVerne Fromberg, 1958.

Artist Unknown, circa 1955.

William J. C. Klamm, 1949.

William J. C. Klamm, 1964.

William J. C. Klamm, 1955.

Stephen Dunthorne, circa 1952.

Katherine Westphal Rossbach, 1948.

Jacob Elshin, circa 1929.

Artist unknown, circa 1951.

Richard Kirsten Daiensai, Ancient King and Calling Bird, 1955.

Here are two decorated envelopes from Orre Noble that remind me of my trans-continental correspondence with Julie Paschkis.

I like how many of them have more to do with what the artist was currently doing with their work, than Christmas itself.

Seeing them makes me wonder what I might do for a holiday card this year. I hope they inspire you as well!

And if you are in the region, go see the exhibits! They are there till January 7th.

One Hundred Lilies

Last month I confessed to a bout of nerves before starting on a new picture book project. I have gained some calm as I have delved into defining the imagery for the book. I am no longer on the shore. I am wading in.

Of the two primary characters in the book (a dog and a child), it is the dog that I have been working on the most so far.

I have a dog. He is a rat terrier. My initial drawings for Lily were based on him.

But they were rejected for not being cute and cuddly enough. I admit, Nik is a bit angular and bony and he doesn’t have much of a tail.

So I drew a dog very unlike Nik; a furry pooch with a more expressive tail (as I showed you in my last post).

That Lily thankfully got the go-ahead.

Even though Lily the dog appears in less than half of the imagery, I want to be sure of what she looks like and how she moves. The best way for me to do this is to draw lots of character studies. This is how I familiarize my brain with characters so that I can draw them without having to actually see them. I mostly draw characters from my imagination and then seek reference to augment the drawings. It may seem like an ass-backwards approach, but it’s how I feel most comfortable working.

I have drawn a lot of children. Usually I do about five to ten studies per character before starting on illustrations for a book. But I have not drawn a lot of dogs, so I set myself a goal of one hundred Lily drawings. Here are a few of them.

After I had drawn about seventy imaginary Lilies, I thought it was time to find a real dog to look at. Then one day, while walking in the park with Nik, I met Romeo.

I introduced myself to Romeo’s family and they let my take photos of him. Those pictures helped get me up to my three-digit goal.

Now I feel like I know this Lily. She becomes more real to me, each time I draw her.

Tittery Jitters

How many of you have felt both excitement and anxiety when starting a new project? Many, I predict.

I believe those feelings are really two sides of the same coin. In fact, the degree of excitement I feel is in direct correlation with the amount of anxiety I also experience. It is the irony of caring about the work I do.

So I am nervously happy, or perhaps ecstatically terrified, to tell you that I am starting the illustrations for a new picture book.

I will give you more details in the future, but for now I will only tell you that the story is by Julie Paschkis and it is titled Where Lily Isn’t.

Here are a few early studies I have done for one of the main characters.

Now I would like to hear whether I am correct that many of you feel the same combination of emotions when starting a new creative endeavor. Do you bite your nails, or do you confidently proceed without a tentative thought? Or are you somewhere in between . . . ?

Best Best Friends Grow Up

 

Layout 1

In 2006, my second self-authored children’s picture book was published. It was inspired by the friendship I observed between my daughter Clare and her best friend, Mary. They first met in preschool. I believe it was love at first sight.

They graduated preschool together twelve years ago. From that point on, they have gone to different schools.

Clare and Mary preschool graduation

Until this year, when they attended the same high school as seniors. This June, they graduated together once again.

Mary and Clare at graduation ii

In spite of making new friends and even living in different countries for a few years, their friendship has held up (it helps that their parents became good friends at the same time). They are both strong young women now, readying themselves to go off to college. They will again be going to schools in different countries. I hope their friendship continues into their adulthood. I think it will. They have a history of friendship with each other that goes back to toddlerhood. How many of us have that?

Not to mention a book named after them.

M Chodos-Irivne-BBF-character studiesClare and Mary posing for BBFM Chodos-Irvine-Best Best Friends-pg 31Clare and Mary BBF at All 4 Kids

I will miss them both very much. They are still inspiring to me. Fare well, Clare and Mary! I’m sure you will go on to inspire others.

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!