Author Archives: Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Where Lily Isn’t – a read-aloud

So, what have I been doing with all my free time while sheltering-in-place? Sewing masks. Doing puzzles. Reading endless emails about COVID-19…

And, I made a video! With so many kids staying home all day with their families, it seems like the least I can do to help out.

I have to admit, I’m new, and not entirely comfortable with, recording myself. My video is not perfect, as I am not perfect, but it will do. I hope.

After the reading, I encourage kids (adults too, if you are inclined) to send a drawing of a beloved pet. I will post them on this blog. If you know of any children who might enjoy listening and participating, please pass it on!

Thanks!

Stay safe, and stay healthy.

Here Comes Lily!

Where Lily Isn’t is here! And we are having a party!

If you live in Seattle, Julie Paschkis and I invite you to come celebrate with us on Thursday, March 12, at 6:30pm at Secret Garden Bookstore. Please bring a picture or anecdote to share about your pet, past or present.

It was two and a half years ago that I had tittery jitters about starting work on the images, and now the book is finally out in the world. Of all the books I have done, this is one of the ones I am most pleased with. It deals with the difficult subject of loss, but really it is a book about the indelible mark love makes on our hearts.

We hope you can join us on March 12!

ANT and BEE

A while ago I wrote about a book a friend showed me from her childhood.

This post is about a book that another friend showed me from her childhood, but this book brought back flashes of memory as soon as I saw it. It was a book from my childhood as well, long forgotten.

ANT and BEE: An Alphabetical Story for Tiny Tots (Book I) by Angela Banner, illustrated by Bryan Ward, first published in the U.K. in 1950.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of recognition that happens when you come upon a book that you haven’t seen in maybe, fifty years. It is like the way a certain scent will suddenly take you back to a long-ago visited place; little bells tinkling in the back of my brain announcing the arrival of an old friend.

The book is small – roughly 3 ½ x 4 inches – which suits it’s subject matter and adds to its charm. It is straightforward yet silly. Realistic yet completely implausible. But it is not cute. It maintains a dignity in spite of its diminutive size and subject. Maybe it’s the hats…

The opening endpaper states:

Ant and Bee is a progressive ABC written as a story with simple words, some of which are printed in red and some in black. The words in red are to be called out by the child when it has learned to spell them out and to pronounce them. A grown-up then completes the sentences by reading the words in black as soon as the words in red have been called out by the child. Encouraged by the grown-up, the child will soon learn the words which it must read before the story can progress. In this way, the child will feel an interest in helping to tell the story and will, at the same time, gain confidence in reading and building up a small vocabulary.

That’s a lot of instructions for such a small book. Apparently Banner wrote the book as a way to help her son learn to read. This probably helped sell the book in the ‘50s, but it seems a bit bossy for today’s grown-up readers.

Here is ANT.

And here is BEE.

They live in a CUP.

And so on. Here are more images that I particularly like.

I loved finding this book again. But do I love this book now because I liked it when I was young? Is it charming only because of nostalgia? And I wonder what I often wonder when I read a book published before 1980: Would it be published now?

CORRAL

Last week was the opening of my “Corral” art installation at the Method Gallery in Seattle, WA.

A corral is an enclosure to capture, confine, defend or protect.

Something “to bring a group of people together and keep them in one place, especially in order to control them” (Cambridge English Dictionary).

I work as an illustrator. I create art. I like to make clothing. And I like to take and twist garment making (sometimes literally) into something unexpected. I feel it is the ideal medium for me to explore human relationships: how we present ourselves; how we connect; how we exclude.

I think of this piece as an idea illustrated in sewn, 3-D form. It is a continuation of the work I have written about here and here.

For Corral, I constructed thirteen white, button-down, men’s shirts from over 20 yards of Oxford cloth. Twelve are conjoined in a circle via their sleeves. The thirteenth is separate, with its sleeves joined behind its back in one piece from armscye to armscye. 

Why did I sew thirteen shirts that no one can wear?

Here is my artist statement from the show:

Clothing is our human-made exoskeleton. Beyond functioning as a protective layer, it stands for how we see ourselves, and how we choose to be seen by others. Within each of our cultures we grow up learning the language of apparel. I enjoy using that language to reflect our own stories back to us.

We are accustomed to wearing clothes. It is natural for us to transfer our psyches into items of apparel and mentally “try them on.” By using familiar clothing forms as structures on which viewers may hang their interpretations, my work provides an opportunity to explore – visually, psychologically, spatially – how we interconnect and how we relate to others.

At first glance, you see the familiar: A bunch of shirts, like hanging on a shop rack or a laundry line.

Then you see that there is something more involved going on.

You begin to think about the possible meanings and the emotional content.

In order to make this piece, I researched the unique construction techniques traditional in menswear. I wanted the shirts to look as “store-bought” as possible. People are surprised that I could reproduce garments like this, but I think we forget that all our clothes are made by humans. Clothing factories have industrial sewing machines and specially designed equipment for specific tasks, but they are still made by human beings. Robotics have been slow to replace humans in garment production.

But sewing thirteen of the same thing tested my patience with repetition. When I imagine what working in a sweatshop would be like – making the same thing day after day, under pressure from the boss – I’m sure I wouldn’t last very long. 

One of the interesting things about art is how differently it can be interpreted by different people.

Some people told me they saw this peace as playful, as though the shirts are dancing together.

Others said they thought it expressed community in unison.

Yet others see the shirts as representing white male dominance, with the lone thirteenth shirt being the “odd man out.”

What does this piece mean to you?

My Mazza Museum Memories

Steven Savage, me, Nina Laden, Lori Nichols, Peter Catalanotto – after our talks were done.

Last weekend, I had the honor of being a guest speaker at the Mazza Museum Fall conference at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio.

The Mazza Museum collection is the largest collection of picture book art in the world, with a holding of more than 14,000 pieces of original picture book art – and counting!

The Mazza Fall conference is a yearly event to promote literacy through picture books. It is primarily attended by teachers, librarians, and students – a pleasant audience for us picture book folk.

The event was organized by Benjamin Sapp, the Mazza Museum director. He also arranges a group tour of picture book artists’ studios in some part of the country every few years. He brought a group to our neck of the woods in July of 2017 which Laura Kvasnosky wrote about here.

During the entire weekend Ben was the epitome of gracious calm. If he felt the strain of hosting six artists and 275 attendees and overseeing troupes of volunteers (known as Mazza Enthusiasts) he didn’t show it.

I find public speaking to be like a roller coaster ride. I fret for weeks as I prepare. I worry about what might go wrong (I have my own personal repertoire of performance-anxiety dreams). I get a kaleidoscope of butterflies in my stomach as the moment gets closer. Then I give the talk and I think … That wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of fun. I might do that again …

But all that aside, I enjoy these sorts of events because of the people I get to meet and the other artists whose talks I get to listen to.

Melissa Sweet is like a soft-spoken firecracker. I admire her and the care and discipline she puts into her process. There is so much love in her work for her subjects. I purchased a copy of the book she wrote and illustrated about E.B. White – Some Writer!. It is a beautiful and informative read.

Lori Nichols talked about her personal and professional growth rings and how her book characters Maple and Willow came to be. I felt at one point as if we were sitting in her yard with her under her beloved trees. Her talk was so engaging I (almost) forgot that my talk was up next.

Nina Laden (my fellow Pacific Northwesterner at the event) wove her talk through with personal tales of trial and perseverance, as well as envious shots of her Island studio.

Peter Catalanotto talked about how as a boy, he struggled with writing until a wise teacher told him to try starting his story with drawing pictures instead. Lead with your strengths. His story ideas often start with him asking himself “What if…”

Stephen Savage discussed the importance of composition (what he calls hierarchy) in imagery, especially in books with no written story as many of his are. Vertical lines on a horizontal plane are static. Diagonal lines and curves imply movement. The simplest of images can say a great deal.

In my 45 minutes, I talked about how Where Lily Isn’t came to be, from my early work through my time in London and my wordless letters with Julie Paschkis. Where I started, what I left behind, what I’ve brought with me. That sort of thing.

Although each of us had very different styles of presenting, there were some commonalities: We all mentioned events in our youth that formed our future selves as artists. We all spoke of our challenges and failures as well as our successes. We all talked about the importance of play in our work. And I believe we all showed pictures of our dogs at some point.

My Nik

Other treats for me included:

Meeting and sitting at the dinner table with this year’s Dickman librarian of the year, Christina Dorr. I love librarians.

Kathy and me and a photo of us with the other 2004 winners

Seeing Kathy East again, the head of the 2004 Caldecott committee. It was she who called me to tell me Ella Sarah Gets Dressed was receiving an honor award. She will always have a special place in my heart.

Getting my hand cast in resin by Daniel Chudzinski for the Mazza archives. A new and slightly macabre experience.

Finding an open spot to sign the signing wall at the museum – my mark is now there with so many artists whom I admire. Intimidating yet exciting!

My one regret is that I did not have a chance to tour the Mazza Museum itself. My appointed tour time was forgone due to bad traffic coming from the airport in Detroit and the rest of the time I was booked (no pun intended) tightly. However, I did manage a couple of photos on the fly.

Ed Emberly
Tomie dePaola

Thanks to Ben and all the Mazza folks for including me in their pantheon of picture book artists. It was a roller coaster ride I am glad I participated in.

Here we are demonstrating Steve’s principle of dynamic diagonals.

NEXT!

Following the trend set by Julie Larios and Bonny Becker in their preceding posts on this blog, here is a favorite poem of mine from my younger years, by Ogden Nash. I even posted a copy of it on the wall of my dorm room (I have long had a thing for dinosaurs) along with my collection of dinosaur memorabilia, my freshman year at college. Keep in mind that this poem predates the Night At The Museum movies by several decades.

NEXT!

I thought that I would like to see

The early world that used to be,

That mastodonic mausoleum,

the Natural History Museum.

On iron seat in marble bower,

I slumbered through the closing hour.

At midnight in the vasty hall

The fossils gathered for a ball.

High above notices and bulletins

Loomed up the Mesozoic skeletons.

Aroused by who knows what elixirs,

They ground along like concrete mixers.

They bowed and scraped in reptile pleasure,

And then began to tread the measure.

There were no drums or saxophones,

But just the clatter of their bones,

A rolling, rattling, carefree circus

Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.

Pterodactyls and brontosauruses

Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.

Amid the megalosauric wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

Cheer up, old man, he said, and winked —

It’s kind of fun to be extinct.

I still enjoy the work of Ogden Nash – his wonderful play with words. However, in rereading this poem now, it does take on a more ominous meaning than it used to!

The Calico Jungle

I was at a friend’s house recently and she had a book sitting out that caught my eye: The Calico Jungle, by Dahlov Ipcar, published in 1965.

It was one of her favorite books as a child. She kept it and then read it to her own children (now adults).

It’s a quiet bedtime story, about a boy looking at all the “strange and wonderful” animals on the quilt his mother made for him.

It ends as he falls asleep and dreams he is walking through the calico jungle.

This friend of mine is an English teacher as well as a textile artist and quilter. Perhaps this book lies at the root of her adult pursuits? I wonder…

I wish I had seen this book when I was young, but I’m glad to discover it now. I will look for other books by illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar. Perhaps for a future post!

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.

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.

Still Life: In Progress

I have been working on pieces for a joint art show with two great friends and artists, Julie Paschkis and Deborah Mersky. The show opens May 11th at the Bitters Co. barn in the Skagit Valley, WA. Julie, Deborah and I have a long history of collaborating on art for items that we have then had produced to sell, but this will be our first art installation together. We call ourselves, TROIKA.

We always start out by setting a theme. Our theme this time is ‘Still Life’. Still Life is defined as “a painting that features an arrangement of inanimate objects as its subject.” We often see comestibles, flowers, glassware, ceramics and textiles and other household items laid out on a surface in a domestic setting.

Still life as a known art form goes back to paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs from the 15th century BCE. The French call it nature morte, which translates, literally, as natural death. There is a connection to memento mori paintings, the purpose of which is to remind us that we too must die. So, not just a bunch of pretty flowers in a vase.

My mother died three years ago. I have a small sugar bowl and creamer set that belonged to her. The set sat in the kitchen cupboard when I was growing up and to my childish imagination they looked like some kind of exotic candy. I don’t remember my mother ever using them. They held a certain mystery to me: Where did they come from? Why did she never use them? Where they from her past life? Her first marriage? I have since asked my father and brother, but no one seems to know (nor care).

I wasn’t sure what medium I wanted to employ for this project, but I thought I wanted to use fabric in some way. I started by testing different approaches with the glass creamer set as subject matter. I imagined I would eventually use them as part of a larger, more varied, traditional still life arrangement. I experimented with many fabric swatches and painting and drawing media.

I never made it past the sugar and creamer set. Those pieces alone became my focus for several months. But nothing I had produced seemed like the right direction to go in. Painting or drawing on fabric didn’t feel right. Only a couple of the swatches – the ones that involved stenciling – intrigued me.

Yet using fabric as a backdrop wasn’t enough. I wanted to make something out of that fabric. Those who know me know I make a lot of my own clothing. I also teach sewing. My maternal grandfather was a tailor and my paternal grandfather was a sample-maker for Hattie Carnegie in New York. Garment-making is a thread that connects me to my heritage (pun intended).

So, what if I created garments for the show? What if the theme for me became Still Life-Size?

That idea excited me.

I envisioned garments that represented how I feel connected to my mother. How I am connected to others. How people connect to each other. Momento Mori in apparel form.

Everything connects in one way or another.

And back to the sugar and creamer set again.

It is all work in progress thus far. Those of you who live in the area can come to the show and see the finished work for yourself. For the rest of you, perhaps I will post again after the show is completed.

In addition to creating our own individual work for the show, Julie, Deborah and I together collaborated on three 45-foot long banners that will hang through the center of the barn (and there is that creamer again). Julie posted on her Mooshka blog about our process in making them if you want to read more. We will be leading a workshop the day after the show. Here is the information if you are interested in attending.