Category Archives: Blogging about Life

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.

You Can’t Use Up Creativity

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows.”  
— Jim Jarmusch

Come tax season, I’m tempted to write off everything I do, because what isn’t creative fodder? We never know what’s going to click off an association, an idea, an insight, a solution.

Can I charge myself by the hour and write off that walk around Greenlake? What about that mobile I bought in Africa? Those paper cutouts from Paris? The feather I found at the beach?

Or how about the two hours this week at the Tacoma Museum of Glass watching glass artist Preston Singletary create one of his pieces (you can click the link to see a video of him at work), and then viewing his amazing show in the museum’s main gallery?

It was so peaceful to sit in the peanut gallery watching Singletary and his crew create something from what was once sand. Singletary works with Northwest Native American motifs from his Tinglit heritage–ravens, carved boxes, baskets, a canoe, totem poles. On this day he and the crew were making the body of a raven.

It began with a chalk sketch on the floor. Then he began to shape the molten glass.

The glass etching that characterizes so much of his work will happen in Singletary’s private studio, but the end result are objects like these on display at the Tacoma Glass Museum, some barely looking like glass:

Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary

If you’re in the Puget Sound area it’s easy to look to glass for inspiration. The Pilchuck Glass School founded by glass artist Dale Chihuly was instrumental in the development of the whole American glass art movement. Countless glass artists like Ginny Ruffner, Joey Kirkpatrick, William Morris, Flora Mace, Benjamin Moore and Lino Tagliapietra have studied or taught there making the Puget Sound region a birthplace and a showcase for glass art.

There’s also the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum at the Seattle Center.

Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum

In addition to the Tacoma Museum of Glass,  the Tacoma Art Museum just opened up a new Benaroya Wing based on the donation by Rebecca Benaroya of her and her late husband Jack’s private glass collection.

How many different directions can you take glass? Well, if you’re an artist open to inspiration from “bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows”, well, the possibilities are just about endless.

Cappy Thomson

Debora Moore

Lino Tagliapietra

Jack Storms

Ginny Ruffner

Marta Klonowska

William Morris

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
— Maya Angelou

In Memory of John Burningham

jb studio shotOne of my favorites picture book makers, John Burningham, died last week in his Hampstead, England, home. He was 82. He leaves his wife, fellow book creator Helen Oxenbury; a family of four children and seven grandchildren, and a legacy of over 60 picture books.

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With Helen in earlier days.

Our family met John’s work in pre-bedtime reading sessions when our kids were little. Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar was an favorite. We still borrow its phrase, “it’s a bit of a squash,” if the car is too full.

When I decided to try my luck in picture books, Burningham’s books became touchstones. There is much to learn from studying the books he published.

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His texts resonate with relatable themes, humor and simplicity. His illustrations, too, are so inviting, often drawn in a scrawl of brown ink that’s brightened by loose watercolor and colored pencil. I particularly love the proportions of his people and his varied points of view. And the animals; especially dogs and rabbits.

Burningham’s first book was published in 1963: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. He was well into his career by the time I met him at a Book Expo in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. The occasion was a Candlewick cocktail party where he held court near the bar: a dark haired, dapper guy with a charming British accent. I’d published about six books by then and was thrilled to meet one of my idols. He autographed my conference bag and drew a rabbit on my napkin, which has sadly since hopped away.

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My favorite John Burningham book is Granpa.

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Here are the opening spreads:

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The story continues, through various Granpa/granddaughter activities. The text is inferential, a dialogue that indicates who is speaking by typeface: italic (child) or Roman (Granpa).

As in most friendships, they have a spat.

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Then more shared adventures.

 

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They visit the beach (note the lovely point of view) and go fishing and jump rope. The seasons pass.

The final three spreads:

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Burningham says so much in that little girl’s posture; says so much with the empty chair.

But he does not leave it there. This is a children’s book, after all. So on to page 32 and a promise of the future.

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So it goes. I am a Granma myself now and I love to share John Burningham’s books with our grandchildren. Thanks, John Burningham for your wonderful books. Rest in peace.

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John Burningham and his wife Helen Oxenbury receiving the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from Book Trust.

jb drawing ox&him

 

 

 

 

Out with the old…

…in with the new!

Once a year, I like to send a few cards out to clients and people I don’t see very often. I make cards for the Winter season or the New Year.

This year, I made two. This was the first one.

To me it says, The old year is over. Time to take out the garbage. But perhaps it is too negative a sentiment.

So I made another one that is perhaps a bit more optimistic.

You can pick whichever you prefer!

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for less garbage and more good things to come in 2019!

Materials used: gouache, colored pencils, rubber stamp and ink, makeup sponge, makeup brushes, and sparkly eyeshadow powder on paper.

Happy Birthday, Marion!

(First, an appetizer) For years I wanted to sing in a choir but was afraid to audition. This fall when a friend encouraged me to try out for Seattle’s Cantare choir, I decided to go for it. Ever since, each Tuesday night rehearsal I have bathed in the beauty of its sound. Deep beauty. This weekend we have three holiday concerts and you are invited. See details in the dessert at the end of this post.

(Next, the main course) If you are lucky in life, you meet people along the way who show you that getting old can be a time of productive, thoughtful work. I met Marion Dane Bauer in the early 2000s when we were both teaching in the MFA-Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She turned 80 last month and is still producing all kinds of books for kids. On the occasion of her 80th birthday she wrote the blogpost below, looking back on a full life and sharing insights.

THIS BLINK OF TIME  from Marion Dane Bauer’s blog, Just Thinking

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Today is my birthday.  My 80th, would you believe?  I add “would you believe?” because I don’t quite believe it myself.  That’s despite the fact that I’ve been trying out the number for months, mostly inside my head, sometimes out loud.  “Hey!  You’re 80!”

I’ve been saying it when I do a full Pilates hang, suspended by my ankles.

I’ve been saying it when, despite that full hang, I find myself suppressing a groan when I rise from a chair.

I’ve been saying it when I dive back into the novel I’ve been working on for too long and discover that I’m repeating myself . . . again.  Do I do that when I talk as well?

I’ve been saying it when I find the world wearying, threatening, horrifying.  “You’re 80!  Perhaps you won’t have to live into whatever is coming.”

I’ve been saying it when I gaze out at the wonder of a new day, budding trees or swirling snow, and ask how many more such gifts await me.

I never expected to be 80, though the irony is that I don’t suppose I’ve been expecting to die, either.  Does any of us truly believe that inevitable, uncompromising end will be our own?  Every life is a blink between two unknowns, and as I have never tried to imagine my whereabouts prior to my birth, I don’t attempt to fathom what lies beyond these days I have been given.  But my death grows larger in me every day.

Along with the hope that I may arrive there with some grace intact.

Eighty seems such a venerable age that I tell myself I should have some wisdom to impart on this page.  But I don’t feel wise.

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a few things in the process.  The two are not unrelated.  Mostly I learned because I made mistakes.

I married almost 60 years ago, though I had little desire for the man I decided to marry.  (I had never desired any other man, either, and was incapable in that homophobic time of understanding why.)  I thought him a fixer-upper.  I knew he wasn’t all I wanted, but I planned to bring him around.

I learned that I am the “fixer-upper.”  When I finally realized how difficult it is to grow and change myself, I understood the futility of attempting to change anyone else.  I understood, too, that no one of his gender could ever meet my needs.

Now, in our mutual age, my one-time husband and I live a great distance from one another, but we come together often on Words with Friends and on FaceTime where we rejoice in and occasionally worry about our progeny.  We each accept the other tenderly, unquestioningly.  That acceptance represents an abundance of learning on both sides.

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Fifty-four years ago, I gave birth to a son, a child so longed for that my desire for him, my need to mother him, lived in my bones.  And from the time he was very small, he defeated me every step of the way.  Lovingly.  Masterfully.

When Peter died at the age of 42 of a disease that robbed him of control of his body and of his intelligence and finally of his sanity, too, I learned, at last, that he had always been the only son he could be.

I learned, too, that the love that lived between us was enough.

I started my life trying to fit in, seeking approval.  And I learned that I don’t fit in and that approval has very limited value.  I’m not made for the kind of coupling society demands.  The activities so many care about don’t appeal to me.  And my mind, while possessing a certain uniqueness, lacks some very basic skills.

Maybe no one ever fits in, truly.  Maybe we each feel in some way alienated and alone.  And maybe we all have to learn, as I am finally beginning to learn, that it is enough to be who we are given to be.

Who am I?  All my life that question has puzzled me.  I have no answer.  None.  I don’t even know what might make an answer possible.

But as I move into this end time, I am beginning to understand something else.  I am a human becoming.  I am a verb, an action, not a noun.  I am not, will never be, a static thing that can be labeled and explained.  Even to myself.

I am a human in process, making mistakes—oh, so many mistakes—and learning and moving on.  And learning again.

And while I’m learning, I rejoice in the love that happens along the way.

Finally it is only the love that gives this blink of time purpose and meaning and even holiness.

(Lastly, the promised dessert) For tickets and more info: cantarevocalensemble.org

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Runaway Reading

The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.

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I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.

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My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.

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The 2018 Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner by fellow judge, Elaine Magliaro

 

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Books illustrated by fellow judge, E. B. Lewis

Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.

This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)

I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.

I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.

 

Getting to Know You…all too well

Pamela Lyndon Travers

Once upon a time, an author was an elusive creature. Rarely glimpsed, rarely heard from except in his or her published writings. There were the exceptions—the ever-touring Dickens and Twain. But when I was growing up a real writer was such a rare beast that I vaguely thought that all authors were either dead or perhaps lived in some land not really connected to our own.

So, I was thrilled to finally meet an actual author when I was 21–P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame when she was a writer in residence at my college. I had read and adored Mary Poppins as a child and here was the author herself.

The meeting, at a dinner table in my dorm, was disappointing. She was fulfilling what clearly was an annoying requirement—a meal with the students. She brushed off my shy, gushing acknowledgement of her and her books, ate as quickly as she could and immediately left. But, like Mary Poppins, she did leave me with a bit of wonder. I noticed that the salt and pepper shakers had vanished with her.

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Was it a bit of Mary Poppins magic or was P.L. just a bit of a kleptomaniac? This was certainly possible. Pamela Lyndon Travers was a complicated person. She was notorious for her snappish demeanor and extreme protectiveness of Mary Poppins. You can see a highly sentimentalized (but reasonable accurate) version of her struggles with Walt Disney over the making of the Mary Poppins film in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”   (Insider tip: Travers’ tears at the end are not tears of joy.)

You can get a more direct feel for her in this interview with Alex Witchel that ran in the New York Times in 1994.I love many of the exchanges in what must have been an intimidating interview, but this is one I could particularly relate to as a writer. Witchel asks Travers if she is proud of her Mary Poppins books.

“Yes, I am proud,” she [Travers] says clearly. “Because I really got to know her.”

Miss Travers has written that when she was a child she wished to be a bird. Is Mary Poppins? After all, she can fly and she is the only adult capable of understanding the starlings and the wind.

“That’s something I can’t tell you,” she says. “I didn’t create Mary Poppins.”

“Oh? Who did?”

“I refuse the answer,” she says. “But I learned a lot from Mary Poppins.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t say exactly,” she snaps. “It’s not a sum. I know less about her after reading ‘Comes Back’ again.” Her tongue works itself over her lips.

“I think I would like her always to remain unknown,” she continues. “I feel I’ve been given her. Perhaps if somebody else had her she’d be different. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten so much.”

I love Travers’ acknowledgement that Mary Poppins was “given” to her. And her refusal to further explain her character. In some ways, I think writers (like Mary Poppins herself) should also remain unknown. Perhaps some of the magic goes out of things when we meet them, especially if they coldly brush us off! (Although the disappearing salt and pepper shakers almost made up for it.)

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Authors are not so private and mysterious these days. Between school visits, blog posts, social media, bookstore appearances, and late-night interviews, the world seems rotten with authors. We get to know them all too well, perhaps.

Still, believe it or not this is all by way of letting you know that I’ve been doing readings and signings lately for my new book “The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael.”

So, even if you don’t need to meet me, I love getting a chance of getting to meet you. Like so many of us introverted writers, we turn into extroverts under the right light. Even P.L. Travers start to get expansive toward the end of her New York Times interview.

If you’d like to meet the not-that-elusive Bonny Becker and learn more about my latest book, do come to see me at the Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, Oct. 25 at 7:00 p.m.

 

 

 

WEAVING A BLOGPOST

spider3In our garden, we’ll remember this as the Year of the Spider. The golden slant of autumn light has come — and with it a bumper crop of spider webs.

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The spiders are easy to spot, hanging head downward on their vertical webs that serve as both home and hunting ground. Just what kind of spiders are they? I searched the Other Web and found this handy identification chart on iwastesomuchtime.com.

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Reference.com had better information. I learned that the classification of spiders begins with their webs. Much as children’s writers work in genres – board books, picture books, middle grade and YA — spiders spin out one of four different kinds of webs: orb, sheet, funnel and tangle.

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By the shape of their art in our garden, I identified these weavers: orb spiders of the family Araneidae.

Yes, that’s the same spider family as Charlotte’s in EB White’s beloved Charlotte’s Web.

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It seems fitting that they are spinning webs outside my windows while I spin a blogpost within.

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Ah, that I could be so productive. Orb spiders build new webs just about every evening, after consuming the old web. Revision and more revision. Only the females weave webs. The males spend their time searching for mates. To create silk, an orb female squirts liquid out of the spinneret glands in her abdomen. It stays liquid until it hits the air, much as ideas solidify as they become words. She makes sticky silk for the circular strands, to catch insect prey, and non-sticky radials to run along: threads of dialogue and narrative; exposition and introspection.

She weaves a web from her own substance: story woven from the deepest self.

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Orb spiders do not see well, despite the fact that they have eight eyes. An orb female is alerted to an insect on her web by its vibration. She runs along the radials to subdue it with a bite, sometimes wrapping it in silk for later consumption.

A writer might move blindly into a story, as well, feeling her way for the vibrations that raise the little hairs on the back of her neck, the visceral reaction that telegraphs yes, here’s a juicy story part, an idea to bite into, a just-right word to wrap in silk for future use.

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My three-year old grandson took a good look at the orb spiders at his house, too. He counted five webs in the tree next to their stairs. But he doesn’t call them Araneus or even spiders. He calls them “Booby Voobek,” in the insect language that Carson Ellis invented for her brilliant book, Iz Du Tak. And there, where language and spiders collide, seems a good place to end this woven tale.

“Rup furt,” Ellis writes. Rup furt, indeed.

 

 

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

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In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.