Category Archives: Blogging about Life

THE POWER OF STORY

The experience of one life is limited, bound in time and space, culture and personality. But a story does not have those limits. A story lets us peer into lives that are quite different from our own. A story can build empathy and human understanding.

This was brought home Friday night when we saw HANA’S SUITCASE at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The play dips forward and back, from recent times in Japan to 1940s Germany. It follows the present-day investigations of two children and their teacher at a Holocaust museum in Tokyo who are given an artifact from the Auschwitz museum. The simple brown suitcase says “Hanna Brady,” on the side. And her date of birth. And “Waisenkind,” (orphan child). The museum group’s investigations lead to a single Jewish family’s experience in wartime eastern Europe.

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As the Japanese teacher and her students uncover Hana’s story, playgoers learn that before Hana turned 11, her mother and father were sent to concentration camps. That year, 1942, she and her older brother George were sent to Therensienstadt, called Terezin by the Czechs. They were able to see each other about once a week during their two years there. Hannah participated in an art class taught by Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova. Friedl smuggled 5,000 pieces of children’s art out of the camp and some of Hana’s art survives. This provides one of the few happy moments in the play.

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The Japanese teacher and her students learn that Hana and George were transferred to Auschwitz in 1944. He became part of a work crew and she was sent to the gas chambers shortly after she arrived. Hana and George’s parents died in Auschwitz in 1942. Artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova in 1944.

Of the 140,000 people sent to Terezin, 15,000 were children. Only 300 children survived. Much of what the Japanese investigators learned they learned from George Brady, who was one of those survivors. He moved to Canada after the war and raised a family. At age 89, he attended the opening night of the play in Seattle.

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Such a powerful story, made more powerful because it is told through the viewpoint of a Japanese teacher and her two students; experienced through children’s eyes halfway across the world.

• • • •

It is a tradition at Seattle Children’s Theatre to end performances with a Talk Back.

My favorite question Friday night was from a kid who asked, “Why did the Germans hate the Jews?”

Why indeed? I cannot begin to answer that question. Even Hana’s brother George long avoided such a question by telling his children that the tattoo on his wrist was an old telephone number.

  • • • • •

Nazis, like ISIS terrorists, depend on dividing the world into “us” and “other.” Even a certain presidential candidate participates in this kind of blanket dehumanization.

But stories build our compassion for each other. Stories have the capacity to make us see our common humanity and break through walls of hatred.

 

Note: Hana’s Suitcase the play is based on a book of the same name by Karen Levine. The SCT play, from Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (see? another world connection), runs through February 7.

The Brady family has a wonderful website, http://www.hanassuitcase.ca/

 

 

 

Art Is Our Human Right

AllSchoolsShouldBeArtSchools

I recently went back to the William Morris Gallery to see their current exhibit, “The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith”.

Bob and Roberta Smith is actually one person, Patrick Brill, who chose this double pseudonym to create a more “egalitarian platform” for art making. The name Bob Smith is the most common name in England (like John Smith in the United States) and Roberta is Patrick’s sister’s name. Combined, this artistic nom de plume is about as low brow as one can get.

The son of a well-known landscape painter and teacher, Smith studied for his MA at Goldsmiths in the early 90s. He has been an Artist Trustee of Tate Museum and the National Campaign for the Arts. He currently is an Associate Professor at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University,

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His irreverent humor and straightforward approach is apparent throughout his work. He paints with sign-painting enamel on found objects and discarded wood panels. His images center on the written word – he paints personal stories as well as social commentary. His lettering is mostly freehand, paying homage to the sign-painting styles of fair grounds, old shop advertisements and folk art.

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This exhibit was of special interest to me. In Seattle, I was actively involved in advocating for arts in education. I volunteered as an arts community liaison for in Seattle public schools for over a decade. I started a blog – Pebbles In The Jar – to help inform and encourage others to do the same. I was a member of the arts community advisory group during the development of the Seattle Public Schools Creative Advantage plan. I even spoke on the topic at a few events.

Arts Soap Box

After moving to London, I was curious to see how arts in education is handled here. I assumed that, with London’s broad art scene and history of supporting the arts, arts teaching in public (what they call “state” schools here) would be more secure. I was wrong. The arts in education have been whittled away by conservative politics and “austerity” measures in the U.K., just as in the U.S.

Smith says he grew up believing “education is not about improving your life chances or getting a better job, education is about building knowledge and experience and enriching humanity and society.” Art as an integral part of democracy.

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Taking his art to another level, Smith in 2013 started the Art Party with Crescent Arts, Scarborough. “The Art Party seeks to better advocate the arts to Government. The Art Party is NOT a formal political party, but is a loose grouping of artists and organizations who are deeply concerned about the Government diminishing the role of all the arts and design in schools.”

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In 2015, Bob and Roberta Smith ran for parliament as an independent during the 2015 general election against conservative Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath. This is when I first became aware of his work. I was impressed with a visual artist who dared to enter the outspoken and contentious realm of politics.

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Smith sees his campaigns as “extended art works which include a variety of consciousness raising artifacts.” He has taken to the streets in a camper covered in his campaign slogans. He has created videos, performance pieces and radio shows. He sings. He plays guitar and piano. He walks the walk.

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“It’s almost impossible for kids to study art and music together, let alone dance or drama as well. This is worrying for British culture and Britain’s long-term reputation for being a great place to make, teach and experience the arts.”

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“Art is about the appreciation of ambiguity. Only when people realize what unites us is huge and wonderful and what divides us is small and mean will people live peacefully.”

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“Hey artists, forget about making money, and make things better.”

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It’s notable that the William Morris Gallery has hosted this exhibit and supported Smith’s campaign. William Morris was also a political activist. In 1882 he told the Royal Commission on Technical Education “everybody ought to be taught ought to draw, just as much as everybody be taught to read and write”.

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ArtMakesPeoplePowerful

MusicMakesChildrenPowerful

If you would like to learn more about Bob and Roberta Smith, you can watch this excellent and entertaining documentary, Make Your Own Damn Art: the world of Bob and Roberta Smith, directed by John Rogers.

I wish I could have voted for Bob and Roberta Smith.

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LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 318th Birthday, Hogarth

William Hogarth, one of London’s most beloved artists, spent his later years in Chiswick (pronounced Chizzick), the area of London where my family and I are living now.

Hogarth statue

There is a statue of Hogarth on the Chiswick High Street not far from our house.  November 10th was his birthday.

Hogarth wreath

He is clearly Chiswick’s favorite 18th century celebrity.

Hogarth is another artist who seems like six or eight people compressed into one. In addition to being a very successful portrait painter, he was an engraver, publisher, caricaturist, satirist, social reformer, foster parent, storyteller, and writer. He also put through the first copyright legislation and was a founding Governor of the Foundling Hospital.

Hogarth and dog selfie detail

A few weeks ago I took a tour of Hogarth House in Chiswick, where Hogarth and his family lived from 1749 onward (Hogarth and his wife had no children of their own, but they fostered foundlings) and which is now a museum.  Hogarth bought the house as a quiet country escape from the hectic center of London where he had lived and worked until then. Now the house sits on a busy thoroughfare.

Hogarth House exterior

Hogarth was able to make a good income from his artwork. He was commissioned for portraits and sold paintings as well as engravings and etchings based on his paintings.

Engraving tools Hogarth engraved plate

W Hogarth-The Distrest Poet  W Hogarth-The Enraged Musician

Hogarth is best known for his serial works that mix moralist tales with social commentary and wit. He was keenly observant of human behavior in all it’s embarrassing and entertaining detail. He dealt with topical subjects like politics as well as perennials like sex, crime, cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy. He must have been a somewhat uncomfortable person to be introduced to. He would have had a ball with the latest American presidential debates.

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A Harlot’s Progress (1731) and A Rake’s Progress (1735) are two of his most famous sequential series. Both tales depict the sorry end that can come from being deceitful, vain, selfish, greedy, lustful, and foolish. And from hanging with the wrong crowd.

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Hogarth is a master at portraying facial expressions. In the detail from A Harlot’s Progress plate 6 below, the clergyman is feeling up the skirt of the woman next to him at the Harlot’s funeral. She doesn’t seem to mind.

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Every millimeter of space in Hogarth’s pictures include details that reinforce the story being told. Below is a bit from the border of the final scene in A Rake’s Progress. The setting is an insane asylum, evidenced by the fact that an inmate has used the leather from a bible to mend a shoe.

W Hogarth-bible shoe leather Detail from Rakes Progress plate 8

Strolling Actresses In A Barn (1738) is flush with activity from all corners. Two neglected impish youngsters in devil costumes are fighting over their mother’s tankard of ale while she poses and loses her knickers.

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W Hogarth-Strolling Musicians In A Barn detail

Elaborate details like these remind me of images I loved from the early Mad Magazine comics (that I wrote about here before). William M Gaines and Will Elder must have been influenced by Hogarth. He is the great-great-great-grandfather of modern comic strip cartoonists.

But Hogarth wasn’t only interested in showing the foibles and flaws of society. He also wrote and published a book The Analysis of Beauty (1753), to share with both artists and commoners alike what he saw as the six principles of aesthetics: fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy and quantity.

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Hogarth died in Chiswick in 1764 and is buried in a nearby churchyard. I’m grateful to be able to see London through his eyes. The city has changed considerably, but humanity hasn’t so much.

REMEMBERING VERA B. WILLIAMS

I came to love picture books when our kids were little. Every week we’d visit the library and haul home a big bag of books. So I first met Vera B. Williams between the pages of her books.

Sadly, Vera B. died October 16. Happily, we have her wonderful books for comfort.

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If I had to point to the one book that made me want to be a picture book maker, I would point to Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe.

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Three Days was Williams’ third book, published in 1981 when she was 54. It was the first of her books to gain popularity, winning the Parents Choice award. The story’s in the guise of a young girl’s journal during a family canoe trip, illustrated in colored pencil. Like all of Williams’ books, it has a big generous heart. That’s the part that grabs me.

But Vera B. Williams was not just a children’s author and illustrator. The same year Three Days was published, she spent a month at Alderson Federal Prison Camp following arrest at a women’s peaceful blockade of the Pentagon.

As she wrote, “At various times I have helped start a cooperative housing community, an alternative school, a peace center, and a bakery where young people could work. I have worked to end nuclear power and weapons, and for women’s rights. I have demonstrated and been jailed. I have produced posters, leaflets, magazine covers, drawings, paintings, short stories, and poem, as well as books.” To which I would add she was also a school teacher and the mother of three.

Bookwise, she went on to write and illustrate the Caldecott honor book, More, More, More Said the Baby, inspired by her first grandchild.

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And the Rosa trilogy, including Caldecott-winning A Chair for My Mother.

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My favorite of the Rosa books is Music, Music for Everyone  in which Rosa and her friends form a band to raise money for her grandmother’s medical care. Here’s my favorite (wordless) spread, at the climax.

DANCE

As you can see, decades before the call went out for more diversity in picture books, Vera B. Williams’ stories were inclusive across all racial and economic lines. I love that.

• • • • •

Like Vera Williams, I was in my early forties when I started trying to make picture books. To figure it out, I studied the books my kids and I had loved the most. I made  thumbnail grids of Vera B. Williams’ books to teach myself about pacing and page turns. I pored over her illustrations noting point of view, character depiction, color, flow.

Early on, I attended a workshop that brought together teachers and authors. That’s when I first met Ms. Williams in person. She was an intense little person, already in her 60s. I had a minute to talk to her while she signed a book and I quickly told her how she’d inspired me to try to publish a book. She endured my gushing with equanimity.

I sent her copies of my first board books when they came out in 1994. She sent back an encouraging note.

• • • • •

I am a total fan of Vera B. Williams’ books. But she did not write them for me. Luckily, I got to see how her books impact young readers the year I volunteered as a writing coach in Lilly Rainwater’s fourth/fifth grade split at Hawthorne Elementary.

The kids I worked with at Hawthorne came from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds. When we were working on personal narratives, I brought in Williams’ last book, published in 2001, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

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It is a story for older kids, told in poems and pictures. It recounts what happens to two girls whose father goes to prison and then returns.

For months, each week when I returned to the classroom, that book would be in another student’s desk. It made the rounds. These kids had relatives and friends who were in prison. They had had to be brave and smart. The book resonated.

Which, in the end, is what all Vera B. Williams’ books do. Whether it’s a grandma sweeping up a baby to love in More, More, More, or little girl saving up money for A Chair for My Mother, Williams’ stories give us the best of what it is to be human.

Though I wish there were more, more, more Vera B. Williams’ books, I am forever grateful that she showed us all a picture book can be.

Now that’s a life well-lived.

Young Readers and Young Writers

BBC YWA Clare at balcony

Last Spring my youngest daughter submitted a short story to the inaugural Young Writers Award competition, hosted by BBC and Booktrust. Young people aged 14 to 18 who live in the UK were invited to submit short stories of up to 1000 words on any topic. A panel of three judges selected the shortlist of stories demonstrating original and exciting writing that “captures the reader.”

It was recently announced that Clare’s story was one of five to make it on the shortlist,  from over 1,000 submissions. I was thrilled. I was also incredibly pleased and impressed that she had the confidence to submit her story in the first place. It is so easy to talk oneself out of trying.

On October 6th, the five young authors were given a tour of the BBC studios. As mother/chaperone, I got to tag along. It was exciting to see the BBC hive buzzing, and I enjoyed meeting the other kids and chatting with their parents. There were some notable artefacts on display as well.

BBC Dalek

In the evening, we attended the exclusive live broadcast event at the BBC Radio Theatre.

BBC YWA screen

We were joined there by my husband and two special friends – Julie Paschkis and her husband Joe Max Emminger! – who had just flown in from Seattle for a visit. Brennig Davies won the Young Authors award (the prize is mentoring sessions with Matt Haig, one of the judges). The winner of the Adult Short Story Award, Jonathan Buckley, was also announced. There was a reception afterwards, where authors young and old,  publishers, agents, broadcasters, and proud parents, mingled. It was all pretty cool.

The evening was a celebration of stories and writing, but it was one event of many in a country where writing, and reading, are highly valued and celebrated.

I see people reading books everywhere I go here in London. On the train or sitting in the park. The mere fact that over a thousand teenagers submitted stories to this new competition is noteworthy. I also learned from the other parents that there are a number of writing competitions around the U.K. every year. While I don’t like the idea of writing as a competitive sport, I still think that this indicates an appreciation for the skills involved. British culture seems to recognise that young readers are also valuable as young writers, encouraging them at an early stage to put themselves forward.

BBC National Short Story Awards 2015, New Broadcasting House, London

If you would like to read Clare’s submission along with the other runners-up, and hear Sir Ian McKellen read “Skinning”, the winning story by Brennig Davies, go here. And here is the shortlist of the adult entries which include stories by Mark Haddon and Hilary Mantel.

Even though Clare’s story didn’t win, the experience got her thinking more seriously about her writing. I am encouraging her to keep honing her skills, not for the purpose of entering more writing competitions, but to enjoy the success of making good stories even better.

Julie and Margaret in Fosters

And it’s been great showing Julie around London!

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.

At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”

I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)

I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.

I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.

So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.

At least we remembered the dog.

More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?

• • • • •

Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.

The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.

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Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.

Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.

The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.

“Did you happen to see some glasses?”

“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”

Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.

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John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.

New and Old

Moving to London has brought new challenges, which is in part why the move appealed to me.

But moving someplace new doesn’t mean you don’t seek out the familiar.

LPS view to canal

Last October I visited the London Print Studio on the recommendation of a friend. Perhaps it was the scent of burnt linseed oil, but I immediately felt at home.

The studio offers classes and studio work sessions for printmakers. It also has a gallery space and small shop.

I signed up for a screenprint workshop. It was good. I asked if they could use any volunteer workers (I figured I might as well make myself useful while I’m here). They said Yes.

I met with the LPS founder and director John Phillips and the operations manager Nadia Yahiaoui. They asked me to put together a print media display for their upcoming 40th anniversary exhibit, “Printopia – How and Why Artists Reproduce.

In addition to showcasing all of the techniques the studio provides equipment and materials for – letterpress printing, etching, screenprinting (or silkscreen) and stone lithography – John also asked me if I would like to produce a print to demonstrate each technique in the display.

Well sure. I am still fairly new to silkscreen, I haven’t made an etching since the early 80s, and I’ve never done stone litho. But hey, why not?

Fortunately, I had help from many, but especially from the LPS Print Studio Coordinator, Darren van der Merwe, who was kind and patient enough to give me an very quick intro to stone litho.

Darren

To start with, I had an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris that John  planned to use for the letterpress demo. The piece is from the chapter, “This will destroy That. The Book will destroy the Edifice.”

Letterpress Hugo quote for demo

I decided to interpret (illustrate) this quote in the three remaining media, adapting the image to suit each technique.

I started with etching.This is the first state (proof stage) of the image done freehand on hard ground.

etching plate state 1

I then moved on to the stone lithography piece. This involves drawing on a slab of finely grained limestone mined from Jurassic Era deposits. A fresh stone has a surface Darren describes as “like velvet.” It instantly absorbs any grease you apply, including that from your skin. Wherever the grease is absorbed will show up on the final print. If you mess up, the stone has to be ground down. Grinding down a stone takes hours. I didn’t want to mess up. It was a bit intimidating.

After drawing on my stone for a while it occurred to me that I am not really a line-work person. I am much more comfortable working with form, which is probably why I mostly work in relief printing where I can cut out shapes and leave the line-work to my preliminary drawings. My litho image was looking very timid.

I went looking for Darren, who suggested I could move some of the line around with tusche and even remove some of what I had done with mineral spirits.

That’s when things got really messy but much more productive. I began rubbing out lines, cutting out stencils (shapes) and splattering tusche. I got so carried away I dissolved some of the gum arabic that Darren had laid down to mask out the border areas. It doesn’t resemble what I started out with, but I am relieved and pleased with the end result. It looks like I meant to do whatever it was I did.

litho stone for demo

I then proceeded to add aquatint to my etching plate. However, I misread the handy timing guide posted in the acid room. The sign showed progressive darknesses of aquatint with a guideline that read; 5″,  10″,  15″, etc.  I thought  ”  meant minutes, but it wasn’t till I had dunked my plate in the acid four times, for a total of sixteen minutes, did I realize that  ”  meant seconds. #@$%&

So I ended up with a very dark plate, but at least the print doesn’t look timid!

etching state 2

That left the silkscreen image, which I had no choice but to create digitally and send to Darren to transfer to the screen and print.

silkscreen for demo

silkscreen for LPS show

Darren printed everything for me as I had to leave town for two weeks in the middle of the exhibit preparations. I came back with barely enough time to build the displays before the opening.

John had purchased thin metal sheeting imagining it could be sandwiched between the printed images and a blank sheet of paper to create the effect of the prints “magically” lifting off the plates. I was skeptical. I tested it out. It worked beautifully.

letterpress etching demoslitho + silkscreen demos

I assembled the displays, and now I can add display-building to my list of new skills.

I had fun. I problem-solved. I got to work with a great group of art people. I created my first (and perhaps only) stone litho image. I made something useful. The LPS gained an extra pair of hands for a few weeks and I felt welcomed. I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

WONDER AND WONDERING

We’re suffering here in Seattle – a record 15 days of temperatures over 80 degrees. I know this might be laughable to people in other, hotter, parts of the country, including our California cousins who don’t even break a sweat until it’s over 100.

In Sonora CA where I grew up, most summers had a week or even two over 110. We did not have air conditioning, so on those hot summer nights we’d pull rollaway beds out on the deck and sleep under the huge humming wheel of the Milky Way.

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We’d count falling stars as we fell to sleep. Mom promised that if we could say “Money, money, money,” before a star burned out, we’d be millionaires. But this effort was quickly eclipsed by the sheer wonder of the night skies. Those skies taught me Wonder, one of my favorite emotions.

As Sara Teasdale put it: “…And children’s faces looking up,/ Holding wonder like a cup.” (from Barter)

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To escape the Seattle heat yesterday, we slipped into an air conditioned theatre to see INSIDE OUT, Pixar’s brilliant new film. It combines a hero’s journey with an animated construct of how the brain functions. The outer story: eleven-year old Riley has to leave her beloved Minnesota life, including her hockey team, to move to San Francisco with her mom and dad. The ingenious inner story: through animation we to see inside Riley’s mind where the console is run by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. We watch as these emotions govern her stream of consciousness and impact behavior. It is fascinating.

insideoutcharctrsWhy did the writers choose these five emotions from the vast possibilities? I expect they settled on Joy, Sadness, Fear, and Anger because these are the core emotions of many more subtle feelings. Disgust I think they chose for comic relief. She’s a green Mean Girl, voiced by Mindy Kaling, who peppers the dialogue with a cynical uppity point of view.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Wheel of Emotions from the Writers’ Circle? The writers of INSIDE OUT employed five of the six core emotions from this wheel, leaving out Surprise. It is interesting to see so many of the human emotions organized on this wheel — but they leave out wonder.

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Perhaps I’ll have to start a campaign. “WONDER — the emotion that sings, even on a hot sweaty day in Seattle.” I know. I know. I’ll need to come up with something snappier.

But this could be my first campaign vid: NASA’s images of the Andromeda galaxy taken by the Hubbell telescope last January. Watch it for an instant Wonder hit.

Or check out this photo of the new moon over San Francisco on the night of our grandson’s birth. To me it is just as wondrous — and speaks of wonders to come.

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p.s. Wondering if the science behind INSIDE OUT is accurate? Click here. The short answer is yes.

LESS IS MORE

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

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Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

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I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

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When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

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There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

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TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”