Tag Archives: Margaret Chodos-Irvine

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?

Year-end Musing

Are there parallels between building character – as in becoming a mature, evolved human being – and building character, as in creating an interesting protagonist for your story?

David Brooks is talking about that first kind of character building in his book, The Road to Character. But I wonder how his ideas might relate to the work we do when creating story characters. I am especially interested in what he calls the “agency moment,” and how that might apply to characters in picture books. Does a story character’s agency moment provide a compass for the plot?

Brooks uses the example of Victorian novelist George Eliot to introduce this idea of the agency moment. Eliot, he says, was an emotionally needy young woman in her 20s who declared her love to the philosopher Herbert Spencer at age 32 in a letter:

“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she wrote.

She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”

Brooks writes, “You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

“The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.”

She published Middlemarch at age 52 in eight parts, 1871-72.

I searched my library for examples of agency moments to see how that notion plays out in picture books.

Marion Dane Bauer’s Winter Dance, illustrated by Richard Jones, revolves around a fox’s question, “Winter is coming…What should I do?” The fox asks caterpillar, turtle, bat, geese and bear. But she is sure what works for them will not work for her. Then a fellow fox offers a solution: “When a million snowflakes fill the air, twirling, tumbling, spinning, waltzing, you and I join them.” The questing fox has an agency moment, tapping into her innate capacity to initiate action and drive her own life. She responds:

“Of course,” says the fox, standing tall. “Because that’s what we fine red foxes do in winter. Dance!”

A moment of agency is front and center in fellow-BATT blogger Margaret Chodos Irvine’s Ella Sarah Gets Dressed. Ella Sarah states her wardrobe choices very clearly on the first page: “I want to wear my pink polka-dot pants, my dress with orange-and-green flowers, my purple-and-blue striped socks my yellow shoes, and my red hat.” Other family members’ suggestions are spurned

and her choices are confirmed by her just-as-wildly dressed friends who visit at the end.

In my own Little Wolf’s First Howling, illustrated with my sister Kate Harvey McGee, Little Wolf’s agency moment comes at the turning point of the story. “Little Wolf’s heart swelled with wildness and joy. He knew it wasn’t proper howling form, built he had to let loose.”

Seems related to David Brooks’ explanation: “Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action.”

In Libba, Laura Viers’ picture book biography of folksinger Elizabeth Cotten, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the agency moment comes early in the story, early in Libba’s life, when she sneaks into her brother’s room and figures out how to play his guitar, though she is left-handed. “She turned the guitar upside down and played it backwards…Nobody else played that way, but it was the way that felt right to Libba.”

I polled various friends and family to see if they could point to a single agency moment in their lives. Several thought it would need to be something big. And not one could point to just one moment. This is true in my own experience, as well. It is many small moments that coalesce over time, viewed retrospectively, that shape our true and, hopefully, evolved selves.

When creating a story, however, you have the luxury to choose your character’s agency moment in a way that reveals the most compelling narrative.

Here’s to Happy 2020 dear BATT readers! Come January, the five of us have taken turns posting here for eight years. Eight years! We appreciate your reading and sharing your thoughts in the comments discussion.

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.

Shapes

Artists work with line, shape, color and texture. It can be hard to pull those elements apart.

Toni Yuly illustration from Gracias Abejas

Where does shape end and color begin?

Edouard Vuillard

When a shape is right it dances.

Suzy Lee

A shape can be positive or negative (i.e. created by the space around it.)

Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn

A well drawn shape gets to the essence of things, eliminating detail.

Lois Ehlert

Dick Bruna

Bill Traylor

With compression and distortion a shape can convey movement. Exaggeration makes it more active (and more delightful).

Bill Traylor

Margaret Chodos-Irvine – detail from Where Lily Isn’t

Mayumi Oda

As it moves toward abstraction a shape is enlivened by what is real.

Matisse papercut

Henri Matisse

Salud – here’s to this shapely world!

Bill Traylor

Bjorn Wiinblad

Mayumi Oda

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.

Ephemeral

Last week Margaret wrote about the work she is making for our upcoming Troika show. You can read her post here.
As she explained, our common theme is Still Life. I began my explorations by painting with ink and gouache.

Still Life paintings celebrate ephemeral pleasures – light, flowers, food. Life.
Transience. Time passes.

I had been exploring similar themes in paintings for a show I will be having with Mare Blocker at the Taste Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum. That show is called Abundance.For the Troika show I began to play with cut paper.

This winter I was making pinprick lanterns – Froebeling. I carried this technique into paintings that are part pinprick and part paint.

I also made many pinpricked freestanding still life objects of various sizes.  The theme is ephemeral, and the medium is ephemeral.Some of my pinprick pieces wandered a bit away from traditional still life imagery.Our Troika logo is three wheels. They represent Margaret, Deborah and me.
Wheels roll! For all three of us the idea of a Still Life transformed as we worked.As an artist, a children’s book illustrator and as a human I try to stay open to new ideas and to let them roll. As the ideas roll by in this fleeting life I try to grab on to some of them.

Please come see the new work at Taste and at the Bitters Co. Barn. Thank you.

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.

Library Love: The Final Episode

Last week Seattle hosted the 2019 Midwinter American Library Association Meeting. Thousands and thousands of happy librarians arrived to be impressed by the latest books, info-gadgets, and literary comers.

Seattle loves its librarians. We are home to the company that created the librarian action figure, as well as the librarian it’s based on, Nancy Pearl (hey it’s not a stereotype, it’s Nancy!).

But, what town wouldn’t want to host thousands of happy librarians?

I just finished reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which I highly recommend. Reading it gave me hope in the form of the endurance of libraries. They persist all over the world. They survive through war, poverty, fire, technological revolutions.

Going to the library with her mother when Orlean was young left a lasting impression on her. Reading her descriptions of those visits reminded me of going to the Hunt Library in Fullerton with my parents when I was little. The Hunt Library left a lasting impression on me. I could still lead you today to the Dr. Seuss shelf in the picture book section (it was always a mess), and the Greek Mythology books.

The Hunt Library was Norton Simon’s gift to the city of Fullerton. It opened in 1962 next to the Hunt Foods Corporation campus where Simon had made the fortune that funded his art collection. The library was designed by William Pereira, the architect known for the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Disneyland Hotel.

Simon exhibited works from his art collection on the Hunt grounds and in the library. I grew up taking it for granted that all libraries had Giacometti sculptures outside and Picasso prints inside (I liked the Giacometti, but I was not impressed by Picasso’s later period works).

In 1964 Simon proposed replacing the library with an art museum, but Fullerton officials turned him down. He went to Pasadena and opened the Norton Simon Museum there instead.

While still on the high of renewed Library Love from reading The Library Book, and believing that libraries will live forever, I learned that The Hunt Library closed its doors in 2013.

What?

Lack of funding. Poor location. Concerns over a growing number of transients.

It is hard to compare my memories of the library with the recent photos.

Last November the library was designated a local historical landmark. It will not be torn down. It may be sold.

Where does a library go when it dies? It becomes a church. Or maybe a homeless shelter. Or a community center. Or an art museum. But it will not be my library ever again.

Dear Hunt Library. You will always be the library closest to my heart, even if you have ceased to exist.

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.