Tag Archives: Vermont College of Fine Arts

On Angels and Hankies and the Plague

IMG_1194Noticing cobblestones – the wonderful patterns, a few stones missing….

When I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to begin their semester with me by telling me where their attention had come to rest recently. This usually produced blank stares, and I had to further explain: I was asking them to tell me what turned their heads, what had they been looking at and noticing recently, what pulled at them so hard that they couldn’t walk past it, what bit of information had come in randomly which they couldn’t let go of, what compelled them to pause and wonder, what made them investigate further.

IMG_1548Began noticing clouds, began looking up photos of terrifying clouds.

I didn’t want anything philosophical, at least not at the surface level, and I didn’t want to hear about anything they were using for a current creative project. I just wanted to hear about physical objects or facts about the real world – where their “attention came to rest” that had little to do with anything else they were involved with. This would help me as a teacher, not only to see how well they could articulate their quirks and idiosyncrasies (and tangentially, to see if they could handle prose) but to open up a conversation about obsessions – my having come to the conclusion early on that artists are, in general, obsessive about unusual things.

IMG_0878  Began to collect old photos of long-gone orchards.

Cherry Orchard, San JoseSigh. Another ghost orchard.

I also thought that once students noticed what they were noticing, they would begin to see patterns emerge, and patterns could tell them a lot about who they were as artists in the world.

IMG_1038Patterns everywhere, even in stacks of firewood…

If my students remained confused, I offered examples of my own: I once bought an old postcard of handkerchiefs in a store window. I found the postcard at a Paper Ephemera fair and couldn’t put it down. A whole storefront window full of handkerchiefs on display: so unusual, so marvelous! Even thinking of it now fills me with pleasure. That was something I could not just “walk past” – I bought that postcard.

Another example: the Plague.

Black DeathThe Plague – I couldn’t get enough of it. The more gruesome, the better.

I developed a fascination with the Black Death  – how it spread across Europe in the 14th century. I had a whole stack of books checked out of the library. I looked up primary documents from the time, I researched art work – simple woodcuts sometimes, or complicated images of it in religious iconography and architectural decoration. My obsession with it was feverish – I needed to learn more about something horrible and mysterious, something that I had only a marginal interest in until it suddenly grabbed hold of me and would not let go.

IMG_1127Shiny jars and lids turned my head…

That kind of thing – that was what I was asking students about. Once explained, the writing exercise took off – most students provided me with fine descriptions of all kinds of unusual things, and they were glad to be reflecting on the question. But for some students – quite a few more than I anticipated – even the explanation and the examples were not enough.

IMG_1164as did a small man on a large vase…

It seemed impossible to me that they were not stopped in their tracks by anything – that their unique perspective on gazing (from which place “voice” comes) never made them catch their breath and STOP. So I looked for a more plausible explanation: was it possible that they were unaware of what caught and held them – were they not paying attention to what they paid attention to?

IMG_1185and the twenty days of the Zapotec calendar: crocodile, lightning, shredded meat, deer, water, knot, monkey, loofah, heart, cornstalk, eye, thunder, humid, drip, lord…plus a few question marks.

I think that’s dangerous territory for someone who wants to write – a lack of attention to your own physical responses to the things of this world, and an inability to list (inarticulate as that list might prove to be) what you’ve been noticing.

IMG_1229Couldn’t get enough of this camel, either. Especially those lips. Looked up “camel” in the encyclopedia.  Lots to know.

The photos I’m inserting into this post are of things that caught and held my attention this year. I might not be able to articulate the “why” behind my fascination – sometimes it seems to be a simple aesthetic response, sometimes my gaze turns to an object at an instinctive level, sometimes it’s quite clearly intellectual. But I do like to try to ponder the puzzle of what caught me in the first place.

IMG_1343Looked up “fireflies,” too.

If you haven’t been noticing what you notice, try taking a simple digital camera with you (or use the camera on your phone)  whenever you go out, and make a record of anything that turns your head and makes you pause.

IMG_1582Patterns, even in popsicles.

Reflect on it, think through what the fascination is. With those handkerchiefs, so beautifully displayed in that vintage photo, the effect was one of tremendous grace, similar to the effect on me recently of an organ played in the great cathedral of Mexico City.  Angels sang, and up the song rose, up into the domed ceiling, echoing around, filling me up.

IMG_1898What is it about watercolor paint tins? So messy. So gorgeous.

That sounds absurd. Or maybe not. Maybe someday that window full of hankies will make their way into a poem. For now, I’m only grateful for getting swept off my feet by that photo. Linen hankies – a whole huge window full. Angels sang.

Window Display - HankiesAbraham & Straus Department Store, Brooklyn, circa 1895.

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It’s Poetry Friday again, and I have some thoughts about wandering and coming home (as a follow-up to my post here on August 29th about a planned trip to Oaxaca) plus a favorite poem by Nelson Bentley, over at The Drift Record today.  To head over there, click here.

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CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?

The Word “Distinguished” – A Mock Caldecott Discussion

College Hall, VCFA

College Hall, VCFA

I’m writing from lovely Montpelier, Vermont – more precisely, from the lovely (and snowy) Vermont College of Fine Arts Winter 2013 residency.

We’ve had some brilliant lectures by faculty (special among these was Sarah Ellis’s opening lecture about classic books with different kinds of “flight” – including flights of fancy; Kathi Appelt’s Singing the Blues; and Alan Cumyn’s Inhabiting Your Character, during which we all sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) But an unexpected pleasure was the Mock Caldecott presentation by faculty-member emeritus (aka for life) Leda Schubert, who brought in a stack of picture books, all of the Multiple-Starred-Reviews variety.  Leda read us the set of guidelines given to judges of the annual Caldecott medal, a few of which involve nuanced understandings of such words as “distinguished.”

The Caldecott Medal

The Caldecott Medal

What does “distinguished” actually mean? Does it suggest that the artwork follows in a rarefied tradition; that it is somehow Serious Art with a capital S and capital A; that it is imbued with importance due to the subject matter around which the “distinguished” illustrations orbit? Or does “distinguished” imply freshness of imagination and technique, originality of vision?

We looked at several books. Granted, the list was limited to books Leda had at home on her picture book shelf. You might not see your favorites, but here are the books we discussed:

Green – written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Inside illustration from Green

Inside illustration from Green

Unspoken – written and illustrated by Henry Cole

Cover of Unspoken

Cover of Unspoken

We March by Shane W. Evans

Inside illustration from We March

Inside illustration from We March

And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead

Inside illustration from And Then It's Spring

Inside illustration from And Then It’s Spring

A Home for Bird – written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead

Inside illustration from A Home for Bird

Inside illustration from A Home for Bird

Island: A Story of the Galapagos written and illustrated by Jason Chin

From the Endpapers of Island: A Story of the Galapagos

From the Endpapers of Island: A Story of the Galapagos

Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky

Cover of Z Is for Moose

Cover of Z Is for Moose

Homer by Elisha Cooper

Cover of Homer

Cover of Homer

Extra Yarn by Max Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Inside illustration from Extra Yarn

Inside illustration from Extra Yarn

Apparently Caldecott committee members have to speak up and make a strong case for their favorites, fighting to get that medal for the books they love. But what a lot of things to think about! Though the medal doesn’t go to the text, you have to consider whether anything about the text diminishes the accomplishments of the illustrator – in other words, it can’t JUST be about the pictures. And do judges consider quality of paper, quality of jacket art, words on the cover flap (all yes) and the history of publication by the artist (no)?  We talked about double-page spreads that had gutter problems, and about how humor is a difficult sell when the word “distinguished” comes into play.

Our winner? The 2013 Mock Caldecott Medal for Vermont College of Fine Arts goes to Unspoken by Henry Cole. Congratulations, Henry!

Readers, what do you think deserves the Caldecott Medal this year?

Inside illustration from Unspoken

Inside illustration from Unspoken