Thursday, December 17, 2009

Narrative Arcs: Part 3.3 Hot Oven

The stained glass angel (above) was a gift to me from Nancy Willard. She wrote "The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake". This was her way of saying "thank you" to me for illustrating her story.

She could easily have illustrated her own story, but let go of the young words, and watched them march down her front steps to take on a life of their own. The words found their way to me, and we bonded. Now, it can be irksome for an illustrator if an author meddles and tries to tell the illustrator, "This is what I was thinking for the art...". Einnnk!

But what Nancy did was firstly to send me a plaster egg. "Would you be so kind as to sign this egg?" "Ah, so that's how to 'egg on' an artist," I said to my moose. I took the bait, and made a little house for the egg out of Bondo auto body filler, papier maché, and gold leaf, then mailed it back to her. The game was afoot.

What did I know of angels? Not much. I have a dearest friend (who is rational, intelligent, sober, and honest) who has seen an angel. When writing or illustrating, I want to know everything I possibly can about my subject. As I stood in my front yard debating if I should even illustrate this text, wondering what angels were like, out of nowhere, a dust devil barged into our neighborhood. The dust from our dirt road suited this brisk wind, and he picked up a million leaves of all shapes and sizes. As I stood and squinted at the center of this mini-maelstrom I rather imagined each leaf as an angel. This was the gift I needed as I began my journey with this story. I'm pretty sure an angel blew in my ear and dust came out the other ear.

Russian lacquer box painting from the fairy tale, "The Raven".

Then there came the gift of dreams. If two people can dream each other's dreams, you get to a quiet place just above the tree tops. I find it fascinating that in the Scriptures, whenever an angel appeared to someone, they freaked out and fell on their faces very much preferring to die rather than hang out with raw light and power. Although the young virgin Mary faced Gabriel in her innocence and asked for clarification. The childlike drink freely of the divine. Adults need frequent swigs of skepticism.

Anyway, in one of my dreams I found myself outside in a hurricane. My shirt was blown off and I leaned into the wind to seek refuge. On the street corner, I found a U.S. mail box. Since I used to be a mailman I could unlock the box. Inside were dozens of parcels tied up with string, in the shapes of bizarre creatures. One was half bird, half airplane. When I asked Nancy how she sent the dream parcel, she mailed me the card above.

In this scene, the angels have smelled the girl's cake baking all the way from Heaven, and have come into her kitchen hoping for a taste. This book has a lightness of being, but it was baked in an oven of pain and grief. When I was working on my part of the book, I had some deep pain.

As I attempted to paint lighter-than-air, heavenly images, my father had a stroke, got his leg amputated, and finally died. I later found out that the author, Nancy, was going through some similar pain with her own mother who was dying. Our editor for this book, Bonnie, also had great pain. In particular, her mother had brain surgery to remove a tumor. She read this story to her mother the night before her surgery. The next morning, she brought her mother a little gift. "See what they found in your head?" And presented her with a golden thimble (as in the story).

Valentine from Nancy

I guess all stories rise like yeast from the full aggregate of our jumbled lives. Would I say that making this book was a piece of cake? No. No way. And yes. Absolutely.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Narrative Arcs: Part 3.2 Light and Dark

When I first read the text to The Dream Stair, it beckoned me both ways. Go up the stair to your attic room. Go down the stair to your cellar room. Think about that.

Betsy James, herself an illustrator, set aside her paint brush and wrote this spare, dreamlike text, then sent it out into the evening light. Her publisher gave it to me to illustrate.

On these "stairs" we exchanged many letters. Betsy and I explored both light and heavy ideas, which infused my approach to the illustrations. She wrote that she "read Jung and realized that deep fantasy is universal and the root of spirituality."

As I began my work on the book, she sent the following note:

"Richard--I wanted to send you something by way of blessing for the beginnings of this work; puzzled over it; then found it pinned to my studio wall. So blessings, Betsy

A cow gave birth to a fire.
She tried to lick it, but it burned;
She wanted to leave it but she could not,
For it was her child.

From another letter she sent (as therapist):

"No, I'm not in the least worried 'what some clod will do to my lovely creation.' What collaboration teaches us is that we own, and manifest, the world in common: when I can let go of my hoarded image of it to join with another's image, it grows and I grow. All light (and dark) and joy to you!"

A lovely slice of this book's story arc was inspired by our editor, Linda Zuckerman's request to make the protagonist Hispanic. I gave art classes at an elementary school in Hollister, California, in exchange for choosing one of the students to be the model for The Dream Stair.

Betsy reminded me, "All of us transplanted "U.S.ians", regardless of our origin, half want to remember and half to forget. It's the abuelitas who remind us, and hold the memories."

Con cariño

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Three Narrative Arcs in Making a Book: Part 3.1 The Stories Behind the Stories

Each book I have made is inevitably wrapped up in many layers of life. While trying to write or illustrate a book, there is the narrative arc of bills which beckon like banshees, and kids with their soccer games. Babies are born, forest fires engulf the neighborhood, cars crash, elderly parents unwittingly set fire to their microwaves, and the power of love prevails.

But back in the refuge of my studio I find the privilege of working with various authors, editors and art directors one of my greatest joys. Each collaboration has a different and amazing narrative.

The first book that I illustrated was Bronwen, the Traw and the Shape-Shifter by Poet Laureate, James Dickey. Yes, he is the one who wrote Deliverance.

Strange and wonderful things come your way when you begin a book project. It's like we grow antennae or something. For instance, the Bronwen story is about flying squirrels. As an illustrator, I needed to find one. It's always best to see something firsthand. My editor, Susan Mihalic, says to me, "Oh, I used to have one as a pet". I'd never seen one in my life. But as I began the first sketches for the book, my cat caught a mitten-sized flying squirrel. Un. Real. By the way, I rescued the squirrel. My cat would not speak to me.

The night and "all-dark" of this story cast shadows on my world as I began to illustrate the text. It was the bill-banshees who required me to take a night job as a security guard. I drove around in the wee hours past midnight and would park and sit for hours guarding the homeowners from themselves. While sitting in the cab of my pick-up truck, I painted the illustrations for this nighttime story. One night as Halley's Comet brushed our sky, I painted it into the book. Can you find it in the scene above?

James Dickey and I sent letters of encouragement back and forth. Note: the publisher usually keeps author and illustrator as far from each other as possible. This is to protect both of them from the meddling claws and fangs of the other (worst case scenerio).

But I like to pick an author's brain. It informs my research as an illustrator to peer around the corners of their psyche. For instance, Dickey wrote to me, "What I feel is more or less essential is an imaginative use of darkness; everywhere we can suggest rather than depict we are coming out ahead (as) John Dryden suggested... the poet is engaged in 'moving the sleeping images of things toward the light'. In our case, toward the light but never quite into it."

I enjoyed these exchanges, although I did have to ask him to "back-off" just a tad with one of his suggestions. Otherwise it was lovely-dovey and fascinating to get his letters, which he signed, "Cordially..." or:

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Three Narrative Arcs of Making a Book: Part ll The Mushroom

When I take the dive into making a book, I am aware that the book is already underway. Let me explain. It is like the mushroom. We see the fruiting body when the mushroom finally pops up after a johnny-come-lately-rain. But underground the mycelium, (a network of fine, almost microscopic filaments) have been at work for quite a while. So too the creative person has been subconsciously working out an idea, a concept, trying to get at an inner itch. Many of my best ideas begin in my journals like the one above. I jot a thought. I scribble a sighting (whether an "inny" or an "outy". These ideas continue to grow in the dark.

Eventually, an idea can take it no longer and pops to the surface to be harvested. Then I must act. The sketch above is part of the next phase where I take the random ideas and build some reference based on research. These sketches are "life" drawings that I did at the Oregon Zoo for the book, The Boy Who Went Ape. Every book takes me on a winding road of discovery and "nut gathering" or in this case banana gathering.

I sat in front of these chimps and sketched like mad. This was my favorite model, Delilah. After I finished the sketches, I showed her and she stuck out her lip with approval or looked away in pity. We are still corresponding through squirrels and ravens.

Once I achieve critical mass of reference material, I do thumbnail sketches and put them in some sort of order as in The Magic Rabbit storyboard above. After sketch-sketch-sketching rabbits, I hopped around with different story possibilities. For me as a picture book author and illustrator, the story unfolds with words and pictures leap frogging each other.

Often in my process, I will shoot models. Above is son, Jesse, posing as an angel for Nancy Willard's exquisite story, The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake.

I play around with various medium to find out which way to take the final paintings. The study above was made with torn paper, egg tempera paint and gold leaf.

The final cover (above) was painted in egg tempera with neo-colour pastels and gold leaf. There are many more aspects I haven't addressed about this process, but to quote Larry from "Ground Hog Day" , "There's a heck of a lot more to it than that!"

There is an essential collaboration with author, illustrator and editor, which I will address in Part III.

I've skimped on some details such as editorial input, proofs, and more proofs, sending art out, and waiting. Then more waiting. Then Rip Van Winkle. And then finally, FINALLY! a biggish envelope arrives in the mail. It is the bound book! I turn off all ringers, get a cup of something hot, sit in my favorite chair, pet the golden lab, let the cat curl up in my lap, and read my new book. Oh, it is sweet.

So, there is a "story arc" in the actual making of every book. Each journey is both an exhilarating
free fall, and a long sweaty slog through the jungle. But! The reward is multifarious. It is satisfying to craft a work of quality and give children and adults a true gift. There are battle scars to show off, but the best part: good books to read and share!

"We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen"--Rilke

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Three Narrative Arcs in Making a Book: Part 1 Orange Crush

When someone falls off a cliff, a story begins. When writing or illustrating a picture book, it’s easy to loose your footing. It can be discouraging and even if things are going great, it can still be overwhelming and a lot like falling. That is, until you turn it into flying. I’m sure many of you have seen the following, but if not, you gotta see it. Two points are made: a. You can turn a “fall” into a “flight”. b. Darwin knew what he was talking about.

Whew! O.K., back to story arcs. 1. There is the narrative arc of The Story Itself. 2. The narrative arc of Me Actually Making the Book. 3. The narrative arc of My Life and World During the Journey of making this book. Each of these has, basically, a beginning, a middle, an end.

The Story Itself: If you throw an orange to a friend, the beginning of this “story arc” is the orange leaving your hand. The orange is our protagonist, our hero, or heroine. And she is launched into this trajectory for some reason, some destiny.

The middle is the exhilaration (or terror?) of hurtling through the air-- the orange’s life passes before her eyes. This is life on the edge for her. She is in her prime after all; a plump, succulent citrus. Cold air rushes against her oiled skin. She has no idea where she is going or why and doesn’t care.

Then there is the ending. Is she lovingly caught, welcomed and caressed, gently placed in a blue bowl with her sisters of Valencia? Or does she meet a more sinister end? Dropped? Overthrown, and over the cliff? Does she meet the fate of so many innocent oranges, and end up grabbed by a barbarian and jammed into a juicer? Or worse yet, does she sing as she flies free, beaming at the birds, smiling at the curious ciphers of the high cirrus clouds, basking as she arcs under the also orange sun. Oh, the bliss. But wait, she notices a back lot baseball game coming into focus. Who are these scruffy kids? What are they using as a baseball? And then she knows…