Monday, May 14, 2012

Catching Up!

What a winter/spring it has been in my studio! Fiercely painting toward a deadline, I had to say no to friends, school visits, walks, gatherings, coffee breaks. I was tied to my painting wall and made it! The interior art went to the publisher for my book When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky  on time! I will write more about that book later. I am still recovering.
I am now turning my focus onto a book I illustrated Tell Me About Your Day Today, written by Mem Fox. It comes out the beginning of September, so it is time for me to update my website (not yet, don't look yet!), put together an activity guide to go with it, put together mailings, and in general, wrap my head around a book that I finished painting nearly a year ago. That is the interesting challenge of publishing for me. Unlike theatre or circus where all of your preparation and hard work are immediately appreciated with applause and bravos, there is a pause of about a year between finishing the paintings and manuscript for a picture book. Plenty goes on in that year! I receive mechanicals and proofs from the publisher along the way, as well as f&gs (folded and gathered copies of the book-- not yet bound) and my publisher is extremely busy with preparations to market the book and get it out into the world... as am I, now that I have some breathing time. So stay tuned... lots more to come on Tell Me About Your Day Today!
Cooper catching on the Flying Trape
While I have been illustrating on deadline, my family has been very busy too. Circus Juventas just finished its annual extravaganza--The May Shows, where nearly all of their 900 students, age 3 to 21, perform in the Circus arena in full make-up and costume. The hard work of students, coaches, and volunteers is put into motion to present an astounding, amazing, and beautiful show. My son rigged up in the rafters for every show and would catch Flying Trapeze in the end! With the May Shows over, it is time to get ready for Circus Juventas' summer show: SHOWDOWN. This means it is time to finish painting the sets and it is time for Cooper and all of the Summer show performers to kick in to high gear with rehearsals and practice. So glad I made that deadline!

Oberlin Spring Back, Ruby dances!
In the midst of the book deadline, I did take a quick break and drove with my family to and from Oberlin College in Ohio, where my daughter studies dance and choreography. She performed in two dance pieces. One of them she choreographed and danced a solo in. How could I miss this? It was fantastic-- we even got to view it two nights in a row in different places in the theatre. I loved seeing the dances from different perspectives. It was also great to see where she lives and meet some of her friends. 

Deadlines can unbalance one's life, but I am so glad I took some time to see Ruby dance, watch Cooper fly. This weekend I gardened. Finally I am finding time to smell the roses again.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Sendak

Eating breakfast with my 16 year old son this morning, I mentioned that I had just read that Maurice Sendak died today at 83 years old. "What?" he gasped! "That's sad. Really sad." His reaction came directly from his gut and heart and mirrored mine- one of shock followed by sadness. How could Maurice Sendak die? Ever? 
How do you thank someone you never met in real life? Maurice Sendak was instrumental to my becoming a children's book illustrator. Not just because I grew up with his books, in fact his influence came much later. After I illustrated my first book, Mud, my editor, Allyn Johnston, sent me a gorgeous manuscript, Scarecrow, I went into an identity crisis. How could I illustrate children's books when my goal for so many years was to be included in the Whitney Biennial  someday? Then an artist friend of mine invited me over for a critique of her newest body of work. Large canvases with giant brightly colored babies floating on them greeted me as I entered her studio. Though the subject was babies, it had nothing to do with children or children's books. During the course of our conversation she shared with me the early influences that drove her to become an artist. From her bookcase she pulled a huge monograph. The Art of Maurice Sendak, by Selma G. Lanes. She also made a pile on her drafting table of all of her favorite childhood picture books. These beautiful books painted by illustrators were what inspired her to become an artist. She let me borrow the Sendak monograph, which I read from cover to cover and within a week the wisdom of Maurice Sendak had assured me that being a children's book author/illustrator was a worthy thing to be. I have my own copy of this book now, along with a collection of most of Maurice Sendak's books on my shelves for inspiration when I am illustrating my own books. Looking at my bookshelves, I see that Maurice is snug between the painters Milton Avery and William Blake, with books on the art of David Hockney, Rodin, Terry Winters, and Giotto nearby. He is in good company.

"Fantasy is so all-pervasive--- I don't think there's any part of our lives, as adults or children, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate that activity to children, as if fantasy were some tomfoolery only fit for immature minds. Children do live in both fantasy and reality; they move back and forth with ease, in a way that we no longer remember how to do. And writing for children I always assume that they have this incredible flexibility, this cool sense of the logic of illogic, and that they can move with me from one sphere to the other without any problems. Fantasy is the core of all writing for children, as I think it is for the writing of any book--- perhaps even the act of living... There are many kinds of fantasy and levels of fantasy and subtleties of fantasy--- there is probably no such thing as creativity without fantasy."
-- Maurice Sendak

Thank you, Maurice Sendak.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dog-Days of Winter

Beach Lane Book logo and sign
created by the author/illustrator Marla Frazee
When the cool days of autumn turn into the cold days of winter, I welcome the coziness of being inside my home and studio. The double layers of storm windows are a quiet relief from the lawn mowers of summer and the constant noise of planes overhead and freeways nearby. But by the end of February, the air inside begins to feel stale and the constant rattling and throbbing of radiators wakes me too often in the middle of the night. I want to throw open the windows and let the fresh air in, but the thermometer is still reading only 21 degrees. So these are the dog-days of winter for me, when I begin to sing this song in my studio and dream of traveling to a warmer climate. I am in the midst of a deadline for a book, so there are no getaways allowed, but I can dream, can't I?

I have just finished a book with my publisher, Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The book is called, Tell Me About Your Day Today and it is written by Mem Fox. I will write more about this book in future posts, closer to when it comes out next September, but right now all I want to share is my love for Beach Lane Books, a studio where two California editors work. It is a magical place where pictures and words come together to become gorgeous picture books and sometimes adventurous chapter books. I visited there last January and this is what I saw:
A pail and shovel on the steps to the studio.
A cozy entryway with an excellent message
for everyone in the publishing biz.
A table for work with colored chairs that seem to say:
"Sit here!" "No, here, sit here!"
and a window to see the sea from.
Shells on the windowsill.
A bike and books, lots of books!
More books and a bulletin board just waiting...
for the perfect pictures, quotes, and postcards!
Flowers, hummingbirds, and yellow finches!
Yep! When Minnesota's spring is still at least two months away, this is where I wish I were right now.

Where do you wish you could be right now?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Post 2012

Since this is a day of "love" I want to share two things I love: heart-shaped rocks and small books. Whenever I walk at the edge of a lake on a shore covered with stones, it is not the horizon that holds my attention, but the shapes of stones beneath my feet. I cannot help myself. It is something I learned from my mother at a young age. Looking for the perfect shell on the beach or the perfect rock by the lake. My mother loved driftwood the most. And actually I love perfectly round stones the most, which are very rare, but because today is Valentine's, I am featuring some of my favorite heart-shaped rocks...

Beautifully designed small Bloomsbury Classics 
And small books. I love books that fit in the palm of my hand or easily in the pocket of my coat. It is like slipping a bit of magic in your pocket-- a story to carry with you everywhere you go. It will be there when you need it. Maybe waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting for the bus. Small books are precious and somehow make me feel like a child again, even though they might not be a children's book. My dad had a small collection of small books. He loved history, so he carried little volumes of history in his coat pocket. And one of my favorite artists, David Hockney, illustrated a tiny volume of Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with original etchings that measured only 4 1/2" tall by 3" wide. You can see it here. When I look at this tiny book it makes me want to draw tiny drawings with a very fine pen. And that is another thing I love. I love to draw with a fine-tipped pen.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Let the "Showdown" Begin!

Just three weeks after the final performance of GRIMM, I began to write the script for the next summer's show with Betty Butler and Rhiannon Fisk, the artistic director and assistant artistic director, in that order, of Circus Juventas. We knew the theme: The Wild, Wild West!, so that is where we began...

There are over 900 students at Circus Juventas, the largest circus school for youth in this country. And of those 900 students, there are over 50 performers at the advanced level for whom we write the script. First to be decided are the acts in the show, which this coming year will include: wall tramp, wheel of steel, high wire, teeterboard, straps, chair stacking, and flying trapeze, just to name a few! The story grows and develops around the act order, as well as the music researched and collected by Betty. Indeed, the music! The summer shows have fantastic recorded music as well as live music provided by the remarkable Peter Ostroushko and his band. As soon as Betty compiles some of the music, I begin listening to it as I write-- We both find it helps us picture the scenes and the emotions and actions that need to be conveyed.

Since this is my fifth year of script-writing for Circus Juventas, I have become familiar with what these young performers are capable of. And because they are such extraordinary performers, it is like painting on a canvas with the best quality materials. Knowing ahead of time who will be the main characters and knowing their past performances, allows the scenes to easily come to life.  After many meetings and tons of research that included several trips to my local library for books on outlaws, gold mining, and the history of the Wild West, then watching lots of Westerns, our story was born: SHOWDOWN! It begins with the discovery of gold. And gold as we all know can change people for good and bad, which makes for great characters and plot right away. Outlaws, including Billy the Kid, prospectors, cowboys, dance hall girls, and a steely-eyed sheriff named Wyatt Earp will all have their lives twisted, contorted, somersaulted, lassoed, balanced, and spun in circles by gold. I can hardly wait to see it come to life. It is most definitely going to be "an action packed, rip-snortin', gold-strikin', hoedown dancin', cowboy lassoin', card gamblin', barroom brawlin', sharp-shootin', Dance Hall swingin', wildest show in the West!"

Model for Showdown by Susan Furr
Model of jail and Sheriff's office by Susan Furr
The character descriptions were handed out to the students and the script was read aloud at the beginning of January. Lassoing workshops have ropes spinning all over the Circus Juventas Big Top. The set design and building have begun, with painting and prop building soon to follow. August is not seeming so far away with the gray winter days of Minnesota growing longer. 

Okay, forget I just wrote that last sentence. It is only February. There is plenty of time! I have a picture book to finish illustrating after all. In the mean time, listen to this to get you in the Western mood.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Explorers and Adventurers

 S.A. Andree taking off in a hydrogen balloon.
The other day I was driving in the car, listening to this show on npr. In an interview with the author, Alec Wilkinson, the story was told of how S. A. Andree, a mere clerk in a Swedish Patent Office, and two of his colleagues took to the air in a hydrogen balloon with the intention of crossing to the North Pole and eventually landing in San Francisco. It was the late 19th Century, when the North Pole was a place of mystery and speculation and many hundreds of explorers had perished trying to reach it. S. A. Andree wanted to rise above those who had tried it on foot or dog sled, so he studied weather patterns and the wind and came to the conclusion that it would take him about 60 hours to reach the top of the world. He even packed a tuxedo in his luggage hoping to be dressed appropriately when he met the dignitaries he imagined would be there to meet him when they landed. Sadly, S. A. Andree and his two companions never reached their destination and were lost in the fog that consumed them and their balloon, just three days out into their journey. They were the first men to be lost in the air. In the interview, Wilkinson said this about what happened to them when the balloon touched down on the ice, never to rise again:
They were suddenly no longer explorers — 
they were adventurers. 
And no explorer wants to be an adventurer.

I loved this notion of "explorer" and "adventurer" and could not help but look at it as a metaphor for the process I go through when writing and illustrating a picture book. Like S. A. Andree, I am compelled to write and paint because of the mystery, the unknown that will come if I just put pen to paper or brush to canvas. In the beginning, I have my ideas and imaginations of what the story will be or what the pictures will look like, but like S. A. Andree's balloon adventure, it rarely goes as planned. 

At one point in the interview, Wilkenson said that Andree was: 
        Faced with the thought, 'If I don't go now, I may never go again, and I will never know the mystery,' 
... like a temptation one finally submits... to the idea of: 'I must.' "

This yearning and succumbing to the notion of "I must" also resonated for me. I have notebooks filled with story ideas and sketchbooks filled with painting ideas, and all of them call to me; "I must" bring them to completion. It is always in the beginning of a book project when I am starting the story or beginning the first sketches that I feel like an explorer. As time passes and I become more involved, it is often then when my exploring balloon thuds to the ground and I become the "adventurer" on a journey of highs and lows, sprees and difficulties; trudging through the snags of pages that don't flow and the images that refuse to resolve, and just like S. A. Andree and his hydrogen balloon, sometimes my stories disappear in a fog, never to return. 

Luckily, I am an explorer in the warmer climates of Minnesota, at least compared to the Arctic! And there is no danger of perishing of the cold in my studio. And luckily, I love the adventure of writing and painting as much as the initial exploring, even with its bumps and tears. So I am happy to begin and begin again, pulled by that mystery that is mine to meet. 

And when it comes to your writing or art-making, are you an explorer who would rather not become an adventurer? Or are you willing to be both?