Sometimes you're trucking along with your textile art, the kids aren't coughing up massive amounts of phlegm so they're actually at school and the sun's coming back and the cat is only mildly annoying in your studio, when you get an email that floors you. Like the one that comes from your art director in Canada, who you haven't spoken with in a while because you've been doing a few other things, and the letter says that a book you illustrated has made the Shortlist for maybe a Lovely Prize. It's a prize that might involve a gold sticker (oh, don't be silly -- not THE gold sticker).
And your first response is: Seriously?
You measure time by your children. The shapes of their faces. The size of their feet. The clothes you know they were wearing in 2013 when you were working on this project, the shirts and pants and little monster-print underwear they've outgrown. You have a vague moment in the kitchen just now where you wish you could look at their height measurements and dates on the wall, just to check this perception of time, but that would've required making those milestone marks on the door trim in the first place and this isn't something you ever did.
Why didn't you?
When the book came out, one reviewer commented that the artwork was "old fashioned," and you wanted to punch this person's lights out. But you'd never do this. Because you are, in fact, old fashioned. You've come to accept this much since then: you want to create work that demands the viewer acknowledges the presence of the hand, not the hard edge of the machine. And this feels like a quality. Something good that you'll never lose. But what seemed like a criticism hurt at the time, even though you told yourself you have a thick skin.
Sheesh, you're so bad at lying.
And maybe you just needed some space, because now that comment does't seem like a criticism at all. It just seems truthful.
When you inform your husband about the Shortlist and the Maybe Lovely Prize he is pressing hamburger hurriedly into patties because your great plan to have poached eggs for dinner, again, isn't appealing. He molds and shapes and just says, "Huh."
You think he should be more excited than "Huh," you think maybe there should be a party, or a half a beer and then you have an internal hissy moment where you consider punching his lights out. But you'd never do this because you're old fashioned. And anyway, he isn't saying "Huh," because he doesn't care. He's saying "Huh," because he's just gotten off an airplane and he's making hamburgers because he doesn't want poached eggs and he probably has a headache and because he's stuck in his brain trying to remember that wife-working-as-an-illustrator time and that person who you were when you made this book, when really, he's still getting used to wife-as-a-textile-artist-and-always-poached-eggs-for-dinner time. And that first version of you seems like it happened a long time ago.
Because it sort of did.
And later, when the kids are sloshing in the tub upstairs while your husband reads to them and you're still cleaning in the kitchen (good Lord, do you ever leave this kitchen?) you're left groping for the invisible marks on your heart. The ones that measure time and happiness and growth.
Are you sure you're ok not illustrating right now? Yes.
Were you happy before the Maybe Lovely Prize Shortlist? Yes. And now? Yes.
Do images of baby beavers still make you crack up? Yes.
Do you still want a half a beer? Yes.
Are you going to stop making the art you're making now any time soon? No.
And we're all in agreement that you're old fashioned? Yes.
Is the cat making you only mildly insane?
Oh, for Pete's sake.
Many thanks to Orca Book Publishers in Victoria, BC for asking me to illustrate Eric Walters' book Saving Sammy and to the Nature Generation for considering this sweet little story for the Green Earth Award. What a total honor on all fronts.
Other posts about children's book illustration on this blog are: A little side job and Rudder.
(But most posts are about textile art + history + family. And how none of it exists without the others).
I'm just going to preface this by saying: My Family Cleans Beaches. We do this in Alaska, but the Meissner Rule for enjoying any beach anywhere is "5 Pieces of Trash. Everybody."
We don't do this because we are better than other people. We don't do this because we're out to save the world. We do this because we love animals and hate the fact that they unknowingly and unfairly ingest plastics and die. We do this because we returned three times to an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum last year (Gyre: The Plastic Ocean) and it was a call to arms for our insistent otter-seal-whale-shore-bird-loving children. We do this because we are treasure hunters at heart and feel that if we can instill some sense of beauty and fairness in our children it will serve them well, because, frankly, all our children and our children's children and our children's children's children are destined to clean beaches forever.
If the act is ingrained in their bodies, in their will, maybe the living question will grow as they grow, until one of them/some of them/all of them finally demand the right answers or solve the right problems. Someday.
Also, I will come clean right now and admit that we are staying at a resort.
(insert sad trumpet sound here, or mariachi band, your choice)
And here's where I could also insert a squirmy excuse. Something about needing a break from Alaska and having the ability to tap into my husband's 75-Zillion-K-MVP-Gold-and-Ruby-Studded-Air-Mile status; then over-describe the deep fatigue involved in accumulating this kind of mileage and his migraine that never subsides; then explain even further how we nearly cancelled this muy bueno trip multiple times with finger hovering over the keyboard in that forget-it-forget-it-forget-it-just-forget-it kind of way ... but ...
I am aware/feeling guilty/feeling conflicted/feeling malo that this choice makes us part of The Problem.
Cleaning a Mexican beach is penance.
And on it we found:
- enough plastic utensils to feed everyone at the Last Supper.
- and enough straws for everyone there to enjoy two mojitos each.
- and enough bits of powdery degraded clamshell take-out containers as proof everyone must have had severe indigestion.
- and a pink plastic princess teeth flosser, for after dinner sharing.
- enough footwear to shoe a family of 6, one left foot at a time, including a very teeny pink Birkenstock baby sandal that set some Grandma back at least $50, a kid's black Croc, and an extremely large black sequined flip flop, like, perfect for a 6'4" drag queen. (Damn if her sweet waxed and manicured toes aren't missing this right about now).
- 50 + plastic bottle caps.
- 20 + straws
- 30 + plastic soda/water bottles (Do NOT, and I can't repeat this enough, DO NOT touch the capped bottles half filled with amber liquid. That's either chew spit or fisherman pee. I'm telling you, just leave it there).
- a syringe, no needle (Everyone! Flip flops back on!)
- 5 glass bottles (Again! Everyone! Flip flops back on!)
- another momentarily frightening-how-do-I-explain-this-freakish-anatomically-err-correct thing:
Pelle: Hey Mom, look what I found on the beach!"
-that people ignored the trash at their sunbathing feet.
-ignored that they were swimming in it.
-ignored that they were walking by it.
-ignored the family cleaning up the trash, except one lady:
One Lady: "Oh Mah Gawd, are y'all cleanin' up the beach? Look honey, they're cleanin' up the beach! That's so nice!" Thank y'all for doin' that! Have fun!
- travel sized deodorants, shampoos, lotion bottles, jugs.
- a rusted barrel with sealed lid (not for touching).
- the coveted Lego piece, in "Patina Blue," discovered only once before, 6,000 miles away. In "Patina Yellow."
- that the teeny rip-stop nylon bags we started out with on the first day were full after 14 minutes and required an upgrade to in-suite trash bag.
- that the sun is so intense that most plastics erupted into brittle shards the moment we disturbed them and that this made us feel like we were making The Problem worse.
- that biting ants live in crunchy seaweed.
- that when we did the math, if each person back there came out and followed the Meissner "5 Pieces of Trash. Everybody." Rule ... it still wouldn't make a difference.
- that no matter how beautiful something is on the outside, there is always an icky underbelly.
- and that no matter how ugly something is on the outside, it still contains moments of perfection.
"The eye has to travel."
The eye has to travel
when it's been immersed in the darkness of winter.
When snow didn't come in the way snow comes,
and couldn't brighten in the way it brightens
(because damn if that snow didn't go dump itself elsewhere),
and the retinas need searing technicolor.
Walls of it.
Mountains of it.
Sheets of it.
Did I mention the walls of it?
The eye has to travel because when darkness reaches that unbearable point, in the way darkness does, the eye becomes sluggish.
It stops seeing the obvious.
And goes deep inside itself.
And it forgets that the greater part of seeing
is to stop constantly looking down at one's own work,
and to instead,
look up and be in awe of someone else's.
Someone who is doing more work
Despite your preconceptions about Anchorage, Alaska -- whether or not you have had the opportunity to visit here -- just know this: we have a world class museum. And if you ever make it up this way, or up this way again, go. to. it.
"Sami Stories" is a recent exhibition that has traveled here from Tromso, Norway (with a stop in New York at Skandinavia House) and was curated by Charis Gullickson from the Northern Norway Art Museum. The show features historical objects as well as work from 8 Sami artists, 2 of which traveled to Alaska for a symposium at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a panel discussion at the museum and a gallery tour this last weekend. I attended the 2 latter events.
The Sami (pronounced SAH-mee, not SAMMY like I heard many visitors pronouncing it) are the indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. In the past, they have been referred to as "Lapps," (perhaps you've heard of "Lapland"), however they do not call themselves this as the "lapp" in question refers to a piece of cloth for mending and was a name imposed upon them. They have never had their own country (which "Lapland" sort of implies), instead are citizens of whichever country's borders they live within. In 1989, a Sami Parliament was implemented in Norway -- a landmark event that has done much to strengthen and validate their voice. Their connection to the land is deep and vital, referring to it as Sapmi or Same. Many of them still make their livelihood through reindeer husbandry, although this is swiftly shifting due to environmental changes and an ever-shrinking landscape. The fight to preserve their language is fierce, despite the fact that only about 30,000 people use it.*
I was thrilled to meet one of the visiting artists from Sweden, Britta Marakatt-Labba, and she indulged my broken Swedish for quite some time. My mother always used to talk about the Sami, but although she grew up in Sweden I think their culture was a mystery to her. She left in 1965, well before the Sami Act was passed in Norway in 1987 with a new constitutional paragraph added in 1988:
"It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life." (The Norwegian Constitution, Skogvang 2009:179-194).
Britta Marakatt-Labba is a textile artist and painter. She studied at Sunderby College, The Industrial Art School of Gothenburg and the Sami College in Kautokeino. Her work is part of the collections of the Swedish Parliament, The Sami Collections in Karasjok, The Sami Parliament of Norway, The University of Tromso, SpareBank 1 Nord-Norge's Art Foundation and the Northern Norway Art Museum.* Two of Britta's pieces were featured in the exhibit -- embroideries on white linen -- which depict both historical, political and mythological components while holding fast to the traditional duodji, or traditional Sami handicrafts.
Garjjat, depicts the Alta Conflict in Sami and Norwegian history, featuring crows descending on the protestors and morphing into policemen.
The second piece (on loan from the University of Tromso in Norway) is a 78-foot long linen embroidered tapestry, Historja ("History"), which took four years to complete. My photos don't do it justice, but I'll include a few here:
This lady -- and her work -- blew me away. What an absolute honor to see this exhibit and to meet her in person.
*details gathered from the exhibition publication, Sami Stories: Art and Identity of an Arctic People, v. 1 & 2.
* * *
Here's another layer.
So, I'm not a TV person, but if you're interested in watching Jon Henrik, a Sami man walk out on a contemporary stage wearing traditional clothing that his "mamma made for him" and proceed to floor an audience singing a Sami joik that he wrote and composed, then you have to watch this clip (ummm ... can I just say he's gorgeous?). The joik is the traditional folk music of the Sami people -- often written to depict a person, or animal or the land -- and was forbidden in Sami schools as recently as the 1950s, considered sinful. Sigh. Of course.
It is powerful and haunting, not written about his friend who died, but as the embodiment of the friend. This is the spirit, the purpose of the joik.
And yes, Jon Henrik won this competition in 2014. Quite the soundtrack to the above images of Britta's work.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.