No. Not that kind of mount -- although it would be fun to watch (and no, not that other kind of mount either, which is totally inappropriate here) -- I'm talking about installing artwork.
Last week, while my parents visited us in Alaska, we loaded the commissioned painting that's been finished and sitting in my studio since June -- just waiting for flood/fire/riot/acts of god/small children screaming past on yoga balls to ruin it before I could get it installed -- and drove north from Anchorage about an hour to Wasilla.
The Wasilla Public Library's grand opening is at the end of the month. Librarians are stacking shelves, carpenters are finessing details and this was the last piece of public art to be installed. We chose to wait since it hangs in a higher traffic area and we didn't want it to accidentally get dinged by tool belts/new shelves/book carts/children screaming past on yoga balls.
My dad wouldn't let go of the top of the painting while we were rolling it in and sometimes it's clear where I get my everything-that-can-go-wrong-probably-will-go-wrong-all-hopped-up-on-worry-prickly-sweat personality. It was great to spend that hour in the truck with my parents, despite all of us feeling nervous about moving the piece, installing it and hoping everyone would be happy after we drove away. We had some good chuckles about all the unicorns I used to draw when I was the same age as my children are now. Thank you Mom and Dad for keeping me sane that morning.
Thank you architect husband and trusted finishing carpenter friend for hashing out the details on the design and execution of the maple frame and panel, which was created as a complete unit before the painting even began. I removed the mdf panel to do the work, then reinserted it when complete. A double row of French cleats holds the piece flush to the wall. The frame is super clean, all biscuit joined with a 1/4 " reveal around the work -- basically a custom piece of furniture that happens to have a unicorn painted on it. Painting, schmainting. This frame is freaking gorgeous.
"Lost in a Book" hangs at the entrance to the library's childrens' section. It echoes the birch forest that surrounds the building and the materials used inside. It looks like it was made to hang on that wall.
(Because it was).
Below are more images from the children's area (note the Narnia lightpost in the courtyard outside, just waiting for the first snowfall). The librarians are all smiles and you would be too if you got to come to work in a space like this.
Lucky, lucky folks in Wasilla who deserve a lovely library. I'm honored to be a part of it and looking forward to the grand opening.
The Ribbon Cutting and Open House is on Thursday, September 22 from 2 - 6:30 pm if you're in the area -- all are welcome! A shout out to Cornerstone (general contractors) and ECI (architects).
I'm about to start working on a big dragon. More on that below.
More posts about children's book illustration and other illustration:
More posts about public art:
I used to be a painter.
At least this is how the thought sometimes rings in my head. In the same way I used to make wedding gowns, or used to live one place or another, used to have hair that was a lot less ... curly (?), used to not have to wear glasses to read street signs or recognize faces across the room, or how I used to have childhood walls plastered with unicorns.
Last year, the City of Wasilla, Alaska commissioned me to create a piece of artwork for installation in the children's section of their new library, slated for completion this June.
That initial conversation went something like this:
Me: "What sort of work do you have in mind? I work a lot with textiles."
Them: "No. No textiles."
Which is understandable. The perception of textiles in the realm of public art could easily go to a sooty, difficult-to-care-for place, populated with dust bunnies and light damage. And while a vacuum cleaner with a wand attachment will do a lot to vanquish at least some of those foes, when I saw the architectural drawings for the space and the wall they envisioned for the installation, it was clear this artwork would inevitably be touched -- loved on, even -- by small hands.
Them: "Our librarians are familiar with your children's books. We would like a painting."
Me: " ... "
Them: "... something 'filled with joy."'
I took this to mean they wanted a page from a story. I wanted this, too, as well as an image that reflected the library's wooded surroundings, the magic of childhood, my reverence for imagination and a deep love of reading and children's books.
I submitted a concept sketch, expecting some dialogue -- that back-and-forth dance I used to have with art directors -- but they accepted the proposed design and dimensions right away.
In February, I commissioned the construction of a biscuit-joined maple frame and a 40" x 40", 1/2"- thick MDF panel. The panel pops out of the frame so I can work on it, and is designed with pre-mounted French cleats, so none of this has to get fussed with after the the work is complete. The finished painting screws into the frame from the reverse through pre-drilled, counter-sunk holes -- super clean, super strong -- leaving a 1/4" reveal between the painting and frame. This is what happens when an architect husband and a trusted cabinet maker/finishing carpenter put their heads together to come up with a beautiful structural design and solve all those problems in advance. I have a huge issue with otherwise gorgeous artwork in a slapped-together frame, and in this case, the frame is the cradle for the finished product. It won't fall off the wall, and the edges of the work are protected from book cart bumps and dings.
I've found a lot of joy painting this piece. It still needs around 8-10 hours of shadow and highlight work plus several clear coats before framing (the color on-screen is a bit wacky because this shot was taken with my phone), but I've even had the luxury of taking a week off from it to pursue another project and allow it some breathing room. My husband confided he'll miss this one when it's gone. I've been staring at it on my studio wall, getting a little lost in its stories.
Part of that story is that I'm still a painter, and despite the darker subject matter I explore in other work, I can still conjure a bit of whimsy and have been so grateful for the opportunity to do so.
I'll post installation images when it's all finished.
To see this work installed:
More public art:
"Before paperbacks and pocket books, before blogs, there were broadsides.
Ten years ago, Elizabeth Bradfield -- writer, naturalist, published poet, fellow MFA companion (back in the day) and good friend (to this day) -- told me she was starting a special online project: Broadsided Press.
A bit like a literary magazine -- but collaborative and reliant on community effort for distribution and printing -- Broadsided Press would take submissions from poets, ask a group of artists to "dibs" on new poetry each month and create artwork that arose from the poems that spoke to them directly. These Broadsides would be printed and hung by "vectors" all over the world, and it was a new format for an old idea, and it was super exciting, and it would include interviews and translations and opportunities for special response features to world events, plus years "in haiku," and did I want to be a part of this?
I did. But what I was really focused on around that time was wading through an icky-pukey first trimester, so I was distracted and didn't really understand how large this project could potentially become. My son's name is "Pelle," in part because of the time Liz patted my belly and asked, "How's Pelagic Meissner?" I might have barfed right after that, but "Pelle" stuck. When he was born, "Carl" was absolutely the wrong name. Ahhh, good friends.
The Butterfly Farm is the latest Broadside I've had the pleasure of being a part of. The poem was written by New York writer, Nicole Callihan and spoke to me as a mother, woman and observer; I knew I had the perfect piece of artwork to accompany Nicole's writing.
Broadsided Press is going strong after a decade of successful collaboration. I've moved in and out as an artist, once even getting an email (okay, maybe twice getting this email) that said "Nudge, nudge your artwork is due," and I looked at my kids and said, "You guys need to entertain yourselves while I help my friend Liz."
Sometimes the artwork already existed:
But most of the time the poetry has spoken to me as an illustrator, warranting something brand new.
The first glimmers of my current direction with textiles happened within these Broadsides -- small opportunities to diversify and explore new materials. Initially, I'd wanted to incorporate textile use into children's book art, but this hasn't come about yet. My work is dark, and somehow the textiles tapped into an even darker place. I know there are dark children's books, I'm drawn to them, but I've been told a number of times by art directors that my particular darkness is a little too ... scary.
Clicking on any of these images will take you to Broadsided Press, where you can print out and distribute these Broadsides in your own haunts -- coffee shops, street corners, buses, bars -- you, too, could be a vector. For those of us who don't get out much, they also look pretty good on design walls.
I'm grateful for the opportunity Broadsided has given me to crack knuckles and stretch arms a bit. It's in this diversification -- format, materials, collaborative effort -- where I've discovered new ways to extend my voice and apply it to current work. If you have the chance to diversify within your art form, it will serve you well. I recommend it.
I also recommend the following:
Elizabeth Bradfield is an award-winning poet, writer, naturalist and publisher. Check out her blog, The Haul Out, which considers seals and other items ashore, mostly on Cape Cod. If I could give her an award for being an awesome person, I'd do that too. Also, I wish she could accompany our family on all our Alaskan boat outings because she can identify everything flora and fauna, and she's not a picky eater.
"Bradfield's poems guide us alertly into this treacherous territory pocked with political pitfalls and theoretical quagmires. One hardly notices the perils that abound because Bradfield is such a deft naturalist, with a keen eye."
—Jon Christensen, reviewing Interpretive Work in The San Francisco Chronicle
* * *
For even more diversification, a year ago I published this. A bit beachy, a bit writerly, a bit of insight as to how all things have a way of fitting together to make a life whole.
Maybe you remember a post from last summer, a sun-drenched afternoon on the deck with my girl, a mystery box from a friend in Upstate New York, a bunch of pointy bras, seamed vintage stockings and a couple of spying boys?
It is mid fall now and another box has come.
This time, from Sweden.
My friend Boel sent it after contacting me to ask if I'd be interested in embroideries and handmade linens from the local Pentecostal church's second-hand shop. I'm always game for this so I sent a list of ideas and colors, she responded with photos. On the day Boel visited the church (her name is pronounced BOO-elle), she said the place was filled with refugees shopping for their new homes.
Of course, old Swedish handwork is not useful for these families. They have no connection to this history; their own wounded history is as young as yesterday. They need shoes and pots and winter coats. They need space and shelters that angry people won't set on fire.
In the aisles of that church shop roamed the convergence of so many things:
Lives lived and histories abandoned.
The humanity of making and saving and surviving.
The hoarding, the discarding.
When Boel told the church volunteers she was shipping linens to an Alaskan artist of Swedish descent, they gave her an enormous discount. These ladies had taken the time to remove crocheted edging from worn bedding because this part was still good. The handwork was still beautiful and valued.
It's been raining here and all the trees have lost their leaves. The mornings are dark when the children go to school. My son slipped on black ice in the driveway not 20 minutes ago and hurt his hand. Anchorage is the same latitude as Stockholm, so I can imagine what it is like in Sweden right now; the darkness and the cold inhospitable to people not used to that northern climate. This week I listened to a Syrian doctor burst into tears in an interview on the radio. The man hadn't slept in four days and kept apologizing for weeping. I was in my studio stitching by hand and didn't realized how hard I was crying until the cat came meowing down the stairs to check on me. This doctor said all he could think about were the people he couldn't help if he took time to rest. He said his country was disappearing.
Sometimes we find rusted needles still embedded in old embroideries. Like someone put the work down and just walked away. At one point, the maker had hope and inspiration and will.
But there are a million things that dissolve hope.
80-year-old Greek grandmothers meet boats on the beaches of Lesvos, offering to hold babies and sit for hours with bewildered mothers, purchasing fruit every day for displaced children, and there are days when Alaska feels far away already, but standing in my doorway, signing for a blue box from Sweden, I feel removed and guilty for having so much.
I'm not going to create art about the world's refugees. I'm not going to pretend I have any answers or throw money in a direction that isn't helpful. But I am going to worry for them and continue telling my children stories about what is happening in the world so they understand that having to go to school or to swimming lessons is a privilege, not a torture, and certainly not everyone's right. That somewhere, somebody's art supplies and books and special clothes and animals all got left behind because their family's wellbeing was more important.
And because we can't directly rescue people today, we will rescue some unwanted things -- items that are the remnants of humanity's need to make and do and mark, remnants of resilience and will.
And we'll hold stories in our hearts. And we'll revere history. And mend what we can.
We'll work hard to be kind in this world.
* * *
My friend, Boel Werner, is an artist and a writer. We met in Los Angeles in 2004 at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' annual summer conference and somehow never disappeared from one another's lives. We have one of her books about a pair of red pants that comes to life one night, escapes out the window and flies into the world to have an adventure. Flygarbyxorna is one of our family favorites. I'd hate to ever leave it behind.
But I would.
I would grab my children and I would flee.
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).
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.