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).
In the late 80's and early 90's, I worked for a little bridal salon and alterations shop where I made a lot of headpieces and veils. It started after my employer, Laurel, had ordered a new line of wedding accessories on a buying trip to Dallas, and when we unpacked that first frothy shipment of tulle and pearl-encrusted finery, analyzed and dissected the construction, tried everything on and had sufficiently marched around all afternoon sweeping our arms and singing "One Grecian Urn! Two Grecian Urns!" we'd agreed: Amy can make these.
And I could.
So I did.
And let me just say, I could use a hot glue gun like nobody's business. Those opaque sticks of glue -- so shiny! The nozzle -- so melty! I massacred the end of the Laurel's cutting table with permanent drips and smears of cooled glue. I glued the shit out of those headpieces.
One might say I was self taught.
It was the time and place for this, and I did a pretty darned good job. The work was well done and clients were happy. But I was also a teenager and I can't imagine I would have picked up on the finer points of customer relations or the nuances of happiness or disappointment. I know I didn't -- unless they were my own happinesses and disappointments -- but this is the deeper work of what we now scientifically define as the teenaged brain. But that's so, like, totally a different story.
Years later, after factory jobs where I'd been a cutter-sewer-patternmaker-illustrator-designer-production manager-etc., I returned to the bridal industry to work for an expert tailor and couturier from Manila, Manuel, my mentor, in an atelier where white-girl-proving-herself felt like the primary job description. One of the first brides I worked with still needed a simple veil made. Normally the seamstress -- a lovely, sharp-witted woman from Vietnam, with ramrod posture and a powder blue vintage sewing machine -- made the veils. But I offered to make this one, and I knew this much by then: no hot glue.
I created a small buckram frame, alternated silk organza and peau de soie in a pattern that echoed the gown, added a single layer of fingertip-length tulle. Done. I hadn't made a veil in years and it felt great. I brought it in for the final fitting where the bride twirled in and out of family members with cameras, handed it to Manuel, and as he tucked the comb into her loose bun he leaned in and said to her, "This is just a fitting, what do you think about the length?"
No. This was the real thing. This was her veil. I made it. It was ready to go out the door with the dress. This veil was getting married tomorrow.
"We'll deliver everything later tonight," he said, kissing and hugging and dancing the beaming family out the door, then he disappeared into the back room to quietly ask the seamstress to make a proper veil. Of course I asked what was wrong with the one I'd made.
"It's just not ... fine. It's not fine enough."
I woke at 3 this morning, my son snorting and blowing his nose on the other side of the wall, and this was the memory that came to me, this embarrassment and confusion about what "fine" meant. And I think it emerged from a comment my friend Christine Byl added to a recent post I wrote that touched on that old semantics debate between art and craft. The imagery in her comment stuck with me, and a lot of other people contacted me to say it resonated with them, too. I fluffed my sniffling kid's pillow, discussed the merits of Mentholatum in the darkness (met with refusal) and thought about the weight of words and understanding and experiences decades removed until 4 am. Then I made coffee.
I will preface the following by saying that Christine Byl is a fine writer. Her thoughts are culled from a spectrum of experiences and education that is as deep as it is broad. She intimidates the hell out of me on paper, but then I get to spend time with her and she's so real and kind and interested in everyone and everything that this silly "I'm-really-dumb" feeling fades right away. Her first book, Dirt Work, is an exceptional exploration of her ongoing work as a trail builder, an academic and a human; I highly encourage you to seek it out and read it. She is a woman who knows her tools, and one of them is language.
Here is her comment:
Some interesting thoughts here, Amy. Isn't it amazing how many people find it difficult to talk about these distinctions without a whiff of value-laden language? As if art or craft or amateur or expert must be better or worse, when really the intents or histories or positions are just different. As my favorite quote of the year goes, "It is bizarre to treat all differences as oppositions." (Marilynn Robinson)
There are days I'm rushing at that larger river, others when my output is reduced to a trickle waiting for the log jam to explode, but there will always be an underlying intent to my work, a scrutinizing mantra, a point to it all --
make it finer.
At this time and in this place, and despite my efforts to do a pretty darned good job, fineness is a shifting thing. There are constraints and realities to consider, the many small and large needs of others, so finer falls somewhere between "better than good enough" and "my very best," somewhere between "walk away from this piece of crap you think you're making" and "head down, keep working," somewhere between the upswell and excitement of Beginner's Mind and the cynicism of a mind thick with history and knowing and thinking and worrying too much.
Fine. Finer. Fineness. I do not have some new word to add to the discussion of Art and Craft.
But I will keep considering and coming back around to this old one.
Scope of work:
1.) Illustration for the 2015 Nevada Reading Week Conference. Check.
2.) With dogs. Check.
3.) Must use the theme "Got Books?" Check.
4.) Must appeal to a variety of ages (K through middle school + adults). Check.
5.) Must fit on a t-shirt + bookmarks and publicity materials. Check.
6.) 5 colors, including black and white. Check.
7.) Vectorize for reproduction. Ch...vector-what?
So, for those of you who didn't know this, I used to illustrate children's books. Which is not to say I never will again, I'm just taking a break for a variety of reasons. One reason is ironic -- it's because I now have children. When I started in 2000, I could work the way I needed to work to meet deadlines, make the changes required from artistic directors, and submit on time (ALWAYS submit on time, people, ALWAYS). And when I had my first child in 2006, I thought I could insert him into the backpack and keep right on working. He, of course, being a person, had other ideas.
Child #2 had some good ideas, too. And the 8pm to midnight illustration shift will get you by for a while but it's not sustainable. Mentally.
The other reason I felt the need to take a break was the ultimate cliche. I was that woman who'd left a career to have a family and then when she was ready to return to work, everything about her job had changed.
Fed Ex original artwork to the publisher? Nope.
Did my trusty 2001 scanner talk to my new Mac so I could scan and upload properly? Nope.
But I'm flexible and a learner and a worker, so that's a bad excuse. So here's another:
Did my hair start falling out the summer I prepared to head to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's conference in LA after not having gone to this phenomenal gathering in 8 years? Yup.
The third reason is that motherhood changed me. I lost the lightness and naïveté of the first books. I had other people's cels roaming around in my body and I would never be that self I was before children again. I was now, dark. Mostly, I was sleep deprived. One art director I met with in LA looked at my portfolio and said, "Normally I'm never without words. But right now, I am." (And not in a good way, let's be clear folks). Another writer and illustrator, who'd just won a Newbery very graciously sat down with my portfolio and after some thought said, "Your work is threatening." (And not in a good way. Again folks, let's be clear). He said, "You are forgetting that this work is for children. This is dark. This is terrifying." He understood. His own work is dark. (Which is what I LOVE about it, by the way). He had to check himself, his own artwork, constantly.
(And yes. I completely recognize that there is a place for dark children's book art. However, this was not apparently...umm...in demand at the moment.)
Soooo, sometimes the Universe has to resort to whacking you over the head so you'll listen. And then you become a textile artist, where you feel completely uninhibited and dark and moody and allow yourself to take a break from the "Bunny Eat Bunny World" of children's book publishing. Temporarily. Or something.
But every once in a while you get a call from an old friend and agree to do a side job, which turns out to be pretty fun. And luckily, you're able to phone the t-shirt printer in Nevada and ask about "This Vectorizing Business" and when she sees your artwork she says, "No problem, I can do that for you." But mostly what she wants to talk with you about is Alaska. Sweet, because you're not interested in a crash course in vectorizing. You have a feeling it will make all your hair fall out. And you can talk about Alaska all damned day because it makes you feel wildly interesting.
Perfect for reproducing on a t-shirt? Yes!
Am I a graphic artist? No. I didn't do the vectorizing. And I don't want to learn how. Ever.
I like ghost lines. I like smudges. I like the mark of the maker's hand. I like a wonderfully crappy underdrawing demanding some attention beneath the final marks. And I tell my kids this all the time: "I want to see your underdrawing." I take erasers away. We have favorite illustrators whose underdrawings are what we admire most about the final illustrations. "Underdrawing" is a word like "Caldecott" and "Newbery" and "Trace" and "Final Design" and my children have known these terms since they were 3.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no purist. I recognize the shift from page to screen. And I have to say, I'm totally THRILLED to upload images to a site and not have to deal with building in an extra 3 days for shipping and insuring illustrations. That's a freaking game changer. But it's just one of many tools. I think the biggest fear residing within me is that everything will become vectorized and screen ready. Including my children. Do I read bedtime stories on the iPad? No. My husband does. I flatly refuse and say, "Sorry, I just don't know how it works," and then I sneak away and go work on my blog in the dark while Papa takes over. Do I read on a Kindle/tablet? No. It makes me feel like I want to puke. Something about the "page turns" makes me sea sick. Do I sometimes look at Pinterest before I fall asleep? YES! And then I wake up 4 hours later (!), completely overstimulated (!) and thirsty (!) and lay there reminding myself for the next 3 hours (!) never to do that (!). Again (!). But then I do.
But this isn't a post about screens vs. paper pages. It's just a post about a side job and it would fun to hear your thoughts on the above process images vs. the final outcome.
My humble-yet-opinionated-because-I've-seen-a-lot-of-bad-art opinion? There's a tool for every job. The real skill lies in recognizing when something is a useful tool and when it's just a gadget/gizmo/whizbang/hot-new-thing. Are you using a hot-new-thing because it's a hot-new-thing, or because it's the right tool? This is the same lens I apply to working with textiles. I am constantly asking myself: Is this the right vehicle for what I want to say? Could I say the same thing with a photograph? With a painting? In writing? Is this the right medium at all? Do I need a hot-new-thing?
And then I make a go or no-go choice.
The most important part about a work-for-hire job, any job, is that the client is happy. And I think those librarians will be. I sent them the original artwork to frame and use however they'd like. My kids are thrilled. They'll each get a t-shirt in the mail.
And I've learned a new word (VECTORIZE!) and get to go back to stitching now. However I like.
Technically, Laurel, my first boss, didn't swallow a needle. It was a pin. One of those white-plastic-ball-tipped pins that you always put in your mouth without thinking because the pincushion is never handy. You probably have 3 or 4 pins in your mouth while you work, and maybe you have those 3 or 4 dangling there as you fit a wedding gown while the bride stands cooly on a pedestal with arms held out, and you're making small talk and pinning, so maybe now you only have 3 in your mouth, then 2, then 1. And then you cough.
And then there are none.
And you come stumbling into the back room with eyes watering because you can feel it dangling at the back of your throat, and because you're clawing at your neck and can't speak your assistant thinks you are choking. She is barely 19, but she's been taught the Heimlich Maneuver at school (fist inside cupped hand, then position behind the victim, bend knees, this might crack a rib but be firm, then, no, wait ... there was that important part ... oh yes, always ask first: "Can you breathe?").
Good Lord, you don't need the Heimlich Maneuver, so you push her away. And then there must be something like a swallow or a gag, or maybe another cough.
But the greater sudden mystery now is where that pin has gone.
* * *
We are disappointed when pins bend or needles snap, when safety pins specifically labeled "for quilting" have tips so poorly machined they snag fabric. We remain loyal to favorite brands from Europe or certain lengths and sizes that fit our hands perfectly, allowing fingers to fly with precision and prowess. The animist tradition believes such simple objects as tools are infused with their own spirituality or soul. For 400 years, kimono-makers and needle-workers have gathered at Shinto and Buddhist shrines in February to bury their broken needles into a tender bed of tofu or jelly cake during the festival of Hari Kuyo. By honoring these tools, women ask for better sewing skills in the coming year. It is a thank you to the hard working needle and a final resting ground for the many losses that women throughout history have swallowed, quietly burying their pain into cloth, one needle stab after another.
My own myths and superstitions around the inanimate object vary, but feel real and rooted in a form of practicality often verging on this animism. Eddie, the tailor from Hong Kong who I worked with for over 3 years, claimed that every time a pair of scissors dropped on the floor a tailor somewhere died (not only this, but crap if it doesn't ruin your good scissors, too). I was never clear on whether the spirit of the dead tailor was now in the scissors once they'd fallen, or if it was this spirit who'd made the scissors spin off the cutting table and onto the concrete floor, or fumble out of my hands and land, point down, in the fiberglass boat hull next to my 2-year old, or nearly miss my open-toed sandal/good tights/other cutter working next to me in the first place.
My mother's warning when I was 6, was to never leave the little golden bird scissors lying anywhere other than on the table in front of you, always in sight. Her story involved a woman who'd been sitting at the kitchen bench seat in the Swedish farmhouse chatting and embroidering. She left the table and when she returned she sat on the bird scissors she'd left lying on the seat cushion, and they stabbed her.
In the bottom.
I have never owned golden bird scissors; I do not trust them.
And this brings me to tsukumogami -- objects that have become self aware, usually after they have turned 100 years old. Harmless pranksters, talismans, good luck charms -- all this, yes, but these inhabited objects are easily angered if disrespected or needlessly discarded. Leave your golden bird scissors lying around? I guarantee they'll come back and bite you in the butt.
And this much I know first hand: leave pins in your mouth and momentarily forget their humble power? They will disappear into your body.
* * *
I still know what I worked on that day at the shop 25 years ago when Laurel was in the emergency room -- a pearl encrusted bustier for a January bridal show -- the first runway show I'd ever felt the time pressure of preparing for. I layered the most enormous beads I could find knowing on stage it would look stunning, but up close it verged on a pearlescent malignancy. My fingers were sore, the work was heavy, gaudy, slippery. But I was fast and focused.
An x-ray confirmed the worst suspicion: Laurel hadn't swallowed the pin, she had inhaled it, and now it dangled in a chamber within her left lung, an obviously machined object inside a maze of tender tissue. That weary pin would have been thrilled to rest in such a warm place, I'm sure. Perhaps this was its intent all along.
After the second failed attempt to send a scope and suction into Laurel's lung, the surgeon informed her that he would try one last time. If he couldn't find the pin's route, he would have to saw open her chest and surgically remove it. If he didn't, Laurel would eventually suffer from pneumonia and die. Her father was with her. We received phone calls at the shop with updates. Friends stopped by to visit. No one had cel phones then. No one texted. This was old fashioned waiting, the kind I now regard as steeped in tradition. If waiting were an object, it would have turned 100 years old 100's of times over. I sat on the carpeted stoop by the phone, a wedding gown in my lap, a tray full of pea-sized pearls on the floor beside me. One stays busy while one waits.
Laurel returned to work the next day, hoarse, phlegmy, bearing an enormous x-ray film and a new rule: No one, ever, puts pins in her mouth. For months we caught ourselves, we reminded each other, we teased -- only gently -- because the greater reminder was the shrine thumbtacked to the wall opposite the phone: a ghostly grey image of Laurel's lungs and ribs, and an unblessed stark white pin hovering there, content.
The offending tsukumogami never received its final rest in a soft bed of tofu or jelly or lung; it wasn't that deserving. Laurel stabbed the thing through the x-ray film, dried blood and all.
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
I recently spent 4 1/2 hours cleaning a kitchen with a friend. This kitchen isn't mine and it's not hers and I won't say who it belongs to, but I will say that I've cleaned this kitchen before and have always been dismayed at its state. There is nothing like a common enemy to bring two women closer together as friends, and in this case the common enemy was filth ... and something that looked an awful lot like bird poop on the dish drying mat, which remains a great mystery to us both.
While we wiped drawers and hauled dented pots and pans from deep, deep cupboards, we both agreed on the following: stay on top of your cleaning so that this (arms spread, looking at the kitchen) doesn't happen. Do you wipe down the stove after every meal? Yes. Clear the counters at the end of each day? Yes. Wipe behind appliances? Yes. We both love the hum of the dishwasher in the evening when we turn out the lights. This is order. This is predictability. This is entering a clean kitchen in the morning and pouring yourself a lovely cup of coffee.
In a clean mug.
With no bird poop.
I know. Bizarre.
I come from a Swedish household and still refer to my mother's style of housekeeping as "Swede Clean." Her baseboards/door trim/decorative plates will always pass the white glove test. Mine? No. But this is why I don't display decorative plates or wear white gloves.
This friend and kindred spirit I spent hours cleaning with had a different impetus for an orderly life:
she grew up in chaos.
But that's not my story to tell.
My story is that I've spent the better part of 40 years fearing chaos, and in turn, holding the sad belief that if I remained tidy, I couldn't be an artist. I believed that artists live in stirred spaces where inspiration circled them at all times and if you took the time to sweep beneath and around their things you'd scoop away all that artistic energy and ready it for the curb and the Tuesday morning garbage truck (but do not roll it out on Monday night because the bears will get into it and spread it all over the damned driveway and that's just a nasty mess).
My last mentor in the clothing industry, Manuel, was a true artist and a craftsman; a master tailor from Manila with so much creativity swirling around him he created his own weather system. He used to write in the appointment book with the purple disappearing ink pen we used to mark wedding gowns (Appointment? What appointment? There's no appointment here.). He preferred delivering a gown to the bride at 11 pm the night before her ceremony (Nervous? Why are you feeling nervous?). He loved putting off and then solving the engineering challenges of a corset 3 minutes before a client was due at the door (Sew faster!). He loved dancing. And singing. He loved the beauty of women. And spontaneity. And chaos. And he loved me like a daughter.
He used to call me Booger.
And it was, at times -- for a tidy, methodical person like me -- utterly maddening to be with this kind of energy, especially when I let it dictate how I expended my own.
It took a lot of mental capacity to remain pulled together -- myself, the shop, the cutting, the appointments, the fitting, the sewing, the clients, the logistics, the dancing, the singing, the deliveries, the 20+ custom wedding gowns some months generated in an atelier mostly comprised of one seamstress, one tailor, one Manuel and one me -- I was the oldest 26-year old you ever met. And then I finally had a break down, I blew out my creative energy and had nothing left to give. I weighed 105 pounds and migraines seemed manageable compared to this idea that I wasn't inspired, ever, and perhaps never would be. That part was debilitating.
What? Booger, how can you not be inspired? I'm inspired every day of my life.
And this is when I started thinking that really being an artist meant belting out "The Girl from Ipanema" while busting out some Bossa Nova moves. And never worrying about tomorrow. Or schedules. Or disappearing ink. Or the challenges of the next client. Or caring when you finally made it home from work at night. Maybe I wasn't working hard enough. Maybe I wasn't loving life enough.
Maybe I never would.
Maybe something cold and Scandinavian and stoic and bleak was too lodged inside of me.
I left that career before I turned 30 and walked away from 12 years in the clothing design industry, something I'd wanted since I was 13. I didn't believe in myself as anything more than an assistant and I didn't want my own shop, my own line, my own label, my own runway shows. I just wanted out of chaos.
A different career altogether separates me from who I was then and who I am now (I'm taking a longish exploratory break from it, I say). But the lure of continuing to use my hands in the way I was taught initially is too great to ignore.
Manuel died two years ago. And while I know that rainy, silent day will come when I hear a Stan Getz horn or Astrid Gilberto sing off key and I'll finally lose myself to uncontrolled sobbing, I continue to think about my mentor. Can you be so good at something, so confident, that the only way to maintain your inspiration is to generate chaos? I wonder.
Or, can a quiet confidence in a skill well earned eventually offer one ... freedom? Did I misinterpret chaos as artistic freedom? Could it be that there were so few problems Manuel couldn't solve that sometimes he needed self-generated problems to stay alive and creative? Or, was he just simply sanguine and I, always the melancholic, am still reading too deeply into a situation and a relationship, despite years removed, that ultimately helped define me as an artist and a maker?
Maybe that's enough.
There is a German word: sitzfleisch. It means to be persistent in your work, despite obstacles. Like the good old: Ass. In. Chair. And I was this, all through my 20's, until I had to scrape that chair back and walk away. And among the myriad of lessons Manuel taught, perhaps the biggest and most unintended was to recognize where my own threshold for chaos resides. My work will be original and violent, but my counters will be wiped. My threads will be trimmed, my corners mitered.
Booger, are you sending this out the door? It looks like the dog's breakfast. Figure out how to fix it.
And for every screaming temper tantrum I never had, for every chair I never threw, the Swedes also have a saying, about persistence and discipline and a fair sprinkling of violence as well.
Translated, it means:
"You have kicked your way here."
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.