There’s a bird on it

Hi folks!

I’m far away…somewhere on the road between the North Cascades, the Methow Valley, the Columbia River, and Mount Hood. Ive planned to do my next blog post from the road, but if you’re seeing this, it means something went wrong and I couldn’t get connected up from wherever I am.

So, I’ll just do what comes naturally to so many of us designer types when we get in a pickle. I’ll put a bird on it.

But only for a while. I’ll be back in a few days!

Adventures in Storytelling

I suppose it’s a good thing for an artist/writer to have an active imagination, but when I was writing The Hollow Cedar, the story seemed to take over my reality for a while. I became deeply immersed in the world I was creating.

It’s not unusual for authors to get wrapped up in their work—it’s probably one reason we like writing so much. It’s trippy.

When I was first planning The Hollow Cedar, I dreamed of telling the story through words and pictures—true illustrated fiction, the kind that hasn’t been done much since it fell out of favor in the early 20th century. The Hollow Cedar is a novel-length book aimed at early-young-adult readers, so it wouldn’t be a child’s picture-book, and I didn’t want to do a panel-style graphic novel, either. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to use illustrations to best serve the story—to intensify the immersive reading experience.

 

THE MAGIC OF READING

A Google search of ‘what is reading?’ will come up with a ton of academic discussions on the subject. But, for people who love to read, it feels more like magic. When you ‘get into’ a book, something happens in your head, almost like entering a meditative or hypnotic state. The words on the page seem to melt away and you enter another world. There’s science behind it, of course. Your brain is making mental connections between each printed word, its associated meaning and the warehouse of accumulated data in your own brain—your own imagination. Synapses fire, and the magic begins.

A good writer helps you get into this magical place. Once you’re there, the words on the page are like hypnotic suggestions. Dropped into your mental storehouse, each word can expand into whole volumes of meaning, and then, you’re off on a trip down the long pathways of your own mind, with the writer as your guide. You go deeper and deeper into the story until it feels like you’re right there with the characters: sword-fighting, or mountain-climbing, or having your first kiss.

So, once you’re there, the last thing a writer wants is a distraction that pulls the reader out of the experience. Reading, like hypnotism, requires a certain amount of concentration.

So, what to illustrate to help the reader enter deeper into their own imaginations? The story of the Hollow Cedar is quite visual, with settings ranging from the Amazon jungle to a Pacific Northwest old-growth forest. There are six main characters plus a dog and slew of wild animals and a fair bit of action. There were a lot of directions I could have taken with the artwork.

Ultimately, I decided I wanted the illustrations to serve as ‘portals’ the reader would enter as they begin down the pathway into the reading experience. The illustrations would fill in the gaps in the reader’s mental warehouse—they will be a springboard into the magic imaginative place you go to when you’re reading.

 

NARRATIVE STYLE ILLUSTRATIONS

Here are some samples of illustrations I’ve done for various interpretive sign projects. These illustrations were paired with two or three brief sentences of text and are a different sort of illustration than I plan for The Hollow Cedar. (You didn’t really think I would show you the actual Hollow Cedar illustrations, did you?)

I did this illustration of pioneers on the Oregon Trail for the Idaho Power Company project.

 

This illustration I did for the BLM shows a shelter cabin in the Alaskan wilderness in the early days.

 

Now when I look at this illustration for Oregon State Parks, I worry that the little voyageur is going to accidentally shoot his own head off.

 

This illustration on an interpretive display for the U.S. Forest Service in Michigan shows how one of their historical pioneer cabins was used in the Depression era.

Thoughts on being an artist

One cold rainy night last winter my husband and I went to a club to hear a blues band. Truth be told, on that Tuesday night, after a full day’s work, we both really wanted to stay home and sit by the fire with a nice cuppa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But we had tickets so we bundled up, got in the car, risked the bridge traffic, and went out.

Later that night, in the middle of the performance, when the band had warmed up so much I thought they were going to ignite, I thought to myself once again…how wonderful art is. Here were five ordinary looking middle-age guys, with no auto-tune or lightshows or sexy costumes—and they were practically bursting into flame right there on the stage. We got to sit by the fire, after all.

In the heat of a performance like that, it’s easy to see why artists want to do what they do. It’s like creating your own fire, your own energy. Imagine how it would be to paint like Van Gogh, or dance Swan Lake, or play the violin like Joshua Bell. It would be like having super-powers…like flying, or leaping tall buildings…bringing the audience to their feet and the young men or ladies to their knees. What glory!

Reality check. There’s the other side of art, of course…the work. And not just work, but really hard work. True, it’s not like working-in-a-coal-mine-hard, but some days, to me at least, art just feels impossible—laughable even. Oh, so you think you can do that? Ha! Think again. You’ve got it all wrong…the composition is bad, the perspective is off, you’re being way too stiff. Go back to the easel. Do it again. Again. Again!

Ugh.

But, the thing about art is…it keeps you hooked. Because in between all those hours of slogging away come little sparks, little bursts of flame. Just when you think you’ve had enough and you’re ready to pack up the paints and toss them out the window…you look through the big stack of ugly paintings and find one that looks…pretty good.

Aha. A spark.

Last year, I went to the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” by Werner Herzog, about the Chauvet Cave in France and its 30,000 year-old cave paintings.

When I put on those 3D glasses and followed Mr. Herzog into those hidden chambers, I literally got the shivers. What struck me most was the perfect example of Art in its most elemental state—both from human beings and Nature itself. What better example of Earth the Artist than limestone formations—those swirls, the sparkles and waves, solid rock being made to look liquid, taking thousands of years to form.

A snippet from my Beaver Falls Karst project shows limestone formations similar to Chauvet Cave.

 

And the paintings! However they are scrutinized and analyzed by experts for their significance—to me, they spoke a singular fact: even as long as 30,000 years ago, artists were doing what artists have always done. They were exploring and expressing the complexities and simplicities of their world. They were artists searching for clarity.

Whenever I want to reignite my own creative spark, I get out my copy of “The Artistic Spirit”, by Robert Henri, written in 1923. I can flip to almost any page, and find some nugget of pure inspiration to get me beyond whatever artistic challenge I’m facing at that moment. It’s not a really a book of instruction…it’s simply the words of a man who was unusually clear about what it means to be an artist. I’m sure that if those cave artists read Henri’s words they would say, “Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly what we were trying to do.” Henri speaks the common language of artists.

“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what might be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.” — Robert Henri

 

A word to aspiring artists

Whenever you feel the creative spark inside you, fan it! Don’t let it go out. Where there’s one, there will be more. Keep at it, one little spark at a time. You are lighting your way on your own search for clarity. It’s not the destination that counts…the searching is enough to put you in the company of artists since the beginning of time. It’s good company.