Sunday, June 30, 2013

Week 26: Dwight and Ruby

   This past week I participated in a writer's workshop at nearby Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was an incredible learning experience and I highly recommend it! It's called "Focusing on Form Workshop for Women Writers." You can check it out at: Contact Ashley Hogan if you wish to attend it next summer. My teacher was Carol Henderson. She is a phenomenal teacher, leader, and skilled yet gentle miner of all the significant (or not) experiences of life. Our class of twelve women wrote lots of stories from all angles of life... and this week's book-of-the-week, Dwight and Ruby, is a small piece I wrote as a response to one of her prompts. By the way, Carol and her husband Bill will be teaching a writing workshop titled the "The Powerful Narrative" at Wildacres Retreat Center in the North Carolina mountains September 16-20, 2013.  Consider it, if you have the'll be a wonderful opportunity to learn from Carol's outstanding writing tutelage. 
   This is the story of Dwight and Ruby, two siblings who are describing each other... 
The cover: a sort of family album...
The era is the 1950's and certain imagery such as a two-tone '54 Dodge set the stage...
...Turn to the title page: Dwight and Ruby
...the beginning of Dwight's chapter
   He was my hero. I was five and he was my big brother- a teenager- in the late ’50’s when teenagers ruled. He had his own car... a two-toned turquoise and white ’54 Dodge that he named Ethel - (that was our grandmother’s name)... He was popular. He had a gaggle of girlfriends... Betsy and Bunny, Sandra and Sharon... They were all debutantes and now are married to lawyers. And he had guy friends too... Richard and Jim and Terry. They were quiet and brainy. They each revolved around him like spokes on a bike wheel. We all did. 

   He was good at making you feel like you were part of something important... living the good life...just by hanging out with him. I guess you’d call it charisma. He didn’t really ask anything of you... just to be part of his world. Just go along with him and enjoy the ride. Looking back at it, it felt like he was on quest to experience life... the archetypal hero... and everything would always turn out OK. He seemed so strong. So afraid of nothing... willing to risk anything to win the gold ring. We all saw that in him. What made him feel that way? I always wondered what happened to make him so different from the rest of us.

   He wasn’t any Adonis. He was only 5 foot 6 ...and he tended to be a bit chubby. He loved to eat. I think it was all part of how he embraced life. Anything that made him feel good... he was all for it! He loved food and he’d rave about a great restaurant he’d eaten at, or some beer he’d tasted. His senses must have been really sharp... or maybe he just found the good in things so easily. Maybe that’s why we all wanted to be around him so much. He was a winner.   Years later... when I was visiting him and his third wife in Taipei, I asked him how he had done it. He said, “The trick is not caring.”

Background of the '54 Dodge...

Since the writing exercise dealt with point-of-view, in Chapter 2 Dwight tells us how he sees his little sister, Ruby.

Ruby's chapter...
  She was the center of our family. We all revolved around her. At two-years old she had us wrapped around her little finger. She was so smart. But I worried about her because Momma and Dad just didn’t seem to get it. They didn’t tell her when to take a bath, or brush her teeth. Her table manners were awful. She was becoming a brat.

   Ruby was good at getting what she wanted. She’d look up at you with those intense brown eyes - focused like lasers and demand whatever she wanted. She reminded me of a little water spout... one of those tiny tornados that spontaneously pop up out of the ocean. I called her Squirt. She hated that. 

   She was tiny... about half the size of the other girls her age.. and skinny...and pretty. She wore hand-me-downs from her friends for several years after they outgrew them. Years later she drove our mother crazy with her insistence on name-brand clothes. I wish that she could have believed in herself, because her power was inside- not in how she dressed.

   A few years ago... after I’d been living in Taiwan for 10 years, and she'd come over for a visit... I explained the role of the Chinese matriarch... that singular female entity in every family that rules the whole group. Without outward power or trappings, the matriarch is responsible for every decision the family makes. They all revolve around her. She sees all, knows all, and holds all the power of the family. That’s my little sister, Ruby. I tried to tell her that. But she didn’t believe me.

Background of tiny pink roses...
   And that's how this little exercise on character ends. In every family there are parts played over and over, and no doubt this has good as well as negative results. Yet, sometimes the roles become reversed and time changes the patterns started in childhood. ...I'm not sure how Dwight and Ruby end up... I like to think they eventually learn their own strengths and are fulfilled and happy. 
Cut-out paper dolls from an old Reader's Digest
   How rich our families are as a source for writing! ... and remembering.... Just looking at old photographs collected in a dusty box pulls up memories and visions we thought were long lost. Some pictures are posed and stilted.. those special celebratory events... and some pictures are casual shots of daily life. Yet, after years goes by and now becomes then, the stories behind the camera view-finder seem to bleed through. Fictional or set in truth, there is always a fascinating pull to these family stories.

The last page, family photos...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Week 25: The Court of the Heavenly Empress

   Happy Summer Solstice! Having such an old, old ritualistic festival occur this week has me thinking of other cultures' favorite celebrations... specifically the Japanese Tanabata Festival ... which I like to call the Festival of Wishes.  This week's book-of-the-week is titled The Court of the Heavenly Empress. The three-page accordion book is based on the chinese folk tale, "The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl" which is the basis of the Tanabata Festival. You can read one rendition of The Weaving Girl and the Cowherd at

Back cover of pastepaper
   The original Chinese fairy tale dates back over 2600 years to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE -220 CE) and is detailed in the ancient poem "Far in the Skies Is the Cowherd Star". This legend is said to be one of the four most important folk tales of Chinese literature.  It is celebrated each year in China as the Qixi Festival.  The festival spread to Korea as the Chilseok celebration and as Tanabata in Japan. Regardless of the name, the festival is always celebrated on the the seventh day of the seventh month and includes the tale of two star-crossed lovers, family, industriousness, and wishes. Historically, it was a special day for girls... to wish for luck in getting married, starting a family and excellence in handicrafts... all their life goals in ancient times. Now, the wishes are written on strips of paper and, on Tanabata, are hung from the branches of nearby trees, archways, doorways, and roof eaves.

Celebrating Tanabata in Japan

   The Court of the Heavenly Empress is a collage piece showing the Heavenly Empress sitting on her golden throne surrounded by five of her fairy princesses in a lively dance. The paper bits which make the court ladies are an assortment of pastepapers, marbled papers, Japanese chiyogami paper and Italian printed papers. This sort of cut-paper collage was also used in Week 24's book, Seeing Red. I love the patterned appearance of this type of collage painting. There will be more books about this folk tale in the future... and much more cut-paper collage! Imagine a series of cut-paper collage paperdolls...  hummm...

The Heavenly Empress and her court...
   One book that has me thinking about new ways to express narrative in artist books is Margaret Cogswell's new book, Book Play: Creative Adventures in Handmade Books. Margaret has done a fantastic job writing a book that is well organized, full of useful details, and wonderfully inspiring. She has expanded the definition of book to include story-telling with non-bound structures, as well as the use of unusual materials.... like tin cans and pencils! You will love this book! 

Margaret Cogswell's delightful book on making books
July 7th is coming up in a couple weeks... Don't forget  the Tanabata Festival of Wishes.  What would you wish for?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Week 24: Seeing Red

   I've spent the past five days working on this week's book-of-the-week, Seeing Red. It has been a riot. My studio is covered in tiny pieces of red paper! I pulled out every red piece of paper I could find then cut those pieces into even smaller pieces for the book. You'll see... 

   This book will be in the exhibition, Primary, at the Visual Art Exchange. All works of art in the show are based on the primary colors: blue, yellow, or red. I chose to write a book about the color red.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Week 23: Family Dinner

   Nostalgia- Neo-Latin from the 1770-80's, of Greek origin, meaning to return home. The book-of-the-week for week 23 is titled Family Dinner and is a definite bit of nostalgia. We all remember... sitting around the table, white linen table cloth or festive placemats,  a bowl of flowers as the centerpiece... saying the blessing (or not)... passing the mashed potatoes and a platter of fried chicken... reaching for the salt shaker, the butter dish...fighting with your brother.... It was back in the day. No matter what era, we all have memories of something like that... a Norman Rockwell print.

The cover: a 1940's table cloth with blue india ink and acrylic paints
Title page from an old recipe book
   Looking back to my own childhood, I remember the different meals we shared as a family. Our evening meals..simple and nutritious, that Mom would put together after she got home from work... the breakfasts of pancakes and crispy fried bacon my Dad would tenderly cook for us on Sunday mornings... and the special Sunday dinners at my grandparent's house... bowl after bowl of vegetables grown from their garden, two meats (fried chicken and country ham), homemade biscuits and Parkerhouse rolls, homemade watermellon pickles, sweet potato casserole (with those marshmallows), and a whole table of different cakes and pies! It was the loving offering of our grandmother to each of us. It was a feast! Family Dinner is made from the pages of my Grandmother Sadie's 1945 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and is about going to a Sunday dinner at her house in the year 1959.

A recipe for Waldorf salad... Mom thought it was so elegant!
   Times have changed and so has cuisine in my part of the South. The pages of this book showcase some of the familiar recipes of my mother's day.. Dishes like Waldorf Salad and Swiss Steak were thought very elegant. Amid the recipes I've added imagery referencing my Grandmother's sweet little clapboard farmhouse in the Piedmont region of rural North Carolina.. her flower garden, the many paned windows with white lace curtains... and some of the memories I have of riding down Highway 70 between Raleigh and Roxboro to have Sunday dinner at her house.

Biscuits... every Southern table had them
It's personal. Those memories. So vivid now after all those years. My brothers might remember it differently. And if my parents were still around, no doubt they would too. But certainly a feeling of oneness is experienced through that breaking of bread... that communion. Whether the dinner is spent in lively debate, regaling stories, or silently contemplating the past day's events... somehow the sharing of food, of space, of time together has a bonding effect. 
pen and ink memories of a moment
Sweet memories. Like the iced tea my grandmother always kept chilled in her refrigerator. In cut-glass pitchers or tall Tupperware containers... ready to serve to visitors and to family... as they sat around her dining room table and chatted in their quiet drawl... of all the local gossip, the current crop yields, and the weather. It wasn't intellectual or philosophical or particularly memorable... yet it was the time we came together as one. We were the family at that table. All together. 

In this cookbook, recipes were simple, easy to cook and from local ingredients...
Grandmama's Sunday dinner was wonderful to anticipate
    Whether referring to breakfast, lunch, dinner, or supper, the sitting down together and sharing a meal is a ritual that has no set country or custom. Every society for millions of years has met in the communion of a meal to bond. Family Dinner, is a reminder of the importance of sitting and sharing a meal together.

End the meal with dessert and a smile
My Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book
The past gives us more than an awareness of history, or lessons, or lore, but the richness of our own cultural soup. It gives us nostalgia...a returning home.. say, for Family Dinner.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Week 22: Patch-Work of the World

   The book-of the-week for week 22 is titled Patch-Work of the World. It's a collage of assorted pastepapers, prints, old book pages, maps, and assorted ephemera from trips to various countries all over the world. The crazy quilt styled cover is just one of the 16 collaged pages that make up the book. The spine is held together with a piece of bookcloth made from fabric printed with a postcard motif and a similar crazy quilt pattern.
The cover of Patch-Work of the World.. 
Looking down on the beautifully patterned pages there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship between the pieces... just like in the world. Oh well.

a bird's-eye view...

Like a stained glass window, the colors seem to align in a mosaic of energy and emotion..  And like a prism hit by the sun... split into a rainbow of light.

like stained glass windows...
Ghost paper, a piece of vintage tablecloth and a quote about The Book of the Dead...
A collection of the everyday trappings of life from different places all over the world turns the exotic and foreign into the familiar and comfortable. They pull us closer together. Like a huge patchwork quilt... sewn together from thousands of tiny pieces.
Photograph of a tree on a farm in France...
   Whether it's something as simple as a poplar tree on a farm in the French countryside, or as exotic as crop circle designs mown into a wheat field in England... nature still has a neutralizing effect on our cultural differences... The stars still have the same beauty whether shining over Norway or over Nigeria and a river still has the same magic whether it flows by Paris or Pittsburgh. Nature is the backing sheet for the quilt of our cultures.
a paper snowflake or crop circles in Great Briton...
And sometimes our travels take us to a place that feels like home away from home.... and we keep  returning.... like monarch butterflies or migrating birds...
sugar for coffee at McDonalds and an art supply store in Angers, France... 
...even if it's only in our memory.