Monday, July 27, 2009

Produce and Production or two brains at play

Back to illustrating...

Funny how I need to come at a project. Call it a weak ego, but I needed to start with my best skill and then work my way down to my weakest. So faced with Carly's wonderful pro-lust-pro-vegitarian poems, what did I do first?

1. Research! Tons of web images as well as a trip to the local produce aisles with my camera.
2. I designed the book, set the type, picked a trim size, and contemplated 60s diner-style retro fonts and finally chose a fun display face for the cover and poem titles.
3. Did rough pencil thumbnail drawings for 2 poems. Got better ideas, did roughs for the deeper, wilder, unexpected concepts.
4. Redrew the roughs to size in my typical "art students league life drawing sketch" style.
5. Redo the drawings in a breezy seemingly effortless mod pen and ink style.

I am now stuck between items 4 and 5. It is clear to me that it takes many attempts and failures and much practice to appear loose and spontaneous. Just kill me now.

So I turned to my Madeleine L'Engle project and wrote a 1,500 word essay. Take that pesky illustrations. I can essay my way out of a paper bag.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How do I illustrate a batch of poems?

I'm working with the talented and above all fun poet Carly Sachs. She has created a persona that mouths off in verse. "Ramona" is a militant vegetarian city-based earth goddess.

My mission, if I can possibly imagine it, is to give both the produce aisles and Ramona life as pen and ink illustrations that expand and compliment the poems. Hmmm.

Carly suggested I look at 50s and 60s style food advertising art. What a great resource! The exaggerated zippy lines, jazzy patterns, and over the top aprons, hairdos, and poses, perfect!... except that the faces on these drawings are interchangeable housewife dolls. Not so the character of Ramona. She is a 2009 woman and exudes character.

So here is to Ramona (sound of iced tea sloshing in ice cubes) and my crazy desire to learn to illustrate...

Monday, July 20, 2009

The houses were smaller

Well, I have just returned from my Grandma Hal's funeral in Indiana. I met cousins and friends I hadn't seen in at least 30 years. With that Rip Van Winkle effect, people instantly look like their parents and their children are what you thought they'd look like. My god the generations roll along faster there, women my age were grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

People were so kind, we were put up in cousin's homes, we heard stories, were treated to meals, including memorable sweet corn, the first of the season, and felt just how much Grandma's life had been tucked into theirs.

After the burial we drove on to Rochester, the town where we spent summers living in Grandma's two houses. The whole way there, Nedra (my stepmother) and her sister Sonya kept saying the houses didn't look good, one of them apparently had been a meth lab, that we should just look at old photos, spare ourselves, etc. But all us "kids" were adamant, we needed to see the streets, yards, gardens, alleys, and houses--no matter how they looked now.

And then we drove down the shady street and there it was. Not the hideous wrecks we expected, vinyl siding had gone up on both places. New management? They looked fine. Motorcycles parked out back, neatly mown, and tidy. Everything was smaller. So much smaller. But there was the gravel driveway where I accidentally dropped my end of carrying my sister Christina and a piece of the gravel had nailed her scalp. There was the L shaped porch we had lined up on to take turns cranking the home-made ice cream, ice and salt spilling into the lawn. The alley where cousin Robby, with all his ADHD energy, had peddled maniacally on his tricycle. And then I realized what was missing. The gardens behind both houses were ordinary and lacked transformative magic. My grandmother had grown a parking-lot-hiding jungle along a fence, had a grape arbor over the path to the back door, and her clusters of lilies and blooms had made the eye travel the yard the way a great painter arranges the composition of a group portrait. Even the bushes of honeysuckle, where I'd extract a drop of sweetness before the hummingbirds beat me to it, was gone.

A woman drove by, saw all us folks with rented cars just standing there, and gave us the finger. I wonder what ticked her off more, us standing in the street or staring into houses we had no business looking into?

So much change over the decades, houses knocked down to make way for the expanded church, stores with changed purpose, and being a recession, quite a few shops were empty, but the old stone courthouse with its blurry faced stone lions was just as I'd remembered it.

And then it was time to go, as we drove past the cemetery Nedra waved and said, "good bye Mom" just as she had every night on the phone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Health of Our Soldiers

The government recently proposed improving the health of members of the military by banning tobacco, citing the predictable rise in cancers and cardiovascular diseases after years of use. But I posit, if the government really wants to improve the health of soldiers, they should stop having wars. Why worry about long-term smoking risks when smoking guns give instant health effects?

The Luxury of Grandmothers

At my age it is a very fine thing to have a grandmother. Plenty of my friends no longer have parents. And most of my generation lost their grandparents decades ago, or worse, never got to meet them at all.

My Grandma Hal (Florence Dawald Miller) was acquired by the sound decision my father made to marry my stepmother when I was a baby. But, today, at the age of 95, my last grandmother has become past tense.

We spent many summers in Grandma's homes in the small utterly flat town of Rochester, Indiana. She had one rather large house with a wrap around porch and backyard filled with bright flowers and sting happy bees. Across the street she rented out several apartments and we stayed in one of these on our visits. Here too were planted swaths of flowers, their colors duplicated in the patterns she painted on her saucers and vases at her ceramics store, a few blocks away downtown.

She made us all replicas of Victorian porcelain dolls, sewing their kid leather arms and legs, painting in their features and making outfits of such small precision you could understand why she was once an exacting instructor at the Singer Sewing Machine store. I treasured my doll and named her "Indiana" in honor of her state of manufacture, as I too had been born a Hoosier, a distinction none of my half-brothers and -sisters can share. She taught me to crotchet. I also got to make piggy banks and daschund ring holders in her ceramics store. And she made all of us gifts that came from her hands, blankets, our names in lace, crotchet Xmas tree ornaments of starched white cotton snowflakes, and more.

But just in case you are thinking Florence was the epitome of grandmotherly cotton candy, let me say she was a woman with sharp comments, hasty judgements, smug gossip, quick wit, and the ability to stretch a short tale into a mini-series of needless detail. Saturday Night Live could have done a skit on her recounting a typical road trip with her friend June. You heard what diners they ate at. What pie they chose, that the waitress had folk from Michigantown who were now living in Peru. Which reminded her of a trip to Indianapolis and the time she and June rode their mopeds around town... And this would only be the first pit stop. The point of interest was dutifully recorded in her odd photojournalism, for some reason she never could frame a shot and more often than not it was crooked and the heads of her fellow travellers cut off.

And unlike storybook grandmas, Florence was a bad cook. She favored the boil into goo school. She once got us to eat boiled potatoes only by claiming she was serving whale blubber. And when she was dieting, which was often, she made nasty concoctions using ersatz ingredients. Non-sugar sugar, non-mayo mayo, and so on.

She loved local history. When my father interviewed her for his family history she was in her element. She had so much to recount and what she didn't remember her research (years in the local historical society and DAR) supplied back to the first family members who settled the flats of the Midwest.

When I was about thirteen and she suddenly widowed, we spent a rough summer together in San Diego. She yelled at me for not making my bed, for using too much toilet tissue, for giving lip, for making faces, for reading too much, for not being nice enough to my little sisters, for not being like my little sisters. She made me put soap in my mouth once and I stopped swearing in earshot after that... And being Grandma, she got relief from my sullenness by gossiping about me. And being 13, I wasn't able to see she was grieving. Grandpa Hal had been the love of her life.

And as much as we fought, we didn't disown each other. I defended my right to claim her as a grandmother to my mother's side of the family, where great aunts would tell me "stop calling her your grandma, she isn't BLOOD you know dear, your real grandmother is your ONLY grandmother and you are hurting her by claiming this woman is." And I fiercely disagreed. It isn't about blood.

Luckily, we got older. I came to appreciate her artistry and skill in making quilts, crotchet, knitting, and anything else she crafted. She wanted to be useful, and she was. She had the courage to take on old age and call the terms. Even in her wheelchair she was leaf blowing the driveway. Her delight in my daughters was wonderful. I know they enjoyed doing puzzles with her. When my mother-in-law came for a visit carrying her own extensively researched oral histories and genealogies, Florence read the entire thing, through a magnifying glass, and enjoyed discussing the work of recording history with Jeanne.

When she moved into an old age home I made sure to send her occasional boxes of diabetic chocolate truffles from Mondel's Chocolates. If those treats were good enough for Katherine Hepburn, they were surely good enough for my Grandma Hal, who shared my sweet tooth.

Thank you Florence Dawald Miller for being my grandmother these many years.