Study of an alligator named Saturn

Saturn was born in Mississippi, USA some time in the early 1930s. As a young alligator, some humans captured him and took him to Berlin. Saturn lived peacefully in the Berlin Zoo for several years. Together, with approximately twenty or so other alligators, Saturn savagely devoured whatever prey the zookeepers gave him to eat.

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Unbeknownst to Saturn, the humans started a war amongst themselves. Berlin became a dangerous place, with bombs and bad food. Eventually, bombs were dropped right on the zoo itself. Many of the alligators in Saturn’s congregation died, the cage that had been his home, destroyed. Saturn and the remaining alligators started roaming the streets of Berlin. Like the displaced people, they ate whatever they could find.

Eventually, humans once again captured Saturn. This time they took him to Moscow. Saturn went to live in the Moscow Zoo. Saturn lived in the Moscow Zoo when Stalin ruled the USSR. Saturn was still living in the Moscow Zoo when Stalin died and Khrushchev ruled the USSR. Saturn sat in his cage and watched the children of the Stalin era bring their own children of the Brezhnev era. By the time the 1980s came around, Party officials in the Kremlin worried over Brezhev’’s death, then Andropov’s then Chernenko’s.

Saturn ate rats and rabbits and sat in his cage. At this point the children of the Stalin era started to become grandmothers and grandfathers. Saturn lounged in the sun, watching the humans come to his cage. Eating rabbits sometimes.

Gorbachev came and instituted perestroika and glasnost. Far away, in the land of Saturn’s birth, Ronald Reagan made speeches about mutually assured destruction, Star Wars, and walls. Saturn didn’t care about any of this.

Today, the USSR is gone, Reagan is dead. Putin makes angry speeches about Ukraine. Saturn is still in his cage, eating vermin. Sleeping a lot. His exhibit is now sponsored by the clothing company Lacoste.

What would Saturn tell us humans if he could talk? I think he might tell us that alligators have lived on Earth much longer than humans, and that eating is more important than who is in charge.

Good side of the market, bad side of the market

A collage from old newspaper clippings.


In the second picture, the man in the suit holds an ax with blood dripping off of it. The quote, “This bull market has been built on global peace and prosperity, let’s hope it lasts,” comes from a 1999 edition of Barron’s, the financial newspaper. It makes me sad because since 1999, the economic growth in the U.S. has not been equitably distributed, nor has the U.S. been a peaceful place. We are all serfs to the financial system we live in. I hope the next fifteen years in my country will be better than the last fifteen. Honesty is a good step towards real progress. The truth is not always beautiful, but it is still the truth.

Good Side of the Market:

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Bad side of the Market:

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I ask myself often why I stopped writing this blog, and perhaps the closest thing to an answer is that I started wondering if words had any value, if the truth matters. The publishing industry claims to value authors, yet they do little to support free speech and diverse voices. Even #weneeddiversebooks is funded in part by a man who made racist remarks. Yet his money has bought him the dignity his words lacked.

As someone who is trying to get into the field of children’s books, one might ask why I dare to say anything at all? It is because the truth does matter. It’s time people in the media industry look in the mirror. Many people I talk to in the publishing industry despise Donald Trump. But when I tell them that in 2016 then Chairman of CBS Les Moonves, said Trump may be “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,” all are quick to denounce a leader in their industry as someone who “doesn’t speak for them.”

Since morality clauses are back in vogue now, I quote at the bottom of this post from the court case that upheld contempt of court for the Hollywood Ten. All ten of those men spent time in prison and were blacklisted from the movie industry. History has not been kind to McCarthyism and the moral panic that it created. I agree that publishing a book and working with publishers must be earned through hard work and patience and collaboration.

But when reading the below morality clause, I think publishers themselves ought to hold themselves to the same standards they hold authors and illustrators who sign contracts with them. The media ridicules the public when they print lies about an individual’s net worth; when they sell books of poor quality by celebrity authors, be them talk show hosts or daughters of politicians; when they pull books because of potential offensive material (yet still allow many ideological and religious books with poor fact checking to be published because they are “sure sellers”); when they fire people for #metoo offenses that are not legal crimes while turning the other way to the many sexual abuses on Wall Street that go unchecked; when they try to sell cheap books with low word count to parents and pass them off as educational. These acts violate public decency, incite prejudice, and offend the community of decent people everywhere. The pettiness of their current business models keep new people from succeeding in the industry. It keeps diverse voices muzzled. It helps a small circle of connected socialites.

This is the exact wording of the morals clause in the contract that the Hollywood Ten violated:

"The employee agrees to conduct himself with due regard to public conventions and morals, and agrees that he will not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade him in society or bring him into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency, or prejudice the producer or the motion picture, theatrical or radio industry in general."

Loew's, Inc. v. Cole, 185 F.2d 641 (9th Cir. 1950)

Littlest Goat and Littlest Sheep

I am working on my dummy to submit to literary agents and editors. Today I am thinking about my main characters, the Littlest Goat and the Littlest Sheep. They have no names. 

The Littlest Sheep and the Littlest Goat embody the desire to fight the good fight, to seek justice, and to tell the truth. I believe this desire lives within each of us, especially in the young.

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The honest quest for greatness always involves placing the herd before one's self. Of all the great men and women of history, the names we remember are only part of the story. The rest of history, the source of greatness, is unnameable.  The Littlest Sheep and Goat transcend time, place, and name.

In high school and college I read Plato's Republic a few times. The Republic tries to answer the question “what is justice?" I remember Glaucon and the ring of invisibility. I remember Glaucon's assertion that rules can be broken when no one is watching. Socrates does not endorse this view of justice, nor should we now, in 2019.

I think the Littlest Sheep and the Littlest Goat are part of the answer. Justice, truth and responsibility are irrevocably linked. We, the adults have a responsibility to teach the young truth and virtue.

When I think about trying to sell my dummy, Go Away Herzog I am angry about the crass consumerist society that I live in, and the worship of the dollar. Every literary agent and publisher will look to every A, B and C list celebrity before they will think of publishing my work. I may not have the best words. But some of the best selling words are mean words. In Plato’s Republic Socrates says, “ let us pass a leisure hour in story-telling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes. The Republic asks, “and what shall be their education?”

The Republic is 2,300 years old. Yet the book is still in print. And the Socratic question is one that we should all be asking ourselves right now-”our story shall be the education of our heroes…and what shall be their education?”

Children at a big box stores

As a child I found it strange that few picture books showed children in everyday clothes at everyday places like Wal-Marts and grocery stores. Many people do take children to these kinds of stores, it is part of their every day existence. Picture books prefer children dressed in well matched clothes. Even recent books like Boss Baby follow this trend…Baby’s suit could be out of a Brooks Brother’s shop. I read that in the case of Dick and Jane, artists modeled clothes after department store catalogues.. It has always bothered me that many children don’t care much what they wear- they even don’t care when their clothes become terribly stained. Yet our books for them reflect adult fears of cleanliness.

I never draw specific children. I just watch the ones I see and observe them carefully, trying to capture something of a look or movement in an entirely different, imaginary child. I try to get better, to practice, to learn from mistakes. Maybe some day I’ll finally feel satisfied with them. The child’s world is filled with imagination, but from what I see of the New York publishing world, it is filled with rules, taboos and backroom deals. But I must keep going. Someone once told me that courage is not seeing the lions and not being afraid, but seeing the lions and walking onward. Except I hope I don’t get eaten by the lions!

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Monkeys

Golden monkeys live in China. These monkeys aren't exactly golden monkeys, but a furry yellow and brown pair. 

Together their tails make a heart.

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Four seasons

Time passes, seasons pass. Are time and seasons connected or disconnected from one another? I think time is a human invention, made to deal with observed differences. Animals, plants and the universe deal with seasons and cycles.

A wise friend once told me that time is one of the only things in this world that is fair. 

Winter

Two rabbits and a snowman...

Two rabbits and a snowman...

Spring

Five rabbits, mushrooms and wildflowers

Five rabbits, mushrooms and wildflowers

Summer

Five rabbits and fireflies

Five rabbits and fireflies

Fall

Two rabbits and toadstools

Two rabbits and toadstools

Folkart Jungle cat

I saw a cheetah in a National Geographic article while I worked at a non-profit. People at the non-profit made vision boards, I did data entry, and imagined otherworldly cheetah landscapes.

Some of the plants are inspired by my volunteer work at the University of Washington Herbarium, where I mount plant specimens onto paper. The specimens are catalogued and filed away in large metal cupboards. Some specimens in the collection are over 100 years old and provide valuable information about plant history. 

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Courage 2: Langston Hughes: Let America Be America Again

Now the tree is back, and this time the demons of democracy have gone. There is a mother demon and her baby under the earth sleeping among the roots. Are they what the other demons are protecting, or are they a treasonous sleeper cell?

 

 I don't know the answer. I guess the viewer will have to decide for him or herself.

Earlier this week I looked up poems about rot. I found a Langston Hughes poem I read in high school, while we studied the Harlem Renaissance. I wish more schools would study African American history. 

I think many people these days can well understand the bitterness of inequality. Inequality is still here, even many years on... It is ironic that "Let America Be America Again," sounds quite a bit like "Make America Great Again." I do not think the two ideas are very similar.

Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?Not me?
Surely not me?The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Courage and Demons of Democracy

Just in case my last comments seemed nihilistic, I decided to post this today.

A few months ago I started working on a project about the importance of the press. I am trying to focus on specific reporters from history who were especially courageous in their efforts to report, as well as their attempts to tell the truth about what they saw.

I don't think journalists or writers should be analogous with celebrity. Many of the problems we face in this era are connected to unnecessary mixing of celebrity, news and entertainment. 

This republic was not established by cowards; and cowards will not preserve it. -Elmer Davis

This republic was not established by cowards; and cowards will not preserve it.
-Elmer Davis

Shortly after painting this picture, I found the above quote about courage. Elmer Davis reported on World War II and worked for the Office of War Information. During the war, he advocated to allow Japanese men to fight for the United States, and later, for American publications to be allowed to show pictures of dead American soldiers. He felt Americans needed to see the sacrfices soliders made with their own eyes. 

After the war, he advocated strongly against McCarthyism. 

Folk bats and a cobra in the jungle

I travelled to India for the first time in 2011. Before I left, in my mind's eye, I saw the lush forests of the Jungle Book, monkeys, and rain. When I arrived in Hyderabad, I was embarrassed to discover that in all my preparation, I had failed to find out that Hyderabad is in the middle of a desert. 

After the elections in 2016, I developed a similar feeling. It turns out that the country I have lived in most of my life is not a well functioning machine filled with rational people. It is a jungle, filled with Gothic horror, history, anger and amorality.

Lechery, silver tongues and corrupt officials swing through the branches of the jungle, unseen to the common people.  What is embarrassing is that I didn't see it before. I thought progress had turned its back on deceit. When I heard rustling in the branches above me, I didn't look. I assumed progress was on the people's side.

Once, while I lived in Canada, a professor told me that the U.S. Constitution is like a machine, a product of Enlightenment thinking. He said that if a US politician breaks the rules, the gears of the machine start aligning to grind him or her up. The professor claimed that systems like Canada and Britain rely on the idea of leaders as gentlemen. Gentlemen watch out for their friends, and ultimately the ruling class there is above the law. It was his position, not mine. I didn't live in Canada long enough to know.

I always liked the idea of the U.S. Constitution grinding it's enemies up, and proving the power of democracy. The Enlightenment was a long time ago. Nothing lasts forever.

Will the machine break down? 

In the end, maybe it doesn't matter one way or the other, it will still be my home. America is home to so many voices that any cowboy trying to wrangle them will struggle.  It is filled with the dreams of colonists and slaves, broken promises and shattered ceilings. So, it turns out we aren't so good at progress... But imagination doesn't need progress. Somewhere, Huck and Jim wiggle their toes in the Mississippi, and as the last lines in The Great Gatsby instruct us, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

A roving magician

A mysterious magician collects acorns with his dog, then cooks one in a fire as the sun begins to set...

I tried scanning the magician again with pen outlines.

I think the pen adds contrast, but I also think it could be achieved with black paint...not sure which direction would be better. 

Shortly after finishing this painting, I found a quote by Cass Canfield, an early editor of Harper publishing, "I am a publisher - a hybrid creature: on part star gazer, one part gambler, one part businessman, one part midwife, and three parts optimist." 

After reading the quote, I imagined that the magician was a publisher and the acorns were his books. 

Castles: the beginning: the castle monster lurks

Recently I am drawn to drawing myths and medieval times. It is interesting that medieval imagery continues to capture the imaginations of young audiences, even as it ostensibly moves further and further into the unremembered past.

I remember liking David Macaulay's book Castle as a kid. Even still, there was always something too sanitized about it for me. I remember wondering what kinds of terrible things happened in that castle. I couldn't articulate it, but I sensed the unfairness of the townspeople's poverty, and the king's "god given" luxuries. I also think that too many children's stories focus on entirely fantastical stories about medieval times- filled with princesses, dragons and fairy godmothers. Or they take the other extreme, like Castle, which strives for a completely objective history, when any wise person knows the past is fraught, with many perspectives recorded, and many others lost to time.

Of course David Macaulay's books are fantastically executed and researched. I still admire them today. One thing Macaulay does especially well that other medieval books fail to do is to incorporate the history of architecture from other parts of the world. Many western castles borrowed knowledge from the Islamic Empire, which Macaulay notes. Macaulay even wrote and illustrated a book all about mosque architecture.

My favorite castles are the type outside of Western Europe. Many interesting old castles and forts are found in Turkey, Russia, the Middle East, and India.

I like that many historical castles outside Western Europe maintain more authentic, albeit crumbling facades. Many castles never were the perfect constructions that they are depicted as in Disney movies. I have often been struck by the irregularity of stone shapes, which is something I am trying to capture here.

 

 

Crowbats

Two of my favorite animals are crows and bats. Here they are together, with the bats on one tree, and the crows on the other.

I don't know why one of the crows is calling to one of the bats. Maybe some day the crow will tell me why.

Painting doubt

Everyone has doubts. I have doubts about whether my apartment will ever stop being messy, and also why I crave messiness even as I clean it up. I have doubts about where I live and work. I doubt whether my hedgehog will get nicer and stop biting me.  Doubt is a condition we all live with. I remember feeling doubt even as a child, but not knowing how to express it, or even what I was doubting. 

The funny thing is that doubt is hard to talk about. The outside world asks us to present absolute confidence and perfection in ourselves and work. The sad thing is that every single one of us 7 billion people living now, at some point, will lie in bed or staring out the window, doubting something.

Right now I am taking a botanical painting class. I want to be able to get better at drawing plants, especially medicinal plants. Every fruit and vegetable from the store has almost infinite variety when I take enough time to stare at them! Even the big box stores that sell mono culture tomatoes, each of those tomatoes is complex...stems face one way, or the other way. Some don't have stems. Factory farming cannot prevent nature's variety.

I drew this small piece of a banana quite awhile ago. I think I might have cut this banana like this for my other pet hedgehog, Pineapple, who is now dead.  To a hedgehog this would have been a lot of banana!

One of my favorite quotes about art and doubt is one that I can no longer find. I remember reading that Caravaggio said that he paints doubt. When I look into the eyes of some of Caravaggio's figures, I can see the doubt, and it is beautiful. I wish we could be that frank with each other more often. 

The Slug and the Spider

From a little book I am making. Hopefully I will sell it at my craft booth in the winter at the Kirkland Art Center. Still playing with how to present all five pages on one 8.5 by 11 inches piece of paper.

 

Herring with fur coats

In Russia, a famous dish, cелёдка под шубой, translates to "herring with a fur coat."

Herring with a fur coat is a multilayered savory cake with beets, mayonnaise, herring, carrots and other vegetables.

I worked on a project with a Seattle school to make a cookbook with recipes from immigrant students' native countries. 

The herrings were some of my favorite illustrations. I hope to sell the book on Esty at some point.

Before I sell things, I first have to figure out some rules of engagement in relation to  marketing. When I first graduated college I thought marketing sounded interesting, and that marketing was merely a means to put people in touch with goods that improved their lives. After applying for marketing jobs, I was confronted with a starker, more vapid reality. I don't think trickery, well coiffed sales girls and promoting impulse buys are good ways to make money. Sometimes it feels like there is so much bad marketing, that it turns people off to good products. I definitely feel that way when I am at the store. I can't even buy toothpaste without being confronted by 20 + options. They end up all seeming the same, even if they aren't.

Part of my favorite page:

I have since discovered that herring is also a popular street food in the Netherlands... I hope I see a live herring swimming someday.

I have since discovered that herring is also a popular street food in the Netherlands... I hope I see a live herring swimming someday.

 

 

More folk art and bad paper

When I researched styles of Indian folk art, I also started a larger piece that incorporated some of the styles. 

After drawing the pencil outline and starting the watercolor washes, I discovered that the paper I was working on was coming apart and would not absorb water as most watercolor paper does. 

The rational part of me told me to stop and start over again, but my heart told me not to waste what I had already started. Ultimately I had to paint the tiger using gouache and acrylic paints because the paper would take so little water that watercolors wouldn't work . 

I am happy with the end result, even though I would like the tiger to have more pattern on his stripes and for the pen marks in some places to be darker. Even pen started to make the paper crinkle, and in some places paint started to come off when I used pen. I think I bought the paper on sale, so I guess that's what one gets for being too cheap.

I started to think about the bad quality paper as a metaphor for human life. Bad paper as a corrupt and cruel political regime, forcing good people to what they can to live decent and happy lives.  Bad paper as an experiment, at the moment when the scientist discovers that, after years of research, her hypothesis won't yield the positive results she hoped. Bad paper as a business, when it first starts to fail, forcing the workers to do more with less. Or a parent, seeing their child fail in school, despite hours of tutoring.

Bad paper shouldn't be thrown out. Bad paper makes us more human, forcing us to use what we have to make a better result than what we started with, despite the obstacles. Even the perfect, most expensive Arches paper is just a blank page if no one bothers to paint on it. 

The owls are not what they seem

These owls have three eyes! A few years ago I watched Twin Peaks, which was almost as good as the X-Files, but not quite. I watched old re-runs of the X-Files in middle and high school and loved them. The newer seasons weren't as good as the earlier ones though, which came out in the 1990s, when I was too young to like the show.

 

I think I am drawn to mysteries that can't possibly be solved. Incidents like the Marie-Celeste, Bermuda Triangle, the Tunguska incident in Siberia, and Jack the Ripper all resonate with me...even though I know there will never be a definitive answer, it is so fun to investigate anyway.

Indian Folk Art

Folk art is an important part of my artistic viewpoint. Folk art is done by regular people, in their own homes, and often with unconventional tools. Sometimes for profit. Folk art, unlike fine art, does not rely on realistic depictions of animals or people, or on abstraction. I think folk art captures the pure essence of the desire for creativity in a way that many highly educated and commercially successful artists can only mimic. 

I am also drawn to folk art because it is done by people of all walks of life. Poor peasants, retired lawyers, sharecroppers in the Deep South, rural women in India. Hobby artists who by day are government bureaucrats, and people who have tried several jobs, but never made one work...all are welcome to train themselves in artistic expression. Unlike fine art, folk art can't be easily defined as "good" or "bad". Art critiques don't matter to those that are looking for pure forms of creativity.

 I think children's art is often reminiscent of folk art because of it's purity and ease of expression. Books for children should help capture the exuberance of child art, but also communicate the beauty of the world we live in to the young. 

Many folk art designs look similar- Norwegian rose mailing designs look a little like Indian paisleys. Russian textiles also use paisleys. To people like me who feel disconnected to my surroundings because of moves and culture, the fact that folk art can look similar across continents is comforting.