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January 2012

“Ambitious and Complex”

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A lovely review for Virginia Wolf from Publishers Weekly….

“It’s not often that a writer-illustrator team conceives a second work so much more ambitious and complex than the first (in this case, 2010’s Spork), and rarer still to execute it so well. In an invented episode from Virginia Woolf’s depression-beset youth, young Vanessa Bell narrates the story of one of her sister’s bad spells, punning on Woolf’s adult surname: ‘She made wolf sounds and did strange things.’ Virginia’s rages disrupt the entire household (‘Up became down. Bright became dim’) until Virginia expresses a wish to fly to ‘a perfect place…. with frosted cakes and beautiful flowers.’ ‘Where is that?’ Vanessa asks. ‘Bloomsberry, of course,’ Virginia answers. As Virginia sleeps, Vanessa paints ‘Bloomsberry’ for her sister on endless sheets of drawing paper, remaking the world for her. Arsenault conveys the transformation by moving suddenly from b&w silhouettes to a swirling, multicolored fantasy of swings, cupcakes, and gigantic flowers. Some readers may be shaken by Virginia’s ferocity—it’s hard to soften madness—but Vanessa’s act of love is recounted with grace and sensitivity in this remarkable collaboration.”

Virginia Wolf: Available March 1st

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Isabelle and I are very excited about our new picture book, Virginia Wolf. We’ve just finished the trailer and will post it soon. In the meantime, here is the publisher’s description and a sneak peek (courtesy of Isabelle):

Vanessa’s sister, Virginia, is in a “wolfish” mood — growling, howling and acting very strange. It’s a funk so fierce, the whole household feels topsy-turvy. Vanessa tries everything she can think of to cheer her up, but nothing seems to work. Then Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, perfect place called Bloomsberry. Armed with an idea, Vanessa begins to paint Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, transforming them into a beautiful garden complete with a ladder and swing “so that what was down could climb up.” Before long, Virginia, too, has picked up a brush and undergoes a surprising transformation of her own. Loosely based on the relationship between author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, Virginia Wolf is an uplifting story for readers of all ages.

Saul Steinberg: Reflections and Shadows

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Saul Steinberg holding his eight-year-old self by the hand.

Saul Steinberg, on drawing from life: “It’s hard to do a portrait. You must first spend a critical moment in which you quickly — if you’re lucky — discard all the commonplaces about the subject of the drawing. More difficult than inventing is giving up accumulated virtues. The things you discovered yesterday are no longer valid. It’s impossible to find anything new without first giving something up… There’s a moral in this. It’s stinginess that holds us back, especially when we’re not only enamored of what we’ve discovered but also convinced it’s good. There are those who, in working from life, continually use the baggage they picked up yesterday; they work from life without really looking, without working from life.”

A Few Facts about Sad Plants

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We think we are consistent in our affections but we are not. We are fickle. Our love wavers. Everything wavers: our faith, desire, greed, and attention. We say: “I will love you forever.” And: “Nothing in the world is more important to me.” But the truth is that very few people and even fewer things are guaranteed a fixed place in our hearts.

We insist that there is always enough love to go around. But the reality is that our love is lopsided and choosy. There is a ruthless hierarchy to our caring. What was once on top is quickly demoted. A baby is born and the cat or dog we used to adore is now relegated to second-tier status. A plant that flowered lushly grows crispy with neglect.

Nancy Friedland’s sad plants are a measure of our shifting preoccupations and priorities. Look around and you will see that there are many kinds of sad plants: plants from the 50% markdown table, Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree type plants, anemic institutional plants, plastic-wrapped plants that were never truly adopted, shabby plants that came with the apartment, burdensome gift plants that droop with accusation, homely plants that were placed on the radiator and gladly extinguished for their ugliness.

Every sad plant has a pedigree and story. Each one has something to say about our erstwhile aspirations and current failings as mothers, lovers, friends, and keepers of the domestic realm. Who knows precisely why these plants are sad? Who knows what fate awaits them?

We think that plants (and love) cannot be resuscitated but that is untrue. With a little vigilance, even the saddest, limpest plant can be revived. We have all seen it happen: the sickly-looking stalk that suddenly sprouts a perky green leaf, or the dessicated succulent resurrected with a bit of water and sunlight.

It turns out there are second chances. There is hope for even those of us with blundering hands and clumsy hearts. Pay attention and you’ll hear sad plants in your home and office asking: what do you want to do about that love of yours? Really. Just stop and listen. All this time we thought we were talking to them, they were actually talking to us.

(A text I wrote for my friend’s upcoming exhibition. Please click the invite below for more details.)

Pina: What is your Yearning?

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I saw Pina by Wim Wenders last night. If I had been standing up instead of sitting in a plush seat, I might have fallen to the floor during The Rite of Spring. The dancing entered me so completely. It was the sheer (keening, furious, tender) movement in the film that ambushed but if I was to choose the words that stayed with me most they would have to be those of a dancer who asks, “What are we yearning for? Where does all this yearning come from?” I heard an echo of something a Canadian poet once said to me. Referring to her MFA students, she said: “They haven’t found their hunger yet. They’re simply not hungry enough.”

“I’m not interested in how people move; I’m interested in what makes them move.”
– Pina Bausch

The Obliteration Room

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My friend Terence (a.k.a. “Akimblog” reviewer) recently sent me a link to Yayoi Kusama’s latest installation at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. For this show, the legendary Kusama built a large domestic environment, painted everything a dazzling white, and over the course of two weeks invited children visiting the gallery to apply coloured dot stickers wherever they pleased. It’s called The Obliteration Room and it appeals to me on so many levels—as a longtime fan of Kusama’s conceptual art, as a mother of two children who are constantly seeking interactivity, as a wannabe defacer of pristine art spaces….

There is a joyfulness and irreverence to Kusama’s work that makes her a rare animal in the art world. I saw a work by Kusama years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario that consisted of a single sticker on the wall. This tiny red dot, otherwise known to gallerists as a “sold sticker,” knocked me off my feet for all it said about art being reduced to what is buyable and sellable. It also struck me as subversively stingy coming from an artist who has been known to paint dots on every available surface including her own naked body.

A quick Google search will yield a surge of information about Kusama’s glittering career and complicated mental health history, but let me leave you with one quote:

“… we are all just one polka dot that is within this planet, which is but a dot within the solar system, which is a dot within the galaxy, which is a dot within the universe..”

Sort of humbling, isn’t it?