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Gerald McDermott (1941 - 2013)

I was saddened this past month to learn of the death of Gerald McDermott. His were some of the first that really got me thinking about the medium of picture books pointing toward something of deeper significance.

Before he died, I had only reviewed Creation, which is a gorgeous, oversized book which would look lovely on any bookshelf, and used Raven when I spoke at the Common Grounds Festival last summer about origin myths. Since his death, I have decided to try and review each of his books in order, beginning with Anansi the Spider. I found a few obituaries and eulogies online, but I like this one best by author and illustrator Doug Cushman:

During one of the last times Gerald was here in Paris, we went off hunting for an oyster restaurant. We finally found one in the Quartier Montorgueil on Rue des Petits Carreaux. The owner shipped oysters from his own farm on the Brittany coast so they were guaranteed to be fresh. We ordered a plate of thirty-six and a bottle of Muscadet and savored each sweet shelled beauty.

After staring at the empty platter for a few minutes we looked at each other and ordered another twenty-four. Coffee was taken and I asked for the check. I handed the owner the money and told him to keep the rest as a pourboire (a tip, but literally, “for a drink”). The owner brought over a bottle of Armagnac and poured us both — and himself — a drink. In our bumbling French Gerald and I learned about our host’s oyster beds and hometown. We stumbled out of the restaurant and into the Metro station, said our good-byes, and promised that we’d return soon for another grand plat des huitres.

Sadly, the restaurant has gone forever. Sadly, so has Gerald. Gerald McDermott died on December 26, 2012, in Los Angeles. He had been battling a long illness, deciding to convalesce in New Mexico at the edge of a Navajo reservation after his last trip to Paris, settle his affairs in L.A., and return to France in six months time. His body just gave out. He was determined to live in Paris for good.

In May 2012 he arrived here completely convinced he’d be here full time. When I went to see him at his temporary digs after the first couple days he’d arrived, the door was opened by Gerald. In a wheelchair. I was flabbergasted. He’d been hobbling around on a cane the previous year during our oyster feast but I’d assumed he’d continue his physical therapy so he’d be a bit more mobile. “Things didn't turn out quite as I had hoped,” he said. “But I’m here.”

Paris isn't the most wheelchair-friendly city on earth. For the next month I helped wheel him around Paris, grocery shopping, cashing travelers checks, buying art supplies, going out for meals and art shows. And looking for oyster restaurants. We established a routine when I’d arrive in the early afternoon to help him run some errands. First we’d have a small glass of wine and plan what he needed to do for the day. Then I’d roll him out into the hallway in front of the elevator (a typical Parisian lift, barely big enough for one person and a baguette). He’d stand up, take two steps inside, take the folded wheelchair and close the door. I’d race three floors down the stairs and meet him just as the doors were opening.

Upon returning, we’d reverse the routine and I’d wheel him back into his apartment. All through the routine and the entire time out, Gerald always talked of what he’d do here in France. “I’d like to go back to the south for a while,” he said. “I lived there a long time ago, after I got the Caldecott. I always thought I’d be back.”

He never complained about his handicap. He assumed he’d be back on his feet, more or less, and wander the streets of Paris, looking at her buildings, soaking up her museums, eating her cheeses, drinking her wine. He had a Frenchman’s love for wine, cheese, and saucisson. Paris was going to be his inspiration for getting back to work. He began drawing on the cheap sketch pads I’d leave around the apartment before I left. Wild animals running hither and thither, images from his imagination.

One he showed me was some sort of rodent in medieval clothing pulling a wheeled cart with another rodent riding in the back. “Do you recognize it?” he asked. “That’s you…pulling me around in a wheelchair.” One evening I took him to a gallery opening. We bundled him into a taxi and drove to a small gallery in Beaubourg, near Les Halles. Greeted as an honored guest, he held court with a small crowd of well-wishers, outshining the artist on exhibition. Gerald was surrounded by his Parisian friends. We shared a lot of meals then. We’d gossip about all kinds of things: life, art, books, people we knew. He talked of his long mentorship with Joseph Campbell. During that time Gerald would bring his latest ideas and sketches to Campbell and they’d talk about what the focus should be on a particular passage in the myth. Afterwards, as Gerald would explain, “Joe would ask me if I wanted a drink, ‘straight up or ruined,’ he’d say.”

There was a history between us. I’d met him back in 1976 when I was apprenticing with Mercer Mayer. We saw each other during various stages of our lives, tumultuous relationships and careers, moving from Connecticut to California (me to Redding, him to Los Angeles), and our latest writing and illustrating projects. We’d meet at trade shows and conferences and swap stories, sharing a coffee in L.A., a glass of wine in Redding, or a margarita on Cinco de Mayo in San Diego. He was a fighter, always in the midst of reinventing himself. In the shifting landscape of children’s literature, he shifted as well. Each myth he illustrated encapsulated the essence of each culture, but always with atypical mediums: pen and ink, pastel, colored pencil, watercolor, collage, fabric paint. He began as a filmmaker, then moved to picture books, and, in the last few years, theater. It was when I moved to Paris that I saw another, deeper creative side to Gerald. He was researching a book, poking around the old rooms of the Musée de Cluny. He discovered, or rediscovered, Odilon Redon on a visit to the Musée d’Orsay.

He experimented with some printmaking as well. But most of all he was a storyteller. He was one of the few artists living that continued the venerable tradition of passing on the old stories from generation to generation. He captured the heart and soul of each myth he illustrated. His writing process was jotting down a few lines of the myth and then walking around the room reciting them over and over again, changing the words slightly here and there and listening to them until they was distilled down to only a few, grasping the heart of the myth in its simplest form. Then he’d create the art, borrowing symbols and images from the myth’s culture. But there would always be some part of Gerald in there, some wink or nod that said, “This is serious stuff, but not too serious. Let’s have some fun.”

My last e-mail from him was in October where he was convalescing with a view of the Sandia Mountains in his beloved New Mexico (“although I still can’t figure out why the Spaniards called them ‘watermelons,’” he wrote). He still looked forward to his “bonne vie Française.” He loved Paris, even with its lopsided sidewalks and inability to tolerate the handicapped. He felt at home there. I’ll miss him. And not only during the months with an “r.”

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