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Showing posts with label Gerald McDermott. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gerald McDermott. Show all posts


Arrow to the Sun (1974)

Retold and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Gouache and ink

16 point Clarendon Semibold

Viking Press

This is the complete tonal opposite of The Magic Tree, I can't help but wonder how intentional the contrast was. The Magic Tree was all blues and blacks - which perfectly fit the downbeat story - but Arrow to the Sun is full-on blinding yellows and golds and shades of orange.

The first image is - fittingly - the sun itself. Within its center stands a god, holding his bow, sending a fiery shaft to the earth, "the spark of life." But this isn't an origin story. It's divine conception.

He's called only 'the Boy,' and its not clear if he or his mother understand what has happened.

...the other boys would not let him join their games. "Where is your father?" they asked. "You have no father!" They mocked him and chased him away.

And so begins his quest. It's a classic game of threes. The Corn Planter, the Pot Maker, the Arrow Maker... Ah. It is Arrow Maker who has some answers, and the ability to shoot the boy back to the sun in order to become reacquainted his his father.

But all is not so easily resolved:

"Perhaps you are my son, perhaps you are not. You must prove yourself. You must pass through the four chambers of ceremony - the Kiva of Lions, the Kiva of Serpents, the Kiva of Bees, and the Kiva of Lightning."

I'm glad I'm not the only reviewer who noticed that the illustrations - especially here during the Kiva Trek - really do resemble the graphics from an old Atari game. I can imagine moving the Boy from brightly colored Kiva to brightly colored Kiva. However... this book was published in 1974, and the Atari console didn't come out until 1977! Strange... unless McDermott had some hidden connection with the Atari corporation!

Upon the completion of his tasks, the Boy is given his father's blessing, and he returns to the earth a second time - the Second Coming? - to bring his father's spirit "to the world of men."

"Father, it is I, your son!"


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.”


The Magic Tree (1973)

Retold and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Henry Holt and Company

This was a really wonderful read, and hard to come by. I'd somehow missed this one all these years.

It has a much different feel than Anansi the Spider, which is readily apparent just from the cover. Anansi was bright red! Anansi was grinning right us! In The Magic Tree, the colors are muted. The expression on Mavungu's profile is hard to read. This is a downbeat tale.

It begins with brothers - Mavungu and Luemba - one inexplicably favored, and one not. Mavungu leaves his home in shame. McDermott is so sparse with his prose: "One night he left his home," is all we're given, but the dark, highly stylized images show an epic journey through the nighttime rivers of the Congo.

Finally, Mavungu finds a thick tree growing from the water which blocks his path, and from the unfolding of the leaves comes a beautiful woman. These images remind me of the unfolding of a paper snowflake, colorful and mysterious, I could imagine the movement of it. The woman loves Mavungu, and transforms him into a lover worthy of her, with the only caveat that he must never tell of the Magic Tree.

It is hard to keep such a delicious secret, and the maddening dilemma along with his return to his home forms the remainder of the story. I have to say, I was surprised at the ending, and the finality of it.

He forgot those who loved him. And he gave his secret to those who did not love him at all.


Anansi the Spider (1972)

Retold and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Henry Holy and Company

Gerald McDermott died on December 26th of last year, just a couple of weeks ago, as I write this. He was 71 years old.

I think back on it, and I think that his books - and especially this particular book, Anansi the Spider - were the most influential in getting me interested in storytelling through picture books.

I always loved picture books since I had been a kid, but it was when I was put in charge of the children's section at the Penn Bookstore that I really came into contact with picture books in a meaningful way, and Anansi the Spider was a book I found right away.

Three of the six: Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion

I am drawn to the Trickster tales more than any other, and Anansi is the Trickster of all Trickster. I read this book often to groups of children who would come in for storytime. The story is about Anansi and his six sons: See Trouble, Road Builder, River Drinker, Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion, and how they each use their unique skills to rescue their father from a series of unfortunate events. It's a very fun read for children, and uses elements of puzzle-solving in addition to storytelling.

"He fell into trouble."

Re-reading through it tonight, however, I realize that there isn't very much tricking going on in this particular Anansi story, which makes it stand in contrast to many of the Anansi picturebooks which have followed. Anansi seems strangely passive. Events happen to him, and the story ends with him being unable to make up his mind. I think McDermott became a much more engaging writer as his career unfolded, but there's still a wonderful elegance in this story - its both simple and complex - and the colorful, geometric illustrations are such a standout it feels as though you've read something elemental.

"Mythology transforms, making the ordinary into the magical," he writes in the prologue. "It brings beauty to the ways of man, giving him dignity and expressing his joy in life. Folklore prepares man for adult life. It places him within his culture. With oral traditions, retold through generations, the social group maintains its continuity, handing down it culture."

I like that word, 'continuity,' in this context. It shouldn't come as a great surprise to learn that Gerald McDermott was good friends with Joseph Campbell, and was the first fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The subject of storytelling is one he took quite seriously, and permeates his entire career, as we shall see.

The God of All Things

The God of All Things,
He took
the beautiful white light
up into the sky.

He keeps it there
for all to see.
It is still there.
It will always be there.

It is there tonight.


Creation (2003)

By Gerald McDermott

Dutton Children's Books

My telling is based on Genesis 1:1 through 2:3 of the Hebrew Bible, with an eye toward its antecedents in the ancient Near East, such as the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, and sources as diverse as the illuminated Bibles Moralisees of 13th Century France and the Sarajevo Haggadah of 14th Century Spain.

A tall order, Mr. McDermott.  Though, to be fair, this is the same guy who wrote and illustrated the classic Anansi the Spider and many other cultural trickster tales from the world over.  McDermott has earned his credentials.  When he speaks, I listen.  When he writes, "The voice of the story is an inner one that begins with a breath and a whisper, a spark ignited within us all that grows to illuminate the universe," I take him at his word.

The size of the book is what initially impressed me.  However, its first image makes ironic use of that size.  It is just a large, black page with a tiny gray dot in the center.  There is no text.  There appears to be movement within.

This is a story told in the first person.  "I was before time.  I was everywhere.  There was nothing.  I was there."  God appears as a large, gray, textured breeze floating in the blackness of space.  Then the gray turns sheet white, which becomes the foam on the rolling waters, above which hover dark and stormy rain clouds, between them a strand of blackness, all the meanwhile God is still narrating:

I gathered together the waters below and made the sea.  Out of the sea I brought the earth.

Things are beginning to make spatial sense at this point.  The earth rises like a giant tortoise shell from the murky depths.  Soon it is covered with grass and tress, growing larger and larger, taking over the whole of the planet.  At this point, McDermott unleashes his whole palette of colors.  Reds and oranges and yellows are what he uses to fill the sky with stars and suns, which become the wings of colorful birds and underwater creatures, animals of every kind rising out of the sea and moving inland - a reference to God's hand being instrumental in Darwinian evolution?

Regardless, McDermott loves animals.  His creatures always have a two-dimensional look about them, but taken together with so many and so brightly colored, they fill the pages with beauty and life and movement.  The charging of the rhinoceros and elephant and lion and boar seem as though they are charging toward life, rushing toward the earth with zealousness.

Lastly come the humans - curiously blue-skinned and faceless with wild multi-colored hair, reaching toward the atmosphere.

With the final few pages, the Big Bang seems to have begat the Big Crunch, as all the animals, the birds, the fish, the plants, the sea, all of it swirls about the people in a receding cyclone, until all that is left is that small dot, in parallel with the first page, but housing now a fetus in embryo.

I am all this.  All this I AM.
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