The Names We Know (and the ones we don’t)

As I read the ARC of Untwine by Edwidge Danticat back in 2015, I found myself scribbling notes to myself. Names, mostly. The book is full of references to art, music, and history that were new to me. I had to Google Jean-Jacques Dessalines to find out that he was a leader in the Haitian Revolution. Other names dropped into the story turned out to be real contemporary artists whose work connected to the story or the characters in some way. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo were the only names that I knew.  By the time I finished the book I had a list of names—all people about whom I wanted to know more.

Imagining that teen readers of Untwine might be similarly inspired to seek out the stories behind these names, I looked for biographies I might recommend as an “If you liked Untwine” kind of reading list. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found on teen nonfiction shelves for any of these names beyond Frida Kahlo. While I highly recommend Catherine Reef’s dual biography Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life or Carmen Bernier-Grand’s poetic tribute to the artist Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life! to teen readers who want to read about artists of color, two books aren’t enough to make a list or a display in a library.

It was, however, more than enough to make me think more critically about the biographies and histories I recommend for teen collections. There is power in art, music, and history that resonates with your own life, and I want those stories to be accessible to young people.

Perhaps no other book I’ve read has made the power of connecting with history more clear than Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, which I read recently. In this book, another one I finished with a scribbled list of names to Google, Jade discovers and explores African-American history and art that inspires her own art and gives her the strength to speak out. She says after a trip to the symphony with a mentoring group for at-risk young women, “I did not know about James DePreist, and I’d never heard of Marian Anderson. But tonight I feel myself dancing with them. Feel myself traveling the world.”

An “If you liked Piecing Me Together” reading list might include biographies of Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, and York (the enslaved African explorer who traveled with Lewis and Clark) among others if there are any. It would be a small list. Perhaps Russell Freedman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation would be the only title on it. That isn’t enough. There isn’t nearly enough for teen readers searching for themselves, for their own histories, to connect the pieces of their lives together.

As Jade, in the book, spoke out about what she deserved, I had to consider how I might use my position to speak up. I’ll be talking about Untwine and Piecing Me Together for sure. I’ll be recommending the biographies listed above and watching upcoming publishing seasons for new teen books featuring artists and musicians of color and other little known history regarding marginalized groups.  I’ve reviewed, booktalked, and recommended books like Answering the Cry for Freedom and Rad Women Worldwide. It may never be enough, but I’ll keep speaking up because I am more convinced than ever that we need these stories.

Walking on air

walkingonair“I don’t get it.  We’re just walking on floor.” My daughter’s initial reaction to the “Walking on Air” installation at the Walker Art Center last Saturday was quite literal.  I heard another little girl nearby echo the sentiment as we stood inside a hot air balloon being inflated by fans.

I looked around the room. “I don’t know. It doesn’t look like a regular room with a regular floor.  What does it look like to you?”  I suggested a new perspective, and a world opened up. In that moment, we were sliding on a rainbow right into a hot air balloon.  We jumped and jumped to get the balloon to fly, and when we needed to land, we had to be calm and slow.  We waltzed around the colorful cavern and practiced yoga poses until we landed safely.  It was quite an adventure.

I have to admit, it’s the sort of adventure I don’t have very often.  I believe in the importance of imaginative play, but I don’t usually want to participate.  I will do almost anything else first.  I will read a story, do a craft, or play a game–no matter how boring to me–with my daughter before pretending with her.  Frankly, it’s one of those guilty parenting confessions that I hesitate to admit because I do feel kind of terrible about my distaste for pretending. I am probably not going to suddenly change and become the sort of parent who plays house as a first choice, but I am grateful for the reminder that it doesn’t take much for a magical worlds to appear around you.  Really–the kid usually does most of the work. artis

Thank you to the Walker for creating a space for us to play.  We also enjoyed the exploration of what art is and isn’t in “The  Time Wanderers.”  We were inspired to continue talking about the idea with the book Art is… by Bob Raczka.  Because finding books to explore interesting ideas is something I can definitely say I am good at as a parent. ;)

It was a great day. You can see more photos from the day at the Walker on my photo blog and on the Walker’s blog.

Free Art Fridays

A zine hiding at the Minneapolis Central Library last week.
A zine hiding at the Minneapolis Central Library last week.

Art is everywhere.  I say that all the time, but on Fridays, that’s actually a little more true because there are people in the Twin Cities hiding art in unexpected places for you to find.  I’ve done it the last couple of Fridays with my zine about becoming a mother, Will There Be Smoking?.  You can join too as a hider or a seeker.  Read more about it in this article from the Pioneer Press:

Here’s how it works: Artists are invited to create a small piece of work, hide it somewhere in the Twin Cities, then on Friday, post photo clues on Facebook and/or Twitter. The finder is asked to post or tweet a photo to let the group know the art has found a good home.

Of course, not all of the art is found by group members. A random passer-by could just as easily snag a piece, adding to the mystery.

“There’s some joy thinking about who discovers it and thinking about where to hide it,” Wang said.

There’s a Facebook group and a hashtag to use.  Keep your eyes open.  The whole city is a potential hiding place for some little treasure.  If that isn’t a happy thought for today, I don’t know what is.  :)

Let’s Talk about the Arts

Last week I listened to a Round Table conversation about art, and I found myself nodding vigorously at so much of what the guests were saying that I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to relate it to my areas of interest–books, libraries, & community.  Here are some of my thoughts on the discussion:

The librarian in me was interested in ways that people connect with art, including the idea of community spaces.  One of the guests said “The social spaces that art creates, they can be just as important as the art itself.”   Of course, many people think of libraries as quiet places with lots of rules, but I believe, and there are many, many librarians out there who also believe, that libraries can be vibrant social spaces to access or create art in various forms.

The mom in me wanted to applaud the notion that anyone can be an artist.  Scratch that.  That everyone is an artist.  Artists do not exist in a separate group that the rest of us watch.   We are all part of the show.  I love the way that technology has made so many forms of art so accessible to amateurs, and I am glad that my daughter is growing up in a world where creative aspirations are within her reach with a lot of hard work.  Frankly, I appreciate this on a personal level too.

While I’m not usually the girl in line for autographs or wharever, there is a fangirl in me that values digging for the stories behind the art that speaks to me.  This is why I seek out author blogs or look for sketches from my favorite picture book illustrators.  It’s why I follow authors on Twitter.  I want to know about the writing life in all its gory detail.  It doesn’t take away from the magic of the art.  It highlights the humanness of the endeavor in a way that makes it much more alive.

There are so many great examples of artists (of all sorts) and arts organizations doing the innovative work that the Roundtable guests discussed.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Open rehearsals.  I remember attending a couple of Elgin Symphony Orchestra Open Rehearsal events as a teen in my home town, and I thought it was fascinating.  A quick internet search brought up several large orchestras that do similar programs, especially for kids.  What better way to see what being a professional musician is like than to see the preparation that goes in to performance?  
  • Blogging Your Blocks.  Publicizing one’s creative frustrations might seem like the last thing anyone wants to do in the world, but I’ll use Veronica Roth as an example here.  Her wildly popular book Divergent resulted in the opportunity to write a sequel (then turn it into a trilogy), and she’s been blogging her experiences as she continues the story.  Not only am I anticipating the next book more after reading her creative journey (as if it were possible for me to anticipate it more), but also there’s a deeper connection to the story and to the author now.
  • Reinventing spaces.  The Chattanooga Public Library launched a public laboratory space focused on connecting people to the production and sharing of knowledge.  Here in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center’s Open Field is a summer time creative space for anyone interested in the arts.  There are all sorts of programs and plenty of supplies (and a Little Free Library) free for use when the weather is nice.    Then there’s Northern Spark.  This night-time festival reinvented the entire city as an interactive art gallery.  Absolutely amazing.

How have you connected with the arts in the past year or so?  Have you seen any really interesting opportunities to connect with art or artists?  What would you like to see?

The Family Friendly Northern Spark

Last year, I experienced Northern Spark via Twitter while my three-year-old slept.  This year, we went out for a family friendly version of the all-night art fest.

We found ourselves at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts at dusk, where we found a Palace of Wonder in the courtyard.  My four-year-old’s eyes went wide at the sight.

We went inside to find HOTTEA‘s “Letting Go” inviting us to lie on the grass and stare up.

I asked Ladybug what she felt when she looked up at the yarn hanging from above, and she said it felt like day time has taken over night time.

By the time we went back outside, it was definitely night time, and there were all sorts of interesting things to experience.  Music, sounds, mirrors, and light outside MIA and MCAD all invited us to “Think and wonder, wonder and think” (Dr. Seuss).

We were home, and my kiddo was in bed, by 11 p.m.  I hope we shared a bit of what we love about art, music, and Minneapolis with our little one.  Frankly, next year I want to send her to Grandma’s house for the night, so my honey and I can experience more of Northern Spark.

Art & Artpolice in an afternoon

Sometimes I actually manage to get out on the town without a four-year-old in tow.  This usually happens with weeks of planning and with a definite Plan for the Evening, but a couple of weekends ago, we were spontaneously without child for an afternoon and evening.  I knew just what I wanted to do: the latest exhibit at the Walker Art Center.

I’m not sure I really qualify as an “art person” since I really know very little about it, but I am pretty much exactly what you would call a “zine person.”  And it isn’t every museum exhibit that puts zines on display.  Frank Gaard: Poison & Candy is a retrospective exhibit that features the work of Twin Cities art legend, Frank Gaard.  In addition to Gaard’s provocative paintings featuring religious and sexual imagery, the exhibit also includes illustrations from the Artpolice zine that he edited for decades which satirized the art world with wit and humor.  Mpls.St.Paul Magazine described it this way: “Artpolice was free speech in all its messy glory, a place where stupidity and brilliance co-existed on the same page, creating a hilariously subversive form of cognitive dissonance.”

I was, of course, intrigued by the description.  If you are similarly intrigued, I recommend the exhibit.  Leave the kiddos at home.

You can learn more about Frank Gaard and see photos of his home and work in this piece from MPR or hear him talk about his work in a gallery talk on February 9th.


Disclosure: I am not affiliated with the Walker Art Center. My family received a gift membership to the Walker from my parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad! :)

A Celebration of Design

Design is everywhere, and everyone thinks they can do it.  We’ve all sat through ugly PowerPoint presentations or scrolled reluctantly through web sites with garish GIF’s blinking. There are a few more days left for Twin Citians to immerse themselves in good design.  The Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibit at the Walker Art Center ends January 22nd, and it is well worth the visit, even for a non-designer like myself.

The exhibit explores design over the past decade including the art of typeface, branding, movies & television, etc.  It emphasizes that design has evolved dramatically and that it continues to evolve with the popularity of e-readers and tablet computers.  You can read more about it in this MSP Magazine article.

Most of what I know about graphic design comes from–you guessed it–a children’s book.  Mark Gonyea’s A Book about Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make it Good is the perfect primer for those of us who are not necessarily artists but still want to be able to create their own graphics now and then.  Gonyea isn’t the only designer to attempt a children’s book.

Some of my favorite picture books are from graphic designers.  I mentioned Along a Long Road in this post, and you can see more of Frank Viva’s work at his design firm’s site Viva & Co.  Patricia Intriago, of Intriago Design, published a seemingly simple concept book for preschoolers in Dot, but it also works as an early introduction to design with young children.  Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet is an alphabet book that both kids and adults will love.  The alphabet prints available on Thurlby’s online shop would make great kids’ room decor if you’re going for a retro look.

Michael Hall, of Hall Kelley Inc., is the designer behind A Perfect Square, which is a wonderful book to inspire kids to create art out of shapes as talked about in this post on the Artful Parent blog, and My Heart is Like a Zoo, which takes one shape and creates a kid-friendly menagerie from it.  Both of these books have appeal that goes beyond the preschoolers learning about the concepts.  These are the picture books I push on my art-oriented friends who don’t have kids.  It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you know.  They are delightful in a way that surpasses the usual categories.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the trailer for My Heart is Like a Zoo:

Hot + Tea = HOTTEA

via Hot+Tea

I first noticed HOTTEA on a railing near the library in Uptown.  To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it said.

Hotter?  Curious.

I’d never seen anything like it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it might mean.  Soon I started seeing the tag all over the city on fences and spray painted on yarn strung between signposts.

Some might see a tag like this as an act of vandalism or even littering, but to me, it was a mystery.  A question.  A possibility.

As I wondered about the tag, I watched it slowly unravel.  It became a reference point for me each time I went to the library, reminding me that I wasn’t the only one in this city.  Someone else was out there speaking with string.  I thought they were talking to me in a code I had yet to decipher.

Eventually it was gone.  The moment passed, and the conversation ended.  But it was just the beginning.  Now I knew to look.

That’s what so inspiring about street art–it can take us by surprise to create meaning where there was once just a wall, or fence in the case of HOTTEA.  It can make us ask questions we might never ask or look closely at spaces we might otherwise miss.

The artist explains his view of the project on his Vimeo page,

“The project is a comment on all relationships good and bad and the things that lie between them. Like the phrase itself Hot and Tea are two totally different words brought together to represent something new, which reflect on the media and surfaces that the project makes use of.”

I love this. HOT +TEA = HOTTEA.  Together something new.  Now that is inspiring.  (Read more about how the project started in this fascinating article from MPLSArt.)

This past Saturday HOTTEA took over a new space.  His latest installation is indoors–at the HAUS Salon in Minneapolis.  Five new pieces, including HOTTEA’s grandmother looking down on the salon from above and an array of thousands of yarn strings hanging over the salon’s washing station in a piece called “Sometimes I Wish Upon a Star,” are on display at the salon in a show sponsored by MPLSArt.  He even nodded to traditional graffiti in this piece that superimposes a yarn tag over a photograph of a train car.  This show is your chance to see what HOTTEA can do with all the time he needed to craft his code.  Don’t miss it. (See more photos of the show in this slideshow from MPR.)

Even among yarn bombers, HOTTEA is unique.  His weaving work stands out among knit and crochet pieces featured in the book Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti. Authors Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain write about the appeal of yarn graffiti:

“The juxtaposition of yarn and graffiti is humorous to some artists while others see it as a more serious act that builds on a long-standing practice of renegade street art. Others do it to escape the boredom of tedious day jobs. Some want to liberate the needle arts from their long-held association with utilitarian purposes. Yarn bombing can be political, it can be heart-warming, and it can be funny. Most of all, yarn graffiti is unexpected, and it resonates with almost everyone who encounters it, crafters and non-crafters alike.”

I may never be able to do much with yarn (despite my mother’s tireless efforts to teach me to crochet), but from now on, I will be open to its possibilities.  I hope you will be too.

Friday Finds: Loose Ends, Mustaches, & Creativity

Local Love:

Thoughts on Creativity:
“The creative process, and the creative life, is mostly full of moments between the idea and the being done, the spark and the blazing fire, the shimmering magic and the finished piece. We’re always living in the gap between our vision of what could be and what might be, and what is.”
  • This video looks at what deadlines can do to creativity.  You can’t rush art.
And it’s all about me:
For more interesting stuff, find me on Facebook,  Twitter, and Google+.

In the Shadows…

Happy Halloween, everyone!  There is a lot going on this weekend–some great parties and concerts for grown-ups and fun events for families.  Check out Citypages Halloween for a pretty complete listing of what’s happening yet today and tomorrow.

As for us, we went to the library.  I hate to be predictable, but the Walker Branch of the Hennepin County Library held a shadow puppet program for kids yesterday during which we got to see lots of interesting puppets in the collection of local educator Shelley Itman.  The show, Hansel and Gretel, was pretty creepy without scaring the kids, and Ladybug was excited to make her own shadow puppet afterwards.

The library is also offering adults an opportunity to learn about shadow puppets in a “Library Lab” class about animation in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota.  Next Saturday, November 5th.  Register here.

I have long been fascinated with cut-paper illustrations in picture books.  Nikki McClure is a particular favorite illustrator of mine.  Her work in Mama, Is It Summer Yet? is lovely.  I blogged about reading it last spring.

But a recent TED Talk took me beyond the world of picture books to a place where cut-paper becomes art & storytelling in many different contexts–from the cape the artist wears as she walks on stage to permanent installations around the world.  This is well worth watching for those interested in what you can do with scissors and paper.