GUARDIANS IN THE DARK: Balancing Darkness and Light

IMG_0340

My latest picture book work-in-progress is partly inspired by the melancholy feeling of dusk and how it’s always been connected to a feeling of homesickness for me. I wrote a little about it here. I was in a very melancholy place physically and emotionally when I originally wrote those words, but in the four or five years since, I finally experienced the first truly settled, welcoming sense of “coming home” that I’ve had since I lived at home with my parents. I feel rooted in my cozy house in Colorado, contented with the little family my husband and I have made and connected with our community here. My days are mostly sunny now, but I still reap so much inspiration from the gloomy, overcast days that remind me of our time in rainy northern Germany.

Living near Hamburg, Germany in an urban setting made quite an impact on my creativity. I always thought I would enjoy living a rural life, but it turns out big cities inspire me too! I grew up in the suburbs and live in the suburbs now, so the few years we spent living in a third-story apartment (not very high, I know!) on a busy street with busses passing and the entrance to the U-Bahn just a short walk away, was a new and inspiring experience for me. My imagination was sparked by how many lives were lived in such close proximity and by how much activity still occured outside my window under the streetlights of midnight.

trees

Our neighborhood was extra special in that it bordered a forest. It was the best of both worlds–you could go outside and catch a train into downtown or you could walk the curving paths and lose yourself among the trees. I chose to lose myself among the trees quite often, my two little girls in tow. We’d go out and play on on several different playgrounds, then walk back home in the vanishing daylight, feeling chilled and windswept and aching to see the lamp glowing in the window of our apartment.

Griffin Spread Thumb

My latest project, Guardians in the Dark, is about that tension between the light and the dark, between finding comfort in small, enclosed spaces and also in expansive, open spaces. Mostly, it’s about fear and the power we choose to give it (or not to give it) over us. The biggest challenge for me right now is how to balance that melancholy feeling of my past years with the sunny feeling of more recent years, and how to present all of these ideas in a way that children would enjoy. How do I tell a hopeful story about creatures in the dark to small children without inspiring or deepening their own fears? It’s a balancing act! I hope I can pull it off!

 

 

The Artist as Light-Bearer, and Keeping the Windows Clean

swirly dance

I must confess that lately, I have allowed my light to be diminished. Though I always considered myself a “small,” often shy person, I have learned to recognize a quiet power burning inside of me. The first half of my 30’s have empowered me to open up and become more confident, more sunny and even outgoing at times. But I have felt myself retreating into my dim shell again and I have wondered why.

As children’s book writers and illustrators, I think it’s easy sometimes to feel like what we do is trivial. I sit my little self down at my little desk to write little words and make little pictures with paint and pencils and I wonder how any of it matters in the face of this big ol’ world and all of its troubles. My friends and family are nothing but supportive of me and my work, but when I look around at people I love facing dire health problems, heartbreaking relationship issues and mountainous financial challenges, my subconscious instinct is to make myself and my dreams smaller in order to allow space for their troubles to overflow into my life, like I could somehow absorb their difficulties and pain. An untruthful voice tells me that I must diminish my own light because it will hurt the eyes of the ones around me whose lives have fallen under a season of shadow.

But as artists, who are we but lighthouses to those struggling through the dark waves? We are bearers of the light, keepers of the light, but not the Light itself. Perhaps it’s not that we allow our lights to be diminished, but that we forget to clean the windows, to rub away the streaks of doubt and the grime leftover from the harsh words of some who aim to hurt us and to throw us off track.

You are my sunshine thumbnail1

All the while, the Light shines as bright as ever, sure as the rising sun.

Martha Graham, the dance choreographer, has written some of my all-time favorite words about the importance of art :

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

What is your gift? What is your unique medium of expressing light and life to the world? Like me, do you need to clean the windows of your lighthouse, to scrub them until they are free of the buildup of doubt, fear, frustration or comparison that could be dimming your light? You are special. What is it that holds you back from sharing your gifts with others?

While I polish up my windows, I consider the children who will read my words and pour over my illustrations. They are also little light-bearers, in the first tender stages of learning who they are and what gifts they have to offer to the world. And what better way for them to learn than from stories? What we do is powerful. What we do is important. What we do is offer hope, joy and laughter to a hurting world that craves Life. We write for children who are young but certainly not immune to trouble. And as a parent myself, I know that adults who cradle children in their laps for story-time can find profound solace in a picture book too.

 

 

Character Sketches: Discovering an Identity

Harper Peeking

I’m just finishing up a sketch dummy for a manuscript I’ve written called, “Harper’s Gathering Storm.” I began writing the story around 2011, while we were living in a sub-urban, forested neighborhood near Hamburg, Germany. We didn’t own a car but walked everywhere we went, which is pretty common there. My two oldest daughters were just barely preschoolers then and still riding in the double-stroller, but we often took leisurely walks along the cobblestone paths and visited the many parks and playgrounds hidden here and there among the woods and moors.

My daughters were (and still are!) big “collectors.” Every day they would come home with something new in their pockets. So I began to write about a little boy named Jasper who liked to gather things into his pockets–I think I must have chosen a little boy character because my husband and I were pondering the possibility of adding a third child to our family. I loved the name Jasper and planned to use it for our son if we ever had one.

Jasper Sketch

jasper peeking

Fast-forward a few years and we are living in the U.S. again. We did indeed add a third child to our family–another girl, born in October of 2013. Once she was about six months old, I decided to revisit my story and began to storyboard and make character sketches. After receiving a professional critique, I realized I needed to do some major revisions and get serious about honing my craft if I really wanted to become an author-illustrator! And drawing from life was something I knew I should be doing.

So, “Jasper,” a boy character, became “Harper,” a girl character.

harpers

harper sketch

Really, the change was a no-brainer since I am mama to three little girls!!! Write what you know, right? This change was crucial to the success of my illustrations since I have three little “models” running around here all of the time. Instead of sketching from pictures, I could sketch from real-life. Duh. Why didn’t I think of this in the first place?!

I have fallen in love with my character, Harper. She is like one of my daughters. Her personality is very similar to my middle girl, but really, she is a combination of all three. I love her and can’t wait to share her with the world someday soon!

Harper and Shields in Sun

From the Archives: “Dusk” Book Project Inspired by Old Blog Post

My newest project is a story about a little boy and girl who are fearful of the things they see on their walk home at dusk. The imagery is rich in my mind and slowly making its way onto paper, inspired by the magical, early night-fall of northern Germany. I mentioned in my last post that I used to live with my family in a sub-urban, forested neighborhood near Hamburg, Germany. And I remembered something I had written back then after one beautiful dusk stirred something in my soul. Incidentally, this was one of my earliest blog posts and I loved re-reading it today, more than four years later, now that Penelope’s little sister Lucy-Grace is the same age that Penny was in these photos.

penny dusk

(Written on 4.11.2011): On one of the first warm-ish days of the season, Penelope and I went for an evening walk.  It was Penny’s first walk–we left the stroller at home and ambled among the trees, just the two of us, on the winding network of paths that sprawls behind red-brick apartment buildings.  I chased Penny as she ran after dogs and urged her forward as she stopped to contemplate the passers-by or followed the people who smiled at her.  We spied the first buds of spring and Penny ate some of the pale violet petals.  We stayed out until it was nearly dark and almost still; the only sounds were echoing birdsong and the occasional bright clinging of a bicycle bell.

Dusk is my favorite time of day.  The hour or so before dark has always had a melancholy feel about it for me–the sun sinks low and the shadows grow long as the day creeps toward its end. But I love those last moments when, though the sun has dropped below the horizon, there still remains that soft glow of light.  There is a feeling of tenderness, of longing for a long-lost home, and the warm promise of lamps glowing in windows.

penny

I love how the feeling of dusk shows up in these photos of my walk with Penny.  The air shimmers with a thin mist, drawing a muffled gray over daytime’s vivid color.  You can almost see the quiet hush of day’s end, but any sense of loneliness is warded off by the lights shining in the windows of a hundred apartments where families are gathering around the dinner table.

penny swing

See the little speck of light just over Penny’s head in the last two photos?  That’s a lamp burning on the kitchen windowsill in my own apartment.  Every evening I light the lamp, imagining that people on the paths outside might see it and feel refreshed with new hope as they hurry toward the comfort of their own homes.  And it turns out that it served as a poignant encouragement to me as well.

It occurs to me that the gloomy, wet and misty weather that most often pervades Northern Germany has given this place a nearly permanent sense of “dusk” for me.  Yes, it can be melancholy and lonely at times; but it is magical too.  I like to feel that longing for home and to know that the home-fire is always burning here and in as many places as I have people who love me.

 

*I will look forward to sharing some of the sketches from my new book project here (hopefully) soon!*