Wednesday, April 23, 2008

40,000 Push Pins (Or: My Friend, Lynn)

Lynn Thomsen (visual arts teacher): I’ve changed my mind about the project I want to do this year.
Me (program director): Okay, no problem. What do you need?
Lynn: 40,000 push pins.
Me: 40,000 push pins? Uh, sure.

The program is the Prelude Academy, a week-long summer arts workshop for gifted high school writers, dancers, vocalists, musicians, and visual artists who participated in the Indianapolis Children’s Museum Prelude Awards during the school year.

Monday. A dozen or so visual arts students gather in a makeshift studio at the Children’s Museum. They are eager, a little full of themselves, ready to show off their talents. There’s an overhead projector in the room, three big sheets of foam core (approximately 7’x8” each), drawing materials, dozens of art books stacked on a table, many open to colorful prints…and a bunch of cardboard boxes. Lynn opens the flaps of one, tips it forward so the kids can see the contents. Lynn says, “We’ve got 40,000 push pins here—red, blue, green, yellow, and white. What should we paint with them?”

Mutiny ensues. “Push pins! Are you kidding? This is like kindergarten!” one kid says.
“We want to paint,” another says. “With paint,” says a third.

“You already know how to do that,” Lynn says.

Grudgingly, muttering, they leaf through books looking for a work of art to replicate with the push pins. Using the overhead projector, Lynn casts the image of each one on the white wall for their consideration.

By noon they’re all in agreement on one thing: they’re not doing anything abstract. No way. Too easy. By mid-afternoon they decide it’s Botticelli’s “Venus on a Half Shell” they want to make.

Writing this, I have the impulse to call Lynn and ask, “Was it Monday afternoon that they decided to put her on a push pin instead of on the half shell, or did that idea come later, in process? Deciding to do that was the moment they totally bought into the project, though… wasn’t it?

But I can’t call Lynn. She died in January. She had a cold, it didn’t get better, and in what doctors could only describe as a perfect storm of genetic disaster, her organs began to shut down and in less than two weeks she was gone. I still can’t get my head around this. I don't think I ever will.

But the push pins.

Lynn cast the image of Venus on the foam core and the kids sketched her form onto it. They divided up in teams—head, torso, legs (and push pin)—and set to work. The rest of the week looked like this:

Kids bent over the foam core they’d placed on big cafeteria tables. Push pins everywhere, blown up prints of Botticelli’s "Venus" on every surface, sketches of her various body parts. Lynn roaming arpimd, assessing progress, gathering the group to give brilliant, impromptu lectures on, say, color theory or proportion or capturing the exact curve of Venus’s breast.

Sometimes they all stood on chairs to get a different perspective of their work, or taped the three sections together and propped the 8'x20' piece against the wall to see the full effect. There was music, there was singing—even a little dancing, to the rhythm of putting the push pins in their right places. And laughter. Lots and lots of laughter. They also argued sometimes. Panicked: how could they possibly get her finished in a week? They nursed sore, blistered fingers. The clutter of drawings, CD’s, books, art supplies, snacks, coke cans, bottled water, and various totems grew around them in mythic proportion.

Friday, Voila!

They put Venus together and hoisted her on stage to be the backdrop for that evening's performance—amazed at what they’d accomplished. And there was Lynn, helping them, smiling. She’d known from the start the push pin project would be wonderful, though she hadn’t known at all what it would turn out to be. I’ve never known another person whose vision allowed her to remain completely open to possibility in her own work and the work she did with students.

“You were made to set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment,” the writer Annie Dillard said. She might have been writing it about my friend. Lynn was astonished by everything, and spent her whole life spinning her astonishment into marvelous forms, imprinting herself on the world around her. Art and life were the same thing to her.

Lynn’s astonishment at being alive shimmers in her paintings: luminous plowed fields, trees mirrored in summer-calm lakes—the light in them as real as the light pouring in through the huge windows in her loft studio.

You can see the fruits of it in the lives of hundreds of students whom she loved and taught, and who adored her, instinctively understanding that she was not only teaching art, but teaching them how to live. Her countless friends knew it when, again and again, she directed our attention to some small thing that made the world crack open in a way we’d never have imagined and, in doing so, lightened our heavy hearts. Lynn’s time in the world she loved was far too short. But the light she made wherever she went will live among us always.

When remember again (and again and again) that she is gone—and get that awful swirly black feeling inside: how can this be?—I make myself think of her in that makeshift classroom, working among those high school artists, completely engaged in their work together, “Venus on a Push Pin” coming to life beneath their blistered fingers.

Still, I miss her so much.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Going Back to Kindergarten

When I was in kindergarten, we made up stories and our teacher, Miss Hoadley, typed them up and made a book of them. Each of us got a copy. We got to choose the color of construction paper we wanted for the cover (light green for me) and then decorate it. I don’t remember what my story was about, but I absolutely remember the book itself, the particular smell of the mimeographed pages, and what it felt to look at the block of purple print with my name under it, “Barbara White,” and to know that the words I couldn’t read yet were mine. I remember thinking, I want to do this again!

So it was a special pleasure to visit my grandson Jake’s class at the Bridgeford Kindergarten to talk about writing and to celebrate the imminent release of the books they wrote with the help of their teacher, Miss Melissa.

I talked about my books a little bit, especially Everything You Want, because they liked the idea of winning all that money and lots of ideas about how they’d spend it if they won. Also because they loved the goose on the cover…particularly, the goose’s butt on the back flap.

The best part was the creative thinking exercises we did together, though. I brought a box of stuff and pulled two things out at a time. A ceramic house and a pine cone. An unrecognizable plastic action figure and a “fly’s eye,” that multiplies the world when you look into it. With each pair, we played, What if?

Their ideas were endless. They waved their hands. “Jake’s Grandma,” they said. “Jake’s Grandma! What if….”

…there were tiny people living inside the house? What if the house was on a block of regular houses? What if the people were so small they could live inside the pinecone? What if the pinecone fell on the house and all the little people were smushed. What if it was a tree in theiry yard? What if a regular sized person became friends with a tiny person and carried him around on his hand?

What if the action figure was Cat Woman? (She had pointy ears and cat-like face.) What if her super-power was being able to see a million things at once? What if she could make what she saw? Like a million pizzas! But what if the pizzas were tiny, for the tiny people?

After that, we talked about how words were like seeds that could grow pictures. The word “dog,” for example. How many different pictures could that make? Dalmation, poodle (large or small, and what color?), beagle, Chihuahua. “One of those hot dog dogs,” somebody said.

What about “a perfect day?” What’s perfect, anyway? Somebody might think of a summer day with blue skies and sunshine. Somebody else might like rain or snow. We “what-iffed” a summer day. Blue skies, they said. White clouds like marshmallows. Sun that felt warm on your skin. Green grass, cool and tickly. Butterflies landing on flowers. Birds chirping, the pst-pst of of a sprinkler in someone’s yard.

Last, we went on an imaginary journey. They sat still (kindergartners!), closed their eyes and I led them with words through their bedroom windows into a world where the trees were lollipops and a jelly bean path led them to a house made of candy. Afterwards, they told the stories of their imagined worlds.

Yesterday, Jake brought me the story they wrote after I left (transcribed by Miss Melissa) and the fabulous pictures they made for me, showing the worlds they imagined on their journey—and in some cases, descriptions of those worlds. They were all wonderful. I will keep them forever! Here are just a few:

Jake’s has a lady with her arms out, a piano, a cupboard, and a ceiling fan made of lollipops: “thas a choclat curd cawbd it has a chocola curd pano”

Ella had a lady in her story, too: “To Jake’s Gramc from Ella that was a lito girl and she fawd a house thar was a lade picing a plat the lito girl said can haw sum cande”

Elly’s world is all lollipops: “thar’s is LoLy PoP’s! and thar is a tree and the tree is made out of LoLy PoP’s! and the hous, is made out of the LoLy PoP’s and thar is a LoLy PoP laty.”

Mya’s has a block of blue sky, a yellow sun, a little girl standing on a path made of candy: i wint in a house made out of candy i said that house is yummy”

Will, not a candy-lover, made a mostly green house: “it is mede aut of spinach,” he wrote.

Annelise made a lollipop tree and a cookie house: “to jaks grama the huos is made of chocit chip kooes and the rof is mad of clrbings

And here’s the story they wrote with Miss Melissa. But first, can I just say, they totally got the “show, don’t tell” thing that sometimes takes college students a whole semester to understand, if they get it at all?

Once upon a time two kids named Pete and Frannie went for a walk in the forest. Suddenly, they saw a bear. They ran as fast as they could to a house. The house was covered with candy. The roof was made of chocolate chips. Around the windows were candy canes and it was decorated with jelly beans and m&m’s. The sidewalk was made out of Hershey bars. There was a garden of gumdrops and lollipops.

Next to the house was a car made out of an orange circus peanut with Rolo wheels. The house had a playground in the back yard. The swings were fruit roll-ups. There was a climber made of chocolate bars with Laffy Taffy slides. There was a peanut butter cup bridge to the tree house with candy cane monkey bars on the other side. The fire pole down from the tree house was licorice.

The pool was filled with root beer with huge scoops of ice cream for people to float on. the sandbox was filled with crumbs from cinnamon graham crackers and every type of cookie. Around the sandbox were little marshmallow seats.

The back of the yard had enormous marshmallow trampolines where children could do somersaults and a ball pit filled with Skittles.

On the other side of the house was a chocolate river. Marshmallow Peep ducks and gummi fish swam cheerfully over peanut brittle rocks and between puffs of cotton candy. The rowboat was brown sugar with pretzel stick oars. Cinnamon stick and pretzel trees lined the river bank.

As the children approached the house they saw someone inside. A witch! They were afraid and ran back into the woods. Stopping for breath, they met a mouse named Charlie. He was old and wore glasses. He told them the witch was nice. Pete and Frannie decided to go back to the house. Charlie went, too. They knocked on the door. The witch came out an the kids asked for candy. The witch said, “Yes, help yourselves. But don’t eat too much because it is my house.” They ate and then they planed on and licked the playground and drank for the river. They went to visit the witch whenever they wanted to have a snack.

Bravo, Miss Melissa! If every child had a kindergarten teacher like you, the world would be a better place.

I can’t wait for the book launch on Thursday, at the Young Writers’ Tea!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Everything You Want, with Chicken

Almost as much fun as handing out free books to librarians at PLA was visiting kids’ bookstores in Minneapolis. I fell in love with Wild Rumpus the moment I saw the kid-size purple door built into the adult door. I wished I were seven again—or at least really, really short—so that I could go through it myself. Inside there was an explosion of color and—stuff. Even the ceiling was wonderful--as you walk deeper into the store it seems to crack open to reveal the sky. There was garden shed lined with books. A reading chair. Cats roamed, birds chirped in a row of cages in the back of the store. Best of all, there was a chicken.

Seriously, a chicken—wandering around the store as if it were a perfectly normal kind of indoor pet. “I think there’s a poultry connection here,” I suggested when I introduced myself and showed the book seller at the counter the cover of Everything You Want. We laughed.

It was clearly a great photo op, so I held the chicken (a first for me), the book propped in the crook of my arm. Snap. See above.

My experience at the Red Balloon was cosmic. There was a display rack featuring Catherine Clark’s Wish You Were Here and—guess what? It turned out Catherine Clark herself was at the store. She works there. We had a delightful conversation. Maybe we could fix my Jax up with her Ariel, if things didn’t work out with their love interests in the books, we thought. A whole new sequel concept.

I did remind her, though, “Wherever 'here' is, I was there first.”

I bought her newly published Wish You Were Here (which kept me very happily occupied during annoying flight delays later that day) and she promised to read my Wish You Were Here as soon as working, writing, and chasing after her two-year old allowed.

I love thinking about my books in these two stores, each one so welcoming to kids of all ages.

April 5, 1968: Morning

When I found out that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, I was heading for spring break in Florida. We left in the evening, not long after hearing the news, and drove through the night. We reached the outskirts Atlanta in the early morning. Nearing the city, we began to see black people gathered on the overpasses. Dozens and dozens of them. Just standing there.

The radio had been on all night, and I had drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of voices reporting on the violence that was breaking out in cities everywhere in the aftermath of the killing. It scared me a little to look up and see all those people. Why were they there?

Soon we passed a directional sign for the Atlanta airport—and almost instanteously, I saw a black hearse coming toward us on the other side of the interstate. Then I understood. The people were there to witness King’s coming home.

The image was seared into my brain: the somber people on the overpasses, the hearse coming toward us in slow motion, passing—like history itself passing us by. Can it be possible that I actually caught a glimpse of Coretta King, dressed in black, her head bent? It seems unlikely, but I swear I did.

We drove on to Florida, spent our few days in the sun. But I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. It still seems as real to me today as it did then, but as time goes by, it seems more a message than a memory. A reminder that we are history happening. All of us. History is made by what we do individually and as a nation—what by what we don’t have the courage to do.

We are responsible.