Be Boundless.

loud and clear be boundless

In college I took an art class and the first thing we did was tape off a square in the center of the paper. This was the space where we would draw the vase sitting on a stool in front of the classroom. We drew on a bright white sheet with a rough matte surface, textured like an eggshell. I began at the center, of course, and carefully created a scale small enough to contain everything in front of me.  To my delight, the finished product floated smack-dab in the middle of the paper. Nothing even neared the edge.

Despite my tangled mess of hair, things of the wild variety don’t come easily for me. My creativity comes from working with boundaries—like the finite rectangle in a frame of film. I no longer feel the need to stay inside the lines, but I like limits and indelible endings. They make the space seem full.

I guess “seem” is the imperative word there, since for the most part it’s only an illusion. Boundaries have a way of creating things, because they hint at what’s beyond them.

I once saw a Pollock in a museum; it took up the better part of a wall. The painting wasn’t framed, so you could see the sides of canvas and the staples that stretched it across. The color ran clear off the edges and I imagined onto the floor. The paint I could see felt like merely a piece—a swatch of some colossal and untamed outpouring.

We learn early on how to give just enough—to burn, but just a little, and be done. It’s smart to save a part of yourself, because what if this only gets harder?

But, there is no restraint in the month of May, no tenuous half-ways or kind-ofs. Every inch of the cherry trees is impossibly pink. The blossoms quiver with their unbearable lightness.  After months of cold, the doors fly open again and a hive’s worth of bees begin buzzing. Ask them how much to give of your heart! They’ll answer the way that you’re fearing.

It sounds like paint hitting a canvas. Give everything. Give everything. Give everything.

Just Say Yes

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Usually I only work on one project at a time. But the freelancers I know who make a living at it work on multiple projects at once, and I want to learn to do that. When it comes to my social life, I’ve always been into saying ‘yes’ to lots of things and then figuring out how they all fit together, and I’m trying to extend that same confidence to art/illustration jobs. So, I’m working on a few different projects right now, and I think I like it.

I always like the beginnings of things (like fellow Gemini Don Draper), which can make follow-through a challenge. Self-help books have taught me that the best way to deal with a potentially self-destructive tendency is not to try and make it go away, but to find a way to make it work for you. So I think switching back and forth between projects is actually good for someone like me, because it means starting fresh again every couple of days. It also creates mini deadlines at the end of the day, which is helpful for the same reason--the only thing as exciting as starting something is finishing something!

Working on multiple projects concurrently seems to add up to just working more, period, which is good. I notice myself getting a little looser and stronger with my drawings. This helps me feel more motivated, too. I am starting to see potential, rather than feeling my I’ve plateaued. I’m still not drawing enough to be as strong as I could be, but I am seeing that I can improve, and that is really exciting me.

Below are some images of bits and pieces of different projects I’m working on now. I hope you will enjoy the medley [click to see full image].

[gallery link="file" order="DESC" orderby="title"]

For other freelancers: How many projects do you take on at one time? How have you learned to manage your time?

Lessons from a circus baron...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

They say that the circus is the greatest show on earth.  I remember several from when I was growing up---at the last one I attended, my parents let my brother and I ride the elephants on a loop around the tent.  I don’t know when that was though, it seems far away.  Part of the reason is that I’ve gotten older of course, and part of the reason is that I think there seem to be less and less opportunities to see a circus.

But legends associated with the circus and the traveling families that work in them always seem to be so strong; I always find the stories fascinating.  So when we traveled to Florida a few weeks back, I made sure that we made a stop to see the Ringling mansion and museum in Sarasota.  There is a circus museum there, full of the beautiful train cars from the railway days, and more information about how that particular “greatest show on earth” came to be.  But the estate is so much more than the museum---there is a beautiful Venetian palace that was the winter home of the owners, as well as a magnificent art collection housed in a villa.  While walking around, I couldn’t help but take away a few things from the rich history:

  • If there’s a boom, there’s a bust: The Ringling family ended up owning every traveling circus in the United States.  And the youngest brother bought a tremendous amount of land in Florida.  But eventually economic happenings outside of their control caught up with them in the form of the Great Depression.  If things are going well, by all means enjoy them, but you have to always be mindful of the fact that the good days can always end.  Always make sure you have a reserve and never over-extend.
  • Where you start doesn’t define where you end: The Ringling brothers came from very humble beginnings yet ended up being one of the most powerful families in the business.  The brothers had modest educational beginnings, but the youngest still taught himself about the greatest European art masters.  He started his life in the Midwest but divided his time between New York City and the Sarasota Bay.  All of those show that where you start in life doesn’t necessarily have to define where you end---changes in life are your prerogative to make.
  • Know what to fight for: When economic difficulties caught up with the youngest Ringling, he had to make some very tough decisions.  But in the end, he considered it one of his greatest accomplishments that he was able to hold on to his artwork masterpieces and his home to house them, not for himself, but because he had wanted to will them to the state of Florida.  Those pieces are open to the public today to enjoy, admire and learn from.  He died with only $311.00 in his bank account, but still held on to these pieces, even though he could have sold them for more personal funds.  Sometimes, you have to know what to fight for, even when it makes things harder for you.
  • It’s hard to compete with a lifetime love: John Ringling was married to his wife Mabel for a quarter of a century, and frequently referred to her as the love of her life.  After her death he remarried for a brief time, probably too soon, and the relationship was seemingly doomed from the start.  Perhaps it was his fault, perhaps it was hers, an outsider to any relationship will never fully know.  But you will meet people, who, in their heart are still in love with someone else, regardless of whether that person loves them back or not, and there’s no competing with that.

All my love,

Mom

Easter Eggs

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This year, Brian had an idea to make Easter baskets for our parents, which was really fun and made me feel all right about Easter, which has never been my favorite holiday. I am working on a story about the two of us shopping for Easter basket materials. I am going to make the illustrations out of cut paper, but I also needed to figure out how to do the text. I decided to try hand writing it.

I didn’t like the way that the black ink looked because the contrast between its light and dark parts seemed too harsh. I got some grey ink and also a new brush at the art supply store. Funny visit to the art supply store. Everyone in the paper department was really grumpy, and downstairs, the woman checking me out told me how moths ate her paintbrushes so she has to keep them in the fridge (she was really sweet and sassy and seemed so old school NYC like an Annie Potts character in an 80s movie) and then I am pretty sure one of the employees pooped on the floor. Pretty sure.
Clean desk and new art supplies! The brush is wrapped in brown paper. She was so careful with it.
Also got some new paper for an animation I am going to make, a video for a friend’s band. I never let myself buy fancy paper because it feels like cheating but I decided this time it’s ok, this video can have a little more of a collage feel to it. The two white papers are going to be snow.

The writing isn’t perfect but I think it will work, and I like the grey ink. When I showed Brian this and said, “What do you think?” he said, “It looks like Apu from the Simpsons.”
 Tracing eggs.
Egg outline. (I don’t know where that weird owl came from.)
Eggs in progress.
A pretty nice egg.
 I really like this egg.
The first egg I made. I rejected it for being insufficiently egg-like.
I tried to make a replacement but I didn’t like that one either.
So I decided the original egg would do. (Practicing egg-ceptance.)
More to come in the future!

Alchemy

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I’ve been thinking about this Joseph Campbell quote: “If the path before you is clear, you're probably on someone else's.” As artists, we really don’t know what effect our work will have once we put it into the world. Whether working for a client, collaborating, or preparing for a solo show, that uncertainty is always there. As artists, we have to be confident enough to make work that is honest about who we are and the world we inhabit. We never know if we are good enough; there is not a set path for how to succeed or even a clear definition of what success means. Embracing that uncertainty and going forth honestly anyway is our job, the same way that when I waitress my job is to set aside my ego and serve the customer as well as I can, even when they are annoying and the kitchen is slow and I am so tired and I have my period and I just want to go home.

The worst part is, when you’re a waitress you know that it makes sense that in a city with a lot of people, there are lots of restaurants, because everyone needs to eat. But as an artist living in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction™, a lot of times it just seems like there is already enough art! You can buy a printed copy of any great painting, illustrated book, or amazing poster you like. Why make more? When I think about the sheer number of artists making things and trying to make a name for themselves, it boggles my mind. Throw in some heaping self-doubt and it’s enough to make you want to stop trying altogether.

I thought of this overabundance of art when I heard about Meriç Algün Ringborg recent show at Art in General, The Library of Unborrowed Books, in which she culled a selection of books from the Center for Fiction’s library. The piece, following the same guidelines as her 2012 show at the Stockholm Public Library, “comprise[d] all the books from a selected library that have never been borrowed.”

The show is a little embarrassing for the books. Claire Barliant of the New Yorker writes that “while [she] browsed [she] found [her]self searching for flaws in the books that might have made them undesirable” to others, which sounds like online dating. The Center for Fiction’s tumblr is ostensibly supportive, but incorrectly refers to Ringborg with male pronouns, so perhaps there’s a little buried resentment on their end.

But Michele Filgate of the Paris Review finds that the show made the books more attractive, writing, “there’s something about displaying the books as art that made me want to page through each and every novel. It’s as if all of the words put together are trying to say, We are necessary; we have stories to share.”

Although the mass of artists living today can be daunting, it is also be powerful. If there are that many of us who want to approach problems creatively, there are ways to harness that creative power to make the world a better place, and that is exciting.

The truth is, most of my artist friends think about a lot of the same questions I do. I see the different ways that we try to make ourselves and the world better through art, whether it be through an overtly political message or simply a celebration of creativity over consumption. Nobody has it all figured out, but everyone is trying.

Artists like El Anatsui (go see his awe-inspiring show at the Brooklyn Art Museum!) and Chakaia Booker (read more about her here) are especially exciting to me, because of their approach to materials. They take objects that most people think of as ugly and disposable, and make them into gorgeous sculptures. It’s not just that this is a surprising thing to do, it’s also that their work acknowledges the world we find ourselves in, with all of its industrialized waste and ugliness, and finds beauty there. The detritus and tires and metal scraps that make up Booker and Anatsui's work are not so different from the unborrowed books in Ringborg’s piece. All three artists find value in objects that other people have ignored. That’s what art does. It takes the parts of ourselves, our worlds, our perceptions that we thought were the most unlovable, the most obscure, or just too obvious to bother with, and transforms them into something to share with pride.

Further Reading:

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Paris Review: Borrowed Time

New Yorker: The Art of Browsing

Ringborg's Website: Meriç Algün Ringborg

Center for Fiction: The Library of Unborrowed Books

ltr">El Anatsui

Defiant Beauty

Favorite Favorites

I don’t mean to be a notebook snob. But after four months sailed by without a page of journal writing from this dedicated journal-writer’s desk, I promptly accepted my status and hit purchase on a stack of my favorite notebooks. You might be tempted to assume that I wasn’t writing in a notebook for all this time simply because I was busy or because I was writing in other places. Those excuses might fly for some of the other tasks that have lingered on my to-do list for months, but they could not have accounted for my having fallen off the notebook path. I have written through busy. I have written through crazy and happy and sad. I have written even when I had so many other things to write that I wondered if I’d run out of words. In the notebook, everything is different. No matter what else is going on beyond its margins, I always look forward to meeting myself on the page.

The special notebooks, in case you are wondering, are these. I’ve had other notebooks lying around over these four months, which is why it took me so long to order my favorites. A piece of paper is a piece of paper, I kept telling myself—all the while abandoning one mediocre notebook after another only a few pages in.

I’m sure most artists would agree that it’s no use to blame your tools or your medium for your own lack of production. In fact, creative limitations are often a perfect starting point for innovation. And yet, if you’ve found the thing that works for you, you might as well stock up on it and never risk having to worry about running out.

The pages of my favorite notebooks are so perfectly smooth to write on and not so harshly white as to blind you. The cover is red, which makes it look very inviting and easy to spot when I’ve left it in a pile of all the other books and papers awaiting my attention. It’s small enough to carry around in a tote bag and large enough to allow for some breathing room. It lies flat when it’s open, and it’s flexible enough to fold one side around to the back if you need to. It’s sturdy enough to write with it on your lap, and it doesn’t (thank heavens!) have lines.

This is not an advertisement for my favorite journal, but more of a celebration of favorites. Sometimes it seems the internet is flooded with “favorites” and “likes,” but I’m talking about the really favorite favorites. These are not the pretty pictures, pinned and forgotten, or the impulse buys that end up in the back of the closet. They are the tangible things that stick with you for the long haul and accumulate layers upon layers of memories. The perfectly reliable pens to go with your perfectly favorite notebook. The tea that makes your day. Every. Single. Time.

When my notebooks finally arrived, I tore the box open and started writing. It was like meeting an old friend for coffee after a very long time. You can pick up just where you left off last.

My Grown-Up Desk

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I remember visiting my Great Aunt Ann when I was about 7 or 8. At that time she lived in an apartment in a house in Martha’s Vineyard. During the summers, when the rent was higher, she would find tenants to rent part of the space, which was always an adventure. She had a couch covered in patchwork denim which I think was where her art therapy clients were supposed to sit, although I don’t think such clients actually existed. She was very whimsical and would swim every day and complained about her bad back and drove a really old Volvo with a lot of sand in it. Then, as now, she seemed to live like a charming cat, pulling things from thin air, acting according to her own whims. One of the best things was walking in the dark warm air at night to get ice cream cones. But I think the really best thing was her desk. A slanted artist’s desk lit by a bending lamp, and on it an entire set of colored pencils sharpened and waiting. It seemed so magical and inviting and sophisticated.

When I was a kid, there were certain things that I knew I wanted to have or be when I grew up. And then along the way I forgot about those intentions, or maybe not forgot but ingested them entirely. Because sometimes they show up here in my adult life, as if they were a point on the map that I had been walking toward without remembering why.

Today I looked down at my desk (built by Brian), lit by a bending lamp (impulse buy from a yard sale in Maine), with a couple of colored pencils and a pile of paper on top, and thought, here it is: my Great Aunt Ann’s desk—my 7-year-old idea of what being a grown-up artist looks like.

International Women's Day Art

poster art

Happy International Women's Day. As is true of many struggles, the women's movement has inspired some amazing poster art. Enjoy.

Original Source Unknown
Faviana Rodriguez
Lenthall Rd WorkshopArtist Unknown
European Parliment; Artist Unknown
Marc Rudin, 1981

Finally, not really poster art, but an amazing photograph. Hat tip to Elise Peterson.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, taken by Dan Wynn

Semiramis: Ancient Woman of Mystery.

historical woman

The first reason I wanted to write about Semiramis was because of her cool name, and the second was because I hadn’t written about an ancient historical woman since my first post on Hatshepsut. Lack of sources and all that.

But after just a cursory scan of her Wikipedia page, my interest was very much piqued, more because of what wasn’t there than what was. It’s true that with ancient figures, as opposed to modern ones, the lack of sources can be crippling. Photographs and phonographic recordings are certainly easier to interpret than crumbling papyrus scrolls. But even as far as ancients go, Semiramis’s life is a complete mystery. And yet, this hasn’t prevented a whole bunch of people—mostly men—from liberally inventing her life story in a whole bunch of ways.

The real Semiramis was probably actually an Assyrian queen named Shammuramat who, following her husband Shamshi-Adad V’s death, ruled as regent for her young son from 810 to 806 BCE. Her actual looks, personality, and accomplishments are shrouded in that aforementioned mystery—though, at the very least, we know she spent a few years in charge of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at its powerful height, with a rule spanning from Asia Minor to western Iran. The neighboring Greeks, Iranians, and Indians probably fueled the Semiramis legend due to their contact with the Assyrian empire during her reign. Average Greek/Iranian/Indian guy: “Those Assyrians are badass and they’re ruled by a woman? Man, she must be super hardcore, bro.” (It’s my theory that bros are not a new phenomenon.)

Beyond that, Shammuramat/Semiramis’s life gets murky. But like I said, a whole bunch of people over the centuries—mostly men—can tell you plenty about her. Here’s a brief rundown of the, shall we say, creative Semiramis interpretations:

Ancient Greeks and Persians believed her to be the legendary queen of king Ninus of Babylon, who oversaw the building of the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the first century BCE, devoted a lot of ink (or stone chisels, or whatever) to Semiramis in his The Library of History. According to Diodorus, she was the daughter of a fish goddess (!) that was raised by doves (!!) and then married to the Babylonian king Ninus. When Ninus died, she pretended to be her son for forty-two years (kind of a more soap-opera version of serving as regent), and during that time commanded armies, conquered Libya and Ethiopia, built palaces, and waged an unsuccessful campaign in India which included an army of mechanical elephants (!!!). However, Dio S. refuted the popular claim that she built the Hanging Gardens, noting that these were built after her time by Nebuchadnezzar (owner of one of the best names any king has had, period).

Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman historian, claimed Semiramis invented eunuchs— yes—initiating the practice of castrating male youth. Others also said she invented the chastity belt. (I hear those words, my mind still goes to Maid Marian’s steel padlocked underwear in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.)

Armenian tradition depicted her as a harlot—in a traditional story, she killed the Armenian king Ara the Beautiful after he refused her hand in marriage.

Dante put her in the Second Circle of Hell, along with Helen of Troy, in his Inferno. Probably another one of those “harlot” things.

Alexander Hislop, the 19th-century Protestant minister, wrote about her in his The Two Babylons (1853) and placed her in biblical tradition. According to Alex H., she was the consort of Nimrod, builder of the Tower of Babel, and she deified herself as the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, mother of Gilgamesh. Later Catholic tradition was based on Semiramis’s Ishtar legend—including the Virgin Mary—which, essentially, allowed Hislop to equate Catholicism with paganism. (Which leads me to question, where does that leave Protestantism? But I haven’t read this masterpiece of theological inquiry, so I won’t judge, beyond the fact that I just sarcastically called it a masterpiece of theological inquiry.)

On top of all this, Semiramis has been the subject of silent and talkie films (Queen of Babylon, 1954; I am Semiramis, 1963), operas (Rossini’s Semaride; Meyerbeer’s Semaride), plays (Voltaire’s Semiramis, a brief mention in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), and 18th-century paintings (both paintings shown here; Jean-Simon Berthélemy’s Semiramis Inspecting a Plan of Babylon), among other things. Now all that’s missing in terms of namesakes is a feminist pop culture website (a la Jezebel).

Like Jezebel, Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, and a host of other ancient women, Semiramis has become synonymous with female licentiousness and sexual immorality, a symbol of woman’s role as earthly temptation. But she has also been attributed qualities of leadership, daring, ambition, courage, and empire-building. She’s even been called a fish goddess’s daughter---which sounds like the name of an Amy Tan novel.

So the stories are obviously all a little different. But for me, the striking common thread is, again, the way that Semiramis serves as an empty vessel, whether that’s for themes of sexual immorality, leadership, divinity, or what have you. Basically, she served whatever purpose the dude---storyteller, scroll-writer, Enlightenment playwright, or silent film director---had in mind, informed by the cultural context of the times through which her legacy was passed down. And these contexts tended to be supremely male-centric, Bible-obsessed, and probably Orientalist.

In this, then, Semiramis's story is not so different from the story of women today. Sure, we’ve come a long way. Yet women often continue to serve as symbols of societal morality, to be talked about with or without women’s participation. There are public debates about how women should dress, how women should behave sexually, how women should balance work and home life. There are political debates about rape, birth control, abortion. There are humanitarian debates about women in other countries---most recently, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky made a splash---and how their dress, rights, cultural roles represent the relative freedom and, perhaps, morality of their societies. (And maybe whether or not we should invade them.)

So as awesome as all the stories about Semiramis are, as an ancient woman of historical legend, I think the most interesting thing about her is that she has secrets. That, maybe, I can relate to.

Stranger Here

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I am excited to present to you the trailer for Jen Larsen's forthcoming memoir, Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed With My Head. Written and narrated by Jen Larsen, music composed and performed by Jared Holdaway, animated and directed by me.

Bloopers reel:

Behind the scenes:

Read more about the book here: jenlarsen.net Read about how the montage in this video came to be here.

Lessons from South Africa...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when you travel you’ll feel that you have gone just about as far as you can go before circling back around again on the other side of the globe.  My recent trip to South Africa was exactly like that---16 hours on the way there, 18 hours on the way back.  Between the many hours and changes of time, and days that turn to nights and then back to days again, you end up wondering where you really are anyway.  And this time around it was such a blur---so many hours seem even more when you end up on the ground for only four days.

But four days is still plenty of time to make observations, and in South Africa, you can make a lot.  Of all the places I go to for work, South Africa is by far and away my favorite.  Maybe precisely because it is so far.  I'm hoping that one day soon I get to come back all of this way, perhaps even one day with you, to stay in this beautiful country for a bit longer, so that I can really get to know this part of the world that I otherwise have so little exposure to.  In the meantime, I've taken these things home with me:

  • Always stop for a sundowner: the first time I really saw this was during my first trip to South Africa when I went on safari (all by myself no less!) No matter where we were driving, when the hour for sunset came, the South Africans were always insistent that we pull over the car, stop what we were doing and have a drink.  This trip, when I was mostly at the hotel and meetings, it was no different.  I was alone again, but seemingly everyday, people were having a moment of their own, usually over a glass. I don't know if it is meant to celebrate a day passed, or whether it is intended perhaps as a moment of gratefulness.  But I've come to love this small acknowledgement of another day that we have been lucky enough to have.
  • Anyone can talk about the weather: When you're in a place that's different, and other potential topics plucked from the news or the social fabric might be perceived as unwelcome when broached by an outsider, you can never fail with the weather.  In Johannesburg, it rained every late afternoon when I was there, right around the same time.  A conversation about that day's rain, how it compared to the previous days, whether it would rain again tomorrow always seemed to fill any conversational void I had, no matter the person or their relation to me.  When in doubt, bring up the weather.
  • Galleries somewhere else can inspire you: I didn't have much time to do anything other than my work on this trip, but I was lucky to have a few well-known galleries as I was out and about town in meetings.  The great thing about galleries is that they don't take long to see, and they're free. So while I didn't have the time to be a full-on tourist on my trip, I did make time to squeeze in twenty minutes here, half an hour there to pop into galleries.  You can learn a tremendous amount about art from a place, the topics its driven by, the way media of art differs just by taking a few minutes to look.  And chances are, you'll leave inspired to see things differently.
  • Every city has a quiet corner: Any city that you don't know, Johannesburg included, can grow to be overwhelming when you don't know your way around.  It's true everywhere.  Sometimes cities give us the opportunity to blend in seamlessly, almost as if no one sees us.  But sometimes cities draw attention to us---in my mind, I can sometimes see a myriad of red arrows pointing at me, screaming to others that I don't belong and I don't know where I'm going.  But any city has a quiet spot---it might be a garden, it might be a coffee shop.  If ever you feel like you don't belong, just find your quiet spot, and recompose.  And every city always looks quiet from up above---if you can't find anywhere else, just go to the highest spot you can find.  You'll always find quiet there.
  • Together is better: I had so many people say this to me on trips I've made to South Africa.  In a country that is still working through so many differences that history has left them, when people tell me that despite everything, "together is better", then it serves as a good reminder to me to make sure that I apply that principle in my own life.

All my love,

Mom

Ps  - And in case you might be wondering...no, that's not a real hippo.  It's a hippo I saw at a gallery!

 

A sustainable practice

The most effortless project I’ve completed was the writing of my senior thesis, a collection of poetry and translation relating to the book of Genesis. I suppose it’s no coincidence that I was fixating, even then, on beginnings. I spent some time in the summer doing a bit of research, and when I returned to school in the Fall, I had no idea what the actual writing process would look like over the course of the next six or seven months. I’d spent many sleepless nights wringing academic papers from my brain over the previous three years, and I knew I needed a more sustainable process if I was to make it to the finish line, sanity intact and thesis in hand.

In my first meeting with my advisor, he gave me a piece of advice that, at the time, I found funny. In retrospect, I think of it as earth-shattering. He told me to write first thing in the morning.

I must have asked what he really meant by “first thing,” because I remember his insistence: DO NOT brush your teeth, DO NOT eat breakfast, DO NOT get dressed, DO NOT do anything before you sit down to write. OK, you can have coffee. But everything else will get in your way. Just write, first thing.

This advice must have been personal, because, at the time, I didn’t drink coffee. He must have been sharing what worked in his own practice. In any case, I took his advice very seriously, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.

I arranged my course schedule so that I had a couple of mornings free during the week, and I did my other work at night. I took his coffee exception to mean that I could choose a couple of my own non-negotiables, as long as I could do them on autopilot.

So for a few mornings a week, before my anxiety or inhibitions could get the best of me—in other words, before I had a chance to get in my own way—I did what I needed to do to feel vaguely human, and then I wrote. Later on, I was editing or rewriting, but the process was the same.

I didn’t start by searching for inspiration or thinking particularly hard about what I needed to do. I just showed up at my table for a couple of hours, did what I knew how to do, and then, for the rest of the day, took care of the business of living. It was like starting the day with an offering to the muses. You can sleep in, I was telling them. I got this.

It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity, in which she emphasizes the importance of simply showing up and doing the work. I also think of the recent New York Times article on working less and accomplishing more when I consider the relatively limited number of hours I spent working in comparison to the amount of material I needed to produce. It was all about the quality of those hours, not the quantity.

Since I’m no longer a student, it’s been a process of trial and error trying to reestablish this sort of practice in my differently arranged life. The peculiar blessing/curse of the student is that she tends to have a great deal of control over her schedule. But even in my post-student life, I am comforted by a sense that the process of setting a goal and actually accomplishing it depends very little on talent or magic or circumstance and very much on creating rituals and habits that support simply showing up and doing the work over the long haul.

Women Who Will Never Die

word traveler

Yes, literature has a gift: making people and feelings immortal. Over the years, I have stumbled upon many women characters portrayed by writers who were obsessed by their beauty and being. I’ve always felt like I wanted to know everything about these women. What was so special about them? What inspired poets and writers to grab their pens and start writing? Were they worth so much attention? I admire the power of these women, those very peculiar qualities that made them live through the ages in fiction and poetry. Many of them fascinate me, and make me feel a bit envious, too. I think I actually have a number of favorites, and in this list I will only mention three of them (casual order):

 

1. Alice in wonderland. Who was the real Alice in Wonderland immortalized by Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson? I have always felt some kind of attachment to Alice’s story. When I was little, my mother used to feed me with tales. My favorites were the ones that became Walt Disney’s classics, Alice in Wonderland above all. I watched the cartoon so many times I actually still know the words by heart. Alice Liddell Hargreaves was an unrestrained child, naive and innocent at times, but also incredibly aware of the world around her. Alice’s father was the Dean of Westminster School and was soon appointed to the deanery of Christ Church, Oxford. Dodgson/Carroll met the Liddell family in 1855. The relationship between the girl and Dodgson has been the source of much controversy. Dodgson entertained Alice and her sisters by telling them stories, and used them as subjects for his hobby, photography. There is no record of why the relationship between him and the Liddells broke so suddenly, but what remains are some very beautiful pictures of the little Alice (and a WONDERful book!).

“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”

 

2. How not to wonder about Beatrice’s life? We have no pictures, of course! (Yes, paintings!) What we have is Dante’s description of her, which appears in La Vita Nova. When he first saw her, she was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle around her waist. Dante fell in love with Beatrice at first sight, and he describes her with divine and angelic qualities. One afternoon, while Beatrice was walking the streets of Florence, she turned and greeted him. On the very same day, Dante had a dream about Beatrice, who became the subject of his first sonnet of La Vita Nova.

To every captive soul and gentle heart

into whose sight this present speech may come,

so that they might write its meaning for me,

greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.

Already a third of the hours were almost past

of the time when all the stars were shining,

when Amor suddenly appeared to me

whose memory fills me with terror.

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing,

afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

                            from La Vita Nova - A ciascun´alma presa e gentil core

 

3. Traveling back in time, there’s another woman who got my full attention. Her name is Lesbia, and Catullus was the poet who fell deeply in love with her (her real name was probably Clodia Metelli). I still remember how much passion my Latin professor put during that class in high school, commenting each and every word from this beautiful poem below. I seriously think this and other ancient poems were what motivated me to classical studies.

To every captive soul and gentle heart

into whose sight this present speech may come,

so that they might write its meaning for me,

greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.

Already a third of the hours were almost past

of the time when all the stars were shining,

when Amor suddenly appeared to me

whose memory fills me with terror.

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing,

afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

                                         from How Many Kisses

 

Who are your favorite women in literature?

Lessons from a creative summit...

lessons for clara

  Dearest Clara,

Every once in awhile, I like to get outside of my own box. It seems strange that as a management consultant that I would bother to spend time with photographers or writers or other creatives.  But while I enjoy what I do for a living, my true passions are outside of that.  I indulge them by spending time with others who can and do choose them for a living.  I admire that group of people so much---and sometimes there's nothing like getting out of your usual cadence to really gain perspective.  This weekend I attended a conference with hundreds of other people much more creative than I.  Sometimes I certainly wish that passions could be more for me, but at least for the immediate future, events like these will be as close as I can get.

Here are a few thoughts from some of the most creative people I have met, who also happen to be some of the best advisors for life as it turns out:

  • "The only risk is not taking any risk": A reminder from one of the most risk-taking designers out in our time that if you don't have the courage to put your ideas and thoughts and frameworks out there to push the boundaries and make something happen, then ultimately the biggest thing at stake is that nothing at all will happen.  And life is about making things happen.  You get to choose the path that will be best for you, but have the courage to choose something.  Don't live your life by default.
  • "You might as well spend time learning how to hustle since that is what you'll be doing from here until eternity":  I think some might look at this statement and find it demotivating.  After all, there's something about looking at a life of hustle that is akin to looking at a treadmill with no end of the road in sight.  But I see this differently.  Ultimately, life is about hard work, and that never really goes away.  If you learn to do the work---be thorough, pace yourself, know how to prioritize, know when to say no, know how to go after opportunities, know that no return comes without investment---then the work doesn't seem so daunting.  Learn how to do the work right.
  • "You  might be judging me but that's not any of my business---you do what you like and I'll do the same": You'll find soon enough that the world is full of judgement---I'm always ashamed when I find myself on the giving end. I know from being on the receiving end, that often that judgement stings.  I found this young artist's perspective so touching when she openly acknowledged her awareness of people's judgement and her gracious, character building way of disregarding it---she regards judgement as the problem of the person giving it, not the person receiving it.  Have faith in who you are as a person---don't be defined by the judgement of others.
  • "It's better to be disliked for who you are, than to be liked for someone people only think you are": It is so easy to get caught up in who we think we should be based on what others think we should be.  You'll know when you're doing it because you don't quite feel yourself, because you always have this nagging feeling of being left behind, and because you only feel that you're moving ahead when others give you permission to. . . look for those signs.  You won't want to admit them but trying to be someone else will eventually wear you out and wear you down---it's better to be known for who you really are, even if it comes at the cost of admitting who you are not.
  • "I stopped comparing myself to others when I realized I was comparing my insides to other people's outsides": It's tempting to compare.  And if we're insecure, it can even be addictive.  But when we do, we know our full gifts and limitations but we don't necessarily see the full picture with others.  We don't know what's going on behind the scenes and we only see part of the picture (which incidentally is what we want to see).  It can only make you feel bad about yourself since a comparison is, in that sense, ultimately unfair.
  • "Your success is built on incremental growth, and sometimes, every once in a while, magic might happen": I thought this was a tremendous insight and can be applied to nearly any project.  With information coming at us quicker and quicker, we might see the success of others and think it came to them overnight.  Every once  in a while that might be the case, but I assure you that it is extremely rare.  Most people have been working at their dreams and talents for years if not a lifetime, and for most people, success comes in small increments at a time.  Every so often, we're gifted a bit of magic - perhaps a collaboration, or flattering press, or some other injection that gives us some accelerated growth.  But that wouldn't happen without our foundational increments to support us.  When it seems like your due will never come, just keep working---the more solid your foundation, the longer your success will ultimately hold.

I know your successes will be many in this world, and I, for one, can't wait to see you achieve them.

All my love,

Mom

Emotional Montage

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I am working on an animated trailer for Jen Larsen’s memoir, Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head (being released in February by Seal Press). The script for the animation is the introduction to the book, which outlines a series of the author’s strange, hilarious, heartbreaking self-“improvement” fantasies. The first few are described so visually that the stage directions were basically written for me. But the penultimate fantasy is about an emotional transformation, in which the character becomes the kind of person she wants to be—warm, happy, wise, etc. To show her emotional transformation, I wanted to have the character enter a magical world. I decided on a woodland scene, starting out with the character standing next to some trees, looking glum. Then she stretches out her arms, the trees bear fruit, and she becomes friends with some deer. I thought this might be stupidly sweet in a way that would fit with the self-aware, funny, sad tone of the writing. But something bothered me.

I set the cut-outs aside for a day and thought about this scene—and realized that it wasn’t specific enough. In the rest of the animation, the imagery consists of everyday objects depicted in unusual scenarios. Almost every object is based on something I’ve seen in real life: my favorite coffee cup, my grandmother’s armchair, the funeral home near my house. The trees and deer in the woodland scene were not drawn from memories of real trees or deer, but from images in fairy tales.

That’s when I decided I wanted to make a montage of ordinary actions. Instead of changing the setting, I would change the perspective. I would show the character engaged in one domestic activity after another, using the trope of a montage to tenderly poke fun at the idea that it's possible to become perfect.

I love montages. I love how sentimental they are, and how they depict almost nothing of how time passes, but so much of how it feels to look back on things. I wonder how our ability to instantly “montage” our own lives through social media affects our way of thinking about things. I have a love-hate relationship with those perfectly Instagrammable moments—the well-plated, locally-sourced dinner; the perfect mid-day latte; the urban mason jar—you know what I mean.

I think that my issue has to do with making personal happiness a consumer item. This surely isn’t a new thing. Instagram didn’t invent bragging. When we don’t have something, we can become consumed with wanting it. When we get it, we know that our lives our still as complicated as before, and yet it is easy to fall prey to the allure of making ourselves appear simple now that we’ve gotten this (socially-acceptable) thing.

Stranger Here is about being unhappy and thinking it’s because of one thing, and then finding out that when that thing changes, the feelings don’t really change. There’s a quote I read (on Facebook, naturally) that goes something like, “Don’t judge yourself, because you’re always comparing your blooper reel to someone else’s highlight reel.” But much of the time, we put our highlight reel out into the world as the official storyline. And maybe that is inevitable when we are communicating in such short bursts. I'm not anti-Social-Media, but I am curious how, over time, the forms of communication we use might change the way we perceive the world, and ourselves. I think that’s why it is so important to also share longer, complicated narratives that aren’t all good or all bad, but are nuanced and ambivalent. They help us read between the lines of the 140 characters.

Two weeks from now, I will post the completed trailer. Hopefully, the guy doing the soundtrack will have come up with some sweet montage music.

Molly's previous pieces on process can be found here.

You should sell that

I’ve been reading Etsy’s “Quit Your Day Job” series since my senior year of college. Although I didn’t have a full-time job, something about the mystery of the “alternative” career path held my attention. I graduated in 2009 with the inaugural class of recession babies, and like many in my cohort, I went to grad school with the hope of staying out of the tanking job market for just a few more years. I wasn’t exactly sure where my studies would take me, or how I’d make a living after another round of coursework, but I was fascinated, albeit terrified, by the upheaval that seemed to be taking place in the hierarchy of professions. While many were devastated by layoffs and cutbacks, it seemed that every corner of the internet was highlighting another creative entrepreneur who had left her “safe” day job to make a living through her art.

As jobs that had once been considered stable became obsolete, creative professions and other more “risky” pursuits were being thrust into the spotlight. What once seemed risky came to be viewed as self-sufficient, as less traditional paths began to redefine success and professional freedom.

Part of why I’m obsessed with reading all of those quit-your-day-job stories and interviews with full-time bloggers and creative professionals, is not that I want to do what they do, necessarily, but rather that their trailblazing inspires a bit of confidence in my own choices as I find my way in a new professional landscape.

One of the downsides of the greater visibility of creative professions, however, is the “You should sell that” mentality, otherwise known as the death of the hobby. It’s the idea that every handmade gift or creative passion is the seed for a money-making venture. It’s the sense that your art is not legitimate if you’re not selling it, or that you’re not a real writer if you don’t make a living through your writing.

For my own part, I admire those who make a living through their art, as well as those who are creating beyond business hours. There are as many ways to practice creativity as there are creators, and I think it’s so important to honor them all. As I juggle multiple roles, all under the umbrella of words-on-paper and words-on-screen, I am especially inspired by those whose creative integrity infuses all of their work, whether it takes place in an office or a studio, whether for love, leisure, or livelihood.

Whole worlds

Two volumes, four books, 2724 pages, hundreds of high-quality illustrations. These are the stats for The History of Cartography, an encyclopedic tome published by The University of Chicago Press between 1987 and 1998. The volumes are still available for purchase, but they are now also available for download as a series of PDFs, because, as the publisher’s site explains, much has changed since this work began:

“In 1987 the worldwide web did not exist, and since 1998 book publishing has gone through a revolution in the production and dissemination of work. Although the large format and high quality image reproduction of the printed books are still well-suited to the requirements for the publishing of maps, the online availability of material is a boon to scholars and map enthusiasts.”

Things like this rarely happen these days, as we have generally given up on trying to contain the whole world between two covers. And this is certainly for the best, since a conversation about the history of anything can only benefit from more voices than one book, or one series of books, can contain.

But what struck me most when I came upon this work, which was published between the time I was born and the time I went to middle school, is the sort of sustained attention it must have required. Although it includes the work of multiple contributors and editors, it’s hard for me to imagine the kind of commitment and hard work that brings such a project to life over the course of more than a decade.

Since offering up my New Year’s resolution to finish what I’ve started, several friends have asked me why and wondered what I really meant. Does it mean I have to finish every book I start, even if it turns out I really don’t like it? Does it mean I have to finish a faltering project, even if it seems doomed? Of course not.

What I really meant is that I’d like to move beyond the wonder of beginnings. I love beginnings. I love the excitement of brainstorming ideas and the hope and optimism that comes with getting started. But after the thrill of beginning wears off, the middle is much less glamorous. It requires simply showing up and doing the work, or “being boring,” as Austin Kleon says in Steal Like an Artist.

Endings, too, can be a challenge. Whether it’s finishing Moby Dick or sending a long-term project out into the world, endings require a sort of reckoning between what you’d hoped for and what really came to be. Sometimes things turn out better than expected, sometimes worse, but an ending is almost always different from what you imagined when you began.

As I set out to finish what I’ve started, in small and perhaps increasingly bigger ways, my intention is simply to embrace all of the middles and ends that are required, just like beginnings, to make things happen.

Resisting Autopilot

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The other day, I heard an interview on NPR with David Esterly, a master woodcarver who just came out with a book, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. He talked about what he believes are the two halves of creativity: one half consists of coming up with ideas and planning things out; the other half exists within the making itself. This second half (his favorite), is a spontaneous, intuitive relationship with the process—responding to the materials and adapting mistakes into solutions. I had the radio on while I worked on a cut-out for an animation I am making. I usually have something on for background noise, except when I’m drawing, because I always think of drawing as the hard part. Once the drawing is done, the pressure is off and the radio (or podcast) comes on.

I draw on yellow tracing paper, which I flip over and transfer onto a piece of medium-weight black paper. I used to draw directly onto the back of the black paper (and occasionally still do), but the cut-outs always come out messier that way, and when I’m using multiple colors, it becomes hard to line them up correctly without a master drawing. The trade-off is that the immediacy of the line is lost with all the tracing that goes on. As I sat, cutting out along my prescribed, traced lines, listening to Esterly talk, I wondered, am I really doing anything creative right now?

The weird thing about getting good at something and developing a neat little personalized system is that it makes it easy to go on autopilot.

As part of me listened to the radio, another part of me started thinking more about what I was doing. Though the drawing is there as a guide, there are numerous subtle decisions to make as I cut. Most of the time, I don’t really make these decisions, but let them happen automatically. The cut-outs come out just fine. But this time, I really thought about what I was doing—How thick should this line be? Should this small gap be left black or cut away? Shouldn’t these lines be more parallel?

I think that the sum of all these tiny nuanced decisions shows in the finished product. There is a tension in the lines that makes it feel more alive. And focusing my attention that way made me feel more alive, too.

In her book Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg talks about how creative acts can be a form of meditation. Sometimes when I am making a cut-out I am impatient, just wanting to get it done and see what it looks like. But sometimes, like this time, I go deep into it. Time passes differently, the way it does when I play with an animal, or really listen to music. I really experience what I am doing; I experience the uncertainty of being alive.

To listen to the David Esterly interview, go here: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/06/168632372/re-creating-the-lost-carving-of-an-english-genius

You can see more of my work here: http://mollymcintyre.com/

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading sibyl

By Sibyl Perhaps you read my column the other week about diving in to the creative life and were intrigued, but need an extra push of inspiration.  Or maybe you are already engaged in art-making pursuits of some kind, and could use some encouragement for your efforts.  Either way, read on for Sibyl’s picks for what to read offline to spark your creativity until you positively surge with it.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger For an entire decade, I read this book yearly, usually in a single sitting on a rainy evening, pacing around my apartment saying the words aloud to myself in a very low voice, or curled up in an ancient armchair with all the stuffing showing.

This book sees all your neuroses and lets you keep them.  The story and the characters wind their way around your fears about the selfishness of the creative life versus the selflessness of the religious life, and sews a protective cloak around them.  It reminds you that if nothing else, you need to do it for the Fat Lady.

Letters To a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke This slender missive was first given to me at the tender age of 19 by my favorite older cousin, who had just quit her life on one side of the country and travelled to the other on a wing and a prayer, following her creative whims.  It sometimes gets flack for being exclusionary (he makes the argument at one point that you are only an artist if you NEED to be, can do nothing else, which is obviously a bit dangerously black-and-white), but what I love about this book most is that it upholds difficulty.  Rilke asserts, again and again, that if you are finding adversity, you are doing it right.  He instructs the young art-maker to trust his sadnesses, seek out the important, serious struggles and try not to judge the outcomes.  Great advice for those days when you inevitably feel like if it’s too hard, you should just pack it in.

Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg Technically, this book is geared towards writers, and there are excellent writing prompts at the end of every chapter. However, there is tons of advice that is good for any artist seeking to find practical ways to loosen up and find the freedom to create.  Goldberg advocates for creating from instinct, and writes about all the ways we clog up our first impulses, with suggestions for how to remove those barriers to vibrant creation.  She also argues for committing to a specific arts practice rather than allowing yourself to get preoccupied with fifty different things.  Since I am a firm believer that commitment, even if you fail fully at it, always leads to depth, I love her application of this to the creative life.

The books that I have suggested in this column have one thing in common: they are all short.  The last thing you need is a huge engrossing tome that allows you to avoid creating.  Read, get inspired, then put the book down and make something! The more of yourself you put into it, the more uniquely powerful it will be.

Sometimes, visual imagery inspires like nothing else.  Therefore, here are three companion documentaries to go with this reading list:

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (2001) When I had a newborn, I watched endless documentaries about artists, yearning for the time when I would have a baby off my boob and be able to go back out into the world to create.  It was actually a lovely time of incubation and learning, and I discovered Rivers and Tides in that period.  I think I watched it over and over for an entire week, whenever my baby was feeding.

The pace of it is enchanting, as Goldsworthy is followed over a year of his work, which takes him all over the world creating ephemeral sculptures out of natural materials.  The most evocative piece for me was that the way Goldsworthy works makes him face failure on a daily basis.  This is something that is absolutely imperative for an artist: to become so familiar with failure that while it is devastating every time it happens, you learn to trust it, to use those mistakes for even greater works of artistry.

Who Does She Think She Is? (2008) Watching this documentary, which follows several female artists as they struggle to create in the midst of mothering, is an inspiring experience.  The personal stories are interspersed with astonishing facts about the lack of representation of women, and particularly mothers, in the art world.  Seeing these women have the courage to create when everyone said they were selfish, unrealistic, and irrelevant was incredibly empowering to me.  My favorite was a ridiculously talented sculptor who has FIVE children, and does her art-making during naps and after bedtime.  This documentary would really be interesting to anyone, not just mothers, because you'll find yourself saying, "If she can do it, with a baby on her hip, and one pulling on her leg, so can I!"

1991: The Year Punk Broke  (1992) In the summer of 1991 the seminal noise-rock band Sonic Youth invited filmmaker David Markey along on a two week summer festival tour of Europe, with their little-known opening band, Nirvana.  The result, a documentary that will rock your face off, was playing on repeat in my buddy Ben's basement for most of our teenage years.  To be fair, I have not re-watched this since about 1997, so I'm going on hormone-fueled memory here.

I'm a little afraid to re-visit it, actually, since doing so sent artist Andrew Kuo into such a tailspin that he was forced to ask, in graphic form, "Wait, did punk ruin my life?"  If it did, I don't want to know.  Maybe you weren't a baby punk in the 90's who swore she saw God when Sonic Youth's guitars sustained a single note of noise, creating a wall of discordant sounds around you for minutes at a time, but if you fancy my Sibyl columns I think that baby punk might live within you, without you even knowing it.  Watch this doc and let the manic expression and vibrant fury of these bands stir in you the desire to smash the world with your art.

 

 

Barbie and the Blonde Normative

strong female characters

While shopping for Christmas presents for the young children in my life, I was able to get reacquainted with the toy aisle, with all the nostalgia and wonder that entails. It’s a feeling akin to what happens when I step inside my childhood closet, still so snugly preserved in my room at my parents’ house, which overflows with shelves of vintage Barbies, Littlest Pet Shops, Polly Pockets, trolls, stuffed Disney characters, and Happy Meal toys of yore.

The kid part of me rejoiced in the possibility of the toys and was immediately drawn to all those that are obviously aimed at the female gender. The social critic in me, however, registered shock at the sheer catastrophe of gender and racial normativity that the American toy aisle promotes (i.e., the marketing aimed at boys vs. girls; the way dolls default to white, blonde, straight-haired, blue-eyed). This caused me to reevaluate my own historical relationship with toys and the ways in which toys shape our understanding of the world from a very young age---and what, potentially, could be addressed to improve them in the future.

Take Barbie and her absurdly voluptuous figure which, achieved in a human, would probably point to severe physiological abnormalities and health problems. Incidentally, when Barbie appeared on the toy scene in 1959, many mothers were indignant about her “sexy” image. But despite this she went on to become the standard-bearer of dolls for the next half-century because Mattel understood that little girls often like to think forward, to what they aspire to be when they get older; and Barbie’s body, distorted as it may be, represents our society's ultimate feminine beauty ideal. Also-- while Barbie has brunette, redheaded, and minority friends, the woman herself is always as white, blond, and blue-eyed as her legs are long.

My own Barbie drawer, by the way, overflowed with blondes. I had roughly forty Barbies with an approximate demographic breakdown of 96% Caucasian, of which 96% were blonde. A good portion of the non-blondes (and non-whites, for that matter) were Disney characters---Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle and Ariel. Other non-blondes included a Hawaiian doll and a 1996 Olympic gymnast that I named Dominique in honor of Ms. Dawes. A rainbow coalition it was not. More likely, it was probably a contributing factor to an early childhood desire to be blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and blonde.

A slightly more inclusive and educational doll franchise is the American Girl line, which features tweenish girl characters of diverse backgrounds from important periods in American history. Each doll comes with multiple cultural outfits and her own series of books. Of course, most of the characters are white and a good number are blonde, but there is an effort at representation of minority backgrounds, most notably in characters like Addy, Kaya, and Josefina.

However, these characters’ stories don’t necessarily do much to present complexity to minority stories: Addy is a runaway slave, and one of Kaya’s playsets is a horse, saddle, and tepee. While there are definite positive efforts going on here, it would be great to be presented from time to time with minority characters who aren’t merely historical and tied to a mythic essential identity---instead, maybe breaking with tradition by having a Native American girl living in the 1970s, a black girl living during World War II, and giving children of color someone to identify with in the now (or relatively now)---which, unlike white children, they often don’t have readily available.

(A possible response to the minority doll question: American Girl’s popular “design-your-own-doll” feature, which encourages girls to choose the hair color, skin color, eye color, and facial features of their doll to ostensibly resemble themselves.)

And while we're on the normativity train, lest we forget that the toy industry also has the teensiest tendency to reify gender categories and designate which types of toys boys and girls “should” want to play with, usually tying into concepts with wider implications like respective household roles, occupations, and standards of appearance. So few playthings for the over-4 set are gender neutral---really, the marketing of toys is probably one of the earliest socialization experiences we have, when it comes to gender traits and aspirations. More could be said on this, but I think this kid kind of sums it up.

I'm wondering if the upcoming gender neutral EZ Bake Oven is a sign o' the changing times? Or a testament to the power of the individual to contest the deeply-entrenched normative stereotypes in the toy industry?