Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

23 APRIL, 2014

Upside Down Day: Rare and Wonderful Vintage Children’s Book by the Head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office

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An ode to those times when everything seems backwards.

In 1968, less than a year before the iconic NASA moon landing, a charming children’s book titled Upside Down Day (public library) made its debut. What made it special weren’t just the vibrant illustrations by artist Kelly Oechsli, but that it was written by Julian Scheer — the head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office, responsible for enchanting Americans with the space program. There is something immeasurably wonderful about knowing that the person in charge of tickling the public imagination into embracing the pursuit of space exploration — a pursuit subject to tragic neglect today — was himself an imaginative storyteller who knew how to inhabit that delicate intersection of whimsy and irreverence.

Given Scheer’s background, it is quite likely that the story of a day where nothing works as expected was inspired by and teases children into considering the physics of space, which pays no heed to earthly expectations — from the way gravity warps the notions of up and down to the soundlessness of space, which makes the mooing of cows and the ring of a bell inaudible amid the cosmic ether.

Julian Scheer (left) and Kelly Oechsli

Though the book, sadly, rests in the cemetery of out-of-print vintage gems, I was able to hunt down a copy — here is a peek inside for our shared delight:

Should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, Upside Down Day is a treat well worth the hunt. Complement it with Weight and Weightlessness, another spacetastic illustrated gem from the same era, and the story of how Scheer and his team marketed the moon.

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18 APRIL, 2014

Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit

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A beautiful illustrated celebration of women’s journey toward creative freedom and mobility.

Amid a children’s book ecosystem marked by a lamentable lack of ethnic diversity and gobsmacking presence of female protagonists in only 31% of books, here comes Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit (public library) — a heartening antidote from the young artist-storyteller Amrita Das and Tara Books, the remarkable Indian independent publisher who for the past two decades has been giving voice to marginalized storytelling through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on Indian folk traditions.

Das’s story is both semi-autobiographical and universal, a celebration of the “sliver of chance” that came her way and catapulted her into a life of creative independence, the same serendipitous happenstance that every so often makes life so strange and wonderful for each of us.

A young girl leaves her tiny village and goes to the town of Chennai to learn art. On the train, she meets another girl from a poor family and in her eyes she sees not only her own story, but the wider story of what it means for a girl to blossom into a woman’s life, free to make her own choices and speak for herself in a culture where women are routinely spoken for.

Das’s gorgeous artwork is based on the Mithila tradition — the same folk art style that gave us the superb Waterlife — but subverts it to unusual ends for a result that is both radical and respectful of its cultural heritage. Sometimes symbolic, sometimes humorous, sometimes imbued with metaphoric commentary on culture, her drawings become succinct visual epiphanies that explore the boundary between the known and the unknown, the given and the earned.

From the tangle of train tracks to the commuter chaos of the city street, Das’s drawings extend beautiful and poignant visual metaphors for the plight of mobility amid social conventions designed to keep women static.

The poor do have pride. They don’t ask, and they have nothing to offer in return.

In an inquiry pursued more directly in the wonderful Drawing from the City, Das also explores what it means to be a young, independent woman in the city. And though the specificity of the narrative weds it to the context of Indian culture, implicit to it is the broader question of what it means to be a member of a marginalized group — any marginalized group — in a mainstream society designed to limit your options and oppress your opportunities for self-actualization.

A girl’s life is hard, especially if you’re cursed to be poor. It’s gone even before you start on it. There’s all the work, but even more than being tied to these endless tasks, it’s the mean and hurtful way people speak to you.

If you dream for a moment, you’re asked why you’re twiddling your thumbs.

You’re not supposed to want anything, let alone allow your heart or your self to travel. No one lets you forget that you’re born a girl, not a boy.

Freedom. What does that word mean to us?

Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit is impossibly wonderful from cover to cover, both as an aesthetic experience and an emotional journey. For more of Tara’s treasures, see The Night Life of Trees, a breathtaking handmade homage to Indian mythology, Waterlife, a collection of exquisite illustrations of marine creatures inspired by Indian folklore, and I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, a Victorian “trick-poem” illustrated with stunning die-cut Indian art.

Images courtesy of Tara Books

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17 APRIL, 2014

Posterity Is Stupid: 19-Year-Old Italo Calvino on Living with Integrity and How to Assert Yourself

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“Asserting oneself … doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours.”

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off,” Italo Calvino observed in one of his 14 definitions of what makes a classic. But while these were directed at literature, can a life be a classic, in how it is lived and what “pulviscular cloud” of cultural discourse it leaves behind? If there ever was a life imbued with a resounding “yes,” it’s Calvino’s own, and this is something he himself addresses implicitly, with equal parts wisdom and irreverent wit, in a letter to his friend Eugenio Scalfari from March 7, 1942, found in the altogether fantastic Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, his thoughts on America, and his wonderfully timeless New Year’s resolution. At the time of his letter to Scalfari, young Calvino was taking his second year of studies at the University of Turin, where his father had previously taught courses in agronomy, following in his family’s footsteps and pursuing a degree in agriculture. After the war, he would eventually return to university, abandoning agriculture and turning toward a degree in the arts shortly before immersing himself in the literary world.

After noting what joy it is “to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel” — an observation bittersweet in our age of short-form instantaneous drivel — 19-year-old Calvino launches into an extended meditation on life and legacy:

When will you stop pronouncing in my presence phrases such as “all methods are fine as long as you succeed,” or “follow the current,” or “adapt to the times”? What do you mean by “adapting to the times”? Are these the ideas of a young man who ought to face life with pureness of intentions and clarity of ideals? And then you think you can claim to have understood me, to have taken me as a model? No, that deluded youth of Via Bogino, the prisoner of his dreams in Villa Meridiana does not think along those lines. A different heart beats beneath the pigeon chest of the cloud-catcher of San Giovanni. [Ed: The Calvino’s family home was the Villa Meridiana in San Remo, and they also had land in the countryside in the village of San Giovanni.] Asserting oneself — he says — doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours. And it is precisely in that that my certainty lies: this something does not represent today, it represents tomorrow. And it is this something that I want to assert, not italocalvino; italocalvino will die and won’t serve any purpose any more; the something will remain and will provide good seed.

He then chastises Scalfari for the all too human folly of fetishizing one’s own ideas:

Every idea you have, you become a fetishist of it, you think it’s the greatest and most original idea that any human mind ever had, you turn it into a philosophy of life and bore the backside off your friends. But you’re also a well-meaning sort, and you’ll be happy because you see the world only as you like to see it.

Even though he wasn’t yet a writer, Calvino considers his own vanity with the classic writerly blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation:

I accepted the praise you gave me at the start of your letter with barely restrained grunts of satisfaction. Although I am small, ugly and dirty, I am highly ambitious and at the slightest flattery I immediately start to strut like a turkey.

He adds a poignant reflection on our inescapable illusion of uniqueness, a special kind of human vanity:

This thought has always filled me with terror: that I might be one of those people, that I might be only one of those people. And if I have decided to be merely a modest agronomist this was not just because my family’s destiny forbade me the contemplative life, but also and principally because I was terrified by the thought of one day meeting a crowd of people like me, each one convinced that he and only he was a genius. Up here in Turin I know only students of agriculture, medicine, engineering, chemistry: all good guys who are thinking about getting a job, without a head full of nonsense, no mirages of glory, often without much intelligence. And as far as they are concerned, I am one of them: no one knows who italocalvino is, who he wanted or wants to be. With these people there is little talk of dreams and the future, though they too certainly think about such things.

And yet, a writer among agronomists — his “pigeon-chest” full of uncontainable ambition for eagleness in an aviary designed for pragmatic postal pigeons — young Calvino makes it clear where his stake is to be planted in the spectrum from realism to idealism:

Apart from the fact that the literary or pseudo-literary world has always aroused a certain dislike in me, for me it would only be discouraging. But instead, living like this, I feel happy in the knowledge that I am different from those around me, that I see things with a different eye to theirs, that I know how to appreciate or suffer from the world in my own way. And I feel myself superior. I prefer being the obscure, isolated figure hoping for the victory that will see his name on everyone’s lips rather than being one of the pack just following the destiny of a group. And you certainly can’t say that this kind of behavior of mine is accommodating. I may be accommodating in life, I’ll let myself be carried away passively in the course of my actions, but I will not prostitute my art.

The following day, March 8, he takes up the unfinished letter and adds before changing the subject:

I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:

POSTERITY IS STUPID

Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!

And yet, stupid as we may be, it’s hard not to appreciate Calvino’s crystalline self-awareness and deep insight into the human soul, even in this concluding attempt at a disclaimer. No amount of self-deprecation can ever blunt a mind this sharp or dim a spirit this luminous.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is a remarkably rich read, a ruffle of layer upon layer of appreciation for Calvino’s singular person and persona. Sample it further with more of his wisdom on writing and the meaning of human life.

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