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03 MARCH, 2014

An Illustrated Field Guide to Mythic Monsters, from Gremlins to Zombies to the Kraken

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A vibrant dance across the global spectrum of the popular imagination.

“Legendary lands … have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief,” Umberto Eco wrote in his illustrated meditation on imaginary places. But as much as fictional lands might hold enduring allure, what captivates our shared imagination even more are the fictional and mythic creatures of our cultural folklore, both ancient and modern. That’s precisely what writer Davide Cali and illustrator Gabriela Giandelli explore in Monsters and Legends (public library) — a vibrant and whimsical volume from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic expedition. From mermaids and unicorns to Cyclops and giant squid to vampires and zombies, Giandelli’s breathtaking illustrations and Cali’s illuminating stories about the origin of each mythic creature bring to life the beings that haunt our collective conscience, as well as those we secretly fear — or hope — exist in some mystical corner of what we concede is reality.

The Mapiguari

In South America, we meet the stinky Mapiguari, a giant nocturnal animal with long arms and claws, the skin of a reptile, and bright red hair, believed to roam the Amazon jungle. Legend has it, the creature avoids water, which might account for its smell. Some locals and other believers think it’s a giant sloth — a species that disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. Skeptics, meanwhile, consider it the mistaken mashup of a regular sloth and an armadillo, which terrified nighttime travelers in the jungle somehow remixed in their frightful imagination.

The Dragon

But one of the most common species-mashups is the dragon, a mythic being that appears in various incarnations in many cultures, with powers ranging from the destructive to the divine.

In every culture, there is a creature resembling a Dragon. It often appears as a symbol of life and power, a creative or protective spirit closer to a god than an actual animal. That’s certainly true in the case of Huang Long in Chinese mythology, or Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs’ feathered serpent.

Commonly depicted with a snake’s body, lizard’s legs, eagle’s talons, crocodile’s jaws, lion’s teeth and bat-like wings, the Dragon is a combination of several different animals. Among the Dragon’s many portrayals is the Hydra of Greek mythology — a vicious sea monster with seven heads. Two of the most famous Hydras are the Lernaean Hydra, which was killed by Hercules, and Scylla, which was rumored to live in the depths of the strait in Messina.

Gustave

In Africa, we find a legendary 20-foot-long Nile Crocodile that haunted Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, for years. Named Gustave by the locals and alleged to have eaten at least 300 people, the giant croc lived for sixty years and survived countless capture attempts, until hunters managed to slay him in 2005. Once measured, Gustave turned out to be just a regular Nile Crocodile, 13 feet long — not that unusual for a species that can grow up to 16 feet in length.

In the same region, the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe awaits us:

The Mokele-Mbembe

800 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is a vast, swampy area where rumors tell of a frightening creature — the Mokele-mbembe. Described for the first time by a French missionary in the 18th century, he claimed the Mokele-mbembe was as big as an elephant, with a small snake-like head, a 2 to 3 meter long neck, hippopotamus feet and a crocodile tail.

The description sounds remarkably similar to the Sauropods, a group of animals that disappeared 65.5 million years ago! From 1913 onwards, expeditions set out in search of the Mokele-mbembe. But they returned with little more than a few pictures and some vague footage. According to some theories the Mokele-mbembe might be an unknown species of monitor lizard.

Others say it’s a softshell turtle whose long neck, small head and aggressive attitude match the description of the monster. The softshell turtle isn’t as big as the legendary Mokele-mbembe but skeptics still argue that it is possible that Pygmies, terrified of an animal that they didn’t know, got the measurements wrong. They claim that this situation is far more likely to be the case than that a dinosaur is living quietly in Africa without anybody ever having taken its picture.

Then comes a mythic creature that has enjoyed a resurgence as a visual meme of the social-web era:

The Kraken

The Kraken is a gigantic legendary sea monster. Its name comes from the Norwegian word krake, meaning “a twisted or crooked animal.” The origin of the Kraken myth goes back to the 13th century, but it’s not until the 18th and 19th centuries that sailor stories about the Kraken really start multiplying! Stories were told of ships being attacked and destroyed by a creature with tentacles over a kilometer long. Carl Linnaeus … mentioned the Kraken in his first book in 1735, under the scientific name of Microcosmus marinus, but it doesn’t appear in his following books, as he couldn’t prove its existence.

Roald Dahl's Gremlins

One of the most charming entries highlights a tiny mischievous creature from Irish folklore, the Gremlin, brought back into the popular imagination by beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl. In 1942, long before he made a name for himself with this children’s stories, Dahl was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber. A mechanical malfunction on one of his flights resulted in a forced landing, after which Dahl took it upon himself to inform the unsuspecting public that Gremlins had been terrorizing the Royal Air Force for months — pilots had created their own folklore, blaming the legendary creatures for the high rate of breakdowns. The myth, of course, was just a sandbox for Dahl’s imagination as a storyteller — the following year, he published The Gremlins, his first children’s book.

The Chupacabra

As we move closer to the present day, we meet the Chupacabra, a creature that preys on chickens and goats, named after the Spanish for “goat sucker.” Witness accounts from Latin America and Florida describe it as a hairless kangaroo with the head of a dog, which acts like a vampire coyote that sucks its prey dry of blood. Some suspect it was the progeny of genetic experiments, while others abandon all attempts at plausibility and say it came from outer space. The Chupacabra is also believed to possess several paranormal superpowers, such as the ability to change color and hypnotize its prey via telepathy.

Mythic as this sounds, certain species of real animals have recently been found to employ a kind of “mind control” over their prey — perhaps proof that all myth, including religion, for that matter, is a tapestry woven of our greatest immaterial fears and hopes, with a few threats of material reality.

Indeed, Cali takes care to balance the mythology with a healthy dose of myth-busting that would make Carl Sagan proud. Each myth is followed by a “What We Know” section that grounds us with reality-based evidence:

The videos of the Chupacabra, often blurry and hard to follow, and the pictures, usually faked, don’t help much with identifying the creature. But if you trust the descriptions, the Chupacabra looks a lot like a rare species of Mexican hairless dog called Xoloitzcuintle.

DNA tests on dead specimens have proven that it is an ordinary dog with nothing extraterrestrial about it at all.

And of course no taxonomy of modern folklore would be complete without everyone’s favorite pop culture meme:

The Zombie

Zombies, or Walking Dead, [are] regular actors in horror movies… But Zombie stories, like Werewolf stories or Vampire stories, have their roots in reality. Well, almost… In Haiti people practice a religion called Voodoo that holds magic and superstition in high regard. It is thought that a Bokor — a Voodoo sorcerer — can steal someone’s soul, wake him or her from the death and turn them into a slave — a Zombie.

Cali once again contrasts the myth with the empirical evidence:

A study conducted in the 1980s found that the Bokor probably controlled people using a neurotoxin created from the poison of the fugu, a type of pufferfish. The neurotoxin causes a state of apparent death and the supposed complete obedience of the “exhumed corpse.” In reality, Zombies are just drugged slaves forced to work in sugar plantations. Obedient workers that never go on strike!

Monsters and Legends is bound to tickle the imagination and poke a friendly stick at superstition, all while enchanting us with irresistibly gorgeous illustrations. For a different octave of the siren song of the mythic, complement it with Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands and Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most bizarre and beautiful encyclopedia of the imaginary.

Images courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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28 FEBRUARY, 2014

Advice from Artists on How to Overcome Creative Block, Handle Criticism, and Nurture Your Sense of Self-Worth

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Mastering the balance of restriction and imaginative play, or why unbridling your self-worth from your professional success is essential for happiness.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. But true as this general sentiment may be, it isn’t always an easy or a livable truth — most creative people do get stuck every once in a while, or at the very least hit the OK plateau. What then?

Not too long ago, Alex Cornell rallied some of our time’s most celebrated artists, writers, and designers, and asked them to share their strategies for overcoming creative block. Now comes Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists (public library) — a lavishly illustrated compendium at once very similar in spirit and sufficiently different in execution, in which Danielle Krysa, better-known as The Jealous Curator, asks artists from around the world working in various media to crack open the vault of their unconscious and explore the darkest elements of the creative process, from overcoming idea-stagnation to dealing with both self-criticism and external naysayers. In addition to sharing their broader thoughts on the demons and rewards of creativity, each artist also offers one specific block-busting exercise — a “Creative Unblock Project” — to try the next time you feel stuck.

But what makes the project particularly noteworthy is that while it features reflections from visual artists, most of their insights apply just as usefully to other creative endeavors, from writing and to entrepreneurship to, even, science.

Trey Speegle

One of the recurring themes in dealing with creative block, which a number of the artists articulate, has to do with mastering the right balance between freedom and constraint. Mixed-media artist Trey Speegle puts it perfectly:

You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.

Aris Moore

Multidisciplinary artist Aris Moore observes:

When I am stuck … I just search for excitement, but not too hard. It is when I find myself playing more than trying that I find my way out of a block.

Lisa Golightly

Painter Lisa Golightly adds:

I give myself permission to just make for the sake of making without any thought to the outcome, which can be surprisingly hard. … What I would tell my younger self is this: There is no “right” way to make art. The only wrong is in not trying, not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there — just get to work and make something.

Lisa Congdon

The wonderful Lisa Congdon — with whom I’ve collaborated for some time — offers a “Creative Unblock Project” to explore that interplay between structure and imaginative play:

Choose one thing you love to draw or paint (and feel comfortable drawing or painting) already: an animal, object, a person, whatever. For thirty days, draw or paint that thing thirty different ways, a different way every day. You can use different mediums, expressions, positions, colors, whatever. Each day, push yourself to do something much different than the day before, but keep the subject the same. See how keeping one element constant (in this case, the “thing” you love to draw or paint) can allow you to break out creatively in other ways.

Ben Skinner

Many artists also emphasize the importance of stepping away from the work when feeling stuck — a strategy that makes sense, given how crucial the unconscious processing stage of the creative process is. Multidisciplinary artist Ben Skinner captures this:

I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me.

Ashley Goldberg

And then there’s the Buddhist-like approach of just letting the block happen rather than resisting it feverishly or grasping after an immediate resolution. Illustrator Ashley Goldberg reflects:

If it is a bigger creative block, I try to ride it out and just let it happen. I will still draw, but most pieces will end up in the trash, and that’s OK. I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.

When asked to contrast the state of creative block with its opposite, most artists describe some version of what psychologists call “flow”. Collage and mixed media artist Anthony Zinonos describes that optimal state:

I have total clarity and nothing but great ideas bubble up in my head. It’s like being on a creative high; you’re on top the world and work seems to be just pouring out of you.

Mary Kate McDevitt

Hand-lettering artist Mary Kate McDevitt shares a similar experience:

I could be working without headphones, with someone right next to me trying to get my attention, and I am completely oblivious to anything but the task at hand… One minute it’s 8 p.m., the next minute I’ve finished my project and it’s 3 a.m. That’s pretty magical.

Ashley Percival

Illustrator Ashley Percival echoes:

I don’t want the day to end, because I need to be creative forever! Sometimes I forget to eat, then I realize that I must move from my desk—so I make breakfast at two in the afternoon.

Sydney Pink

And yet this state of “flow” isn’t the same thing as the mythic divine inspiration. Illustrator Sydney Pink captures this perfectly:

The idea of divine inspiration and an aha moment is largely a fantasy. Anything of value comes from hard work and unwavering dedication. If you want to be a good artist you need to look at other artists, make a lot of crappy art, and just keep working.

But the most powerful part deals with the darkest underbelly of the creative life — criticism. Some artists, like painter Amanda Happé, turn a deaf ear to naysayers and focus on satisfying their own soul instead:

It’s one of the most beautiful things about doing this — you don’t have to care. No one gets to have their say and have it stick. No one can wrestle the pencil out of your hand. You get to keep going in absolute defiance.

Ashley Percival puts it even more simply:

You can’t please everyone — people will have art that they like and dislike — the main thing is that you as an artist are happy with your work.

Ceramics artist Mel Robson offers one of the wisest meditations on the subject:

I think it’s important to remember that making art is a process. It is never finished. The occupation itself is one of process, exploration, and experimentation. It is one of questioning and examining. Each thing you make is part of a continuum, and you are always developing. You don’t always get it right, but I find that approaching everything as a work in progress allows you to take the good with the bad. You’re never going to please everyone. Take what you can from criticism, and let go of the rest. When it comes to constructive criticism, I welcome that and think it is important to have people you can discuss your work with who will give you honest and constructive feedback. It’s not always what you want to hear, but that is often exactly what is needed. It can be very confronting, but very useful.

Hollie Chastain

This brings us to the most poignant question: How to unbridle one’s work, whether lauded or criticized, from one’s sense of self-worth. Collage and mixed-media artist Hollie Chastain reflects:

I think as an artist it’s very easy to [equate self-worth with artistic success] because of the nature of the work. If you think of art as a job, then your product is so much more than hours invested. The product is a piece of yourself, so of course if the reception is not the greatest, then it can feel like a direct hit to who you are as a person. I think this happened a lot more when I was younger and still finding my way around. I would doubt my direction when a viewer wasn’t thrilled. The trick for me is not to put more distance between my work and myself, but to close that gap completely. I can see myself in the art that I create, and that builds a wall of confidence.

Julia Rothman

Illustrator Julia Rothman — who gave us the immeasurably wonderful The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — strips this sentiment down to its bare, most vulnerable essence:

When you put so much of yourself and your time into something, it’s hard to separate it from who you are.

Emily Barletta

Embroidery and fiber artist Emily Barletta reminds us that soul-satisfaction requires defining our own success:

I make art because the process of making art makes me happy. Being successful with it and doing it for personal fulfillment are separate ideas.

Creative Block. Complement with Brian Eno’s prompts for overcoming creative block, then revisit Bukowski’s bold poetic debunking of the ideal conditions and myths of creativity.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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27 FEBRUARY, 2014

The River: Exploring the Inner Seasonality of Being Human in Gorgeous Watercolors by Italian Artist Alessandro Sanna

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A beautiful reminder that despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and above all ever-flowing.

“Love the earth and sun and the animals….read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,” Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass. In The River (public library) from Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that gave us such treasures as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the existentially profound The Hole, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird — Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

In each of the four chapters, a new season unfolds, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and out of it spring to life vignettes of different experiences along the banks of a shared river, waves of permanence and impermanence washing together. A subtle recurring motif of opposing forces — subjugation and release, celebration and solitude, fear and freedom — reverberates throughout the nearly wordless visual narrative, at once stretching it sideways and pulling it together into a vortex of coherent emotion.

For Sanna, who lives on the banks of the Po River in Northern Italy, this deeply personal project, years in the making, is in many ways a meta-meditation on the passage of time and the unfolding of life, in constant flux even at a seemingly static locale.

Glowing with quiet optimism, Sanna’s vibrant, expressive illustrations whisper to us that, despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and, above all, ever-flowing. As his river flows, one can almost see adrift in it the words of Henry Miller:

It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

The River is easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s heartwarming treasures, such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat and Little Boy Brown, both of which were among the best picture-books of 2013.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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