Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

20 MARCH, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Persian Polymath Ibn Sina and How He Shaped the Course of Medicine

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How a voraciously curious little boy became one of the world’s greatest healers.

Humanity’s millennia-old quest to understand the human body is strewn with medical history milestones, but few individual figures merit as much credit as Persian prodigy-turned-polymath Ibn Sina (c. 980 CE–1037 AD), commonly known in the West as Avicenna — one of the most influential thinkers in our civilization’s unfolding story. He authored 450 known works spanning physics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, poetry, and medicine, including the seminal encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which forever changed our understanding of the human body and its inner workings. This masterwork of science and philosophy — or metaphysics, as it was then called — remained in use as a centerpiece of medieval medical education until six hundred years after Ibn Sina’s death.

As a lover of children’s books that celebrate the life-stories of influential and inspiring luminaries — including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was delighted to come upon The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina (public library) by Lebanese writer Fatima Sharafeddine and Iran-based Iraqi illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali, a fine addition to these favorite children’s books celebrating science.

In stunning illustrations reminiscent of ancient Islamic manuscript paintings, this lyrical first-person biography traces Ibn Sina’s life from his childhood as a voracious reader to his numerous scientific discoveries to his lifelong project of advancing the art of healing.

A universal celebration of curiosity and the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge, the story is doubly delightful for adding a sorely needed touch of diversity to the homogenous landscape of both science history and contemporary children’s books — here are two Middle Eastern women, telling the story of a pioneering scientist from the Islamic Golden Age.

The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have also given us such treasures as a wordless illustrated celebration of the art of noticing, a tender love letter to winter, and a heartening celebration of gender diversity.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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19 MARCH, 2015

Dear Data: Two Designers Visualize the Mundane Details of Daily Life in Magical Illustrated Postcards Mailed Across the Atlantic

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A celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life.

We live, they say, in the age of Big Data — algorithms trawl through vast databases of our digital trails seeking to extract insight on the human experience, from how we fall in love to what we read. But aggregating individual human lives into massive data sets and trying to extrapolate insight from the aggregate data that is valid for individual human lives is somewhat like taking an exquisite poem in English and running it through Google Translate to render into Japanese and then back into English. The result may have the vague contours of the original poem’s meaning, but none of its subtle magic and vibrant granular beauty.

But what if we could claim that beautiful granular humanity back from the homogenizing aggregate-grip of Big Data? That’s precisely what Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, are doing in Dear Data — an extraordinary yearlong correspondence project that puts an imaginative twist on what Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art” through a series of analog self-portraits in data, drawn by hand and mailed on postcards.

A week of complaints (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of complaints (Posavec to Lupi)

Although Lupi and Posavec only met twice in person before the start of the project — both times at the wonderful EyeO Festival — they have a great deal of variables in common: Both are information designers known for working by hand; both have left their respective homeland to move across the Atlantic in pursuit of the creative life; both are only children, and they are the exact same age.

Giorgia Lupi

Stefanie Posavec

Every week, they each select one aspect of their daily lives — from their complaints to their spending habits to their use of mirrors — and itemize its components in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard, then mail it to the other. As if composing a Goldberg Variations of data, Lupi and Posavec deliberately use different visual metaphors and visualization techniques for each week’s postcard.

A week of clocks (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of clocks (Posavec to Lupi)

Both the process and the product are intensely human — each postcard takes time to design and time to read; it is simultaneously mundane and magical; it requires, on both ends, the sort of emotional attentiveness invoking Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling is merely a report.”

A week of purchases (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of purchases (Posavec to Lupi)

What emerges is a case for the beauty of small data and its deliberate interpretation, analog visualization, and slow transmission. Obliquely reminiscent of A Year of Mornings and Edward Gorey’s illustrated envelopes, yet wholly original, the project is a celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life.

A week of phone addiction (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of phone addiction (Lupi to Posavec)

The result is an immensely pleasurable duet of sensibilities — side by side, Posavec’s signature spatial poetics and Lupi’s mastery of shape and color elevate one another to a higher plane of delight. Amid an the epidemic of infoporn, the project presents a kind of tender data-lovemaking.

New postcards are uploaded to Dear Data every Wednesday in 2015. Publishers, nota bene — this is the kind of project begging to be a beautiful book.

All images courtesy of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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17 MARCH, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers: An Illustrated Ode to Presence and the Everyday Art of Noticing in a Culture of Productivity and Distraction

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A gentle wordless celebration of the true material of aliveness.

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

In the final scene, the little girl tucks a wildflower behind her ear, in the same gesture with which her father holds his device, and looks up to the sky — a subtle, lyrical reminder that we each have a choice in what to hold to our ear and our mind’s eye: a flower or a phone.

Sidewalk Flowers, which is immeasurably wonderful in its analog totality, comes from Canadian independent children’s-book publisher Groundwood Books — creators of the intelligent and imaginative Once Upon a Northern Night, What There Is Before There Is Anything There, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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13 MARCH, 2015

When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy: A Vintage Illustrated Daydream about Life without Unimaginative Rules

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“She can pet any dog she likes without asking if it’s friendly. (She’ll know. I always do.)”

The recent rediscovery of Lincoln Steffens’s magnificent 1925 meditation on the delights of gender-blind parenting reminded me of the like-spirited gem When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy (public library) — a magnificent collaboration between children’s book legend Charlotte Zolotow (June 26, 1915–November 19, 2013), whom the greatest patron saint of modern childhood once aptly described as “a brilliant and sensitive creative person,” and artist Hilary Knight (b. November 1, 1926), best known for illustrating the widely and wildly beloved Eloise series.

Originally published in the late 1960s as two separate boy/girl versions, the story was eventually combined into a charming “flip-flop book” in 1988 — reading from one end tells the story of a little girl (reminiscent of the lovably mischievous Eloise) daydreaming of the unconventional mother she’d be when she has a little girl of her own; turning the book upside-down and reading from the other end tells the parallel story of a little boy daydreaming of being an equally unconventional father to his future little boy.

The story tickles every child’s dream of escaping the silly rules imposed by overcautious and unimaginative adults, calling to mind young Mark Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and offering a positive counterpoint to Toni Morrison’s dark take on the things kids are made to do, with a touch of Emily Hughes’s wonderful Wild.

Above all, it celebrates children’s inherent intelligence, living up to E.B. White’s famous proclamation that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” — Zolotow writes up to them, as she always did, and Knight elevates the writing even further, as he always does.

Tucked into the cheekiness is also the subtle acknowledgement that these rules are sometimes in place to benefit the adults rather than the child — like the practice, always unfair to kids and familiar to those who have grown up in complicated families, of asking children to keep grownups’ secrets.

When I have a little girl, all the rules will be different.

And I will never say to her, “When you are a mother you will understand why all these rules are necessary.”

Complement When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy with Zolotow’s charming reverse-psychology ode to friendship, The Hating Book, then see Lena Dunham’s fantastic documentary about Knight. Here is a taste:

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