Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Isabelle Arsenault’

08 JULY, 2015

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart: The Beautiful and Bittersweet True Story of How Paul Gauguin Became an Artist

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What an invisible dog knows about the tenacity of the human spirit and the healing power of art.

Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse.

A wonderful addition to both the best children’s books about making sense of loss and the finest children’s books celebrating cultural icons, Mr. Gauguin’s Heart (public library) by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault tells the bittersweet, unbelievably beautiful story of Gauguin’s early childhood and how, after his father’s death, the young boy sought solace in art and transmuted his grief into his first painting.

In this 2004 debut, Arsenault — whose genius has produced such subsequent treasures as Jane, the Fox & Me, Virginia Wolf, and Migrant — once again reveals herself to be one of the most gifted and evocative visual storytellers of our time.

We meet young Paul, a little boy who lives with his beloved parents, his sister Marie, and a dog he adores — “an odd-looking, little orange dog” with whom Paul goes everywhere, plays constantly, and even has conversations.

But the oddest thing about the little orange dog is that is that only Paul can see it.

One day, the Gauguins depart for Peru, and Paul’s imaginary companion boards the ship with the rest of the family. The other passengers find the bond between the boy and his invisible friend endearing — a testament not to his strangeness but to his boundless imagination.

It is a joyous journey, until Paul finds his mother in tears one afternoon.

She told Paul and his sister that their daddy had been carried away.

“How?” the children cried.

“It was his heart,” Mrs. Gauguin answered.

Marie threw herself, wailing, into her mother’s arms. Paul said nothing. He didn’t understand what it all meant. He didn’t see how being carried away by one’s heart could be such a tragedy.

Unable to make sense of it all, the boy perches on the ship’s bridge with his dog and peers into the ocean. All of a sudden, he sees a giant red balloon floating over the horizon. Holding onto its string is his father. As the other passengers gasp at the breathtaking sunset, Paul watches them point to his father’s big red heart.

The days wear on and every time the sun sets, Paul begins to cry all over again, saying goodbye to his father’s heart anew — a tender testament to the waves in which grief always seems to come.

When they finally reach Peru, Paul refuses to leave the ship, unwilling to part with the daily encounter with his father’s heart over the horizon. It takes an old man — a fellow passenger who had been watching the boy play with his invisible companion during the journey — to convince him to disembark the ship, on the pretext that his little orange dog needs to get out and run. So heartbroken is the little boy that he has stopped seeing his imaginary friend. All he wants is to be left alone, to scream that he never had a dog — but the old man seems to believe in the dog so staunchly that Paul doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him.

Leading Paul to the entrance of a great big park, the old man instructs the boy to meet him there next morning, with his little orange dog in tow. Paul complies and finds the old man painting quietly by the pond the next day, so immersed in his art that he doesn’t even notice the boy and his dog.

Eventually, he encourages Paul to join him at the easel and shows him how to mix red and yellow in order to make orange. More than that, he initiates the future painter in the incredible power of art:

“Painting is magic,” he said to Paul. “You can start with next to nothing and still do anything you want.”

The little boy looked the old man straight in the eye. “Even bring something to life?”

“Yes, you can bring things to life,” he replied. “Or prolong the life they had.”

The old man took a paintbrush and drew a picture of an orange on the white canvas. Then he peeled his own orange and ate it. “You see, my orange is gone and yet it isn’t. I still have this one.”

That evening, Paul goes home and shuts himself in his room. His mother, somewhat worried, hears rustling but the boy insists that she leave him alone. After a prolonged silence, he lets her in — and there, on a makeshift easel, is a painting of the ocean, with a giant red circle floating above the horizon.

Mrs. Gauguin’s face lit up. Seeing his mother’s smile, Paul realized that he wanted to be a magician.

Many people came to visit the Gauguin family in Peru. And all who came admired the little boy’s painting. Since they knew nothing about affairs of the heart, they assumed he had painted a picture of Japan’s national flag.

Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time. It is said that his art resembles that of Japan. But what no one knows — other than you and Mrs. Gauguin — is that the red sun he painted all those years ago does not represent the flag for a faraway nation. The little boy’s painting of the big red sun is really a picture of Mr. Gauguin’s heart.

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, originally published in French and translated into English by Susan Ouriou, is the kind of treasure that breaks your heart, then breaks it open. Complement it with an equally moving fictional counterpart in Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit the illustrated stories of other luminaries’ childhoods: artist Henri Matisse, mathematician Paul Erdos, and primatologist Jane Goodall.

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03 DECEMBER, 2014

Once Upon a Northern Night: A Loving Illustrated Lullaby of Winter’s Whimsy

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A song of innocence and seasonal experience.

“How can an old world be so innocent?” Annie Dillard wondered in her beautiful ode to winter. Carl Sagan believed that the reverence and awe we experience in our encounters with nature bring us the closest we get to divinity. Out of that ancient innocence and that divine reverence writer Jean E. Pendziwol and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault weave a beautiful lullaby in Once Upon a Northern Night (public library | IndieBound) — a loving homage to winter’s soft-coated whimsy, composed with touches of Thoreau’s deep reverence for nature and Whitman’s gift for exalting “the nature around and within us.”

Once upon a northern night
while you lay sleeping,
wrapped in a downy blanket,
I painted you a picture.

It started with one tiny flake,
perfect
and beautiful
and special,
just like you.
Then there were two,
and then three.

Soon
the night sky filled with
sparkling specks of white
crowding
and floating,
tumbling down to the welcoming ground
until the earth was
wrapped in a downy blanket,
just like you.

Arsenault — whose art graces such previous gems as Jane, the Fox & Me, a graphic novel inspired by Charlotte Brönte, and Virginia Wolf, a picture-book reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s childhood with her sister Vanessa, and Migrant, a kind of Alice in Wonderland for the modern immigrant experience — captures in befitting pictures the magical scenes Pendziwol paints with words: Pine trees “held prickly hands to catch the falling flakes”; a mother doe and her fawn “nuzzled the sleeping garden with memories of summer, then wandered off”; a “small, small mouse with big, big ears” scurries across the picnic table “mounded with snowy white like vanilla ice cream.”

Once upon a northern night
a great gray owl gazed down
with his great yellow eyes
on the milky-white bowl of your yard.
Without a sound
not even the quietest whisper,
his great silent wings lifted and
down,
down,
down,
he drifted,
leaving a feathery sketch
of his passing
in the snow.

Once upon a northern night,
deep,
deep
in the darkest hours,
the snowy clouds crept away
and stars appeared —
twinkling points of light
hanging in the purple sky.

I knew by the time you woke,
the sun would have chased them away,
so I set them like diamonds
on the branches of the willow.

Complement the immeasurably whimsical Once Upon a Northern Night with the vintage Scandinavian classic Moominland Midwinter, then revisit the best children’s books of the year.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books

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25 JULY, 2014

Migrant: An Alice in Wonderland for the Modern Immigrant Experience

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A compassionate chronicle of the laboring nomad’s optimism and wistfulness.

Having spent my entire adult life as an immigrant, with all the relocations, bureaucracies, and social strain implied, I have tremendous respect for any effort to capture the complexities of the immigrant experience, its joys and its struggles, without robbing it of dimension. So I was instantly enamored with Migrant (public library | IndieBound) — a gem of a picture-book by Canadian writer Maxine Trottier and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, the artist who also gave us the wonderful Jane, the Fox & Me, a graphic novel inspired by Charlotte Brönte, and Virginia Wolf, a picture-book reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s childhood with her sister Vanessa.

Migrant tells the story of Anna, the youngest child in a large family of German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico, who venture to Canada to work as fruit and vegetable harvest laborers each spring. As Trottier points out in the afterword, they are part of a long tradition of people from all around the world, who have come to North America seeking not only a livelihood but also freedom, opportunity, a new beginning.

Arsenault’s tender illustrations bring a soft acceptance to Anna’s conflicting feelings — optimism and wistfulness, isolation and togetherness — feelings, I imagine, common to the immigrant experience and present in varying proportions in the heart of every nomad since the dawn of humanity.

Ripe with metaphor, Trottier’s beautiful, rhythmic narrative traces Anna’s imaginative interpretations of her reality. Too young to labor, the girl sees the rest of her family as a hive of worker bees.

When her parents’ backs are bent under the hot sun, when her older brothers and sisters dip and rise, dip and rise over the vegetables, that is when all of them are bees.

As they move into yet another empty house near the field, she imagines herself as a jack rabbit living in an abandoned burrow. (The scene, as Arsenault portrays it — Anna with her giant rabbit ears, surrounded by teacups — has a decided Alice in Wonderland feel, perhaps a subtle, intentional reflection of the strangeness and surreality a migrant invariably experiences in a foreign land.)

At night, Anna curls up with her sister as they sleep like a litter of kittens, while their brothers burrow together like puppies in the other room. Unable to understand the locals when the family shops for groceries “at the cheap store,” she hears their unfamiliar language as “a thousand crickets all singing a different song.” The family, with its annual journey from Mexico to Canada and back, becomes a flock of migratory geese.

A sweet and curious little girl, Anna wonders what a life of stability might be like — a life where she has her own bed and her own bicycle, where she watches the seasons come and go, rather than coming and going with them.

It is ultimately a tale at once hopeful and harrowing — a poignant catalyst for compassion, in reminding us how so many people live, and a testament, in Anna’s flights of the imagination, to Jeanette Winterson’s assertion that we tell ourselves stories in order to survive.

But fall is here, and the geese are flying away.

And with them Anna goes, like a monarch, like a robin, like a feather in the wind!

Migrant comes from Canadian independent picture-book publisher Groundwood Books. Complement it with Larry and Friends, a charming illustrated ode to the immigrant experience.

Images courtesy of House of Anansi

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