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Nurse Lugton’s Curtain: Virginia Woolf’s Little-Known Children’s Story, in Gorgeous Watercolors

A lovely allegory about the whimsical wonderland we enter as we slip into sleep.

In 1923, with her literary fame still ahead of her, beloved author and reconstructionist Virginia Woolf collaborated with her two teenage nephews, one of whom went on to become an intellectual tour de force in his own right, on a witty and wonderful family bulletin. It was there that Woolf’s first little-known children’s story, The Widow and the Parrot, made its debut. A year later, in 1924, Woolf penned another children’s tale but, like Gertrude Stein’s alphabet book, it only entered the world posthumously, in 1965. Nearly three decades later still, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain (public library) — the story of a whimsical world that lurks inside the pattern of the drawing-room curtain Nurse Lugton is quietly sewing, then comes alive as she falls asleep — was published in 1991 with expressive and enchanting watercolors illustrations by Julie Vivas.

This long-lost gem, alas out-of-print but still findable used, comes as a fine addition to other little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, including previously uncovered treasures by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, John Updike, and Jane Goodall.

Complement Nurse Lugton’s Curtain with Woolf’s first children’s story, then revisit the beloved author’s meditation on how to read a book and the only surviving recording of her voice.

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Sendak, Carle, Provensen, and 20 Other Beloved Illustrators’ Advice to Children on Being an Artist

“No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso is all too often cited as having declared. And yet not every adult is an artist — at least not a conscious, active, self-identifying one. How, then, do we lose the creative spark as we emerge from childhood, and what can we do to keep it forever ablaze?

That’s precisely what great and prolific Eric Carle (b. June 25, 1929), one of modern history’s most influential picture-book artists, sets out to answer in Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art (public library), which he envisioned and edited — at once a soul-lifting treasure for creative minds of all ages and a warm invitation for children to feel “among friends, fellow dreamers and scribblers” through the personal stories of such celebrated artists as Maurice Sendak, Leo Lionni, Alice Provensen, Steven Kellogg, and Jane Dyer. Accompanying these short and lovely letters, which do for art what Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds did for science and philosophy, are charming self-portraits by each of the artists, most created specifically for this project, along with fold-outs of artists’ notable works. The best part? All proceeds from the book benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Self-portrait by Eric Carle

Eric Carle, who dreamt up the project, shares his own story:

Ever since I was very young, as far back as I can remember, I have loved making pictures. I knew even as a child that, when I grew up, I would be an artist of some kind. The lovely feeling of my pencil touching paper, a crayon making a star shape in my sketchbook, or my brush dipping into bright and colorful paints — these things affect me as joyfully today as they did all those years ago.

Carle, like a number of creative greats, including Dr. Seuss, Sherwood Anderson, and Wendy MacNaughton, came into illustration by way of the commercial arts — in his case, graphic design, an influence so wonderfully evident in his work:

My own style grew out of my work as a graphic designer. I try to express the essence of my stories and ideals very clearly, using simple shapes, often in bright colors against a white background. You might almost think of my illustrations, and especially the cover art, as little posters.

In his celebrated picture-books, Carle aims for imaginative clarity, relying on emotional intuition over rationalization and always listening to that universal inner child:

I do my best to simplify and refine, to be logical and harmonious. But I also try to keep an open mind, to listen to my intuition and allow for the unexpected, the coincidental, even the quirky to enter into my work. Ultimately, my aim is to entertain, and sometimes to enlighten, the child who still lives inside of me. This is always where I begin.

And just as in my boyhood, making pictures is how I express my truest feelings.

Self-portrait by Sir Quentin Blake

The remarkable Sir Quentin Blake, who among other feats illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known and lovely children’s book, discovered his calling by realizing what he could not be, speaking to the importance of having a great mentor and amassing a diverse arsenal of creative influences:

I suppose that really I had a training or education not so very different from a lot of other artists and illustrators — it’s just that I didn’t have it in the normal order. When I was at school I liked drawing, and I liked anything to do with humor, and I liked writing too. When I was about fourteen, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a man who both painted pictures and drew cartoons for newspapers and magazines, including Punch, the most famous English humorous magazine at the time. He was called Alfred Jackson and every few months I would take him a collection of my drawings to look at. Now I look back and realize these were in fact lessons or tutorials, and what was especially good about them was that he talked not only about the cartoonists’ drawings in Punch at the time, but also about Michelangelo and Modigliani as well.

Thanks to Jackson’s encouragement, Blake began submitting his own humorous drawings to Punch. Two “not very good” ones were eventually accepted when he was only sixteen and became that pivotal ignition spark for a long and successful career. But despite this early nod of approval, Blake didn’t go to art school — instead, he enrolled at Cambridge University to study English literature, training to become a teacher, then honed his art by the sheer force of grit and doggedness:

I thought that if I couldn’t make a living as an artist, at least I shouldn’t starve.

By the time I had finished these studies, I had realized that I simply did not draw well enough to be the kind of artist and illustrator that I wanted to be, and so for two days a week over two years I drew — and drew and drew — from the models in the life classes at Chelsea School of Art. I really found out how people looked and moved and balanced, and though nowadays I almost never use a sketchbook and just make everything up as I go along, it’s those days in the life room that are the back of it all.

Self-portrait by Alice Provensen

Alice Provensen — one of my all-time favorite artists, who together with her husband Martin illustrated such vintage gems as The Animal Fair, an adaptation of Homer for kids, a cookbook by James Beard, and Aesop’s Fables, and who continues to draw into her nineties — shares a delightfully heartening ugly-duckling story of creative purpose:

When people look at my work, they often say, “Your picture is so good. I can’t even draw a straight line.” I think everyone can learn to draw. The important thing is to keep trying, keep drawing.

[…]

Young children make marvelous pictures. There is nothing they can’t draw. They paint and draw from their imaginations and the world around them. And they are not afraid to draw anything.

I saw a child’s picture, a country landscape. It had fifteen trees that looked like lollipops, both a sun and a moon in the sky and a crazy river running through. It wasn’t very realistic, but it was a miracle of design. … And when children draw people or portraits of themselves, even if they are only stick figures, they have an animate quality that a professional rarely gets.

She speaks to the momentous role of early encouragement:

My mother encouraged my efforts. Pens, paper, glue and scissors, crayons, oil paints and canvas were always available to me. My sixth-grade teacher entered one of my pictures in a contest. I won a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute’s program for public school children and I have been drawing ever since.

Inversely, it is adults’ active discouragement that leads kids to self-censor the precious, uninhibited imagination that lends their drawings such magic:

It isn’t until an adult criticizes the picture and makes derogatory comments … that children lose their confidence and stop drawing. If young people spent as much time drawing as they do learning [the] alphabet … they would all make good pictures and maybe never even need to draw a straight line.

Self-portrait by Paul O. Zelinsky

Paul O. Zelinsky, who recently penned this beautiful essay on what it was like to have Maurice Sendak as a teacher at Yale and who modeled his distinctive style after the old Italian masters, shares a more technical and hands-on glimpse of his process:

The old master oil paintings were usually done in transparent oil colors on top of a black-and-white underpainting, which was often painted in egg temperas. My version of this technique was to start with a watercolor underpainting, which is fast drying like tempera, but I have an easier time controlling it. Then I seal the underpainting with a coat of clear, matte acrylic medium. That keeps the oil paints, which come next, from soaking into the paper, where they would turn dull and flat. Instead, thin layers of transparent oil paint can be smoothed into glowing colors and bold, glossy surfaces, with a depth and space that I don’t think can be gotten any other way. It isn’t easy to do, but when it works, the results can still surprise me.

Self-portrait by Maurice Sendak

But my favorite has to be Maurice Sendak himself, who has delighted and continues to delight generations with his heart-warming picture-books, his literary illustrations, his vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading, and his irreverent wit. His heartening story, which echoes Joan Didion’s insistence on the importance of keeping a notebook, is a bittersweet celebration of art as self-therapy:

I was sickly as a child and gravitated to books and drawing. During my early teen years, I spent hundreds of hours at my window, sketching neighborhood children at play. I sketched and listened, and those notebooks became the fertile field of my work later on. There is not a book I have written or a picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe them its existence.

He attests to the notion that sharpening emotional recall is the key to genius:

If I have an unusual gift, it’s not that I draw particularly better than other people — I’ve never fooled myself about that. Rather it’s that I remember things other people don’t recall: the sounds and feelings and images — the emotional quality — of particular moments in childhood. Happily an essential part of myself — my dreaming life — still lives in the light of childhood.

Reflecting on the art of picture-book storytelling, Sendak shares his strong opinions about the interplay between words and pictures:

An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words.

You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act.

Like Herbert Spencer, who thought the same of writing, Sendak believes that confining yourself to one artistic style is creatively impoverishing. He ends with some invaluable advice to aspiring artists:

Artistic style is only a means to an end, and the more styles you have, the better. To get trapped in a style is to lose all flexibility. If you have only one style, then you’re going to do the same book over and over, which is pretty dull. Lots of styles permit you to walk in and out of books. So, develop a fine style, a fat style, and fairly slim style, and a really rough style.

As an aspiring artist, you should strive for originality of vision. Have something to say and a fresh way of saying it. No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.

Do treat yourself to Artist to Artist — it’s immeasurably wonderful.

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How to Do the “Step-and-Slide”: The Rules of Avoidance, Alignment, and Attraction for Deft Urban Walking

The intricate art of the pedestrian jig, essential for maintaining personal space in a public place.

Just like the most oft-employed metaphor for the human body is that of a machine, the city is most commonly and comfortably likened to a living organism. But nowhere does this metaphor spring to life more viscerally than on the busy sidewalk of a densely populated metropolis, where people, as if controlled by the strings of an invisible and highly skilled puppeteer, manage to move in a giant, self-correcting swarm without colliding with one another. It is a remarkable sight to behold, a daily miracle in which we find ourselves participating as sophisticated automata, without stopping — not literally, of course, which would be disastrous for this whole invisible dance — to appreciate the astounding mechanisms that make this phenomenon possible.

In On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — the same magnificent read, my favorite in ages, that demonstrated how much what we call “reality” is framed by the limitations of our selective attention — cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz examines the special skill of the urban pedestrian: a deft and intuitive maneuver known as the “step-and-slide,” which turns out to be the secret to urban swarm management.

One of the eleven experts with whom Horowitz strolls around a city block to learn new ways of seeing is Fred Kent, who founded the Project for Public Spaces thirty-five years ago after collaborating with the great William “Holly” Whyte on understanding the social life of urban spaces. Thanks to Kent, who has been observing the step-and-slide for years, Horowitz breaks down this necessarily mundane yet infinitely curious move, which researchers identified after innumerable hours of watching people walk past one another in the street:

If sidewalk traffic is dense and collision seems imminent, we pull this two-step pedestrian-dance move. While striding forward, the walker turns ever-so-slightly to the side, leading with his shoulder instead of his nose to turn the step into a side-step. We twist our torsos, pull in our bellies, and generally avoid all but the mildest brushes of other people (and if we do brush against someone else, we keep our hands close to our body and our faces turned away from one another.)

But how and why are we able to perform the step-and-slide so effortlessly? Horowitz explains:

One reason all of our step-sliding, pedestrian-jigging works is that we are regularly looking — ahead and at each other. We do not just look to see who is there; we constantly, steadily look to calculate how we need to move relative to those around us. We regularly turn our heads back and forth, to the left and right, surreptitiously peeking at who is behind us or to our sides. When our heads face forward, we survey the scene ahead of us. Our eyes make small saccades. Within a long oval projecting forward from our feet to about four sidewalk squares ahead, we quickly note the direction and pace of anyone headed our way. We also glance at others’ faces, which tell us if they are likewise looking forward into their own long ovals (and whether they are reacting to something surprising or alarming that might be behind us). There is information in the angle of others’ eyes and the turn of their head. Most of the time, people are looking where they are going: gazing straight ahead. But they begin actually inclining toward their destination when it is in sight. Should someone seem to peer over to the doorway of the building down the block, more likely than not, he will walk there directly. Or just follow his head: we all make anticipatory head movements when we are going to turn a corner. Our heads lead our bodies by eight degrees and as much as seven steps, as though all in a hurry to get around the bend. Watch a walker’s head and you can predict his path down to a single step. We learn this without anyone teaching us, and without knowing we know it.

This, of course, begs the inevitable question of what happens when our voluntary modern-day relinquishing of looking — those glowing rectangles that mesmerize us so with their siren calls of email, Facebook, Instagram, tweets, texts, and the like — hinders the very ability to notice the body language and indicative eye gazes of others, which are so critical to the performance of this collective dance. In other words, for every person who walks into a pole while staring at her iPhone, there are several sidewalk peers whose personal step-and-slides have been set off balance by her inability to master her own. This pattern, Horowitz agrees, is an especially malignant form of contemporary social ill that cripples a central convention of urban life:

The importance of this “looking” in the success of the dance comes into play with the relatively new species of pedestrian on the street: phone talkers. Their conversational habits change the dynamic of the flowing shoal. No longer is each fish aware, in a deep, old-brain way, of where everyone is around him. The phone talkers are no longer even using their fish brains: they have turned all their attention to engaging with the person on the phone. They block out their sense of someone walking too close; they fail to look into their walking ovals and step-slide out of the way. They no longer follow the rules that make walking on a crowded sidewalk go smoothly: they do not align themselves (they swerve); they do not avoid (they bump); and they do not slip behind and between others (they blunder). They stop minding the social convention to stay to the right, and weave across lanes of traffic. Texters are as bad or worse: they fail to even move their heads before turning, since they are slumped over to monitor their texting thumbs.

So how does one master the step-and-slide and avoid collision? Horowitz offers three simple, research-backed rules — known as “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — for honing your acumen at this pedestrian jig, essential for balancing personal space against public space, personal pace amidst public pace:

  1. Avoid bumping into others (while staying comfortably close). What counts as “comfortably close” — an animal’s “personal” space — will vary by species; what is similar for all animals is that if you follow only this one rule, it forces you to attend and react to the behavior of those in your vicinity. And that is the essence of what is called swarm intelligence: everyone must make movements that are sensitive to everyone else.
  2. Follow whoever is in front of you. “Whoever” need not know where she is going: she may herself be following another. And so on and so on, until you reach the very head of the pack. Even there, the animal at the leading edge is neither leader nor sovereign. In flocks and schools, the role of leader is constantly changing hands. For only a moment will she determine the group’s direction.
  3. Keep up with those next to you. Everyone must speed or slow with attention to those around them. This seems like an impossible calculation, until you realize how little effort you have to pay to walk next to someone else down the street, never once considering how you will be able to keep at the same pace.

These rules of “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — keeping apart while staying together — are sufficient to explain all herd, school, flock, and swarm behavior. Artificial intelligence scientists have created animations of mindless “boids” programmed with just these rules: their behavior matches that of swooping sparrows and swarming ants.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. Sample more of the book’s wisdom and mesmerism here. For more on the curious dynamics of city-dwellers, see Whyte’s timelessly insightful The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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