MY ART MONTAGE

Feb 13, 2024

As an educator, author, and illustrator, I’ve published seven children’s books to date— totaling over seventy stories—as well a children’s novel. This montage is a pictorial chronicle my life’s errant and often tumultuous journey as an artist.
If I didn’t have any inkling until I was grown that maybe I was meant to be a writer, I began to suspect pretty early that I was an artist, getting my first recognition when my kindergarten teacher sent me to the principal’s office, not to be disciplined but to show her the crayon picture I’d drawn of my class having a parade. I don’t know what that rendering looked like because it never made it into my first scrapbook, but my drawing of a turkey, also done when I was five, did.
A few Thanksgivings ago, I decided to update it.

When I was nine, my parents thought it was time for my brother Doug and me to have our own rooms. My parents stripped off the old yellow-flowered wallpaper in the room Doug and I had shared, and Mom set about turning it into the dream bedroom she’d never had as a child. Among other things, she bought a vanity with a mirror top, as well as a triptycal standing mirror that you could adjust to see yourself from various angles. I was too young to wear make-up, so instead I used the tryptical mirror to draw myself when I was home sick and bored—and though I hated my freckles, I felt obliged to draw exactly what I saw. Eventually I went on to draw portraits of friends and family too. The self-portrait below I sketched when I was ten.

Below is a drawing of Thayer, son of Davona and Lou, who bought the duplex on Raymond Ave. where I’d spent the happiest years of my childhood. I made this rough sketch in the spring before they evicted us. I mention this because it’s the last portrait I would draw from life.

From then on I would feel like an outcast, especially when I went back to sixth grade in the fall, having, literally, been cast out—of the gifted group that went on to Miss Oman’s class, a circumstance that left me believing that I wasn’t smart. This was also the year my parents went through an acrimonious divorce. The following year my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The year after that, she moved my brother and me to California where, after suffering an emotional breakdown, she became abusive, while my father, back in Minnesota, took to his bed, now a semi-invalid. Through all this turmoil, I developed social anxiety disorder and wound up so anxiety-ridden that I tried to become invisible, hiding at the back of my classrooms in school to avoid ever being called on. At the same time, I studied assiduously, earning high grades, because I knew it was what my parents—especially my brilliant father—expected of me.

I spoke too soon. I did do another drawing from life—which I came across when I was looking through a box of old artwork the other day. My freshman year of high school, I babysat three sisters over a period of several months. The eldest was Linny, in the portrait above. One night their parents came home early and found I hadn’t put the girls to bed yet. Not that I hadn’t tried—but the kids were having too much fun and wouldn’t mind me. Having been disciplined by my parents with intimidation and shaming, methods I wasn’t about to use on my charges, I didn’t know how to exert my authority. And so, despite their children’s attachment to me, the parents fired me.

I should also mention that my senior year of high school, I took a sculpture class. Among other things, I made plasticine busts of two boys in my class (plasticine is an oily clay), and after gluing together four by fours, chiseled an abstract figure that was all planes out of wood. I remember my teacher, Mr. Costarella, telling me one day that I could earn my living doing busts if I was interested in pursuing it as a profession—a compliment I appreciated even though that wasn’t an ambition of mine. The morning of the awards ceremony that semester at Berkeley High, I had a dental appointment, after which I lingered in nearby Hinks Department Store so I wouldn’t have to walk across the stage to receive the best artist award. I didn’t want to be the center of all eyes, even for a moment. And, too, I felt like an imposter—that I didn’t deserve the award because I didn’t know how to paint.

After I graduated from college, I was left with a major dilemma. Since I’d devoted all the years since grade school to scholarship instead of developing my creative abilities, when I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I was by nature an artist, not an academic—that it was futile to keep trying to jam the square peg that I was into a round hole—I couldn’t commit myself to any other profession because the urge to do creative work was too strong, yet I had no skills within the arts I could use to earn a living doing something I might actually enjoy.

Towards the end of my senior year of college, I’d started drawing again—stylized figures with felt markers. Sometimes I got so absorbed I couldn’t tear myself away and I’d miss my classes. Once again I was miserable in school, so unhappy that, in the end, I couldn’t face going a fifth year for a teaching credential.

So when I cast around in my mind for a job that would leave me blocks of free time in which to develop my creative abilities, being a stewardess seemed to fill the bill as well as any. After training in Miami, I was based in Los Angeles.

Pan Am had two types of “stand-by” for stewardesses—24-hour, which meant you had to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice, and TACA, which meant you had to be available by phone to accept a flight for the next day.

The month I was TACA, I got out a felt pen and started to draw dress designs. I’d always loved clothes and, as a teenager, had made many of my own. Now, seized by the notion that maybe I could design clothes as a sideline, I worked ferociously, and by the end of the month, I’d created a line of two dozen outfits. The times I was called to fly, I found it emotionally wrenching to have to leave my project; I felt I was being painfully ripped away from the kind of work I was meant to do.

At a union meeting, the junior stewardesses were told not to let Operations bully us—that is, coerce us into flying the same day when we were TACA. So, at the end of the month, when Operations phoned and said they needed me for a flight that same afternoon, I said no. Five minutes later I got a call from my irate supervisor, telling me I was suspended.

If these fashions look dated, bear in mind that it was the seventies!

After quitting Pan Am, I set out to explore my various other artistic inclinations: I studied voice (briefly), found a guitar teacher and learned to read tablature, and enrolled in a painting class at Long Beach State College. But my throat ached after my singing lessons, and my hands shook so much at my guitar lessons that I couldn’t play the pieces I’d practiced the previous week. As for what happened in my painting class, that would require a lot more space to recount than I have room for here. (See my 9-10-21 blog post.)

When I tried to sell my dress designs, I was told I needed samples to show, so I borrowed a dress form from a friend of my mom’s on a visit to the Bay Area, found an outlet that sold suede—lamb skins—in bright colors, bought a sewing machine that could handle lightweight leathers, and made up several vests and boleros with fanciful suede-on-suede appliques, the advantage of leather being that it didn’t ravel. But this, too, I found harrowing because I couldn’t afford to make mistakes—if I had to take out a seam, the punctures from the needle remained.

After a painful affair and one too many brown moonrises (the color of the moon due to smog), I moved to my mother’s house back in the East Bay, where I taught an arts and crafts class for kids. One of the assignments I gave them was to draw a colorful beetle; of course, I had to draw one of my own. Another was to make abstract cards using torn scraps of tissue paper that we affixed with clear contact paper.

One day, as I was considering subjects for my art class to draw, it occurred to me that I now had the skill to depict the fairy tale figures I couldn’t as a child (to my own satisfaction, at least—except in profile). So with pen and India ink I began to draw fanciful female characters that became more abstract as I went along, some of them even a little risqué.
I couldn’t resist an inclination to push the envelope towards whimsy—tilting the neck at an improbable angle and drawing a tortuous root on the end of the rose, which I eventually decided to lop off.
How much can I lengthen the limbs, I wondered, before the figure starts to look misshapen?
How much can I exaggerate the features of the face, I asked myself, and still make it appealing?
Later I tried to market packages of my work as cards in a local shop but didn’t have any success.
Then I got a part-time job as an aide—and eventually a teacher— at Seven Hills Elementary School, where I taught reading readiness. Besides creating number and letter games for my students and “toys” like the finger puppets above, I took a “Woodworking for Women” class and designed tables and benches for my classroom, as well as a desk—with shelves—made out of barrels and refrigerator boxes (for myself).

Most of my creativity went into teaching, but I continued to doodle in my spare time.

I’ve always been fascinated by faces—and went through a number of artistic phases in rapid succession as I drew them, beginning with realistic images that quickly became stylized and eventually abstract—important stages for me to go through because, perfectionist that I was, I’d always been meticulous in my drawing and bound by the literal. I needed both to explore a looser style and to exercise my pictorial imagination.
Just like with my faces, I started out by drawing realistic animals which quickly became stylized—and eventually looser and more abstract.
Sometimes I just drew shapes.
I’m including a drawing of my guitar because I was sometimes practicing hours a day.
I also drew nudes, even created a calendar of my more whimsical figures, but that I didn’t dare try to market.
Then one day in a bookstore where I was buying books for my class, I came upon Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for the first time, and, reading the last line, had to fight back tears, the words went so deep. I wanted to write and illustrate children’s stories, I finally knew. So I went home and struggled to come up with a story concept worth pursuing and produced…zilch. Below is a finger puppet I made at the time.
Time passed. I quit teaching and lived in a succession of East Bay cities with a succession of roommates. I was a nanny/housekeeper, then worked for a temp agency doing odd jobs like wok demonstrations, slinging Chinese fried rice at Sear’s—until I got a part-time secretarial job in the art department of a local college. After my best friend relocated to Berkeley, I completed the course work for a teaching credential in English as a Second Language, moved in with her, and began tutoring ESL—mostly to foreign Ph.D. candidates studying for their orals. Then, as a sideline, I started a business I called Danae, designing purses.

It all started when, on a whim, I bought a bunch of satin ribbon and nine inches of Ultrsuede at $60 a yard. I cut diagonal slits in it with a razor—the point being it didn’t ravel like fabric—and wove the ribbons in and out in a pattern. Soon I was calling all over the world, ordering select shades of Ultrasuede, matching fabric for linings, interfacing, magnetic snaps… I had “dies” made—metal edges embedded in wood—by an outfit in Oakland. Then, at a handbag factory, I rented—by the hour—a “clicker,” which pressed the dies so I could cut dozens of purses at a time. But, at the KPFA Christmas Crafts Fair, though many people admired my purses, they didn’t sell. (Admittedly they weren’t practical, since they didn’t have gussets. But also…I didn’t really like doing piecework. I enjoyed the designing but not the executing.) When I finally returned the double-needle industrial machine—with a split needle bar and reverse lever—that I’d been renting, I was ready for a new venture.

While I was fashioning purses, my friend and I were also redecorating our apartment, buying Danish modern furniture (blond wood), and I was experimenting with painting, in bright colors, accessories like elaborately carved wooden candlesticks, mirror frames, and even fanciful chairs that I found in antique shops and import stores. We didn’t have cell phones back then, and the only photo I have of one of my creations is the tabletop of a tiny nightstand. My second tabletop design I never actually implemented.
My new venture? My first children’s book. And what enabled me finally to write it? The answer to that question requires me to provide some backstory. The year after my mother moved Doug and me to California, my father took to his bed with a mysterious malady. He experienced burning pain throughout his body, and the doctors diagnosed arthritis. He was a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota at the time, but, hoping a drier climate would alleviate his symptoms, he accepted a position at the University of Arizona. His health didn’t improve, however—not until seventeen years later, when he was prescribed an antidepressant that cured him, virtually overnight! With a new lease on life, he asked himself what he would most like to do—and the answer was to chase butterflies through the Ecuadorian rainforest. So for several summers he lived in a hut on the Amazon River with a monkey and coatimundi for companions.

Somebody Grab That Dog,” my first story, is about a child who grabs hold of the leash of a runaway dog and gets dragged off on a wild adventure through harrowing and far-flung habitats, including a jungle and a river “wide and brown.” I’d always felt a deep sadness about my father’s disability, and his recovery was both liberating and inspiring to me.

Below is an excerpt from the dummy I created.

Before I began my illustrations, I went to Mr. Mopps’ Toy Shop and perched on a ledge, sketching copies of Sandra Boynton’s charming animals in her picture book The Going to Bed Book: I thought if I could go through the motions of drawing a few of her creatures—manage to get inside her experience—I might get the hang of it and be able to draw my own.
When I showed my dummy to a successful Berkeley children’s book author, however, she said, “If you’re going to work in full color, you’re going to have to do more ambitious illustrations. To cover the cost of printing, the book will have to sell for $12 – $15—and people aren’t going to pay that much for cartoons.”

Eager to author another children’s book, I cast around for inspiration and came up with the idea of a story about friendship, based on my childhood adventures with my pal Wolfy in St. Anthony Park, which quickly and inexplicably veered off into a fairy tale about an imperious little princess who doesn’t believe in fairy tales and her savvy little fool who knows better.

That’s when I set out to become a “real” illustrator. I put away my sewing machine and fitted a sheet of plexiglass over the recessed area in my sewing table, placing a flat florescent light under it—to serve as a drawing and tracing table.

 

This is the first illustration of the little fool to appear in Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess, my second children’s book. He came a long way in the two years I was teaching myself to be an illustrator. See below.
On the left is the opening illustration of Somebody Grab That Dog, my previous book; on the right is my initial drawing of the little fool, looking very much like my original protagonist—he was my starting point.
But what palette and what drawing tools should I choose, I wondered, for Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess—a more ambitious undertaking? What did I want my fairy tale world to look like? Bright? Pastel? How detailed?

At Amsterdam Art, I discovered pastel markers that I tried out to get more subtlety in my colors—also, a rapidograph ink pen that, with the finest nib, allowed me to explore intricate textures.

Soon my figures, unaccountably, became chunkier and more squat. I would trace them and try out a number of small variations in their poses before choosing the final one.
I call this my Sinuous Period, when my figures wavered, sometimes looking like they didn’t have skeletal structures.
Next came my Bulbous Period, when I began to draw round shapes to construct my figures. My first versions were spontaneous scribbles in regular pencil. But as I refined the illustration, I sometimes felt that it was losing too much of the energy and expressiveness of the original—and I went back to study it to see where I was going awry.
Then one morning I woke up and found myself in a quandary. Whereas before my compulsion was to draw curved lines, now I found I could only draw straight ones—which ushered in my Prickly Period, when all my figures looked faceted.
It was during my Prickly Period that I really got the hang of drawing the little fool.
The problem with markers, however, is that the backgrounds come out blotchy or ribbed, as you can see in my Sinuous Period. So I tried watercolor.
But I was unused to a brush and quickly shifted to colored pencil, both because I had better control and because I could erase.
Only now I stumbled upon a new problem. Because I wanted the outlines to be as unobtrusive as possible, I continued to use my rapidograph pen, its nib about the diameter of a coarse hair. But trying to combine these two mediums proved foolhardy: Dust from the colored pencils kept clogging the nib, which then had to be replaced—and they weren’t cheap. Of course, I’d have the guy at the local art store try to unclog the nib first. Sometimes he’d succeed, but he was so klutzy, his efforts invariably resulted in some minor catastrophe, like the time he shook the pen and spattered permanent ink all over my favorite sweatshirt.

In the end I abandoned the pen and started doing the dark outlining in black colored pencil, though the dust from it smeared and muddied the nearby colors as my hand dragged over the image during drawing.

Luckily, I would find when I got a computer that I could make my colors clearer again in Photoshop.

Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess will be available as an ebook on Amazon this spring.

During the two years I was teaching myself to illustrate, I knew I needed a better understanding of how to draw the human body in motion, so I simultaneously took a figure drawing class at the local adult school. One day the model never showed up, so Ben, one of the old-timers in class, modeled instead.

I stowed my drawings in a storage room in the basement of my apartment building, where most of them eventually got chewed up by termites.

The following year I went on to write “Prince Beauregard and the Beast Baby,” a fairy tale about twin princes who are separated at birth, one growing up in luxury and privilege…

…the other in hardship and want, though my illustrations never evolved beyond sketches (except for the drawing above). This is the story I would eventually give to Maurice Sendak when he came to the Bay Area to give a series of guest lectures at Cal. His note to me after reading it: “’Prince Beauregard’ is a wonder! Fresh and smart and I do not even mind the happy ending!” I also gave him a couple of illustrations from other books I’d written.

From Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess:

From a later story, “Goodycat,” about a neglected cat who is misunderstood and blamed by his original owners, only to get a second chance in a loving family:
“I like them too,” Maurice Sendak said. “No, I am not just being nice; you are good!”
My “Goodycat” illustrations are the only ones I ever did in did pastels (colored chalk).
In the next few years I would go on to write more stories, including “Tired of Trying,” about a girl having one of those days when everything you undertake goes awry. These illustrations started out in color but evolved into a coloring book instead. I was discovering that I was, at heart, a minimalist, and growing increasingly uncomfortable essaying complex designs.
Meanwhile I kept sending my stories around to publishers and not getting so much as a nibble. “The children’s book publishing world is a vault,” the children’s book buyer at Cody’s Books pessimistically attested—meaning it was all but impossible to break into.

Eventually I gave up and started writing screenplays instead. I began with a teleplay for Star Trek: The Next Generation, which accepted spec scripts. In the course of the episode, the android, Data, takes it upon himself to learn all the aphorisms of the various cultures across the galaxy to become wise. While I was studying books of sayings in the reference library, I came across the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our chief want in life is someone to make us do what we can. Really? I thought dubiously.

Eight, ten, and thirteen years later along came three such “someones,” my godkids Arielle, Michael, and Emerald. Before them, I’d written seven children’s stories; after, another eighty-five.
But before my godkids were born, I was in two 12-step programs consecutively—first, SIA (Survivor’s of Incest Anonymous), where I met an Episcopal priest who started a program he called Open Heart. I designed the logo.
Next I joined  ARTS, for women artists of all stripes: writers, painters, sculptors, graphic artists, dancers, singers, and musicians. One day a gal showed up at a meeting and shared that instead of journaling she used a comic strip to chronicle her days. So I decided to try my hand at it.
During this turbulent time, I wrote the rough draft of a memoir in vignettes that I would come to call Callie’s Ragbag. Its working title back then was A Patchwork Memoir—because it was composed of “scraps” of my writing dating back many years: essays, poems, unfinished short stories, letters, dreams, and diaries. As I said in the preface: For me writing a memoir wasn’t a choice. I’d been buckled under a burden of hidden emotional pain for so long that it became a personal necessity to shift as much of the load as I could to the page.

Before I’d moved to California at age thirteen, I’d decided that I would tell my new friends that my nickname was “Sunny,” though, given how things unraveled, I didn’t. When I began writing autobiographical short stories as an adult, I called my alter ego “Seely,” short for Selena (moon), though it didn’t occur to me at the time that again I was choosing for my name a source of light. What I didn’t know until years later—until I finally asked my mother—was that my first word was “light.” We were living in a Quonset hut and I’d pointed at the electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Extraordinary, because it has seemed to me like my life has been a journey from darkness into the light. Years ago I drew a sun face with a shadow that might as well have been a self-portrait.

Around this same time, I also took a Chronic Pain class at Kaiser hospital, having been diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my mid-thirties. One of our assignments each week was to do a drawing related to our physical pain and the techniques we were learning to cope with it.
I first began visiting Arielle (age two) after Michael was born—since mom Leia was busy with the new baby—until one day she asked wistfully if I had toys for her to play with at my house. So I bought a car seat, stocked my place with books and toys and games, and built her a dollhouse out of colored poster board; its tenants were Kelly dolls, Barbie’s little siblings.

I also made a special holiday living room with mini electric Christmas tree lights that I found at Ace Hardware as part of their electric train display.

I also bought a synthesizer and wrote her two dozen songs—about friendship, pets, nature, music, movement, the alphabet, and more, as well as a few lullabies and silly songs. One of these last involved a race among fantastical creatures. Anticipating a day when I would record these songs, I designed a CD cover:
When Arielle got older we started a scrapbook, featuring our favorite occasions and pastimes. A few of the pages I designed on my own, but mostly we did them together. I’ve included a Fun Activities category on my blog for viewers looking for creative ventures for adults and kids to share.

From the time she was a toddler, Arielle demanded that I tell her stories, which gave me the confidence when she was in second grade to write her a series of fairy tales— since she loved them especially—to help her learn to read. First I would create a list of words that contained a common letter pattern in English, like ea, ai, or tion, put each one in a sentence, then weave the sentences together into a narrative.

Years later I would self-publish these stories in a two-volume collection I call The Poof! Academy because ten of the tales are about a school for little witches, who are forever up to magical mischief.

My first proof arrived just before my birthday, the best present ever!

I then followed up with a novel about the little witches: The Improbable Journey of the Poof! Academy.  When their schoolhouse takes flight, the little witches assume it’s because they’ve botched yet another spell, little imagining that in distant magical realms there are unseen powers at work, drawing them into a mystery of far-reaching consequence.

I designed all three books myself—covers and interiors.

I created Celtic-ish trees of life to head the first page of each story in the two fairy tale volumes and a heart for the chapters of the novel. My Poof! Academy series is available on Amazon.

I bought Madame Alexander dolls for both Arielle and Emerald after starting a collection of my own and made an extensive wardrobe. These are some but not all of their apparel.
You can see a montage of more dolls in their outfits in the Doll Clothes category on my blog.

When Michael was in second grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. So I began taking him to sessions with a special ed tutor and applying what I was learning to create an early reader for him too—the Adventures of Jix, about a heroic little monster in a world of fantastical creatures (44 of which I drew, my jumping-off point being my song “Funanimals” and the CD cover I’d designed).

                                                Jix has two best friends: Pog…

                                                          …and Zazzy.

For publication I divided the 35 stories into four volumes available on Amazon.

Over the years I did lots of arts and crafts projects with my godkids. In the run-up to Christmas, I used to scour the craft stores for things they could decorate to make ornaments—wood or glass or ceramic shapes of stars, Christmas trees, wreathes, etc., that they could enhance with glitter and gems. I also bought white pillar candles that we decked out with sequins and ribbon. Below are a few of my own designs.

Years ago I created a private bower on my little balcony deck, enclosing it with flowering vines on trellises and filling it with blooms in redwood planters and ceramic pots. In one corner there even stood a wisteria “tree” a little taller than I was.

When the city decreed that my little deck had to come down because the wood was rotting—ending my garden—I started taking pictures of my neighbors’ flowers, so I would always have their colors brightening my life. I’ve included over seventy of my flower photos in my montage “Just Flowers” on my blog page.

In 2018 I designed my fourteen-page website, eagerreaderpress.com—with stories, songs, and activities for kids, as well as a serial version of Callie’s Ragbag in blog posts—and launched it the following spring.
One day I happened upon an article about how Dr. Seuss came to write the Cat In the Hat. He was approached by the director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division and asked if he could create an engaging primer—with no more than 200 vocabulary words—to replace the Dick and Jane series that had been used in schools for decades. Seuss labored mightily for the next year and a half, ultimately using 236 words.

Intrigued, I immediately wanted to see if I could do something similar, although I wasn’t going to limit myself to quite so few words; that had already been done. And so I came to write “The Oddest Egg Ever”—in rhyme—about a little girl who finds a strange egg that she imagines will turn into a strange bird but that turns into something…else.

You can read this and nine of my other yet-to-be-published stories in the Children’s Stories category on my blog.

Last spring I wrote in a blog post: “I love colorful houses…and quirky houses…and dramatic houses, as well as Victorians, provided pains were taken painting the detailing. Recently, because the Marin ‘thoroughfare’ has been under reconstruction, when the traffic is badly backed up on my way home from the pool, I’ve been swerving off into new neighborhoods I’ve never visited before. And what boggles my mind is that every edifice is different, even the most modest bungalows architecturally unique, except in the very rare instances that two adjacent ones mirror each other.”

To date, I’ve taken seventy-odd photos that readers can view in my Berkeley/Albany Houses category on my blog.

Two years ago at Christmas I sent out the holiday card above to friends and family.
For Christmas this year, I finally finished the image that was the precursor—of an Old- World Father Christmas—that I began many years earlier.