Seven Stories – Newcastle UK

My trip to the UK (The North) We set out from London with the usual circus of roundabouts and wrong turns. Our GPS was inhabited by the voice of a sage who intoned Toward the North after every minor instruction to go left, right or straight on. So Toward the North we went, until we reached the fringes of Newcastle upon Tyne. I liked the place immediately upon seeing the massive steel sculpture which heralds your arrival to the city. The Angel of the North is an uncompromising and immense presence, totem like and just a little reminiscent of a crashed plane. But no, the outflung wings are of an angelic figure standing as if from the beginning of time, featureless and unyielding. It did indeed feel as if I was entering the realm of the Bearded One while turning, Toward the North as instructed by our wizened electronic master. That evening we walked through the city. It was Saturday and obviously the night for couples to go out on the town in their best, while blithely disregarding frostbite. I could not help feeling this place has a profoundly unique way of life and with it, a great deal of vitality. Being somewhat less vital and frankly unpleasant in our elastic waisted travelling pants, we turned in early so as to be ready for the main purpose of our visit. The following morning, we found our way into the Ouseburn Valley; a former industrial area which has undergone urban renewal. Seven Stories which somewhat poetically, is a seven story Victorian warehouse located within the valley. The building has undergone a massive renovation to make it fit for purpose as the National Centre for Children’s Books. We were met by Carey Fluker Hunt who had graciously come in on a Sunday to give us a tour.   I felt bad about interrupting her weekend until at a certain point, as we climbed Rapunzel’s tower, I realized she was very happy to spend her free time here. I quickly saw why. There is a school of thought which states that once you know how a thing is made then its magic is lost. That may be so with sausages and the law, but cannot be further from the truth with books.   The current exhibition was Michael Morpugo, ‘A life in stories’ one of Britain’s best loved story makers and this unique exhibition showcases, for the first time, the notebooks and manuscripts that became the classics we know today including War Horse, Private Peaceful, Kensuke’s Kingdom and Farm Boy.  The entire fourth floor or was it the fifth …either way, the floor was turned over to a display of Morugo’s final art, writings, roughs and all the familiar trappings of a work in progress. Now I say familiar, because this has been my life for many years now. However as a child who would not let a day go by without some kind of visual record … or heaven help me a poem, this stuff is gold. The thing which niggled at me while we perused each display, was what an enormous gift it is to see the humble, unpolished, homely, tea and biscuit stained reality of how books begin. Whenever I watch someone who loves picture books look at a new offering, there seems to be a practiced ritual. It starts with the stroking of the cover. Next is feeling the book’s weight and dimensions as they take in the face of the book, its font, its design, its personality. Then there is a ritual opening of the book with its wafting paper smells… those less inhibited will go right in for a sniff at this point.  Following this, an assessment of the paper begins; shiny or creamy or matt or toothy or glassy smooth …mmmh, a curled finger to lip… and they have not even begun to read yet. My point is that a published book is a minor miracle on a number of levels. It stands at the end of an extraordinary process involving the skills of many people. I would have found it immensely heartening as a child to see the scrawlings from which a book is born. I might have learned an important lesson as well, about the time and effort it takes to shape an idea in order to achieve something satisfying, elegant and simple. And that something wonderful can emerge from that tiny idea. I might have even finished that poem … or not … probably better- not. The display Bears! Is physically and literally a walk through the woods, a beautifully conceived and engaging exhibition of bear related books, art, marvelous toy bears and other bear quirkiness right down to bear prints on the floor. Seven Stories even invites you to bring your own bear for the journey (Mine came in my folio). Such details attest to the thought which goes into these exhibitions where the possibilities of the themes are well explored. I will often make puppets or dolls of the characters I am creating. Their world can expand into book trailers or plays. But here I saw it from a different perspective. Children dressed as bears and running across bear prints or resting in a bear cave. They were experiencing and expanding the story of the book in their own terms. If the object of the exercise was to engage on many levels, then I would say ‘job well done!’ The attic of Seven Stories literally tops it off for me. Carey explained that before the renovation, this space was the abode of pigeons and ankle deep in bird poop. An image which I found only added to the atmosphere of delight. The massive beams, giant rustic wooden chair, fairy lights, and dress up racks promising snorts of amusement. It is a genuinely magic place, inspired in concept and generous in execution. Later we sat down for coffee on the first floor café. Carey talked about the history of how Seven Stories was the vision of Elizabeth Hammill OBE and Mary Briggs OBE . It did not always exist in a bricks and mortar sense and it was the thanks to these two inspirational women that it all happened. Sadly, I was there on a Sunday and therefore missed the most important part, their Collection. This contains such treasures as; most of the material in the Michael Morpurgo exhibition, as he donated his entire archive in a recent show of support. It also contains a significant amount in the Bears exhibition including Barbara Firth’s entire archive for Can’t You Sleep Little Bear – sketches, final artwork, the lot. Additionally Martin Waddell’s manuscripts and much more. Carey explained how they work with the original materials as a starting point to curate their exhibitions and that the role of saving this material for the nation is at the heart of what they do in their position as the National Centre for Children’s Books. It was a shame not to see the Collection, but I do believe it makes the perfect excuse for a return to Seven Stories. As I went for one last look before leaving, it struck me how they allow children to explore the material in their own way within the Seven Stories environ. Evidence of creative hands are everywhere from the wooden book seats to costumes to glass book lights flying overhead in the atrium and even strange watercraft in the canal behind.   In addition to all of this, Seven Stories reaches out to schools. I loved our visit to Newcastle and Seven Stories, and cannot recommend a visit highly enough. We then piled back into the car to drive   through the moors- the electronic sage insisting…Toward The South.

Visiting my agent Ronnie Herman – New York City

We approached New York, guided by a GPS and car horns. This was to be the last leg of my tour but was already proving to be the most animated.

Central Park People watching in Central Park lived up to expectations. I was elated to see fur coats, horn rimmed sunglasses and ladies schlepping Pomeranians in handbags. One lady in particular stood out; she was quite elderly with a shock of white hair and was wearing an orange quilted parka over orange pants. She gave the impression of a single scoop vanilla cone. Accompanying her was a large dog, also orange coloured, but I’m sure he was natural. I had noticed them both on several occasions during my walk and wondered whether her delightfully boisterous dog was a little deaf … never mind. Then we came face to face on the path when her dog promptly sat on my foot and looked up at me with the face of a seal waiting for a fish. We fell into conversation and I pointed to the very long queue outside the National History Museum, where we had planned to spend the day. Now, when a stranger offers to take you to a secret way into a museum, do you go? The answer is always ‘Hell Yes’. If your significant other is making ‘that’ face he or she makes, it is still ‘Hell Yes’. I’ve had much more experience following strangers, ‘so this is my area of expertise, pumpkin!’ The lady in orange gestured for us to follow and I marched briskly alongside with my disbeliever in tow, through the park entrance and over the avenue. We passed by the tail of the long queue and went down the flank of the building to the planetarium entrance. If we went in here, the lady explained, we could buy tickets to the museum and go on through -no queue. In fact it was virtually empty.

We waved goodbye, bought our tickets and with a sense of personal victory began the marathon of the National History Museum. Meeting my agent I had previously communicated with my agent by email and phone but now I was to meet in person.

I intended arriving bearing a gift and even considered a beautiful iris in a pot, but then I thought the better of it. I was still getting used to the subway. I eventually stood at the entrance of her apartment building explaining myself to the doorman, when it dawned on me, that I’ve never known someone whose apartment had a doorman. I suppose there is always some apprehension at a first business meeting, but this was different. There was cheese on the table and art on the wall that Ronnie had herself painted so this would definitely go well. If only there weren’t so many topics and so short a time.

Ronnie and Me.

After a very pleasant dinner with Ronnie and her husband, we said our goodbyes and strolled down Central Park Avenue. It was late and the sidewalk was empty but for a handful of French speaking people deep in their coats and hats. We found our way down onto the subway platform. It was a typical tiled wall cavern, which seemed to have changed very little since built. Only the tiles were softened by some layers of paint and residue.

As we stood waiting, the arched stairwell began to fill with noise of a large group who began to file down. It was the French speakers we had seen earlier. They looked up and down the platform and then formed a loose circle around a bearded man who held his hand up. Complete silence followed… and then they began to sing. It was a French folk song, complex and beautiful. They had obviously rehearsed a lot and full of confidence they sang. Some smiled, some strolled a little around the perimeter of the group, one lady faced us as she sang, enjoying our stupefied faces. A faint rumble began to intrude, announcing a train’s imminent arrival. Hearing this, the bearded conductor quickened the pace, and then some more, so that the song drew to a complete and sudden close just as the train pulled in. We clapped quite wildly as they bundled on the train … and then … that was it, an empty station with just the two of us. I’ve tried quite hard to remember the tune but can’t, of course. Cest la vie, but what an incredible thing to have witnessed.

Amazing Art

When you visit a major venue like the Museum of Modern Art for the first time, you come away with many impressions and a few surprises. I had not expected to see the very famous Frida Kahlo. It was tiny, but the frame was an extraordinary choice and made the painting a jewel in a jagged red and mirrored glass setting. I loved that. But I was perplexed at not finding a Calder sculpture, you know, one of those big steel things with the mobiles on top.
But this is New York and as fate would have it, I was walking our host’s dogs past Gramercy Park one morning when I noticed some familiar shapes in primary colours suspended over the trees. In the middle of the park was a Calder which I now hurried towards only to be met by a pair of tall locked gates. I was rattling these in the hope of getting in when a couple appeared on the other side. They explained that this was a private park, which they had snuck into and now couldn’t get out. We laughed at one another through the bars and I walked on leaving the couple to their fate. A Calder locked in a private paradise … or perhaps an artistic spider’s web?
  The view from my Manhattan bedroom window… and my other host in New York – Lucy.  

Marble Island – QLD Australia

When you ought to be wearing glasses, strange forebodings and wishful thinking lie over hard geography like a vapour. The senses do what they can, but the head wins every time exploiting the opportunity to make a fiction of the fogbound world. Over the bay from where we lived, on the crest of a hill lay an empty field of startling and lush green. It had no purpose but to make me sigh heavily as it swam before my eyes. Every morning, grinding my teeth I walked to school with a tantalizing vision of the Lost World before me; Northbridge Golf Course. I never did go there, in truth I didn’t even learn it was a golf course until much later. We left Sydney too soon for me to explore…and we sailed north, where, as the coast crept by, a new Xanadu hove into sight; the islands of the Capricorn coast.

Seeing land come up slowly from the sea is immensely evocative. From a distance, the shapes of the hills do not seem solid yet, more like sections of blue cellophane, darker where the landforms fold and intersect. The Duke group was hanging on the horizon, full of promise. Everything was out there just waiting to happen. But sail boats are slow and progress seems to be counted in inches when the destination is in sight.  A dozen possible adventure scenarios hatched in my head during the hours between landfall and arrival. Arriving at Marble Island in the late afternoon we let the anchor down in the lee of the island’s lofty hills, along with a great quantity of chain.  A notorious six meter tide scoured this region, pouring through the channels between the islands. There was a sense of precariousness about the anchorage, the sweeping volume of water and uneasy currents. It was a place to visit briefly and then move on. However, I was full of anticipation and wanting to explore in detail.

We hurried ashore to make use of the remaining daylight and headed for the only habitation; a small cattle station. The current caretakers welcomed us warmly and all the grownups quickly settled in to talk; isolation it seems creates an appetite for conversation. Stories were exchanged, one still with me, was of the tragic death of two women on the island; both were wives to a previous caretaker. The first wife had fallen from the island’s marble cliff in a horse riding accident, and the second had drowned while rowing a small boat in the same bay we had just anchored in. As the conversation went back and forth, I saw my chance and sidled outside to look around.

The light was ebbing quickly and while my eyesight was never good, there is something about twilight in the tropics that makes the evening light seem even denser. The wind dropped and the air was somehow thickened with humidity and the rank sweetness of vegetation.  I walked out in no particular direction and climbed over and under the fences. Crossing the dusty ground and feeling my way in bare feet, gathering nearsighted impressions as I went. A few seconds of heavy drumming was the only warning I had, of the approach of an animal. Even in this dim light, I instantly registered the shape of a bull. His hide was jet black crowned with pale crescent horns over a low and swinging head. He propped only a few metres from me; a surprise that might as well have dropped from the sky. I turned and ran like a jack rabbit to the closest fence, scrambling through with the bull right behind me. Wide eyed, I made my way back to the house, sticking to the fence line for security as there may have been other things the size of small cars that I missed.

The caretaker couple saw us off with a gift, a large bag of limes. It was dark as we dragged the tender over the wide shelf of reef and rocks which fringed the bay and then rowed back to the Rosa-M. Onboard we drank hot and sugary lime juice of which I had more than was good for me. Sick perhaps, but there would be no scurvy here. We made way early the next morning and were already some way off the island when I woke. The anchor chain had grumbled all night, telegraphing into my cabin the shape of the rocks below.  I squinted as the island receding into the distance, the sun shining golden onto the face of the marble cliff, warm drifting skeins of colour over a cloudy sea. It looked like some kind of paradise, a postcard version of itself, the fabled realm of Myopia.

Julie Danielson – Connecticut USA

As committed and dedicated as writers and illustrators are … the people who help promote our work equally deserve our recognition. I recently made acquaintance with Julie Danielson of Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast, someone I personally want to recognize here. “I do this because I enjoy it. My thoughts on a book will be the same whether the book comes from the publisher, the bookstore, the library, the author him or herself, or a long-forgotten, dusty, cobwebbed corner of a shelf in a used-books store.” Extract from Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast – Link Here Connecticut We set off to our destination, only four hours drive away. By this time the snow had begun to fall in earnest. After driving past the fifth accident we decided to change to lower ambitions somewhat and settled for a closer motel. This was near the University of Connecticut, where I was to meet Julie Danielson of Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast Blog the next day. My first view of Julie was through the large glass windows of the archive room where precious things are kept. Julie was ghosting backwards and forwards in the otherwise empty room, ferrying items in white gloved hands. After the gentleman at the desk confirmed that the lady in the room was indeed Julie and with some waving and gesticulating through the window, she emerged and together we went off to the uni cafeteria for lunch. Julie was at the university to research the James Marshall Papers at the Dodd Centre and it was my good luck to have met there. It was delightful to hear about her blog and as anyone who has started their own blog knows, there is a huge amount of time and effort involved. Yet Julie’s approach has a simplicity that belies the quality of her offerings. Her words to me were that she continues the blog as a hobby, just like some people might paint or knit … there is no schedule and she only posts what she likes. The thought came to me much later that integrity will always show in any endeavor and Julie has a decade of top shelf blogging to prove it. We discussed our children, the work she was doing here and the experience of driving in the spring snowstorms … I noticed then, it is hard to admit to living somewhere called the Sunshine Coast, where the main road hazard are galas eating the windscreen wiper rubber off your car. It was well worth the trial by snow to meet her and see this beautiful campus. I do however feel a need to embellish my rubber eating galah story, a little, my neighborhood never felt less punk. Even the seagulls are enormous here  

(Our first breath of cool weather this morning and with it that feeling that everything changed overnight)


German SCWBI – Munich Germany

Onwards to Germany. How a person chooses to travel must surely count for something … when the destination is reached.   I had an entire day of watching the Alps as our train travelled through the Brenner Pass from Bologna to Munich. It gave me hours to anticipate arriving in a city I have never seen and yet had heard so much about from my German parents. It also gave me hours to draw and write, which seems to go very well with train travel. During the journey, my visual diary was haunted by a fellow traveler with coat and suitcase. Eventually I arrived in Munich, with rather more baggage than my Birdwoman and wearing a far less stylish coat. Despite my family history, I personally was a stranger to the city. However it was my good fortune to have made the acquaintance of Patti Coughlan Buff the regional advisor of SCWBI Germany/Austria before setting out. I owe a debt of gratitude to Patti, Twyla Weixl, (myself), Andrea Bildstein, Ibi Addey, Emily Schoenbeck and Tracey Jaffert from SCWBI Germany for welcoming me so warmly. As we settled in on a very lovely Munich morning, to work our way through pizzas the size of hub caps and discuss the seemingly universal joys … and otherwise, of working in children’s literature. Discussions soon turned to the challenges of being a creator and facing the difficulties of seeking a publisher, of making inroads into the industry, of accessing the market and promoting a product, challenges which are all shared. It is one of those truly difficult realizations we must face, that making the work is just the start. The reality that creators have to learn how to wear a dozen other hats while riding a unicycle and juggling flaming lions is something that can cause groans of despair when authors and illustrators get together. Sharing this knowledge is one of the enlightening things of being a member of industry bodies such as SCBWI. If only I had been able to sit and ask questions of folks like these when I started out twenty years ago … I might have started juggling much sooner.We finished up with coffees and sharing works in progress. Later I was treated to a surprise tour of Munich’s French Quarter by Twyla. The idea was to do a little drawing and end up either at someplace that served beer or ice-cream. I hoped for both but in the end was happy to settle for Twyler’s encyclopedic knowledge of her adopted city and some spectacular ice-cream. While most of my time in Germany was spent in Munich, a little side trip was arranged via an invitation of Sanne Dufft (SCWI Germany/Austria regional illustrator coordinator) to visit her beautiful home town of Tuebingen. Our accommodation was unusual in that it was a hospital and research institute for tropical diseases. It just so happens that rooms are also available to travelers which was somewhat ironic in our case, as we hail from the subtropics and have been punctured by an astounding array of blood sucking insects. I was tempted to offer my body to science there and then, but not at the risk of missing dinner with Sanne and her family. I had seen her new book Magnus and the Lion at the Bologna Book Fair and so was very keen to meet her and hear about her experience as a published German illustrator. We hoed into big, pale, delicious spring asparagus and compared stories. The following day we went about drawing in the old part of town. Something I could not help but notice as we traversed the little streets of this roman built town, was Sanne’s deep sense of connection to her city and her culture.

(Julia and Sanne)

The question of such connections were much on my mind as we said farewell to Sanne and Tuebingen . Driving back to Munich, I recalled a story my mother had told me, of how she had once been seized by the impulse to ride to the Polish border on her bicycle … just to stare across into another country. This brought me right back to Munich, a small feathered woman endlessly travelling across the pages of my journal and the reason I had come to this part of Germany. My mother had been orphaned here soon after the war ended. I went to the district she had lived and found a beautiful street of four story buildings which overlooked a steep wooded embankment next to a small and clear river. Through the bare branches I could glimpse parts of the city’s rooftops and church spires. All around me were deciduous trees with new tender leaves and tiny flowers in impossibly soft grass. All of this was exactly the kind of pretty European scene I was expecting, with its graceful buildings and people out in the streets each evening, charmingly glowing from that excellent local beer. The city is rich in cues for a sense of Heimat; a feeling for the place one hails from. However this same city presented very differently to my mother’s eyes 60 years ago. Her only desire was not to stand and look across the border into another world, but to step over the boundary and never return. That is what she eventually did and it was a brave act. The fact that life is precarious was a lesson she had not missed, nor my father for that matter. I have always envied people who have a sense of belonging. Doubtless my migrant background has something to do with this. However, I also think there was a gift in my sense of loss, which was the necessity to respond creatively to the question of making oneself at home in the world. Picture books taught me this – the meaning implicit in imagery. The language of emotion and connection, the lesson that sense can be made of the world and in that effort, a place for ourselves can be won. No matter where we are.    

Eva Breuer Art Gallery

A short and courteous email arrived recently – asking if I am still painting and where I am showing. In typing out an answer, I spent the afternoon thinking back over my time as a painter and remembering some of the people I have met. One such memorable person was Eva Breuer. Eva was renowned for her art savvy as a highly respected gallery director/art dealer and I had the privilege of her selling my paintings.

(Girl at old piano)

She once asked me to donate a painting to the Westmead Breast Cancer Institute auction. My motivation was personal; a number of my family members and friends had been affected by cancer. Besides, it was common knowledge that Eva had been fighting cancer herself.

Portrait in striped sleeves

(Portrait with striped sleeves)

By whatever coincidence, I had recently completed just the right piece, ‘Portrait with striped sleeves’ the image of a girl on the verge of womanhood. Sadly, Eva passed away from cancer in 2010 and her gallery closed its doors.