Tunes & Words for a Monday Morning

It's been another week of news that pushes us daily closer to despair, from the tragedies in Nepal and off the Italian coast to the horrific scale of police violence against nonwhite Americans, while political campaigners in both the UK and US studiously avoiding speaking civilly, seriously, and honestly of anything that truly matters. So I am pushing back against hopelessness by sharing some of my favorite videos from this year's Bioneers conference -- words rather than music today -- although also a little music to get us started from the conference's opening ceremony. Bioneers, based in New Mexico, is a nonprofit organization founded by Nina Simons and Kenny Ausubel, bringing Illustration by Charle Vessscientists, scholars, artists and activists together to "highlight breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet."

As an American living abroad, I find it both sad and painful that my country is primarily known outside its borders through facile Hollywood representations, and for the darker, nuttier, Fox-News-amplified side of American life (and foreign policy) -- whereas those of us who have lived there know that the other side of America is equally strong: the land of civil rights, gay rights, passionate feminism, proud union men and women on the picket lines, and a bred-in-the-bone tradition of volunteerism; a land of organic farms and alternative communities and tireless activists on behalf of the North American wild; a land of kind, open-hearted, and generous people from a dizzying number of ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions. The three speakers here come from my America, not the media's: the leftist, progressive American tradition that formed me; the beautiful, vast, diverse, and deeply complicated land that I still love, warts and all.

Above: Opening music and a few wise words from Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. He's from Tucson, and his music never fails to make me homesick for the desert.

Below: Writer, educator, and activist Terry Tempest Williams, from Utah, discuses "A Love That is Wild." She says, "Finding beauty in the broken world is creating beauty in the world we find," and this is so very true.

Above, Robin Wall Kimmerer, biologist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, discusses "Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass." Kimmerer is the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment in Syracuse, New York.

Below, educator, activist, and author John A. Powell discusses the need for "Beloved Community." Powell is the head of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Illustration by Charles Vess

"If we are going to address these issues around climate change, food, health, each other," says Powell, "we have to  not only think about how we're related, we have to structure our societies, we have structure our policies, we have to tell our stories, we have to engage a practice that acknowledges our deep connection and our relationships with each other."

And that's where we come in, as Mythic Artists: telling stories. For the land and for each other. Stay strong.

Art above: Sonoran Desert drawings by Charles Vess

Sad news

Neruda's writing space in Chile, from ''Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence'' by Alastair ReidNeruda's writing space in Chile, from Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence by Alastair Reid.

The Scottish-born writer Alastair Reid has died. He was best known as a poet and essayist, as the secretary to Robert Graves, and as the English translator and good chum of Borges and Neruda, ...but he also wrote magical, Yeats-like children's poems, of which the poem below is one. (He allowed me to print it many years ago in one of my first anthologies.)

I knew him in my early years in New York...and despite the enormous divide in age and experience (I was a callow young editor of paperback fantasy books; he had an office at The New Yorker), he was unfailingly kind, warm, and funny...and for some reason liked to sit with me and Beth Meacham in our tiny Ace Books offices (when he had far, far better places to be) and tell story after story so funny that we'd be literally crying with laughter. I haven't seen him in years, but I'll never forget him.

Alastair lived a remarkably full life, died at 88, and left the world with treasures...what artist can ask for more? To read some of his fine poems and essays for The New Yorker, go here.

"Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all."  - Alastair Reid

A Spell for Sleeping by Alastair Reid, published in Elsewhere Volume I, Arnold & Windling, eds, 1981



I am awed and inspired by the work of Dutch artist Theo Jansen, who creates "sand beasts," kinetic sculptures that roam on the coast near his house in the Netherlands.





Jansen's sandbeesten remind me of this passage from Caspar Henderson's essay "Rereading The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges":

Such creatures, he writes, "remind us of what is beyond dream – the real forms of living creatures that exist without human agency....For we who live in the light of what paleontology, evolutionary biology and genetics are revealing about living forms, our response to the real may – will, if we are truly awake – be one of astonishment and wonder at life's inventiveness. Even ordinary-seeming animals are marvellous in the light of evolution: the chicken, for example, is the closest living relative of Tyrannosaurus rex. Extraordinary ones make those in the pages of a medieval bestiary seem poor indeed. Compared to the leafy sea dragon (a cousin of the seahorse that looks very much like seaweed and yet also like a dragon) and the sea slug Elysia chlorotica (which photosynthesises with genes stolen from the algae it eats, and is as green as a leaf), the mythical Barometz, or vegetable lamb of Tartary, is a dull affair.

"The contemplation of natural history allows us to marvel at our place in the universe. As Charles Darwin wrote early in his career, 'If, as the poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which serve best to pass away the long night.' "

(Casper Henderson is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary.)



Dutch artist Theo Jansen

In the very short film below (by Georgi Banks-Davies & Lucy Campbell Jackson), Jansen discusses his "animals," and you can glimpse one of the smaller Standbeesten in motion.

(For a more in-depth look at the artist's creative process, listen to his 2007 TED talk here.)

The next film, "Strandbeest Evolution," from Jansen himself,  shows numerous examples of the beasts as they've evolved since 1990, with the music of Khachaturian's Spartacus.

A second cuppa with Brian and Wendy Froud...

From Trolls, a new book forthcoming from Brian & Wendy Froud

Part II of the "Around the Table" discussion with Brian and Wendy Froud is now up on the John Barleycorn site. (Part I, if you missed it, is here.) The focus of the talk is on the process of creative collaboration, particularly as regards their forthcoming book on Trolls (above)...but there are also many good insights on the creative process in general, so do go have a look. Then pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and  join in the conversation; the Barleycorn boys welcome comments from all.

"When we produce pictures of Trolls, you’re not just looking at pictures of Trolls. I would argue that actually you are looking at a landscape...literally the landscape of Dartmoor...because all of the shapes and forms are based on rocks and roots and trees, and it’s very localised. Then beyond that, not only is it a Troll, and a landscape, it’s also the World. When you are looking at a picture in terms of magic, and magical thinking, everything is encompassed in that one picture; everything!"  - Brian Froud

A cup of tea with Brian and Wendy Froud...

The Troll and the Red Haired Boy by Brian Froud

Part I of the "Around the Table" chat with Brian & Wendy Froud is now up on the John Barleycorn blog...which includes a sneak peak at a page-spread from their forthcoming book, Trolls. Part II (with more art from the new book) will go on-line next Monday. Enjoy!

"I feel that what you should illustrate is the space between the words. It's the betweenness, the otherness, that gives depth and dimension." - Brian Froud

Growing into your work

An early version of Paradise Now by Jacqueline Morreau

From Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"Writer Henry James once proposed three questions you could productively put to an artist's work: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he/she succeed? The third's a zinger: Was it worth doing?

"The first two questions alone are worth the price of admission. They address art at a level that can be tested directly against real-world values and experience; they commit you to accepting the perspective of the maker into your own understanding of the work. In short, they ask you to respond to the work itself, without first pushing it through some aesthetic filter....

"But it's that third question -- Was it worth doing? -- that truly opens the universe. "

Two Women by Jacqueline Morreau

The art in this post is by Jacqueline Morreau and Jeanie Tomanek, two women I find enormously inspiring, whose creative work has these things in common:

Demeterssearch by Jeanie Tomenek1. It is beautiful, mythic, emotionally resonant, and intellectual compelling.

2. It is created by artists doing their most powerful work in their maturity (they were born in 1929 and 1949 respectively), despite a youth-obsesssed media/arts culture still uncomfortable with older women.

1.) It answers Henry James' all-important third question with a rousing "Yes!"

Above and to the left,"Two Women" and "The Divided Self" by painter/printmaker Jacqueline Morreau, an American born artist now living in London. You'll find her website here, and an article about her in the JoMA archives here.

Above (to the right) and below: "Demeter's Search," "After with Beagle," and "Planting Moon" by painter/poet Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia. You'll find her website here, and an article about her in the JoMA archives here.


I'm reminded of this quote by the great Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849), which I understand better and better every year:

"Since my sixth year I have felt the impulse to represent the form of things; by the age of fifty I had published numberless drawings; but I am displeased with all I have produced before the age of seventy. It is at seventy-three that I have begun to understand the form and the true nature of birds, of fishes, of plants and so forth. Consequently, by the time I get to eighty, I shall have made much progress; at ninety, I shall get to the essense of things; at a hundred, I shall certainly come to a superior, undefinable position; and at the age of a hundred and ten, every point, every line, shall be alive. And I leave it to those who shall live as I have myself, to see if I have not kept my word."

All rights to the art above reserved by the artists.