To be frank, the black and white photos aren’t very good. They were taken by my father in the late 1940’s of a place where I later camped as a child, the most beautiful place in the world: Yosemite, California. I never called Yosemite, “the most beautiful place in the world,” because children don’t talk that way. You just know that somehow certain places are special–and you carry that knowledge into adulthood.
My brother, parents, and I camped in an army green tent with a peaked roof and an entrance with a tied back flap under tall ponderosa pines whose needles littered the forest floor; the sweet smell drifting through the air. We swam in the cold, pure waters with Yosemite Falls as our background. And we ate our supper in the clean sharp air from plastic sectioned plates usually with a breeze that drifted through the campground and across the water. The days were hot and lazy, a golden wonder; the nights chilly, as we snuggled in our army green sleeping bags on wooden cots.
Unfortunately that was then and the now has changed. I haven’t been back to Yosemite since I was seven years old. I understand too many humans clog its natural pathways. It’s expensive to get through the gates, it’s probably noisy, and it’s become far too popular a place to visit. I’ve been told there’s a theme park whiff about it. And, of course we all know, “you can’t go home again.”
You Can’t Go Home Again is the title of Thomas Wolff’s famous novel where the protagonist realizes that he can’t relive his youthful memories or go back home to the way things used to be. And the phrase is used tirelessly to explain how you can’t revisit the past. After all, the truth about childhood places is elusive and probably should be remembered with caution; like a girl’s first love we pick and choose what we want to relive
But what most people don’t realize, is that despite the title of the novel, there’s another quote the protagonist makes, which is not so well-known: “But…why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter… All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”
So, one day I will go home again. I will go back to Yosemite. But until that happens I can do something else. I can preserve that time as a child through my art. I’m a book artist. I will make small books (known as “chap books,” and the format has been around since the 1500’s) that feature my dad’s photos of Yosemite. Because even though they “aren’t very good,” there’s really no such thing as a bad photograph of Yosemite.
A friend once said that love and art are crap shoots. You take your chances, weigh your odds, and hope for success. And it seems that in art, a piece more often than not, doesn’t turn out that way you expect and sometimes the results can be pretty awful.
But awful results are just fine–although it took me quite a while to accept that. “It’s all a part of the process,” they say, a phrase I dislike and which by now has become a cliche. And, ” you learn from your mistakes,” another phrase I dislike, but which is sometimes true. (Sometimes you don’t learn from your mistakes.)
But I like to gamble and what better way to fulfill my risk taking behavior than to make art or write. The odds are often against me for any kind of quick success, but still I plunge ahead…figuring it’s worth the risk.
A number of my ideas for art pieces come from seeing photos of other’s people’s art. I use that photo as a jumping off point to make my own piece. Sometime ago, I saw a photo that combined torn paper with wood. I love combining paper and wood and spent several hours hand-tearing the colored paper, punching the holes and getting it just right. But when I put it all together, it sucked. I tried it another way of assembling the piece and it still look awful. I huffed and I puffed and nothing happened.
So how do I change my odds? What I did, was to make another piece that combined paper and wood, and in short order it turned out great. Ironically, I didn’t even fuss or fret over the piece, and the whole gamble proceeded quite smoothly. You can see the result in the top photo of this blog post.
It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; you just have to play hand after hand in the art game to increase your odds of getting what you want. Because we don’t get it right, until we get it wrong.
Tools allow us to be artists. They give us the freedom to take that imaginary creation in our mind and turn it into an actual piece of art to be seen by others.
I can’t punch holes with my bare fingers–or my teeth. I can’t cut paper with my hands. Without rulers and straight edges, my art would look crooked and sloppy. If I didn’t have book presses or weights, I’d have to sit on my books to get them to form nicely. I collect tools, hoard them, and selfishly guard them. I do not lend them to other book artists!
Here is a partial list of the tools I use:
Awls and Bonefolders: I’ve got to punch holes in the pages of books in order to sew them. Awls have been around for hundreds of years; monks used them to make holes in their manuscripts; Venetian (Venice was the early capital of publishing and bookbinding) bookbinders used them and all we 21st century book binders use them. Little has changed in the technology. A sharp implement embedded in wood does the job.
Bonefolders: These tools make clean creases and score the pages. I also use them to burnish the paper once it has been glued to the book binders board. Bonefolders also help spread the glue, and get any wrinkles out of the paper that might have resulted from the gluing. They are usually made out of, surprise, animal bones. Teflon now seems to be the material of choice. Sharp creases are important in making books and I love running my folders down the paper to get a clean crease.
Paper Cutters: These machines are the most expensive of my tools. My two large ones, a Kutrimmer made in Germany, is known as a board and and paper cutter. I also have a guillotine paper cutter (a Dahl, made in the USA) which can cut through stacks of paper and binder’s board. To keep the blades sharp (and yes, they can hack a finger off) I have them hand-sharpened by specialist.
Weights and Book Presses: I can’t seem to stop buying weights. We need these objects to keep binder’s board from buckling, to make sure book covers close properly, and to add that finishing touch. I have loads of them. My favorites, though, made by girlfriend’s mother, are tapestry covered bricks. You can’t go wrong with a brick as a weighty object.
Book presses perform the same task. The large wooden one (the right one in the photo) was made by an Italian man who ran a book binding studio in Virginia. During the day he would play Italian opera music while his employees worked. A former employee told me that it was the most enchanting place to work. The more funky press (left in the photo) is a 1930’s textbook press. It squeaks when I turn the large handle at the top.
Other Devices: Cradles help you make a hole exactly in the fold of the paper. They help me be more precise in my work. A corner cutter, takes square corners and rounds them. I only use with soft (paper) covers. Rulers and straight edges are invaluable. They help make my art more precise, and let me run an exacto knife down the straight edge for precise cuts. Scissors and paintbrushes need no explanation.
“The practice of art isn’t to make isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow,” said Kurt Vonnegut. Good tools help me practice my art–and nurture my soul.
(For this blog post I welcome guest blogger, TeddyBoy Sinclair, my tuxedo cat, who will set the record straight on a number of misconceptions about Christmas.)
Around this time each year (winter), humans like to retell a story about an infant born in a stable on a pile of straw surrounded by cows, horses, and donkeys in some far off country. And today humans celebrate this event with food, gifts that sparkle, lights that pierce the darkness, and other stuff. They call it, “Christmas,” and it supposedly celebrates the birth of this human child, named Jesus.
This story was published in a book, called the Bible, and the authors left out some very important details, plus they got the date wrong. I feel it’s my job to set the record straight.
First off, it was some of my feline ancestors, the stable cats, who helped keep the baby Jesus warm. Forget the donkeys, goats, and sheep who were all too self-absorbed in eating and too big to cuddle with a baby in a manger. It was the kitty cats that kept him warm–and even played with him.
Another omission from the baby Jesus story includes the gifts that the cats gave to the baby, and his parents, Mary and Joseph. A whole lot of hullabaloo has been paid to three wise men who traveled some distance to bring gifts of gold, myrrha and frankensence (obviously, they forgot the catnip) to the new baby. But it was the stable cats who caught some mice and presented these rodents as gifts to his parents so they wouldn’t starve. As far as I know you can’t eat gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Cats also played a very important role in helping the parents escape the edict of baby-killer Herod, who ordered the death of every child in Bethlehem under the age of two. The 3 wise men apparently spilled the beans when they asked for directions from Herod’s court to visit a child who would one day be king and wanted to pay him homage. Herod was very threatened by this future king (he apparently had Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and issued this order of murder for all young human lads of a certain age. The cats warned the parents about Herod’s evil intentions and guided the parents to safety along a secret trail known only to felines.
And allow me to correct one chronological mistake. The baby Jesus was most likely born in the spring, not in December, so it’s unclear why his birthday is celebrated December 25. But hey, December 25 is a pagan holiday where there used to be lots of drinking, and wild dancing to chase the winter chill away, so why not celebrate a cute baby’s birth during this day. But for the record, the humans got the date wrong.
So humans, celebrate this December 25 holiday by spending time with your loved ones (both animal and human), eating good food, drinking, dancing, singing, and a warm fire (except in California where you should celebrate by embracing water).
Celebrate the winter darkness which will bring back the longer days of light. For without the darkness, we cannot fully appreciate the light.
Cats got their literary start in the scriptoriums of medieval monasteries. This relationship can be traced back to an 8th or 9th century poem, Pangur Ban (which means white cat). Supposedly written by an Irish Benedictine monk who worked in the scriptorium of Reichenau Abbey, a German abbey on an island of the same name, the author compares his scholarly pursuits with the cat’s activities of chasing mice.
“I and Pangur Ban my cat, ‘Tis a like task we are at: Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night.”
That monks and cats formed close bonds should come as no surprise. Mice and rats lived in the scriptoriums feasting on the precious, hand-copied manuscripts. Cats, on the other hand, feasted on the rodents. Scriptoriums were also solitary places, so this companionship between kitties and monks made a whole lot of sense even though monks ran the risk of kitties stepping in the ink jars and walking across the manuscript leaving their paw prints. Proof of ink-soaked paws are shown in the illustration (right), a medieval manuscript that a researcher recently discovered when going through manuscripts in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This habit exists to this day and age: cats now walk across the computer keyboard.
Many 20th century writers turned to cats as their favorite muse. Ernest Hemingway was famous for his numerous polydactyl cats, the descendants of which exist to this day at his house/museum in Florida. Poets William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell (“The cat’s asleep; I whisper “kitten” Till he stirs a little and begins to purr–) kept cats, as did the existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. (It looks like the kitty is dictating to Sartre the copy of Being and Nothingness, which Sartre claimed to have authored). The beat writer, Jack Kerouac, adored his ginger Persian, “Tyke,” and compared the death of Tyke to the death of his little brother. William Burroughs had cats all his life and seemed to love them as much as he loved illicit drugs.
Mark Twain qualifies as perhaps the most famous writer/cat-lover. He considered cats superior to humans (“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” – Notebook, 1894) and owned cats all his life.
Cats even played a role in the writing of his classic, “Huck Finn.” Twain began writing the novel in the summer of 1876 in a small study filled with cats, in Elmira, New York.
A 1905 Washington Post article described Twain’s huge bed, where he spent a good deal of time writing. The reporter enumerates the various items on the bed; the books, writing materials, clothes and numerous other objects (“enough to furnish a Harlem flat”).
The reporter continues: “He looks quite happy rising out of the mass, and over all prowls a huge black cat of a very unhappy disposition. She snaps, snarls and claws and bites, and Mark Twain takes his turn with the rest; when she gets tired of tearing up manuscripts, she scratches him and he bears with a patience wonderful to behold.” –interview subtitled “Mark Twain’s Bed,” Washington Post, March 26, 1905, page F12
The most absurd thing in life is how much pleasure I get from TeddyBoy (my cat pictured in top photo). The second most absurd thing is how I lay the burden of muse on TeddyBoy’s furry shoulders, and how well he seems to bear it with nary a care in the world.
Some children’s books stay with us forever. We even reread them as adults. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, published in 1936, is one of those books.
In case you spent a deprived childhood without reading the book, let me recap. Ferdinand, the bull, was born on a farm with other bulls who liked to run and jump and butt their heads. But Ferdinand liked to smell the flowers and sit under the cork tree. When some men came from Madrid to “recruit” bulls for fighting, they saw Ferdinand who was puffing and snorting, and butting and pawing. They were delighted and promptly declared him the is fiercest bull of all and loaded him into the cart. What they didn’t know was that Ferdinand had sat on a bee, and was reacting to a bee sting!
The day of the fight arrived. “What a day it was. Flags were flying, bands were playing…and all the lovely ladies had flowers in their hair.”
Alas when Ferdinand entered the bull ring, he promptly sat down in the middle of the ring and stared at the ladies with flowers in their hair. He refused to fight. Ferdinand was then sent home to his favorite pasture and spends his days sitting under the cork tree.
Leaf wrote the 800 words in less than an hour. The reviews of the book were so-so, and sales started out slowly before taking off and selling 3,000 copies a week. The Story of Ferdinand soon knocked Gone With the Wind off the top of the best-seller list. Many of the sales were generated by adults purchasing the book for themselves. However, the book was not without controversy. Although Life Magazine called it, “the greatest juvenile classic since, Winnie the Pooh,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer “accused the book of corrupting the youth of America.”
Ferdinand was accused of being a fascist, a communist, an anarchist, and a pacifist. (Please folks make up your mind!) Hitler burned copies of the translated book, and Spain banned it until after Franco, the dictator, died. H.G. Wells and Gandhi, on the other hand, loved the book and FDR requested a copy be delivered to the White House. Interest in the book has not diminished. Translated into 60 languages, it has never been out of print.
A good children’s book appeals to all ages. As C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.” Munro Leaf says he wrote the book because he wanted to make readers laugh and remind them that Ferdinand wanted to be true to himself. Reading Ferdinand again and again reminds me of just how valuable this lesson is.
The late author lived in a house about two miles from where we live.
TeddyBoy and I would like to thank the current owners of Ferdinand’s House, Margaret and Karol Edward Soltan, who graciously allowed us to trample through their yard for photos.
She is an English professor at the George Washington University, and he is a professor of political science at University of Maryland. The Soltons maintain the bull topiaries in the front yard, an homage to Ferdinand.
TeddyBoy, the kitty in the top photo, did a PawReview of The Story of Ferdinand. Go to: teddyboysinclair.com and read his PawReview.
As we climbed into bed each evening and pulled the covers up to our chins, a daily ritual began for my brother and I when we were kids: the bedtime story, usually told by our dad. One of those stories, a 1950’s fairy tale, was different. It was a true story about a rescued African lioness who lived as a tame tabby cat with a Washington State couple, and my grandpa Folkenberg’s visits with the young lion.
Unfortunately, this bedtime story does not have a pretty beginning. Little Tyke was born at the Point Defiance Zoo in the late 1940’s in Tacoma, Washington to a lioness who had killed her previous five cubs. The small cub nearly suffered the same fate; as her mother flung her against the bars of the cage severely injuring her. A couple, George and Margaret Westbeau, who ran a rescue ranch, The Hidden Valley Ranch, in a neighboring town, took the small cub home. A constant round of bottle feedings and bandage changes (which caused excruciating pain to the cub), brought her back to health and she grew up to be a 350 pound lioness who lived in the house like a domestic tabby cat.
She lounged on the kitchen floor, loved watching TV from her seat on the sofa, and napped with her head resting on the lap of Margaret Westbeau. When the Westbeaus took road trips with her, she would often stick her shoulder and paws out of the car window, her fur blowing in the wind. Pit stops were made and she would take care of business by the side of the road, just like a well-trained house pet, never running away. If the Westbeaus stayed in a motel they always got one room with two beds: one for them and one for Little Tyke.
Part of the Zoo’s motivation in allowing the Westbeaus to rescue the injured cub, was that George owned a freezer plant, where he stored large amounts of meat. And there could be no better home for a carnivore who eventually reached 350 pounds, than a family who owned a meat freezer plant. Lions eat up to 16 pounds of meat a day.
But there was one glitch, Little Tyke refused to eat meat, no matter how hard the Westbeaus tried. They would decrease the amounts of meat in her food to miniscule portions, but she still refused. They were so desperate that they even tried going from just 10 drops of beef blood to one drop of blood in a meal, but Little Tyke turned up her nose. There’s even a photo of George holding a cut of meat up to her while she turns her head away. They finally gave up and served her a special vegetarian diet that would take care of her nutritional needs.
It’s unclear how my grandparents, who lived in California, knew the Westbeaus. They had numerous relatives in the Portland, Oregon area, so perhaps there was a connection there. Several visits were made to the ranch; to my grandfather’s delight, but to my grandmother’s apprehension. My grandfather would rush out of the car to greet Little Tyke, who placed her fore paws on his shoulders, embracing him. They would roll around the kitchen floor playing together while my grandmother would remain in the car, or stand off to the side, stiff-lipped and frowning. The magnitude of the visits was so great that my grandfather could talk of nothing else for days when he returned home.
Little Tyke defied expectations in another respect–her species’s reputation for being fierce hunters. Her favorite companion, for example was Becky, the lamb, who often rested between her paws.
Other photos show Little Tyke with a kitten between her fore paws, a small toddler climbing on her, and day old chicks frolicking around her. She would even allow “Imp,” a black kitten to share her food. She wandered among the peacocks, who also lived on the ranch.
She was so tame, that she rode unshackled on local parade floats. Little Tyke also was featured in an ad campaign for a local auto dealership, sitting in the driver’s seat surrounded by three men. (Note the apprehensive look on the faces of the men in the back seat.)
There are also home movies, which show Little Tyke walking with Margaret in the snow and cuddling with her, cheek to jowl. In another scene, George climbs out of the river in his swimsuit and wrestles with his favorite feline friend.
Of course, Hollywood soon beckoned and that rarely ends well. Cecil B. DeMille, an early Hollywood producer and director, had Little Tyke audition in 1952 for a part in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” And in 1955, Little Tyke appeared in Art Baker’s popular TV show, “You Asked for It.” After her final TV appearance that same year, Little Tyke became ill with viral pneumonia, and died in July in the arms of George at Hidden Valley Ranch, her home. The stress of filming and the sudden change in climate from Washington to California had been too much for her. She was nearly 10 years old at the time of her death.
My brother and I loved the story of grandpa and Little Tyke, told numerous times by our dad at bedtime. It wasn’t your typical fairy tale, but it had many of its elements: enchantment, magic, wonder, and a most fantastic creature; a lion, who was so tame that you could pet and frolic with her. But fairy tales also resonant with adults…at least this adult. The story of Little Tyke delighted and shocked me and gave me a glimpse of something greater. That the improbable could happen. That miracles might be possible.
(A book titled, “Little Tyke,” was written by George Westbeau–with added chapters by Margaret in later editions. It’s available on Amazon in soft cover and on Kindle and published by Quest Books.)
When the good citizens of the small Massachusetts town, Lancaster (founded in 1653), decided to build a memorial for the 39 home town soldiers killed in the Civil War, they built “a free public library, with well-laden shelves, a reading-room, and needful appliances.” (Little did the founding fathers know, that “needful appliances” would include computers some 125 years later.)
Rather than a statue to honor them, the town’s citizens felt a Library would better commemorate the soldiers’ sacrifices.
I lived in Lancaster for about three years during my girlhood, and once a week, my mother would take my brother and me to the Thayer Memorial Library. It was a sturdy brick building, with large floor-to-ceiling windows. Bookcases lined the walls of the first floor and the walls of the second floor balcony, which was reached by a spiral staircase. Large round wooden tables were scattered throughout the Library…you could spread your books out and gaze at them, thumbing through the pages.
My favorite books included a series with “Little Maid,” in the title (A little Maid of Massachusetts Colony, A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Mohawk Valley, etc,). No, these were not books about household servants but a series of historical novels about little girls who helped fight the revolutionary war.
In these books, little girls carried secret messages to generals, helped capture English privateers, and served as spies. Of course, they performed these duties all while being impeccably dressed in pretty dresses with pinafores, and in their high button boots. Those little girls could accomplish anything, and I almost believed the Revolutionary War wouldn’t have been won without their efforts.
Memorials to fallen soldiers come in many guises, but I can’t think of a better one, than a “free public library,” to the town’s future residents. I didn’t know the names of the solders but their sacrifice resulted in a gift that was immeasurable: light-filled rooms full of books, which fostered my imagination and a life-long love of books.
I encountered librarians who didn’t mind a small girl asking loads of questions, and who helped me choose the “best” books.
As Ray Bradbury said in the opening quote; “libraries raised me.” And I can’t think of a better parent.
Enchantment comes in many forms but rarely when we expect it. So when I signed up for a two day course in making clam shell boxes at the Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding Studio in Winchester, Virginia, I anticipated a detailed workshop on the finer points of box-making. One box would have a curved spine, a more complicated structure.
Clam shell boxes, are boxes most often used to house rare, fragile, or valuable books, or loose papers. Each box is custom made and the parts of each box must be cut precisely by hand, and measured multiple times before cuts are made. Pasting is done by hand and at each stage of the structure, several things can go wrong. As often as not, your eye is the best guide.
We arrived for our two-day workshop on a warm October day. We walked on a small bridge over a Koi pond and entered a large, light-filled, high-ceilinged studio in the Virginia countryside. We listened to the music of Bach while a gentle breeze wafted through our space.
We worked in a space full of tools and books, handmade paper, and rolls of book cloth with a dedicated teacher who has restored General Sherman’s battle plans, books from George Washington’s Library, the White House, and Ford’s Theatre. Our activities were over-seen by Molly, the cat, and Bailey, the black lab.
We left the digital world behind and entered a world where things are done by hand and we could sit back and admire our work at each step of the way.
When I make a book, or a box to hold that book by hand, I feel a connection to communities from hundreds of years ago: To monks in monastery libraries who labored by candlelight; to book artisans in small shops along the Grand Canal in Venice; and to palace libraries that exist to this day. Yes, the materials have changed over hundreds of years, but the techniques are the same and many of the tools are similar. And isn’t that one definition of enchantment–to be part of a grand community of artists and artisans, going back hundreds of years?
I’ve always loved pencils. Turns out that I’m not alone. Da Vinci made some of his sketches with pencils, General Grant sketched out his battle plans in pencil, and Hemingway often made his notes with cedar pencils. But nothing can compare to John Steinbeck who supposedly began each day with 24 sharpened pencils (and a pencil sharpner) and used 300 pencils to complete East of Eden.
The modern pencil got its start in the middle ages by chance. A fierce storm in the Lake District of England uprooted a tree and shepherds discovered a strange black substance hanging on its roots. The goop was useful in marking their sheep and writing on paper. The name of the substance: Graphite…and every country soon wanted it. (Up to this time, metal styluses were used with a mixture of lead and other substances, but these lead-based “pencils” made a faint mark, dirtied the hand, and required much pressure).
In America, Henry David Thoreau’s family made the first good pencil—which was praised by artists, and could cost as much as 25 cents or $8 today. After graduating from Harvard, Thoreau started working in his father’s pencil factory where he made significant technological innovations in the pencil. This included inventing a new grinding mill machine to improve the graphite and figuring a way to inject lead directly into the hollowed-out pencil.
Today, the world’s largest manufacturer of pencils, Dixon Ticonderoga, produces 1 billion of the No. 2 yellow pencils each year.
It’s a good thing that Dixon Ticonderoga produces this many pencils, because here’s a little known secret about the pencil. The jottings made by pencil outlast those made by the ball point pen.
I have a friend who is a paper conservator at one of the world’s leading libraries. Normally, she restores historical manuscripts from past centuries where iron gall ink and the quill pen were used for jottings and sketches. (Here’s the link to my piece on iron gall ink on my web site: http://www.judyfolkenberg.com/iron-gall-ink.html)
But she recently turned her attention to the lab notes of a Nobel winning scientist made some 45-50 years ago with a ball point pen. And what a headache. The ball point pen ink bled, throughout the paper over time; red ink was even more of nightmare. The bleeding also meant that certain notations faded. Not all pens make this kind of mess. Sharpies, so far, cause less bleeding. But her writing instrument of choice for lab notes: The No. 2 pencil, she says. The notes made by the pencil will last much longer than those made by the ball point pen.
After typing this blog piece on my computer, I printed it out, and pencil in hand, made my edits. Of course I used a yellow, No 2 pencil.