There are many things I love: picture books, walking, weevils, ketchup, Hoarders (the TV show), large foreheads, anthropomorphism. Yeah, about that last one…it’s virtually impossible for me to look at a tree, a magpie, a spider, or my 22 pound cat and not see human emotion pooling in their eyes…or branches. I cheer when a plant sprouts a new leaf. If I drop a book, I apologize, and I would never, ever intentionally break the spine of a book. I send my love to the bees. It would seem rude not to do these things, or so I tell my therapist.
Karline’s Duck is the only book I’ve brought with me from my childhood. This is not to suggest I had other books. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the only book I owned. And…I didn’t really own it, I stole it from the Winnipeg Public Library, St James Branch, Boys and Girls Department. However, as I was not yet seven when my family moved from Winnipeg to Edmonton in 1970, I think it’s fair to suggest my parents stole it. I don’t know which one, probably my mother. She could be shifty. Or maybe I just tucked it away somewhere and it got packed along with my Barrel of Monkeys and my dear yellow blankey. When you’re moving a family of seven across western Canada in the five-seater Buick, contraband is the least of your worries. The fact remains that Karline’s Duck, so loved, so tattered, was not my book then, but it is my book now. It’s a matter of squatter’s rights. Karline’s Duck has squatted (so to speak) on my shelves for almost 40 years. I haven’t the heart to send her home now.
Here’s the thing about serendipity. You only know you’ve experienced it after you’ve experienced it. In the absence of hindsight it’s impossible to know when bits of information thrown your way are actually pieces of a puzzle until the completed picture is suddenly there in front of you.
About six months ago, I picked up a few cards by an artist I’d never heard of in a little shop specializing in art reproductions. The images stood out on the shelf like ripe apples on a tree: crisp, colourful, and irresistible. The first card was a stylized painting of a green jay eyeing a praying mantis. Very simple, but beautifully observed. I turned over the card and read the name, Charley Harper. No bells…must be a new illustrator. I bought several copies of each design, took them home and forgot about them.
At the same time, during my prowls through local bookstores, I kept running across an ABC board book that always seemed to be in front of some other book I was reaching for, or on a shelf adjacent to where I was looking. Each page was a different bird or animal, and the drawings were completely charming in a kind of retro way. I wanted the pictures, but not the format. There is just no room for chunky on my shelves, regardless of how fetching the illustrations.
As usual, my resistance was futile. I was about to give in and go for the chunk, but I thought, well maybe this guy has other books. Indeed he did, and more importantly, there was a collection of his work, recently published, and it was in stock.
Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, was designed and edited by Todd Oldham, a stylistic polymath and a man who appears to be every bit as charming and talented as Mr Harper. As I flipped through the 424 page retrospective, I was initially reminded of the the minimalist background art of Warner Brothers cartoons from the 50′s. But the retro feel of his approach does not preclude the absolute freshness of his images, so apparent in the second half of An Illustrated Life. It was at this point that the individual puzzle pieces coalesced, and I realized Harper was the same person who had illustrated the cards I’d bought just a few months ago. Funny how this happens.
Dr Seuss, from I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew
Last Thursday, I found out a friend of mine passed away. I worked with him at the bookstore for almost a decade, although in recent years our communication had languished to the point of an occasional card or phone call. Michael Richardson was a great guy: well-read, smart, sensitive, tormented, and side-splittingly funny. He died just short of this 50th birthday.
When I was in Newcastle in 1993, I encountered the art of Michael Sowa for the first time in the card section of a local shop. The card was a reproduction of an image from Esterhazy: The Rabbit Prince, but I was unaware of this fact. It was simply a picture of a rabbit in front of a mirror in black and yellow leopard skin boxer shorts, several sizes too big. The illustration was completely charming, so I picked it up, and all of the other cards by this artist. Soon after I got back to Canada, Esterhazy hit the bookstore shelves, and I fell in love. And now, 17 years later, I am happy to report Michael Sowa has not left me, or disappointed me, or broken my heart in any way. On the contrary, my love has only deepened. He is, and I say this without any equivocation, my favourite artist.
“Land awake from sleep, hares will kick and leap. Flowers climb erect, smiling from the moist kiss of her rainbow mouth. Stage Left, enter Easter and she’s dressed in yellow yolk. Stage Right, now the son has died, the father can be born. Stand Up, if we’d all breathe in and blow away the smoke. New Life, we’d uphold her new life.” ~ Andy Partridge
While you’re severing chocolate bunny heads today, please enjoy this XTC song from 1999, Easter Theatre (Apple Venus Volume 1)
And then…while you contemplate which part of the bunny to eat next, have a read of this TRUE STORY about a small brown rabbit who showed up one day at Louise McKinney Park and proceeded to change my life in all sorts of interesting ways.