Monday, August 11, 2014

Mabel P. Beefensqueeter at your service

Mabel P. Beefensqueeter, surly imaginary FAQ line assistant, returns.

While Miz Lisa goes off to celebrate her upcoming birthday, I, Mabel P., have been left to deal with a sudden onslaught of imaginary FAQs and a kind invitation from friend and fellow illustrator John Lechner to take part in a game of blog tag with other creative types.

John is a talented art director, animator, children's book author/illustrator, and comics illustrator based in Boston. His weekly webcomic, Sticky Burr, is a really fun and wonderfully drawn adventure. He also is an art director at FableVision in Boston.

John tagged Lisa to write about her creative process after writing a post about his own.

Since Lisa is probably in the South of France somewhere, eating bonbons, I, Mabel P., have researched her archives and, armed with information about her artsy fartsy days, will do my level best to write about her work in her absence by answering four questions. I will be expecting a bonus after this.

What am I working on currently?

Madam has just finished writing and illustrating a children's book about the mishaps of a flying squirrel, titled Sabrina: A Great Smoky Mountains Story. From what I hear it will be published early Spring 2015. 

The next project is a graphic novel for an older audience (YA and adults) about a 15-year-old boy during The Great Depression. It is based on stories Lisa's dad and others have told about what it was like back then, but the characters themselves will be fictional.

The book is still in its early stages, and since Lisa has not published a graphic novel before, she plans to create the whole book before even attempting to send it to publishers. Who knows, she may even publish it herself, either as an online project or as an eBook. It will be filled with music, strange characters, a planned shotgun wedding, and a game of cat-and-mouse.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Lisa builds puppets for her books. When I say "puppets," I mean animation-style puppets, the kinds similar to the ones used in stop-motion animation films such as "Coraline," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and the upcoming "The Boxtrolls." These kinds of puppets are created with a kind of posable skeleton frame called an armature. After the armature is made, it can be covered up with silicone, foam, fabric, or wool. The armatures' simplicity is based on how much it will need to be posed. If it's going to go through a lot of torture (more poses, causing wires to become fragile), a more durable armature is built.

For "Sabrina" Lisa made a wire armature and covered it with felted wool. It held up reasonably well, considering. She has built soldered brass ball-and-socket armatures for other projects. 

Her editor sent her a frozen flying squirrel for reference. The goal was not to make a super-realistic flying squirrel, but since Lisa had never seen a real flying squirrel up close and personal, the specimen was good to have. 

" 'Allo, daffy English kniggets and Monsieur Arthur-King, who has the brain of a duck, you know! I wave my private parts at your aunties, you cheesy lot of second hand electric donkey bottom biters."

Why do I write what I do?

Hell, I don't know why Lisa writes what she does. Why are you asking me? Oh, wait—you didn't ask me. Uh, okay, I'll try to answer for her since she's in the south of France eating bonbons and cavorting about naked in the countryside.

Why does anyone write what they write? Probably because there's something eating away at you that you just have to get down on paper. Maybe the world is pissing you off and you want to give it a good talking to. Maybe you just have a burning desire to tell a good story and have people in your clutches for a few minutes, hours, or days. Maybe you're good at writing and you write to pay the bills. Maybe you know how good it feels to escape into a story. Maybe you just can't do anything else.

Based on what Lisa pays me, Mabel P. Beefensqueeter, I can tell you she ain't doing it for the money, pal. 

What is my writing/creative process?

Become obsessed with a character you've created in your head. Build a world around it. Scratch out ideas of what this character looks like.

Take naps.

Drink caffeinated beverages. Take walks, or better yet, walk your dog.

Start writing things down. Write more stuff down. Think yourself immensely clever and laugh at your own dumb jokes.

Move the cat.

Make sketches of some of the different scenarios in the book. If it's a picture book, Lisa writes the manuscript first but will draw character sketches as she writes.

Figure out how to pace the story. Where should it slow down? Where should it speed up? Do quick little thumbnail sketches.

Small and scratchy scratchy thumbnail sketches for Sabrina.

Proceed to full-sized sketches. Put together a mock-up of the book, send to editor. Wait to hear back for comments. Argue over requested changes. Make agreed-upon changes. Send a revised PDF to editor, who gives the okay to proceed to final art.

Photograph the puppets.

Digitally paint the backgrounds and merge with puppet photos.

Rescue puppet head mauled by cat. Re-felt.

Send PDF of completed book with art in place to editor. Wait for comments. Argue over comments. Make agreed upon changes.

Collapse into puddle of exhaustion. Wait for book to be officially published.

* * *

Next up in our game of writer/illustrator tag-a-go-go is Linda Davick

Lisa's friend Linda is a wonderful author/illustrator based in San Francisco. Years ago they both worked at the same publishing house in Tennessee. Her children's books include her most recent, I Love You Nose! I Love You, Toes! and she illustrated the wonderful counting book series by Janet Schulman: 10 Easter Egg Hunters, 10 Trick-or-Treaters, 10 Trim-the-Tree'ers, and 10 Valentine Friends.

And so, without further ado, here's Linda's blog. Keep your eyes peeled for her creative process blog in the next few days.

Tag! You're it!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Look out, below!

Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last.
The book art is done…for now.

For those of you following along at home or wherever you are in the ionosphere, exosphere, or whatever sphere you happen to inhibit, you will notice something a little different about my beloved Dudley the flying squirrel—the protagonist in my latest soon-to-be-published picture book. HE'S NOW A SHE!

My editor and I went around and around over what to call this book, and we're still grappling. But for now, the working title (and working cover art) for the book is "Sabrina." It may or may not change. Such is the world of publishing.

How, oh how was Dudley wrested from my grasping clutches? Well, my editor had an idea, and after some angst I had to admit it was a good idea. The scientific name for Northern flying squirrels, which is what then-Dudley-now-Sabrina is, is Glaucomys sabrinus. And so the name Sabrina seemed like a natural fit. I like the idea of having the protagonist be female, even though it doesn't matter all that much in this story. We need more girl heroes in our culture anyway.

So that's that. I still think of her as Dudley, though. Old habits are hard to break.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Put a hat on it

I seem to delight in creating pissed-off animals wearing hats. This particular squirrel does not like wearing an acorn helmet.

Seriously. This hat thing is getting out of hand.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What really matters

I came across this email from a friend, sent a few months ago:

I gave Squawking Matilda  to a new grandmother, and her thank you note included:

"In fact, I must confess that I've read it to Mother [who has Alzheimer's], who enjoyed the story and lit up when she saw the illustrations." 

Didn't know if you realized how many different kinds of people you make happy with your work. Congrats on the new flying squirrel book!

While I slog through finishing the artwork for the new book, finding this meant the world to me right now. (Thanks, Cindy!)

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Warming up for today's work load.

I like skaters.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


When life gives you puppets, you make Frankensquirrels.

All work on the squirrel book and no play makes Lisa a dull girl. It seemed that mix-and-match heads were in order. All of the sculpted heads were used for other various projects. Logic told me they should be popped onto the felted squirrel bodies.

The one that kind of has a John Waters head appears to be bursting into song, maybe "If I'd Known You Were Coming I'd Have Baked A Cake."

Why, yes, working on this book IS making me slightly daffy. Why do you ask?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Today's burnt offering

Sometimes a guy just can't get any sleep.

(Detail from one of the book illustrations.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What fresh hell is this? He's puny. He's flabby. He gots big, goofy eyes.

And now, gentle reader, we approach the stage in the bookmaking process where the illustrator goes screaming off into the good night.

They don't call it work for nothing. It might look like it would be a lot of fun to create a book, and sometimes it is. But mostly it's jaw-grinding, forehead-mashing work. Sometimes I'd rather stick hot forks into my eyes. And I'm at the stage where I'm about to jump salty (a bit of slang from the 1930s which means I'm about to lose my temper, mind, heart, soul).

Sometimes I can work at a painting and work it and work it some more, and it feels like it's going nowhere. I try one thing, I try another. I get frustrated and wonder if Van Gogh was on to something by cutting off his ear.

This is my eleventh book. You'd think I'd be used to this by now. I am not used to this by now.

I take a break. I come back to it later. I put the offending piece of art away and start another while remembering advice from my mom when I used to drive myself nuts doing the hated algebra homework as a teenager: Take a break, you're getting too upset over it.

Usually it works. But patience isn't always my virtue.

And I still have a long way to go. This damned picture book is 48 pages.


In other news, some of my paintings and puppets will be on display in an exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center called "Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children's Literature."
The work will be on display June 15 through September 14. 

I'm so pleased and flattered that my work will be included with this exhibit. I've lived here for 26 years, having moved from Ohio in 1988 to work for a publisher based in Knoxville.

Come by if you can—the museum is a very cool place. It is located in downtown Knoxville at 601 South Gay St.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Behemoth has arrived

It's my studio, and I'll cry if I want to.

I am now the proud owner of a big honkin' Cintiq 24HD. Yes, I did it. I saved my pennies and bought a beautiful big screen that I can draw, paint, and edit photographs with. Brudda, do I love this thing.

I have a smaller one I bought eight years ago, good for its portability. But I didn't use it as much as I had hoped, mostly because it wasn't a big enough screen for me to work comfortably with. 

This one, measuring 24 inches diagonally across the screen, is just right. 

I'm kicking into high gear producing the art for the next picture book, one about the misadventures of a flying squirrel named Dudley. The posable puppet/doll squirrels are completed, along with their various switchable heads of varying expressions, and I'm photographing them now (ah, yes, that's what those studio lights are for in the above shot).

On the Cintiq screen in the above shot you can see the digital work for one of the first poses, Dudley falling from the sky. The blue background drops out and Dudley will be placed into a digital painting.

I'll be sweating it out for the next few weeks, to be sure. 

Meanwhile, shenanigans continue in the studio:

Thomas claims his territory.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Notes on a Great Man

It is something to have wept as we have wept,
It is something to have done as we have done,
It is something to have watched when all men slept,
And seen the stars which never see the sun.

My dad passed away last week. He was 93. It has been a long 11 years since he was diagnosed with dementia, especially long for my mother, who was his primary caregiver for most of it. He was able to live at home until last December, when his gall bladder, of all things, had to be removed. After the surgery he was unable to regain his strength, and we had no choice but to place him in a nursing facility where he could get the care he needed and which none of the family was able to provide on our own. 

It is something to have smelt the mystic rose,
Although it break and leave the thorny rods,
It is something to have hungered once as those
Must hunger who have ate the bread of gods.

We celebrated his birthday in March, but we noticed a marked decline in his health and behavior. He was eating much less, barely anything, in fact. He wasn't interested in the chocolate treats he'd so loved throughout his life, nor was he interested in even a sip of scotch, a favorite drink. He constantly asked when he could go home, which broke our hearts, yet we understood that often times Alzheimers patients ask to go home even if they are home. They are searching for the place in their past life where they felt safe, secure, and at ease.

I compiled his music on an iPod for him to listen to. Dad had been a great reader, but now was unable to make sense of pages of text. Very little seemed to interest him now, but at least his music seemed to soothe him.

A week or so later he stopped eating completely. Our family was asked if we wanted a feeding tube inserted; we didn't, and knew Dad wouldn't have, either. It was horrible watching him fade as we still questioned if we were doing the right thing. I hate this fucking disease.

For a while he was drinking fluids, but then he stopped that, too. Hospice was called in, and all of his children came home to be with him and Mom.

To have seen you and your unforgotten face,
Brave as a blast of trumpets for the fray,
Pure as white lilies in a watery space,
It were something, though you went from me today.

My sisters and my brother were with him most of the time while I stayed with Mom and tried to comfort her best I could. One day all of us—Mom, myself, and my four siblings—all sat in his room. It had been a long time since we had all been together like that. We talked and laughed and reminisced and consoled each other, and I believe my dad heard us even though he was deeply relaxed from the Xanax prescribed by hospice for his comfort. As the hours passed, one by one his organs began to shut down, but his heart refused to cease beating.

I talked to him, telling him what a wonderful dad he was, how I was living the life I wanted to live and was surrounded by love, how lucky our family was to have him. And he gazed at me, and I saw such a look of deep love and kindness, and was humbled. 

To have known the things that from the weak are furled,
Perilous ancient passions, strange and high;
It is something to be wiser than the world,
It is something to be older than the sky.

Dad always taught his children by example, and even as he neared death we believe his lessons continued. My firstborn sister, always the fearless leader with her checklists and will to complete a task, was taught that not everything can be controlled and completed on a timetable. She laughed when she told the story of how a kind person at the nursing home saw her waiting at Dad's side for the inevitable, saw her frustration over her inability to end his struggle, and said, "Maybe you should open a window to let his soul escape." My sister, willing to try anything, did so, only to have a small avalanche of snow which had built up outside the window pile into the room (an inch or two of snow had fallen the previous evening—rare for April, even in Ohio). 

My brother, the only son, was taught by my father in his final days that even though their relationship had been a struggle, my dad deeply loved his son and wanted the best for him.

My second sister was taught the same lesson about control, and that sometimes it must be relinquished in order for life to progress.

My third sister, terrified of death but no stranger to it after having lost a dear friend to cancer not long ago, and myself, afraid of living at times, were given the greatest gift of all from my dad. The two of us were present when he took his last breath. We gripped each other's hands and held onto Dad as his breathing slowed, and my sister gave words of encouragement to Dad as he prepared to leave us. I mostly studied his face, my voice stilled by this profound moment, this parting gift he gave to two of his children—possibly the two who needed it the most. I watched his breath leave him and felt his soul depart, as did my sister, and it was beautiful and peaceful. I have never witnessed childbirth, but I'd imagine it is as deeply profound and life changing.

In a time of sceptic moths and cynic rusts,
And fattened lives that of their sweetness tire
In a world of flying loves and fading lusts,
It is something to be sure of a desire.

Because of his final gift, I was better equipped to deal with the difficult days after his passing. I saw many relatives and friends not seen in a long, long time, and was comforted by their love and respect for Dad. I saw him in his coffin and understood completely that what I saw before me was not Dad, but a kind of cocoon from which he had flown. 

In the days after his death, a red-breasted robin came to visit. He pecked away at my mother's garage window, charmed by his own reflection in the glass or perhaps entranced by what he thought was his perfect, unattainable partner. We watched him from the kitchen window, dancing away on the window sill.

Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
Let the thunder break on man and beast and bird
And the lightning. It is something to have been.

Rest in peace, Dad. You did good.

"The Great Minimum" by G. K. Chesterton is a poem about gratitude. We are grateful for the life Dad lived and the joy he brought to us and others around him.

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