A New Hobby in the Bag

In 1568, Mary Stewart arrived at the doorstep of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor looking for some help.  Mary was fresh from a controversial straight-from-the-soap-operas marriage to a man who may have murdered her previous husband, had kidnapped and imprisoned her, and was just the right kind of divorcé who could make a group of angry Catholic Scottish lords demand an abdication and force their queen into exile.

It seems she may have also spent a fair amount of time posing for portraits. Mary, Queen of Scots. National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Protestant Elizabeth I was not particularly happy to see the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who might have, from a certain point of view, had a legitimate claim to the English throne, so instead of being strictly helpful, Elizabeth decided to imprison Mary.

It wasn’t exactly a harsh prison we’re talking about here. Basically, she just had to spend her time in comfort at the various estates of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She didn’t have the freedom to go outside unsupervised, but she did have nice furniture, a full domestic staff, and a lot of time on her hands.

She also made a friend. Talbot’s wife, Bess of Hardwick, seemed to get along with Mary pretty well and the two spent many, many, many hours embroidering together. I have no idea if Mary was particularly good at embroidery before her imprisonment, though she was surely familiar with it, as it was a common pastime of the 16th century woman of a certain class. I do know that she got pretty good at it during these long years of her life. I also know that if you find yourself suddenly stuck at home for a long time, it’s good to develop a hobby.

As we come upon nearly a year since life in my corner of the world went completely sideways due to the pandemic, I can look back and see some good things that came from spending a little more time at home and a little less time rushing about. One of those is a new hobby, begun more or less because I had too many plastic grocery bags on my hands.

Woo hoo! I figured it out!

First, let me explain that I have long been dedicated to the reusable shopping bag, not only because it uses a lot less plastic, but because you can weigh one of those suckers down with a gallon of milk, three bottles of wine, and a giant cheese wheel big enough for Thomas Jefferson. Then you can just sling it over your shoulder with as little effort as the world’s strongest man pushing a locomotive, and saunter to your car. Also, you don’t end up with bags and bags full of bags and bags waiting months for someone to remember to take them to be recycled.

But when the pandemic hit, two things happened around these parts. First, the grocery stores stopped allowing reusable bags because, obviously, such bags are notorious for virus transmission. It’s probably safest if you don’t even see a reusable bag.

Second, the recycling center that processed plastic shopping bags shut down operations for a while. I’m not sure why this happened, but it led to the buildup of a large number these bags in my house. I had an easy solution, though, because I have a couple friends who use the bags to make these really cool plastic sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness. I even knew how to cut the bags and make the plarn (plastic + yarn) they used to do the crocheting.

If I see you leaving the grocery store with colorful bags, don’t be alarmed, but I will probably follow you to your car.

I dutifully made plarn, setting aside just the scraps to one day be recycled, and reached out to say I had it for anyone who wanted it. And that’s when a very kind friend instead said, “I’ll teach you how to crochet.” It took some time, but I had plenty of that. It also took some dedicated YouTubing and a Zoom tutoring session, but I finally got it.

So now, in my year of forced social distancing that has contained a couple stretches of actual quarantine and has at time felt a little like imprisonment, I have crocheted sleeping mats out of plastic grocery bags. I’ve even started asking friends for their bags so I can do more. Because developing a new hobby really does help.

It certainly helped Mary, Queen of Scots. When asked by an envoy from Elizabeth I how she was passing the time, Mary said that “all the day she wrought with her needle, and that the diversity of the colours made the work seem less tedious.” I get that, too, because after crocheting rows and rows of brown, gray, and white, I get ridiculously excited to get to use a bright blue or orange or yellow.

If you have any interest in learning how to make these, I found this YouTube tutorial particularly helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr_WHW_tGSE&t=742s

And Mary used her needlework well. Between 1569 and 1586 when Elizabeth finally went ahead and had her beheaded, Mary and friends produced a vast number of embroidered panels, many of which contained secret messages and emblems. Collectively they came to be known as the Oxburgh Hangings because they made their way to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, where some of them can still be seen today. The panels contain birds, elephants, plants, and all kinds of natural and symbolic scenes.

My work mainly contains wobbly stripes. It probably also won’t be on display for the public more than four hundred years after my death. But that’s okay, because I’m hoping that someone will get some good used out of my efforts. And I know it has helped me pass the time this year. It’s good to have a hobby.

&%#$@!

In 1884, seven-year-old German-born Rudolph Dirks immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in Chicago. A gifted artist, Dirks began doodling comics at an early age and as a young man he moved to New York to seek out employment as an illustrator. Before long, he was hired onto the staff the New York Journal.

At the time, the New York Journal was in a heated circulation war with the rival New York World, which contained one of journalism’s first featured Sunday comic strips, The Yellow Kid. Dirks’s editor asked him to create a comic strip that would compete.

Wilhelm Busch’s Max & Moritz. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reaching back to the tales of his childhood, Dirks created Katzenjammer Kids, based on an 1860 illustrated children’s story Max & Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, which tells of a pair of truly naughty boys who engaged in a series of brutal pranks and, in the grand tradition of German stories for children, wound up dying gruesome deaths.

The Katzenjammer Kids, whose names were Hans and Fritz, didn’t share the same terrible fate, but they were naughty. The comic strip consisted of their many shenanigans as they made life terribly difficult for a cast of adult characters that included, among others, their mother, a shipwrecked sailor, and a school official. These adults were sometimes, understandably, frustrated enough to say words that weren’t suitable for Sunday comics.

Hans & Fritz, the &#%’n #^%#s. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dirks came up with a pretty clever solution for that. When his characters were wound up and so frustrated they couldn’t think straight enough to reach for better words, they said things like “%&$#!” instead.

The term for this handy little tool in the comic artist’s kit became official in 1964, when Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker coined the term “grawlix” in an article he wrote for National Cartoonist Society. By then the cartoonist’s version of audio media’s bleep had been in common use since its initial appearance in Katzenjammer Kids in the early 1900s. And I for one, am grateful for that.

I’m not a big fan of profanity in general. I don’t use it much either as a writer or in my personal life. It’s not that I’m particularly shocked or offended by it and I don’t step too far out of the way to avoid it in the writing of others. I’m just aware that profanity seems to be the thing I reach for when it’s probably not the best time for me to speak.

It pops into my head, and if I’m not careful out of my mouth, when I’m angry, frustrated, exhausted, and irrational. When I write fiction, I do occasionally bring a character to that point and in those moments, a well-timed, and rare, use of profanity may be the best way to express his or her emotional state.

But for me, I find I’m usually best served by taking a deep breath and a step back to think about whether or not I need to communicate my feelings at all and if so, how best to do it. After all, according to some estimates, there are nearly a million words in the English language. Even if 800,000 or so of those are essentially obsolete, that still gives me a lot to work with.

Even with all of that at my disposal, I have found it difficult to put together the right words during these past few weeks of unrest in the United States. I’m angry of course; also worried about the future of the nation if we can’t redirect righteous anger into rational conversation and actionable solutions. Oh, and there’s still a pandemic, I think? I kind of just want to say, “&@#%$!”

But then sometimes . . . Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I chose not to post to my blog last week because I realized that probably wouldn’t be that helpful for anyone. I didn’t know what words to send into the blogosphere. I had no comfort to offer readers who are likely feeling some of the same things I am and who maybe aren’t even ready to find comfort. I have prayed a lot and have found a great deal of personal peace in that, but I’m aware not everyone who stumbles across this blog views prayer in the same way I do.

So, a week later I still don’t have the right words. Because even with a million to choose from, sometimes the right one just can’t be found.  Maybe we need some creative person to invent a new term for us. Or maybe we all really do just need to say a collective, “&%#$@!”

And then take a deep breath and a step back.

Plastic Faces and Great Hats

On November 5, 1854 French tailor Alexis Lavigne filed the world’s first patent for the mannequin, though by then he’d been perfecting its use for a number of years and had displayed a prototype as early as 1849 in the Industrial Expedition in Paris. As the industrial revolution had begun to make itself felt and the metric system took over most of Europe, Lavigne understood the shifting of the clothing industry away from individually tailored items toward those which could be mass-produced.

Armed with a flexible tape measure, which he invented, Lavigne set out to study human body types and measurements and produce mannequins that could approximate them, reducing the need for large numbers of fittings and increasing productivity in the fashion industry. And that was a pretty great use for mannequins.

This mannequin doesn’t creep me out, but it would still probably look better in a dress than I would. Image by AnnaliseArt, via Pixabay

Known in the fashion industry as Professor Lavigne, the founder of the famous French fashion school ESMOD, the inventor was not the first person to ever make a vaguely creepy fake person, even for the purpose of modeling clothing. Dating back to 1350 BC, King Tut had a mannequin of himself tucked away in his tomb, that some scholars have suggested may have been used for assembling fashionable pharaoh garb.  

Of course, plenty of artists, too, including Marie Tussaud modeled life-size, and much more lifelike, sculptures of people. When mannequins began to make their way into the department stores of the twentieth century, they became more lifelike, too.

Materials changed from wax to papier-mâché to plastic and female mannequins went from busty to boyish and back again to reflect trends in ideal body shapes. Headless busts gave way to pronounced facial features complete with realistic hair and pouty lips, which then became bald and faceless forms or even unfortunate mannequins who had once again lost their heads.

I would not look as good as this fake person does in this real hat. But I would occasionally blink. Image by KRiemer, via Pizabay

But regardless of the trend, there’s probably always been something just a little unsettling about mannequins. As lifelike as they can sometimes be, mannequins don’t move. Instead they openly stare at anyone passing by in a way that is so unnatural that in the right lighting, or on the set of a horror film, it can appear frightening. They are the silent observers, who in some ways, are just a little bit superior to their human counterparts.

Mannequins are more fashionable than most of us, are much better at holding that perfect awkward pose to best show off their hemlines, and they are completely comfortable in their clothing choices. They’re slimmer than most of us, slightly more ideal in proportion than most of us, and they always look good in hats. They are these disturbing, often quite pretty, pieces of art that stand in the place that should be occupied by people.

And now they are going to restaurants and baseball games, occupying even more spaces that should belong to living and breathing human beings.

Apparently in Taiwan, where baseball is in about as full swing as any of us is likely to see this year, the stands are filled with mannequins. And at least one popular restaurant in Virginia is seating stylishly-dressed mannequins at tables that would otherwise remain empty for social distancing purposes. And yes, even though mannequins are notoriously bad tippers, if you go, they will probably still be served before you.

This family is all ready to go to the hockey game. But I can’t tell if they’re excited.

I suppose it’s a creative solution to the problem of discomfort created by empty spaces once occupied by people. Humans are social creatures by nature, and even the most introverted among us often crave communal experiences. But I’m not convinced that this is a great use for mannequins because regardless of how good they look in hats, I don’t think they can give us that.

Instead, I fear we will find ourselves surrounded by frozen, emotionless faces made of plastic and will be reminded even more starkly that the community we crave is at home in its pajamas.

And I think we might all feel just a little bit lonelier for it.

So, I’m curious. What do you think? Would you want to dine with mannequins? Or watch them sitting in the stands cheering for your favorite teams in your stead?

Puzzled Over the Novel Corona Virus

At the start of the 1930s, life looked pretty gloomy here in the United States. What had been a roaring economy had experienced a collapse of the magnitude that sent a lot of previously employed people scrambling to get by. Like so many others, that’s when Frank Ware and John Henriques suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands.

puzzlemania
Just some of the social distance shenanigans that have occurred in my living room in the last few weeks.

I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that particular dilemma. There are, of course, lots of “essential workers” maintaining critical supply lines and taking care of the desperately ill. Many of the rest of us are fortunate enough to be working from home through mandated social distance. But there are a lot of people throughout the US and around the world who have been forced into, hopefully temporary, unemployment while our world works to shake off Covid-19.

And judging from the many pictures on my social media feeds, a lot of folks are turning to jigsaw puzzles to pass the time and keep their minds sharp. That’s exactly what Frank and John did. Frank was a gifted artist and John was a skilled woodworker. Both of them liked puzzles.

And so, the two teamed up to create wooden jigsaw puzzles, ushering in the concept of irregular edges, specially shaped pieces made to order, and a par completion time, so that puzzle-doers could be extra frustrated and also have the pleasure of feeling badly about themselves.

puzzleunfinished
My current living room situation. The dog is loving his puzzle table den.

The puzzles were a hit with a public that didn’t have much entertainment budget. Frank and John filled special orders, but they also began offering many of their puzzles for affordable rent. Each one came in a black box without the benefit of a guiding picture.

As most puzzle manufacturers were looking for ways to mass produce a cheaper product, Frank and John’s “Par puzzles,” were handcrafted, high-quality works of art that found an enthusiastic audience. The rental program ended in the 1960s, but the puzzles have become collectors’ items. And the Par Puzzles Company, begun in 1932 in New York, is still going strong today, continuing to offer unique, high quality, hand-crafted puzzles for upwards of a thousand dollars each.

puzzle shelf
It is my sincere hope we don’t make it through all of these before this is said and done.

According to their website, they even still have a few in stock, which is nice, because rumor has it puzzles are becoming almost as difficult to obtain as toilet paper. I’ll probably stick to the much cheaper mass-produced cardboard version normally available from hobby and discount stores. I enjoy jigsaw puzzles when I’ve got plenty of time to do them. Fortunately, I already have a shelf full of them waiting for a time such as this.

Perhaps I’ll start a rental business.

Stay healthy, my friends!

Fake It ‘til You Make It

In 1496, Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio purchased an ancient marble sculpture of a sleeping cupid from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of the House of Medici. The cardinal must have been delighted with the artistry of the piece, its exquisite detail found only among the works of the ancient greats, because even after he discovered the sculpture was really a modern creation, he remained impressed with the young forger who had pulled it off.

The artist was then twenty-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who you probably know as the Michelangelo widely remembered for lending his name to one of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. He also painted a pretty famous ceiling.

Sistine_Chapel_ceiling_photo_2
You might have heard of this little thing he did over in Vatican City. Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair / Public domain

But before any of that, he was a young artist just trying to break into that mystical world in which it’s possible to make a living based upon one’s creative endeavors. There’s a chance that he was entirely innocent in the whole art forgery scheme and that it was either Lorenzo, or the shady art dealer he employed, who treated The Cupid with acidic earth. It’s also possible that a very young man was influenced by an unscrupulous banker who knew he could make a lot more money off a classical sculpture than he could a modern one.

Whoever was ultimately responsible, it was only Lorenzo who got the blame. While Cardinal Riario didn’t take kindly to being swindled and was quick to demand a refund of his investment, he also recognized talent. The cardinal invited Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned a piece he later decided he didn’t want. Still, the artist’s credibility began to grow.

It makes sense to learn as much as possible by studying, and at least initially, imitating the great artists who have come before. Of course, it’s also true that chemically treating your pieces to make them fraudulently appear older and passing them off as the works of a different artist is probably over the line. Way over.

But I’m not sharing this story because I think artists should begin their careers with forgery. I’m sharing it because there are times when we all find ourselves flailing a little bit, trying to learn a new task, to break into a role we want to fill, and we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, so we fake it a little until we do.

homeschool2
Hang in there. We’ll all be back to our normal routines eventually. photo credit: woodleywonderworks first drop of water is the best drop of water via photopin (license)

I suspect a lot of us are there right now. Social distancing has forced many of us to work at home, struggling to master new technologies and skills that make that possible. And for many of us, our children are doing the same. That means we’ve also suddenly been thrown into becoming teachers, facilitating academic learning for our children with the materials teachers quickly pulled together, even though many of them previously didn’t really know how to do that and certainly never expected to have to.

From what I’ve seen, and in our experience, the teachers have been wonderful. And you know, the parent have been, too. Everyday my social media feed is filled with pictures of at home learning—kids working alongside and with their parents. I’m also seeing the sharing of online resources and suggestions between parents, offers of help from educators, and yes, a little bit of commiserating when homeschool students are not as cooperative as their makeshift teachers hoped they would be.

'David'_by_Michelangelo_Fir_JBU013
I mean he really was a pretty good sculptor. David by Michelangelo. Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

For the time being, we’re all faking it a little. Will there be some academic slips? Probably. Are there some students whose home environments are not as conducive to learning outside of a structured classroom? I’m sure there are. Are there lots of parent who simply cannot work from home and are struggling to figure out childcare, let alone homeschool? Of course.

Still, I think this experience of just making it work, of doing our best to imitate the professional teachers and provide our children with whatever we can, will likely produce some beauty. It will definitely result in some unique learning opportunities for our kids, who like Michelangelo, will move on having survived the experience.

Allegedly, while Michelangelo’s star rose, his Cupid changed hands a few times, often displayed among legitimate classic sculptures because it was good. Eventually the piece wound up in the possession of England’s Charles I and was most likely lost to fire in London’s Whitehall Palace in 1689.

I don’t know anything about art valuation, but if I had to guess, that sculpture, forgery or not, would be worth quite a lot of money today. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard of this Michelangelo guy. He may have started out faking it, but he ended up making it.

And we will, too.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

Voynich2
Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

Voynich1
I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

Bobbling Along With Style

History has not been especially kind to King George IV of the United Kingdom. Many of his contemporaries described him as selfish, unreliable, and just kind of the worst. He was difficult to work with, indulged frequently in heavy drinking, and he was a pretty terrible husband. But he did have one thing going for him. The man had style.

Referred to as the “First Gentleman of England,” George had tremendous influence on style and taste in the early 19th century. He was particularly passionate about architecture and design, and spared no detail when planning his Brighton Pavilion beginning in 1787. Built after Indian architectural styles, then Prince George chose Asian-influenced décor for the interior. And it’s pretty heard to question the man’s impeccable taste when you realize that this choice led to the incorporation of a bunch of bobbleheads.

japanesebobblehead
This is a Japanese “nodder” doll that dates to the 16th century, though bobblehead-style dolls are probably older than that. Cleveland Museum of Art [CC0], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
According to the website of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a real place in Milwaukee, WI in case you ever want to go, George was pretty fond of these Chinese and Japanese dolls with oversized heads attached with string. Perhaps it was because when nudged, they always agreed with him.

Not a great deal seems to be known about the origin of the bobblehead, except that something like it seems to have developed in parts of Asia prior to 1760 or so when it started nodding its way into Europe and became a fun, manufactured product coming out of Germany.

popebobblehead
This could be yours for just $19.95 on Amazon right now. No, seriously.

The bobblehead doll’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years since its introduction to the western world, but it’s been on the rise pretty steadily now since the late nineties when the San Francisco Giants handed out 20,000 big-headed bobbling Willie Mayses to a crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Since that time an army of distorted, acquiescent, cartoon celebrities, athletes, and even Pope Francises has been released upon the world.

And though I hope I’m not selfish or unreliable or just kind of the worst, I have to agree with King George IV on this one. I find bobbleheads pretty adorable and I do have quite a few. Mine are all of the baseball variety, collected from stadium giveaways.

It’s a fun collection that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. In fact, just this past weekend, the promotional giveaway at the stadium I love the most was a double bobblehead featuring two of the all-time greats from the history of the team. Because my husband and I couldn’t go to the game, we bought our nephew a ticket so he could go and collect our keepsake for us.

cardinal bobbleheads
My husband is fond of saying, “There’s no more agreeable activity than dusting a collection of bobbleheads.”

Our prize has now found a new home in our baseball-inspired family room, which probably isn’t all that influential in the style and taste department. But it is a pretty accommodating place to be, surrounded by nodding statues in matching uniforms.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may recall that uniform has a pair of red birds on it. Also, you may recall that I don’t mention the team that wears that uniform by name when they are in the middle of a playoff run. Yes, I realize that’s not rational, but bear with me here. The last time I blogged about my favorite Midwestern flock of baseball-playing birds during a playoff run without using their actual team name, they won the World Series. I’m just doing my part.

With style.

50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.

Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.

mikey
I bet this young Michelangelo wondered from time to time if he could really be a ninja. photo credit: Gonmi Tortuga Ninja via photopin (license)

There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.

Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.

ceiling
I mean for a non-painter, it’s not too bad. By By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.

Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.

But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.

These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.

But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.

adam
This kind of iconic image is probably worth a little agony and a few paint dribbles on your face. Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.

When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.

I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.

Happy NaNoWriMo!

A Study in Buttery Bovines

When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.

It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.

Dreaming Iolanthe
Dreaming Iolanthe, A Study in Butter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In butter.

Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”

Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.

In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”

ButterCowside
If you look closely you can see a state fair goer at the window in the background asking himself, “Can I go to the beer tent now?”

And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.

Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.

I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.

ButterCowfront
An Illinois State Fair tradition since 1922.

I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?

I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.

From Amish Ladies to Sexy Vampires: One Mustn’t Judge

In 1860 the world was introduced to George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, the story of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. The book includes some complicated themes of frustrated love and the struggle for acceptance. And not to spoil the story for you a mere 158 years after its publication, but it also ends with tragic deaths. Or something like that. I don’t really know. I’ve never read it. But I’m sure it’s good because it has a bang-up cover.

eliot
Actually I kind of enjoyed Chapter 3. I may go ahead and read the rest.

The reason I mention it is because this Eliot book is the oldest solid reference I’ve been able to find, to the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In Chapter 3 (the only part of the book I have read, because you, dear reader, are worth the effort) young Maggie’s father defends the choice of reading material to which his daughter has been exposed. He explains that he picked up Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil because it had such a good binding. The man then goes on to lament, “But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.”

Versions of the expression pop up once in a while after that, and there’s probably a valid argument that the sentiment is quite a bit older. We pretty much all accept that it’s true, right? Of course the adage doesn’t always apply literally to books, but there’s little doubt that some great books are housed in awful covers and that some truly terrible books are also quite beautiful on the outside.

But as any author attempting to sell a book today can attest, we definitely judge books by their covers. In some ways that can be good. Often with only a glance we know roughly the genre to expect. It would be difficult to mix up the ubiquitous beautiful bonneted woman who invariably advertises a work of Amish fiction with the young seductress in black and red and plenty of gothic flare of a good (?) vampire love story.

Gentleman of Misfortune
A book that is obviously not a vampire romance. Don’t worry, there’s more information coming soon. For now, you can judge it by its cover.

The reading public has certain expectations. Like Mr. Tulliver, they are impressed by good bindings, and sometimes will pick up a book that turns out to be an imperfect fit. As an author facing the rapidly approaching publication date of my first historical novel, I find this to be a little intimidating. Fortunately I’ve been blessed to work with a brilliant artist, who designed a cover that completely thrills me. I hope you’ll like it, too. Or if you don’t care for it, I hope you’ll still give the book a chance, because it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.

Just 49 days until publication! (September 6th)