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The Art/Music Connection: Part I

16 Sep

gallery girl

I love stories about creative people. Learning the details behind a specific artistic inspiration or collaboration always makes my heart beat a little faster. Yes, I am an art nerd, but I’m not exclusive; tales involving serendipty are also a personal favorite. Lately a story including all of these juicy elements has been unfolding around me. The story is too long for a single blog post, so I’ve broken it in half. Welcome to Part 1.

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Klee, Kandinsky, and Music: 1920

While illustrating Susie Hodge’s new book Artists and Their Pets, I learned a lot of cool art history trivia. For example, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky were friends and colleagues who had a lot in common. Along with their wives—and cats!—they lived at the Bauhaus at the same time.

bauhaus catsKlee’s cat Bimbo and Kandinsky’s cat Vaske used to study each other from across the Bauhaus campus courtyard, looking through their apartment windows.

Paul Klee

Klee and Kandinsky had music in common, too. Klee (shown above) was a violinist. As for Kandinsky (below): he could see music!

Kandinsky

In Artists and Their Pets, Susie Hodge wrote:

Kandinsky had a condition called synesthesia. This meant that he saw colors in his mind when he heard music and other sounds.

Not everyone believes that synesthesia is a thing—but really, does it matter? Kandinsky interpreted sounds on canvas as he saw them in his mind, and his work looks like music. The world owes him a debt of gratitude for opening the door to abstract art. I personally am also grateful to Susie Hodge and duopress, publisher of Artists and Their Pets, for teaching me about Klee, Kandinsky, and the eighteen other artists featured in the book.

Note: this story about Kandinsky’s synesthesia was brand new to me. I just learned it. Seriously.

Professor Violet: 1998

Way back in 1998, I was about to teach my first-ever university art course: 2D Design, a required foundational class. In a nutshell, 2D Design teaches artists how to use color, value, pattern, shape, placement, line, etc. to move the viewer’s eye around a two-dimensional composition, hopefully moving emotions in the process.

Twenty seats were filled with incoming art students who had recently arrived from all over the world. EPSON scanner imageSoon they’d begin dying their hair and piercing body parts, but in those first weeks of the fall term, they looked clean cut and bashful—except for a one or two young goths, who were ahead of the game. 😉

nervousTheir interests ranged from sound design to historic preservation of architecture. Of course, the more typical art majors were also represented: painters, illustrators, fashion and graphic designers, etc. A broad range, some of whom had no interest at all in drawing. Or 2D design. They were there to fulfil a schedule requirement, not because they  were interested in the subject. In fact, some were openly annoyed to be there. And I was completely new to teaching. It was terrifying.

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Imagine a World Without Pinterest

If the internet existed in 1998, I hadn’t found it. Google wasn’t available as a teaching resource. My colleagues were very generous with their lesson plans, but like any creative person, I had some ideas of my own that I wanted to try out. I concocted tons of homework and in-class assignments that term, but I only remember one. And it involved music.

Professor Violet’s Introduction to LINE

LINE

On LINE Day I arrived on campus armed with my husband’s boom box, a stack of CDs, and a giant box of art supplies. The students trickled in to find me organizing an array of line-making tools on the big teaching desk at the front of the classroom. Markers, every imaginable type of charcoal, brushes with pots of ink and tubes of paint, colored pencils, graphite, pastels, etc. were arranged in tidy rows.line-making toolsHanding out sheets of paper, I explained:

We will be listening to music today. Every song will make you feel a certain way. Get a sense of the mood, and then grab a tool and make a line that match the mood. Let the music inspire the line.

For the next several hours the classroom was filled in turns with classical piano, discordant jazz, opera and elevator muzak. Mimi’s aria from La Bohemme raised the industrial ceiling tiles. We listened to Phillip Glass, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ella Fitzgerald, The Talking Heads, Patsy Cline… and interpreted every song by making lines on paper.measure

michaelI was nervous. At first they all just sat there. I paced. But then, little by little, they started drawing. A gentle young sound designer from somewhere in the south—or maybe he was from California—met my eyes with a smile. His name was Michael. He had crazy long curly hair, and antique glasses. “I never knew something as simple as a line could be so expressive,” he said. And my heart melted, and I stopped pacing. Mission accomplished.

Using music as an inspiration for art is a fairly obvious prompt. Probably millions of art teachers have employed a similar technique! I don’t mean to suggest personal greatness in teaching. No way, never. It’s just that this story, which is one of my fondest professorial memories, came to mind when I learned about the bond between Klee, Kandinsky, and music… and as mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is more to this story! When you read the rest, it will all come together.

Stay tuned for Part 2 (spoiler: it involves composer Modest Mussorgsky, my son, and another drawing prompt). In the mean time: Happy reading, happy learning, happy drawing!

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Artists-and-Their-Pets*

To order a copy of Artists and Their Pets, click here!

Artists and Their Pets was written by Susie Hodge and illustrated by Violet Lemay for duopress in 2017, and is distributed by Workman Publishing.

All illustration in this post was created by me, Violet Lemay. Please do not use without permission. 🙂

 

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Gray

9 May

thinking I couldn’t let Mother’s Day go by this year without mentioning Gray, my only child, who happens also to be my occasional co-conspirator in the realm of book illustration. This ginger fellow may be taller than me now, but is barely a teenager—he turned thirteen last fall, just a few months after he contributed drawings to one of my latest book endeavors, duopress‘s 100 PABLO PICASSOS. blue period Summarizing the incredible life of Pablo Picasso for a 32-page children’s book would be a difficult task for anyone, but author Mauricio Velázquez de León made it look easy. There are 14 two-page spreads in the book, each devoted to a different topic: Picasso’s Blue Period (above), his Rose Period, the years he spent chumming with the likes of Max Jacob and Henri Matisse in Gertrude Stein’s studio (below), etc. paris The first spread in 100 PABLO PICASSOS is devoted to the artist’s early life—and this is where Gray comes in. hillside sketch Gray is DNY QR codean amazing artist—he made the above sketch, which is such a tiny sample of his overall body of work that it is laughable. In my house, storage tubs filled with thirteen years of this kind of thing are stuck in every closet and under every bed. Because of my son’s particular interest in architecture, duopress contracted then-nine-year-old Gray to doodle some famous Big Apple buildings for the web component of Doodle New York (by Puck/illustrated by Violet Lemay/2012). A handful of QR codes are sprinkled throughout Doodle New York, which are linked to downloadable coloring pages—several of which were drawn (with a blue ball-point pen!) by Gray… whose professional name is Graham Fruisen. The coloring pages are still available, but you can only see them if you buy the book and scan the QR codes. When you do, imagine a skinny, freckled, bespectacled teenager groaning with despair. “That is not my best work!” carrot top As soon as I read Mauricio’s manuscript for 100 PABLO PICASSOS, I knew I would enlist Gray’s help for the “Picasso as a boy” spread. The mom in me was excited because school was out for the summer, and I was looking stuff for Gray to do. I asked him to contribute drawings of donkeys, doves, and bulls—not Gray’s typical genre, but he was willing to dabble. My hope was that my new assistant would just draw them already! As a boy Picasso drew in a classic style, very similar to the way Gray tends to draw—but my son went the extra mile. He researched Picasso and did his best to draw donkeys, doves and bulls as he imagined Picasso (the grown up, world renowned artist) would have drawn them. The result (below) is beautiful, even if it isn’t exactly what I had in mind. But hey, this is what happens when illustrators pay their assistants with Little Debbie Swiss Rolls and blueberry freezes from the corner Quickie Mart. 100PP_boy spread Our resulting collaboration, 100 Pablo Picassos, is newly available everywhere books are sold. Click here to order your copy today! And THANK YOU, Gray! You’ll always be my baby. Mama loves you, boy. baby gray

delicious irony

3 Sep

Last February I was busy making art for several duopress books, including  Yummy Food Doodles, which, at long last, is available in bookstores. Hooray!

YFD_Cover_Med

This is an exciting announcement deserving of fancy hoopla, but all I have to offer is a blog post—so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a little about me, my association with my favorite publisher duopress, and this project’s history—in celebration, and just for fun.

ficus

first, a bit about me

My husband, who is extremely witty, likes to compare me to a ficus.

He hugs me and says, “My ficus.” Sweet, right?

Don’t be fooled. A ficus is lovely, for sure, but aesthetics factor only slightly in his analogy. As a rule, the ficus is so delicate that its leaves pop off whenever you move its pot. The ficus is super-sensitive, and that is his point.

We’ve been together for nineteen years, so I can’t exactly argue. To know me is to love me, and he loves me very much, despite my finicky nature. My skin is sensitive—I can’t be anywhere near poison ivy, oak or sumac without breaking out in a rash. It’s true, I don’t even have to touch it. Poof! Rash. My eyes are sensitive—no bad art, please; it keeps me up at night. And my stomach—my poor, poor stomach. About my gut, I could write a book.

Technically I have I.B.S., a title I avoid because it connotes all manner of disgusting imagery. Frankly, I feel that is nobody’s business. (If you want our friendship to continue, don’t make that into a pun.) After years of trying to come up with a better descriptive for my bad digestion, “sensitive” is the only word that sticks. There are entire groups of food that I have to avoid, and I don’t eat much of anything in a single sitting. I can’t, because I have a sensitive stomach. That’s all anyone needs to know. It’s annoying, and maybe even a little sad, but as far as medical issues go, at least it can be easily managed. And unlike most of my peers, I don’t have to worry about cholesterol. As a result of my health problem, I am actually super healthy! Kind of ironic, don’t you think?

and now, about the food books

Here’s another dose of irony: The girl with a sensitive stomach is developing a habit of making art for books about food. (Another topic about which I could write a book: God’s sense of humor.)

Violet InterviewThis is a still shot of me trying to make a video promo for My Foodie ABC, the first book that I illustrated for  duopress. (By the way, I hired a film student to help with that project. After months of struggling he wasn’t able to deliver, which made my stomach lurch and gave me an opportunity to practice forgiveness.)

and, the author!

My Foodie ABC was written by Puck, who is actually Mauricio Velázquez de León. Puck writes specifically for kids, but Mauricio writes specially about food for Saveur magazine, the late Gourmet magazine, and the food sections for many Lonely Planet books (including the upcoming The World’s Best Spicy Food). Yum!

MF_C-E

My Foodie ABC is charming, educational, and will definitely make you hungry. I made the art and also laid out the colors, textures, patterns and scans on every spread. Whenever I open it, my sensitive eyes are delighted. We did a great job with that book.

placemats_bookNext came My Foodie ABC Placemats, also penned by Puck. The placemats book was equally beautiful; as a bonus, it was interactive. Recently My Foodie ABC Placemats went out of print, which is sad, but it paved the way for duopress’s hugely successful DOODLE book series. duopress has produced eight DOODLE books, with more on the way.

So, that about brings us up to date.

8 doodle books

Yummy Food Doodles

YFD_Cover_MedAs I mentioned earlier, last winter, we made Yummy Food Doodles: words by Puck, art by me, and design by Charla Pettingill. We’ve been promoting it for a while because the book debuted at Book Expo America in NYC last  spring and has been available on-line ever since, but it is now available in bookstores—an announcement worthy of hoopla, indeed!

Click here to get a copy for your favorite foodie today, or, better yet, order it from your local bookstore! And… bon appétit!

pasta

working MOM

11 May

M-Day

Motherhood makes you ferocious. ~ Pat Benatar

Mothers come in all varieties. I happen to be a What-Do-You-Mean-There’s-No-School-Today? kind of mom.

It’s true. Because I juggle self-employment with motherhood, stuff falls through the cracks. Little details, like my son’s school schedule. When Gray was small, I often stood in his Pre-K’s empty parking lot staring at the locked door in disbelief. Now that he’s older (eleven already!) he generally tells me when school is out. But it’s embarrassing, showing up on the wrong day, or at the wrong time, for parent-teacher conferences and what have you. His teacher smiles but she can’t fool me, I know she is resisting the urge to raise an eyebrow.

Just this week, I couldn’t find a note that Gray brought home—something about needing money for a school picnic. Maybe I remembered reading that this was a cash-only operation. (It said that, right?)

I don’t carry cash. When notes from school come home requesting paper money, I have to remember to get cash back during one of my daily trips to the corner grocery store. Only we moved a thousand miles away from our friendly neighborhood Publix in August, and equally far from our long-time bank. Now the nearest market, a ten minute drive at least, is a mob scene. It’s hostile, quite frankly; completely devoid of Southern hospitality. I avoid it. And for some reason or other I never got an ATM card from our new bank. So even if I resumed my habit of frequenting the grocery store, cash would still be kind of a problem.Gray

Gray remembered needing six dollars on his way out the door to catch the bus. “I have to have it today, Mom.” He had that desperate look. A quick scan of house and car failed to produce my still-sleeping husband’s wallet, so I did what all mothers do: I dug deep. Remembering the stash of quarters I keep for NY State bridge tolls, I grabbed an envelope from my studio, filled it with coins, sealed it, and zipped it into his backpack next to his lunch, all within the span of fifteen seconds.

Problem: solved.

Shooing him out the door, I started the day’s work, taking hourly breaks to fold a thousand pounds of laundry, walk the dogs, and devise a dinner plan that did not involve a trip to the menacing grocery. I didn’t give the quarters another thought until Gray came bursting in at 3:30, his pockets jingling. A comedian like his dad, smiling nice and big, he exaggerated his steps so that I would hear.

“Dollar bills ONLY, Mom. But Mrs. H will take a check. She said, tomorrow is fine.”

WatertowerHis teacher thinks I am insane, but hey, Gray and I have a good thing going. We love, and he understands my predicament. In fact, he is a budding illustrator himself, and is quite prolific—we have an entire closet devoted to his lifetime body of work. A scrappy free-lancer, Gray scored his first paid assignment from my publisher Duopress at the tender age of eight, creating art for on-line activity pages in conjunction with some of the books I was illustrating at the time. Click here to see his stuff for Doodle New York, and Doodle Chicago, the latter which he made when he was nine (scroll down to the bottom of the Chicago activity pages to see Gray’s work).

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No matter what kind of mom you are, you deserve a break. Hop on over to the free stuff page at duopressbooks.com. There are tons activity pages to download and print, all for free. Become a fan on facebook and sign up for duopress’s newsletter for more fun ideas. Set out the markers and crayons, and getcha some tea and cookies. Motherhood is tough, and so are you! You are also loved, Mom, and you are not alone.

NOOK: A String of Lovely Surprises

15 Jan

When Duopress called and asked me to narrate Nook books, I was completely surprised. You just never know what life will bring. Lovely Surprise # 1: “The Invitation.”

Zenkel Practice RoomA Yeti microphone arrived at my door and I got busy talking into it, and learning how to use Garage Band, Apple’s recording/editing software. Sitting in my home office, I made some sample recordings. The result was disappointing. It sounded as if I were reading children’s books from the bottom of a well… or, perhaps, near a construction site. The underlying hum was unacceptable. Lovely Surprise #2: “The Echo.”

My hero-husband (a new hire at Skidmore College) presented my dilemma to Professor Joel Brown, chair of the Music Department. Via e-mail, Joel invited me to use a practice room on campus. Lovely Surprise #3: “Northern Hospitality” (or, “Padded Room for M’Lady”).

As soon as I got everything set up on the piano of the elegant, acoustically superior practice room at Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center, the campus ground crew’s Annual Leaf Obliteration Campaign started up outside, directly below the window. Perfect. Imagine the hum from my un-padded studio at home, times about a thousand. I called Duopress and offered to rush outside and whack them with my purse old-lady style, but my friend Mauricio talked me down. (“Please don’t do that, Violet.”) We decided to opt for patience. Lovely Surprise #4: “The Industrial Leaf Blower.” 

Joel BrownSeveral weeks after the recordings were finally wrapped up and safely in the hands of Duopress, my hero-husband took our family to Beatlemore Skidmania, a musical event at the Zankel, in which a variety of music students (solo artists and groups) performed Beatles songs. What. A. Delight. The final band to take the stage was comprised of profs from the music department—including, as it turned out, the esteemed Professor Joel Brown! His performance of Rocky Raccoon on the electric guitar was, well… electrifying. Especially for me, the old lady in the third row who was not only enjoying the music but also putting a face to the name. That’s him, on the left. Lovely Surprise #5: “Joel Brown, Literal Rock Star.”

Yesterday, Duopress called to tell me that the audio books are finally available. So there you have it, Class. Lovely Surprise #6: “Nook Books, Narrated by Violet Lemay.”

The moral of the story? Persevere! When you expect good things to happen, they will… and you’ll probably get to meet some really cool people along the way.

p.s. Again, Joel… Thank you!

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Now available from Duopress at Barnes and Noble for the Nook:

3 covers

New York Baby (by Puck, illustrated and narrated by Violet Lemay); 123 Beach, A Cool Counting Book (by Puck; illustrated by Rey David Rojas, narrated by Violet Lemay; and My Foodie ABC, A Little Gourmet’s Guide (by Puck, illustrated by Violet Lemay).

 

enjoy the rain

28 Dec

Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way. ~ Murphy’s Law

combustion*

Moments after receiving my very first really big illustration assignment — a semi-rush job — the phone rang again. This time, it was the supervisor of my (despised) day job calling to tell me to pack my bags, I was being flown to Baltimore for the weekend. The spread I’d just been assigned was due on Monday. But now, rather than happily spending the weekend in my cozy studio painting my first big splashy professional spread, I was going to be sitting in coach en route to Baltimore, where I had to work a silly trade show. Why, Universe? Why, why, why, why, WHY?!!!

My brain spontaneously combusted on the spot.

I packed my paint pots and my sour attitude and hit the road, completing the assignment in the wee hours at the Baltimore Hampton Inn. Did I make the deadline? Yes. Did the art look great? Well… yes! Did I enjoy the experience?

What kind of question is that? Of course I did not enjoy the experience. I should have been able to enjoy it, but Fate stepped in to make sure that I would be miserable instead. I was stressed beyond belief, and exhausted. If memory serves, I caught a really nasty cold on the plane coming home, so I had an irritating two-week reminder of the whole awful experience. Thanks a lot, Universe.

That was seventeen years ago.

Since then, Universe has not stopped trying to thwart my efforts to make my deadlines. All manner of interferences have cropped up. Exploding hard drives. Feverish children. Hurricanes. (Did you know, when you live on an island, you and everyone else on yours and all surrounding islands — and all residents of the state of Florida, to your south — are forced, at the mere threat of a hurricane, to evacuate, all at the same time, on the same highway? Even when you are racing against an impossible deadline, making art for a 32-page picture book out of cut tissue paper. Oh, yes.)

rain*

Last summer, while I was in the middle of a pressing four-book deadline, my family decided to move! On Life’s List of Traumatic Experiences, moving is number two, just below death of a spouse. It’s a big deal.

Did I make the deadline? Yes. Did the art look great? Youbethcha.

Here’s the million dollar question: Did I enjoy the experience?

Quite a bit, actually. It was tumultuous, but fun.

It’s taken almost two decades, Class, but I have finally accepted the fact that the world will never be a perfect place. Trouble waits around every corner. Here’s the trick: refuse to let it bother you.

It’s not sunny all of the time, so buy an umbrella that’s so cute you can’t wait to use it, and some adorable water-proof boots. Either that, or learn to enjoy getting wet.

One handful of peaceful response is better than two fistfuls of worried work.  Ecclesiastes 4:6, The Message (Eugene Peterson)

diamond v glass {opinions}

15 Dec

diamond*

Asking questions is a good habit, and it’s easy to do. The real work begins once you’ve gathered a bunch of answers. Sorting advice is tough, like distinguishing diamonds from clear Swarovski crystals. Everyone’s got an opinion, it seems, and often the opinions of people you respect conflict.

Students and new graduates struggle to weigh advice from their peers and professors, parents and professionals. I see it all of the time. Here are a few tips from your old Auntie Violet, to help ease your mind.

  • Only ask advice from people you respect. When choosing advisors, look for people who are doing, not just talking.
  • Especially in art, too many cooks spoil the stew. When you try to please everyone, you lose your edge, so stop trying to make everybody happy! Get comfortable with the fact that some people won’t like the decisions that you make. That’s just a normal part of life.
  • When opinions conflict, there are probably multiple legitimate options on the table. You can’t listen to all of them. Go with your gut.
  • When a variety of well-meaning people all give you the same advice, pay attention. Maybe you’ll still go the other way, but advice like that is worthy of consideration.
  • Making mistakes is a big part of the process, so don’t be stymied by indecision. Give yourself the grace to fail. And when you do, don’t beat yourself up. Nobody is right all of the time.
  • Always accept advice with appreciation and respect—even when you think it is terrible. The person who gave it is probably trying to help you, so be kind.
  • When ASKED for advice, take care with your response. Your words matter, a lot. They really do.

Here’s the crazy thing about advice: In the end, nobody can tell you what to do, because no one else IS  you! What worked for someone else (different personality, different circumstances) may not work in your case at all. Wisdom is earned, you have to fight to get it, and you’ll get a little scraped up along the way—so make sure to include some compassionate, Band-Aid carrying friends in your board room full of advisors.

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite. ~ G. K. Chesterton