March 25, 2004

The Sendak Thing...

In the past 4-5 months there have been a slew of interviews and articles about Maurice Sendak, coinciding with the publication of his latest (and possibly last) picture book, Brundibar, as well as a new book of his artwork, The Art of Maurice Sendak 1980-the present, written by Tony Kushner.

I'm glad to say some of the interviews are available for listening on the internet. The FreshAir Interview, the Diane Rehm Interview and most recently a video interview on NOW with Bill Moyers. The Moyers interview (especially interesting) can also be read as a transcript.

All have brought up strong memories and strong emotions for me. I would not be an artist had it not been for Maurice Sendak. Not just the picture books that I saw as a kid (and into my adult years), but also the interviews with him. His intellect, his perspective on art and life have had a deep influence on me.

I remember seeing him in a short documentary film about children's literature when I was young and being fascinated by the process of drawing and making picture books. Fascinated by seeing him draw. I remember him demonstrating a flip book, where drawings became that amazing thing - 'animation'.

So the question arises, what appeals to me about his work? Foremost, there is breadth and depth to it. There are a variety of styles contained in his illustrations. This, to me, reflects the very richness and complexity of the human experience. I've always been less interested in the artist who has 'one style' throughout a career. I just don't understand it.

He has a willingness, almost compulsion, to stretch his artform to its limit, and yet to stay within this medium of 'illustration'. Be it for theater or literature, the work is illustrating another 'text'. It's difficult to describe why this appeals to me so much. The idea of balance between tradition and experiment appeals to me. I like the growth and the limitation. I feel it in the same way that I wish to stay within the "limitation" of working in the medium of the traditionally crafted stained glass window and yet I wish to apply the widest range of graphic possibilities to that medium.

And then there are the interviews. The first key interview I read was one he did with Jonathan Cott initially for Rolling Stone Magazine in December of 1976, then anthologized in Cott's book "Pipers at the Gates of Dawn". I was 17 when I read it and this interview first set my mind to thinking about art - about making art myself. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Initially, the most appealing aspect of these interviews was reading of the self taught nature of his learning. His 'school' education was limited and mostly disdained. Yet he displayed a voracious appetite for learning, especially for learning his art - unimpeded by Academia!

This viewpoint opened up a whole new world for me. I could learn and figure things out by myself. Learning could be an active pursuit and not a passive 'taking in'. It was very liberating for the rather uptight and timid teenager that I was.

And yet I've been timid about this all these years. Just too difficult to explain, I suppose. Something along the lines of - "Why on earth would a stained glass artist be most influenced by a children's book illustrator?" I don't think I felt any shame at being influenced by such a "lowly" art form as children's book illustration. Yet I know I avoided talking about it for fear it would make a conversation too difficult. This happened most often when I discussed my art with people who seem to represent a 'higher' form of art, especially gallery people and museum people.

So, I have come to the realization, especially after this latest round of Sendak interviews, that I need to be honest and forthright about myself, my influences and, ulitmately, my own viewpoint of the world. That is what being an artist is about anyway. This man, who I believe is one of the greatest visual artists of the past century, deserves that. If I am going to publicly state his influence on my work and world view then I owe it to him to dive deep and be honest.

Posted by Tom at March 25, 2004 06:35 AM