Friday, May 25, 2007

More Than Words

Illustrated Letters by Liza Kirwin

Today, when personal communication more than likely travels through the ether, and the postman is relegated to delivering bills and junk mail, this epistolary art might serve a purpose.

In the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution is a collection of illustrated letters that are autobiographical works of art. Those included in this book consititute some of the true gems. John Graham wrote in 1958, "letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue."

Writing to wives, lovers, friends, patrons, clients, and confidants, letters date back to 1813. The most recent1982. Short ones, long ones, humorous and poignant. Lovely handwriting and each has some sort of illustration ... some are stick figures, others elaborate watercolor paintings, or pen-and-ink drawings. One is typewritten on one of those very old manual typewriters. Charming vignettes, caricatures, portraits, and landscapes, revealing the joys and successes, loves and longings, triumphs and frustrations of the authors' personal lives.

In the back of the book is a section with verbatim transcriptions, preserving the exact spelling and punctuation of the originals. As you might imagine, some of the handwriting is not easy to decipher.

In 1912, caricaturist Alfred Frueh writes from Scotland, "an I hae in mind to gay to dancin's chool and learn how to highland fling but I hae me doots whither I kin larn it."

Frida Kahlo writes to Emmy Lou Packard in 1940, thanking her for taking such good care of her former husband Diego Revera. Joseph Linden Smith writes to his little brother, instructing him to take the two dollars from under the arm (through a slit on the page) and give it to their father. There are far too many to list here, but some are Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Fyonel Feininger, John Sloan, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Dorothea Tanning, Gio Ponto, and Andy Warhol ... all are endlessly fascinating

In 1963 Paul Suttman wrote to his friends about changing accommodations in Italy. He writes from the bottom of a wine glass, drunk on the pleasures of Italy, and reports that his traveling companion fell off a scooter and broke her collar bone. He settled in a rustic farmhouse near Imprunetta, south of Florence, in the Chianti region of Tuscany

Here is one of my attempts at illustrated letters ... during a road trip through the wine country of Oregon. The grapes are made with thumb prints in walnut ink

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Time in Between

In the Vietnam village where her father disappeared 29 years ago, Ada sits on a bench and watches the young boys circle the streets on their Hondas. Many years ago, in a cabin (caboose) on a mountain road in British Columbia where she lived with her father, he talked about the hum of bicycles on the Vietnamese streets ... a constant whirring he said like the sound of birds taking off. She did not hear that now, only hawkers and honking horns and a child laughing.

She'd returned now with her brother to search for him on the streets of Danang. They meet people, both expat and Vietnamese, and begin to see how in 30 years the country has subsumed the effects of the horrible war. She begins an affair with an older Vietnamese artist who also knew her father. The story of her father is also the story of this country.

Touching on themes of cultural differences and the weight of history in Vietnam, David Bergen examines the ghosts that remain 30 years after the end of that period ... a companion piece to Graham Greene's 1955 work The Quiet American.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Mariane Satrapi's story tells and illustrates her childhood in Iran. Born into a wealthy and secular Iranian family, she witnessed some of the most bitter years of her country's recent history. Social madness, teenage martyrs, political and religious disputes, torture in the Shah's prisons.

This is a graphic novel and very slow reading. So much to look at and take in. With humor, Satrapi does the important work of humanizing history. She wants to join the demonstrations but is not allowed, so she and her friends invent games in the garden. Trying out different hats, she talks to God and asks him, "don't you think I look like Che Guevara?" and then, "maybe I'll be better as Fidel Castro." The next frames show her looking under tables and knocking on doors. Then a heart-breaking frame of her in bed, tears streaming down, she says, "God, where are you?"

One of the worst things for her about the fundamentalists is that they curb her budding taste for Western fashion.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Knitting Sutra

Susan Gordon Lydon has written a lovely book subtitled Craft as a Spiritual Practice. After knitting a turquoise chenille sweater to help a broken bone in her arm "knit", she searched for a perfect silver button and a medicine man for her arm.

On a Navajo reservation, she met a community of women who live by the proceeds of their craft in a unified cycle of livelihood, art, and spirituality.

Laborare et orare
Work is prayer

Many members of Simon's group of bookaholics are also knitters. Most mornings I enjoy browsing (with coffee and sunshine) their pages that tell about their reading and their knitting.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


We go to Anny's heritage farm every week for eggs ... most wonderful eggs, warm from the nest and in all shapes, sizes and colors. Anny raises heritage chickens ... Naked Necks from Hungary (the rooster of the flock is Mr. Pasternak); Barred Rocks and Polish Crested "like the Queen Mother with plumed hats that hang in long strands over their elegant faces"; Buff Orpingtons from England and Araucanas from South America. The little Bantam hen is a Silkie and looks like a white ball of fluff.

In 2004 Anny wrote a charming book subtitled "Tales of a Heritage Farm". She writes about her life on Glamorgan Farm on Vancouver Island. Anny Scoones is a community activist, a heritage preservationist, a farmer, a writer, a friend to writers, and the daughter of two of Canada's best loved artists. There are delightful sketches in watercolor and in charcoal by her parents, Molly Lamb and Bruno Bobak.

Merlin, the goat; Mabel and Matilda, the Gloucester Old Spots pigs; Duke, the old Appaloosa and Valnah, the young strong Russian Bashkir Curly horse whose ancestors came from Siberia roam happily about the farm.

The front meadow is gardened by a group of six mentally and physically challenged adults. With the help of a horticultural therapist they formed a co-operative and called themselves the Healthy Harvest. They gather up Duke and Valnah's droppings and dig them into their organic garden beds. David is one of the most dedicated gardeners. When asked by a tourist from England in a Tilley hat and sensible shoes, "What conditions do these extraordinary fruits prefer?", he answered, "What I know about these fruits is that they do best in the years that wearing long pants makes you feel uncomfortable."

And a couple years later, Anny wrote Home and Away. More orphans adopted from the SPCA ... Norton, a huge white animal with brown patches and Ralph, a dim-witted chocolate Labrador and a mutt named Grizzly, later changed to Fidel.

In the dedication "for Mikki" and friends at the SPCA, who will receive a portion of the royalties and another portion for the Saanich Peninsula Hospice. Glamorgan Farm is bequeathed to North Saanich as a Heritage park.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Folk Medicine in Texas

In San Antonio, we met Frances Evans, who told us about some fascinating folk remedies from early times. Some of them are still known and used today. My grandmother in Ontario taught us about mud on insect stings and spider webs to stop bleeding. In very early Sears catalogs, opium was offered as a cure for addiction.

Infusions of Healing is one of the books that Frances recommended. Joie Davidow writes and illustrates a delightful collection of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies. She gives the common names, the botanical names, and the Nahuatl (Aztec) name; descriptions of the plant, where it grows, the parts used, and the properties, and its uses.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Caliph's House

When Tahir Shah, his pregnant wife and their small daughter move from England to Morocco, where he'd vacationed as a child, he enters a realm of "invisible spirits and their parallel world." Shah buys the Caliph's House, once a palatial compound, now heavy with algae, cobwebs and termites. Unoccupied for a decade, the place harbors a willful jinni (invisible spirit), who Shah, the rational Westerner, reluctantly grasps must be exorcised by traditional means. As Shah remodels the haunted house, he encounters a cast of entertaining, sometimes bizarre characters. Three retainers, whose lives are governed by the jinni, have attached themselves to the property. Confounding craftsmen plague but eventually beautify the house. Intriguing servants come and go, notably Zohra, whose imaginary friend, a 100-foot tall jinni, lives on her shoulder. A "gangster neighbor and his trophy wife" conspire to acquire the Caliph's House, and a countess remembers Shah's grandfather and his secrets. Passers-through offer eccentricity (Kenny, visiting 15 cities on five continents where Casablanca is playing; Pete, a convert to Islam, seeking "a world without America").

Reconstructing the house immerses Shah in Moroccan everyday life. He has to deal with plagues of rats, swarms of bees, and the ever-threatening prospect of organized crime. Shah's picture of Moroccan society, its deeply held Islamic faith, its primitive superstition, and its raucous economy makes for endlessly fascinating reading. Particularly telling is his encounter with the realities of Ramadan, which seems to bring out both the best and worst in people's characters