As you probably noticed, I went away forever.
I am very experienced now, and very famous. I am even a star. Every day I eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favorite. I get plenty to drink too, so don’t worry. I can’t tell you how to get to the Castle Yonder because I don’t know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me.
I had another blogpost planned for today, about another teacher of mine; but Maurice Sendak died today. I have to write about Maurice.
I had the amazing opportunity to take his Picture Book Illustration class in my last year at Parsons.
It was an opportunity that I fear was wasted on the young me, even though I earned my place in the class by a portfolio review.
If I was the focused, dedicated student then, in his class, that I am now, in Eddie Langer’s class (Eddie is my wonderfully gifted swimming teacher; today’s post was going to be about him. My post about How Eddie Langer Changed My Life is coming up soon.), there is no doubt in my mind that I would now be an award-winning children’s book illustrator with dozens of titles under my belt. But, I am not. I was distracted by the fact that I would be graduating in a few months; I felt the pressure of time, and felt the need to live and work for the unknowable future instead of in the glorious present.
If I could do it over again, knowing what I know now, I would have spent every second I could in Maurice’s presence, soaking up the knowledge, wisdom, and experience he so generously shared with his post-adolescent brood.
I was one student in a class of about a dozen superbly talented third-year illustration students. Several went on to become noted children’s book illlustrators. One student from the previous year, Richard Egielski, has gone on to be a Caldecott Award winner.
Maurice, being who he was, was able to prevail upon his publisher at the time to provide every person in the class with a custom-made dummy (paper booklets that were trimmed and stapled for each of us to the size and number of pages that we had specified for our book projects). My project was a 32-page 10″ x 10″ book of this old nonsense rhyme:
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket
Nineteen times as high as the moon.
And where she was going I couldn’t but ask it
For in her hand she carried a broom.
‘Old woman! old woman!! old woman!!!’ said I.
Why oh Why do you fly so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky.’
‘And again I’ll be with you, by and bye.’
One of my double page spreads– for the “To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!” line– was meant to be turned around so the spread was vertical rather than horizontal.
When I showed Maurice my book map (a small-scale rough plan for how the 32 pages will be used, including endpapers front and back, title page, copyright page, ex libris, back matter), he stopped at the vertical spread: “I have NEVER seen this!” he said. “What a great idea!”
Looking back, I doubt that he never saw that particular violation of convention– it’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely. But how do I explain how it made me FEEL, to have Maurice Sendak tell me he had never seen that in a published book?
But I never finished my book project. I was consumed with doing my editorial portfolio so that I could start freelancing for magazines before graduation. I finished my portfolio, started taking it out to show, and got my first freelance assignment a month before my graduation day.
I always meant to revisit my picture book, but somehow never did. I still have my dummy, with fragile tracing paper drawings pasted into it; it moved with me from my parents’ home, to my first apartment in Manhattan, to our first married apartment, to our second, and it’s here, somewhere in my boxes of old art, in my little studio where I am writing this blogpost.
In my dummy, my then-recently departed grandmother was the model for the old woman in the nursery rhyme; I was seeking to honor her memory in my art. I did so in another painting that stayed in my portfolio for several years; even then, making art was a way for me to work through grief.
Maybe someday I will revisit the work I did as a nineteen year old student. Now there are so many layers and complexities and undertones I can bring to it; of the persistence of hope despite loss, the phantom pangs of old grief, and years of memories and experience and wistfulness and regret that I never would have been able to bring to the project when I was young.
We were all Wild Things then, and Maurice was Max, who led us in The Wild Rumpus.
I wish I knew then what I know now.
Of course, that’s impossible.
But the wild things cried, Oh please don’t go–
we’ll eat you up–we love you so!