I have a new favorite book: Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty. Saying that this is my favorite book right now does not do justice to the experience I’ve had with this book, particularly at the timing of when I read it, which happened to be last weekend. Isn’t that a large part of what makes a book so meaningful to us – the timing they enter our lives? Although I just recently read this book, it actually came to me almost a year earlier. In the fall of 2011, I attended the SCBWI Carolinas conference and met illustrator David Diaz, who was guest faculty providing intensives and portfolio reviews. In the midst of discussing my portfolio, he told me about a mentorship program that had recently been established at the SCBWI national conferences, and graciously invited me and fellow SCBWI Carolinas member and ARA, Bonnie Adamson, to join them for a weekend intensive the following month in his hometown of Carlsbad, California (which I might add -like most places in California- is full of beauty, to this east coast native) My favorite question is “What was the last book you read?” So I asked this of David, and he handed me Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. On the plane trip home I started the first few pages and quickly realized that this little book’s size was deceiving. It was intense and required more from me than I had after a weekend of non-stop discussion on the illustration and art-making process. So when I returned home, I placed it on the bedside dresser drawer with the mental “to read next” note. There it remained for two and a half seasons.
Fast forward to this summer: While packing to attend the SCBWI National Conference in LA, and it occurred to me that this book still sat in the drawer. It of course should rightfully be returned it to its owner, whom I would be seeing at the event. Ashamed about neglecting my homework, I gave myself one last task: READ THIS ON THE PLANE. So while I began this little book out of a mixture of obligation, guilt, but also the genuine desire to get my head into a place of reflective preparedness for the weekend, Doty’s prose wrapped itself around me I received every drop like a warm sponge. What begins as a moment in a museum, where the author is captivated by a particular painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem (Still Life with Oysters and Lemon) becomes a philosophical journey into the intimacy we share with objects, the permanence and impermanence of earthly pleasures. By exploring the dutch masters of still life painting, Doty captures the essence of why we are drawn to still life. At one point he refers on the painters love affair with light – and ultimately, that all painting starts with love. That stuck with me, particularly in light of the many notes I heard at the conference that weekend.
There was much talk of love inside of our work, whether that be as a writer or an illustrator. EB Lewis told us to bring to the table ourselves – our own souls and experiences, what we LOVE. Draw what you love and what you know. During his breakout session, he offered a short documentary by National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones, in which the prevailing mesaage was about how to recognize the beauty around us. The extraordinary lives in the ordinary. “By celebrating what is right with the world, we are given the energy to fix what is wrong.” Author Ruta Sepetys asked us, “What are you willing to give in order to create? What are you longing for? What do you hide?” If we are bold enough to lay bare our broken selves, then “the wind will blow through our hollow places, and someday may cool and heal a reader.” So much courage is needed to expose love and fear in order to create, but without, I’m not sure we can be successful in connecting with our listeners, our viewers. As the final keynote speaker, Gary Schmidt instilled in us this most important lesson: You will never learn to love art well until you learn to love what art mirrors better….the world. Love the world.
While travelling last weekend, I received the call that my grandmother had died. What remains?
Permanence. Impermanence. Love and objects.
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