Tomie DePaola: A Legacy in Narrative Craft

This is my copy of Strega Nona.

IMG_2546As you can see it has been well loved.

As I’m sure most of you know yesterday saw the passing of the artist and author Tomie DePaola. The tragedy is not that he passed. As the Stoics remind us, we are all mortal and our end must come. No, for DePaola much of the loss is in the timing. With the modern equivalent of the Black Death running rampant anyone who simply passes on of natural causes, regardless of their impact go mostly unremarked upon and are quickly brushed aside in favor of blame-laying, fear-porn headlines and the growing lists of those taken by the CoVid Reaper.

Tomie DePaola would have been mourned with vigil and sincere outpouring of emotion. Curated galleries of his prints would have appeared in museums, and may still yet. He defined what it meant to craft a narrative in picture and word, and sometimes without word. There might have been a parade, and certainly a retelling of how he told his elementary teacher that he didn’t need math because he was going to write and illustrate books when he grew up.

If you are looking for a list of his books or vignettes about his life or his art, Google is your friend. There are those that did not let his passing go unmarked, but ever since I learned of it, I cannot stop thinking about what his work has meant to me and what he left behind.

So right now, I just want to talk about mortality.

There are two legacies we can leave in our wake: 1. The relational, who we were to other people and who they were to us, how we treated those around us, and were we connected in positive or negative ways to many or few and 2. Our craft.

The deep work required to build a skill to the point of excellence is a shrinking thing in modern society. Too many of us feel and succumb to the pressure to be everything, do it all. But in chasing this many faceted ideal, we make our own purpose unclear and never cultivate talent into craft. We lose touch with the authentic bits of ourselves that really matter, and we never give ourselves the chance to transcend the mediocre.

And let me be clear, “the World” (whoever that is) doesn’t have to know your work for it to reach a level of technical and artistic mastery that makes others sit up and take notice. My grandmother passed away late last year, and based on the numbers at her funeral you might suspect that she had a minimal legacy. Maybe in some quantity based metric she did. But all who knew her spoke of her service. Her constant attention to the needs of others was the hallmark fo who she was. And her quilts!! She made some of the loveliest, softest, most beautifully stitched quilts in the world. They are considered treasures among our family. The masterpiece she made for my wedding, one of the last before arthritis rendered her hands unable, is undergoing quilting triage at the able and expert hands of my mother-in-law who shares her talents, because we loved that blanket a little too well.

In my office sits a framed 3×5 canvas depicting a cabin in winter, a delightful monochrome painting done by my paternal grandmother that reminds me every time I sit down to work that I am an inheritor of a legacy of creativity. She was a woman so gentle and intuitive that hummingbirds would sit in her hands. Her paintings are treasured possessions among our family, not merely for their beauty and proficiency, but for the piece of her they carry into the future.

If either of these women had said, “Well, I don’t have time,” or “I’m just not that creative,” their families, if not the whole of society, would have lost out on an example of what it means to strive to develop oneself and examples of what expression channeled by skill can manifest.

The world, most school age children of my generation, and those of future generations can thank Tomie DePaola for doing the same. For learning craft and technique and applying it again and again in ways that were not always successful, but left indelible imprints on those that experienced them. From the levity and silliness of The Popcorn Book to the wordless quiet of Sing, Pierrot, Sing he invited all audiences to feel and laugh and wonder with him. He embraced his own style when illustrating the words of others and his distinctive voice when creating his own. He illustrated the tales of his Christian faith, unabashedly loving Christmas and illustrating multiple yuletide tales.


Just a few of my newest acquisitions. Story time!

He was himself. And he was an artist. And because he simply set out to do work that he enjoyed, pursued the skill that resonated with himself, and didn’t stop he leaves us a bounty. Not only will I get to introduce my children to The Knight and The Dragon, but a tiny piece of Tomie will linger in the learning of my children and perhaps theirs. It will inform and inspire my own work, as it did my development as a child. All artists cultivate a creative lineage, master storytellers and artists that leave their mark on us as we grow into the artists we will be.

It is my desire, arrogant though it may be, to leave such a legacy. To construct a body of work, one story at a time, that others (though perhaps not many others) will cherish. The greater challenge, for me anyway, is to be the sort of person that even if unremarked on by the world, would be a touchstone of my family’s ethic. I am the recipient of the love and example of so many good people who simply sought to do good in the world, to beautify it, to make it a little more livable for those around them.

If my work is remembered with fondness because I am remembered with fondness, I think that might be enough. And if the work itself is good enough that others know it and carry it on, well that’s good, too. I think it is the change in our nature, not production numbers, wrought by humble creation– daily pursued– that brings us peace in the end.

I hope he had such peace. I hope he knew how many of us loved him and were grateful for how willing he was to share himself with us. And that his passing, despite its appointed moment, did not go unmourned or unmarked. We will miss you, Tomie.



Anika Goes to the Movies: Hamlet

I love Shakespeare. Like I really enjoy not just seeing the various adaptations (except the R&J with Leonardo DiCaprio- what a cluster that was), but reading the plays and the poetry repeatedly. I get tripped up by the meter and verse and just nibble it up.

It does really delicious things to my brain, too. Unlocks hidden gems I didn’t realize needed archaic language to give them voice. Frankly, we use more of such careful construction of thought and feeling in this day of Twitter, Snapchat, and ubiquitous emoji use. Not hating, my GIF game is pretty strong, but there are some things that need conscientious construction more than pithy retweeting.

Anyway, all that is to say that when I saw there would be a rebroadcasting of the live broadcast of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch I couldn’t buy tickets fast enough. And my husband, being a man of history and good humor and more than willing to oblige my whims said, “Great, do we have a sitter?”

Everyone knows that Hamlet, while tragic in nature and painful when done poorly and too often abridged to cater to our dwindling attention spans, is brilliant. But B.C. does the title character more than justice. There are moments when he transforms before you, and becomes the tortured prince, the betrayed friend, though he never quite reaches the wounded lover of Ophelia.

I was reminded as I drank up each line how much Shakespeare packed into each of his plays. He waxes philosophically through his characters on the perils of acting and the capacity for drama to reach into the heart and wring from it emotions not its own, the nature of depression, the ways in which human beings prey upon each other, forgiveness and whether or not it’s even attainable, the disparity between the treatment of the wealthy and poor, and I could go on.

That is all to the side of what, at the heart of Hamlet,  is essentially Shakespeare’s meditation on death itself. If there are not tears in your eyes as Hamlet bids Horatio live that the truth of what befell the royalty of Denmark and his own story might be known, then you might be robot. You should have that checked out.

Ciaran Hinds as the King’s treacherous brother is brilliant. He has such a calculating, yet noble presence that he fits every role and speech to perfection. The more so for rarely being wild and overbearing the way that many Shakespearian actors are tempted to be.

Ophelia was perfect. Sweet and maybe a bit simple, but then heartbroken, betrayed, and her insanity was so believable that for someone who struggles with mental illness it was gut wrenching to watch.

And the production crew, the artistic choices that brought out the comedic amidst the tragedy, the costumes, the whole thing was scrumptious. As sumptuous a cultural feast as I could have asked for, performed at the Barbican, for less than $20 a ticket!!

When a good cast delivers on the promise of catharsis latent in all of Shakespeare’s plays it is not a thing to be lightly passed up. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the language, the verse, the cultural and mythological references can be off putting to some. But there is a reason that nearly 400 years later we are still staging his plays and using them as fodder for our own creations.

Every time I revisit one of William’s plays or poems I am struck by something new. This time in particular it is Hamlet’s last injunction to Horatio:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, 

Absent thee from felicity awhile,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story.”

I wonder if Shakespeare here is telling us of his own responsibility, to forgo the siren song of premature death, taken at one’s own hands, and instead give life to the characters and stories that commanded his attention. Mental illness is no stranger to many creatives and Shakespeare’s understanding of depression, expressed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is so apt that I cannot believe he had no firsthand knowledge of the condition. Yet Horatio’s role all through the story, as confidant, friend, and eventual herald look so much like Shakespeare giving himself a place to stand among his own characters, taking on the responsibility to get them where they need to go and bearing witness to their pain.

In short I loved every minute of it, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you seek out chances to see Shakespeare performed on the stage. And when the movies will bring such performances to your neck of the woods on the cheap? That’s a no brainer.

Til’ next time, watch some Shakespeare, and enjoy the show.