This is my copy of Strega Nona.
As 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.
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.