December 30, 2020

My COVID-19 Film Festival

When it comes to movies and most pop culture, it may seem like compared to most people I’ve spent the last several decades living under a rock, oblivious. For example, up until this year I’d never seen the original Star Wars trilogy.

In fact, I was not sheltered under a big rock, merely quite busy raising four children, teaching French and Japanese, plus sumi-e, ink painting, to high schoolers, all while trying to fill what little spare time I could find with drawings, paintings, and stories of my own.

But as the pandemic disrupted so many people’s lives and routines this year, I found some of my habits changing too. With my youngest son’s curatorial help, I spent a number of evenings this year catching up on some of the many movies I’d never seen.

Somehow I didn’t feel content to just sit and watch the films though… Instead, drawing quick sketches of the characters as their stories unfolded onscreen became part of my attention to the film and how I processed the cast and plot, as well as becoming a little keepsake of each screening.

In all, I sketched during 26 films (and I might add, during a few Zoom sessions too, because I’d gotten into the habit of drawing whoever appeared on screen, whether up on television or a laptop).

My COVID-19 film festival began with The Lord of the Rings trilogy…

…continued on May the 4th (be with you!) with the original Star Wars trilogy…

And there were many other movies that I caught up on, as well as a few old favorites.

I'm sure you'll recognize some of them!

July 9, 2019

Sometimes it begins with a toy

“Which came first, the words or the pictures?” Author-illustrators are often asked this question about their creative process, to which I would resoundingly answer that, for me, it’s the images!

A child’s plaything is often both a gateway and a companion for imaginative adventures. Such adventures often begin even before encountering a playmate.  When a child rocks a rocking horse, they ride into a different world. When a child picks up a vehicle—a car, a train, a boat or a plane—it travels in the room, then further, into a world of their imagination.

Of course, most of us are familiar with the stories where a plaything, such as a doll or stuffed toy animal is a main character.  The Velveteen Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Raggedy Ann and Andy are classic examples. Some modern titles include The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Thomas the Train, Calvin and Hobbes, or Oblivion Island.

As I stitched appliquéd figures on a futon for a friend’s expected newborn, I imagined the child-to-be going on an adventure with his toy Chinese dragon, catching fireflies to light their way. The parents had recently moved to New York where fireflies still glow on hot, summer evenings. When the child’s mother mentioned she had been sewing a little toy rabbit for her baby, I wasn’t surprised because I had imagined that the child and his toy dragon encountered a lost toy bunny on their firefly search. The rest of the story, I wove on my mind’s canvas as The Lost Bunny.

One year when the boy’s mother was on a sabbatical, researching locally at the University of Washington, I drove over for a visit. On both ends of my trip I saw a crow sitting in the rain atop a lamppost. I noticed the little boy’s wooden train was set up for play. Later, at Christmas I gifted the little boy a small station to add to his train set. When I saw a photo of him playing with his train set included in a letter of thanks, a story chugged into motion for Follow the Crow (which I called Ride the Train in the early dummy and draft). I couldn’t wait to paint a boy begging to stay up past bedtime to play with his train and his toy dragon, and then receiving a surprise visitor through the window—a crow!

On a summer visit, I gave the boy a toy wooden sailboat to float in the nearby tide pools.  This toy, too, features in a story about a determined boy and his toy dragon searching through the dark house at night to locate his missing pirate book.

Several years ago when tending a gift booth at the Obon Festival, I bought a couple of tiny toy rabbits which had been dressed festively in cotton happi coats. They sat in my studio, as if watching while I painted. I even named them after the printed chrysanthemums, and the snowflakes printed on their respective happi. Kiku and Seppen seem to be asking for their own story. I am currently weaving together Obon Bunnies, a story in which two children, separately, purchase these two bunnies during dance intermission. I wondered whether Kiku and Seppen would ever reunite, and under what kind of circumstances.

So for me, four times a story has begun not just with an image, but with a toy! I guess you can tell I still like toys.

April 26, 2019

Torn Apart

When did I begin making torn paper collages? Years ago, I recall being busy with painting and seeing Toni Yuly’s delightful illustrations on her “Torn Tissue Tuesdays”… yet I didn’t feel a need to dive into the medium at the time.

It wasn’t until 2018, two years after my sweet husband was ripped away from my life, forever, that I attended Jennifer K. Mann’s workshop at the Illustrators Retreat on Bainbridge’s Island’s Islandwood.

Jennifer demonstrated applying gesso layers to “Stonehenge” paper. As it dried, we sorted through Jennifer’s massive paper collection and shared some of our own tissues, wrapping paper—even the security patterns printed on the interior of envelopes! Our goal was to cover our gessoed paper with enough torn bits of paper to create a sense of place. Earlier that day we'd walked through fern-bordered paths, and visited a tree house, so recreating that scene came naturally to me.

It was unusual and freeing to have no particular order to my process, other than selecting the colors and textures I felt drawn to pick up, then tearing off desirable shapes. I ended up tearing apart old sheet music, floral gift wrap, even strips of recycled brown paper towel from the studio sink!

For a while, each day I wanted to tear up different colors, textures, and then re-assemble them. It felt like a new framework for me, and not only for my artistic practice. Like an ever-changing kaleidoscope, no two images, or any two days in a life, are the same.

I had previously been painting illustrations for a story about a young boy’s nighttime adventure. Both of the boys who had inspired my young character were now living far from me, and I couldn’t see them as often as I had before, a disappointing rift.

Collage has been a fun diversion over the past year—perhaps as much a form of therapy for me as a new artistic medium!

February 1, 2019

Well red

“I have on a red dress.” My mother had written this sentence for me to sound out when I was three years old. Wearing a red organdy dress with a white lace collar my mother had sewn for me and reading this sentence aloud are among my earliest memories. Discovering the meaning of printed words felt so powerful. As my mother prepared dinner one evening, my father lifted me up and out of her way, setting me atop the refrigerator. I opened the cupboard behind me and was delighted to discover I could read the words on the label of a bag my parents had often spelled out one letter at a time. “C-A-N-D-Y…” I exclaimed, “I know what that spells!”

Red was the first color I recognized in the picture books they read to me. THE LITTLE LOST ANGEL wore a red dress in the story painted by Janet Laura Scott. And in spite of being lost, the generous little angel gives away her crown, her wings and her harp to others in need, before she finds a happy home with a childless couple.

THE COLOR KITTENS, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, busily mixed paints, trying to create green, and happily celebrated by painting “red tables and yellow chairs” after their discovery. Then the kittens “dreamed of a red rose tree, that turned all white, when you counted to three.”

Red figured prominently in many of my favorite picture books. When I began to read stories to my little sister, one of the first was Ezra Jack Keats’ THE SNOWY DAY. When Peter awakens to look out his window, his red wallpaper is sprinkled over with white cut-outs, much like the sight of wondrous snowflakes that had fallen during the cold night. Peter dresses in his red snowsuit with its elfin hood and romps through the stark white snow like a joyous exclamation mark across the pages. 

As a young mother, I recall three picture books that used red especially well and only got better each time each time I read them.

The red and green in Eric Carle’s THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR were fresh and juicy!

For the cover of CORDUROY, Don Freeman painted the toy bear against a bright backdrop of a red upholstered cushion, while the little girl who eagerly wishes to buy Corduroy wears a red coat. I cannot forget her sweet desire.

My youngest son was enchanted by Hannah Gifford’s paintings in the book RED FOX. Up against an angry dog, finding no pond frogs or field mice in their usual places, and a rabbit too swift to catch, he is unable to forage a meal for his mate Rose. It was amusing to see only his nose or his tail peek from hiding as Red rushed around like a curvy, quick comma. I  could imagine the anguish of courageous Red as, in desperation, he tries to scavenge in town to provide for his mate. Red returns triumphant with a sack that had been tossed into a trash bin for Rose, as she surprises him with five newborn red fox cubs, their red ears peeking up! The last illustration is a harmonious red family circle. Period.

When teaching English to Japanese high school students in Ono and Yashiro, Japan, I fell in love with Chihiro Iwasaki’s beautiful watercolor children in natural shades with lots of rose, yellow and blues. On the cover of her TEARS OF THE DRAGON, hot steamy red clouds frame the boy Akito (“Autumn Way”) riding upon the dragon. In the story, Akito wonders about the villagers’ tales of a frightfully wicked dragon who is never seen. He feels sorry for a creature so maligned, and wishes to invite the dragon to his birthday party. At the end of his long search, Akito finds the lonely dragon and delivers his invitation. The grateful dragon sheds tears at the trust and love of the young boy. As the boy rides back to the red-roofed village, the dragon transforms into a dragon-boat with a smooth, red hull, floating on the river of his tears.

In Chihiro Iwasaki’s illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen’s THE RED SHOES, the color is a potent symbol of obsessive passion. When a young girl’s grandmother stitches her a pair of red shoes, they become all she can think of, leaving her unable to recall the church prayers or hymns. Vanity follows her, as well as a curse of compulsive dancing. She is unable to care for her sick grandmother, or even attend her funeral because her little red shoes will not stop dancing. Eventually she prays to have her feet separated from her body. Crutches are carved for her so she can walk.  She becomes penitent and good. Here red becomes a symbol of carnal passion that is almost unstoppable, a completely moralistic tale told to urge children of the eighteenth century to turn towards the good deeds of Christianity. It is no wonder that these red shoes are reminiscent of THE SCARLET LETTER that adorns Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character, Hester Prynne, the unwed mother.

I love the way Chihiro paints a field of red to enclose a white bull in her poem, PASTURE COW. Brazenly ignoring the warnings that the bull will be angry and dangerous, the children in the story observe that the bull has kind eyes, like the Buddha.

In another story, GIRL FROM THE SNOW COUNTRY, Masako Hidaka makes a little bit of red as a reward for a kind heart. Mi-chan makes plump snow rabbits in her garden, but regrets she has nothing with which to give them eyes. She follows her grandmother to the market and kindly wipes away some snow covering the heads of the little guardian statues that they pass along the way.  At the end of their errands, a generous market woman gives her a branch of red berries for which Mi-Chan is grateful. She plucks the red berries, placing them as eyes for her snow bunnies.

These illustrations of children propelled me into sketching and drawing the children around me as often as possible when I returned from Japan. My nieces and then grandchildren became my frequent models for illustration.  I began to paint with complementary colors. Most often, in red. My nieces were born in Jiang-Xi and Hunan provinces, and I sketched them whenever I could. Red and green were so cheerful and friendly together. Even though their preferences were for pink and lavender, my first paintings of them were using rose madder pigment as they wore their red velvet jumpers in autumn, lighting the lanterns for Halloween. 

While teaching Japanese at Mt. Rainier High School, I prepared by reading the previous year’s International Baccalaureate examinations papers. In one was a mysterious story called, 赤い蝋燭と人魚 (THE RED CANDLES AND THE MERMAID). I was enchanted by Komako Sakai’s sad and lonely illustrations. A thoughtful mermaid desires her newborn to be raised in the land of sunlight instead of the dark and dreary waters of the sea, shown in heavy gouache strokes of black and blues. When she leaves the infant on the village steps by the sea, she is discovered by a childless and impoverished elderly couple who make candles for a living. The little mermaid is a bright addition to their home/shop as she paints red sea-inspired designs on the candles they sell, some of which become candles for a critical lighthouse on the hill overlooking a disastrous rocky coast.

While everyone knows Little Red Riding Hood, a more recent picture book character known by her colorful garb is RED KNIT CAP GIRL by Naoko Stoop. She longs to meet the moon. She is an adorable and earnest standout among her forest friends, the bear, squirrel, rabbit, hedgehog and owl, as she is uniquely painted in red acrylic, ink and pencil on stained plywood.

In Bomi Park’s FIRST SNOW, aside from the white, grays, black and little bit of beige-brown, the red scarf,  and the red design on the little girl’s mittens, are the only obvious color. When she rolls her snowball to the other side of the woods, she embraces all of her friends, also wearing a bit of red to warm them while playing out in the cold white, snow.

The wonderful warmth of red that Gabrielle Grimard dresses the girl in LILA AND THE CROW,  protects Lila’s heart. It brings out our heart-felt sympathy for the lonely girl longing to make friends in a new school. But even in her bright red dress the other children ridicule her for her dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes. She is dejected and lonely and so hurt by their jeers, calling her a crow. One day she is inspired, and eventually when she accepts herself,  she makes friends with the crows and her classmates!

When I first opened tubes of watercolor, I chose the splashes of rose madder or alizarin crimson in the girls’ dresses on watercolor paper. Recently, I’ve experimented with thick and heavy strokes of red, carmine or scarlet acrylic gouache on canvas. Red sets a character apart.. So I painted a caring boy, Tao, with a red shirt and his trusty toy dragon-playmate, Hong, also bright red, in TAO AND HONG: THE LOST BUNNY, as well as the setting late August evening sun in the story. 

Since TAO AND HONG: FOLLOW THE CROW, takes place while he is asleep, I chose a different palette: I reduced trusting Tao’s tee shirt to a golden orange and allowed Hong to accompany him as a lighter, but still scarlet dragon, true to his name since Hong ( ) means “red” in Chinese. Near the end of his dream Tao discovers an old rusty red caboose, now serving as a diner, which is as bright as the sun inside. 

In their most recent adventure, Tao and Hong tiptoe through their dark home after they’re supposed to be asleep, on a quest to find their favorite bedtime story: Here Be Pirates! To feel brave in the dark, Tao wears a red bandana and carries a wooden cutlass. Together, they ride a red sailboat through the high seas, and discover that they have the power to recreate the story they treasure.

The meaning and energy of the color red can vary greatly depending on the story. It can show up as a jewel-like treasure, clothing or accessory to offer protection from the elements, such as with an umbrella, boots, mittens or a bandage. Reds can bring comfort or pain, display heat or light, show injury or courage. Most often, red is a symbol for love and acceptance.

October 9, 2018

Surrendering to Indirect Light

All along the Pacific Northwest coast—from San Francisco to Vancouver, B.C.— and in and around the islands of Puget Sound, mist, or heavy fog settles. It modifies the ordinarily firm edges of houses, fences, buildings, and their inhabitants. It softens, too, the limited boundaries of images.

Plants with names like “Mist Maiden,” or “Dreamland,” illustrate how indirect light touches the overall shape of a dwarf rhododendron, the contours of leaves and flower petals in the Pacific Northwest. In a garden all seems calm, soft and mutable. A veil of mist settles, then shifts through my field of inner, as well as outer vision. The images that float through transform themselves. A junco, a squirrel, a child and her/his toy are, and are not. Their very existence is in flux. In this way images appear, disappear and re-appear forcing my mind to notice and focus my attention on their shifting shapes.

From these filmy shapes a character’s personality and stories emerge. At his book launch for PEANUT BUTTER & JELLY, Ben Clanton told his readers that it was when the image of a waffle ice cream cone tossed about in his mind with some photos of narwhals in a non-fiction book he had been reading that he first recalled the idea of his character, Super Narwhal. In the story of BUB, Elizabeth Rose Stanton’s middle child decides to erase himself, to become invisible. The “Mistress of fog,” Julie Kim, paints, then lifts some vibrant pigments to create a fog setting as the children search in WHERE”S HALMONI? Bonnie Becker has said in a book launch that a grumpy voice lodged in her mind declaring, “No Visitors,” as the seed for A VISITOR FOR BEAR was planted. Thoughts and ideas arise on the misty edges of the mind.
Indirect light affects the mind, not just our outer vision. It feels like a damp cloud hovers over one’s brain, where images develop, swell, fade, only to re-appear with more insistence. In some of my watercolors I suggest this occurrence.

Here, a child holds a tiny green frog in the cool fog.

Two sisters play at the beach on a hazy day.

Joy showing a frog Joy and Tian playing at the beach
A boy and his dog emerge from a field of trumpeter swans in the Skagit Valley:
Brennen with swans and dog

I have been translating these cloudy moods into the acrylic gouache medium, too.

Tao and his toy dragon, Hong, ride a magical train through the night clouds:
Tao and Hong's train ride through the clouds

Tao and Hong splash through a waterfall.

A crow delivers a key before a wintry sunrise.

Tao and Hong splash through a waterfall Tao and Hong A crow delivers a key

Without the harsh precision of direct light, an idea, a character is free to evolve without too much scrutiny, or by being pinned down, or examined too soon. In 1981, Professor emeritus of Tokyo University, Kimura Shozaburo described the WORLD OF INDIRECT LIGHT: “The greenery of the rainy season is indescribably beautiful. Wet with rain, the tree leaves have a most vivid color, though their outlines are blurred. There is no sunlight to make a sharp distinction between light and shade, and the shape of these things is not necessarily clearly defined under a cloudy sky or in a mist. However, due to the fact that it is a world of indirect light, a certain amount of light finds its way to the parts which, under direct sunlight, would be darkly blotted out as shade; the rainy sky makes the shadowed parts stand out, and light and shade run together.”His description is the way I frequently view my own garden in Normandy Park, near Puget Sound. The leaves of the morning garden are frequently wet from October through April, when the cove is blurred by mist, and fog blankets Vashon Island from view.

Ideas seek one out, decide to visit for awhile, irregardless of how one’s mind might be otherwise occupied.These images are insistent and envelop the mind like mist, they gift us with their presence. Professor Kimura postulates that Japanese culture truly exists in a world of indirect light where light and shade, friend and foe, man and woman constantly merge together to create a third world of serene and harmonious beauty in which there is no yes or no. I feel that in the Pacific Northwest an artist, a writer, a child is free to inhabit this harmonious space where no gulf separates opposites.

October 21, 2017


Change is inevitable. Sometimes the change is purposeful; other times departures from my conception are accidental because of the indeterminate nature of the chosen medium. While unintended developments in a creation are usually considered mistakes, to invite the unexpected may also yield welcome results. Let the viewer decide.

As I mentioned to Janet Lee Carey in our Dreamwalks interview last May, I enjoy both drawing and painting. The creamy, soft Yellow Ochre and Chocolate Derwent drawing pencils, or Sepia water-soluble pencils are often my first choices for drafting sketches. These pencils help me draw up the soft images from my mind.

I recently learned from my Facebook friend and picture book artist, Nancy Poydar, about her process of digitally coloring her scanned sketches. That—along with Rosemary Well’s explanation of her process of character development and editing at the September 2017 SCBWI-WA meeting—has led me to examine my own comparatively antiquated illustration techniques and encouraged me to share my process.

I usually sketch from models. I set the drawing for my intended illustration beside my illustration board with Fabriano traditional white watercolor paper affixed or, for acrylic gouache application, a canvas. Glancing back and forth between the sketch and the blank paper or canvas, I mentally position my subject(s). I may transfer some large shapes with a pastel pencil, or I cut out the shape from the sketch to use as a template . This is where, and why, changes occur. Some are happy accidents. There is more free play involved in the painting. It is usually looser, with less attention to details, more emphasis on texture. With regard to a child subject, if the face or figure is flawed in my perspective, I’ll wash off the pigment and begin again. Essentially, the sketch is a study for the final illustration.

In the sketch “It’s raining Cats and Dogs,” I place the animals and child according to my heavy rain falling idea. The painting is the quick result of imagining the blurry, wet cats slipping down like big, fat raindrops and the big, soggy dog splashing into a puddle.

I enjoyed sketching the girls for "We Like to Pick Strawberries From the Garden," but I chose an unusual head-down perspective. I worried I might not have been able to paint those features. The watercolor was my second attempt, so I kept it. The transparent profile, the hair colors, the gauzy ribbons and the clear plastic berry box were fun!

In “Tao Catches Fireflies,” I suggest the contrast between the child Tao who steps softly trying to clasp a few fireflies to observe in his lantern, with his toy dragon, who rambunctiously cavorts along the path, charring the lid and knocking over the lantern. In the painting I not only try to convey this action, but also the fleeing August sun setting over the hill, softening their bright forms.

While any viewer can spot the changes between the sketch and the color illustration, who can tell if any particular difference was intentional or accidental? Training the eye and hand together doesn't always mean complete control over the final illustration. Although the modern technology available to scan a sketch and create one's own tools to infuse it with color or texture, and undo the process at any step is very appealing, working entirely with physical materials, gliding a brush over lightly textured paper or canvas threads feels second nature to me; I like to let the medium shape the ultimate expression of my characters and scenes.

May 1, 2017

Art & Survival: a conversation between Janet Lee Carey and I

This April, author Janet Lee Carey invited me to do an interview with her as part of her “Creative Conversation” series of talks on the creative process with fellow artists, for her blog, Dreamwalks. Our dialogue centered around the pursuit of an artistic vision as a form of survival and as a reflection of life’s challenges. This was a first for me and certainly a rewarding experience! Please check it out: