Quentin Blake: Cartoonist Extraordinaire

The other day someone posed a question on Facebook: “What author (or book) made you fall in love with reading?” (Note to self: add this to discussion questions for our next road trip.) Please, please, tell me your answer in the comments because I love this question! I tie books to memories like some people remember their childhood head colds when they smell mentholatum. I remember the first book I claimed to read: Three Billy Goats Gruff (my mom politely informed me I had only memorized it), the first book I actually read (Hop on Pop), the first book that made me cry (Bridge to Terabithia), what I was in the middle of on the day I got married (Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix), the first book I read as a new mom (Harry Potter: Deathly Hollows), and the first chapter book I read to Molly, then Adrienne, then Charlotte (The Twits by Roald Dahl). Which brings me to my point: Roald Dahl made me fall in love with reading.

Sure, I liked the Babysitters’ Club and the Sweet Valley Twins, but getting my hands on a Roald Dahl book was even better than a new Hypercolor shirt. Better, even, than a trip to ShowBiz or an afternoon of duck hunting on our snazzy new Nintendo.

I had a friend, that had cooler things than me because, my mom explained, “her dad’s a doctor. They have more money.” I distinctly remember coveting an amazing baby blue lockbox, and books. They had more books than I could shake a bookmark at. And in addition to hand-me-down hockey gear for my brother, they passed on their books, including the complete collection of Roald Dahl. The Twits, Boy, Matilda, The Witches, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Danny: Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… all of it, all of it, all of it.

And if you’re a Roald Dahl fan, then you for sure know his cartoonist of choice: Sir Quentin Blake. Literally, he’s been knighted with the likes of Elton John and Bono. So he’s a big deal.

Here are a few Dahl books we currently have on hand at our house:

The Witches is the last surviving Dahl book we own from my childhood, as you can probably tell from the pages that fell out and are stuffed back in.

Something about Blake’s penchant for scrawny, big-nosed kids with an air of mischief about them resonates with readers, and totally jives with Dahl’s characters. When I visited Blake’s website, I found that at eighty-eight years old, Quentin Blake a) is still alive and drawing up a storm b) has an impressive social media following, and c) has an air of mischief about him, I think. I took one look at him knew he is a guy who can stir up some trouble. Not to mention, he resembles a well-fed Charlie Bucket at age 88. Something tells me he has spent some time in the mirror drawing his characters.

There are other children’s illustrators I have grown to love, of course: Jan Brett, Tomie DePaola, and Kevin Henkes to name a few. But none are so connected to my childhood memories of reading as Sir Quentin Blake.

Caravaggio’s Rage

For Christmas, I like to give each of my kids an “experience,” and yesterday Molly and I finally had some time to go throw axes. Neither of us had ever been- it was a blast! When I booked the tickets, I saw the same place also offers Rage Sessions, so I tacked that on too, even though Molly and I are a couple of the most rage-free people you’ll ever meet. Sometimes chill people need to unleash their suppressed rage more than anybody though, don’t you think? And rage we did.

Are we smiling under those helmets? Wouldn’t you like to know!

Our venting session got me thinking about aggression and how people cope with it. Some people go to rage rooms, some punch pillows, some sign up for kickboxing… and some people paint. Take Caravaggio for instance.

Here is a guy who had some pent up anger, and the history books chronicled all of it. He was a notorious gambler, thief, slanderer, and oh yeah- murderer. Many of his arrests were for throwing temper tantrums. Like the time he threw a plate of artichokes at the waiter, who famously replied, “Yeah? Well, your art makes me choke!” Haha. What’s not funny are his more serious crimes, like beating a man with a stick, attacking another man with a sword, and killing another while mutilating him.

But man, could he could paint.

As in his daily life, Caravaggio did not shy away from violence in his paintings. Arguably his most graphic painting is Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Ew. I’m sorry, guys. I made it tiny so it wouldn’t be so “in your face.” (Accidental pun!)

Gross. I know. But look at what he does with the light on Holofernes’ arms and chest! It was revolutionary for the time. Say what you will about Caravaggio, but he led the artists’ charge toward light and shadows. The emotion (or lack thereof) on Judith’s face is super intriguing as well. She only looks a little bothered by the situation. Incidentally, there was another version of this painting that many experts think Caravaggio also did, discovered in 2014. The Judith in that painting is significantly more disturbed.

Caravaggio painted some other beheadings too. Several, actually. (Heehee. Sever-al? I’m just trying to lighten the mood.) There’s The Beheading of Saint John, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, David with the Head of Goliath, and Medusa. To name a few. But I can’t include them here. I have a rule about posting only one graphic painting per blog entry. Just instated that rule this very moment. Instead, I will give you a lighter, Caravaggio.

Confession: I didn’t know “cardsharp” was a term. I had only heard “card shark,” which is a derivative of “cardsharp”!

I would like to make the argument that this painting still jives with our theme. In this scene we are witnesses to the moment before rage. Everyone looks chill now, but so did Molly and I before we entered our Rage Session. Someone in this painting is about to Lose. Their. Cool. My money is on the boy being cheated. Again, Caravaggio illuminates the situation beautifully. Even though it’s one of his earliest works, he has already proven he can do magical things with light.

For a guy so good at painting light, he sure did walk a dark path through life. Lucky for us, he was a fast painter and prolific. In his 36 years, he painted at least 80 pieces (probably more). Even if he did have as many arrests under his belt as he did paintings, we have him to thank for influencing greats like Rembrandt, Peter Paul Reubens, and Vermeer. He may have been a bad boy, but he had so much talent, you might say it’s criminal.

Marfa, TX: Big Art in a Small Town

Last week was our glorious, long-awaited Spring Break! I hadn’t been on a plane since January of 2020. I’ve traveled plenty in that time, but always via oversized, smelly, SUV. As much as I love a road trip, even I wasn’t willing to drive the one million hours to western Texas, where we randomly decided to vacation with our dear friends. We started out in El Paso, hit Guadalupe Mountain National Park (because if not now, when, really?), then moved south to Big Bend National Park. It is a desolate, desert drive, friends, except for one bizarre oasis of art three hours out of El Paso: Marfa, Texas.

A friend who used to live in El Paso told me about Marfa ahead of time, thank goodness. Otherwise we would have written it off as a half-town and drove directly past. But she sent me an article that claimed it was “an unlikely must-go-once-in-your-life-at-least for the cultural elite.” And you know me- nothing if not culturally elite.

Ha.

Jim is resigned to my road trip whims, and our friends were willing to humor me, so we stopped. Here are a few things about Marfa:

  1. They are pretty liberal with the city limits. We saw our first piece of Marfa art about thirty miles before entering the town, and then nothing but dust devils and tumbleweeds until the town “really” begins half an hour later. The art is an installation piece that is hilarious, because you haven’t seen anything not brown for three hours and then this:
Erin is classy enough to actually shop at Prada. Me? Not so much.

It is a tiny, unemployed, eternally locked Prada store. It houses some pieces from Prada’s 2005 collection, and is the headlining act in the show that is Marfa. Around the outside, people have begun adding locks to the fence, which I always love. Romantic! There were two other tourists there taking selfies in front of the store, but like us, nobody knew to bring a lock to secure our love with our significant others. Maybe next time.

2. Most things are closed on Mondays. Nothing more on that, but you should know. I made everybody stop again on Wednesday, on our way back from Big Bend. They were all really happy with me.

3. Your best food option, in our experience, is “The Water Stop.” The food was delicious, it had a very “Big Sur” vibe with things like this ancient Coke machine, and you will have plenty of time to chat while you wait for your food. Plenty.

4. Back to the art scene. There are great art stores in Marfa, since that’s what they’re known for. Definitely don’t miss “Wrong,” which carries tons of art by Donald Judd, a minimalist artist, who laid down roots in Marfa. Pop into “Esperanza Vintage and Art” to check out some great art, and eclectic vintage finds (I had to tear my husband away from the giant belt buckles.) Across the street is “Communitie Marfa”, which gets a special shout-out because my friends found their dream hats there and now look authentically Texan. I cannot pull off a cowboy hat the way they can, so I settled for a cap I found across the way at a store I don’t know the name of, but here’s the hat if that’s helpful (it’s not, I know.)

5. Go to the Hotel Saint George. We wandered in on a whim and were so glad we did! It is beautiful! And historic! James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson filmed “Giant” there. On your way north, you can stop at the massive signs touting this historic movie to stretch your legs and take some pictures (which we did not.) I particularly liked the James Dean board. Pretty dreamy for a piece of cardboard.

Five seems like a good place to stop, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the natural art of Marfa. Yes, it’s surrounded by gorgeous desert landscape, but there’s more. There’s the night sky. This area of Texas claims to have the darkest night sky in the lower 48 states, which is totally believable. I think I saw every glistening star in the sky. It was stunning. But in typical Marfa fashion, there is an artistic twist to the night sky every now and then. Since the beginning of the 19th century, people have seen otherworldly lights illuminating the dark skies of Marfa. They haven’t found a rhyme or reason to the timing of the lights, but scientists attribute the illuminations to magic.

Just kidding.

Truly, though, nobody seems to be able to provide a satisfactory explanation. There are theories about ghosts, UFOs, mirages, and much, much more. Personally, I think the lights are simply nature’s art finding a comfortable home with the art enthusiasts of Marfa.

Fun Art for a Fun Day

Before I knew better, I thought all non-fiction books were boring. Likewise, I thought art was stuffy and dull. (I know! Talk about being wrong!) The joke was on me. Now I know better. Sure, art can be boring… or it can be beautiful! Delicious! Hilarious! In honor of this mischievous holiday, I dredged up some comical artwork for your Fool’s Day pleasure.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger often painted pictures depicting morals or lessons. For instance, you may be familiar with his painting titled, The Drunkard Pushed into the Pigsty. If that isn’t a life lesson, I don’t know what is. Similarly, Brueghel Jr. was well-aware that money = friends. Maybe fake friends, but friends. Maybe a bunch of butt-kissers, but friends. In one of his earliest paintings, he drives this point home by painting people crawling into some guy’s backside. We know the guy is rich because even though he’s missing pants, he has a barrel of coins. The frame around the picture reads: “Because so much money passes through my purse, therefore I am always surrounded by flatterers.”

Looks uncomfortable.

There are no fewer than one million spoofs on da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but I especially love Duchamp’s classic addition, beloved by adolescents everywhere: the moustache. The title is a tough one to figure out… until it’s not. It’s as risqué as it is clever. When said out loud, L.H.O.O.Q. is the French equivalent of- well. See if Google translate can’t help you out with that. And while you’re Googling, check into some more of Marcel Duchamp’s work if you like. His sense of humor is fantastic.

I think there are a couple photos in my old yearbook sporting that same moustache!

Lastly, we have this very happy violinist. I like to imagine one of his bandmates spiked the punch bowl at the after-party on April Fool’s Day. Painter Gerrit von Honthorst studied Caravaggio’s work very closely, so The Happy Violinist has a great dark/light contrast, but is cheerier than Caravaggio’s typical subjects (I’m looking at you, cut off head.) The violinist glows in a way that only a guy with a great sense of humor and bomb moustache can glow. He is jovial and tipsy and completely enamored with that goblet. It’s impossible not to be happy for him.

I’ll have what he’s having.

Happy April Fool’s Day! I hope your day is as joyful as The Happy Violinst’s day was. May you be crowned “Trickster Extraordinaire” and if someone ties your shoelaces together, may you fall with grace.

NFTs, Digital Art, and Robots- Oh My!

The wild, weird, wonderful thing about art is that it is forever evolving, pushing limits. Being an artist now doesn’t necessarily mean sitting with an easel and palette on the banks of the Seine. Now art can mean creating with sand or carving pumpkins or painting with beer. Even payment methods are changing for artists.

Enter Beeple. Aka Beeple Crap. Aka Mike Winkelmann. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because his digital piece, Everydays- The First 5000 Days just sold at Christie’s for $69 million dollars.

Sixty-nine million dollars.

69K.

No matter how I type it, it’s a cryptoload of money. To put it in perspective, Twitter sold on Monday for 2.9 million dollars as an NFT.

Beeple is an NFT artist. The Paris Salon probably would have labeled him “newfangled” and moved on, but let’s be a little more open-minded than Salon members (they shunned Impressionism, for pity’s sake!) and slow our roll. NFT is a type of digital ownership. It stands for non-fungible tokens, which does not mean fungus-free tokens, contrary to popular belief. It’s (very) basically a kind of currency tied to assets that can be traded, bought, or sold. It’s blowing up the art world because it means more artists are getting paid! Art majors everywhere are squashing their parents’ argument that, “You’ll never make a living doing art.”

NFTs aren’t the only crazy new development in art. Sophia is making a name for herself as a talented artist. Inasmuch as robots can be talented, I suppose. She’s been interviewed on the Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and by Will Smith. Not even Da Vinci can claim those bragging rights. Sophia just celebrated her fifth birthday (she ages very well, FYI) but I just recently learned about her propensity for art. Incidentally, one of her paintings is up for sale for the first time ever today (also as an NFT). Watch this video and tell me what you think.

It’s lovely art, that’s for certain. But call me old-fashioned, I’m most impressed with artists who have a full scalp. No ifs, ands, or robots about it.

Celebrate St. Paddy’s Day with These Irish Paintings!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! A PSA: remember to wear green, so you don’t get pinched! Let me thank you for taking a moment in between green beers to read this post. Your shepherd’s pie is probably waiting, so let’s get right to it: Irish painters.

One of Ireland’s most famous painters is Charles Jervas. He had the distinct honor of painting Jonathan Swift (redhead!) and Alexander Pope, as well as other dignitaries. Fun fact: he also did the translation work for a little book called “Don Quixote.” (Which Wikipedia tells me is the second most-translated book in the world besides the Bible.) Jervas was notorious for being more than a little confident. You might say he was straight up conceited, in fact. With good reason, I suppose. He did have a knack for portraits. Or McPortraits as they call them in Ireland.

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton. Survivor of the appleocolypse.

Jack Butler Yeats was another big name in Irish art circles. If the name is familiar, it’s because his family was super artsy. His dad, John, was a portrait painter and his brother, William, is the famous poet. No doubt Jack grew up under a barrage of limericks at the dinner table. Let’s try one:

My brother Jack likes to paint

My mother swears he’s a saint

But I know better

It would just upset her

Instead of “isn’t” he says “ain’t.”

– A fake William Butler Bates limerick

Jack was talented in his own right, creating paintings like this. Ain’t it lovely?

The Birds are on the Move. This title makes me laugh because, um… I don’t see any birds.

Mary Swanzy (are we all picturing Mary Swanson from “Dumb and Dumber”?) is one of many talented Irish female artists. Nano Reid, Mainie Jellett, and Letitia Marion Hamilton are just a few others. But I love Swanzy’s swanky paintings that are so bold and colorful. She lived in Hawaii for a while, and the influence is clear in her paintings.

Aloha! This is called A Voyage No Longer Overlooked.

Please resume your St. Patrick’s Day celebration now, wowing your friends with your knowledge of Irish art history. And pro tip? Guinness pairs perfectly with Lucky Charms.

Kelly Reemtsen: Michigan Native and Amazing Artist

I am a sucker for Michigan paraphernalia. In fact, just the other day I bought another Michigan shirt at Sam’s Club, of all places. Do all U.S. citizens love advertising their state as much as Michiganders? Is it because we’re shaped like a little mitten and scarf? Because we get ten cents for every returned can? Because we have more freshwater than we know what to do with? I don’t know, but from Copper Harbor to Paw Paw, Michiganders really love getting our state “out there.” Shirts are the least of it. Car stickers, pillows, hand towels… my kids have little chapstick holders covered with Michigans, for pity’s sake. We are all about this state of ours.

Just a couple Michigan-themed items we have around.

You can imagine my delight when I stumbled across Kelly Reemtsen. I fell for her artwork, like November leaves along Michigan’s Route 22. Her work is darling and powerful, fun and meaningful, lovely and important. It’s not easy to find all these adjectives all in one artist, but she nails it. And she’s from Michigan.

Reemtsen was born in Flint, and went to CMU (Fire up, Chips!). These days she lives in LA, raking in her millions (is that true? I hope so.) Her paintings are celebrated for their bright colors atop light backgrounds, the headless subjects, and of course, the feminine models with their axes, sledgehammers, or shovels. A stark contrast with the sparkling high heels and polka-dot dresses.

Here are some of her pieces. What do you think? Should she feature a model in a Michagangster shirt, yay or nay?

I vote Yay.

Pumpkin: Not Just A Term of Endearment

Happy almost Halloween! Gone are the days of triangle eyes, square noses, and gap-toothed smiles! As I’m sure you’ve seen, pumpkin carving in this millennia is next level. Here are my kids’ pumpkins. Pretty basic compared to the others you’ll see in a moment.


If you’re confused, you’re not alone. The far left pumpkin reads, “MEIJER,” (the hockey team my daughter plays for), the middle is a face, but with a black eye (pumpkin hockey fight), and the far right says, “PIG” (not hockey related. Just. Random.) Last year, my middle carved “TACOS!” into her pumpkin. We really love words in our family. And tacos. Obviously.

My cousin and her family live in Thailand, where pumpkins aren’t easily accessible, so they get creative in their carving mediums. Here are a few food items they’ve carved in lieu of pumpkins.


How cute are these?! 


Back to pumpkins. If we’re going to have a post about incredible pumpkin carvings, we first have to talk about Ray Villafane (www.villafanestudios.com). Villafane is an American sculptor that SLAYS the pumpkin carving scene. No plastic knife, choppy mouth, uneven eyes from this guy. His pumpkins are scary cool.

Look at the detail on the snake skin! Almost TOO lifelike! 

So clever! So fun!

We don’t have all day or I’d post a hundred more of his creations. Give yourself a Halloween treat and Google his other works.

If you like a more classic pumpkin, fear not. Maniac Pumpkin Carvers (maniacpumpkincarvers.com) has got your back. Their pumpkins have been featured at MoMA, the Whitney, and other such commonplace museums. Every year they feature a famous piece from a classic artist and blow everyone’s minds.

Picasso so cool. 


This is not a pumpkin.

Finally, the Pumpkin Geek, aka Alex Wer (www.thepumpkingeek.com). Another amazing talent, and will also take orders if you want- say, your kid’s face on a pumpkin! Or your pug’s mug! You get the picture! (groan.) You must visit his website too. I wanted this post to be at least a little scary, so I was going to post one of his horror movie carvings, but honestly, they creeped me out too much. This was the best I could do for you:

I feel like Edward would also be good at pumpkin carving.


If Covid was a person.

Whatever you do this Halloween, whether it’s trick-or-treating, or dressing up to pass out candy, or tailgating in an ice arena parking lot between your kids’ hockey games with cider mimosas, I hope you have a moderately spooky day!

Next Generation Art

I love it when my favorite things collide. Peanut butter and chocolate, Diet Coke and pretzels, wine and dancing, hiking and friends…. in fact I was able to enjoy that last one on Monday! My friend Carla and I went for a hike at one of our favorite places (Lincoln Brick Park- if you’re in the Lansing area, be sure to go!). After, we decided to walk around downtown Grand Ledge a bit and grab coffee.

But first things first, I had to run into the library for a second, where to my delight, they were featuring local high schoolers’ artwork! Books and art! Another amazing collision! Here are a couple pieces that were on display:

I know, right?! That is talent!
I want to live there!

I cannot get over these beautiful works of art. There were certainly some talented artists in my high school, but I wasn’t one of them, My daughters and I discussed later, and my 6th grader pulled a few things out of her art portfolio that I thought were fascinating. I think I’ve mentioned before that Art class for kids now is waaaaaay better than it was for me. While I was rubber cementing magazine clippings to a piece of computer paper, they are doing more useful things like this:

My favorites are “wash,” “salt,” and “thick paint”

That’s right. They are learning actual techniques! It’s a little sad they will never know the cell-killing, heavenly odor of rubber cement, but I rejoice in the knowledge that our Art teachers are raising up a generation of da Vincis! Degas! Pollocks! Hoppers! Today: the Grand Ledge District Library, tomorrow: The Met!

A Prodigy and a Prince

There is a Molly shaped hole in my house (and heart!) this week because my oldest daughter is at her middle school retreat. She was so excited to go, and I was excited for her. It is her first year of middle school and the retreat is a big rite of passage at her school. I know she’s having a blast. Without me. Hard to believe, but I know it’s true.

I miss her, but I wasn’t worried about her going. Her class is a great bunch of kids; not to mention, I know the chaperones and they are keeping me posted on all the things. I’m pretty sure I was never as cool or confident or smart or artistic or, or, or, as Molly and her classmates. Middle schoolers now just seem more advanced than back in my day. Probably thanks to Fortnite.


It reminded me of Akiane Kramarik who, by the time she was in middle school (3rd grade, actually) had painted Prince of Peace, shown below.
Akiane used a carpenter (of all people!) as a model for this painting.
Again, she was 8. Just as a point of reference, I made a shoebox diorama when I was 8 and my teacher told me to take it back and try again. Prince of Peace became famous not only because of her age or it’s beauty, but because it was mentioned in “Heaven is for Real,” as an accurate portrayal of the Jesus that Colton Burpo met when he died. On her website, you can search her gallery by age to see what works she accomplished at each stage of her life. I’m pretty sure she would have been a huge hit at the crafts table at her middle school retreat!