on story. & books. & shoes.

i recently got to share my love of books and stories (& how they so drastically affect my art) to some tenth grade english classes at  a local high school.  here’s a bit of what i shared.  (hopefully they caught most of it through the panic hiccups and mumbling at the parts i didn’t think they’d care about.)  🙂

and since i often get asked “why feet?,” this may help explain things, too…

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Fairy tales originated in the court of Louis XIV.  When they fell out of fashion, they found their way into the realm of children’s literature and nursery story-telling.

This fancy guy is Louis XIV.  Madame D’Aulnoy was one of the most famous fairy tale tellers at court, and Andrew Lang adapted many of her stories in his fairy tale collections.

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To me, it’s the typical absence of particular details about the character that makes fairy tales all the more alive and more appealing to a larger audience.  I can see myself as Little Red Cap (as the Brothers Grimm called her; she’s more commonly known as “Little Red Riding Hood.”)  I can imagine being trapped in a tower.  We have all felt bullied by siblings or supposed friends, and spent time wishing that something miraculous would happen and we’ll end up in the best outfit at the best occasion dancing with the most popular person there and will our sleeping-in-the-cinders existence good-bye.  We dream big and hope for the happy ending.

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P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins novels, commented on how fairy tales are and always have been in “continuous process of transformation.”  Every culture has its own Cinderella telling.  Going back to the earliest recorded telling, we come to the Greek historian Strabo in the first century B.C. who told the story of the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis.  She was bathing in the Nile, an eagle carried her shoe to Memphis and dropped it in the King’s lap; he searched for the shoe’s owner and married her.  The oldest Cinderella tale we have written down is “Yeh-hsien,” from China, from somewhere between 800 and 863 A.D.

The Brothers Grimm weren’t authors, they actually went around Europe collecting folk tales for their fairy tale collections.  And, as folktales are told orally, they are “endlessly re-created in the telling,” as Neil Philip says.  And so, we get to claim our own fairy tales.  Our own myths.  Our own stories.  There may be a formula (just ask Joseph Campbell to analyze Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and/or King Arthur), but there are no rules.  We get to live our own adventure, and live endlessly through those we find in books.

Terry Pratchett has a quirky novel, Witches Abroad (which I recently read while doing research for my “fairy godmother” faerie tale feet piece), in which three bumbling fairy godmothers are trying to undo or redo and scoot behind the scenes to prevent Cinderella’s happy ending as we know it.  Granny Weatherwax, not the smartest or most philosophical, just knew of her own role in history “…that there were certain things that happened continually in human history, like three-dimensional clinches.  Stories.”

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The rest is prologue.

So why am I talking about stories?

Because I LOVE stories.  I love reading them.  I love researching them.  I love sharing them.  And I love painting them!

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My recent body of work is called “faerie tale feet,” and I’ve been exploring well-known fairy tales, pieces of classic literature, books, plays, and musicals.  I do lots of research into the original tales and every alternate-telling version of the story I can find, and then I start sketching.

I hide things from the original story in the background of the piece, and then only finish the main character’s feet- so that the viewer can step into the story for themselves.  True to traditional fairy tale tellings, the character is the every-man.  The every-boy, the every-girl.  It’s you and me and anyone who gets sucked into a good tale.  And just like our opening quote from Madeleine L’Engle, that stories teach us empathy, there’s a great quote from Atticus Finch:

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So I’ve chosen to paint the characters’ feet so we can “walk around” in them.  And since you’re about to start your fables and mythology unit, it seemed fitting that I could come and talk to you about some well-known favorite stories.  So we’ll talk a bit about the original writings or tellings, what I hid in the background of each piece, and my process for creating the work.  

Now while I studied illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I grew up with fairy tales, and as all children do, I kind of taught myself how to draw.  My dad was in the Navy, and for those pre-kindergarten formative years, we lived on Okinawa, Japan.  There were no English television channels aside from the Disney Channel, so I grew up on the animated classics. 

When we moved back to the States, I was enraptured with Shelley Duvall’s “Faerie Tale Classic Theatre” which was on PBS.  They were hour-long live-action tellings of faerie tales, obviously, and each one had a famous special guest star.  Horrendously low-budget (or at least lo-tech), they were enough to stimulate imagination and give me a deep appreciation and fascination with these stories that have rooted themselves in worldwide culture in some form or another.

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(Yes, that’s Robin Williams as The Frog Prince, Michael Richards (Kramer from “Seinfeld”) with PeeWee Herman as Pinocchio, and the young & dashing Matthew Broderick as Prince Charming in the oft-watched “Cinderella.”)

The other thing I did as a kid (because I was a nerd and a huge Disney animation fan), was research the original works before Disney came out with the new movie.  I read Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Awana summer camp, because I was fascinated by how the movie makers at Disney could take something so broad and dark and make it a watchable spectacle for a movie audience, mostly made up of children.  (That example is probably debatable, but same thing for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan,” or Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”  They’re very different from the books, but because folktale and fairy tale belong to the storytellers, they’re allowed to change and adapt and be told in different mediums.  And I’m fascinated by that process.)

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After college, among other things, I worked at three different Barnes & Nobles over a ten-year period, most often in the children’s department because that’s what I knew so much about, and because that’s pretty much what I still read.  I love sharing books and discovering new ones.  I collect works of favorite illustrators, and when I delve into a certain story, I like to collect all of the various editions that I can.

So yes, working at a bookstore got expensive, but it continues to add to my education.

After a number of other jobs while freelancing, I currently work part-time from home for my church, but I also go to a dozen or so art festivals every year where I get to share my art and my love of the stories they represent.

Since the class was about to start “fables and mythology,” and I’m still working on the piles of research for both my Merlin and Odyssey paintings, I shared my painting “just outlawe robyn hoode,” which also had miles of research behind it.

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The legend of Robin Hood goes WAY back and ranges from theories of “robyn hoode” being a nickname for any outlawe in ye olde english record books, to an actual historical figure… the legend changed with the times as the populace might be mad at government (Prince John, the Sheriff of  Nottingham) at one point in history, or angry at the church (yes, Friar Tuck is the bad guy in a good number of versions, too!) 

It was a lot of fun to research the varying tellings, and there is no shortage of adventure or daring in any tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

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So let’s look at the final painting for things I hid in the background to help tell the story:

  • the silver arrow (won in an archery contest while robin hood was in disguise; later shot through the window of the sheriff of nottingham with a “note” on it.)
  • an archer (the merry men) in lincoln green
  • the crown (prince john, wrongly ruling while richard was “out of town.”)
  • a beard (robin hood was handsome with brown hair & a neat beard)
  • a fleur de lis (the english legends and tales had no girls in the stories. the french being the romantics that they are, added maid marian!)
  • robin hood’s famous feathered cap
  • a lion (king richard the lion hearted, returned from battle to marry robin hood and maid marian)
  • the silver bugle (kept at robin hood’s side to call his merry men if he were ever in danger)
  • a sword (yes, lots of sword fights, too.)
  • red deer (illegal, with the death penalty, to kill the king’s deer, it’s what robin hood and his merry men lived off of in sherwood forest. robin figured richard would forgive him upon his return for upholding justice for the commoners and against the evil sheriff of nottingham and prince john while richard was away. robin was correct, and was fully pardoned by the rightful king richard.)
  • a harp (the story of allan-a-dale, who enlisted the aid of robin hood, the merry men, and friar tuck to prevent his true love from having to marry an old & stinky bachelor as arranged by her father. they intervened and friar tuck performed the ceremony for allan-a-dale, a wandering minstrel, and his beloved bride.)
  • a target (in most tellings, robin hood is superb archer)

And here are some peeks into my process for this gouache (an opaque watercolor) faerie tale feet painting entitled “just outlawe robyn hoode.”  

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(You can read details of this process on the robin hood blog entry by clicking here.)

I am a Christian, and while God’s wisdom in telling HIS story through each of us is a divine mystery, I love being a part of it and seeing how other people’s story fit in to His big picture.

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shop the full collection of faerie tale feet pieces at halthegal.etsy.com