FIRST, A MESSAGE FROM MAC…
This interview with Carson Ellis, one of my favorite living artists, started in July and unfolded over email very slowly over many weeks. Toward the end of the process I stayed on Carson’s farm for a couple of days and we pointedly avoided talking about anything that might come up in the interview, lest we offer the readers of this wonderful blog any conversation that felt canned.
MAC: Hi, Carson! Where are you today? What have you done so far, and what are you planning on doing?
CARSON: Mac! I’m home, in Hank’s room watching him do his homework. My sister and her husband are visiting from LA. We went to a 30th birthday party for Colin’s little sister, Leah, today in a park. Colin’s other sister, Maile, who you know, was there too. (Readers of this blog might know her also. She wrote “The Apothecary” and “The Apprentices”). Anyway, it’s been a day of many sisters. Maile’s coming for dinner and we’ll probably swim in the giant inflatable pool I bought on the Internet. Colin’s on tour.
MAC: I think the Internet is maybe prone to fetishizing people’s workspaces, especially artists’ workspaces. But. Your setup feels worthy of attention. Where do you live? Where do you work? And do you feel like the space where you make things affects the things you make?
CARSON: I live on a farm twenty minutes south of Portland, Oregon. When I’m being accurate I call it a “historic farmstead” because it’s not really a farm. That implies that I’m a farmer. I live in an old farm house (the very old part of it was built around 1860 by a pioneer doctor who came over on the Oregon Trail) and I have a bunch of outbuildings on about 5 acres: a gigantic barn and chicken coop, a garage-type building that we call the shop, and a nut-drying house in a field where I work. All the buildings are at least 100 years old and the property is on the historic registry. I have some animals—llamas, goats, chickens, and a sheep—and we have about 30 fruit trees. Plus I tend a very big garden. So it’s farm-like, though I’m not, like, shearing the sheep and taking the wool to market or anything. More like: I’m tending to a bunch of farm animals and fruit trees with a varying degree of dedication that depends on how much time I have left over after I take care of my kids and do my illustration work. I like it here: it’s peaceful, my kids have lots of room to roam, and the buildings are full of mysterious old stuff. Though, to be honest, I’ve never been someone who romanticized farm life much. I like wild places—woods and mountains—and ultimately I like less responsibility. Nevertheless, it’s pretty dreamy here.
As for my studio, I love it. It’s like a little house: it has a wood stove in it, a sink and a daybed. It’s pretty bright and, like I said, it’s in a field. I’ve had studios for about twenty years and they get better and better. The first one was the closet of my bedroom in an apartment in San Francisco so I’ve come a long way. Does the space where I make things affect the things I make? Yeah, probably. I like to work in inspiring places. They don’t have to be pretty little houses in fields on farms but it’s hard to work in places that feel soulless. 99% of the hotels I stay in, for example. But I like to draw in bars, on trains, and always en plein air.
MAC: Can I ask about your speaker setup in your studio? I’m jealous of illustrators—you guys can listen to music and sometimes even watch stuff while you work. Jonny K. is always telling me about the 60-hour Ken Burns documentaries he’s plowing through while doing his finishes. Do you play music while you draw? Do you watch things?
CARSON: Colin (Meloy, my husband and also a writer) always tells me the same thing: that he’s jealous that I can listen to music all day while I work. But it’s a mixed blessing. I love listening to music all day but I’m also sort of over listening to music all day. Sometimes I find an amazing record and I’ll listen to it over and over again for a week. Or a month! Does everyone do this? Is this what people mean when they talk about an album being “in heavy rotation”? I like to sing while I work and the more I listen to something the more I can sing along without thinking. It becomes a kind of meditation—like a gregorian chant or something. There’s a Staple Singers record that I’ve listened to thousands of times—it’s probably the most extreme example of this for me. But I do this with everything I like to listen to, including rap. That Pusha T album you sent me is my gregorian chant these days.
I don’t watch movies when I work but I know a lot of people who do. I’ve tried over the years to listen to books on tape with little success until recently. My mind wanders a lot when I’m drawing. It’ll wander for an hour and I’ll suddenly realize I have no idea what’s happening in the story. I’ll get up to rewind the book and then decide I’d rather be listening to the Staple Singers anyway. But! I just listened to The Secret Garden on tape all the way through, which was a first. I’m always wanting to reread some of the books I loved as a kid or to read important middle grade books that I never got to but I (sadly, embarrassingly) don’t read much these days. I’m too busy—and probably too precious with my reading time. I have trouble making time for anything save the bleak historical novels I have a penchant for. But listening to The Secret Garden was incredible. I’d forgotten how formative this book was for me: the thrill of gardening, the communing with animals. I think The Secret Garden has a lot to do with the person I am today. It’s also a really sad book—about children who hate themselves learning to be happy—and as a mom who has been through some rough times with my kids I found it really moving. I basically wept through the whole thing. And now I’m listening to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Hopefully I’ll finish it.
But are you really asking about my speaker set up? Is this, like, an audiophile question? Because I think I have some nice stuff but I couldn’t tell you much about it. Colin, an actual audiophile, set it up for me. There’s a big thing under my desk that I’m pretty sure is a sub woofer? It says Logitech on it? And I have a Sonos system in my studio too.
MAC: I guess I wasn’t asking about the actual setup, although that Logitech subwoofer sounds pretty sweet. I’m not an audiophile. I do have a turntable that I think is pretty nice, but my system (as the audiophiles say) is emitting this phono hum that is driving me crazy. Taylor tells me it’s part of the system’s analog charm but I can’t believe that’s true. I’m thinking an actual audiophile needs to make a house call and make sure my system’s all in good working order.
But Carson, I have never read The Secret Garden. Isn’t that awful. It’s on my night table, though! A paperback with a corny cover that I’ve had since December 1990. How do I know? Because I used to sign and date all my books, in cursive. As you’ll see from my “2,” this was in my calligraphy phase.
Mercifully, I’d forgotten about my calligraphy phase until I opened this book. But I really wanted to get good—I asked for special pens and instructional books for Christmas one year (maybe 1990?). And I now realize I have a true-blue calligraphic master right here, answering my questions. And so: When did you get interested in hand lettering? Were you a kid who practiced a bunch? Do you have old reams of paper with words in different fonts? How did you lock into the your style, which has all four qualities of good letters set forth by John C. Tarr in Good Lettering and How to Acquire It (found underneath little Mackie B.’s early-90s Xmas tree, next to a long-sleeved pink-to-purple Hypercolor t-shirt): Clarity, Beauty, Pleasantness, and Speed. Your lovely script comes so naturally to you, and feels like such a genuine extension of your self. I’ve seen a chore list on your fridge that was suitable for framing.
CARSON: First of all, thanks for sharing your childhood copy of The Secret Garden with me. In return, here are all seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia:
As for calligraphy, that’s very kind of you. I’ve always been nerdy about handwriting. Do you remember when you had learned to write—you’d mastered the letters and probably cursive—and started to think about how you wanted your handwriting to look? Would you dot your I’s with an open circle? Would your Ys have little loops on the bottom? And what did these little decisions say about the kind of person you are? I assume everyone gave this some thought. I thought about it all the time. I was constantly changing the way I made letters.
I’d go from this A:
to this A:
for example, and that would be strangely thrilling. I’ve overhauled my handwriting so many times over the years. I think each incarnation looks like it came from a different person. A couple of years ago I started writing in all capitals, just because.
Anyway, my mom, realizing just how nerdy I was, bought me a calligraphy kit in middle school. I studied the book that came with it and practiced a lot. I got a gig filling out all the names on my school’s marching band certificates in chancery italic. I made overwrought mothers day cards. I lovingly transcribed my favorite crappy poems. I really adored calligraphy. I like to imagine that in another life I was a Russian monk who made illuminated manuscripts.
So hand-lettering has always figured into art-making for me. I do have tons of books devoted to alphabets, especially renaissance and victorian fonts. And I do use a nib pen and an inkwell to hand-draw my letters, but I don’t use a calligraphy nib—not one of those wide, flat ones anyway. I use a flexible nib that makes a thick line if you apply more pressure. It’s good for writing in, like, fake Victorian cursive but not other things, like the medieval blackletter font that I like. That I draw and fill in by hand, though I did once know how to do it with a wide nib. I’m not a true-blue calligraphic master though, Mac. Trust me. I think a real calligrapher would scoff at that. On the calligraphy spectrum, I think I’m pretty lousy. With practice I could probably be good at it but I spend a lot more time drawing than lettering. And another hallmark of good calligraphy is a kind of effortless perfection that comes, I assume, from countless hours of practice. Great calligraphy, like lots of stuff, is a combination of artistry and muscle memory.
This is fun! I’m going to insist that all interviews I do from now on are with friends, via email, over the course of a month. Also, you should read The Secret Garden. It’s a little racist. And classist. But mostly holds up okay.
MAC: I still remember in sixth grade the cop who taught our D.A.R.E. classes was the first person I saw write the letter “I” without serifs. I stared at the whiteboard wondering what it all meant. I think what you’re talking about—what these little decisions say about the kind of person you are—is one good definition of style. Handwriting, clothes, speech—what do these decisions communicate about ourselves, and additionally, in the case of writing or illustration, about the stories we want do tell. Do you have any thoughts on how you developed your illustration style? Is that something you ever explicitly thought about, when you were in school, or when you started doing flyers for bands in college? I think style is usually partially self-determined and partially organic, and almost always hard to talk about, so I apologize if I am about to drive us into a ditch.
CARSON: See? We are nerds cut from the same nerd cloth. A police officer came to your school to tell you that drugs kill people and what blew your mind was his sans-serif “I”. I totally feel that.
I have a few thoughts about how my illustration style developed but none of them will be very revelatory. I’ve drawn constantly from a young age. I’ve looked at lots of visual art over the course of my life and have taken elements from it that I like and incorporated them into what I do, both consciously and unconsciously. I draw a lot from folk art but, as a person with a painting degree, I’ll never be a folk artist. So I know lots of things about art, the history of it and the context I’m making it in—but I’m always trying to forget those things when I’m actually making illustrations so I can draw like an untrained person might—so I can try to stay just a little bit in touch with the artist I was as a kid. I strive to make art that feels mystical—I think that informs my illustration style a lot. It does come from a mystical place for me and I’m always trying to make that visible somehow.
But, yes: it’s partially self-determined and partially organic. Well put. One thing I’ll say is that I’m glad I went to college in Montana before the Internet. My education and some really formative years of my life as an artist were spent in cultural isolation and that was a good thing for me. I was really moved by artists I learned about in my art history classes (Egon Schiele, Max Beckman and the German Expressionists especially) and they inspired a lot of (gigantic, goofy, grotesque) paintings. It was nice for me to have my influences be so finite at a time when I was being asked to think so deliberately about what sort of artist I wanted to be. I’m not sure what I’d be up to right now if I’d grown up with the tumblr/Instagram glut of creative inspiration at my fingertips every second of the day.
MAC: Plus all the pressure to put stuff up online. I envy illustrators because they can make things that people want—a drawing they can give as a gift, or a little Happy Halloween drawing. But you can also post works in progress, and get instant feedback on that too. I think that would drive me crazy if I was an artist trying to figure things out. I think it would drive me crazy if I was an artist who knew what I was doing. The internet drives me crazy generally.
CARSON: Yeah, that’s true. We illustrators can do that. That reminds me: I made you something!
But, no, that instant feedback doesn’t drive me crazy. It’s pretty fascinating to be able to post something on Instagram and find out immediately whether or not people like it. And to find out how much they like it in a totally quantifiable way: a number of likes. Has there been anything else that’s functioned like this for visual artists in the past? I don’t know. Not the money value of artwork or the going rate of an illustrator. Those things have as much to do with the job an artist’s gallery or rep or agent is doing and which collector has bought his or her work and who he or she has worked with and what world they were raised in as it does how much people actually respond to the artist’s art. Not to say these things can’t figure into how visible a person is online, but I do think Instagram and tumblr are interesting and new and pleasantly democratizing. So far (I’m kind of new to Instagram) it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me. It’s been surprising sometimes to see so clearly what people love and don’t. And it’s been nice to share work in progress. Making books: man, you work so hard on them and then you finish them and then you’re so excited to share them with the world! And then you wait around for a year to share them with the world. And when you finally do you’re knee-deep in another project and the excitement about the old one has kind of faded. It can feel a little deflating and a little lonely. But sharing bits of a project while you’re working on it can be so nice, so encouraging. And it makes the job feel less lonely too.
MAC: Can we talk about Home? I read something where you described how it came about—that you were just drawing pictures of homes, that it really started with the art. But I’m struck by how assured and lovely the writing is, and how sturdy is the underlying structure of your book. You start by naming various kinds of homes, then we get a section that names the people who live in various homes. The pace picks up—quick sentence fragments that end up coalescing into verse: “Sea homes. Bee homes. Hollow tree homes.” That rapid fire section opens out into a few spreads and a more languid pace, a series of lavish illustrations accompanied by big questions: “Who in the world lives here? And why?” You then name the people who live in the homes rather than the homes themselves—“This is the home of a Norse god.” next to a picture of Valhalla, which takes us back to the home in the country, where we began, and now learn is your home, before we get the final questions: “Where is your home? Where are you?” It’s like a well-wrought piece of music, unfolding in sections, with just the right mix of order and eccentricity. And in that combination of principled poetics and unbridled fancy, it reminds me of Margaret Wise Brown. So I guess what I’m wondering is this: how did you set about putting this together, your first piece of writing? What did you want the writing to do, and what did you draw from?
CARSON: Thank you! After years of sitting down to write a picture book and coming away with nothing—of doubting and overthinking and ultimately throwing in the towel, this book feels kind of miraculous to me. Or rather: the fact that I was able to shut my over-critical brain down long enough to write it feels miraculous.
I don’t write often but I have written poetry my whole life—just here and there since I was a teenager. Though I’ve mostly done it in secrecy. With the exception of a couple of things that I thought might be picture book manuscripts, I haven’t shown the poems to anyone—not even to my husband. I did once read one to my son when he was four and nobody else was around to hear it but otherwise it hasn’t occurred to me to share them with anyone. I didn’t study writing in school and never thought of myself as a poet so it’s just been kind of a private thing. Lots of this poetry was written in college and is legitimately awful.
So those are my writing credentials. I haven’t even read much poetry over the course of my life but I do know a great poem when I read one and can usually sort of put my finger on why it’s great. And that helps me know—at least—when I’ve written something that isn’t great. A lot of my favorite picture books read like poems (pretty much everything Margaret Wise Brown ever wrote, for example) so I set about to write Home the way I’ve set about to write poetry in the past: late at night, after a couple of glasses of wine, and very quickly, without stopping to think. I knew I wanted to write a thing about homes and I had in mind some places that I would like to draw. I wanted the manuscript to be unexpected and I wanted there to be funny juxtapositions and opportunities for kids to engage with the book. And, of course, I wanted it to be a nice thing to read, with good cadence and repeated phrases that help to ground the reader amid the kind of untethered mishmash of homes I’m throwing at them one after another.
MAC: You wanna say anything about what you’re working on now?
CARSON: Sure. It’s a book called Du Iz Tak? and it’s the story of a growing plant and the little insect world that revolves around it. You, Mac Barnett, are intimately acquainted with it because you’ve seen about ten different versions of the dummy and have counseled me on it a lot. (THANK YOU, DEAR FRIEND.) It’s another book I wrote myself, also to be published by Candlewick, though it’s much more of a headache than Home. It’s wordless except for the dialogue, which is in an invented bug language, so it’s been a trick to figure out how to tell the story visually. And it’s also been grueling to draw. That said, I really like it! Right now it’s a headache but I think I’m going to be happy with it when it’s a book.
MAC: I’ve told you this but I say it now for readers of this blog: Du Iz Tak? changed the way I think about picture books. It’s shown me new possibilities for the form (which is something that makes picture-book writing so exciting—it’s a young form, with a lot of frontiers). Honestly the book is a revelation (and sort of unfolds like a revelation too—getting to overhear bugs about their business, and learning their language). I know you probably have to be miserly with the art, but maybe we can put a detail from it here, one of the things you posted for Instagram?
MAC: Oh SHUCKS, Mac. Thanks for saying so about Du Iz Tak. You know it means a lot. Yes, I’m being miserly with the finishes but here’s a little detail:
MAC: OK, here is my idea for our Big Finale. I thought maybe you could pick a picture book, one you love, or one you haven’t read before and want to, and we could both read it, and then talk about a specific moment or two. Want to do that? What book should we read together?
CARSON: Yes! I like your idea. Maybe Fish Is Fish? Have you grown weary of talking about that one yet? I don’t have a copy but it’d be a good excuse to find one. Or The Amazing Bone? Crictor? Shaker Lane? Or suggest something I haven’t read and I’ll seek it out. I’m game for whatevs.
MAC: I’m never weary of talking about Fish Is Fish, but let’s do Shaker Lane because that’s such a big book for you. Unless you’ve talked about it somewhere else, in which case let’s do Crictor. Number 5 Bus gets only the freshest of scoops.
CARSON: Shaker Lane! Do you have it? What was the thing that happened at Powell’s that time? I think you and I were hanging out there and my two year old randomly picked Shaker Lane off a shelf—even though it’s kind of obscure and the only other time I’ve ever seen it in a bookstore was when I bought my copy like 8 years ago. And he brought it over to the table and I gasped and said, “It’s a sign. I have to buy it.” And then did I give it you?
MAC: You talk all the time about how much you love Shaker Lane, but you’re not sure any kid would like it. And then we were at Powell’s, and Milo toddled over to one of those big bookshelves, and plucked out a copy of Shaker Lane from literally hundreds of books. And then you bought it! But you didn’t give it to me.
CARSON: Why didn’t I give it to you? What a jerk.
MAC: But you did introduce the book to me! How did you first come across it? Was it love at first sight?
CARSON: I came across it at Powell’s, just like Milo did. There are a handful of picture book author/illustrators that I love so much—I always check for their books when I’m in a bookstore: Taro Gomi, Tomi Ungerer, The Provensens. I’m always looking for things that I didn’t know existed. And that’s how I found Shaker Lane, by Alice and Martin Provensen. It was love at first sight, yes. It’s from my favorite era of theirs: when they had moved away from the more graphic work of the 50s and 60s—the Color Kittens era—and into a more painterly folk-art inspired way of working. The subject matter also struck a chord with me: it’s the story of a poor neighborhood, Shaker Lane, that springs up when the elderly Herkimer sisters, who can’t keep up their probably once lavish estate, subdivide their land and sell it for cheap. I don’t know for sure where Shaker Lane is meant to be but I like to assume it was set in New York State, where I grew up. It’s clear from clues in the book (that I won’t get into, too nerdy) that the area was settled in or around colonial days and the Provensen’s Maple Hill Farm was in Duchess County, New York. Plus it reminds me of where I grew up a lot.
Did I ever tell you where I lived when I was a kid? My family rented the carriage house on an old estate called Dellwood near Mount Kisco, New York. It was like a barn. The second floor, where we lived, was a sort of loft and a there was a stable-like area on the ground level.
The estate house had been really grand in it’s day. It was owned by a Vanderbilt and a Hammond, the parents of the famous producer John Hammond in fact. In the 50s the elder Hammond passed away and the Vanderbilt widow bequeathed the property to a popular religious cult of the time called Moral Re-Armament.
By the time we moved there in the late 70s the main house was abandoned and decrepit; windows broken, covered with vines. It was looked after by an elderly caretaker living in a beat up house on the property who my sister and I were instructed never to disturb. There were two other buildings on the property that had been kept up and rented to hippies: the carriage house, where we lived, and the farm house next to it. The estate was on 150 acres of rolling New York forests and meadows that I spent most of my time exploring.
We lived there until I was 7 and then we were evicted so the whole property could be razed and replaced by a massive condominium complex. I spent the rest of my childhood lamenting this. It’s part of what’s made me the morose weirdo I am today.
ANYWAY, Shaker Lane feels like Dellwood to me. The art in the book looks like the landscape of my childhood in a way that nothing else does and the arc of Shaker Lane’s story is familiar too. The book starts out by explaining how Shaker Lane comes to be and then it goes on to introduce us to the people who Iive there. We’re told matter-of-factly that they’re poor and that their houses are scrappy and that there is junk everywhere. We’re told that the kids of Shaker Lane are teased for being poor. And then, with that out of the way, we meet the inhabitants. We see where they live and learn a bit about them. This book is so unsentimental and so unflinching that it’s kind of astounding that it was ever made. It doesn’t try to convince us that the people of Shaker Lane are heroes. It just reminds us that they’re people. We see some of them working hard and helping their neighbors, like Big Jake Van der Loon.
And we see some of them sitting around on their porches drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
Obviously it’s amazing that this illustration made it’s way into a picture book. Yes, that’s a teenager smoking a cigarette in a doorway. I actually own the original of this—it was a gift from Colin—and it’s the first inanimate object I would rescue if my house was on fire. There’s something about that bathtub full of bricks that I love so much. I’ve paid homage to it in a few places. It’s in Home, for one.
Anyway, after we meet the residents of Shaker Lane, Ed Rikert, the County Land Agent shows up and lets everybody know that a reservoir is to be built there. “Most of you will have to move,” he says, “The county will pay you for your land.” So without histrionics everyone packs up their beater cars with their earthly belongings and we watch them drive away.
This is done so beautifully by the Provensens. They don’t tell us much but we know that this is probably devastating news for the people of Shaker Lane and we understand the injustice of it. We also suspect that they accept this fate unquestioningly because they’re poor and people who are poor are often victims of injustice and so inured to it. And that encourages us to look at ourselves and our own privilege and prejudice. There is so much deep, difficult stuff communicated in this spread. It kills me.
After the residents leave, we see Shaker Lane razed by bulldozers. Then we see the reservoir filling up, covering up the few remaining houses while the Herkimer sisters look on. Then, with a wonderful, jarring page turn, we see present day Shaker Lane: an eighties era suburb. The rusty palette of the entire book up to this point is replaced with electric green of lawns and teal of swimming pools. The text reads:
“What was left of Shaker Lane changed its name to Reservoir Road. You wouldn’t know the place.”
And on the last page we see Old Man Van Sloop, previously the town eccentric, now a guy living on a houseboat selling antiques to rich city folk. He managed to stick around. He’s the same guy he was in Shaker Lane but now we see him through the eyes of its new residents: a charming rustic.
It would be so easy for Shaker Lane to feel like exploitation but it doesn’t because it’s nuanced and thoughtful. it’s not really entertaining, it’s edifying. Which is why I always say it’s a children’s book that’s not really for children. I think there’s a lot for kids to learn from Shaker Lane but not much happens in the book to interest them. It’s a lot of inertia, a lot of sitting around on porches, a lot of smoking and beer drinking! And at its core it’s very sad. I actually think I would have liked Shaker Lane as a kid—it would’ve resonated with me—and I think some other kids might like it too, but mine don’t. (Milo grabbed it randomly off a shelf, which felt like kismet, but it turns out he’s not interested in it.) This makes me think about picture books: who they’re for, what they do. Is a picture book that doesn’t appeal to kids a good picture book? Is it even a picture book at all? Is Shaker Lane an art book for grownups? I don’t even know.