Children

Empty Books and the Art of Speaking Without Words

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“The Way I Talk” by Michele Bledsoe

Local poet and writer, Manuel Paul Arenas and Half-Price Books generously donated an assorted collection of blank journals to give to the children at the center where I volunteer.

I handed out many journals this summer, and this is the story of one of them.

During class, I looked up and saw a little girl hovering in the doorway. She was hesitant, extremely shy and awkward. With encouraging words, I somehow managed to coax her into the room.

She stared at me intently, but said nothing.

I asked her if she kept a diary.. if she knew what a journal was for.

She remained silent, but her stare intensified.

I could tell she was listening to every word I said.

So, I went on – explaining how a journal was a book where you can write down your dreams. You could fill it with stories, pictures and poetry. A place where you could say anything and express yourself completely without saying a word.

Then I handed one of those beautiful, little books to this silent child and told her, “This is your journal.”

Her eyes opened wide as she stared at the book in her hands, and sat down in the nearest chair. I watched as she examined her new journal.. turning it over and over in her hands. Then she grabbed a pencil, put her head down and began to write and write and write.

Throughout the day, groups of kids came and left. But despite the chaos in the room, that little girl remained sitting at a table by herself, head down and furiously writing.

Eventually, she came up for air.. and spoke briefly. Just a random comment, but I suddenly understood the reason for her silence. My heart went out to her – this beautiful child had a pronounced speech impediment.

As artists, we understand how life changing it is to be able to express yourself creatively. These children come from difficult circumstances.. and the simple gift of an empty book may be all it takes to change a life.

Thank you, Manny. And thank you, Half-Price Books for your wonderful gift.

So much more than just an assortment of blank books – your generous and loving donation gave a silent child a very powerful voice.

 

 

 

 

Lost Books and the Selfless Motivation of Art

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The ONCE-UPON-A-TIME Storybook is the best-loved book of my childhood.

Never heard of it?

Well, you’re not alone.

Unlike the works of Dr. Suess, Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein, this storybook has slipped away into oblivion. Just another lost book that could not withstand the test of time..

but not really.

I loved this book so deeply and completely as a child, but as I grew older.. I started to forget.

I forgot the title. I forgot the stories. I forgot the name of the author..

but I never forgot the illustrations.

Those pictures haunted me.

So, I began a search that would last for 20 years.

I prowled endlessly through the children’s section of every used book store I could find. I had no information on what I was looking for other than the memory of the wondrous images that were burned into my heart.  When eBay came along, I spent thousands of hours searching in the middle of the night.. desperately plugging in keywords in an attempt to describe the pictures I cherished. A pine tree with golden leaves. A dragon and a monkey.

It seemed impossible… but I refused to give up.

To make a long story short, I found the book.

Nowadays, it seems that practically everyone on earth has written a children’s book. In the era of self-publishing and user-friendly illustration programs.. there are authors out there churning out children’s books by the dozens. But, the difference in quality is obvious. I think most people (and children) instinctively know when someone is just “phoning it in”. Nevertheless, by working the system, these savvy authors have helped their books find their way to the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists.

I suppose I could do this too.

But, unlike those masters of marketing and self-promotion, I am not motivated by money.

The ONCE-UPON-A-TIME Storybook was originally published in 1958, and the author and the illustrator of this beloved book are probably long gone.

Maybe they never achieved fame and fortune. Maybe they never realized that their book could create such a lasting impression.

And maybe they never knew that they inspired a child to become an artist.

This is my hope for The Secret Kingdom, and for any other books I plan to create while I still live and breathe.

Every time I see my book in the hands of a child, I am reminded again and again that this is not about me..

and success is not measured in dollar signs.

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Learning to Glow and the Art of Kindness by Proxy

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One night at our art class, I handed out glow bracelets to all the young artists who came to draw with us.

A young girl wanted to light up ALL the bracelets at once

but I said “No”

I wanted to save them for the other kids, I explained.

“Oops!” she said, looking at me

and accidentally (on purpose) cracked one of the bracelets – causing it to glow.

She was testing my boundaries (as kids will do)..

and I smiled.

“Well, now you have to do a job for me,” I told her..

“Take that bracelet, go outside

and when you see someone walking alone – give it to them.”

The little girl jumped up and ran outside to complete her mission.

Inside, one of the kids looked at me and said,

“That’s a really nice thing you did.”

I said, “That’s a really nice thing Perla is going to do.”

 

Volunteering and the Art of Time Travel

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Evidence of time travel captured in the background…

Recently, a friend told me of an exercise he read about several years ago. It had to do with empowering oneself within the memories of childhood. Basically, if you had a bad experience when you were a child, you could somehow change the outcome of it. It is an act of imagination – the Now You returns to help the Little You.

An interesting idea.

Naturally, I found myself roaming through the memories of my own childhood

Now Me, looking for Little Me..

And then I stopped.

In a way, I am already doing this.

At the center where we volunteer..

I see myself in some of the kids in our art class.

The quiet ones.

The introverts.

The lonely and the ignored.

I seek them out

and I think that the words I would have spoken to Little Michele

are the same words that I share with them.

Time travel is possible, but it is not an act of the imagination..

it is an act of love.

 

Teachers, Art and Things That Last Forever

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When I was a child I would spend hours quietly playing by myself. Endlessly entertained by my wild imagination – I would stay up all night long drawing pictures. I was weird and solitary. My best friend was a dog.

School was difficult for intense, introverted kids like me.

It is so easy to become lost..

Sometimes, forever.

I don’t remember much from those days.. after all, that was over 40 years ago.

But I remember Mrs. Kelly – my elementary school art teacher.

Mrs. Kelly would sit next to me and quietly marvel over the drawings I made. Afterwards, she would put them in the glass display case in the hall outside her class – for all the world to see.

Now, volunteering to teach art to a group of inner city kids – I find myself drawn to the introverts. The quiet kids sitting alone.. trying to disappear into the background.  I sit next to them. I draw with them. I speak quietly with them – and I marvel over the drawings they make.

If you are a teacher and think you do not make a difference – you are wrong.

You make all the difference in the world.

The time you give to your students can literally change the course of their lives. Your kindness and encouragement will echo inside them, and will continue to touch the lives of others forever.

Your reach is further than you can imagine.

Thank you, Mrs. Kelly… wherever you are.

I never got the chance to tell you that I love you.

Catfish Kittens, Snakes and Exploding Hearts

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Last week at our art class there was a quiet little boy sitting by himself at a table.

He looked hurt somehow.. there was such a sad look on his face.

When it was getting close to the end, I coaxed him over and asked him to show me what he was drawing. Wow, what a talented artist he is! He made a beautiful picture of an octopus, a flower and a golden pyramid.

I showed him my drawing of a weird fish wearing a crown swimming next to a “catfish”… with the head and paws of a cat and the tail of a fish.

The little boy’s eyes got big.. his mouth twitched a little – but he didn’t say a word.

So, I asked him “Do you think catfish have kittens?”.. and the biggest smile on earth practically split his face in two. It lit up the room like the sun.

I gave that drawing to him.

When class was over, he stayed late to help us put away all the pencils and paper. I thanked him for helping us clean up.

Yesterday, the boy returned to draw with us again. When class was over, he handed me his drawing of a beautiful, polka-dotted snake and whispered, “This is for you.”

Sometimes I think my heart is going to explode.

To Paint Like A Child

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“Salvation and Desire” – painting by Michele Bledsoe

 

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  Pablo Picasso

I am not sure what it means “to paint like a child” to Picasso..

but I know what it means to me.

To paint like a child does not mean a return to the artistic skill level of a toddler.

Scribbles and stick figures. Blobs of random colors. Lopsided animals.

To paint like a child is to paint with abandon.. a complete lack of inhibition and restraint.

When you put a piece of paper in front of a child

they don’t agonize over what to draw.

They don’t make preliminary sketches or thumbnail drawings.

They don’t concern themselves with composition or concepts.

They don’t follow trends or make statements.

They don’t worry about what it means..

They just start drawing.

 

When I paint, I  put a blob of raw umber acrylic paint on my palette,

pick up a paintbrush and start drawing on the canvas until it is done.

When the drawing is finished – I paint it.

That’s it.

Stream of consciousness..

the painting becomes whatever it wants to be.

That’s how every one of my paintings begins..

And that’s how every illustration in The Secret Kingdom came to be.

The Return of Boo Radley

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In “To Kill A Mockingbird”, Boo Radley left gifts for Jem and Scout in the knothole of an old, oak tree.  He wanted the children to be aware of his presence, to understand that he cared for them, and to know that he was watching out for them.

Now, I am going to tell you a story that will explain why I call this painting “The Return of Boo Radley”.

Once upon a time I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my dog, Gunther. In the center of the complex, there was a large grassy area surrounding a sandbox where the kids could play.  Scattered on the ground, I would find some of the largest and most beautiful pinecones I had ever seen. Whenever I took Gunther for a walk, I would grab a couple and bring them back to my apartment to marvel over.

One day, I noticed a little girl playing alone in the sandbox with a large pile of pinecones. I smiled to myself. This child and I shared a love of pinecones. Later, I noticed a pile of pinecones on the open patio of one of the nearby apartments. I knew that was where the little girl lived.

That night, in a frenzy of inspiration, I took one of the pinecones from my collection and painted it. I took my time, sitting at my easel – intent on turning the pinecone into something magical. At about 3am, I grabbed my dog and took a walk over to the girl’s apartment. I left the painted pinecone on the top of her pile and went back home.

The next morning, I walked my dog past the apartment again – and the pinecone was gone.

This is where I got really creative.

To make a long story short, the pinecones got much more elaborate. I bought glitter, rhinestones, small plastic animals, ribbons and other assorted materials to incorporate into my pinecone masterpieces.  Every week or so, I would leave one on top of the pile of pinecones at the little girl’s apartment. The next morning, it was gone.

My story ends anticlimactically… I moved away.

I never knew the girl’s name, and she will never know mine.

We never met.

She will never know where those pinecones came from.

Like Boo Radley – I wanted to show her that I cared about her. I wanted her to know that I shared her love of pinecones.. and that something as simple as that is enough to join two lives together…

But most of all, I wanted her to experience a beautiful mystery in her life.