Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Vaginas for Sale!

So after I quit all my random jobs, I had time to do lots of other random things. Like clean my bathroom, cook with anchovy paste, and watch reruns of "Iron Chef" on Food Network. 

In April, I got a phone call from a certain agitator--for privacy's sake, let's call him "Peter J." ...No, that's too obvious. Uhh, let's say, "P. Jeppson"--who had a proposition to offer. I thought he was going out of town again and needed a babysitter, and wondered why he was calling instead of Lori, because I saw Lori at Pinkberry all the time, but that's not what he had in mind. Instead, he asked if: a) would I like to do some medical illustration for an article he was writing?; b) would I mind, because the pictures might be kind of gross?; c) would I be able to finish the project by June 4? 

So then we had this conversation: 

Me: "Um, I've never done medical illustration before..."
PJ: "I've seen what you do on your blog. You're very talented. I'm sure you'd do a great job..."

When he said "what you do on your blog," this is what he was referring to: 

Which is a really good indication of what my medical illustration might look like, right? 

PJ: "Besides, you'll be published and you'll be able to put the illustrations in your portfolio..."

When he said "your portfolio," he meant my children's book illustration portfolio for RISD. 

It all made perfect sense, so I said, "Ok, I'll do it!" 

By the way, PJ specializes in urogynecology, which meant I'd be drawing...vaginas. Specifically, a series of images detailing the unfortunate condition of vaginal prolapse. It's basically when your uterus falls out through your vagina and hangs outside of you like a sock full of sand. I'm told it can feel like you're sitting on a tennis ball when you prop yourself in an upright sitting position. 

So I added "scouring Google images for vaginal prolapse" to my list of random hobbies in May. I recommend that you don't try it at home if you don't have to.

The first two images were easier because they've been done before, in varying styles and media, by several professional illustrators as follows: 

saggital planes of prolapsed anatomy 

and incisions of the fascial plane between the cervix and bladder.
But reference photos for the last two images didn't exist anywhere in published journals or on Google images. I had to imagine a coronal view of a three-dimensional bladder and the distal course of the ureters in vaginal prolapse. So I had to think carefully about the normal anatomy first: 

In normal anatomy, the urethra is "below" the bladder, but in prolapse, the bladder slips "below" the urethra:
So imagine an illustration of what this might look like from the front, as if you're looking straight through instead of from the midsection view. Plus, add the ureters, those tube thingies that carry pee from the kidneys to the bladder: 

I had to picture what ureters would look like in the prolapsed anatomy when the bladder drops. I didn't get it until I asked PJ to sculpt it for me: 

I tried to make this less awkward by suggesting that we play Cranium and sculpt "prolapsed bladder." Ready, set, go!
The pencil is the "urethra." In case you couldn't tell.
The hardest part wasn't looking at real life operating room pictures of hysterectomies, or even drawing the anatomy, but the editing and formatting on Photoshop. Somehow I finished everything on time, making it up along the way. I watched this video of a medical illustrator creating a "single, exquisite image." It kind of validated my makeshift process, because I followed his basic steps. Except I didn't have all the fancy drawing software, nor am I one of the 1200 board certified medical illustrators in the U.S., so my images weren't quite as exquisite. For example, instead of drawing the fat tissue on the computer, I scanned pieces of leftover bread and found images of sweaty arms and manipulated them in Photoshop to look like fat. Don't tell anyone I did that...

The article won't be out until 2014. I still occasionally have dreams where the editors send me nasty emails telling me that I have 24 hours to redo everything because something is wrong with them. Maybe when the article is published I'll finally believe the vaginas are ready for prime time. Until then, you can await your glimpse of the final versions. But really, they're not that interesting. Unless you get paid to study vaginas for a living. 

And that is the story of how I created the crowning glory of my portfolio and magically became the world's most obscure medical illustrator overnight, for a limited time only. As I say, there's a reason for everything. One day the muscle linings holding my uterus in place may decide to take a permanent holiday. In the event that this does happen, at least I'll be able to spot the symptoms immediately.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dear boss, I hate you

Also in the fall of 2012-early 2013, I quit all my jobs (except for URI, because it was really the only legitimate one of the three). In theory, these jobs were going to be the best things that ever happened to me. Teaching high school literature online. Working part time at the elementary school teaching cross-curricular humanities to kids who asked me, “Do you have any kids? Well, too bad. You would be a really cool mom.” They seemed like the perfect situations at the time, allowing for flexibility and networking opportunities. But now I wonder why I didn’t just take a few more minutes to think through the one question that really mattered: Who cares if, at the end of the day, I don’t have what Susan Cain calls the “restorative niche”? Or, “the place you go when you want to return to your true self.” Or, the time to do things that you want to do because you want to. My true self is a very nice person who likes to be in the same room as Jesse. But when I worked all the time, I turned into a very irritable person who always wanted to eat fast food and wasn’t interested in talking to Jesse unless he wanted to go to bed at 10:00.

I thought maybe the tradeoffs would be worth it. For example, as part of the work at the elementary school, I had to prep the 5th graders to interview Ann Hood. So we drafted interview questions and I told the kids a little bit about Ann before her classroom visit. I told them that Ann was a famous author who was an eccentric child; one of her hobbies was to design license plates for the 50 states based on their state bird (she memorized all the state birds), and then she would mail her ideas to the governors. I told them that Ann later got married and had a son named Sam, and a daughter named Grace. Sadly, Grace died at age 5 from an unusually serious case of strep. A few years later, Ann and her family decided they wanted to adopt a child. Because adopting from China was the fastest and easiest way at the time, they went through all the procedures and were waiting to pick up their baby. One day they received a call from their social worker who told them three things: 1) “She’s cute”; 2) “She’s healthy,”; 3) “She’s 9 months old, and her birthday is April 18.” Ann and her husband were silent after the third statement. Because April 18th was the day Grace died. And Ann wondered if she would ever be able to bake cupcakes on that day.

But then Ann and her husband decided that the birth/death day was a sign that Grace wanted them to be happy. They flew to China to pick up their baby and named her Annabelle. All they knew about Annabelle was that she was found in a box at the orphanage door one morning early in September; she was about 5 months old.

When Ann Hood came to our classroom for her interview, she answered questions about her childhood, about Annabelle, and her life as a writer. She told us about how she majored in English at URI, and then became a flight attendant because she had read the first line in a book once when she was 13: “How would you like to have a boyfriend in every city in the world?” For 8 years, she flew and saw strange things on airplanes—the woman who tried to carry a live chicken on the plane in his suitcase; the man who boarded a flight and somehow lost his pants en route; the man who didn’t speak English when the flight Italy and was surprised he had landed in New York when he thought he was on a flight to Rome…She used to write in the airplanes when the passengers fell asleep.            

She talked a little bit about how they still remember Grace since her death. Grace was very artistic for her age and took special art classes after school; her teacher commented on many of her pieces. One way Ann’s family remembers Grace is by keeping her artwork framed and hanging on the walls of their home. Another thing about Grace was that she really loved shoes. She would pick out which shoes she wanted to wear every day and line them up by the door. They still keep her shoes lined up for her.

Ann also talked about Annabelle, who is now 7. Annabelle is “old fashioned.” For Christmas one year, Annabelle decided to sew aprons—by herself—for everyone in the family. For her birthday one year, she asked for a typewriter. “Why?” Ann asked. “So I can write letters to people,” Annabelle said. Annabelle has a pen pal she met while on a trip to England and often writes to her. She also writes to Erika, her babysitter. Erika travels with the family in the summer because Ann travels a lot to teach and speak at conferences and vacation in places like Alaska, Italy, and Finland.

One of the kids at the end asked, “What is the difference between your old self and your new self?” Without hesitation, Ann explained that as a child, she didn’t have many friends. Lots of girls were mean to her in elementary school. She invited some classmates to a birthday party once and they all told her they were looking forward to it. None of them showed up. Things got a little better when she moved to a different town and found a new school where she worked on the class newspaper, but she was still lonely. Now, as an adult, she is wildly popular and successful. She told the class she hoped they would never ever be the mean kids that she had in her life.

It was a good interview. That was in early January, and I knew it was going to be my last day. After the interview, one of my favorite kids asked if I was going to keep coming back now that the interview was done. I lied. I started working in October, and by the time Ann had come for her interview, I didn’t feel like working for people who were dishonest and misleading in the expectations outlined in the contract. I lasted longer at the elementary school than I did at the high school, which I quit much sooner after I realized how stupid their curriculum was and that the principal was a weirdo. So I skipped to step 4 of Steven DeMaio's recommended procedure for "How to Quit Your Job with Style," and didn't even say goodbye to the kids. The circumstances were such that goodbyes didn't really matter anyway. In both cases, the people who hired me made it easy to walk away and I didn’t think twice about leaving. Which I've never done before.

I went on lots of lunch dates with friends to celebrate. 

So that is why from February 2013 to present, I’ve been hanging around at home a lot without much to talk about. I should enjoy it while it lasts.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books & Authors

Wednesday July 17, 13
Also in the fall of 2012 I attended my first Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors. It’s a brilliant conference that costs $5 for students and features an all day cast of stellar authors and illustrators who all talk about how they started their careers as writers/illustrators. The one and only Chris Van Allsburg, who lives in Providence started the conference years ago and is always the concluding speaker.

If you’re looking for authors and illustrators for children’s books, here are a few people to pay attention to:

Alan Katz—when he was in 3rd grade, he told his mom how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He held up a blank piece of paper and said, “See this, some day I’m going to write something and people will pay me to read it!” To which his mom responded, as she pointed to the emptiness of the paper, “See this? This is going to be your checking account, because NOBODY does that.”

In 3rd grade Alan wrote a delightful parody of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in which Jack trades the cow for beans and then buys a color TV and gets time out for 3 weeks but he doesn’t mind because the TV gets banished to his room too.

One day, one of Alan’s sons found a ladybug on the bus, named it Oscar, and it flew away. His son made a LOST sign that promised a reward of $200 for anyone who returned his ladybug. When Alan asked, “What is this?! What will you do if someone says they found your bug and want $200?!” His son said, “Then I’ll say they have the wrong bug!”

One of his memorable lines: “Everyone uses the same 26 letters of the alphabet. I just arrange them in different order.” So true.

He wrote: Oops!, Take Me Out of the Bathtub, Don’t Say That, Karate Pig, Hairy Henry, Stalling

Lynn Munsinger—famous illustrator of 90+ children’s books. She loved picture books when she was little and she’d read the stories, then try to draw her own pictures to tell the stories. She entered a lot of weekly drawing contests. At age 8, she secretly entered a big contest that promised the winner an invitation to a fancy art school. She drew a pirate and won the contest. The recruiter of the school later knocked on her door and was discouraged to find out that Lynn was only 8 and didn’t have any $ for tuition. Plus, her mom said she had to concentrate on passing 3rd grade.

Lynn later went to RISD and didn’t have a plan as graduation approached. My notes don’t record the story of how she stumbled upon children’s bk illustration, which is kind of an important detail, but oh well.

She explained her process for starting a book with the style that she’s known for—anthropomorphized animal characters:
1.     She goes to the zoo. She observes and does quick gestural drawings to capture the movement of animal characters. She nails the renderings of the realistic animals first, then works on stylizing them.
2.     Then she exaggerates the sketches and gives the characters props and accessories.
3.     She draws different proportions and facial expressions of the animals. Sometimes her friends pose for her and are later insulted when they find out they were helping her draw a hippo, or whatever.
4.     She does LOTS of rough sketches, page after page of animals moving, wearing clothing, going about their everyday make believe lives.
5.     Then, she does a storyboard and figures out where to place the text and what images will be paired with the text.
6.     Next come thumbnail sketches—tiny sketches, 2” x 2”. This is where she figures out her book design, or the variety of page layouts. Where to have borders, where to have the characters’ actions breaking the border, where to have close-up illustrations and different points of view, etc.
7.     Finally, she works on full-page layouts with pencil sketches. Then traces the lines in ink. Then fills in with watercolor. 

She’s the illustrator of the Tacky the Penguin series, Jellybeans series, and Ponyella and 90+ more... I'm including these books below because they sound like they were probably written about me.

Harry Bliss—the cartoonist. Each conference speaker was given a special introduction by the conference staff. As the staff member concluded the intro, Harry walked up to the podium with a cell phone attached to his ear. He was having a conversation with someone in New York that apparently involved him bidding $12,000 on an Andrew Wyath. He didn’t win the painting though.

Harry’s parents met in art school. There was a lot of art in his house. He said, “If you couldn’t tell the difference between a Braque and a Picasso in our house you were severely beaten.” Ha ha.

He sends in a cover sketch once a week to the New Yorker. Here are some of my favorites.

He has a lot of dog cartoons. Here’s my favorite.

He also did a cartoon of Martha Stewart in her jail cell, digging her way out, but stopping along the way to neatly bag up the dirt and categorize it.

Once he took a photo of 3 kids sitting in a Boston MFA exhibit and they’re sitting in front of great works of art but all they can do is sit there staring at their cell phones. In a neat and tidy package it says, “Help me, I’m BORED” rather nicely.

Some of his books: Countdown to Kindergarten, the Bailey series, A Very Brave Witch, my all time favorites—Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider

Gary Schmidt—author of Newbery Award winning Wednesday Wars. He told stories about how nobody taught him to read in elementary school. There were three education tracks and students were placed in classrooms of homogenous ability levels. He was in the third track for “stupid” kids. The first track was “corn,” the classroom that received got all the new, shiny books. The second track was “green beans,” the class who got the hand-me-down books. The third track was “pumpkins,” the kids who got a classroom with no books because they weren’t considered smart enough to need them.

But in 4th grade, one teacher singled him out on the playground and took him by the hand and transferred him into her classroom to a desk stacked with books that he couldn’t read. They started with Dr. Seuss. And then everything changed.

Gary eventually hated 6th grade though. When he went to school, every day the Jewish, Catholic, and Lutheran kids got excused for 2 hours of religious study/service work. Everyone left the classroom except Gary. His teacher hated him and turned him into the classroom janitor. Gary’s job for 2 hours every day was to clean all the cubbies and change the classroom rat cages. The rats bit him so many times his parents thought he was on drugs.

One day the principal came into the classroom during the 2 hour period of Gary’s indentured servitude and realized what was going on. Principal yelled at the teacher and teacher claimed that it was pointless to try to teach Gary: “He’s by himself. It’s not like I can teach him or anything!” So her solution to the problem of Gary was this: she plunked the whole collected works of Shakespeare in front of him, and said, “Read this,” while pointing to Macbeth.

Gary secretly enjoyed Shakespeare and loved the plays he read. If the words were too hard, his rule was: TURN THE PAGE. If a character was boring, he turned the page. If he didn’t understand what was happening, he turned the page and skipped to parts that he understood.

Anyway, Gary is great.

Michael Buckley—the comic writer for TV shows and other funny things. He grew up in Akron, OH, the “most boring place in the world,” in his opinion. Akron was deadly boring, except for a few of its notable achievements: inventing the zipper, and conducting the annual soap box derby, in which they put small children in plywood boxes and push them down a hill.

When he was 16, he won a joke-writing contest for Mad Magazine. Here’s his joke: “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead.” His prize was a day of hanging out with Eddie Murphy. But there was nothing to do in Akron, so they went to the mall and bought Orange Julius. The end.

Later he went to the University of OH, where they had competitive checkers! He did an internship for Dave Letterman and met Beyonce and George Clooney. He asked kids in the audience if they knew what an “internship” was and kindly explained it: “It’s super exciting! In the summer time, when all your friends are at the beach, getting a tan, you get to go to work at a company. For FREE!”

Later, he worked for the show “Beavis and Butthead,” “Celebrity Death Match,” “MTV,” “The Fabulous Life of Justin Timberlake…and Usher…& Whoever was Having a Fabulous Life.” And one day he realized he hated fabulous people and that he really didn’t care the fabulous people and their gold toilets and the people they hire to chew their food. She he quit. Which was fabulous.

He realized he liked working with kids and making them laugh. So he worked for Nickelodeon for a while: “Rug Rats,” “Thornberries,” “Fairly Odd Parents,” and for a show about a sponge who lives in a pineapple in the ocean. He ways Nickelodeon was the best job ever! And that he should know, because he worked at Taco Bell and knows the difference.

His book that’s my favorite: Kel Gilligan’s Daredevil Stunt Show, a good one for boys, adults, pretty much anyone who has had children, or has been a child once.

Brian Floca—loved to draw when he was a kid. He went through a weasel phase where that’s all he’d draw. He says a lot of people draw a lot when they’re little and then they stop for some reason. But he kept drawing.

His mom was a teacher and took him to the library often. Books were important at his house.
Later, he studied with David Macaulay, one of RISD’s illustration superstars.

Brian pointed out that sometimes your books get published and then disappear promptly and are never seen again except for in the dark corners of the Internet. But if this happens, you have to keep going and keep writing and keep drawing. He says everyone has ideas. But authors make the decision to do something with these ideas.

In his bookmaking process, the three major steps are:
1.     Research
2.     Writing
3.     Drawing

Brian got the illustration job for Avi’s Poppy. Part of his job for Poppy was to go to the Prospect Park Zoo in New York in the morning before the zoo opened. He says they walk their porcupine every day and it has a little harness it wears on its walks. At the zoo he got to observe the animals that became the models for the characters in his pictures.

The illustrator’s job is to enchant, he says. His pictures do exactly that.

Someone asked him what he likes better—the process or finished product. Without hesitating, he said the process is much more enjoyable. Looking at the final piece is horrible and he invariably wants to change everything about the final and start over. That’s what happens to me too. 

Scott Nash—graphic designer. He designed the logos for Nickelodeon, Comedey Central, Cartoon Network.

His advice: if someone offers you a contract to illustrate a dinosaur book, TAKE IT! His Dinosaur Stomp is about dinosaurs who get together for a party that eventually causes their extinction.

Scott illustrated the entire Flat Stanley series and to date receives LOTS of Flat Stanleys and Flat other characters, including Flat Ralph and a Stanley posing with Clint Eastwood. 

Chris Van Allsburg—needs no introduction. He’s probably the biggest illustration superstar of them all. Nobody makes money in children’s book illustration except for him. He’s the recipient of the largest illustration contract in the history of the world, $400,000 for Swan Lake, which incidentally is a big piece of crap. But I guess you can get away with things like that when you’re Chris Van Allsburg.

CVA said, “One of the things I thought was appealing about being an artist was that I didn’t have to be around people.” There’s something satisfying about being alone and creating a new world.

His first book was The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. At the time, he was a sculptor, RISD student days were over, he hadn’t ever sat down to write any more than a postcard. He had this idea for a picture of a boy chasing a dog through a topiary. That’s all. But then he started asking himself questions—who owns the garden? What does he do? Etc. It turned into a book about the magic of illusion vs. the magic of miracles and the stage of the magician.

He said too many books are about content that simply tells you what happened. The boy goes fishing with his dad, they catch a fish, they bring it home, the end. That’s the wrong story though. It should be a story from the fish’s point of view. This is the case with his book, Two Bad Ants. It’s the story of two ants who get into trouble because they sneak into a human house and eat too many sugar crystals. They try to escape the house by finding shelter in the crevices of an English muffin which is about to go into the toaster, and then they stick their heads in water, get blasted into the garbage disposal, and then find the electrical sockets and get electrocuted. It sounds like every child’s favorite book!

He’s done so many projects, but my favorite is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. So good. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"That was the one. I think that's gonna come out really nice."

Hello blog. It’s been so long. I’m getting back together with you again—but only temporarily, because I don’t have much to say to you, and when I’m finished, I’ll withdraw back into my cocoon of reticent ambivalence and I probably won’t look at you much until 2014.  

So, where to start in the catch-up game of 2012? Did you know Jesse takes awesome pictures? Probably not, because I forgot to tell you. Well, he does. He is the official pictorial “documentarian”—it’s a real word—because sometimes I cut the tops of people’s heads off, which is weird since I go to RISD where we spend a lot of time talking about balanced, harmonious compositions, but anyway…

I was taking my Photoshop class at RISD in fall 2012 and had to learn how to make good photos look better. I learned how to whiten teeth, make eyes look bluer, add highlights, and make short people look taller by elongating the neck/torso/legs. I needed photos to practice with, so Jesse turned into the Warwick Ward Family Photographer for the month of November. I stood around and tried to keep the dads calm using my best Deb from Napoleon Dynamite voice: "Kay, hold still right there. Now, just imagine you're weightless, in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by tiny little sea horses," and "That was the one. I think that's gonna come out really nice" (300 shots later).
Afterwards, I did touch ups on PS. Not that anybody needed longer necks and whiter teeth. Instead, I needed to make the blanket they were sitting on disappear, the blanket with, "Rich Wedding, Aug. 2005" embroidered all over it.


Ok, so these were my first trial runs. I'm much better now and won't make your teeth glow in the dark. In my Pedro voice, I might tell you, "I could build you a Christmas card or something:"  

Or a baptism announcement: 

Or a baby-q invitation (didn't know this was a real thing until someone sent me specific instructions for recreating this on Adobe Illustrator):

So if you need something, you know where to find me :)