August 10, 2008

A life of art from the materials at hand

There’s an old adage, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  Certainly makes sense in these recycling-conscious times.  But there is another aspect to the idea, too:  even the most humble throw-aways can, in the right hands, become something wonderful.

And that’s just what happens in Fleas! a new book for children and what has happened, also, throughout the life of its author, Jeanne Steig.  Steig has written books written both on her own and in collaboration with her late husband, William Steig, the famed New Yorker cartoonist and children’s book author.  Together they did, among others, A Gift from Zeus, Alpha Beta Chowder, and A Handful of Beans.  Fleas! and Tales from Gizzard’s Grill are Jeanne Steig’s first books since William Steig’s death in 2003 . 

In Fleas!,  people trade away things they don’t want.  The hero, Quantz, after befriending a dog that gives him fleas, goes off on an adventure where his first step is to offload the fleas.  He manages to get rid of them in exchange for an overly talkative uncle, whom he then deposits with a man who trades away a huge cheese, and....well, you know how these things go. 

“It’s about cast-offs,” says Steig.  “Everything finally finds its right place.”

But recycling isn’t only a story line for Steig.  It is at the heart of her work as a visual artist, in which her primary medium is what she terms “street finds.” Scraps of roofing tile, bits of tar and cardboard, and other detritus make their way from gutter to canvas in her world.  She sees possibilities in the humblest leavings she finds on walks around Boston.  She says, though, that the streets here are generally too clean to be a good source of materials.  Instead, she receives packages of street scraps sent from Paris by her son-in-law. 

The random bits most often become people who may float through the sky in seeming wonder.  Or they may wear wistful expressions that belie a harsh setting, such as a desperate border crossing.  They manage to look wordly-wise and cheerful at the same time.  Looking at them, I think of how Steig manages to recognize the beginnings of art in what has been thrown away, stepped on, rained on, ignored.   It is part of a whole, of a life lived noticing what can be beautiful and useful if only someone takes the time to see.  At its heart, it is a life of creating books a visual art, of course, but more:  it is about making a conscious art of living. 

Steig’s  fondness for the apparent in both story and picture. Quantz, even in his itchy torment, manages a gentle affection for the fleas.  He tells them, “you dance very well,” as he tactfully suggests they might be happier elsewhere.  It is what I imagine Steig is thinking as she transforms a street scrap into part of a picture:  you will be happier here.

As I leave Steig’s sun-filled apartment and, walk home, I feel a little bit under the spell of the lesson of her street finds. On one block I see the intentional beauty, yes, of a blazing yellow clump of begonias.  But there is also the surprising bright blueness of a van parked nearby. The vivid colors around the neighborhood, the shapes with crisp edges of shadow and soft curving lines:  these are the materials at hand.  Everywhere is something to see, something to think about, to notice!



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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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