Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Art as Healing

My favorite graphic novel I have read so far is “Stitches” by children’s author and illustrator David Small. “Stitches” is a memoir of Smalls’ childhood growing up in a silent family filled with warped secrets. With art having the power to transform, Small was able to heal many of his wounds created from his past. In this tale of redemption Small turns his nightmare into a fairytale and in the end we as the readers fall in love with him.
Animator, Walt Stanchfield, once said, “Sometimes you have to draw not what you see but what you know is there or what you feel is there.”This was the case for David Small when he first started creating “Stitches, ” which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and two 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.  As an accomplished artist Small felt like he was struggling in his ideal life. The metaphors in his life weren’t working anymore. As a middle-aged artist he had a seemingly perfect life, steady career and happy family. Yet he was still a troubled young man at heart.  He wanted answers. Most of all he wanted to do it himself.
Small decided to resolve his issues through paper. At first he tried to write it all down as a prose. However words are harder to get out. He realized pictures were his medium. He believed it could solve his problems. It took him back in a visceral way. By reliving his past he was able to cure a lot of his unresolved emotions.  
How does one go that deep into the recesses of their mind? He started by trying to remember one thing at a time. He started with simple objects, like a lampshade. He would remember that lampshade and draw it. Then a rug, then a couch, before he knew it there was an entire room. A room from his family house that he grew up in, it was the setting for his tragedy. Once he had the room, the ghosts of the people came with it and he was projected there.
While reading  “Stitches” we experience David’s life from ages 6 to 16. We grow up with him in a silent, lonely home filled with aggravation and nothing but crayons and paper to restrain our anxiousness. As time progresses we feel his solitude and innocence. Imagine you are in this situation. The horror of waking up in a hospital with no voice and your reflection looking back at you in terror at the sight of a neck held together by mere thread. Discovering cancer was the cause and friends and family expected your death all along.  Your so-called family feels like the threat of a monster breathing down the nape of your stitched neck. Small could only find peace with the white rabbit. The white rabbit was his therapist, and the loving and firm parent he deserved but was without. He guided him to live on his own at 16 encouraging his dreams of being an artist and living a better life away from his nightmarish home.
David Small is Rapunzel escaping her tower; he doesn’t just survive but lives happily ever after. After such a dark tale, David brings us to his present. This present has light. Good conquers in this dark account. David finds release in art. He feels like himself when he is creating work. He finds a strength in every drawing. Just like when he was younger and he would run away in his drawings. He increases his talents and gains praise for his efforts. Even though the people in his life up to this point have been monster like images. He seeks to find the good ones he knows are out there. Meeting people that fit with him and make him feel less lost.
The artistic style of the book is quick and gestural. It’s drawn loosely and isn’t tight or over worked. Lacking color, the graphic quality enhances the concept of the past.  The ink being a wet medium creates an organic flow that forms a stream of dreamlike images, the reader swimming in a sea of foggy memories.  
Innocent little David experiences the calamity his family brings on him with ever page. Alice in Wonderland being a popular theme through out the book clearly demonstrates the comparison between himself and Alice. Like Alice there is madness coming from every angle toward an innocent child. His mother, a tyrannical, scolding parent was like a Red Queen. He was living in wonderland but much like Alice’s it wasn’t a wonderland at all.
Small is a teacher, author and artist who has illustrated over forty picture books. “Imogene’s Antlers” is one of his best sellers. Written and illustrated by Small, it was an instant classic, becoming a Reading Rainbow Feature Book with over 550,000 copies sold. It is a tale of a girl named Imogene who wakes up one morning to discover she has grown antlers! Her family and friends fail to resolve the issue but try to make the best of the bizarre conundrum. The next morning she wakes up without her antlers! Although to everyone’s surprise she sprouts peacock feathers. In this wacky situation there is a lesson of acceptance to be learned.  
It’s easy to see the connection with “Imogene’s Antlers” to “Stitches.”  Small is trying to reach out to children with a truth. Children are always in search for honesty. This book is the embodiment of his personal feelings to the little girl character.  Waking up one morning with antlers is a metaphor for waking up with no voice, a huge scar on your neck and discovering it was cancer and no one told you. The antlers equal the absurdity and confusion. It’s still the unfortunate story of his childhood but its told in a way for children to understand. It’s hidden among comedy, fun imagery and a light color palette but the truth is just as much inside those pages as it is in “Stitches,” and that was seen.
David Small still feels anger and resentment towards his family after making “Stitches.” He often felt like he was born an alien in the wrong family. Ultimately he believes none of them belonged together. He doesn’t like those people much but he understands them now on the level of an adult. The book is written from the mind of a six year old, fourteen year old, and a fifteen year old. At that age he couldn’t understand their motives as adults.
We know the most important man in Smalls past as the White Rabbit, his teenage therapist.  He believed to cure you have to love your patient. As a therapist he went beyond his bounds with David. Helping him take care of himself by teaching him how to shop and letting him stay with his family when things were unbearable at home. Its said that perfect analysts are perfect parents.
Later in life he told David he could cure him because he loved him. They shared a similar childhood experience that David was unaware of. He loved David because he was David. David’s mother was his mother too. This is what David Small has experienced hearing himself since the release of “Stitches” from his own readers.
Work for children creates reigns for writers. “Stitches” allowed him to explore his dark past with the proper amount of magnification that he felt was needed and with the right audience.
As an artist with a passion for children’s media I am also interested in investigating my own childhood in order to pass my own truths to children in my work. Making art has taught me that the best work comes from your own experiences.  The best art comes from your own life and how we work from our hearts. When J.K. Rowling started writing “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone” her mother had recently passed away and she really felt Harry’s sadness with the loss of his parents.  This emotion she felt dramatically changed her writing. Artists of all kinds can thrive off of great emotions, even if they are filled with sorrow or rage.
David Small once said, “If I didn’t become an artist I probably would have become a serial killer.” Thankfully for us, he did not. 

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