As a designer, one of my favorite things to read on design sites are pieces describing the process of designing book cover or poster. But I keep forgetting to put together blog posts showing my own.
Right now I’m in the middle of designing a series of books by Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., on the topic of happiness. I was told to make the books look a little similar, but not too similar. The first one was Finding True Happiness, which came out this spring.
I don’t seem to have my prep sketches for this one. My initial idea was the bluebird of happiness, but after an initial start in Photoshop I realized it looked like I was designing a book about twitter. I went back to the drawing board and then came across this image of the Madonna and Child by Marianne Stokes:
The way the thorns curved around is a very strong graphical element. Searching for other images of thorns, I found some of Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustrations for Sleeping Beauty:
Now I was getting somewhere. I decided to make the bird yellow. It would now be a variation on the goldfinch, a symbol of Christ and his Passion common in medieval art. Since the goldfinch lives upon the seeds of thorny plants, it provides a foreshadowing of the crowning with thorns.
I drew the image in Illustrator and brought each layer into Photoshop to add color and texture. I added in the rays of light shining downwards and used a limited color palette to echo early 20th century design.
For the second book in the series, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, I sketched out a few ideas depicting the bird flying upward out of the thorns. But it was too similar to the first one. Then I remembered a photo I had taken a few weeks back. I occasionally walk over to the local used book store, where I will pick up some books for reading on the train to work. This time I had come across a visually arresting first edition of the Jungle Book and had snapped a picture in case the design might inspire something. It was just what was needed:
I still needed some element to replace the bird. I settled on a flower, since plants are drawn upwards toward light. Using the Jungle Book as visual reference, I sketched out a ballpoint rough and showed it to the art director. It was given a thumbs-up, and I started drawing the layers in Illustrator, then used the same process I had done with the previous cover to add color.
Here’s the finished illustration:
And the finished cover:
I still have two more books to go in the series. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more inspiration.
A lot of Catholics online are talking about the “Benedict Option”, a concept being promoted by the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher. Largely driven by a sense of disenfranchisement due to recent developments on the national political scene and further galvanized by the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the Benedict Option is a call for Catholics and like-minded traditional Christians to focus their energies on community building. Some of the more radical Benedict Option promoters have also called for a sort of withdrawal from political action, and also call for Christian organizations to preemptively stop asking for tax-exempt status, for schools to stop accepting federal funding, and for priests and ministers to stop acting as state witnesses for weddings.
Responses to this idea have been mixed. Some takes that I’ve liked have been Tom Hoopes on what he calls the “Francis Option” and Chad C. Pecknold on the “Dominican Option.” There’s also been a backlash from those Catholics who are deeply invested in conservative politics. Some see the Benedict Option as a surrender in the “culture war”, others see it as an outright betrayal. I think that’s a rather hysterical response, but your view is that the only viable tool is politics, it’s understandable that you’d be upset if it’s spurned.
The thing is, the Benedict Option—at least as described by Dreher—has already been around for quite some time. The circle of writers gathered around the journal Communio have been calling Catholics for decades to embrace culture and community as a priority over politics. Writers such as Stratford Caldecott, Michael O’Brien, David Schindler, and Allan Carlson were writing about this in the 80s and 90s, even as other Catholics such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard Neuhaus were urging the construction of a powerful political coalition to advance Christian principles. In my own opinion, I think the former group was and is much more correct than the latter, but both were prompted by a dismayed reaction to where the cultural winds were blowing. I know many people who throw in their lot with Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus and I respect them—and I know that they too would insist that their priority is culture and community. But the answers I see coming from that direction always end up putting politics on a higher level than anything else.
In 1996 Allan Carlson gave an address at the North American College at the Vatican on what he called the “Family Way.” He concluded with a number of points:
Allow me to close with several examples of what you could do to advance the Family Way.
First, look back to the early 20th century example of France, and organize the business leaders in your parishes to study the principles of Catholic social teaching, regarding the dignity of labor, the just wage, and the sanctity of the family.
Second, focus the “buying power” of your parish on local, family-based suppliers. Encourage parish families as well to use their consumer sovereignty to sustain local businesses.
Third, promote micro-enterprises among your flock. Using indirect structures, some parishes have even created a small pool of capital to start up family businesses.
Fourth, encourage home education. Guide traditional parish schools to serve Catholic home educators as a resource center, as a place for some common classes, and as a site for improving the teaching skills of parents.
Fifth, create parish food cooperatives. This may be easier in small towns and rural regions, but is possible in cities as well. In the “megacities” of the developing world, seventy-five percent of food is still raised in home gardens and small poultry operations found in the cities themselves. Family gardens can be maintained in our cities, as well. The parish can also link “farm families” with “city families” in the direct sale of fresh produce and meats from the countryside, to the benefit of both.
Sixth, some priests may dedicate themselves to specific rural ministries, and the restoration of the distinctive rural life. Under the inspired leadership of Father Luigi Ligutti, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference once did vital work in this area. I believe there is a new hunger among the Catholic laity, particularly young adults, for spiritual and practical guidance here, embodied in several new journals, notably CAELUM ET TERRA.
And seventh, help renew the rule of St. Benedict in our time and place. Borrowing words from M. Francis Mannion, in the journal COMMUNIO, create “particular communities of exemplary Christian existence” which “teach us how to live authentically.” Renewal of the traditional monastic model–brotherhoods and sisterhoods–will be part of this. At a more controversial level, our time calls as well for modified application of the monastic rule to small communities of families: a life of shared residence, work, charity, and worship, resting on vows of obedience, poverty, and marriage. Again, I believe there is a great hunger for this now in America, and several Catholic communities of this sort have recently taken form. A largely Protestant, yet highly sacramental community of this kind also grows in Massachusetts.
Failing society-wide renewal, more will surely follow, as families confront the mounting crisis of our age, with lives conducted in faithfulness to the natural order and to the divine commands, holding to the promise of salvation.
What he outlines here is very similar to what people are calling the Benedict Option, including the emphasis on agrarian or rural community. The same year this address was given, I left home and spent the next three years living in a lay community based on the Benedictine rule. It was a valuable experience, and I’m glad I did it. But I also saw how it wasn’t for everybody—part of the reason I gravitate toward what Hoopes and Pecknold wrote in their pieces linked above.
My worries about the Benedict Option as being promoted by Rod Dreher are these: I worry that many of the people getting involved in promoting it may be merely disillusioned Catholics who put all their eggs, so to speak, in the basket of politics and are now embracing the Benedict Option as a sort of “stick it to the man” approach. I’m also worried this will just be another thing for Catholics to chin-stroke about online rather than actually get involved in their community. In the past, I’ve not been all that impressed with Dreher’s sense of direction, which seems to be dictated largely by aesthetics. I agree with much of his aesthetic vision, so I’m sympathetic. But aesthetics aren’t a firm foundation for community. Relationship is.
My last worry is my biggest one: that the Benedict Option just becomes another way of justifying isolating oneself from all those other bad people in the world, to preserve our just and pure group. That’s a recipe for stagnation. If you really want to live the faith, we should be getting involved in the local community even as we also build Christian fellowship with the like-minded. In conclusion, here’s something Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote which sums up the approach beautifully:
Culture is a loosely-knit word. Originally it mean the cultivation of the soil, as mentioned in Genesis: to make nature’s wilderness humanly habitable, to put the imprint of man upon it. During certain cultural epochs this enterprise may have succeeded to a degree; let us remember the Georgics by Virgil. But what can be done amid this want of culture wrought by the machine. I suppose one can try to build islands of humanity, and in this project Christians could and should be leading; such actions may have a contagious effect on others and stimulate an asceticism which renounces the excessive goods of consumerism, simply to become more human. In the Eastern bloc countries, where life is almost exclusively dictated by bureaucracy, such islands of freedom are immediately recognized and sought. “When everything is blocked off,” I was told by a dear friend who lives in Erfut, “one must try to live in the interstices.” Apparently the Christians of the Apocalypse, though they did not bear the sign of the beast, had discovered or created such spaces. From islands like this, true culture, Christian culture, may spread across the earth. Many people are athirst for it.
Sometimes I think that the odder parts of fiction—the bizarre elements in stories by writers ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Charles Dickens—are probably true. Everyone has weird stories, and if you pay attention to what is going on around you, you start noticing the weird and wonderfully human strangeness that is happening every day.
Here are a few of mine. Maybe someday they can be fit into the framework of a short story or novel, but for now they remain fragmented memories that drift to the surface now and then.
Around fourteen years ago my friends decided to go camping in Big Sur. We drove down along the coast, wheeling along the sickening drop to the ocean. I’m no good with heights, a fact that I let slip at one point, so the driver took delight in faking a jolt here and there. After our camping weekend, we headed back. As we neared the highway we came across a makeshift flea market on the side of an embankment, so we stopped to take a look. I wandered over to look in a series of boxes, all of which held identical novelty license plate holders reading “THE HELL WITH THE HOUSEWORK, I’M GOING TO BINGO”.
“Sir?” A middle-aged woman tapped me on the arm. “Sir? Want to buy some of these? My dog is sick. Come see.” She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me down the slope to a rusted truck. Inside an ancient dog grunted and pulled itself upright. A huge tumor was on its backside.
“Want to touch it?” She pointed into the window and jabbed at the tumor. “It’s real. I gotta get it cut off.”
“Uh, that’s okay.” I backed away a bit. “I’ll get some plate holders.”
I bought five or six holders. The woman told me that if I threw in an extra five dollars she would read my palm—she said she had gypsy blood and could see the lines others could not. I declined and ended up giving the plate holders away as gag gifts to several friends and acquaintances.
In 1999 I went on an almost completely unprepared trip to Rome along with another young man, intending to photograph churches for a catechetical project that ended up never coming to fruition. I didn’t sleep on the flight over; I’ve always hated flying and my height means sitting in coach seats can be intensely uncomfortable after a period of time. Groggy from lack of sleep, we arrived in Rome at the Termini station with no hotel reservations prepared. We tried calling a few hotels from a pay phone, and then were approached by a man with slicked back hair.
“You need a place to stay? I can help.” He introduced himself as “King Cobra”, the first sign that we should have just said no thank you, and led us down a side street to an ancient building with worn stairs. He led us up to a small room with beds whose sheets bore visible mildew stains. “Very nice, very classic.”
We rejected the offer, and he huffily led us next door. “This is a private residence, very nice, very clean.” The room he ushered us into was just that: a room. Nothing in it, no beds, no furniture.
“Where would we sleep?”
“With the girls. There will be girls here.”
“Um, no thanks.”
“Oh! You are….”
“We’re here to photograph churches. Kind of a pilgrimage.”
“Religious?” King Cobra seemed flabbergasted. “Rome is a PARTY CITY. Why come here for religion?”
Though he seemed rather angry about us backing out of his offers, we retraced our path to the train station and managed to track down the phone number for a pilgrim center in the home of Saint Frances of Rome. And after 38 hours without sleep, it was a blessing to crash into a tiny pilgrim bed on jangly springs.
When I used to ride the Richmond line instead of the Pittsburgh / Bay Point line on BART, I would often see an elderly man who would get on board during the ride back from San Francisco. Carrying an enormous display Bible, he would walk up and down the aisle, calling out “Gospel of John! Gospel of John! Word become flesh, and the flesh shall not fornicate. Are you a fornicator, ma’am? Are you a fornicator, sir?”
One day a somewhat inebriated man decided to engage the preacher. “I fornicate every chance I get.”
The Bible man sat down next to him and they engaged in a spirited debate for several stops. Eventually agreeing to disagree, they departed with a fist-bump.
Late one night on the MUNI bus line in San Francisco, I got on board and found a small old man wearing a bus driver’s uniform from the 1980s sitting up near the front.
“Guten tag! You look German,” he said to me. “I know how to say hello in all the languages spoken in this city, and I can usually tell what ethnicity you are. Are you German?”
“No, mostly Norwegian and Scots.”
“CLOSE ENOUGH.” He turned to an elderly Asian woman who had just boarded. “Ni hao, my dear!” She glared at him and took a seat in the back.
“I know Spanish, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, French, and Tagalog,” the man declared. “I used to drive this line. Retired now. Just riding it these days.”
“Do you know how to say hello in dog?” I asked.
He responded by barking furiously until he was red in the face.
He was an old Chinese-American man with gnarled fingers named Joe, and he owned a video rental shop near my apartment. I would go there occasionally and he would rant to me about this and that. He wore a pigtailed wig which looked strangely like a Revolutionary-era hairpiece. And he would yell at people who stared at him too long. One of my friends was shouted at for this reason.
Standing behind the counter under a sign reading “I Know I’m Special Because God Don’t Make No Junk” and photographs of himself standing with various celebrities, he would tell stories from his life. If you listened for a few minutes, you’d start to realize that he was actually retelling the plots from various movies he had seen. Like the time he was on the police force and two of the officers on the force crashed a car off of the skyway into an apartment (Freebie and the Bean) or the time he witnessed a serial killer being chased through the Hyatt at the Embarcadero (Time After Time). He seemed perfectly lucid other than this tic. He would also attempt to sell me a stun gun every time I visited, telling me that the city was full of thugs.
I miss going there.
There’s a lot more where these vignettes came from. But they’re good reminders to keep looking and listening to the things going on around you. There might be a good story there.
I was honored to be included in a group discussion of the new encyclical by Pope Francis. I ended up writing four pages of notes including connections between Laudeto Si’ and various writers including Wendell Berry, Fr. Thomas Dubay, G.K. Chesterton, and more. My rough notes are below. You can read the encyclical in its entirety here.
John’s thoughts for discussion:
Pope Francis uses the word “integral” many times in the encyclical, reminding us that Catholic teaching is consistent across all areas. In doing so, he shows the inconsistency of how environmental action is usually thought of. He points out several times the impossibility of advocating for ecological causes while ignoring the plight of the poor, the destruction of the unborn, or the necessity of the family. Our Catholic teaching gives wholeness, integrity, to ecological thought. In LS 50 he says blaming population growth for ecological devastation is a way of avoiding our responsibilities. This is something Malcolm Muggeridge also condemned:
“Now, we who are sated, who have to adopt the most extravagant and ridiculous devices to consume what we produce, while watching whole, vast populations getting hungrier and hungrier, overcome our feelings of guilt by persuading ourselves that these others are too numerous, have too many children. They ask for bread and we give them contraceptives! In future history books it will be said, and it will be a very ignoble entry, that just at the moment in our history when we, through our scientific and technical ingenuity, could produce virtually as much food as we wanted to, just when we were opening up and exploring the universe, we set up a great whimpering and wailing, and said there were too many people in the world. It’s pitiful.”
The Pope’s description of a necessity to be humble in our approach to nature reminds me of Wendell Berry’s essay “Two Economies”, where he describes the “Great Economy”, saying:
We can name it whatever we wish, but we cannot define it except by way of a religious tradition.
Berry goes on to say that our human economy cannot create value: it can only take and transform raw material from the Great Economy:
We may transform trees into boards, and transform boards into chairs, adding value at each transformation… But a good human economy would recognize at the same time that it was dealing all along with materials and powers that it did not make….
When humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract, then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.
Berry insists that we must retain a humility about creation which impels us to stewardship rather than an arrogance which leads us to view the natural world as malleable. Compare this with LS 67.
The theme of integral teaching concerning creation is also to be found in Seek That Which Is Above by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), in which he describes the lesson Saint Francis of Assisi teaches us (after citing the same story of Francis and the garden that Pope Francis relates in LS 12):
When man himself is out of joint and can no longer affirm himself, nature cannot flourish. On the contrary: man must first be in harmony with himself; only then can he enter into harmony with creation and it with him. And this is only possible if he is in harmony with the Creator who designed both nature and us. Respect for man and respect for nature go together, but ultimately both can flourish and find their true measure only if, in man and nature we respect the Creator and his creation.
Compare this also to LS 75.
Pope Francis also sees the created world as existing in relationship with God and with man, though this relationship is wounded by sin. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “To be truly human means to be related in love, to be ‘from’ and ‘for’. Sin, on the other hand, means the deranging or destruction of that relationship. When I destroy the relationship, then this event—sin—affects the other members of the relationship as well, the whole relationship. That is why sin is always an offense that involves other persons, that changes and damages the world.”
A lot of what Pope Francis says about how we should be ordering our lives reminds me of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s words in his book Happy Are You Poor:
A word of caution. In all our enthusiasm for the alleviation of the plight of the poor we are well advised to avoid the basically atheistic thesis that material destitution is the greatest of all evils…. Social injustice is evil, no doubt. But there is a far greater evil, namely, that of not seeking God. Liberation theology so focused on remedying this world’s oppressions that it neglected the immeasurably greater oppression of failing to pursue our destiny of beatific vision in risen body. They who try to solve only the problem of material destitution offer the poor thin gruel. What does it profit a man, rich or poor, to gain the whole world if he suffers the loss of his soul?
No one, I trust, will understand our word of caution as negating what the rest of this volume contains. Small minds pit truth against truth; large minds do not. They of the largest minds, the saints, have lived heroically the sparing-sharing life of the Gospels while at the same time they first of all sought eternal life both for themselves and for others.
..We need prophetic witnesses. We need people who in their way of life challenge the prevailing false ideologies bearing upon the production, distribution, and use of material goods. We need lived prophecy.
Let me be concrete. The best paid fifth of American white workers earn five or six times more than the worst paid fifth. Those who offer pat solutions to complex problems would probably call on Congress (or Parliament) to make laws to force greater equity in the distribution of the fruits of production. If a legislative body were to try to establish equity by law, it would have a revolution on its hands. The basic presuppositions of the population must change first. Ideological structures undergird and support laws and other structures.
We therefore need pilgrim witnesses. We need joyous, loving men and women to show in their lives that one can live a sparing-sharing lifestyle and still be happy and fulfilled. We need to induce conversion into the masses first by example, then by word—really, by both simultaneously.
Now compare this with LS 206 and 211. It also brings to mind G.K. Chesterton on thrift:
Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance. Heaven knows I for one speak disinterestedly in the matter; for I cannot clearly remember saving a half-penny ever since I was born. But the thing is true; economy, properly understood, is the more poetic. Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste. It is prosaic to throw money away, because it is prosaic to throw anything away; it is negative; it is a confession of indifference, that is, it is a confession of failure. The most prosaic thing about the house is the dustbin, and the one great objection to the new fastidious and aesthetic homestead is simply that in such a moral menage the dustbin must be bigger than the house. If a man could undertake to make use of all things in his dustbin he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare. When science began to use by-products; when science found that colors could be made out of coaltar, she made her greatest and perhaps her only claim on the real respect of the human soul. Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.
Again, compare Francis in LS 223 with Dubay:
People who by choice embrace a frugal lifestyle assess themselves far more realistically than those who do not. They are free from a subjection to the minds of others. They know of their intrinsic worth before God and do not feel a need for the shoddy props afforded by mere things. Being innerly uncluttered, they are ready for the divine invasion. It easily happens.
Again and again Pope Francis cautions that the materialistic definition of progress has led to a spiritual devaluation. This echoes Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s exhortation to the world:
“Since the shiny bauble of unlimited material progress has led all of humanity into a depressing spiritual cul-de-sac, represented with only slight nuances of difference in the East as in the West, I can discover only one healthy course for everyone now living, for nations, societies, human organizations, and above all else for churches. We must confess our sins and errors (our own, not those of others), repent, and use self-restraint in our future development.”
The late Stratford Caldecott’s final book, “Not as the World Gives”, is also a good complement to Laudeto Si’. In it, he warns (much like Pope Francis with his warnings of “activism”) that not seeing the Church’s social teaching as integral can lead to an ideological interpretation:
Catholics sometimes talk of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). There is a danger of treating this as a kind of ideology—a system of ideas—as though we were gleaning from the Church a body of advice to be applied to secular society. The Church’s teaching becomes functionalized, and the secular world is treated as primary. We can prevent this not only by avoiding the acronym, but by refusing to separate the subject itself from ethics, spirituality, and the creation of culture.
All these—“ethics, spirituality, and the creation of culture”—are called for in Laudeto Si’.
The Pope also says something interesting in LS 213, pointing out that ecological education most importantly comes through families. In my own personal experience, I can see that growing up in a large family taught me the value of reuse, of buying second-hand, of making the most of limited resources. My wife also grew up in a family like this. Despite the accusations of families using too many resources, it’s been my experience that those who grew up in these large families intuitively embrace a life that does more with less.
Owen E Dell, an expert in sustainable landscaping, has made the point that replacing still functioning equipment such as cars, washing machines, ovens, etc. in order to get new “greener” appliances defeats the purpose of sustainability, and that keeping older equipment in use until it actually must be replaced is far more environmentally friendly than buying new. The Pope makes similar warnings that a “green” rhetoric can often mask another form of consumerism.
My own conclusions about this encyclical are that it will be helpful in two ways: showing Catholics and other Christians that ecological responsibility is inseparable from the rest of Christian ethics, and (hopefully) in getting those outside the Church to realize that Christian ethics are inseparable from ecological responsibility.
In 13th century Europe a popular depiction of the Virgin Mary in sculpture was of her smiling at the Child Jesus. In some carvings she tickles his toes, or he grabs at her chin. I find these irresistibly charming, and they bring home the concept of the incarnation better than nearly any other art that I’ve seen.
“Christians have always sought the smile of Our Lady, this smile which medieval artists were able to represent with such marvelous skill and to show to advantage. This smile of Mary is for all; but it is directed quite particularly to those who suffer, so that they can find comfort and solace therein. To seek Mary’s smile is not an act of devotional or outmoded sentimentality, but rather the proper expression of the living and profoundly human relationship which binds us to her whom Christ gave us as our Mother.” —Pope Benedict XVI
Here are some favorites from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you visit their site and search around, you’ll come across others.
This is something I’ve mentioned before a few times in conversation: I saw The Passion of the Christ before it got overworked.
One of the missteps that is easy to make as an artist is not knowing where to stop. By working too much detail into a drawing or painting, you can end up losing focus even as you draw more clarity into the work. Many current realist painters do this, ending up with stiff, staged-looking images that would benefit from a lighter touch on the elements that aren’t essential.
I saw Mel Gibson’s flawed masterpiece at an advance screening before he had completed the movie. The music wasn’t all in place and special effects were incomplete. It was unlike any other movie on Jesus that I had seen: Christ was depicted as the ideal man rather than being given the usual cinematic treatment which either makes him look as otherworldly as an alien or as stiff as a pious holy card. It was bracing and exciting.
When I saw the movie again, it was in the theater. CGI blood and gore were thrown in during the scourging scene. Ineffectively animated demons jumped from the shadows at Judas. It all distracted from the story and veered into lurid territory. Gibson overworked it.
The Passion of the Christ is still a very powerful movie that is well worth watching. But it would have been better if it had left a few things unseen, if Mel Gibson had restrained himself a little, so as to draw people into the essential center of the story.
Over the past week I watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters”. It is a refreshing look at objective standards of artistic beauty, why beauty is important to humanity, the corrosive societal effects that occur when we reject the beautiful in favor of the purely functional, and how making art into a subjective experience that relies on the conceptual rather than the perceptual devalues artistic talent.
You should watch it. It’s very good.
But here’s a bit of a “however”. When Scruton does get around to showing some current art that he does like (sculpture and architecture), it’s all of the sort that is consciously attempting to recreate an earlier era. Sure—that kind of art is objectively better than whatever Damien Hirst has decided to show up with, and requires a great deal of skill and training. But much of that sort of thing ends up coming off as a recreation of a specific time, and thereby appearing artificial. For sculpture and painting, many of the new artistic traditionalists being promoted by organizations like the Art Renewal Center tend to produce work that looks like it came from the 19th century academic school of painting, a very specific and rather rigid system that Impressionism was largely a reaction to. In architecture, many of the new traditionalists are also more interested in designing buildings that are in a pretty static mode.
This isn’t to knock the traditional methods and the learning of them. I’m just asking what we’re doing with those skills. I’ve benefited greatly from learning traditional artistic anatomy, figure drawing, and composition—from a school I found through the Art Renewal Center. Yet, I remember having a conversation with one of my (very traditional) art teachers where he lamented that many of the new traditional painters were content with producing what he called “warm-up studies” (academic nudes mostly) without going further to use that talent to tell stories or interpret the world around them.
Maybe this is part of a new tradition taking traditional art and rebooting it to the standards of a hundred and fifty years ago. But if that’s the case, I hope it starts developing into something more interesting, organic, and fresh than it is at present.
Animator Tomm Moore’s vision is the vision of old Irish folktales, where saints and heroes, fairies and angels, monsters and missionaries comingle in stories and legend. His first film, The Secret of Kells, is a fanciful and wondrous imagining of the creation of the Book of Kells. His second, Song of the Sea, is inspired by legends of the selkies: mythological creatures who can change from seal to human and back again by slipping in and out of a seal skin.
While on the surface Song of the Sea is about Irish mythology, the themes are deeper and more universal. Like the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, Moore is interested in using traditional folklore as the palette with which to draw a portrait of distinctly human struggles. Though it contains echoes of The Wizard of Oz, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Ponyo, Song of the Sea is something truly different.
Using the same type of flat (but lush) storybook character design and background painting as Kells, Song of theSea tells the story of young Ben and his little sister Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sheh). When Ben was a toddler, his mother disappeared into the sea beyond the lighthouse his father keeps on their island home, leaving behind a baby wrapped in a seal skin. Ben’s father, Conor, has refused to talk much about the event, saving his grief for the times he is alone. Saoirse is now six and is still unable to talk, much to Ben’s irritation.
When Granny comes to visit, she’s appalled at what she considers to be dangerous conditions the children are living in. Matters are made worse that night when Saoirse finds the seal skin hidden in a box, puts it on, and makes her way down to the sea. Granny’s mind is made up: the children must come live with her in the city, leaving behind their beloved lighthouse and sheepdog, Cú.
The adventure really starts once the children reach the city. An encounter with fairy folk sets off a race against time as Ben reluctantly has to shoulder responsibilities that could have life or death consequences for his little sister—and wider implications for everyone.
As in The Secret of Kells, the mythology and Catholic faith of Ireland serve as a framework for a story with large themes. Is grief something to leave unaddressed? Can we ignore our past and traditions without causing harm to the future? Can healing come to those who avoid confronting pain?
A pivotal moment in the film sums up the richness of Irish folk traditions, when brother and sister take shelter in a holy well—a place that has both folkloric and Christian overtones. Surrounded by candles and statues of the Virgin Mary, the children make a decisive step toward resolving the crisis they face.
In an interview, the director said that the inspiration for the film came from a holiday trip to the beach with his family. While walking near the water they came upon dead seals. When he asked a local woman about it, she told him that fifty years ago the seals would never have been killed, since the people would still have half-believed the Selkie legends. But having left these beliefs behind fishermen were now killing the seals, blaming the animals for the poor fishing yields.
The anecdote brings to mind a passage from Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI): “The West… no longer loves itself; from now on it sees in its own history only what is blameworthy and destructive, whereas it is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure. In order to survive, Europe needs a new—and certainly a critical and humble—acceptance of itself, that is, if it wants to survive.” The emphasis upon what is blameworthy in the history of Western culture has led to an indifference to faith and folklore alike. But there can be antidotes found—even in an animated film for children. In the two movies that Tomm Moore has made we find a powerful yet subtle celebration of the greatness of the Western culture, an appeal based upon beauty and storytelling that compels the viewer through artistic mastery, and a humble acceptance of what we have been bequeathed by those who came before us.
Song of the Sea will be released on DVD and BluRay on March 17, the feast of St. Patrick. You should be able to find it from most online retailers. Parents may want to preview before watching with sensitive younger children; includes some intense/frightening scenes.
Note: I originally wrote this last year ago but didn’t have a place to put it. Now I have this blog, so here it goes. With a picture of some of the hops we grew last year!
This weekend I found a number of apples on our tree had become infested with codling moth larvae. I picked them all and discarded them—if left on the tree, the moths will reproduce and increase the infestation next year.
When we first moved into our house a few years ago, the old. neglected apple tree had sparse foliage and was covered with small, wormy fruit. The following year I began fertilizing the tree and culling apples, setting moth traps, spraying it with neem oil, and watering it regularly. We had enough apples to make cider at the end of the year. The next year the apples were bigger, and we made a large batch of apple butter.
In the front yard, we initially placed a few vegetable beds. They were overshadowed by the hedge and pollinators didn’t arrive in large enough numbers to do much of anything. The next year my wife planted wild-flowers alongside the vegetables, drawing in more pollinators. Last year I cut down the old shrubbery and uprooted it, and we had a tree removal service rip out the hedge. A fence was installed and I built three more beds where we planted corn, beans, peppers, and squash.
This year there’s more life in the yard than ever before. A pair of thrushes have made a nest in the eaves. Songbirds of varying kinds arrive to eat seeds and catch bugs. The useful insects like ladybugs have proliferated. But the work continues: almost every weekend we spend a couple of hours tending the trees, weeding, planting, fertilizing. And we can’t control catastrophes like the winter hard freeze that killed most of our winter harvest. Setbacks show up without warning.
All this has made me much more appreciative of the agricultural metaphors that are so often used in scripture. Jesus uses these terms talking about vine and branch, seed and harvest, the preparation of soil… it was easy for me to see this as more of a static image of the Church before. We have the right disposition, the faith grows. Problem solved. But as Christ’s audience no doubt knew at the time, the metaphors he’s giving imply years of hard work, setbacks and disasters, and constant work before real fruitfulness is in evidence. Cultivating faith can never come with a “quick fix”. And even a well-tended garden can be damaged overnight in ways that take a long time to recover from.
It’s tempting to be impatient and demand results right away. Oftentimes this is what happens within parishes by gung-ho volunteers or among people involved in other Catholic endeavors. But that’s not how it happens. Like the garden, you’re going to see a bud here, a flower there—along with not a few plants that wither and die. People will offer you supposed miracle products to speed up the process. But slow diligence will be the only way of making things pay off, and of creating a healthy, diverse ecosystem.