Literary Giants

Posted by jdg | Friday, April 11, 2014

Hello all. Most of my blogging energy has been absorbed by another project for quite some time now. Otherwise things are pretty much the same here.  I've really been enjoying the liberation that comes from never worrying about what the next blog post needs to be about and just making dozens of things that I haven't shared here. But if there are folks out there still interested, I may pop in from time to time to share a few of the things we've been up to.

If there was one thing that got us through that winter, it was chapter books. We rearranged the shelves and boxed up hundreds of picture books and just started binging on more serious reads at bedtime and through those long cooped-up winter days. To all the parents of younger kids out there dedicated to reading those picture books to babies and toddlers every night, let me speak to you from your not-too-distant future: it gets so awesome when you finally put down the picture books and start sharing more demanding stories. That's especially true when you start tearing through your own favorite books from childhood, watching them in their beds painting their own pictures with those words coming from your lips. My wife has read them dozens of novels---new and old---at bedtime over the past few months. And I always end the night with poems to remind them that words can be beautiful even if they don't always make sense, so we've been on a steady diet of Hopkins and Frost and Yeats.

My daughter's favorite book is Roald Dahl's The BFG, which I never read as a kid but she has now finished eight or nine times. It's about this massive-eared "Big Friendly Giant" who comes to kids windows at night and blows dreams into their ears with a long trumpet-like horn. For a girl who has always had some anxiety about sleep, there seems to be comfort in the story of a goofball giant who brings sweet dreams and banishes nightmares and who farts (whizpops) a lot after drinking his favorite drink (frobscottle) and speaks in a hilariously confused English. For her birthday I decided to make her a BFG doll for her bed just to make sure she always has good dreams. I did some research about how dolls are made and taught myself to use my wife's sewing machine, and it took a great deal of courage to overcome my fear of losing whatever shred of masculinity I had left. I think it all drifted away like silvery waves of gossamer while I crouched over that machine sewing pants for a naked bald-headed man doll.


That black-hooded thing is the invisible cloak he wears while delivering dreams, which are kept in a little glass bottle in his pocket (I used glitter rather than actual dreams). Yes, I bought glitter to put in a dainty glass bottle. Why am I admitting this to the world?  My favorite part are his sandals. There's a good story surrounding those sandals. When Roald Dahl originally wrote the book, he described the BFG wearing tall black boots.  When Quentin Blake did the original illustrations Dahl thought the boots made him look "too fierce." So for inspiration he sent Blake one of the actual Norwegian sandals that Dahl was known for. I imagine it smelled. Dahl then changed the text, describing the BFG's footwear as, "a pair of ridiculous sandals that for some reason had holes cut along each side, with a large hole at the end where his toes stuck out." You can see the actual sandals at the Roald Dahl museum. I cobbled mine together out of scrap leather.

The doll was a massive hit with the birthday girl. He even greeted a few friends she invited over for a simple BFG-themed birthday party. We made snow BFGs outside to surprise the guests and just let everyone run around with whoopee cushions, cucumb. . .I mean, snozzcumbers, and "frobscottle" they made from various fruit syrups they carbonated in our soda thing. I also made her a BFG cake.

She got her own sewing machine for Christmas this year, one of those beautiful oldfangled cast-iron, golden-lettered Singers. I showed her how to make dolls and together we made a Sophie (the bespectacled orphan protagonist of Dahl's novel):

She did most of that work herself, including the dress.

My son wanted his own literary-themed birthday and giant doll, so when his birthday came a few weeks later there was no question about his favorite book: Canadian author Mordecai Richler's 1975 children's novel Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. I loved this book as a kid, but I still haven't met anyone else who remembers it. I haven't even encountered a Canadian who remembers it. It's about a boy named Jacob who is "two-plus-two-plus-two years old" and has to say everything twice because he has so many brothers and sisters that no one listens to him the first time. His repetitive nature gets him into hot water and he finds himself in front of a merciless judge and jury in children's court before they send him off to children's prison, where the warden is the notoriously cruel ex-professional wrestler The Hooded Fang. He is magnificent in Fritz Wegner's illustrations:


Without giving too much away, the Hooded Fang doesn't quite live up to his reputation and by the end of the book my son loved him very much. So I sat back down at the sewing machine and made him a Hooded Fang. Yeah. . .


It was pretty awkward making that, even before I finished his silk wrestler's robe. I basically made my son a doll who looks like the vampire attendant of a 1970s San Francisco bathhouse. Did I really want him sleeping with that thing? Sometimes I set him up so The Hooded Fang looks like he's watching him sleep, and the next morning I find that my son has knocked him down. But he still loves his Hooded Fang, even if he doesn't want him watching him sleep. I made his sideburns, hairy chest, and monobrow out of rabbit fur. The wrestling boots are real leather. I painstakingly painted the design on the red material from Wegner's original illustrations.  He may be unnerving, but I'm pretty sure he's the only Hooded Fang doll on earth.

2013 Sweet Juniper Holiday Card by Phoebe Wahl

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, December 24, 2013


This year we had the pleasure of working with the talented Phoebe Wahl [portfolio, blog, tumblr, etsy] who created this custom family portrait for our annual holiday card. We've been fans of her work for a long time and we were thrilled when she agreed to do a painting for us. Her illustrations capture so much of the magic to be found in family, the outdoors, and the doing of simple things. She saw some of the pictures of the snow creatures we create and delivered this amazing image of our family rosy-cheeked out in the snow while our creations seem to come to life around us. I love it so much. Phoebe also did all the artwork for the 2014 Taproot calendar and it is really lovely.

I know things have been quiet on the blog for the last couple of years, but we're grateful for those who still check in from time to time and we hope everyone out there enjoys these last days of this year, with the hope that the next one will be even better. Happy holidays, everyone.

[see also 2009201020112012]

Up North: Seen (summer & winter)

Posted by jdg | Thursday, December 12, 2013 | ,

1.
Like most Michiganders we try to go up north every year and this past summer we rented a little farmhouse in one of the nicest corners of the state and we liked it so much we rented it again for the Thanksgiving weekend and headed up into the snow for an early and cozy little glimpse of the winter to come. It was a treat to see all the heavily-touristed areas more subdued. We walked (and sledded) along empty, ice-encrusted beaches and hiked in the woods while the old snowmobile tracks we followed filled with fresh powder. And we ate a lot of good food.

2.
3.
When we got back I remembered I took a bunch of pictures last summer that I never shared. . . and after looking at all the pictures I took over the holiday weekend I thought maybe I should share just a few to show how beautiful it is up there in Leelanau County all year round. 

Halloween 2013: Anubis and King Tut

Posted by jdg | Friday, November 01, 2013 | ,


The kids decided to go with an ancient Egyptian theme this year. I loved the idea of taking a Halloween classic like a mummy costume and adding a bit of craftsmanship and educational quality to it (while keeping it super creepy, of course). After they made their choice in September we started reading all the books we could find about mummies and we reread old books I loved as a kid like The Egypt Game and The House on Hackman's Hill. My daughter chose to be Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the underworld. I thought she might prefer one of the female Egyptian deities like lion-headed Sehkmet or cat-headed Bastest, but she had her heart set on Anubis. We read that the Egyptian priests who made mummies wore jackal masks just like the god, so I made her a leather Anubis mask that sort of sat on the top of her head. The giant ears are my favorite part. The taxidermy lizard eyes have LED lights behind them that made them glow after dark.


Her mother furiously knit her that beautiful beaded collar in the days leading up to Halloween. We ripped up some old linen fabric we found in the basement and boiled the strips in tea and then cooked them in the oven until they looked about 3,000 years old, and the skirt is scrap leather that I never used in the dragon costumes we made this summer. I also made her a hefty gold-painted oak ankh to carry around. The weather had been pretty lousy for pictures the last few days, but I couldn't resist making a trip up Woodward to the Dodge brothers' Egyptian revival mausoleum in Woodlawn cemetery to take some pictures. 


My son wanted to be a mummy rather than a god and when I told him all about the boy King Tutankhamun he jumped on it right away (apparently the kindergartners sing a song called "King Tut had a butt.") Man, I was so fascinated by King Tut's tomb and Howard Carter when I was a kid. The big Met/National Gallery exhibition of artifacts happened right before I was born and I remember the image of that golden funerary mask having such an impact on me from the earliest age. It really is one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands and when my son and I were envisioning how to do this costume (by drawing together) we came up with the idea of wearing that mask over mummy wrappings, as though the mummy of King Tut came to life to take revenge on the mortals who dared to steal his stuff and put his image on $5 t-shirts. My daughter wove stories about the god Anubis aiding Tut in his quest for revenge and there was a lot of wide-eyed talk of curses. I really had my work cut out for me, but here is what we came up with:


He likes to stand there with the crook and flail crossed over his chest and slowly come to life and stumble forward. Of course, he calls them his "mummy weapons."


The real challenge in the construction was making it comfortable and easy to put on and take off. He had to be able to breathe easily, see, and tolerate the weight. I used a very light leather. And I was so excited about making this mask that I even carved all of the hieroglyphics from the original on the back part. The Pharaonic headdress (the Nemes) is also detachable, with a snap hiding behind the little vulture and cobra at the front. It was a cool way for him to take it off and just become the boy mummy:



This was one of the most fun costumes we've made yet, probably because the kids were really into it. They've been interested in Egyptian stuff for years (remember the pizza-box pyramids, or our mummy hunting adventures?), and to prepare for this we made more trips to the Toledo Museum of Art, the Kelsey Archaeology Museum in Ann Arbor, and the Detroit Institute of Arts just to look really closely at the Egyptian artifacts, trying how to figure out how they were made, what they might have happened to them in the intervening years. My daughter was really interested in the canopic jars where the guts where placed after they were removed from the mummified body and it was her idea to make clay canopic jars to hold their candy while they were trick or treating! We have spent the previous weeks working on the costume and watching clips from old b&w mummy movies, reading old books, repeating Brendan Fraser's greatest line over and over again, watching Steve Martin sing "King Tut," and of course, we have been walking like Egyptians.


Attention West Michigan Folks

Posted by jdg | Friday, October 04, 2013

I always feel awkward promoting stuff, but here goes: I will be giving a talk at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts next Wednesday (October 9, 2013) at 7:00 p.m. to launch the Kalamazoo Art League's 59th lecture season. I'm excited and honored to have the opportunity to do something like this in my beautiful hometown and would love to meet anyone who's interested in coming down there to hear it.

I'll be talking a bit about the blog, but mostly about the photos from the Disappearing City series you can see here.

More information here.

Mishemokwa

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 24, 2013

They were both wearing shirts of that orange only hunters, convicts, and ten-year-old boys can get away with. I didn't know much about them---just what you can glean from conversations between strangers overheard on a boat. The mother of one (or both) of them was wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt and denim shorts that were maybe a little too short and she was just dating the bald-headed park ranger, judging by the flirtatious way he fed her peanut M&Ms that he bought from the little concession booth amidships, standing together at the very tip of the bow as the boat plowed through the choppy water. He wasn't the father of either boy---they seemed far too impressed by him for that to be the case. In his distinctive ranger flat hat, with his patches and tags and badge he was all authority. He was cool, even in khaki shorts, and today he was introducing them to all that made him so, describing the things they could do on his island. There would be swimming, hiking, and fishing, of course. But they could also climb the sand dunes or explore the houses abandoned by farmers who found island life too difficult and moved to the mainland. There was a shipwreck and an old schoolhouse and creepy old cemeteries. "I'm on duty from seven to three every day," he told them. "But after that we can do whatever you guys want." The mother smiled as the boys adored this man. I could not tell what the future held for any of them, whether a man tethered to an island in the wilderness could make this work, but I wanted him to. I could not help but root for them.

The boat was traveling southwest in a direct route to the island.  The two boys were innocently leaning against the port bulwark when the first spray hit them. They looked at each other with saucered eyes and a slow contagion of smiles and then laughter. Seconds later the prow slapped right into an even larger wave and a real splash of lakewater arced over the edge and the boys were soaked, all shock and laughter as they turned to show each other just how wet they now were. I leaned back against the bulwarks on the dry starboard side, having caught a bit of their joy, and watched them as the waves painted the deck.

* * * * *

The last time I stood on the deck of the Mishe Mokwa was eighteen years ago when I was eighteen-years-old, half my lifetime ago. A college class took a camping trip to the island and I stood out there leaning against all that graypainted steel letting the waves crash over me again and again until everything I wore was soaked. It was mid-September and the only other people on the boat were my new classmates, including numerous girls---girls from all kinds of different places with all kinds of different hair and none of them had any idea what I was in high school and this would be the first thing they would ever notice about me, an act of stupid joy so much easier than words, standing alone just above where the prow broke into the waves sending them splashing again and again and again and I stood there shouting into the wind and the wet because I was in college and on a boat heading into the wilderness with girls and I was just so excited to be alive.

* * * * *

After the two boys in soaked orange shirts left the deck I entertained the thought of standing where they'd been, then thought better of it. I only had the clothes I was wearing and just the one pair of boots. I leaned over the bow and soon found myself there anyway. After the third wave hit me I looked up at the captain behind his glass with his oldfangled steering wheel and wondered how many simpering idiots he'd seen do this. Had he seen me eighteen years ago? Had he seen ten thousand fools like me? Wet beard, wet clothes, wet boots: I left the deck to show my family what I'd done. My wife guffawed but my wide-eyed kids fought for the chance to get wet too. I propped them up against the side and we cackled and screamed as the waves hit us, each proclaiming that we were the wettest. It had been warm but now we were cool, and my daughter insisted that we do this on the ride back to the mainland too. How could I have known, eighteen years ago that I was about to meet the most beautiful girl I'd ever know, that eighteen years later our eight-year-old daughter would be standing there with me in that spot between my arms catching as much of Lake Michigan as we could in our faces? Our son rested in the crook of my arm, almost too old to be carried (almost) and she was watching us from the back of the boat. We shouted to the world's driest wet blanket to join us but their mother had the good sense not to. I looked back at her and she just shook her head and smiled at what we'd done.

Back to School Project: Favorite-Animal Lunchboxes

Posted by jdg | Friday, September 06, 2013


My wife puts a note in our daughter's lunch every day. Our eldest still has some anxiety about school, and the notes are always written to help her conquer some of her challenges, to let her know how proud we are of her. They are really sweet. This year my son is going to school every day for the first time ever. I'm going to miss them both. I really wanted to make something for him and his sister that would be something like a note from me that they could see every day. So last week I decided to make them lunch boxes decorated with their favorite animals. It is only a matter of time before they get teased into shame over stuff like this, but until then. . .


My unwavering daughter chose a pheasant and a fox (she's been both animals for Halloween). After carving the images into the leather, I added dye and a protective finish, deciding to leave the rest of it natural. On the back I added a fox pocket for mom's notes. 


My favorite thing about making stuff like this myself is designing it for exactly what we need. My kids eat a yogurt cup with every lunch so I put a little leather ring that for that specific purpose in the corner, and a little leather band with velcro to hold a freezer pack. I glued an insulating pad inside, and covered it with a piece of 1950s fabric that I think came from the attic of an old farmhouse that's been in our family for generations. While that pointer isn't the exact breed as ours, I thought she'd also like a reminder of her birddog during her day. There were even pheasants on that fabric.


My son's favorite animal is a red-tailed hawk, and has been ever since that impressive experience of watching a red-tailed hawk flying around our living room. His hawk has a little more detail than the pheasant. I adapted it from an illustration in an old nature guide called Exploring Nature With Your Child. The real challenge here was mixing the dyes to get the right coloring for the red-tailed hawk. I added the cloud and shading to make the hawk stand out a bit more. He's about to catch a mouse (but sitting next to me while I worked on this, my son assured me that the mouse actually gets away).


The roots of his love for his other favorite animal aren't quite as deep. We had just returned from a week Up North when I started on this project, and that's where my son saw his first real porcupine. They were at the beach in Northport early one morning and saw a porcupine walk towards them down the pier, cross the playground, and disappear into the woods. What was he doing coming back from the pier? The children concluded he must have had a little boat moored there. My wife made the potentially unwise decision of chasing him with her camera phone:


Picking quills out of his mother's shins might have soured him on the idea of a porcupine. Fortunately that didn't happen and I found myself carving a North American porcupine into the pocket of his lunchbox, singing "Porcupine Racetrack" the whole time:


"I know that I'm a sinner, but I really need a winner, or the orphanage will close. . . so God, if you're above, and it's orphans that you love, then please help the porcupine I chose. . ." (Sorry, I just went back and watched that clip like six times).


I let him choose some of vintage fabric for the inside of his box. It was an easy choice:


I hand sewed everything while watching baseball (and will probably go back to complete those running stitches this week). I'd never worked with zippers before, so that was kind of a challenge. Initially I thought I'd use zippers from some old sweatshirts or something, but my wife explained I could buy new zippers at a fabric store and she dragged me to one (I fear fabric stores: So much fleece! So many notions!) I was able to find some that were the perfect size and the color even matched the heavy brown veg-tanned leather I used for the back and sides of the lunchboxes! I might even go back to the fabric store to buy some kind of spill proof plastic fabric to put on the inside, depending on how they hold up these first few weeks. The handles are just heavy latigo straps attached to rings.


It felt strange working on such a practical project for them (but then again, I could have bought them lunchboxes for like five bucks, so I guess I don't need to worry about being too practical). Don't worry about me, though: I'm already getting back to work on the extremely impractical projects that kept me busy all summer.