Introducing Art Unbound

I can’t believe it has been over a year since I posted anything! And of course, in that time I have embarked on a new creative project. Called Art Unbound By Celeste, it currently lives on Etsy, although I am exploring other options as well. “Unbound” has two meanings: 1) at the moment I am incorporating bits of old books into all of my art pieces and 2) I am unbound by conventions and limitations that that encourage me to pick a medium or style and therefore what I am doing right now and what I am doing in a year might be totally different. And that is ok.

I am really proud of this collage portrait I made of my daughter:Ronia 4

I started with a wood base, used acrylic medium to transfer a photograph of her, and then used a wood burner to form the rays of the sun. I painted the sun with gold acrylic paint. The blue areas are made from a hodge podge of cuttings from an old copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and I filled in the sun rays with pieces from a sari my Bangladeshi host family gave me for Eid in 2004. I finished the piece with accents of gold mica.

You can see the process here:

This piece I will be keeping for myself, but I hope to create more pieces like it to sell soon! If you are interested in following my art shenanigans, you can follow me on facebook.

Do you think people would be interested in custom portraits? I would ask them to email me one or more photos, plus some information about the subject’s personality. I would send them a design sketch with the caveat that one of my favorite things about making art is its tendency to evolve in the process of creation. If you had infinite wealth, would you buy such a portrait of your loved one?

Series Review: Anna Hibiscus

Anna Hibiscus is a young girl, approximately five years old (she has her first day of school in one of the books), who is a lot like the little kids I know: she likes to climb trees, play with her cousins, listen to her grandparents tell stories, swim at the beach, and sing (although audiences make her nervous).  Unlike most kids I know, Anna Hibiscus also lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!) in a compound with her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and her twin brothers Double and Trouble. The books are real page turners–we find out that Anna dreams of seeing snow in the first book, and by the time she goes to visit her Granny Canada in the fourth book I was just as excited about snowmen and sledding as Anna (and I grew up in Ohio!)

Written by Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller currently living with her family in Wales, the Anna Hibiscus books paint a picture of Africa rarely seen in Children’s Literature: an Africa that is urban, with happy, comfortable people, living out their lives much like people do in the rest of the world. While most of the children’s books set in African countries that I have seen focus on either the triumph of the human spirit in times of catastrophe, like A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park or Brothers in Hope by Mary Williams (both about the Lost Boys of Sudan) or retell folk tales like The Tortoise’s Gift: A Tale from Zambia retold by Lari Don. Of course, there is nothing wrong with either of these types of children’s books per se, but as a whole children are left with a picture of Africa where either everyone is suffering the ravages of starvation or living in a timeless village setting that places Africa outside the flow of history. The Anna Hibisicus books are a welcome change. On her website, Atinuke says that she wrote Anna Hibiscus to because of the ignorance most children in the UK had about Africa. I am willing to guess that children in the United States know as little or less than the children in the United Kingdom, so I am grateful to Atinuke for writing these books.

Anna HibiscusAtinuke does not paper over the real struggles African countries, like other places across the world, have with poverty. In Anna Hibiscus, Anna becomes bored one day and decides to join the “gate girls” in selling oranges along the street outside her family’s compound. She enjoys the hustle of it and is proud of the money she has earned until her uncles come home and wonder why the gate girls haven’t been able to sell any fruit. When Anna confesses to what she has done, her family chastises her for turning the work that those children, many of whom are orphans, do into a game and thereby depriving them of their livelihood. The next day Anna spends all day walking back and forth to the fruit market to get more fruit for the gate girls so that they can make up the money lost the previous day. Thus the poverty some people in African cities face is acknowledged without judgement and without poverty becoming the defining characteristic of African life.  Similarly in Hooray for Anna Hibiscus, Anna wants to see the other side of the city across the lagoon, and when finally allowed to ride the ferry, chooses to wear her best clothes. But when she gets there she learns that the other side of the city is very impoverished and she ends up giving all of the clothes she is wearing to children foraging for food in a trash heap.

But lest you think that the Anna Hibiscus series is too weighty for young readers, Anna also plays flash-light hide and seek with her cousins during a power cut (Hooray for Anna Hibiscus), gets blamed for the antics of her twin brothers (Good Luck Anna Hibiscus!), makes new friends (Have fun Anna Hibiscus!), and finds herself acting mama to a baby chick welcome home anna hibiscus(Welcome Home Anna Hibiscus!).

What makes the Anna Hibiscus stories so wonderful is the way that Atinuke weaves the familiar and the unfamiliar so that children reading the books in the UK or US can see the ways that their lives might seem strange to other people–keeping dogs in the house, sleeping alone in a room–while normalizing things that are different from most Western children’s experiences.  Deep questions of modernity and tradition, poverty and privilege, racism and acceptance, weave seamlessly into stories of visiting relatives, playing children, and making friends.

My only complaint is that Atinuke is not more specific in naming the setting of these books. We are told only that Anna lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!), and while the descriptive details of the story indicate a West African setting–a city with roads and lagoons, Harmattan winds–no explicit country is named. By not naming the setting, Atinuke unwittingly contributes to misconceptions that Africa is one homogenous place, or even a single country.

That one flaw aside, I highly recommend the Anna Hibiscus books to  young readers and anyone interested in seeking out more diverse Children’s Literature.

Glittery Dinosaurs and Pink Mittens

I’m standing in line at Sullivan’s Pharmacy waiting to pick up a prescription. My two year old is sitting in a chair nearby and the new baby is strapped to my chest. One of the women behind the counter says, “Look, its our little buddy! Isn’t he adorable?”

I like living in a neighborhood where most of the people who work in the square’s assorted businesses recognize me and my family. And of course, I like it when people gush about my children. The woman continues to talk about what a handsome boy my two year old is. Another woman I haven’t met before is ringing me up. She gives the first woman a weird look then her expression clears.

“Oh!” She says, “I thought  you were talking about the baby. Clearly the baby is a girl.”

I look down. I can just see the top of the hat my friend crocheted for the baby–blue spikes run along the center of a green dinosaur head. The rest of the baby disappears into my kindercoat.

dino hat face

“How can you tell?” I ask.

“The hat has glitter. Of course a girl would have glitter hat. At least I hope you wouldn’t put glitter on a boy.”

I blink at her for a minute. I look back down at my daughter’s hat–yes there are metallic gold threads in the yarn that glitter in the light. I don’t really know how to respond.

“I would totally put glitter on my son,” I say. “I used to put him in pig-tails. His hair was down to here,” I say, pointing to the middle of my back, as if my son’s hair has any relevance to the conversation. I just feel the need to broadcast some sort of gender nonconformity in my parenting to counter the blue of my son’s shirt and the pink of the second-hand onesie that the woman behind the counter can’t even see. My son is at an age where he is a sponge–conversations no longer fly over his head and I know he is absorbing all of the subtle messages society sends about gender. My attempt to counter those messages in this moment is clumsy, but I am caught off guard.

I am always stunned at how one little detail that can be coded as feminine trumps everything “masculine” around it. My son’s hair is short now, his coat a boyish black and green, his boots are blue, and his mittens are pink. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been tramping around in the snow and I’ve been told how beautiful my daughter is. Because no matter how many ways he signals “boy,” the pink mittens override them all. dino hat in snow

Our culture isn’t used to looking for signposts that “male.” Androcentrism is alive and well: despite moves by many writers to move away from a supposedly generic “he” to the more gender inclusive “he or she,” most people (sadly myself included) tend to absentmindedly  revert to he in speech. “What’s that snake doing mommy?” “Oh, he’s wiggling in the dirt!” In our language, and therefore maybe also our culture, you are masculine until proven female.  People see glitter or pink mittens or pony-tails as evidence that marks the wearer as “other” than the masculine standard by which the world is measured.

Is Ladybug Girl a feminist? Gender roles in David Soman and Jacky Davis’s Ladybug Girl Series

In my perusal of the internet in search of non-sexist picture books, I have come across several people hailing Ladybug Girl by David Soman and Jacky Davis as a feminist celebration of children’s imagination. Being drawn to children’s books that break down gender and other stereotypes, I had to check out the series for myself.  Overall I would say that these are some of my favorite picture books, but that they do fall into some of the more typical traps of gender stereotyping.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl"

Cover of Ladybug Girl

The  series justifiably garners a lot of praise for depicting a young girl using her imagination  to be independent and capable. Whenever Lulu finds faces a challenge, whether that is building a fort in Ladybug Girl, finding her trusty dog Bingo in Ladybug Girl and Bingo, facing down an army of giants in Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad, or finding ways to compromise in Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy she reminds herself that she is Ladybug Girl and Ladybug girl can do anything! Whether the challenges are part of her imaginary play, like the army of giants, or real-life conflicts with friends, she is able find the courage and strength to find her own solutions. This is a powerful antidote to tropes that cast girls and women as damsels in distress.

However, I think the series is more accurately a celebration of imagination rather than feminist offering for young children. While the companion board book Ladybug Girl Dresses Up shows Lulu in a variety of costumes, including typically masculine characters like Sherlock Holmes, the character that gives the series its name is the tutu-clad Ladybug Girl. As a woman who has always insisted that I can climb trees and go hiking in skirts just as easily as pants, I appreciate the fact that the tutu doesn’t slow her down. Still, she may be deviating from the princess norm, but she is hardly escaping the expectation that girls find their power in ruffles and bows.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy&...

Cover of Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy

The books become more enmeshed in problematic social norms when we exit the world and see her interacting with other children and her family. Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy introduces Lulu’s friend Sam from music class. The two children struggle to find common interest on the playground–Sam wants to play diggers, Lulu doesn’t want to get sand in her boots, Lulu wants to play on the teeter-totter, but Sam isn’t interested. Realizing that she never has trouble finding fun things to do when she is Ladybug Girl, Lulu invites Sam to join her in imaginative play. He agrees, and as Bumblebee Boy works with Ladybug Girl to vanquish a giant snake, save Bingo from a monster, and otherwise defend the playground from danger.

While I appreciate using imagination to find common ground, I couldn’t help but notice that the imaginative games change when Lulu has a male playmate. Left to her own devices, Lulu rides giant turtles, builds forts, and hunts for treasure. When Sam joins the game, it becomes an “us vs. them” world of superheroes in conflict with villains.  On the way to the playground, Ladybug uses her strength to help an elderly neighbor carry groceries; Bumblebee Boy uses his stinger (a stick) to battle a monster (the tire swing). From Lulu’s concern with getting dirty in the sandbox to her grudging admission that “being a princess wouldn’t be so bad,” the play preferences of the two children reflect gendered stereotypes about how girls and boys play.  I find the minor character of Dragonfly Girl–who wears pants and is excited to be able to breathe fire–to be more compelling, but she does not get very much attention in the series.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl at the Beach"

Cover of Ladybug Girl at the Beach

Unfortunately, gender stereotypes extend beyond the children and their play styles. In Ladybug Girl at the Beach, we see Lulu’s father loaded up like a pack-horse carrying all the umbrellas, bags, and blankets  necessary for the family outing to the beach, while Lulu’s mother walks with the children.  While Lulu’s father is present in many of the books, he has few lines, making him more of a background presence in Lulu’s life than an active figure. This reflects common beliefs about the different roles of mothers and fathers. Lulu’s mother, on the other hand, has the time, energy, and money to prepare art projects and cupcakes for all of Lulu’s friends in Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad. 

Lulu lives in a very specific world–one where everyone is white (except for some background faces at the playground), where pre-school children enroll in music classes, where people live in large houses with giant libraries on acres of land (and yet can walk to a playground).  While such settings are not unrealistic–there are in fact plenty of upper class families out there who take camping trips together, and trips to the beach, and have entire fields of sunflowers in their yard–I would like to see Ladybug overcoming some of the challenges that happen when children encounter kids from backgrounds different from their own.

Despite all of this deconstruction, I want to re-iterate that I really enjoy this series. I have read all of them to my son, and get excited when I find a new one at the library. The stories deal with real problems children face without being at all didactic or preachy, and the art is lovely. It would be a five-star series if it just worked a little harder at avoiding stereotypes and including more diversity.

Millinery Mondays–MoeSewCoMillinery

My personal interpretation of “fancy” and “elegant” tends to lean to extravagance and is often defined in the quantity of feathers and the brightness of colors. Emily of MoeSewCoMillinery teaches me that elegance can in fact be much more subtle.

Lola Feather and Bead Fascinator

While the Lola Feather and Bead Fascinator does include feathers, they are a neutral color and generally more subdued than the feathers on my own fascinators. The hand stitched bead work, Thai silk, and painstaking attention to detail, give this this hat a quiet elegance that I envy. Emily’s work has inspired me to pursue my own ideas for embroidered fascinators.