Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"To Bring Music and Color to Earth" ______________ The Legend of Gerald McDermott


Artist   Author   

"to bring music and color to earth"
           The Legend of Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott was born on January 31 in the year 1941       

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When asked how he found his stories Gerald said, “The story finds me. I have heard thousands of stories and every once in a while one leaps up and grabs me. When I read a story that is important for me to tell, I feel it.”

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photo by Tana Hoban, 1979

Gerald McDermott, 
January 31, 1941--
December 26, 2012 

     Gerald McDermott said that he had had a brush in his hand since he first attended Saturday morning classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts at the age of four. “One of my greatest joys as a child was to dip a fat brush into a jar of bright paint, then make a glistening sweep across a crisp white sheet of paper. The childhood discovery that I could make my ‘imaginings’ into pictures set me firmly on the path of the artist.”
The Stonecutter, an image from the film
     Gerald continued his art studies during his high school years in Detroit, and upon graduation, his portfolio of silk-screen prints and watercolors brought him highest honors in the National Scholastic Magazine art competition, an award that included a scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York. He pursued studies at Pratt in both graphics and filmmaking. His film The Stonecutter was the first in a series of animated films based on folklore and mythology that brought him international recognition. This film was made with his friend Harrison Engle when Gerald was 19 years old. It is an extremely complex animation short featuring 6,000 animation cels presented in six minutes.

     Gerald McDermott’s distinctive and beautiful picture books grew out of his film work. It was at a film festival that Gerald was first discovered by a publisher. That publisher, George Nicholson -- who was then head of children’s publishing at Holt, Rinehart & Winston -- saw two of Gerald’s films and was enchanted. This was in 1970. Anansi and The Magic Tree, were both being shown at the festival. Nicholson immediately envisioned the possibilities of transforming both works into beautiful picture books.
     Gerald had not created artwork in a book format before this time and found the process a difficult one. He reworked all of the artwork from his film Anansi and presented it newly imagined as a book.

     Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti was so striking an entry into the realm of the picture book, and such a brilliant graphic presentation of the folktale that it won the Caldecott Honor award in 1973. The film version of Anansi had been awarded the Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival.
     When George Nicholson moved to another publishing house, Viking, he worked with Gerald on Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale, which was awarded a picture book’s most prestigious honor, the Caldecott Medal. Arrow had also been created first as an animated film and Gerald was able to make the difficult transition from animation art to book art and create another stunning picture book. 
     Both his films and his picture books reflect Gerald's love of mythology. He said: "With its infinite layers of meaning, its deep and powerful emotions that
Arrowmaker, a film still
reach across centuries and continents, mythology holds a special fascination for me. The exciting quest to revivify these dream-world images has been the basis of much of my graphic work. In almost every tale, the character must prove himself worthy of a certain prize. He must fulfill certain tasks and make sacrifices. He must listen to advice from someone wiser or more powerful. The characters have a universal appeal because they are endowed with the same hopes, fears, and feelings of love, hate, greed, and pride basic to all human beings everywhere." 

     “Gerald was a marvelous storyteller,” said Regina Hayes, former publisher of Viking Children’s Books. “He had a deep knowledge of folklore and myth, and he also had the ability to adapt his artistic style to suit each story, from Native American legend to Irish tall tales.”      

     Considered an expert in mythology and folktales, Gerald McDermott was a disciple of the famed mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell. He was the first Fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and a leader of the “Mythological Toolbox” workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The institute says this of Gerald on its website: “Dream weaver, tale spinner, portrayer of visions, interpreter of the human spirit. Through his bold, graphic renderings of timeless tales from around the world, Gerald communicated his deep understanding of the transformative power of myth.”

“Mythology transforms, making the ordinary into the magical. It brings beauty to the ways of man, giving him dignity and expressing his joy in life. Folklore prepares man for adult life. It places him within his culture. With oral traditions, retold through generations, the social group maintains its continuity, handing down its culture.”

     Gerald McDermott, in his introduction to Anansi the Spider

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From “Gerald McDermott in Paris”

Gerald with his friend Doug Cushman in Paris

He was a fighter, always in the midst of reinventing himself. In the shifting landscape of children’s literature, he shifted as well. Each myth he illustrated encapsulated the essence of each culture, but always with atypical mediums: pen and ink, pastel, colored pencil, watercolor, collage, fabric paint. He began as a filmmaker, then moved to picture books, and, in the last few years, theater.

But most of all he was a storyteller. He was one of the few artists living that continued the venerable tradition of passing on the old stories from generation to generation. He captured the heart and soul of each myth he illustrated. His writing process was jotting down a few lines of the myth and then walking around the room reciting them over and over again, changing the words slightly here and there and listening to them until they were distilled down to only a few words, grasping the heart of the myth in its simplest form. Then he'd create the art, borrowing symbols and images from the myth’s culture.

        Doug Cushman

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“A picture book of artistic integrity 
will often be the only place 
where a child can expand his imagination 
and direct his gaze toward beauty. 

Such a book creates a dynamic relationship 
between the visual and the verbal. 

Through its form and content, 
the picture book can become an essential element 
in the child’s evolving aesthetic consciousness, 
and the artist who creates a picture book 
A young Gerald with a new friend
has an opportunity – and a special responsibility – 
to nurture the development of a child’s visual perception.”
          Gerald McDermott

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Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti (Holt, 1972), a Caldecott Honor book

“I went to the graphics of the Ashanti people for my direction, to their simple but sophisticated combinations of geometric forms, to their limited color schemes, to their stylized animals and plants.”
The triangle is the basic form of folk art in the Ashanti culture, so I just started adding triangles until I found the right shape.”   --G.M.

Anansi was also honored with the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1973 as a book that belongs on the same shelf with Carroll’s Alice books.

The Magic Tree: A Tale from the Congo (Holt, 1973)

"While the bold influence of African design is everywhere apparent in the book's presentation, much of its spontaneity also springs from the fact that it was first created as a film for young people."      -- from the afterward, "About the Artist"

Silk-Screened Print for The Magic Tree with book

Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale (Viking, 1974), a Caldecott Medal winner.

“It was Joseph Campbell who suggested that I look at the sand paintings of the Pueblo, and that became the spark for Arrow to the Sun.”

      The art work was rendered in gouache and ink; the black line was preseparated. 
 (gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

The Stonecutter: A Japanese Folk Tale (Viking, 1975)

To prepare the art for this book, the artist hand colored large sheets of white bond paper with gouache. He then cut out his design forms and mounted them as collages.

(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

The Voyage of Osiris: A Myth of Ancient Egypt (Dutton, 1977)

In order to achieve the textures that Gerald wanted in the paintings for this myth, the artwork was rendered with opaque watercolors on 300 lb. watercolor paper, handmade in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in Pondicherry, India. The art was reproduced in five colors. 

I was very disappointed that I was not able to find a better cover photo for this book. My copy is too big for my scanner! The color and vibrancy of the art is magnificent. Find a copy of the book in order to look at and experience this beautiful presentation. 

Gerald's autograph and drawing in my copy of The Voyage of Osiris

The Knight of the Lion (Four Winds Press, 1979), an Arthurian tale.

“I chose to illustrate The Knight of the Lion in black and white, the first time I have done so,” Gerald said, “because of the dark power of the story itself. The vigorously etched line drawings attempt to capture the archaic, rough-hewn qualities suggested by the Celtic elements in the story. Research for the book ranged over a five-year period, including tracking down fragments of Irish myth upon which the medieval tale is based. Writing the manuscript and rendering the final art took about two years.”

“I have drawn the illustrations with calligraphic pen, India ink, and lithographic crayon on rough watercolor paper.”

Papagayo: The Mischief Maker (Windmill/Wanderer, 1980; reissued by Harcourt, 1992), a Brazilian folk tale. 

The illustrations in this book were done in gouache and colored pencils.

(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

Papagayo is another of Gerald's amazing accomplishments in color and character. Try to look at a copy of the book itself to see the vibrant colors and delightful creatures. 

Gerald in front of a Papagayo poster

                                                                    full jacket image

Sun Flight (Four Winds, 1980) 

Daedalus a master craftsman and his son Icarus labored seven years building a wondrous palace for King Minos of Crete. Beneath the palace was a giant labyrinth--an intricate maze of endless passages to hide the horrible monsters of King Minos.

When their work is completed, Minos refuses to release them, because they know the secret of the labyrinth. He casts them into the labyrinth's dark passages and seals the door.

"The imprisoned pair trembled in the cold darkness and despaired of escaping.
     Then the moonlight crept into the recesses of their prison. Daedalus and his son watched as birds rose up on feathered wings, up through the dark vaults into the night sky...."

Sun Flight is based on Gerald McDermott's animated film of the same name. The film was awarded the Zellerbach Award for Film as Art at the San Francisco International film Festival.

                      Daedalus, back cover art

Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Marianna Mayer (Four Winds, 1981)

This small wooden boy symbolizes the child that parents and teachers watch with dismay, wondering if he will grow into a devil or a saint. He finally achieves human form after learning to combine his boldness and bravery with compassion and concern for others. He is like the very best in all of us, developing his true potential by going through his mistakes to reach wisdom. The reward for Pinocchio is the realization of his heart's desire which is to become a full human being.
   --Marianna Mayer, from her introduction to the book 

               Cover art for Daughter of Earth: A Roman Myth

Daughter of Earth: A Roman Myth (Delacorte, 1984)

The style of the artwork in this picture book evokes the classic frescoes of ancient Pompeii. 

The artwork was rendered in gouache on illustration board prepared with gesso.

(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance. gesso: a hard compound of plaster of Paris or whiting in glue, used for painting on wood.)

Proserpina from Daughter of Earth: A Roman Myth, from a promotional card

Daniel O’Rourke: An Irish Tale (Viking, 1984). 

The artwork was rendered on illustration board in sepia ink with watercolor washes and pastel pencil.

(It appears to me that Gerald used himself as the model for this Daniel.

Tim O’Toole and the Wee Folk: An Irish Tale (Viking, 1990)

With an Irish name like McDermott, Gerald must have felt compelled to illustrate some great Irish tales.  The name McDermott, according to one source, may have come from the Gaelic diarmaid, with mc or mac meaning "son of," and diarmaid meaning "the god of arms."  If this is true then it means that Gerald needed to illustrate another Roman myth or two to play off his name's mythic meaning. 

(This title is slightly out of the chronological order so that it could fall in with the other Irish entry.)

Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, as told by Marianna Mayer (Macmillan, 1985)

The illustrations were rendered in watercolor and pastel pencil on Bristol board.

The Genie of the Ring, art for back cover

Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa (Harcourt, 1992).

"Zomo, though separated from his origins in Hausaland, Nigeria, by an ocean and several centuries, lives on as Cunny Rabbit or Compere Lapin in the Caribbean and as Brer Rabbit in the United States." --G.M.

"The medium, shapes, and colors grow out of the demands of the story." One comical example was the difference between his first sketches of a rather conventional rabbit for the trickster, Zomo. The rabbit kept getting fatter and squatter until the final version became the plump stylized little rabbit you will see in the book...  (from an article by Lillian H. Heil quoting Gerald, see resources below)

The paintings in this book were done in gouache on heavyweight hot-press watercolor paper.
(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, (Harcourt, 1993), a Caldecott Honor book and Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award winner.

Raven is a shapeshifter imbued with magical powers, he is at once brave and cunning, greedy and gluttonous. He is a trickster on a cosmic scale, mischief-maker, and culture hero, at times wreaking havoc and at others bestowing on humankind the gift of fire, light, or food. (based on Gerald's introduction to the book)

The paintings in this book were done in gouache, colored pencil, and pastel on heavyweight cold-press watercolor paper. 

(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest (Harcourt, 1994).

Gerald looked for inspiration for the illustrations in this tale to the folk art of the Zuni and other southwestern design elements. 

"Coyote's misadventures have delighted and instructed for many centuries. His very name, coyotl, derives from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs. 
    "The people of the Pueblo of Zuni, who excel in telling Coyote tales, assign a symbolic color to each of the world directions. They associate Coyote with the West and the color blue. In the present story--as in many Zuni tales of Coyote--he serves as an example of human vanity, and his misbehavior brings him misfortune." Gerald McDermott in his introduction.

                                                   back cover art

The paintings in this book were done in gouache, colored pencil, and pastel on heavyweight cold-press watercolor paper. 

The quote I use as a title for this article: 
  "to bring music and color to earth,"comes from Gerald's introduction to this book, Musicians of the Sun.

Musicians of the Sun (Simon & Schuster, 1997), an Aztec myth.

    “Tezcatlipoca, Aztec Lord of the Night, must battle with Sun, the mighty Tonatiuh, in order to bring music and color to earth. 
     "During the years it took to bring this work to completion, the story became for me a metaphor for the artist's journey."
     Gerald McDermott, from his afterword to Musicians of the Sun.

The illustrations were rendered in acrylic fabric paint, opaque ink, and oil pastel on paper that was handmade in Mexico.

Jabutí the Tortoise: A Trickster Tale from the Amazon (Harcourt, 2001).

"Jabutí (zha-boo-CHEE) is a central figure in the tribal lore of the Amazon rain forest. Slow and short-legged, the little tortoise is nevertheless portrayed as virtually invincible. Through his cleverness, he is able to overcome larger, often dim-witted foes." --G.M.

The illustrations in this book were done in gouache, colored pencil, and colored ink on 300 lb. hot-press watercolor paper.

(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

Creation (Dutton, 2003)

“These words and images grew out of my desire to cast in a new light  the often-told and much beloved story of creation and to welcome everyone, regardless of the direction from which they come, to enter into this ancient mystery with an open heart. The voice of the story is an inner one that begins with a breath and a whisper, a spark ignited within us all that grows to illuminate the universe.
     "My telling is based on Genesis of the Hebrew Bible, with an eye toward its antecedents in the ancient Near East, such as the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, and sources as diverse as the illuminated Bibles Moralisées of 13th century France and the Sarajevo Haggadah of 14th century Spain.
    "A long journey---figuratively through the stories of many different cultures and literally far from home---gave me new perspectives. I conceived the words in Santiago de Chile and sketched the first images in Tokyo. I returned from Japan with a portfolio of handmade mulberry-bark paper whose organic textures inspired the swirls and shadings of my gesso*-and-fabric color paintings. As in all of my work, Creation is an outer expression of the inner reality that connects every human soul.”
     Gerald McDermott, from his introduction to the book

(*gesso: a hard compound of plaster of Paris or whiting in glue, often used for painting on wood.)

Pig-Boy: A Trickster Tale from Hawaii (Harcourt, 2009).

With Pig-Boy, as with all my books, I hope my version excites the imagination and provokes exploration of the vital mythological tradition from which it is drawn. The more one discovers about another's culture, the more deeply one may perceive our common humanity.  --G.M.

The illustrations in this book were done in gouache, colored pencil, and pastel on 400 lb. watercolor paper.

(gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.)

Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India (Harcourt, 2011).

This tale is from the Buddhist tradition, and is part of an ancient collection of folklore called the Jataka tales. 

The playfulness of the story lent itself to a bold collage of cut and torn papers, some from India and Southeast Asia. The floral design on the cover, commonly referred to as paisley, is known throughout India as the "raw mango" motif and is the basis for a key element in my telling. (based on Gerald's introduction to the book)

The illustrations in this book were created with textured papers hand-colored by the artist with fabric paint and ink, then mounted on heavy watercolor paper.

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Gerald McDermott passed away on December 26, 2012 

Come to rest, my proud-necked dun,
fold your paws, lion-hearted one,
twelve hundred leagues have all been run,
now foes are slain and honor’s won,
now moon is swallowed by the sun,
now circle’s closed and journey’s done.

                                                                 --from the very last page of The Knight of the Lion

                      rest well, dear friend

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Gerald McDermott’s Films with online links:

Stonecutter (1960)   click this link to watch Stonecutter

Sun Flight (1966)   click this link for Sun Flight

Anansi the Spider (1969)  (not available online at present) 

The Magic Tree (1970)  (not available online at present)

Arrow to the Sun (1973)    click this link for Arrow to the Sun

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Resources for this article:
Gerald McDermott: A Legacy of Magical Storytelling, Rocco Staino, School Library Journal, January 17, 2013.
Gerald McDermott in Paris, Doug Cushman, The Horn Book, January 14, 2013.
Gerald McDermott, Geoff Alexander,

Talking with Gerald McDermott, Nancy J. Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis, Book Links, January 2010

An Interview with Gerald McDermott, Recreator of Yesterday's Tales for Today's Children, Lillian H. Heil, Children's Book and Play Review, Brigham Young University, 1994

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