Being Your Own Mom

It's that painful time of the year again. The time when the constant bombardment of ads for flowers, jewelry, brunches, cheesy cards, keeps telling you over and over not to forget "Mom." Sometimes I just want to scream at whatever media is flashing their reminders that, "NO, I'll NEVER forget her. Ever." It's hard to watch others toting their moms around and celebrating them. I never really had that chance.

My mom died six days after I turned twenty-four. I was barely an adult. She was barely fifty-four and she had had a very difficult life, which turned for the worse when I was eleven and my father, her husband, ran off with my brother's first grade teacher. We lived at the poverty level for years, and if it weren't for her parents who paid our heating bills, our taxes, helped with food and clothing, we would most likely have been on the street. Things turned rotten when mom was diagnosed with cancer, multiple myeloma, right when I graduated from college in 1983 when I was twenty-one. Mom had no health insurance. I wish, so much more in retrospect, that I could have done something.

With Mother's Day approaching I think about my mother more than usual, even though usual is every day. I talk to a painting of her- one that I did above- from memory- and one that a painter friend did of her from life. I tell her what is going on and how much she would love some of the things, and how much she would hate the others. "The others" being the horror show that continues to play in my life, starring my estranged father who recently threw something that resembled an IED onto our porch.

But despite my mothers' failing health and her lack of material resources she tried so hard to bring beauty into my life. It was embarrassing to me at that age- twenty-two, when she would mail me books that she bought used for pennies and stuffed them with letters in which she'd ramble on and on.

Now I am so happy that I saved them. The books and the letters. They live inside whatever book she sent me, and when she died and I inherited all of her books- and there were hundreds... I would constantly find things stuffed in them: clippings from the New York Times with articles about whoever the subject of the book was, gallery invitations for a book about a certain artist, a stray list of errands, and letters.

It has been twenty-seven years since my mom died and in the past seven years I have had so much turmoil in my own life that I didn't think about those letters and what they said...

But today, after I went to visit my Mother-in-Law with my husband to treat her to a lunch of sushi rolls, ("What is this? It looks very interesting. How do you eat it?") I was needing to mother myself, so I pulled out the letter that my mom wrote to me and saw that the date was April 22, 1984.

It was this time of year. It was stuffed into the book of Whitman poetry twenty-nine years ago, and it resonated even more now.

This is what my mom, Frieda Savitz Laden wrote to me twenty-nine years ago when she sent me "Whitman:"

Thought you might enjoy this- the notes are not mine- it is a sample of his work- you already know-

I send you flowers- poems- & love- the sweetness- the beauty of life- and, all the eye can see- that is the fulfillment of living- to see- & to express it- & to become part of it- without doing- it is there- you do not have to "pick it"- "take it!"- "record it!"- it is there- it will always be there for you- as long as you are!- It is my gift to you- you wear it well, my beautiful daughter-

I never expected you- I have never expected anything- really in life- I did not anticipate who you would be- you are far more wondrous to me- then I could imagine- if I had imagined-

In time you will meet- what people can be- you have already- to a degree- in both directions-

You are magnificent- and I am fortunate- you couldn't be anyone else- never stop writing- a small poem will do- or, drawing- a small one will do- or, thinking- a small thought will do- but your's is yours- & no one can say it that way- it is your wonderment- the ugly- the cynic- will always draw the crowd- the ability to break down- to destroy appears to the many- to the big- to the popular- but the other grows in a corner- out of sight- small & very beautiful- all encompassing with the heart & mind!
The softness of a petal of a flower- you are! Happy spring!
Love, Mom

Mom was right. In so many ways. And I try to heed her words, her thoughts, her unconditional love. She isn't here anymore in a physical sense, but I do bring her with me wherever I go. I remember hearing people say how horrible it was to "become your mother." I know I can never be her- exactly her, but I can become the mom/woman/artist/friend she was- to me and to others. 

And that is a gift. 
So be your own mom.
To others and to yourself.
And share the beauty of who you are.

With Love,


It's Not A Woodcut: Inventing a Technique

Many times I am asked if I created the art for my book, "PEEK-A WHO?" with woodcuts. I did not. I love wood and linoleum and I've used those techniques in the past. I was also very into scratchboard at different stages in my life. When I came up with the idea for "PEEK-A WHO?" I did some art samples in gouache, but they just seemed ordinary and rather lifeless to me. I loved the vibration and edginess that wood, linocuts and scratchboard achieved, but they were problematic: I had a die-cut which needed an exact registration. Wood and lino can be very tricky to work with and I didn't want to have to cut over again if I screwed up. Scratchboard was not simple to add color to...

So completely by accident- or perhaps it wasn't an accident- I experimented with faking a woodcut style. To my delight and surprise it worked better than I expected. I loved painting this way. Even though the art and colors were bright and simple, the art had texture and movement. Was it a success? I'll say! "PEEK-A WHO?" came out in 2000. It has now sold almost a million copies. I know it's not only the technique I created- it is so much more... but as I'm in the middle of creating two more books like "PEEK-A WHO?" which will publish in Spring '14, I thought I'd share my technique here.

I truly believe that artists should share their discoveries. We all have our own styles, our own voices. Everyone brings their own individual DNA to whatever we do. So, in doing this, I'm not saying, "go copy me," I'm saying "if you want to play with this- go have fun, and take it in your own direction."

Of course I start with a sketch, an approved sketch if it is going in a book. I'm not going to show the sketch here. We have other fish... or frogs to fry.

In advance, I take my Arches hot press watercolor paper and I paint the live art area black. I use Holbein Acryla Gouache for my paint. It has characteristics of both gouache and acrylic.

Once the background is dry I transfer my drawing using white chalk. Plain old blackboard chalk on a sheet of tracing paper placed under the sketch which is properly lined up, of course.

I will always keep a folded sheet of tracing paper under my right hand as I work on my illustration so that I don't make a mess of things. That was a lesson I learned when I was working with charcoal and pastels.

Next, I choose my color palette, and using a very fine brush, I go in and outline where the color block areas will be, leaving a funky black outline in between the color. This is actually working both the positive and the negative space at the same time. My brain loves things like this.

I also fill in a few of the lighter colors as I go. I don't have a sink in my old city studio- I have to go outside and into the house in order to change my brush water- so I've learned to work from lighter to darker colors so that I don't corrupt my paint, but when I am working on color block areas, I change my paint water for each color.

My new studio (which I hope to move into in June) has a huge work sink. (some of my friends have dubbed it "the wet bar.")

This next step is small, but so necessary. I get a clean cup of water, and using a wide flat brush, I clean off all of the chalk residue on the whole piece.

Now I can see my outlines clearly.

Now the fun begins: I start filling in color areas, but using my brush strokes, I leave little "nick marks" that remain black. This gives the art a woodcut look and makes things look like they vibrate, or move.

I try to keep a nice balance of marks so that areas don't look too busy.

Then I start adding in the background, again, not concentrating the little marks in any one spot, but using areas around the frog in a more accentuated way as to give some action- especially around his arms where he is playing the banjo.

With the background in place, if you look closely you will see that the colors are not quite opaque enough. So now I paint everything over again! Yes. A second layer of the same colors.

It may seem tedious, but this is when I really get to choose which nick marks stay and which ones get covered over. At this point it is wise to have some excellent music playing on your music player so you can just get in the zone and paint.

It's looking better, but I'm still not done.

One last very important detail: I go back in with the original black paint and clean up every single black line to make them pop. (not the nick marks... don't worry- I don't repaint them.)

And here he is: a frog playing a banjo with a tadpole audience.

Very simple, but very fun.
I hope you enjoyed this!

With Love,