Fuse #8

Monday, October 16, 2006

Review of the Day: Out of the Shadows

If a person wanted to tell the story of their life in a biographical format, why would they choose to make their intended audience children rather than adults? Maybe the person in question would feel that children could better appreciate their life and accomplishments. Or maybe they’re unsure of their writing skills and thought that kids rather than grown-ups would be easier to write for. Maybe they are of an artistic temperament and feel that if they spotted their book with beautiful glossy illustrations, kids would gravitate more readily to that aspect of the story. And maybe they’ve always seen their childhood, rather than adulthood, as the part of their life with the best narrative, and unless a biography has copious amounts of abuse in it, adults aren’t going to be as interested as children. For artist Neil Waldman, his motivation for writing, “Out of the Shadows: An Artist’s Journey” for children may have knowingly or unknowingly have their roots in all of these reasons. The book is lovingly put together, with fantastic pieces of arts spotting the text. It is not, perhaps, the first autobiography I would hand to children that need to read one for school, but it may contain some of the best explanations on how a person truly becomes an artist. It’s flawed but worthy.

Neil Waldman was born in the Bronx, one of the first American-born children of his Russian/Galician immigrant relatives. At family gatherings, Neil would often have to face the inevitable question that began, “You are our family’s first generations born in freedom. So what are you going to do with it? What are you going to be when you grow up?” A hard question for a child at any age, but early on little Neil hit upon what he wanted to be. An artist. When he found his mother’s book of Vincent van Gogh paintings, Neil discovered a love that would last him his entire life. He needed it to. In his parents' household, growing up meant dealing with constant fighting and violent words. With his siblings, Waldman was able to cultivate his skills and become an artist in every sense of the word.

In this book, Mr. Waldman continually plugs the children’s books he’s written over the years like, “They Came From the Bronx”, and “The Starry Night”. I didn’t mind that. I liked how he was able to tie distinct moments from his own past into the work he would do years and years in the future. There is no distinct moment in time when the book’s narrative ends. Waldman is far more interested in showing “a childhood” rather than a strict assessment of years between such n’ such an age. The last glimpse into the past we get is of Waldman and his three siblings working on their art to escape their parents’ fighting. It ties in rather nicely with the first image of the book, where Waldman is unable to deal with the fights and has not yet found an artistic escape route. Often it’s difficult to determine when one action or event takes place in time as Waldman is not prone to listing his age or any dates all that often. Still, there are worse crimes in this world.

Neil is continually adored and doted on by his grandfather and, in time, his own father. It was interessting to me that we never hear if his younger siblings received the same attention as their eldest brother. He was the one that Grandpa Meyer took to the zoo every day. He was the one that went to concerts with their father. It would have been nice to have seen how Neil’s siblings felt about this, perhaps, preferential treatment, but as this isn’t the point of the book we don’t hear much about it. I did appreciate that Waldman was able to look with nuance at his father, the simultaneous villain and hero of his early years. For much of the book, Neil’s father is a verbally aggressive unknown figure who one day, out of the blue, takes his son to see a symphony play. From this, Neil determines that he has seen a softer side of the man he’s feared all his life. Kids reading the book, on the other hand, may determine for themselves whether such actions humanized Neil’s father or simply make him more complex.

If Mr. Waldman has a weakness, it’s in his dialogue. Whenever he speaks in his own voice as a child, the world are italicized and set apart from the rest of the text. This in and of itself isn’t a problem. The difficulty comes when any two characters have a conversation that lasts longer than four or five sentences. Waldman is adept at facts and histories. In recounting actual speech, however, he has a tendency to simplify everything into the kind of sentences an adult would imagine a child to have. In one case, the word “Yup” is used six times within a single conversation. In another, when little Neil asks his mother about her book of Vincent van Gogh, he says, “Please, Mommy. Please tell me everything about the colors.” It’s a form of overly formalized pseudo-childish dialogue that occasionally weakens an otherwise strong narrative.

Surely the best part of this book is the art itself. Waldman has cleverly culled paintings, sketches, drawings, and who knows what all from his extraordinarily talented family to illustrate distinct moments from his own life. At first when you read through the book, the viewer is confused by the unexplained paintings. Some of them were created by people with the same last name as the author. What are we to make of that? Eventually, however, we find that each work of art was created by a member of Neil Waldman’s family. It gives the book the much needed weight and oomph when you can see the sheer range of talent that gushes from this family unit. I was more than a little sad to see that in the midst of all this magnificent work Neil chose to include only one painting from his own youth. The painting, “Creatures” created at age 11 is a remarkable surreal watercolor, with such fantastic shading and depth that the reader is left wanting to see more and more of what Waldman made when he was a child. Perhaps these paintings were lost in time. Perhaps Waldman didn’t want to focus too closely on the work from his early years. Whatever the case, I wish the reader could have seen more, but in the meantime this single picture will have to suffice.

On the whole, the book is an honest examination of how and why creativity blooms. And while I felt that the writing itself could have used a little work at times, the overall effect of, “Out of the Shadows” is to show how art can come out of pain. It doesn’t hurt any that Mr. Waldman is a fantastic painter either. His works, spotted throughout the book, are consistently engaging and enticing. For any child that has ever flirted or seriously considered a future as an artist, Waldman’s book will stand as an important touchstone.

Notes On the Book’s Design: The choice of making the pages in this book thick and glossy like the pages you might find in a coffee table art book was a particularly smart move on the part of publisher Boyd Mills Press. In this way, the colors of the pictures in this book leap out at the viewer the same way Waldman described the colors of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings leaping from his mother’s book of art. The choice of making the cover image that of Waldman’s painting, “Andean Landscape” must have been a difficult one. It almost seems as if Boyd Mills Press wanted to play up the “shadow” image of the title with a dark and dreamlike painting. I don’t know how much kid appeal that cover will have, though. The small snapshot of Neil as a boy is a smart touch (especially as it is the only photo we have of his youth in the whole book) but I would have accompanied it with something bright and fun. Maybe Waldman’s “Pink Trees” or “Homage to Seurat”, both of which feature bright pointillism-inspired trees in New York City. Or how cool would 11-year-old Neil’s “Creatures” picture have been? It’s bright, colorful, has dinosaur/dragon-like animals hulking about. Plus if it was accompanied by his photo it would have been a real enticement to other kids as well. Worth considering, anyway.


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