How to be an illustrator

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What you’ll need: art skillz, unique style

Songlist: Adele’s Painting Pictures, For the Kids by Waylon Jennings

Further reading: Anything illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg or Graeme Base

A scene from Graeme Base’s “11th Hour”

3 things: I overestimated the amount of time and interest I would have in writing while in Europe and way overestimated the amount of wifi that would be available in small Bavarian towns. Thus, I was not able to update this blog as a travelogue as often as I wanted over the last few weeks. The second thing is that when I got back from Germany last Tuesday night I was unexpectedly exhausted for the next several days. It felt like something more than jet lag–motivation lag, let’s call it. And so last week became the first week in a year and a half that I didn’t update this blog.

The last thing is that it’s my birthday this coming Sunday. Thus, it seems even more important than usual that I come up with a topic that’s really me (and, after my first week of absenteeism, I need to come back with a bang!). Everything that I truly love in my current life–flamenco dancing, novel writing, dogs–was already covered. But birthdays are a celebration not just of who we are but how we’ve become ourselves. And I can think of no larger influence on my childhood imagination than my favorite illustrated books.

It’s a relatively short time in our lives that illustrated books have their greatest appeal–say, ages 5-8 or so–when we seek a wonderful story accompanied by beautiful and interesting images. And yet these books live with us forever.

Another German lion

I worked as a literacy tutor two years ago for kindergartners through third graders, and the best part of the job was reading my favorite childhood books with my students and rediscovering them through my students’ eyes. One of the kids–a second-language learner from El Salvador–got really into Graeme Base’s mystery book The 11th Hour and together we found the clues and decrypted the codes on each page (I LOVE codes).

The lion dream I had two weeks ago stayed with me all through my trip. As I was falling asleep during my last night in Germany I suddenly had an epiphany: there’s a children’s story lurking somewhere in my brain. The main character is a Bavarian lion named Maximilian, and he at some point travels through the Black Forest and medieval castles (while driving through the Black Forest, my friend and I agreed we understood Hansel and Gretel’s predicament more clearly–that landscape is brimming with creepy fairy tales). That’s as far as I’ve gotten, though. All I know is that it will be beautiful and a little dark–just the kind of thing that will stay in one’s imagination for a lifetime.

How to road trip around Europe

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What you’ll need: Euros

Songlist: The Muppets singing Movin’ Right Along, From Paris to Berlin by Infernal

Further reading: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I don’t know a lot about this topic yet, but I will soon since I’m flying to Paris in a few hours. After a few days in France, I’ll take off for a road trip in southern Germany to see mountains, medieval towns, and a metric ton of castles.

Thus I’m going to temporarily highjack this blog while in Europe and make it a travelogue. Hopefully I’ll be able to write brief updates (on my iPhone, so they’ll be very brief) and post a few pictures along the way.

Dilettante will resume as normal on May 8th when I return to the USA. Frankly, stories and pictures from Europe will probably be more exciting. Á tout à l’heure!

How to be a historian


What you’ll need: A vivid imagination, a tolerance for dust

Songlist: John Lennon’s Remember or any of these songs about historical events

Further reading: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

25,000-year-old handprints at cave in Lascaux

I had an epiphany during college. It was sophomore year and I was walking with a friend who had chosen history to be his major; I was still undecided. History, he told me, explains how the world came to be and gives us guidelines for how to live our lives in the present. Only by studying history will we ensure a better future.

It occurred to me then that history is a lens like any other potential college major, and our field reflects the way we understand the world. An economics major could easily argue the same point: decisions are driven by economic factors and economics therefore explain the way the world works. A psychologist would say the same thing for psychology, as would a physicist for physics, and so on.

I ended up choosing creative writing as a major because I understand the world as a vast network of stories. History is full of such stories. However, in high school, I never got that sense. I memorized dates and names of famous wars and men. But data doesn’t interest me nearly as much as narrative and so I never took any history classes in college.

It’s only after I started this blog that I realized how fascinated I am by history. If you’ve followed, you may have noticed that I often include a post about the history of the week’s theme, whether about spies, diseases, beer-brewing, or witches. I spend countless hours researching these histories and find myself engrossed in their richness.

Nazi soldiers sightsee in Paris

Two weeks from today I’m flying to Paris; I’ve been researching the city’s history in preparation. The period of the Nazi occupation particularly interests me. Whenever I learned about terrible historical events as a schoolchild, I would always imagine myself a hero: the person who gave food and shelter and transportation to the persecuted, the voice of reason that opposed the rulers. Though certainly there were some Parisians who “resisted” the Nazis, most inhabitants tried their best to continue their lives as normally as possible. I wonder what I would have done–written secret pamphlets and distributed them at risk of being executed? Helped foreign nationals escape into the unoccupied territory? Would I instead have accepted an invitation to a concert at the German Institute if it meant warmth and a filling meal? Or perhaps I would have clung to my ration cards, avoided making eye contact in the streets, and kept my mouth closed.

Each choice is illustrated in history by a multitude of narratives. And, due to my chosen major in college, I am of course creating my own.


How to be a game maker

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What you’ll need: a board, pawns

Songlist: Video Games by Lana Del Rey, Play On by Carrie Underwood

Further reading: A Game of Thrones by R. R. Martin

Pieces on a Risk game board

Caveat: Bowing to social and cultural pressures, I read The Hunger Games this weekend. And yes, there are Gamemakers in that book that pit 24 teenagers against each other in a battle royale. And yes, when trying to come up with this week’s topic I thought of the bazillions of people who lined up to see said teenagers murder each other on the big screen (in 3D, why not!) So this is definitely a tie-in–I decided against “How to be an assassin”–yet my idea of game making is quite different from the casual sadism of Suzanne Collins’s dystopia.

I made my first board game in second grade in a class called Dominoes and Domiciles. My game was a typical sequential journey where you advanced along a track by rolling dice and picking up cards along the way. The twist was that you could pick one of six tracks, each one affiliated with an endangered animal. I spent hours researching each of my six animals, writing game cards, drawing the elaborate board, and creating tokens to stand in for the animals. After presenting it to the class, I eagerly brought my Endangered Species of the World game home (doesn’t it sound fun?!?) and made my family play it with me. The game started off with enthusiasm, but quickly turned sour when my brother and parents were unable to answer the trivia cards that guaranteed extra rewards (“The size of a bald eagle generally corresponds with what rule?…Bergmann Rule!?! Seriously, Jenna, how was I supposed to know that?”) I, of course, knew all the answers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson. In seventh grade, my best friend and I created a Lewis and Clark board game which was exactly the same concept as my endangered species game (I think you could even be one of six characters with corresponding trivia to answer). My family, however, had learned their lesson, and refused to play when I brought the game home.

So I might not be the best game maker…yet. In fact, it seems fairly difficult to create a game that keeps players coming back. Of course, there are plenty of classics. I’m especially partial to Clue and Risk because they are simple enough for a child to play yet complicated enough to keep an adult entertained.

The new favorite

There is one new game in contention to become a classic in our house, though. For Christmas, my dad bought my mom a game called Marrakech, something like a simplified version of Monopoly. Players set down rugs in the marketplace, and pay taxes if they land on someone else’s rug. A game only last about 20 minutes which makes it much more palatable than starting a game of Monopoly, and, since they rugs are brightly colored, much prettier as well. At the end of the instruction booklet, we found a note about game company, Gigamic: game designers collect royalties for every game of theirs sold, and Gigamic is always open to new suggestions.

So don’t worry, world, as soon as I come up with a better board game concept than asking obscure trivia that only I know the answer to, I am contacting Gigamic straightaway. And then I’ll just watch the Monopoly money roll in.

How to be a museum curator

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What you’ll need: an art history degree

Songlist: Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright

Further reading: The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (but don’t actually read this one)

Monet's waterlilies curve around the specially designed rooms of Musee L'Orangerie in Paris

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family-friendly event called ¡España! I had been lured by the promise of flamenco guitar in the galleries. Since I was fairly sure I would know the guitarist(s)–the Twin Cities flamenco community is not all that big–I was more interested in the concept of looking at art with flamenco guitar as a backdrop than the music itself. After wandering around the galleries waiting to hear guitar strings vibrating in the vicinity, we finally just asked a docent where to find the guitarist. He pointed back the way we came: all the way to the end of the hall, take a left, and all the way to the end of that hall. We wound up in a bright white atrium–no art on the walls–facing an empty black chair with a microphone forlornly angled at the floor and a sign saying “Flamenco guitar: 12 pm-4pm.” I looked at my watch: 3:15 pm.

The day was not a total waste, though, because I always love wandering the Institute’s halls. We walked past old favorites–the easy to love Monet haystack and Van Gogh olive trees, the more violent Max Beckmann triptych that my mom and I discovered last April–and temporary galleries of photography and modern art.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid and it was one of my parents’ birthdays or we had a visitor from out-of-town, we would invariably go to the MIA. I was not bored by the art at the time, but I always assumed beforehand that I would be; this assumption, voiced in protest to my parents, meant that I could not thereafter be seen enjoying myself at the art museum.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Perhaps it was when I visited London with my mom at the age of 14 that I suddenly realized how much I do enjoy being at art museums. We went to the National Gallery and I fell in love with two paintings there: Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Because they were the first paintings I truly loved, they are still the paintings I love best.

And while I haven’t fallen quite so hard for any other painting, I have been strongly affected many times since while touring art museums: at Madrid’s Reina Sofia I stood shocked at Picasso’s Guernica and felt intensely nostalgic in front Dali’s Muchacha de Espalda. I felt awed by the gigantic water lily paintings that wrap around two ovular galleries in the Musee L’Orangerie in Paris. And I was giddy with excitement seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person at the MoMA.

The best experience I had, though, was a thirty-minute jaunt through the Louvre on a Friday evening with my friend Hilary. Admission was free for those under 26 on Friday evenings, and we’d meant to get there earlier but had dallied. This also happened to be a night where musicians were scattered around the vast palaces. Hilary and I raced past a jazz trio playing in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a violinist in the Great Hall, a brass quartet by the Venus de Milo. It was this beautiful phantasmagoria of color and sound made more exciting by the fact that we were actually, literally, running through the Louvre to take it all in.

What I can’t fathom is how incredible it would be to work in these buildings, to patrol the corridors where incredible art hangs, to have meetings down the hall from John Singer Sargent or El Greco or Caravaggio. Does a curator become complacent about the scenery? It seems doubtful. I imagine that being in that setting day after day would be like a perpetual dream…flamenco guitar or not.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

The Beauty Department

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I discovered Lauren Conrad’s beauty blog, The Beauty Department, a few months ago while doing research for my online eyewear company. Expecting it to be annoying (due to my lingering irritation over Ms. Conrad’s poor acting skills in Laguna Beach and The Hills), I was more than pleasantly surprised. The website’s aesthetic is friendly and fun while still being incredibly instructive. I especially love the little video tutorials that help know-nothings like me learn how to braid hair, put on false eyelashes, and so on. Here’s Lauren showing you how to be “Hollywood Glam:”

The Beauty Department’s videos came in handy especially while I was preparing for my dance role. For instance, I used the following tutorial to put my hair in a bun:

And we definitely used the techniques demonstrated below to apply super glittery eye shadow:

Result: Raven!

How to be a makeup artist

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What you’ll need: brushes, palette

Songlist: Lip Gloss by Lil’ Mama, Red Lipstick by Rihanna

Further reading: Making Faces by Kevyn Aucoin

Last night after my final performance of Zorro in the Land of Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, all the flamenco dancers and musicians went out to dinner, for which I kept my stage makeup on.

You see, I don’t normally do a lot of makeup. Usually a little blush and mascara. Maybe some lip gloss. Every once in a while, for a party or dinner, I might wear eye shadow as well (I know, getting crazy).

As a raven in the performance I had to go a little above and beyond my normal routines. I bought false eyelashes–a first for me–and blue and black sparkle eye liners. The six of us ravens lined our lips in black and filled them in with dark purple, and we lucked out that one of our fellow ravens is, in fact, a makeup artist. She created dramatic dark-blue swoops on our eyelids to mimic bird wings and made us dust our faces with plenty of sparkle powder. Though we joked that we looked more like drag queens than ravens, I think we were all excited by the dramatic transformation we all went through.

I’ve always wanted to be better at makeup. At slumber parties in elementary school, girlfriends and I would smear on the darkest blush we could find and bright red lipstick just to laugh at the effect. I still have the makeup kit for girls that my grandmother bought me when I was about 12 and, embarrassingly, I still use some of those items.

I kind of wish I had a makeup artist with me at all times, like last night’s Oscar winning team of Meryl Streep and J. Roy Helland who both mentioned their 37 years together. Failing that, though, I might just need to get better at it myself. Makeup is just too much fun not to play with.


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