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.

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Of lions and dreams

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One side effect of travel that I’ve often noticed is crazier dreams than usual. Last week, before beginning our road trip through Germany, I had a dream that we had a lion for a pet. In the dream I realized how neglected our poor lion was: I never let it outside since it would scare the neighbors, and I knew I hadn’t been feeding it properly. When the lion stood, I saw that its back legs were severely arthritic and it was dying.

I would’ve forgotten the dream except that I saw a lion statue the next day. And I’ve seen some representation of a lion every day since. Lions, as it turns out, are the symbol of southern Germany. And so, since my dream, I’ve felt a strange connection to this part of the world and all of its aging lions.

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Bach that rach up

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After a 6 hour drive from Paris to the Rhine river in Germany, my friend Marissa and I ended up in a small town named Bacharach. We quickly understood why this is such a tourist town: it’s impossibly charming and fits most every German stereotype.

We stopped in to a lovely restaurant that serves local wines and each ordered a wine flight, which consisted of 6 full glasses of wine. Oops! We learned that the wine that comes from the steep slopes along the Rhine is best–something about the slate directly underneath that holds more of the sun’s warmth and let’s the grapes stay on the vine longer.

The following day we saw those vineyards in action as we cruised up the Rhine. The plots are tiny and precipitously placed all along the cliffsides, which made us more fully appreciate how much work went into every single glass of wine.

Well done, Bacharach.

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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!

Curation of laughter and mustard

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Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum

I wanted to do a post about the most beautiful museums in the world…but you already know about the Louvre. And Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. And maybe even the Milwaukee Art Museum, the incredible bird-wing/ship-mast addition designed by Santiago Calatrava. (No? Well, I’ll put in a photo just in case you haven’t heard of it. And so my architect dad will be happy).

But then I realized I’d be doing the theme of curation a disfavor. After all, art museums aren’t the only museums in the world. With just a quick google search, you can find a museum for just about anything.

The macabre is well-represented in the world of museums. For instance, Guanajuato has an entire museum devoted to mummies. You can walk through halls of mummified bodies, 111 in all, in various states of decay. I’m sure the curator had fun with this one (“should we arrange by date exhumed or by state of decay?”). And there’s the Museum of Death in Hollywood that features artwork done by serial killers and videos of autopsies, among other things. What better place for a museum of death than a place obsessed with eternal youth? Amsterdam has a Torture Museum, but it’s not the only place. There are torture museums in Prague, Italy, Germany, and even friendly ol’ Wisconsin Dells, a place better known for its water park.

Just go to Wisconsin, lady!

But if you’re only in Wisconsin for one day and have to choose which museum to visit, why not skip the torture and the art housed under Calatrava’s wings and head to the National Mustard Museum, formerly known as Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. My Wisconsinite boyfriend tells me there was much controversy when the world’s only mustard museum relocated from one tiny Wisconsin town to another. What does Mount Horeb have to offer the world now? Perhaps just find another beloved and questionable food group…don’t pick Spam though, because we Minnesotans have the market cornered on Spam museums.

Minnesota does have its own share of odd museums. We even made a blogger’s list of “7 crazy-ass museums” with the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, aka the Quackery Hall of Fame (on every list of ridiculous museums was New Delhi’s International Museum of Toilets). I visited this museum with friends when I was in junior high school, researching for a project on Freud. We tried on the phrenology device, wrapped ourselves in the conveyor belt that you were suppose to wear as a real belt to eliminate fat, stepped into the x-ray machine to measure foot size that was all the rage with cobblers right after x-rays were discovered. Apparently, even Marie Curie’s death from radiation hadn’t raised red flags with the Adrian X-ray Company, based in Milwaukee (it always comes back to Wisconsin). The last x-ray machine found in operation in a shoe department was in 1981 in West Virginia. 1981.

My favorite museums, at least in theory, are museums of intangibles. I wrote about the Museum of Lost Smells last March, and just found about about the Laughter Museum in Wiesbaden, Germany. Although I’m sure the real museum is nothing like this, I imagine a large white room where people just go in and start laughing. And after having a good laugh yourself, you can tour white hallways listening to a vast library of laughter. Napoleon’s laugh, Gandhi’s laugh, Salvador Dalí’s laugh. The price of admission would be a guffaw. Excuse me, I have to go start designing my laughter museum.