Art Imitating Life: The Inspiration Behind The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story
By Allison & Wayne Marks
Ideas for our stories can pop up at any time. Sometimes the kernel of a manuscript springs from a single line in a library book or when doing chores around the house. Reminiscing with relatives can trigger memories that beg to be shared. All of these circumstances converged into one glorious by-George-I-think-we’ve-got-it moment. The result was our latest book, The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story.
Allison: One day when spring cleaning, I came across a basket in the attic containing the earliest examples of our twins’ artwork. As four-year-olds, Claire and Elliott would sit for hours at the kitchen table using poetically named crayons (e.g., mango tango, purple mountain majesty, robin’s egg blue) to illustrate their own retellings of their favorite Shel Silverstein book, The Missing Piece. The titles of their books reflected their own life experiences: The Missing Piece Goes Fishing -- The Missing Piece’s First Day of School -- The Missing Piece Loses a Tooth. After this discovery in the attic, I knew our next book would be about a child’s early adventures in art.
Wayne: My father, Burton Marks, is an alumnus of the Cleveland Institute of Art. For years, he worked at Saalfield Publishing in Akron, Ohio, as a designer of board games and coloring books for different lines, including Peanuts and Star Trek. Later, Dad had a successful career as a children’s book author, writing about putting on magic shows, making kites, and planning Halloween parties. Growing up, I remember his art studio in the basement being filled with canvasses, squished tubes of oil paints, mosaic tiles, and multi-drawer cabinets crammed with a little bits of this and that used for his projects – much like Grandma Jacobs’ studio in our book.
After the Passover seder a few years ago, we recalled how Claire and Elliott took art lessons from my father. They would return home with still life paintings done in watercolors and floppy-headed sock puppets that starred in improvised plays which also featured GI Joe, Barbie, and an array of Beanie Babies. Like Shoshana, the granddaughter in The Art Lesson, our twins cherished this time with their grandparent, which became signature moments in their childhoods.
Allison: Reading and researching are important components in any writer’s life. One day in the Temple Israel Library, I was reading about the history of Shavuot and came across a reference to papercuts being displayed in the windows of Jewish homes during this holiday. I examined a pair of framed papercuts hanging on the synagogue walls and then pored over the examples in Amy Goldenberg’s book, Papercutting: Revising a Jewish Folk Art. An internet search uncovered even more beautiful examples of this delicate form of art. I thought a picture book would be a good way to introduce children to this Jewish tradition.
Wayne: It was by combining all these elements that we came up with the characters and storyline for The Art Lesson. Annie Wilkinson’s illustrations perfectly capture Shoshana’s creative process and the beautiful artwork that often results from simply working by trial and error with an unfamiliar medium.
Allison: In the book Shoshana grows up to be an artist just like her grandmother. Similarly, eighteen years after taking their first art lesson in their grandfather’s studio, our twins graduated with BFA degrees -- Elliott in graphic design (Kent State University) and Claire in printmaking (Cleveland Institute of Art). They, too, have their own wonderfully messy art studios.
Wayne: We hope The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story will encourage budding artists to try making their own papercuts, embrace the power of imagination, and, as Grandma Jacobs says, “make something beautiful.”