Sunday, December 30, 2012

Making Something out of Nothing

This post was inspired by an incredible video about the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra.
A community in Cateura, Paraguay started to craft recycled instruments from garbage. Trash is literally transformed into mesmerizing music made by young people.
As 2012 winds to a close here at my studio in San Miguel I've been reflecting on my passion for music. Growing up in Mexico City I had the life-changing opportunity to study with members of Los Folkloristas when I was twelve years old.

Los Folkloristas

This group of musicians were pioneers in rescuing the folkloric roots of traditional Latin American music. I learned to play guitar, violin, charango, quena, sampoña, bombo and harp with Maestro Gerardo Tames. He's the young man with a beard on the far right of the photo above. I remember my mother knitting patiently outside while I practiced long hours twice a week. I formed a musical group with 5 other young people and each time we would bring our instruments and voices together it was like making something out of nothing. I was completely swept up in the music. When my family could no longer afford lessons one of my elementary school teachers insisted on paying half the tuition because she wanted me to continue.

That's me in the center playing the quena at 12 years old

I'm the skinny guy playing the charango
next to the girl with the bombo

Here in San Miguel de Allende, I've been grabbing every opportunity to make and listen to live music. I entertain myself by making posters for my friends that express their sound as a way to thank them for all they bring to my world. I never imagined I would go on to make books and stamps about many of the musicians I so admired. Ironically, Gabriel Hernandez featured in the poster below played piano with Tito Puente.
The connections I'm always finding with music and my work as an artist continue to surprise me.

I spent an unforgettable Christmas eve playing guitar with friends late into the night. It always takes a serious dose of courage to keep up with my compadre, master guitarist Gil Gutiérrez. He introduced me to a great musician Camille who in his seventies. It seems he was back in town after spending the better part of the year in his native France. He brought along his acordoneón, a blend of an accordion and a bandoneón popular in Argentina. His passionate wife sings La Boheme with the same energy of Nina Simone. An old friend Jimena Giménez Cacho who now lives in San Miguel was there too. As fate would have it I had studied with her brother Daniel and the Folkloristas so many years ago.  Jimena's voice was equally as thrilling as the uniquely, haunting sounds of her cello. The smallest things remind me of the big impact music continues to have on my life and work. 

Minuscule guitar hand-carved from amber by an amigo Alex
in the Mercado de Artesanias in San Miguel.

Blues Angel for San Diego Blues Festival

I've painted many compositions trying to express the dynamic power of different genres of music. In 2010 after painting Tito, Celia and other incomparable performers for the United States Postal Service: Latin Music Legends stamps, I felt my love for music coming full circle. It was vitally important for me to get it right as I was a huge fan and their music mattered to so many.

Looking forward to the new year as my latest children's book My Name is Tito will be finding it's way to libraries and schools.

Luckily, I paired up once again with a good friend, writer Monica Brown. We've already traveled around the country connecting to kids and teachers about reading and music.
Monica and I collaborated together on my first children's book My Name is Celia and I had so much fun.  After that experience I couldn't wait to visually introduce the music and life story of Tito Puente to a whole new generation of kids. I hope the words and images will get them moving to the rhythms of the King of Mambo. I've dedicated the illustrations in our book to all those who work to bring music to children from California to Cateura.
I will always remember what a difference music made in my young life.
Feliz Año Nuevo.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tianguis: Market Day in San Miguel de Allende

Waking up in San Miguel de Allende on Market Day

A fat cactus greets me

Local shops decked out for the holidays

Papel Picados add color to the streets

Christmas Pinatas adorn a downtown shop
Visual refreshment

Street musicians strolling

Hat vendor

Mariachis mingle

Explosions of color in everyday objects

Textures for the senses: Wrenches

Nail Polish


Electrical cords and plugs

Fresh herbs bring spice

Bolsas to take it all home
Mezcal from Oaxaca

Fresh lime from the garden

Set the table with salsa

Hit the hammock at the end of the day

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Books and the Art of Giving

Each year I look forward to creating an image that expresses the spirit of the season. Here's what came out of the studio yesterday. Just in time to make holiday cards and gifts for our friends friends. When thinking about giving gifts, I want to continue a favorite tradition of pairing just the right book with something unique and artful. As an illustrator, naturally I'm captivated by heart stopping imagery and the blending of well crafted words and pictures.
Here's a few of my selections for the special someone on your list.

It's no secret that as a painter I'm wild about birds. Artists and poets have used them as visual and verbal metaphors for centuries. John James Audobon was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and gifted painter. In this amazing book he documents in glorious detail The Birds of America. An artist explorer, he boldly traveled the wilderness of Kentucky, the Carolinas, Louisiana, up and down the Mississippi River, into the Florida swamps and up to Eastern Canada.
The Audobon Society got it's name from this great artist.
My son Santiago studied his adventures this year in 5th grade and convinced me to pick up the book. He created this drawing in the center but added a yo-yo to Audobon's Florida flamingo on the right which proves this book is great for kids and adults alike. Together with your children you can have fun and make whimsical bird seed ornaments and wreaths. Use a red ribbon to tie one of these onto Audobon's glorious book Birds of America and forget the wrapping paper. After the presents are passed out, tie the seed ornament on a tree and give a gift to your local birds.

Esperanza Rising, an inspiring book by Pam Muñoz Ryan tells the tale of a young Mexican girl's courage. Born into a world of comfort and privilege on a ranch. The 13 year old heroine of this story finds her life changed when her father is killed by bandits. She flees with her mother to the U. S. where they survive as migrant farm workers. When her mother falls ill with Valley Fever she learns the value of family and friends. Caring for her mom she remembers her grandmother's lessons to not be afraid to start over and there are no roses without the thorns. Pair this treasure of a book with magical rainbow rose seeds and gardening tools for children like this set from Trumpety Trump.

Gotta Love a Classic. My son and I created a game we like to play on weekends. We visit our local Goodwill, thrift stores and used book stores to search for Roald Dahl books. These fantastical stories are punctuated with clever illustrations by Quentin Blake. Our pick for this season is Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Matilda, The Twits, The Enormous Crocodile and The Witches. You simply can't go wrong with someone like Roald Dahl who so easily enters a child's mind. Not only do his inventive books charm and entertain but they are addictive and turn any kid into regular readers. Wise parents will decide to go for the whole collection and find they end up getting hooked themselves.
Bundle them up with a Make your own Chocolate Kit. Willie Wonka would be proud as this tasteful gift for children 8 and up mixes chemistry with world culture and history.

Growing up as the only brother of 3 sisters and a dynamic mom I became a big fan of strong women. I fell hard for Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst with captivating pencil drawings on pastel paper by Lane Smith. Make sure to check out his new book too Abe Lincoln's Dream. Used to getting what she wants Lulu decides a pet like Mr. B would be a wonderful thing till she realizes that he believes she would be the ideal pet for him. Smith's illustrations blend perfectly with Lulu's snarky attitude. Pair this clever book with a 3D Jigsaw Brontosaurus a child can put together to hold their favorite colored pencils.

I encourage you to check out a remarkable book called Drawing from Memory by Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say. This incredible story details the artist's own journey growing up in Yokohama, Japan. At the age of six he longed to be a cartoonist despite his father who dismissed his dreams describing artists as lazy and not respectable. His parents divorced and when he was only twelve Say boldly apprenticed himself to his favorite cartoonist and lifelong mentor Noro Shinpei. You will get lost in his amazing drawings, vivid watercolors, cartoon strips and photographs. This introspective book showcases the courageous spirit and path of an artist in such a compelling way. When first learning to draw Greek and Roman sculptures Say used charcoal sticks and wads of fresh bread as an eraser. Pair this treasure of a book with soft chalk pastels great for budding young artists and don't forget the baguette.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reaching Young Latino Readers

Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation's public school enrollment, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, and are the fastest-growing segment of the school population. Yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers.
New York Times article.  For Young Readers an Image is Missing
Please click on the above link to read this article

Pam Muñoz Ryan reads Esperanza Rising to 5th graders in Mary Lau's class at the San Diego Cooperative Charter School

This week I had the incredible opportunity to listen to an amazing writer and friend Pam Muñoz Ryan connect with children in a surprise visit to the 5th grade class of the San Diego Cooperative Charter School. Their insightful teacher Mary Lau had shared with me a month earlier that she was reading Pam's unforgettable book Esperanza Rising to her class, as it was a personal favorite. This magical book won the Pura Belpré and was featured in the NY Times article cited above this week on reaching young Latino readers. I will never forget the look on the faces of the kids and the gasps when Pam walked into the room. Mrs. Lau whipped out her accordion and the kids sang Las Mañanitas to wish Pam a happy birthday. The room was filled with excitement and questions.
Pam and I worked together on our book Our California and I was honored to have my artwork used on Pam's website. Fortunately my son's school is rich in diversity. Like many other public schools I have visited across the country I relish the sparkle in a child's eye when they see themselves in the characters of books. I see my own child growing up with an appreciation of the tapestry that is our world and the unique threads that tie us all together.

I count myself lucky to make pictures that mirror the richness of those diverse experiences.