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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

As a graphic designer, I work on a wide variety of projects – ads, booklet, flyers, magazines, fund-raising pieces, websites, etc – which I love, because it keeps me interested and challenged. I have been expanding my involvement in children’s books, helping authors get self-published through my design work. Up to this point, I have focused exclusively on picture books … until now.

Approached by a children’s writer I know to do a chapter book, I hesitated. I do love working on picture books, and wondered if maybe I should stay with what I know best. Well, I took the challenge and the result is the first chapter book I designed, The Last Rhino, by Deb Stevenson. Deb, illustrator Morgan Spicer, and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.

If interested in reading more on my initial journey with chapter books, please visit my graphics blog. To learn more about The Last Rhino, just click on the image above, or watch Deb’s outstanding trailer.

 

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This morning when I went out to the mailbox to retrieve my mail, I spied something at my front door. It was sitting quite nicely in front of my little children’s bench which holds a flower box filled with overflowing pink and white Impatiens. What could that be? I thought. I didn’t order anything. And because I was feeling a tad under the weather, I immediately wondered if it was a misdelivery, something from a company I didn’t order, etc. Whatever it was, it did get my curiosity going.

I brought it inside and looked at the label. Sure enough, it was addressed to me, and from a company I’d never heard of. More and more curious. I opened it up to find no note or identifying information, but when I brought out the one item inside, it brought tears to my eyes.

Someone had sent me one of the most meaningful and thoughtful gifts I could receive at this moment in time. Something that affirms my strength as a woman and as a writer, from someone who obviously knows the challenges I’ve faced over the last 5 or so years.

We all have our challenges; there is no doubt about that. I was joyfully on my journey of writing and illustrating children’s books, and had been for a while. It was a long-awaited return after I had studied under the renowned children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz at the New School in NY so many years ago. And then things happened. It doesn’t really matter what they were, but they had the effect of disrupting many aspects of my life, among them my children’s book journey. This was my dream. And although it had to sit on the sidelines for a while, it never sat alone. I did everything I could, however tiny, to keep it alive even though it could hardly take my full attention.

As time passed and I worked to regain my balance in all aspects of my life, I have – little by little – returned to my writing for children, to my dream of being published. I don’t have the luxury of writing full time, as most writers do not, but more and more, it is in my thoughts and in my daily plans. I know I’m back on track – maybe not sprinting yet, but I am out there and picking up speed.

And whoever sent me this mug knows that, and I thank you deeply for acknowledging it. I will find you and I will thank you.

For the rest of you women writers out there, especially those who face challenges and proceed in spite of them, tomorrow morning I am going to toast you all with my first cup of coffee in this mug. Cheers to you and your writing dreams.

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Friday night marked the end of an extremely hectic and  stressful work week. How do you know it was stressful?

I just kept throwing the mail in a pile, unopened. I checked for bills and anything of a personal nature – other than that, it would have to wait.

The two small bags of goodies I’d purchased at the annual Tinicum Arts Festival were still sitting in the exact same place they were when I brought them home last Sunday afternoon.

But perhaps most amazing – and a sure sign of excessive busyness – I had ice cream in the freezer from last week’s shopping and forgot all about it! Now that’s really just kind of sad. I mean, how does that even happen?

But let’s go back to Tinicum. The Tinicum Arts Festival is an annual event in PA just on the other side of the river and south about 10 miles or so. The 2 day fair hosts many crafters, artisans, and artists all of whose work is excellent quality. I try and go every year, if not to buy, then just to browse and chat with fellow artists.

This very talented potter has been coming for several years now and I remember her from last year. Above is a sample of her horsehair work, a vase. All her work is just lovely, and truly are pieces of art.

I went to the festival with a few things in mind that I hoped I might find. One, a pair of pierced earrings with silver and black. I have plenty of earrings that I am very fond of and wear often, but when I am wearing black, I really have nothing to go along. This vendor had a great selection of beautifully crafted jewelry using crystals plus a good assortment of earrings at very reasonable prices. I chose this sweet pair of mermaids sitting on a black sphere. And checked off one of the things I was looking for.

I also wanted to find something relatively inexpensive as a surprise for my brother and sister-in-law’s anniversary. I don’t traditionally buy them anything for this occasion, but I felt like sending along something small and unexpected – something that would put a smile on their face.

This petite earthenware plaque was one of many available, all of which had short phrases and quotes on them. Some I might have liked for myself, but didn’t think they would be too crazy about. But how cute is this one? Not to mention perfect for an anniversary. Check!

Now we come to possibly the biggest challenge. One of the first vendors we came upon was a maker of hand-crafted soaps and other toiletries. One of the things I’d had in mind for the anniversary couple was a nice handmade soap. She had so many scents! As with all handcrafted soaps at events such as these, they’re made with high quality oils and other pure ingredients, and are so much more wonderful than the usual array of soaps we come across.

The seller offered a slight discount for three bars, so I bought three – almond, orange coconut, and black raspberry vanilla. Talk about fabulous. The challenge I mentioned? Will I actually be able to part with one or maybe be a little selfish and keep them all for myself? You didn’t hear it, but I just let out a huge sigh there. Of course, I’ll send them one – they’ll love it. But which one?

 

The black raspberry vanilla was just too heavenly and truly smells like its name. Just look at that delicious swirl!

The Arts Festival really seems to grow every year with more and different vendors and craftspeople than before. A new Bonsai fellow was there with his perfectly manicured living pieces of art and was a delight to chat with, plus many others – makers of pottery and homemade foods, painters,  photographers, stained glass artisans – it’s just always a wonderful event. And at the end of this very busy week, I can finally enjoy all “the little things” I was so lucky to find. Not just my purchases, but a beautiful day, time well-spent with a friend, and the enjoyment of having been around so much creativity.

We need little things – it’s good to be happy.

 

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The first thing to happen is your brain starts to slowly disintegrate on the way home. Once in the door, you need to tend to anything that needs tending to because your body is following close behind and is not going to be in an upright position too much longer. From stress? Nope – from the incredible rush of attending a two-day conference for writers and illustrators of children’s books. It’s exhausting alright, but in a good way.

Each June my New Jersey chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) holds its big event. There are workshops, round tables, one-on-one critiques, a juried art show, portfolio display, keynote speeches, and more. This year, in choosing my workshops I focused entirely on writing in picture books. Other years, I have mixed things up and taken workshops in middle grade and young adult writing, picture book illustration, marketing/social media, and more. There were some truly fabulous speakers this year who inspired me and will keep me thinking long after the conference.

A highlight of the NJ event for many attendees is the availability of having one-on-one critiques, something not offered at all SCBWI (or other writing) conferences, and I picked very well this year. The picture book I submitted seemed a very good fit for Charlesbridge Publishing, and my mentor was outstanding – knowledgeable, insightful, and beyond helpful. Did I mention thorough? Yes, very thorough. A good editor or agent really knows how to show you where you need improvement without destroying your soul, acknowledge all the things that are right with your manuscript, and point out directions that will help you make your story perfect. And that I got.

The big challenge after a conference like this, for me, anyway, is to keep the momentum and all that excitement going because Monday morning rolls around pretty quickly and I am back at my desk writing and designing for everyone else, i.e., my clients. However, one of the first things I did Monday was to hit the library. I was picking up an adult novel I’d requested on inter-library loan, Before We Were Yours, and also a number of picture books that had been recommended by my mentor and other workshop leaders along the way. I also requested a few more from our main library. (As I did not take any photos of the event, I have included a handful of those books here.) I plan to read them over the next couple days for both enjoyment and to understand what makes them really good picture books. There is always much to learn.

Over the next few days I will revisit the MS I submitted and all my mentor’s notes and look to see how I can make my story shine yet brighter. For all the praise she gave me for this picture book, and there was plenty, it wasn’t enough – at least not yet – to be the one Charlesbridge wants to publish. Not yet.

 

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Life sometimes pulls us in one direction … then another … then another. Grabs us by the collar and says, “You need to take care of this, but be sure you do this, oh! and this!” The end result is we writers look quite absent from our blogs from time to time. But be assured, this writer is still here, just pulled in all those directions.

There’s been a boatload of work, which, as a freelancer, I will never complain about; preparation for my being a guest speaker at an Animal Writers Workshop (you can check that out here); preparation for the annual SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) June Conference coming up in 2 weeks; the usual (un)expected running around for all manner of things, some pleasant, some less so; and, of course, reading! No matter what else is happening, I am always reading.

To this end, I’m going to catch you up on the wonderful books I’ve enjoyed.

After reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein it was clear that I wanted to read more from this great mind. I perused Goodreads and requested A Sudden Light from my library. What a magnificent book. I will officially now read anything this man writes. A Sudden Light is a story told in the first person by 14-year-old Trevor who travels with his father to the family’s Riddell House in Oregon. His parents’ marriage is in trouble, and this trip to meet his aunt and grandfather is to allegedly settle some financial issues, put the grandfather in a nursing home, and dispose of the house. The home’s exterior is constructed of huge trees, and was built by Elijah, Trevor’s timber baron great grandfather. Trevor soon finds they are not alone in the house; there is a ghost, who has remained to see that Elijah’s last wishes be carried out, that the property be returned to a natural state as amends for the desecration he caused to the land. Somehow Stein has managed to put together an historical novel, a compelling ghost story, a tale of multi-generational conflicts and family secrets against a backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. Read more here and scroll down and visit The North Estate. Be sure not to read any spoilers!

Following this, I read The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, a novel (her first) with a most unusual premise. Four children, brothers and sisters edging into adolescence, hot and bored in the Lower East Side summer of 1969, decide to visit a gypsy fortune teller who is said to be able to give you the exact day you will die. The kids do it on a lark, just for something to do. The eldest brags about how far in the future her date is; she’ll live to a ripe old age. Another sibling shares, but the two others are clearly shaken and will not reveal their dates. It’s all just a joke anyway, right? The following chapters follow the life of each child, as the reader, in suspended animation, follows the sibling’s choices leading up to the possible fulfillment of their individual prophecies. Warm, engrossing, a fascinating premise, and very well-written.

I then read the next in the Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny. I never thought I’d be interested in reading a series by anyone (at least not after my beloved Nancy Drew mysteries from my childhood) but Louise Penny changed my mind. Inspired by a post by fellow blogger Cynthia Reyes, I picked up a couple of Penny’s books from my local library and was very impressed. So much so, in fact, that I decided to read the entire series from the beginning (not one right after the other, but interspersed among other reading.) What a great decision! Penny is an excellent writer who knows how to hook you from beginning to end. With a cast of characters that one becomes more attached to with each book, mysteries unfold to be solved by Chief Inspector Armand  Gamache of the Surété of Quebec, the premiere investigative arm of homicide in that province. The Brutal Telling is book #5 and calls upon Gamache to solve the murder of an unknown individual whose cabin is buried in the woods surrounding the quaint village of Three Pines. The evidence points to a seemingly unlikely character, which can only leave the reader quite puzzled. Are they  really capable of murder? The book ends with that individual’s arrest, and we are left wondering.

The next book in the series, Bury Your Dead, is considered a companion to this one, so I elected to read it right after, and it does pick up quite literally where The Brutal Telling ended. What is engaging about Penny’s writing is that she is not just writing simple mysteries, but increasingly complex novels which explore Canadian culture and history from Vancouver to Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to revered artists. Her characters grow realistically and empathically, and it’s very easy to become involved in their lives and the small town of Three Pines. If you like an absorbing mystery that will also give you a little more to sink your teeth into, look into this series. I suggest you start with the first in the series, A Still Life. There is a growing richness with each subsequent novel, and Penny will always keep you guessing until the end. Oh! And another small perk – whenever characters are eating, Penny always takes a moment to describe the deliciousness of their food. It’s a tantalizing little diversion each time.

I took a turn into another age group after this and read Crenshaw, a middle grade novel by Kathlerine Applegate, the author of a book I love (and own), The One and Only Ivan, an absolutely wonderful read. This story is about Jackson, a young teenage boy, and his family whose financial situation has changed from precarious to dire with them being forced to live in their minivan. Again. The story touches on an important subject, homelessness and the challenges faced by those who may be barely getting by. But there is another important character – Crenshaw himself, a very large cat. Crenshaw is Jackson’s imaginary friend from when he was a little boy, returned to be supportive of Jackson in his time of need … whether Jackson wants him there or not. Needless to say, this lends itself to moments of humor, but at its heart, this story is about resilience, friendship, and how we survive tough times. It was a good read, but for some reason, didn’t grab me the same way Ivan did. I’d still recommend it to the middle grade readers you know because we are all always facing some challenge or other, and this age group will appreciate Jackson and Crenshaw’s approach to a problem more common than most think.

I’m now reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, another terrific writer. I have read at least four of her other novels, The Poisonwood Bible being a permanent resident on a particular bookcase reserved for those books that I would definitely read again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about Flight Behavior somewhere in the vague timeframe of when I finish it.

Whether you are inspired by the stories mentioned above or are on a book path of your own, I will always wish you … Happy Reading!

 

 

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It wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without something a little sweet, right? How about an adorable pied Frenchie who’s discovered some just-frosted sugar cookies? (And is about to do something very naughty!) That’s sweet x 2!

Order these sweet French Bulldog Valentine’s Day cards on my website or in my just-opened Etsy shop and put a smile on the faces of the special someone(s) in your life.

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One of the shortcomings of we creative folk, I find, is that we generally don’t share our gifts proudly with others, or even give ourselves a pat on the back all too often. Writing a blog, and especially if it includes our own artwork, photography, videos, or images of our various accomplishments, is one way we do that. Even so, many of us only shyly take credit for the beauty, wisdom, intelligence, and creativity we put out into the world through our blogs. We all deserve a pat on the back, so please – give yourself one!

A corollary to this is if our creativity is available to others … as in a business. For those of you who check in on me regularly, you are likely to be aware I’m a graphic artist. But how many know that I actually promote my graphic design services on the web? Not enough, I’m sure, so I am taking this opportunity to introduce you to my graphic design blog – Jeanne Balsam Graphics. Please take a toddle on over and see what I do. I am growing my business, and have a particular interest in helping people self-publish by putting an attractive and professional product out there. (The picture book above is my design/layout, and includes some original artwork, as well.)

With the advantages of the internet, working together is no longer limited by our physical proximity. I have local clients as well as in California, the mid-west, and more. Maybe I can help you or someone you know with a fabulous design piece. If so, you can contact me anytime through my graphics blog.

OK, so that’s me finally patting myself on the back a bit and sharing more of what I do. Now it’s your turn!

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The sun attempts to break through an almost white sky. The weather report tells me that this is the best it will do today. Some high winds later on, and for Christmas, perhaps a dash of snow in the morning. This suits me fine – my days of longing for a white Christmas vanished as soon as I had to drive in it. As I looked out the window, I searched inside for my Christmas spirit. I found it to be a little lacking, having been pulled in many directions the last week. I knew one remedy, of course – images and words that bring a smile and/or inspire.

So here you see my gentle snowman, standing at my front door, ready to greet you. His candle lights at dusk, and he blows it out at dawn. But tonight it will burn steadily and all through the day on Christmas.

Inside, the beautiful oak washstand of over 100 years shines as always, with silk poinsettias, my very favorite ice balls holding tea lights, and just a peek at the photo of my Mom and Dad’s wedding portrait.

And though from a winter past, the snowy roofs and lightly dusted bare branches put me in a festive mood.

But what about words that inspire? I remembered some years ago, my Christmas present to loved ones was a print of the piece below, a longtime favorite of mine, to which I added original artwork of forest animals in each season in each of the print’s four corners. I felt my contribution was small in the shadow of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. I share it here with you, with my warmest wishes for a Christmas filled with the sparkle of magic, hope, and peace.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

~ Max Ehrmann

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The internet is an incredible source of so many things, and some incredibly wonderful. This is one of those, and brings tears to my eyes each time I watch it. So simple, so beautifully and brilliantly done. Just 3 minutes you won’t regret. Go full screen.

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It’s time! For those of you old-fashioned folk who still love to write out and send Christmas or holiday cards, please check out these Frenchie darlings ready to travel miles with nothing but your love and a stamp.

Featuring my own artwork, this card is called “Toasty Warm”, because who wouldn’t be with those little sweaters and pom-pom knitted caps? You can order my Toasty Warm French Bulldog holiday cards through my website, and send something adorable to your friends and loved ones.

As is the case with many things nowadays, the art of hand writing cards and notes seems to have fallen out of favor with some in favor of the speed of the internet. And here’s where I disagree – there is nothing like opening your mailbox and discovering a bona fide greeting card – be it for Christmas, the holidays, or some other occasion – written out just to you. It has always been special and, in my opinion, will always be special. (As a parallel note, by the way, Kindle sales have fallen and sales of real, 3-dimensional books for children are on the upswing.)

There is something about the smile you feel when holding a card in your hands, displaying it on the mantle, and looking at it whenever you feel like it, that can’t be replaced by the digital. So check out all my French Bulldog holiday cards, and discover what you would like to send!

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How many times have you finished a book, and it was so good that you wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again? I’ve felt that way; I think we all have. But how many times have you actually done it? I’m guessing you haven’t, and until now, neither have I. Until I read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee.

This is an amazing historical novel, written in first person by a young woman, who, at the opening of the book, is making her entrance at the Sénat Bal in Paris, autumn of 1882. She is “La Genérale”,  Lilliet Berne, famed opera singer and a falcon soprano. She is approached by a novelist who dares to get her attention, and asks her to listen to his proposition – a story he has in his possession, to which a score will be written by a promising composer, an original role created just for her. Such a thing is the apex of an opera’s singer career. And then Lilliet hears how much of the story is her own past life, which, if it came to light, would destroy her career. So few know her past; who would want to see her fall? And so begins our story.

We return to Lilliet’s beginnings in the then free-state of Minnesota in 1866, sixteen years old, when she loses her entire family to scarlet fever. Alone and practically penniless, she decides to cross the country, and then the ocean, to find her mother’s only sister in Switzerland. The ensuing story unfolds in endless twists and turns of Lilliet’s trying to survive, becoming a circus equestrienne, a courtesan, later purchased by the tenor, the keeper of the empresses’s furs, and an opera singer. This all takes place largely in Paris during and after the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

The Queen of the Night is a very complex novel. There is subterfuge, characters using each other and being used, and many unexpected betrayals. Set against the backdrop of an opulent Paris as well as the utter desolation after the Prussian attack, there is also opera, loyalty, friendship, devotion, and most importantly, love. One might say that this is a love story, but truly, it is so much more. When I decided to reread this book, I was initially aware it was because there was so much going on, that I knew I had missed certain things, and I needed to feel that I really understood everything.

But as I approach the final chapters this second time, I know that a major attraction for me is Lilliet Berne herself. I found Lilliet to be an amazing heroine, who fights to stay alive, to try to be whatever it is she is born to be, despite not knowing at all what that might be for so long. She starts our story as an orphaned girl of sixteen, and ends … well, I can’t really tell you that. I can say that this is a demanding book, not one to be read when you’re tired or distracted, because I guarantee, you will miss something critical. But it is also one you cannot put down. Alexander Chee is highly successful in writing a story with fine attention to rich historical detail, and also for creating characters who will live in your imagination between each reading and after.

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It was my plan to post a drawing I did of two whales. I went through my recent sketchbooks, and they seemed to have swam away. But what kept appealing to me was this pen and ink sketch I did of a spirit bear.

Spirit bears are snow white bears, not albinos, that live only in a specific area of Canada, the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest unspoiled temperate rainforests on earth. This is a partly protected area in the islands and coastal areas of British Columbia. They are actually a rare subspecies of the American black bear known as a Kermode bear, most of whom have dark coats. The double recessive gene for the white coat must be carried by both parents in order to produce the white spirit, or ghost, bear. They are looked on as sacred by the indigenous tribes of the area, and have become symbolic of these people’s fight against proposed desecration of the rainforest by those wishing to build a pipeline there. It is unclear how many spirit bears there actually are, but estimates run from 150 to 200.

Learn more about the Spirit Bear.

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