Holiday memories and gifts that keep on giving

Posted on December 4, 2018 at 6:00 am

By Susan Goertz

The scent of holidays is in the air. Crisp frost and cinnamon seem to waft near every doorway.

We scramble to prepare for social gatherings while dreaming of time. Time to relax and enjoy the season. Time to be with loved ones, remember seasons past, decorate, and eat all the desserts.

The impending holidays fill me with equal parts anxiety and joy. So much to do! So many snow angels to make.

When I look back on holidays past, I have many lovely moments to remember. Yet a specific montage seems to surface in my mind, year after year.

Me, nose deep in a book, the pages turning to magic under the glowing rainbow of lights and tinsel of the Christmas tree. Over the years, the titles and subjects have changed, yet the magic is always there—turning pages, gloriously alive.

My preference for enjoying gifts directly under the tree started young. There is photographic evidence to that effective: baby Susan in footie pajamas, joyfully gnawing on a wrapped package, lit with an otherworldly sparkle that I just couldn’t resist. In the image, I haven’t even learned how to crawl or walk yet, and I rolled right over. I still can’t resist shiny things to this day. The sugarplum fairies know what’s up.

Another memory: My family would open one present on Christmas Eve to enjoy before the next day’s flurry of activity took hold. Often my first gift was a book. I can still feel the quiet bliss that settles over the room as we snuggle into our reading spots. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker plays in the background.

My favorite books were gorgeously illustrated volumes about the lives and works of famous artists. Picasso, Van Gogh, the impressionists, the pointillists! All became magical under the twinkle of tinsel and lights. I can still picture my favorite Mary Cassatt book. I felt like I could smell the pigments, blending with the rich aroma of hot cocoa.

My art book collection has grown over the years. Even now, books are one of my favorite presents to give and receive. I especially love inspiring little artists and passing on the tradition. With so many delightful picture book biographies out there to inspire, there is an artist for every reader.

Here are some of my favorite library titles to share this holiday season. Some of these artists are universally known for creating movements in their own right. The images of others may have decorated your holidays without you ever knowing their creator. And hopefully there are a few new (to you) talents to explore.

One artist whose work I fell in love with at an early age is Picasso. Such a prolific artist, so many periods and mediums to enjoy. His rose period works look particularly splendid beneath the holiday lights. Picasso and Minou, by P. I. Maltbie and illustrated by Pau Estrada, covers this early period in his career. At the time, his talent was mostly undiscovered and his only patron, so to speak, was a cat named Minou. There is even a photograph of Minou and the artist at the end of the book.

Picasso was by no means the only artist who had animal companions in the studio. Frida Kahlo is known for her self-portraits, many of which also display her pets. Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos explores Frida’s relationship with her animals and what they may have meant to her. This incredibly touching book by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra, delves into some of the darkest moments of the artist’s life—even her childhood bout with polio and the bus accident that nearly ended her life—all viewed through the perspective of her pets.

I may have learned about Picasso first, but Georgia O’Keeffe was the artist who made me want to paint the world as seen through my eyes. Best known for her large flower and landscape paintings, she broke down and defied the traditional restraints of still life and perspective. Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased, by Amy Novesky, tells the story of O’Keeffe’s 3-month long trip to Hawaii in the spring of 1939. Illustrated by the talented artist Yuyi Morales, this book really captures the power and vibrancy of O’Keeffe’s flowers, and her personality.

French artist Henri Matisse was much more than a painter. He was also a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor. I first discovered him through his cut-outs. As he grew older and painting became more physically challenging, he developed the cut-out technique, which works even with humble construction paper. Using just scissors and paper painted various colors with gouache (opaque watercolor) he cut an astounding array of shapes. He would then pin or glue them to a background to create incredibly vibrant works of art. The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse, by Patricia MacLachlan with pictures by Hadley Hooper, shows where this artist’s inspiration began.

Born in the Russian empire to a Jewish family at the end of the 19th century, Marc Chagall is an artist whose life was filled with turmoil and transition. As he fled various dictatorial regimes throughout his life, Chagall became a master in many forms. Whether painting, sculpting, or creating stained-glass windows, his work was filled with light, color, and a sense of floating and flight. His work often revolved around windows and movement. Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art, by Barb Rosenstock, with illustrations by Mary GrandPré, explains how a boy named Moishe Shagal became the world renowned artist.

A great introduction to color theory is An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers, by Natasha Wing with artwork by Julia Breckenreid. A German-born painter who revolutionized the use of hues in the art and business world, Albers was always fascinated with the effect of shade and tint. He experimented for years painting simple, colored squares, observing how various tones affected mood and created the sense of movement. His work is deceptively simple and delightful.

Not every artist works with elaborate materials or studies with great masters. Some artists are self-taught. One such famous folk artist born in the U.S. is Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses. Grandma Moses, written and illustrated by Alexandra Wallner, explains how this unassuming farm girl, born in 1860, came to define how rural New England is pictured. Her paintings are often used during the holidays on everything from calendars to greeting cards. Many of her paintings have a quality reminiscent of handicrafts and textiles, which is no surprise, as Grandma Moses was an avid embroiderer as well.

Another renowned self-taught artist I’ve long admired is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Growing up in New York he and his mother would frequent museums, where Basquiat learned from the masters by studying their paintings first hand. He first gained fame as a street and graffiti artist who signed his work SAMO. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Javaka Steptoe, tells the story of this brilliant talent who burned out much too soon. He was prolific during his short life, creating over 1,000 drawings and 600 paintings. His innovative use of collage style paintings, avoidance of clean lines, and use of challenging subject matter were revolutionary.

If you are looking for a book to inspire a would-be creator in your life, yet aren’t sure which artist might piqué their interest, I recommend What If…, by Samantha Berger with illustrations by Mike Curato. This book absolutely glows with artistic inspiration, teaching us that it can strike anywhere, in any medium. Berger began this book after her apartment flooded, destroying many projects and supplies in the process. This became her impetus to show how the power of imagination can expand our own worlds and teach us about ourselves.

I’m not sure what book my eyes and mind are going to devour under the tree and lights this Christmas Eve. Maybe I will try to round up an illustrated poetry book. Or maybe just go for a giant coffee table book of masterpieces from around the world. Whatever lands in my lap on the day, I know it will be that much more wondrous thanks to the twinkle and tinsel.

I hope your holiday season is sparkly, magical, and inspiring.

Susan Goertz

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