Illustrating a life
Palo Altan crafts a picture-book biography of sculptor Isamu Noguchi
With 16 children's books to her credit, Palo Alto illustrator Christy Hale has expanded her horizons: Her latest book is her first as both author and illustrator.
"The East-West House: Noguchi's Childhood in Japan," a picture-book biography, focuses on the early years of Japanese-American sculptor, designer and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). It looks at his experience as a biracial child in Japan, and his growing creativity.
"Isamu never felt he belonged anywhere," Hale said. "He was a fascinating person, so mercurial, and his work life spanned more than six decades."
"The East-West House" has proved to be a highlight of Hale's work life as well. It has garnered high praise, including being named as one of the best children's books of 2009 by the book-review journal Kirkus Reviews, where it was described as "a welcome entree to one artist's inspiration, aspiration and imagination."
(Another local on the Kirkus Reviews list is Palo Alto's Betsy Franco, chosen for her book "Zero Is the Leaves on the Tree.")
While Hale was creating "The East-West House," what particularly stuck in her mind was the influence of Noguchi's lonely, peripatetic childhood in Japan with his European-American mother, after his Japanese father left them to start a new family. Spurned or teased by other children because of his different looks and Western dress, the young Isamu "looked inside and looked to the natural world," Hale said. "His mother ... taught him botany, exposed him to art, gardening, and saw early on that he got pleasure from working with his hands. She wanted him to have an opportunity to meld his dual heritage."
This wish culminated in the building of a house with both Eastern and Western features on an abandoned piece of coastal land in Japan — an experience that profoundly affected the young Isamu, and became the central metaphor of Hale's new book. Though only 8 years old, Isamu helped to design, supervise and even build elements of the house.
Later, he returned to the United States where he was born, becoming successful in several fields. For example, he was a stage designer for choreographer Martha Graham for 30 years, and worked with visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, and the Noguchi Museum in New York is dedicated to his work. Today, his work is still sought after, as evidenced by the recent unveiling of a Noguchi sculpture at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center. Yet despite his later success both in the United States and Japan, the source of his creativity was always his "longing for affiliation," Noguchi once said.
Hale moved to Palo Alto from Massachusetts at age 10, which coincidentally was the year she decided she wanted to become a children's-book author and illustrator. She graduated from Palo Alto High School and earned fine-arts and master's degrees in teaching at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon.
She later lived in New York, receiving a degree in illustration and design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but moved back to Palo Alto with her husband and young daughter in 2001 after finding "burnt papers from the twin towers on our front stoop."
"My own version of East-West was a different one," she said, but included loneliness as well.
Hale's bi-coastal career has been long and full. She has been an art teacher, designer and art director for several New York publishers, and a curriculum designer for educational publisher Scholastic's Instructor magazine.
Though "The East-West House" is Hale's first book as author as well as illustrator, she has been preparing to write a book for a long time — possibly since winning an honorable mention in the California State Poetry Contest while she was at Paly. Among other writing workshops, she has attended poetry classes through Stanford's Continuing Studies program, and feels that poetry is very much connected with children's books.
"You're working towards an essence," Hale said. "Poetry is very visual, and a picture book has very little language. So you think through sound, patterns and rhythm as you do in poetry, even if you're aiming for prose. I wanted the language of my book to be very spare and open." In addition, Noguchi's father was a poet, and his own work often expresses a stark simplification of forms, she said.
The qualities of simplicity and elegance are reflected in the soulful illustrations for "East-West House," which capture a Japanese sensibility in terms of design yet have an originality that is all Hale's own. One aspect is Hale's unusual choice of materials. The subtly colored and textured backgrounds come from such materials as shelf paper, Whole Foods Market grocery bags, and paper she crafted from castoffs, such as "an old gray Burberry coat."
Collage elements are culled from business-envelope liners and rubbings taken from the weathered back step leading into Hale's garden. These textures and patterns evoke sky, water, wood bark, pathways and fabrics, sometimes echoing Noguchi's brush paintings. By carving shapes of leaves and blossoms from the tops of gum erasers, she has conjured the effects of the modern Japanese woodblocks that she admires.
This kind of resourcefulness has been a strength for Hale, leading her to innovate in unexpected ways. Seeing waste materials as a potential resource "allows everything to become a possibility," she said. "We were always really poor," she added, referring to her childhood, "and one year as a teacher I had a $400 budget. All that is a great advantage."
Hale shares her ideas as an art director through articles and teaching guides, and as an instructor and presenter at local schools, where she speaks on creating and publishing a children's book. Her books often present curriculum tie-ins and multicultural themes that make them popular with teachers and librarians. She says these come easily; her interest in other cultures was awakened early by a visit to Oaxaca, a Palo Alto sister city in Mexico, while she was a Paly student.
In "Elizabeti's Doll" by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, and its sequels, Hale's illustrations of family life in Tanzania won accolades. She also got to exercise her skill at rendering faces in all their variety in "You're Not My Real Mother" by Molly Friedrich, a story that celebrates transracial adoption.
In her next book, Hale hopes to take the architectural theme farther, "juxtaposing the way children build and works by contemporary international architects," and further exploring the theme with concrete poetry, in architectural shapes. This is still in the development stage, but Hale is clearly raring to go.
Ever the educator, she adds: "Building is considered absolutely essential for early-childhood education."
Info: For more about Christy Hale's work, go to christyhale.com .