Cyndy Szekeres: Autobiography Feature
Cyndy Szekeres contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I am Cyndy. I do not know why, but I am different because I do not think and see things like anybody else, but that's all right. I realized this at the age of five. Even so, unwanted differences separated me from my peers. My playmate, not by choice, by geography, was the girl next door. I didn't really enjoy her company but wasn't required to cross the street or travel any forbidden distance to play. Her mother's tulip beds fascinated me. Dozens of uniform red-cupped petals held black stamens resembling burnt matches. These were surrounded by a burst of yellow that seemed to be hand painted. My memories of that time, the thirties, evoke visions of wonderful details in the gardens and fields that framed each home around our town.
We lived in Fairfield, Connecticut, bordering Bridgeport, an industrial town that was filled to overflowing with Italian, Romanian, Slovanian, and Hungarian neighborhoods. My grandparents lived in Bridgeport, along with other immigrants attracted by jobs and the great need for an unskilled labor force.
The first few miles within Fairfield were the suburbs for factory workers; further in were homes, affluent choices of pioneering commuters to New York City, and the stately mansions of the area businessmen. Our house sat on old farmland. In the thirties, this land had been quickly covered with modest one-and two-family dwellings.
Our neighbors were Hungarian immigrants their offspring. Each family maintained a sense of pride and competition over the flowers and vegetables they raised, their grape arbors and the wine they produced from them, and the chickens and geese that put a bird on the table every Sunday and feather quilts on each bed.
My father was first-generation American, but he identified with the ethnic standards of his immigrant parents. We lived like Hungarians, part of a tightly knit family consisting of his parents (my grandparents), his two brothers and two sisters (my aunts and uncles), and their families. Our activities and sociabilities were focused in this group.
My mother's father came to America from Lithuania with his wife in the early 1900s. He died during the influenza epidemic in 1917, when she was nine, the oldest of four daughters. Her mother, who spoke little English, raised these children as best she could. The goal for the young in such families was to quit school when the law allowed, and go to work . . . and so they did . . . my mother, my father, and some of my aunts and uncles. As family life was structured with a patriarchal head, my father's side received more of our attention.
My father was a toolmaker. My mother also worked in a factory on the assembly line. Happy preschool memories were days spent with my paternal grandmother. She did housecleaning and laundry for New York commuters. Gramma focused on her tasks with a sense of pleasure and accomplishment, traits then instilled in me. She would hum a tune or whistle, in an odd way, not really knowing any tunes or how to whistle for that matter. Why? "Because it makes work nice." Today, I play tapes, classical or Gershwin . . . "because it makes work nice." An exceptional cook, baking was Gramma's special treat for us all. "Come, feeum (that's 'dear one' in Hungarian), watch this so you can do it." A pinch of this, a handful of that, everything was measured by sight. Mixing was an art, too, resulting in delectable kalacs, pogacsa, kifli, and fanks (that's bread, biscuits, pastry, and donuts). I am an inspired cook, and if there is anything that I do well, it is to Gramma's credit.
My brother was my father's namesake. We called him Junior. He was two years older than I and obliged to take me everywhere. This hardly pleased either of us. I was curious about things that neither he nor his friends had any patience for: Did a buttercup's yellow reflection on the chin mean that one liked butter? Would picking dandelions make you wet the bed? Did babies really grow under cabbage leaves? (I checked them regularly!)The playthings I liked most came from sweat equity. Brown paper bags cut open made good drawing paper. The thin cardboard used for bakery boxes was stiff enough for paper dolls. I made a lot of them and filled a shoe box with "designer dresses."
Junior had loftier thoughts. Floating through space was one of them. A borrowed bed sheet and some clothesline rope became a parachute. I cheered him on. An assisting friend spread the "chute" on the ground behind the garage, throwing the clothesline ties up and over the roof, where my brother climbed to wrap it around his waist and jump. Our father arrived in time to stop the scheduled flight. Back then, one's attempted adventures weren't corrected and explained. One was more likely to get yelled at and whacked on the behind . . . a confusing message, as we'd been encouraged to "make" own play. Everybody else was occupied with the busy labor of self-sustenance.
That included raising chickens for eggs abd meat. Vegetables came from our own garden. My brother and I were expected to keep it weed free, so I had lots of opportunity to study leaves and bugs. From our garden harvest, my mother canned what we didn't use fresh. In the fall, we gathered peach and strawberries at "pick your own" farms, grapes and blackberries from the fields. With these she added to the bounty on the shelves in our cellar . . . preserves! Along with the vegetables, we had enough to last till the next summer, when it was time to start all over again. As we grew older, the care of our chickens was added to our duties. I collected eggs, but only if the nests weren't occupied. My brother kept the barn clean. On Saturday the feed man would come, in an open-backed truck that seemed to carry the rainbow. Cracked corn and mash had been bagged in fifty-to one-hundred-pound sacks made out of cotton printed fabrics . . . calicoes, checks, stripes and flowers . . . enough cloth for a skirt or blouse, or an eight-year-old's dress. "No, not that one; those two, way down at the bottom." This proved to be more popular with sewing mothers than the feed man! There were plain white bags, too. These could be bleached free of lettering and sewn together for pillowcases and sheets. This was a part of the efficient life-style that was common where we lived in the forties. The pride of doing it well prevailed.
School brought pleasures and problems to me. Our teachers, none of whom were Hungarian, favored the few students who weren't with privileges and attention. They let the rest of us know that we were, somehow, inferior. If that wasn't bad enough, I had the misfortune of being left-handed, considered a fault at that time and meant to be corrected. I'd be sent to the back of the class to practice O's with my right hand, outcast from the group learning perfect penmanship. To this day, I half-write, mostly print. An advantage of this punishment came much later. One of my freelance jobs was painting decorative murals for a commercial interior decorator. He designed showrooms for accessory manufacturers in the garment district of Manhattan. My work began when the space was almost finished, bringing me an audience of tenants anxious to move in. Working on a vertical with an outstretched arm is tiring. I credit my unhappy grade school exercises with being able to switch hands and continue painting. My viewer's reactions were more positive than former classmates' taunts. During the last two years in grade school, we had a drawing class! An art teacher traveled to all of the surrounding town schools. She came to ours twice a month. We spent winters at the windows, drawing street scenes. In the spring we would be sent out to fill the mop pails with flowers picked from the roadsides and reluctant gardens. To draw this was an easy effort for me, and I finished too soon, volunteering my assistance to nearby classmates who didn't like to draw. This was managed without notice, until our work was hung in front of the class. "Why do so many of these pictures look alike, Cynthia Szekeres?" My creative appetite won no sympathy.
Twice a month a music teacher came to our school. She introduced us to opera. We learned Bizet's Carmen and Gounod's Faust, the story, the dialogue, and the musical score. Miracle of miracles, when we had mastered each one, we were bussed to the matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City (two hours away). The beauty of sounds, sights, costumes, and atmosphere was overwhelming! Here was my first witnessed illustrated tale, not from the books I read, with too few, too meager pictures, but the opera! That's when life really began for me. I saw what inspiration and talent could achieve . . . something more than I had ever known. I knew why I was different. I could and would go beyond mop pails filled with goldenrod and lilacs, teachers who looked down at my kind. I already had my focus, art. But here, I knew that there was more to learn and to aspire for.
When it came, in 1941, the war was vague and far away . . . just a headline of ships sunk, battles fought. However, as Bridgeport's factories took on night shifts, making parts for planes and other wartime supplies, air raid practice began in earnest. In school, at the sound of the alarm, we would huddle under our desks; at home, the place to be was under the kitchen table. I worried about Hitler and Mussolini; all of the kids in my school did. We would plot their downfall for that day when they surely would come seek us out. Why, I didn't know.
During the war years, I came of age to handle a two-wheeled bike. "Victory bikes" were all that were available. They required less use of precious metals and rubber and were made skinnier than the usual models; they were similar to today's ten-speeds, except for the gears.
Getting my bike was equivalent to sprouting wings! Now, old enough to pick and choose my friends, I could explore with them the places we liked. Nearby Fairfield University, in the forties, had acres of groomed rolling hills, ponds, and idyllic landscaping. I felt compelled to draw what I saw. Long Island Sound, with beaches only two miles away, or the undeveloped pine forest near the parkway, these were both good places to bike with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the urge to sit and contemplate the world at large.The special thing made accessible to me, with a bike, was the library. The books weren't particularly memorable; I had no guide, even in high school, where factory workers' kids were singled out for the less challenging classes. At the library, a spot of color in the corner of the room caught my eye . . . a low, round table covered with picture books. I had two of my own from younger years, but was surprised that so many more existed. The idea of words with pictures set well with me, as words have always formed pictures in my head. I studied all of these books and more, as I became a baby-sitter in high school, then a playground instructor during summer vacations from art school. I enjoyed young children and had an empathy for their curiosities and discoveries. This was to be a permanent, committed connection, a bond. I would carry the convictions from this experience into art school and beyond.
Why I was accepted, I'll never know, but from 1951 to 1954 I attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. What a shock . . . students with a more sophisticated education, some came from art high schools, some had years of private instruction. I felt tossed to the wolves! All that I brought with me were stamina and determination. That meant something, because by the end of the first term, one third of the freshman class had left. This was hard work! I had many memorable and nurturing teachers who helped me to hang in there. One was Richard Lindner, who taught me to "see," retain details in my memory, draw from my feelings and experience, and define my point of view. I thrived on his encouragement. I was learning to speak through pictures Once again, I had wings!'
It was a fruitful time at Pratt. Some notable illustrators were also students at that time: Arnold Lobel, his future wife, Anita Kempler, and Tomie de Paola. Tomie was a good friend. To me, his most praiseworthy accomplishment (not in his books) was introducing me to Gennaro "Jerry" Prozzo, a fellow artist whom I came to love.
Jerry worked at night in the post office. He painted and etched during the day. I was amused by the thought that someone really had asked me to "come up and see my etchings." Because of his work schedule, our dating was during the daytime, trips to museums and the Central Park Zoo, where we each filled sketchbooks with pictures of animals. I drew the children who watched them.
Graduating from Pratt in 1954, I was armed with a portfolio crammed with proof that I could render the alphabet in a flawed Caslon; utilize scratchboard, pen and ink, watercolors, and gouache; and imitate David Stone Martin, Ben Shahn, and a variety of illustrators for adult works and advertising. Rounding this out were two books I had illustrated and written as class projects and some samples of the things I liked to draw. With the exception of my own drawings, this portfolio was a disaster . . . ill advised. After a few appointments of showing it to art directors, and a lot of good advice, I threw most of my samples away and spent my time filling another portfolio with samples of who I was and what I had to "say." Even so, the work that I was looking to do was only available to the more experienced. Freelance illustrating would have to wait. I needed to earn a living, bring in a weekly paycheck that would pay the bills.
My first job was with Timely Service, a display house in Brooklyn, New York. I painted and dressed motorized figures destined for holiday windows . . . too many Santa Clauses with fiberglass beards for a hot summer's work!
In 1955 I succeeded in getting a job in New York City with a very small ad agency, doing pasteups and mechanicals. A year of this then qualified me to become an assistant to the art director for a magazine . . . dare I say? . . . True Confessions.
I learned a lot about printing and production. I continued to show my portfolio, now methodically visiting every children's book publisher in the city. My interest in children, and enjoyment of speaking with pictures, gave me the incentive to want to do books. The details in nature that I always enjoyed should be a part of it; how, I wasn't certain. I visited libraries and began to read children's books again. A friend gifted me with an unillustrated copy of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Wouldn't this be a joy to work on? How naive I was! When I found Ernest Shepard's, then Arthur Rackham's, version of this wonderful story, I was filled with pleasure by the beauty of their successes, and dismayed in realizing how far away I was from such an accomplishment. However, some publishers on seeing my work would say, "We really like it, come back when you have something published." ???????? Catch-22!
My work at the magazine didn't require the allotted time spent there each day, but there was an obligation to appear to be busy. I worked on more portfolio samples, concentrating on preschool boys and girls. Baby-sitting familiarities made this a comfortable choice. When developed, these characters were put through their paces . . . laughing, crying, tumbling over, running around. Some of these sketches were used on interoffice notes. Somebody sent them to the publisher of Parents magazine who also produced Humpty Dumpty magazine for children. The art director of Humpty Dumpty called and asked me to do a story! One story led to many, soon on a monthly basis. It was time to take the plunge and freelance.
Maintaining my stamina and determination, I lacked self-confidence. If you really put yourself in your work, to show it in a portfolio is much, I imagine, like flashing. One indifferent art director could wipe me out. I'd spend days in despair, with no creative juices, feeling worthless. The job market was booming then, 1957, and placement agencies were prolific. Discouraged, I went to one, ready to give up and find full-time pasteup work again. What I found was that such places can be very enthusiastic and full of praise for one with abilities to qualify for full-time work of any kind. This boost to my lagging ego was very invigorating! Since there were many of these offices, I must confess that whenever I was down, like some who in need seeks therapy, I would visit another job agency. It kept me going for quite a while. Saks Fifth Avenue needed a children's fashion illustrator. It wasn't Wind in the Willows, but I needed work. They liked the kids that I drew, except "they're a bit too rumpled . . . if you could comb their hair and clean them up. . ." I did this and was kept busy for three years, doing fashion ads for the New York Times. Children's clothing held little interest with me and for fun, when I could, I would surround them with animals and birds.
Other fashion work came along, then some advertising, window display, and the aforementioned murals. I continued to submit my work to publishers.
In 1958 Jerry Prozzo and I were married. He became the occasional boost that I needed, guiding and encouraging me. More than that, marriage was a wonderful thing. I was nurtured and found fulfilling pleasure in being able to nurture. Every day was like Sunday, the best of times! We never stopped visiting museums and zoos. I was beginning to enjoy drawing animals more than people. This was probably due to being required to clean up my rumpled characters.One day in 1959, Doubleday publishers called me! They had been keeping a file of my Saks Fifth Avenue ads and wanted me to illustrate a book that they thought my work would be suitable for. It was New Shoes by Sam Vaughan, a story about a little girl who was going to get new shoes. Great! One of my weaknesses was feet. But I managed with high spirits, as good things were to come in clumps . . . I was pregnant! I became a children's book illustrator and a mother at the same time. Marco Prozzo was born on April 15, 1960. There was an advantage here: I never knew what it was like not to handle two things (motherhood and books) at the same time.
I just did it, with less sleep, and less time than I would have preferred for books; parenting was priority. Doing a book is a lot like being pregnant. You nurture it for months and, suddenly, it's on its own.
Marco grew quickly into a wonderful little boy. By his first birthday he was talking in sentences! The deceptive thing about a child under three with a considerable vocabulary is that you assume that he can reason, having the words and all. We became a very verbal family. We learned from him, and he from us. Baby books didn't cover this. An extra measure of patience had to be developed by all parties. He especially loved books, and we brought them home from the library by the shopping bagful. Marco was inspired to make up his own stories. These he would dictate to his father every night. I wish that we still had them. Living in a six-room railroad flat with one (count, one!) small closet, we did succeed in holding on to favorite toys, drawings, and books. Marco was a joy. Every day was filled with learning and wondering. He is thirty-one years old now, and his brother is going on twenty-nine, but whenever I write or illustrate I always have one of them on each knee, as preschool siblings, showing me the way.
One book led to another, and I didn't have to show my portfolio anymore. An abundance of children's books were being published in the sixties. This gave opportunity to a novice like me to accumulate experience, grow, and develop. Some manuscripts lacked strength and focus. Not the choicest of projects, these were allotted to me. The illustrations had to give the story what it lacked, glue the pieces together, provide a clarity. Reviews were an extra reward, after these efforts: "The story is weak, but the illustrations serve it well."
Jerry became an art teacher in the parochial schools of Brooklyn, grammar schools, high schools. He also taught adult night classes. We explored the creative possibilities with children together. I helped him to plan classes and he continued to encourage and guide me through the forming of my own style. In the beginning, I never thought that I had one; as I look back, it was with me all along. Illustrating is communicating. To do it successfully, one needs strong convictions, an empathy and understanding of one's audience, the ability to take criticism and direction (heeding the perspective of others and knowing when it's right), something to give, and the need to give it. Mix this all up and put it forth with clarity and a distinctive but honest (not manipulated) point of view . . . Jerry helped me to do this. He still does!
Jerry exceeded in the challenge of parenting and maintaining careers. Concentrating his creative energies on etching, he exhibited and sold work in area shows and local galleries. A hands-on father, he did diapering, bathing, walking the floor or mopping it; we shared alike.September 2, 1962, our son Christopher was born. I was just finishing the art for a reprint of Marjorie Flack's Walter, the Lazy Mouse, for Doubleday. The almost-completed cover was brought with me to the hospital. When we decided on his name, I turned the art upside down and rendered "Christopher" into the grass. Any book that I finished and signed during pregnancy has a plus after my name, as I was more than myself at the time.
Christopher was a happy, enjoyable baby, too. As he grew, it was apparent that he had preferences and interests unlike those of his brother. Not as verbal, he was dexterous and enjoyed using his hands, making things. How fascinating! I had thought that babies were all alike. Watching him showed me that each was a unique human being. Parents shouldn't try to bend or mold babies to what they could be. Loving our children, we are happily obliged to guide them along their chosen ways, pick them up when they fall, show them, tell them, and be there for them always.
Our sons did have in common a voracious curiosity about everything, hearty appetites for facts. We enthusiastically accommodated them, with the knowledge we could glean, the knowledge that they wanted . . . "No, they aren't just 'choo-choo' trains, that one's an open-topped hopper. Here comes a tank car, a refrigerator car, and there's the caboose!" "This is a beetle . . . it has six legs. See, this spider has eight!" I cannot believe what I allowed myself to pick up and touch for the sake of their interests!
From our fifth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights, we made daily outings to a playground half a mile from home. It overlooked lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, which our sons were in the habit of "waving back" at. We strolled on a promenade above ships in port and a network of railroad cars moving goods. On weekends we explored Prospect Park, Central Park, the zoos, and all of the museums.
Christopher was barely two and Marco was four when we first visited the Museum of Natural History. They had a general knowledge of the anatomy of living beings and their skeletal structures, and a smattering of the fact that there was a "long ago," when things were different. While they are very popular today, in the sixties no one paid attention to the dinosaurs. Marco ran ahead of us, into the main exhibit hall where "they" were . . . Christopher was close behind. I still hold the vision of two small boys, awestruck by what they saw. We stayed in that room for an hour, inspecting everything. Other special events instilled in my mind the gestures and expressions of their wonder. All of the feelings our sons experienced, which showed in their gestures and facial expressions, reappear in my work. . . laughing, crying, running, and jumping through the pages; they are there.
The largest room in our apartment became our combined studios plus substitute backyard. We worked, the boys played, and their friends joined them. As my work became more noticeable to them, they complained, "Why can't we draw like that?" I explained that I had years of practice; however, what I had lost was the ability to draw as freely and beautifully as youngsters of their age and, maybe, they could help me. Most of the stories I illustrated involved young ones in a home environment. It stands to reason these homes would have pictures they drew hanging on the walls. When I had completed an interior illustration, I drew two blank pieces of paper taped to the walls of the interior . . . three, if a friend was over. I sat them down with the illustration and colored pencils and asked them to do what I couldn't: a child's drawing on those pieces of paper. There was much pride and concentration in these efforts! One of my favorite "assisted works" is in What Can You Do without a Place to Play? I rendered a brick wall and requested some graffiti on it from Marco and his friends who were busy playing Monopoly on the floor near my desk. They did a wonderful' job!Until the late sixties, my finished work was done in pen and ink. It was easier to reproduce and I had reasoned that finished drawings "are supposed to be in ink." Polly Berends, a Random House editor, gave me a story by Adelaide Holl, Moon Mouse. I brought her a few pencil sketches of the possible character and she suggested that the finishes should be in pencil. I found that my work is fuller and richer in pencil. As a "lefty" I am more in control, not working to accommodate wet ink under a busy hand. I had my doubts about pencil finishes, but she saw me through the work with much encouragement, and I put my pens away for good! Another suggestion that she made was to concentrate on what it was that I did best: anthropomorphic animals. I have never regretted following that advice. All of my work, to this point, had been black and white with overlays of one to three colors. In the projects that followed, I worked in full color. This was done in a multimedia way. I would draw the finish in pencil, paint over it in gouache, and add finishing touches in colored pencil. This method suits me well and I am content to maintain it.
My first full-color works were stories by Patsy Scarry; Little Richard (who was a rabbit child) and Waggy (a toy dog). These were both successful and led to sequels. The publisher of this series was Albert Leventhal at American Heritage. When I had finished, he asked me what else I would like to do. I told him about calendar ideas I had, defining each month with an anthropomorphic illustration. No sketches, written proposals, executive meetings considered. He told me to go ahead and do it! There is a great rush of confidence and competence that surges forth after such a remark, implying trust and faith. It can go a long way, and it did. The calendar was well received and I continued to do one, yearly, for five years. The last was for our country's bicentennial year, 1976. History books for the young never helped them understand the very basic differences of time past. I attempted to remedy that by showing life as it was two hundred years ago . . . what homes were like, food, clothing, playtime, light and heat, personal grooming. I did this with my usual animal characters; as I look back at it, not the right choice. These life-style differences were a human reality and should have been shown as such. But this calendar did well, too, in spite of my misgivings. Then, American Heritage merged with McGraw-Hill. I was told the calendar was book-worthy and that I should put myself to the task of writing one!
I had never considered myself a writer. Writers had to be qualified, have degrees, work their way up through "writing type" jobs, didn't they? I felt like I had cotton in my mouth. Words wouldn't come. I shouldn't be allowed to do this, should I? The facts had already been gathered for the calendar and only needed to be sorted and clarified in simple, sequential order. With a lot of help from my friends, I overcame self-doubt. Long Ago was published in 1977. In the seventies, I had been accepted as a client of Curtis Brown, Ltd., and Marilyn Marlow became my agent. It is difficult and confusing to speak up for needs and rights when you barely know what they are, even if you indeed deserve them. It was a relief and of great benefit to me when Marilyn took on this task. She has been most supportive and effective. Book work didn't always consume all of my time, so the need for income prompted me to illustrate for children's magazines and greeting cards. The cards gave me the opportunity to develop and experiment with all kinds of animal characters. I enjoyed creating single, simple thoughts with them.
Our family made the move to bucolic Vermont in 1974. Jerry and I had visited the state when we were first married and vowed we would someday make it our home. We have a house in the woods, surrounded by research! Our sons have grown and are gone. Marco is a very talented photographer. He gravitated back to New York City. One of his jobs had him on the scaffold surrounding the face on the Statue of Liberty when she was being cleaned. He got to kiss on the lips the lady he waved to as a child! Christopher is an electrical engineer and computer programmer. We are exceedingly proud of both boys/men. Chris lives nearby with his wife Monica, and their new baby girl, our first grandchild She is old enough to stop chewing on page corners and look at the pictures in a book. It is fulfilling to give her my books, but, I must admit, I am most preoccupied in enjoying her as another special little life in our family to delight and to wonder over. Gramma's joy, Nina Prozzo!
Nineteen eighty-one was the start of my commitment to work exclusively for Western Publishing. Each year, for ten years, I have continued to reaffirm this. I explore my own ideas, try a variety of formats, and become involved with promotion. In 1984 I began a series of twelve board books for the very young. I became an author/artist in earnest, as I also wrote them. Years and books go by like constant "pregnancies." I am comfortable with the convictions and the inspirations I have gleaned in all of this time. Selma Lanes, my editor, gives me perspective and constructive criticism . . . and challenges.
Nina, and any child that I look at, memories of my own childhood, they all play a part in the books that lie ahead of me. It is, indeed, all right to be me! The size and the allover fuzziness of a very young animal are actual features; the roly-poly proportions are, too. The visual message is: very young, almost infant animal child . . . however, another translation is "cute." The latter is never my intention when I draw; is simply a part of what happens. Anthropomorphism serves a noble cause. A blond child is always who it appears to be, the features and colorings are there, and final. A mouse in overalls can be every child, any kind . . . big, small, dark, light. This allows a visual way of saying, "This book is for you, reader . . . about you." There are no specific definitions that will prevent the young reader from becoming the character.Over the years all of what is me has found its my into my work . . . the awareness of Nature's beauty in a tulip bed, the pride-and-pleasure work ethic that my grandmother enjoyed, the response of children as I sat and read to them, teachers, editors, and friends that kept me going . . . most of all a loving family that continues to grow.
I have enjoyed illustrating because there is much to explore and share, and I am compelled to do this. My few experiences with writing make the quest all the richer. Aspiring authors and illustrators should consider the purpose they wish to serve. A means to earn a living is not enough; find reason and inspiration!
Cyndy Szekeres contributed the following update to SATA in 2005: Illustration and motherhood came to me simultaneously. I was often asked, "How do you manage parenting and a career?"
The answer is, you do what you have to do.
I've nursed an infant, held in my right arm, as I drew with my left hand. I rocked a cradle with my big toe, as I drew with my left hand. As my happy son crawled around the room, I sat, undisturbed, in his playpen . . . where I drew with my left hand.
Time goes by. Now two sons in school come home with latchkey friends. They spend hours playing monopoly, managing hotels and buying property. Where does this take place? Not on the kitchen table or in their rooms, but in our studio that used to be a living room, on the floor nestled around me at my desk, where I drew with my left hand.
A problem with two young sons observing my work: "Wow! Why can't we draw like you do? Our pictures are no good!"
"Oh yes they are!" I say. "The very best work is done by children who don't try to copy or please, but focus on what they see and feel."
"You have to help me."
In my illustrations, in an animals' home, I drew papers taped to the walls, blank papers. "I cannot do childrens' drawings as well as children can. You do it!" . . . and they did, in every book thereafter, until, now grown, my grandchildren do it, with pride and joy and healthy esteem.
I do preliminary sketches on tracing paper. As it is transparent, I can layer bits and pieces, changing positions and sizes of things. Better yet, on a character's face, I can rearrange and reposition the eyes, try different expressions, lengthen or shorten arms and legs. I top my decision with a clean sheet and draw the adjusted finish. I may redraw and rearrange such a choice a dozen or more times before transferring the accepted image to illustration board. I then paint with gouache, an opaque water color; use colored pencils, pastels . . . anything that gets me where I want to go.
When our sons had grown and gone, we became "empty nesters" and work time then involved me and our cat. Hot summer evenings were spent at my desk, a new, larger one—big enough for me, my work and a browsing cat.
The lamp light attracts a small cloud of insects. One of them senses the puddles of water (paint) and drops down for a drink. With a fat, wet brush I surround him with a liquid ring. He forgets he can fly and checks the circle for a walk-away opening. The cat then decides it is time for batting practice and I must reclaim my work.
Now, the cat is in kitty heaven and we have a small dog who insists on her share of attention and affection. As for the insects, a few unfortunates have expired, drying in the paint, to become a permanent part of my illustrations. I can imagine a tiny insect ghost exclaiming, "I've been published!"
Soon the image wasn't enough. I was encouraged to write what I illustrate, and with the help and encouragement of friends and editors, I eventually found the word to be a wonderful new paint brush.
"Where do you get your ideas?" . . . A popular question.
An idea is not like an ingredient for a cake. It cannot be found on a shelf in the marketplace, nor will it show up in a basket, behind a magic door. It is a sense of feelings and thoughts coming to life. The anthropomorphic world, much alive in my head, is filled with events and characters that are constantly evolving and changing. Sometimes, this world spills over, out of my head, down my arm and on to paper and I watch this happen, as an observer, not a creator.
Emotions are profound events. Laughing or crying will dictate gesture, posture and expression . . . in images or words. Staying true to the animal, but applying enough human qualities to understand special feelings and responses in each personality . . . this is what I work for.
Often when I meet illustrators, I observe that they resemble the characters that they draw. Do they make faces in the mirror, as I do? . . . or does the daily routine of face-washing, hair-combing, tooth-brushing imprint their particular proportions into each creature they create?
I have a big, bright studio filled with books and collectibles (doll chairs and mice) and work tables that I share with Nina and Emmett, our grandchildren. They each have their special place in which to create. I continue to multitask, now with words . . . calling out some color-mixing thoughts to Emmett and cajoling Nina, who is fussing over an image. With my foot, I stroke our dog, Frieda Fuzzypaws, who wants a belly rub . . . as I draw with my left hand.
Writing my own stories, I still find it hard, after dozens of books, to call myself an author. While inspired by activities in the anthropomorphic world in my head, as words tumble out and sentences form, I am haunted with guilt . . . I am not qualified to do this
. . . I only studied art. No degrees in writing or literature . . . where do I get the colossal nerve to write? Then, I look down at the page, see the need to embellish or clarify, and I become engrossed with appetizing thoughts and everything is all right.
This is not much different than illustrating—sketches, layers, over and over again, until it comes to life. I read my efforts out loud. If I stumble over a word or a phrase, I know something is wrong—it needs tweaking. As with images, I redo the words, again and again and again, until it reads smoothly.
So, author/illustrator. . . . Here I am . . . my books, my book. It's like having a baby! "Morning sickness" most definitely! "I can not do this." "Oh, yes I can!" "Blegh!" Next, the first kick. "It's alive!" Then, labor, much labor, "aagh!" and finally birth!
How awesome to see the book all put together. What fell out of my head is now pictures and words on pages, a cover. First step: reviews. "Please, if you don't approve of anthropomorphic animals, don't review my book. It isn't fair." After only one of those (ouch!), now comes praise or constructive critiques. "Hey, that's my kid you're talking about!" Next comes the response from the reader transformed into sales. Then, almost immediately, I'm "pregnant" again!
Author/illustrator . . . first the pen . . . then the brush . . . in my left hand.
- Cyndy Szekeres (1933-) Biography - Personal, Career, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
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