Category Archives: On Illustration

Old Sun

Peralta Canyon, Jemez: pictographs in red ochre. Finger marks, in groups along ridges of rock next to the creek; one faint handprint; stars, turtles, and this pretty sun face.

Unlike those of the classic Zia symbol, all its rays are of equal length. The slanted ones may be feathers. It had been painted with a finger, and seemed to be subtly smiling.

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Last Juncos

There are still a few Dark-eyed juncos in their little executioners’ hoods. When I make the birders’ “pishing” noise they get curious and come to about fifteen feet away, making a sound like agate pebbles tapped together.

Last year’s old apples smell like cider vinegar.

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Time and Fire

In the trackless mudstone of Piedra Lumbre, five or six hogan rings: stone foundations with east-facing doors, still holding what was left of the cribbed juniper rafters of traditional Navajo houses. Judging by the decay of the juniper, well over a hundred years old.  Beyond them, two circles of ash filled with fragments of trash, probably fires that burned the deceased’s possessions. The squashed casing of a cheap nickel pocket watch.

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Puddlesnake

Writer-illustrator Betsy James, in conversation with older readers.

I watched a charcoal garter snake with two brown stripes navigate the puddles of a rain-soaked road. Sometimes it crawled, sometimes it swam, fluid either way. I understood why Puebloan water deities—Kolowisi, Avanyu—are serpents.

It lay still while I stroked it with a grass stem, then slipped away.

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Eagle Mother


At Zuni Pueblo, a storymaking workshop for 3rd, 4th, 5th graders. Writers can’t be restrained from doodling while they think, so we covered the new library tabletops with yellow butcher paper. When we cleaned up on Friday—the kids long gone—among the smudgy misspellings and graffiti was  this drawing, unsigned.

Her quiet face.

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Balancing Writing and Art

My family was anxious about labels. (“What’s your major?”)

To my ancestors—who according to the Zunis are dancing for eternity, though it’s hard to envision those inveterate Presbyterians dancing at all—I say: What I am is me. I am the one who writes, paints, works, sings…and dances.

How to do it all—time allocation—is another question. Honest, guys, I don’t know how. I dither and fiddle and get cranky. I put in a good work day, but sometimes that means lying in the grass staring at clouds, or walking around an Asian store trying to guess what the hell some dried object is.

I try to distinguish my family’s slightly hysterical work-ethic voice from the deep, driving voice of what actually wants to get done. Sometimes one is louder, sometimes the other. But as I accept my own mortality I have less patience for the hysterical voice. More and more I cleave to the voice of time, nature, peace: the voice of earth, where we are one of the gang: very unimportant, very much a part of the world.

For more on the double life, click here.

For walks on this earth, click here.

Being Both

Who am I? A writer or an illustrator? Which? Both?

Yikes.

For years I drove myself insane with that question. Sometimes quite theatrically. “Is there a name for somebody who isn’t just an artist and isn’t just a writer but is something that doesn’t really have a name? How do I tell people what I ‘do’? What am I?

Many a 2 a.m. distress session there. Until a friend clarified things.

He said, “Your nouns are fighting each other: artist vs. writer. If you used verbs instead—I’m painting or I’m writing—then it’s just a question of time allocation.”

Duh!

For more on leading a double life, click here.

Mysteries of Educational Illustration

One would think that if “Show a child deciding it is unwise to stick a pickle fork in a light socket” is considered a spot illustration, then more cash and elbow room might be offered for “Show thirteen multi-ethnic children, two of them in wheel chairs, with their multi-species pets, deciding by concensus not to stage Chinese New Year (with dragon) on a transformer.”

Interestingly, this is not always the case.

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For more on educational illustration and its antidote, click here.