Making of Ourselves a Light: A Visit with
Elisa Kleven and Ernst’s Carousel

h1 February 23rd, 2009 by jules

“That night, Ernst made the bird its own little carousel.”

Meet Ernst. There he is up above and here to the left with a bird he made himself out of the wooden tail of a carousel dog, which had fallen off as the carousel was getting closed up for the winter. Ernst’s story comes to us from author/illustrator Elisa Kleven. It will be released on March 1 from Tricycle Press.

Booklist has already weighed in on this story by writing, “{t}he clear, colorfully detailed, collage pictures celebrate the transforming power of art” (the geeky emphasis here is mine). As I’ve said so often here at the blog before that you might very well be weary of me saying it, this is probably my very favorite theme in the arts.

Today, Elisa is stopping by for a brief chat, all as a result of my nerdy fan-dom and me asking her simply, what inspired Ernst’s tale? And her response—you can consider this a sort of “in her own words” post—is so thoughtful and so deeply beautiful, I think, that this has become one of my favorite 7-Imp posts. (And, of course, it helps that I really adore the book.) I’m so pleased she was willing to stop by our impish little art and literature salon, have some coffee with me (you may remember from my interview with her last October that she’s a fellow strong-coffee fan), and talk about some of the larger ideas behind this picture book. I know for a fact that Elisa didn’t want to come across as the interviewee on, say, Oprah’s couch who is baring her soul a little bit too much for everyone’s comfort. This made me laugh; I totally get that. But she’s got too much subtlety and mystery in her soul for that; instead, what she gives us here, I believe, is a perfect, little window into a bit of the artist’s and author’s process — while still leaving room for our own interpretations. And I find it to be such a truly lovely manifesto of sorts on that wonderful theme of the power of art to heal.

But, quickly, before that: I’ll summarize Ernst’s tale for you. Here he is once again. You may remember that she shared this sneak-peek image with us in that interview last Fall.

“Ernst, a young blue crocodile, loved the carousel in the park. Every day he would say hello to the wooden animals. His favorite was the honey-colored dog.”

See Elisa’s beautiful and sunny collage work in action again? I mean, don’t her books just improve the quality of one’s day? She has designed, once again, a “feast for the eyes,” as ForeWord Magazine put it in their review of this title. Anyway, yes, Ernst really adores this carousel and, in particular, that honey-colored dog. The dog’s tail is just slightly loose, but Ernst likes it that way: “‘I like the way it wags,’ said Ernst. He gave the dog a hug, and the dog gave Ernst a ride, just like he always did.” On his next visit to the carousel, however, Ernst learns it’s been closed up for the winter, a loss he takes pretty hard. To make matters worse, he sees the dog’s tail on his trek home; it has finally wagged a bit too hard and fallen off the carousel. “The tail just lay there, like a big wooden question mark.” After getting permission to keep watch over it during the winter, he finds himself getting out his art supplies and turning it into a beautiful bird — with the help of some paints, pastels, paper, scissors, glue, and feathers. Sol, Ernst’s big brother, warns that he’ll probably get in big trouble for this transformation he’s brought about. But, as you can see in the spread opening the post, he makes the most of his new friend during the winter months, playing with it in the snow, singing to it, and even making it its own carousel. And “{t}ogether they flew through Ernst’s dreams,” this being a spread in the book you just have to see.

And you know what? I’ll leave the ending for you to discover yourself, but I think that’s all you need to know to appreciate Elisa’s thoughts on the tale. I thank her for indulging my interest in knowing more and for stopping by 7-Imp yet again. Without further ado . . .

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“As I kid, I was always seeing wild horse shapes or dragon shapes in the clouds, and bird shapes in curvy tree branches: for children and for artists, the world is full of visual puns. My mother, Lorraine, was a printmaker, who pieced bits of old scrap metal into art. And I have a vivid memory of my tiny Ukranian Jewish grandmother, a sculptor who had lost her family, holding up an elegant, long-necked yellow squash and imagining that it was a swan. I think that image may have led to my creation of a story and pictures of a child—in this case, Ernst, a young blue crocodile—who loses his friend but finds his own artistry, creating a joyful bird from his absent, carousel dog’s fallen tail.”

{Pictured below are two of Elisa’s mother’s prints. As Elisa mentioned above, her mother was a “printmaker and etcher, who used to assemble fantastic-looking creatures out of bits and pieces of broken-down junk she’d scavenge at the dump. Once, I asked her why she didn’t do normal things like bake cookies.”}

Flute Player (1963; Mixed intaglio. Brown and white.)

From My Menagerie (“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”; 1965; Embossed collagraph; Gray on white.)

“The concept of turning a loss into a gain, sadness into beauty, bits and pieces into something whole, is also central to my personality. I had some big losses, too, when I was pretty young, and I think that making whimsical, intricate toys, painted eggs, and dollhouse worlds helped save my spirit.

I am intrigued by the Hebrew concept of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ or repairing a broken world. And I love Buddha’s advice to ‘Make of yourself a light’ and Miss Rumphius’ grandfather’s words about doing ‘something to make the world more beautiful’ and the last line of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Oven Bird,’ which is ‘What to make of a diminished thing.’ In bringing something bright and fanciful to the world out of something diminished, sad and broken, Ernst makes himself and his world happier and more whole — he makes of himself a light. Ernst makes a bird out of a broken-off tail, and later he repairs the dog who lost it by making a tail out of a broken-off branch. Forgive the pun, but I make tales, too, out of bits and pieces of experience — which storyteller doesn’t?

“Ernst decided to cheer it up. He gave the tail bright eyes, a smile, feathery wings, and a big curly tail of its own. How happy the tail looked now!”

And speaking of storytelling, A Carousel Tale is a new spin of my own older tale. Twenty years ago, I created a story with the same basic concept (there was no Ernst, no Sol, and no elephant Carousel Keeper), but I wasn’t satisfied with the way it came out, and the tale has been pestering me ever since to make something better of it and to bring it back to fuller, happier, fresh new life, much as Ernst revives and renews the tail.

As for the illustrations in the book, they are also made, in part, of bits and pieces of old things (scraps of lace, postage stamps doilies — my usual collage materials), which I’ve assembled into illustrations.

Finally, Ernst and Sol’s dynamic is similar to the one I had with my three older siblings, who could be at once admiring and scornful, loving and bossy.”

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Kirkus has already given this one a starred review, writing “Kleven’s playful, light-infused collages sing and dance on the pages like the carousel in springtime.” That, I think, is a perfect segue into these pictures below: Remember in that interview last Fall when Elisa shared her own hand-made miniature carousels with us (as well as images of her tapestries, painted Ukranian eggs, bread dough people, etc.)? Here are a few more. These just make my eyes happy, especially after a recent visit to a dollar store:

Many thanks again to Elisa for stopping by. Don’t forget her recent interview at by Aline Pereira, which includes a wonderful gallery of some of her art work.

I think I know the best way to end this post. We’ll let Robert Frost do it.

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Artwork reproduced with permission from A Carousel Tale. Copyright © 2009 by Elisa Kleven. Tricycle Press. Available from your local bookseller or by calling 800-841-2665.

6 comments to “Making of Ourselves a Light: A Visit with
Elisa Kleven and Ernst’s Carousel

  1. What a beautiful start to the week. (Olé!)

  2. Thanks so much for featuring Elisa’s work again! A beautiful idea for a story with gorgeous illustrations. I also believe in the transforming power of art. LOVE Ernst.

  3. The work itself is magical and the philosophy that supports Elisa Kleven’s work (i.e. “Buddha’s advice – to Make yourself a light”) is very apparent. It has an honesty of spirit that enhances her bright color pallet.

  4. What sprightly work to greet us with on a Monday!

    I love the premise of Ernst’s story. (Used to do weird things like he did when I was a kid myself, hence the appreciation.)

    Following one of the links you provided, I found this stupendous tapestry which Ms. Kleven did for the Berkely Public Library. (Open books as kites!) This is an artist who goes beyond making of herself a light: she makes art which enables OTHERS to make of themselves a light.

    (The syntax there is very tricky; I keep wanting to say, like, “making light of ourselves” — not the same thing at all. :))

    LURVED the Frost poem as a conclusion to this interview, Jules!

  5. Jules,

    Thanks for this lovely post–which gives insight into Elisa Kleven’s work and to what it means to her and from where it issues. She is one of my favorite illustrators. I could get lost in the art she creates for her picture books.

    Elisa, you’re the best!

  6. Thanks for pointing people to her PaperTigers interview and gallery feature, Jules. We really appreciate it!

    Elisa’s writing and artwork, and Elisa herself, are really awe-inspiring, through and through. Thanks for posting about Carousel Tale–I’m looking forward to getting hold of a copy!

    For those in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Public Main Library currently has a display of her artwork. The pieces I had seen and fallen in love with in the books, manage to be even more beautiful live–if you can believe it…

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