Together, Let's Sing in the Spring !
Sheree Fitch and Deb Plestid
talk about the awakening earth,
telling stories, and growing a friendship.
For me, the genesis of this book goes back to 1987 or 88, the first time I was in bookstore in Halifax as a real out-there author with a real book. This was in Woozles. Deb has a background with both Woozles and Book stores!
Quite so..in 1984, I leapt from city life working at Greenwoods Bookshop in Edmonton to rural life in Nova Scotia. It wasn’t long before I found my way to Woozles in Halifax, and plunged into the world of children’s literature. Bliss and books! I discovered Eric Carle, Barbara Cooney, Bill Peet, Chris Van Allsburg, Anthony Browne…Sheree Fitch… I read and read and read, I marvelled at the marriage of words and images. This world is singularly special.
I looked up and there was this gorgeous quilt hanging on the wall -- the cow jumped over the moon. Anyhow, I remember standing there and saying to Trudy Carey, wouldn't it be awesome to have a children's book that had quilt art as the art? I was whoa, how amazing could that be. It was like a flash! I have them sometimes. I could “see” it. As we joke, I’m a wee bit witchy fitchy.
And by chance or luck, probably serendipity, I discovered a rich source of fabric inspiration at Woozles. Trudy was fantastic, she knew her books. I too, recall marvelling at Linda Mackie Finley’s Cow Jumping Over the Moon quilt hanging at Woozles. Barb Robson, a companion employee and accomplished quilter, encouraged my first wobbly efforts at exploring fibre work. This was a supportive and caring environment.
I am somebody who has never ever been able to do much with my hands—or at least was convinced I could not. I am left-handed and I grew up telling myself that I was awkward and clumsy which just increased my admiration and respect and love of all things done by the work of women's hands. I tried knitting, rug hooking, needlepoint. But knit purl was all I could do. There is such a sense of tradition in fabric art.
I had a grandmother who had 12 kids and she took time to smock the camisoles she made out of flour sacks for her five daughters. I was always in awe of this. As well, going up north on and off for over 20 years working with Inuit women, watching them, that whole art of stitching, sewing, making, it’s all something I am fascinated by and respectful of.
So, the dream of a book with art of women’s hands was just there. Always.
When I met Deb, I knew I'd met a friend but I had no idea of the artist she is! When I discovered her work, I was gobsmacked and thought again about that dream. I love the story of how Deb “found” the joy in her art making,. Stitch after stitch ….
It took WAY too long for me to find my way to making art. I swirled around it. Working with fabric and thread soothes me, it is work I get lost in. First it was about exploring pattern and figuring out how to create pieced quilts. I learned how to put it together and to put it together well. I began adapting patterns, creating new patterns, exploring colour. I came to understand that quilting and working with fabric presented me with a whole new language and direction.
One day I was struggling with a piece that had a number of long triangular pieces. In a single moment, I saw these pieces as metaphors for anguish and I understood that quilts could tell a story.
My work is about memory, history, stories…an exploration of meaning in the world, for making connections. My work is gradual; kind of like life…one step at a time. Bit by bit, piece by piece, stitch by stitch. I create with my hands in the hopes that my work might elicit a smile.
Of course some work is simply celebratory, some are exercises in developing skills. Playful, no direction work leads to interesting places.
I balance, sometimes precariously, my indoor and outdoor work. There is the large vegetable garden; planting, tending, weeding, harvesting, and processing and I love foraging mushrooms, finding fiddleheads, harvesting spruce tips…listening, smelling and noticing in the woods. Some bits find their way home; a autumn leaf that is both red and black; a fallen dragonfly…
The way I work is a mystery to me. Every poem, book, prose piece mostly comes unbidden; sometimes from dreams. I usually have to have something burning inside me in order to write. After so many years and exploring and publishing many genres, I had decided that the work I wanted to do going forward was work that came from a place of exploration and mystery. That writing for publication might or might not be what I would do. What was important to me was making and creating and working with people who I respected and yes, actually, loved.
It took me a long time to work up my nerve to ask Deb if she would consider the possibility and her immediate YES! Was soooo exciting.
Then Deb had to wait and wait and wait and then work under tight dead line… my fault because I sort of went into like seven years of meditation (maybe more ) in order to come up with this manuscript after first discussing the idea. When Deb said yes I got a bit paralyzed because I really thought my words would never be good enough. How can I write something that's going to be worthy of this art? I think most of us, no matter how long we have been making art, can doubt ourselves. And collaboration is an art in itself. I wanted Deb to be FREE to interpret. I wanted the text to be my best words ever. (I’d never worked this way before- that is, approaching an artist before a publisher or almost finished text. AHHH! )
Paralyzed is the right word for me too. Collaborations (and commissions) are singular experiences because it isn’t just about you. At the core is a connecting of spirits. It’s about joining visions, tapping into the essence of the imagery and story. It is a shared trust.
Long before Sheree had a manuscript for this book, she spoke to me generally about writing a book about spring. My introduction to the possibility of illustrating her book was casual, relaxed, and totally compelling. As she spoke to me about wanting art work that focussed on and celebrated women’s handwork, I was drawn in.
Sheree shared her early, mid and final versions of the manuscript with me. These intimate glimpses into her process of working gave me the confidence to explore her text and to create illustrations that came from my heart and hands while holding in mind how to cradle her words with images.
It was very important for me to know what point of view Sheree wanted for the illustrations. I had an early notion that the book needed characters in the illustrations. But nope, not at all. The book is about how a child experiences spring; what is seen, what is noticed and what captivates their attention. This allows for distortions in the illustrations, to play with what we believe to be real, it meant that the scale and colour in the illustrations could be exaggerated - and this, for me, is a reflection of how a child’s perception does not necessarily match what we see as adults.
Along the way, I kept thinking that if I listen deep enough I'll be able to come up with a whole book about Deb’s garden. Both Deb and David as a couple inspired me so much because they are people who are stewards of this earth and always have been. These two people walk the talk and live that life. So I was at first intent on the garden. (I am hoping we still have that book ahead!. Deb created sculptured characters that are so beautiful. I still see them in another book.)
Also, for me , I’ve never been able to actually find words to celebrate nature — and yet it’s nature and the outdoors which gives me the most comfort. Whether it's a flower or a sunset or whatever, it just seems impossible to describe the glory of, the mystery of, the beauty of, the natural world. But I am not a gardener, I play more than I work. I like digging in the earth. If things pop up, voila! A thrill. So the garden did not seem the right landscape for this book. It was not the “story.”
I narrowed the focus and instead of the cycle of four seasons or a garden- weeding and wedding, I focused on the in-between time, the transition, the anticipation time, as we leave winter in our part of the world and enter spring. That story, I knew. In a sense the words/chant are a way to sing in the spring. Usher it in. I realized that the invisible, inscrutable, underground things happening were as important to me as what we see. Again, a sense of wonder is what I wanted to convey.
This might seem dark, but I kept wondering why I was stalling. Even though I have faith, each process has its unfolding time for me. I was stuck and did not know why. Now, I think I understand. In my life this book had a profound layer. My brother died ten years ago in February. My father died in March twelve years ago. Many times in our family we said the time of the year in which they died was a gift because in the midst of sorrow the world was coming alive again. Then, my son Dustin died in March, 2018. It was after his death that I was able to write the book. Spring is hopeful, the promise of beginnings, a reminder that rebirth happens over and over again. The slow unfolding and greening of the world.
I was familiar with the concept of Viriditas, a term used (in many ways) by Hildegard von Bingen, one of the earliest women mystics whose writings survive. In a nontheological sense it means the greening but I also felt this greening and blooming time is for healing, not just a metaphor. I was trying to express a sense of mutability but also the continuity of life, how healing these cycles can be. The natural world shows us so much — maybe everything, if we look closely at its secrets and cycles. Spring offers hope — new life — everywhere we look.
Renewal is the essence of spring for me. It’s a fresh start; a change in the temperature of the air, the soil. It’s the emergence of life, a seed cracking open when conditions are perfectly aligned. Spring is about what has been hidden and suddenly, one day, there it is — coltsfoot and dandelion, johnny jump-ups and brilliant orange poppies.
In imagining the work, I thought about how — if we pay close attention to the natural world and loved it in our hearts and souls — we become stewards. Children especially understand this…and I think the more we love the small, the seemingly insignificant, the more care we will take with both the big and small things. If a child loves the world in which they live, they will grow to protect it and in this time of climate crisis we need them to love the surprising, magical, diverse world they live in.
Several springs ago, Sheree and I went for a walk on the TransCanada trail near her home. As we walked, a cloud of spring azure butterflies surrounded us. These butterflies have magnificent lilac wings. I thought, this is the majesty, the magic I want to give the book.
These were early days in our deepening friendship, and in the conversations we’ve had about the book; the butterfly page holds a special place for me.
There are so many things in this book that are so very special to me.
Splash! David and Deb had a dog named Splash — and there is Splash jumping at the clothesline! That sweet dog is no longer with us, so when I look at that page — my heart — Splash is here forever!
The two chairs and the fireplace are a perfect replication of the fireplace my husband has built, so our home and his artistry are there on the page. The butterflies, the hummingbirds. All of it. Deb interpreted every image with her generous heart and genius insight and, well, the art is perfect to me.
For people to pick up a book of free verse poetry is perhaps more challenging than rhymed verse and metric precision, but rhyme does not a poem make. For the poet in me, it was really important to explore different rhythms and patterns. The world gives us those rhythms and patterns and textures as we move through seasons, in this case from winter to spring. It was an intentional choice to use a musicality of words and spills of syllables that went beyond traditional verse and instead echoed the cadence and unfolding of the natural world. That is where the listening part of writing comes in I think.
Right now, as the book is birthed into the world, the sense of anticipation, knowing we'll see that sparkly light again, is really important to me. Hope, joy, beauty in the midst of the dark and the sad. For all ages!
Deb captured it! OH, those spangled hens!!!!
So, I am beyond excited with the art, and to know this book is going to be in the hands of adults and children as we usher in this spring and springs ever after.
I have faith in books spreading light. And joy. I trust the spirit of two women friends/ two women artists and the whole team of people who supported the idea of this book will be “felt’ in heart and spirit when a reader holds this book in their hands.
Sing in the Spring is a labour of love and a celebration of earth’s magic and. . . friendship.
for a beautiful book trailer, go to You Tube: