Behind the Scenes: Phalanges

Introducing something new! For now, I’m calling these “Phalanges”…I often work with mixed media and found objects – recycled artwork, packaging, various papers, and more. These are small (3″ x 3”), unfinished mixed media collages. I set aside 10 to give away at February’s Art Attack, and I’ll do it again in March.

Pick your favorite, and write your name, mailing address and email on the back. When I finish the collage in the coming days, I’ll mail it to you! If you’d prefer your collage to arrive in a frame, I can do that for $25.

PS: your contact information won’t be shared with anyone, ever!

This project grew out of my experience with a significant injury to my right (dominant) hand.

I was dismayed (understatement!) to find that the injury left me without the ability to legibly write my own name, or take the cap off of a pen or tube of paint by myself – to say nothing of everyday tasks like getting dressed, using the bathroom, and cooking my own meals on the stove.

I tried to be patient while waiting for the healing process to take hold. I tried to return to the studio and do left-handed drawings and paintings, as I’d done in art school. The thing no one told you then is that experimenting with your non-dominant hand as a warm-up is one thing, but when it’s all you have, it’s murder on your identity and sense of pride. I had to abandon those drawings because it was sending me deeper into depression. I tried making some collages, but using a blade with my left hand was scary and begging for another accident. I was unable to use scissors.

Out of sheer desperation and the need to make something (anything!), I started tearing bits of paper and old collages, whatever I had. I bought a sewing machine because shoving papers through it didn’t require any fine motor skills, or strength, or finesse. I made greeting cards with sewn collage items on the front, and on the inside, sewed a hopeful message that I’d printed out, and that I didn’t really feel. I stamped the greeting and everything else, and got away with block-printing my name. I mailed a card to just about everyone I knew. It took me about six months because I was so slow, but that’s what I had to do to stay sane.

The reaction I got was amazing. People called, and messaged me. They cried. They said I’d surprised them, and made their day. They shared stories about the first time they met me, or what they were currently dealing with. Most importantly, they said the cards meant something, that they’d brought something hopeful and special to them.

They may or may not have needed this – but I sure did.

Nobody ever gets real mail anymore…it’s email, which is great, but you can’t hold it in your hands. Or on those rare occasions when you do get mail, it’s junk (at best), or something you just don’t want to deal with (at worst). I wanted to bring a little bit of joy where it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

So I adapted these little Phalanges that can go out in the mail and surprise a few more people. They’re fun for me to make, and I hear they’re fun to receive. I plan on continuing this sharing as long as it’s still fun for everyone.

If you’d like to receive one, message me with your address and I’ll get to work.

The Day We Almost Met (Women in Shakespeare)

The Day We Almost Met (Women in Shakespeare)

The day Mia and I almost met was Super Bowl Sunday, 2008. We were living in Boston, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, and neither of us was a football fan. It was Mia’s birthday, and all of her friends (affectionately, I’m sure) ditched her to go to Super Bowl parties. They invited her, of course, but she couldn’t think of a more hateful way to spend her birthday, so she decided to take herself, alone, to the theater to see a play. I’m a baseball fan; football has no appeal for me, and I also decided to skip the whole thing and take refuge in taking myself, alone, to the theater.

Mia’s play was Women in Shakespeare. Mine was Angels in America. We were in the same building on the same afternoon. We could have passed each other in the hallway, at the ticket window, at intermission. After her show, Mia treated herself to dinner in a restaurant nearby, seated in the window. I walked by this restaurant, next to that window, on my way home. We didn’t see each other.

The reason I know all this is because we did meet, 17 days later. Our separate Super Bowl outings came up in conversation and the landmark of her birthday and the Super Bowl allowed us to pinpoint it exactly. The odds, they seem incalculable. It’s still incredible to me.

We decided we’d always celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, though we call it The Day We Almost Met, and we promised ourselves that no matter what we did, it would never involve football! That part of the deal is easy to keep.

I spent the night before TDWAM in the studio, and painted this. We spent the actual day apart because Mia is in Italy for the year. (And, like 2008, the Patriots lost. I won’t root against my hometown team though).

Behind the Scenes with Coco Montoya

Introducing Coco Montoya – isn’t she lovely?

Have you ever wondered how the art gets made? Let’s lift up the hood for a second as I introduce you to Coco Montoya. Yes, that’s Coco there.

We met through OfferUp, after my old tabouret/storage system ended up leaning like the Tower of Pisa. I knew that perching my palette on a hastily arranged mash-up of chairs and file cabinets (like I was doing) was eventually going to lead to some kind of studio disaster. I decided to get a rolling cart to use as a palette and storage, but you know… champagne taste and Miller Lite budget. I turned to OfferUp, and realized I needed to be patient for this one.

Usually a great way to get very good stuff, I met more than the usual number of cranks and/or missed opportunities during this search: a guy who tried to start a bidding war by doubling the price on me, a very nice but flaky former mechanic who wouldn’t provide measurements for her utility cart (I really wanted to buy from her because I was charmed by her profile pic which showed her smooching her girlfriend in front of DIY garage projects), at least ten people who never replied…(I had big plans for the retro bar cart that featured folding panels to double the surface area, would’ve looked so good in the studio *and* converted into a martini bar for openings…but it was not to be).

Even Coco and I were star-crossed at first. The offer was made and accepted, but the overeager seller forced an immediate meeting by loading up his truck and getting on the road, when I was 40 miles away at the time. I almost backed out because I didn’t want the pressure, and I prefer inspecting these items in daylight.

But everything looked good, and he made the delivery for $5.00 (unbeatable!). We had a nice chat about my late father-in-law, who would have enjoyed that Coco used to help paint cars. He expressed condolences, which I genuinely appreciated. He also thought I was crazy when I said I was on foot. I paid him and proceeded to push Coco up the hill to my house, whistling in the dark.

She had to live in my entryway for about a week, until I could make arrangements to get her to the studio. I sucked in my stomach and inched past her every time I went up or down the stairs, or in and out the front door. She was a shoe/mail/purse holder during that time, because there was no room to reach around her.

When I brought her to Seattle, we had to tackle a short flight of stairs. I wasn’t worried (but maybe I should have been). Coco isn’t heavy, just a little long and awkward, but I decided to take the shelves off to make it a little easier on myself. One step at a time, and just two steps from the top, Coco turned on me. I don’t even know what happened but she was falling and I was falling, and she was on top of me and we both fell down the whole flight of stairs. She fell on her side while I landed on my feet, unbelievably.

I pushed past the bruises and adrenaline and finally got her in the studio, to find that she was now leaning noticeably to one side. I couldn’t fit the shelves back in because she was out of square. Poor Coco! Down, but not out. Fast forward to acquiring a rubber mallet named Marge, and slamming Coco back into shape (that hurt me more than it hurt you, Coco). In minutes (or two weeks, but who’s counting) she was ready to go. She’s only been part of my studio practice for one evening, but we’ve got a long history.

She might seem high-maintenance, but she paid me back that very first night when I finished TWO paintings that I really like. This is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

Happy Imbolc, Everybody!

At this time of year, I like to celebrate the arrival of longer days by sending a little something by mail. It’s a little old-school but I have this idea that people might like to receive something that has a stamp, that you can hold in your hands – and that’s not a bill.

Here’s the online version of my postcard (and if you’d like to receive the real one next year, you’re welcome to contact me with your address).

On February 1, we’re halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In Celtic regions, this was traditionally a pagan feast day to celebrate the lengthening of the days. Literally, it is a return to the light. I love this increasing daylight on a physical level, as well as a metaphorical one. It’s wonderful to see the sun more, and to feel as though we’re all crawling out of hibernation.

Catholicism eventually coopted the day, and it became St. Brigid’s Feast Day. A patron saint of Ireland (and of beer!), she founded an art school and was quite likely a lesbian. St. Brigid’s crosses are still hung above doorways in Ireland on Imbolc to protect a house and its inhabitants.

This time of year is so full of promise. Here’s to longer days, new beginnings – and more paintings!

The Alphabet Ends at Y…

Sue Grafton

While in Venice with jet lag, awake all night, I learned that Sue Grafton had died. This hit me rather hard. She was an author whom I almost felt like I knew, in the way that you sometimes feel you “know” a celebrity you’ve never met. I introduced myself to her books one day as a fourteen-year-old when I stopped by the library to get a book to read on my lunch hour during a summer job. It was A is for Alibi, recently published. I’ve always been a mystery fan; this one was about a young, female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone who is sassy, street-smart, intelligent, and independent to the point of being almost neurotic. A next-generation Nancy Drew and Miss Marple, living in a parallel universe to Jessica Fletcher, and a soul mother to Veronica Mars, who wasn’t even an apple in anyone’s eye yet. Like me, I’m sure lots of women and girls saw something of themselves in her – as did Ms. Grafton, who admitted that Kinsey was her alter ego. I read somewhere that Ms. Grafton’s inspiration was her divorce – unable to sleep, dreaming up ways to get away with murdering her awful husband after something else he’d done.

I loved all of this, and went back for more. At that time, the alphabet only went to C, so I had to wait a year for each further installment. As the alphabet played out, Kinsey continued to be a feminist role model and pioneer for this new type of female detective. Meanwhile, the books expanded their scope a bit to discuss social issues; in one, Ms. Grafton tries to plausibly recreate and solve a real-life cold case from Santa Barbara, California (the real-life setting for the fictional Santa Teresa). That book’s appendix lays out the facts of the real case, and a plea for information that could bring Jane Doe home to her family, and her killer to justice.

The books became a traditional, yearly Christmas present, a constant way to mark time over the years. Right up through grad school, I was reading the then-current novel (R is for Ricochet) in a hospital waiting room.

Around this time, due to work and school, I fell off from reading the new book as soon as it came out and then pining for a year or more while waiting for the next (the precursor to binge watching Netflix!). Just a month or two ago, I read that Ms. Grafton had published Y, the planned second-to-last book. I made mental plans to catch up with the last 5 or 6 books that I’d missed, and to reread the entire series in the lead-up to the publication of Z.

Then I heard about her death, and I’m sadder than I can say.

After this summer’s publication of Y, she hadn’t yet fleshed out, let alone written, Z. Her daughter said that, given her mom’s (well-known) hatred of adaptations, there would be no ghostwriter or posthumous additions to the series. There is no Z. As the family statement read: “As far as we’re concerned, the alphabet ends at Y”.

I once read that Ms. Grafton called this series of books “my life’s work”, and that struck something in me. As a fellow artist, I feel an ache for an unfinished body of work that was so, so close to being complete. I wonder how Ms. Grafton made peace with it.

Don’t Look Now (or, Watching Horror Movies About Venice, While in Venice)

Don’t Look Now, 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie

Going from US Pacific time zone to Venice, Italy was a nine-hour time difference, and I was struggling. My journal states, in a mix of Italian and Spanish: “Io sono en una guerra contra il jet lag!” This meant sleeping half the day (not my style, but I simply couldn’t help it!) and staying awake until 4:00, 5:00 or 6:00 am.

I quickly ran out of guidebooks and other things to read. Italian TV (lots of game shows) is OK only in small doses. After a light skim through news from home (I tread lightly these days) and ruing the lack of activity by the Red Sox in the offseason, I was looking for ways to pass the long nighttime hours.

I remembered an old horror movie I’d watched once, Don’t Look Now, that took place in Venice in the winter. I had vague memories of Donald Sutherland, walking through foggy streets and catching glimpses of a red-coated figure who may or may not have been following him. I found it on YouTube (full version!) and proceeded to watch it on my phone in all its cropped, tinny-sounding glory.

Here’s the thing: I really liked it. Some flourishes feel a little over-the-top in the way that only a film from the 1970s can be (clothing and Sutherland’s facial hair, naturally; the volume of the score, and a sometimes overwrought cutting back and forth to red ink stains symbolizing blood). But the things it gets right are wonderful: tension, grief, scenes of art conservation within the church.

The best part was watching the city of Venice take the stage as an important character. Venice is a city of narrow alleys and canals; it’s entirely for boats and pedestrians, and it’s made up of glances. Indoors, yes, you can stand in a church and stare at artwork as long as you want, but outside…You catch glimpses of people before they turn down another alley…they cross your path up ahead and are visible for just a second before the wall blocks them from your view again…a boat passes by and then you’re looking at its stern as it heads away from you. That kind of looking is foreign to Americans, where country roads provide an approach and city blocks are long. We’re used to having the time to visually consider our surroundings. The movie really captures the sense of how things move in Venice – and capitalizes on it to generate confusion and tension – things floating by your periphery and they’re gone…on the water, passing by in alleys…you turn around and it’s just gone. Blinks, moments. Which is funny in a place that’s essentially not changed in 500 years.

Midnight Mass, San Marco style

Basilica di San Marco, Venezia, interior

Being in Venice on Christmas Eve, I had to attend Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco. I was attending not as an active parishioner, but out of a deep sense of curiosity: how would one of the largest and most famous cathedrals in the world “do” Midnight Mass? (Catholic roots run deep!)

For those who don’t know: Midnight Mass happens just once a year, on Christmas Eve. It’s a very special occasion to usher in Christmas. Most churches, even the smallest ones, work to heighten that experience by bringing out extra candles, decorating with evergreen, maintaining a beautiful crèche (the tableau of the babe in the manger) and so forth.

We waited for some time in a line that stretched three-quarters of the way through the Piazza di San Marco, but were able to get fairly good seats inside. San Marco is dazzling, known for gold mosaics rather than frescoes like some Italian churches, because the humidity near the water wouldn’t be as kind to fresco.

The mass was delivered in Italian, German, English, and French, each taking a turn while winding through various readings and gospels. While I was listening, I was mostly looking around me at the various artworks commissioned by the Catholic Church: enormous pillars of marble, golden chandeliers encrusted with red jewels, the large baby Jesus resting on poinsettias at the altar (even from this distance, clearly the largest and most beautiful statue of this kind I’d ever seen), the various statues, the pattern in the marble floor…

But the mosaics. Oh, the mosaics. They cover the ceiling as well as the walls, showcasing important figures and moments in the church, glinting down at us in all their beautiful longevity.

I found myself considering, not for the first time, their purpose…the basic idea is this: until just 50 years ago, the Mass was said in Latin, which no one but the most highly educated people, the priests and monks, would understand. No regular churchgoer would be able to follow along; this was as true in the 1960s as it was during the Renaissance. Therefore, the Church has always used visuals to communicate. Picture yourself in 1084, when the Basilica was consecrated in its more-or-less present iteration (although it was a private chapel for Venice’s leader, the Doge, and not for the public at that time). You can’t understand what’s being said, but there is an enormous, glittering Jesus covering the entire ceiling above the altar, reaching out toward you with one hand. You can look around and identify stories from saints’ lives, and you know who is who because of their symbols (San Marco, for example, is often symbolized or accompanied by a lion).

I remember being in Monreale in Palermo, visually devouring their mosaics, the first time I realized that the Church would have had me hook, line, and sinker if I were alive back then. You had me at hello.

Even as a child, I was always looking around the various churches I attended: the niches holding statues; the bas-reliefs on the walls, called stations of the cross, that told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; the actual crucifix – huge – that hung behind the altar, and each individual church’s emphasized a different aspect of that death (some stoic, some peaceful, some downright gory); and of course, the stained glass windows.

On the few childhood occasions when I attended a Protestant church with another family, I was immediately struck with boredom by their simplicity of decoration. Sure, the kids got to come up and actually gather on the altar (forbidden to Catholics, but sort of cool) but it did not compensate for their plain white walls.

To this day, I wonder if I’d be an artist if I hadn’t grown up Catholic, wanting to fill white walls!

So this is all going through my head during Midnight Mass, in between staring up at the ceiling and walls and following along in Italian and English. A gospel according to John is being read, which equates God with life and light:

Light that shines in the dark: light that darkness could not overcome. A man came, sent by God; his name was John. He came to bear witness, as a witness to introduce the Light so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light but a witness to introduce the Light. For the Light was coming into the world, the true Light that enlightens everyone.

Somewhere in here, someone threw a switch that turned on the interior lights in the Basilica, so that we simultaneously heard the dramatic thump of many banks of lights being awakened, and saw the entire Basilica come to golden life before our eyes. We hadn’t even realized we were in the dark until the lights came on. *Now* we were looking at mosaics! *Now* we were clear-eyed, not peering into dark corners. Everything is illuminated. Everything is full of light.

That was Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco, and that is vintage Catholic Church. Welcome to the greatest performance art ever staged.

Year of Greatness

Letters and wishes left at La Casa di Giulieta (Juliet’s House), Verona, Italy

Earlier last fall, my wife moved to Italy for one year to attend culinary school. She will be fulfilling a lifelong dream.

A fair question, which we asked ourselves, and which others are asking of us now, is something along the lines of: “What is Maura doing this year?”. Much like a Southerner saying “Bless your heart”, this question holds a world inside it! Depending on who is asking, it might register concern for me for being “left behind”; it might wonder in a gossipy way if we’re divorcing; it might be curious about new artwork; it might be excited for all of the endless possibilities for both of us.

Mia and I are both choosing to look at it as the latter: an adventure for two, a ball of yarn that keeps yielding more and more as it continues to roll.

My new studio is part of this plan. So are the monthly open studios that are held there (Second Saturdays! Come on over!).

In the studio, I’m trying new things, and continuing to explore and deepen long-time ideas. I’m showing my art to more people than I ever have. I’m steeping myself in art, visiting new galleries and museums.

I’m continuing to blog about my art life, my Year of Greatness, here. Thanks to everyone who has been supporting me so far on this journey! Stay tuned.

Buon Natale!

Canaletto, Venice: The Bacino di S. Marco on Ascension Day, c.1733-4.

Buon Natale from Venice, where I’ve gone to meet my wife over the holidays.

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent, 2017

Some thoughts on the movie Loving Vincent

It is both spectacular and maddening.

The plot is ridiculous: Armand Roulin, twenty-something son of the bushy-bearded postmaster whom Van Gogh painted so memorably, is tasked by his father with traveling to Paris in order to deliver Vincent’s final letter (to his brother, Theo). Armand has reservations about doing this, and ponders his obligations while drinking too much, but eventually goes to Paris, where he discovers that Theo has also died. Armand quickly decides that he must travel to Auvers, where Vincent died, in order to deliver the letter to a friend with whom Vincent was close in his final months (Dr. Gachet, also memorably painted by Van Gogh).

First plot objection: Why didn’t Armand even consider locating Theo’s widow, Joanna, in Paris? If I were her, and I found out this drunken punk decided to give my spouse’s final letter to a friend of approximately one year’s standing, I’d be furious! [But of course, if he’d attempted to find Joanna in Paris, this would be a different movie].

Here’s what I loved about the movie:

The most engaging moments were the first ones of the moon, and of Arles, and then late in film when Dr. Gachet appears. I actually caught my breath when I saw him leaning on that famous table, with his head propped in his hand.

The film correctly and nicely recreated the flatness of many of Vincent’s paintings, particularly the portraits, with little depth between the figure and the wall behind.

It was probably at its best depicting landscapes.

It was visually stunning in many ways. I caught my breath several times. It was clearly an accomplishment, but that being said, it was clear that the original paintings were the real triumph here.

The opening credit sequence was magical; I could have watched that moon shapeshifting all night.

The film recreated 74 Van Gogh paintings, and it was a complete thrill to recognize them.

Loving Vincent was first shot as a live-action film on sets recreated from Van Gogh paintings. The film was then broken down by frame and painted, each painting (65,000 of them) was then photographed, then painted over for the next frame. Eventually, all of the frames were animated. This way of working reminded me of William Kentridge’s charcoal drawings that turn into films. In both types of films, you can see the results of this way of working in images like the windmill turning – you can see the track of the blades in the impasto of the oil paint.

Here’s what bothered me about the movie (in addition to the overarching plot):

I questioned sub-plots too, finding it hard to believe the suggestion that Vincent may have been romantically involved with not only the young Marguerite, but also flirting and chatting with several women by the riverbank. Vincent was way too awkward, and that just wasn’t his style.

The accents were off-putting. Both Roulins, father and son, have two wildly different accents.

The film’s title is a little much…it becomes more palatable when you realize that was the way Vincent signed all his letters (“Your loving Vincent”). But still. Too literal and cloying for my taste.

Sometimes the film felt a little CGI (related to the figures), and a little slick…and Van Gogh was the antithesis of slick.

The end credits reveal that some characters were not real people, but rather “inspired by” people in Vincent’s paintings. Vincent’s life was dramatic enough; I’m not sure the film needed to invent additional “characters”.

SPOILER ALERT:
No one loves a good mystery more than me…but if I heard this correctly, the final analysis is that the bullying teenager basically committed manslaughter by fooling around with a gun…while Vincent committed a suicide of sorts, by stoically not accusing the teenager, and letting it be assumed the gunshot was self-inflicted…meanwhile, Dr. Gachet, who acted as Vincent’s confessor and entertained his deathbed laments that he was a financial and emotional burden on Theo, essentially granted Vincent’s suicide wish by not removing the bullet and allowing Vincent to die (slowly)…sounds like murder!…especially since, as another character points out, Gachet had been a military doctor in a war zone; he should have been able to easily remove the bullet, particularly since it wasn’t immediately fatal. Physician, do no harm!! Would a doctor really have allowed a healthy man in his thirties to slowly and painfully expire like that?

The murder theory comes from a biography by Naifeh and White. Maybe there is a case for that, but knowing that the filmmakers have invented some (silly) aspects of the story and smoothed over others to make for a tighter film, I feel like I need to research for myself before I can believe this.

Final analysis:

The film is beautiful in many places. Not many films can make you catch your breath – and not just once, but over and over.

I want to keep watching it…but maybe with the sound off? Yes, I’d like to see it again. There is real magic in this movie, even though you are also a little too aware of how hard the magician is working to produce the rabbits.

Home Sweet Home

Domicilio, at home

It’s always exciting to see where your creations end up! I just received this photo from a new collector. He told me that the painting greets him and his wife whenever they come home; it’s the first thing they see when they come through the door. For a painting called Domicilio (“home” in Italian), that’s beautiful to me.

Arrival!

My painting!

My painting arrived safely, and one day early! Washington state to Brooklyn!

I didn’t realize how much I was on pins and needles until now.

My understanding is that the drill is charging, and the painting will be hung tomorrow….more anticipation!

Real Art in Real Places: The Bye & Bye, Portland

Real art from The Bye & Bye – bathroom mural!

I absolutely love discovering REAL ART out and about in the world…not poster prints, and not “featured artist” stuff at local bars and coffeehouses, but real art made by a real artist. Something that has been purchased, framed, and is clearly loved.

The Bye & Bye in Portland, OR was exciting because they have real art all over the walls! Every room has several pieces that are framed and/or featured in a special nook that complements the piece, including a large showpiece that defines the entire bar area. All of it is well done, and well, cool.

Real art from The Bye & Bye – permanent and framed!
Real art from The Bye & Bye – permanent and framed!

Power of Art, Part 3 (Puppets!)

The Donald puppet, January 2017

I ran across this photo on my phone recently, taken at the Women’s March in Seattle in January 2017. So much that I could say, but I feel that others are saying it better than I can, so I’ll stick to the role of art – and its power – here.

When I first saw this giant puppet, my first instinct was to laugh. Second was to admire the craft (it’s very well done in terms of likeness, but also technical ability, and lastly, standing up to the Pacific Northwest weather). From a little remove, I can also appreciate its place in a long line protest art.

This will be an abbreviated, overly simplified commentary, but here goes. Puppeteers have always been able to comment more freely on social matters because they moved around. They usually took their show on the road, and so were able to comment more or less as outsiders (and I suppose, if the heat got turned up, they could leave town pretty quickly!). Puppetry was (and is) fairly low on the totem pole of the art world (patrons and curators are rare, for example, and there is no money in it), so puppeteers weren’t dependent on keeping powers-that-be happy, or romancing wealthy collectors. Part of the entertainment is a sort of brash, anything-goes schtick that seeks out laughs based on crude jokes and physical humor…we see and expect this with the Muppets, say, and can see how this easily translates to commenting on dirty goings-on in local government.

Anyway, the best education on puppets has to be at the Bread and Puppet Museum in Vermont. NYC sanitation workers to Latin American despots are proudly represented, from a protest stance, to the left of many.

But back to the idea of power…can you imagine how this puppet would get right under the Donald’s skin?! That’s power! A picture is worth a thousand tweets!

Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.