Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


NYC always dazzles me. I’ve been there numerous times — Boston isn’t so far away, and I used to travel there regularly for business. But I always feel a bit like Country Mouse, showing up with a battered suitcase and stars in my eyes, gaping at the towering buildings and at the rush of life all around me. Inevitably I trip over the sidewalk at some point, or walk into a wall, or narrowly miss getting hit by a cab, because I am so in awe.

Last week’s whirlwind visit was a particularly glamorous trip for me because I was a) traveling solo, for the first time in a long time, and b) meeting with my publisher to discuss revisions, and c) celebrating my City Mouse friend’s birthday and getting to see her adorable baby girl. The perfect mix of business and pleasure. Oh, and I was flying down for the first time, on the Jet Blue shuttle, rather than creeping down on the train or the bus. What a difference! What efficiency! What civilized comfort! Country Mouse may never travel to New York any other way from now on.

I started my adventure at Rockefeller Center, where I popped into Minamoto Kitchoan, my favorite Japanese pastry shop in New York. Actually it’s now the only Japanese pastry shop in New York, as the other one recently closed. It is a wonderful little slice of Japan, with an array of seasonal confections (wagashi) that instantly transports me back to Kyoto.

I bought a box of some goodies as a gift for my editors, and bought two other wagashi just for myself, for breakfast. (Signs posted around the store assure you that their wagashi, made with legumes and glutinous rice, are healthier than Western sweets; they contain fewer calories and many vitamins. I chose to believe this. I also chose to believe that Spring is here, as I purchased an assortment of Spring wagashi wrapped in crisp green paper. Basically whatever the lovely people at Minamoto Kitchoan tell me, I will believe! It is a place of great optimism).

I sat in a pool of sunlight at Rockefeller Center, watched skaters, and ate about 600 calories worth of healthy and vitamin-filled wagashi. Which I did not have to share with a toddler. I’m sure any mother can appreciate how rare and lovely it is to just sit in the sun and eat something entirely by yourself. Slowly.

I then ambled over to Kinokuniya Books, where I browsed to my heart’s content. Another luxury, as no small person was exhorting me to buy everything in sight. I found two manga titles that directly relate to something in my novel. I made a list of fifteen books I’m now dying to read. I browsed through the craft section and drooled over Japanese paper, and briefly contemplated learning a craft — until I remembered that if I got sucked into something like origami or sumi brush painting, I’d probably never write another word.

The highlight of the bookstore visit was an impressive exhibit of book art, featuring the Japanese Young Artists’ Books Fair. (Yes, I keep wanting to rewrite that as “Young Japanese Artists’ Book Fair.” But this is how it appears in the promotional materials).

This artist collective is a group of young, emerging artists who live or work in Japan. They are exhibiting works related to book art: comics, graphic novels, art objects related to books, art books, etc. Works from the Tokyo exhibit are currently on display at Kinokuniya in NY and at several other bookstores in the city. (Click on the link above for more info). The most astounding work I saw was that of an artist who knit with books. She cut Japanese books into vertical strips (following the characters, which appear vertically on the page) and then knit them — really — into sweaters, blankets, mittens, hats, scarves. WOW. It was also fun to watch an artist work on an elaborately detailed mural painting on the wall of the store, by the stairwell. And it was fun to see the creative interpretations of book art all around the exhibit. One artist showed blank white books, and his explanatory note said that images would appear in them over time, as a result of temperature or humidity. “If you can’t wait to appear,” it went on, “you lightly toast with dryer or fire. But take care when using fire!” Another work by the same artist played with images of hands on books, reminding us of the tactile sensation of reading and how the outside world disappears except for the book and our hands. This series also involved some optical illusions with black and white vertical stripes, which were a bit painful to look at after awhile. I was grateful for the artist’s warning to “keep your eyes apart” to protect them!

In the afternoon, I went to the Penguin Offices to meet with my editorial team. I had to pause before the building and just marvel for a moment at how far I’ve come with my novel. Years ago, toiling in solitude, on the verge of giving up, I never would have imagined I would someday stand before the Penguin offices on Hudson Street. It is really beyond my wildest dreams. I was alone, but not alone, because I don’t feel I got there alone. I was pushed along to that destination, to that moment, by a great number of people, including my agent, my critique group, my writer friends, my supportive family. I don’t think any writer or artist gets very far alone.

At that rather emotional moment, Country Mouse took over my body and made me take a picture of the address on the building to memorialize the day:

After passing a wonderful afternoon talking about my book, and books in general, with my amazing editorial team (oh, and eating some more of that vitamin-filled wagashi with them), I went on to the West Village to meet my dear friend, City Mouse. She’s from my hometown of Seattle, but has been living in NYC for almost a decade, and now navigates the Big Apple with ease and grace. It’s good when she’s around because then I’m less likely to trip over the sidewalk or bang into buildings; she’s got my back.

And she’s got a great eye for art, which is why she’s terrific in her job as a corporate art curator. Immediately after we met up in her neighborhood, she directed my attention to an arresting framed picture set out with some trash. It may have been a graphic for magazine, or an advertisement for an art show; the writing on it was all in Japanese. But the model’s expression — sort of inviting and defiant — grabbed my attention. And I was struck by the way the art seemed “set out,” even displayed, rather than thrown out, even though it was next to the trash.

It was a powerful image for me, on many levels. It reminded me of my earlier destinations in the day, and how you can still find Japan in NYC, despite so many recent closings of Japanese businesses there. And the picture made me think about perseverance, and hope . . . how even when you’re hitting a wall with your work, or feeling like your art is worthless or destined for the trash, if you keep at it, it will improve, and eventually someone will notice. When it’s time, the right people will lift you up and help you get to where you need to go.

I love art. But I can barely etch a stick figure. I have to translate what I see into words. Sometimes the tension between my deep appreciation for visual art and my inability to produce it feels like a strange illness. So I compensate in other ways. I write about art. I gorge myself on gallery shows, museum exhibits, web sites and magazines about art, coffee table books, art-related films, and graphic novels. Recently, I’ve been seeking out documentaries about the creative lives of artists, finding inspiration in their processes.

My latest discovery is the New People Artist Series, produced by Viz Pictures. The first video came out in 2007, and there are now six in the series. Each DVD profiles a Japanese artist, providing a close-up view of his or her inspirations and creative process. And by close up, I mean close. Much of the footage comes directly from the art studio, where we peer over the artist’s shoulder, watching them paint or draw or sculpt in preparation for a major exhibition. Now I’m someone who can actually watch paint dry, and find that fascinating, so I’m probably an ideal audience member for this series, in which sometimes viewers are, literally, watching paint dry. Or we are watching an artist microwave a meal, or smoke a cigarette, while he waits for the paint to dry.

I love the focus on process and inspiration in this series. We learn little about these artist’ childhoods or personal lives, and there is not a lot of glamour. We don’t gawk at the public persona of the artist. Instead we glimpse the sacrifices they’ve made for their art, living in modest quarters and nondescript neighborhoods. The focus is on the art and how it’s made. In the three DVDs I have viewed so far, we are invited to observe relatively quiet artists who are developing their works brush by brush, line by line. They are filled with inspiration for anyone who works in a creative field.

In Hitashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouvau, we watch the artist painstakingly apply layers of gold foil, reviving some traditional techniques in Japanese art, which he then mixes with more modern techniques. We watch him make tiny pencil marks on transparent paper to create scrolls with elaborate details. He is a model of patience and perseverance, crouched over his canvases, blowing away graphite dust. Somehow, all these scratch marks combine to make jaw-droppingly detailed scrolls, drawings and paintings that are exhibited and receive international acclaim. His process reminds me that even on writing days that feel unproductive, all those words, my own little scratch marks, really can add up to something in the end.

In Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me, the avant-garde, pink-haired artist, who is known for her fascination with polka dots, races the clock to create 50 massive drawings with black markers. The camera lingers on her as she outlines, then colors in, dot after dot after dot, between strangely beautiful squiggle and lines and wide staring eyes. There is an element of suspense here, considering the artist’s advanced age, her growing fatigue, her own sense of mortality. Will she complete the series in time for the exhibition? And there are lessons for writers and artists in other media to take away, too. Her bursts of energy and her loyal assistants carry her along on her project, reminding us of the power of artistic vision — and the power of having a supportive team on your side, to help your work see the light of day. Kusama is also a poet. One of my favorite moments in the film is when she reads through a poem she published years ago. She blinks in astonishment when she is done and exclaims, “This is very good!” It’s so easy for us to criticize our own work, especially once it’s been published or produced, yet Kusama unabashedly delights in her finished products.

Traveling with Yoshimtomo Nara also has a quiet element of suspense as we follow an introverted artist around the world, watching him set up exhibits in various cities and ultimately stage a massive multimedia installation piece in collaboration with others. The suspense arises in the tension between the artist’s self-processed introverted tendencies and his desire to connect with his audience (particularly with children, who are captivated by his whimsical drawings and seem to revere him like a rock star). He also searches for ways to come out of his shell and connect with other artists. In the end, we see how his encounters with others greatly impact his work. This documentary teaches artists in any medium about the power of collaboration, and about how we find satisfaction in reaching an audience — sometimes in surprising ways.