Commissions are tricky under any scenario but a project that is twice-removed and connected to an emotionally fraught circumstance is particularly precarious.
I just completed a commission project for a very sweet young man I met during an open studio as he contemplated his first big art investment. I admired his earnestness and thoughtful questions, and I was thrilled when he contacted me later to say that he wanted to invest in a commissioned work. The unexpected piece of the project was that the work would be for his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Don’t tell me Millennials are selfish slackers.
As we discussed his ideas for the project, his love and admiration for his mother was palpable: his respect for her style, her refinement, her beauty. His only request was to incorporate the color pink, symbolic of her upcoming battle. We talked about what other elements might be incorporated…the graphic pattern of her favorite dress, uplifting colors…but we stymied a bit on the other elements. Randomly, he offered the memory of reading Richard Scarry books with her as a child, her own copies of the books written in Dutch from her childhood days in Aruba. Suddenly, the piece took shape. What a beautiful depiction of chaos and order, mother and child, love and continuity, steadfast and dependable, wit and humor. I searched the Internet and found a 1965 edition of “Busytown” translated in Dutch. And that’s how my month living with Lowly Worm began.
I don’t recall much about reading Richard Scarry’s “Busytown” books when I was a child but I certainly remember repeatedly pouring through them with my own daughter. They are quite simple, as a child’s book should be, and yet jam-packed with activity, or more accurately, with “busy-ness.” "Children like funny situations, detail and lots of action," Scarry once told an interviewer, and clearly he capitalized on that observation in his books.
On reflection, it is that contradictory combination of order and chaos, detail and simplification, that makes Scarry’s books so endearing and enduring. For a child, all the world is a mystery, so to have someone take the time to show what goes on during the day in the world around them was to have someone show respect and empathy. Scarry did that through sweet, somewhat bumbling anthropomorphic cats, bears, dogs, raccoons, and even a “lowly worm.” Apparently, Scarry never intended Lowly Worm to become the star character, but after Lowly started receiving a significant amount of fan mail and drawings, Scarry knew that children connected with Lowly.
I connect with Richard Scarry’s love of chaos and order. Creating the first layer of “chaos” always comes quite easily to me and is always my favorite stage of the process. Creating “order” is a bit more challenging, struggling to let go, simplifying, and finding a comprehensible story among the wreckage.
My client’s artwork is finished now and (thankfully) survived its shipping journey across country. I understand that my client’s mother recognized the Scarry illustrations. I hope the artwork brought her much joy, cherished memories and a reminder of just how much she is loved by this young man.