Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Wizard Returns!

The Wizard Returns: Candle Wizardry is Once Again Part of the Allegany Artisans Studio Tour

A conversation between Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf:
“I beg your pardon, but I had no idea you were still in business.”                                                            “Where else should I be?” said the wizard.  
J. R. R. Tolkien, THE HOBBIT

Like Gandalf from Tolkien’s immortal Middle Earth stories, our local candle wizard, Ken Reichman, is back. After taking several years off from his Whitesville based Candle Wizardry business, Ken has re-opened his studio and is once more creating his beloved, hand-sculpted candles. Inspired by Tolkien’s books, Ken makes wizard, dragon, and fantasy creatures as well as a host of seasonal and animal themed candles, hand-dipped tapers, sand, pillar, and “glow candles” which burn down illuminating the exterior pattern.    

Along with Walker Metalsmiths in Andover, Candle Wizardry is a charter member of the Allegany Artisans. Ken, Steve Walker, and several other local artists, helped form the group in 1988.  Ken started making candles in 1972 but got his start making character candles in 1975 when he realized that by gently heating sheets of specially formulated wax, he could mold it with his hands like clay. He created and developed the method of hand sculpting fantasy figure candles. At the time, Tolkien’s books were very popular. The candles were a hit and for the next 31 years, Ken took them to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and craft shows all over the northeast.

Visitors to the Candle Wizardry shop at 562 Main Street in Whitesville can watch and learn about the process. Ken first makes sheets of wax which is specially blended for just the right balance of malleability and rigidity. Concentrated dye is sprinkled into the hot wax for multi and solid colors. These sheets are later re-warmed in water and the magic begins as Ken deftly folds and twists the wax into his original and constantly evolving designs. Most of his figures have wicks, but occasionally he creates a more elaborate sculpture not intended to function as a candle.

Children especially love to watch the characters come to life—Oh my gosh, a unicorn!  For many area kids and adults, the whimsical creations lining the shelves of the Candle Wizardry studio, have been a long-standing birthday and holiday institution. The LORD OF THE RINGS film series has helped to nurture a new generation of Middle Earth fantasy fans. Ken now works at the David A. Howe Library as an IT technician, but he’s managing to find time to get back into the shop. “I’ve always liked the characters. I don’t want to give up making them,” says Ken. He’s back in business--where else should our wizard of wax be?

For more information on the upcoming 27th Annual Allegany Artisans Studio Tour, log on to or pick up a brochure at a local business.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Made in these Hills: Allegany County’s Living Treasures

What is handmade? Why do we care? Why would I pay X amount for a handmade item when I could just shop at Made-in-China-Mart and get “the same thing” a lot cheaper?

Manufactured might perform the same function, but it is not “the same thing.” It doesn’t give joy. I have a hand-woven dish towel which I use daily. It cost more than the others in my drawer, but I don’t give a damn about the others. I suspect I will be enjoying this particular, beautiful, sturdy little towel long after my machine-made ones have worn out. The pinks threading their way through the lavenders brighten my life. It pleases me. I don’t know how to weave, nor have I a loom—but I’m glad the maker of this bit of fabric does. I think it’s worth every penny she asked.

I take my favorite mug down from the shelf. It has classic proportions and feels good in my hands. I run my fingers over the subtle rings left by the maker’s finger tips, the dent left at the base of the handle by his thumb. I think of the impressions left on a treasured pot in our collection by an Iroquoian maker centuries ago, and I get chills. This mug used to hold my morning coffee, not just because it is the perfect roomy size for my java addiction and has a beautiful slate-blue speckled glaze, fading into white over the rim—it also has a story.

Fred and I gave mugs like this to all the gents at the rehearsal dinner for our wedding thirty-five years ago. But now this mug, made by one of Allegany County’s Artisan’s, is retired and resides on a different shelf with our permanent collection of local pottery for which this area is so famous. Its maker, Bruce Greene, has passed on. It’s irreplaceable. I could have bought, smashed, and swept dozens of mold cast, manufactured mugs into the dustbin with nary a pang. But not this one. It is handmade. I knew the maker and saw his shop. He didn’t learn his craft overnight. It has character, beauty, quality, or as another Allegany Artisan, Pete Midgely puts it, “honesty.”

Japan calls its working artisans “Living Treasures.” Tucked away in and inspired by these beautiful Allegany hills, are the studios of dozens of artisans, working in a wide variety of materials. Some are preserving vanishing crafts and traditions, from timber framing, to letter press type setting, to precious metal working and gem cutting, to antler and wood carving and joinery, or tile and cook-ware making from local clay. Others express their personal vision in media like watercolor, printmaking, fiber art, or stuffed animals. There’s a world-renowned stone and metal sculptor, a glass blower, a stained-glass worker, and a candle maker extraordinaire. There are people branching into new media, upcycling, playing with whimsy, color, and pure silliness. Sure they use power tools and machines, but the concept, the designs, each little business, is unique and their own. Their creations have the stamp of the maker.

When I visit another Allegany Artisan’s home I am struck by the many handmade things that she and her husband surround themselves with. Marsha Van Vlack is a ceramic artist. She makes much of the art which decorates her home, the tile work in the bathroom and kitchen, dinnerware on the shelves, but she also collects the work of others, cherishing pieces she admires. “Using a unique thing of beauty that someone has made, makes me happy,” she says simply.

Me? I’m a word-wright, writing mostly for kids, trying to get it right. Is what I do handmade? My brain does the molding, machines do the word processing and printing, but it’s definitely original. The only trouble with being part of this remarkable group of artisans is that I can’t leave our own Irish Hill studio during the upcoming Allegany Artisan’s 27th Annual Tour (October 18th and 19th) to see what the other artists are up to this year and do a little shopping for myself and those I love. For one thing, I need a new and special coffee mug. 

To check out the Allegany Artisans and their work, go to and pick up a brochure at one of your local businesses. Don’t forget to sign in at each location you visit for a chance to win prizes donated by the artists. See you on the tour!   

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Writer in Love with Words and Life

Here's another flea market find from this summer, a 1943 War Economy Standard edition of A.A. Milne's Autobiography. I had no idea that he wrote so much other stuff: humorous essays and verse for Punch Magazine (he aspired to be editor), and plays (he was friends Barrie). I remember that my grandparents took Punch and also the London Illustrated News. I guess being New Englanders, they thought they should be a little English, but my grandfather did travel there to sell lumber, so maybe he read and liked those publications. I was disappointed that Milne spoke so little about the writing he is most famous for: Winnie the Pooh. He did talk about writing When We Were Very Young as a sort of obsessive test of himself, in a summerhouse, when feeling oppressed by too much company, after saying he couldn't write such stuff. The childhood memories of his relationship with his brothers and parents are delightful. I'm curious to learn more about his wife (and "collaborator," Daphne). Christopher Robin was more often called by the name he gave himself at an early age, "Billy Moon." Milne came across as charming, brilliant, funny, self-deprecating, and a tad egotistical at the same time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wrap-up for Chautauqua East 2014: What will you wrap up in your radish leaf?

When Larry Rosler, editor of Boyd's Mills Press, asked me to contribute a few words for the wrap-up session Friday afternoon, my busy, obsessive brain went into over-drive. Images popped into my head: holiday gifts wrapped up in beautiful paper; fish 'n chips wrapped up in newspaper; pharaohs wrapped  up in endless yards of crumbling linen; silk moths wrapped up in delicate strands of their own making; Cruella de Vil yearning to be wrapped up in Dalmatian puppy fur; the Christ child wrapped up in swaddling clothes; wrapping a child against the cold; Bob Cratchit's scarf; the Big Game wrap-up of plays and scores; a director shouting, "It's a wrap!" after filming a perfect scene; a swagman's meager possessions wrapped up in a handkerchief tied to a stick; Charlotte dropping swiftly to wrap up a fly entangled in her web . . .

And then oddly, I thought of Chibi, the hero of Taro Yashima's exquisite 1956 Caldecott Honor book, Crow Boy, bringing his simple lunch to school day after day: a rice ball wrapped up in a radish leaf.
(Sorry folks, I remembered it as a cabbage leaf and Amazon wouldn't let me refer to that page to confirm it.)

Over all, the concept means to keep and protect something precious. (With the exception perhaps of of Cruella de Vil!)

A lot happened during our week at The Barn in Honesdale, experiencing the offerings of the faculty of Chautauqua East 2014 (see So I asked those who attended to consider what they would wrap in their radish leaf, what morsels of writing wisdom would they take home to place by their desk? What might sustain them later on their long, sometimes difficult and lonely writing journey? What might help us spin SOME words, SOME HUMBLE words, SOME HUMBLE, RADIANT words? Here's what we came up with:

I started with Patti Gauch's mention in her opening keynote of the concept of Ley Lines which invisibly connect places of inspiration and sanctity, of letting one such line connect us, like Charlotte's silken thread, to this children's writer's haven: The Barn at Honesdale. Here are the others:
Be outrageous
Don't be afraid of breaking rules
Jump with heart into your characters
Find a writing community
Availability--make it understandable
Short, punchy sentences (when appropriate!)
The hero's journey
Discovery of craft and self
Solid core of inner strength
Make time
Try doing the hard part first
Poetry is not impulse, it requires study and craft
Read it aloud
Use concrete images

What's wrapped in your radish leaf?


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why do I Write for Children?

     There's an interesting blog post going around this morning by Marion Dane Bauer, Why Write for Children. Occasionally I ask myself the same question. Did I get stuck in some sort of developmental Never Land? Am I not a good enough writer to write for adults? Is juvenile literature somehow less valuable?
     Those who think it's easy or trivial, have probably never tried it or written anything memorable. I can't say exactly why, but the books I love best to read--and to write--are mostly intended for young people. Once, a writer I truly respect and admire, actually told me that my writing was being wasted on kids. I felt cut to the bone. It was all I ever wanted to do--my personal Olympic quest.
     "Did you like to read when you were a boy?" I asked him.
     "Oh yes, I was a passionate reader!" he assured me. He went on to tell in great detail how much he had enjoyed the works of Twain, Ernest Thompson Seton, Jean Craighead George, and E. B. White. He could recite long verses of Kipling.
     "And do you think your reading as a child had anything to do with the person and the writer you are today?" I asked.
     He paused. "Well, yes. Absolutely."
     "I rest my case." But I couldn't help adding, "You wouldn't have story, language, and the means for putting it together if you hadn't grown up on great literature. What if, like a diet of white bread and sugar, you had grown up on junk? Do our children deserve anything less than the best?"
     I was a shy, sometimes lonely kid. For the most part, my childhood was safe and wonderful, but there were undercurrents of unhappiness, anger, even some bullying. Books meant everything to me, not just as an escape, but as a parallel world every bit as true as this one. I know there are kids out there who feel the same way.
     Maybe, like James Barrie, children's writers are really children who never entirely lost the magic--who never quite grew up. I love to stop and listen to kids and to look at the world as much as I am able to through their eyes: the newness, the moment-to-moment discovery, the joys and tragedies big and small, the funny stuff, the spurts and bumps and metamorphosis of growth! How I loved the man who took time from my parents' cocktail party to teach Cathy and me the dot and line game and tell us a story. Maybe he was one who never quite grew up.
     On rare summer afternoons, our big brother, Ted, who now writes for Audubon and Fly Rod & Reel, told us "badjagerag" stories evolved from Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle tales. There was magic! How I believed in Ted and Dave's adventures in Africa and those glowing green eyes in the hot jungle night!
     These days, Ted's five, grandchildren cozy up next to him at the camp in New Hampshire or call "Pop" on the phone for Crackling Geese, Young "Sloppy," and a fountain of other stories that he has never thought worth writing down. A loss to the world. Ted Williams is an award-winning, fine and respected environmental journalist. He cooks sunfish fillets for the kids, calling then "children's perch" to stretch out a family fish-fry. But actually, the sunfish are entirely delicious too, just a different species. Maybe one day he'll write some of his stories down. It would be a great contribution to the world of literature--juvenile and adult.    


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

House of a Writers Dreams

I'm glowing with joy. Yesterday I signed a contract with a brilliant agent, Brianne Johnson at Writers House, to represent my new novel, Wolfboy (working title). Writing for kids is a tough business. Not that it's cut-throat--on the contrary, in my line of work, I've encountered some of the kindest, wisest, most honest humans I know. It's just incredibly competitive. Editors are overwhelmed. And they have to be able to sell your quirky, blood-and-tear soaked work of heart. Half the battle is just getting a manuscript read. The other half is writing something worth reading.

Bri can do the rest. She can get my work read, find the right publisher, and help me make the story better if need be. Plus, she's an artist herself--a potter, invites puppies over to play and snooze, reads with a cat on her lap, adores The Clan of the Cave Bear, and passionately loves a good book. What more could I ask?

    When I was little, on hot summer nights, we slept out on the porch of our lakeside summer cottage in New Hampshire. Mum read us an eclectic mix: Thoreau, The Hardy Boys, Charlotte's Web, while we watched the great gray orb weaver trapping mosquitos over our own doorway. Ted and Dave told Cathy and me that the shabby old mounted deer head sometimes winked if you looked carefully. There weren't enough cots, so Cathy and I would each pull two of the rattan armchairs with the squeaky turquoise cushions together and make ourselves cozy "boat-beds." From the swamp across the lake, came the booming of bullfrogs and the rhythmic chanting of whip-poor-wills. The air was fishy and piney, laden with the perfume of the sweet pepper bushes that line the shore. Once in a while, as we were dropping off to sleep, a Luna moth would flutter fairy-like to the screen and settle between the fireflies for an ethereal visit. In seventh grade I wrote a story called, Annie's Fairy, which later became The Kingfisher's Gift, published by Philomel Books in 2002 and awarded a Junior Library Guild Honor.

This was meant to be a caption for this photo illustrating the glow I am feeling today. Sorry, I couldn't stop!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cave of a Writer's dreams

This is one of the few images I have from our trip to France a year ago, as our camera was stolen in Marseilles, but it's a favorite. I had happened to post a few shots on Facebook and was able to retrieve them. Fred and I visited Pont Vallon d'Arc in the Ardeche River gorge where the incredible Grotte Chauvet was discovered in 1994. The cave is filled with stunning paintings that may be the oldest art in the world, and which rival anything painted anywhere since. Who knew that wooly rhinos once roamed the area? But there they are on the walls, almost snorting and twitching their ratty tails, along with horses, bison, bears, lions, and many other creatures from thirty thousand years ago--but curiously these people seldom or never depicted humans or dogs.

For the past year, I'd been reading everything I could get my hands on about dogs, from old kids' books to Mark Derr's How the Dog Became the Dog, in preparation for writing my novel, Wolfboy (working title). In the cavern, they found the footprint of a boy and a canine, apparently walking side by side. Wolf? Dog? Chills up my spine! Wolf tracking boy? Early dog and boy walking together as friends the same day--or unrelated footprints ten thousand years apart? There are also depressions in the cave floor left by hibernating cave bears, along with the bones of many of those bears. Oh the rich material for imagination!

Chauvet was never opened to the public for fear of the molds which have damaged Lascaux. Fred and I knew we would not be able to enter the cave, but I had read books, studied photographs, and watched the documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, several times. I had come here to see the area and try to absorb the aura of this sacred place. We hiked up the winding trail under soaring cliffs to the entrance which was sealed off like some sort of James Bond stronghold. Conscious of the surveillance cameras trained on us, we peered through the barred gate into the area where researchers don protective clothing before entering. Then we scuttled along the steep, wooded slope a few yards further and found this little hollow in the rock. It was big enough for a person to shelter. Perhaps someone long ago spent a rainy night there.  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

It's the second day of 2014. 7:35. Eight degrees out, a little snow falling. I'm still cuddled in bed with a cup of good coffee and my little dog, George, curled up between my feet. At nine o'clock, Wiz and I plan to cross-country ski with our friend Marsha Van Vlack and her daughter, Marian. But for now, I can get in some writing time when my brain is closest to the dreamworld. My morning routine makes the frustration of flying days filled with necessary tasks and distractions that suck away my work time a little calmer. And it's delicious.

My new MG novel, Wolfboy, is just starting going out to agents. I am filled with hope. It's a good story, and one that hasn't been told much, I think--how the first dog might have been brought home to become part of a human family. I've only found a few other authors who have done it, and mostly they have the wolf just a side character, or are writing for younger audiences.

As I look at the coming months, I need to get some of my unsold work out there. Submit! (How I hate that word!) But I also need to start a new project. I think there is more to Kai and Uff's story, I'm hoping a trilogy. Plotting is very hard for me. I'm trying to look at it from the angle of what would I as a kid like to read? Writing in prehistory has its challenges, to say the least. But I love my characters and I know that more happens to them. Once I get engaged and know where I'm going, it's addictive. But the in-between time it always very difficult.

I can hear my husband clanking around the kitchen, filling the plastic water bucket for the chickens, getting ready to do the morning feeding of birds and horses. Time to go be part of the day, with part of my mind open to inspiration.