Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who is Wanda Gág...?

If anyone ever asked me what I do for a living, the answer they would get would depend on the year in which they were asking me, as I’ve had a variety of different day jobs, the only constant during my career being that I write—although I’ve only had two jobs in which I made my entire living off of writing and writing-like activities, like editing. In general, I make part of my living off of my writing, and part of it doing something else.

If someone asked me what I do for a living today, the answer they would get is that I work in a public library, a job I love in a field I love. During the course of that job, books from every department of the library are constantly passing through my hands, and I keep a special look out for picture books that interest me personally as something I would like to read...or as something I think my nieces would like to read... or as something that I could write about on Every Day Is Like Wednesday, since picture books overlap with comics as two distinct media which nevertheless communicate through a combination of the written word and static drawings or images, printed on paper (Although that’s changing with comics now).

One day I noticed a big book entitled Nothing At All by Wanda Gág, which seemed to be about a puppy that was born invisible. Curious about such a strange, magical realist-like premise, I took it home to find out what it was all about (And, as it was about puppies, I knew my nieces would likely like to give it a look too).

I wrote about it here, but to say I was impressed would be an understatement. It was a little masterpiece of a book, and the jacket informed me that it was quite old, and that its author quite renowned in the world of children’s literature, despite my having made it to almost 35 without ever having heard of her.

I looked her up online, curious about what else she had done—perhaps I have read or heard of some of her work, and just didn’t remember at the moment—and to see what nationality she was, as Gág seemed such an unusual name.

As it turned out, I had made it to almost 35 without ever having read any of her books or even ever having heard of her. And “Gág” was a Bohemian name; her parents were artists who met in Germany. They went by “Gag,” but Wanda added the accent as an adult to avoid mispronunciation (“It should rhyme with jog, not bag please!” Wanda told her fellow New Yorkers after she moved there, according to the author’s note in the back of Deborah Kogan Ray’s picture book about Gág, Wanda Gág,: The Girl Who Lived to Draw).

The few details of the artist’s life that I had picked up doing just a cursory search online fascinated me.

As I said, she was Bohemian, her parents hailing from a place that has taken on a sort of magical quality, as it no longer even exists as a place. It’s not as fantastical as, say, Atlantis, but like Atlantis, it’s a place you can hear about today, but can’t visit.

She was the first of seven children.

She was born on the same day as me, only in 1893, and her childhood reminded me a bit of my eldest grandfather’s, although he would have been a boy just old enough to read by the time she was first publishing her children’s books (Which he wouldn’t have read or liked).

Her parents encouraged her and her siblings to be creative, although on his deathbed her father called the then fifteen-year-old Wanda to his side to deliver his very last words: “Was der Papa nicht thun konnt, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen” (“What Papa was unable to accomplish, Wanda will have to finish”).

Wanda and her family used to visit “The Grandma Folks,” her mother’s family, who lived on a small farm near an immigrant enclave fool of geese that resembled the old-world so much so—or at least the old world as Wanda would have understood it, having never been there—that visiting Goosetown was like visiting the setting of the märchen she was read and would then read.

As a teenager, she somehow managed to help her then quite sick mother keep the household together, raise the six younger children, attend school and make money by selling drawings and teaching art before she could go off to school. From her birthplace in New Ulm, Minnesota, she went to school in St. Paul, and then she moved to New York City.

Despite the constant hard work, of the sort that is difficult for an American born after World War II to even imagine, she still found time to work on her art—for pleasure and for commerce—at the ends of extremely long days.

And, most interestingly, she was seized with occasional “drawing fits,” during which she couldn’t help but draw and draw and draw.

I wanted to know even more about Wanda Gág.

I reserved every book in every library I had access to by and about her, and I’ve been reading and reading and reading.

I’m still reading, and I’m still learning about her. I’m not sure exactly why I find her so fascinating, beyond some of the dramatic reasons and coincidences and synchronicities I mentioned above, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with the knowledge I’m amassing, as an entire life, an artist’s entire output is such a very, very big thing.

I’ve certainly read everything I’ve could by particular writers before, but I don’t think I’ve tried to read so much about a particular writer before. Or anyone, really, save maybe Jesus, of whom there are so many things being written about, and The Mothman. (Although in the case of the former, he is more of a symbol and movement and cultural axis than an person-person with biographies and diaries to read and, in the case of the latter, his/its entire life is only about 13 months long.)

I’m still trying to figure out who exactly Wanda Gág is and what exactly I want to say about her and how (and why I want to say anything at all, and why I want to know anything at all), but as with certain other obsessions of mine, I’ll likely be doing some of that figuring out here on Every Day Is Like Wednesday.

I’ve been putting together a post of reviews of Gág’s various picture books that I plan to run later this week, but before I did so I wanted to offer a little bit of context. In the near future, I will also have a few posts about her Grimm collections, a few adaptations of her work by other artists, and a few children’s books that have been written about her, including the previously mentioned Kogan Ray book.


The above image of Gág is from the Minnesota Historical Society's collection, and was taken circa 1916-1917, when she was 23 or 24


Aki Alaraatikka said...

This is a nice article Caleb.
I actually was wondering, the other day, when you would post this, or if you would post it at all. funny how things turn out.

Anthony Strand said...

Your enthusiasm here is terrific. I can't wait for the reviews, especially if you're gonna cover "Millions of Cats"

Anonymous said...

have you ever read Joan Aiken's short story, "Humblepuppy"? I can't recall which of her collected books it's in but it's definitely a favourite of mine!