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"My Parents Told Me to Study Art"

Amy Hook-Therrien, illustrator of "My Bring Up," a collection of stories and essays by Shirly Hook.

Vermont artist Amy Hook-Therrien will join Shirly Hook and me at Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph on Sunday, October 20, to talk about illustrating My Bring Up, her mother's collection of stories and essays. As I was preparing my talk, I came across this article in Psychology Today about the important role mothers play in preserving family stories, often passing them to the next generation through their daughters. This didn't surprise me—most of the people in my writing workshops are women, and most of them are there to write down family stories and personal histories. Amy made 20 illustrations for her mother's book, one for each story. The original drawings will be on display at Chandler.

ST: Hey, Amy, I hear you've been pretty busy lately. What have you been working on?

AHK: I‘ve been painting like crazy lately. I’m trying to get ready for a few shows coming up. I’ve been trying to enjoy this beautiful fall as much as possible, and gathering inspiration to take me into winter.

How did you go about illustrating your mom's book? Did you and she talk about it, or did you just do your own thing?

When Mom first told me about the book, I was really excited. She has been sending me one or two stories at a time since she started her writing classes with you. It‘s perfect to have them compiled into a book. She asked me if I would do some illustrations for the book, and of course I said I would! When we first started discussing what would be pictured, she had a few requests, and others I came up with on my own. I really tried hard to get it right. When she was talking about her bicycle I had her describe it, then I looked online to find the style and asked which ones were similar.

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? Who or what inspired you?

When I was really little I used to change my wanted profession to whatever my older sister Jenny wanted to be. So I wanted to be a doctor, a marine biologist, and then an anthropologist. I always loved creating, though. When I was in school, most of my art teachers would let me stay in from recess or work in their classrooms during study hall to work on art. Once I graduated from high school, I still thought I might study something else, but my parents told me to study art. I am so lucky having the support team I do. Art makes me truly happy.

"My Five-Dollar Bike," illustration by Amy Hook-Therrien. Copyright Amy Hook-Therrien.

How long does it take to draw a picture? I know, stupid question, it depends on the picture, but is it like hours, or weeks, or what? And do you throw out more than you keep, like me when I write?

What a lot of people don’t think about is the little things that go into creating a piece before you actually start working on a final draft. Research, gathering of tools and materials, testing of materials and tools, sketches, sometimes more sketches, then the final piece. When people ask me how long a piece takes me to complete I usually say years, because I have had to gain the skills that I am working with to create it. With me another huge part is inspiration, finding inspiration and being in the right mind-set. If I’m exhausted or depressed it takes me much, much longer. To go back to the actual question, though, sometimes it can take me twenty minutes; other times I will work on a piece for weeks and weeks.

How do you know when you've got it right?

Part of my process is asking my husband, Alex, 487,000 times if he thinks the piece I’m working on is good. We went to college at U. Maine Orono together, both studying art. He has always known how far to push pieces. He always gets me to push myself and create better and better things. But usually it’s just a gut feeling. Sometimes you set a piece aside and then look at it weeks later and you know exactly what to do to push it that little bit farther. Sometimes I will use less detail because I like the way a painting or drawing looks, other times I will put in a ton of detail, spending hours getting the lichen on a birch just right.

Did you already know the stories in My Bring Up before Shirly wrote them down?

Some of the stories I have heard before. I used to ask Mom to tell me funny stories from her childhood, telling her that my childhood was boring in comparison. I love the way she tells stories; she is always so animated, always chuckling throughout. She has a laugh that is very contagious. By the time the story is over, usually everyone listening is laughing.

Were there any surprises in the book? Anything you didn't know?

She has so many stories that I hadn’t heard all of them, and there are many, many more that she has filed away.

What's the most important lesson your mama ever taught you?

This is a hard question, she has taught me so many things over my thirty years of life. She is always trying to get people to smile or laugh. Whenever we go into the grocery store, she would ask people how they are doing, then they repeat the question and she usually responds with “Finer than frog hair.” Which always seems to get people to smile or laugh. This moment of goofiness usually brightens people’s day. So I try not to take myself too seriously. I’m a bit of an odd duck; I hum when I’m concentrating, I sing when I’m skiing down a hill, I certainly talk to myself when I’m shopping, and I usually try and get people to smile.

What about this cookbook? [An Abenaki cookbook is Shirly and Amy's next collaborative project.] I think of you as the corn expert, in terms of illustrations. And cast iron. (Nice pot, by the way, in Shirly's book.) Are you a cook?

When I was growing up Mom was always making something yummy. We always had veggies from the garden, even in the winter, because she canned and preserved. I would help sometimes. She would teach me little tricks. I really enjoy baking. I use her recipe for pie crust, and vinegar chicken. I will often call her and ask cooking questions. She almost always had the answers. I would much rather call her than google something to get the answers.

Anything you want to say to your mom right here on this blog? Don't be shy.

I am so incredibly proud of you, Mom! You have always inspired me to be creative and walk my own path. Thanks so much for all that you have taught me, and continue to teach me. I can’t wait to read your next book!

Amy, Shirly, and I will talk about "My Bring Up" and other new books by local authors at Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph on Sunday, October 20, at 2 pm. Shirly's collection of 20 stories is available in print and ebook formats.


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