"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

A little girl who desperately wants to grow up and 3 women who are making it possible

By on May 30, 2018 in Arts with 0 Comments

The cover portrait of Mary Elizabeth at three was challenging because her expression would set the tone for the book. (“I finally decided to use my Grandson’s eyes” said illustrator Carol Brewer.)

When I am 13, I’ll be a great Queen

Then I won’t have to cook

and I won’t have to clean…

By Susan Lagsdin

This is not an excerpt from the diary of new Windsor wife Meghan Markle, nor is it part of a fairy tale you missed in childhood. It’s not a haiku, nor a rap lyric.

It is one snippet from a soon-to-be published 36-page children’s book, Little Mary Elizabeth Has Just Turned 3. The story, told in rhyming verse, is about accepting the best in yourself at any stage of life, and it’s brought three local women together in an unexpectedly pleasurable labor of love.

Watercolorists Carol Brewer and Adelle Johnson are co-illustrating the book, which has gradually evolved from a journal that their dear friend Jon Browder left behind at his death in February of 2015.

Jon initiated the first lines of text, accompanied by rough conceptual drawings, several years ago. Fortunately for his artistic heirs, he redefined them in a second version in 2007. Jon’s wife Sharon found both the artist’s journals for Mary Elizabeth only recently, when she finally sorted out boxes stored in their garage.

Sharon knew that throughout Jon’s long and varied career, much of it in technical illustration, photography and design, he’d harbored hopes of publishing a successful children’s book. (Early on, he’d published one with such a low-key presence, entitled Big Red Ants Don’t Wear Pants, that she only learned about it 25 years later.)

Seated at Carol Brewer’s counter with a ceremonial showing of the pages are, left to right, Carol, Sharon Browder and Adelle Johnson. The six-month illustrating project is just about ready for publication.

However, this “found” book — or rather lines of poetry and accompanying drawings — showed promise, she thought, and might serve as both closure and an extension of her husband’s creative life. Sharon turned to Jon’s good friend and painting partner Adelle Johnson for help.

Adelle jumped at the chance to finalize Jon’s book, but, she said, “I knew I couldn’t do this on my own — I really needed a partner. I asked Carol to join me, and once she heard the title, I knew I had her.”

“Yes,” Carol added, “Little Mary Elizabeth…? That’s my own daughter’s name. How could I resist?”

There’s another bit of irony in the process. Years ago, as Jon drew out his visual ideas for each of the short passages of text — like penciled cartoons — he was very careful at first. But as he gained comfort with the story he picked up his tempo and the sketches on the last pages became rougher, more suggestions than illustrations. Rarely is there a late page with one clean-lined figure to trace and fill with color.

The good news? As Carol and Adelle worked on the first, clearest drawings, their own control over color, line and texture, as well as figurative re-drawing, increased.

So, they are not stymied by the last pages that feature Jon’s slightly haphazard jottings. Nor are they intimidated by their notoriously unforgiving medium — watercolor’s known for having a tricky mind of its own, so they’ve opted for relatively dry brushes on dry paper.

Hopefully, though they’ll footnote the process, the book with its primary colors and whimsical characters will appear upon first reading to be the work of one artist. Savvy adults may have fun playing mix ’n’ match, but no child is likely to be confused by the tandem paint brushes.

As they sit together to pore over their freshly-painted panels, which they work on separately in their own home studios, Adelle’s and Carol’s comments go something like this:

“OK — how long was the queen’s robe in yours? And, did you use some of that blue-ish purple for the shadows?”

“How high do you want the throne to be? Or should it be just a chair on the second page?

“I think her hair style looks the same in both — but is the color a little darker here, and here?”

Every page signals Mary Elizabeth at a new, imagined scene at an older age, always accompanied by her little dog. Here she is at six, saying YUCK to baiting her own hook.

This type of elbow-to-elbow teamwork doesn’t come naturally to most visual artists, but both women insist the collaboration has been fun, not frustrating, and their learning curve included a lot of giggling.

When the going gets tough, the catalyst continues to be their respect for Jon and his vision.

Jon became friends with both women and the other members of the Tuesday morning painting group that meets regularly at the former McDee’s Art Center (now Ridgeline Graphics). “The Tuesdays all started from one class about 16 years ago — and we just kept coming,” said Carol.

Adelle joined 13 years ago; many original members still attend, so the women knew that there’d be other discerning and encouraging eyes on the project from the start.

Since January of this year, Carol and Adelle have painted separately but in close alignment, page by alternating page, with facing panels (even numbers on the left, odd numbers on the right) analyzed for exactitude.

Their marginal notes on the text, multiple tracings with a light board and a storyboard full of sticky notes attest to five months of good organizational strategy. Now that they are down to the last few pages, they are even emboldened to go back and revise some of their first paintings.

The illustration project has been satisfying in a couple of ways. Carol said, referring to the Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory, “This project has ‘forced’ me to paint almost daily, and that kind of practice really does bear fruit. Not only are my skills in putting paint to paper improving, my confidence is growing.”

Adelle agreed, saying, “Illustrating the book has increased my confidence and made me love watercolor even more than I always have. Previously, I had never taken the time to paint every day.”

Both are officers of the Wenatchee Watercolor Society and both exhibit their work locally, but the two artists have varied backgrounds.

Carol has illustrated previously and is game to produce another children’s book after this experience. Growing up, she drew and painted often and studied design in college but decided on an education major. In her elementary teaching career, she said, “I often incorporated art in my classroom lessons — it’s a natural method of problem-solving.”

Adelle, discouraged early on by school art classes, had a nursing career and only found her voice, artistically speaking, 15 years ago upon a post-retirement move to San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. For part of each year she enthusiastically studied and painted with fellow sun-seekers, learning to appreciate vibrant color — and to appreciate her own art.

The team is bigger than two.

Sharon Browder calls herself simply an “encourager,” but Adelle insists, “Sharon’s the boss.” She’s aware of every step in the process but is content to leave art to the artists, taking on the role of project wrangler.

When the artwork is done, she will handle the final details of turning Jon’s dream into a book, with the technical expertise of Wenatchee graphics designer Brooks Davenport, who will prepare the pages for reproduction.

The choice to publish locally was a deliberate one, Sharon said, because Jon made strong connection to this community through his art, his music, his storytelling and his church work.

The challenge is to have the finished product on area bookshelves by Christmas 2018, so the pressure is on.

The painted illustrations are almost complete, and the book is gradually coming to life — line by line, picture by picture — all because of the love and artful care of three good women.

Each turn of the page shows the 3-year-old girl fantasizing her future, dreaming of how good life would be “if only.” Ultimately Little Mary Elizabeth learns to love her life every day, one day at a time:

When I’m finally 14 and a big girl at last

I will look in the mirror and see my short past…

All the fun and the joys that I hoped I would see

And then I’ll be happy that I really am ME…

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