David writes on all things creative. . . .


The Monastery & Me

Sixteen years ago, this week, my mother died in my arms. She was sixty-five, I was thirty-five. She was the first person I saw when I came into this world, and I was the last person she saw leaving it. It was 1995. I was living in California at the time, and two months later, still lost and stumbling and numb, seeking answers, or at least some peace, I drove up Highway 1 for a week’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery I’d heard about in Big Sur. I wrote this essay during my visit.


bench-1The monastery is marked by a crude white cross, ten feet high, by the old Coast Highway. The air down there is silver, the fog drifts across the road from the sea. I can only see the nearest sliver of ocean. The rest is shrouded in sky, which is nothing but clouds. I drive up the winding dirt road four miles or so and the fog dissipates. No, I’ve climbed above the fog. The monastery rests high on a mountainside. The flora is scrubby around here, desert really. The air smells of sage and pine and sun-warm dirt. Benches, strategically placed, overlook the ocean of clouds, the snaky highway far below. A monk sits with a guest, or maybe she’s a retreatant, discussing theology, I imagine.

The compound is made up of several buildings, one level, low-slung and rather mod, Sixties-looking geometric shapes, a faded ochre color accented with dark wooden beams. Closer inspection reveals cinder block, all of it, the main building housing a small bookstore and the church beside that, open twenty-four hours, the check-in monk informs me. The Guestmaster, they call him. past the church are the monks’ quarters, off-limits to us. At the end of the driveway, down a slight rise and perched on the very edge of a cliff, the ocean beyond, are the guest rooms.

There’s landscaping up here, but its nothing fancy. Bougainvillia, fading like old crepe paper, mounds of sweet peas in full pink blossom, geraniums in the small plots outside each room. They are blooming, for sure, but they’re drooping and seem a bit neglected. There are nine rooms, a kitchen/library in the middle. To the right of the kitchen door, in the very heart of the V-shaped building, a two foot high statue of the Virgin Mary, her palms outstretched, keeps watch. My breath catches when I see that; my mother’s name was Mary. Someone has placed bright pink geraniums — these are healthy-looking, well-tended — at the statue’s feet.

My room is simple, a box, really. A “dead set,” they’d call it in the theater, except for the ceiling that slants down, raking toward the picture window on the far wall, the small scrappy garden outside, and the silvery sky. The sky turns out to be not sky at all, but sea, masked in gray clouds. Sunlight penetrates from somewhere and makes the room stifling hot by mid-afternoon. The carpet is brown, industrial, and the single bed has a crank at the foot of the bed, the kind of bed you’d find in a hospital. Maybe it actually is an old hospital bed. I’ll hit that crank every time I try to squeeze out the sliding glass backdoor that week. In front of the plate glass is a long table, perfect for writing. There’s an old lamp on top, Mediterranean-style, Seventies-Goodwill-thrift-store looking, and next to that, a Mr. Coffee on a smaller table, then an exhausted-looking mustard-colored vinyl armchair and an open-built armoire with a few beat-up hangers. In the small bathroom, atop the toilet, there’s a can of Clorox and a sponge dried into a curl. They expect me to clean up the place before I leave.

The whole place echoes the emptiness I’ve been feeling for that year, since Daddy died in April and Mother in July. My heart feel likes the tight bud of a flower in my chest, refusing to open. Beauty, the thing that has always sustained me, can’t reach me anymore.

The cinder block walls are bare except for two things: one, a plaque with “A Monk’s Prayer,” instructions from the thirteenth century outlining what a monk should do in his cell, which basically boils down to” “Do nothing. And wait.”

Why does this suddenly feel like the most difficult task on earth?

There are birds chattering in the scrub bushes outside, loud. I don’t know what kind they are and I don’t really care. And I don’t have the energy to slide the door closed. And its hot, anyway. I lay on the bed and stare, upside down, at the second thing hanging on the wall: a copy of an icon shellacked onto a shiny piece of beveled wood, nailed dead center above the bed. It depicts a man on his knees and another man with a gilt saucer of a halo standing over him, his hand flat over the kneeling man’s head. A female figure, winged, stands off to one side. They’re all stiff and flat-looking, but I know the figures represent ideas, each color chosen for its symbolic significance. This is an ancient sacred art, icon-making. I glance at this picture every time I pass that week. Finally I stop and stare. It is like trying to read Russian. The symbols won’t render up their meaning if I don’t know the code. It seems that Truth, the spiritual kind, should be more accessible than this. But maybe the rewards are greater if they are hard-won. I vow to ask one of the monks next time I’m out.

white-monkThe monks, most of them, have beards and wear kindly smiles and sandals with socks. Outside, they wear either full white hooded robes (they all wear these during Vespers) or waist-length pullover windbreakers, dark regulation blue. The Brothers, they call themselves. They speak in soft, hushed tones. In the outside world, they might be considered wimps or nerds, men shyly requesting extra sprouts on their egg salad sandwiches, if it’s no bother, or happily offering to fix your pocket calculator at no charge because they simply love to take things apart like that. But here within the grounds, high up and set apart, clocks seem to run at a different speed altogether and the Brothers appear to be the sanest of us all. They seem to be at peace, which is what I want more than anything to feel again. They don’t seem to care too much for physical beauty, no stunningly beautiful, if simple, decor and gardens, like the Buddhist monastery up the road. Or maybe I just can’t see beauty anymore. This place feels like its run by a bunch of friendly college guys who have never heard of Martha Stewart, still decorating their dorm rooms in the sparest, most perfunctory ways. The Brothers have done just so much, and no more, as if their duty lies more in contemplation, in reading and discussion, and less in gardening and housekeeping. The physical life seems a passing thought to them. Beauty is found in other things, things of the mind, the spirit.

I sit up on the thin mattress, the old blanket worn smooth, and stare across the warm air at the shiny icon. I drift into random thoughts. Mother came to me in a dream the night before. And so the healing continues. A soft breeze passes through the open glass door, a little boy outside opens and closes the squeaky screen door to the kitchen, again and again. Joy follows quickly on the heels of sadness, so long I don’t hold so tenaciously to sorrow. In a writing class, I learned the importance of naming things, the way my mother loved to stroll through botanical gardens and recite, like prayers, the names of obscure wildflowers and shrubs: Wizard’s Cap, Stinging Nettle, Shooting Star, Monkeyflower, Johnny Jump-Ups. A dull blue bird with a white belly lands on the railing overlooking the Pacific Ocean, lets loose a loud “Cree! Cree!”

“Scrub jay.” My voice sounds loud to me, after days of speaking to no one.

“Good,” I hear my mother say, “You are paying attention,” and I smile. A grown man, I still flower under her strokes.

What’s a Comp? (Hint: It’s Not a Free Hamburger)

In Concept Painting for Animation or a Live Action Film, the concept is more important than the finished art. As the fine concept artist Sean Sullivan says: “Idea first, then art.”

In this exercise, based on an exercise in Sean’s excellent online class, I cranked the Lemony Snicket soundtrack on the iPod and doodled out a page of rough thumbnails. Just shapes, playing with values and composition. The idea was a spaceship crashed in an ancient forest on an alien planet. Oh, and the Bad Guys are searching for the ship.


Then I picked one and developed it, trying to solve all the problems.


The finished Comp solves the problems, which means the client can look at the artwork and understand what is going on. Transitions are cleared up, objects and characters are delineated, if not detailed. Detail isn’t the point here. We’re not going for a finished work of art, just something to define and sell the concept.

As I look at this again, I’d like to tone down the orange reflections in the trees. They fight a bit with the local color of the orange spaceship, and it’s not clear where they’re coming from. What do you think?

I (Heart) Computer Animation

Here it is — my first computer animation!

It’s only 39 seconds, so why not take a break right now and treat yourself? Modeling, textures, lighting, animation, camera — it all exists only in the digital world, and in my mind, and now — in yours. Enjoy!

(Oh, and make sure your volume’s full blast. The music is by the great Thomas Newman.)


Part 3: Getting Started as a Concept Artist & Illustrator


A layout development sketch I did for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Technically not a thumbnail. I did this at 16″ X 12″, very fast, in charcoal, then reduced it.

Oh patient ones, did you nearly give up waiting for Part 3? Well, it’s been a wild year.

Don’t ask.

Anyway, I recently spoke to a group of animation students and the majority of the class wanted to be Concept Artists. That’s a switch. “But — how do I get there?” they wanted to know. The studios seem reluctant to hire someone as a concept artist right out of school.

It makes sense. A good Concept Artist will need lots of tools in the tool belt: architecture, illustration,  fine art, figure drawing, draftsmanship, film design, lighting, color theory, cinematography — I could go on dancing all night.

So I wasn’t sure what to tell these bright-eyed teenagers. As a freelancer, I have to wear many hats. I don’t do much 2-D layout designing anymore (there’s not as much 2-D animation going on), but I’ve had to do Visual Development for CG animation, color design, lighting design, book illustration, background and matte painting — even some Final Cut Pro video editing in the last year.

Sure, my route was through Layout and Background Painting, but there are as many roads to Rome as there are, well, Romans. Yours could be through storyboarding, illustrating books, painting fine art for galleries. You’ll find — or create — your own path.

My grandaddy gave me the best advice, (quoting Lincoln, I believe): “Be prepared so that when the opportunity appears, you can grab it. Be alert for opportunities, I’d say. And keep your eye on what you’d like to be doing, even as you’re giving your current task everything you’ve got.

I never planned on specializing in Layout. In fact, when we were finishing up Beauty and the Beast at Disney, they were initiating a new training program for Story and Visual Development. It was a competition. I thought I was being so clever, moving from Layout to Development, and grabbing the chance to learn from the best. I was thrilled when I won one of the slots for Development.

Don’t get me wrong — layout was (and is) fun and challenging, but I wanted to be in on the ground floor of a production, helping to determine its look from the very start. And I knew you could specialize yourself into a corner. I don’t know how I knew that, exactly. I was only thirty. Maybe I had read it somewhere, or Grandaddy said it, or President Lincoln. But I’ve seen it play out for myself and others. It’s way too easy to get really good at something and then get stuck doing that thing way past its expiration date in your heart.

My clever plan didn’t play out that way, though. By the time “Beauty” was complete, the studio had decided to change the set-up. No more Development department. Each production would now have its own development team.

Rats. . .

Sure, I was disappointed. Crushed, to be honest. I don’t think I cried, but knowing me, I might have. I had gotten a taste of Visual Development on a couple of shots in Beauty, thanks to Layout Supervisor Ed Ghertner and Art Director Brian McEntee, who gave me the chance. (Maybe there was a tight deadline that week, I don’t know. I was grateful for the opportunity, at any rate, and for their generous spirits.)

Here are those sketches, along with the finished shot for the movie:


My original thumbnail sketch.


I got to draw this layout, too.


Someone in the background department did a beautiful job painting this finished background.




Another thumbnail by yours truly.


Got to draft the final layout, too.


The finished painting. The effects department animated sparkles in the water below the bridge — a nice touch.



Oh, and there’s a happy ending. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to do a lot of Concept Art for Calabash Animation. And what is illustrating picture books but thirty-two pages of Concept Art for a movie that will never be made. (Wait a minute — that could be 95% of the movies in Hollywood!)

I’ve highlighted some of the illustrations on the blog before, and on the website. But here are my concept paintings for a recent Lucky Charms commercial.

(A disclaimer here: The artists at Calabash usually send me sketches, so I’m not claiming credit for the drawings. Technically, a concept artist would also be responsible for the sketches, too.)


Concept painting, done in Photoshop from a Calabash artist’s original sketch.

Click to see the finished 30 second spot, Lucky Charms “Lucky Stars.”

One thing I know for sure (as Oprah would say): Everything eventually comes full circle. Life does tend to wrap back around on itself. As the Native Americans say, life’s journey is a spiral, not a straight line.

There’s some comfort in that, don’t you think?

White House Demonstration Outside Milk Postage Stamp Dedication

Wow! A Harvey Milk postage stamp — and an important demonstration last week on Milk’s birthday.
The demonstration was organized by http://1AngryOldLesbian.org, and the artwork is from a cover I did for Angela Luna’s educational workbook, “In Celebration of Harvey Milk.” (Angela’s wonderful book is available at Amazon, by the way.)
Happy 84th Birthday, Harvey. “Hope will never be silent.”


36 years after Harvey Milk’s death, demo questions whether there is more Obama can do to stamp out discrimination, than issue a postage stamp…

By Cathy Kristofferson, May 22, 2014

milkstamp12_milksuccessorToday, the White House saw demonstrators lobbying attendees gathered for the first-day-of-issue ceremony of the Harvey Milk postage stamp. Members of the LGBTQ group 1AngryOldLesbian.org urged attendees to insist President Obama sign the long awaited Federal Contractor Executive Order. That one signature would truly honor Harvey Milk, protecting 22% of the U.S. work force while making a great stride towards the goal of full federal equality.

As recently as this past weekend, President Obama said in his International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) statement:

“Tomorrow, as we commemorate the 10th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, we recommit ourselves to the fundamental belief that all people should be treated equally, that they should have the opportunity to reach their fullest…

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On the Radio

One of Donna Summer’s best songs. Or. . .

SFeRadioCafe-header-newaA brand new radio interview with Mary-Charlotte, one of the smartest hosts on the airwaves, on the Santa Fe Radio Cafe. This was originally broadcast a couple of days before Thanksgiving, but as we all know by now, Sarah Josepha Hale’s tale is timeless. Listen to our Radio Café interview and be inspired!


Mike Allegra, pre-interview

By the way, Mike has a great radio voice, don’t you think? Will someone give this man his own show??

Hope you all had a warm wonderful Thanksgiving. Thanks for listening in — and please do let me know what you think!

Mike Allegra: 5 Irrelevant Questions

SGT_final_22_23 copyIn honor of Thanksgiving, I asked Mike Allegra, author of the picture book Sarah Gives Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday, five questions that have nothing to do with anything.

I’m grateful for the experience of illustrating Mike’s fantastic, moving manuscript last year. Enjoy his great good humor — and have a warm & wonderful Thanksgiving, y’all!

Mike, you are granted one superpower. Which would you choose and why? 
X-ray vision is kind of appealing because I would be able to make a fortune on game shows; I would know exactly what was behind Door Number One. But in my day-to-day life, such a superpower would be almost useless.
So I would want to be able to fly. From a practical standpoint, it is the perfect superpower: I could save gas and avoid traffic. I would never have to buy a plane ticket again. I could run errands in a flash. I would never have to wait for an elevator.  I could clean my gutters without needing to drag out the stepladder. And I could easily escape from any and all approaching zombie hordes.
But more importantly, I would be able to fly, man! Just how cool is that?!
Mike_smallWhat’s a nickname you wish you could get your friends to call you?
Once upon a time, I was a member of Indian Guides. Once you take the group’s oath, or whatever, you are given an Official Indian Name. Mine was “Red Squirrel.”
At the time I liked the name very much – still do for that matter. But I doubt I would want people calling me “Red” all day.
I’m just gonna stick with “Mike,” OK?
Which historical figure or fictional character do think that, upon meeting them, would change you the most?
When I was a kid, I had a long list of historical figures I wanted to meet. Over the years, however, this list has been whittled down to almost nothing. I fear that if I meet an admired historical figure I would find him or her off-putting in some way. Sometimes it’s best to read a biography and leave it at that.
Sarah Hale on the other hand… I would love to meet her. I have so much respect for what she did throughout her life. Better yet, she and I both edit and write for magazines so we’d probably be able to talk shop, which I would enjoy.
Also, I want to know what she thought about our book. I’m afraid of what she might say, but I’d take that risk.
Which character would you be on “Gilligan’s Island” and why?
The Professor, no question. He was the only castaway with a private hut. He also could invent neat stuff. Most importantly, he was the only one who had a realistic shot with Mary Ann – who I just adored. Ginger was a tease, but Mary Ann was the sweet, sexy girl next door. Even as a kid I kept thinking, “Kiss her, you stupid Professor! Can’t you see how much she likes you?”
What would it take for you to really believe in miracles?
I would need to be married to a wonderful woman, have a fantastic son, and get a book published.
Oh, wait… I BELIEVE!


Barbara Mayfield

Paintings. Monotypes. Mixed Media. Color Consulting.

the family that reads together

a Kid Lit Blog for parents

Cathy Ballou Mealey - bildebok

Writing for the young and young at heart