Author and illustrator Teri Sloat wrote There Was an Old Man Who Painted the Sky (Henry Holt), a book which CLN’s Chapter & Verse Book Club discussed in 2009. We first met Teri in 2007 at the Reading the World Conference in San Francisco. She helped us learn about and appreciate the life her family lived in Alaska for many years. Today, Teri and her family live on a small farm in Sebastapol, California, where she creates books, poetry, and art. We asked her about the creative process for There Was an Old Man Who Painted the Sky, illustrated by Stefano Vitale.
Thank you for a chance to share some excitement and information about my book. I have a lot of passion behind this project.
Question: Could you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
Answer: About three different unconnected things. I love porquois stories and have always loved imagining how things came to be. I like making up my own explanations into stories. Years ago I wrote a story in the form of folklore of how the animals got their spots and stripes. That whole story now takes two pages in this book.
I love cave painting and several years ago read about the young girl Maria who found the cave paintings on the ceiling at Altamiras. Part of my excitement over that was that it seems young people are more observant and inquisitive. I was enamored with the story because she was out with her father, who was an amatuer anthropologist. He turned her discovery in to the university, not as his own, but as hers. It opened the gate to much controversy, but he honored her find. I wanted to write a story about her, but only a fragment of information existed, and the true story had a rather sad ending. Her father died of depression because he lost his standing as the findings disputed another famous archaeologist’s recent publication and her father was scoffed at. Later the university issued an apology. Way too much to share in a picture book and not enough for a historical fiction or creative nonfiction book. So, as more time passed, I realized I could encompass what I felt in a song that would lead to the essence of her discovery and how that would feel to me. Using the song for a template allowed me to rein in all that I had discovered. The book can be a springboard to learn more about cave painting and our human history.
Regardless of how life turned out for Maria’s father, we need to honor those people who are not afraid to share their discoveries, and to hope that new discoveries will always be welcome.
In addition, while doing research I have learned that there were master cave painters, artists who were revered. They were painting in the main chambers and their art is very sophisticated compared to art in the caves’ side chambers. So just like now, we have artists who record and add to our lives and those who doodle or are still learning who practice to the side. Going into the caves in the Mayan Peninsula and realizing what a sacred place that is takes your breath away, and seeing the handprints which were made by blowing through hollow bones filled with paints and using hands and arms as stencils to work around has created a knowing in me that early man was in many ways the same as us.
Question: Did you have a peek at the illustrations before the book was “done”?
Answer: Yes, I always ask to see the dummy before the final work is done.
Question: How did you feel when you saw them?
Answer: I loved the black-and-whites, because he had incorporated the symbols from cave art into the entire book. I loved the illustrations. Stefano is one of my favorite artists and I was delighted that he would add his “story” to mine. While his paintings are sophisticated, when I show the book to children I hear them gasp with amazement. What more could you ask for?
Question: Are you fortunate enough to have visited the caves at Altamira or did you do your research through books and online?
Answer: I wish! My research came from many books, and so many wonderful websites about cave discoveries and cave art. Just Google “cave art” and you will see what I mean. I have taken road trips to visit caves in our Southwest and in California and was fortunate to go about a mile and a half into the Mayan cave system on the Mayan Peninsula with a guide while visiting the southern end of the peninsula.
Question: Was there a lengthy revision process for this text? The rhyme works so beautifully and precisely, it seems as though a lot of work went into the writing.
Answer: Writing to music always takes work and revision because you want to be able to sing it as well as read it aloud. A few years ago I wrote a jazz and blues musical with a group of high school musicians and a professional singer and composer. I learned to do a looser form of rhyme so that it flows off the tongue better, more like a song. So it is actually based on the rhythm of our language and not on syllable counts, etc. I guess since it sounds precise, it works on both levels.
Another rhyming book I wrote after working on the play is I’m a Duck and the rhyme is not counted in it either. I just speak it till it sounds right and then ask others to read it back to me to see if they speak it the same way.
Question: What has the reaction been to the book?
Answer: When I saw Stefano’s work alongside my words it took my breath away. You know I’m sure, that lately creation stories and folklore are a little risky for the publisher. I actually lost a school visit to a private religious school because of the book, and gained many private school visits as well as public school visits because of the book. The reception to the book is a dream come true. It was written up in Newsday, given great reviews, talked about on Just One More Book, and many websites. In an age with character-driven books, which we all need, we need books to take us into a bigger space, and I think that my greatest reward is seeing people react to the story with, “Aaaaah! That is beautiful.”
I do a lot of folk art that feels personal to me and uses the imagination. To see more of that, visit my website.