I Love My Mom with an ‘A’: A Story of Art, Ardor and an Abecedarian
by Sarah Fagan
26 Love Letters for Mama: An Alliterative ABC is an illustrated abecerdarian — or alphabet — book scheduled for release in time for Mother’s Day. As the illustrator for the letter “P,” I am excited to be a part of this fanciful poetry book illuminated by women artists from the Pacific Northwest.
I find, however, the story I want to share is not the one found between this book’s covers, but rather the one that took place in the decade leading up to its release party, as well as the chapters still to be written as time goes on.You could say the book was thirteen years in the making. The leading force behind the project, Susan Chung of Corvallis, Oregon (known to many as “Sooz”), describes how its first iteration came to be:
In May of 2001, I sat at my kitchen table and wept tears of joy. My daughter, Ema, had just given me a gift of love, light and healing for Mother’s Day: a scroll with a hand-written poem that I have cherished for years. Since that morning I have read it again and again; a reminder of our closeness and a tribute to the wonderful bond we share.
“I love my Mom with an ‘A’: Her absolutely abundant adorations account for my assurance that all is well.” Thus began the poem by Ema Greenspan, aged sweet sixteen. The scroll continued, spouting venerational traits from “benevolence” to “zest.”
That mama/daughter love brought Susan through some difficult years. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she came to rely on the strength of many women in her life as she was forced to find her own. In 2011, Susan, Ema and a couple of Susan’s closest artist friends discussed sharing the sustaining love by turning Ema’s now symbolic poem into a published book, complete with 26 illustrations.
It was going to take time. It was going to take money. It was going to take more artists. Susan turned to myriad relationships to find these artists. Some she already had, some she forged during the search itself. She called upon friends and family, proffered artists whose work she enjoyed. Personally, I found out about the project while reclaiming my work from an art exhibit in Lake Oswego, Oregon in 2012. On the back of one painting was a post-it note — put there by the show’s curator who received it from Susan with the request to pass it along to me. “I’m interested in your style for a project I am working on — call me,” it said.
What intrigue! How could I resist? And how could I know that I was being written into such a wonderful tale by responding?
Each artist was encouraged to illustrate one or two letters in her own trademark style or media to correspond to a verse in Ema’s poem. Metal, fiber and ceramic works were crafted alongside paintings, prints, and drawings. Each letter is a complete work of art imbued with the whimsy and personality of its maker.
Even while the art and layout of the book were progressing, the road was bumpy. In 2012, Susan found out her breast cancer was back. Publishers dragged their feet on the project. But Sooz, being Sooz, took the hardships as a sign to bypass the red tape and self-publish. With the help of crowdfunding and much emotional and monetary support, the book secured the backing it needed to see itself in print in 2014. “Just in time,” Susan puts it, “for Mother’s Day.”
What of the original art that was created for the book? Fortunately, the letters are not doomed to exist together only as scans and reprints, destined to live forever apart. The 26 pieces will get to meet and mingle this April, as their 22 makers do the same.
The original works will be on view during the book’s public launch party on April 26 at the Wheelhouse Event Center, 421 NE Water Ave., Suite 2400, Albany, Oregon. The event, running from 3 – 6 p.m., functions as a book sale, and also as a chance to meet many of artists who took part in the project, sharing their art and their stories over food and wine. It will be the first time the 26 pieces are displayed together, and the first time many of the artists have met each other. The afternoon promises to spread the joy of a shared accomplishment and foster connections for years to come.
Susan describes her involvement with the book as both a healing balm and “a fire of determination” as she continues to fight her metastatic breast cancer. She hopes that the book — a physical manifestation of this balm and fire — will bring laughter, love, and light to other women.
It is always grounding to see how our own struggles can be turned into refuge for others if given the right outlet. The existence of this joyful alchemy is what makes hardship worthwhile, strife endurable, and what made me want to share this story about a book.
Sarah received a BA in Fine Arts and English Literature from a small liberal arts college outside of Boston. She worked as an editor and writer for a New England arts magazine for three years before relocating to Portland, Oregon in 2009. There she decided to concentrate on her own artmaking, and attended a post baccalaureate program at the Oregon College of Art and Craft where she studied bookbinding, printmaking and painting. In Portland, Sarah has developed a traveling curriculum of art classes which she teaches at various venues. When not teaching, she is painting: Her work is represented by Portland’s Blackfish Gallery. Sarah is the guest art editor for VoiceCatcher’s upcoming Summer 2014 edition.