I was born in rural Virginia when Virginia was best known as a farming state. From as far back as I can remember, I have loved and longed to have farm animals. Not real ones, because those were all around me, but miniature toy farm animals that I could play with on the floor and hide. Hiding was a big part of my Southern childhood. And because I liked to hide, naturally I liked to hide things I owned. Therefore, the smaller the better, because things that were small were easier to hide.
Every year I was given a few small farm animals. Some were made out of metal and carefully painted. Some were carved out of wood; those I loved best. But most were made of molded plastic. Well, when you play with animals, you make up stories, and that's what I did make up stories about animals.
My family members were not readers. We were poor and living "on the wrong side of the tracks" way out in the country. My mother married when she was fourteen years old. My granddaddy, her father, spent eight years in the first grade and never went beyond that level of schooling. If anyone in my family made it to the eighth grade, it was considered a real accomplishment.
While no one in my family read, they did tell stories. It seemed the bigger and better the story, the more attention a person got. I was determined to be the best storyteller. But I had a tremendous obstacle -- I was painfully shy. We all were. We kids barely spoke. We spent most of our time hiding or playing together timidly. If a stranger came into our midst, we disappeared. People outside our family terrified us.
Of course, we had to go to school, which was filled with strangers. Talking to anyone there, especially the teacher, was impossible. Needless to say, to the educational system of the Commonwealth of Virginia I was a backward and hopeless child.
One good thing about school, though, was that there were books. The first illustrated book I remember reading was Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats. To this day, I love that book with all my heart. Charlotte's Web is another favorite. I still love stories about animals, especially farm animals. My favorite animals are pigs and chickens.
When I was nine or ten, I discovered modeling clay. I saved my money for months on end, pennies I found, or a nickel a benevolent adult might give me. For twenty-nine cents I could buy a little cardboard packet of four colors of modeling clay at the five-and-dime. With modeling clay, I found freedom from plastic toy manufacturers -- I started making my own farm animals. And mine were much more believable than store-bought ones. That made me happy. Then I made the biggest discovery of all. I could draw the animals I loved, as well as make them out of clay!
There was one book that changed my life as a child: Clarence the TV Dog. I was fascinated by a dog that watched television. But I was more fascinated to discover that there were people who clipped and pasted books together. When I learned that people even kept diaries and journals, and often illustrated them, I realized that writing words and making pictures could go together to make a book. I have always made books. Not for other people, but for myself. And to this day I tell my readers that I don't make books for them, I make them for myself. Books are my private joy.
Today I have my imaginary world completely mapped out -- figuratively and literally. I have boxes and drawers filled with maps of Moel Eyris, a medieval land I conceived. I am always creating new inhabitants, along with their farms, their clothes, their animals, and their hiding places. A full-grown man, I still play with clay. The only difference is that the clay I now use comes from Germany or Italy and can be worked with a tremendous amount of detail. I design and construct miniature medieval working farms. Some are in museum collections, but mostly I make them for myself and for my friends.
The stories and books that I make still come from my imagination. I prefer a simpler, quieter world. But I have discovered the immense wonders of cyberspace and even have my own Web site! I like typing better than talking, so it seems the computer was made just for me. With a computer I tend to write more, and I send E-mail to anyone and everyone!
I now live in a remote mountain village on the western edge of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. I have a wonderful studio with windows all around that look out over the mountains. I live in a big old Arts and Crafts house with two other artists/craftsmen and seven dogs. We all like to make things. I make my medieval characters in paper and clay; one of my housemates designs and makes teddy bears and cowboy Santas; and the other builds finely crafted furniture and designs gardens. The dogs mainly tell us when it's time to go outside and run up and down the hill or go sledding.
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Baby is fast asleep when Mama spies the first flakes of his first snowfall. “It’s snowing!” she sings. “Baby, it’s snowing!” Mama bundles Baby in thick, warm...