BOOKS: The Journey to “The Secret Kingdom” Part Three

secret front cover
We stuck to the plan. Only after a month’s worth of production, when we had more than enough content to create the book Michele had in mind, did she turn her attention to finding a publisher.
We already knew we were going to self publish, which fits our DIY philosophy.  The traditional publishing house model is dated, and increasingly unnecessary.  Advances in technology are removing the barriers to independent artistry.  With enough determination and labor, creative people can now reach a worldwide audience, without having to submit to the machinations of the establishment’s filters.
Why humbly petition for the approval of others to determine if we could release the book we wanted to make, a process that could take months, or even years? We didn’t seek permission from anyone to express our creative vision. Rather, Michele just researched what print on demand publishers offered the best terms for us.
This could have been another stumbling block. Despite the joy and momentum of the project, Michele was still facing intense inner doubts and fears. Such a major decision, which would lead to such a big commitment, was intimidating. Going with the wrong publisher could ruin everything.
The project could have ended right there, with us so paralyzed by the thought of making the wrong choice that we’d make no choice at all.  Michele chose to have faith. She set another aggressive one month deadline, and threw herself into publishing industry research. She compared companies, consulted blogs, researched complaints, calculated costs and returns, educated herself on copyrights and technical specifications. She was determined: at the end of the month she would make the decision, and we would move on, without wavering or second guessing.
It was helpful Michele had a clear vision of what she wanted the book to be like. Even though it would add to the cost, she knew it should be a hardcover. This would give it more presence as a beautiful object. Each painting would be printed with a simple black border around it. This is the same way her original art is displayed, in plain black frames, which she has learned is an effective and elegant presentation for her paintings. In a way the book would be like visiting a gallery full of her artwork.
The research we started doing into other contemporary children’s books showed there was nothing else like Michele’s paintings being offered. Everything seemed to be illustrated  with cartoons, doodles, or computer generated stuff. It was all overwhelmingly generic and forgettable.
We felt, why shouldn’t children get exposed to real art too? Art is for everyone, even kids. Exposing to them to enriching, surrealistic visions from a young age can only reinforce their powers of imagination and creativity. If the atmosphere is a little dark or eerie, then the art totally partakes in the tone of the fairy tales everyone grew up with. The writings of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm are full of darkness and the bizarre, just to name a few of the prominent examples we were inspired by. The fact these disturbing stories are universally understood  to be intended for children reflects a kind of wisdom our politically correct age  recoils from.
Basically, Michele designed the kind of book we would have both loved when we were children. The kind of book that creates future artists.
The publisher Michele selected ended up being a good choice. During the preproduction phase, she communicated with them on an almost daily basis, asking questions, giving clarifications, making decision after difficult decision, each one a step towards finishing the project. The level of fear and intimidation remained high, but with prayer and each other’s unwavering commitment, we trusted we were moving in the correct direction.
 Such was Michele’s determination throughout the entire process that it came together more quickly than we ever imagined it could. On March 5, 2014, Michele had the conversation with her sister Patricia about using existing paintings for a children’s book. On July 9,2014, Amazon listed “The Secret Kingdom” as published, available to a worldwide audience. From idea to completed book took about four months.
Of course it helped we had twenty years worth of Michele’s artwork to draw from. But in only a third of a year, to enter the entirely unknown realm of children’s literature, and to utilize an entirely new means and medium to share our creative work, still feels miraculous to me.
This was only the beginning of many new and exciting challenges in our lives. We’ve done book signings now in venues ranging from a museum to a coffee house, from an elementary school to an upscale art gallery. As anticipated, we are reaching an audience far beyond the market for original artwork; many moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, poets, and even children themselves have picked up copies of The Secret Kingdom. They’ve  listened to us read from it, and tell the story of how it came to be. We’ve received reviews both good and bad; some worry the strange paintings will somehow frighten children. Comments like that makes me wonder how well those people remember what being a kid is like.
But even the negative reviews mention the intensity of the art, and the unusual nature  of the book. This is the type of work that would have never been released by timid and conventional commercial publishers. And there’s plenty more where that came from: we are already working on our next book.
Whatever comes next, for us The Secret Kingdom represents what can happen these days when vision is coupled with drive and the possibilities inherent in our technological age. We are standing on the verge of a new Renaissance, where independent creatives have a new freedom to bring their ideas into reality and  disperse them all across the globe. The opportunities are amazing for those who will take action.
Past Installments of The Journey to the Secret Kingdom

Books – The Journey To “The Secret Kingdom” Part Two


Michele Bledsoe “Lupus in Fabula” acrylic on canvas 14″ x 11″



We’d talked before of creating a children’s book together. Michele decided it was time to work towards this goal. Michele had a story idea,  but since she did not think of herself as an author,  we would collaborate on the writing. Michele would create all the paintings for the story; aware of her methods and pace in regards to the number of paintings she wanted to illustrate the book, we estimated it would take about two years to complete.
This seemed like a good solution. Although we have no kids of our own, we both loved children’s books; in fact, it was the beautifully illustrated books of our youth that inspired us both to become artists. We reasoned a book could reach a larger audience than an original artwork could, and the cost would be more reasonable.  Michele could keep her paintings and still share her art. Best of all, we hoped that some of the kids who saw the book would also be inspired to become artists.
Despite the extended timeline associated with the project, it felt good to have a specific goal, and a new direction to explore. We knew nothing about publishing , so we assumed a big part of the time would be spent researching that industry.
The day after we decided to pursue this course, Michele was sitting in her art studio, painting and talking on the phone to her sister Patricia in New Jersey.  Patricia is a blogger who reviews many  books, including children’s literature. Michele was hoping to get some insights from her on how the market works. Michele shared the idea for the children’s book and anticipated completion date, and asked Patricia for her thoughts.
Patricia basically told Michele she was being stupid.
Patricia did not mean this in a derogatory way. Instead, this was just her strong reaction to the fact we were overlooking something so obvious. “You are already surrounded by the pages of a children’s book,” she informed Michele.
Michele turned her head and looked around the room, surveying the walls of our studio, which are lined practically floor to ceiling with dozens of her paintings. “I don’t have a story for these,” Michele said.
“It doesn’t need to be a story. Just write some poetry,” Patricia replied.
The Secret Kingdom was born right then and there. Michele was so excited by the new insights, after she got off the phone she wrote three wonderful poems before she remembered she wasn’t an author.
During her talk with Patricia, Michele came to realizations about the steps forward needed. She recognized until we had a complete book ready, any research about publishing would be a distraction. Before we did anything else, we needed to write the book. I was still recruited as co-author, but now I would be creating poems inspired by Michele’s art, instead of creating a narrative for her pictures to illustrate. In The Secret Kingdom, the art came first.
To go along with momentum this new idea inspired, Michele set a very ambitious new deadline: we would write the content for the book in one month. Every day we each selected a painting of Michele’s which might be incorporated into the book and wrote a poem about it. In the end we would have plenty to chose from, and only pick the best ones.
Each painting poem took on its own character: some were guided by the imagery of the piece, others just by the mood the art suggested. Michele’s signature surreal and dreamy style set a perfect tone for a most unusual bedtime book, which we imagined both children and adults could linger over and enjoy.
I needed some initial guidance. I take part in spoken word events and poetry readings, so I was used to writing for an esoteric literary audience. My first efforts were long, complicated poems full of obscure references. But once Michele managed to convey to me the nature of what she wanted her book to be, I was able to get into the spirit of it. I came to understand it as a matter of rhythm mostly, and the power of the brief but evocative phrase. It was an enjoyable challenge, the effort to be direct, thoughtful and beautiful all at once.
In the meantime Michele continued to produce amazing poems of her own, experiencing a surge in her hitherto unknown talent for writing.  She often had complete poems suddenly occur to her, fully formed and without any need for editing. She even had to get up in the middle of the night to capture ideas that came to her. The Muse doesn’t keep predictable hours.
With practically daily  production from both of us, within the month we had plenty of accomplished poems to accompany Michele’s intense paintings. It was a wonderful project to go through as a couple, as we remained delighted and surprised by each other’s efforts throughout the process.
We were ready for the next step.

Books – The Journey to “The Secret Kingdom”

Michele Bledsoe “And Then You Blink” acrylic on canvas 11″ x 14″
“We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not.”
-Maurice Sendak
Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of being both a participant in and witness to a remarkable artistic transformation. I am referring to the creation of The Secret Kingdom, the first children’s book completed by my wife Michele Bledsoe.
Michele is a self-taught artist. Without any formal training in painting, she developed her own techniques through patient practice, determined to bring the clearest expression possible to her vision. This pursuit began before I met her, when she didn’t even know any other artists at all.
Her art during this phase was mainly a night time activity, and not only because she was employed in various full time day jobs. In this era Michele was an insomnia painter. Unable to sleep, she would approximate the dream state in front of her canvases, depicting slow wave depths that remained inaccessible to her physiologically. The images she created fulfilled the missing sensations normal dreaming would have provided.
Being conscious so much of the time gave Michele powerful awareness of her own inner configurations. This awareness was translated symbolically into the iconography she developed. Michele’s pictures came to represent an imaginary terrain she describes as the inside of her head. It’s Wonderland in there, peopled by assembled beings, fantastic creatures, and self-absorbed toys with expressions that range from the bemused to the serene. The repetition of certain pictorial elements speak of a consistent underlying comprehension, obsessively depicted. There is a sense of decay made restful with soft cool colors. The depictions are rendered with realism, but they are not naturalistic; curling leaves, ribbons, tangled twigs, rough hewn lumber, planes, pedestals, and layered walls  are exquisitely arranged in front of an ever-present darkness. There is always an opening left that beckons towards the mystery.
Michele wasn’t making her art for public recognition; for a decade, she worked without anyone other than family members seeing the results of her nocturnal explorations. Her isolation kept her pure.  Detached from commercial pressures, careerist ambitions, and art world tropes, Michele simply concentrated on giving her paintings the aspects and resolutions she desired. The results of her extreme focus were remarkable.
When Michele finally did begin to publicly show her work, she was surprised by the intense reactions it caused. It’s when I found her, at her first art show. Her paintings were a love at first sight experience for me, and once I encountered the artist, I wanted it all. I needed the totality of this fascinating woman in my life. I drew Michele into my lifestyle of a DIY artist and gallerist in the energetic Phoenix art community. Her previously unseen talent caused quite a commotion.
There was nothing else like her paintings being displayed, which brought a lot of attention and spontaneous appreciation. But she had no interest in taking part in the art world cant  that drives the contemporary gallery scene, the high-flown but empty rhetoric others used to justify high -flown but empty art. The current wordy academic approach to art making was alien and irrelevant to her. Her work came from intimate, genuine experience, not theories and references. She saw no need to talk about what she had already made visible with her imagery.
Even more importantly, Michele realized she hated parting with the paintings she had created. Despite demand, Michele was very reluctant to sell her work. Purchases evoked emotional distress in her; to this day, she mourns the loss of some of the pieces that enthusiastic patrons were able to obtain from her.
So the question became how to cultivate Michele’s  life calling for art without having to compromise the integrity of her outlook and approach. For 10 years we experimented with various approaches.  The jaded institutional art world felt too small and elitist, its priorities unsatisfactory. But to continue to treat her painting like a hobby for weekends and evenings would never give it the emphasis it deserved. We needed a solution. So we took a leap of faith.
In early 2012, despite the wretched economy, Michele left her corporate job to focus full time on creativity. Her art was already mature and accessible. The key was finding a way to connect with a supportive audience for it.
We tried many plans along the way. The books of Steven Pressfield were inspirational, and set realistic expectations about what happens when you commit your life to your art. It was comforting to understand the trials we were facing were actually signs of progress. Most importantly, we prayed. We needed to, with all the uncertainty and doubt that challenged us.
It was in the hardest time yet, a crisis where our dream was almost abandoned, when Michele’s prayer was answered. She had hit her limit and surrendered; she had to turn over control. Very difficult for someone with such an iron will. However, It was that letting go of personal control that finally revealed a new possibility.