Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Neighbors



We follow our destiny. Tricky, capricious things, those moon and stars.

Fifty or sixty years ago,the Danish artist Kay Nielsen lived four blocks due south of the house I live in today. An illustrator/artist/muralist, Nielsen followed his moon and stars from Scandinavia to California to fame to fortune to failure.

Growing up, in the library of my childhood there were some Grimm’s Fairytale picture books illustrated by Nielsen. I don’t know if we had something that beautiful and terrifying because my father was an artist or because my parents loved Danes. Or maybe it was just something we inherited along the way.

The illustrations were intricate but insistent, cold and frightening, like seeing someone trapped in a pond below the ice. I tried to perk up the Snow Princess with my flesh-tone crayons. I gave her yellow hair. Nothing seemed to touch her, so I retreated to my Mary Poppins and Roald Dahl.



Nielsen died, forgotten, but for a devoted wife and a few close friends, in 1957. He could have illustrated a broken heart. I think that’s what he was doing all along.

If you want to see more

42 comments:

  1. Wow! You have the coolest neighbors. Did Hildegarde Flanner and Kay Neilsen live right on top of each other? I think you said that they both lived four blocks south of you?

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  2. Not on top, next door. And as I understand it, when Kay and his wife completely ran out of money, Flanner and her husband offered them one of their guest houses. And that's where Kay died.

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  3. That's beautiful stuff. "He could have illustrated a broken heart." Indeed. What a phrase, Karin.

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  4. Beautiful.

    Made me think of another fairytale, by a Dane, Andersen's Wild Swans.

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  5. That's really amazing that you read his books as a child and you live right near his digs. Is there something amazing about the Altadena water or is it the earth itself?

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  6. 'Illustrated a broken heart'?

    I must have that phrase!


    WV: muski - a lunker game fish

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  7. "cold and frightening, like seeing someone trapped in a pond below the ice." That is a brilliant line.

    This is a beautiful piece. Very melancholy.

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  8. I’m one more fan of "illustrated a broken heart" and "cold and frightening . . . ." No wonder you added some color to that picture.

    I'm skeptical about tragic heroes in NON-fiction, but when you share a piece of the earth with them . . . I think of Faulkner's Oxford, Mississippi and the Dickinson attic in Amherst. Crazy Horse and the Dakota wind at Wounded Knee. Gettysburg. MLK. It's all too big to imagine, but I can’t keep my mind from trying.

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  9. You live in exactly the right place. All those artistic and literary vibes surrounding you. You can certainly turn a phrase and I'll add myself to the list who are fans of "He could..." and "...cold and frightening..."

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  10. Karin,

    I've not lived near any of the famous, but years ago I used to take dates on day hikes into the Hollywood Hills, off a high residential street into a quarry-like area that then contained the burnt-out shell of Aldous Huxley's geodesic dome.

    Oh. And I delivered (legal) drugs to Barbara Hale and Robert Blake -- and mail to George Kennedy and Kathryn Ross. And I saw Steve Allen and Sergio Mendes in Gelson's.

    "I do not think that they will sing to me."

    Thanks for letting me unload that bit of psycho-personal history. It's been loading for a long time.

    Trulyfool

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  11. Did we talk about him on PA's blog or was it previously here? I knew then I had seen his work sometime during my childhood, we prolly all did at some time or other. I love this particular illustration and your thoughts and feelings about it, illustrating a broken heart is a feat indeed.

    wv indsk

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  12. One of my great grandfathers came from Denmark around 1900. My dearly beloved insists that I inherited that man's personality, and I perfectly illustrate Sheakespeare's "Dour Danes" of Hamlet fame. That may be why Kay's illustrations look as they do.

    (Dour my ass! I tell him I'm a vision of sweetness and light, and all of the kids choke with laughter right along with him.)

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  13. Sounds romantic, T. Fool.

    Jean, he also illustrated Andersen. Maybe that was the Snow Pricess.

    P, Carolynn, Bandit, Bayside, and Banjo, I went out to do a jolly moon piece and for some reason came back with something else entirely.

    Paula, I know he was discussed in the comments on one of my Hildegarde posts. I think Bellis brought him up. And then MG and I have been exchanging a couple of emails on Nielsen recently.

    WV: Ansers. If you have questions, I have ansers.

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  14. What I see is a princess riding a polar bear in front of a melting iceberg.

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  15. Do you think the makers of "The Golden Compass" ever saw Nielsen's work?

    http://www.smartcine.com/images/the_golden_compass_still.jpg

    I do.

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  16. I have so much to say on this subject, but it would require an expert to come into my disorganized and addled brain and do some serious synapses connections but yeah yeah yeah I know I know I know

    notice the run on sentence?

    maybe later

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  17. ". . . and for some reason came back with something else entirely." One more example supporting the theory that we write in order to discover what we wanted to say.

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  18. "WV: Ansers. If you have questions, I have ansers."

    Reminds me of the Israeli Hebrew teacher who said, "If you have asks, ask."

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  19. Poor Kay, I'm glad you've written about him. The Wikipedia entry is interesting, especially this bit:

    "In 1939 he left for California and worked for Hollywood companies, including The Walt Disney Company, where his work was used in the "Ave Maria" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences of Fantasia. In 1940 he was laid off. .... His final years were spent in poverty. His last works were for local schools (including 'The First Spring' mural installed at Central Junior High School, Los Angeles) and churches (including his painting to the Wong Chapel at the First Congregational Church, Los Angeles - illustrating the 23rd Psalm)."

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  20. After reading more about him and his work it's hard to imagine that the ability to create this kind of beauty could not sustain him and his wife.

    I like these From ENR Illustrtors:

    "Susan Meyer says, in her A Treasury Of The Great Children's Book Illustrators, "Japanese woodcuts led to much of his own work: asymmetrical composition, large vacant areas, sinuous line work, and a flattened perspective" (Meyer 1983)."

    and

    "It is one of Nielsen's traits to skate too near to unlikelihood; to set us adrift in boats which will not float, or bend a knee as knees cannot be bent, or make us birds that should not fly " (Poltarnees 1976)."

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  21. There does seem to be a sadness in the faces in Neilsen's drawings. Either that, or anger.

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  22. Wow. This is a pitch-perfect post, although all of your posts are exquisite. Amazing that you had this early exposure to his work and then landed just a few blocks away from where he lived. Altadena is quite the hotbed of creativity.

    What a sad ending to his life.

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  23. Paula, those are perfect descriptons of his work. And Earl is right, the faces are either sad or angry or stoic.

    Bellis, one of those murals was painted over when they turned a school into an office building. Made me think of PA & Vic and the fight LA muralists have to preserve their work. There's one going on now.

    (Margie, so you're not always a ray of sunshine? Susan, that why you like it up here. P, I wouldn't be at all surprised.)

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  24. These are freakin' beautiful... Maybe not so much for the kiddies, but really special.

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  25. I agree, the elegance may have been a bit too much for the young 'uns.

    JJ

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  26. Beautiful illustrations. Once, I lived down the hall from this one girl. Years later, I was standing in the supermarket and her picture was plastered on the National Enquirer. Apparently, she had an affair with a CELEBRITY. So there.

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  27. LOL, Margaret. One time at band camp, I shared an office with a woman. Her best friend was with Nelson Rockefeller when he died.
    (How many points for that?)

    Don't make me tell you about my friend whose business was delivering food from restaurants to people in Toluca Lake and nearby areas. He knows everybody!

    WV:spalismu. Don't know what it is, but it sure sounds interesting.

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  28. Once I delivered a newspaper to Captain Kangaroo.

    How many points for that?!

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  29. Susan

    I give you big points from me. Today an article caught my eye about the forgotten newsmaker Larry Harmon. He was Bozo the Clown.

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  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  31. OK, OK, OK. This is the best! This is the best! Are you ready for this? I... have... a... friend... who lives in Piedmont next to Berkeley. He found out that back in 1964, when the Beatles first came to the Bay Area, a radio station had a contest. The Beatles would come to dinner at the home of whoever submitted the best British dinner menu. Well, the winner of the contest were the people who lived in the house next door to where my friend now lives. The Beatles actually came to dinner at the house next door to my frient. Is that the best or what?

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  32. I was thinking maybe I could top that, but no.

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  33. I can, but won't......because this is not a competition

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  34. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPeB6kGxWY0

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  35. @Mr V: I know, I hate when people think blog comments are a competition. (Unless I'm clearly winning.) PS - Bring it.

    Looks live we have a new game: "Celebrities I don't actually know, but I know someone who does."

    @Anon: Connie Talbot's "Some Where Over The Rainbow" from Britain's Got Talent is magical.

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  36. Mr. V, are you perhaps my ex? :)I hope not.
    V

    PS KB, I've seen these illustrations and i'm undecided. I like what I think is the Art Deco feel of them but something about them is a little disturbing. Each to his own as my momma said a million times.

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  37. Hans Anderson's stories did deep damage to my psyche, especially The Snow Queen. Perhaps my book had these illustrations - they terrified me at age 9. But since then, I've grown to appreciate the style.

    My son says now that Struwwelpeter, one of my favorite childhood books, traumatized him. Oh dear.

    Ben Stiller drove past my house yesterday but only my visitors witnessed it. Do I win? Has anyone seen Kevin Bacon?

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  38. From the Geocaching website, the official description of a benchmark I'm going to check out, it's kind of neighborly:

    Documented History (by the NGS)
    1/1/1945 by CGS (MONUMENTED)
    DESCRIBED BY COAST AND GEODETIC SURVEY 1945 8.8 MI NW FROM PENSACOLA. 8.8 MILES NORTHWEST ALONG U.S. HIGHWAY 90 (CERVANTES STREET) FROM THE INTERSECTION OF U.S. HIGHWAY 29 (PALAFOX STREET) AT PENSACOLA, ESCAMBIA COUNTY, THENCE 0.6 MILE SOUTH ALONG A GRADED COUNTY ROAD, 400 FEET NORTH OF A CAMP FOR COLORED PRISORERS, AT A T-ROAD JUNCTION, 33 FEET WEST OF THE CENTERLINE OF THE NORTH-AND-SOUTH ROAD, 21 FEET NORTH OF THE CENTERLINE OF THE EAST-AND-WEST ROAD, 9 FEET SOUTH OF A 10-INCH PINE TREE, AND 3 FEET EAST OF A WHITE WOODEN WITNESS POST. A STANDARD DISK, STAMPED D 111 1945 AND SET IN THE TOP OF A CONCRETE POST.

    Now it's all ranch houses and a main highway. Justin Gatlin lives nearby.

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