Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ellen Sandbeck's Buddha-A-Day and Other Projects

At one time she was making original papercut designs in stencil books for Dover Publications. After five or six years and eleven books of graphics, she embarked on a path of self-publishing, first with a booklet on growing worms for compost and then her innovative Slug Bread & Behaded Thistles. The success of this latter landed her a contract with Broadway Books in New York, who re-published this initial gem and then her subsequent Eat More Dirt. Scribner’s brought her next two volumes to market, Organic Gardening, and Green Barbarians. As an artist she returned to stencil cut-outs and produced a year’s worth of Buddha-related images which she shared on Facebook.

EN: How did you first come to take an interest in art?
Ellen Sandbeck: Hmmmm.... I've always been intensely visual. I used to annoy other kids when I was young, because I would stare at them so intensely. I couldn't really help it. A few years ago I realized that the reason that I became a bookworm, when I was a kid, started with book illustrations. I just loved looking at the illustrations, and eventually that pleasure translated into taking pleasure in books in general, as well as with the written word. Ooops! I guess I got slightly off topic there, but to get back to the point, I've been making art since I first learned to hold a crayon, and I guess I just haven't stopped.

EN: What led you to tackle your Buddha-a-Day project a couple years back?
ES: I came up with the idea for “A Buddha A Day” by accident. When I was visiting my sister in Santa Cruz several years ago, her boyfriend brought us to the Buddhist Center where he volunteered, and showed us around. We hiked on miles of beautiful trails through the redwood forest, all on the Buddhist Center's property, went into the temple buildings, spun the giant prayer wheels and rang the huge peace bell, and he talked about what he did as a volunteer. He said that he and other volunteers "cut images of the Buddha out of paper."

Well, as they say, when the only tool one possesses is a hammer, everything in the world starts to look like a nail. When I heard the words "paper" and "cut" and "Buddha" I assumed that papercut images of the Buddha were being created anew, and my heart leapt within me, and I thought "I could do that! I want to do that! I should do one every day for a year! That would be great!" But then my sister's boyfriend elucidated, and it turned out that he wasn't making papercut images, he and the other volunteers were cutting printed images of the Buddha out of printed materials that Buddhists brought to the Center, because the paper couldn't be recycled until the images had been removed, so that the images would not be destroyed along with the paper. The cut out Buddha images were put into little containers and stored in one of the temples.

I felt a little let down when I heard this, but the idea of doing Buddha papercuts really stuck in my head. After I finished the manuscript I was working on (Green Barbarians) and sent it off to the publisher, I started thinking very seriously about embarking on the year-long project. A few months later I started and, like just about every other large project I have ever done, it turned out that I had wildly underestimated how much time it would take to do a papercut of the Buddha. Before I began, I thought "I'm a really fast paper cutter. This project should only take up a couple of hours a day." The shortest amount of time I spent on a single Buddha was about 4 hours. The longest amount of time I spent on a single Buddha was 14 hours.

EN: What did you learn from the experience of doing A Buddha A Day?
ES: I learned that I still really love looking at images of the Buddha. I learned that I could sustain a very demanding daily practice that brought in absolutely no money, and kept me from doing much of anything of any practical use, for an entire year, and my husband still loved me and did not demand a divorce.

EN: How did it make you feel to see the spine of one of your books painted on the pillar that holds up the east wing of the Duluth Public Library?
ES: I was astounded! One of the librarians called to invite me to the ceremony celebrating the mural, and I was amazed, and flattered, and pleased, and just completely happy! I'm a huge, huge fan and user of libraries. I went, of course, and was surprised to see that I was one of only two local writers whose book was depicted in the mural, who showed up for the ceremony. The only other writer who was there for the ceremony is one of the library's librarians. I couldn't imagine not being there for the unveiling!

EN: What are you working on right now?
ES: My garden, for one thing, but also, the papercut that I meant to finish in time for [my husband] Walt's father's day present, as well as a book that I've been collecting material for, for the past eight years! The research phase is so much fun that I'm having a bit of trouble switching into writing gear.

EN: Everything in its time. Thanks for all your stories. Keep 'em flowin'.

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