Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is painter, singer-songwriter, humorist, mystery/suspense and time travel novelist Natalie Buske Thomas @writernbt
Soundtrack by Enya
Grandpa Smiles is an oil painting picture book about how Grandpa watches over a boy throughout his life, though he can be with him only in spirit. My father lost his battle to cancer when he was 37 years old. I told my son that my dad was a cardinal in the tree, watching him laugh and play. Grandpa Smiles is a sweet timeless story: family is forever, love lives on. But how could I communicate the beauty of loss in so few words when my heart had so much to say?
My Undercover Soundtrack for the writing and painting of this project was Enya, and only Enya. Nothing else would do! As you can probably imagine, it’s hard for me not to get pulled into the music when I paint. My paintbrush tends to ‘dance’ to the beat, so there were a few Enya songs that I couldn’t listen to because the music was too distracting. But if I didn’t play the songs that made it into my ‘loop’ I froze!
Music to grieve by
One illustration combines two oil paintings onto one page. The boy (a painting created for the book) looks at a picture of his grandpa (a painting created previously). The picture of Grandpa is an oil painting of my parents’ wedding day. Dad is wearing his military dress uniform, he was leaving soon for the Vietnam War. The painting was featured in a gallery exhibit called ‘Touched by War’. My dad has been gone a long time now, over 25 years. My mom is gone now too. I didn’t realise how overwhelming it would be to paint a portrait of their young selves in their wedding clothes. I was doing fine until I painted their eyes, that was when I lost myself in Enya’s It’s in the Rain.
Beauty in pain
Sometimes the art came to me first and other times the words did. I needed a seasonal picture, so I looked through my son’s photo box for inspiration. I found a picture of my son jumping in a pile of leaves on our old hobby farm. The property was a beautiful five-acre parcel that my husband and I built into a home for our young family of five, but we had to sell it seven years later, when layoffs and pay cuts hit my husband’s company hard. Around this same time, my mother had passed. It was time to move on. We left behind the land where our children played. As I painted the image of my son playing in the leaves, my heart was breaking. My little boy was now a young man. Where had the time gone? (Only Time, says Enya.) But through the color of my paints, he is forever that child who laughed in the leaves. No matter where he goes, his moment of joy in the leaves lives forever. (On my Way Home)
Love lives on
One of my favorite pictures in the book says ‘The child leaps’, followed by ‘Grandpa helps’ on the next page. I painted an image of my son in his Superman costume with his arm outstretched, his fist pumped, and his eyes sparkling. Grandpa is portrayed as the face in the wind that lifts his cape so that my son can fly. (Hope has a Place.)
Grandpa Smiles was meant to be a heartwarming story, nothing more. My career as an oil painter was exhausting. I didn’t want to do gallery exhibits anymore. I already had a career as a novelist, why was I running myself ragged? What if I combined my art with my writing? It was meant to be that simple. But watching my son’s face when he saw the book for the first time was like witnessing him receiving a message from heaven. Later, I brought a few copies with me at the Doctor Who convention in Minneapolis. I expected to sign my time travel fiction, but people were more interested in Grandpa Smiles. Strangers flipped through the book in front of me and became emotional – I had no idea that my book could touch people like this. Besides strangers, my dad’s family was moved to tears. My aunt asked me to send a gift copy to a family friend I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. This family friend sent me a handwritten thank-you note. In the note she mentioned that the painting of my parents was very recognisable. I didn’t realize how important it was that I capture my parents’ likeness until I read her words. A project that had a simple concept, simple words, and simple pictures turned out to be anything but simple.
Natalie Buske Thomas is an oil painter, singer/songwriter, humorist and the author of over a dozen books. She is currently working on her first album Painting my Songs that will combine her music, writing, and art into one project. Watch Natalie paint, try one of her Serena Wilcox books for free, or learn the secrets to her success in her new book Nice Authors Finish Last. Find her on Twitter @writernbt