By Elisha Cooper
I live in New York. I have two daughters, and no dog. When I was a child, we had dogs roaming all over our farm. Because of the freedom they enjoyed, I’ve always been apprehensive about having a dog in the city. Someday we will get a dog, I think.
When I began work on Homer two summers ago, I thought I was giving my family a dog. Sketches of dogs, photographs of the dog I had growing up (whose name was Homer), and layouts with dogs were taped all over the walls of our Greenwich Village apartment. My daughters pointed out that this was a poor substitute.
I started painting. I’ve read that making a painting perfect is as simple as making yourself perfect. This sounds a little mystical, I know, but with my books I have always sought to manage this feeling and make it work for me.
I have some rules:
Get out of the house in the morning. I start the day by biking over to Gimme! Coffee on Mott Street.
Buy a coffee. I get a cortado, an espresso with a little milk.
Read the Times. It helps if there’s a story that’s particularly outrageous.
Then I bike back to our apartment and turn on Green Day or The Shins as loud as I can and get to work.
With music blaring and caffeine kicking, the paintings usually take care of themselves. If I’m drawing a tractor or a rooster, the essence of the tractor — its tractorness — comes easily to me. My hand takes over. But as I started painting Homer, something was off. Maybe because I was drawing faces for the first time. Or maybe because I was trying to capture the dog’s expression, or the expression of the girls. So even though I turned the music up louder, and drank more coffee, after a week nothing was coming out right and all the paintings I’d started had ended up in the trash.
This is a book about an old dog. I’m not a person given to much reflection, but as I kept struggling I began to see that this old dog was me, too. That I was sitting at home, watching my family come and go. Seeing my wife off to teach at NYU and my daughters off to summer camp. I was watching them go out into their days. But also, in some larger sense, into their lives. Heading off on their next chapter or adventure, then coming back to me. And it was this feeling, of sadness and hope, that had a way of sitting and worrying around inside me, then seeping out of my arm and into my pencil and into my brush and down onto the paper. The paintings started to look the way I wanted them to.
For the rest of the summer, after my morning coffee and newspaper, I would sit at my desk and cast my eye inward: I am watching my daughters. I am watching them go out into the world. I am filled with worry, and wonder, and the hope that they turn out okay. I sit to the side and watch, holding my breath.
Elisha Cooper is the author of a number of acclaimed picture books, including Homer, which is on sale now. You can visit him at his website or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/elisha.cooper.author.