Archive | January, 2011

Michael Wm. Kaluta’s Mermaids

30 Jan

So legendary comic book artist Michael Wm. Kaluta lives in a beautiful, jam-packed New York City apartment filled to the brim with wonders. There are books from floor to ceiling practically that he can pull out and open to pages you can just fall into… old old storybooks with ladies draped around the first letter of every chapter, crumbling books you’ve never heard of with passages he’ll read to you that will break your heart wide open. And then there are his own colorful images all around, each of them opening into some new world… And in the main room, right above the television where, a year ago, he and I sat down for a Marlene Dietrich festival because he is the kind of man who can appreciate him some Marlene, and let’s face it that is the best kind of man to be is one of his famous mermaids, her long long tail swooping down and weirdly, wonderfully, turning into the feathers of a peacock…

Here’s a semi-menacing photo of Michael (who is in fact very sweet unless you happen to be a slow-moving pedestrian, and who is regularly moved to tears by loveliness) at his desk taken by photographer extraordinaire Kyle Cassidy:

Photo by Kyle Cassidy

And here he is being slightly less menacing with yours truly at Carnegie Hall, seeing Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester. I know, it was very fancy.

And here are some of his mermaids, a few of my favorites pieces… because who wouldn’t like to hold a mermaid in hand and swim along the ocean floor with some mermaid sprites, dipping into sunken treasures?


I recently sent Michael some questions about his mermaids and mermaids generally, and in his ornate and gentlemanly fashion he replied thusly:

What is it about mermaids that you find so alluring?
Part of the allure of mermaids has to be their sinuous physicality, embodying in their shape the mysterious artful movement of women, combined with the Mermaid’s unavailability. I’m not attracted by the “tempting sailors to their deaths” part of their brief. I know I could never swim to their rocky island havens… but seeing them out of reach, having them offer charms and graces and the heavy suggestion of physical intimacy while my nature forces me to only observe… observe and fantasize: that makes for a very strong attraction point, embracing their mythos, not their promises.

Do you have any specific attraction to the sea… or are mermaids more purely creatures of the imagination to you?
The sea has always frightened me in a thrilling, never-ending way; I’m drawn to it but very cautious of edging too close. I can stand in amazement on its shores and let its rolling depths inspire “all sorts of stuff”. The sea has that permeable, ever-changing but eternal surface under which anything can be right at your feet without you ever having an inkling. There’s a Robert E Howard line from his novel ALMURIC: “My mind peopled the distance with nightmare shapes.” That sums up my take on The Sea as metaphor for What Lies Beneath, The Unconscious, The Hidden, the “PLEASE Don’t Jump Up Out Of The Ocean And Eat Me” frame of respect. Adding Mermaids to The Sea allows me to understand and accept its awesomeness vicariously. Mermaids are very At Home in the Sea… what mysteries it has for them aren’t things that I’d ever have to come to grips with. My fears are their commonplaces. By letting myself identify with a Near-Human creature that is accustomed to the deeps and shallows, friends, or at least associates with all it contains allows me safe access to that wonderland. Once safely underwater as a being who belongs there, I can begin to shape their realities and my fears into strong, evocative imagery another land-bound individual can respond to without getting wet.

Have you always been attracted to magical figures, and mermaids in particular?
As a child Mermaids were, perhaps, the least considered of The Magical Creatures. I grew up surrounded by fields, copses, swampy bottom land and briar patches… the only water, except during a Cape Cod Vacation, was a creek, runnel or even more likely: a mud puddle. The most secret place in that youth was that several inches under a ground cover of may apples… their palmate leaves made a false floor to the woods: if you lay down and looked under them, there was an entire level unseen where little people and other small things could abide. This area wasn’t mysterious at all, nor was any part of the woods. I didn’t think often of centaurs, unicorns or dragons, but I did have a definite Giant: he came out at night, way across the fields, sweeping the ground with a light he held in his hand… He’s probably still there, but turned into a tower on the prison on the island in the river next to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

There was also a Witch’s bower… I never saw the Witch, but the old bushel baskets, clay flower pots, crushed reeds and woven vines that combined to make her nest among the blackberry patch was all I needed to evoke the certainty of her existence.

What is it that you like about drawing/painting them?
Mermaids are so perfectly Art Nouveau: graceful design motifs. I’m naturally inclined to construct stories in picture form to try, by capturing their essence, to enhance the impact of my visual argument. I feel I do my best work when I rely on a visceral reaction to the shapes the individual elements take on, and Mermaids, having such a terrifically evocative shape in themselves, propel me well on my way to a good composition without me having to work from the blank page.

The content of a piece, its “why,” increases dramatically when the shape of a Mermaid is present: because they live inside peoples minds, bringing a Mermaid into a picture also brings their hidden associations into the art.

Over the years, have you refined the way you approach drawing/painting them?
The more I learned about human anatomy and the more I studied fauna the better I could imagine mermaids. I can remember the day I woke up from the common illusion of Mermaids being Women With Tails to the idea Mermaids had the FORM of women, but were creatures in their own right, was the day I began to pay attention to their gills… Eventually gills became quite a strong part of the design element. From my early days of happy, zoftig Mermaids to my days of webbed, gilled seaweed haired ocean dwellers was a series of epiphanies, each one more Ah-HA than the previous… the result was going to books about fish for Mermaid reference as opposed to photo collections of beautiful women.

Why did you once declare that you would only draw mermaids, robots, and mushrooms?
I’d become tapped out drawing the Comic Book Heroes so often asked for when I’d do sketches at Comic Book Conventions. I had a personal belief that each new sketch should have something different than the previous sketches… as imaginative as I felt I was, I ran out of new poses. But with Robots, Mermaid and, of course, Mushrooms, the field was open again! I doubt I could ever run out of compositional ideas using Mermaids!

During the time of the Robot, Mermaid, Mushroom era, I did ONE drawing of The Shadow for a really avid Shadow fan… but I drew him as a fish…

Are you a fan of any other mermaid artists, or any specific mermaid art (including movies, books, etc)?
I’m a fan of all the Mermaid Art I’ve ever seen: the subject doesn’t seem to allow for Bad or Dull art. I couldn’t begin to list the terrific Mermaid art that’s out there: hardly a week passes that my attention isn’t drawn to yet another marvelous Mermaid depiction, often by an artist I’ve never heard of before. Folks who frequent your Mermaid Site will get a good overview of what’s out there for the Mermaid Watcher.

Have you found that people respond to your mermaids in any special, specific way (as opposed to the rest of your art)? That, is do you find that mermaids hold a special attraction for people generally?
There are people who ONLY like my mermaid art, and others who would only care for a Mermaid Drawing if Bat Man were riding her back. Fairly often someone who finds my Mermaid Art delightful, looks me up and finds the “other” art… I get emails from these folks, expressing their happiness at being led to my work through their love of Mermaids.

What about mermen? Have you ever drawn one, or cared?
Several: big guys!!! I can’t say I’ve yet done an iconic Merman, but I think I’ve captured some fine Mermaid images that’ll stand the test of time and taste.

As an expert of sorts, do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
I’d blush to put forth my ideas of What Becomes a Mermaid Most. I could offer my images as possible evocations of “Mermaidliness,” though it seems a cheeky thing to do. I’d be way out of my depth in any other capacity.

Next: the devastating Hannah Mermaid….

Alice Hoffman and Aquamarines

27 Jan

So I am a huge fan of novelist Alice Hoffman and her lovely, lyrical, magic-infused writing, and I am secretly star-struck every time my agent (who is also her agent) mentions her name. Sadly, we have yet to meet and become best friends, though I suspect it is only a matter of time since writers who write about mermaids clearly share an otherworldly bond.

Don’t you totally want to have tea with her in some garden?

Image by Deborah Feingold

ANYWAY, so in addition to writing beautiful adult books (like the just released The Red Garden), Alice Hoffman writes extremely charming books for younger readers and one of those books, Aquamarine (there was a movie, too), is named after a mermaid that two best girlfriends find living in the bottom of a murky old pool, as you do.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

… it was a while before they realized that a mermaid had surfaced at the shallow end of the pool. Her hair was pale and silvery and her nails were a shimmering blue. Between each finger there was a thin webbing, of the sort you might find on a newborn seal or a duck.

“What are you two staring at?” the mermaid said when she turned and saw the girls gaping.

Her voice was as cool and fresh as bubbles rising from the ocean. She was as beautiful as a pearl, with a faint turquoise tinge to her skin and eyes so blue they were the exact same color as the deepest sea. But her watery beauty didn’t mean the mermaid knew her manners.

“Stop looking at me,” she demanded, as she splashed at the girls. “Go away!”

The mermaid’s name was Aquamarine and she was much ruder than most creatures you might find at sea. At sixteen, she was the youngest of seven sisters, and had always been spoiled. She’d been indulged and cared for and allowed to act up in ways no self-respecting mermaid ever would.

Her disagreeable temperament certainly hadn’t improved after spending two nights in the pool, tossed there like a stone or a sea urchin at the height of the terrible storm. Chlorine had seeped into her sensitive skin and silver scales dropped from her long, graceful tail. She hadn’t eaten anything more than a mouthful of that horrible herring the girls had strewn into the pool.

“You heard me,” Aquamarine said to Hailey and Claire, who were mesmerized by her gleaming tail and by the way the mermaid could dive so quickly, she disappeared in a luminous flash. When she surfaced through the seaweed she was not pleased to see they were still there. “Scram,” she said. “Stop bothering me.”

The mermaid glided into the deep end of the pool, the better to see Raymond at the snack bar. She had been watching him ever since she found herself stranded in the pool. His was the first human face she saw. She gazed at him with a bewildered expression, the sure sign of a mermaid in love.

I know. She’s amazing.

I emailed Ms. Hoffman a few penetrating questions and here are her luminous responses:

Why are you attracted to magic in your own fiction? Have you always been attracted to the supernatural and otherwordly?
I grew up reading fairy tales, and then fantasy and science fiction. But magic is in nearly all great fiction, from Wuthering Heights to Kafka’s great stories.

What inspired you to write Aquamarine, and about a mermaid?
Aquamarine was inspired by the summer I spent at a town beach club in Long Island when I was a young girl. Magical place. And mermaids are empowered, beautiful, dreamy, timeless, who wouldn’t want to be one? Or at least write about one.

What do you think of mermaids and their continual appeal? And in what ways does the figure of the mermaid appeal to you personally?
I’m not sure I understand the appeal of mermaids, but it’s there for most girls and women. Personally, I was born under the sign of the fish, always lived near water, and always looked for mermaids.

Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Aspiring mermaids should always live near water, wear the color blue, buy aquamarines when available, search the horizon. Rescue themselves and anyone else who happens to be drowning.


Come back on Monday, when I talk to artist (and mermaid draw-er) extraordinaire Michael Wm. Kaluta.

Tim Gunn Talks about Mermaids

23 Jan

So I had a deep suspicion that my one true love Tim Gunn might appreciate the strangeness and wondrousness of mermaids, and I emailed him and asked if he’d talk to me for a bit about mermaids and fashion for my brand new blog – and this, my very first post. Because as you will see and as this blog becomes filled with wonders over the next many months mermaids are everywhere in our lives and culture, including the bust- and hemlines of the extremely glamorous mermaid gown. And Tim Gunn knows everything. When he agreed, even gallantly claiming to be “honored” by my request, I done fainted dead away and had to be revived with smelling salts. And then the following took place.


I know. He is awesome.

Do you feel that mermaids and mermaidly allure have a place in today’s fashion world?

When we consider the catalysts that are essential for inspiration in the fashion industry, few have the staying power or the potency of mermaids, owing largely to the fact that mermaids have been part of world literature, lore, art, and artifact for such a very long time. There will always be a place for mermaid-inspired fashion, providing that the designs are conceived in a manner that’s relevant to the current moment.

In what ways do you think that women can add mermaidly allure to their own wardrobes?
Mermaids aren’t afraid to show off their curves and celebrate their gender. This is what gives them such extraordinary allure, at least in my humble view. There’s a fashion lesson is this: dress for your curves and your womanliness, wear clothes that fit well, and walk – or swim – with confidence. Finally, never turn down a sequin or paillette.

What do you think of the mermaid dress? Do you have any favorite examples?
The mermaid dress is, by definition, about drama; form-fitting from bust to knee (and usually strapless) and with a cascading burst of fabric from the knee to the floor. You find them in abundance on the red carpet and some of the most beautiful are by Marchesa. But my favorite mermaid-inspired garment is the mermaid sheath, which was introduced in the late ‘60’s by the legendary Norman Norell. His sequined covered gown quickly became an American fashion classic.

Can you describe any other mermaid-inspired fashion? What did you think of Gaultier’s 2008 collection, for example?
Gaultier is ever the showman. I found his fall 2008 couture collection to be expectedly over-the-top and, frankly, entirely too literal and, therefore, costumey for my taste. However, the look from the collection that Marion Cotillard wore to the Academy Awards was stunning. (For me, evaluating fashion is all about context; who’s wearing it and for what purpose.) And owing to the fact that Ms. Cotillard won an Oscar that year, Gaultier’s dress received a lot of attention, a lot of very positive attention.

What do you think the appeal of mermaids is in general? Are you yourself a fan?
I’m a huge fan of mermaids (and mermen for that matter), because their place in art and literature is so long-standing (3,000 years!) and crosses every culture and region of the globe. There will always be a fascination with creatures that transcend the world as we know it, and mermaids are among the more accessible of those creatures.

Do you think there is any place for merMEN in the fashion world, and do you have any advice for aspiring mermen who might be feeling a bit overlooked?
I always say that fashion is so much easier for men than it is for women, but I need to recalibrate that thought when it comes to mermen, because it strikes me that they pose more of a fashion challenge than mermaids. Fortunately, a merman’s fashion need only be addressed from the waist up. This means that plenty of options are available, from a classic polo shirt to a full-on tuxedo (minus pants, of course). Though we must be reminded that color options for a merman’s apparel should be informed by the color of his flesh and scales.

Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids (and mermen)?
Advice? Don’t let the world aquatic compromise your personal style and…practice holding your breath.


Next up: novelist Alice Hoffman.

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