Imagining Spring in December

Imagining Spring: Collaboration with Three Teens

by Sushmita Mazumdar, mixed media on canvas. 2018

Today, I posted this on the Studio’s social media, @studiopause on Instagram and on Facebook as studiopausebysush: And another print of my painting Imagining Spring is sold! And some thoughts:
• Why did I get 3 prints when I ordered 2? 
• It’s my only painting using pinks. Is that what people are liking?

#somuchmorethanart #artstoriescommunity #painting #artists

Then I decided to write a blog post about it. Its been ages since I last wrote one but the time is good. So here it is: 

One winter in the small Studio I got a text from a mom. Her daughter was bored during winter break and missed her friends. “Can they come over to the Studio and paint?”

I had a huge canvas and I set it out for the teens. The friends sat around painting this from all sides simultaneously. They each squeezed out acrylic colors onto their palette papers and tried their favorite techniques and explored some others I showed them. They looked up flowers on their phones, chatted, texted, played their favorite music.

They worked on it over several days but when they left each day, I did the clean up — as is my practice at the Studio. I noticed one teen put out very little paint and took more as needed. Another teen squeezed out lots of paint of each color and left a lot of it unused. I think the third teen’s palette must have been “just right.” Not a waster at all and always curious I pulled out a painting my neighbor gave me when she moved—cherry blossoms on a grey background—one she had started and given up on. She also gave me all the paints and brushes she had bought to do it. The pink paints were hers.

I put the teens palette papers onto this canvas and ran a brayer over it. The paints transferred on in various ways. The randomness fascinated me! I did this after each session the teens came in for, my painting forming as theirs did.

Then one day my family went to see the last Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug. I was so upset that the whole movie was in greys and dark tones. Of course, it worked with the story, but I sat imagining Laketown in the spring and how wonderful it would be. But I never saw it on screen.

Then I saw a tree appear in my painting. And boats on water. This is Laketown and I’m imagining spring, I thought.

People who visit the studio cannot believe I made this painting. Pink? You never use pink, they say. But I did! It was their colors. And then I added my favorite song lyrics to it and it became all mine.

And that’s the story of this collaboration.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!

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Goodbye, Sweet Space!

at the studioSomeone I was to meet today just let me know that they are at the wrong address. I checked my website and noticed I haven’t updated the location page as yet. And I find this photo—with Anne Marie, Ken and his daughter, and my son Arijit, and husband Jay, (the photographer) all of who helped me paint the studio and hang up the sign, and make it what it became.

This September we completed 3 years of Studio Pause, and as I start Year Four, I have to let go my lease of the original space. The second location in Ballston became the favorite as people liked showing their work in the bigger space, found the closeness to the Metro a gift, and relaxed with the ample parking. And yet, others who knew the original space enjoyed the intimacy there, found “spaciousness,” and helped it grow.

But before the lease on the original studio was up we had one last Writing PAUSE there, or as studio member Mary Louise Marino called it, a Writing PAUSE soireé.

Like every Writing PAUSE, I had art prompts for the writers. This time it was the Empty Walls. Here’s what people wrote. And you can find photos from that session here. Thanks to everyone who joined in over the years to make this idea happen. I could not have done any of this without you.
these empty walls
by Mary
these empty walls of
baked clay and endless sky
of earth harvesting ideas
that sprout a show of creative
these walls filled with expressions
of art, writing, making
memory, sharing, belonging
for a moment to take in the past
and imagine all that is yet to be
on new walls, a new space,
new art, story, community
the endless sky awaits
“Eulogy” for Studio Pause
by Sharmila
The body discards
the soul remains.
Each entity a baked claycomes to being.
The possibilities of a soul’s journey
comparable to an endless sky.
your time of existencewas oh so precious!
You nurtured me, accepted me,
Helped me express & explore.
In the comfort of your arms
I could dream without boundaries.
You helped me pause, reflect
and reclaim…
…an identity that I had left
somewhere in my past
Thank you for endless sweet memories…
Although your soul moves ahead
for a higher purpose
The emptiness on the walls
celebrate your existence…
with an assurance that you
have moved on to change
other lives in another form.
The other place needs you more
even though you leave a void
you also give the assurance
of filling it up with newer dreams.
Many blessings for your soul’s journey
to touch many more beings.
Your legacy shall never be forgotten.
It’s the baton I will carry in my heart
and keep the legacy alive.
—A heartfelt closure to a sacred space that
meant to me more than any words can describe.
Ode to the Studio That Started It All
by Rachel 
These walls are not blank!  They are full of memories… a black and white photo of a landscape filled with unusual machinery, teasing my imagination to go beyond the limitations of the structure and explore new meaning… a lunch bag covered in creative love meant just for his daughter, who will always be his little girl, brown-bagging her lunch to school… raindrops so skillfully shaded with pencil, bringing a whole new meaning to 50 shades of gray… a collage of an Angel with so many colors that I can’t help but feel grateful as I read the word “gratitude,” so perfectly placed on this pretty wall…
The walls are now screaming with their own gratitude at the amazing woman who has entered their space for the last few years:
“Thank you for loving me!
Thank you for opening the eyes of the community
to all the possibilities
that a blank wall can bring!”
Kara Billings, who has been part of the Studio since the day it opened (and since she was Kara Clifford), was unwell that day but she sent her writing by email.
Building a Life of Magic
By Kara

The music brings color back to the landscape. I look out the window. At the same time, “look out the window” is sung.
Yesterday, I thought of elephants for the first time in…months? a year? I was at the zoo for a company picnic and my co-workers and I were talking about how sad it was to keep such intelligent creatures in captivity. For some reason, I had wanted to see the elephants only. I had decided that morning. But they weren’t anywhere to be seen when I went to find them. I got home, and I opened a birthday package from my grandmother. A book called “Elephant Whisperer” was sitting in between tissue paper.
What does this have to do with the studio? Three years ago, when D.C. was a new, lonely place, I got a postcard in the mail.
Are the signs swirling around us, like leaves to catch, or are they always knocking on our door, trying to find a way in?
That studio, for me, was learning how to live a life filled with magic (it was also a place to laugh, cry, meet new people, make new friends, fall back on, seek advice, to introduce others, to try, experiment, learn). The cool blue walls and burnt orange will linger in my mind, as will the smell — of glue and paint and fresh fall air.
You just need a spark to get started. Remember.
And here is what I wrote:
Empty Walls
by Sush
What exactly is empty?
A washed teacup?
But it holds memories of many
teas with friends or alone.
Blank walls?
But I can still see every artwork—
sparkling ceramic birds in a flight of imagination
and brown paper lunch bags full of a dad’s love.
Words like Hometown
carefully arranged from many other words.
I felt the phantom pain of the amputee
whose photo used to be there
as the man remembered the day
everything changed.
The woman who sang of the Andes
her eyes closed
yet looking at the painting of the mountains.
The clothesline full of shirts
with poetry on them
surrounded with books from childhoods.
Art done with black gauche and twigs—
I’m going to do that next week!
So is that wall empty?
Sure it is!
Because all that art
is in me now.
All those stories
are now my story.
This space, like the Tardis,
is much more than we see.
We have to let it be like that.
And create others…
I have to let it be
Inside me
Full. Not empty.
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Stories of Interviews: Columbia Pike Recipes for You 2016

The brand new restaurant on The Pike, Sofia's Pupuseria, where I had my first baleada.

The brand new restaurant on the Pike, Sofia’s Pupuseria, where I had my first baleada. Two weeks later, a participant at my story-sharing and art-making workshop drew a picture of her hometown with a Baleada shop and Arlington with a McDonald’s.

Did you know that restaurant owners are very busy people? Over our wettest May ever and the perpetual construction on good ol’ Columbia Pike I am thrilled to report that despite their businesses being hectic I have collected 12 interviews and recipes for my Columbia Pike Recipe Book for You 2016 project.

This Arlington Arts project is about celebrating the food diversity of Columbia Pike and getting to know the stories of the hardworking, creative, and courageous restaurant owners and chefs that make up that vibrant community. I interviewed independently-owned restaurants on the Pike, and designed their stories and recipes into individual pages of a book. These will be displayed on a custom-designed “menu board” where you will be able to see the diversity, pick the recipes you like, and assemble them into your very own book, binding them with a cinnamon stick, birchwood spoon, or bamboo chopsticks—whatever catches your fancy!

Stop by my art tent at the Columbia Pike Blues Fest 2016 on Sat. June 18th, 1-8 pm, to make your own Columbia Pike Recipes for You book and find out more.

Meanwhile, here are some highlights:

  1. One restaurant owner shared many little details of her life story with me—some very personal to share with a stranger you might think. But then again, sharing with a stranger is often easier. She told me of the time she had decided to open a restaurant. When her husband said he’d lend her the money she told him she didn’t need it as she had her own money saved up. So right there in her restaurant I gave her a high five and told her she was awesome. She giggled like a little girl. I felt great too, knowing there were strong women all around me, whether I knew their story or didn’t.
  2. Then there was the chef who wouldn’t let me take his photo. He needed a shave he said, and no matter how many times I told him the stubble was in, he didn’t oblige. After he went into the kitchen I asked the bartender if he was a shy person. Before he could answer the chef came bursting out of the kitchen saying, “Shy? I’m the opposite of shy! I talk to everyone. Today, I’m just busy.” We all laughed. Then his bartender asked me where he could buy art supplies. He was an artist and had moved here three weeks ago. So I invited him to come to the Studio and paint.
  3. A woman chef on the other hand, proudly posed for the photo in her flour-dusted apron. That was her make-up, we joked—the flour—and the restaurants she had created thanks to it. She offered to share more of her story, especially with young women, to help them on the journey of life. To learn from others’ mistakes is much better than making all of them yourself, she said.
  4. Another restaurant owner thanked me for taking the time to do this project. At first I was surprised but then I got goosebumps as I explained to her the name of my Studio and pointed to my business card by her elbow. She put a hand on her heart as she looked at my card, and said that this work was very important. Learning about each other through our individual stories was a great way to learn about our community as a whole.
  5. A restaurant manager started unbuttoning his shirt when I told him how I will invite the public to make their own Columbia Pike recipe books at the Blues Festival. He then showed me his Columbia Pike Blues Festival T-Shirt that he wore underneath! He went on to tell me how the owner of his restaurant was the hardest working person he had ever met. When I came in to interview her on Memorial Day she was mopping the floor. “The lady who was supposed to do it had something to do so I said I’ll do it,” she said later. “Its my restaurant so its no problem.”
  6. One of the chefs has a degree in computer science from George Mason University. But he has been cooking with his mom since he was 10 years old. It was in his fourth restaurant that he finally served food from his culture. He did it well, he said, and felt it was time.
  7. Somebody told me to get the story of the restaurant that has a certain popular American food in its name but doesn’t even serve it anymore. How can that be? So I got the story and its an incredible one. Yet they kept the name, the owner told me, because everybody knows them by that name—here and abroad!
  8. One owner told me how he didn’t change the cuisine of the restaurant he bought to serve food from his country. It was because he didn’t want to compete with the restaurant next door which did serve food from his country. “My brother wanted to have his own restaurant and we were happy to return to Arlington from Maryland,” he said, so they stayed with serving Peruvian and Bolivian food.
  9. And I met the best bartenders on Columbia Pike. They told me their restaurant was the “Cheers” bar of the neighborhood. Everybody knew each other there! I went home and asked my husband what the Cheers Bar was. I have only been here 17 years after all. She has been here much longer.
  10. When I asked one restaurant owner when I could interview and photograph her she gave me a date and said she would get her hair done. Her mom owns the hairdressers next door to the restaurant. Remembering the story of her mom’s “We Can Do It” attitude kept me going when things got tough on this project.
  11. One restaurant owner had decorated his restaurant with 30-40 year old photographs from his childhood hometown and country, taken by a photographer friend there. It helps him create the right atmosphere even as current sports play on the TVs on the walls.
  12. Running a restaurant was in his family, a partner at another restaurant said. His dad and uncle have been doing it for decades. He went to high school in Washington-Lee but decided to join his dad and uncle because he wanted to give back to the community and the community seemed to love food from his country.

Riyad Bouizar, owner and chef of Mazagan on Columbia Pike.

Some stats that jumped out at me when I finished the designs are listed below. Remember, I just let the restaurant owners and chefs tell me what they wanted to share. I did not have a set of questions for them.

  • All 12 partners I spoke to (or their parents who started the restaurants) are foreign-born.
  • 8 of 12 told me they had worked in restaurants before opening their own.
  • The dates of when people told me they came here from Bolivia or El Salvador relate to the dates of the economic crisis in Bolivia and civil war in El Salvador.
  • 2 mentioned going to culinary school and 9 told me they finished high school in Arlington.
  • 9 serve food from their native countries.

So I kept visiting the various restaurants—at 9 am and even at 9:45 pm— chatting with staff, managers, and owner’s spouses or siblings, just trying to get an interview and a recipe, or trying to convince an owner or chef that this was a good idea to participate in this project. Along the way I listened to babies crying when I was on the phone with an owner, and stumbled across language barriers as well. I got a free baleada, mango lassi, 2 lunches, and 2 coffees thanks to the owners’ generosity and hospitality. After all, it’s about making the time to build community and share our stories.

And it seems to happen best around food!

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88 Rupees

hanging Zari booksIts two days after the celebration of the work and the stories of immigrant artist entrepreneurs— members of the Studio PAUSE community—hosted by the Institute of Immigration Research at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

It is the day a new Facebook friend finds an old photo of my Hanging Zari Books on my feed and comments on it. I follow the link there to an old page that doesn’t exist anymore, a page where I had posted a story of the man who worked with me on it, a man I have known for years.

In a couple months, my niece from Mumbai, India, will be going to GMU for undergrad.

So I thought its time to share the story again.


“Hello, Kiran bhai. Is my stuff ready yet?”

Kiran bhai nodded, pulling out a stuffed plastic bag from near his feet. “Here. Take a look.”

I started to count out the pieces of gorgeous zari fabric borders he had cut and sewn into small rectangles for me. I would use them to make covers for small hanging journals when I returned to my studio in Arlington, VA.

“How many covers could you make from those borders I gave you?”

“There were five meters in each color —purple, red, pink, green, and yellow—and you wanted them 8 inch long right? I made 88 pieces.”

“Eighty eight! So my calculations were all wrong.” I laughed shaking my head.

He smiled and kept working. “Take a look. See if you like them.”

“This looks great. Your work is very neat.”

He smiled again and kept working, his eyes on the fabric, his feet a blur on the sewing machine pedal.

I wondered how long he had been doing this. Probably learned it from his father or uncle when he was fourteen. Now his hair is greying. I have been coming to his shop with my mother since I was little.

“I wish I was staying longer,” I said. “I could have got a lot of stuff made from you but I leave in two days.”

“Where are you going?” he asked as usual, without looking up from his work. His sewing machine whirred continuously even when he did look up. The fabric moved in unnatural ways and his fingers guided them along, pulled them off, added a new piece.

“I live in America.”

“America? My son is going to America too!” he beamed.

“He is? Wow!”

“Yes, he got into mechanical engineering. He did very well in his studies!”

“That is wonderful. Congratulations!” I smiled. “Where will he be going? Which university?”

“I’m sorry bhabhi, but I can’t even say those American names,” Kiran bhai laughed. “He’ll be staying with his cousin—that’s all I know. She’s been there for six years. And so I don’t have to worry.’

I smiled, and looked around the sparse 12×12 room Kiran bhai shared with three other tailors. You walked in the doors and entered a U of three counters. Kiran bhai sat at the bottom of the U, his counter a bit short to accommodate the sewing machine. He did the “beading” or interlocking of the edges to keep the fabric from unraveling. Another man—who was taking a nap on the floor behind his counter, lying in a straight line with arms crossed on his chest—sewed petticoats, long skirts which women in India wear under their saris. The third man who was sipping tea with his elbows resting on the counter and his hands holding his chai to his lips was a “tailor master” the man who measured and cut sari blouses that were then sewn by other tailors somewhere up in the loft.

Kiran bhai offered me a glass of tea too. I sipped the tea as the famous Mumbai monsoons poured outside.

“Take your time,” Kiran bhai motioned with his hand. There was nowhere to sit. I leaned on a counter and blew on the cutting chai to cool it down, a precious half-glass of sweet, cooked-not-steeped, tea.

“So I guess your son won’t be taking on the family business, huh?” I smiled at Kiran bhai.

Kiran bhai’s face changed. “You mean—this?” he swung his eyes around the room. His cheeks were sunken. He had just recovered from pink-eye.

“Yes. Didn’t you teach him?” I knew that tailoring ran in families and the tailoring community stayed together, worked together, and shared jobs with each other. It was a huge industry in Mumbai.

“No, no! He doesn’t even know what I do!”

“What do you mean?” I was shocked. “Hasn’t he ever been here?”

“No, no, no, no, no. Never! I have never brought him here.” He looked away and resumed working.

I finished my tea, embarrassed to have embarrassed my kind host. But how was I to imagine this subject would upset him? I counted the pieces he had sewed for me. I figured out the money I owed him but it didn’t seem right. “How much for all this, Kiran bhai?”

“Eight eight rupees,” he said, without looking up from his work.

I handed him the money. He took it, turned and touched it to a framed picture of goddess Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, on a shelf behind him. Then, he put it in his shirt pocket.

“If you need anything else, you know my shop. I am here everyday,” he still didn’t look up from his work.

“Thank you,” I said, opening my umbrella and stepping out into the Mumbai rain. That year 88 Rupees converted to $1.65.

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Dream Room, Dream Commission

At a recent art grants panel discussion we talked about how artists who wrote in their applications about projects already panned were so much more impressive than applications where artists just wanted the money to experiment, maintain their studios, or buy new materials. So who gives artists grant money to spend time and energy trying out something new? Giving them time off to experiment without worrying about money?

At another panel discussion, Immigrants, Entrepreneurship, and the Artsnot one week after, we talked about how artists create art to sell and survive. But why did it have to be connected to sales, a panelist asked? Why can’t artists just create—that IS what artists do isn’t it? If the artist doesn’t sell or make money is he/she not an artist? Does art have to have a function and monetary value? What are there other values connected with what artists create? Can they be paid to just create? Was that the job of a patron, the state, or the public?

photo 1-5So it was with great trepidation that I finally opened the box I had been sent from the National Building Museum. They had commissioned me to create a Dream Room to be showcased (with 24 others done by 24 other local artists and architects), at their upcoming show Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse.

What story would I tell? I had to send them a title but how can you have a title without a story? At one Writing PAUSE session at the Studio, it all came out as a poem. A poem titled: Time Warp through Coraline’s Door and into Alibaba’s Treasure Cave! Yeah, crazy. How could I ever send them that?? Meanwhile the box was closed and taped up again and it was almost April. My friend Susan visited the studio and panicked on my behalf. “You have 22 days left! Hurry! Do something!”

photo 1-4I had sent in the title. And with the crazy out of my head, I started work. Dream was easy—a room with a thought-bubble rug. The title led to a tiny Coraline’s door, if you’ve read Neil Gaiman or seen the movie by Tim Burton. And treasure. And a bed and window, like in my bedroom at home in Mumbai. After all most of my stories come to me as I sleep…

It might be hard to see the poem in the Dream Room. The poem lists many characters from my days in India—people I saw everyday, or every week, some I saw every week for 12 years like the banana seller. It had conversations I remember—some to be completed later and now its too late. Questions I had never asked. Songs I have never since sung. Voices I will never hear again. A place where everybody was younger, and some, alive.

Then there were the 3 blank walls of the box. Too small for me to paint but perfect for collage! Yes, paper is what I work with and paper is what everything will be. People, bed linen, floors, ceilings, doors and windows.

Now how do I show the treasure? Was it faces on gold coins—like Alibaba’s treasure? How would I create that? I don’t work in metal nor can I draw faces. Then what about the words and stories? I walked through art supply store aisles and looked for something to make burlap sacks out of. Maybe I can alter pennies?

photo 3-4As I started to get really nervous, I went to my happy place. Tearing up beautiful handmade paper and making them into little books, sewed and ready to be filled with stories. I stitched some to the ceiling of the box, collaged with black paper sprinkled with mica. The museum folk will be installing LED lights to every Dream Room ceiling. I can’t wait to see if mine sparkles… a constellation of untold stories. I brought a little wooden treasure chest from the craft store. The treasure was colorful but blank books, waiting to be filled with the stories and conversations lost to time!

But how do I show time warp? I asked my husband, a Trekkie, and he made some weird sounds with his hands going up and down, up and down. I settled on tears in space—and I did have a painting about the Milky way didn’t I? I pulled out a print and copied it onto Hanji paper. I tore and glued, tore and glued and wrapped the back wall. I put the window on it.

The magic I experienced with the freedom to create, with no jury to judge, with no materials limiting me except those I chose myself. No plans except my own, changing everyday. It was a freeing experience, a learning experience. It was exploration, and research. It was joyous too, as recorded in text messages I sent my friend Sharmila while sharing sneak peeks of the work in progress.

photo 5-1It was strange knowing that the box will be gone soon, like so many dreams. But it will reside in a museum from May 2016 to January 2017. Then, it will be somewhere else, on a journey of its own…

And by the way, I changed the title in the end. Its now called Time Warp through Coraline’s Door and into Treasure! I removed Alibaba and the Cave. I kept the exclamation mark in the end!



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Not Just Any ol’ Cherry Blossoms

by Studio Pause member Colleen Moore

colleen's cherry blossomsI have lived in the DC area off and on since 1994. One of the things I have always wanted to do was go see the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, but I never did.

When I first moved here, I just simply never made it down to the Tidal Basin during the spring. I do not know why, but I just never did. When I moved back here in 2004, I weighed over 300 pounds and was very sick. I could barely walk or breathe and going to walk around the Tidal Basin was an impossibility. I really regretted not only gaining so much weight, but also not taking advantage of the opportunity to experience one of DC’s best spring-time events years earlier when walking was not such an issue. You really do not know what a gift walking is until you lose the ability to do so without effort.

In 2012, I resolved to do something about my weight and overall health. I had the gastric by-pass surgery and lost 127 pounds. I can now walk and breathe without any effort at all. This has opened up a whole new world for me. And every year since the surgery, I have made it a point to go see the blossoms in the spring. I love those walks and cherish every minute because I know what it is to not be able to make that walk. I look forward to it every year, now.

I have taken hundreds of pictures during these walks. These photos represent the new life I have created for myself. I have printed up my favorites and will be selling them at the Holiday PAUSE: Bookmaking and Art Sale at Studio Pause this Saturday, December 19, 2015. I hope you will join me!


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2 Years


When Kara isn’t writing she is busy drawing on the paper that covers the Studio tables.

By Studio Member Kara Billings

2 Years:
It’s been two years since I got a little postcard in the mail, with messy fonts and a cute woman’s face smiling at me. Two years since my husband said, “Why don’t you try this?”, and two years since I paused, trying to think of a reason to say no but couldn’t come up with one. Two years since I showed up at my first class, stomach flipping. Could I do this? Could I write in front of other people? Something tells me she’s going to make me read it aloud. Yep, she’s making me read it aloud. I can do this. I’ve talked in front of other people before.
Little by little, class by class, the studio inched into my life–like a soft, silvery, yet strong web taking form. It’s affected my life in ways big and small, noticed and missed. Like Kori, who finally shared her writing with her mother, I’ve shared art with my mom, a poem with my grandmother, and countless stories with friends and strangers in the community. These are things I never would have done without a little prodding, and a little push, from Sush.
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“Future Alexandria Legend”

photo 1-1

From left: Living Legends of Alexandria founder Nina Tiara, summer principal for Patrick Henry Elementary School Seazante Oliver, and book artist Sushmita Mazumdar at the Open House.

July saw the four-week Summer Enrichment Program for Alexandria City Public Schools end with great enthusiasm! One of the programs offered was Family Legends of Alexandria bookmaking workshop, which I taught as an artist-in-residence.

The Family Legends program is part of an ongoing project called Living Legends of Alexandria, where individuals or everyday folks who have done something substantial to improve the quality of life in Alexandria are nominated as Living Legends. They are then photographed and interviewed so the city always has a record of their contributions.

Inspired by that, I interviewed a Living Legend, Lynnwood Campbell, and asked him for the story of The Lady on the Bus, a story from his youth which I found in his interview in the Living Legends catalogue. The interview was from a questionnaire I had developed which would be given to students.



photo 2-1240 students met me for assembly at 2 schools and learned why I started writing down real-life family stories and making them into books by hand. Later, they saw the interview and used the questionnaires to interview their family members to find their own Family Legends. Via more of my videos, they learned how to turn interviews into a rough draft, and rough drafts into final pages of a book with an illustration and a page for the author’s bio, for which, Nina Tisara, a Living Legend herself, had taught the students a session on photographing portraits. Then I went in to help students bind their books and add the Alexandria city maps to the covers. That is where they mark the spot where their family lives and where the Legend lives on.

photo 3On the final Open House day we were greeted with a great surprise—all the teachers and staff were wearing t-shirts that said “I Teach Future Alexandria Legends” and the students wore ones that said “Future Alexandria Legend.” We heard some amazing stories sitting alongside parents and families. Some wiped tears as others video recorded their children reading the stories aloud. Some students were so brave to share really difficult stories and many high-fives and hugs were exchanged.

Read more in the Alexandria News: Hailed a Success!
And see pics of T-shirts in Local Kicks here.

See more photos on the Handmade Storybooks Facebook page.

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Inspiration is Everywhere!

-By Sushmita Mazumdar (with Ellie Canter)

As I fly to Trinidad yet again, I realize how much has happened since the last time I flew back from there in Sept 2014. Then, I was struggling to finish a story I was working on—Little Lantern and the Dark & Moonless Night. Today, I think of the hundred copies I have to make of that same Handmade Storybook for two school author visits at the end of March 2015!

In an amazing collaboration with the Washington DC-based family engagement organization Turning the Page (TTP), 100 families will get a copy of my book Little Lantern and the Dark & Moonless Night. Not only that, when Ellie Canter of TTP was approached by Imagination Stage, a children’s theater and arts education program based in Bethesda, to apply for a grant from the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), she immediately thought of my book and upcoming visits to TTP’s partner schools.

March is Arts Education Month and the DCCAH is celebrating the occasion with over 200 arts-based workshops occurring across the District. As a result of the grant, Imagination Stage teaching artists have now created a theatre-based lesson plan that will introduce my book for the second graders at Savoy Elementary School through an exploration of how stories are told through mudras and other movements. Savoy strives to include the arts in their classroom instruction and partnerships and if you want to think of how the arts are part of this project, let me show you.

  1. It started with my daughter. She said if I didn’t like the books out there that tell the stories of Diwali, I should make my own. I was, after all, a book artist.
  2. As I looked online for inspiration, I saw a photo of beautiful ceramics my friend Jeff Rogers was creating in his new studio in Florida, Gumbo Limbo Pottery. His Lanterns caught my eye. I wanted them for Diwali. Could my Diwali storybook be about the Lantern?
  3. I looked at rangoli designs we made out of colored powders in the middle of which we put our diyas or lamps. If I create a rangoli I can put the Lantern in the middle instead. But what do I create the rangoli out of?
  4. How about layering colorful Asian handmade papers? I made a sketch and tried it out. I stacked papers of different sizes—biggest at the bottom—and made a paper rangoli. I folded it up in half—these would be the pages of my book!
  5. But how do I hide the text under them so you don’t see the words when the rangoli is in full view? As I studied to give tours of the exhibit Nastali’q: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy in the Sackler Gallery of Art, I saw how the Persian book-makers put the text really close to the binding so as to show off the broad and beautifully decorated borders. I put my text boxes really close to the binding as well. Now you don’t see any text when the book or rangoli is open!
  6. But my story wasn’t working yet. I had the 2 characters—a Writer, (me) and a Potter (my friend Jeff who made the Lantern). I had the story of Diwali, a festival of lights and color in a dark and moonless night. But who will tell the story of Diwali? I didn’t want to and Jeff couldn’t, as he didn’t know what Diwali was. Then I met Gem, the lady who sat next to me on the plane on my way back from Trinidad last September. She had worked with kids her whole life and was recently retired. Of all things we talked about we wondered what babies heard when they were still in their mother’s bellies. Did they remember what they heard when they were born? As we wondered the idea came to me: The lantern would tell the story of Diwali. It had heard the Writer tell it to the Potter when he was just a ball of clay on the Potter’s wheel…

So as I think of all the arts that got integrated into this project and all the layers of inspiration we found all around, I thought I’d share with you how the production of the books is going at my studio, Studio PAUSE. Maybe you can find some inspiration in this. Here are some photos:

templates and paper

First, I design and cut templates (right) of my rangoli layers, which are the pages of the book. Then, from my collection of Asian handmade paper I pick out papers that will work well together. The shapes are symmetrical so I fold the decorative papers (left) and place the folded template on it and cut.

stackedNext, I arrange the layers keeping in mind not to repeat colors. I think almost every book will have a different combination of colors for the pages!

Then I fold them shut and press them down under heavy books for a few days. This flattens them so the book stays closed when complete.

folded-no covers




night in sunNext, I add the covers. The paper I am using is called Crystallized Mica- Black and I picked it because it looks like a moonless, yet starry night! As I was sewing the covers onto the books the sun streamed into my studio and I got a picture of sunlight on my moonless nights!

inside pages textAfter the covers are sewn I print out the text, cut out each panel, and put them on the pages of the book. Of course, each page is a different shape, color, and print or texture.


Wait and see the last few steps as I get to it. I’ll post pictures soon…


Final books: sush_LLDMN BookWith cover text and back cover text added on.


April 2015:

In response to the March program and school visit, Ellie shared her reflections via this poem:

Paper Piles 

By Ellie Canter

Inspiration exists in a semi-circle– as the children of Savoy Elementary tug eagerly on a piece of yarn that marks their place at the author’s feet.

Inspiration spills from the edges of a sand rangoli as its patterns peter out onto paper – its colors lifted by lantern light.

Inspiration asks adults to create, with papers parceled out from the textures we touch daily – the news print, the magazines, and the grocery bags that grow tired of their formal duties.

Inspiration resides in remembering how to play – especially when we have almost forgotten what that freedom feels like, as paper piles and stacks of scissors invite stories from their handlers.

And inspiration exists in sharing your work with strangers-turned-friends whose stories – like so many layers of paper, set one on top of the other, become a layering of lives, all multi-faceted and filled with strength.

ellie and a parent

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Hometown: Columbia, Maryland.

A Studio Member blogpost by Kori Johnson.

The People Sculpture, Columbia, MD. Photo, Kori Johnson.

The People Sculpture, Columbia, MD. Photo, Kori Johnson.

For most people, words like “Harvest Moon,” “Tree Swallow,” and “April Journey” don’t mean much. They could be the names of artisan teas, knitting patterns, or these days, celebrity baby names. But for anyone living in Columbia, Maryland, these are the words we build our lives around. They are the streets we take to the grocery store, the signs marking neighborhoods and school buildings. They are lakes and parks and quiet creeks. They are secrets only we can understand.

Columbia may look like typical suburbia but she has a special kind of magic. She brings poetry from her fingertips to our doorsteps. Founded in 1967 by James Rouse, Columbia was America’s first planned community, designed specifically for people from all walks to life and economic backgrounds to interact and live together. The city is separated into different areas called “villages,” each filled with a few distinct neighborhoods and a village center where residents can run errands or enjoy a nice dinner. At the heart of the city lies “The People Tree,” a sculpture representing James Rouse’s vision of a community comprised of and belonging to everyone. Columbia’s street and neighborhood names, derived from classic literary works and their writers, were used as a deliberate marketing tools to reinforce this vision. Words became what connected us and set us apart from the rest.

I grew up in Longfellow, a neighborhood named after the poet, and graduated from Wilde Lake High School, named after Oscar Wilde. These two are in good company alongside Hawthorne, a neighborhood honoring the author of The Scarlett Letter. Even fantastical creatures appear, like in the Hobbit’s Glen neighborhood, a clear nod to otherworldly J.R.R Tolkien. Many street names have no “Lane,” “Road,” or “Street” attached to the end. Instead they are just short words taken from poems. Stormdrift. Quiet Times. Midas Touch. Gentle Folk. Feathered Head. Rustling Leaf. When I was younger, these names simply meant “home.” Today, they’ve come to mean a lot more. If you wish to find home in a particular area, eXp Realty can help you with the same.

I was reminded of this last Saturday when my mom called me while she was shopping at the mall.

“Guess what store is closing down?!” This was her greeting when I answered the phone.

“I don’t know,” I replied. So many of my favorite stores have closed down over the years that there really weren’t many options left. I made a knowlingly wrong guess before taking a mental walk around The Mall in Columbia. Through the parking lot. Past the food court. Up the stairs. Around the carousel. Until I got to…

A loud gasp escaped from my mouth. “BUSTER BROWN?!?!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”

My reaction, while a bit dramatic, was completely in earnest. If Columbia gave me quirky streets, Buster Brown gave me the shoes to stroll them. Buster Brown was my first pair of baby walkers – smooth, white leather with a soft heel. It was velcro and Ked’s booties and the Addidas Sambas that I cried over because my feet were too narrow to fill them out. Buster Brown was Dave, the shoe salesman, who after 29 years still remembers my mom. She went in to ask him about the store closing and his answer was no surprise – mall rent is too high, business is good but not good enough, store is closing at the end of January. And just like that, another piece of home disappears.

Buster Brown will join a long line of Columbia causalties. It will hang up its shoes next to the glass spice bottles from Produce Galore, a local supermarket that couldn’t compete with the big grocery stores. The cream colored bookshelves from Junior Editions Bookstore will be there too, my worn copies of The Babysitter’s Club resting against them. Then there’s the Rouse Building, dark wood popping against pure white paint, anchoring the city and her spirit. This housed the Rouse Company, Columbia’s guiding force in community development, for over four decades. It’s reincarnation opened as Columbia’s first Whole Foods Market in August of last year.

Driving around now, home feels like it exists only in my memory. Did kids really used to hang out at the roller skating rink on Friday nights? Was a conversation with your neighbor at the communal mailbox really a genuine exchange of pleasantries as opposed to today’s tacit awkwardness? Could a family with a modest income really move to Columbia and know that they could afford a decent home in a good school district? I know all the answers because they made me who I am. They made a lot of my fellow “90s Columbia kids,” including my sisters. I just wonder what Columbia is making all of us now. It’s hard to ignore the abundance of chain restaurants and shops dotting the village centers. Newly constructed homes are for sale, but only to those with pockets deep enough to purchase them. The community built for everyone has become a playground for the lucky few.

I know that there’s no turning back, especially since The Rouse Company was sold in 2004. Columbia will continue to become a place that only some can afford. Long-term residents will be pushed out. We will build our Whole Foods temples out of what once symbolized ground-breaking creativity and inclusiveness without condition. And a nine month-old baby will get her first pair of walking shoes, they just might be from Macy’s or DSW.

This is what I think of driving around Columbia now – that is, until I look out the window and see Sharp Antler on the green and white street sign. The residents on that street have probably had some funny conversations explaining their address. I also catch Lightfoot Path and Wedding Ring Way in the rearview mirror. Then I follow the holiday lights shining through Symphony Woods. They pull my mouth into a smile.

James Rouse, like myself, believed in the power of words and their permanence. They not only connect us, they can guide us and give us a sense of place. Words are time machines. And all I need to do is gaze at them to feel like I’ve returned home.

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