“Look how black my hair is!” I say, and we both crack up. Because that was always what my mom said when she looked at any picture of herself. It is entirely possible that future generations will look at pictures of me, as a young mom, and think I’m a grandmom of undetermined age.
That’s what I thought about as I read The Golden Dress, a fairy tale by L.L. Barkat, illustrated by Gail Nadeau. It’s a story about an old woman who gives a dress with a touch of magic to her only daughter. At first the idea of an old woman with a daughter perplexed me, until I remembered my own not-black hair. In this book, when the text perplexes, I look to the art, and when the art raises questions, I look to the text. It’s an infinite, beautiful loop, as a collaboration between an artist and a writer should be.
The art actually came first, inspiring the story. Then the story changed, as stories do. Then, in a loop of its own, the creative process changed the art.
Nadeau lives in upstate New York. In 2008, she found a transparency of a dress that was a family heirloom. Nadeau had a photograph made, then scanned it into her computer. She made copies using a now-discontinued computer program called Picture It! (perhaps the exclamation mark doomed the brand name). Then she painted on the copies, creating layers. The errors she made inexplicably led to better art.
“I scrape off a lot of paint or rip something off and try something else,” Nadeau said. “Many times I love what’s left behind, something I couldn’t have created any other way.”
She couldn’t stop painting a dress and a rectangle beside it. Over and over.
“When someone dies, I make a dress for them. If something wonderful happens, I make a dress for them. I can’t answer why it became an obsession — I’ve been questioning myself ever since I started doing it,” Nadeau said. “There’s a loneliness to that single dress.”
Working with the same basic structure, yet finding myriad ways to render it, Nadeau finds herself creating art about people and for people without them realizing it.
“It’s a secret for me, and I sort of like that,” she said. “Oddly enough, sometimes I make that thing with them in mind, and they like it above all others. Or they’ll say, ‘I had a dress like that when I was a kid.’”
After she had created more than one hundred dresses, she began to collage them, and that’s when Barkat saw her work. Nadeau began working with collage when she was caring for her mother.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing any art. I’ll just take care of her.’ I ended up doing the most [art] I ever did in one period,” she said.
When Nadeau and Barkat began working together, they worked from completed art, and although the art triggered a certain story initially, a new story instead arose along the way, because Barkat chose to listen to the art.
“The images had their way,” Nadeau said. Eventually, the story gave its heart to the art, too, and the original full collage of dresses that appeared at the story’s conclusion was replaced with a whole new freshly created collage. This artistic decision ended up releasing the dress from its lonely room.
In yet another cycle of giving and receiving, Barkat’s eldest daughter, an artist in her own right, helped conceive of a special moons collage that acts as the story’s gateway to the central character’s final crisis.
Nadeau said that in the process of creating the book, she enjoyed learning why and how “we write the things we write.” She appreciated that Barkat had not only publishing experience and writing experience, but also educational experience.
“She has the experience of being a teacher and knowing how to pull things out of children,” Nadeau said.
Similarly, Nadeau is continually pulling things out in her art, even when she doesn’t realize it. She says if you look carefully at the page with the raven, a piece originally called “Willow & Crow,” you can see a small woman in white beside the emerald dress.
“When something is there, it’s not like I plan it,” Nadeau said. “In ‘Willow & Crow,’ the woman who appears at the bottom, I only saw her after working for many, many hours. I did not create that woman. She came in there on her own.”
I asked Nadeau if she intentionally tucks secrets into her paintings, the way the old woman in The Golden Dress “tucked a small rosy part of her heart into a dress.”
“My work is complicated,” she answered.
Because every artist, like every seamstress, keeps at least one secret, and that is hers.