Saturday, December 7, 2013
Scott Nash's childhood bedroom looked out over a canopy of trees. His room was on the second floor, but the land was sloped in such a way that it felt like he hovered over the world.
Scott Nash in his Portland office and, below, Captain Blue Jay, the star of his new book
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
Nash and his students have made clever use of the non-functioning clock tower in Portland’s Monument Square.
Images courtesy of the artist
Like a bird.
It was there that he learned to let his imagination run wild.
With his Scribner Classics in hand, Nash pored over the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson and anticipated the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth. With each turn of the page, he fingered the ridged type underneath his skin like Braille and delighted in the reveal of each new illustration.
When Nash began writing his latest book, "The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate," he wrote it with his 10-year-old self in mind. Make no mistake; he coveted Stevenson's "Treasure Island" like a rare jewel. But "Blue Jay" was the book Nash wanted to read when he was a boy growing up on Cape Cod.
"I've had the idea of the blue jay as a pirate for long time, since I was a kid," said Nash, who lives on Peaks Island and chairs the illustration department at Maine College of Art. "To me, Blue Jay sounds like a pirate's name. So I have carried this idea around for a long time."
In this yarn, the pirate crew is made up of Gabriel the goose, Crookie the crow and a cast of comrades of chuck-will's-widows, juncos and thrashers. Their leader is Captain Blue Jay, and their boat is the Grosbeak. They sail not the open sea, but patrol the dangerous skies, vanquishing merchant ships while fighting evil fisher cats and weasels.
The book is full of imagination, wonder and adventure -- much like Nash himself. It's doing well. Candlewick Press, one of the country's premier children's book publishers, released the book in late September. A second printing followed within 10 days, attesting to its demand.
Nash called the response "heartwarming. It took a number of years to get to this point. The original manuscript was three times the length. The editors at Candlewick had the good sense to talk me into cutting it down. I have enough material for a second and third book."
The final edit checks in at 356 pages, and includes dozens of nifty pen-and-ink illustrations, charts and maps, much like the Stevenson adventure books that Nash memorized growing up.
For Nash, the trick of balancing words and illustrations comes down to anticipation and reward. The illustrations complement the writing, but do not drive it. He hopes readers leaf ahead every three or four pages for a peek at the next illustration, or refer back to the map and ship's diagram at the front of the book.
"I don't want to spoil the story by having too many illustrations," he said. "I want the text to stand on its own."
"The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate" is written with children in mind, but is very much a book with adult themes that touch on Native American culture, colonialism and metallurgy, among other topics. It's populated by what Nash calls "brilliantly unpredictable" characters who are misunderstood by society -- and to whom he easily relates.
"I've always had an affinity for the Indians instead of the cowboys," he said, a twinkle lighting his eye. He praised Candlewick for taking on a "rogue like me."
STILL A KID AT HEART
Aside from this book, evidence of Nash's accomplishments are all over.
He is a writer, illustrator and designer, and spent many years creating logos and brand identity for Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Nick at Nite. He's illustrated more than 40 children's books, designed toys, and invented or re-imagined everything from TV programs to college curricula.
At 53, he remains a kid at heart.
Nash lives on an island, takes a boat to work and drives a bright blue Volkswagon Beetle. The only reason he chose the Beetle is because he is too tall to fold his 6-foot-5 frame into his preferred ride, the Nash Metropolitan.
His car doubles as his office. For "Blue Jay," Nash spent many writing hours in the Beetle, pecking away on his laptop with headphones tucked in his ears. His music of choice for this book: Mendelssohn's orchestral work.
"It became a way for me to set an atmosphere. I swear it affects not the style of the writing, but the storytelling," he said.
For a book in progress, Nash has switched tempos and mood, and is listening to a lot of John Coltrane.
He also writes in coffee shops. For "Blue Jay," his preferred java hut was the now-closed North Star on Munjoy Hill. The Crooked Mile on Milk Street is a current favorite.
"Blue Jay" comes at an unusually busy time for Nash. This fall, he coordinated an exhibition of work by renowned illustrator Edward Gorey at the Portland Public Library. That exhibition, which is on view into December, was a personal quest for Nash.
Personally and professionally, Gorey is an important and influential figure in Nash's life. Gorey lived on Cape Cod, and was active in the Cape's cultural happenings.
As a youngster, Nash recognized him on the streets, saw him in the cafes and attended the puppet shows that he sometimes hosted. When Nash was in college and developing his style as an illustrator, he went through a phase when he mimicked Gorey.
It was pure circumstance that the Gorey show came to be in Portland.
Without a plan in mind, this summer Nash reached out to the Gorey Charitable Trust in hopes of organizing a small exhibition of the late illustrator's work somewhere in Portland. Because Maine is home to a large number of well-established illustrators, Nash thought it would be a good idea to begin an annual exhibition featuring the work of pioneers and mentors.
Turns out that the trust had a Gorey show on tour, and had an opening in October. But Nash had no place to put the show, and hardly enough time to pull it together.
After meeting with representatives of the trust on the Cape, Nash and his wife, Nancy Gibson, lamented their bad timing over a stout cup of black coffee. That very moment, an e-mail arrived from the Portland Public Library asking if Nash might be interested in organizing an exhibition.
The library happened to have some time this fall. Could Nash pull something together on short notice?
"This is all about Portland," said Nash. "This would never have happened in a place like Boston. This creative community, I can literally walk down the street and get so much done. An idea I throw out on the street in the morning becomes real by afternoon. We can make things happen here, and we do. "
THE CLOCK-TOWER CONSPIRACY
Another example of Nash's influence on the local art scene can be seen on the non-functioning clock tower at Monument Square. A few months ago, Nash and the students in the illustration department at MECA began something of a guerilla art project to bring the clock tower back to life.
In the cover of darkness, Nash and a co-conspirator from Portland's business community stealthily affixed the students' witty circular designs to the clock face on each side.
At first, City Hall balked. Someone over there decided the clock tower was no place for art, and sent out an anti-graffiti quad to remove the pieces a few hours after they went up.
But Nash and his nameless bandit/partner persisted. They returned again in the dark to put up new designs, and eventually clued in the city and got its blessings.
"The big eye makes me chuckle every time I walk past the thing," Nash said, referencing the illustration that was in the clock tower as of this writing. "It's really very effective."
Nash loves living in Portland. He and his wife moved to Peaks Island 16 years ago, and Nash does not mind admitting island life was not his first choice. He wanted to feel the pulse of the city under his feet.
But Peaks allows that. He lives quietly on the island among a community of creative people, and comes to Portland every day. He has an office in the Old Port and an office at MECA, and a car that he drives around in search of quiet places to write when the coffee shops feel too distracting.
"I love the duality of my life," he said. "I love this city. I feel so connected here. It's a visceral thing. It feels to me the right place to be."
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:
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