Toward an Image of Beauty

All this week at Atelier26, we're featuring daily posts in anticipation of the official November 12th release of Harriet Scott Chessman's luminously moving new novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things.(By the way, Books Inc in Palo Alto will host a special publication day celebration!)

Today's post is a glimpse into the design process for The Beauty of Ordinary Things. 

Nathan Shields is a speed-drawing illustrator, pancake artist, mathematician, musical instrument maker, and all around creator of beautiful and fascinating things in Port Angeles, Washington. He is a good friend and a constant inspiration to Atelier26, and has designed the cover for each of our titles to date. It is safe to say that with his design for Harriet Scott Chessman's The Beauty of Ordinary Things, he has outdone himself.

The Beauty of Ordinary Things is the story of the unexpected love between a young Vietnam veteran and a Benedictine nun. It's a book about our yearning for wholeness and the enduring weight of our briefest encounters, and it confirms Chessman as a writer richly aware of the range of human tragedy and tenderness. The novel is, as ForeWord Magazine attests in its forthcoming Winter issue, "a beautiful ├ętude of humanity. ... A song of the soul." 

It is one of the astonishing mysteries of Shields' artistic M.O. that, given the slightest guideline, the most offhand or cursory "tip," he will turn around and show you the beginnings of something clearly miraculous. After a lengthy discussion with Ms. Chessman about her ideas and preferences concerning a cover image, Atelier26 HQ sent an e-mail with some basic notes to Shields: 
"A cinematic quality to the design would be good"; "Definitely try to avoid obvious chick-lit elements"; "Let's go for a unisex appeal"; "Some visual allusion to the Vietnam War is desirable"; and "Let's try for an element of surprise." (June 5)
Less than two weeks later, we received a characteristically concise reply: 
"Here's a status update." (June 17) 
The following image was attached:

 Our immediate response:
"Righteous! You're squarely on the path!"
 And in a matter of hours, the following image came through.

Shields: "Let's get some feedback on this one."
Atelier26: "Goodness me! Breathtaking! Vielen Dank!" etc., etc. "I'll pass it along to Harriet, yes? ... and we'll gather any thoughts and go from there."
Shields: "Yep, see what she thinks."
Chessman: (putting it far more eloquently than Atelier26 ever could) "This cover is gorgeous -- extraordinary.... the colors, the movement, the shapes, the way the helicopters on the bottom balance the birds above, and the way the arcs of the letters echo the birds' wings and the swirling sense of flight . . . All of this would be 'sufficient,' as Patrick Finn [the father of the book's narrator Benny Finn] would say, and more than sufficient! -- (as they say in the Passover song, 'Dayenu,' 'This would have been enough!') -- but what astonishes and moves me, in addition to all this, is that infusing this physical beauty is such an amazing representation of the story. ... I SO love the way the helicopters appear to rise up and almost become the birds. Just contemplating this movement, I realize that this IS what this book is about: the effort to rise out of the past, out of memory, into something touched with grace. Or maybe not to rise out of memory, but to have the chance to hold onto it, even as you somehow can start to balance it with something else -- the beauty and wild grace of ordinary things. I also love the bruised sky, with subtle touches of blue in the far distance -- that color of mauve or deep lavender in the middle band -- the way that colorful band both divides the image and holds it together -- the way 'Beauty' jumps out at you, in white, and suggests handwriting -- the simplicity of the other letters (a cultural, implicit 'masculine' and 'feminine' mingling so well here . . . ) -- the way in which the birds' flight appears both to be soaring and difficult -- the way your eye goes from the bottom left to the top right -- the whole vertical and horizontal design, brought together with swirling and circling. . . Ach!! I could go on and on. ..."
Within a day or two, Shields had made the few final, subtle changes, including electing to hand-letter the word "Beauty," because, as he put it, the former font was showing up on book covers a bit too often of late.

And what a thing of beauty it is, befitting the beauty of the story within. (The book's interior, too, features two recurring hand-drawn Shields motifs.)

Merci, monsieur Shields. Merci.

(NB: For our premiere title, the limited-edition story collection Date of Disappearance by M. Allen Cunningham, Shields not only designed the cover, but created ten original ink-and-charcoal illustrations.)