Inside the Shadow City with Kirsten Miller, an interview

In 2008, I interviewed Kirsten Miller, author of the Kiki Strike series (among other books), for my then-magazine Messenger Girl. All questions and answers were made via email. I was 16. At the end is my original review of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.

Me: Where did you get the idea for the Shadow City?
Kirsten: Believe it or not, there really are tunnels (built by real criminals) underneath parts of New York! The whole city is hollow, and they’re constantly digging up something new. In fact, the first scene in Kiki Strike is based on a real incident. A hole opened up one night in downtown Manhattan, and at the bottom police discovered a 150-year-old, perfectly preserved room — with no door. So while the Shadow City is mostly fiction, it was also inspired by fact.

Me: Why didn’t you decide to tell the story from Kiki’s point of view?
Kirsten: Kiki’s true identity is the book’s biggest mystery, and it would have been hard to tell the story in her words without giving everything away. That’s why I made Ananke the narrator. She may not be as cool or dangerous as Kiki Strike, but she ends up being the real hero of Kiki Strike.

Me: Did you do “profiles” of your characters before writing or did you let them develop themselves?
Kirsten: I did write profiles for each of the characters. In fact, there’s a lot of juicy information that I know about them that hasn’t made it into any of the books (yet). But when you’re writing a book, your characters don’t really come to life until they start interacting (and fighting) with each other. So I learned a great deal about them as I was writing. By the time I was done, I almost felt like they were friends of mine.

Me: How did you come up with Kiki’s haunting appearance? Did you plan it ahead of time or did it just sort of come to you?
Kirsten: I knew what Kiki looked like long before I ever started writing the book. I wanted her to be the sort of person who wouldn’t usually be taken very seriously. She’s extremely small, rather sickly looking, and of course she’s a girl. She’s proof you can’t judge a person by her appearance. (And if you do, Kiki’s happy to kick your butt when you least expect it.)

Me: How long did it take you to write Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City?
Kirsten: About two years, but I had another job at the time, so it was harder than it might have been otherwise. The second book, The Empress’s Tomb, took about nine months to write.

Me: What’s your favorite part of this book?
Kirsten: I love it when Kiki takes Ananka to all the Girl Scout meetings, and Ananka encounters the other Irregulars for the first time. But I also love the scene when Ananka follows Kiki into Central Park during a blizzard and watches as Kiki mysteriously vanishes. That was one of the first scenes that I wrote, and it still captures my imagination.

Me: The dedication reads, “For the wonderfully irregular Caroline McDonalds, who first discovered the secret of Kiki Strike but didn’t live to share it.” What’s behind this dedication?
Kirsten: Caroline was a good friend of mine — and the first person to read Kiki Strike. She encouraged me to let other people read it, and without her I’m not sure if it would have been published. Tragically, Caroline died a few years ago. I dedicated the book to her as a way of saying thanks and letting her family know how important she had been to me.

Me: What’s your opinion of rats?
Kirsten: Ha! Great question. I lived in New York for years and never saw any rats. Then one day, my eyes were opened and I began to see them everywhere. I find them very interesting, and I love watching them in the subway. But I’d rather not get too close. All of the rat facts in Kiki Strike are true, so they’re definitely not a species I’d care to mess around with!

Me: Is there really a NYCmap, like the one in the book?
Kirsten: Yes, there is a real NYCmap, and it’s almost exactly as it’s described in the book! (All of the strangest things in the book are real — including Bannerman’s Castle.)

Me: Were the how-to blurbs at the end of the chapters an idea you had when you wrote the first draft?
Kirsten: The “How-To” tips were always part of the book. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to give readers information they could take away with them and use in their everyday lives. In my opinion, everyone should know how to foil a kidnapping or disguise her appearance! And believe me, researching the “How-To” tips was quite educational. I’m far more dangerous than I ever was before.

Me: Do you own a Swiss Army Knife?
Kirsten: Of course! I’m quite handy with it, too. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of forgetting to take my SAKs out of my handbag before getting on airplanes. I’ve had two or three confiscated.

Me: Did you have fun writing Kiki Strike? What was the best part of writing this book?
Kirsten: I had an absolute blast writing Kiki Strike, but I gotta admit it was hard work, too. The best part has been hearing from people who loved the book. There’s nothing better than knowing that I’ve inspired young people to learn how to pick locks or lift fingerprints. Soon, we’ll all take over the world! (Evil laughter.)

Me: How many books do you intend to have in the Kiki Strike series?
Kirsten: I would love to write a book for each of the Irregulars. Right now, I’m working on #3, which focuses a bit more on Betty Bent. It’s going to be AMAZING! It’s filled with danger, intrigue, secret societies, and escargot.

Review: Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City
Life starts getting exciting for Ananka when she meets Kiki, a girl who’s as strong as she is secretive. After stumbling upon an underground room, Ananka becomes more curious about the city she’s lived in her entire life. Soon, she’s on an adventure with Kiki and four ex-Girl Scouts. An adventure to save New York and accomplish something else at the same time — something only Kiki knows about. Is Kiki really the “good guy” in this story? Or has Ananka fallen in with the wrong crowd? Find out by reading this fast-paced, original adventure story by Kirsten Miller.

Read my recent review of Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

This is another piece I wrote for my internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

“Before you start peppering me with questions, can I pepper you with a couple? I like to know who I’m talking to.”

Those were the first words of Elissa Gore, 62, in her interview last week.

The practically-minded landscape artist has an Ivy league education, an extra bedroom in her New York City residence and, for several years after college, made her living as a medical illustrator.

“I pursued medical illustration as a profession that would support my habit as a painter and a way to use the skills I had,” Elissa said. “I loved the idea of being able to use my skills as a visual communicator to help people.”

Elissa shared her background in art, her thoughts on differences between illustrators and painters, and what she believes to be the most important thing for creators to know about art.

SCA: When did you decide to pursue art?

Elissa: When I was in high school. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. We could take art every day, so I did. I headed in that direction. I have an Ivy league education, but every time I decided I was going to major in philosophy, the next semester I’d spend more time in art studios than anywhere else.

SCA: You’re originally from Philadelphia and now you live in New York City, but you paint landscapes. How does that work?

Elissa: I grew up in a semi-rural part of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born in Philadelphia but I grew up in the country, and I didn’t move to New York until I was 30. I have always spent at least three months out of the year in the country. Now, I am usually in upstate New York, which is why I show in Cooperstown.

SCA: When you’re working on your landscapes, do you work from photographs or memory?

Elissa: I work from everything. I work from observation, as well as photographs, as well as from the studio. . . . During the past five years, my stuff’s been chosen for the Art in Embassies program for the U.S. State Department, so I have paintings overseas in the ambassadors’ residences. I was fortunate enough to have an art gallery in New York with the same person who’s represented me for the past 20 years. I also have been exploring smaller pieces, sometimes in the studio, sometimes outside. . . . In the past three years, I’ve started traveling more to paint directly from observation of the landscape. I’ve been attending plein air events and competitions, mainly on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of where I live.

SCA: What’s plein air?

Elissa: It’s a French term for painting outside from observation. There is a movement in landscape painting to get more people engaged in painting from life. . . . For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching a landscape painting class at the New York Botanical Garden, where we trot around from one location to another in this 300-acre park in the Bronx. So plein air has been a continuous part of my discipline for many years.

Part of [the challenge of plein air events] is not knowing the locale. I’m going to completely novel places, where I have to hit the ground and figure out the topography and where the light might be good. It’s great. It’s kind of like a sport.

I’ve [also] been working on landscape paintings that are transitional to abstraction. Those are the paintings I’m going to be showing in Cooperstown in July in the three-person show. Those paintings are all oil paintings . . . and they’re all invented . . . from my imagination. If you spend a lot of time observing nature and observing the real world, there’s a great library of observation you can draw from.

At times, there’s a cross-over between my different ways of working. There are times when I’m working outside from observation and I’ll get the palette knife and I’ll be much more interpretive about the way I’m working.

SCA: You say that you are especially attracted to landscapes with earth, air, and water. Can you expand on that?

Elissa: Without water the plants all die, and the same thing with life. The paintings become paintings about the environment. I’m not an illustrator of a conservation message, but the concept is this is the natural world and it’s very beautiful. Let’s keep it the way it is.

There are different ways of looking at the world and organizing our perceptions. I like to say there’s a painter’s frame and there’s an illustrator’s frame, and they both use the same stuff . . . elements of design and composition and color theory—all the elements are the same. But with the illustrator’s frame there’s a concept behind the piece of artwork that tells a story. Not necessarily a narrative, but something specific that it needs to convey. So the place you enter in the image might have very specific details that make the place identifiable. In a painter’s frame, the place might be identifiable, but there isn’t a concept or story. What’s much more dominant are the formal elements of composition and design. The point of the image is to put together something that’s expressive of the emotional observations of the person making the art.

At plein air events, painters are there all working at the same time. At the end in the exhibit, I can see the ways that 30 different painters are applying paint or how they compose, the kind of images they choose. Many of the most successful plein air painters are illustrators professionally.

SCA: What’s most important for people to know about art?

Elissa: As an appreciator of art or a creator of art?

SCA: A creator.

Elissa: The most important thing for them to know is how they feel about their subject. Because the expressive content of a work of art is the driver . . . You have to have a motivation to make something and the motivation is how you feel about the subject of your artwork. No matter whether you’re sculpture or performance art, a drawing or a painting, the first thing you have to know is how you feel.

Elissa Gore‘s joint exhibit with Joanna Murphy and Jody Primoff opened on July 1 on the first floor of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

In the Home of Susan Jones Kenyon


This is another piece I wrote for my current internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Walking into Susan Jones Kenyon’s house is the closest you can get to entering the artist’s mind.

As soon as you set foot through the side door, you’re surrounded by Susan’s art: paintings of Otsego Lake and Kingfisher Tower, portraits of her three children, pots featuring angels and fairies, and dog bowls—yes, dog bowls—that Susan painted while working for Bradley Goodyear Smith as a designer.

Take a few more steps and you’ll enter the Kenyon living room, adjacent to Susan’s studio on the southwest corner of the house. The walls are light brown and nearly covered with Susan’s oil paintings.

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive when Susan, 54, is on the phone with a frame company—allowing you a few extra moments to look around, soak up the art she surrounds herself with, and study the canvas painting she’s sending to the Cooperstown Art Association’s national show before you ask the self-taught artist when she started painting and find out . . .

Susan: I’ve painted ever since I was a child. The story is that my mother allowed me to paint on my walls. That’s really where it started, where I could create. From there, it wasn’t until the last of my three children was born that I seriously started to paint. That’s when I started with portraits. From there, it went to folk art . . . and from there, Bradley Goodyear Smith hired me as a designer to do dog dishes. I did that for four years . . . and then I started wanting to create my own art, get my own style. What is the art in me? What would I paint on my own?

SCA: You describe yourself as a self-taught artist. Can you expand on that?

Susan: Being self-taught, there are no rules. That’s the great thing. When I look at the masters’ paintings or even other artists, local or whatever, I like to look at how they use their brush strokes, their interpretation of paint.

I’m a very visual person—I’ll forget names and things, but I’ll remember visually little, minute things. For instance, if somebody says, “I live on Route whatever,” I’ll say, “Well, what color is your house? Do you have a mailbox? What color is that? Do you have a garden? What flowers are in it?” Everything’s very visual to me.

I believe I have a gift of seeing color within color. When I look at something, I don’t just see a flat color. When I’ve painted portraits of people, I see many colors within their face. I can look at your face and I can predominantly see one color with you, which is a light pink, but then you have gold and you have some blue. I see all these colors, and so instead of just seeing you—“Okay, she’s a peachy color”—there are all of these other colors. That’s how I paint. It’s very intuitive. I just pick up a brush and I’ll have a blank canvas out, and I’ll pick up a color and I’ll start to work.

SCA: So you don’t go with a plan.

Susan: No. If I’m given work to do, like a commission—a portrait’s totally different. Usually, I work off of a lot of pieces. I’ll ask people for many photographs, because usually they live far away. I’ll say, “Send me any kind of photograph. Send me photographs that you think are terrible of the person.”

Because a painting for me is to emulate a feeling, an emotion. You want to capture the spirit of that person. It’s not a photograph. If you want a photograph, then you need a photographer. If you want a painting, you want the painting to emit an emotion, a feeling about that person, or whatever you’re painting.

My paintings, I always want people to look at them and then say, “I want to go there,” or “I want to walk into that painting and just be part of it.” I’d like people to feel a sense of peace and calm.

SCA: You said your mother allowed you to paint on your walls. Was she an artist?

Susan: No. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and she had health issues her whole life from the time I was little. The irony now is I’m the age she actually passed on, and I have a show at the Fenimore [Art Museum].

I give her a lot of credit for allowing me. There were artisans in her family, carpenters. She was a seamstress. She was more of a mentor, I guess, for me, where she didn’t squash [my desire for art]. I always wanted to change the color of my room. So every couple of months, she’d say, “Okay. You can paint it a different color.”

SCA: You started painting seriously when your youngest was born and now she’s 17 years old. What was the in-between and what got you to start painting seriously?

Susan: There were a lot of things. My mother when she passed on, there were a lot of emotional things. Things that I went through in my personal life where I always found painting to be a release of emotion . . . I needed a release and something opened up where [painting] presented itself to me again. Even though I had two other small children and then Elle was born. It was there. So I’m going to paint.

SCA: Do you have advice for aspiring artists?

Susan: The main thing is to not be afraid. And never say, “I’ve got to create something and it has to be a finished piece.” You can’t gain any ground or do anything unless you start. You have to get your hands dirty in order to make it happen.

I also believe there is no failure, because everything, you can learn from, so all you’re going to do is gain more wisdom, and it’ll just take you to another place. Think outside the box, because that’s where a lot of wonderful things in the world have happened—because people have not been afraid, they’ve thought differently, they’ve questioned things.

SCA: Was there a certain point in your art-making where you had to start thinking outside of the box?

Sarah: Times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this? What is the point? Am I really helping anybody?” I’ve learned it’s not always about feeding the physical body, but it’s about feeding the soul and spirit. That’s where I believe the arts—people need that. They need music, they need dance, they need theatre, they need paintings and sculpture and all that, because that’s the expression of the soul. You have to nurture that just like you have to nurture your physical self.

SCA: Tell us about your studio.

Susan: It was the family room when we moved here. The whole house has been evolving constantly—I’m into that too, where nothing is the same all the time. The whole house is a creative palette.

That became a studio space because I gravitated toward the light in there. I don’t paint in any certain light. I usually paint at very odd times. I’ll work on a painting, and then I’ll leave it, and I’ll have other paintings going on.

This has become the creative room in the house, which I found out—this house is from 1862—there was a piano teacher who taught piano in there. And downstairs—this was a boarding house for a while—there was a guy who was a photographer. He was taller and our basement’s really short, so down below this room, he dug out the floor so he could stand and develop his photographs. And my middle child, the older daughter, she’s an artist—her room was right up there [above the studio]. She painted some characters on her walls that are still there. And my husband is into music—he plays piano and he has guitars—he’s in that room now with his guitars. So this is the art corner of the house.

SCA: Why did you decide to show your piece, “Sanctuary”, in the Smithy’s current show?

Susan: I think because it was probably the most representative of my work at this point in time. I didn’t want to put a lot in, because I’m curating the show and I wanted it to be about the other artists. I didn’t want it to be about me.

SCA: How is “Sanctuary” representative of your work?

Susan: I think the feeling. Right away people who know me can look at it and say, “Susan did that.” And the title alone—“Sanctuary”—is restful.

NOTE: The exhibition at the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer St., Cooperstown, NY, has since changed. Learn more about Susan Jones Kenyon here.

– Meredith Sell

Artist’s Landscape: a conversation with Jane Carr


The following is a piece I wrote for the Smithy Center for the Arts as part of my internship with them this summer.

Jane Carr, 74, has considered herself an artist since she was eight years old, when her parents started sending her to the Baltimore Museum of Art for classes.

Every Saturday of my life I went there,” Jane said. “I loved it.”

Jane studied sculpture in art and graduate school, but in her late 50s, she left her 20-pound hammer behind. She returned to painting with egg tempera, a medium her high school art teacher introduced her to. Now, all she wants to do is paint.

SCA: You do a lot of landscape painting of the area. How long have you lived in the Catskills?

Jane: I moved up here in 1980. I lived for nine years in a house that this man and I built in the woods that had no plumbing and no running water and no telephone. It was fun, but it got old. When you get old, living that way is kind of difficult.

SCA: How did living in that house change your art?

Jane: Because we had no lights in our house, I had to only work during the day at a window. I started making these little cutout wooden houses. I’d make maybe ten at the time and paint them all the same. They were modeled after buildings in this area. I did one of the Smithy. In fact, I gave them all to the Smithy. That’s how I made my living. I sold them for $20 each. And then I moved here, and I have a big studio and I paint every day. I don’t do the little houses anymore.

SCA: What sort of artwork did you return to when you returned to electricity and indoor plumbing?

Jane: I returned to egg tempera.

SCA: Tell us about egg tempera.

Jane: First of all, it predates oil painting. Egg tempera was used back in Egyptian times and Byzantine times.

What it is is very simple. All paint starts with dry pigment, but you have to add something to the dry pigment to make it flow onto a canvas or a board. If you mix oil with pigment, it becomes oil paint. If you mix with liquid plastic, you get acrylic. If you mix egg yolk, you get egg tempera. That’s all it is.

You mix egg yolk with pigment, and very little water with the egg yolk. When you make your yolk, you have to squeeze out the inside and throw away the little sack that the yoke is in.

When egg tempera dries and cures, it’s so indestructable, I suppose you could take a knife and scratch it, but it doesn’t fade and it doesn’t yellow and it doesn’t lose its color. Things that were done back in Egyptian times are still brilliant.

SCA: What do you like about egg tempera?

Jane: I love the color. I love how simple it is. When I teach people, I tell them—it’s kind of a joke, but it’s really not a joke—I say, ‘The thing about egg tempera is you keep adding layers until it looks right. If you don’t know what you’re doing, just keep adding layers. It’ll turn out, sooner or later.’

It’s very forgiving. If you don’t like something, you can paint right over it, and it even makes it richer, because you’re seeing everything underneath peeking out.

SCA: One of your pieces currently on display at the Smithy is a portrait of an Inuit man. You’ve done a number of these portraits.

Jane: I did them all in one year. I was going up to this Inuit festival in northern arctic Canada. I went there seven times teaching egg tempera.

SCA: How did you start teaching there?

Jane: I went camping in Alaska with this man that I lived with. I really wanted to see where Jack London used to live in Dawson, so we crossed into the Yukon and I saw this welcome center for the Northwest territories. I’d never heard of the Northwest territories.

We drove up this road and it went to this little village called Inuvik. There wasn’t much going on there, except there was this art festival that was on the last day, and there were a couple of little old Inuit ladies sitting there carving. I said, ‘I got to come back here. I can’t believe I missed this whole festival.’

When it was the fifth year, I went back. And I went back the tenth year, the fifteenth year, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth. But the reason I went the second time was because I contacted them and said, ‘I’m a painter and I’d really like to come up and see the festival.’ And they asked me if I would teach and give workshops.

SCA: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Jane: One of my teachers—I can’t remember who it was—told me, ‘Jane, put your hand to art every day, even if it’s just sitting at the phone doodling while you’re talking.’ And I’ve done that. I have done that every day. Some days, it’s not a hand scribbling. It’s sometimes picking up a book out of my bookcase, leafing through it, and learning more about some artist. But I do that every day. It’s my life.

Jane Carr currently has three pieces on exhibit in the Smithy Center for the Arts gallery. A Smithy show of her landscape work will open on August 12, 2013.