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Interview with Demi
By Naomi Beth Wakan

Posted: December 2003

Demi is magic. Everything she draws and writes is magic.
Harrison E. Salisbury

The importance of the spirit
I started by asking Demi whether she feels her strong spirituality touches her readers directly or in more subtle ways. She replied that she thinks all children have spiritual feelings and so are able to respond instinctively. I also pointed out that even her ’evil' characters are drawn as beautiful. "Everybody," she feels, "has an idea of beauty, no matter where they are on the spiritual path."

While her earlier books, many of which were based on folk tales, are imbued with this ‘purity and innocence,' her more recent titles approach directly important religious figures such as Buddha, Muhammad, St Nicholas (developed after Demi visited her son, who is teaching in Turkey, where St Nicholas was born), Jesus, Mother Teresa (out next year) and The Dalai Lama (her most political book, since all the costumes and ceremonies illustrated had to be approved by a Buddhist Review Board). The Dalai Lama wrote an introduction and Demi declares, "I have been dancing ever since."

When I asked how she prepared herself for writing about such great teachers and leaders, Demi replied, "I think that the state of being of extraordinary people like Buddha and Muhammad is beyond our comprehension. It would be impossible to present the reality of their lives through intellectual speculation, or through the mind. The mind can only think, speculate, calculate, but the heart can feel. So I think that the only way for me to do these books is to let myself be the channel." She really empowers her readers - Demi feels children can sense a deeper reality. For example, her dedication in The Emperor's New Clothes is ‘For all children in the world who dare to see things as they really are."

Demi’s family
How did this amazing writer and illustrator develop? Demi was born Charlotte Dumaresq Hunt and was brought up in Cambridge, MA in an extraordinary family. She is the great-grand daughter of the important American painter, William Morris Hunt and the great-grand niece of the architect Richard Morris Hunt. Her father, William Morris Hunt, was an architect and also the founder of the Cambridge Drama Festival. So, as a child, Demi met many famous people, Sir John Gielgud and Marcel Marceau among them.

Her mother, Rosamund Pier Hunt, was an artist, and one floor of the family barn was her studio, while on another floor her father kept his architectural tools and costumes and props from the theatre. By the age of two she was drawing - on the walls with lipstick.

Her mother “…taught me the spirit and love of painting" and encouraged her to experiment in many mediums. Her father gave her strong support in everything she did. She describes him as having enormous energy, then adds, but nothing compared to his father's. Demi's father was widely known and deeply respected, and, when he died recently, Trinity Church, Boston was filled with people paying him respect. Demi gave the eulogy and, as she described his passing to me, her strong faith and incredible purity shone through.

Why the name Demi? Well, at some point in her life, she was half (demi) the size of her older sister and so her father called her Demi and it stuck. Even the Pope, who recently blessed her latest book on Mother Teresa, addresses her as Charlotte Demi Hunt! Demi received the Pope's Apostolic Blessing for the Mother Teresa book. She is truly blessed as being both an inspired writer and an ethereal artist who exemplifies the best in human nature. Children everywhere are truly lucky to have this wonderful being writing for them.

Mexico, LA, India and New York
While her unusual family already was solid ground for her artistic development, her later education introduced her to other cultures and included the Instituto Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico (murals, weaving, ceramics and painting) and the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, which strongly influenced her artistic development. In a newsletter for a class reunion she states, "I began living and looking again as a child, on the true and simple spontaneous edge of daring to become. All my future work was supported by this idea, and the challenge to dare, to change, to work hard, to have patience, to never stop or dwell on words of praise or failure, and to expect that the best surprises and joys were still to be found."

While living in California she was introduced to the culture of India and so, when she later received a Fullbright scholarship, she studied there for two years at the University of Baroda. She settled in New York, where she continued exploring Indian Art and through that the art of Japan and China. She also studied at the Rhode Island School of Design - at this time she became an illustrator.

Her painting style is strongly influenced by The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting of 1679, by Kai Wang. In The Dragon's Tale Demi actually lists the traditional ingredients - "Black from ten parts pine soot; Blues and Greens from azurite, malachite, and indigo; Reds from cinnabar, realgar, and orpiment, with brilliant red from a flowering vine; Umber from iron oxide called limonite; Yellow from the sap of the rattan plant; and White from lead or pulverized oyster shells. The colors were then mixed with stag horn, fish or ox glue made from the pulp of soap bean. To all, powdered jade was added for good fortune. The brushes were made from sheep, rabbit, goat, weasel and wolf hairs picked in autumn for pliancy. A brush of one mouse whisker was used for extremely delicate work. Changes were made by applying the juice of the apricot seed." More than enough to get any child's imagination soaring!

Demi often paints on silk and uses traditional ingredients including, as specified in The Dragon's Tale, powdered jade to bring her good fortune. In every book she utilizes the ‘four Chinese treasures' - Chinese paintbrush, ink, ink-stone and paper. For Demi, "Life is magic. Everything alive is magic. To capture life on paper is magic. To capture life on paper was the aim of Chinese painters. That is my aim too."

As a true artist Demi declares - "I think [art is] a wonderful way of learning about life and the world. It's a lifelong never-ending experience of learning, not just about this world, but about other worlds. To me it's just like a gift. I just can't stop drawing, or painting, or writing. That's basically how it is."

Readers of her books will recognize her brilliant colors, intricate patterns and fondness for gold leaf. Each book seems more beautiful than the one before. The gold leaf paintings are not just for her books, however - she has also used them in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Wilmington, CA. You would think more than 130 books would overfill a life, but Demi has also designed or made murals, mosaics, puppets, toys, scroll paintings and textiles.

Significance of China
While her inspiration for painting comes from China, so do the actual stories she retells and illustrates, via her husband, Tze-Hsi Huang, who shared Chinese traditional stories such as The Empty Pot with Demi. She describes him as providing an amazing foundation, ”…a being so still I never know whether he is there, or not.” He has the ability to transmit to her the spirit of Chinese culture and Demi absorbs it and uses it with veracity. Demi tells of her first meeting with this very important person in her life: One day in Chinatown she bought a red lacquered umbrella and as she tells it, "I walked home with my umbrella, the most glorious umbrella, and at the corner of 105th Street and West End Ave, there was another umbrella just like it, with the most glorious man under it." They were married a month later. Tze-Hsi Huang was brought up near Chungking (Chongqing) in Sichuan Province.

How her books come out
But a fine supportive family and husband and superb natural talents also need a strong team to bring those talents to fruition. Demi is lavish in her praise of her Simon and Schuster team and, in particular, of her editor, Emma Dryden. Demi and Ms Dryden usually decide on the subject for her next book together. Demi does the writing first and then the drawings. I asked her whether she did rough sketches, but, amazingly enough for anyone familiar with her very complex pages, Demi says she prefers to do the paintings spontaneously, feeling ‘first is best.'

My favorite of her books? How can I choose? Perhaps the Buddha stories with their striking gold on indigo paper, or, because I'm interested in mathematics, the wonderful tale of One Grain of Rice. With over 130 titles to choose from it's almost impossible to have just a few favorites.

Copyright 2003, Naomi Beth Wakan


More on PaperTigers:
Read a review of Demi's book Gandhi.

More on the web:
Hear Demi read an excerpt from her book on the prophet Muhammad and the way Islam and the Koran came to be.

Demi has over 130 books to her credit. Browse a list to see the range of her interests.

On the PaperTigers blog you will find our current and past themes unpacked and expanded, as well as news and views on multicultural and international books, world literacy, bedtime stories, children's literature events, and more... Please join our ongoing conversation!


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