By Naomi Beth Wakan
Posted: December 2003
Demi is magic. Everything she draws and writes
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."
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
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
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
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:
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.
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