Pearl Soup and Mango Smiles

By Judee Fong

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Written from the heart, Wendy Picken’s children’s book, *Gramma’s Pearl Soup and Grampa’s Mango Smile*, is a loving tribute to her maternal grandparents who had the knack of turning ordinary days into extraordinary ones. 

“Grampa always danced around the kitchen singing ‘chicken in the bread pan’ while Gramma baked bread or he would do this funny little dance when Gramma was cooking chicken,” says Wendy. “When I grew up and saw him still doing his little dance, I knew I had to write a story about it. I had the story written in my mind and could already see the pictures.” The years passed, however, and the thought of a book got pushed to the background.

Enjoying her family, her Canada Post job, her art and garden, Wendy hit one of life’s unexpected obstacles. “I was diagnosed with uveitis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, causing a gradual loss of vision,” she says. “Being a visual artist, this was devastating for me.”
It was during this stressful adjustment that Wendy attended a stimulating workshop called “Gifts,” and *Gramma’s Pearl Soup and Grampa’s Mango Smile* was finally drafted.

Initially, Wendy approached six artist friends who were willing to do the illustrations for her. “These are women whose work I admire and I felt they would do a great job of what I wanted. They read the manuscript and loved the story. One of the women told me I would have to “story board” it for them. I couldn’t see well at the time, so I very lightly sketched my characters and sent the rough drawings to them. Every one phoned to say, ‘Wendy, you can do this yourself; you don’t need us!’ My first thought was, ‘Oh no, I’ve never drawn like this. What am I going to do?’”

It wasn’t the temporary loss of vision that made the task daunting but rather the following of her heart and relying on her memories. “The illustrations weren’t so much the result of the ‘eye-hand’ of an artist, but the ‘eye-heart’ that I trusted to guide my hand,” says Wendy.

As a young child, Wendy recalls having the fear of dying or losing someone she loved. “I can remember people saying to me, ‘You’re just a child, why are you thinking about that?’ My grandparents never brushed this fear aside but genuinely tried to address it. After they died, I realized they had given me all the tools to cope with my loss. They had given me the gift of their love and inspired me to be my own person.”

In her book, Wendy was unsure how to illustrate the little girl’s fears of losing her grandparents. “The night before I did the drawing, I had a dream about my grandmother who died 10 months before. In the dream, she was just holding me. It was such a beautiful moment. The next morning, I knew how I was going to do the painting - it was Gramma embracing the little girl as she tucked her into bed. Later, someone told me there was the tiniest heart painted inside Gramma’s eye and I hadn’t realized I had done that!”

Moving to Sidney, B.C. with her husband and children in 1989, Wendy suffered through pangs of homesickness for the Manitoba family farm. Rich, dark earth colours dominated her early free-style art. “I found it very comforting to work with the dark browns and blacks using my hands and fingers. Others felt the finished result was rather depressing, so I began to incorporate a bit of colour here and there,” Wendy explains. Don Harvey, her painting instructor, always told her to “paint what you know.” Smiling, she says, “I only knew the Manitoba farm country.”

Over the years, Wendy developed her own technique that she calls “finger-painting without the paint.” It is a technique, almost batik-like, combining the use of stabilo crayon, conte, pastel and china marker on flat-smooth paper.  Using her fingers, Wendy layers on colours and a wax polish, rubbing it away and working at it until she produces vibrant paintings like “Blue Linnet,” “Red Door Moon,” and “Autumn Pears” from her Seasonal Journey Series. The lively colours and simple shapes of her birds, fruits and flowers are reminiscent of Caribbean or Mexican folk art.
“In 1994, I found a pair of beaded birds from Africa. I loved their simple shape and adapted them into my paintings. I put my yellow birds on first as it ‘anchors’ me, and I work wherever the birds are.”

Her supportive family and beautiful gardens are not the only source of inspiration for this talented artist and storywriter. “I love going to Sidney’s poetry readings,” she says. “Listening to the imagery of painted words seems to release an energy that is so creative, so inspiring. I think the analytical part of the brain shuts down allowing the imagination to soar.”

Wendy recently had several eye surgeries. Her ophthalmologist is closely monitoring the eye pressure and fluid buildup. The result is that her eyes are the best they’ve been in 10 years.
“I’m no longer afraid of what’s ahead after completing my first book and coping with the fears of losing my sight,” she says. “I have four new books coming and have completed the illustrations for two of them. I’ve learned that no matter what, I will always be creative and find a way to do things, whether I can see or not.”

And, what exactly is “Pearl Soup?” Wendy explains: “Pearl Soup is any soup, hot or cold, that’s stirred with love. It’s a soup made with pearls, that comes straight from a Gramma’s heart because they’re her hopes and dreams for her grandchildren.”  

Wendy Picken can be reached at Mango Smile Studios, 250-656-0137. Her book is available at Sidney’s Tanner’s Books, Muffet and Louisa, Bubbalu, Victoria’s Side Street Studio, Munro Books and Greater Victoria Art Gallery. Meet Wendy at the Moss Street Paint-In July 18, 2009.   


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