The Amazing Search for Joseph Cornell
I remember it clearly, the day the inspiration for The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell found me. I was rambling through the Art Institute of Chicago – something I frequently do – when I found myself in a little-visited, corner gallery. What were these? Boxes… dozens of them! Handmade and wooden and filled with surprising things – flowers, feathers, soap bubble pipes, cut-outs of parrots, brass hoops, plastic ballerinas that once had spun inside a jewelry box but now twirled across a dark blue, night sky. Those boxes lured me to them. They beckoned, inviting me not just to look inside each one, but also to become part of what I discovered there. Dream-like and other worldly, they gripped my imagination… and my curiosity. What kind of person could create something so special and transcendent? I had to know more about the artist, Joseph Cornell.
Thank God for smartphones! On the EL ride home from the museum, I did a quick, online search. By the time I reached my stop, I’d gleaned the basics of his life, ordered the most recently published books about him, and jotted down the names and email address of a half-dozen Cornell experts for future reference. I was on my way!
Over the next few months, I read his published diaries and letters. I plowed through reams of critical analysis about his work. I visited galleries and exhibitions. I even uncovered a forgotten interview one of his assistants gave more than twenty years earlier detailing what it was like to work with Cornell in his dark, cluttered house. But here’s the rub – none of my discoveries felt picture book appropriate.
I’d decided early on in my process to write a picture book biography of Cornell. His work has so much child appeal. But the material I’d collected to this point was more the stuff of a YA book. Cornell, I learned, was stunted emotionally, retreating as an adult into his internal world. Simply put, he never grew up. Instead, he remained childlike in innumerable ways from his eating habits (he ate sweet likes brownies and cherry pie for every meal) to never moving out of his mother’s home. He cultivated no close friendships, no love interests. He did form obsessions about women – usually actress and ballerinas. Then he would send them letters written in French or perhaps a box he’d made in their honor. But he refused to ever meet them in person. He was too shy and vulnerable. A benign eccentric, he lived timelessly, often seeming to be in another world. He took naps as he needed, living and working through day and night with no regard for the clock. Hmmm… you see my dilemma, right? His adult life simply wouldn’t work for the picture book set.
Still, I attempted a few drafts. They were clumsy and wooden, nothing more than a string of facts. But good history, that is, history that connects with young readers, requires a human viewpoint. What I’d written was nothing more than an emotionless encyclopedia entry.
So I abandoned the project. It hurt to do it. I felt as if I was turning my back on Joseph Cornell… and the hundreds of hours I’d already put into the project. But without a way into the human story, without that bridge linking his life to the life of my readers, I just didn’t have a story.
Three years passed. I worked on other projects. Then one day I learned that the American Art Museum in Washington D.C. was exhibiting a retrospective of Joseph Cornell’s work. I went to see it. To my astonishment, more than his work was on display. A cross-section of his collection was also exhibited, plucked from his house in Queens and put down in the third-floor gallery — piles of stuff, and little special objects and collages all jumbled together and messy. And – I’ll never forget the wild, tingling feeling I got when I saw it — a ticket made by Cornell when he was just a boy, inviting his family to his “Relic Museum.”
Joseph had put on an art show? As a kid? Created from an assortment of objects he as already obsessively collecting?
I whooped right there in the gallery. This was it, the bridge, the connection, the very thing I’d been missing. I began my research anew, digging into Cornell’s childhood. I had so many questions. Why had he thrown that art show? What had it looked like? What memories and experiences had he drawn upon? Soon, I had the outline of a story.
Still, it had holes. Despite all my research, I couldn’t document Cornell’s childhood feelings about his collecting habits. Sure, I could make an educated guess, but a guess isn’t nonfiction. And while I had evidence of his close relationship with his family, I had few concrete details about how that closeness looked.
What to do? I decided to tell a different story – part his and part mine – using those few, known fragments from history, and filling in the rest with my imagination. No, it wasn’t the book I set out to write. But in the end, it might be a better one. It is not just a tale about a famous artist. It’s about acceptance, and the creative impulse and the unwavering faith of a loving family.
I can’t document it, but I know Joseph Cornell possessed all three.
Candace Fleming is the author of more than forty books for children, including picture books, middle grade novels, and biographies. Her most recent titles are the middle grade novel Strongheart Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen and the picture book The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Orbis Pictus Award, as well a two-time recipient of the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, the ALA Sibert Honor, and the SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction. Follow her on Twitter @candacemfleming or check out her website, www.candacefleming.com.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):
This giveaway is for three copies of The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell. Many thanks to Penguin Random House for this prize (for three separate winners). For a chance to win this copy of the book, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, June 3rd, 2018 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, June 6th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner of this book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – CANDY FLEMING Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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