Every month I take a little time to talk about my work as a children's illustrator and storyteller. I had a wonderful experience recently. I wanted to find out more about Octopuses. Because they are the main characters in my new book, along with a mermaid. Octopuses are very hard to draw, they are great shape changers, having no bones, they have the ability to change color and pattern, and they can even change the texture of their skin. Their eight arms are really too much for our human minds to track. They are able to be so graceful and facile. The astounding thing is their intelligence though, and their willingness to be curious and interact with humans.
I was given the opportunity to meet an Octopuses, Sy, a young Giant Pacific Octopus who lives at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Her premier care taker is Bill Murray, and he introduced us. I prepared by reading everything I could find about Octopuses, but hit pay dirt when I found that one of my favorite authors, Sy Montgomery has written a compelling and illuminating non fiction work about her experiences with Octopuses at the aquarium. I love chickens, and Sy's book BIRDOLOGY was my multiple Christmas present for many of my friends. Her book, SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS was my magic carpet for a start to understanding these amazing creatures. A few years ago I had a strange experience at an aquarium in Tampa, Florida. The Octopus was free swimming in its tank when it kind of locked on to me and started tracking me and looking in my eyes. I kind of shrugged it off thinking it was my imagination, but I felt effected. Then, my daughter and her husband had an experience with a huge six foot Giant Pacific Octopus in the ocean just off their beach in Okinawa, Japan. Months later they took me snorkeling, and although I'm pretty timid in the coral reefs, I was charmed by the most adorable baby Octopus I saw. My son in law Tom saw it first, only about three inches tall but perfectly formed, the color of sand. So this is how my interest was piqued. Then, a friend I know from the Boston Symphony, Alan Dynner, offered to introduce me to the aquarists at The New England Aquarium. We arrived early on a Monday, and saw Ana, an Octopus I had visited before who was tending her eggs. Then we saw Sy who was neatly bunched up in a corner of her beautiful environment, next to but not in the tank with Ana. Soon, Sy was on the move creating a dazzling display of grace and fluidity. She changed color from whitish pink to red to mottled and made the show even more astounding by raising her skin in various bumps and swirls, including little raised horns where a human?s eyebrows would be. After she settled, Bill, her protector and friend introduced her to me on the aquarium side of the tank. It was like being backstage. After seeing a newly arrived blue lobster, Bill opened her tank. This is a big deal because Octopuses are very deft at escaping their tanks. They are very curious and a huge six foot octopus can squeeze through an inch hole or confuse an inauspicious acting human with their formidable bag of tricks. Bill first patted the surface of the water to send vibrations to let her know he was ready to interact with her. Then he waved a fish or maybe a squid on a long wand in the water near her. Well that did it. She was immediately climbing up the tank with her arms up out of the water feeling around for Bill, who she knows and treats like a buddy or sibling. I say sibling because she tests and teases him. She was curious about my arms which I dropped into the water of her tank. She tastes people with her suckers. They are very forceful but not icky or creepy. But having said that, I would have to say you respected their strength and sense of purpose. I got the feeling she wanted my hand and it was being pulled toward the center of her eight arms which is where her mouth and sharp beak are. You don't want that to happen. Bill's main challenge was helping me pull off her arms like Velcro. They even made a noise like sloppy wet Velcro. She was good natured about me not wanting to go head first into her tank. It was like a big game for her. Strangely, it reminded me of another creature, an African Elephant we met in Botswana. He was also smart like a dog, but had a mischievous component that wasn't in the "man's best friend" category. A lot of time went by as I got to know Sy a little. She decided to liven things up when I wouldn't let her have my hand by giving me a little splash with her jet. Kind of like kids when they kind of splash water at you playfully. Bill would call it and would put his hand up to block it. I think they enjoyed playing this game. Sy was like, "Ok I've been really good so now I get to splash you!" I was exhausted after the whole intense experience, so much so I went to Starbucks and had a cranberry orange scone something I never ever do. I am totally grateful to the Aquarium for their generosity in sharing their amazing octopus especially since they can't be visiting with people too often as it?s not in their normal life style. Number one is for the creature to have as stress free and natural as possible lives.
Now the hard facts are I have to try and pay back for my amazing experience by painting really authentic and characterful Octopuses for my book. Even though it is inevitable that I will fall short, that's my instinct to try.
Happy drawing and creating your favorite creature
Your friend. Jan