Menu Close

The Mud Book

Author John Cech
Air Date 7/6/2005

The Mud Book Transcript

With full summer upon us, there are sure to be days in a child’s life when there is nothing much to do, especial if it’s been raining, and play spaces have turned to mud. But that’s also one of the best times to try one’s young hands out on a basic creation of childhood — the mud pie.

One doesn’t expect there to be a book about making mud pies. You simply smush some mud together, form it into a patty — ‘nuf said. But the contemporary American composer, John Cage had a slightly more complex take on the subject when he and Lois Long teamed up back in the 1950s on their Mud Book, which combined Cage’s minimalist instructions with Long’s elemental pictures, complete with smears, drips, spatters, and a Jackson Pollacky-like double-page spread. In some cases, Long might even be using a stick dipped in mud to make her lines, thus taking us back through the book to our most ancient techniques of calligraphy. This small, five inch by five inch square book, printed on creamy pages but long out of print, is an intensely serious approach to the archetypal materials of wonder. Yet it isn’t meant tongue in cheek, as a kind of spoof, or as an adult condescension — in fact, it validates this entire activity — from getting the water to dirt ratios just right, to the embellishments that can be added to a finished mud pie (like the dandelion stalks in their birthday pie). Be sure to try out the recipes here with the nearest child, and you’ll quickly remember their place in the universal aesthetics of childhood.

Speaking of Jackson Pollock, another place for this kind of tactile experience is suggested in Jan Greenberg’s and Sandra Jordan’s Action Jackson, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. It’s a picture book version of the life and art of Jackson Pollock, and it follows him through the creation of his break-through abstract-expressionist, action painting, “Number One.” Here’s how Greenberg and Jordan describe the process of Pollock painting: “Like the Native American sand painters he saw as a boy out West, he moves around the canvas coaxing paint into loops and curves. . . . Fireworks splatter of rosy pink. Twisting ropes of white. Spangles of olive. A lavender glow where pink and blue-black meet.” Be sure to try this at home, too, with your kids. Take my word for it. I once spent an afternoon making Pollocky paintings with my then three-year-old grandson. We emerged from the basement, four hours later, covered in paint, and two of the happiest creatures on this planet.

Posted in Literature