Articulate

S5 E8 | FULL EPISODE

The Right Left Turns

For the past 40 years, Arthur Yorinks has been the power behind the throne for many of America’s most significant artists. But his work stands on its own. Karen Russell’s stories live in a space between the everyday and the surreal. Jason deCaires Taylor’s greatest assets are underwater. All of his sculptures are entrusted to the oceans.

AIRED: December 02, 2019 | 0:26:46
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- [Jim] And Jason deCaires Taylor's greatest assets

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- [Jim] That's all ahead on this Articulate.

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- [Jim] For many writers storytelling is,

by choice, a solitary act.

Not though for Arthur Yorinks.

He's been a go-to partner

for many of modern America's most renowned artists

across a variety of genres.

A libretto for a Philip Glass opera,

a dance for the American modern company, Pilobolus,

audio plays featuring Sigourney Weaver

and Frances McDormand,

picture books with Mort Drucker, David Small,

and Maurice Sendak.

Today, Yorinks lives in bucolic bliss

on a farm in Upstate New York.

He is a gifted storyteller

but one who has never craved the spotlight.

The fact he discovered as a prodigious pianist, age seven.

- I'm playing, practicing, all of that.

I'm really enjoying it, loving it, it's for me.

And then company comes over and my mother says...

- Perform. - Perform.

And I hated it.

To this day, I could feel right now

that feeling of, don't look at me, I don't want to do this.

You're not interested.

And so I became even more shy about that kind of stuff.

- [Jim] Yorinks gave up the piano when he was 16.

He decided his future lay in writing when

one evening he became emersed in a book

from his father's vast collection.

- My father was a odd, by himself kind of guy

but he was an avid reader.

But when I watched him read, I thought he looks like

he's having so much pleasure, that I emulated that.

(insects chirping)

There were no kids books, oddly, in the house.

I mean, there was maybe a set of Graham or Anderson but

no picture books, nothing like that.

I didn't even know what those were.

So here I am one night

and just my large Standard Poodle and I were in the house,

I mean for an hour or two.

So I took out Poe and I started reading it

and I, you know it was a story called "The Black Cat"

and I remember this exactly,

I stopped, 'cause I was getting scared and then I said,

wait a second, this is just words.

Somebody wrote this down.

What kind of power is that?

That somebody puts words together and I'm freaking out here.

You know almost climbing under the bed with my dog.

I want to be able to do that.

And that was it for writing.

I mean, I knew that whatever I did,

in addition to whatever all the things I did,

I wanted to be a writer.

- [Jim] And write he has.

Despite the dearth of children's books in his family home,

the adult Yorinks has mastered the form

with 39 books published to date,

including 1997's Caldecott medal winner, "Hey, Al".

Yorinks's characters don't talk down to kids,

they tend to sound like adults with vivid imaginations

and there's a good reason for that.

- I kind of channel,

believe it, and this is gonna sound very strange,

the innocence of my mother

and my father, they had a similar odd,

coming from very different angles.

I recall sitting on the stoop of the house

and my mother

going on and on about

life on other planets

and the dreams that she had

which were quite vivid and fantastical.

On the flip side, my father

would be known to sit at the table

and just start talking, nobody, not directing it to anybody

and just was telling a story

and it happened to be some thing that he read or something,

but he didn't care that nobody was listening to him.

Except I always listened to him.

And so,

that

not only enabled me,

but engendered in me a constant curiosity

and that curiosity of asking a question

is what I think is a part of childhood.

Kids are always trying to figure things out.

You know, we're all,

well we're always trying to figure things out.

And

what I do when I'm in that mode of writing those books

and I never think of them, of course, as writing for kids,

so they're just books to me,

of answering questions.

And I don't put limits on the answers.

I honestly think

if a guy works in a butcher shop

and he's surrounded by meat all the time,

his dream would be to turn into a fish.

I don't censor those...

- Or question whether - No question.

- it's gonna work or not. - That's right.

- That's a lot of self trust.

- I, you know,

I'm a pretty insecure guy

but when I'm in a room by myself and working,

yeah, I do trust what I'm doing.

- [Jim] But Yorkinks has often been overshadowed

by his collaborators.

Perhaps none more so than

the legendary illustrator, Maurice Sendak.

In 1970, the 42 year old Sendak was already world famous

for "Where the Wild Things Are"

when a 17 year old Arthur Yorinks and a friend

knocked on his door.

- And the door opens and there's Sendak.

And clearly it was (laughs)

who are these two kids?

And I said something, my, like the exorcist,

words were coming out of my mouth,

I had no idea what I was saying.

You know, I admire your work, the typical bologna.

He was very polite, you know, he didn't open the door

and let us in but he just said,

"Look, I'm in the middle of a book.

"If you'd like to talk, I'd be happy to talk

"to you on the phone."

And it was very cordial, nice, all of about three minutes.

So, door closes, we go off.

And then comes the dilemma.

Every month of so,

I would dial his number, rotary dial, no caller ID.

"Hello?" Click.

I, yeah, it was terrible.

I did it like four times.

(phone receiver clanking)

Now I had a Standard Poodle which I mentioned earlier.

The odd thing about this dog, she never barked.

Dialing Maurice, hello (imitates dog barking).

I was so distracted, I thought,

oh my God, I've never heard this dog bark.

And all of a sudden, like in the cartoons,

you know, hello, hello?

And it's Maurice. - Speech bubbles

are coming out of the phone.

- And I, then this is totally, again, ridiculous.

He's gonna know it's me, I can't hang up now.

So we had a conversation

and the conversation was basically

a disguised interview, of course.

What do you do, what do you blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And it was met with, and I'm trying to lie,

I'm trying to make up things.

You know, "How old are you?"

(stammers) I'm 17.

Oh, oh.

You know, I mean, at every moment,

and I don't think that fast so I'm,

I'm just spurting out the truth.

So he gets to the last question,

which I didn't know was the last question.

He says, "Have you ever read "Winnie the Pooh"?"

Yes, I've read it.

"What did you think?"

And I thought, what does he want to hear,

what does he want to hear, what does he want to hear?

And as my brain is saying that,

the words come out of my mouth, oh I hated that book.

There's a pause.

I, you know, after all this.

I just said the wrong thing and as I'm thinking that,

he says, "Why don't you come over for lunch on Tuesday?"

I said okay.

So I went to his house on Tuesday.

I had a tuna fish sandwich and a ginger ale

on his little patio in the Brownstone.

We talked

and

though we had this disparity in age,

generation, whatever that is,

we were very similar.

So we hit it off.

We hit it off, we became good friends.

Unlike what a lot of people think of Maurice

as a kind of a morose and serious guy, of which he was,

he was-- - And grumpy.

- And grumpy and, you know, but he was absolutely hilarious

and that was the thing we shared, humor.

- [Jim] For years, Yorinks and Sendak

avoided working together.

They didn't want to mix friendship and business.

But in 1992 they broke their pact

by founding a children's theater company

in New York City called Night Kitchen,

which they ran as partners for nearly a decade.

During that time they also wrote

their first kids book together, "The Miami Giant".

Their fifth, "Presto and Zesto in Limboland"

was released in 2018, six years after Sendak's death.

Without his dear friend and collaborator,

Yorinks has had to go at it alone again

to write a stage adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are".

It premiers at the New Victory Theater

in New York City in the Fall of 2020.

As always though, Yorinks would like to stay in the shadows.

- I wrote this thing with the intention that

when people see it,

the book has only 300 words or something like that,

so obviously I had to make something up,

but my goal was that,

oh, did Maurice leave this play laying around?

- [Jim] It's a plausible scenario.

If Maurice Sendak had left behind an unrealized play,

he might well have counted on his friend, Arthur Yorinks,

to get the job finished.

(happy music)

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- [Tori] Karen Russell is most at home

in made up places.

- I feel so much more comfortable in fiction.

I feel like that's the only place

where I can be honest about certain things.

I'm like, okay from the point of view

of a horse on the moon, now we can talk.

You know, I have to go quite a distance, I think,

from my own perspective.

- [Tori] And Russell's imagination has taken her far.

Her debut novels, "Swamplandia!"

about a family of aligator wrestlers

in the Florida Everglades

put her in a three-way tie for the 2012 Pulitzer.

The next year, she won a MacArthur genius award.

Russell is celebrated for her ability to make the strange

seem inevitable in stories about everyday life.

An epidemic of nightmares that create

an entire society of insomniacs.

A support group for new mothers

who've agreed to nurse a demon.

A pack of children brought up by wild animals

who were taught civility by nuns.

Even mythological creatures lurking among citrus trees.

- "When we first landed in Sorrento, I was skeptical.

"The pitcher of lemonade we ordered

"looked cloudy and adulterated.

"Sugar clumped at the bottom.

"I took a gulp and a whole small lemon lodged in my mouth.

"There is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste,

"the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon.

"It was bracingly sour with a delicate hint of ocean salt.

"After an initial pickling,

"a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums,

"a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang

"to my fevered brain.

"These lemons are a vampire's analgesic."

- [Tori] Though it might seem that being a novelist

would offer some great vacation from reality,

for Russell, even the most outlandish stories

come from a deeply personal place.

- I often think sometimes that fiction is more

frighteningly revealing

to somebody about somebody than non-fiction,

'cause if you're writing under the spell of your own name

and like let's say it's an op-ed or something,

you're sort of, I'm gonna stake out this position,

I'm gonna defend it.

In a story where anything can happen,

it is a little bit like being in a dream,

and in the same way that dreams will reveal things

that you're maybe uncomfortable knowing,

because you're just the hostage inside your own body

and you're having this very honest communication

that you're not really mediating in any way,

frighteningly it can feel like that.

I just find like, particularly with stories,

I'll be like, this is gonna be a totally different story.

I've never written anything in this landscape.

Different point of view, new characters, whole new people,

and then you're sort of like,

oh (laughs) this again. - Here I am again.

- Here I find myself, right.

- [Tori] One recurring theme in Russell's work

is how the supernatural strides almost imperceptibly

in step with the seemingly mundane.

It's a gift she traces back to her childhood,

set in the unpredictable environment of southern Florida.

(insects buzzing)

- Speaking of an incubator for an imagination,

I mean, I think the weather plays such a role there

and nature, the humidity is part of it

but there's no way to think of your life as separate from

this animal world because it's just embracing you.

You're sweating into it, you know, you're,

it's just the membrane that you're moving through

is reminding you that you're in the tropics, really.

And the weather's always changing,

I mean that's something really unique about South Florida.

You're always in peril too,

there's like a cheerful amnesia for most of the year

and then it's hurricane season

and everybody remembers that they've chosen

to live on sand at the edge of the continent.

And where there are lizards in your bathtub

and none of that seems so unusual if you're a kid

but then maybe later, in retrospect,

you're like, that's interesting.

(birds chirping)

Do you see a butterfly?

- [Child] (speaks faintly)

- Yeah, do you see the snail?

- Oh yeah, you're right. - Karen Russell

- There's a birdy in the tree. - is now experiencing

another childhood.

This time, set in Portland, Oregon

where she and her husband are raising their growing family.

Her latest collection, 2019's "Orange World"

is named for a short story about the overwhelming worry

that accompanies parenthood.

- "Orange World," the New Parent's Educator says,

"is where most of us live.

"She shows a slide,

"a smiling baby with a magenta birthmark hooping her eye.

"No, a burn mark.

"The slides jump back in time to the irreversible error.

"Here is the sleepy father holding a teapot.

"Orange World is a nest of tangled electrical cords

"and open drawers filled with steak knives.

"It's a baby's fat hand

"hovering over the blushing coils of a toaster oven.

"it's a crib purchased used.

"We all make certain compromises, of course.

"We do things we know to be unsafe.

"You take a shower with your baby and suddenly...

"The educator knocks her fist on the table

"to mimic the gavel rap of an infant's skull on marble.

"Her voice lowers to a whisper, to relate the final crime.

"You fall asleep together on the sofa.

"Only one of you wakes up.

"Don't fall asleep, Rae dutifully takes down.

"Orange World."

- [Tori] But for all the anxiety

that motherhood has brought with it,

Russell says her son has also added

a delightful new kind of strangeness to her life.

- Time moves in such a different way now,

it's really uncanny.

He really changes every second in a way

that makes me very aware that I'm living in the present.

And sometimes, if I'm with him

there are not as many rooms to go to.

I just feel like I have to be present with him

and that's a real gift

because not since my own childhood

have I felt so kind of riveted to my skin and in my body

and in this world, with him.

You know, it think a lot of my adult life,

you know, obviously has been spent

in sort of imaginary realms but also just in like

the boring places we all go.

And sometimes it can feel very claustrophobic

not to have this space to kind of

reminisce and day dream and whatever.

There's something about just like blowing bubbles

on the floor in real time

that reminds me so much of being a child myself,

when everything had that sort of

heightened reality because that was it.

This is like the first tree you know,

so you're really attending to it.

I mean, we have been taking birds for granted, for example.

We have to greet every bird in the sky, you know.

It does restore a kind of wonder.

You have permission again or something to,

yeah, you remember a little bit.

- [Tori] Karen Russell chooses to see

what so many of us habitually ignore.

The weird, the fantastical in the everyday

and her stories invite us to see the world that way too.

(happy music)

(water drips)

(water gushes)

(waves crashing)

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- [Jim] Though many of us are quick to forget it

we are entirely dependent on water.

(water splashes)

Or that half of our bodies are made of it

and two-thirds of our planet is covered by it.

Yet somehow it remains mysterious.

- You know, I think we're so connected to water

and I think it's intrinsic in us.

- [Jim] Jason deCaires Taylor is a pioneer

of under water sculpture parks.

Elaborate destinations designed to support

and nurture coral reefs,

sometimes by luring tourists away from more vulnerable areas

always by inviting new life.

This, deCaires Taylor says,

is the kind of impact he first had in mind

when he set out to become an artist so many years ago.

- I studied public sculpture in London.

I had quite few exhibitions in public spaces

and I kind of always left with a sense of sort of futility

that you invested so much of your

heart and soul into making these things

and then at the end of it, we store them, pack them away

and we're just sort of creating more stuff for the planet.

Subsequently I became a diving instructor.

I dived in different countries around the world.

And then I sort of caught on this idea that

actually if I made these permanent under water works

and cited them in the right type of environment,

then actually that besides their artistic value,

they would also become a habitat space,

they would help sort of rejuvenate areas

of under water sea bed.

- deCaires Taylor's work has taken his from Oslo in Norway

to Cancun Mexico to the Spanish governed Canary Islands.

During his time there,

he created a vast underwater installation

called the Museo Atlántico.

Among its 300 sculptures, the Raft of Lampedusa

attracted much attention

for its depiction of African refugees.

- The Canary Islands had been a stepping stone

into Europe for many, many years and they have a

very long history of the migrant route.

So I wanted to recount some of the history of the island

and a lot of the people that are actually in that

installation where migrants who had

come over to the Canary Islands who had started

new lives and were very successful.

But it also obviously coincided with the huge crisis

that was enfolding in the Mediterranean at the same time.

(ethereal music)

- [Jim] Wherever Jason deCaires Taylor goes

nature is his humbling co-creator.

But though hundreds of hours of craftsmanship

will quickly be claimed and rewritten by the ocean,

he has few qualms about surrendering

his sculptures to the sea.

- I do feel some attachment

but there's also a really sort of liberating feeling that,

it's like having children where you,

they're free, you set them free.

And for me, I love going back

and watching how they've changed,

how they evolving, you know that, for me,

is much more interesting than the original work in itself.

- You live in a world of unforeseen circumstances.

Many positive, any negative?

Have there been times where you've thought, oops.

Need to go back and fix that or

we didn't think we were gonna have a destructive effect or?

- Definitely, I mean, they're under water.

It's very, very hard to predict what's gonna happen.

Obviously, we endeavor, we do a lot of research

and a lot of testing

and consult many different local operatives,

but it's a very changeable space, a very dynamic space.

- You once, was it in Cancun where you created an area

and lobsters showed up and the lobster fisherman showed up

about 10 minutes later, did I read that somewhere?

- Yes, so, I made some lobster habitats in Cancun

and they're amazing, we had a couple hundred lobsters

and I was sort of cooing about it one day

and the next day a fisherman went down at night

and had the lot and they were,

they were on the Hilton buffet.

Yeah, I mean also the changes, sometimes I go down

and expect to see sort of vibrant corals and sponges

and I go there and there will just be like a black sludge

that's adhered to it or I've been down another time

where I made 200 sculptures

and they were just slowly sort of changing

and they had these sort of coral algae forming

which was a really good sign.

And I was like excellent, they're really working

and then a week later I went

and they were just completely inundated with this thicket,

so I got some seaweed and they just look like a giant bush

or a giant forest, I was really alarmed by that.

That was the one time I was kind of quite disturbed.

- Could you fix it,

or did you want to? - Well it's interesting.

We did a test, so we actually cleaned off,

so I got some on around 20 of the sculptures

and stripped them back to their natural state

and then I went back like four months later

and the ones that we cleaned

were then covered again in the thick algae

and the ones we'd left to their own devices,

they were actually perfect.

They had been, all the algae had been eaten by the fish,

it had been kind of washed off by the tides and

I think that was the main

sort of point where I realized that just

leave it alone, from that point of installing it,

it's just best to let everything take its course.

- [Jim] Though he knows it's impossible

to micromanage the ocean, deCaires Taylor and his team

do put great thought into how

they can positively influence outcomes.

The sculpture parks are custom designed for each site

and because coral can take hundreds of years to form,

the sculptures are made of super durable concrete

that actually hardens under water over time.

The surface of every sculpture has a neutral pH

to avoid contaminating existing life.

But textures vary

depending on what type of growth is being invited.

And he's getting pretty good at it.

deCaires Taylor's latest project

brought him to a wonder of the natural world.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

In Fall 2019, he installed a massive greenhouse

designed to protect the reef from further damage

from rising sea temperatures.

Jason deCaires Taylor believes he has found

his life's purpose helping to rectify some of man's damage

to the under water world.

- I think art has a responsibility.

I think our world is changing so rapidly.

There's so many burning issues.

There's so many fundamental things that are happening now

that if I produced anything

that didn't talk about these things then

I would feel it was very pointless.

- [Jim] Instead, deCaires Taylor casts his life's work

to the ocean floor hoping that what he leaves behind

will improve life for all of us.

(ocean waves crashing)

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