Interview with Caryn West, creator of The Trouble with the Alphabet – international awareness through art and through the eyes of children

 

While stenciling a calligraphic alphabet design on the walls of her son’s bedroom, painter and artist Caryn West developed the concept for her new coffee table book project and human rights campaign.

The book, The Trouble with the Alphabet, features countries whose names begin with each letter of the alphabet and where children live in severe poverty or face danger or other human rights violations. Each section depicts a child’s face, taken from a real photo of someone in that nation, superimposed onto a calligraphic English letter, along with a short poem in the simple, powerful words a child of that land might use. A nonprofit, nongovernmental, nonsectarian organization assisting the children in that area follows, with a description of its purpose and work and with contact information for interested readers who may wish to donate or volunteer.

Although The Trouble is not a traditional children’s book and not specifically targeted to children, West and her family encourage parents to discuss the themes the project raises at home.

…Some people think these issues are too heavy for children, too scary. But I believe we need to start introducing them to the realities of the world at younger ages, to encourage compassion in them.

— Caryn West, paraphrased.

Caryn and her husband Brock explain that this book, along with its associated merchandising and media campaign, attempts to reach people who may want to help out somewhere in the world, but don’t have information on what is going on in different places.

When I chatted with Caryn last week, she pointed out how Mohamed Yunus’ Nobel Peace Prize for starting the Grameen Bank, which provides small business loans to individuals and families in developing countries, gave more publicity to international grassroots humanitarian efforts. She hopes to continue this trend of international awareness of human suffering and ways to prevent or ease it – maybe even inspire the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders and ‘cultural creatives’ along a humanitarian path.

Everyone has a gift, she explains. Hers is writing, while others may have great organizational ability and come up with and carry out solutions to world issues. “I would love to be able to reach someone with a gift [in another area], inspire someone who has a solution.”

Her own 18-year old son wants to become a social entrepreneur, founding an organization or business which assists the less fortunate internationally.

I’ll share a few highlights of my conversation with Caryn West:

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Caryn has always been curious about other people and ways of life. Beginning as early as age three, when she accompanied her sisters on a plane flight and approached a gentleman a few seats away. At her invitation the two colored a Mr. Magoo book together, and he turned out to be a major league baseball player who then met her family and became her godfather.

She drew her first portrait at age nine, a crayon rendering of Sammy Davis Jr. for a school report. Although she never planned to continue drawing people and personally enjoys the work of the Impressionists such as Monet more so than that of portrait artists, she relies on the portrait theme to make The Trouble with the Alphabet cohesive. That all began with the idea of looking into the eyes of children – which readers do beginning with the book’s cover. “I start with the eyes, then the face grows out of that.”

She chose to focus on children because they are universal in a way. We all were children once, and most people have a soft spot in their hearts for the very young.

Also, presenting a global situation as it might be depicted by children allows Caryn to provide a short, concise summary and avoid overwhelming her readers with information.

Born with a very empathetic personality, Caryn had to stop work at times when she felt overwhelmed by children’s suffering. Her empathy made her life more painful at times, but also inspired her to put so much time and energy into projects such as these.

The project’s artwork stems from photographs of real children in each of the featured countries (although not every photograph she found online represents someone who grew up in the specific country, each pictured child did live there for a time and suffered due to the nation’s situation.) Caryn located most of her photographs through Flickr, and searched more widely known and smaller websites until she found an image that caught her attention.

Caryn intentionally avoided depicting sick or otherwise injured children as that might be too depressing for readers. Fearing simple expressions of pain and suffering would cause people to look away, she aimed to implicitly convey hope through drawing mostly healthy children with complex, individual facial expressions. Fear, uncertainty, or hope in the kids’ eyes would perhaps draw more readers in to the book than simple pain and hopelessness.

She describes herself as a self-taught artist who cannot avoid painting in her own distinctive style. “I’ve tried to emulate other artists, but my work always turns out the same.” Portraits, to her, represent a huge responsibility – conveying the whole likeness and character of a person.

“I’m not the kind of person who smokes cigars in a coffeeshop,” described Caryn. “I never wanted to be an artist [in itself] …all my work comes out of personal conviction.”

Caryn researched the book using a wide variety of sources, everything from scholarly dissertations to prominent magazine articles to NGO sites to local blogs and personal websites. “I aimed to be well-rounded, read up on as much as I could find.” Oman proved the hardest to research, due to the strict control the Omani government exercises over information leaving the country. However, she was aware of their few laws protecting children from child labor, and featured this as a potential problem facing children.

Caryn was extremely cautious regarding accuracy throughout the project, allowing NGO’s to proofread her profiles of their work and refusing to publish anything until she was sure it was correct.

Some people might ask why Americans should give so much attention to world problems when we have impoverished children within our own borders. To this, Caryn replies that while she sympathizes with struggling Americans, this particular book was intended to have an international focus. Also the numbers of affected people and the scale of the issues depicted in the Trouble with the Alphabet cannot compare to the internal issues within the United States.

Caryn views herself as a kind of world citizen, with a sense of love, responsibility, and loyalty beyond her own nation’s borders. And she “goes around wiping away excuses” for people not to try to improve their world. “Look, the bank foreclosed on my home. But I chose to still write this book. Everyone can do something. Even a homeless person can pick up litter around them, or just decide to be kind to people.”

She cites the example of Eric Reeves, a high school English teacher who raised international awareness of the Darfur crisis simply by crunching numbers at home of people dying in the conflict.

Caryn published The Trouble with the Alphabet herself, through an independent American publisher who could carry out the unique six-color hexachrome process involved in rendering the illustrations. She wanted the promptness, full editorial control, high quality, and environmentally sensitive methods (the book is printed on recycled paper) she could find and select on her own. Although her decision was more expensive in some ways, Caryn stands by her choice to self-publish. “We’ve got to first do the right thing, and then see what happens.”

Synchronized Chaos Editor’s Note: A paperback version of the book is coming out for $24.95 in order to reach more people. Caryn would love to reach out to schools and the education sector.

An angel investor helped fund the project, which came as a true blessing as Caryn and her family lost their home in the slowing economy. The book met with initial success, as people tended to buy more than one copy and well-known NGO’s such as the US Campaign for Burma and the Save Darfur campaign chose to be featured. A NGO is now featured for every country in the book except for Zimbabwe, where Caryn’s criticism of President Mugabe would put the aid workers in danger if they were to stand by the statement. However, she still lists ways to get involved with the people of the country.

The Trouble with the Alphabet has begun to receive international reviews, which so far have been very positive. Caryn very much hoped for a positive response from those around the world, as she learned about the situations she describes through extensive research, but it has not yet been possible for her to travel to many of the featured countries. When asked what she might say in response to someone who asks how she can comment on a nation without having been there, she replied that especially now in the Internet/Information Age, anyone can care about those abroad, even those who can’t afford to travel. Some situations (such as forced child prostitution, violence against children, etc) are simply wrong and hurtful to people, regardless of any situation on the ground. And she aims to leave people with a step towards a solution…reaching out to assist a local indigenous (where possible) nonprofit group in the area who knows the situation well and can help improve conditions.

Caryn has kept her humility throughout the project…she feels as if she’s not necessarily an amazing person, but simply used for this endeavor. And she relies mostly on gut instinct, creativity, heart, and networking (online and person-to-person) to promote the book and merchandise.

“I’ve learned never to dismiss any person as irrelevant [to The Trouble with the Alphabet,]” Caryn explained. Creative networking has become a crucial part in her grassroots/inexpensive marketing strategy. And she alluded to many unique stories of people whom she and her husband met through the publicity process, and to people who are already inspired by her writing.

Editor’s Note: I found the book myself through viral marketing, when Caryn’s husband Brock friended me on Facebook and sent me the link.

The Trouble with the Alphabet is available for viewing and/or purchase at http://www.thetroublewiththealphabet.com/home-page/