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Q&A: Rebecca Dudley, Author of Hank Has a Dream

How did a UIC-trained architect invent the dreamlike world of Storywoods and its handmade inhabitants? It began with her staging ‘The Nutcracker’ with stuffed animals, but it has its roots in a childhood idyll in New Hampshire.

Image: Courtesy of Rebecca Dudley/Peter Pauper Press

A few years ago I stumbled across a site called Storywoods. It was mysterious and wonderful: miniature stories set in a miniature world, constructed by hand with obvious care and considerable labor, but to no discernable purpose other than their own existence. Go to the first post—there’s no explanation, only a short, charming little narrative about a plush little creature named Hank going skating, an immediate immersion into a strange and beautiful universe.

I assumed that it was part of a larger project, by someone with considerable and diverse talents putting them towards some eventually magical endpoint. But I also enjoyed not knowing who, what, why, or when, letting the story of Hank and his creator emerge out of the blog. I could track the person down and spoil it for myself, or I could let these little mysteries pop up every once in awhile. So I plugged Storywoods into my RSS reader and waited to see how it evolved.

It turned out I was right. What came out of Storywoods was the children’s book Hank Finds an Egg, a wordless picture story told through photographs of a hand-built world. And its creator was Rebecca Dudley, an architect who lives in Evanston. I immediately bought it for my kid.

Recently her second book came out, Hank Has a Dream, a dual narrative of the title character’s dream of flight—in a dirigible visually inspired by Windsor McCay’s art in Little Nemo—and his recounting of that flight, acting it out in the woods he lives in, each part of the dream mirrored on the facing page.

Dudley’s work is unusual in the medium of children’s books; her pictures are not painted or drawn but hand-built, and shot in natural light with a minimum of digital editing. Visually, its appeal is something like that of Tim Burton’s. They’re sophisticated dioramas constructed from a variety of clever textures, and shot so that a surprisingly tiny physical space in the artist’s studio—Dudley works in a room in her house that’s about the size of a small bedroom—looks like an endless world.

And as with Burton, the creations look both childlike and carefully, obsessively crafted. Hank’s world is dreamlike and unreal, but its handcrafted, three-dimensional nature makes it simultaneously real and tangible. Ultimately, that’s what I fell in love with, especially as a parent—it looked, to me, like a child’s imagination brought to life by an adult.

The result is so singular that I couldn’t take the mystery anymore: where did Storywoods come from? The answer is also singular. Dudley grew up in small-town New Hampshire, an inspiration for Hank’s woodland world and specific images in it; her parents loved crafts and building, creating little worlds for her, which she began to do herself. She did dance and theater at NYU, where she took an interest in set design and lighting.

Seeking a synthesis of the creative and practical, she studied architecture at UIC, eventually working with Rem Koolhas on the Seattle Public Library and the student center at IIT. She fell in love with Chicago and its architectural heritage, which, in a roundabout way, inspired her first Storywoods-like efforts. A professional architect for most of her career, she took great joy in building models, miniatures of the future space clients would live in.

Learning all this, I could go back and see it in Storywoods and the Hank books, this synthesis of childhood and adulthood. Which is in its own way an engaging story of something coming into creation. And a reason the following interview is pretty long; it’s been edited for clarity (mostly excising tangents of interest to me on Virginia Lee Burton, Patrick McDonnell, Richard Scarry, and Lytro cameras.)

You grew up in New Hampshire, and in previous interviews you’ve talked about how much time you spent playing in the woods. That seems to greatly influence your visual style.

It does. I think I mentioned in the short documentary, growing up, the access to forests and nature. It’s even hard to say it, because it sounds like such a cliche, that it’s becoming more rare that a kid is allowed to do self-directed play in the woods for hours every day.

What sort of stuff did you do?

We built houses, lean-tos with branches, climbed trees. There was a stream behind my grandparents’ house, which was across the street; you’d get a short stick, and a long stick, and shepherd the short stick down the stream until it got to the “bay.” That was really fun. It was a very safe, very stimulating place to grow up.

Was that when you started building? In childhood?

Yeah. I included a silly thing in my Amazon bio about building the Parthenon out of file folders. That’s true. I remember it felt like a developmental leap. I brought it to school and no one thought I made it, because they weren’t quite there yet. But I remember thinking, “I’m going to do this! This is what I’m going to do, probably forever.”

It was satisfying because it wasn’t really the Parthenon. You know the term tatebanko? It’s Japanese. You’ve seen pop-up cards, it’s kind of like that. Two-dimensional things arranged in a three-dimensional way. The columns weren’t round, they were flat; everything was made in layers of flat stuff. It was like an interpretation. It wasn’t a true… the columns had an entasis, the distortion they’re supposed to have where they curve two-thirds of the way down. Some things were really precise.

It’s a sophisticated step—to decide to do it in two dimensions and still get that depth of field.

Yeah, what a funny bunch of choices I made at that time. When I went to write a bio, that’s the first thing I remember really being motivated to do no matter how hard it was. I remember wanting to take pictures before I wanted to build things. I remember thinking “I want to take pictures of my stuff, so people can see in it what I see—they can see the life in it that I see.”

What sort of stuff were you photographing?

I got a picture of myself, cut off the edges and stuck it in some moss. I was really interested in that—taking people and shrinking them down, and then photographing them in natural environments. 

My dad was really into Sherlock Holmes, and I think I remember reading that Arthur Conan Doyle got into fairies late in life. And it probably has to do with growing up in the ’60s; fairies were in the air. And Horton Hears a Who—this idea that there are these little things that are there. I was trying to photograph these little things, and they’re just blurs. I’m not sure the photographs even exist anymore.

It’s interesting looking at your books, how much depth of field is a part of it. It’s critical to building that space. How did you get to that?

I like the shallow depth of field. When you’re learning about photography, people misuse the term a lot. People really want sharp, sharp, pictures when they do landscape photography, and I thought I was doing a miniature version of landscape photography. And they’re all talking about their tiny apertures and long exposure times [ed. note: e.g. Ansel Adams’s Group f/64 collective], and I’m thinking “I don’t think I want that.” The more I did tiny apertures and long exposures, the more I knew I didn’t want that. It ruined the sense of distance I was trying to create; it made it look like a bunch of objects I’d arranged on a table.

And I don’t want to do anything in Photoshop. All I want to do is maybe take out a little pin that’s put in place to hold something in position. I don’t want to do anything in Photoshop.

Why?

I think kids can tell. It’s already digital. And I don’t love digital.

What difference can you see?

Have you heard the term dynamic range? Maybe ten years ago I was talking to someone about buying a digital camera, and I didn’t understand dynamic range. And he said, “you’ve got white on one end, and black on the other, and a cheap digital camera will have 12 grades between black and white, and a really nice one will have 24. I don’t know what the dynamic range of mine is, but it’s pretty good. Every digital photograph is limited in a way that a true film photograph isn’t. It’s already reduced that information down to chunks.

I think kids are now seeing so much stuff that’s fake. I saw this mousepad yesterday with a dog giving another dog a high-five; clearly, the dogs weren’t doing this. Kids, they see this, and they think maybe that’s possible, maybe they think photos can’t be trusted because it’s not possible. I want kids to be able to look at my photographs and trust that this is real. 

People often ask me if the entire thing is digital: what digital modeling program did you use for Hank?

Really? It seems so clear to me that they’re not. Like, in Hank Finds an Egg, there are pictures where you’re looking down on the bird’s nest, and there are leaves surrounding the nest. On the ones closer in, you can actually see the felt; then as it gets farther out of focus, it gets more representational. You can see how it was built.

Yeah, I like that.

And the trees—I was trying to figure out how the trees are made. How did you get the bark?

The trees are made from clay—lightweight, air-drying clay. The breakthrough for the trees was when I realized that bark is a record of movement. When I realized that, I was like, “oh, that’s so much easier than trying to wrap this tube with paper and make that look like a tree.” I can take this clay, and have that sort of be a record of the movement, and make it through moving it by stretching it.

That’s one of the things I like about the book. As a grownup, I can look at it and reverse-engineer it; but if I try to put myself in the mind of a kid, I can imagine this world exists. Now that I have a kid, I can see her learning dimensions. And with the book, I can’t see getting that kind of dimensionality in digital, or even painting.

I think kids experience these things differently. When I set stuff up as a kid, arranging what I now think of as tableaus, you could say “oh, she’s setting up her stuffed animals in a little scene.” But it was more complex than that; that’s probably what you’re daughter’s doing. That was important to her. Figuring out things spatially—that’s part of her development. That’s how I felt too—I have to do this and figure this out. It’s serious! It’s my work.

Have you always been an architect, in your professional life?

Yes—I was a graphic artist before I went to architecture school. I started out in dance at NYU, I finished in economics, because I got scared about what I was going to do with a dance degree from NYU. My second degree… I moved to Chicago in ‘89, and I was a freelance graphic artist. And I think this city made me an architect.

I always had wanted to… I went to Expo ‘67 and saw Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and thought, “That’s amazing? What does he do? I’d like to build those.”

What kind of architecture did you do?

I did some institutional architecture; I worked for Rem Koolhas. I worked at IIT and the Seattle Public Library. I did some hospital work when I was in Seattle, but I’ve mostly done residential. I love doing residential work.

Houses?

Yeah. My idea—and I either get clients or don’t get clients because of this—is to figure out what the architect would have wanted. If they want a great room, it’s like, okay, let’s first try to figure out what this house would like for a great room, instead of starting with what you’d like for a great room. I’m a historic preservationist, and I believe that one way to take care of things is by keeping them, and changing them for modern families.

I’m really into not building; working within the existing footprint. I’ll never be a famous architect.

Was that something you wanted to do? You were working with Rem Koolhas, that seems like it could have been a career path.

Yeah, it totally could have. I still do it; my licensed paperwork is right here. It’s so hard to get licensed that it’s hard to give it up. I can imagine the right client coming along and doing great work with them, but I’m not seeking it out right now.

The thing with Koolhas… I was teaching at the University of Washington, teaching architectural design. The opportunity kind of fell in my lap. I stayed up with him all night to do the Seattle Public Library competition; the reason I ended up on that team was that Josh Ramos—who has become a famous architect, he was Rem Koolhas’s right-hand man—I went to see Josh give their first presentation for the Seattle Public Library Competition. We were chatting, and he said we really need another person to charrette with us tonight. So I said yes, I’ll stay up and work on this all night, because this is the right architect for this job.

I forget what you asked.

We were talking about whether being a famous architect was part of the plan.

When I graduated from UIC, I won the SOM traveling fellowship, which Santiago Calatrava won, Doug Garofalo won, a lot of famous architects won. I felt the responsibility—at least give it a try. But my feelings about money made it impossible to really take off. I just didn’t feel comfortable telling people how to spend a million dollars. I did it for a long time, but I felt conflicted about it. But, yeah, I was an architect full time—15, almost 20 years.

It reminds me of the writers I know who become editors. Like my bosses. They get away from the writing part of it. They have to budget!

That’s so important. It’s not just the money thing. The more experience you get in architecture, the less design you do. As soon as that started happening, I was like this is not good. I interviewed at great places and realized, “Oh my God, they want me to manage people.” And I’m here to draw.

How did you end up here from there?

Model-making was my favorite part of being an architect. You can convey an idea to a client in a physical, tactile model, much more clearly and much more realistically than a digital walkthrough. I love model-making.

The other thing is that there’s an element of empathy in being an architect. You have to try to see the space through your client’s eyes. That’s like acting, like writing—that empathy piece, that feels like a one-to-one translation. Like, I developed that so well as an architect, what’s it like when you walk down a hallway, what do you see? What’s the light like in the fall? What’s the light like in the spring? Trying to anticipate all those different conditions from a limited site visit, maybe a site visit a thousand miles away—I was working on the Seattle Public Library and IIT when I was in Rotterdam—that empathy is the thing that ties the thing together.

When did you start with Storywoods and Hank? I’m assuming it didn’t spring forth fully formed.

It was so fun! [My husband and I] had just moved back from Seattle at my insistence in 2001. And we used to go see the Northwest Ballet’s Maurice Sendak version of The Nutcracker every Christmas. John did not want to move back; he loved Seattle, he loved his work there in computer stuff, he came back for me.

That Christmas I staged The Nutcracker with our stuffed animals, and that was the first time as an adult that I pursued it seriously—storyline, scenery, animals. So there’s that.

After that, I was like, that was really fun. So for two years after that I made these calendars for my friends. Which was a great exercise—what’s so cool about calendars is that you’re telling a story about time in a single picture. I did that for two years, 2002 and 2003. People responded so well for the calendars that they started asking me if I was still doing architecture. They liked them so much and took them so seriously that I started to take it more seriously. In order to take it more seriously, I had to make my own animals, because I was photographing things that were designed by other people. Even though they were photogenic and interesting, I knew it wasn’t right; if I’m going to start making stuff for the market, it’s just not right for me to be photographing someone else’s stuff.

Were you into children’s books at all before you started this?

It’s funny, that little movie that was made about me, that doc, her spin on it was a Peter Pan kind of spin. And I just don’t… I think she’s on to something there, but I’m not conscious of it. I had an amazing childhood, and I feel like I’m the same person, so I don’t think I’ve completely developed away from childhood. I don’t know…. I didn’t feel like it was wrong, I feel like it could have gone so many different ways.

The more I thought about it, I thought, “It’s probably true, but what do I do with that?” I guess I should just be happy that I have this connection with my audience, which is children. I don’t have children, but I do feel a natural connection. I have a very clear memory of childhood, vivid memories, and my parents helped create those by doing wild things with us.

Dangerous things! In Hank Has a Dream, there’s this one scene where he’s swinging out over a field—there was a swing, on Rt. 4 in Durham, New Hampshire, there was a cliff with a rope swing on the top. And we all went there, but someone took it down because it was unbelievably dangerous. My parents were all about doing exciting things.

It sounds like your parents were good at building things.

Oh, my gosh, they both were. They built dollhouses for me—and they were tatebanko, again, the same technique. They’d get out a home magazine, and cut out little lamps, and mount them on cardboard, and make it three-dimensional. You’d see them and you’d think, “where did this come from? Somebody must do this for a living, they’re so gorgeous.”

Can I tell you something quick about Hank Has a Dream?

Oh, sure.

The interesting story about that story is that the publisher is very brave. I had proposed several stories that show Hank solving a problem. Some with Lil’ Smokey, some with other characters. And they said “No, no, no. We just want a story that shows Hank having a good day.”

And I said, “There’s no problem being solved, that’s not a story arc. Why would we do that? That’s okay as a blog post, but not as a book.” And they said, “No, no, no. We want to do this.”

And I thought, “When else in my life am I going to have a chance to do something that risky. No large publisher will ever do this.” So I did it with some reluctance, but I also respected their willingness to take a risk on a really unconventional story arc. And we’ll see what happens. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that book. I hope you like it.

It’s so immersive; that probably helps a bit to get away with that approach.

That’s the other thing. I want to make stories that can only be told in this medium. I didn’t want to take just any story and apply any treatment to it. In Hank Finds an Egg, I told a story that could best be told by showing the distance between Hank and his egg and this nest, and one of them is in sharp focus, and one is in shallow focus, because it’s so far between these two things.

And in the second one, the story about dreams is important, the subject matter is important to the medium, because it’s about something that’s real and not real, just like dreams. That’s really important to me: I want to tell stories that can only be told in this medium.

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