Before I Grew Up: A Stunning Illustrated Elegy of Life, Loss, Our Search for Light, and Loneliness as a Crucible of Creativity

A touching and original celebration of the artist’s journey.

Before I Grew Up: A Stunning Illustrated Elegy of Life, Loss, Our Search for Light, and Loneliness as a Crucible of Creativity

One great stroke of loneliness in childhood is thick, pastel-colored and its edges are blurred out to the entire landscape of life.

This blurring of our own selves teaches us to Be ourselves. One measure of maturity might be how well we grow to transmute that elemental loneliness into the “fruitful monotony” Bertrand Russell placed at the heart of our flourishing, the “fertile solitude” Adam Phillips recognized as the pulse-beat of our creative power.

If we are lucky enough, or perhaps lonely enough, we learn to reach out from this primal loneliness to other lonelinesses — Neruda’s hand through the fence, Kafka’s “hand outstretched in the darkness” — in that great gesture of connection we call art.

Rilke, contemplating the lonely patience of creative work that every artist knows in their marrow, captured this in his lamentation that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” — Rilke, who all his life celebrated solitude as the groundwater of love and creativity, and who so ardently believed that to devote yourself to art, you must not “let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge.”

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Giuliano Cucco (1929–2006) was still a boy, living with his parents amid the majestic solitudes of rural Italy, when the common loneliness of childhood pressed against his uncommon gift and the artistic impulse began to emerge, tender and tectonic.

In the years that followed, his passion for poetry and painting grew, as did his love of art and photographing with pastels.

Cucco was a young American artist who moved to Rome in order to meet Cucco. John Miller. It was a beautiful and lasting friendship. Those were the early 1960, when Rachel Carson — the poet laureate of nature writing — had just awakened the modern ecological conscience and was using her hard-earned stature to issue the radical insistence that children’s sense of wonder is the key to conservation.

Into this cultural atmosphere, Cucco and Miller joined their gifts to create a series of stunning and soulful nature-inspired children’s books.

John Miller (left), and Giuliano cucco during the 1960s

But when Miller returned to New York, door after door shut in his face — commercial publishers were unwilling to invest in the then-costly reproduction of Cucco’s vibrant art. It took half a century of countercultural courage and Moore’s law for Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion to take a risk on these forgotten vintage treasures and bring them to life.

Eager to reconnect with his old friend and share the exuberant news, Miller endeavored to track down Cucco’s family. However, after much searching, he found out that his friend and wife had died in an accident when their motorbike crashed through the pedestrian crossing of Rome.

Giuliano Cucco, self-portrait

Their son had just begun making his way through a trove of his father’s paintings — many unseen by the world, many depicting the landscapes and dreamscapes of childhood that shaped his art.

Because grief is so often our portal to beauty and aliveness, Miller set out to honor his friend by bringing his story to life in an uncommonly original and tender way — traveling back in time on the wings of memory and imagination, to the lush and lonesome childhood in which the artist’s gift was forged, projecting himself into the boy’s heart and mind through the grown man’s surviving paintings, blurring fact and fancy.

Before I Grew Up (public library) was born — part elegy and part exultation, reverencing the vibrancy of life: the life of feeling and of the imagination, the life of landscape and of light, the life of nature and of the impulse for beauty that irradiates what is truest and most beautiful about human nature.

In spare, lyrical first-person narrative spoken by the half-real, half-imagined boy becoming an artist, Miller invokes the spirit of Giuliano’s childhood. Emanating from it is the universal spirit of childhood — that infinity-pool of the imagination, which prompted Baudelaire to declare that “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”

My bedroom had its own workspace, which I used to make paper boats. They floated like my imagination.

We feel the boy’s imaginative loneliness deepen when we encounter his father, brilliant and remote — “a scientist who studied where light came from — not sunlight, but another kind of light he said was inaccessible,” and who talked little and “preferred to ride his bicycle to the ocean and row out among the waves in a tippy row boat, looking for the light.”

In stories or paintings, it is never mentioned that the mother was there. The boy makes use of her garden as a place to rest and watch the tulips grow. “There, I was never lonely,” he says in that way of self-persuasion we have with reality.

Here, he dreamt of flying like a bird to the top of the mountains, above all the flowers and enjoying the natural light and beauty of the distant countryside.

His parents then decide to send him into the city to learn about culture. While he is observing his aunt and uncle as they entertain themselves with adult distractions, he travels again to the wondrous places of his imagination.

The boy, in a rush of joy, returns home to his country, where he will wander among far-neighboring homes, climb roof tops and fly his kite to the light.

When the boy turns twelve years old, his father goes out into the sea to search for the invisible light. His tale is so peaceful that the boy climbed up on his tipy rowboat and began to play his violin.

From this static scene depicted in one of Cucco’s real paintings, from the known facts of his friend’s life, in the voice of the boy about to be lit up by his creative calling, Miller’s soaring imagination conjures up a larger poetic truth about what it means to be an artist, about the meaning of love and the measure of enough, about the slender strands of assurance that weave the lifeline of the creative spirit.

Here’s a picture I painted from what he told me.
He asked me if I’d painted the light that he wanted.

My father wasn’t much of a talker, but this time he said these three words: “Yes, you did.”

This was sufficient.

It was then that I realized I wanted to become an artist.

Complement Before I Grew Up — to the lyric splendor and tactile vibrancy of which no summation or screen does justice — with the illustrated life of Corita Kent, another underheralded artist of uncommon vision and largeness of heart. Enjoy the science-related illustrated biography of Edwin Hubble. He revolutionized understanding the universe through his quest for a new kind of light.

Illustrations from Enchanted Lion Books. Maria Popova took the photographs.

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Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.


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