Deng Mng-Dao, The living

Many unusual people came to visit my parents. A cormorant fisherman from Japan stayed with us for a short time, bringing all his birds! Each morning, he found shining fish to feed each of them, showing me how they were not wearing the rings that went around their necks. Cormorants were used in Japan to catch fish. They accompanied fishermen on boats and dove into the water to catch the fish in their beaks. The rings around their necks allowed them to breathe and drink, but not to swallow the fish, which they returned to the fishermen.

The sculptor Benjamin Bufano was another visitor. He liked my mother’s enamels, and the rounded forms and color echoed his own sculptures of people and animals. Many of the visitors were quite eccentric. One such person was the calligrapher Li Li-Ta, who told my parents: “When the common people say that they do not understand my art, I am delighted. When the common person says that they like my art, I tremble.”

Even the paper that I had for my early drawing consisted of leftovers from the Grabhorn Press. The Grabhorns were friends of my parents and kept me

constantly supplied with what I now know to have been acid-free rag paper, perhaps some of it quite rare, just for my scribblings. One summer, I went to their press to make a linocut and to set type, and the memory of being there is one of my touchstones when I design books.

I’ve sketched this brief glimpse of my childhood to emphasize that I came from an environment where creativity, innovation, making things oneself, and making a living through the arts were inherent. From my parents, their friends, and my neighborhood, I learned that looking, touching, and making things with my hands could indeed be ways of living.

The Intervention of a Teacher

Having teachers and mentors was also important, and there was one teacher who made a difference early on. My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Aramian, noticed that there were two boys who showed promise as artists. She frequently sat George and me together, and one Saturday she took only the two of us to the de Young Museum. Read more