On the impermanence of snowflakes and art

Beetle Snowflake

The start of a new year brings new ideas, new hopes, new blog posts. One advantage of not being famous is that there’s less pressure to produce scintillating content on a regular basis, but I like to write something here every so often, if only to mark where I’ve been, and to aid my future unofficial biographer.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the whole idea of content, meaning the stuff people create for other people to enjoy — stories, books, comics, movies, television programs, podcasts, webisodes, games, apps, articles, essays, drawings, blog posts, and everything else. The word content has always seemed very impersonal to me, reducing all such works to their most utilitarian function, something to be put into buckets for distribution. A YouTube video created in an afternoon is content. A hand-drawn illuminated manuscript created over twenty years is also content. Which one will be “liked” by more people? Which will make more money for its creator? Which will make a lasting contribution to society? And does any of that really matter?

Another thing on my mind in recent months is loss. Not just the loss of people, which is sad in itself, but also the loss of places, ideas, knowledge, hopes and dreams. The world has always been a constant sea of change, but it seems each year there’s more and more stuff in the world, and it’s getting harder to hang onto what’s important, what’s truly meaningful. It’s easy to let important things — and people — slip by our notice until it’s too late, and they slip away forever. Like Alice, we must run just to stay in place, and it’s hard to look around while you’re running.

This winter I tried my hand at cutting paper snowflakes, partly as a way to keep busy when my mind was too distracted to work on “real” projects. Snowflakes are the ultimate in impermanence, they vanish in an instant. And there are far too many in the world for us to notice them all, the vast majority are trampled upon or shoveled aside. Maybe that’s why I like them, I feel like I want to preserve them, to make their short lives count for something.

In any case, here are some of my own paper snowflakes, inspired by nature. All are drawn and cut out by hand, with scissors or x-acto knife.

Turtle Snowflake

Bird Snowflake

Butterfly Snowflake

Bunny Snowflake

Crab Snowflake

Lizard Snowflake

As far as other projects go, I’ve been updating the Sticky Burr webcomic all winter, and the latest episode is now winding down. If you haven’t been reading it, you might want to start at the beginning of the latest adventure, which involves an invasion of beetles and a mysterious hermit, who may or may not be able to save the day.

I also recently started an Instagram account, if you like photos of dragonflies and winter trees. You can find me here at @untendedgarden.

I’m working on some writing projects too, which may find their way to being published someday, if I ever have time to find a publisher. Then they will fly off into the world, a few more snowflakes in a whirling sea of content. Or maybe I won’t want to push them out just yet, perhaps they’ll still be too fragile, and likely to drown?

These are some of the thoughts that cross my mind when I’m trying to work, making it quite difficult to focus on the project at hand. Hopefully I’ll find some focus this year, and have more tangible things to share in the coming months. Thanks for reading, now I’m off to shovel snow!

* * *

Poetry and art: bringing Keats to the stage

Endymion crankie scroll

I’ve long had an interest in puppetry, and lately I’ve been experimenting with a related form of theatrical storytelling – the moving panorama, or “crankie.” In this kind of performance, the storyteller turns a crank to reveal a scrolling image, accompanied by a story or song. It’s an old form of theater, and it’s making a quiet comeback in today’s high-tech world.

The appeal of the crankie is hard to pin down, it is deceptively simple on the surface. And yet when the scrolling images are revealed in front of an audience, there is a kind of breathless anticipation of what’s coming next. The forward motion of the images and the forward motion of the story or music create something very magical and unique.

There is a great small theater in the Boston area called Puppet Showplace Theater, and they often host evening cabaret shows for adults called puppet slams. Each puppet slam is a variety of short acts, sometimes experimental, often funny, always unpredictable. It’s a great place to push the boundaries of the art form, as artists have employed video, object theater, and animation at these events. For the past two years I have created and performed crankie stories at the fall “fairy tale” puppet slam. This year I wanted to try another. And rather than use an original story as in the past, I decided to adapt and illustrate a classic poem by Keats, the opening stanza to his epic Endymion.

Why this particular poem? I wanted something lyrical, short, in the public domain, with allusions to myth or fairy tale, from an author with whom I felt a connection. The opening stanza of Endymion, an epic poem inspired by a Greek legend, fit all the requirements. It was open-ended enough for me to experiment with, and short enough to complete in the three weeks before the event.


A scrolling panorama falls somewhere between a comic and an animated film — the images are still, but they move (sort of) as they scroll past the frame. The goal is to make the images flow easily from one scene to the next, and use the reveal of the scroll to increase the drama, much as you would use the page-turn in a picture book. The way images move across the opening is part of the magic. I started the project with small storyboards, to see if the basic concept would work.  Then I did two more sets of storyboards, refining each one.

Then I began sketching on a large scroll of paper, eighteen inches high and thirty feet long.  (I used almost the entire length.)  At each stage, I revised and revised, especially the final big scroll. After finishing the pencil drawing, I painted over the lines with waterproof ink and a brush.

Ink drawing

Then I painted over that with watercolors. Since watercolor paper is too heavy and stiff to roll up into a scroll, I used drawing paper (100 lb), and the painting was not always easy. Colors often dulled, and the paper often buckled, though rolling up the paper helped straighten things out. I had to simplify my art style, both for the physical medium and also to make the images clear for the audience.

Painting in progress

Crankie practiceAs I rehearsed the poem with the images, I decided that music would help tie everything together.  I recorded myself playing the ukulele, and tried out different ideas until I had something that matched the piece, and recorded it. Finally it was all finished, I fit the big scroll into the crankie stage (built by my sister Nancy) and was ready to go.

It was a challenging project in many ways — interpreting a classic text, using one continuous image, making the images bold and clear for an audience, getting it done in time. But it was all very rewarding. I performed the final work at Puppet Showplace Theater for their puppet slam in October, reciting the poem while turning the images, as the music played in the background.

Back of crankie scroll

Performing it for a live audience is perhaps the most magical part of the whole experience.  As an author, I’ve done many book readings where I’ve held up my book to show the pictures, but books aren’t really designed for this kind of experience. Even when a book is projected onto a screen, it’s not the same as holding it in your lap, and seeing the pictures close up. But a scrolling crankie is designed for a live audience, and the medium has great potential for dramatic effect.

Here are some photos of the final images. You can learn more about crankies over at The Crankie Factory website.

Crankie title page

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

Sample illustration


Summer photos and inspiration from nature


I haven’t updated this website in many months, so I thought it was time to post something. I know there’s no minimum requirement on blog posting, but I find that posting a few times a year helps me keep track of what I’ve been up to, what I’ve been focusing on, and where I’m heading.

Lately I’ve been taking a lot of nature photos, below are a few favorites from this summer. (See more in my Flickr album.) I’ve been especially interested in pictures of small subjects, quiet moments, the things you might not notice if you walked past. Particularly the smallest creatures who hop or crawl or fly, and basically keep our ecosystem running.

Do they all realize they are each helping the earth in their own small way? Every cricket, every spider, every toad, as they go about their business, is also part of a giant interconnected web of living organisms, all delicately balanced, and if any one of them decided to stop doing their job, the entire system could come crashing down.

That’s a lot of responsibility for one small being. Does the ant realize this, or the cricket? I don’t think so, they only realize that they desperately need to survive, that their species needs to survive. Humans are part of this web too, and even as we go about our business, dealing with our own singular lives, we are still part of a larger world.

And sometimes when I feel like a task is too big, that my novel will never be finished, that my lofty ambitions will never be achieved, I think of the smallest insect as it climbs a daisy stalk or scampers across a field, every step a brave assault on the unknown, each moment fraught with peril and also with possibility. If this tiny, vulnerable creature can face the world with conviction each day, so can I.

And now, I’m off to write. Enjoy these last images of summer!




Rabbit in the field


Spider flower


Grassy sun

Spring, and the great unknown

Ladybug in the grass

Spring is here. Just like that, after a seemingly endless and grueling winter, the grass is growing, flowers are blooming, and buds are sprouting from bare branches. It can’t be stopped, no matter how much snow and ice comes down each winter, spring will come. Everything returns to the way it was a year ago.

But it’s not the same. It’s never the same. This is the devious trick of nature, to give us a sense of comforting permanence when below the surface, everything is growing, shifting under our feet, until we look around one day and realize we are not at the place we thought we were. We are somewhere new, perhaps someplace wonderful, perhaps someplace terrifying.

But if nature wasn’t continually growing, changing, shedding one skin for another, it would stagnate and die. That’s another hidden irony of nature, things need to constantly move in order to stay as they are.

Such is the life of an artist, we have to keep moving forward, even if it means taking risks. This can be just as difficult in art as it is in life. Though in many ways it is easier to take chances in art, because you can always tear up the page and start over.

I’ll be embarking on some new projects this spring, and I’ll share what I can. In the meantime, I’ll be attending some events in the next few weeks — the NESCBWI conference, the Needham Open Studios May 2-3, and the Maine Comics Arts Festival May 17. I’ll also be celebrating with Puppet Showplace Theater at their annual fundraising gala.

It’s a season of new exploration, and hopefully new inspiration. I hope you all find yourselves in a good place this Spring, or at least heading in the right direction!

The Tall Tree

Sometimes when you’re feeling a bit melancholy, and the world seems too confounding for words, the best way to express yourself is through a story.  So today, rather than my usual newsy blog post, I’m going to tell a story.

* * * * * *

tree01 Once there was a young sapling who grew up on a grassy mountaintop. From his high perch he breathed the fresh air and gazed out at the endless blue sky full of possibility.

The big world felt intimidating, but the sapling wasn’t afraid. This is because a much bigger, stronger tree stood nearby, sheltering and protecting him. This was none other than the sapling’s father, a tall tree with outstretched branches that seemed to touch the sky.

illustration 2
The tall tree watched over the whole mountainside and all the creatures that lived there. Birds made their nests in the tall branches, rabbits scampered in the shade, honeybees and insects roamed among the flowers.

The young sapling wanted to be more like the tall tree, and stretched his branches as far as he could. But he knew he could never stretch them as high as the tall tree.
In the summer, torrential storms brought wind and rain. The sapling thought the whole mountaintop would blow away. But the tall tree clung to the ground, holding the earth together with his roots.

In the autumn, the tall tree’s leaves turned orange and fell to the ground. The little tree watched and did the same. Birds flew south, and the winds became colder.
In the winter, heavy snow fell, but the tall tree caught most of it so that it wouldn’t fall on the little tree. The sapling noticed how the tall tree’s branches would bend but not break, and he tried to do the same.

Finally spring came, the snow melted, and the tall tree sprouted fresh new leaves. The little tree knew it was time for him to sprout leaves as well. The birds returned to build their nests, and everything was as it should be.


The years passed, and the young tree watched the seasons go by. He laughed as the squirrels chased each other around the meadow, and he gasped as a butterfly narrowly escaped a frog. He thrilled as a flock of starlings swooped down and away in a flutter of wings.

During one particularly bad storm, part of the hillside washed away. This made the young tree sad, for he always liked the flowers that grew there. But the tall tree comforted him, saying, “Don’t cry little tree. Sometimes things change whether we like it or not.”


“Well, I don’t like it!” said the little tree. But he tried to be strong like the tall tree.

Many seasons passed, and the young tree grew bigger and stronger. The tall tree looked down at him and smiled. “You’re becoming a fine tree indeed,” he said. But the young tree knew he still wasn’t as big and strong as the tall tree, even though the old tree had lost a few branches from all the storms he had weathered.

tree08bThen one summer, the tall tree became sick. He had overcome countless injuries in his life, but this illness was stronger than anything he had ever encountered.

The tall tree grew weaker. His bark became brittle, and he could no longer hold up his branches. The young tree wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do, he could only look on helplessly.

Finally one summer evening, the tall tree could not hold himself up any longer. He took his final breath, and he died.


The little tree, who was no longer little, felt sad and alone as he stood on the cold mountaintop. His leaves fell like raindrops and he bowed his branches. He didn’t know what to do. The old tree had always been there to watch over him, to show him what to do next.

As the winds turned colder and the birds flew south, the tree stood alone. He no longer enjoyed watching the seasons pass. The world froze around him as snowflakes fell, and he wished the snow would bury him forever.


All winter long, storms pummeled the hillside, but the tree did not budge. He clung to the earth and slept beneath the snow and ice.

After what seemed a very long time, the days became longer, and the snow melted. The tree awoke to an empty gray world. He knew he ought to be doing something, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

Then he felt a tingling sensation in his branches, and noticed buds sprouting into fresh new leaves. But how was this possible?


He heard a chirping sound, and looked up to see the birds returning from their winter travels. He was surprised when they started to land in his own branches.

“Wait,” he called out to them, “I’m not strong enough to build on!”

tree12a“Of course you are,” the birds chirped. Meanwhile, two squirrels began to chase each other around the hillside. A rabbit peeked out from the grass, munching on a flower.

“No wait, this is all wrong,” said the tree. “Don’t you see that the old tree is gone? I can never do what he did.”

“Yes you can,” chirped the birds, “you’re doing it right now. And we need you now more than ever.”

“But it’s too hard, I can’t do this alone,” said the tree, feeling more helpless than ever.

“You’re not alone,” said a voice behind him.


He looked around, but it was not a bird or a squirrel who spoke. It was another tree, much like himself, growing nearby. And there was another tree near that one. And another. In fact, the whole mountainside was covered with trees.

“We all miss the old tree,” said one of them kindly, “but we have to carry on his work, we have to pass down what he taught us. That’s what he would want us to do.”

The young tree blinked through his tears. He looked out across the hillside, where a field of fresh flowers was blooming. Then he looked up into the vast blue sky and stretched out his branches as high as he could, as the birds landed and began to build their nests.


* * * * * *
* * *

Like most of my stories, that one was inspired by true events. My own father passed away last fall, and the ensuing months have been challenging. But I also count myself fortunate in many ways. My creative pursuits have provided both an escape from real life and a way to explore it more fully, to try and make sense of it all.

I have no plans for this story, and it would have likely remained hidden in my notebooks with so many of its cousins, except that I had a need to share it. And even if only five people ever read it, that’s okay. It’s the sharing that counts.

The start of a new year is often a time for making big plans, but this year I don’t have such ambitions, I’ve seen too many big plans fall by the wayside. This year I’ll be looking for small gains, small rewards, like the tiny shells on the beach that get overlooked, and yet that very fact makes them special. And if I’m the only one who sees their value, perhaps that’s all the more reason to protect and nurture them. So I’ll continue to write and draw, and tell stories in every medium that I can, and share them with anyone who wants to listen.

Thanks for reading this terribly long post. Now I’m off to look for shells.

My Creative Process

Boy in the Woods, watercolor by John Lechner

I was invited by illustrator Amanda Erb to join an author/illustrator blog tour, where people talk about their creative process, then pass it along to a few more folks. You can read Amanda’s post here to learn about her own process. And now, I’ll tell you a bit about mine.

What am I working on currently?

That depends on what day it is, or what time. My scattered brain is currently pushing along a middle-grade novel, an interactive story, a short animated film, and a weekly webcomic. Those are my active projects — if you add the ones on the back burner, I’ve got many stories at various stages, as well as ideas for films and interactive projects that I can’t figure out what to do with right now (I really could use an agent, but that’s another story.)

Here is what’s on my drawing board right now, some early concept art for my new animated film. I can’t say more about it just yet, but details will be coming soon.

Concept art by John Lechner

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t think my work is particularly different, I write about universal themes and my work has a strong connection to nature, but many artists can say this. I think it can be counterproductive to dwell on how “different” your work is, it’s best just to keep moving forward on your own creative journey.  The most important distinguishing feature about anyone’s work is that it’s theirs, it comes from their own creative spirit. I write for myself, and my art is an attempt to express the ideas inside of me.

Here is a shadow puppet show I created last year, based on one of my unpublished fables:

Shadow Puppets by John Lechner

Why do I write and illustrate what I do?

There aren’t many ways to ways to answer this question, either you write for personal expression, or you write because it’s your job. Or both. I do have a full-time job at FableVision Studios where I draw and animate, and that is one part of my work. But I also create stories and pictures and films and songs and puppet shows because I love to do it, and I need to do it.

Ink and watercolor by John Lechner

How does my creative process work?

Nearly everything starts with an idea that I put down in my notebook — a paragraph, a sketch, a fragment. I’ll write as much as necessary to get the idea down. If it has potential, I’ll start a first draft in another notebook. If that goes well, I’ll type the next revision on the computer, then continue revising indefinitely.

Sticky Burr sketches

My art process is the same: initial idea, rough draft, then more rough drafts until it’s solid enough to do final artwork. With a picture book, the text and picture drafts happen alongside each other, each given its own focused attention while always keeping an eye on the other, until they finally come together in their finished forms.

Painting by John Lechner

For my webcomic, after working out the ideas in my notebook, I draw the lines on paper, first with pencil and then a brush with ink. This is scanned into the computer and colored in Photoshop, see below.

Sticky Burr comic process

All this is the physical process, the tangible work that can be seen. What’s more mysterious is the mental process, how an idea takes shape. I think both of these processes happen simultaneously, in parallel, sometimes even at odds with one another. How often are we frustrated that the work on paper doesn’t measure up to what we see in our head? Or how often are we surprised when a happy accident takes an idea in a new direction? The internal and external process are both important, and when they work together the results are magical. That’s why we create.

All this thinking about process has given me some new theories about how creative projects develop, but I’ll save that for another post. Many thanks to Amanda Erb for tagging me in her own process post, I hope you enjoyed reading mine!

And now…

I’d like to pass the paintbrush over to two talented artists, who will write about their own creative process next week.

Book by Lisa HorstmanLisa Horstman is an author, illustrator, designer and sculptor who makes amazing images combining puppets with digital backgrounds. Her new book coming out this fall is called Sabrina, about the misadventures of a flying squirrel. Here is her website, and I encourage you to check out her blog when her post is up.


Art by Jessica LopezJessica M. Lopez is an illustrator who creates beautiful ink and watercolor images inspired by fairy tales and nature. She also has two pet geckos, and is an all-around cool person. You can see more of her artwork at her website, and read her own process post next week at her blog.


New work, new happenings

Artwork by John Lechner

Lately I’ve been experimenting more with monochromatic paintings, particularly involving trees. This one was done with a brush and ink, then watercolor.

This weekend I’ll be going to the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in Springfield, MA. And on Sunday, I’ll be participating in a local Open Studios event, showing my work. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in and say hi!

And if you haven’t seen my web comic lately, I’ve been adding a new panel each week, developing a new longer story. Below is a recent page, showing the original sketch first. You can read the new adventure starting here.

Sticky Burr comic process

That’s all for now, hopefully I’ll have more news to share soon!

* * *

Spring into new projects

Girl and Rabbit painting

I haven’t written on this blog for a few months, so here is a little update on what I’ve been up to lately.

I’ve been taking a break from writing to work on some theater projects. I took a workshop in shadow puppets, something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and developed a short performance based on one of my original fables. It was a great experience to take one of my stories and present it in a totally different way, and I hope to do more such projects in the future.

Here is a photo of my shadow puppet show:

Shadow Puppets by John Lechner

* * *

I also painted an illustrated scroll for a theater piece called The Great Red Ball Rescue by the multi-talented Faye Dupras. It’s the story of a boy who goes on an amazing journey to rescue his beloved red ball. The production uses multiple styles of puppetry and also utilizes a “crankie” or panoramic scroll to tell one part of the story, where the boy Jasper goes to the beach.

The scene is not very long, but requires a scroll nearly 30 feet long and 26 inches high. I started with small storyboards, based on the puppet characters that Faye created, then drew the final illustrations on a large scroll of drawing paper, and painted it with watercolors.

Here are a few pictures of the drawings in process, and one of how it appeared in the final puppet stage. The scroll was wound around two wooden dowels, and turned with a crank.

Great Red Ball Rescue storyboard
Storyboard – click for a larger view

Great Red Ball Rescue - in progress

Great Red Ball Rescue - in progress

Great Red Ball Rescue

The show premiered at Puppet Showplace Theatre in January, and was a great success. It was fun to illustrate a story for such a unique production, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Looking forward to the coming year, I plan to do more writing, though I’m not sure which of my back-burner projects to tackle yet. I also plan to explore interactive storytelling, something I’ve experimented with over the years. I’m also working on an animated film, which I’ll write about later. And if you haven’t seen my webcomic in a while, I’ve been adding a new page each week.

That’s all the news for now!

* * *

New Sticky Burr website, and other fun stuff

Sticky Burr and FriendsGreetings all, here’s a quick update on what I’ve been doing lately. The biggest news is that I’ve redesigned the Sticky Burr website and started up the webcomic again, which had been on hiatus for a while. There will be a new comic posted each week (usually Sunday night).

The older pages of the comic have been divided up into 3 different adventures. You can read the entire archive from start to finish, or you can jump to one section or the other. In the first adventure, Sticky Burr is captured by the locust king. In the second adventure, Nettle Burr gets lost in the fern forest and encounters some nasty beetles. In the third adventure, snow covers the forest and Sticky Burr meets an unusual visitor from far away. What will the next adventure hold? You’ll just have to read and find out!

Newman School Visit

Last month I also have a great time visiting the Newman Elementary School in Needham, MA. I drew some pictures, read one of my books, and talked about my work. I also presented a miniature puppet show about Sticky Burr and his friends. Thanks to all the students for giving me such a great welcome, especially the ones who made this beautiful sign!

Welcome sign

I will be doing one more appearance this month, I’ll be at the Gorse Mill Holiday Sale the weekend of Dec. 7 & 8, along with many other fine artists. I’ll be selling books and artwork, with lots of free stuff too. Come on down and say hi!  I’ll be there all day Saturday (though I have to leave at 4) and Sunday from noon to 5 PM.

Holiday Sale


Comics and crankies – what I’ve been up to

The Garden Monster - process

I haven’t posted here in a while, so I’ve got a few projects to talk about.

This summer, I wrote a short comic for an anthology of monster comics for kids, curated by Bob Flynn and Dan Moynihan, published by Roho of River Bird Comics, in partnership with the Boston Comics Roundtable.  The comic features stories by eleven artists, on the theme of creatures and monsters, and is called “Gulp!”

My story is called “The Garden Monster” and is about a boy who goes out in the garden to trim some vines, but the vines turn out to be more than he bargained for. The story is six pages long, and somewhat inspired by my own gardening adventures.

I drew the comic on paper, first with pencil then ink and brush.  Then I scanned and colored the art in Photoshop. The book was printed in two colors, and I had to do the color separations myself, choosing which pieces of art to render in which colors. Below is more process art with the final product.

The Garden Monster - process

The Garden Monster - process

Below is the cover, illustrated by Bob Flynn:

Gulp! cover

You can learn more about the official comic here and see more photos here. It is currently being sold in some Boston area comic stores.

* * *

Also this year I’ve been experimenting with various kinds of storytelling, and one of these is the scrolling story. This is often called a “crankie” because there is usually a crank to turn the scroll, and you unveil the story as you tell it to a live audience. It’s a very simple, old-fashioned way of storytelling, but it has a unique charm about it, especially in this digital age where everything is electronic.

My first scrolling stage was made out of paper in about an hour. I wanted to create something quick and spontaneous to experiment with the form, and the result can be seen below.

After that, I made a larger crankie out of a shoebox, then a larger one out of foam core. Last month, my sister Nancy and I built one out of wood, for larger audiences. I used it to perform an original story in our local Puppet Slam, an evening of short puppetry-related works. The theme of the slam was Fairy Tales, and I decided to write a new story in the style of a traditional folk tale.

The story is called The Brave Fiddler, about a young girl who sets off on a journey to seek her fortune, carrying only her violin, and who overcomes many dangers before the happy ending. Below is one of the final images, which were painted on 18″ x 24″ paper and taped together into one giant scroll.

Crankie stage

I’m going to write a separate post about this show in more detail, talking about how it was made. For now, I will say that it was an inspiring experience to create a story in this format, and to perform it for a live audience. A scrolling story is a unique combination of art, storytelling and theater, and it really makes you think about your story in a different way.

* * *

I have one more bit of news, I am currently redesigning the Sticky Burr website, and I plan to start writing new comics for the web this fall. Watch for an announcement soon!

* * *