When the Mugga Killa Whomps steal tiny light beings from Willobee Land in Valerie Hubbard Damon's book Willo Mancifoot and the Mugga Killa Whomps, they are established as the misunderstood antagonists of the whimsical children's book. Our dragonfly hero Willo Mancifoot uses his compassion and his relationship with nature to help the MKWs rather than condemning them, demonstrating the theme of the book: "The more you give, the more you have."
As Damon prepares for the world premiere of the musical version of her 1985 book at Eureka Springs City Auditorium -- a project she's pursued for years -- she says that theme has manifested in some magical ways surrounding the production as well.
Through Others’ Eyes
• “She’s developed this huge network and supported these people in their art endeavors and their businesses, and now she’s able to draw upon this network where all these artists and open-minded thinkers have come together to this small community. It’s really amazing from the outside now, to see what she’s accomplishing. And it’s not just her — it’s this community that’s come together to help make it happen.” — Emily Lawrence
• “It was her art and artistry that really captured my attention and that she uses her whole body as a canvas. She’s so multimedia — she’s a writer, she’s an illustrator, she’s a painter, she sculpts, she makes these incredible little crazy objects — all these things that are wonderful and they’re quirky and they’re Valerie. But they have a certain spiritual kind of feeling emanating out of [them]. And she’s just a really wonderful person, and goodhearted, and such a generous human being, as well. So, of course, how could you not like someone like that?” — John Rankine
• “The decades that Valerie has been working on [the musical] speaks volumes to see someone want this to come to life. And I told her after rehearsal one night, ‘Valerie, I just want to do this for you because you have committed your life the last couple decades to this, and I just want to make it work for you.’ Because she just draws that kind of respect for her level of talent and commitment and vision.” — Larry Horn
Go & Do
‘Willo Mancifoot the Musical’
When: 7:30 p.m. May 5; 2 p.m. May 6
Where: Eureka Springs City Auditorium
Cost: $15/adults; $7/children; younger than 3 free
Information: theaud.org/tickets, willomancifoot.com
"People are willing to give when they realize others are willing to give," she explains of the communal effort pouring into the stage musical.
The combined talents and expertise of the volunteer artists, friends and parents of children in the cast, plus tiny to tremendous "Willo miracles" -- how Damon refers to the pieces that just seem to fall into place -- have shaped Damon's vision into a larger-than-life production.
"That's the magic that she holds," shares friend, neighbor and fellow Eureka artist John Rankine. "That's why you have all kinds of really creative people coming on board and doing it for free: They just want to be part of it, because they really adore her and support her in every way."
At a spry 72 years old, Damon is a poet, publisher, illustrator, mother, artist, public speaker, author, environmentalist, hippie-at-heart and now playwright. And this, she says, is the role she's been practicing for her whole life.
"Tomorrow's adventures become our new songs."
Born into an Air Force family where she "had the wonderful experience of living all over the country and realizing people all over are really, basically, the same at heart," Damon always knew she wanted to be an artist. Her pleading letter to Hallmark in lieu of a portfolio -- "I can draw anything I can see, think or feel" -- landed her the interview that would lead to her five years with the company where she was "trained to do cute."
"But I liked to do cute; I identify with cute," she quips.
The characters, poems and rhymes she came to write in her children's books provided the outlet to express the ideals and "seed-thoughts," as she calls them, that Damon hopes to pass on to future generations. In the mid-1970s, Damon and her husband Dave founded Star Publications, which would soon distribute the massively successful Grindle Lamfoon and the Procurnious Fleekers and later Willo.
"I'm proud of [founding our own publishing company], but pride is one of the seven deadly sins, too, so I'm reluctant to get too hooked on that concept," Damon expresses. But it was the publishing company that granted Damon and Dave full "creative and editorial control, [and] the opportunity to be idealistic rather than work with a large publisher that would be more directing."
"When I was little, my bed was [on] a piece of plywood on top of boxes of her books," recalls Damon's youngest daughter, Emily Lawrence, with a smile in her voice. "Each set of boxes would create a tier, and I would climb under the bed and, I don't know if we still have any, but there's little kid drawings in crayon on the sides of some of these Willo Mancifoot and Grindle Lamfoon boxes that used to be under my bed, like my little fort."
Star Publishing also gave Damon the independence to develop the teaching guides and educational materials that accompany several of her writings. Years of research laid the foundation for activities and discussion questions on philosophy, nature, symbolism, affecting change and more "that will nurture a sense of the beautiful, instill a reverence for life, and celebrate through imagination the possibility of a future that will ennoble us all," states the guide for Willo Mancifoot.
And that was all before the Damons made the move to join Eureka Springs' artist community and to fulfill their hope of living a self-sufficient life.
"I'm sure in time / Our hearts could find / Love for a vine / If we just try."
On a mountain overlooking the Kings River, way back in the woods -- seriously; way back in the woods, surrounded by nature conservancy -- the Damons established their off-the-grid oasis alongside beautiful, overhanging bluffs and a year-round spring. The two-story, open concept Amish-built cabin that exists there now -- with a wrap-around porch, solar power and "chicken village" in the back -- came only after Lawrence moved out of her parents' home. When the trio made the permanent move to Eureka, though, the family all shared the single-room cabin that still stands on the property.
"Oh, kids are adaptable," Lawrence says of the change from city life in Kansas City to no electricity, a composting toilet and sharing a single room with her parents. "As a child, you accept whatever environment you're in as the norm. Now, looking back and having the experience of other people's lives and seeing what theirs were like, I realize it was unique. But at the time, that was my life.
"It was definitely a unique high school experience, even for that area," she admits. "But I think it was an amazing thing to happen for the relationship with my parents. They knew what I was thinking and what I was up to because I was right there next to them. So they allowed me a lot of independence in many ways that my sister and brother (at eight and nine years older than Lawrence, Damon's other two children had already left home before the move to Eureka) didn't get growing up in the city."
"We realized we were involved in a conspicuous consumption lifestyle," Damon says of the decision to devote her energy to pursuing her ideals rather than material interests. "It just seems so necessary to be more in tune with nature, the world would be better, and our lives would be much better. I think we really need to quit using our resources so ungratefully and abusively and to think about the bigger picture. And really, when you do think about it, some of the most satisfying moments and experiences are when you do more with less."
It's no surprise, then, that a passion strong enough to affect her lifestyle and living arrangements would also be a prominent feature in Damon's work. The messages of living in harmony with the environment and the belief that "nature leads the way" are both evident and subtle in the multi-layered symbols and metaphors in her writing. Her visual work, though, seems to be more direct in its commentaries -- on the environment as well as social issues.
The teapots she created for 15 years, with their gnarled handles and earthy colors, look like they grew right out of the ground. While some are functional and others aren't, the pieces were created to evoke a reverence for water and an awareness of the considerable chemicals poured into it. Strange, macabre and funny bone creatures -- literally, characters made from the skeletons, or pieces of skeletons, of animals -- line the shelf of a hutch in Damon's living room as well as perching throughout the house. They bear descriptions like "Haggard pleads with Carroll County Uncooperative: 'Please stop spraying herbicides,'" and "Ant King wanted to be a queen instead."
Near the front door, a bench is loaded with original and copied prints and posters from across Damon's career that appear more celebratory -- with the exception of the eerie Crow and Rat images, two of her most popular prints. Most of the others depict colorful, cheery creatures dancing, singing, playing instruments and enjoying each others' company. Throughout, the images are embedded with words like "organic," "Eureka," "farmers market" and "free to be."
Damon points out a particular favorite with the words "Be Love" vibrating within the scene: "I was showing [my mother] this [piece] and she said, 'Be love? That's not proper grammar, Valerie. You can't say be love. It's be loving.' And she tried to correct my grammar. [But] I wanted to bring attention to 'Be Love.' Be it. Not just be loving, but be the source of love."
"And all would learn the truthful songs / Of love and peace and sing along."
Since its inception, Damon has envisioned Willo Mancifoot as a musical. And now that it's finally coming together with the right group of people, she's able to apply that mantra of giving, or being the source of love, to her own life's work.
"We want the musical, wherever it's performed, to be a vehicle for a charitable cause," the production's composer and Damon's creative partner Cathrin Yoder says, hinting at the hopes for the musical's future. "There's always a need in a community. And a lot of times people sell chocolate candy, or wrapping paper, and we were like, 'Wait, why not use the vehicle of the arts?'"
Proceeds from the show's ticket sales -- for the debut and any future performances -- will support a local charity, but the community support goes so much deeper than that. Through fundraising for the production, Damon and her team raised $4,000 for new speakers and microphones that will be used during the musical and then gifted to Main Stage following the performance. And while Willo Mancifoot The Musical debuts to the public May 5, on May 3 and 4, Damon has invited the whole of Carroll County's kindergarten through fourth graders to see the show free of charge.
"Eureka Springs is a really cool town, but it's a lot about adults. There's not a whole lot about kids," Yoder says. "You hear a lot about [how] there's great artists, there's a lot of music festivals and [it's] a great little Victorian town, but kids here are living in a small town, and there are not [many] opportunities for these children to be in a theatrical production like Willo Mancifoot. Talking about the core of your community, you've got to invest in your young people or your community can't survive. You want them to have opportunities, and you want them to feel like, 'Hey, I could stay here and maybe I could carry on these opportunities.' That's what we hope for what we're doing."
"Sometimes when you say it's a children's production, performed by children, people think, 'Oh, OK, that'll be cute,'" says director Larry Horn. "I'm just hoping people in the community will come out and see it so they can experience not only what the children are bringing to this, but the level of commitment that other people are bringing as well to make this happen for the May Festival of the Arts.
"The kids are really young children, but they are bright, they're sharp, they're talented. And we're seeing the fruits of the labor of Cathrin and Valerie come to fruition," he adds. "It really is about Valerie and the children."
Looking back on her body of work, Damon says she sees hints in earlier pieces -- a hat here, a character's manner there, an idea -- that have made it into the musical. It's all been practice, she reveals.
"One time Dave said, 'Well, for what?' I said, 'I don't know yet, but I'm practicing.'"
The more growth she experiences, though, and the more opportunities she sees actualized, the more Damon is encouraged by the process. And with plenty left she's apparently still practicing for, Damon says she better live a long time yet so she has time to manifest it all.
"I hope my legacy will be to educate and inspire children to make the most of their abilities and talents," she reflects, "to be kinder to one another, to be more generous to one another, to take care of the earth, to take care of the natural resources, to help people not be hungry, to help there be peace, to resist the military industrial complex, not to create wars -- think about what you're fighting for; do you need to fight? -- and to look at a better way to do things.
"I have been practicing my whole life to communicate these ideals as I learn them myself to young children. They are the hope of the future. Adults are pretty much set in stone; it's hard usually to change them unless you have a particularly a receptive, creative adult. But I would like my legacy to be that -- for children to make the world a better place and not just for their own selfish gain, but to realize the bigger reward is knowing that you're helping other people."
NAN Profiles on 04/22/2018
Print Headline: Valerie Hubbard Damon