One artist's passion and mission
BELLOWS FALLS — Charles Norris-Brown first visited the Terai, a flat land between the Himalayan foothills and the Gangetic plains, in 1985 while doing field research for his PhD in anthropology. For many generations, people known as the Tharus lived there on small farms surrounded by jungles along the border between India and Nepal. He returned there in 2011 when he started working on the concept for his first children's book, "Did Tiger Take the Rain?" (Green Writers Press, 2016).
His goal was to meet as many people as he could who were willing to sit down and talk with him about the forests and its animals, especially the tiger.
He wanted to see the Rana Tharu people, so he hired a local man named Sanjib who turned out to be an amazing organizer, translator and guide. They met in Katmandu and flew to a part of the remote jungle and rode in a jeep for 22 days. They visited Tharu villages where he met with storytellers and shamans. The people he met lived in small farms and near woodland areas. He explains that the Terai has some of the best known tiger reserves in Western Nepal and North-Central India. Sanjib helped Norris-Brown with data collection and arranged all of the local visits.
'DID TIGER TAKE THE RAIN?'
Norris-Brown's book "Did Tiger Take the Rain?" is the subject of his solo exhibit, "Listen to the Wind," at the Canal Street Art Gallery in Bellows Falls, now until June 15. The exhibit includes 20 of his original watercolor paintings from his first children's picture book, "Did Tiger Take the Rain?" He wrote the book about his visit to the Bardia Reserve and Terai where he took several thousand photographs and then painted from those photos back in the U.S.
He said, "The whole point of this story is to talk about what happens when the forest is cut: no forest, no cloud; no cloud, no rain; no rain, no forest." The theme of interdependence is what he hopes children will take away and what happens to the tigers is what happens to us.
In an excerpt from the book Anjali says, "We all live under the same sky." Her friend Usha adds, "When the sun shines, it shines down on humans and tigers together. When it rains, we share the same rain. We feel the same wind. We breathe the same air." Anjali and Usha are two friends who go on a scientific exploration in the book to find out where the rain has gone and if Tiger had something to do with it.
"This book is a culmination of my loving art and conservation of the forest and India. Also, knowing something about anthropology made me able to understand these people and communicate in a meaningful way," said Norris-Brown. He sees art's role as communicator. In writing this book, he hopes "to produce something that could have a lasting effect on the people who will become the caretakers of our world - perhaps our most important audience: the children."
In the fifth grade Norris-Brown remembers drawing Mickey Mouse and wanting to send it to Walt Disney to see if he could get a job. He grew up in Warren, Pennsylvania and really enjoyed art classes in school. He had several great art teachers in middle and high school which helped him immensely. Mr. Schulz, a high school art teacher, showed him oil painting and all of the tricks and techniques of the trade.
There were five siblings in his family and at age 12 he got moved upstairs to his own room and that is when he started reading a lot. He remembers reading Holiday and National Geographic magazines. He wondered what it would be like to travel and study other cultures. As an Eagle Scout, he learned so much about forests and camping out. The Eagle Scout leaders showed him how to build a canoe. The Seneca Indians were on a reservation near the Boy Scout camp, and Norris-Brown would work with them on mowing lawns around a sacred burial ground.
Since both parents were alumni of Penn State, he began studying there and eventually received a PhD in sociology and social anthropology from Lund University in Sweden. He lived in Sweden for 15 years and has a daughter and three grandsons who live there.
As part of his post-doctoral work, Norris-Brown did a couple of research projects in the forests of South and Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. He loved the Corbett Tiger Reserve, which is one of the oldest tiger reserves in India. He planned to conduct a research project around the buffer zone, and asked "How can I help save the tigers - as an anthropologist?" The locals answered, "Why don't you write a children's book." That is how this book came about.
Norris-Brown wanted to find a way to distribute the book as far and wide as possible. A friend put him in touch with Pratham Books. Since 2004, Pratham Books in India "has been creating engaging storybooks in multiple languages and formats to help children discover the joy of reading."
Norris-Brown recently gave Pratham Books the creative commons license to his book. The company can download and publish the book as much as it wants as long as Norris-Brown is recognized as the author. The book will be published in India very soon and 5,000 - 10,000 children will hopefully read this story. "I won't get any money from this but I will know that thousands of children will read my book and there is only one word for that - priceless," said Norris-Brown.
He said the book would have never seen the light if it were not for the support of Dede Cummings and Brattleboro-based Green Writers Press. "They are the wind beneath my wings," he said, adding, "My move to Pratham Books involves scaling the price wall between a book and its readers and is part of an interesting global commons publishing movement."
Mike Noyes, Canal Street Art Gallery co-founder said, "This exhibit is a huge achievement for Charles. It is a rare treat to have a solo show at our gallery. In fact, this is the first solo show we've had." He goes on to say, "There are many different angles in this show: art, writing, publishing, and environmental awareness."
"Listen to the Wind," an exhibit of original artwork by Charles Norris-Brown, is at the Canal Street Art Gallery, 23 Canal St., until June 15. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Teachers and school groups are welcome to request a visit with the author free of charge. For more information, visit www.canalstreetartgallery.com, www.cwnorrisbrown.com or call 802-289-0104.
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