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An Illustrated Journey

Visual artist Conrad Kaufman and musician Susan Harrison found synergy through their collaboration.
Conrad Kaufman, Susan Harrison team up on book project

On a gorgeous fall day by the Kalamazoo River, musician Susan Harrison and artist Conrad Kaufman sit at an outdoor table at Arcadia Brewing Co., slowly turning the pages of their new project for a visitor to see.

The project is Going on a Journey, a picture book and accompanying CD. This collaborative effort turns the lyrics of one of Harrison’s songs into a story illustrated by Kaufman, a successful muralist, painter and sculptor whose work can be found in Kalamazoo and beyond.

“I’m a songwriter,” Harrison says. “Part of my mission statement is to heal the world one song at a time. I asked myself, ‘Which of my songs can do that?’ This was the one.”

Going on a Journey, released in May, tells the story of a dog who confronts his fears with the help of his friends. Harrison wrote the song years ago while working with Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan, as part of its Journeys of Grief program. She recorded the song as a call-and-response but always felt it would reach more people if it were in visual form.

As Harrison describes how she conceived of the idea for the book, Kaufman interrupts. “Tell her the original title of the book,” he urges, then adds, “It was The Grief Journey.”

Harrison says that title was just too depressing. The book deals with symptoms of grief, but its audience is everyone and every age, she says. “If someone’s not going through tragedy in his or her life, the story can be read on a literal level,” she explains. “It can just be about a dog going for a walk.”

Kaufman says Harrison gave him a lot of freedom to create the illustrations for the book, something she credits to his immediate understanding of the story. He developed a visual metaphor of dark woods the dog has to traverse, which the dog does with the encouragement of his friends: a rabbit, a turtle, a duck and a squirrel. They are a no-nonsense crew that tells the dog he can’t skip around his troubles and simply has to go through them.

While Kaufman knew it made sense to represent the dog’s fears with ever-darkening woods, the metaphor gave him pause. “I love the woods,” he says. “But people feel uncomfortable there. It’s just a great metaphor.”

Amid the book’s sporadic dark pages are rich, light spreads where the dog’s friends offer refrains of advice about how to get through things he would rather avoid. When he runs into a new, uncomfortable feeling, his friends coach him: “You can’t skip around it. You gotta go through it.”

A complement to the book’s lush, perfectly composed pictures is a CD that features Harrison singing her song. The CD can be played on its own or while reading the book.

As artists, Kaufmann and Harrison come from different genres, but they still found a lot of common ground working together. Originally from Port Huron, Harrison attended Western Michigan University and “stuck around Kalamazoo” afterward. Raised on a farm in Bangor, Kaufman also went to WMU.

Finding a career in the arts was a journey of a kind for each of them. Harrison started in fashion. Kaufman dropped out of graduate school nine hours short of a degree in anthropology. Somehow, though, both have found their way as artists.

“Kalamazoo has one of the most supportive arts communities around,” Kaufman says, noting he’s been self-employed as an artist for 20 years. Then he points to Harrison. “She makes her living as an artist too. It’s just a great community.”

Harrison agrees. “That’s one reason I wanted to work with Conrad,” she says. “He’s doing it, you know? Not just ‘hobby’ doing it.”

As if to prove Kaufman’s point about the Kalamazoo arts community, the book was made and printed in Kalamazoo and funded by the Dorothy U. Dalton Foundation, the John E. Fetzer Institute Fund of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan.

Harrison says people have asked her how she persuaded Kaufman to illustrate her book, and her answer is simple. “Well, I asked him. It’s just like anything else — people can always say no, but you have to ask.”

“Give them the opportunity to say yes,” Kaufman says.

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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