The Unbeautiful Ones

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago went the way of the dinosaurs recently. Tiny Donkey was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review and was dedicated to short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its site being gone, I’ve been sharing a few of my own pieces here.

This one is the third and last editor’s note I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale The Ugly Duckling. I loved the tale as a child, and I admit I identified with the poor créatur. I didn’t fit in as a child. At all. And adulthood has felt like a full-on flail as well. I suppose most people feel that way, more of us than each of us realize. In any case, I worried about appearing too emo or po-faced in this piece. Still, I hope anyone who reads it likes it, and I hope it did Andersen’s touching tale justice. And yes, I stole the title from a Prince song. You can’t tell me the guy who played The Kid in Purple Rain wouldn’t have related to The Ugly Duckling as well.


Growing up, you were shy. Or maybe you were short, you were fat, you had bad teeth. You had frizzy hair, you wet the bed, you spoke with a stammer. You slept with a stuffed toy ‘til you were twelve, or ‘til you were twenty, or ‘til your monthly blood ran out and you began soaking the bed with night sweats and hot flashes and Mississippi-wide rivers of regrets. You’re almost an old woman now. Love and transcendence have passed you by. Those fairy tales you were fed by Hollywood and MTV and Hans Christian Andersen as a child, and the ones you fed yourself to get by, through the loneliness of the school playground, through the long tick-tocking overthinking of the night, through the daily treacheries of life – they all lied.

Which fairy tale was it you always went back to, the one you believed in most? The one with the song saying someday your prince would come? Or the one where the funny-looking little duckling (you don’t like to say “ugly” – it’s a word that’s been used against you so many times) turns into a stunner of a swan? Did you think that might be you one day? Did you really? All along, you should have paid more attention to the crone, the ogre, the unredeemed outcasts, the ones haunting the margins, or worse yet, the ordinary ones, the unmagical, the unnamed and underappreciated. Because these were your destiny – not the beautiful ones, not the princess and the swan.

Or maybe the fairy tales didn’t lie. You just saw in them what you wanted, took what you needed. Beauty, hope, promises of happily ever after, some danger to make things interesting, some fear to cut through the dull of the everyday. You simply ignored the despair. Even though all fairy tales, and all life, is rife with it. Like that moment in Andersen’s tale about the duckling, when the bullied little bird welcomes the beauty of spring and a bevy of swans with pure, piercing heartache:

“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter…”

Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

In the next moment the duckling sees his reflection in the water, sees a swan looking back – his transformed self, his true tribe, his happily ever after. I wonder though, if the duckling had seen no change, no beauty, no swan staring back at him in the water, could he still have survived? Would he still have come to know happiness, belonging, self-love?

I need to know, same as every once and for-all-time misfit. Is there magic after all in despair? Can there be beauty in forsaken hope, transcendence without transformation, belonging when you’re the only one around to hear your own questions, a happy ending when the fairy tale, or life, or maybe yourself, is found so wanting?

Think back on the ones you paid too little attention to, while you were paying as little attention to the beauty in your worst and best self. The crone, the ogre, the marginal, the ordinary. The untransformed duckling. The resilient, the persisting, the interesting and astute, the ultimately self-accepting and wise. Lucky you – these were your destiny. The unbeautiful ones, who know how to make magic out of the most disappointing circumstances, to potion up an unbreakable spell of endurance out of yesterday’s cold pot of despair. Let them teach you to love whatever reflection stares back at you, to see the beauty in even a fantastically imperfect you.

Illustration by Johannes Larsen

Interview with Kelly Vivanco

As I wrote in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did my first interview with one of my favorite artists, Kelly Vivanco. I adore her work. Here’s the interview.


Kelly Vivanco is an artist whose paintings invite viewers into a fairy tale-like world of mystery, wonder, and whimsy. A native of southern California, Vivanco earned her BFA with honors in 1995 from the Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach and has exhibited her work in galleries across the U.S. Vivanco’s pieces have featured in art shows with themes ranging from old school video games to Alice Through the Looking Glass to ghosts of Halloween past. She has also illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina and the Grimms’ Snow-White and Rose-Red. The narratives and characters of her original paintings, meanwhile, are just as compelling as those of classic fairy tales. In Vivanco’s paintings, children with enigmatic expressions navigate wondrous, secret spaces and interact with animals depicted in ways both otherworldly and familiar. A crack in a tree provides the perfect place for hiding marbles, a wombat sips from a can of soda pop, a pair of candy-striped frogs study a map in a forest, a bee feeds off plants growing out of a boy’s hat, and another tree grows cushions on its limbs for the comfort of a daydreaming girl and cat. I interviewed Vivanco to find out about the world she creates in her work and her inspirations.

Let’s begin by talking about your influences and what kind of things inspire your art. How would you describe your paintings to someone who’s never seen them?

I would say figurative–but not photo realistic. Sort of story-book–but not specific stories. Whimsical at times. Colorful. Quietly fantastical. I never feel like I have the description just right!

Do you aim to tell a story with each of paintings? Do you have a specific narrative in mind as you start on a piece? How does a painting of yours typically develop?

I don’t aim to tell a specific story. Rather than a narrative I go for the character. I keep sketchbooks of rough ideas and use my sketches to prompt me forward on a blank panel. I don’t like to overdevelop an idea or details before I get started because then the piece would feel “spooled out” already, like it had already lost its energy. The painting develops on the panel first with a rough formation with vine charcoal (easy to wipe off with a rag), then a tighter graphite drawing and then washes of colors. I tend to outline with darker colors, but not always. Areas get filled with color then washed and textured with other colors, details are added and glazes are built up. I use acrylic colors and mediums, so I don’t have to wait too long to build up layers.

“Directions” by Kelly Vivanco

You’ve created paintings for recent editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” What drew you to those stories? How different is it to create based on set narratives, like a classic fairy tale, versus making up your own narrative (if any) as you go? Do you feel you have to stick to any specific parameters or limitations when you paint “on commission” or according to a set narrative?

It is definitely more difficult to stick to a story when painting multiple pieces. The Snow White and Rose Red and Thumbelina books were done for specific publishers and they gave me a lot of freedom but it still felt limiting to stick to the story, keep the costumes consistent and paint the same characters over and over. Plus these are stories that people are familiar with, so there are loaded expectations and that makes it harder to be free creatively. Same with painting commissions. Even if there is free reign and “no expectations” I feel pressure to paint something the patron will like. I don’t mind too much though as I tend to like the finished pieces quite a bit. Commissions push me in a way, but the feeling isn’t quite the same as when I paint whatever I feel like at the time.

Like many fairy tales, all your paintings feature children or animals, or both. But remarkably, sentimentality isn’t a quality of your work. Instead, your paintings are imbued with mystery, wonder, independence and curiosity, depth of emotion, and sometimes even darker themes like fear, danger, or loneliness. How do you keep the sentimental out of your work? Have your paintings been viewed by children as well as adults? If so, is there any difference in the reaction?

That is nice to hear! I don’t like overly sentimental or saccharine art, so I try not to fall into that…pastiche? I do hold a seed of a feeling and treat the figures in my work like they have their own motivations and feelings. I hope this comes through to the viewer. Reactions are varied based off of the individual viewer’s experience and everyone has their own interpretation of the narratives they believe the work has. Younger viewers tend more to interpret an adventure or relationship narrative, especially if there are animals in the painting. Adults key more into the inner dialog they pick up in the “characters,” or they see themselves or their siblings. I have painted so many unintentional “sisters” or “daughters”!

“Cushion Tree” by Kelly Vivanco

I’ve read you collect vintage children’s books. What are some of your treasures? Any fairy tales or fantasy books? What else do you collect?

I love everything from Richard Scarry and Nancy Drew to the old school fairy books. I have vintage Black Beauty and Snow White, Raggedy Ann, Mother Goose, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Halloween stories, and Wallace Tripp illustrated books. The internet makes it so much easier to find and collect images from books I would never have a chance to see in person, like mid-century Russian illustrations.

I have a large collection of old photographs as well. I have been finding and buying them from antique stores and flea markets since I was a teenager. Sometimes a person in one of these old photos will inspire a whole painting just with the look in their eye.

What is your favorite fairy tale or folktale and why?

I have read so many that they start to run together with so many quests and beasts and curses but The Brothers Grimm tale of The Juniper Tree sticks with me. It’s perfectly gruesome and has the requisite evil stepmother!

If you had to give a name to the world you create in your paintings, what would it be?

In C.S. Lewis’ book “The Magician’s Nephew” there is a place that is lush green and so peaceful that you can hear the plants growing. The “wood between worlds” is strewn with pools that go to different worlds. I have always loved the idea of that place so something like that would be perfect.

“Blanket Fort” by Kelly Vivanco