Living on the Earth–Alicia Bay Laurel’s Iconic Illustrated Book and How Her Art Helps Raise Funds for Japan
“Living on the Earth has been popular in Japan for three generations. I was astonished to discover how many fans I have in Japan,” remarked Alicia Bay Laurel, American author and artist who has spent a lifetime uniquely “helping the planet and the people on it” through her art.
In April, Alicia created an illustrated t-shirt and art design for a souvenir towel to raise funds at a rock concert for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster of 2011. She also created a set of drawings on the theme rebuilding Japan for the Artist Power Bank, a not-for-profit organization of environmental activists in Tokyo that raises money through concerts and other arts activities.The director of Kurkku, a subsidiary of Artist Power Bank, operates natural-food restaurants and a green store at their complex in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, “began functioning as a sort of art agent” for Alicia in 2007. He has arranged gallery shows of the original art from Living on the Earth, commercial art assignments for her to complete for both Artist Power Bank and Kurkku’s projects, as well as for other green-oriented companies in Japan. “What would have been his agent’s commission for this work instead became a donation to the environmentalist not-for-profit, Artist Power Bank (which pays him a salary), and I am very happy to be supporting their work,” Alicia said.
Alicia began her association with Artist Power Bank and Kirkku in 2005, when one of her Japanese fans, journalist Koki Aso, persuaded Be Pal Magazine to send him and a photographer to Hawaii to interview her. During the interview, Alicia, who is also a vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, storyteller and performance artist, played her music for him. When Koki returned to Tokyo he approached Artist Power Bank about inviting Alicia to do a concert, book signing, and a weekend Living on the Earth workshop at a mountain forest camp in Doshi, west of Tokyo.
Artist Power Bank sent Alicia an airline ticket in October 2006 and she spent one month in Japan performing at their organized events and concerts. She has returned to Japan annually to perform and conduct her workshops.
Alicia’s Japanese fans love her live performances, gallery exhibitions, and illustrated books. Including Living on the Earth, Alicia has a total of six book titles published by Japanese companies and four music CDs released in Japan. She has debuted a line of clothing printed with her art, and in 2007 was the subject of a Japanese television documentary.
Alicia does not know how many copies of the Japanese editions of Living on Earth have been printed and sold in Japan. Since it was first published in 1970 in the U.S., when Alicia was “19 and fearless,” Living on the Earth has never been out of print. To date, there have been four editions published in English and over 350,000 copies of the book sold.
Alicia’s original inspiration for Living on the Earth arose from her desire to be of service to others, namely the members of the California commune where she lived in the late 1960’s.
She wanted to create a book to share the collective wisdom of all those living at the commune. To complete the project, Alicia “went to each of the 100 friends who lived on the land and asked for his or her best piece of information about how to live outdoors creatively.” She hand-wrote in cursive script recipes and instructions they gave her and illustrated all using Kohinoor Rapidograph ink pens. Alicia developed her trademark drawing style that is naïve yet advanced in concept– “I use simple lines to create the expression on a face, in a powerful shorthand for the emotions I want to communicate. This simplicity allows the viewer to “enter” my illustrations and drawings and complete the image in his or her mind, in the same way that reading a book engages the imagination more than watching a movie.” Alicia’s artworks also “tend toward images of divine beings in ecstatic communion with the universe without necessarily intending them to go that way. A similar phenomenon occurs when I writes prose, tells stories and write songs. My muse is a flirt, and she sometimes flirts with God, “ Alicia said.
Her flirtation with the gods occurred again in 2008, at Alicia’s art gallery exhibit at Mirai Garou, next to the famous Mori Tower in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. The gallery owner asked Alicia to create a new work depicting a scene of Tokyo as the centerpiece for the show. “I knew that Mori Tower looked out upon Tokyo Tower (an orange and white Eiffel Tower-like television tower) and past it to Tokyo Harbor, “ the artist described. “So, I made a drawing of this famous view, using a photo I found on Google as a guide, with the materials I had on hand– a box of crayons and some color marking pens. I spent about three hours on the drawing. As often happens in my work, a divine being came floating into the drawing, the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, clad in a white kimono, like a cloud, and bearing the morning sun in her hands. Above her I wrote on the drawing: “Amaterasu seen from Mori Tower.” The piece was the first one purchased in the show, and the following December I sent a holiday card with this image on the front, and the message Behold the return of the light printed inside.
Alicia never self-published the 200 page manuscript of Living on the Earth, she described as a “juxtaposition of an encyclopedia of basic life skills with a joyous, playful and natural set of illustrations.” On the advice of her friend and mentor Ramon Sender, she took it to Stewart Brand at the Whole Earth Catalog. “At that time, the Whole Earth Catalog was outselling the bestselling books in the industry. Brand sent me to his distributor, Book People, in Oakland California, to see if they could find a publisher for my manuscript. Book People decided to publish it themselves under their new imprint, The Bookworks. In September 1970, Bookworks published Living on the Earth, along with a review that stated, This could be the best book in our catalog. It is a book for people. If you are a person, it is for you. If you are a dog, and can’t read very well, it still might be for you, because of the pictures. Alicia, Alicia, Alicia. She’s our very own Bradford Angier. Within two weeks, Bookworks sold out all 10,000 copies of the first edition of Living on the Earth. When Random House heard of the phenomenal sales and read the review, they decided that Living on the Earth might be THEIR Whole Earth Catalog. So, Bennett Cerf, the president and founder of Random House, called up Don Gerrard, the owner and founder of Book People and The Bookworks, and made an offer for the rights to Living on the Earth. No agent was involved. What is more amazing is that Random House gave Living on the Earth a LOT of publicity, in a way that publishers rarely do now. At the time Living on the Earth came out, it was so different from everything that came before it, that Publishers Weekly ran a two-page illustrated article to acknowledge this. The New York Times Review of Books and all the other major publications of the time raved about the book. I made the rounds of the TV talk shows, radio shows, magazines, and newspapers. Mademoiselle magazine honored me for being so influential while still a minor,” Alicia recounted. “It was pure Dada.”
For over 40 years Alicia has enjoyed the notoriety and success that has arisen from “helping the planet and the people living on it.” The great lessons Alicia Bay Laurel has learned from the success of her book, and the advice she offers to aspiring authors and illustrators is–“When a big project wants to use you to manifest itself, you have no choice but to surrender. If you do not, it will make your life a misery until you do. After I surrendered to Living on the Earth’s will to manifest itself, I watched as it rolled out over the world, enchanting entire other countries as well as populations within my own country. It is still a force unto itself. People still tell me, “It’s my bible.” I try not to take it personally. But I do use this advantage to promote my current projects. Why not? It was a gift.”