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"Onward Is Best: A Christmas Journey"

Artist's hand-crafted storybook lands serve as backdrop for new children's book

Robert Fishbone, husband of the late Sarah Linquist, visits one of his wife’s six storylands. The magical lands serve as settings for the children’s book, “Onward is Best: A Christmas Journey.” photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
November 16, 2011
Imagine a small wooden doll, her hair a thicket of red curls. Unlike the other toys, Dolly doesn't want to be gift-wrapped or taken from the workshop. After all, what if the little girl who receives her doesn't smile, doesn't love her as much as Santa does?

Like "Peter Pan," "Three Little Pigs" and umpteen children's classics that resonate with grown-ups, a new fairy tale by local artist Sarah Linquist may soon tug at families' heartstrings.

Linquist died 17 months ago at age 58. Along with three drawers of publicly unseen artwork, she is survived by fellow artist, musician and motivational speaker Robert Fishbone, her husband of 29 years, and their two children, Tyler and Liza Fishbone.

During 20-plus summers at The Muny, Linquist rose to master scenic artist, reportedly able to charm and disarm even the most independent-minded crew members.

The Metal Land landscape includes bells, cooking utensils and jacks. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
For Fishbone, the twosome's lives entwined the day he stood in the doorway of a bustling classroom at Antioch College in Ohio, where both were then enrolled. For a moment, others seemed to recede, allowing him to focus only on Linquist, the epitome of "cool" in her leather skirt and jacket.

Professionally, the couple went on to create 200 indoor and outdoor murals in five states. Perhaps their best known here, "Lindy Squared," was a 6,000-square-foot portrait of aviator Charles Lindbergh, painted in 72 shades of gray on the old Lion Gas Building at Ninth and Chestnut streets downtown (the building and the mural were demolished in 1981).

With Fishbone often the idea guy and Linquist supplying fine-arts savvy, the duo likewise teamed up on 200-plus art-related products, including "The Scream," their inflatable, 3-D version of Edvard Munch's painting.

The couple's latest collaboration is the newly published "Onward is Best: A Christmas Journey." Started by Linquist when her late-stage ovarian cancer was diagnosed in 2006, the book was pulled together, following her death in his arms and after much deliberation by her husband, by Fishbone and a team of relatives and friends.

The result is a giant children's book, Linquist's first-ever. Its 12-by-13-inch, gilt-edged pages are illustrated with some 100 photos, culled from the 4,500 images shot of the paper-bag trees, popcorn village and glimmering tinfoil streams Linquist crafted.

Sarah Linquist’s land of whimsical creations all fashioned from wood. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"The book was what she did for healing herself and keeping herself going," Fishbone said, sitting in his wife's large, high-ceiling studio addition to their 1860s Olivette farmhouse.

On studio tables, all six of Linquist's storybook lands — one of paper, others of popcorn, metal, teddy bears, wood and the last, called Desolation and made largely of graying tree bark – still sprawl. On Dolly's path to resolution and learning to rely on others to help push through the unknown, she visits each land.

To create the landscapes, Linquist raided her art-supply stash. She also cruised garage sales, vowed not to exceed $6 on eBay bids and happily accepted additional art stuff from friends.

Fishbone estimates his wife spent four hours a day for four years, or nearly 6,000 hours, on the book.

During her illness, Linquist underwent two major cancer surgeries and four different chemotherapy regimens. As a side effect of chemo, she developed peripheral neuropathy, or nervous-system damage that triggered pain and numbness in her feet and hands.

For her feet, she kept walking, up to a couple of miles at a time. When her hands couldn't tell sandpaper from silk, she tried rebuilding her fine-motor skills by constructing mini-villages.

Sarah Linquist created Popcorn Land kernel by glued kernel. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Kernel by glued kernel, for example, she fashioned Popcorn Land. Guiding her was a memory from her Chicago childhood. Each year Linquist would plaster her face onto department store Marshall Field's cold Christmas windows, her hands so completely blocking out everything else, she felt as if she'd entered the enchantment.

Linquist never saw herself in her story and never talked about dying, Fishbone said. Just once, during what was to be her final hospitalization, she asked dear friend Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, "Do you think I've left enough of me in them (presumably, her family and friends) for when I'm gone?"

The rabbi continued to hold her, Fishbone recalled.

Pervasive in the couple's household was a belief that the world seemed grand and mysterious. His wife "really wasn't trying to figure life out or even unravel it … she just wanted to dance with it," Fishbone writes at the end of her book.

His letter is preceded by a shorter one, penned by his wife's three sisters, all writers, Suzanne and Ann Linquist, and Kate Adams.

During their annual sister gatherings, as well as by phone, email and during individual visits, Sarah would share her book ideas, images and evolving manuscripts.

Her sisters took her last draft, at 8,000 words deemed far too long by the children's book agents she had queried, and did the unthinkable. While remaining true to Sarah's vision, they expanded her story to 14,000 words.

"Our writing contributions are our gift to our beloved sister," they pen at the book's end.

Thanks to a series of events Fishbone finds "too perfect" to credit to coincidence alone, caring for Linquist and later, posthumously producing her book became possible.

When he tired of wholesaling the couple's mass-produced brainstorms, Fishbone put his business on the market in 2001. Not until five years later and shortly before his wife was diagnosed did he sell the bulk of his business. The transaction gave him time and money to manage Linquist's care and for them to take several vacations together.

Later, Fishbone would question whether he had the emotional stamina to make her book public or if his wife would have wanted him to, especially as he grieved. Earlier, sculptor and painter Barry Leibman had retired to Whidbey Island near Seattle, departing after 35 years as co-owner of Left Bank Books here. But when his home in St. Louis failed to sell, Leibman returned, just in time for Fishbone to hire him as project manager on the book.

Fishbone self-published the book. After a number of "You really ought to talk to so-and-so" suggestions, a niece of Linquist's, Carrie Ehrfurth, did the page layouts. Ian Wasserman shot the photography. Betsy Gast designed the book's website.

That "Onward is Best" takes place during the holiday season is no coincidence, either. Linquist was born on Dec. 18, 1951. Family and friends knew Christmas was her favorite time of year.

No doubt, that's partly why Fishbone makes a cameo appearance in "Onward is Best." With a white beard and furry red suit, he subs for Santa.

WHAT: Book launch party for "Onward is Best: A Christmas Journey" ($50), by Sarah Jean Linquist. Several of her hand-crafted landscapes are scheduled to be on display.

WHERE: The Eleven Inc., graphic design and marketing offices, 360 N. Boyle Ave.

WHEN: 4 to 7 p.m., Nov. 20

BENEFICIARY: A portion of proceeds from each sold copy of the collector's limited edition of 3,000 books, will benefit the Cancer Support Community of Greater St. Louis.


www.onwardisbest.com or the Central West End and downtown locations of Left Bank Books

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