Thursday evening at 7:30 the art museum of the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire will debut a new exhibit of the work of five author/illustrators.
The featured artists include Shaun Tan (The Arrival, above), William Joyce (Rolie Polie Olie and Dinosaur Bob), David Wiesner (Flotsam, Tuesday), Adam Rex (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich), and me. I’ll have ten pieces in the show, all from Dinotopia, including several preliminary sketches, though unfortunately I will not be able to attend. Scroll down for more info.
Here’s my introductory essay for the catalog:
Many years ago, on the way to a camping trip to Maine with my wife and two young sons, I purchased a secondhand copy of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. I read the book aloud to my family each night by the flickering light of a kerosene lantern. In the blackness beyond the curtains of our tent we could hear the muffled roar of the rocks holding firm against the breakers.
Pyle, the father figure of American author-illustrators, had us completely in his spell. His words and pictures transported us from the stormy coast of America to a sun-dappled England that he conjured completely from his imagination (he never made the trip there). It made perfect sense that the same hand created both the ornate pen pictures and the stately and intricate language. The two wellsprings of imagination merged in our heads as we absorbed each chapter.
The people represented in this exhibition all share Pyle’s love of both writing and picture-making as a kind of stereoscopic creative vision. One kind of vision involves lines and shapes and colors. The other mode of expression encompasses the realm of smell, touch, sound, dialog, and sequence.
Since each single storybook is the product of a single mind, it has a unity of effect often missing from author/artist collaborations. In Dinosaur Bob, William Joyce’s visual experiments in scale fits perfectly with extravagant phrases like “two peanut-butter-and-bologna sandwiches and 400 double Dutch chocolate cakes.”
Adam Rex, in his Frankenstein books, revises the way we think words and pictures should sit on the page. He switches from typeset lines of text to his own hand-lettering, splashing word bubbles and plastering headlines across the layouts with a magician’s virtuosity.
Two of the creators in this exhibition challenge our assumptions about what it means to be a writer, for some of their stories are presented entirely without words. When Shaun Tan created his haunting and lyrical bestseller The Arrival, he first envisioned the whole story in pantomime with the help of friends, who acted out the roles on videotape. The story recounts the experience of an immigrant, baffled by unknown scripts and unfamiliar customs. Part of the power of the presentation comes from its reserve, its silence and its grayness.
David Wiesner’s work in the wordless realm includes Tuesday, Sector 7, Free Fall, and Flotsam, all of which deftly unfold their narratives around increasingly mind-expanding revelations, rendered in the precise but unforgiving medium of watercolor.
People often ask each of us auteurs: “Which came first, the story or the pictures?” In my case, the two arrived together, like fraternal twins born squabbling and conspiring. Throughout the creative process of developing Dinotopia, a sketch begets a name, an outline begets a storyboard, and a painting begets a piece of dialog. It’s not as if story is finished first, as some suppose, and then I put on another hat and do the pictures. The two activities enrich each other all along the way.
That’s why I think all authors should be encouraged to draw, and all artists should be encouraged to write. Howard Pyle, in his famous summer classes in the Brandywine valley, insisted that his art students spend part of their time writing. I would almost rather look at Rudyard Kipling’s drawings from Just So Stories, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s portrayals of Middle Earth, than see the work of others who tried to climb inside their heads.
The two modes of expression are different only in their outward form, not in their source. They both derive from the same deep creative center. Hopefully they touch the reader at the same place. A picture book, whether it has words or not, is an attempt to conjure a half-remembered dream. Those dreams arise from a place in us too deep for either pictures or words.
The images in this exhibition, and the books from which they’re taken, escort us to the rocky shoreline of our imagination, where waves roll in from far storms and sunny kingdoms.
Genesis • Jan. 28 to Feb. 18, with an opening reception on Jan. 28 at 7:30pm • Foster Gallery, Hass Fine Arts building, UWEC campus • FREE • all ages • 836-2328 • Website