Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Genesis" Exhibition Opens Tomorrow

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


Unknown said...

Congratulations Jim! Great article.

Steve said...

You make such compelling points, Jim. Your writing often soars as high as your paintings. To the examples you gave I would add the better efforts of Hugh Lofting, Robert Lawson, Robert McCloskey, Barbara Cooney, and many others. Lofting is a good example of someone (like Tolkien) whose drawings were clearly untrained, yet had an odd hand-in-glove quality with his writing.

Sure wish I could get to Eau Claire before Feb. 18. I've long been knocked out by the work of Shaun Tan and David Wiesner as well as that guy who did some dinosaur books.

Shane White said...

Writing and picture-making...picture-making and writing...Amen to that.


JP said...

Wow. That sounds like a really amazing show. I wish I could make the trip would sure be a hit in the Bay Area if the exhibition ever came out West.

laurghita said...

Maybe you want to know this:

Brooks Hansen said...

As more of a writer who draws than an artist who writes (having had the pleasure of illustrating just one of my books), I'll second the motion of this post. Drawing is a great way of getting to know your characters - or of realizing them. And really that is the feature that both narrative and figurative art share in common. Different as they may be in practice, they are both, at essence, processes of realization.

I will say that drawing is the more pleasurable of the two activities, if only because you artists actually get to listen to music while you work.

Completely not fair.

...And let us not forget Blake in this discussion.

Or Robert McCloskey.

Erik Bongers said...

Have some JG books, have a Van Allsburg, but still haven't got a Wiesner book. Only some downloaded pics.
Perhaps I should give myself a present, next...Tuesday or so.

Erik Bongers said...

...and I do have The Arrival, of course!

Anonymous said...

Great essay Mr. Gurney! The author/illustrator is indeed an interesting figure: almost mythical, idyllic, romantic... and most certainly out of grasp for most of us. Perhaps I can write, but I am not able to produce drawings that generate any kind of powerful reaction.

That elusiveness only contributes to the stature of the figure.

My Pen Name said...

James, did you see this:
A scientific breakthrough has identified the colour of a dinosaur for the first time
— and its a redhead.

Evan T said...

I've always loved Adam Rex's paintings, as far back as his old work he did for magic: the gathering cards.

James Gurney said...

I recommend all the other artists in the show, and I'm honored to be included with them, because I have copies of books by all of them on my shelf.

Thanks, Laurghita and Pen Name: I had heard about the colored dinosaur news a few weeks early. It's incredibly exciting, I agree, and a great example of how science and art intertwine.

laurghita said...

Do you intend to publish more of your books in Romania ?
I already own Journey to Chandara and we (my son included) already have a blast with this dino world. You know he still belive in Santa so was easy for me to make him belive its based on a true story...

China Blue Rockett said...

I wish I could make it to the exhibit, it sounds wonderful.

As to artists and authors overlapping in their practices-- I entirely agree! It's stimulating to do both, and especially when attempting to convey a story, knowing how it should read in text (with equal importance to the pictures) is pretty much vital.

James Gurney said...

Laurghita, no plans at the moment to have more books in Romanian, but I'm delighted that Chandara is available there.