Words and Pictures

 

Last time I wrote I showed you some pictures from Pollwiggle’s Progress by Wilfrid Swancourt Bronson.  Having heard the book described for years, I imagined a kind of earnest 1950‘s elementary science text for kids with a  condescending tone and “Golden Book” aesthetic.  I was not prepared to be blown away.

It got me thinking about words and pictures, and how different artists use them together. I love the way Bronson integrates words into his illustrations and pictures in the middle of his pages.  He’s fluent in two creative languages, and uses both to communicate his ideas.

The first thing about Pollwiggle that captivated me was the illustrations. At first glance they have a science book quality to them – detailed and schematic, with words added to label or explain.

But then there are unexpected touches of humour.  A water tiger is compared to a “real” tiger, perusing the menu in a vegetarian restaurant.

Characters in the book speak to the reader, with punctuation and underlinings sprinkled in like emoticons so we can really hear them.  Or the artist’s background in mural art emerges with elaborately decorated borders.

Pollwiggle’s Progress is over one hundred pages.  That seems long for a science book on frogs pitched to the 8-10 crowd.  But when you start reading you realize why. To use without irony a phrase cribbed from an old silent movie,  Bronson has “the soul of a poet”.  His wonder at the natural world won’t be contained, even if it means a few extra paragraphs to tell you in detail about the creatures around Pollwiggle, or to break out of his hero’s point of view to describe something Pollwiggle couldn’t have seen:

 “Leaves on the towering trees turned many gorgeous colors now as the frost began to nip them in the night.  All the mountain sides grew steadily more lovely as November days came ever closer…They never saw how the waterfall looked frozen, nor how the grass bending into the pond, covered with ice, looked like herds of small glass elephants drinking.  They did not see the Northern Lights that glowed over the mountains many a crisp cold night, nor hear the boys and girls skating on the ice above them many a day.”

Books for young children start off with pictures, because kids don’t usually learn to read until about five or six years old.  (I remember my son’s first note to me – missing most of the vowels – written when he was four.  It was thrilling.)  As children acquire language and the ability to process more complex ideas, the words take over and the pictures disappear from books.

Except for sometimes. Many artists have the impulse to work in more than one medium  and the list of writers who also paint or draw spans the alphabet from Margaret Atwood to Kurt Vonnegut.  Artists, too, like writing sometimes, and graphic novels allow artists to use the comic book form to express ideas both visually and verbally, allowing them to talk about adult themes in an engaging visual way.

If you draw and paint pictures, but like words too, are you a writer?  If you write, but use images in your storytelling, are you an artist?  If the origins of “Art” go back 40,000 years and written language began 9,000 years ago to facilitate trade, does that make Art the original language of the human experience?

One of my favourite artists, Lynda Barry, blurs the boundaries of instruction, fiction and memoir, art and writing, the daily skirmishes of adulthood and the world of the child.

With naive drawing and collage, and the remembered language of childhood, she writes about personal demons or the creative process. And if Bronson’s reverence is for the natural world, Barry’s wonder is the emotional resilience and imaginative inner landscape of all survivors and lonely souls – and by that, she would mean all of us.  She uses humour, expressive dialogue, lots of punctuation, thoughtful animals, layers of collaged words, brushed lines  and emotive, decorative borders and backgrounds to speak directly to the heart. Her techniques let truth float to the top of your consciousness like memories, mimicking the jumble of past and present that happens in our heads as we walk around every day.

Why do most of us stop making images as we get older? That question is central to Lynda Barry’s books on creativity, What It Is and Picture This.  The visual arts certainly aren’t highly valued by our educational system (or any of the arts, for that matter), and there’s a common misconception that drawing can’t be taught.  Pair that with a commodified culture that has a narrow view of creative excellence and unending capacity for intellectual and emotional mediocrity, and there’s not much encouragement for the independent creative spirit.

As ebooks and the internet become our primary vehicle for ideas, and images are co-opted by marketing and popular culture, as we value commodities above craft, some may want to return to a more primary form of communication.  To create something with our hands is a deeply human need.  To experience the world with our eyes feels natural and direct.  To speak with the heart is something we have to do.  To combine them feels sublime.

Time travelling: Old books, used books

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria

jotted along the borders of the Gospels

brief asides about the pains of copying,

a bird singing near their window,

or the sunlight that illuminated their page-

anonymous men catching a ride into the future

on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

– Billy Collins, Marginalia

 

Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time.  Lucky.  I always feel temporally challenged. My  chronological failing is usually to become mired in the future.   Recently I had lunch with someone from high school, and was shocked at how little of those years, and the people with whom I spent my days, I remembered.  Was I so disconnected from my classmates as I wandered the halls, planning my escape?  Seize the present; it becomes the past in an instant anyway, and at least if you pay attention you will have something to look back on, if you’re so inclined.

Things change, and I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last year walking around in my past.  Objects surprise you with their layers of meaning as memories float to the surface of things.  Pictures, furniture, bluebirds, rings, books – like the wardrobe leading to Narnia, I step into another world whenever I enter my house.

I have a new perspective on old things, not just my own.   Other people’s stuff holds a voyeuristic appeal.  A child’s picture blown onto the front lawn gets magneted to the fridge door.  A handmade bookmark unearthed from the pages of a library book is adopted.  I order used books when I could buy them new.

 

The beginning of my desire for a collection of used books was my mother’s copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  It’s not valuable, not a first edition and it’s falling apart, but it was one of my mother’s favourites, and so perfectly combines her love of books with her love of gardening that it practically radiates her presence when I hold it in my hands.  It’s prompted a desire to have the rest of the Elizabeth Von Arnim books, but only in old hardback editions. I have some, but not all…

Another book I inherited is Herbs: How to Grow, Treat and Use Them by Ethelind Fearon.  (There’s a girl’s name you don’t hear much.  You know that book must be old.)  It has a torn dust jacket and my grandmother’s bookplate on the inner cover.  Several of the herbs listed in the front have checkmarks next to them (as Elsa planned her garden?) and the book is filled with useful advice and recipes from 1953  – “Wipe and cut up a hare, carefully preserving the liver, heart and blood….” – my mouth’s watering already.

This is the kind of discovery that gets you on the internet looking for anything else you can find.  And in this case, that’s a lot, because Ethelind Fearon wrote several other useful books, including The Reluctant Hostess, Flower Gardening for Ungardeners, How to Keep Pace with Your Daughter, and Without My Yacht: How to be At Home in the South of France, all of which I now covet and at least one of which I will never need.

Most people who collect used books are looking for copies in the best possible condition, but I enjoy discovering the tracks of previous readers. Read a book with notes in the margins, names, underlinings, stars and checkmarks, and now it’s not just you and the author, but another reader too – it’s friendly.

Sometimes the notes you find are hieroglyphs of past relationships, raising questions as you try to decipher their truth.  I purchased a copy online of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing signed by Melissa Bank.  When it arrived, it was inscribed, “For Len – I’d love to meet a friend of Carol’s (you lucky man)”.  Did Len consider himself lucky no longer?  Did he sell his gift in anger or sadness? What was Carol trying to say when she gave Len Bank’s acerbic stories of lapsed communication and missed connections?

Recently A ordered a copy online of a childhood favourite, Pollwiggle’s Progress.  The book arrived, releasing a flood of memories for A, and a window into a little known author and artist (to me, anyway) named Wilfrid S. Bronson.  Originally published in 1932, Pollwiggle’s Progress is stunningly decorated with evocative and funny black and white illustrations,

and Bronson wrote many other animal books for children including Cats, Beetles, Starlings, Coyotes and, yes, Goats. Only my budget and the slimmest ounce of self control prevent me from ordering them all.

The previous owner of Pollwiggle’s Progress (was it Frances, who signed the frontispiece?  Who or what is “Buzzy”?)  handcoloured some of the pictures, but apparently became bored by page eleven.  Frances (if she was indeed the delinquent artist) has done a lovely job, carefully applying her coloured pencils within the lines of the original drawings and selecting a palette that enhances the illustrations with natural, yet heightened, colour, lending them a magical quality.  Or so it seems to me, as I gaze fascinated at the page, which has become a meeting place for the writer and readers, past and present – and sometimes those are the same person.

The writer writes, a reader adds her own commentary in colour,  you come to the story for the first time, then years later, adding layers of meaning from your memories and your conversations with the past.  You’ve experienced  the alchemy of a book,  and you’re unstuck in time.