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.