PORTLAND, Maine — Most people recognize illustrator Edward Gorey for his macabre drawings of children meeting horrifying fates — embedded in ice and devoured by mice, for example — as part of a rhyming alphabet book more likely to give nightmares than teach letters.
But many people, Gorey scholars say, may not realize that the man who drew the grisly ends for 26 Gashlycrumb Tinies was also a “sweet” New England local, insecure about his work and fascinated by Batman cartoons.
The opening of the 170-piece show “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey” in the Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery on Friday, Oct. 5, is being called the first-ever exhibit of the famed illustrator’s original work in Maine. And, organizers say, the collection of rare and unpublished works in the exhibition shine a light on the man some only recognize for his darkness.
In advance of the Friday opening, Gorey expert and Maine College of Art Illustration Department Chairman Scott Nash joined Portland Public Library Program Director Rachael Weyand for an interview with the Bangor Daily News.
In that talk, they explain why Gorey’s art may resonate in a unique way with Mainers, what the artist liked about the Caped Crusader — and how, in a sense, Gorey was really drawing you, the viewer, getting killed by hungry bears.
And Nash reveals which of the enigmatic illustrator’s drawings took him by surprise — and still puzzle him — after years of studying Gorey’s life and work.
Question: How did you manage to bring together this exhibit of Edward Gorey material in Portland?
Answer: (Nash) This is a good story, I think, and one that’s indicative of the culture here in Maine. As the chair of the illustration department at MECA, I had wanted to increase awareness of illustration in the city — in the state, in the world. I was determined to bring a show of Edward Gorey’s work to Portland and had floated the idea by the Gorey Charitable Trust, and they got very excited about it. I had sort of indicated that there were a couple of institutions that might be interested in hosting this exhibition, but I found out just prior to meeting with the trust that neither of those two institutions were going to pan out for me. So I went down and met with the trust, and I walked away [with the impression] they were incredibly excited about having the show come up here. … The show was ending in Palm Springs, Fla., on Sept. 5, and they were interested in having the show start up somewhere else by Oct. 1 — otherwise it was going to go into storage. So I walked out of that meeting with the trust feeling great about the fact that they were so enthused about this, but realizing that I didn’t have a place for the show to be.
This is where Rachael comes in. I went to a coffee shop, checked my email, and received an email from Rachael — who I’d met, what, a month on the street previously with Chris Bowe from Longfellow Books and mentioned to her quite casually that I’d wanted to bring an Edward Gorey exhibition to Portland. And evidently, it stuck with [her], because she sent me an email right after meeting with the trust saying, ‘Hi Scott, I don’t know if you remember that we talked about [the fact that] you were interested in doing a Gorey show, I just had a meeting with the chairman of the cultural center. We’re interested in hosting the show, and we could do it as soon as Oct. 1.
This show was pulled together in crazy record time by this institution [the Portland Public Library], the Maine College of Art, and thanks to our sponsor, the Bank of Maine.
(Weyand) We had heard prior to this conversation from the Bank of Maine that they were interested in sponsoring an Edward Gorey show. There’s a connection — the president [of the bank] is a huge fan of Edward Gorey — so we were able to piece these three [partners] together.
Q: What do you think the appeal of Edward Gorey is?
A: (Weyand) I think it’s different for a lot of people. He was so prolific and had so many books, and a lot of his books have touched people throughout their lives. For me, my connection is that we had one of his moving children’s books where pieces moved. So I’ve always had this connection to his artwork because I experienced it from a really young age. But his aesthetic, we were saying Mainers probably like it because you can feel the damp, cold winter just by looking at his art. So there’s another connection.
(Nash) One of the other magazines in town asked if there’s any connection between Gorey and Maine, and I said anybody who has spent a winter in Maine can relate to Gorey on a primal level. But I also think what makes his work so appealing is that there’s something familiar in the style of his work. It is a 19th-century style that feels somewhat familiar to us. But also, with all of the horror and macabre nature of his work, there’s a sweetness, as well. He chooses, in almost every case, not to depict the horrific act, but the moments before or the moments after. And I think that’s where a lot of his humor comes from. I also think he has a tendency to draw faces very simply, and there’s a theory in cartooning that the simpler the face, the more we bring to the character as a participant. As somebody in the audience, as somebody viewing the artwork, we sort of bring more of ourselves to those characters. His faces, if you look at them, are sometimes as simple as Charlie Brown’s. Two dots, a nose, and a very simple mouth. And I think those simple faces … draw us into his characters. If you look at them, it’s remarkable to think of them in that context. [The Ghastlycrumb Tinies character of] Basil, who’s assaulted by bears, has the simplest face you can imagine. Everything else [in the picture] is done in great detail, but his faces are often very, very simple.
Q: Scott, as a children’s book author and illustrator, your characters aren’t mauled by bears or killed off by grisly accidents. (Nash is scheduled to release and sign copies of his newest book, “The High Skies Adventure of Blue Jay the Pirate” at Longfellow Books Friday night at 7:30.) But do you take any other lessons or inspiration from Gorey?
A: (Nash) This show is very personal for me because Edward Gorey lived on Cape Cod. I grew up on Cape Cod. I grew up admiring Edward Gorey. I actually grew up imitating Edward Gorey and abandoned that for years because my work was looking a little too much like his. And only in recent years have I taken up working in pen and ink again, and working in that style. It’s been years since I’ve done that. And now terrible things happen to my characters — I don’t know what’s going on, but maybe it’s the influence of Gorey. I don’t know. But in my latest books, there are definitely consequences throughout the books. They’re not quite as sweet as the earlier picture books were.
Q: What don’t people know about Gorey?
A: (Nash) I think one of the things that’s important to point out about Gorey is that, [while] he’s cast as being a gothic character, a macabre person who had this penchant for horror, but the truth, if you really look at his work, it’s as much about nonsense and whimsy. That’s one of the things I really treasure about this exhibition: It really conveys the broad view of what Edward Gorey really was. The man published at least 100 books in his life, and there were only a few of them … [with] an implied horrific nature. I also think what’s been interesting in reading about Gorey is realizing there was definitely a sweetness about him. He had the same doubts about his work that all artists do. It’s really great to read in his letters — especially the letters between himself and Peter Neumeyer, a children’s book author with whom he collaborated on a number of books — just how insecure he was about his work. I think that’s an interesting lesson for any of us who are artists, and I think it’s something that my students can connect with. Even an artist as established as Gorey had some insecurities about his artwork.
Q: Which piece or pieces in the exhibit do you each find most interesting or like the best?
A: (Weyand) That’s a really [hard question]. I think I’m going to need a little more time with the work. There are so many images — 170 — and I think I’ve looked at the same frames at least a couple of times each, and every time I see something new.
(Nash) I’m especially taken by the fact that he included sketches by some of his works. There’s a drawing that’s not complete for a piece called “The Blue Aspic,” and it’s really interesting to look at his process there, to see how he renders the drawing. And as Rachael knows, my favorite piece in the exhibit is a piece I’d never seen before called “Creativity.” I still haven’t figured it out. It’s images of elephants drawn in anything but the real sense of an elephant — they’re sort of spectral images of elephants, or elephants created out of smoke. I find myself sort of pondering the piece to figure out what he was getting at, and so far I’ve found out nothing about it. That’s the one that’s sort of holding a fascination for me, because I’m very familiar with Gorey’s work and I’d never seen that piece before. I hadn’t really noticed it, and we’re very happy to have it in the exhibition.
Then I’m also really pleased to have his sketch books. I feel very grateful to both the Gorey Trust and the Brandywine Museum for creating what I think is a very generous show that’s showing all aspects of Gorey. It is showing his sketches. They’ve included an abundance of his work — more than we expected, actually. I think we’re just astounded by the sheer volume of work that they sent to us. It’s quite a show.
Q: How did ‘Creativity’ escape your radar all these years?
A: (Nash) The only reference I can find for it is as a plate in a book called “Amphigorey Also,” and I’d somehow skipped over that particular image. I don’t know, and I still don’t know anything about it. I’ve spoken with [Gorey Charitable Trust] co-trustee Andreas Brown about it — and we’re going to have a more in-depth conversation about it — but he doesn’t seem to know that much about the piece either. It’s fascinating to them.
Q: Are you surprised that after all this time studying his work, Gorey can still sneak up on you?
A: (Nash) I’m very delighted by this. That’s why we go back to the well, isn’t it? To find works that we find surprising and see as new and that were somehow invisible to us. I was astounded to find that particular piece. I have a fair collection of Gorey books and I feel like I’ve been looking at this stuff for many years, and for some reason that particular piece had escaped me.
Q: Some of the material in this exhibit is unpublished and rare. What can you tell us about that?
A: (Nash) That’s due in part to the enthusiasm of the trust. Even today they were talking about sending us new works that they’d like to have included in the exhibition. It’s sort of astonishing to me. They’ve been incredibly giving throughout the entire process, and included [rare] pieces. For instance, Gorey loved to create little soft sculpture stuffed animals. He particularly liked creating frogs, these fictional characters called “Figbashes” — which are these long-armed creatures with long noses — and a character called “The Doubtful Guest.” He evidently would sit and watch television and sew these little bean bags, and we have quite a few of them in the exhibit. We had four they sent with the exhibit, and then the trust sent us an additional one, and I have one in my collection. There was a generous side of Edward Gorey. As much as we tend to think of him as recluse and somebody who very much kept to himself, he did have a civic side. He was interested in having these works out in the world. I said this before, but there was a sweetness to him, and the fact that he would make these stuffed animals, that I found very compelling.
And fortunately for me, growing up on the Cape, I was able to attend a number of his puppet productions, which he would do at any number of venues throughout Cape Cod. Some of them were very “retail” spaces, but he would do these sort of surreal puppet shows. I felt very fortunate to have attended a couple of those. We also had a theater company on Cape Cod called the Atlantic Theatre Co. during the early 1980s, which produced in a cabaret form short dramatic pieces of his works called “Gorey Stories.” And he would attend almost every performance. They would have a sort of “main stage” performance — which was an alternative to what was generally provided on the Cape in that they were doing real drama — and then they would have this cabaret afterwards which featured Gorey’s work. And he would [go]. He would frequent a diner called Jack’s Outback. He was part of our community on the Cape.
Q: Where did Gorey get his inspiration?
A: (Nash) He was a voracious reader. He always downplayed that. He almost cast himself as sort of a dilettante, saying he knew a little bit about everything, when in fact anyone that knew him — and I didn’t know him personally, I met him a few times — knew the depth and breadth of his knowledge about literature, dance … and movies was expansive. And television, for that matter. He was very interested in media, and he would say that if he was forced to describe himself as an artist or a writer, he would pick “writer” first. He was always one to sort of downplay his talents as far as being an illustrator is concerned, which, of course, any of us who are in that profession think is crazy. This is beautifully crafted work. But he claimed that he needed a text manuscript to work with, and I think because of that he always defined himself more as a writer than as an illustrator. Or he connected more with that.
But his works really are what we’d call these days a mashup between a variety of culture, literature, movies — all of these forms of popular culture. And he wasn’t a snob. He was opinionated. He had his likes and dislikes, but in some ways he was egalitarian.
Q: Did I hear you correctly saying before this interview that he was interested in Batman?
A: (Nash) Yes. I’ve been sort of boning up on Edward Gorey and I recently read some interviews that Karen Watkins had published and he mentioned in two of the interviews that he loved the new cartoon Batman that came out in the [early 1990s]. He loved it specifically because of the drawing style, the fact that there was a dark contrast, black and white, in the drawings. And I just got a big kick out of that, actually, because I admired the look of that particular show as well. It was very stylized, very mannered. The characters were thinner than when we typically think of Batman and Robin as being. It’s funny that he was connecting with that, because they almost felt more “dance-like” to me. …
[He also liked] silent movies. Buster Keaton was a hero to him. [George] Balanchine of the New York Ballet was a huge influence for him, both creatively and I’d almost say he was his mentor in some ways. I don’t think he knew Balanchine very well, but he admired Balanchine.
Q: Has Gorey been on display in Maine before?
A: (Nash) Not that I know of. And not to sound to hyperbolic about this, but I think Gorey is the most important illustrator since the Golden Age of Illustration, and probably the most recognized illustrator since the Golden Age. When I say the “Golden Age” I’m talking about the 30s and 40s when … Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, the Leyendeckers were all household names, practically. Gorey’s one of the few illustrators who is part of the popular consciousness. … Maybe half the people out there don’t know who he is, but the people who do know who he is, hold him in very ,very high regard. And I frankly can’t think of anybody who is more well-known than Edward Gorey that could be defined as an illustrator.
The Portland Public Library is in the heart of downtown Portland at 5 Monument Square and is open daily from 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Monday–Thursday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Saturday.