Book from the Ground

Book from the Ground by Xu Bing

In the 1920s, a group of scholars in Vienna tried to devise a universal picture language called isotype. Today, Shigetaka Kurita has achieved that vision with emojis. And Xu Bing is the first to write a book from emojis and other contemporary symbols. Book from the Ground portrays a very relatable and surprisingly readable day in the life of an office worker. The protagonist’s struggles with his alarm, deadlines, and online dating are made all the more real through their portrayal in universal pictures. Bing seamlessly moves between events, thoughts, and even dream sequences—and each feels fresher than the last.

Support Uzzlepye Press by buying the book through this link on Amazon.

By |2018-11-21T01:45:37+00:00November 21st, 2018|Artist Books, Artists, Book reviews, Books, Picture books|

Wonder Tale Travel

As I was wandering along the streets of Austin, Texas, one not-quite-wintry December evening, I ducked into a used bookstore down the way. On a bottom shelf near the back, a large, horizontal book quite falling to pieces caught my eye.

Tales From the Four Winds, art by Otto Nielsen

Tales From the Four Winds, art by Otto Nielsen

As I opened the book, Tales From the Four Winds began:

From the dawn of time, man has watched birds in flight and dreamed of winging his way through space as easily and speedily as they. Not only has he dreamed of it, he has talked of it and woven the theme into the tales he told. The story-teller, far distant forerunner of modern television, knew that he could fascinate his audience and hold it spell-bound whenever in his repertoire he introduced fables about humans that flew. . . . When it was decided that the central theme of the [Scandanavian Airlines System] Calendar for 1959 was to be tales from all corners of the earth, it was only natural that the selected stories should deal with people who flew. . . . In presenting this little anthology we in no [way] claim to have made a truly representative booklet. Our main aim has been to amuse the reader with stories from twelve of the 43 nations served by SAS. We ask you to accept this little booklet in the same spirit and, when you read the stories, to remember that SAS, among many others, has helped make the yearnings of early man come true. Today you, too, may fly. Not only in fancy, but also in fact.

As I continued reading, I was delighted to find stories familiar and new, and amazed by the beautiful artwork accompanying them from the Dutch artist Otto Nielsen (who very much loved to travel). I would like to share illustrations from a few of the stories here.

Astride A Cannonball, Germany

Astride A Cannonball, Germany

The Wild Geese, Sweden

The Wild Geese, Sweden

The Moon Princess, Japan

The Moon Princess, Japan

The Flying Trunk, Denmark

The Flying Trunk, Denmark

Lue and the Elephant Hunters, Kenya

Lue and the Elephant Hunters, Kenya

The Magic Carpet, Arabia

The Magic Carpet, Arabia

Gulliver's Escape, Great Britain

Gulliver’s Escape, Great Britain

A Visit from St. Nicholas, USA

A Visit from St. Nicholas, USA

The book, after traveling from Kenya to Brazil, across Europe and Japan, finally arrived at the United States of America, where it closed, seasonably, with “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

But as I put down this beautiful collection, I couldn’t help but think the editors only got it half right. Man has dreamed not just of flying, but of traveling to new places, unseen and only imagined. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903; J.M. Barrie’s first stage production of Peter Pan was in 1904. As much as we have delighted in being able to fly around our own world, and even just beyond it (as in these amazing NASA travel posters), we continue to be thrilled by the prospect of going to places yet unseen.

To that end, I have scoured the internet for travel posters of imaginary lands, both old and new. Middle Earth is a favorite subject of illustrators far and wide, but Harry Potter’s world, Game of Thrones’ Westeros, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and, indeed, Peter Pan’s NeverLand, all capture our imagination as faraway destinations. Please enjoy the works of the fantastic designers below and investigate more of what they do through the links to their sites. And, finally, very happy holidays wherever your own travels take you this season.

Jazzberry Blue, Alice in Wonderland

Jazzberry Blue, Alice in Wonderland

Seventh Art Shop, Star Wars

Seventh Art Shop, Star Wars

Mr. Bluebird, The NeverEnding Story

Mr. Bluebird, The NeverEnding Story

Cantabrigia, Alice in Wonderland

Cantabrigia, Alice in Wonderland

Studio Moriarty, Rapunzel's Tower

Studio Moriarty, Rapunzel’s Tower

Steve Thomas, H. P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Steve Thomas, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Steve Thomas, The Lord of the Rings

Steve Thomas, The Lord of the Rings

Ursulav, H. P. Lovecraft's The Cats of Ulthar

Ursulav, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar

Martin Montgomery, The Legend of Zelda

Martin Montgomery, The Legend of Zelda

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Mr. Bluebird, NeverLand

Mr. Bluebird, NeverLand

Steve Thomas, NeverLand

Steve Thomas, NeverLand

Seventh Art Shop, Chronicles of Narnia

Seventh Art Shop, Chronicles of Narnia

Seventh Art Shop, Lord of the Rings

Seventh Art Shop, Lord of the Rings

Henry Conrad Taylor - Avatar the Last Airbender

Henry Conrad Taylor, Avatar the Last Airbender

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Dream Machine Prints - Lord of the Rings

Dream Machine Prints, Lord of the Rings

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Claire Malboeuf, Futurama

Claire Malboeuf, Futurama

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Dream Machine Prints - Lord of the Rings

Dream Machine Prints, Lord of the Rings

Caroline Hadilaksano, Harry Potter

Caroline Hadilaksano, Harry Potter

If you enjoyed this article, please consider donating to Mirror Mirrored so we can bring you more like it.

By |2018-08-12T16:28:35+00:00December 16th, 2017|Books, Design, Illustrations|

Joseph Keckler, Interdimensional Traveler

Two Roads

I have a copy of a brand new book, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World, sitting on the edge of my desk. Inside it is inscribed: “Hope we stay in the same reality. Love, Joseph.” At the time, I did not fully appreciate the extent to which Joseph Keckler, the author, is a dimension-travelling wizard. But I already had inklings.

A Singular Meeting

Joseph Keckler Dragon At the Edge of A Flat World

Published by Turtle Point Press

Three days earlier, late one evening in Austin, Texas, I received a text message: “Hi, This is Joseph.” Joseph and I had never met, but he is the friend of a good friend and created a beautiful piece for Mirror Mirrored. Also, a year and a half earlier, I had arranged a performance for him at a DC gallery on the only night I can remember the entire city’s metro system shutting down (the small group that managed to make it to the event was treated to a very intimate showing).

As it turns out, Joseph was in Austin for his book tour and thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to get to know each other. I agreed, and because he was staying on the other side of the river suggested we meet downtown—halfway for both of us. He happened to know a chef, however, about a thirty minute walk from my apartment, which suited me just fine. He took a ride share.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, I did not see Joseph—who my friend had described as looking like a more talented and refined Johnny Depp. On that particular dark evening, I was very much wondering exactly what talent looked like. The answer was a thin figure in a leather jacket casually wandering about the street at the edge of the park. I waved and we went in together.

As the only patrons in the dining room, we were seated at a small table in the middle of the room. Well, there was a wild party that was technically in the same room, but a series of large white sheets had been draped across the space such that all we could see were shadowy ghosts cavorting about sounding rather like a group of Florida retirees. We turned to the wine menu.

After our server recommended an Italian red that neither of us could pronounce, a woman brought out a bottle. She poured two glasses, said “May you chase the devil off the mountain,” and left. After confirming with each other the reality of what had just happened, we proceeded to drink several glasses of wine over several plates of pasta. When we each ordered a second glass, we took the opportunity to inquire with this beverage bearer if she had indeed encouraged us to shoo Satan away. She said yes, as that was the literal translation of the Italian wine we were drinking. She then pulled out her glasses, examined the label of wine as if to confirm herself, and without saying anything further danced away.

Devil On The Mountain

The devil on the mountain

We turned to other topics. We agreed, as an initial matter, that we wanted to be neither cannibals nor cannibalized, nor did we want to take a one-way trip to Mars. Apparently feeling this established a reasonable common ground, Joseph dispensed with trivialities. He leaned in and asked, “Do you remember a series of children’s books with bears from when you were a child?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Paddington.”

“Not that one, the other one.”

“The Berenstein Bears?”

“Except there were no Berenstein Bears.”

I was intrigued. Joseph then explained to me that there was a children’s book series called the “Berenstain Bears,” but that the “-stein” bears were merely markers of an alternate reality that a large portion of us had experienced which how somehow been convoluted with the one we live in now. (For a fuller explanation of this phenomena, known as the Mandela effect, please see here.)

As if checking my reality credentials, he continued: “And do you remember what the evil queen asked the mirror in Walt Disney’s Snow White?”

Full of certainty, and additionally armed with having just looked at the original German, I replied, “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…”

Joseph excitedly cut me off, “But actually it was ‘Magic Mirror on the Wall!'” He explained that these moments where the alternate realities break through give themselves away by being twice too witty about seeping through “stains” and “mirrors.” We solidified a potential friendship by establishing that we were from the same corrupted timeline.

Magic Mirror

Magic Mirror

We then decided to make sure we finished chasing the devil off the mountain. After accomplishing that task, we switched to coffee. We talked for a while longer—about growing up, reclaiming stolen time, and where art comes from. Then, as the very lively ghost party across the room wound down, it was time to go.

Leaving the restaurant, Joseph joined me on the walk back toward my apartment and then decided that, as the night was still night, he would meander three hours back across the river to where he was staying. We said farewell for the moment, and I told him I was looking forward to seeing him again at his reading.

Joseph in Amazing Technicolor

Three days passed. I arrived a little too early at the art gallery, so I took the opportunity to enjoy a local beer and hide in the corner of the room where I could comfortably watch Joseph. I had heard that nothing can quite prepare you for a Joseph Keckler performance, so I was at least prepared in my unpreparedness. The crowd, however, had not been so similarly warned.

As Co-Lab Projects introduced the plain-spoken Midwesterner, the crowd was happily engaged and quietly humming in the way that happens when several groups of people are having soft conversations with each other all at once. Joseph started reading, and Joseph is quite a good reader.

Joseph Keckler Reading

Co-Lab Projects

Then, Joseph started singing. The humming vanished.

It is beyond my writing capabilities to describe the power or emotional weight of a Joseph Keckler performance. If the weird, kind of dorky but probably actually cooler-than-you kid from high school also turned out to be quite handsome, the most talented singer you’d ever heard with a voice whose “range shatters the conventional boundaries of classical singing” according to the New York Times, but is still kind of dorky, then maybe you get the idea. (The videos Shroom Aria and Strangers from the Internet below, though singularly special in a different way, do not quite do his live performance justice.) As he read from his book, performed, sang a heartbreaking aria about his lover’s GPS, and closed with David Bowie from atop a stool, I wish I had been sitting down so that I could stand up to clap. Luckily, most of the audience who had been sitting felt the same way. After the show, I bought his book, Joseph signed it to assure me we were at that particular moment in the same reality, and he was whisked away to another city and a larger venue.

The Edge of the Flat World, from the Safety of an Armchair

Some time later, taking sufficient time to delight in the anticipation of reading the book, I sat down in a comfortable (if rather hideously patterned) recliner, turned on my studio lamp, and jumped into Joseph’s book. You might say, much like Alice, I rather fell into his universe. After my trip, I am no longer assured we have always been in the same timeline.

In Joseph’s world, importantly, a dragon at the edge of a flat world resides at the “outskirts of possibility”—not safely walled away inside impossibility. At this edge, conveniently accessible by Brooklyn mass transit, there is also a McDonald’s. In this reality, ghosts (real ones), Sjögren’s syndrome sufferers, Fiji mermaids, diplomats, vodka-spitting bartenders, and artists who burn down other artists’ work in fancy museums, fluidly weave in and our of our lives.


The fire

As he starts the book, a collection of twenty interconnected moments from his own life, we find a three-year old Joseph watching his house burn down in the middle of a Michigan winter as he and his family lose their possessions in the flames (he, as a three-year old, has somewhat less to lose than his mother, father, or brother, though there is mention of a special Gooney Bird). As we conclude the novella, he is back in the Michigan winter, years later, bearing witness as the “chief mourner” to passengers on a train losing their Happy New Year as the train hurtles across time zones without ever hitting midnight.

Between these two events, there is much joy, a good bit of loss, several cats, and a lot of New York City. Joseph takes us on a wide-ranging journey through our world. He is constantly referencing exterior markers, such as Zorro’s alter ego Don Diego, the widow Mrs. Gummidge from David Copperfield, Dr. Moreau, and Cleopatra—these in the space of two paragraphs—almost as if he is desperate to confirm that the world he has experienced is actually the one he is in. (I briefly considered stopping at each work Joseph referenced, watching it or viewing it in its entirety to fully appreciate the point, then resuming his book, but decided I would have to similarly consume each work referenced in the references and might also have to learn a few new languages to complete this process, so threw in the towel.)

Joseph’s art, it would appear, is inspired by events outside himself. He replaced prime-time television with personalities in his daily life and thus takes unusual jobs such as working for a blind gallerist, he wanders the streets at night until he passes out, defeated at last, and he embraces cross-dimensional traveling via magical realism (where, possibly, everyone sings beautifully rather than talking and is where Joseph honed his craft).

In the course of those experiences, he welcomes us with spectacle, wizardry, and wit, then gently directs us to deeper, quieter places, best suited for you to experience yourself rather than read about in a book review. As Joseph attempts to discover himself, by changing modes of sexuality and switching from vampire t-shirts to baggy “in” clothes to tribal necklaces, satanic rings, rotary telephone cords, and tiger stripes on jeans drawn with a Sharpie, we learn something about both ourselves and each other in the process. The book is a wonderful read and I suggest it to you without hesitation. You can find it here on Amazon.

Oh, and if you ever find yourself up by Plainwell, Michigan, there is a yard where a dog poops rainbows right down the way. Rainbows that, in their afterlife, have become nuggets of radiant filth, fallen from the sky. And though I have never been there, if you find the particular rabbit hole that shows you the way, please drop me a line.


A rainbow’s end

All photographs except the cover of Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World are by Corwin Levi. The book cover’s photograph is by M. Sharkey and defaced by Joseph Keckler.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider donating to Mirror Mirrored so we can bring you more like it.

By |2018-08-12T16:28:39+00:00December 10th, 2017|Artists, Books, Creative, Shows|

Little Red Riding Hood Meets Minimalism

I have always found elegance in directness. When I was a five-year-old in kindergarten, I loved going to the National Gallery and looking at the giant Motherwell. I was amazed at how powerful and moving a rather spare artwork could be. When I was a twenty-one-year-old in grad school, I loved Whistler’s Nocturnes, and how much force he could achieve with two days of painting.

Robert Motherwell's Reconciliation Elegy, 1978

Robert Motherwell’s Reconciliation Elegy, 1978

Indeed, in the feud between John Ruskin and Whistler, when their disagreements reached the courtroom opposing counsel asked Whistler how he could ask 200 guineas for a two-day painting. Whistler replied, “I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” He won the trial (but was awarded damages of just one farthing).

As a grad student, when people asked me why I made such slow, intricately detailed work, I related Whistler’s tale and explained that I lacked the knowledge of a lifetime. Older now, I have no such excuse and have embraced the maximalism of horror vaccui as a personal pathology. You can see it at work, for example, in these three Red Cap collages I made for Mirror Mirrored.

Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold

Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1875

Little Red Riding Hood Maximalism

Still, I have an immense respect and appreciation for people who can do more with less, which is one reason I find wonder tales so powerful. I especially enjoy fairy tale work by artists whose aesthetic matches this impulse, so here are some minimalist Little Red Riding Hood images that I’ve found floating around the internet.

Little Red Riding Hood by Christian Jackson

Christian Jackson

Little Red Riding Hood by Pablo Gauthier

Pablo Gauthier

Little Red Riding Hood by Pinto Sketches

Pinto Sketches

Little Red Riding Hood by Dina Waluyo

Dina Waluyo

Little Red Riding Hood by Noma Bar

Noma Bar

Little Red Riding Hood and Moby Dick by Lowe/SSP3

Lowe/SSP3 (mashing up Red Cap and Moby Dick)

Little Red Riding Hood by Indre Bankauskaite

Indre Bankauskaite

There is also the wonderful retelling Little Red by Bethan Woollvin which, though not quite minimalist, does have one scene in particular that does very much with fairly little. (In this retelling, Little Red is quite the competent ax wielder and thus saves herself from an unfortunate fate rather than waiting on a wandering huntsman. You can buy the book here if you would like to read more, or check out her retelling of “Rapunzel” where the heroine is equally capable of taking care of herself.)


The Wolf made a plan.

The Wolf made a plan.

Finally, I would like to share a moment from Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang. In this classic text, recently revised for a 25th anniversary edition, the author shares her journey from not understanding picture structure at all to studying art and the psychology of art to writing this masterpiece of visual thinking, which Brian Selznick calls “The Strunk and White of Visual Literacy.” The book covers shape, color, direction, number, scale, and so much more, while adeptly describing how each affects the emotion and psychology of the viewer. I advise it to every 101 student I teach. And, as it happens, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf play a part in the book’s narrative. To conclude this post, I will share a few passages below, but urge you to acquire this phenomenal book for yourself. (You can buy it at Amazon here.)

After discussing and showing us various ways to draw Little Red Riding Hood, her mother, and the forest, Bang goes on to describe how she draws the wolf. I have excerpted, below, what she writes about drawing the wolf’s eye.

When we want a picture to feel scary, it is more effective to graphically exaggerate the scary aspects of the threat and of its environment than to represent them as close to photographic reality as possible, because

this is the way we feel things look.

What else does the wolf need in order to look more wolfish?

WolfsEye01 by Molly Bang

It needs an eye.

I cut the eye out of the purple paper, since there are three colors available in addition to the white, and the new color attracts our attention. Also, I wanted to use all three colors plus white in every picture.

I made the eye a long diamond or lozenge shape, emphasizing the pointiness of a real wolf’s eye but getting rid of the curves.

WolfsEye02 by Molly Bang

But even though wolves’ eyes are often pale blue, it didn’t look right.

Why is this eye so much scarier?

WolfsEye03 by Molly Bang

The obvious answer is that it is red, but why should a red eye be so much scarier than a pale-purple eye?

Purple is a milder, less aggressive color than red, but why? Part of the reason may be purely psychological: somehow red excites us. Psychologists have found that people tend to get into more fights in bright-red and hot-pink rooms and tend to eat more in rooms with red walls than they do in rooms with paler colors. Part of the reason may be that we associate red with blood and fire, so this is a bloody, fiery eye rather than an eye associated with flowers or with the evening sky. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen drunken, bloodshot eyes, or eyes reflected in a campfire, and those were red. In some fairy tales, the eyes of witches are described as being red. Red eyes are unnatural, and unnatural things make us wary. And red is an energetic color, a color with agency, so while all-white eyes are also unnatural, it is red eyes that have the energy to be hostile.

But I notice something else with the replacement of the purple eye with the red, something I wasn’t expecting: I immediately associate Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf’s eye, in a way I didn’t before. They go together. Now the eye is looking at her.

The strong association is almost solely due to the color; when I made the eye round but still red, I associated it with Little Red Riding Hood the same way.

What happens if the eye is made exactly the same color and shape as Little Red Riding Hood?

WolfsEye04 by Molly Bang

The wolf looks stupid now, or surprised, or maybe happy. Its glance is no longer pointed at its prey. Certainly it is not nearly as evil-looking as it was before. The picture feels very different, and yet all that has been changed is the shape of the eye.

A more disconcerting effect to me is that the two red triangles are now so alike, and I associate them so much with each other, that they disassociate from the rest of the picture. They are no longer meaningful elements. I see them not so much as Little Red Riding Hood and a wolf’s eye now, but more as two red triangles that float up and out of the picture.

I return to the wolf with the more pointed red eye.

WolfsEye05 by Molly Bang

And, in case you were curious, this is what the scene looks like when all is said and done. From here, Bang continues by listing and illuminating twelve fantastic visual principles (all wonderfully illustrated).

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Final by Molly Bang

And with this beautiful image, I will conclude the post. Thank you so much for reading.

You can find more information about the minimalist illustrators and artists mentioned in this article at these sites: Molly Bang, Indre Bankauskaite, Noma Bar, Pablo Gauthier, Alessandro Gottardo, Christian Jackson and more information on his series by My Modern Met here, Lowe/SSP3 and more information on its series by Chic Type here, Pinto Sketches, Dina Waluyo, and Bethan Woollvin.

Books mentioned in this article:

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Bethan Woolvin Rapunzel

Molly Bang Picture This

By |2018-08-12T16:28:46+00:00December 9th, 2017|Books, Creative, Design, Illustrations|

Tom Olson and the Tiger: An Animator’s Tale

Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both . . . . I took the one.” The writer Frank Stockton had previously put it a different way: A youth has to choose between two doors, one of which hides a beautiful maiden he must marry and the other a tiger who will devour him. Tom Olson knows this choice all too well, but to get to that point we first have to travel a few decades back through time. While these days, Olson and I exchange texts about the ramifications of firefly incest and the suitability of the Kool-Aid Man to voice the Hindu god Brahma, our witty banter about the artistic process was not always a foregone conclusion.

In the Beginning…

This story starts in 1979, when I was being born in a North Carolina hospital and Olson was a disillusioned ex-graduate student in Ithaca, New York, having moved there to study philosophy at Cornell University. We both spent the year sleeping fitfully in student housing.

Olson’s fitful sleep, having decided that the philosophy he studied had been completely pointless, was born from living in a basement apartment with grocery trips to buy peanut butter, nonfat dry milk for homemade yogurt, and popcorn. He was surrounded by leftists distributing single-spaced typed proclamations, but was convinced there was more to propagandist literature and, ultimately life. Tom Olson’s road from former philosopher to flipbook artist started much like his left-leaning acquaintances: with the distribution of pamphlets. Instead of distributing mimeograph-machined manifestos, however, Olson handed out cartoons. (Which allegedly still exist in some long forgotten manila folder.)

Finding the still cartoon form somewhat limiting, but (wrongly) feeling he had no drawing talent of any kind, Olson luckily stumbled across a flipbook, which he responded to with amazement at how little ability it took to make something move. Like a magician, Olson soon found he could create a rabbit able to fly into the sun or instantly transform the sun into a wrecking ball. Even better, with the benefit a circle stencil, Olson didn’t have to rely on his non-existent art school training and could make oranges that turned into Swiss cheese that became grapes. Thus The Adventures of the Little Circle and The Little Circle Goes Wild came to life.

The Life of A Flipbook Artist

No longer in grad school, but instead working part-time for minimum wage as a museum guard at the Cornell Museum, Olson whiled away the hours at the galleries thinking of ideas for his flipbooks. Because his primary responsibility as guard was to stop museum visitors from writing with pens, he had to be on constant alert for visitors so that he had time to put his own pen away, thus gaining the moral authority to stop other people from using theirs. After work, Olson would take his ideas back to the basement apartment where he had installed a large piece of glass between two desks, taped it around the edges, and spraypainted it white, creating a makeshift light table to work on.

Olson was delighted that he could make the sun come out and scare someone, make a runner jump off a cliff (and the cliff save the runner), and that he could even make speech happen. With his newfound godlike powers, Olson realized that whereas most flipbooks were based around the idea of “Hey look it moves!” he could, within the narrative confines of ten seconds, actually create and resolve dramatic tension. Thus, such stories as How the Sun Becomes the Moon and Why the World is Round where born.

Explaining the impetus behind Why the World is Round, Olson says he is fascinated by world-origin stories. In Christian and Jewish theology, there is one God who says, “There is nothing, there needs to be something, and I’m going to create the earth, the sea, the darkness, and the light.” Hindu mythology, in comparison, has both a creating god and a destroying god. Brahma would say, “Hey, how about this?” and then Shiva would say “KABLOOM!” Olson thought the latter worldview would be an interesting way to develop our universe, and created an earth developed by iterative process in which a cubic earth is destroyed, a pyramidal earth is destroyed, and a spherical earth is adopted by Vishnu who hoists a little “earth” flag on the sphere.

Between his time stenciling circles of the earth and illicitly brainstorming with a pen, Olson found another source of inspiration. On the way to the nonfat dry milk, Olson noticed there were many bananas in the store that were about to be deliciously consumed, but that a much sadder fate awaited the Chiquita labels. Thus, he starting stealing Chiquita banana labels on the side for a new flipbook, as you can see here:
Ultimately deciding to turn away from the criminal life of fruit-label stealing he saw looming before him, Olson worked on perfecting his drawings and people started appearing. To be fair, people only appeared in profile because that was the limit of Olson’s representational aspirations, but it is remarkably effective for his stories’ purposes. And, as people in profile started showing up, so did romance. After all, Olson was in his twenties and what young man doesn’t like kissing?

Now in full command of his artistic gifts, he sought a publisher for his flipbooks. Sure enough, a publisher quickly picked up the little books with a phonecall saying “These are fantastic and we definitely want to publish them; we just need to talk to production and will call back soon.” Olson, thinking he was now on his way to the street level and beyond, celebrated with his friends and some cheap champagne. At the same time as this Ithacan jubilation, however, the New York production department was realizing that they couldn’t make the flipbooks for less than $3 and couldn’t sell them for more than $4, so the numbers just weren’t going to work. Undeterred, Olson sought out more publishers, who all told him the same thing. Somewhat more deterred, he went to law school.

The Beautiful Maiden

Although Olson had just barely cracked open the door with the hungry tiger behind it, he concluded that a better doorway to walk through might be the one behind which lay a successful career as an attorney with a marriage to the beautiful maiden. With this realization in hand, he, over the years, attained several sought-after legal positions in Washington, D.C. and became a proud father to two lovely daughters, as well as the owner of a picturesque suburban house with several pets. I could rattle off a truly impressive list of his career and life achievements that are, of course, all well and good, but Olson could never quite scratch the itch of wondering what was behind the other door he barely cracked open all those years ago.

So it was, late one Friday evening after a friend introduced me to Tom and he had invited us all over to dinner, that he pulled out a musty, old box full of his 1979 flipbooks. Everyone is the room was immediately enchanted. A full flipbook tour ensued, as one magical adventure after another sprang out from an almost bottomless box. The audience oohed and aahed for a while before moving on to dessert. As the evening was winding down and the guests started discussing their weekend plans, I started persuading Tom to let me walk away with his treasures tucked securely under my arm.

Flipbooks by Tom Olson

A short time later (in the scheme of things), I had curated and was installing a solo show of these pieces at a Massachusetts college art gallery, one state away from the Cornell gallery where the flipbooks had been born. I made reproductions of several flipbooks for visitors to enjoy, printed out some of the flipbooks in their entirety in poster format (which you can see and acquire in the Printorium for yourself), and had two projectors playing all flipbooks all the time. The show was, in my opinion, delightful beyond belief. Children of all ages, as well as the director of a nearby museum, agreed. That director wrote me (and I am paraphrasing), “I loved the exhibition!!! You did a fabulous job making the material really come to life. GREAT work!!!” Armed with these exclamation marks, I convinced Olson to come see the show for himself.

Tom, whose wife was busy saving the world in Los Angeles, brought a pair of friends with him to see the exhibit. We spent a couple days touring the area, enjoying the museums, and acting out the flipbooks in person. We had some delicious Italian food, a more questionable breakfast, and said our goodbyes at the local ice cream parlor. This undeniably pleasant weekend did not, however, prepare me for what was to come next.

Tom Olson Opening

Tom Olson Opening

War And Peace for Busy Readers

Flipbook Reenactment

The Tiger Returns

One evening, my phone started lighting up with questions about animation software, and almost before I had the chance to answer, video clips of fireflies glowing at night, a boat sailing across the ocean, and an old man smoking his pipe appeared. Olson, clearly inspired by the vision of his younger self but content to leave behind the light table and index cards, had started animating again with the help of a variety of Apple-brand products. Not only were there suddenly brand new animations, but with them, sound! The acoustic universe was a brand new, vast and uncharted territory for Olson that he was only able to navigate thanks to the ability to sample the great wide world of YouTube. (Below is a video of a work-in-progress by Tom, Noah and the Lonely Firefly.)
As Tom and I texted more, his ideas for beautiful, short stories flowed out, such as Jack and Jill and the Bean Stalk and Little Red Riding Hoodie, where Red and the Wolf end up going to a club and splitting ear buds. He also realized that the 1979 flipbooks were well suited for a 2017 refresh, and has started the process of tweaking the animations and adding music. The older pieces, wrapped in a warm, paper-that-is-yellowing patina, still feel fresh and continue to charm, but are completely transformed through the aid of technology and hindsight. (You can see a selection of these at
But even beyond this, Tom and I started having text conversations about the artistic process: the difficulties of being creatively blocked about how to visually resolve a narrative, the pain and joy of learning new tools, and the excitement of looking forward to time to create (and thus the sudden appeal of the relative solitude provided by red-eye flights to visit his now LA-based wife). It feels like Olson is just getting starting on this second round of artmaking, and I am excited to see what the next year will bring for this flipbook philosopher. Regardless, I am happy to report that the tiger behind the first door wasn’t quite so scary after all.

UPDATE (2/10/2018): The next year has brought a beautiful new YouTube channel showcasing Tom’s work under his new label, Truer Than True Comix.

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By |2018-08-12T16:28:57+00:00December 1st, 2017|Books, Creative|

Jennie Harbour, Where Have You Gone?

My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales.
Edric Vredenburg, ed. / Jennie Harbour, ill.
London: Raphael Tuck, 1921

One of the most beautiful and contemporary wonder tale books I’ve seen, My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales, was published near the end of the Golden Age of illustration in 1921. It is illustrated by an exceptionally talented artist, acclaimed in her own lifetime, who history has transformed into an elusive mystery: Jennie Harbour.

The fairy tale book was printed by Raphael Tuck, Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of Great Britain, and Harbour’s illustrations (especially the black and white images) still feel exciting and fresh when I open the book today. Here are a few examples (you can see them all at Project Gutenberg, although the digitized images there don’t really do the book justice).

Red Riding Hood by Jennie Harbour

Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood

Goose Girl by Jennie Harbour

The Goose Girl

The White Cat


Snow White and Rose Red by Jennie Harbour

Snow White and Rose Red

Tufty Riquet by Jennie Harbour

Tufty Riquet

Upon first seeing these pictures, I was curious about this fantastic artist and tried to track down more information about her. It was easy to find accolades. For example:

“[T]he artistic and quite incomparable work of Jennie Harbour, [is from] an artist in a class by herself.” The Stationary World, June 1920, p335.

“[H]er Majesty the Queen, accompanied by Princess Mary, honoured the exhibits of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons by her inspection. . . . The delightful colour facsimiles of early Victorian subjects, after Miss Jennie Harbour, which have become so popular, came in for special Royal commendation.” The Stationary World, March-April 1919, p142.

“Miss Jennie Harbour’s pictures [in My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales] are a delight to the eye, with their firm, graceful outlines and their original colour schemes. ‘The Goose Girl’ and ‘The Magic Mirror’ are our favourites. . . . The children will love this book.” The Bookman, Christmas 1921, p44.

“‘Favourite Fairy Tales,’ with illustrations by Jennie Harbour, should enjoy considerable popularity. It is so eminently attractive.” The Play Pictorial No. 226, Vol. XXXVIII (1921) p134.

“[The] famous collection of Jennie Harbour pictures [is] known all the world over.” The Stationary World, February 1920, page 89.

But it was nearly impossible to find anything more about her.1 (Adele C. Geraghty has even launched a website, with the hope of writing her biography, asking for “[a]ny information concerning this enigmatic artist [which] would be very much appreciated, especially from any persons who may have had a personal tie with her in some way.”) Unfortunately, as many have noted, and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History states: “From antiquity forward, most tales of great artists and litanies of notable women included a small sampling of women artists . . . . often described as unusually talented women who overcame the limitations of their sex to excel in a masculine endeavor.” Indeed, Harbour’s arguably most popular picture, “Hansel and Gretel” from 1921, is quite possibly known largely because it was “borrowed” by J. R. R. Tolkien as inspiration for his drawing of trolls in The Hobbit in 1937. You can see the two pictures here side by side.

Jennie Harbour & J. R.R. Tolkien

Jennie Harbour (1921) / J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

The children’s book historian Brian Alderson notes in The Hobbit, 50th Anniversary Edition that the basic composition of “The Trolls” was borrowed from Harbour. John Garth claims that Tolkien, however, “denied that his ‘imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages,’ declaring himself ‘not well acquainted with pictorial Art.'”2 In a September 19, 1971 letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, Tolkien goes further:

“[A visitor] had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed as to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been [fed] by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent.”3

I leave you to your own judgment.

Regardless, I hope you enjoy Jennie Harbour’s masterful work, which reminds me, in its best moments, of a more compositionally ambitious, less detailed Harry Clarke. You can (sometimes) purchase a hard-to-find used copy of My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales here, or her Hans Andersen book here, can find Harbour’s other illustrations scattered about the world and cyberspace, and her pictures remixed into the book Mirror Mirrored, such as the images below.

Snow White

Snow White

Snow White and Rose Red

Snow White and Rose Red

1. There is a site that claims her father was an immigrant milliner from Poland to London, she went to a boarding school in Kent, never married, and died in 1959 after which her remains were interred in London’s Hoop Lane cemetery—unfortunately, the site neither provides any citations nor clues as to where it found this information. See

2. John Garth, “Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien” in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (Routledge, November 2006).

3. Letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to Carole Batten-Phelps, September 19, 1971, viewable at

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By |2021-05-29T22:30:27+00:00November 12th, 2017|Books, Creative, Design, Illustrations|
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