The Golden Key

The Golden Key

A collage built around an illustration of “The Golden Key” by Otto Ubbelohde. Prints available here.

In the winter time, when snow lay deep on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out with a sled to fetch wood. When he had gathered the wood together and packed it, he wished, as he was so frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was clearing the ground, he found a tiny, golden key. He thought that where the key was, the lock must also be, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. “If the key does but fit!” he thought. “No doubt there are precious things in this little box.” He searched, but there was no keyhole. At last he discovered one, but it was so small that it was hardly visible. He tried the key, and it fit exactly. He turned it round once, and now we must wait until he has unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box.

“The Golden Key” is the last story in the Grimms’ collection. Art historian Carol Mavor, with a nod to Roland Barthes, explains in her book Aurelia that this “unfinished gesture” turns the reader into a writer because it “demands the reader to write, to imagine, their own words that will fill the ‘little iron casket’ with their desires.” She then continues with the idea that withholding the “wonderful things” in the box has a touch of sadism because we “desire to know.” I personally tend to very much enjoy the possibility of what is in the box and think that, maybe, knowing specifically what was inside would never be quite as satisfying as leaving it to our imaginations. Did the box contain the original Grimms’ Tales? Borges’ “Library of Babel”? Something not yet discovered? But, as far as endings go, Peter Straub has offered a very satisfying conclusion. As fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar points out in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Straub continues “The Golden Key” in his novel Shadowland. He writes that “[e]very story in the world, every story ever told, blew up out of the box. Princes and princesses, wizards, foxes and trolls and witches and wolves and woodsmen and kinds and elves and dwarves and a beautiful girl in a red cape, and for a second the boy saw them all perfectly, spinning silently in the air. Then the wind caught them and sent them blowing away, some this way and some that.”

Sarah Fagan Painting

Undone by Sarah Fagan

Sarah Fagan color pencil

Portable Miracle Filling, et al. by Sarah Fagan

When Sarah Fagan decided to reimagine this story for Mirror Mirrored, she took two very different approaches before settling on a final piece. First, she painted a white paper box, unfolded against a white background. She explained that, like the Tao Te Ching which states, “It is the empty space that makes the bowl useful,” she saw utility in emptiness. In a paper box’s unconstructed state, it is potential and has no material function. When it interacts with a human hand, however, it can become a repository for anything. It is both a blueprint for something and a thing itself.

Second, the piece that she ultimately decided to include in Mirror Mirrored was the traced outlines and creases of several unfolded boxes laid on top of each other, each layer of stacked boxes colored in with four different color pencils. In this piece, she both obliterates existing forms (the now abstract boxes) and creates a new one. She sees it as a way to free each box from the singular purpose it was created for and throw it into a perpetual self-examination of its nature: the forms organize and reorganize, attempting to make sense of themselves as we try to make sense of them. Maybe, she continues, these transformed boxes are not so unlike us: constantly structuring, compartmentalizing, and trying to understand our own lives. Thus, Fagan has decided to interpret “The Golden Key” not as a story looking outward, where the viewer imagines some far away magical story, but instead focuses inward, to see what the results of our imagination say about ourselves.

Selected books from this post

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

The Annotated Grimm by Maria Tatar

The Annotated Grimm by Maria Tatar

Aurelia by Carol Mavor

Aurelia by Carol Mavor

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges


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Interested in having your art featured in a Wednesday Wonder Tale post?

Please see submission information here.

By |2018-02-04T20:30:26+00:00January 16th, 2018|Artists, Creative, Wonder Tale Wednesdays, Wonder Tales|

White Bear King Valemon

“Once when she was in the wood, she set her eyes upon a white bear, who had the very golden wreath she had dreamt of between his paws.”

White Bear King Valemon

In the nineteenth century, after the Brothers Grimm had published their first collection of stories, Asbjørnsen, a teacher, and Moe, a minister, decided to wander around the Norwegian countryside and collect their own set of wonder tales. Indeed, they corresponded with the Grimms, each approving of the other’s work. Both sets of stories have been illustrated by fantastic artists over the years, including the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittlesen and the Danish artist Kay Nielsen (who later worked on Walt Disney’s Fantastia) who have created some especially beautiful pictures for these stories. Indeed, one of these Norwegian tales, “White Bear King Valemon”—as imagined by Kittelsen—adorns the logo of the Norwegian folklore society.

I first encountered this collection of stories when I learned that the American poet Robert Bly was writing a book examining six fairy tales of special importance to him, including “King Valemon.” I was also lucky enough to be asked to remix some old illustrations for this new book. I have included, above, a draft image for publication combining pictures by Kittelsen and Moyr Smith (though the final version differed significantly). As you read the tale of “King Valemon,” as translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent and edited by me, I have also woven in several other illustrations of this tale, though it is somewhat less frequently pictured than it’s Aarne–Thompson-Uther type 425A sibling, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”

I hope you enjoy the story of the white bear, the young princess, and the troll enchantress.

Norsk folkeminnelag logo

White Bear King Valemon

Illustration by Moyr Smith, 1908

Illustration by Moyr Smith, 1908

Once upon a time there was a king with two daughters who were ugly and evil, but a third who was as fair and soft as the bright day. One night, his third daughter dreamt of a golden wreath so lovely that she couldn’t live without it. She grew sullen and wouldn’t so much as talk due to her grief at not having the wreathe, so the king sent out a pattern based on her dream to goldsmiths far and wide to see if they make the wreath. The goldsmiths worked night and day, but the princess tossed all their wreathes away.

But once when she was in the wood, she set her eyes upon a white bear, who had the very wreath she had dreamt of between his paws and was playing with it. The princess wanted to buy it, but the bear said she could only have it if he could have her. Because she thought life was not worth living without the wreathe, she agreed to be fetched in three days, on Thursday.

When the princess arrived home with the wreathe, everyone was overjoyed that she was happy again. The king thought that it should not be so hard to stop a white bear from taking his daughter, so three days later put his whole army around the castle to turn away the bear. But when the white bear came, no weapon could scratch his hide and he hurled the soldiers left and right so that they lay in piles. Upon seeing this, the kind send out his eldest daughter instead of his youngest, and the white bear took her upon his back and went off. When they had gone quite far, and farther than far, the white bear asked her,

Have you ever sat softer, and have you ever seen clearer?”

“On my mother’s lap I sat softer, and in my father’s hall I saw clearer,” she answered.

“Oh!” said the white bear, “Then you are not the right one,” and he chased her home.

The next Thursday the bear came again, and it went just the same. The army went out, but neither iron nor steel scratched hide, and he mowed them down like grass until the king begged him to stop. The king sent out his next oldest daughter, and the white bear took her on his back and went off. When they had traveled far and farther than far, the white bear asked,

“Have you ever seen clearer, and have you ever sat softer?”

“Yes,” she answered. “In my father’s hall I saw clearer, and on my mother’s lap I sat softer.”

“Oh! Then you are not the right one,” said the white bear, and he chased her home.

On the third Thursday the bear came again, and he attacked the king’s men harder than before. As the king could not let his whole army be slain, he gave the bear his youngest daughter. The bear took her on his back and went far away and farther than far. When they had gone deep, deep, into the woods, he asked her as he had asked the others, whether she had ever sat softer or seen clearer.

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1912

One of several versions of Valemon by Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1912

“No, never!” she said.

“Ah!” he said. “You are the right one.”

They came to a castle so grand that her father’s looked like the poorest place in the world by comparison. The princess was to live there with no responsibility other than seeing that the fire never went out. The bear was away by day, but with her at night in the form of a man. All went well for three years, but every year she had a baby and the bear carried each off as soon as they came into the world. The princess grew bored, and begged to go home to visit her parents. There was no stopping her, but the bear made her give her word that she would listen to her father and not do what her mother wished. So she went home, and when she was alone with her parents and told them how she was treated, her mother wanted to give her a light to take back that she might see what kind of man she was with.

Her father, however, said, “You must not do that, for it will lead to harm and not to gain.”

But however it happened, so it happened, the princess took a bit of a candle-end back with her. The first thing she did on her return, when her bear-by-day was sound asleep, was to light it and illuminate him. He was so lovely that she thought she could never gaze at him enough, but as she held the candle over him a hot drop of tallow dropped on his forehead and he woke up.

“What is this you’ve done?” he said. “Now you have made us both unlucky. There was no more than a month left, and had you lasted it out, I should have been saved and my curse broken. A hag of the trolls has bewitched me to be a white bear by day, but now that you have broken your word I must go marry her.”

King Valemon sleeping

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1902

She wept and lamented, but he had to go. She asked if she could go with him, and he replied, “No, there is no way to do that.” Still, when he set off in his bear-shape, she took hold of his shaggy hide, threw herself upon his back, and held on fast.

Away they went over crags and hills, through brakes and briars, till her clothes were torn off her back. Finally, she was so tired, that she lost her wits and let go. When she came to, she was in a great forest. She set off again, but could not tell where she was going. After a long, long, time she came to a hut with an old woman and a pretty little girl. The princess asked them whether they had seen anything of King Valemon the white bear.

“He passed by here this morning early,” they said. “But he was going so fast that you’ll never be able to catch up.”

The little girl there ran about, playing and clipping the air with a pair of golden scissors. As she clipped, silk and satin flew all about. Where the scissors went, there was never any want of clothes.

“This woman,” she said, “who has to go so far on such difficult paths, may well suffer much. She will need these scissors more than I do to cut out clothes.”

The child begged the older woman to let her hand over the scissors, until at last she agreed.

Away the princess traveled through woods that seemed endless, both day and night, until she came to another hut the next morning. In it there was also an elder woman and a young girl.

“Good day,” said the princess. “Have you seen anything of King Valemon the white bear?”

“Was it you, maybe, who was to have him?” said the old woman.

“Yes, it was!”

“Well, he passed by yesterday, but he went so quickly that you’ll never be able to catch up.”

This little girl played on the floor with a flask that poured out any drink one wished to have.

“This poor woman,” said the girl, “who has to go so far on such difficult paths, may well be thirsty and suffer much. She will need this flask more than I do.”

She asked the old woman if she could give the princess the flask, and the old woman have her permission to do so.

The princess took the flask, thanked them, and set off again through the woods. After travelling all day and through the next night, she came to a third hut with an old woman and a little girl.

“Good day,” said the princess.

“Good day to you,” said the old woman.

“Have you seen anything of King Valemon, the white bear?” asked the princess.

“Maybe it was you who was to have him?” said the old woman.

“Yes, it was!”

“Well, he passed by here the day before yesterday, but he was going so fast that you’ll never be able to catch up.”

This little girl played with a napkin on the floor. When anyone said to it, “Napkin, spread yourself out and be covered with dainty dishes,” it did just that, so where it went there was never any want of a good dinner.

“This poor woman,” said the little girl, “who has to go so far on such difficult paths, may well starve and suffer other ills. She has far more need of this napkin than I do.” She asked if she could give the princess the napkin, and did so.

The princess took the napkin, thanked them, and set off again. She went far and farther than far through the woods and travelled all day and night. The next morning she came to a mountain as steep as a wall, so high and wide that she could see no end to it. At the base of the mountain there was a hut, and as soon as she set foot inside it, she said, “Good day. Do you know if King Valemon the white bear passed this way?”

“Good day to you,” replied the old woman in the hut. “It was you, maybe, who was to have him?”

“Yes, it was!”

“Well, he passed by and went up the mountain three days ago, but nothing else without wings can climb it.”

The hut was full of small children who hung around their mother’s skirts and bawled for food as she put a pot on the fire full of small, round pebbles. The princess asked why the old woman did that, and she explained that they were so poor that they had neither food nor clothing, but when she put the pot on the fire and said, “The apples will be ready soon,” the words dulled the children’s hunger so they were patient a while.

The children crying for food went to the princess’s heart and she brought out the napkin and the flask. After the children were full and happy, she cut them clothes with her golden scissors.

“Well!” said the old woman. “Because you have been so kind and good towards me and my children, it would be a shame if I didn’t try to help you up the mountain. My husband is one of the best smiths in the world. Just lie down and rest till he comes home, and I’ll get him to forge claws for your hands and feet to climb the mountain.”

When the smith came home, he set to work on the claws at once, and the next morning they were ready. The princess had no time to stay, but said, “Thank you,” and left. She clung close to the rock and crept and crawled with the steel claws all that day and through the night. Just as she felt so tired that she could scarcely lift hand or foot and was about to fall down, she arrived at the top. There she found a huge plain, full of tilled fields and meadows. It was bigger and broader, and wider and flatter, than she thought was possible. There was also a castle full of workmen of all kinds, swarming about like ants.

Illustration by Moyr Smith

Illustration by Moyr Smith, 1908

“What is going on here?” wondered the princess.

As it turns out, the old troll hag who had bewitched King Valemon lived there, and in three days she was going to hold her wedding feast with him. The princess asked around whether she could speak with the hag.

Everyone said, “No, that is quite impossible.”

So she sat down under a castle window and began to clip in the air with her golden scissors, till the silks and satins flew about as thick as a snow drift.

When the old hag saw that, she had to buy the golden scissors. “Our tailors can do no good at all,” she said. “We have too many to clothe.”

The princess said, “I will not sell the scissors for any amount of gold, but you can have them if you let me spend the night with King Valemon.”

“Yes!” said the old hag. “But I must see him to sleep and wake him in the morning.”

When he went to bed, the hag gave King Valemon a sleeping draught so that he would not open his eyes no matter how much the princess cried and wept.

The next day the princess went back under the window again, and began pouring from her flask. It frothed like a brook with ale and wine, and it was never empty. When the old hag saw that, she had to have it. “For all our brewing and stilling, we still have too many to find drinks for.”

The princess said, “It is not for sale, but if you let me sleep with King Valemon that night, then you can have it.”

“Well!” said the old hag. “You may well do that, but I must see him to sleep and wake him in the morning.”

So when the king went to bed, the hag gave him another sleeping draught. It went no better for the princess that the first night. He was not able to open his eyes no matter how much the princess bawled and wept.

But a workmen, who worked in a room next to theirs, heard the weeping. The next day he told the king that the princess who could set him free would come at night.

Outside the castle, it went just the same as it had with the napkin as it had with the scissors and flask. When it was dinnertime, the princess took out the napkin and said, “Napkin, spread yourself out and be covered with dainty dishes.” There was suddenly meat enough, and even to spare, for hundreds of men, but the princess sat down to eat by herself.

When the old hag set her eyes on the napkin, she wanted to buy it. “For all the roasting and boiling, it is worth nothing because we have too many mouths to feed.”

But the princess said, “I will not sell it for money, but if you let me sleep with King Valemon this night, you can have it.”

“Well!” said the old hag. “You may well do that, but I must see him to sleep and wake him in the morning.”

Valemon Trapdoor

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen

As King Valemon was going to bed, she came with the sleeping draught, but this time he did not drink it and only pretended to sleep. The old hag did not trust him, however, and stuck a pin into his arm to see if he was truly asleep. For all his pain, he did not stir a bit, and so the princess was permitted to see him.

Everything was soon set right between them, and if they could get rid of the old hag he would be free. King Valemon had the carpenters make a trapdoor on the bridge over which the bridal train had to pass, and it was custom for the bride and her friends to be at the head of the train.

As they were crossing the bridge, the trapdoor tipped up with the bride and all the other old hags who were her bridesmaids. But King Valemon and the princess, and all the rest of the train, turned back to the castle and took as much gold and as many possessions as they could carry, and set off for his land to hold their real wedding.

On the way, King Valemon picked up the three little girls from the three huts and took them with them, and the princess understood why it was he had taken her babes away: so they might help her find him. And so they drank their bridal ale both stiff and strong.

The collection of Norwegian Tales East of the Sun from Taschen, edited by Noel Daniel, adapts an earlier version of the same book, illustrated by Kay Nielsen, with newly sharp versions of and details from the original watercolors. It is quite beautiful (though it lacks Valemon’s tale), as are all the books in that series. Purchases through the links on the pictures below directly support Mirror Mirrored.

Hans Christian Andersen by Taschen

East Of The Sun by Taschen

Fairy Tales By the Brothers Grimm by Taschen

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

By |2018-01-16T15:33:51+00:00January 3rd, 2018|Creative, Design, Illustrations, Wonder Tale Wednesdays, Wonder Tales|

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.

Related Products


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

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

Creative Colloquies, Thanksgiving Edition: Stephanie Williams

“mmmmm…beer.” Photograph by Stephanie Williams.

I pulled up the above picture on Instagram the other day and was struck by how some artists are so good at blending art and life into some kind of seamless, perpetual performance just by being themselves.

Five or so years ago, I found myself heading from New Mexico towards Washington, D.C., with the idea that I would roll up, invest in the local art scene, and live happily ever after. While that didn’t quite happen, I did have the pleasure to meet Stephanie Williams as a co-member of the two-year DCAC Sparkplug artist collective program, and have followed and admired her work ever since. Stephanie is an amazingly talented multimedia artist who also excels at the art of living and it was my pleasure to invite her to be a part of Mirror Mirrored, for which she has reimagined “Hans My Hedgehog.” I (virtually) sat down with her to catch up this week.

“Hans My Hedgehog” as illustrated by Karl Fahringer

Hi Stephanie. Thanks for agreeing to chat. I’d just like to talk a little bit about your piece for Mirror Mirrored, then maybe segue into a few other topics. The Grimms’ tale “Hans my Hedgehog” is a pretty crazy story: the main character is cursed on birth, hated by his father, rides a rooster, herds pigs, and disfigures one princess before marrying another, inheriting a kingdom, and making amends with his dad. What attracted you to this tale?

What’s not tempting about this story? It exists in extremes. I felt that, perhaps, it was only the designation of “fairy tale” that prevented Hans from easily translating to a contemporary context. Hans, I’ve met this person before. He is a character who feels that his power has been taken. He is presumed to be deserving. He feels justified in committing violent acts in order to take his power back, no matter the consequences.

The story’s voice even backs this justification, asking that readers accept certain systemic hierarchies as truth no matter how extreme: of course nothing should stand in his way to regain power. Of course, Hans is owed a father’s daughter for providing the father directions home? Of course, Hans doesn’t rape said daughter, but is owed intimacy when she is not attracted to him? Of course!

When I made the work for this story, I noticed there were countless current examples in news stories and anecdotes from friends in which violent acts were also justified in order to maintain ridiculous hierarchies of power. This work doesn’t claim to have answers. Making this piece felt cathartic.

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

I think that these old stories might, at their best, pivot between giving us hope for another life and providing us catharsis for the one we have. Were there any other Grimms’ stories you were considering reimagining for Mirror Mirrored?

I am interested in the storytelling potential of material, so I was looking for something that offered that opportunity. There was a story about a mouse, a bird, and a sausage that lived happily in harmony as long as everyone stayed committed to their assigned job. Their whole world falls into despair when one of the characters prefers and takes the job of another character. I like using remnants, fragments, and pieces leftover that perhaps in another form, could suggest usefulness at one time, but in their disassembled state aren’t considered to be intuitively functioning.

Mouse Bird Sausage by Walter Crane

“The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage” illustrated by Walter Crane

Gym Joy by Stephanie Williams

Gym Joy by Stephanie Williams

I enjoy your disassembled, questionably functioning sculptures, but especially enjoy what happens when you make them actually function by animating them. How did you get into stop motion animation?

I had been making alter egos that reflected upon my conversation with an identity. Given my making ability, these pieces, stylistically, looked toylike instead of living. I was looking for a way to give them a larger sense of being, a way for them to really own their awkwardness and un-placeability. Animating seemed like a natural step in that direction.

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

I learned how to animate on film in grad school. I was the only grad student in my intro to stop motion class and my stuff was truly horrible. I was very slow as a builder and found myself using the most roundabout ways to get a desired effect. A fellow grad in my program was also interested in “learning” how to animate digitally, had a camcorder, a DSLR, some tools, and lighting, so we decided that we could toddle through it together. We worked so inefficiently since we didn’t know what we were doing, but after four or so months we came up with something fun. After we finished that project, I moved to D.C. without access to equipment, so I returned to making stationary work on a large scale. There’s something quite satisfying in the agency of being able to switch between media.

From those allegedly toddling early days, the technical skills I see in your animation work right now are amazing—from the detail to sound to the constant motion of all the figures. How do you keep track of all the moving parts as a one person operation?

Thank you, but I am not a great animator. I’m still learning. Since I work by myself, this slow process is even slower. Animation and video processes have changed so much and I’m constantly catching up. I work with a traditional x-sheet (notes linked to each frame that I take, which tracks movement when I’m compiling photos). I also have visual aides with each camera angle: a crude drawing that diagrams all the moving pieces per shot, what direction they move, how much they move, how much they stand still, etc. It’s not necessarily a lot to think about, but it is very much a lot to keep track of. Sometimes, even listening to music is too distracting because I have to be so mentally present when I’m working; there is no autopilot. It’s tiring when shooting, but it’s worth it when I’ve been shooting for hours and am able to stop and finally preview these shots in motion. Sound, on the other hand, is more intuitive. I try to collect sounds that I find interesting or at least make a note of something that I should record. I just spend a lot of time with headphones on, re-editing until it sounds and feels right.

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Aside from the technical details, I love the imagery in your new piece, Pinoy Ploy—which I believe recently screened at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Could you talk a little about the inspiration for the visuals in your work?

Thanks again! Within many of my projects, I find myself looking to things that disgust. The act of disgust suggests a process of ranking, of organizing into hierarchies what is tasteful and what is not. It doesn’t really leave a lot of space for subjectivity. The work for this piece looked to the hierarchies linked to American-ness, looking to map our value systems through food, as well as the role that stereotypes play when appropriating the foods of marginalized communities.

Until recently, it was difficult to find a Filipino restaurant. I found Filipino food at friends’ houses or my own since this food hadn’t translated well into mainstream American tastes. There are so many places now that feature Filipino food and I find myself wondering if we have finally found a more accepting audience or if I need to be more skeptical. I looked to other examples of once deemed disgusting foods making their way into mainstream taste and thought most obviously of Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima.

The protagonist in my animation is a Balut (a fermented fertilized, half-formed duck egg). I chose this because Balut is a literal hybrid and a food that when featured on American television is as a food dare. I also looked to many portraits of Spanish colonizers (the Philippines was under Spanish rule for hundreds of years and an American territory before claiming independence in 1946). I wanted a colonizers’ presence, but wanted to play with who is traditionally in control of an American narrative.

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Stills

Sidetracking to food for a minute, because it’s been far too long since I’ve been back to the District, and because (insert something about Michelin stars), what’s your favorite restaurant or bar there right now?

I love the Public Option—my neighborhood pub. It’s like having a drink in your friend’s living room. Some wonderfully generous folks, Bill and Kathy, run it. It’s so rare to run into people that make caring so commonplace. My favorite restaurant is my own kitchen. My partner, Cheech is an amazing cook and is always up for trying new things, so I follow her lead.

Awesome. Ok, back to narratives. They are such powerful forces in our lives, both the ones we encounter and the ones we make ourselves. Did you have a favorite story as a kid or now?

I loved and still do love Elizabeth Taylor movies, Taming of the Shrew, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and yes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman, especially the scene where Big Daddy, played by Burl Ives, rants to Sister Woman (Madeline Sherwood) about the smell of mendacity: “Can you smell the mendacity, Sister Woman?” She answers, “Well Big Daddy, I don’t even know what that is!”—one of my favorite call and responses when I was six. Brick (Newman) participates in this rant, driven to tears thinking of his own homosexuality and stating that he too can “smell the mendacity” and is “tired of all lies and liars!” I, of course, had no idea as to what any of this meant then, but I loved the plot’s crescendos. Time stood still in this movie, leaving little room for you to process one monologue before another began.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Still from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Richard Brooks

A few years back, I watched as you helped students construct their own narratives as you taught intro to stop-motion animation at James Madison University. What do you think is the relationship between being a full-time professor and a practicing contemporary artist?

I feel incredibly lucky, sometimes undeserving, to have access to these luxuries: a singular job, a job that I’m invested in, and a job that’s invested in me. I’ve been a teacher for about a decade at James Madison University and what I’ve noticed in that time is that teaching allows me to pay attention to things that I wouldn’t normally pay attention to or have the time to pay attention to. I am lucky to have access to a new generation of artists reacting to their worlds for the first time. They’re so excited all the time. Also, in some cases, teaching forces me to observe my own language within culture. I’ve become more interested in research that is, from its base, more curious rather than pieces that claim to be didactic.

And, finally, as I know you have a complicated relationship with turkeys, what did you wear for Halloween this year?

I was Jane Lane from Daria.

Jane Lane from Daria, created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for MTV

Jane Lane from Daria, created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for MTV

Thank you Stephanie! Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks! I’ve loved working on this project with both you and Michelle and I continue to learn so much from our conversations together. We fall down rabbit holes often and can’t wait until we slip into the next one.

You can see the videos Hans and Pinoy Ploy from Stephanie Williams below, her work in Mirror Mirrored: A Contemporary Artists’ Edition of 25 Grimms’ Tales, and more information at her website at

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

By |2018-01-16T15:39:08+00:00November 23rd, 2017|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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