Saturday, November 17, 2012

Edward Gorey in Portland, Maine!

I am pleased to take a few moments to remind folks of the opportunity afforded them by the current Edward Gorey exhibition showing at the Portland Public Library here in Maine. A longtime fan of Gorey’s artwork myself, I would hate to find out that any of you had missed out on this chance to see his work here in Maine – a definite rarity!
NOTE: Any image below can be clicked upon to see a larger version for more detail.

While Edward Gorey’s ties with Maine are tenuous at best, he is certainly a New England neighbor, lodging himself in the nearby regions of Cape Cod for the latter years of his life, and he was a great appreciator of New England Gothic sensibilities. He did a bunch of illustrations for author John Bellairs, some for stories which took place in Maine, such as the uber-creepy Johnny Dixon tale The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, a personal favorite of mine, which takes place near the island of Vinalhaven. There is also a panel in Gorey’s Cycling Cards series (included in Amphigorey Also) that depicts the “Apparition of demon cyclist that appeared in the sky over Gasket, Maine several times during the second week in November, 1911.”

But here ends the Edward Gorey trail in Maine, until now.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is presented by the Bank of Maine, in partnership with the Maine College of Art (MECA) and Portland Public Library. The show opened Friday, October 5, 2012, and will be on display through December 29, 2012 in the Lewis Gallery at Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland, Maine. The exhibition is free of charge to the general public.

The show is phenomenal, a once in a lifetime chance to be able to see almost 200 original pieces by this master of the pen stroke, as well as some of the published results collecting those endeavors. I have done my best to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity, a gift from the show sponsors to those of us living here, and have visited the show almost a dozen times so far. Even with that many visits under my belt, I have yet to look at everything on display!

Although the Lewis Gallery is not gigantic, it is a pretty good size, and many of Edward Gorey’s pieces are intimate in size. They are made to engage the viewer. In fact a friend who works as a security guard at the exhibit describes the inevitable process of looking at the Gorey show. People come in, scan around the room casually, strolling along the rows of framed artwork. Then one of the pieces catches their eye. They stop. They step closer. They step even closer. Slowly, they begin to bend nearer and nearer to the piece, until their nose is only inches from the glass. He tells me this sequence of events is almost inevitable.

I can imagine why. Gorey’s art is made up of infinitesimal pen strokes in the pieces where he really gets going. While this creates a pleasing and engrossing texture when the pieces are reprinted in their respective books, the printing process invariably greys out the tones of the piece. When you see one of these illustrations in person, the effect is staggeringly dramatic. In the original, the tones of ink achieve a drama unavailable in the printed version. The darks are so dark, the details so keenly applied. One cannot help but look more closely, and inspect what one might have missed previously. The colors in his watercolor paintings are also delectable in person. One imagines the glass protecting the artwork is not just to keep dust off (they know some of us just want to EAT them whole).

My own relationship as a fan of Edward Gorey’s work began with the arrival of the series of John Bellairs books mentioned above, given to me as a Christmas gift by a family friend who was also a librarian. The stories were spooky yet I was unable to stop reading them. A few years later, someone else gave my family a copy of his pop-up book, The Dwindling Party. I was fascinated by the macabre storyline of family-outing-gone-wrong and the way it was paired with the playful pop-up book format. It perplexed and amazed my pre-teen mind. But it wasn’t until I began making my own art that I really began to explore Gorey’s work.

Set design for Giselle, Act II
As an avid bookreader, it’s no surprise that my own artistic leanings took off in the direction of book illustration. Edward Gorey was a tremendous inspiration in this respect. Not only did he do typography and book cover design, he also made extensive forays into set design, costume design, and all manner of formats to which his art could be applied. His house on Cape Cod was a live-in museum filled with his collected inspirations – saltshakers, finials, rocks, and other spherical objects. Today it has become the Edward Gorey House museum. He lived his art in all ways, so that one was unsure whether his art imitated his life or his art imitated his life.

Which makes it all the more shocking that someone might say dismissively, “I’ve always thought of him as an illustrator, not as an artist,” when Gorey was so much an artist that he lived his art, with gusto, aplomb, flair, and a curious passion. This is evident in his sketchbooks, four of which are included as part of the exhibit.

Early ideas for the Gashlycrumb Tinies

His finished work is as prolific as his ideas were, totaling to over 100 published books and projects within his lifetime. This exhibit showcases everything from early concept sketches to finely finished pieces, as well as some examples of the final printed products that resulted from his projects. Viewers will also be pleased to see early versions of cover art for some of his books.

In addition to this, he designed sets and costumes for countless theatre productions, some of which are also on display, and created popular animations and illustrated works for a wide array of artists ranging from Charles Dickens and John Updike to Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells. His hand-illustrated correspondence to his mother and his friends is also present as part of the show, a rare treat indeed.

For a supposedly reclusive person, Edward Gorey was constantly and actively involved in the world around him.

The mysteries of seaweed!
Gorey often worked in black and white, with occasional delightful forays into watercolor. Working in a single color seems a strange thing to fault someone for, though some folks seems to think it is a mark against Gorey’s work (no pun intended). This is ironic when one considers that Gorey’s epic use of delicate nib marks to create texture and definition is a skill many artists aspire to, and when one remembers that James Whistler himself considered his own monochromatic nocturnes to be extremely serious and worthy undertakings, and the fact that Albrecht Durer’s drawings and engravings are some of his most famous art pieces even now.

Illustration has always struggled against the stigma of not being “art.” It is the subject of what seems at time an eternal debate – it is, after all, one of the Big Questions: What is life? What is art? Why am I here? Where did this paintbrush in my hand come from? I think you will find the answers are purely subjective, in many cases, and gain narrow definition only at the exclusion of other potentials, which is hardly a way to live at all. To paraphrase a friend’s remark, should I feel sad if I am considered to be “only an illustrator”? Only if it turns out I'm a slipshod and artless one, I suppose.

Here’s to living one’s art, and here’s to the folks that are giving us here in Portland a chance to glimpse how the art of Edward Gorey became his.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is on view from October 5 – December 29. The Portland Public Library is located in the heart of Downtown Portland Maine at 5 Monument Square and is open daily from 10am – 7pm Monday – Thursday, Friday 10am – 6pm and Satuarday 10am – 5pm. For more information, visit

The show includes approximately 180 original works, including selections from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Doubtful Guest, The Unstrung Harp, The Gilded Bat, and other well-known publications, drawn primarily from the extensive archives of The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and significant private collections.


John R. Platt said...

It's such a great show. I was lucky enough to visit the Gorey House / Museum when I visited Cape Cod this past spring. This exhibit is almost as good as the museum itself. The work on display blew me away. I hope to get back to see it at least one more time before it goes away!

IAmAnOrphan said...

A number of years ago, near to when Gorey died, I decided to collaborate with him anyway on a song version of "Gashlycrumb Tinies" which can be listened to while reading the story....

Happy Belated Birthday, Gorey!
Thank you Google for making me aware of his and for enabling my daydreams kick in!