Growing Up Interstitial
(or, It Sure Looks Like Home to Me)
Charles Vess, 2003
I grew up in a neighborhood particularly devoid of other children my age, so when it came time to drop by the library for my weekly book "fix" I had only my best guess to fall back on as to which books to select. I was an extremely shy child and rarely made school chums so there was no excited, "Have you read this one yet?" or "Wait 'til you've read this writer!" to help guide my selections. Just row upon row of books, spine out, mostly with no jackets to offer enticing blurbs of encouragement.
Lacking those childhood friends, I received recommendations for reading material from odd sources. Italian "sword and sandal" movie epics, usually starring Steve Reeves or Gordon Scott, led me to read The Iliad and The Odyssey and any other book on Greek Mythology that I could lay my hands on. The Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies led me into the comforting arms of many Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. The Sunday morning comics supplement fed me a weekly installment of Hal Foster's "Prince Valiant," which in turn awakened my interest in King Arthur and his glorious Knights of the Round Table.
Later, during high school, comic art visionary Jack Kirby presented "Tales of Asgard" as a continuing back-up feature in the regular adventures of the Marvel comic book The Mighty Thor. Those tales of the Norse Gods excited my imagination beyond anything that I had read before and I was eagerly off to the library in search of more Viking sagas. Somewhere in all this swirling mass of myth and folklore, I was also becoming acquainted, through school assignments, with Shakespeare, Dickens and Poe. All of this reading soon came to play a major role in the artistic visions that I was attempting to scratch out on my drawing board. I wanted to draw stories of epic battles, dark evil lords and doomed heroes. I roamed the stacks of the school library, randomly snatching books down from the shelves, unconcerned with category or style, just looking for a good story. Fiction or non-fiction, fantasy or science fiction, historical or contemporary tale, it didn't matter as long as it was a good, exciting read.
But then college intervened in those idyllic reading patterns. Art School proved to be full of professors that were of an abstract expressionist mode of artistic thought. Narrative skill was considered "mere illustration" and woe to the student who fell into that great, dark chasm. There seemed to be an attempt by most of our teachers to compartmentalize their students' thoughts and working habits into accepted modes of modern aesthetics. Fortunately there were also many new friends to point out art and literature that had been previously unexplored. It was through such friends that I discovered the work of Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, and N.C. Wyeth, none of whom were in any art history textbook that I had ever owned or read. My whole aesthetic world was totally altered with the introduction of these artists, and others of their same quality (Kay Nielsen, John Bauer, Edmund Dulac, etc.). I still have a vivid memory of bringing in the work of one such newly discovered artist to show to my fellow painting students and being laughed from the classroom. Maxfield Parrish was not an "acceptable" painter to those who embraced the aesthetics of modern art. I didn't understand their lack of interest, their outright contempt for Parrish's work. To me, there was as much to learn from his otherworldly visions as there was from any number of huge canvases thickly rendered with all the theories of the modern art world. I think it was then that I had my first inkling that I was standing in some sort of nebulous borderland, enjoying many aspects of all the multiple "worlds" that flowed out from that border without being a "card carrying" member of any particular mode of thought.
Later, I lived in New York City, where I continually made the rounds of art directors, trying to get a few jobs, pay the rent, buy some food, and make a living doing what I love to do, that is, drawing the fantastic and painting myth. Time after time, visits to children's picture book publishing houses brought me the same answer: "Your work is too 'adult,' too mature for our readers." Yet repeated visits to the offices of publishers such as Heavy Metal Magazine also left me with their rejection ringing in my ears: "Charles, your work is just too nice for us." It was in these years that I also tried my luck at exhibiting work at a science fiction convention or two. My work in those days, though, never seemed to get much consideration in science fiction venues, especially since I wasn't interested in learning the almost universally prescribed method of painting over-rendered (to me) book jacket art. I soon returned to the comic book field where I had, somehow, made an end run around the bloated super hero look and was scratching out a living in a remote back pasture of that world where subtle fantasy and a whimsical outlook was marginally accepted.
There I was again, caught in that borderland, looking for a home I could call my own.
In 1994 I moved to rural southwestern Virginia. There I was asked by a local museum to organize a traveling exhibition of contemporary fantasy artists. This opportunity to showcase the type of art that I love was a heady one, and so I wanted to be careful to select just the right group of artists for the exhibition. I begin by asking various experts whom they would select to be in such an exhibition. The pulp art collectors suggested only the pulp artists. The children's book collectors only pointed out children's book artists. And so on. I was amazed that whenever I suggest an artist from outside these same experts' chosen fields, they were oftentimes completely unaware of the work or the artist. In the end I choose artists from many fields, crossing over many ill-conceived, arbitrary borders in the process. The "Dreamweavers" exhibition featured work from several children's book artists (Jerry Pinkney, Dennis Nolan, Gennady Spirin, Ruth Sanderson, David Wisnieski), but also from disciplines as varied as comic books (Michael Kaluta and myself), sf/fantasy book jacket art (Dawn Wilson, James Gurney), commercial book illustration (Scott Gustavson, Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Alicia Austin), and fine arts (Terri Windling). One artist, noted in the children's book field, with many Caldecott honors to his name, asked me repeatedly before the show, "Why do you want my work to be in this exhibition?" The night of the opening reception he stood in the midst of the exhibition, a large smile spread across his face, and said to me, "Oh, I get it now."
In reality there is not much to "get". Either you enjoy the process of meeting the unknown and learning from it, or you close those personal shutters and erect those walls and try to defend your home turf from all comers. There's a lot to learn out there in the interstitial borderlands. In my mind, if you stop learning as a human being, and stop growing as an artist, then your world will continue to shrink in on itself until you're left with a very small sandbox indeed.
I am waiting for the time when I, along with all the other various denizens of those interstitial borderlands that I am happy to call my home, are playing in one huge, multi-layered sandbox. I am surrounded by these new-found friends, who can all say, with smiles on their faces, "Oh, I get it now."