Looking at the Pictures

A new Nashville gallery show features picture books in the making

by Joe Nolan

Now on display in East Nashville's Art & Invention Gallery is an exhibit of children's books and related items by five familiar faces in Nashville's art scene. Athena Workman, Bethany Taylor, Bill Elliot, Greg Morneau, and Julie Sola created the work in the gallery’s second annual Proto Pulp–Classic Books of the Future, a collection of children’s picture books-in-progress. “We hope this is a show that grows and grows, so we can start getting submissions from all over the place,” says gallery owner Meg MacFadyen.

The first Proto Pulp show landed in MacFadyen's lap a year ago, when a number of artists approached her with the idea of creating books for kids. The project was a hit that found the artists/authors garnering new creative opportunities for their efforts. “Janet Lee was in our first show,” recalls MacFadyen. “She wanted to participate in this one, too, but she's busy illustrating a graphic novel.”

McFadyen selected this year’s installment of Pulp on the basis of the artists’ project proposals. Each would-be book-creator submitted a synopsis of the story, along with a portfolio of sample art. The artists were responsible for delivering finished, self-published books for the gallery to sell, as well as the painted canvases, cards, prints, stickers, and other book-related items included in the show.

This year's work includes everything from distracted possums to a rogues’ gallery of misfit missies. Athena Workman's Little Girls Are Evil, for example, presents twenty-six portraits of not-so-nice little girls. Little Girls immediately calls to mind the picture books of Edward Gorey. It's clear that Workman writes about her naughties with a grown-up reader in mind, and her ghastly illustrations are part of an entire wave of contemporary art influenced by Gorey through the second-hand aesthetic of animator and film director Tim Burton. Workman's book is arranged very much like Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Her characters are ushered off the page nearly as quickly as they are introduced, making room for the next gruesome girl in line. Even Workman's verses, while not as adroit as Gorey's, pay homage to the master in their spooky, sing-song appellations: Cordelia Coppersloth, Inga Inksplottle, Louisa Leavensworth, Serena Sockerpuck.

While it's easy to categorize Workman's overall visual style, her techniques and creative range over a number of media make her contributions to Pulp some of the most memorable. These illustrations begin their wicked little lives as black-and-white line drawings. Workman then scans the works into a computer where she meticulously applies gray-scale colors and shading that bring a measured, finished craftsmanship to her printed pages. Workman also created a number of dolls based on her misbehaving heroines that, besides the books themselves, are a highlight of the exhibit.

Possum Dreams tells the tale of Henry, a little possum with a big imagination. Henry's favorite time of day is when he goes to bed to dream the night away. Rather than a traditional, narrative story, Possum Dreams is a poetic succession of images: “Henry dreams he is riding a motorcycle.” “Henry dreams he is riding a unicycle.” “Henry dreams he is racing in a fast red car.” Sola's fantastic illustrations are taken from original linoleum-cut prints. The technique's imprecise edges and Sola's bold black-white-and-red palette lend a rough elegance to Henry's high adventures. Sola works a day job at Nashville's Hatch Show Print, and her sure-handed expertise as a print-maker is on display in Possum Dreams.

In an exhibit of books-made-by-artists, this sleepy volume is the stand-out contribution. The striking, formal beauty of the book makes Possum Dreams feel like an objet d'art, and Sola's short, somnambulant sentences are also the most poetic utterances to be found in this exhibit of books by creators who aren't primarily writers. Like Workman, Sola provides a set of three-dimensional corollary projects that lift the story off the pages of Possum Dreams: colorful, handmade pillows that might encourage in readers and gallery-goers dreams of their own.

In addition to Workman and Sola's contributions, a variety of other offerings rounds out the show. Bill Elliot's I Wish I Had a Monkey pays homage to silly simians like Curious George, while Bethany Taylor's Things on Strings features beautiful woodcut illustrations of all things tethered: a fish on a line; a spider on a web; a dog on a leash. Greg Morneau's The Ice Cream Truck Song borrows elements from “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Ugly Duckling.”

While the exhibit is scheduled to close on October 17, MacFadyen plans to cater to readers and gallery-goers all fall. “I don't know if I'll keep the art up, but I'll keep the books here until they're gone,” she says. But don't expect the books to stick around for long. With the holiday season just around the corner, it's likely that these local, unique kid's-lit finds will be snatched up faster than you can say “happily ever after.”

Proto-Pulp: Classic Books of the Future will be on display at Art & Invention Gallery at 1106 Woodland Street in East Nashville through October 17.

Published Monday, 4 October 2010