MY BROTHER SAID that I was a lazy dreamer when I was a kid. In a letter he wrote to me shortly before he died he said that all I did was sit around drawing pictures and reading books while he cut the grass, cleaned out the gutters, and painted the trim on the house.
Well, he was wrong.
I did not read.
He was right, however, when he said that I sat around drawing. It was, in fact, pretty much all I did. I drew naked women (lots of them), gladiators, cowboys and Indians, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I drew on anything near at hand: stationery, tissue paper, wax paper, brown paper bags, cardboard, walls, and anything else I could find, including dirt.
But I did not read. Reading was painful for me and I avoided it. I was never diagnosed with dyslexia, but I raised a daughter who was, and as I watched her struggle with reading I came to the conclusion that this probably had been my problem, too.
When I was a boy we might have had a dozen books in the house. My mother read condensed novels and my daddy read the local papers. When I was ten my aunt and uncle gave us the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia. Copying and tracing the illustrations abetted my drawing skills, but the text did nothing for my reading. I read comic books—or looked at them, I should say. I studied the drawings and let the images tell me the story.
My childhood was not entirely bereft of the fine arts. We did have a small, eclectic, and impressive music collection: Fats Waller, Ted Lewis, Eddie Duchin, George Gershwin, Enrico Caruso, Grace Moore, John Charles Thomas, and so on. Music has always been an important part of my life.
In 1952 I was given an anonymous grant that allowed me to attend the Baylor School, which at that time was an elite, all-boys military school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up. I spent six years there, learning the general orders, the school of the soldier, the manual of arms, and when as a senior I became a cadet lieutenant, the manual of the saber. I learned how to play football as a T-formation center and linebacker. Thirteen of my teammates went to college on football scholarships and three of those made All-American. I also learned how to wrestle, though I never won a match. And I learned how to throw a javelin and put the shot, though not very well.
But I did not read. I read books in order to pass algebra (which I failed once) and history (which I failed twice), and had it not been for Classics Illustrated comic books I’m certain I would have failed English too.
There were no art classes at Baylor. Art was not considered a manly endeavor for young southern lords such as we. When I was caught drawing I was punished, as on the morning my Spanish teacher caught me drawing a naked woman on a blank verso in my textbook. He sent me to the commandant’s office, where the commandant applied his “board of education” to my backside.
The only place my drawing skills ever came in handy was in biology class. Not long ago I ran into my old biology teacher. He was the headmaster of a private school in Jackson, Mississippi, and still has my notebook from 1956. I offered to buy it from him, but he declined.
I graduated from Baylor in 1958. My family wanted me to go to West Point but I wanted to apply to the Rhode Island School of Design. For my family that was out of the question—it was too far north. And my being an artist was simply not in their cards. Though they knew no artists, they were quite certain that all artists were “queer” and incapable of making a living. They were, however, satisfied with my studying industrial design. Designing automobiles was fine—so long as I didn’t do it in Detroit. The testosterone quotient inherent in working with cars was sufficient to satisfy my family—a male-dominated clan who judged men and boys by how well they played ball and how big their gun collections were.
I was eighteen and they were still paying the bills, so I was pretty much obligated to do their bidding. I went to Auburn University in Alabama, the only southern school at the time that had a department of industrial design. I left Auburn the next year because of financial issues and went home to attend the University of Chattanooga, from which I graduated in 1962.
It was during this period that I found religion. I found it more than once, truth be known, at summer revivals and tent meetings full of girls wearing cotton dresses with tight bodices.
Then came New Year’s Eve, 1958. I was home for Christmas break, looking forward to a drunken party up on Lookout Mountain. It was a sunny afternoon, and my brother and I decided to go crow hunting. It was warm, so I wore only a thin jacket over my T-shirt. We drove out toward the airport and set up in an uprooted tree in the middle of a field of tall grass, using it as a makeshift blind. Once we were settled, my brother began blowing on his crow call. As I stood there holding my shotgun, I felt a yank at my jacket pocket. A second later I heard the report of a rifle. Up at the edge of the field, a kid had heard the crow call and squeezed off a random shot. The bullet passed between my arm and body and ripped through the pocket of my jacket, penetrating my T-shirt and leaving two holes about an inch apart. The .22 bullet did not so much as graze my skin.
Being given to religious histrionics at that time, I took the event to be a sign from God. I was sure that that bullet was God’s personal call. I would become a minister. A brighter boy might have concluded that God was sparing his life for some deeper and richer purpose, but I wasn’t all that bright. And thus, a year and three months later, I became a licensed Methodist preacher.
This was a seminal event in my life with books. To get that license I had to read and be tested on a biography of John Wesley, a treatise on prayer, and a few happily forgotten volumes on things ecclesiastical. I was expected to read the Bible and I did. The King James. I read it with the zeal of a convert. All that material led me to other books as well: novels like Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Big Fisherman and The Robe; nonfiction such as Jim Bishop’s 1957 The Day Christ Died; and George Benson’s The Cross: Its History and Symbolism—the latter copiously illustrated. And, as odd as it may seem (it certainly seems odd to me), I read Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation when it came out in 1960. I also read self-help books like One Hundred Sermon Outlines for Redneck Preachers.
However, my new interest in reading the Bible and other religious titles did not lead me to read much of the required texts at university. Without religion and salvation involved, reading was of little interest to me. It was painful, and I did it grudgingly.
After college I found out that my daddy was right when he told me that I’d never be able to make a living as an artist. Not then. Not in Chattanooga. So I took a job teaching at the other all-boys military school in town, the McCallie School, where I taught mechanical drawing and typing. I still find good use for mechanical drawing, though I have yet to learn to type properly. At McCallie I became more adventuresome in my reading, especially in the realm of the history of modern art, with timid forays into serious theology and modern literature. I read William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. I read John Canaday’s Mainstreams of Modern Art, and Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content—possibly the most important book I’ve ever read.
I left Chattanooga in 1967. Religion played a large part in that exile. I was disgusted by the narrow-minded hypocrisy and denominational exceptionalism I encountered in the churches I served. But the primary motivation for leaving was cowardice.
During the five years I taught at McCallie, James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss; Medgar Evers was murdered by Byron De La Beckwith (who lived on Signal Mountain in Chattanooga); Bull Connor turned dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham; Watts burned; Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law; Malcolm X was murdered; and Martin Luther King had a dream.
What I confess is that I did not have the courage to go down to Mississippi or Alabama and help register voters. I was too comfortable at home with a wife, two baby girls, and my windowless basement studio. I was too afraid of the violence I knew so well from my family—both my grandfather and my uncle were Klansmen—so I left. Wife, dog, two kids in diapers, and maybe fifty books.
I found a job teaching art at the then all-boys Williston Academy in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Once settled into temporary quarters, my first act was to look up Leonard Baskin’s name in the phone book.
I discovered his work my freshman year at Auburn and had read every article and book about him that I could find. The first original print I ever acquired was Baskin’s The Leper, a small wood engraving I bought from the traveling Ferdinand Roten Gallery around 1964. It has been in my home ever since, and currently hangs in my studio.
I know this sounds a mite peculiar, but seeing his name in the local phone book gave me a charge. Being so close to him geographically made me feel that something might rub off through some magic of osmosis. The idea of meeting the man was too farfetched to imagine. Me? A clodhopper from Tennessee? I was not in his league, nor was I likely to become so.
That first year in Massachusetts I met Louis Smith, the curmudgeonly proprietor of Smith Glass and Mirror Company, which stood next door to the Jonathan Edwards Church in Northampton. He sold art supplies and was a framer and glazier. A connoisseur of prints and drawings, he had a stunning personal collection. He took an early interest in my drawings and encouraged me to draw better than I was already doing. His gruff exterior hid a kind and generous heart, and he suggested that I study with somebody like Ed Hill at Smith or Jack Coughlin over at UMass. I was casually familiar with the work of both men, but since I knew Smitty was a friend of Baskin’s, I seized the opportunity. “You think I could study with Baskin?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
And so we drove over to Baskin’s studio. No calling ahead—we just went. Baskin was at work on one of his huge wooden Dead Men. Bach was in the air, and wood motes. He was not pleased with the interruption, and it showed. Without looking up he asked what I wanted to study. “Drawing,” I said, frankly surprised that I could speak in his presence. We did arrange our first meeting, a week or so later in his studio at Smith College.
Meanwhile I began engraving wood on my own, imitating, as best I could, Baskin’s technique, and reading every book I could find on the subject. I butchered a few pieces of the finest Turkish boxwood that I have ever known, and printed them as well as I knew how. I took them to Smitty. He looked at them, observed that they were badly printed, and told me that I should go see Harold McGrath.
“Who’s he?” I said.
“Baskin’s pressman,” he said, and gave me directions to Baskin’s Gehenna Press. I drove over alone, unannounced, with no idea what to expect.
It was a late umber afternoon in November. I wish I knew the exact date, because that day changed my life. When I opened the door I heard a din of sweet noise and smelled the essence of viscera of a sort known to me in some distant and obscure way. The din was the chitty-chitty-bang-bang of the big press running. The essence was the smell of oil and grease and ink and solvents. On an antique trestle table stood stacks of books and a model of Gutenberg’s printing press. The books were of a kind I had never seen, of handmade paper with fine bindings and impeccable printing. I stood there, a little uncomfortable, feeling like I had just stepped into another world.
And I had. I had stepped into the world of the rest of my life. A life of books. In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined such a thing. Given my history, how could I?
The big press shut down and the man who had been running it came over and asked what he could do for me. I told him that Smitty had sent me over to get my blocks printed. It was okay with him, he said, but he’d have to ask Mr. Baskin first. He called and Lenny said it was okay, and thus in November of 1968 Harold McGrath printed my first engravings.
Harold and I became friends that day and remained so for thirty-one years, till the day he died on November 15, 2000. Lenny died five months earlier on June 3.
I was so struck by that place, by that man, by that machinery, and by the books and antiques and carpets, that I knew deep inside that this was something that I had to engage.
And so I did.
I convinced the headmaster at Williston, Phillips Stevens, that the school could no longer exist without a printing press. With the business manager’s approval and on Harold’s suggestion we bought a print shop from a retired printer and moved it into a corner room of an old railroad station the school owned, and I set about teaching myself how to design a page, set type, and run the press, a 12 by 18-foot Chandler Price clamshell. When I ran afoul of my own culpabilities I went to Harold for help, which was always given in abundant fountains of generosity, good will, and humor.
I loved Harold.
And this is when I really, really started to read. I largely overcame my dyslexia by learning to set type. Setting type is, as the eminent American printer Harry Duncan said, the most difficult way to read there is: upside-down and backward.
I hand-set and printed my first book in 1970: The Red Rag, an essay by James Abbot McNeil Whistler. That was the first step, forty-one years and many books ago.
Whistler’s essay was first published in 1878. It is both a treatise on the irrelevance of subject matter in painting and a rebuttal of John Ruskin, who had called him an “ill-educated coxcomb” who threw “a pot of paint in the public’s face.” I designed the pages, hand-set the type, and ran the press. It was commercially bound, an unfortunate misstep. While my portrait of Whistler hopes to look like a wood engraving, it is not. I was not confident enough in 1970 to attempt an engraved portrait, so I made a scratchboard drawing and had a zinc printing plate made from it.
Forty years later, David R. Godine (an old friend and cohort from the Gehenna days) published a book of my engraved limnings called One Hundred Portraits, with an introduction by Ann Patchett. The 1970 portrait of Whistler is not included, though there is a newer portrait of him along with ninety-nine other images of my heroes, my family, and my dog.
Between The Red Rag and One Hundred Portraits are 336 other books. Some are fully illustrated, some have only a frontispiece, others a jacket image. Some have an interior design without illustrations, and a few I both wrote and illustrated. And not one of them is perfect, or even close to it. But I would rather have all those imperfect books than one perfect one, because those books comprise my history. They chronicle the vectors of my journey through my art and craft. Nevertheless, I shall chase that old siren, Perfection, until I go blind or die. Such are the wages of devotion, passion, discipline, determination, and plain old dogged tenacity.
In the spring of 1975 I got a call from a guy who said that he had heard that I printed books. He wondered if I would consider reading a manuscript of his poems. His name was Paul Mariani. I took his manuscript home, put it on a shelf, and promptly forgot about it. Time passed, and eventually Paul phoned and asked if I had read the poems yet. I confessed that I had not, but promised that I would soon. And I did. I was gob-smacked and spellbound by their honesty, their multiplicity of layers, their imagery, their depth, their muscularity, and their accessibility. I had no money to fund such a project, but Paul had an ace up his sleeve: his mentor, Allen Mandelbaum, was willing to put some money into it, enough to buy paper and set the type. A few months later we published Timing Devices, Mariani’s first volume of poetry and the beginning of a deep and continuing thirty-five-year friendship that has produced six collaborations.
The world of the private press book is a small one, and the world of wood engravers is even smaller. There are probably no more than four or five hundred engravers of real skill in the world today. After eight years of producing “slender volumes” like The Red Rag and Timing Devices, I, shit-kicker from Chattanooga, began to garner a modest reputation as an engraver and illustrator in that small world.
In October of 1977, I was in San Francisco visiting a friend, and Sandra Kirschenbaum, editor of the now defunct magazine Fine Print, threw a cocktail party to introduce me to the Bay Area printers: Jack Stauffacher, Valenti Angelo, Adrian Wilson, Andrew Hoyem, and a few others.
Over martinis Hoyem asked me if I would be interested in illustrating the Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick. He wanted a hundred engravings and wanted them done within a year. I accepted the commission. Looking back, I think I might have been a little too big for my britches.
It did not go well. On April 15, 1978, after a particularly unpleasant evening with Hoyem, I wrote in my journal, “Moby-Dick is in trouble.” Within six months all correspondence between him and me was conducted by lawyers. But despite the rancor between us, Hoyem managed to produce a mighty fine book.
It was his conceit that the images be dramaturgical, an idea I wish I could take credit for. The illustrations were to show locations, tools, ships, the process of hunting, killing, and flensing whales, and the rendering of blubber into oil. All my preparatory studies were to be approved by several authorities on whaling and marine architecture before being committed to wood and engraved.
An amusing story: Melville describes the lifebuoy on the Pequod as a “long, slender cask” with “studded iron bands” that hung at the stern “obedient” to “a cunning spring.” Even if Melville were trustworthy in his descriptions of nautical details, which he isn’t, there was nothing in this description to help me figure out what the contraption really looked like.
I was on deadline and needed something quick and easy to fill out my monthly quota. The lifebuoy seemed just the ticket. But when I went to research it, the only buoys I found were outside the required timeframe, which was pre-1841—the year Melville put out on the whaler Acushnet.
So I did what any illustrator worth his or her salt would do: I made it up. I accepted Melville’s assertion that it was a slender cask and reasoned that when thrown into the water it would be too smooth and slick for a panicked seaman to hold onto. So I drew in two pieces of line and riveted them to the iron hoops. I figured a ship’s cooper could easily fabricate something like this. I had no idea what the cunning spring might have been, but it was surely a stowing device of some kind. I was hard put to figure out how to attach the lifeline, so I drew the buoy from below, skirting the problem entirely.
As always, the drawing was sent out to be vetted by the committee of experts. Three of them returned their photocopies without comment. One simply wrote “good” in the margin, and the fifth authority said that I had made the hoops on the cask too wide. Either I am a genius or else there is much to be questioned in academia—and I assure you, I am not a genius.
Moby-Dick was a splendid success, and that success was infectious. My partners—Harold McGrath, Jeff Dwyer, John Lancaster, and John Locke—and I decided to venture out into the waters of the major opus. And thus we embarked on the Pennyroyal Press edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
We were told by a few authorities that it simply couldn’t be done. They suggested we do another title instead: Walden, maybe, or Gulliver’s Travels. On the other hand we heard enough voices of support to embolden us, and so we sallied forth, ignoring the naysayers and taking Lewis Carroll at his word: all manner of impossible things are possible, even before breakfast, if you are willful and if you are willing to fail.
We hired scholars to edit the text and write notes that would be printed as a gloss in the fore-edge margins. As always, I designed the book and set the type before I began work on the images. For Alice’s typography, I aimed for a sense of controlled and calculated pandemonium.
It goes without saying that I did not read Alice as a child. Reading it for the first time at age forty-one, I brought no childhood impressions with me, and the story seemed like nightmare rather than whimsy. I realized then that my not reading as a child might now be useful to me as an illustrator: every text I read, I read anew and fresh, uncontaminated by preconceived notions, pedagogical opinions, or critical judgment. An advantage, indeed.
I invented characters for Alice that I hoped would look steeped in the male-dominated culture of Victorian England, though my male characters are largely impotent and my female characters are largely overbearing. I did not study John Tenniel’s images any more than Ralph Steadman’s or Arthur Rackham’s. I relied more on Carroll’s own drawings for the holograph manuscript of the story he called “Alice’s Adventures Underground.” His Alice is based on the girl to whom he originally told the story, Alice Liddell. At ten, my youngest daughter, Madeline, looked like Alice Liddell’s twin, so I used her as my model. (A few years later I would use Madeline again as the model for Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to suggest that Dorothy might be the American Alice.)
We published Alice in 1982. It won the National Book Award in 1983.
During those years, another major project overlapped both Moby-Dick and Alice: Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the summer of 1976, I think, Mariani and Mandelbaum came to my studio. As we talked, a book caught Mandelbaum’s eye. It was one of three beautifully bound blank volumes of hand-made paper in which, on special occasions, I do drawings for my three daughters—loose, unselfconscious drawings never intended for eyes outside the family. Allen was taken by the spontaneity and freshness and asked if I would be interested in doing drawings of that ilk to accompany his forthcoming translation of the Divine Comedy. Of course I was, but I confessed that I considered myself little better than an intellectual dunce, and was not at all sure I could pull it off to his and the University of California Press’s expectations. He put an avuncular arm about my shoulders. “I’ll be your guide,” he said. Virgil to my Dante. Volume One, Inferno, was published in 1980. Purgatorio followed in 1982, and Paradiso in 1984.
Frankenstein, published in 1983, overlapped the Comedy. I first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1962. It was the last term before graduation and the registrar discovered that I was one credit shy. I had to choose a one-credit course that I could get into late in the term. I found a reading course in English literature, for which I would read Frankenstein and write a paper on it.
I was engaged to be married, and I was taking my first tentative steps away from my family’s reverence for Senator Joseph McCarthy and the snares of their racism, anti-Semitism, and religious bigotry. Deep boils were festering in Montgomery, Oxford, Selma, and Birmingham. Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin would soon swallow the life of my dearest friend, Parks McCall. The Cold War was entrenched in Europe. Berlin. The Bay of Pigs. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of nuclear war hung everywhere, a shroud of death and fear. That specter found resonance in my first reading of Mary Shelly’s novel.
When I returned to it twenty years later, my impulse was to illustrate it as a metaphor for the atomic age, as I had read it in college. I collected images of Fat Boy and Little Man, of Pershing missiles and ICBMs, of Oppenheimer and Teller and Fermi, and of nuclear explosions. In the essay Joyce Carol Oates wrote for the Pennyroyal edition she seemed to concur: “Frankenstein is the picture of a finite and flawed god at war with, and eventually overcome by, his creation. It is a parable for our time, an enduring prophecy, a remarkably acute diagnosis of the lethal nature of denial: denial of responsibility of one’s actions….”
Yet despite the perfectly reasonable metaphor, I abandoned it. I knew that in time it would date the book, and for me, books should be timeless. Few things date (and cheapen) a book so readily as obvious political commentary. That an illustrator brings his or her own philosophies, prejudices, and political and moral agenda into a work is unavoidable, but if the personal hue and cry is too blatant, the whole is diminished. On the other hand, if there is no passionate conviction, the art becomes mere decoration.
I reevaluated my options. Frankenstein, I discovered in my more mature readings, is also a metaphor for other moral transgressions of the twentieth century: the failure of compassion, the demise of manners and civility, the reticence to communicate, the pervasive and malignant presence of racism and bigotry, the inability to empathize. Tolstoy said that the activity of art is based in the “capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feelings and experience those feelings himself.” I think this is largely so, and it became clear to me when the creature tells Victor about the morning he saved a young girl from drowning. After the creature pulls her to safety, her boyfriend comes along, snatches the girl away, and carries her off. The creature follows, confused and concerned, until the boy shoots him. In that moment his feelings of “kindness and gentleness” give way to a “hellish rage.” Inflamed by pain, he vows “eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.”
I don’t blame him. I’m fairly certain that if the creature had been a five-foot-ten, clean, well-dressed white guy, the boyfriend would have thanked him for saving the girl’s life. But the venomous fact is that the creature was eight feet tall, yellow of complexion, and wore ill-fitting clothes. And since he was cobbled together by an amateur surgeon using parts from the abattoir, the gallows, and the charnel house, he must have been terribly misshapen and he undoubtedly stank. He certainly would not have been welcomed at the local church, nor at the churches where I preached as a young man.
In this scene I found new meaning in the Frankenstein myth—a meaning deeper, more personal, and more painful than any nuclear monster because it is a monster I knew—I know—on a first name basis. His name is Hate. His name is Bigotry. His name is Racism. Intolerance. Ignorance. My family was real friendly with him, and so was I, growing up racist on the side of Missionary Ridge in the 1940s and ’50s. He wore a white sheet and burned crosses.
Since my days as a boy preacher, when I was just beginning my ongoing journey as a recovering racist, I have wanted to reclaim the Bible for myself and purge it of the intolerant and ignorant readings that so many of my fellow religionists imbued it with. The project began in 1970 as I began teaching myself to set type and design a book.
The story of western printing can be walked, as a friend once said, “on the spines of Bibles.” One cannot study printing’s history and not notice this. Most of its great monuments have been Bibles: the Gutenberg, Koberger, Jenson, Froben, Tyndale, Baskerville, Barker, Cobden-Sanderson, Rogers. I wanted to join their ranks.
Of basketball, Michael Jordan said that until you’ve played in Madison Square Garden, you’ve still got something to prove. In my field, until you’ve illustrated a Bible, it’s the same. I commenced that work in 1995. It was published in December 1999, in time for the new millennium.
In illustrating the Bible I did my best to avoid the obvious and expected. I avoided them whenever I recognized them, but one cannot avoid Adam and Eve—hackneyed an image though it usually is—and claim to have illustrated the King James Bible. However, despite an illustrator’s marriage to a text, he or she can maneuver within that marriage to find new and provocative light. Indeed, I believe that this is the illustrator’s job: to take the text from where it is to where it ain’t—to appropriate Mark Twain.
In my early sketches, Adam and Eve were African. I figured that since Homo erectus most likely sprang up in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, it was a logical point of view. And besides, I figured that a black Adam and Eve would piss off the likes of Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck (had he been around back then) and anything that would do that certainly couldn’t be all bad. That idea stayed with me until I realized that my personal politics were compromising the work. After all, the Bible is not African literature any more than it’s American literature. It’s Semitic literature—every book in the Bible was written by Jews. So, the question became: what image of Adam and Eve did the Jewish authors have in mind, since it is to them that I owe my allegiance?
The text states clearly that God made Adam “after his own image.” The midrash—a collection of rabbinical commentaries on Hebrew scripture that, like illustration, expand on the text—tells us that Adam was the most beautiful and perfect man that would ever be.
Beautiful and perfect men do not appeal to me as subjects. Being then in my late fifties, another question arose for me: do beauty and perfection have only to do with the young? Are we to think of God as an Adonis? Why shouldn’t we consider the beauty inherent in age and wisdom as valid attributes given to humankind in God’s image?
So I appropriated the idea behind Rembrandt’s etching of an aging Adam and Eve. I depicted them as an older couple, a little pudgy in their infant middle age, and I threw their faces into shadow, allowing you to see whatever racial characteristics you wish.
If there is a theme to my illustrations for the Bible it is simply the human condition. The ordinary, day-to-day “problems and passions of the human heart,” as Faulkner put it. My characters are not pious-looking. They smell of fish and sweat, not sanctity and saintliness. They wear the livery of human imperfection. They are real people. People you know—like the poet Donald Hall who sat for a portrait of Ecclesiastes. And like Ecclesiastes, my characters are for the most part seen alone. Alone because it is a convention of portraiture, and alone because that is where, ultimately, we all meet and wrestle with God, or with the idea of God.
I began my work on the Bible with the crucifixion, in December of 1995. It was the most important and difficult image, and I wanted to get it done and out of the way. I did it as a variation of the crucifixion I had done for Paradiso eleven years earlier. I’ve never hesitated to resurrect and revamp old compositions. Like Mozart and Handel, I’ve done it a lot. But this time it left me wanting something. And what was wanting, I ultimately figured out, was my involvement. My distance and detachment were entirely too cool. I engraved it anyway and moved on.
Not long after that, I gave a speech about the project at the University of Kansas. I showed a slide of the crucifixion and read the verse from Matthew that captions it: “Then there were two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads.”
Hearing myself read that text as I looked at my too-comfortable image convinced me that I had to go back to Golgotha and start over. I had to get involved down at the level where blood and dirt and feral dogs mingle. I had to look at it harder than I had done before. Had to respond with something that was uncomfortable. Had to bring it to a common, human level. Had to see it as a mother and child on the way home from the market might as they hurried by, repulsed by the blood and screams and the cawing of scavenger birds. The child might have asked, “Why, mama?” and maybe mama couldn’t answer. And so they moved on, needing to get by the mordacious crowd and go on with their lives. Go home and fix dinner. Tell a story. Go to sleep.
Yet others stopped and watched. Perhaps talked politics or religion. Laughed at the men hanging from the crosses, bleeding. Flapped their arms, maybe, imitating the birds that pecked at the eyes and living flesh of Jesus and of the two thieves. A vendor might have sold snacks. Who knows? And then there were those who stayed because they loved the man— the men—and they stayed to endure the darkness that was about to overcome their noon. Their grieving sobs mixed with the din of sniggering laughter, the squawking of carrion birds, and the growling of dogs bickering over blood leaching into the dirt.
However, if one accepts the redemptive doctrine of the New Testament, one has to come to grips, it seems to me, with the fact that Jesus died for the atonement of the people who reviled him as much as he did for those who mourned him.
The earlier, comfortable composition I invented did not say these things. To say what I needed to, I had to introduce jarring subject matter: a currish, malicious crowd; the dog, symbol of Rome (and goyim), which becomes a more complex, resonant image when one considers that among the causes of death by crucifixion was the loss of blood from having the lower legs torn open by scavenging mongrels; and birds, harbingers of death, who went first for the eyes, and there wasn’t anything the poor bastards could do about it hanging there, unless, like Rizpah, somebody stayed behind to fend them off [see Image Issue 21, front cover]. Nasty stuff, this crucifying. And an image of it shouldn’t be comfortable. To tell the story, to confess the truth, the image had to be painful to look at, strident, discordant, and rude. And within that framework Jesus is alone. Forsaken. Éloi, Éloi, lama sabachthani.
Illustrating the Bible is a daunting undertaking. It has to do with the enormity of scale and with engaging a sacred text. Illustrating the King James Bible has to do with confronting what George Steiner has called the greatest monument of the English language.
Once engaged, the illustrator is obligated to grapple with images that befit such enormity and sanctity. Moreover, one has to struggle with one’s own arrogance and fear: What light can a reprobate like me bring to the text that Jerome, Aquinas, and Buber; Grünenwald, Rembrandt, and Chagall have not already brought? Beyond that, the illustrator must be up to the physical and intellectual rigors the work requires: long hours of study and reading, and finger-numbing stretches of work—ten, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for four and a half years.
But above all, one must be willing to risk and endure the inevitable failures and criticisms. One must be willing, as the late Stanley Kubrick said, to look like an idiot.
And then one night a few months after publication, I was sitting on the edge of my bed getting ready to turn off the lights. I was listening to Tomás Victoria’s Requiem Mass, and just as the Benedictus began, I was overcome by a deep and painful loneliness. So painful that tears pearled in my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I was staring into the dark space of my bathroom and I said, out loud, to nothing, and to everything, “I miss you.”
My throat swelled and I began to sob. And then a question came to mind: Why don’t you just get down on your knees and pray, if you’re so lonely?
“What? You kidding me? I haven’t done that in fifty years, for Chrissakes.”
You too good to get down on your knees and pray?
“No, it’s just that I’ll feel really stupid if I do, and besides, my knees hurt when I kneel down.”
Well, that’s tough, mister. Prayer ought to be painful for you.
And so I did.
I hauled myself off the bed, my eyes blurry with tears, and threw a pillow on the floor. I knelt on it and, with Victoria’s mass for the dead filling the air, I tried to pray. But like setting out to do the Bible in the first place I didn’t know where I was going with it. Or why. Or how. I was just compelled to do it.
When Ike, my 205-pound English mastiff (who slept in the room with me) noticed this strange course of events he got off his bed to investigate. He came up behind me and stopped. I could feel his hot, slobbery breath on my naked back. And then he sat down next to me and raised up his great size-nine paw, as he often did when looking for attention. But instead of mauling me, his paw slipped between my arm and my chest, like that wayward bullet long ago, and looped over my forearm. He laid his enormous head down on the bed beside me and cut his deep-set, curious eyes toward me as if to say, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, Bubba, but I’m gone do it wid you.
My tears gave way to laughter and to big-dog hugs, and I never finished the prayer. The prayer I never really began, not knowing how. Too small to know how to address the Empyreal.
I think maybe Ike did.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.