The Good Eye: Girl, Illustrated

The fine lines between the lines

Kathryn Polk's <i>Lesson Learned</i>
Kathryn Polk's Lesson Learned

A white-haired woman wades across a kitchen in a pink dress, waist-deep in water, wielding a flaming chair high over her head. The room is littered with domestic debris, some of which clings to the walls and ceiling. An underwater iron, plugged into the wall socket, circles one ankle with its cord. Snakes and smokestacks, broken glasses and open books, chopped-up logs and cigars, court her attention from every direction. Beneath the surface, the skirt of her dress swirls up around her legs; a modest tattoo of the word "Christmas" on her forearm. Despite the menaces from every direction, she looks less frightened than resolved, possibly a little weary, as if she could be thinking, A woman's work is never done.

I'm standing in the Wally Workman Gallery, looking at the Kathryn Polk lithograph 92,955,807,273 mi. in the gallery's PrintAustin exhibition. It's raining outside; in the print, the water is rising. With their delicate tints and precise lines, Polk's prints evoke, alternately, paper dolls and tattoo-parlor flash sheets. The pink dress appears again and again, sometimes worn by an elderly matriarch, sometimes by a young mother, sometimes by a wide-eyed doll of a girl with the same cursive Christmas tattoo. Polk, who was born in Memphis and raised in the Fifties and Sixties, has identified the dress as a Simplicity pattern her mother used often; needles and thread dance around the images. Multiple generations of women appear in the same frame, sometimes even in the same face: the mother hiding deep inside the daughter, waiting for a moment of adversity to come out; the memory of the young woman haunting the crone.

"They look like illustrations," I find myself saying, and then immediately feel the mistake. I try to explain: "I'm imagining the stories." It's too late; there's a chill in the air.

Kathryn Polk's <i>92,955,807,273 mi.</i>
Kathryn Polk's 92,955,807,273 mi.

There's something embarrassingly down-rent, I take it, about the idea of illustration, though I don't think Polk would mind. Her work draws heavily from folk-art and religious iconography, the first illustration. I think of the pink dress, made over and over again from the same pattern; of prints, intended to be multiplied. In our post-Warhol age, we still believe that art distinguishes itself by two things: originality and lack of reproducibility. Yet here, on the wall, are five large prints of a woman's head and shoulders floating above a drowned petticoat. In Her Place #9, one reads. In Her Place #40. "Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?" says the Warhol quote that the waitress at Blue Dahlia left under a pebble the other day, with the check.

As for originality – aren't illustrations based on the words of an author? It depends on whom you ask. George Cruikshank, one of the great Victorian illustrators, is said to have disgraced himself by claiming creative credit for Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, which he illustrated in its original serialized form. Robert Seymour, who illustrated The Pickwick Papers, made similar claims of authorship, alleging that Dickens based his character descriptions on Seymour's sketches rather than the other way around. The fact is, Dickens collaborated closely with his illustrators; he even took research trips with the illustrator "Phiz" to gather details for Nicholas Nickleby. Yet he went to his grave denying he had drawn inspiration from his artistic collaborators.

It was my buddy Henry James who was largely responsible for turning the literary world against illustrations: "Anything that relieves responsible prose of the duty of being, while placed before us, good enough, interesting enough and, if the question be of picture, pictorial enough, above all in itself, does it the worst of services," he Jamesily droned in the preface to The Golden Bowl, "and may well inspire in the lover of literature certain lively questions as to the future of that institution."

Kathryn Polk's <i>Secrets of a Cactus Wren</i>
Kathryn Polk's Secrets of a Cactus Wren

Well, I've seen the future of that institution, Mr. James, and it is Kelly Link, whose 2005 story collection Magic for Beginners, did not suffer from Shelley Jackson's illustrations. It's a little ridiculous to think that a reader's mental image of a story can be dictated by pictures – any more than you'd expect a real person to look exactly like a sidewalk caricature of themselves they brought back from a school trip to Washington, D.C. In fact, most historians agree that the real culprit in the demise of illustration was not Henry James, but Hollywood. Compared to having to scrub my brain of Keira Knightley's awful Lizzie in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, a line drawing in black and white seems quaint, even restful.

You can't hurt a book by illustrating it, as evidenced by the website Jane Eyre Illustrated, which puts hundreds of editions side-by-side for comparison. Dame Darcy's wonderful Illustrated Jane Eyre is indispensable. The British fantasy writer Mervyn Peake's lithe, whiskery illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are wilier and wilder than the classic John Tenniel drawings; though clearly influenced by them, they writhe with anarchic undercurrents Tenniel never knew. Peake's sketches of the characters in his own ponderous Gormenghast trilogy are blotchy and brooding, with feverish eyes. There are exact stipulations in the Peake estate for republishing the Gormenghast trilogy: no characters may be illustrated, only places. I understand, and I feel protective of Peake myself; but I'd love to see what Shelley Jackson or Dame Darcy could do with those characters. Or even Kathryn Polk.

In one of Polk's tenderest prints, two women, possibly sisters, smile knowingly at each other amidst a wreath of cactus that looks almost soft. It's called Secrets of a Cactus Wren, and it looks like the frontispiece to a novel I would love to read, or write, someday.

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Austin style and fashion, book illustrations, Kathryn Polk, book illustrations, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Kelly Link, Jane Eyre Illustrated, Dame Darcy

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