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Edward Gorey Would Fail Art School

Added: Tuesday, May 1st 2012 at 12:35pm by oubliera



Gorey picture

            Thursday March 17, I went to The Boston Athenæum located at 10 ½ Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108.  The building was fairly easy to find (with a little help from my trustee g.p.s.) tucked in between the Museum of African-American History and some sort of construction site.  Parking in that neighborhood is always a nightmare, and after circling the block a few times I found a spot not too far away.

            The front door of the building is narrow and bright red.  Just inside the entrance is a massive marble staircase, like the kind found in old libraries.  At the top of the stairs there is a room with glass walls which housed a bunch of people in business suites milling around and eating snacks.  I was so busy trying to comprehend how a building this massive inside could look so tiny from the street, that I didn’t notice the large wrap around desk behind me or the man sitting there.

            I let out a little yelp of surprise, at his greeting.  The sound echoed a bit in the cavernous room and a lady at the bottom of the stairs turned around to investigate.  I could feel my face blush, but the man, evidently not phased by my screech, asked how he could help, then gave me a blue laminated pass and pointed me in the direction of a room to the left.

            I had done some research on the exhibit before I went. Apparently the name, “Athenæum” comes from Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Bostonathenaeum.org says the purpose of the building is to, “inspire intellectual pursuits.” I vaguely remember walking over a great seal, which I had to look up later and translate, that said, “ Literarum fructus dulces ” meaning “sweet are the fruits of letters.”  If I wasn’t so adamant about being a, “non-conformist” this phrase would make for a great tattoo, but thanks to the antics of a late-1990's-Angelina Jolie, that is out of thequestion. Besides, bearing one literary tattoo already, with a second one on the way, probably qualifies me for a level of, “geek-dome” I am only partially ready to admit to.

            The exhibit appeared to be small at first. It was only in one room, set off to the back, but once you see the walls filled with over 100 different drawings, it became more vast somehow.  Each drawing was a perfect little scene.  They were amazing.  It is easy to underestimate Gorey’s true artistry when you see his images on a computer screen.

            Most of the work appeared to be done on a thick watercolor paper, with a thin black pen.  The ink and the pressure of Gorey’s hand made his lines sink into the page leaving a delicate white puff of paper in between some strokes.  It was interesting to see how the paper was as much an element of design as the ink drawn on top of it.  This effect couldn’t possibility translate to the internet reproductions and discovering it validated my whole trip to the exhibit.

            It’s easy to convince yourself you don’t need to travel all the way into town, to struggle against traffic and vengeful meter maids just to see the exact same silly picture you can download to your phone and view in HD, but that’s not true.  These pictures weren’t the same ones that I saw online.  These had a life in them.  They had the smell of long nights and practice.  There were minuscule imperfections; like fingerprints or dirt spots that I was drawn to almost as much as the deep pen strokes and each of these things gave the work its uniqueness and added to their intrigue.

            The strange thing I found myself chuckling over was the mat-board on some of the prints.  Before I went to school at Ai, I attended Brooks Inst of Photography, in Santa Barbara California.  My time at this college didn’t last very long, but the hatred of cutting my own overlay mats did.  The idea of an overlay is to mount the picture on one board, and then cut a frame out of a second board which will be placed on top of the picture.

            There is nothing easy about this process.  My biggest nemesis was the bevel cutter. This is the tool that cuts a hole the board to make the frame.  The tricky thing about using a bevel cuter is, your hand covers the blade.  So it is hard to see what you are doing.  It is however, easy to cut your fingers or, “strike” your mat. This is a term one of my photo teachers used to yell at us all the time.  I vividly remember him screaming, “This isn't baseball! Here, one strike and you are out!”           

            A perfect frame should have 4 perfect inside corners with each corner coming to an exact 90-degree angle and not continuing 1mm into the rest of the board.  A “strike” is when the bevel cutter goes past the point where the corner should stop and slices into the overlay. If you are really careless, and make a second slice at the same corner but from the intersecting direction, you end up with a barely perceptible X shape that is unacceptable at most colleges. This mistake will go away slowly with practice.            Or you can speed up the learning curve by having to choose between getting it right the first time, or spending your dinner money on a new mat.

            A number of Gorey’s mats had strikes on them.  One even had a beveled edge that was facing down toward the print rather than up toward the viewer.  How could this be allowed?  I would have figured that all museum pieces were professionally mounted and laser cut.  Or, if Gorey did cut the boards himself at one point, they should have been replaced by better ones at some point.

            I had to laugh at how many times I had work returned, points taken off, or been told that my art was, “unacceptable” on account of my presentation being unacceptable. Yet, here I was standing in an exhibit that seemed to be the testament to my frequently uttered phrase, “People are going to be looking at my work. Not my frig’en mats!” After recounting this phenomenon to my brother (who is another veteran of professional photography school) he laughed… then irritated me by pointing out how ironic it was that the two of us had spent hours defending crappy mount jobs to misanthropic professors, and in the two minutes it took to describe the exhibit I had proved all of them right.

-Evidently people DO notice your mats-

            Going to a museum has a way of affecting your mind for a few hours.  It’s almost cliché how I found myself inspired to create something after leaving the exhibit.  There was a pad of $25 watercolor paper on the floor of my bedroom that had only been used once in a project months ago.  I wondered how hard I would have to push down on the paper to get the same puffing effect seen in Gorey’s work.  Maybe it wasn’t so much the paper as the pen he used, it might have been some sort of fancy art supply pen I had never heard of.  Thoughts like these frequently race through my head when I have to focus on something mundane like going back to work.  I wanted to store those feelings, like an inspirational battery, and use them later.

            When I got home that night, after a long double shift, I watched some mindless TV and went to bed.  The urge to create succumbed to exhaustion.  The pad of paper remains unmoved on the floor, beside my bed while I type.  The pen I stole from a customer because it made thin black strokes in the man’s signature is somewhere lost in the car and I have to wake up early again tomorrow, for my third double in four days.  Perhaps after, “art school” I can find some free time to actually create art.  Until then I’ll just have to find more time to visit museums


When I finished the first draft of this paper I was a bit depressed. The whole thing ended on such a glum note, but after reading it a second time attempting to proofread to the best of my dyslexic abilities I remembered, I’m not an artist.  It’s never been pictures that keep me company through sleepless nights.  Those hushed hours of darkened inspiration are reserved for writing.  This keyboard has rarely seen a midnight without two shaky caffeinated hands upon it, trying to grasp at some story flying by my mind faster than my fingers can type. 

            So, let the paper rot! “ Literarum fructus dulces, ” and goodnight.



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