Art / Commentary / discussion / Essay / Relationships / Uncategorized

At Home with the Animals: Wood Block Paintings by Charles Smith

Cover: The Animal Fare, A Picture Book

Cover: The Animal Fare, A Picture Book for sophisticated adults and children; Wood Block Paintings by Charles Smith

I had the pleasure of spending an exorbitant amount of time in one of my favorite used bookstores. Grey Matter is nestled just beyond the intersection of MA-9 and “the bridge.” Turn down East Street and you’ll find, hidden under the water tower, one of the best bookstores in Massachusetts. I was looking in the art section and came across this unusual book: The Animal Fare, A Picture Book for sophisticated adults and children (Garrett and Massie, Richmond, VA., 1962). This collection of wood block paintings created by artist Charles Smith is playfully unusual with moments of emotional discontent. Although there is no indication of author in the Preface I surmise it is written by the artist himself:

These block paintings are not supposed to represent any specific animal or bird. Some do resemble known birds and animals; others are purely imaginative. They all have a sense of reality in that they appear to be able to walk, run, or fly if sufficiently disturbed. (unpaged)

After reading these opening sentences I had no doubt the book would become mine. The author continues to comment on the possible similarities between humans and animals, which I think connects our sensibility to non-human species:

Also in expressions they do imply certain animal and sometimes human attributes by the way they look at each other or the way they appear to be looking at the person who is looking at them. Some suggest situations common to both people and animals. (unpaged)

Expressions. I claim to understand my black lab wants affection when he sits on his haunches and stares at me with his big soulful eyes. I stare back, and for a few second we are at desks in an elementary school game waiting for the other to look away. Eventually he noses my leg or hand, whichever is closer, urging me to conduct an act of warmth and good will. I think we are foolish not to believe that animals both domesticated and wild are incapable of communicating with humans or non-humans in various ways. In her article “Animal Behaviorist: We’ll Soon Have Devices that Let Us Talk to Our Pets,” Megan Garber professor emeritus Con Slodochikof (Northern Arizona University; link from Garber) whose research on prairie dogs, as noted by Garber, reveals surprising information about how these animals communicate with each other: “The animals have word-like phonemes combining those into sentence-like calls. They have social chatter” (The Atlantic).

Smith’s animals are similar; they evoke in various definitions an emotional response, or visual chatter, from the viewer. We can develop no connection with these images outside the images themselves–the wood blocks are unnamed, at least in this publication. There is no commentary past the Introduction written by a William H. Runge [1] who articulately and concisely writes “When Charles Smith was teaching at Bennington College in the 1930’s, he developed a way of doing abstract and semi-abstract paintings and, for want of a descriptive title, he coined the term “block painting”” (unpaged).  He writes later in the paragraph that the artist applied color to each block, pressed the block on paper and transferred the image from the block to paper (unpaged). He also says that Mr. Smith referred to his collection of birds and animals as a “zoo” (unpaged). The wood blocks in this edition (I do not know if there are others) are shown in black and white on a dusky-sand colored background.

In figure 1. (third image in text), we see a quintet of dog-like animals, four of which appear to stare back at me. The fifth on the end has gentler eyes drifting to the edge of the page, looking at something or someone we cannot see. They have sharp pointy ears and they too, like my black lab, sit on their haunches. But I don’t think they are expressing a desire for affection. Their expressions emit a comical yet serious skepticism; I am disturbing them, intruding. As I study them further, I am reminded of coyotes.

20171120_093243

Fig. 1 (text image 3). Untitled.

According to Live Science contributor, Alina Bradford, coyotes have “narrow elongated snouts, lean bodies, yellow eyes, bushy tails, and thick fur” (“Coyote Facts”). Smith’s quintet fits this description, but this could also be mere inspiration. Again, the images are in black and white so I cannot compare color. The bodies of Smith’s creatures are dark, thick with paint with areas closer to the haunches that denote the peel back of block and paper, a shading or bokashi [2]. The number of “dogs” in Smith’s print is also similar to the number born in a litter of coyotes as well as in pack number [3]. Another print, (fig. 2, seventh image in text) shows two caterpillar-like creatures that seem to be passing each other like strangers on a sidewalk and  like Smith’s skeptical “dogs” correlates to other human activities: curiosity, fear, disturbance. Or attraction. In “Collective Behavior of Social Caterpillars,” researchers T.D. Fitzgerald and J.T. Costa write “the only nomadic species we have detailed knowledge in Malacosoma disstria…forest dwelling insects… [whose]… integrity of colonies of this caterpillar is maintained by trail pheromones and subserved by a strong reluctance on the part of the caterpillars to forage independently” (385). M. disstria are “tent caterpillars” that evolve into the “forest tent caterpillar moth” [4]. Perhaps Smith’s curious yet possibly fearful insects are not fearful at all, but negotiating their pact to work together. Or sense a stronger connection

20171120_093318

Fig. 2 (text image 7); Untitled.

How we as human beings connect with animals and the natural world whether through direct interaction with the outdoors, or with art, we have the opportunity to expand or abilities to see the value in the living and how we can live in the universe together. Smith’s The Animal Fare is a wonderfully curious exploration; inventive, seemingly simple, but not so much. I enjoy these prints, getting lost in their language as much as I love communicate with my dog. Maybe I should not compare them to real animals, but ‘storify’ the ways in which they communicate with me visually. At the time of publication, Smith’s wood block prints were featured in over 30 museum collections including the Guggenheim, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. I hope many of you find your own copies of this delightful book and immerse yourself in Smith’s imagined zoo.

 


Notes

[1] Upon searching for additional information about William H. Runge, I could not verify whether he taught with Charles Smith at Bennington College, or was perhaps a mentor or gallery owner. I also searched Google Scholar and came up with several other “Runges” but my search continues. I hope to inquire with the library at Bennington, but as of this post I have yet to do so.

[2] See “The Production of Japanese Wood Block Prints.” http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/process.html

[3] See the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Index of Species Information (linked from Bradford’s article). https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/animals/mammal/cala/all.html

[4] For a great display of images and locations of these types of caterpillars see https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Malacosoma-disstria


Works Cited

Chiappa, J. Noel. “The Production of Japanese Wood Block” under syllabus heading “Japanese Wood Block Print Information.” Advanced Network Architecture Group, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/process.html Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

Fitzgerald, T.D. and Costa, J. T. “Collective behavior in social caterpillars,” pp. 379-398. Detrain, Claire, Jean Louis Deneubourg, and Jacques M. Pasteels, eds. Information processing in social insects. Springer Science & Business Media, 1999. Google Scholar.

Garber, Megan. “Animal Behaviorist: We’ll Soon Have Devices that Let Us Talk with Our Pets.” The Atlantic online, 4 June 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/06/animal-behaviorist-well-soon-have-devices-that-let-us-talk-with-our-pets/276532/ Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

Lotts, Kelly and Thomas Naberhaus, coordinators. 2017. Butterflies and Moths of North America. http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/ Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

Smith, Charles. The Animal Fare, a picture book for sophisticated adults and children. Wood Block Paintings. Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, 1962. Print.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. “Index of Species Information: Canis latrans.” https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/animals/mammal/cala/all.html Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

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