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LUMA exhibits life & work of artist, author Edward Gorey

Thu, Apr 3, 2014

Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey

The memory of learning the ABC’s is one of the most exciting and fun elements of a person’s early education. Our teachers would help us learn the sounds by making connections with innocent and pleasant imagery. “A is for ‘apple,’ B is for ‘balloon,’ C is for ‘cat,’ ” and so on until we had a lineup of visual reminders for each letter.

But to learn the ABC’s in the style of illustrator and author Edward Gorey (1925 – 2000) would have been a much different – and exceedingly more grim and provocative – experience for children. To be honest, his alphabet may actually be better suited for adults with a dark sense of humor.

“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh…” This excerpt from Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies: A Very Gorey Alphabet Book is the perfect introduction to his body of humorous, macabre and complex work, now featured in two exhibitions at the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA). Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey and G is for Gorey – C is for Chicago: The Collection of Thomas Michalak are currently open through June 15. Visitors may also view the companion exhibition Summerland: A Ghost Story, created by local artist Kenneth Gerleve.

This is the very first major exhibition of Gorey’s work in his hometown of Chicago and Pam Ambrose, LUMA director of cultural affairs, is not only thrilled to have the first chance at featuring the work of this artist and writer, but she believes that it uniquely fits within the museum’s mission of the “spiritual in art.”

“[We wanted to] bring Gorey home, bring him back to Chicago… Gorey does look at the dark side of life, the randomness of events, the bad catastrophic things that happen and we don’t know why. That in and of itself really talks about humanity’s own frailness,” said Ambrose. “Take that idea and you couple it with the fact that – when you read Edward Gorey books – you are smiling all the way, because it is really funny… and really lifts your spirits.”

This creator of tall and ominous tales was also physically tall and ominous-looking himself. Bearded and bald, he was an eccentric who often wore earrings and walked about wearing long fur coats. Over the span of his lifetime, his artistic and editorial compositions include over 100 of his own works, such as The Curious Sofa (1961), The Beastly Baby (1962), and The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction (1963). He also was involved in over 80 collaborations and illustrations for the books of other authors and hundreds of book jackets and covers – most notably Dracula by Bram Stoker and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. He produced hundreds of illustrations in magazines and newspapers.

“[Gorey] has a very meticulous and dense style of drawing,” Canning explained. “With every line having a role in creating not just a form, but a tone. And he worked on scale of the final image, [meaning that his pieces were] very small.” His pieces are predominantly done in black and white and while he frequently depicts subtly horrific scenarios – such as the imminent death of children or anthropomorphic animals – there is a cheekiness and charm about his work.

Edward Gorey, a history

Edward St. John Gorey, born in 1925, was the only child of Helen Dunham and Edward Lee Gorey, a Chicago newspaperman. Gorey was a young genius who could skillfully draw at the age of 2 and read by the age of 3, all seamlessly self-taught. In an interview with PBS in 1996, Gorey said that he devoured Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the age of 5.

“We know he skipped first and second grade,” said Thomas Michalak during the Meet the Collector event at LUMA on February 18. Michalak is a Loyola alumnus (class of 1963) and board member of the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. He donated more than 1,100 items from his personal collection of Edward Gorey’s works to the University Libraries, many of which are featured in the G is for Gorey exhibit.

“[LUMA] takes a very broad definition of the spiritual in art and I think that there is a lot in Gorey that can be explained by the fact that he had a Catholic upbringing. His father was Catholic and his mother was Episcopalian,” said LUMA Senior Curator Jonathan Canning. “[Gorey] deals with the unexplained, sad and tragic events and he diffuses that with humor. Between those two things, we see a trace of his Catholic upbringing.”

Gorey eventually arrived in ninth grade at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago where he was a top student. He would frequently contribute to school events, exhibit in annual art shows, draw for school publications and even contribute to Chicago newspapers. “You can see Gorey’s drawings in the yearbook [in the exhibit]. I spoke with [a student] who was in a class behind Gorey who is still alive in Maine. She reports that Gorey didn’t do any writing at all, but he did do a lot of drawings for school events,” said Michalak.

This photo is one of Gorey's personal sketchbooks highlighting the artist's personal love for animals, especially for cats. Photo: Brittany Langmeyer.

This photo is one of Gorey’s personal sketchbooks highlighting the artist’s personal love for animals, especially for cats. Photo: Brittany Langmeyer.

Gorey was drafted into the U.S. Army after his graduation from Francis W. Parker and – while awaiting his orders – he enrolled in art courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This is the only formal training in art that he ever received.

His time with the army began in 1943 and he served until the war came to a close. While stationed in Utah, Gorey would order books from the famed New York bookstore, Gotham Book Mart, in order to keep himself entertained. “This relationship with the Gotham Book Mart becomes much more complex later on,” said Michalak.

After the war, he attended Harvard and studied French literature. During his time at the University, his involvement in extracurriculars and outside affairs mirrored that same feverish activity that he expressed during his high school days. He published stories and poems and exhibited artwork at Mandrake Bookshop in Cambridge. He also worked designing sets, directing and writing for the Poets’ Theatre, a small theatre in Cambridge founded by Pulitzer Prize winners and Poets Laureates. While involved with the theatre, Gorey associated with the likes of Frank O’Hara, Violet Lang, John Ashbury, Alison Lurie and others.

In early 1953, three years after graduation, Gorey became employed in the art department at Doubleday Publishers in New York, where he quickly became a significant figure illustrating or designing more than one hundred books.

Gorey’s very first published work was The Unstrung Harp in 1953, an illustrated 64-page novella about a novelist’s creative struggles that stands as a precursor to graphic novels in which the story is told in comic-strip form. “When I was finally published, I was 28,” said Gorey in the 1996 PBS interview. “I don’t think I had any ambition to do anything much. It was just what I did. But I pretty much stuck with it once it jelled.”

During his time in New York, Gorey became a devoted admirer of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and often referred to Balanchine as a major influence on his work. “I don’t want to call him obsessive, but [Gorey] had these incredible involvements with things,” said Ambrose. “In 30 years, he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. It is amazing. He loved his animals, he loved estate sales, and he loved to collect things. But he also should be considered, too, in the company he kept.”

In 1973, Gorey designed the costumes and sets for Dracula at a small theatre on Nantucket Island, later receiving a Tony Award for his designs. Photo: Brittany Langmeyer.

In 1973, Gorey designed the costumes and sets for Dracula at a small theatre on Nantucket Island, later receiving a Tony Award for his designs. Photo: Brittany Langmeyer.

As a fervid reader, Gorey’s devotion to the Gotham Book Mart may have also played a part in his rising success. He created a close friendship with founder Frances Steloff, known for promoting aspiring writers and artists. While Steloff’s Gotham provided Gorey many books that would eventually comprise his 25,000 piece personal library, Steloff publicly supported Gorey’s work. Even after Gorey established his own imprint in 1961, The Fantod Press, the Gotham continued to sell – and later occasionally publish – Gorey’s works until his death in 2000.

By 1972, Gorey had firmly established himself as a key player in the industry of literature and illustration, having received serious critical reviews and praise. His work began to be translated into more than 15 foreign languages. He published his very first anthology, Amphigorey, in 1972, which included 15 of his early works. To this end, The New York Times selected this piece as “One of the Five Noteworthy Art Books of 1972.”

Many of Gorey’s works involved tales or depictions of children, so many people mistake him as an illustrator of children’s books. A quote from Gorey, displayed in LUMA’s G is for Gorey exhibit, reads: “When I first started out, I wasn’t trying to write for children because I didn’t know any children. However, I have thought that more of my work might have been for children than anybody… The Doubtful Guest was for children, by my estimation. I used to try to persuade a publisher by saying, ‘Why don’t you bring this out as a children’s book.’ But they would not risk it.” However, Gorey himself was heavily influenced by classic works of children’s literature, namely that of Edward Lear (English, 1812 – 1888).

Illustration(s) © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

Illustration(s) © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

Gorey’s interest in theatre and dance continued throughout his life and in 1973, he designed the costumes and sets for Dracula at a small theatre on Nantucket Island. Despite the low-profile production, the show attracted a great deal of attention and eventually opened on Broadway.

“I thought the whole Dracula thing was perfect nonsense,” said Gorey in the 1996 PBS interview. “Artistically, it was a hodgepodge to end all hodgepodges. I knew nothing about set design. It was just one of those flukes that worked quite well.” He was awarded a Tony Award for his designs and the show ran for almost three years across the U.S., in London and Australia.

As Gorey progressed deeper into his career, his work became significantly more eclectic. He became involved in printmaking in 1975 and spent 25 years producing limited-edition prints. Next, in 1980, he designed the artwork that would be used to create the opening credits of PBS’s TV series Mystery!, which would run for the next 30 years.

Gorey in Cape Cod

Every summer, Gorey would visit and live on Cape Cod with his extended family and this prompted him to purchase and move into a 200-year-old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth Port in 1983. In his later years, he never rested and remained dedicated to his work. He continued to publish his compositions, display his art, and also write, direct, and participate in experimental plays in the community theaters of Cape Cod.

Gorey never married or displayed any sort of public relationships with women. “He said he was asexual… he was neither this nor that,” explained Ambrose. He lived alone and when he was not working on innumerous projects, he doted upon his six cats or enjoyed his sedentary pleasures, such as viewing old movies or watching The Golden Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Gorey eventually turned a new leaf in his fur-wearing habits and ditched the practice to become a prominent animal rights activist. He left his estate to a charitable trust he established for the welfare of all living creatures, including cats, dogs, whales, birds, bats, insects, and even invertebrates. Today, Gorey’s home on the Cape is know as The Edward Gorey House and has been turned into a museum dedicated to his life and work and his devotion to animal welfare. It hosts annual Gorey exhibits from April to December.

Gorey’s legacy

Despite the darkness of his work, Edward Gorey had a lightheartedness and youthful curiosity about his character. “Gorey was very comfortable with himself, seeing himself as maybe somewhat of an eccentric, but very comfortable in that eccentric behavior. Apparently, he was an extremely likable person,” Ambrose said.

In the face of his popularity and influence, Gorey always maintained a sarcastically humble demeanor. “There’s some demand for my work, but it isn’t exactly staggering,” he said in the interview with PBS. “I have kind of an ardent little following, but the accent is on little. I know what it’s like to be a very, very minor celebrity. My name turns up in a review of a book or something where they say it’s very ‘Edward Goreyish’ or something like that. That happens often enough, so I feel I’ve made a tiny mark somewhere.”

These remarks from Gorey are oddly ironic, however. Those same “tiny marks” of pen on paper are exactly what he used to create his artwork and inspire his writing – creations that would eventually surpass their small nature to have a tremendous impact on literature and the whole of popular culture today.

-Biographical info courtesy of Andreas Brown, The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, February 2014 and the PBS Edward Gorey biography


Brittany Langmeyer
StreetWise Publisher


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