Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A FEW THOUGHTS ON AN EMPTY STUDIO

When the great illustrator Howard Pyle died in 1911, his heartbroken disciples gathered in his studio. Pyle had been a phenomenal creative force, the illustrator of over 125 books (24 of which he had written himself) and hundreds of stories in the most popular magazines of his day. Vivid images of pirates, knights, soldiers and lovers flowed from his boundless imagination.

Pyle's students struggled for some way to prolong their master's presence. One student, Ethel Leach, painted Pyle's studio exactly as he left it, with his last painting unfinished on his easel.



Another student, Frank Schoonover, took that final painting and attempted to put some finishing touches on it.



Other students went on to imitate Pyle's techniques or use the same paints. But his magic was gone, and nothing they did could prolong it. Pyle had tried his best to pass along his artistic secrets to his students, but no one really knew where his gift came from. No one could say whether it resided in his eyes or his fingers or his brushes while he was alive. Now, no one could extend it after his death.

Comic artist Jack Kirby worked at this ratty, stained drawing board next to this crummy, battered credenza.



He stared at that brick wall and summoned up thousands of images of Norse gods in ornate armor, intergalactic empires swarming with alien creatures, super heroes and cosmic villains. The images he composed on this worn piece of lumber entranced millions. Then Kirby too was gone. Without his spark, Kirby's studio seems so sodden and inert we can scarcely believe it was ever the platform for such creativity. Whatever the source of Kirby's greatness, it won't be found amongst the tools and furniture he left behind.

Like Pyle or Kirby, Bernie Fuchs was another radiant sun orbited by epigones and myrmidons over his long career. Fuchs too kept coming up with fresh and beautiful ideas that none of his imitators could match, despite their long hours trying to duplicate his approach. If they went to his cluttered studio on the day he died and searched for clues in what Fuchs left behind, they'd be no closer to understanding the magic ingredient.



His empty studio, without his creative presence, has a particularly hollow echo.

Yesterday, the great Frank Frazetta passed away. Over a long career he used his formidable talent to create persuasive worlds of sorcerers and barbarians-- worlds where the four points on the compass were heroism, strength, adventure and great asses on women. What could be better than that?

Frazetta's hundreds of imitators wished they could inhabit that world but their colors were somehow never as perfect, their reptilian gods were never as convincing, their compositions were never as dramatic, their poses were never as striking.

If you look for the magic ingredient that distinguished Frazetta from his peers, you won't find any clues left behind in his studio.



Art like Frazetta's should have been created in a cave with flaming torches and skulls. Instead, it was created in a messy little room by a grandfather wearing short sleeve polyester shirts over his paunch, an artist who spilled coffee on his work as he raced to make deadlines. Frazetta's studio, like the studios of other great creators before him, was a place where a temporary and unexplainable breach in the laws of physics permitted true alchemy to occur. When the creative presence was extinguished, the familiar laws of physics closed in once again, and now weigh more heavily on us in that spot than they did before.

Co-posted with my friends at Tor.com.