April 28, 2011
April is National Poetry Month, so to honor the words and songs of famous poets, the Wednesday List is all about poetry. Scattered across the Smithsonian museums, here are a few of the most influential and famous poets you already know, as well as a few newcomers whose work you may want to get familiar with. (Posted in chronological order by their birth, not by relative awesomeness)
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
Most famous for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Emerson’s more notable works include Nature, Self-Reliance and The Poet. Emerson, who spent his career lecturing and writing, published 10 collections of poems and essays and corresponded with other famed poets such as Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Daniel Chester French sculpture of Emerson is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
2. Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849)
Best known for his poem “The Raven,” Poe’s poems were often about death and mourning— dark subjects and imagery— compared with the optimism of the early culture in America at that time. Although “The Raven” became a popular sensation after it was published in The Evening Mirror in 1845, Poe died a poor man. But diehard Poe fans don’t have to wait another year to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death. Instead, see a portrait of the man in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
3. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819-March 26, 1892)
Often called the “father of freeverse,” Whitman is most famous for his book Leaves of Grass. Though many viewed his work as obscene and profane at the time, Whitman is regarded by many as “America’s poet” for his ability to write in a uniquely American character. His portrait by John White Alexander is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
4. Celia Thaxter (June 29, 1835 – August 25, 1894)
Born in Portsmouth, New Hampsire in 1835, Thaxter became the hostess of her father’s hotel, the Appledore House, where she entertained and welcomed famed poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Sarah Orne Jewett. Her first poem called “Landlocked” was published during a 10-year period where she lived away from her beloved islands and on the New Hampshire mainland. Her poems appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and she later became one of the country’s favorite authors. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a painting by Childe Hassam depicting Thaxter in her garden is found on the East wing of the second floor.
5. Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906)
Dunbar was a poet who gained national recognition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with his poem “Ode to Ethiopia.” His parents escaped slavery in Kentucky and fled to Dayton, Ohio where Dunbar grew up the only African-American student at his high school. After publishing two books of his standard English and dialect poems, he combined them to form Lyrics of a Lowly Life and rose to international literary fame. The portrait of Dunbar by William McKnight Farrow is also located in the American Origins exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery.
6. E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894-September 3, 1961)
E.E. Cummings became famous for his poetry during the first half of the 20th century after working as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine. Though Cummings’ body of work includes about 2,900 poems and various forms of writing such as plays and novels, his drawings and paintings are seldom explored. Located in the Hirshhorn’s online collection, you can view many of these overlooked works.
7. Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011)
Malangatana Ngwenya is an artist best known for his brightly-colored murals and canvases. In his work, the Mozambiquen painter depicts powerful subjects like the trauma of armed conflict and revolution, as well as the small pleasures of daily life and the triumph of the human spirit. One such painting, Nude with flowers, 1962, on display at African Art, also reveals Ngwenya’s “hidden” talent as a poet. On the back of the painting, he has handwritten “Poema de Amor,” a love poem which is a little too racy to print in these parts.
8. Joane Cardinal-Schubert (1942-2009)
You may have to dig deep to find the poetry of multimedia Blackfoot (Blood) artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert, her poems encompassing but a part of her artistic repertoire, which included writing, curating, directing videos, painting and drawing. You can see some of Shubert’s work, which focuses largely on Native history, social injustice and environmental concerns at the American Indian Museum exhibition “Vantage Point.”
9. Nora Naranjo-Morse (b.1953)
While you’re at the American Indian Museum, make sure to check out the clay pottery of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, on display in the landscape area along the Maryland Avenue side of the museum. Born into a family of mostly women potters and visual artists, Morse focuses her work on the connection between pueblo people, their land and the clay they use to build on that land. Morse is also a sculptor, writer, film producer and poet, whose collection Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay combines poetry with photographs of her clay figures.
BONUS! 10. Phillis Wheatley
Born in Gambia, Senegal, Wheatley was enslaved as a child and grew up in Boston, where she learned to read and began writing poetry. In 1773, Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first published black woman poet. The book also made Wheatley famous and her success led to her eventual emancipation. A bronze life-size bust of Phillis Wheatley, by celebrated artist Elizabeth Catlett, is part of the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, though not currently on display. Created in 1973, the bust marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Wheatley’s book and Catlett’s interest in the feminist movement of the 1970s.
–With additional reporting by Arcynta Ali Childs
November 30, 2010
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri, o175 years ago today. Author of such literary classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain‘s famous wit makes him just as relevant today as he was a century ago.
“I remember reading The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County as a 7th grader,” says curator Frank Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery. Though many may have been introduced to Twain through their school’s curriculum, his works persist because of their strong voice and whimsical sense of story. Twain is “pioneering because he brought dialects into literature,” Goodyear continued. He had a “keen interest in human foibles” and was able to “see through to the real shortcomings, anxieties and hypocrisy” that make his characters so believable.
This intimacy created with his readers might explain the runaway success of his newly released and unexpurgated autobiography (versions of which have been published before in 1924, 1940 and 1959), but this one was released in its entirety 100 years after his death, as Twain requested.
Twain himself spoke in great detail about death:
“I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead–and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead, and they would be honest so much earlier.” – As quoted in Mark Twain in Eruption by Bernard DeVoto
And of his own death:
“It has been reported that I was seriously ill—it was another man; dying—it was another man; dead—the other man again. . . As far as I can see, nothing remains to be reported, except that I have become a foreigner. When you hear it, don’t you believe it. And don’t take the trouble to deny it. Merely just raise the American flag on our house in Hartford and let it talk.” – Letter to Frank E. Bliss, 11/4/1897
Perhaps with this autobiography, new facets of the seemingly transparent, yet very complex writer can come to light. “He’s human and his characters are human,” says Goodyear. “He’s genuine and authentic. . . everyone loves Mark Twain.”
January 26, 2010
Move over, Elvis.
Another old classic is making a comeback. The 1962 crime fiction classic, The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym of Richard Stark) is the inspiration for a new graphic novel to be published this July. On Saturday, January 30, the graphic novel’s creator, comic artist and animator Darwyn Cooke will speak at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Hunter is the first of four in a series of graphic novels that Cooke will publish. The second, The Outfit, is scheduled for release in October.
Cooke gained notoriety in the 1990s for his work as a storyboard artist for two of television’s finest comic book recreations, Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. He went on to work as a director for another made-for-television program, Sony Animation’s Men in Black: The Series in 1997. Since then, he’s been involved with, or the author of, several other projects and novels, including DC: The New Frontier (2004).
His most recent work, says the Washington Post, shows “a particular gift for the space-age designs and stripped-down chiaroscuro that were in vogue a half-century ago. His loose, ragged slashes of black and cobalt blue evoke the ascendancy of Hugh Hefner so powerfully you can almost hear a walking jazz bass.”
We caught Cooke at his home last week to ask him about graphic novels and the relationship between text and art.
Would you give some insight into your process for The Hunter?
The Hunter features a character named Parker, a very remorseless criminal. And the author, the late Donald E. Westlake, chose a pseudonym to write the book. He went with the name Richard Stark. He chose that name because he wanted the prose to be as stark and stripped down and lean as possible. And understanding that, I looked at the book the same way artistically and tried to make sure that my work was as stripped down, and lean, and almost as crude as I could make it look, to try to complement the prose style. The other thing I had to do was restrain myself a bit because there were opportunities in the book where I could have added my own interpretations, or maybe switched things up a bit to make it a little more visually exciting. It took a great deal of restraint not to do that and to make sure I was honoring the tone and the intention of the novel.
This is sort of your first project outside of mainstream comics. Why did you choose Richard Stark’s novel as inspiration?
I’ve been a crime fiction fan since I was four or five years old, and started to read. It started with The Hardy Boys, probably, and I worked through all of the great American crime fiction writers. And when Westlake was writing as Stark, he was definitely one of the best, if not the best. I’ve always had a really high regard for these novels, so when I began to consider the idea of working on something outside of the mainstream comics industry I wanted to make sure it would be independently viable. I thought it would be wonderful to adapt Stark’s work, because there’s a built-in audience there already; there’s a very loyal following of the book. And if we marry that to my audience, and then marry that to the people who just generally enjoy crime fiction and graphic novels, we should be able to find a pretty broad readership and make it work. To me, that was a big part of it: Trying to create a project that not only shows the potential of graphic novels, but also brought other people in.
You were a former art director, graphic and product designer and also an editorial artist, and then left to work in animation and comic books (I’m sure you’re making a lot of people out there jealous). What were some of the challenges that came with that decision?
I always had an interest in doing comic books and cartooning since I was a young guy. But it was a tough way to make a living when I was a kid, especially in Canada, where I was raised. I ended up getting involved in the graphic design and advertising art direction because I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do. And, by the time I got into my mid-30s, which was about 10 years ago, there was enough technology out there, and the industry had changed enough, so that I could look at making a living with cartooning again. So as soon as I could do that, I dove in with both feet.
Graphic novels have become more popular in the past decade or so, but some people remain skeptical of how well their authors can turn a text into art without losing the story. How would you respond to that?
The wonderful thing about graphic novels is that they can be created in almost any way—it can be a wholly originally piece of work, a piece written and drawn specifically for the graphic novel, or it can be an adaption of existing prose, which is the case with The Hunter. And once you’re adapting a piece of prose, I think you’ve really got one question, and that is, ‘Does this piece of prose work and does it have all the visual information I need to illustrate it—and if it doesn’t work, then what am I going to do with it to make it work?’ And obviously in the case of The Hunter I didn’t have to fix anything. I just embraced what was already there.
People have said your drawings fall under the Bruce Timm style. What does that mean? How does your style differ from other artists’?
What’s often called the Bruce Timm style is the result of the work of a guy I used to work with, Bruce Timm. He was the executive producer at Warner Animation for quite a while. He did the Batman and Superman cartoons. Gee, we’re going back 10, 15 years now, 20 years. But what he did was take a style of classic comic book illustration, and he married it to a classic animation design style, to come up with a very simple and clean sort of approach to cartooning that hadn’t been seen in quite a while. Myself, and there’s probably a couple dozen of us out there, were all students of his work. A lot of us are kind of categorized that way, because Bruce has cast such a giant shadow in the industry. It generally means that the work has a simpler look—there’s not a lot of rendering. It involves strong design and lighting, and emotive cartooning, as opposed to super-realistic illustration.
Where do you see the future of graphic novels going?
From this point forward so much of it depends on the publishers and how they try to position themselves. But right now, as far as I can see, the sky is the limit. We have an aging market that appreciates comics and is probably ready for more literate and adult and full-length stories. They can also afford to have the purchasing power to go out and buy them. I think that what we’ve seen in the last decade is that the form is capable of carrying almost any message, whether it’s something very literate and high-blown, like Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, or pure entertainment, like The Hunter. We look at books like Persepolis [by Marjane Satrapiand], American Born Chinese [by Gene Luen Yang] or Scott Pilgrim [by Bryan Lee O'Malley], and see there’s certainly room for any type of engaging or entertaining visual story. So I think there is a huge readership out there and it’s a matter of us reaching them.
You actually had your first comic book work appear in a short story in New Talent Showcase #19, part of a revived anthology series by DC Comics. It was published when you were 23. Is there anything you would say to your 23-year-old self?
Well, it’s hard for me to know what I would say to myself at that time. Economics just wouldn’t allow me to pursue it as a career. But it meant a lot to me at that young age to know that I, at least, had the skill for them to consider publishing me. I’d be more interested in the kind of advice I’d give a 23-year-old today and that would be: Take a good long look at whether you want to do this, and if you do, I would suggest you don’t even look at print. The electronic media is already here—concentrate on getting your work, and your message, out that way. If I was a kid today, that’s what I’d tell myself.
Cooke’s reading will begin at 4 p.m. Saturday in the McEvoy Auditorium, in the lower level of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on 8th and F Streets, N.W. Limited free tickets (two per person) will be available in the G Street Lobby, one hour prior to the reading. A book signing will follow the event.
May 28, 2009
If one could guess the species of bird that fatally crashed through the kitchen window at the moment of T.S. Spivet’s birth, it would be the Baird’s sparrow, Ammodramus bairdii.
The spirit of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the brainy 12-year-old protagonist of the new novel, “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” by Reif Larsen, seems loosely inspired by the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Baird, (1823-1887).
More than a dozen species, including the sparrow, are named for Baird, who was a passionate scholar of natural history, especially ornithology. Not only did he increase the Smithsonian’s collection from 6,000 to 2.5 million specimens, he founded the Megatherium Society, a group of young explorers who lived in the towers and basement of Smithsonian Castle when not venturing across the United States acquiring specimens.
In this story, fact meets fiction. When the fictional T. S. Spivet hears the true story of the society, he goes silent for three days, “perhaps out of jealousy that time’s insistence on linearity prevented me from ever joining,” he writes. Spivet then asks his mother to start one in his home state of Montana. To which she replies, “The Megatheriums are extinct.”
But luck finds Spivet when a Mr. G. H. Jibsen, Undersecretary of Illustration and Design at the Smithsonian, informs the preteen that he’s won the Institution’s prestigious Baird Award for the popular advancement of science. Though only 12, Spivet already made a name for himself in the field of scientific illustration. He could map, for instance, how a female Australian dung beetle Onthophagus sagittarius uses its horns during copulation. The catch is that nobody knows he’s 12.
This is how “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” begins. The gifted young artist, who loves mapping the world as much as Spencer Baird loved collecting it, sets off from Montana to Washington D.C. to meet Mr. Jibsen and claim his prize.
The author, Reif Larsen, began writing “T. S. Spivet” while an MFA student at Columbia University. He later decided to incorporate scientific illustrations in the margins (drawn by the author) to add an extra dimension to the read. In an era where the Internet and Kindle rules all, Larsen’s unique hybrid of literature, art and science, offers a rare moment when you can sit and truly experience what you are reading. A possible exception to 19th-century scientist Louis Agassiz’s remark, “Study nature, not books.”