This is perhaps the key question for me as an artist as well as a mostly functional person, and the one I ask myself often; not quite aware of a fixed answer. Writing and painting is very much about trying different things based on hunches and intuition, often in a silly and playful way, and then looking at them critically to see if they make any kind of sense when cast against the backdrop of lived experience.
Do imaginary objects stand up as meaningful metaphors? Being an artist is not about manipulating objects or an audience so much as constantly assessing a series of often accidental and mysterious ideas. My picture book The Lost Thing , published in , began as a small unimportant doodle in a sketchbook, and for me many stories begin this way, quite unexpectedly and without a serious attempt. Otherwise there would be a lot more of them. The doodle was of a man apparently talking to a crab on a beach, which came about from looking at a photo of a little blue pebble crab on a nature magazine cover and simply imagining it was enormous, rather than tiny so the guy was just there to show scale.
Where did this creature come from, and more importantly, why is the guy talking to it rather than running away… what would I do if I was that guy?
It is both simple and complex - depending upon how the reader chooses to understand it as with any interesting tale, including those of life in general. Everybody would be familiar with the story; a boy discovers a lost animal one day, one that is tame and friendly, and tries to find out who owns it or where it belongs.
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Yet there is enough there that we recognise what is going on. After a number of failed attempts, the boy finally discovers a what appears to be an appropriate home for the lost thing.
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The story ends, although no particular conclusion is put forward. It is within this simple narrative shell that our recognition is played with and our comprehension challenged. It is a huge tentacled monster, not quite animal or machine, with no particular function or origin.
The environment described by the illustrations also resists any simple reading: a treeless industrial metropolis full of excessive plumbing, mysterious and dehumanising architecture, green skies and cheerless citizens. Furthermore, nobody pays any attention to the lost creature, despite its disruptive presence as a conspicuous absurdity.
A passage between familiarity and strangeness is opened, and the reader cannot help but ask questions in the absence of any explanation. The first person narrative is deliberately deadpan; inconclusive to the point of casual dismissal. Any real meaning is left to the reader to find for themselves, rather than overtly stated or implied, with an encouragement towards a close visual reading against quite minimalist text. Why are the colours limited to industrial greys and browns?
Why are there pieces of physics, algebra and calculus text-books framing every scene, and text written by hand on scraps of lined paper? Why do all the houses look the same, why is everything draped in shadow, what are those images of clouds about? What is that strange place glimpsed through a doorway at the end of an anonymous alley? What is the lost thing?
Unlike a riddle, there is no clear answer to these questions, which remain open. I myself continue to find new meanings in the words and pictures as I did when producing the story over the course of a year. It could be read as a critique of economic rationalism, for instance, or the transition from childhood to adulthood; about the value of whimsy, our obsession with categories and bureaucracy, about alienation, claustrophobia, altruism, disability, entropy and the possibility of joy in places where this has been extinguished.
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In asking questions of the book, the reader is inevitably asking questions about their own experience in seeking individual closure. What aspects of it are familiar, and why? What does it remind you of, or make you think about? This is a picture book that works through such resonance rather than recognition, or any didactic imperative; ideas and feelings are evoked rather than explained.
There are two oppositional ways of seeing, understanding and experiencing the world that are presented by the story. The first type of visual literacy is one restricted to the recognition of familiar things. This action is something we do all the time, a passive decoding that allows us to manage our day to day lives, particularly as responsible adults, to recognise relationships between things and events as efficiently as possible.
Meaning is a function of bureaucracy, and literacy is there to measure prescribed value; does this ring any bells in our own social and political universe? The other kind of visual literacy, as represented by the disruptive presence of the lost thing within this closed system, is one that works through playful questioning, enigma and absurdity. Go out, go out I beg of you And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth With all the wonder of a child. But some days I really wish I could be fairy.
But knowledge is watered by contemplation, even by simple reflection, and becomes a living seed that eventually flowers and bears surprisingly rich fruit. You are not meant to fit in. It is time to let children be children again. Then your life will again become fun. You will enjoy it, every bit of it you will not be serious. A deep laughter will spread all over your life. It will be more like a dance and less like business.
Jackson Brown. One of these is roots, the other wings.
So, if you want something to exist, you must first be able to imagine it. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show them many things that older people miss.
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For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. Occasionally, I find an answer. There are seven million.
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Related The Tale of a World Lost (Young Imagination)
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