Today, we are very pleased to feature the artwork of Dan Augustine. Dan’s most recent show, Everything is Fragile, featured illustrations of fifty of his favorite literary figures. His work caught our eye on ArtMail Milwaukee, and we’re delighted to feature him on the Library as Incubator Project site as well. Enjoy! -Christina
How do you identify yourself as an artist, and what sort of work do you do?
I have a tremendous deal of difficulty defining myself as an artist. Not my style or craft so much, but with the actual semantics of the thing. I have an intense admiration for artists; true artists — those that put their work out for public consideration (or inconsideration) and make a living on their craft. That’s not me, I’m a partner at an ad agency in Milwaukee and paid for my work there. My art is/was something I always did for myself and on the side as a means of creative personal expression and self amusement — emphasis on the ‘amusement.’
My first legitimate show was titled: “A Series of Silly Doodles;” that’s really what I do, little pen and ink sketches. Doodles. I don’t take it tremendously seriously, because that just isn’t me or my style. Sure the masters are wonderful and breath-taking and timeless and are to be respected and admired and blah blah blah; it all just strikes me as self-important (or perhaps we’ve made it as such?). Shouldn’t art also be accessible? Does it have to mean something or say something or “speak” to you? Can’t it just be silent? Does it have to be timeless? Can’t it just be five minutes? Can’t it just be…?
I just want my illustrations to make people smile, or giggle, or remind them of something, or take them back to someplace they remember, and sure that’s what “art” is suppose to do…but I don’t want to make art, and I don’t want to be taken seriously, and I certainly don’t want to be classified as an artist. I mean, my renderings are barely coherent…they’re just sketches. Just doodles.
I make doodles. On paper. Doodles on paper…with whatever is lying around.
Of course, now I’m coming off as pretentiously aloof.
Your shows have been based on Aesop, turns of phrase and idioms, and stories and literary figures. These seem to be all connected, through themes of words and stories. What is it about these topics that inspires you to makes art?
They say math is the universal language. I really don’t know who “they” are. And I barely passed my college math class; I’m fairly certain it was a very, VERY generous ‘D.’ So, either that means I’m not exactly part of the universe, or “they” aren’t exactly right. What truly ties us all together is our humanity, and part of that is our respective and collective stories. We all have stories to tell, and whether or not you can speak another culture’s language, or understand the words coming out of another human being’s mouth, it’s irrelevant – you can at least comprehend their inflections.
I mean, think about it: people pay oodles of money to go to the Opera and in most instances, these performances are in a foreign language, one the audience probably doesn’t speak. But we still pay. And we’re still moved and inspired and entertained. And we laugh and we cry and we applaud. It’s because a story is being communicated, in tone and movement and inflection.
It’s these stories, anyone and everyone’s stories, that inspire me.
And the good ones are eternal.
My work is made up of singular little moments in time, in most instances from a story, epic or tale. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to a movie trailer. You don’t get the full length feature, you get just a little moment of the characters at their best or their worst. I can’t tell an entire story in a single piece, though I’d like to attempt a full story someday. Currently, I’m enamored with “Casey at the Bat” and am considering an attempt at fully illustrating the poem. What I can do though, is show a single moment of triumph: James Hook skewering the offending crocodile, or Mr. Toad relenting once more his inability to drive; those extreme sentiments or scenes. That fascinates me. The outliers.
Your most recent show was composed of 50 illustrations of your favorite literary figures. I’m really interested in your process for this project. Did you go back and read all of the stories again? How did you select your characters, and the scenes in which you depict them?
Ha! No! I know all of these stories by rote! I love them! I mean, really, really love them. Going in to the project, I made a list of my favorite stories and characters but didn’t necessarily draw them in the order in which they went down. The other big part of the challenge was to limit each illustration to 1 hour: 1 sketch, 1 hour in 50 days. I saved a few illustrations for the end – Leroux’s Phantom for instance, because I wanted to do him justice and make sure I had the correct setting. I read the book in middle school and dozens of times since. Quixote and Mr. Toad and Alice and Booth and Lincoln…it all goes back to art being accessible. Everyone knows all of these stories, and even if they don’t “know-know,” they do…sure, perhaps there are folks unfamiliar with Aesop and “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” but everyone knows “do not put off for tomorrow what can be done today” – these are ancient themes, engrained in us as children.
Going back to what I had suggested earlier – it was important to me to at least try and do these characters the justice they deserved – after all, they’ve brought me countless hours of entertainment. At least give a little something back, right?
There’s something kinda fun about the smirk on Old Scratchs’ face in the illustration of him playing his fiddle at the cross-road. It was something that absolutely terrified me when I was younger – “wait, you mean to tell me someday I may have to beat the Devil at a fiddle contest for my soul?!” Or the Hatter’s tea party and the faux sophistication – so so dignified and at the same time entirely certifiable.
How have libraries played a role in your creative work? Do you have a favorite library? What makes that library stand out to you?
I had to combine these questions as the answers are all intricately woven together.
I’d go as far to say that there is one library at the heart of everything I do. And perhaps it’s a little euphoric and sweetly sentimental, but the Library at Trombly Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan and a librarian specifically – Sue Steiger – that I owe so very very much to. I haven’t been there in at least twenty years, I haven’t seen Sue in as much time either, but looking back this place and this person have contributed significantly to so much of what I do and who I am.
As a kid – like most kids – I was obsessed with the psuedo-sci-fi. Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, Easter Island, all of it. And Sue recognized that immediately: at first pulling books on legends and treasure hunts and such, but at some point she did something incredibly valuable – she showed me where those particular books were kept within the library, pointing me toward the lower shelf in the northwest corner (the darkest, most out of the way area) of the library. Before or after school, lunch time, library time, reading time, you could find me balled up in the corner with the books piled around me, scanning the appendixes. I think I honestly believed that somewhere in one of those books I would be the one to discover precisely how the massive stone Moai were brought to Easter Island, or exactly what species of dinosaur Nessie was/is.
Sue also gave me what remains to be one of my favorite children’s books, Kit Williams’ Masquerade. It changed everything for me. Williams gilded an elaborate golden hare, and ornamented the piece with precious jewels and metals. He then buried the treasure in a secret location in England and created a treasure map in the form of a children’s book. On it’s face, the elaborate illustrations told the story of the moon falling in love with the sun, so much so that she offered him a golden gift and entrusted it to a hare to be delivered. But, the hare lost the gift, and now it was up to the reader to find it. Clues in rhymes and visuals were hidden throughout the story and should one properly decipher Williams’ words, they lead right to his gilded golden hare.
A hidden treasure, masked by an incredible romantic story, all in the guise of a children’s book. To this day I am still looking for a first edition.
All of this implanted into my tiny brain in the elementary school library.
As an artist, what would your ideal library be like?
Marquette University, my alma mater, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin recently erected a new library. At the time of it’s inception one of it’s bragging points was that it would be devoid of books. Everything digital.
Eee Gods, Man! What a sadness!
That’s not a library! That’s a computer lab. That’s cold. And sterile. And devoid of…I mean…robbed – ROBBED! – of history and feeling and sentiment. And magic!
Whatever, fine, it’s state-of-the-art, it’s modern and technological and fine, fine, but don’t call it a “library.” PLEASE don’t call it a library.
There is an incredible gallery in Palm Springs. The name of the place escapes me – but they deal almost exclusively in children’s book art. The very first and only time I was ever there I was knocked down. To be standing in front of original pieces from Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Maurice Sendak and Graeme Base and Eric Carle. Speechless.
Trombly Elementary school had a tremendous speaker series. Each year they would bring in a children’s author to read from one of their books, give an incredibly short lecture (2nd Graders don’t have a lengthy attention span), and while doing so illustrate a character from their catalogue on a giant sheet of paper. Each year the illustrations were framed and hung in the library. I still vividly remember listening to Norman Bridwell as he drew a huge illustration of Clifford the Big Red Dog.
That is all to say – if I had my druthers libraries would be some amalgamation of gallery and museum and library. Where one could learn and read, but also witness and interact. And I don’t mean gallery as in the massive oil paintings of the stodgy benefactors and philanthropists that funded the facility hung over the reference section. I want to see Hemingway’s self-decimated pages, or Shel Silverstein’s little scribbles, or Tolkien’s manuscripts (incidentally, a good chunk of Tolkien’s work is housed in some secret, underground vault far, far away from the eyes of the general public at Marquette University). All of these things, framed and on display – enhancing the experience of the library.
What does the phrase “library as incubator” mean to you?
I take it as valuable on it’s face. An obvious turn-of-phrase. The collective knowledge of the known universe is housed in libraries all over the globe. It only stands to reason that libraries ARE truly incubators. Every idea ever committed to print can be found within the pages of a book in a library somewhere. How incredible to be able to pour through those pages, to gather up and store and ruminate on those conversations and discourses. Oh, and I could be mistaken, but libraries are free, are they not? Free knowledge? The most precious, valuable thing on the planet for free — and not taken advantage of. Astonishing…
Library as incubator suggests the opportunity for exposure.
When I was younger, I can’t say – like most artists – I drew from an early age. But my friends did, many of them exceptional, professional artists today. And I read a ton of comic books. Anything and everything I could get my hands on. And I attribute a large part of whatever I have that can be defined as talent to these two things.
It was “exposure.”
One cannot surround themselves by artists, and constantly be viewing art without it miraculously rubbing off. Osmosis, really. Without knowing it, the eye and the brain process styles and techniques and themes and so much, all subconsciously. And then one day? The lines are a little straighter, circles are a little more perfect, you try cross-hatching, or pick up a new medium.
I suspect so it goes for all hobbies and talents and interests. Spend enough time with any given subject and through exposure you kinda sorta pick it up.
Just so with libraries. They are truly incubators, with nurturing literature to take any young impressionable mind through adulthood.